Heart Transplant

HeartTranplant

I have a friend who was born with a heart defect. His life has been filled with hospital visits and surgeries and medicine. In recent days, things have turned for the worst. He is now on the heart transplant list. In order to live, he needs a new heart. He is in the hospital now and won’t be coming home unless he receives a new heart.

It has been interesting to pray for my friend, because a new heart will only come through the death of another. He needs a new heart to live. But this heart can only come when another dies. So how do you pray? Do you pray for someone else to die so that my friend can live?

This is a great picture of the gospel. We all are born with bad hearts. We need new hearts. But a new heart can only come through the death of another. The good news is this: Jesus died to give us a new heart. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). The death of Jesus gave us a new heart with new desires.

This is what the prophesy of Ezekiel foretold. “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). We all need new hearts.

 

Backing In

BackingIn

I was recently listening to one of my favorite podcasts, “Planet Money.”  The show was entitled, “Tips from Spies.” The folks at Planet Money talked with a former spy, a former C. I. A. employee, and a journalist who isn’t a spy, but covers spy-related activities for the media.

One of the tips that the journalist gave is something that she has learned by talking with intelligence personnel: she always backs into parking spots. Her reasoning is simple: “So that you can get out of a bad situation fast.” In acknowledging her practice, she laughed when admitting that she “never once been called to make a running getaway. But I wait for the moment.”

This is a helpful illustration of how to be ready for temptations that come. Paul writes, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). What a great promise! God tells us that no temptation comes our way without a provided way of escape.

That escape may be through the Scriptures (see Matthew 4:1-11). It may be through the warning of others. It may be through the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.  But it is incumbent upon us to be ready and aware of the escape route. We may need “to get out of a bad situation fast.” It’s good to have a habit of “backing in.”

The Best Sermon

PulpitPew

From time to time, people in the congregation will come up to me after a Sunday morning service, saying, “That was the best sermon you have ever preached!” I know that these words have been spoken as an encouragement of how the Lord is using me in their lives. However, it has often felt more discouraging than encouraging.

I have been discouraged because I think of what their statement implies about the many of other messages they have heard me preach. I think of how lousy those sermons must have been for this particular message to be categorized as “the best.” However, one verse in the Bible has helped me to receive these words as encouragement.

Paul wrote to Timothy, a young and often discouraged pastor, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15). In the context, Paul was talking about Timothy’s public ministry. He was talking about the public reading of Scripture, his exhortations to the congregation, and his teaching of the church (1 Timothy 4:13).

Paul directed Timothy to aim for progress, not perfection. The goal is for those in the church to see Timothy’s growth in his shepherding of the flock. When I remember this, I’m not so discouraged whenever I preach a sermon that seemingly tops all of the rest. It shows my progress as a pastor.

Sadly, I don’t hear this every week. That’s because spiritual progress is often difficult and slow. But I’m encouraged whenever it is obvious to others.

 

The Success Sequence

SchoolJobMarriageChildren

There is a natural sequence in life that will help work toward your success. It is summed up with four words: School, Job, Marriage, and Children (in that order). In other words, if you finish your schooling (or at least high school), then secure a job, then get married, and then have children, your probability of economic success is high. But if you live “out of sequence” in any way (i.e. having children before marriage) financial hardship will be more likely.

I have observed this for many years. I have seen many of those who have lived their lives “out of sequence,” struggle greatly financially. Life is hard as a single mother. Life is hard when you return to school with a family. Life is hard when your education level limits your employment opportunities. Furthermore, such a sequence is fully consistent with biblical teaching.

While I have known this for many years, I have recently heard of some studies that have confirmed this through research. For instance, in a recent report by the American Enterprise Institute (http://aei.org) and the Institute for Family Studies (https://ifstudies.org/), Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox summarize their findings:

Finally, 97% of Millennials who follow what has been called the “success sequence”—that is, who get at least a high school degree, work, and then marry before having any children, in that order—are not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28-34). … In contrast, 53% of young adults who did not follow this sequence at all are in poverty” (https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/IFS-MillennialSuccessSequence-Final.pdf).

Opponents of these studies have rightly pointed out that the above study has demonstrated correlation, rather than causation. In other words, just because the vast majority of those who followed this sequence escape poverty, it doesn’t follow that this sequence caused the economic prosperity. They are quick to point out that there are other factors at work, such as family support and economic status of parents, which make it is easier for young people to follow this sequence. It may be, they argue, that the other factors are stronger correlations to financial success.

Whatever the cause, it would be foolish to ignore the correlation. So I encourage you to teach your children these four words: School, Job, Marriage and Children. Ingrain the success sequence into their hearts. If they follow your counsel, they will be on the path to prosperity.

 

Perry’s Eclipse

EclipsePerry

As a little boy, I remember visiting my uncle Perry (or more properly, my father’s cousin). We loved to visit him because he had a swimming pool poured right into the foundation of his house! That means that we got to swim in his basement! He was a very successful and forward-thinking man, always full of stories.

There was one story that captured my attention more than all of the others. It was a story that I heard every time that I visited him. It was the story of his plans for his hundredth birthday. He said that there was going to be a solar eclipse on that day and that he was inviting the entire family to come and watch it with him.

He had the party all planned out. All from the family who wanted to come were welcome. He was planning to reserve some rooms for all who showed up. He was also planning to rent an airplane just in case it was overcast on that day. He wanted to take every precaution possible to see the eclipse. He delighted in telling that story. Perhaps that’s why he told it so often.

Perry was born on August 21, 1917. The solar eclipse that he was telling us about all those years will take place this Monday, on August 21, 2017. I have known about this eclipse for more than forty years! To me and my family, this is “Perry’s Eclipse.”

Sadly, Perry’s life came up short. He passed away when he was 93 years-old. So he won’t be able to see his eclipse. But I will remember him on that day. I will also tell the story to my children of how Perry was longing to see what we see on that day.

There is a future event that is far more spectacular than any solar eclipse. It is the longing and hope of all Christians. It is the appearing of Jesus our Lord. Now, unlike the solar eclipses, we don’t know when he will return. But we know that it will be glorious. Jesus told us that his coming would be like lightning across the entire sky (Matthew 24:27). He said that he would come “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30).

Those who are his children will see that day and rejoice in that day. The apostle John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Those who are his children will prepare for that day. “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). What a day that will be!

 

 

Worship and Community

ChurchCommunity

On vacation this summer, we had the opportunity to attend a few churches. The music was nice. The preaching was good. The Bible was prominent. God was central. But something was missing. Community was missing. Not their community, but our membership within that community.

We noticed visible signs of strong and active communities. Before and after the services, people were talking and expressing their care for one another. But we weren’t a part of their community. We aren’t together all year long with them. We aren’t involved in their lives. We are like distant cousins, not close brothers and sisters.

Without the blessing of the depth of relationship with those around us, the church services were mostly about us and God. Now, certainly, this isn’t bad, but it felt shallow. It felt like a mere ceremony, devoid of accountability and mutual encouragement.

This is not our regular experience at church. Usually, we worship the Lord in the presence of those we know and love. The experience is entirely different. It is deeper. It is more profound. It feels like family.

The writer to the Hebrews connects worship with community. He connects ceremony with life in the body. He writes, “Let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). Certainly, this can (and must) be done through a ceremony of singing and Scripture reading and praying and preaching. There must be reverence and awe, for worship deals with the gravest realities of life: apart from Christ, we are consumed in the fiery wrath of God. But this cannot be void of community.

The author continues in the very next verse with this exhortation: “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1). This is what was missing from the churches we visited on vacation. It’s not at all to say that those at the churches weren’t loving. They were loving. We felt their love through their kindness and grace. Nor is it to say that they were uncommitted to serving Christ. They were committed. Our conversations were centered on Christ and ministry. But it is to say that we weren’t a member of their family. We weren’t engaged in brotherly love with them like we are at our home church. We felt the void. We are looking forward to worshiping with our church community this Sunday.

Turning 50

Birthday50

I am turning 50 years old today (April 5, 2017). On the one hand, I feel no difference. I feel the same today as I did yesterday. My life this week will look much like my life did last week. The rhythm of my life this year will probably match the rhythm of last year: Easter, Summer Vacation, Thanksgiving, Christmas, … (repeat). Some things change from day to day, but not much. Time marches on.

Yet, I have crossed a threshold. In all probability, I have already lived out half of my life. I am on the back end. Moses wrote long ago, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty” (Psalm 90:10).

I see my strength fading. I can’t run as fast (or as long) as I used to run. I can’t jump as high. My endurance is less. My injuries don’t heal as quickly. I have less hair and more weight than ever before.

Furthermore, I see my time slipping away. The older I get, the faster time seems to fly. I remember when I was in elementary school. Even today, I could take you to my classroom and name my teachers and my friends. I remember my days in middle school and in high school and in college and in seminary. They seem only a few years ago, even though they were decades ago.

Today is a natural time in my life for reflection. Moses (in the same Psalm) prayed for wisdom regarding our fleeting time. He wrote, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

There is something about all of us all that lets our days pass by unnoticed and uncared for. We move from day to day without a care. Yet, our end is coming. The death rate is still 100%. Moses encourages us to live in light of the end.

I have noticed that ball games are played differently when time is ticking down. Those in the lead take their time. Those who are behind show more hustle. I have noticed that people live differently when a big project is nearing completion. When the project due date is weeks away, people are willing to spend the evenings with their friends. But when the due date is tomorrow, they brew the coffee and burn the midnight oil.

How easy it is to live as if there is no end. How easy is it to eat and drink and enjoy the God-given pleasures of the world. But there is an end. And the end is coming. It is coming fast. I am closer to it than ever before. It’s a call for me to live with a sense of urgency. My prayer to God this day is that I would number my days. Such is the path of wisdom.

But the end of our lives is not the end. Moses began his Psalm with a declaration of eternity, “From everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2). This is why we are to number our days. They are short.

We can number our days, but we cannot number eternity. Eighty years of life are less than 30,000 days. It may seem long, but compared with eternity, it barely begins. The hymn-writer penned these words to put our short life in perspective:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun;
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
than when we first begun.
(by Harriet Beecher Stowe)

My life here on earth is only the beginning. It is a very short beginning. In light of eternity, my few years (being more than 50 now) are but a fleeting vapor. James says, “You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).

If we truly knew how long eternity was; and if we truly knew how short our lives were, we might just live differently. We might live with a sense of urgency. God has put eternity into man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He wants for us to live in light of eternity. And when we do, we will be wise.

Only one life, ’twill soon be past.
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
(by C. T. Studd)