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HEALTHY HEARTS (February 12, 2021)

This week, the words, “I love you with all my heart” or some variation of them will cascade and careen from countless lovers’ lips like waters rushing over the peak of a magnificent mountain.  Many of us will observe Valentine’s Day.  Perhaps the most enduring symbol of the day set aside to celebrate cupids cooing, caressing, cuddling and coupling is the heart. I am stirred by this recurring symbol and the lessons it embodies.  It reminds me of the pivotal place the heart holds in Christian thought and life.  And yes, in more ways than one, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart!  Valentine’s is a good day to do a heart check.

When the Word of God refers to the heart, it is not the blood pumping cardiovascular heart that is in view but a reference to the place in the center and core of our being where emotion, intellect and will collide and converge.  “I will praise thee, O Lord with my whole heart; I will show forth all thy marvelous works,” the Psalmist declares in Psalm 9:1.  In Psalm 119:10 he says again, “With my whole heart have I sought thee; O let me not wander from thy commandments.”  The phrase “whole heart” occurs repeatedly in the Word of God.  See Psalms 111:1; 119:2,10,34,58,69;138:1; Isaiah 1:5; Jeremiah 3:10; 24:7; 32:41. God informs the prophet Jeremiah concerning the nation of Israel, “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” [“whole heart” in the KJV] (Jeremiah 24:7 – NIV).  This is encouraging because God blesses us with the capacity we need to love, know and obey Him.

It is important that we serve the Lord with a healthy and whole heart.  In the physical realm, heart health is improved significantly by a balanced diet and proper exercise.  Heart rate is the number of beats the heart makes every minute.  It is believed that a normal heart rate is about 70 beats per minute for males and 75 beats per minute for females.  We improve our heart health with diet and exercise. When exercising, the heart rate increases.  Strenuous exercise will increase the heart rate significantly.  One measure of fitness is how quickly the heart recovers after exercise.  People who are very fit will see their heart rate drop quickly after exercise.

The metaphor still rings true.  Spiritually, a whole heart is a healthy heart.  We exercise our hearts by reading, studying, memorizing and applying the Word of God.  This daily discipline will encourage powerful praying and wonderful worship. It will strengthen our witness and restore and reinforce relationships with spouses, children, family, friends, and others. Healthy hearts survive and strive, discovering that while trials and tribulations in life stretch and strain us, they also make us stronger.

In the heart of Jeremiah’s prophecy is a powerful promise and a remarkable reminder of how much God loves us!  God says, “Yea, I will rejoice over them to do them good, I will plant them in this land assuredly with my whole heart and with my whole soul” (Jeremiah 32:41 -KJV).  This month do not forget to celebrate the greatest love of all.  God gives to His people nothing less than His “whole heart and soul.”  God gives us God’s whole heart and soul.  Should we respond with anything less?

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES (January 15, 2021)

On January 6, 2021, I watched with great alarm and growing sadness images on television of a mob storming and entering the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.  I witnessed with millions of Americans and a global audience this assault at the very heart of our democracy.  No rational person should have been surprised.  We were seeing in real-time the horrific harvest of the toxic lies and incendiary rhetoric sown around the integrity of our recent election. In light of what we now know about the security of the election and the absence of any widespread fraud, the misguided appeal to “stop the steal” could very well be framed as “trash the truth,”

The violence was the offspring of the dangerous union between division and demagoguery. The pernicious and persistent erosion of truth by the secular siroccos of relativism, materialism, and postmodernism in recent decades in our culture has metastasized over the past four years. Truth has been labeled and libeled as fake and alternative facts and disinformation have ascended to its vacant throne. Truth has been relentlessly pushed from the public square by the purveyors of prejudice, power, and privilege; truth has been denied, diminished, dismissed, and denigrated.  This growing cancer is destroying our democratic ideals, weakening our institutions while leaving in its wake a nation sorely divided and disrupted in our pursuit of a more perfect Union.

On an even deeper and disturbing level, the unfounded claims of widespread election fraud focused primarily on states with large black and brown populations and the assault on the “People’s House” have once again ripped the bandage off of America’s original sin and repeated lie – racism and white privilege starkly reminding us of our nation’s failure to live up to the true meaning of its creed that “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

I feel much like the biblical poet Asaph in Psalm 73 who was deeply disturbed and painfully perplexed by the condition of his nation but found comfort, clarity, and confidence in the presence of God.  He wrote, “When I tried to understand this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God, then I understood their final destiny” (Psalm 73:16-17).  In the wake of the tumult of last week, the Spirit of God transported my troubled psyche to the spiritual sanctuary located in the Gospel of John that records the words of Jesus, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Later the Gospel writer would record Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6).

In concert, these verses portray truth as perceptible, powerful, and Personal.  Truth is accessible to every child of God who desires it, frees us to advance in the plan of God for our lives, reveals our destinies, and finds its ultimate expression and embodiment in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the Truth revealed and recorded in the Word of God that every Christian and every local church is a custodian and steward of, and which becomes pregnant and powerful when disseminated by precept and example (our talk and our walk) in this broken world in which we live. It is the objective basis of our dignity, duty, and destiny as human beings made in the image of God and for whom His Son suffered, died, and rose again.

Last year, I watched on television with great interest a documentary about the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building located in Dubai.  It rises to 2,716 feet and consists of 200 stories.  The documentary focused on the construction of the building.  I was especially captivated by the great care and attention the architects and engineers gave to the design and laying of the foundation that supports this massive structure. 58,900 cubic yards of concrete weighing 110,000 tons were used to construct the concrete and steel foundation.

Biblical and spiritual truths were the concrete and steel used in the constitutional foundation of the American Republic.  Our nation needs to rediscover that truth now more than ever.  For that to happen, churches and true believers everywhere must pray, confess our sins, repent, rise above our disagreements, debates, and divisions and be salt and light speaking the truth in love with one voice to everyone who will hear.  There is no other way!  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we will celebrate this month believed that technology has made our world a neighborhood, but only the truth as revealed in the Word of God can make our world a brotherhood.  The choice is clear – either Truth or consequences.

THANK YOU, BOSS! (November 20, 2020)

It was late on a Saturday evening when my plane landed in St. Louis on a return flight from Miami, Florida. I traveled there to attend the funeral of the mother of one of our beloved and dedicated church leaders. Weary from my travel, I exited the terminal, hailed, and boarded the shuttle that transported me to the long-term parking lot where I left my car the previous day. After exiting the shuttle, I gave the driver a tip as he placed the last of my bags in the trunk of the car. He took the bills I placed in his hand, thanked me, and began walking toward his shuttle. Then, he erupted with excitement. His unexpected outburst startled me! His rapturous response roused me from lingering fatigue. His repeated refrain, “Thank you, boss, oh, thank you, boss!” betrayed a Jamaican accent. I said, “You are welcome”, but thought, “This brother is messing with me. I know he is not that excited about a two-dollar tip.”

When I got in my car, I was still puzzled by his response, I reached inside my coat pocket for the bills that I put there to pay for parking. Then I realized what had happened with the driver. I did not give him the two dollars I had planned but had tipped him with the twenty and ten dollar bills I had set aside to pay the parking fee. No wonder he was overcome with appreciation!

So many times, during my life I have been surprised because God gave me so much more than I deserved or expected! I know you have experienced this too. The parking shuttle driver was the beneficiary of an unplanned and unexpected gesture. Yet, each day of our lives, we are blessed by the providential, purposeful, and pleasing generosity of God “who is able to do above and beyond all we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). Surely, we ought to erupt with thanksgiving. My driver should be our model, mentor, motivator, and measure. If he could be so thankful for a thirty-dollar tip, don’t we have so much more to be thankful for? He reminds me, and I pray you too, that Thanksgiving is not just the observance of some distant historical milestone or even the seasonal celebration of faith, family, food, and fellowship but, more importantly, the recognition of and response to the unexpected and so often unmerited blessings we receive from God every day.

Yes, we are all to some degree or another, Covid conflicted, pandemic pummeled, sanitizer saturated, mask mired, zoom zapped, school stretched, cabin cramped and distancing drained but we are still here and we should be thankful because God is faithful and so full of what I call, “sacred surprises”! Surely on Thanksgiving during this unforgettable year when we still face so many unexpected challenges and uncertainty, we can say “thank you” to our Heavenly Boss and Benefactor for His goodness, grace, and gratuity. And, while thanking Him, we can be kind and thoughtful to others. As one wise person said, “If you haven’t all the things you want, be thankful for all you don’t have that you don’t want”.

FAITH AND FREEDOM (October 30, 2020)

Faith and freedom are spiritual realities rooted in the mind, heart, and will of God who made all human beings in His image.  Faith is defined by the writer of Hebrews as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  It is one of the three ways of knowing and is the only means of perception in the spiritual realm.  The passage continues with the affirmation that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (verse 6).  During creation, God invested Adam and Eve with volition or free will; the right or freedom to choose their own path.  While the wrongful exercise of their freedom resulted in woeful consequences for themselves and their descendants, God did not create them to be robots.

Faith and freedom were pivotal pillars and principles in the founding of America.  It is the basis of the claim that America is a “Christian nation”.  The reality is, while our nation was founded on biblical principles, even then a significant part of the population was enslaved and were being systematically denied the exercise of both faith and freedom  Over two and a half centuries later, on the eve of a national election, perhaps the most pivotal in our history, our nation struggles still to live up to the true meaning of our creed that, “All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

2020 has been a momentous year!   We are still being ravaged by a virus that has killed thousands, decimated families, disrupted our way of life, leaving millions unemployed and businesses closed because of the resultant economic fallout.  All of this has been exacerbated by the paucity of a committed, coherent, and consistent response to the pandemic by our federal government and the divisive politicizing of proven mitigation measures.  The tumult of this year includes as well the relentless toll of natural disasters – wildfires and hurricanes and the continuing civil unrest stemming from police shootings of people of color that have brought into bold relief this country’s tainted legacy of racial injustice and systemic racism.

Jesus said to His critics, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples; indeed, and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:31-32).  Ultimately truth is personal and, according to the Word of God has been revealed in the One Who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man cometh to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).  Truth is the spiritual adhesive that binds faith and freedom together.  But for some time now, this Absolute Truth has been under siege. The conceptual descendants of Pontus Pilate who asked Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) are many, myriad, and multiplying.  Beginning in the nineteenth century, the counterclaims and denials of the worldviews of secularism, naturalism, moral relativism, and postmodernism have taken an insidious toll on our apprehension and appreciation of biblical truth, tainting, tattering, and tearing the fabric of our institutions and exiling faith and freedom to the privatized closet of individual and personal experience. Truth’s eviction from the public square has left faith and freedom displaced spiritual orphans in a country that is becoming increasingly secular and carnal.

In this void and vacuum, the church alone has been called to be “the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14).  We are God’s ambassadors and custodians of the truth that weds, wields, and weighs our faith and freedom.  Yet, at a time when salt is needed most, “the salt is losing its savor”.  In real-time, we are witnessing a widening racial and ethnic divide in the evangelical church.  This fracture is being fueled and fanned by political division which exposes and exacerbates historical racial, ethnic, economic, and cultural differences in the body of Christ.

Evangelicals of every hue are bowing in obeisance to a false dichotomy. In one corner are the justifiable concerns of religious conservatives about abortion, immigration reform, biblical marriage, family values, law and order, and the co-opting of religious freedom.  In the other corner is the irrefutable outcry of those who lean left politically, believe that black lives matter too, seek economic justice and opportunity for all, the strengthening of voting rights and who believe no measure of political or judicial gain compensates for the crudeness, duplicity, greed, corruption, insensitivity, and divisiveness that is being practiced, paraded and parroted at the highest levels of our government.  The Truth of which the church is the primary custodian and that undergirds our faith and our freedom lies in what Pastor Andy Stanley calls “the messy middle”. This is the non-partisan, non-political high ground Christians must ascend to if we are to be more than just thermometers that measure the temperature of our culture but rather thermostats that impact it.

“God is no respecter of persons” (Romans 2:11) or for that matter, political parties.  Regardless of the outcome of next week’s election, neither political party can resolve all our issues because ultimately our problems are spiritual.  Knowing this, the church, unlike Esau, who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, cannot forfeit her spiritual authority, autonomy, and stewardship of the truth for to do so would imperil both faith and freedom as God has willed them.  We dare not give up what is timeless for that which is temporal, surrender biblical principle for political expediency and abdicate our responsibility to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the couriers, conductors, and communicators of God’s timeless truth to the purveyors of power in whatever political garment they adorn.

“Righteousness exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34), not political correctness or compromise! The church is the steward of the truth that set men and women free to be all that God has called us to be.  If the church fails to address our divisions, find common ground, become hostage to the horizontal and not fulfill our divine calling during this perilous time, history will rightly record how God’s people became lax and listless, sentimental and satisfied, political and petty, and vulnerable and vain, giving up the high ground in a conflict where ideas have consequences.  If we fail to renew our commitment to what Dr. J. P. Moreland calls, “the soulful development of a Christian mind” the consequences for our nation may be irreparable.  The Apostle Paul understood the stakes all too well.  He wrote,

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NIV).

G. K. Chesterton, a Christian apologist of another era said, “Once people stop believing in God, the problem is not that they will believe nothing; rather, the problem is that they will believe anything.” The denial and denigration of absolute truth in American culture has perpetuated Satan’s lie and unleashed a horrific horde and lethal legion of deadly consequences upon us including family dysfunction and disintegration, violence, crime, racism, moral degeneracy, teenage suicide, corruption, rampant materialism, marital discord and divorce, sexual promiscuity and perversion, and the list goes on.  It is late in the day and the time is now for every local church and every true disciple to renew our commitment to “Love the Lord God will all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” [emphasis mine] (Matthew 22:37).  Only then can we be salt and light in a nation that is losing its moral and spiritual footing.

GAINFULLY EMPLOYED (October 16, 2020)

The phrase “All things work together for good” is nestled in the interior of the familiar and often quoted twenty eighth verse of Romans Chapter 8.  This text makes the astounding statement that our circumstances, whatever they may be, are gainfully employed.  They have been given only one dictate or directive from God.  That is, “to work together for good to them that love God.”  There are no “duties assigned from time to time” in this job description but this one surpassing aim – FOR GOOD which means that which is good in its essence and its effect.    The word in the original language that is translated by the phrase “work together” is SUNERGEO – it is the word from which we get our English word – SYNERGY.

God mobilizes our circumstances to work together for good!  The tense of the verb here communicates continuous action in the present time.  In other words, “All things . . . KEEP ON WORKING.” There is no layoff, strike or work stoppage here!  For sweet assurance and encouragement in our trials, just lay these words alongside Psalms 121:3-4, “He will never let me stumble, slip, or fall. For he is always watching, never sleeping” (TLB)

We struggle to embrace and believe this truth because of a tragic lack of understanding regarding the sovereignty of God.  Nothing happens to us apart from God’s direct, permissive or over-ruling will.  Unfortunately, leaning too heavily on our own understanding we experience the paralysis of analysis and forfeit the comfort that this promise brings.  As G. K. Chesterton once noted, “Our thoughts are but a drop in the ocean of God’s intelligence.”

Our circumstances are not at liberty to do as they please.  They cannot act unilaterally or go in business for themselves.  A striking biblical example of this truth is found in Psalm 133.  This psalm is a powerful portrait of the blessing that the believer experiences in community,

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!  It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for evermore (KJV)

Note that the psalmist ends with the statement “for there the LORD commanded the blessing.”  This passage is teaching us that even before we experience God’s blessing or, for that matter, God’s chastening, they have to appear before the throne room of God and be dispatched or dismissed to do their duty. Our circumstances leave His presence empowered to do His bidding and business and to bring blessing to those who love the LORD.

GOD WORKS IN THE SHADOWS (October 9, 2020)

There is a line in one of my favorite poems that says, “And behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”  There are seasons in life when we must deal with what I call the “silence of the sacred.”  We face challenges, failure, loss, disappointment, experience the betrayal of family and friends and the attack of enemies, all the while feeling estranged from the presence of God.  He is silent, obscure, muted and there is no comforting sense within us that God knows or cares about what is happening with or to us.  Of course, our faith tells us that this is not true and is only a lie that is forwarded to our disconsolate minds and spirits from the depths of hell.

The Book of Esther is a compelling literary demonstration of this reality in the believer’s life.  God is not mentioned at all in this Old Testament narrative.  But a closer examination of its pages will reveal that He is present in every scene, sight and sound and somehow manifests His goodness during crisis and chaos.  Like a stagehand in a Shakespearean production, He is behind the thick and dark curtains, planning, prodding, prompting and promoting the events that would lead to the deliverance of His people.  There are no spectacular displays of fireworks or rapturous trumpet blasts that signify His timely intervention, but He is there on cue, moving silently in the shadows.

Because hindsight is always “twenty-twenty”, I now look back at many points in my own spiritual journey and can discern more clearly the presence of God during those times when I felt lost and alone.  I rejoice now when I recognize that He was there to pick me up when I had fallen and whisper in my ears, “do better my child, do better!”  He was there in the shadows permitting the problem that ultimately strengthened my praying and strangled my pretension and pride. I now know He was there in the shadows rocking me lovingly in His everlasting arms when the battle was raging around and within me.

From the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).  In this moment of abandonment and forsakenness, which is well beyond our ability to comprehend, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit recede into the shadows of their unfathomable essence, unity and intimacy with the Son as He takes on Himself the sin of the human race (2 Corinthians 5:21).  This estrangement is only momentary for the darkness soon surrenders to the light and the Son shouts in victory as He releases His spirit, “It is finished (John 19:30).  Divine fellowship is restored, and an unspeakable tragedy has been transformed into an unparalleled triumph. And so, even in the experience of abandonment, Jesus can “be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15).  It is when God seems farthest away from us that He is nearest and working in the shadows.

LEADERSHIP MATTERS! (October 9, 2020)

I am fascinated by the subject, substance and significance of leadership!  This gift is a fundamental factor, essential element, irreplaceable ingredient and compelling constant in the progress of humanity in all its varied expressions.  Marriages, families, churches, ministries, governments and businesses rise and fall around the impact of this vital variable that is at the heart of our relationships.

Award winning author Taylor Branch wrote a sprawling account and sweeping chronicle of the Civil Rights era that he titled Parting the Waters.  In the book, he narrates the providentially timed impact of the leadership of a young Baptist preacher who had recently received his doctorate from Boston University and was starting his ministry as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Missionary Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.  Like Rosa Parks, a woman whose courage and resolve gave birth to a movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,’s life, love and legacy is now indelibly etched in the consciousness of this nation as a drum major for justice, freedom and equality.

In another time and place, a young nineteen-year-old preacher named Charles Haddon Spurgeon was called to the Park Street Baptist Church in London, England as Pastor. While the church had a seating capacity of fifteen hundred, only two hundred people were attending worship on a regular basis. Nine years later, under the anointed preaching and leadership of their young pastor, the church outgrew its facility and constructed a new one, the Metropolitan Tabernacle that seated six thousand people.  For years, this facility was filled as people flocked to hear this uniquely gifted preacher and pastor.  Yet in 1972, seventy-five years after Spurgeon’s retirement from the ministry, on an average just eighty-five people attended the worship service on a regular basis.

What both examples have in common is the impact of a leader or leadership on any organization or entity. One of my favorite biblical passages addresses this principle.  In 1 Chronicles 12:32, we find these words, “And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment.”

This text emerges in a chapter in the Bible that records the migration of those who aligned themselves to David, the true and anointed heir to the throne of Israel during the years that he was being hunted, hounded and harassed by his nemesis King Saul.  The children of Issachar were part of a motley militia of misfits characterized by debt, discontent, distress and disconnection yet they made their way to the wilderness stronghold of David.  They were leaders who not only embraced a relationship with the future king but who also exercised recognition of the times in which they lived and encouraged the respect of their countrymen. Relationship, recognition and respect are non-negotiable components of leadership in any situation. Leaders who ignore these fundamental factors will find that no one is following them, and they are just taking a walk!

It is this principle that encourages the Apostle Paul to write to his son in the ministry Timothy and share these words, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1-2 NIV).

Effective leaders, like the sons of Issachar and the Apostle Paul are characterized not only by their production but their reproduction.  Pastor, author and leadership expert Dr. John Maxwell says, “We teach what we know but we reproduce who we are.”  Ultimately, in the Christian life, it is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who is reproducing Himself in every believer through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Because of this reality, we must say by faith today, “Have thine own way Lord, You are the Potter, we are the clay!”