We All Get to Choose

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

– Bob Dylan

Every day we wake up with choices to make. Hundreds if not thousands of them. Some easy. Some hard. And we get through the day by making choices.

It’s easy to forget this and play the victim. I was reminded of (reproved by?) this at a homeschool conference I attended with my wife a few weeks ago. The lecturer reminded us parent-educators in the room to use words like “choice, choose, chose” with our kids. Kids aren’t only or mainly victims. “You have a choice to make here.” Naturally, she followed, you must use the word “consequence.” Choice necessitates consequence.

Some people like to turn choice into an academic, theological debate. Do we have free will or not? That’s really a category mistake. Choice not an intellectual issue as much as it is a worship issue. A heart issue.

When I wake up in the morning, I’m going to choose whether to get out of bed or hit the snooze. I’m going to choose to pray or not. I’m going to choose to be cheerful or grumpy when the kids wake up. And on and on.

All these choices are built on one foundational choice. Will I chose to love and obey Jesus or something else? It’s the simplest and hardest question to ask and answer everyday.

This is real, raw life. It’s not academic theology. Choice doesn’t deal in the head, but the gut. It gets after what we want. For the Christian, we know that we must love and obey Jesus. We just don’t always want to.

Dylan said it best: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Whom will it be?


We Don’t Just “Do Missions”

This has been a season of lasts for Carly and me. Tonight was our last congregational meeting on missions at Grace Chapel. We came so that I could serve as a pastor. We will be sent out as missionaries one month from today. To begin our meeting tonight, I set the context with three key biblical texts that are always bouncing around my mind. These texts show that we don’t just “do missions.” Missions is not one program of the church or something that a few people have a heart for. Mission is our main task. How do we know?

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). The entire goal of creation is that God would be worshiped and his glory would be cherished. As John Piper has written, “Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man.” One day, the glory of God will be inescapable just like water in the ocean is inescapable. But global missions is the God-ordained means to that end.

How will we get there?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38). God doesn’t do missions mysteriously apart from our involvement. It’s a human activity. Laborers—missionaries—must be sent out. So we pray for laborers. Commission laborers. Fund laborers. And send laborers out to harvest those God is drawing to himself.

What’s the end result of this?

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). History will conclude and eternity will endure with a diverse multitude of people singing praise to the Lamb who was slain. The glory of God will be inescapable. Every nook and cranny of human society will dwell with their Creator and Redeemer in sweet fellowship forever.

These are just three texts. Of hundreds. Even thousands. All revealing that we don’t just “do missions.” Missions is our main task because it is a means toward the greatest end: the glory of God embraced and treasured by every kind of person for all eternity. It’s what we were made for. And one day it finally happen.

I can’t wait. What about you?


Ash Wednesday at Grace Chapel

Wednesday, February 18, is Ash Wednesday. This marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 day period before Easter (46 including Sundays). The word Lent comes from a Latin word meaning “spring,” which comes from an earlier Germanic word meaning “lengthen” or “long” (since the days get longer in spring). At Grace Chapel (a non-denominational, Protestant Evangelical church), we’re encouraging our congregation to observe this season—not to merit favor with God or even because it’s hip to be ancient. We want to take advantage of these valuable observances so we can dive deeper into the gospel. That’s it. It’s really all about Jesus.

Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent are not commanded in Scripture. Therefore, we’re free to observe them or not. However, there’s a few reasons you may want to consider observing them. Ash Wednesday and Lent can provide us the opportunity to:

  • Connect with the historical church. Our faith is not born in a vacuum. We aren’t the first of our kind. We have descended from a great community of faith which has gone before us, of which Ash Wednesday and Lent have been significant traditions.
  • Be confronted with reality of death and our need for Jesus. How often do you think about death? Ours is a death-averse culture, but we must face the reality that we are all going to die because of sin. In the midst of this bad news, however, the good news of Jesus’ death for us is our glorious hope.
  • Freely experience sorrow and lament. Individually and corporately, we make little room for mourning our sin and brokenness. This season provides a ripe time and space for that.
  • Fast with anticipation. We fast (abstain from food or other things) to deny temporal pleasure in order to pursue the ultimate pleasure of knowing, loving, and obeying Jesus as we long for his kingdom to come.

So to kick-off Lent, our church will gather this week on Ash Wednesday to lament and confess our sin, meditate on the glories of the gospel, and worship God.

Our Ash Wednesday gathering will be an interactive time. One aspect of the gathering that some Protestant Evangelicals may balk at is what Christians have historically called “the imposition of ashes.” This is when you receive ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross. Why would we do such a thing? Isn’t that meritorious? religious? legalistic? ritualistic? It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. Ashes and dust in Scripture are symbolic of the brevity of human life and picture repentance (e.g. Gen. 3:19; 18:27; Job 30:19; 42:6; Matt. 11:21; Luke 10:13). The ashes are simply a tactile and solemn reminder that we are finite creatures and death looms over us all; they are drawn in the shape of the cross to remind us that in the midst of this bad news, there is infinite hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let me be up-front: the imposition of ashes is not a sacrament, and observing Ash Wednesday or Lent can’t save us. At the same time, even our repentance can’t save us. God alone saves us through his Son Jesus! Repentance is a response to God’s saving work, and while Christians are by no means required to participate in Ash Wednesday or Lent, we are praying that God might use these rituals to drive our congregation to repentance and faith in Christ. Who knows whether or not, in his grace, God will use these instruments to spur renewal in the hearts of individuals and our congregation as we anticipate the glory of Easter. Of course, this should be the normal rhythm of the Christian life! However, Lent provides us with a special time to zero-in on this as a church community. This approach to Ash Wednesday and Lent is undeniably Christ-centered and gospel-driven.

So if you are in the Capital Region, consider joining us this Wednesday, February 18 at 7pm at Grace Chapel. Even more than that, whether you join us or not, consider how you might take advantage of these forty days to repent of sin and fix your eyes on Jesus.


Civic Holidays and the Church

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Churches all over the country are asking what they should do to honor veterans who have served in the U.S. military. Should we build the whole service around it? Should we give them a standing ovation? Should we say nothing? Let me share my perspective on how the gathered church should handle Memorial Day weekend and other civic holidays.

I’m an old Millennial (born in 1984), so I probably have different thoughts on this than pastors and Christians in the Boomer and perhaps even Gen X generations. Much of my perspective is born out of this generational influence—my generation sees the need for the church to be the church, not a political machine. (We are still recovering from the Religious Right movement in the 80s and 90s.) Also, much of my perspective is a balancing correction to my upbringing. This is not simply about my family life. The bigger picture is that I grew up in a politically conservative, Midwestern, dispensational evangelical environment which was just as staunchly “American” as it was “Christian.” I’m learning to unlearn this.

So take this post for what it’s worth (it’s free, by the way).

First things first: I think it would be wonderful and necessary for our churches to verbally thank those who have served in the military and affirm that it is a God-honoring calling (as is being an engineer, a teacher, a mom, a cop, etc.). Romans 13 gives us this perspective. Work is a good thing, and the government bearing the sword is good and right (Rom. 13:3-4). We could argue all day about what is just or unjust for a government to do, but we can all agree that simply serving as a solider (or other government official) is not an immoral or unethical thing in itself.

But churches often go further than this and that is where I get conflicted. For example, many churches will show a video or have special music as a tribute to soldiers or have them stand then give them a standing ovation. Let me briefly share two thoughts on why I think extended attention to America’s government or military during corporate worship gatherings is not a healthy thing for a church:

  • Our allegiance to Jesus, not country, is primary. As God’s new community, our first allegiance is to Jesus (Phil. 3:20; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). I always want that to be the focus of a corporate worship gathering. The temptation that comes with showing a tribute video, like the one above, for example, is that the focus and allegiance of the gathering can easily shift from God to country (even if just for a few moments). Don’t get me wrong, I am very thankful I’m an American (and in a sense I will always be one, cf. Rev. 5:9). But belonging to Jesus is infinitely more important because other nationalities belong to Jesus’ community as well (again, Rev. 5:9). Saying “God Bless America” sounds spiritual, but it isn’t the most biblically faithful thing to say, nor is it a loving expression for non-Americans to hear from a Christian’s lips.
  • Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice, not soldiers. The video I linked above, quotes a very popular phrase: “We remember that they [soldiers] paid the ultimate price for our freedom.” While the death of U.S. soldiers did give me political freedom and continues to keep me physically safe, it did not ultimately set me free from God’s wrath, my flesh, the devil, and eternity in hell. Only Jesus’ death did that. North Korea is not my enemy. I was my own worst enemy and Jesus died for me (Rom. 5:8). Satan is my enemy and Jesus crushed him (Gen. 3:15; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8). He made the ultimate sacrifice: he was a righteous man dying for his enemies (Rom. 5:6-7), which is a a very non-American and non-human thing to do. Later on, that same video quotes Jesus’ words in John 15:13 about him laying his life down for his friends and then calling his disciples to do the same for others (“love others as I have loved you”). The context is Jesus’ death for the church and the church’s response to Jesus. But the video applies it to U.S. soldiers. Obviously, that is a significant misapplication of Scripture. Very often, on civic holiday weekends, churches can perpetuate soldier idolatry, which is a real struggle for many Americans. We should give honor to whom honor is due, but in the context of the corporate worship of the church, using religious language in relation to soldiers will distract people from the point of a worship gathering: honoring Jesus because of his substitionary sacrifice.

I realize you might think I’m being nit-picky, maybe even anti-American—and I’m okay with that. You might think this is a little thing and I just wasted 900 words on it. But it’s typically the little things, the slippery slope, that distract people from God and his gospel in favor of other gospels, in this case an “American gospel.”

This question of what we do in a worship service on a civic holiday is part of a bigger conversation which needs to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a peculiar and holy people who reside in this earthly country, yet are citizens of a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16)?” Other saints have had to answer it in their time, and it’s not going to be an easy question for my generation to answer. I don’t know the answer yet. Whatever our answer, I think it’s going to be much different than how American Christians answered in the past.


Quiet Time Confessions of a Pastor-Dad

photoWhat you see to the left is a picture of my nine month old daughter Hope and me from an early morning a couple weeks ago. This is characteristic of my morning “quiet time” (what I refer to as “personal worship”–I’ll use the terms interchangeably here). More often than not, early in the morning, I settle down with a Bible, a notebook, and a squirmy, noisy, giggly, grunty baby girl on my lap.

I’m a pastor, but I’m mainly a dad, so that means my personal worship times look less like the shekhinah glory and more like grabbing fingers, laughs and cries and babbles, diaper changes and bottle feedings all interwoven with reading, meditations, confessions, laments, praises, thanksgivings, and supplications.

Children are a blessing from the Lord…unless they are present during my quiet time! Has that thought ever entered into your mind? If you are a parent (especially a mom!) of young children, then you know the difficulties of trying to balance everything being a parent brings and trying to carve out time in your busy schedule for personal worship. It’s not only difficult, it can be overwhelming and even a source of bitterness and anger.

So think about the last time something like this has happened to you. Now take a step back. When Hope (or Bailey, our two-and-a-half year-old) “messes up” my quiet time, and I get angry or frustrated or just annoyed, I’m making a personal worship event about me rather than about Jesus. I’m slipping into performance-mode. At that moment, I forget that personal worship times are vehicles to cultivate repentance and faith in my life. Nothing more. Nothing less. Reading Scripture and praying and journaling and singing, etc. are means of grace that God uses in his kindness to make me look more like Jesus. So what being angry, frustrated, or annoyed reveals is that I’m really basing my standing with God and my progress in the faith on how my quiet times go. Quickly, I’m on the road to believing a different gospel (see Galatians 1).

So when a crying or laughing or giggling or snorting baby “interrupts” me during a time of worship, it’s imperative that I remind myself that my righteousness is in Jesus, not this worship event; my sanctification is in Jesus, not how holy I feel during this time; my hope is in Jesus; not how well this ends up.

This is good news—gospel—for my quiet times. It eliminates pride: if things go well, I remember that God is not more inclined to me than before because my good works merit me nothing. It eliminates fear: if things go badly (or get stopped altogether!), I rest knowing that if God gave his Son for me while I was an enemy, there’s infinite grace for this particular moment.

Now with this good news, I’m liberated. My personal time of worship doesn’t define me or shape my identity. Rather, its one tool, one instrument, one means to the end of knowing, worshiping, loving, and obeying Jesus.

I’m liberated to use this time, as a tool, to love and disciple my kids, rather than twist this time into a pseudo-savior and grow annoyed that they keep me from “going deep” with this idol. I can take advantage of this moment to model to our daughters what it is to believe the gospel and repent of my self-righteousness. Even though they are young, I can discuss with them what I’m reading. It’s never to early to teach them how to read and meditate on the Scriptures and pray and sing. I trust that over time God will use this to woo them to himself.

“But,” you ask, “what about my quiet times?!” Press on. If you have a literal “quiet” time, great. Take advantage. But for the other 95% of the time, engage with God and worship him in the mess of life. Kids are messy. Parenting is messy. Life is messy. Why should your quiet time be any different?