Gospel Coalition 2015 experience

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I just got back from the Gospel Coalition 2015 gathering. The facebook page even highlighted one of my tweets as well as another Geoff. Sadly, they will hold their next conferences in Indianapolis, so this was my first and will most likely be my last. Here are a few random thoughts, for the few who may be interested.

1.) Encouraging. I believe I heard 6,000 folks attended the conference, as it was sold out the week prior. That’s quite a large number of people gathering together to hear sermons, go to workshops, and worship together. But not only did large numbers gather, those numbers came from all 50 states, and included 137 countries (and 26,000 followed on live stream). I could hear Aussies, Irishmen, Brasilians, Koreans, among the crowd. There were also translation headphones so that people could hear the speakers in Mandarin, Spanish, and some other languages. Conferences like this really refresh me as I see a plethora of pastors from a plethora of countries doing what I’m doing. I know I’m not alone, but it helps to see that I’m not alone in my commitment to the centrality of the gospel in all of ministry. It helps remind me that I’m not crazy or delusional, that the gospel is real, and that Jesus is really worthy. I know that, and I knew it before, but for some reason, I seem to know it more now. My faith is always mixed with percentage of unbelief. That’s why surrounding ourselves each week with people who believe the gospel, and supplementing it with conferences like these, can do so much for your soul when you struggle to believe the gospel.

2.) Good Preaching. We heard 9 sermons from 9 very different preachers starting in Deuteronomy and ending in Revelation. All preached what are called “expository” sermons, which seek to bring out what is already in the passage. Preachers look at the passage in context to discern the meaning of the passage in order to apply it today. This is different than “topical” preaching, different than making points that are not directly found in the text, and still different than picking several points and then finding various passages to prove them. I think expository preaching is the way to go. But we saw a variety of ways how to preach expository sermons. Some folks were very wooden in their presentation, literally going verse by verse without illustration or much application, and felt very much like a lecture, or simply re-writing a commentary. Tim Keller, as I expected, was my favorite. In my opinion, it takes a great skill to expound what is in the passage, why we need to hear it, show where you we can find your point, what happens if we believe, and yet do so without simply saying, “next verse we see….next verse we see……” I’m no doubt a Keller homer. However, Voddie Bauchum was just behind him as my 2nd favorite, and Ligon Duncan came in third with his exposition of Romans 8 and suffering. Solid.

3) Other-centered. We had the chance to pay 10 dollars for a bundle of 6 books (which were translated into various languages) that will be delivered to pastors in third world countries who have little or no access to the abundant resources we have here (and often take for granted). I wonder who will get my bundle of books? 1500 bundles were assembled, but it was sad that the women’s conference the previous year produced more with a smaller crowd. Hopefully more bundles were purchased after the challenge was issued by the founder DA Carson.

I missed my family (and church family-though one of my leaders came with me) way more than I had anticipated but am glad I went. To get what I got for 150 dollars (early registration) is amazing.

If you have the opportunity to attend a Gospel Coalition Conference, I highly recommend you do so. If not, you will still find an outstanding number of resources on their website.

My Coptic experience

This past Sunday we prayed for the families of the martyred Coptic Christians who did not recant their faith prior to losing their heads. We do know that Paul’s prison chains often fueled others to remain bold in their respective spheres of influence. Prayerfully that will be the case as we hold on to and hold out to others the sufficiency of Jesus alone to save and satisfy anyone.

If interested, here’s an article from the Gospel Coalition with more info which includes how to pray for our brothers and sisters over there during this time.

  1. Pray for comfort for the families of the victims.
  2. Pray for effective mass distribution of a Scripture tract we’ve just produced (see image), that God’s Word will comfort and challenge the many who will receive it.
  3. As I write, there is news of more Egyptians being kidnapped in Libya. Lord, have mercy!

I’d like to share my only experience with a Coptic Christian. His name was Tarik. He and Mahmud (a Muslim if you couldn’t tell by the name) were our guides during the Egypt-Jordanian leg of our Furman foreign study class. Our meeting coincided with a time when I was surrounded not by atheists but with universalists. A universalist believes all roads lead to God. We’re all heading up the same mountain, just on different paths. As a result, I was pretty much on my guard when Tarik and I conversed that January of 1999.

I remember him telling me that God would look at a “good” Muslim and not exclude him from heaven because he didn’t believe in Jesus (Jesus actually disagrees with this in the gospels). If he were a good Muslim, with a good heart, then that would be sufficient. I wonder if Tarik and I had the same conversation in 2015, would he still come to the same conclusions?

Maybe so, because these were “bad” Muslims, right? “Good” Muslims could still be saved by their own personal goodness. I know Tarik didn’t like my answer for I explained that there are no Muslims or Christians for that matter “good” enough to save themselves. I doubt I was all that respectful when I did it, because I don’t think we talked much more after that. And one can respectfully disagree so that the relationship doesn’t end.

But lets consider Tarik’s thinking for a bit.If that were really were the case, and God just judges us on our personal goodness and not the goodness of Jesus as we rely upon Him alone for salvation, then it might be a good idea to be a Sunni Muslim if you live in the Middle East. Certainly safer. And it would be exhausting to be a “Christian” if you believe your behavior could tip the scales in your favor. I’m so thankful that Christ chose to bear my behavioral burden so I could be free to follow Him without the fear of failure.

Fortunately not all Coptics believe in universalism. If curious, here are some fun facts about the Coptic Christians.


Forgiveness when you get no or only a “so-so sorry”

At Harbor Community Church, we just finished our last sermon in the series “A Powerful Community.” I mentioned that it was apropos we ended with forgiveness, because I think extending and receiving forgiveness are perhaps one of the greatest displays of the gospel power we see in this life.

Of course there are extreme examples like those in Rwanda or Louis Zamperini in Unbroken, but there are many other forgiveness stories which might not be subjects of books. Yet they still bear the imprint of the work of the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness can happen in the extreme but is just as important on the everyday level.

While I was finishing  Seeking Allah and Finding Jesus on my Iphone this past Sunday, I received a question via text message. It was solid question: Can you really forgive someone if they didn’t or don’t ask for forgiveness?

The context of the passage Colossians 3:11-13, and thus the sermon, focused specifically on Christian community: the church is to forgive as Christ forgives. It presupposes some form of repentance. When I quoted Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, that too, presupposed someone has apologized.

 Someone may have robbed you of some happiness, reputation, opportunity, or certain aspects of your freedom. No price tag can be put on such things, yet we still have a sense of violated justice that does not go away when the other person says, “I’m really sorry.” When we are seriously wronged we have an indelible sense that the perpetrators have incurred a debt that must be dealt with. Once you have been wronged and you realize there is a just debt that can’t simply be dismissed— there are only two things to do. You can forgive. Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death….Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism.

So what happens when someone isn’t sorry? Can there be real forgiveness? Keller defines forgiveness as the releasing of some sort of debt, “refusing to make them pay for what they did.”

Do you release someone from a debt if they don’t want to be released? In that sense, you could say no.

But I’d caution a simplistic answer here, on either side. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing, but they are connected. Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation.

In As We Forgive, we see forgiveness and reconciliation. In the book Unbroken, we see simply forgiveness. Did Louis Zamperini really forgive, if his Japanese tormentor known as “The Bird” never confessed? They never reconciled, but did he forgive?

I think it would be unfair to not call this forgiveness. Louis wanted to tell this man about Jesus and to extend him grace. Grace is unmerited favor. The hope was that the Bird would be moved by this grace. Reconciliation isn’t possible outside of confession, but I do think some form or shape of forgiveness is.

Whatever “not forgiving”  someone because they haven’t confessed actually looks like, I know what it can’t look like:lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism.“-Keller. We are called to remove bitterness. Ephesians 4:31 “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Even if you never apologize, we have to let Jesus take our bitterness.

Seeking confession if necessary for your good AND theirs. Seinfeld’s George Costanza reminds James Spader’s character that he can’t skip the apology step in the 12 step AA program. George pursues him selfishly, not for the good of the other, but simply for his own satisfaction. However, even so, George does want a real apology, not just words. A real apology is something we can seek.

Love covers over a multitude of sins. Do I need to seek confession every time someone sins against me? I don’t think so. My love for you should allow me to release you from debt. If I can’t forgive, then we can talk.

We also have to understand that God seeks reconciliation with us. And he takes the first step. Showing grace to someone else might actually move them to repentance. After all, God’s kindness moves us to repentance, why wouldn’t our kindness move someone else to repentance? Showing grace to those who don’t repent is powerful. It didn’t move the Bird, but it has moved a number of people since.

Who is at fault is not always clear. Often times two parties can both be at fault, and perhaps the response to the offense was a sinful response. We don’t know whose fault it was that Paul and Barnabas split in Acts (if it was a sinful disagreement). Maybe both? But Paul does speak positively about John Mark indicating reconciliation. So something had to have happened. One party moved toward the other. I’ve seen people make confession a pre-requisite to even talking. That’s ludicrous. I know there are instances when one party is completely innocent and one is guilty. But let’s not presume that is always or even often the case.

Jesus asked God the Father to forgive those who nailed him to the cross. Stephen did the same thing when was being stoned. Did Jesus really forgive them? Did Stephen really forgive? Well, both seem to forgive. And who knows what it did to Paul, who was there for Stephen’s execution? It did nothing at the time, but Paul did say in Acts that God asked him why he “kicked against the goads.” Who knows if a seed was planted? Regardless, we see the desire to release someone from a debt based upon their ignorance of what they were actually doing.

Forgiveness is messy. It is not formulaic. It doesn’t happen overnight (though declaring forgiveness can) but can take years. Can forgiveness really happen outside of confession? Good question. Perhaps technically not, but possibly so, based upon what Jesus and Stephen desire?

I don’t know that trying to be technically correct is really the best way to go about forgiveness.  I know that God in His infinite grace moved toward me. And he still moves toward me when I don’t want to confess to my wife and kids that I’ve sinned against them. But He does. Sometimes when I ask Him, and sometimes it is uninvited (but welcomed!).

So in the end, we have to let go of bitterness, even if the debt has destroyed the relationship and the other person. We can seek confession for the good of BOTH parties, but we may never get it. Let grace have the final say and remember the cross. You probably have missed confessing sins (how could you not!) and the cross covers them all. Remember that in the context of relationships.

50 Shades of Grace: Some reflections on Christian grace

I just noticed the other day that Super Bowl losing quarterback (although I still blame the offensive coordinator) went to see the movies 50 Shades of Grey. Why he did that, and then, why tweeted that he saw the movie, I’ll never know. Not exactly a dude’s movie. He claims he was supporting it because it was filmed in the area. Okay….

But because he tweeted, he immediately received numerous negative responses, many of them incredibly judgmental. I don’t want this to be that. And since I can use more characters than twitter or even facebook, here are my thoughts to Russell Wilson, ladies, and perhaps a few dudes.

1.) If you have seen the movie, or will see the movie, this is not a post to make you feel like you’ve fallen into a grave sin. This is not a post to try to incur guilt or even defensiveness. I’m not going to see it or read the book, but I know that many Christian women have (and at least one well known Christian QB). Again, you may see nothing wrong with the movie/book, or the sexuality presented. However, it would be worth your time-regardless of whether you are a Christian-to consider some of the articles which express concern. If an extremely large percentage of pastors, from a wide variety of backgrounds (we’re not talking just fundamentalist anti-Harry Potter stuff) agree that something could be harmful, it is probably at least worth investigating. As a rule of thumb. And if something is incredibly popular, whether it be a movie, song, sexual practice, I think it would be well worth asking the question: Why is _____ so popular? There is a reason. There is always a reason. Find out what it is. Perhaps that reason is good or reflects the longing (even misguided) of people made in God’s image. Or perhaps it expresses a sinful longing of people like you and I, whom are, well, to put it bluntly, sinners. Discern the reason and you’ll do yourself and others a great service.

Here are some reviews that call us to caution the practices in 50 Shades. Here’s one from Relevant Magazine and one from a Psychiatrist.

2.) Hypocritical Response? Some responses I’ve seen to Christians posting articles in response to the movie are, “You a@@,  you watch “R” movies all the time and you’re going to judge me for this?” And that’s potentially a very good critique.  All Christians should be careful whatever they watch. There are “R” rated movies that I’ve watched and there are those which I’ve turned off. At the beginning. At the middle. And there are “R” rated movies which I’ve fast forwarded through scenes, and there are “R” rated movies I wished I hadn’t watched, and there are “R” rated movies that made me run to the cross of Jesus, and there are “R” rated movies that I seemed to think about long after the credits in a bad way, and some in a good way. So let us all be thoughtful in whatever we watch. Thank you angry anti-judgmental person. Seriously, thank you. Well played.

3.) How to discern what is helpful/harmful to watch? Here is a grid that helps me. Does what I watch glamorize sin or harmful activity, that I would want to partake or think highly of the sin or practice? Does it make me want to sin against God or neighbor in thoughts, words, or deeds? Does it make me love Jesus more, or His church, His mission, His world, my neighbors? I’m not advocating Christian movies. I can’t even stomach them! I’m advocating deeper thinking about what we watch or listen to. Sometimes Pink Floyd really makes me love Jesus more (maybe for another blog post). And one show that was entertaining as well as devotional for me was my all time favorite Breaking Bad.

In case you live in cave and haven’t heard of the show-but that’s probably not the case because I don’t know too many caves with internet connection-Breaking Bad is about a Chemistry teacher turned Meth dealer/mogul. But as I watched it (and you are free to see it differently), it revealed how destructive drugs/dealing are, how pride destroys you from the inside out, how overlooking “small” sins leads to much more outwardly egregious offenses, and how much personal sin ALWAYS has communal consequences. The last one is incredibly relevant in our culture that defines something as immoral or bad ONLY if it hurts others. Breaking Bad proves the point that any selfish behavior always hurts not just the self but the community.

4.) Relax. Remember the Da Vinci code? It came and went. I don’t really think it did that much damage. At least not as many thought. I really do think this movie will come and go, and then another one will come. And go. And so forth. And the church will still go forth.

5.) Good mentoring relationships which expose blind-spots are the way to go for men and women. Articles are helpful but discipleship and doesn’t happen by sharing articles. I really do think bible studies in and of themselves need to be supplemented with safe, committed, challenging, relationships.

6.) If you think that Christians should have no business being concerned about what movies you watch, and what you do in your bedroom as “consenting” (can’t we both consent to unhealthy things) adults, then remember that God’s grace does teach us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions (Titus 2). On the other hand, if you think what is portrayed in the movie is harmful, then remember Jesus hates the sin of self-righteousness just as much. So let us both challenge and encourage each other by speaking the gospel to each other. In the end, all Christians need to believe in 50 Shades of Grace.  We need to experience it. We need to express it. We need to model to each other, that in the end, we are beggars telling each other that Jesus is the bread of life. Find life in Him.


What about Bob? But what about the Lord’s prayer too?

Yesterday we had our community group lunch followed by our “prayer and study time.” Nothing too abnormal about that. But this time we spent some time going through the Lord’s Prayer. In my sermon, “Living on a Prayer,” I pointed out that the early church was committed to “the prayers,” which indicates some sort of recorded prayers that were already in use. One such prayer is the Lord’s prayer, which apparently spread fairly quickly since archaeologists discovered inscriptions as far back as Pompeii (79 AD). So Jesus seemed to like it, the early church used it, I learned how to use it as a prayer guide in seminary with Steve Childers, Harbor’s core group used it as a pattern prayer when we started Harbor. It was time to bring it back.

You can pray in all kinds of ways. The Praying Life by Paul Miller was helpful in me really understanding that. But life, along with reading the bible and seeing prayers of praise, lament, confession, thanksgiving kind of makes me want to pray in all kinds of ways. My normal default mode is what I call “What About Bob” prayers. I’ve taken that from the Bill Murray’s movie What about Bob? where the ever frightful and paranoid Bob begs his psychiatrist who is on vacation to see him: “Gimme, gimme, gimme…I need, I need, I need….” Again, nothing wrong with “What about Bob” prayers. Jesus thinks they are beautiful. Think of the persistent widow parable (Luke 18). But if that’s the only way I pray, then I’m only reacting. And Rich Mullins reminds us that it is good to sing (or pray) one more halleluia, “that you never know much good its gonna do ya.”

Plus I get bored. Easily. I guess I need to stop getting mad at my kids when they complain of being bored, eh? I like to have some variety. Well, praying the Lord’s prayer, as a guide, gives me that variety in my prayer life. And when I don’t want to use it, because I want more variety, I don’t have to. I can use a prayer schedule. Or write down requests from others. Or “What About Bob prayers”-which are important for all of us (I’ve been praying those more since we started this church plant).

So here’s what we did as a community group. We just went through the Lord’s prayer and filled in the blanks. When everyone was finished, we shared. We only had 6 of us, but it took the better part of 45 minutes. And it was worth every minute, particularly because my 6 year old joined us! So cool to hear how he wants to see his neighbors come to faith and to Harbor. I learned so much by listening to the others and how they filled in their blanks. Very edifying. Here’s my “fill in the blanks” Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name…..

Lord we praise you for your justice and wrath

Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven

We pray for your will be done in Pine Lakes subdivision, that community would continue to develop, that we would see more neighbhors kids coming over to play, and more eventually come to Christ and to Harbor

Give us this day our daily bread

Grant me energy, patience, and peace. Allow our community group to grow, and our church as well, deeper and wider.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

Forgive me for my jealousy and for jumping to conclusions. I’m jealous of other pastors, and I assume that I know what’s going on in other people without asking them. Help me to forgive those who have not lived up to their word.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

Help me to pray for other pastors who may “look” more successful. Protect me and my kids from harm, and thwart the hand of the enemy wherever he may seek to deceive us to believe his lies

For thine is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jesus, you win. I’m on your team. Let me remember that! Its your world, your kingdom, your church, your family.

Each week you’ll be able to fill in the blanks differently. But sometimes you’ll see a pattern develop. And perhaps the Lord will use that pattern to direct you to meet the need or bring His heavenly will down to Earth in a way you wouldn’t have thought had you not regularly prayed in this way.

“I’ll just show my brother grace….”

Like most parents, I presume, we employ positive reinforcements to encourage our kids to meet goals. For instance, if one of our children stayed in his room through the night for three days straight, I would take him to Chic-FilA. We eventually changed it to two. For another child, I will offer the opportunity to watch a football game with me based upon a good attitude that day. They are 6 and 4. We really want them to understand that trusting Mom and Dad, or not trusting Mom or Dad, comes with consequences and blessings.

But if all we ever do is reward good behavior and punish bad behavior, then we run the risk of teaching simple moralism or karma. You be good and then good things happen. You be good and we’ll love you more. You be good and you’ll be rewarded and if not, you’ll be punished.

Joel Osteen’s tweet of the day:

“If you will make somebody else’s day, God will always make your day.

Jared Wilson’s response: You misspelled “karma”

That’s simple moralistic obedience. That is not applying the gospel. Without throwing out consequences, here are a few ways in which we’ve tried to bring the gospel to our feeble and fallible parenting.

The other day our youngest son’s behavior was pretty, well, we’ll just say “sub-par,” and the reward for whatever goal we had him working for was Chic-Fil A time with just Daddy. Obviously he didn’t follow through. But we went anyway!  I made sure that he knew that I loved him, and that this was not a special reward trip, but simply because I loved him and wanted to spend time with him. So just to make sure he knew why he was getting this special trip, I said, “Do you know why you are getting this special trip?” His answer blessed my soul: “Just because you love me.” Experiencing grace from me will ideally point him toward understanding how gracious God really is.

Even 4 year old’s can get an age appropriate glimpse of grace. Our normal mode of thinking is that if we are good, then we can get a special trip with our Heavenly Father. Face it, that’s our default mode. And the problem with that, well, is everything. I’ve noticed that through special grace-based time with dad that his behavior seems to improve. And that shouldn’t surprise us, since this is the way God wired us and the only way in which our behavior really changes. And when we receive grace even when our behavior doesn’t change very much, simply recognizing that, makes kids (and adults) love their fathers and Heavenly Father even more.

Another instance happened when my 6 year old had something in his hand that my 4 year old really wanted. And my 4 yr old wasn’t exactly endearing himself to my 6yr old either. So I said, “Can you just give it to him so we can end this?” His response was vintage gospel: “Well, I’ll just show him grace and give it to him.”

My 6 yr old clearly thought this out. He knew his brother didn’t have a right to claim the object and his brother’s behavior wasn’t bolstering his case. There was no way he should or must give it to him. Yet he knew that he could give simply out of grace.

Where did he learn that? From his earthly father/mother and his spiritual father/mothers in church pointing him to His Heavenly Father who lavishly pours out grace to selfish people. Those who experience that grace, eventually extend that grace to others.

So we’ve learned, slowly and by mistakes aplenty, that we can’t simply reward, punish, and deal only in consequences. Parents have the opportunity to grace to their kids which images the grace of a much cherished Heavenly Father. Who knows what will become of such grace, and when?  This kind of approach-showing grace, not just consequences-“works” for kids, and adults of all ages too, by the way.


Why not stay and be a part of the light shining in the darkness?

In my part of Bradenton, specifically “West Bradenton,” I often hear, “You know this area isn’t the same place it used to be.” And what is meant by that is, “It is worse than it used to be. I’m looking to move out East.” The schools at one point were better, at least according to their “grades.” The area had more children then and fewer seniors. More upper-middle class too. Less crime perhaps (though that may or may not be so). It is not the same area as it used to be. It just isn’t.

So the obvious knee-jerk response is for folks to migrate where there are more younger folks, more upper-middle class, potentially less crime, better schools, and new houses. But the church is always to be counter-cultural in its thinking. Even when we head in the same direction as those outside the church, it is never for the exact same reasons.

So should flight be the response to any area that is currently not the same place as it used to be?

I just preached a sermon, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times” on Isaiah 9. In it, we see

[c] The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.

The passage clearly points to hope coming to a region which was living in utter darkness. The dark ages. Politically they had foreign rulers, and were divided up into three regions. Religiously they were marrying people they weren’t supposed to and worshiping idols far too often. Socially they had oppressed the poor and didn’t care about justice. Yet a light had come to a dark place. Jesus came to a forgotten place that was living in darkness. He did most of his ministry there, NOT in the South known as Judea. And because of Jesus, Paul explains that we are to shine like stars in a crooked generation (Phil 2)

Where? Well that will vary from person to person, to where God calls you. Darkness is on a continuum. Some places are darker than others, politically, socially, religiously.

In an area that is not the same as it used to be, an area that is potentially living in more darkness than before, should the knee-jerk response of the Christian be to head for greener pastures? If light has come into the dark and seemingly forgotten area of the Northern tribes of Israel, might the “it’s not the same as it used to be” actually be an open door and greater opportunity for light to shine? Light seems to shine brightest in the darkest places. If you heard that this good news was coming to your region, wouldn’t you want to consider staying around and being part of it?

Now obviously every decision involves prayer and wisdom and community. And God does call people to move into shiny, new, happy places within your area or outside of it. But let us remember that is never for solely the same reasons that non-Christians move there. I just think that we who have seen this great light, and who want to live as lights, need to prayerfully consider why we should move or why we should stay. Perhaps even more light is coming to the area, and through you? Perhaps in twenty years folks will be able to say, “This area isn’t the same area as it used to be. It is way better.” Wouldn’t that be beautiful to hear of West Bradenton, or whatever are you live in?