Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Archive for the ‘how can I make my worship more heartfelt’ Category

Short Memories

Tidal WaveTo many, it seems the world has never been more violent or chaotic than it is today.  That’s only because we haven’t been around very long!  No doubt, things have been better in previous years.  They’ve also been worse.

The flu that rocked the USA this winter was unprecedented- except that it wasn’t.  In 1918, a flu outbreak infected just about 1/3 of the global population, resulting in 20 – 50 million deaths worldwide, and 675,000 in the US alone.  In the 14th Century, the Black Death killed 30 – 60% of the population of Europe.  Now that’s a pandemic!

The United States is more polarized and divided than we’ve ever been- except for 1861 when the Civil War broke out and Americans literally spent four years killing each other on battlefields across the land.  The years leading up to the war were marked by public insults, deadly massacres, and fistfights on the Senate floor.  There have been other times when American politics were brutal as well; we just don’t remember.

Has there ever been a time when sexual behavior was so flagrant, so common, and so openly embraced?  Well, a brand new biography describes German society in 1525 when even conservative Christians were expected to celebrate their new new marriage by having witnesses present for their first act of copulation.  This particular biography was about Martin Luther, no less, and was written by Eric Metaxas.

The violent death of seventeen students in Broward County last week was profoundly tragic and could have been prevented.  But it doesn’t reflect a growing trend.  To the contrary, school shootings are incredibly rare, and have been declining since the 1990’s.  Without a doubt, they should break our hearts and move us to act, but they don’t really mean that American classrooms have become war zones.

If we are victims at all, we are victims of a 24/7 news cycle, dishonest social media, and corrupt politicians who will say anything to fire up their base.  But we have not yet arrived at an historic catastrophe like no other!  In fact, most of us have never experienced any crisis that was unprecedented- not the Kennedy Assassination, not 9-11, not the most recent school shooting in Broward County. The Y2K global computer crash might have been unprecedented had it actually happened back at the turn of the century, but it failed to materialize.

It’s natural to be sad, even shocked when tragedies unfold. And the Beatitudes remind us that the godly should mourn the impact of sin on the lives of people around us. But the instant outrage so popular today always makes things worse.  Not only do we lack perspective; in the first 72 hours, we don’t even have all the facts.  And the strident tone of our debates makes meaningful, constructive discussions impossible.

Scripture reminds us that human beings are like the grass or the flowers of the field- here today and gone tomorrow.  We can’t be sure that anything we have experienced is unprecedented- except, of course, the love of God.  Nobody else ever created a universe or populated it with beloved human beings.  No one else ever sent his son to die on a cross in exchange for a way to being grace and wholeness to a sinful world.  Nobody else ever fashioned an eternal kingdom and invited people like you and me to live there forever.

Emotions are deceptive and memories are unreliable.  But the love of God means that every day is filled with opportunity.  The depravity and destructive power of evil is always present.  Yet because of God’s love, each morning is filled with new mercies.

A little perspective goes a long way. Lift up the Cross.


The Fearless Embrace


Who will you be today: the champion you dream of being or the person you’re afraid you are?

For most people who feel trapped on the hamster wheel of mediocrity, the problem is not lack of talent or bad luck or even bad fashion instincts.  You don’t have to make a million dollars or win America’s Got Talent to climb out of life’s overcrowded basement and create some excitement.  Consider this: God can indeed do more than you ask or imagine, but there must be a reason he gave you a brain and a heart!

There is hidden wisdom often overlooked in the biblical account of Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.)  In just moments, Elijah confidently calls down literal fire from heaven after his pagan competitors have waved their hands and prayed all morning but to no avail.  The courageous prophet clearly believes in God as he scores his historic victory over the queen’s cronies.  But only one chapter later, still believing in the God of Israel, Elijah can be found cowering among the rocks, trembling in fear, and hiding from Jezebel.  How do you explain the difference?

Quite obviously, the things Elijah believes about God are unchanged from his success on the mountain to his humiliation in the cave one chapter later.  What’s different about his defeat is that our hero has permitted the alarm bells and warning lights of emotion to overshadow the calm voice of his Wonderful Counselor. He allows fake news to send him spinning into a panic attack.

That’s how fear takes charge in a life of faith.  I lose my traction and give in to those voices that warn disaster is about to strike; I will fail miserably at this new venture; I am not equipped for the destiny God has set before me; and more basically, I am just a screw-up! Lies don’t need credibility in order to cast their spell: they just need some poor sucker to welcome them in unchallenged.

Who will you be today: the person of influence you dream of being or the shmuck you’re afraid you are?  That world renowned philosopher Anonymous sums it up this way: “Never be afraid to try your hand at something new.  Amateurs built the Ark. Professionals built the Titanic.”

When fear and insecurity threaten to shout down your brightest ambitions, pause and take a deep breath.  Then ask yourself:

  • Is that frightening idea positively, universally true?  Is The End of the World as you know it literally the only possible outcome?
  • How does that unlikely idea make you behave?
  • How will your life be different if you crush that irrational idea today and give God some room to work?

Embrace your calling!  Faith and fearlessness are a winning combination.  One opens the windows of heaven; the other slams the door on emotional hysteria that drives you away from ambition and adventure. You and I must lock and load the promises of Christ (John 14:27.) “Peace I leave with you, my parting gift to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Cast your fears to the wind, and lift up the Cross!


Don’t Look Now, But…



When 22 people died outside a concert hall in Manchester, England, the media coverage was wall to wall.  The cry went up that something must be done! Journalists followed the investigation.  Press briefings were scheduled regularly. With broken hearts, we pored over color photographs of the victims, many of them only children, and we listened to bystanders describe their horror.  The world grieved as the story unfolded for a week.

Five days later, 29 Christians in Egypt died when terrorists attacked their bus. Forty-two others were seriously injured and the assassins got away.  That story vanished in less than 48 hours.  No color photos.  No interviews with authorities. No tragic details.

Here’s what you probably never heard.  The Christian group of parents, grandparents, and children were traveling in two buses to pray at a monastery. Their vehicles were stopped by terrorists outside the town of Minya.  After the buses were surrounded by killers, passengers on one of the buses were forced to exit the bus one by one.  As each reached the door to face masked gunmen, they were asked, “Are you Muslim?” None of them were. Each was then given a chance to renounce Jesus Christ and convert to Islam.

As each passenger confessed Christ and refused to convert, he was dragged a few feet away to be killed by either a shot in the head or a slit throat.  One at a time, nineteen adults, and ten children were ordered to become Muslims or die.  One by one they were instantly murdered.  The criminals then fired on the group in the second bus, injuring 42, before speeding away to safety.

Why are tragedies like the one in Manchester more interesting or important than massacres like the one in Minya, Egypt?  I suppose it could be racism.  Or maybe we only care about tragedies that involve celebrities and beautiful people.  But I seriously believe two reasons are more likely.

The media run away from Christian martyrs because they are a powerful witness to the Christian faith.  When random concert-goers fall prey to terror, in the wrong place at the wrong time, it makes the rest of us feel sad but lucky.  But when Christians die because they refuse to renounce their faith, it speaks to the power and the freedom ordinary people discover in Christ.  No sane person willingly dies for something he knows is a lie. Historically, seeing the deaths of Christian martyrs has inspired others to follow the Savior as well.  The secular media wants no part of anything like that!  So a vague headline about people dying in a bus attack manages to cover the bad news without accentuating the Good News.

Christians in America turn their backs as well because stories about martyrs in other lands reflect poorly on the quality our faith here in the West.  In persecution lands, believers risk their lives and the safety of their children to attend worship services and even public prayer times. They worship Christ in the open, fully aware that churches and Christian gatherings are soft targets. But in the Land of the Free, we casually skip worship on Sundays to take our kids to soccer practice or recover from a mild headache.  Just imagine, if youth sports leagues existed in Minya, Egypt, those unfortunate children could have saved their lives by skipping church and going to play soccer instead!

In America, churches report that “regular worship attendance” is now defined as twice a month.  Think about it: when worshipers in Egypt and China become as committed to Christ as we are, the rate of martyrdom could be slashed by half!

The most difficult question facing the American church today is not “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  We already know the answer to that question: character, faith and the purposes of God.  The harder question is this one: What is a Christian, anyway?

Jesus said no one can come after him without first being willing to deny self, pick up a cross, and follow.  In the religious ghetto of American life, that particular Bible verse is just about as welcome as stories of Egyptian children who are willing to die violently before disappointing Jesus.

To hear the companion message, click Waging Peace

Lift up the Cross!




Don’t Get Mad, Get a Life

FIGHT CLUBOur beloved battle hymn foresees the Lord returning to trample “on the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”  Well if that’s a fair description of the end of time, then surely we have arrived.  Those bitter grapes are everywhere, indeed, the world is a vineyard.  Without a doubt, we are awaiting the last trump!  (Don’t scream at me: that last word is not capitalized.)

Here is the USA, fight clubs still sweep the country, not among gangs like MS-13, but championed by young, well-educated, urban professionals.  College students riot after being offended by trigger words.  Popular politicians are shouted down and hounded off the stage at town hall meetings.  If your business flight isn’t delayed while stubborn passengers are pummeled and dragged off the aircraft, it may be forced to land prematurely due to a furious passenger assailing the flight attendant. Meanwhile, social media like Facebook and Twitter are so charged with rage, insults, and vitriol that ordinary people are afraid to sign on for their daily dose of baby pictures.

What gives?  C.S. Lewis offered a precise diagnosis of today’s world three-quarters of a century ago.  “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you will get neither.”

There’s a powerful idea we’ve abandoned, and it begins with trans.  Does anything come to mind? Not transsexual: but transcendent.  People who cherish transcendent values can live with disappointment and adversity in life because their spiritual convictions lift them above the moments of mundane frustration. Because they believe in heaven, in divine wisdom, and in the power of love, spiritual people literally transcend the down times by trusting Providence and practicing delayed gratification. People of true faith believe many of the best things in life are invisible at the moment, and other treasures are awaiting the fullness of time.

Materialists, on the other hand, expect satisfaction every day because they live in a world filled with things; and things are supposed to bring us joy.  Who wouldn’t be happy with the newest smartphone, the most gargantuan HD TV,  and a futuristic home where smart devices do everything for them effortlessly?  Apparently, that’s not nearly enough for most people.  Look again at the seething multitudes all around you.  To paraphrase a former president, “And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to smartphones or social media or antipathy to people who don’t agree with their ideas as a way to explain their frustrations.”

People who hope only in the here and now have no patience with delay and defeat, even the most fleeting variety.  And therein is found the crux of our national despair.  We suffer from the most powerful forms of addiction; big money and big government.  And now that both of us have failed us miserably, we are left in the misery of withdrawal.  We traded away the transcendent spiritual truths that could lift our souls from the Slough of Despond.  Very soon, perhaps an old cliche’ will begin to resonate once again: Jesus is the Answer.  The world is not enough… seriously.

Lift up the Cross!


Does God Gamble?

does-god-gambleGambling is not even a possibility for God: he already knows the outcome of every competition, the answer to every question. But there is a moment in the Bible when God makes a bet with the Devil!  It’s found in the most ancient book of the Bible when Satan taunts the Almighty and questions the sincerity of a holy man named Job.  The devil insists that upright man of faith doesn’t seriously love God but simply plays along for the benefits. In fact, he’s so convinced that he makes a wager: take away all blessings the guy has enjoyed and he will quickly walk away from his faith.  The sudden deaths of all his children and the loss of all his possessions leave Job’s walk with God completely intact.

So Satan makes a second wager. “Okay, but take away his health and I guarantee you he will curse you to your face!”  God permits his faithful servant to be physically afflicted within an inch of his life because He places so much confidence in Job’s personal allegiance. Wow!

People are wrong when they suppose the story of Job is written to explain why bad things happen to good people.  Neither Job nor his friends could have ever understood why he was stricken: the reason was a wager in heaven they could not have detected or explained! The real question raised by Job’s story is this: Who wins the bet?

The answer comes in Job 2:10.  When Job is covered from head to toe in agonizing, oozing, festering boils, his agony leaves him writhing in pain day and night.  What’s more, the mysterious condition costs him his respected status in the community.  Friends turn their backs and abandon him.  His grieving wife encourages him to curse God and die.  And to all of this, the man of God replies, “Must we receive only good things from God and never anything bad?”  The narrator then summarizes, “In all of this, Job did not sin.”

So God wins the wager- of course!  In all his misery and disgrace, Job clings to his confidence that God is good and loving.  Yes, he complains; but in all those cries of frustration, his concern is only that God doesn’t understand.  He pleads for some way to stand before God and make his case; to clarify anything God has somehow misunderstood!

Job’s tireless pursuit of God answers the other big question raised by the story: do believers really love God or do we just play along for the blessings?  There is no doubt that Job’s faith is fourteen karat, the real thing.  And ours?

Sometimes you and I make Satan’s case. We are attracted to popular titles and slogans that promise faith will make us happy: God’s Best for You; Your Best Life Now; Every Day a Friday!  We seize upon the fantasy “If God is in this, everything will go smoothly!”  When friends enjoy prosperity, we slap them on the back and say, “You must be living right!”

Except that Job was living right.  So was the Apostle Paul.  So was Stephen, the first martyr; and William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament in hiding; and Lottie Moon, the missionary who died of malnutrition because she gave her food to orphans during a famine in China.

The first and best blessing from Heaven is God Himself.  It is He who gives us life, meaning, and purpose.  It is Christ who holds the forces of the universe together by the power of His Word.  And it is He who makes Heaven heavenly, ensuring that all those other wonders of eternity can satisfy us.

In the face of a life seeming to collapse all about him, Job insists, “God is enough.” Whatever happens here, he confesses, when the skin worms destroy my flesh, in my flesh I will see God!  Job is one of the first people in the Old Testament to truly understand resurrection.  He’s also one of the very first to truly understand faith.  Blessings are just a by-product of faith: the presence of God is the prize!

To hear Pastor Cole’s compelling message, click Is God Enough.

And lift up the Cross!




God Likes Millennials

millennialsMillennials are truly the generation that gets no respect.  Everyone seems to agree they are entitled, cynical, and obsessed with their image on social media.  What’s more, they do strange things with their hair, run away from commitment, and are confused about sexual ethics. (They also like selfies too much, but don’t pretend you don’t.)

So I could assert that God loves them, but critics would reply, “Sure, but God loves everybody.  Duh!”  So let’s put it this way: God likes Millennials.  And there are wonderful qualities we should all appreciate in their generation.

For instance, Millennials know that God doesn’t live in a building.  You might demur, noting “We all know that.”  But in fact, quite a few of us in previous generations have behaved as though God does live in church buildings and waits for us to drop in on Sundays.  Until recently, most churches have ministered out of a fortress mentality: “everything that matters happens here in this building.” And saints have retreated to the holy bunker not only to worship; but to pray, to plan, to eat together, even to celebrate uninspired Christmas parties. Didn’t Jesus say something about a lamp hidden under a bushel?

We’re changing now because Millennials asked, “What’s so special about this stuffy old building?  God is out there… and so are the neighbors we’re supposed to love and care for!”

Paul tried to alert us to this reality centuries ago. Speaking to the pagan intellectuals on Mars Hill, he explained, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” (Acts 17:24) Rather, he pointed out that even some of their own Greek poets had rightfully supposed the Creator God is all around us in the cosmos he fashioned, and that it is “in him we live and move and have our very being.”

That long-suppressed truth completely demolishes the false construct practiced by so many believers: that life is segmented into church life, family life, career life, recreational life, and consumer living.  On one hand, it means we should get over the myth that spiritual things only happen at church.  And on the other hand, we must embrace the fact that God is out there working all around us, and if we really love him, we must join him.  He’s at work in your office on Capitol Hill.  He’s on the scene in your classroom.  He is involved in the truck stop when you pull your rig off the road for dinner.  No more church life versus my life: it’s all God’s life.  Am I in or out?

I long ago stopped complaining about how liberal the Millennials are:  we were all lefties when we were their age.  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you don’t have a brain.”  Time and faith bring profound changes.  So I’m confident we’re going to see some spiritual giants rise among this disrespected generation. They won’t be perfect, but they will rescue the church from hypocritical attitudes we tolerated too long.  There’s a lot to like.

For the companion message from Acts 17, click:No Interruptions, Only Invitations

And lift up the Cross!

Barefoot Worship


This doesn’t sound very romantic or culturally sensitive, but it’s a fact.  When Moses takes his famous detour to a burning bush and finally encounters God, the Lord doesn’t reward the old man with benefits: he gives him a job. (Exodus 3: 1 – 15)

I think many of us in church life today have regressed to the smarmiest form of bait-and-switch evangelism.  We invite our friends to church, hyping the chance to make new friends or find someone to date.  Then there are all those other benefits: good cheer for the down and out, relationship tips for the lonely, great coffee for those in need of caffeine. Behind all this is our hope that one benefit or the other will lead them to God.

But that’s not how it happens in the Bible.  Jesus doesn’t heal every sick person in Israel, or feed every hungry mouth, for that matter.  The select signs and wonders he performs are geared to raise questions in the minds of all the other people. Christ understands that true worship begins with Mystery.  The greatest questions are about God and living water, not emotional urges and financial needs. We are asking for disappointment when consumers come to our churches in search of benefits. (Then most hurry away once again.) Moses begins his worship quest with questions he cannot answer.  Why isn’t that bush consumed by those flames?  Is that really what an angel looks like?  True worship is driven by mystery.

We minimize the power of God when we pass him off as a mere psychologist who can bring closure to the grief-stricken; or a relationship coach who can enhance one’s marriage. And we prepare our friends to behave like immature children: always asking what God can do for us next, never pondering our place in His Grand Design.  Benefits are a by-product. The point is God, knowing Him and actually being known by Him.

So it’s significant when God actually calls out to Moses by name.  Yes, this indicates He is not a stranger; that he knows this sheep herder who is coming his way.  But he doesn’t read the mind of Moses and offer to help him with his anger problem or relieve him of that stinking job tending sheep when he’s been educated in geometry and astronomy back in the palace at Egypt!  No, God simply says, “I’ve decided to free my people who are trapped in bondage in Egypt, and I’ve selected you to go and talk to the Pharaoh.”

That’s really what we all need in this world: an eternal Father and and a magnificent mission.  Consumers get the goods, but they never accumulate enough possessions or pleasure to fill the hole in each of their hearts.  Faith and Purpose do that, and who knows it better than the Creator who designed our souls and our brains, and hardwired us with DNA?  Significance follows life-giving relationship and service.

So don’t invite your co-workers and neighbors to worship because it will help them with their melancholy or offer them a short-cut back into the dating scene.  Tell them the truth: God is better than the, and church services can be an opportune place to search for Him.  Ask  them to join you in worship because you sense they’re looking for something valuable, and you suspect the answer to their questions starts with a capital G. And, by the way, there’s great coffee there… if they still need it.

To hear the companion audio message, Take Off Your Shoes, click here.

And lift up the Cross!







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