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The Question the Bible Says Not to Ask

Most of the Christians I know would agree with these four statements. (I would too.)

The pulpit of this day is weak in praying. The pride of learning is against the dependent humility of prayer. Prayer is with the pulpit too often only official — a performance for the routine of service. Prayer is not to the modern pulpit the mighty force it was in Paul’s life or Paul’s ministry. Every preacher who does not make prayer a mighty factor in his own life and ministry is weak as a factor in God’s work and is powerless to project God’s cause in this world.

In many churches Christianity has been watered down until the solution is so weak that if it were poison it would not hurt anyone, and if it were medicine it would not cure anyone!

The true gospel emphasizes filling people with God. Modern religion focuses upon filling churches with people.

There is a condition which has existed in the Church for some years and is steadily growing worse. I refer to the loss of the concept of majesty from the popular religious mind. The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men. This she has done not deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic.

Would it be surprising to learn that the first is from E.M. Bounds in 1907, and the others are from A.W. Tozer in the middle of the 1900s — more than half a century ago?

I regularly hear that our churches and our country aren’t what they used to be. There is this idea that at some point in the past, things were much better than they are today. Our pastor spoke the truth recently, though: “Yes, there are many things that aren’t as good as they used to be, but let me tell you something: We’ve never had it as good as we have it today.”

We Love to Look Back

Human nature hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. You realize that when you read the stories in the Bible of people who lived thousands of years before us. Vastly different context. Same exact behavior.

One of those behaviors is that we always remember the past much more fondly than it actually was. The Romans referred to it with the phrase “memoria praeteritorum bonorum” (roughly, “the past is always well remembered”), and the flaw has been well-documented in our time.

It’s why the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 7:10 tells us:

Don’t say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.

In Numbers 21:4-9, God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake for the people to look upon to be healed from the poisonous snakes God had sent among them as punishment. As we would have done, the Israelites kept the bronze serpent as a reminder of what God had done. Fast forward 750 years, though, and we find that the Israelites are worshiping it.

When God works, it’s so easy to transition from remembering the work to worshiping the work — to transition from loving the tradition and allowing it to honor God to following the tradition instead of God.

My wife shared a quote from “Call the Midwife” that sums it up so well: “There is much of value in the old ways, but one must not become like Lot’s wife, frozen in the act of looking backwards.”

God is always on the move and is always inviting us to join him. Let’s be wary of imagining how good our lives used to be and enjoy the new work he is doing today.

Filed under Spirituality
Cover Photo - Broken

God Won’t Give Us More Than We Can Handle?

Some dear friends at church are going through a stretch that is the stuff of nightmares. Over the past few months, it’s been one brutal thing after another, and it just keeps coming. She posted on Facebook today, “Saying goes, God only gives you what you can handle…… Please God we have hit our max. Can we have a break now?”

Maybe we haven’t been through anything nearly as bad as their family is going through, but being pushed to our breaking point is something most of us can relate to. And “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is something we hear regularly.

Is it true?

In Genesis 3, right at the beginning of the Bible, we’re introduced to one of Satan’s favorite tricks: Twisting God’s words around just enough that they sound right, but take on a vastly different meaning:

Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Notice that’s almost exactly what God did say:

“You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.”

Almost isn’t close enough. Satan didn’t spin God’s words very much, but it was enough to throw Eve off completely — and then Satan knew he had her.

In the same way, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” sounds right. It sounds Biblical. And we hear it so often, we believe God himself said it. But it’s a bastardization of God’s word that Satan uses to great success over and over and over.

Here’s what God did say:

No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity. But God is faithful; he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to bear it.

God will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we’re able. Tempted. This is the verse Satan wants us thinking of when he tells us that God won’t give us more than we can handle. Just like Eve in the Garden, he tweaks it just enough that it still sounds right but conveys a vastly different meaning that he can then use to his advantage.

What does God really say about the level of suffering he’ll allow us to endure? Read the book of Job and see how suffering completely broke him. Read his words of complete and utter anguish.

Read Exodus and Numbers and write down how many things God put the Israelites through. Over and over he broke them, leading them through trials that had them begging to go back to being slaves. They knew firsthand that even brutal slavery was better than what they were having to endure.

Why does God do this?? At the very least, it can feel mean. At the very worst, it can feel like the actions of an unjust, capricious, power-tripping deity whose feelings towards us are anything but love — a god who gets perverse joy from toying with us.

The Bible gives us at least three reasons.

It Makes Us Better

In James 1:2, God tells us this:

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

It has been my experience that “consider it” is very deliberate wording. There have been very few times when I was able to truly feel joy during suffering. Most of the time we have to just “gird up the loins of our mind” (1 Peter 1:13) and constantly remind ourselves that this is a cause for joy. We don’t feel it, but we can at least keep ourselves from despairing — usually.

Like elite athletes who willingly put themselves through brutal training because they know what the result will be, Hebrews 12 says:

No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

God is making us better.

It Teaches Us to Trust God Alone

Our natural inclination is to trust in ourselves — particularly in a country that (rightfully) holds work ethic in such high regard. Satan has never found a good thing he couldn’t turn into a bad thing, though, so the old American self-reliance turns into a complete reliance on self rather than a reliance on God.

In Proverbs 3:4-5, God exhorts us:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding;
in all your ways know him, and he will make your paths straight.

Even with our best efforts, though, we often can’t break the hold on trusting in ourselves. God knows the only solution is to remove everything from our lives that draw our trust away from him — and that’s a brutal process. Dying to self often literally feels like dying. It’s exactly what he did to the Israelites in the desert.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul directly counters Satan’s lie that God won’t give us more than we can handle. In 2 Corinthians 1:8-9a, he writes:

We don’t want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of our affliction that took place in Asia. We were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength—so that we even despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death…

Paul says clearly that God gave him more than he could handle. But why? He continues:

…so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a terrible death, and he will deliver us. We have put our hope in him that he will deliver us again.

When God puts us in situations that only he can get us out of — and then he does it — we learn that he will deliver us faithfully and we begin to believe it.

It Draws Others to God

Later in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reveals another reason that he allows his children to suffer. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-11, he writes:

Now we have this treasure [of the Gospel] in clay jars [frail, inglorious, human bodies], so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that Jesus’s life may also be displayed in our mortal flesh.

God removes us so that people can see him. It is his power and his glory that draw people to him. It’s why John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

A Prayer

Lord, help us to endure suffering with the hope that you offer, knowing that these trials can produce, if we will let them, a harvest of righteousness. Help us to be able to pray the words of Paul…

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Lord, help us. Because this feels like anything but a “momentary light affliction.”

Filed under Spirituality

The Night They Burned Shanghai

It’s hard to find a good, full version of this poem by Robert Abrahams, so I wanted to preserve it here if for no other reason than to make sure I always have a copy.

– – –

THE NIGHT THEY BURNED SHANGHAI
Robert D. Abrahams, 1938

The night they burned Shanghai we had a date,
Bridge with the Watermans in Germantown.
“Now, John, be careful of the game you play;
Don’t overbid. Play safe.”

      “I will, Louise.

Let’s not discuss it. I’m not good at cards.
Lord, it’s a long way in to Waterman’s –
Half Philadelphia’s length, if it’s an inch.
Why do we have to live near Valley Forge,
If all our dates must be in Germantown?”

      (Tonight Shanghai is burning,
      Bright Shanghai of the Bund;
      The rickshas all are overturned,
      The China-hands are stunned.

      The curio shops are looted,
      The fan-tan games are gone;
      The shrieks of haunted children rise,
      The bombing planes drone on.)

Darling Louise, but eighteen, then, and slim,
Not thirty-two and card-wise, neighbor-wise.
“Darling Louise,” I whispered, “life comes once.
Let’s grab it while we can and make it ours.
Bucharest, the band at Parcul Carol
Will play for us alone if we are there;
And Copenhagen – Tivoli at night –
Naples and Athens, Persia, Xanadu,
Adventure everywhere for you and me;
We need not even go so far afield.
Here in this Philadelphia, our frontier,
We’ll find stuffed shirts to puncture, work to do,
Dead wood to clear away, great causes ready,
Making to stay at home adventure too.
Adventure shared is most of love, Louise.”

      (How far is Germantown from Valley Forge?
      A bitter march in winter for the troops,
      While Tories dance in town with General Howe
      And gentlemen sit down at cards and dice,
      And wonder when that rabble will give in.

      “My dear, I cannot understand this Washington –
      A gentleman, at that, to lead revolt.
      And what’s the latest fashion from abroad?
      Pray, who is marrying who, and who is not?”)

Then, I remember, “Shanghai, too,” I whispered,
“We’ll know bright Shanghai of the Bund, Louise.
We’ll ride in rickshas down by Soochow Creek
And haggle with the Chinese curio men.”
And eager-eyed Louise looked back at me
And answered, “Yes, John, yes, we’ll do it all.”
I know she meant it, and I meant it too.

      (Tonight Shanghai is burning,
      The flames are leaping high,
      And those who fought or kept the peace,
      Alike must drably die.)

“Louise,” I say, “we’ll never get to Burma,
Or go to Dutch Guiana or Shanghai –
No, not Shanghai; they’re burning that tonight;
But yet we’ve our frontier in Philadelphia.
Next year let’s take an interest in the world;
Go into politics, perhaps, or write a book,
Or make a fight for ancient liberties,
Or go adventuring some other way.
But not Shanghai – they’re burning that tonight –
And not tonight – we have a date tonight,
And that’s the way it always seems to be.
Wait long enough and Shanghai always burns.
Your bridges burn before you, not behind.”

      (Tonight Shanghai is burning,
      The fan-tan games are stilled,
      The chips cashed in in blood and gore –
      The players all are killed.)

“Isn’t it strange, Louise, that up this road
The Continental Army came one day,
Where now we’re driving down to Watermans’
To spend a little quiet time at cards?” …
“I think the door’s the second on the right.”
And Waterman is probably inside,
Setting the folding table up, the chairs.
In every second house in Germantown,
At this particular moment, I believe
You’d find a man unfolding little chairs.

      (There was a place I wanted much to see –
      Madrid, the place was called – that’s burning too –
      And Prague and Hankow, going with the rest.)

Well, next year maybe no more bridge, Louise –
Next year adventure right at Valley Forge –
Next year’s for living – here is our frontier.

And now we come at last to Watermans’;
Our host is waiting pleasantly inside.
“And play a safe game, will you, John, this time?”
Louise says while we park our car.
“I will, Louise, I will.”

      I know I will.

And after greetings, Waterman exclaims,
“A fine mess in the Far East, boys and girls,”
And we agree, and we sit down to play.

Tonight they burn Shanghai, and we are safe –
Safe from the world and all its puzzles – safe
From everything except our own contempt.

      (Tonight Shanghai is burning,
      And we are dying too.
      What bomb more surely mortal
      Than death inside of you?

      For some men die by shrapnel,
      And some go down in flames,
      But most men perish inch by inch,
      In play at little games.)

Filed under Spirituality
Crab photo by Rich Mitchell, CC BY 2.0

A Bucket of Crabs

I used to think if you were poor in America, it was because you wanted to be poor. America is a land of such unlimited opportunity, how could anyone remain poor unless they really just wanted to be that way? I’m not going to feel bad for people who have every opportunity to be different but decide to complain about their situation instead of doing something about it.

Over the past few years, though, I have seen situations up close that I never would have broken out of — such poverty and dysfunction and simple inability to do any better that simply surviving day to day constitutes real success. Sure, there are many who play the victim and don’t get any better because they’re not willing to do the work, but there are countless who truly, deeply need help.

What makes it even worse is Crab Bucket Syndrome — our human tendency not only to stay where we are (and how we are) but to work against anyone who tries to change. Sometimes it’s an active effort to drag people back down, but often it’s just your old life, and the people in it, working as an anchor, making escape such a constant struggle that you eventually give up and rejoin the rest of the crabs.

It’s no different in the church. Many see their experience of salvation not as the starting line — the beginning of a great contest in which our goal is to win the prize and where we train ourselves like an elite athlete — but as entry into the world’s greatest club with death benefits that are out of this world. For them, the church is Heaven’s waiting room, so they patiently wait their turn to die and enter into glory.

The rest begin to work out their faith with fear and trembling and make it some distance into the race, but at some point we all grow tired. We plateau. We decide, this is fine; I’m too exhausted to go further.

Our fellow crabs may not actively drag us back into the bucket, but they contribute to our exhaustion. People we look up to let us down. People who know better do us wrong. All of us crabs do it at some point. We’re all sinners, all working out our salvation. We fail each other constantly. It’s why the Bible doesn’t tell us to look to our fellow runners for support but to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith.” He is the only one who will never let us down.

Moving forward takes true dedication. When the other crabs try to pull us back, in whatever way, we have to determine not to let it happen and turn our focus instead to God and his Word. Our human nature would have us respond in one way; God leads us to something very different:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without pretense. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace. – James 3:17-18

And:

Finally, all of you be like-minded and sympathetic, love one another, and be compassionate and humble, not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you may inherit a blessing. – 1 Peter 3:8-9

Filed under Spirituality
Forest Road. Sun Rays

No More Middle Ground

The post below is from October 2011. I have published it now because this site’s narrative of our journey is incomplete without it. I have not changed anything except to fix some broken links.

– – – – – – –

I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.John 14:12

I had completely forgotten that this verse was bugging me so much back in February. It hit me again after reading the Kings’ accounts of their experience with Courageous Church, though, because I was reminded once again of just how much what we accept as church these days bears virtually no resemblance to what Jesus said it would look like.

Jesus said that anyone who believed in him would do the same works that he did. In the 23 years since deciding that I believed the Bible was true and becoming a total church nerd, though, I haven’t seen that even once. Not once.

Even after recognizing that this will never happen until we “let everything we do stem from our belief in him,” though, I haven’t changed much. Mark 4:18-19 pretty much sums it up:

The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced.

That describes my life so well right now. What consumes my thoughts are “the worries of this life.” Not without good reason. Our sole source of income is a business I run on my own, and we have a surprise two-year-old who still hasn’t slept through the night for 5 days in a row.

Ironically, though, none of that would be an issue if I would consistently keep my priorities in order. Instead, I usually sleep just late enough that I wake up with the day already ahead of me and instantly have to hit the ground running. What suffers is the time I need to draw near to God and have my priorities aligned.

Well, I’m done with this substandard life. There is nowhere more miserable than the middle ground, and I am done with it.

Forsaking All

Jesus said, “any of you who does not forsake (renounce, surrender claim to, give up, say good-bye to) all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

As vibrant and active and fulfilling as my churches have been, they all largely preached to, as Rai writes, “people who already knew God and were content with just that.” I’ve never once had a church really impress on me that I had to forsake everything in order to truly be a follower of Jesus. Sure they mentioned it, but if you tried to drive that point home too much, you’d end up like Jesus chasing good people away.

Jesus never left any wiggle room, though. It was absolutely black and white. Forsake everything and follow me, or don’t follow me at all. We’ve completely neutered the Spirit’s power because we’re telling people — by our actions if not by our words — that anything less than complete surrender is fine. Paul warned about that more than once:

But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted, just as Eve was deceived by the cunning ways of the serpent. You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you, even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed.

I gladly accepted this easier gospel for years and believed that I was quite happy. I believed it when people told me that “Behold! I stand at the door and knock,” was Jesus speaking to those who didn’t know him. The truth is completely the opposite, though:

“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea. This is the message from the one who is the Amen—the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s new creation:

“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference.

“Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. Those who are victorious will sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat with my Father on his throne.

“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”

A New Community

Following Jesus, by God’s design, must take place in community. We can’t go it alone. We have to be joined with other like-minded people if we want to succeed. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past two years, it’s that.

So we’re expanding on our original mission. We almost had it right, but we still weren’t focused on forsaking all. It was more about simply building community. That’s going to change.

You have an open invitation to change with us. If you’re tired of business as usual and genuinely want to change the world, come join us.

Be aware, though, that we’re going to hold each other accountable to the same degree that the early church did. We’re very much going to be swimming against the current, so it will take all of us swimming together in order to keep from falling back.

Also be aware that (as Shaun so effectively describes), “Change sounds pretty but actually looks ugly, feels like hard labor, takes time, and pushes every limit we have.” It’ll be the hardest thing you ever do, and you’ll lost count of how many times you want to just quit. For the past few years, I have wearily echoed the thoughts of Peter over and over again, “Where else would I go? What else would I do?” The thought that there really was no alternative was the only thing that kept me going.

Joe Boyd’s warning to church planters is, instead, what all who choose to truly forsake everything to follow Christ will experience:

Expect pain.

Expect to be misunderstood.

Expect to be persecuted and expect it to come first from those who follow Jesus.

Expect to be maligned, attacked and ridiculed from all sides.

Expect to grow tired and weary.

Expect to want to give up.

Expect to lose many old friends. Expect to lose all of your friends where the “church” is the central reason for your friendship. Only your deep and Christ-centered friendships will endure.

Expect to be labeled. (a freak, a hippie, a cult leader, a quitter, a fraud, an idealist, a purist, a heretic, a divider, a communist, a jerk, an egomaniac, a devil worshiper) Yes, I’ve been called them all to my face.

Expect to weep…deeper and stronger than you ever have.

Expect to doubt your calling, your convictions, your path, your faith, and your life.

Expect to be lonely.

Expect to be seen as utterly unsuccessful.

Expect to die…nothing will be left of you. You will cease to exist. The last things in you to die will be your desire to be great for God and your desire to be happy. And then, you will finally…

Live. Expect life. Expect meaning. Expect to finally understand the prophets and apostles. Expect to know Jesus and his life…for that is all that you will have…and that is all that you need.

If you’re ready, let’s do it.

Filed under Spirituality
Video Screenshot - Blatantly Biased Bibles

Choosing a Study Bible

I feel like The Ten Minute Bible Hour should have far more subscribers than it does. The Bible is the greatest book ever, and Matt is one of the few people I’ve seen who a) seems genuinely excited about it and b) really knows what he’s talking about. It’s easily my favorite YouTube channel.

This week he released a video on different Study Bible editions. If you’re thinking about maybe buying a new Bible, it’s definitely worth watching. If you absolutely know what you’re doing, just jump right into the video. If not, see my notes below.

Here are my notes. Your mileage may vary, so if they help you, great! If not, totally disregard them.

Note: Anytime I refer to a “bible”, I’m referring to a product that someone has published for you to buy. When I refer to the “Bible”, I’m referring to the holy word of God as it was written down and preserved for us outside of any particular translation or format.

What is a Study Bible?

This video will be confusing if you don’t know the difference between a bible and a study bible. When you’re buying a Bible, you make three choices.

1. What Translation?

This is the most important. The original writings that make up our Bible were written in three different languages. Those languages (obviously) have to be translated into English so that we can read them. There are a number of great translations, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Read some passages and pick the translation that is easiest for you to understand. That will vary from person to person. My wife loves the NIV, but, for studying, I was always an NASB guy before recently shifting over to HCSB and now CSB (the newer version of HCSB).

2. What Format?

Once you’ve picked a translation, you can buy that translation in paperback, hardback, or a wide array of leather and leather-like bindings. The content is 100% exactly the same; it just has a different container. Crossway has a good article on choosing a bible cover material.

3. What Else Do You Want?

If you just want the Bible and nothing else, there are plenty of choices. However you will also find a dizzying array of bibles that package your preferred Bible translation with other information. The key thing to remember — and the number one thing that can be confusing about this video — is that these other things are not the Bible. They are things that people added around the Bible to (hopefully) help you understand it better.

Bibles can have introductions at the beginning of each book to give you an idea of what you’re reading, cross-references (those tiny things down the middle column), notes (those things at the bottom of the page), dictionariesindexes, and more. The combinations are almost endless.

The notes are the biggest differentiator. There are bible versions designed simply to help you understand the material better, but there are also versions specifically targeted to a particular segment of people or topic: multiple different versions for both men and women, kids, middle school and high school students, college students, life application, recovering addicts, etc. They simply describe and discuss the material in a way more specifically relevant to their audience. The Bible itself doesn’t change — just what they package around it. If you buy an NIV bible, it’s the exact same Bible translation across every different version, regardless of what else is in it.

(Got Questions — a great site for helping you understand the Bible– has a good article on What is a study Bible? if you want to read more.)

“A Ridiculous Amount of Money”?

This is the only point I really disagree with him on — but he and I were actually on the same page until a few days ago :)

Near the beginning he makes an offhand comment about dropping “a ridiculous amount of money” on a new study bible. Laying in bed Tuesday night talking my way through the “How to Study the Bible” session I was teaching the next day, I used basically the same phrase to describe study bibles. They are expensive. But then God posed this question: “Expensive compared to what?”

Well, expensive compared to non-study bibles — but, I quickly realized, not at all expensive compared to other things I buy.

Let me show you what I mean. Let’s say you wanted the absolute most top-of-the-line Bible you could buy. This Goatskin Leather ESV Wide Margin Reference Bible looks pretty nice at $310. Maybe that’s too steep for you, though, so you settle for an ESV Cowhide Study Bible for $179.99. Don’t want the premium cover? Get the same version — just with a lesser leather cover — for $79.99.

I think $80 is a pretty good price point for this discussion. You can get a really phenomenal study Bible for $80. That’s definitely high when you can get a full Bible for $2, but let me take you through my thoughts as I lay there Tuesday night.

If you added up the cost of everything I wear to church on a given Sunday, that’s way more than $80.

My car payment used to be $431 — every month.

Know how much I pay to have cable TV — every month?

And how long will this Bible last you? My wife had her last one for 25 years before it fell apart — and it was her daily driver. It was the only Bible she read out of, and it went with her everywhere. Imagine if you only used it to study out of, though, and bought a cheap Bible to take with you back and forth to church and everywhere else. How long would it last you then?

Let’s just use 25 years, though. $80 spread across 25 years is only $3.20 per year — less than 27 cents per month.

Once I thought of it that way, I realized $80 wasn’t ridiculous after all.

What is a “Theological Persuasion”?

In one part he specifically uses the term “theological persuasion”, but that theme runs throughout. There are so many things in the Bible that a) people interpret differently and b) don’t have concrete answers — just how extensive is our free will, how sovereign is God, etc. (Read about Calvinism vs. Arminianism for a more in-depth example of just how different views can be.)

If you hold to a particular viewpoint, you might prefer a study bible that shares your viewpoint. That’s what he references both directly and indirectly throughout.

You’ll “Outgrow” Certain Study Bibles?

Near the end he talks about outgrowing certain study Bibles (the Life Application Study Bible specifically). I agree with that, but it’s not to imply that those versions aren’t as outstanding as others. The Student Bible I had in high school was fantastic, and exactly what I needed. I used a Life Application Study Bible for years after that, and it was exactly what I needed. What you need is what you need. A more advanced study bible isn’t a better study bible. That’s not what he’s saying.

Don’t Buy a Bible from Amazon

This is my last note. I buy everything I possibly can from Amazon because I like not overpaying for things — especially expensive things like this — but this is one case where I absolutely would go to a physical store. As I type this, Amazon shows over 1,000 results for “NIV study Bible” even if I limit it to Prime. Searching for just “study bible”, I get over 100,000 results 😲

Let’s suppose that you could press forward and choose one despite that. What you’ll find is that there is just no way to know what that Bible feels like in your hands — and that’s so critical. Great example: I never would have chosen the large print version of the Zondervan Study Bible, but when I saw it in person the font size was actually perfect and the bible opened up flat, unlike the regular-print version.

This is such an expensive — and important — purchase. Nothing can compare to holding the bible and flipping through it in person. If at all possible, find a store with lots of versions so that you can find the perfect one for you.

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Did you watch the video? I’d love to hear what you think below!

Filed under Spirituality

9 Days in Honduras

Last summer, I spent 16 days in Central America and subsequently accepted a position as HOI‘s board chair for economic development. Since that time, I have been working to come up to speed in an arena where I had zero prior experience. Thankfully, with HOI there are amazing people with 25 years of in-depth experience who would love nothing more than to share it.

Last month I returned once again, this time to spend nine days focused specifically on economic development.

In The Villages

Shirts Drying

We arrived at the Ranch on January 9 and over the course of the next five days visited nine different villages to work with them on their plans for micro-enterprises:

In each village, Eriberto Rivera, our Economic Development Coordinator, presented them with the plan they had worked on previously, went through the report page by page to remind them of their goals, and then let them discuss what progress had been made so far. We saw an amazing gamut of plans: egg-laying operations, pork producing, ceramic tiles, and small stores just to name a few.

Village Meeting

Some villages were very far along — a couple of them to the point where there was nothing they needed from us at this time. Other villages were making slow progress, but still seemed to be moving forward.

Only one village wasn’t making any progress at all, and they quickly admitted that they probably wouldn’t. They were a great example in contrast between how organizations like HOI work and how we’re tempted to work as North Americans coming into situations like this. Read Toxic Charity for complete details, but the essence is that too often our good intentions, rather than helping those who need help, diminish their dignity and increase their dependency.

That’s what we saw in this village. It was easily the most affluent that we visited, apparently because they receive a steady flow of donations from another organization. As a result, the people weren’t motivated to work or further improve their situation. I would be the same way.

It quickly became clear — and was confirmed throughout the week — that Eriberto is amazing. He handled not only the easy, positive meetings, but also the ones that didn’t go so well. He was able to adjust seamlessly on the fly with seemingly no effort at all. Meeting after meeting, I was just blown away. What an amazing asset God has blessed us with in him. The micro-enterprise portion of our efforts is in tremendous hands.

Why am I here?

In the midst of all my trips last summer, Christianity Today quoted Jenna Lee Nardella in “33 Under 33“:

Through Blood:Water, I get to be in the broken places where suffering and joy meet. Because of this work, my faith tends to be an active, broken, and constantly winding journey of simply trying to follow Jesus’ example of love.

Man, that hit me right where I was. These trips have been a continual cycle of pain and realization as things I have believed most of my life get tested in the real world. This trip was no exception.

Another mission group arrived at the ranch while we were there. No one but the leader had ever been in a place like this, and as we talked to them about what they were looking forward to, one of them said, “I can’t wait to get to the village and tell them about Jesus.”

That bothered me, but what bothered me most was that I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me. I mean, what was wrong with that, right? I took me several days to finally figure it out.

My first realization was that it called into question what I had been doing up until then. At no point during our village meetings or in our discussions afterward did this concept ever come up. Oh, man. Should it have?

That led me to analyze why I was here in the first place — something I had never stopped to consider. Is creating followers of Jesus our sole purpose? Is that the agenda? Is everything else just a means to an end?

Jesus said…

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

And…

The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.

I grew up in a tradition where these were our highest goals — so much so that they had become our only goals. Only in the last few years have I started realizing just how much Jesus’s methods differed from ours.

As I read through the Gospels independently, one of the things that struck me was how often Jesus ministered with no apparent agenda. Healing after healing was performed with no “presentation of the Gospel” or even the handing out of a tract. (I’m not going to lie, my first reaction was “Man, he missed a lot of great opportunities.”) He ministered to hundreds, maybe even tens of thousands, knowing that virtually none of them would ever follow him. Why would he do that? What a seeming waste of time for someone who had less than four years to accomplish his goals.

I think the answer lies in his response to a question about what was the greatest commandment. He answered:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

It was the same answer he gave when someone else asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In that instance, the man probed further and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.

GirlsGod has made the people of Honduras and Nicaragua my neighbors. My responsibility is to love them just as I love myself. In this particular situation, at this particular time, that means working with them and for them to develop economic opportunities.

There are amazing organizations like Cafe 1040 working in contexts where people have never heard of Jesus. It’s different there. The people I’ve worked with so far, though, don’t need to hear about Jesus any more than my friends in America need to hear about Jesus. They’ve heard plenty of words about Jesus that don’t come accompanied by action. What they need is to see Jesus lived out — to see love like Jesus loved. When that happens, everything changes.

Maybe the best way I’ve ever heard it put is by the folks at The 410 Bridge: “We want them to hear the music of the Gospel so they’ll want to listen to the words.”

That, I realize now, is why I’m there — and here.

Filed under Spirituality

16 Days in Central America

Between May 18 and August 12 this summer, I spent 16 days in Honduras and Nicaragua. I was traveling with HOI, an organization that has been working in Honduras’s Agalta Valley for 25 years now. This is an exhaustive (though brief) run-down of everything I personally did. For more info on HOI, two great resources are their answers to commonly asked questions and their write-up on the extraordinary results of their work.

May 18 – 21

WeRanch Paraíso had been giving money to HOI for over a year and very strongly wanted to get down to Honduras to actually see the work for ourselves. Our opportunity finally came in May.

Along with a handful of others, Jennie and I left Sunday evening for Tegucigalpa, Honduras. We landed and immediately hit the road to Juticalpa (with a brief rest stop at the Mennonite bakery). We spent the night at the Hotel Boquerón in Juticalpa, and then hit the road for Rancho Paraíso (HOI’s home base in the Agalta Valley) first thing the next morning.

The setting of the ranch is just stunning. It’s impossible to convey in photos just how beautiful this area is. It’s easy to see why so many people love it. To the right is just one of the scores of photos we took.

Community Development

HOI’s mission is to not only feed the poor, but to empower them to escape long-term poverty for good. A key component of that is community development. When you’re dealing with the second and third poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere (behind only Haiti), there is an incredible amount of simple groundwork that must be laid.

In each village, HOI works to establish five basic things for each home: a dedicated place to use the bathroom, chimneys to expel cooking smoke, concrete floors instead of dirt, potable water, and electricity. After lunch at the ranch on the 19th, we spent the afternoon visiting some of the nearby villages to see that work in person.

Education

School Children

Another key component of breaking the cycle of poverty is education.

HOI runs an elementary school and middle school in Culuco, just down the road from the ranch, where all the children in the area can receive a very high quality education. Some children even ford the river on horses to get to school every day. Every child within range of the school is afforded an opportunity to take advantage of all it has to offer — including a full computer lab where they learn on the very latest equipment with the very latest software. (When we were there, one of the middle school classes was working with the latest version of Excel.)

The morning of the 20th, we spent a couple of hours at the school. Each elementary school class sang us a song (including “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes” in English), and we got an in-depth tour of all that was going on. Needless to say, as a teacher this was probably Jennie’s favorite stop.

Health

A third key component is health. Obviously much of the community development work is to support this effort, but there are a couple of other ways that HOI is addressing it as well. We got to experience a couple of them up close the afternoon of the 20th.

Village GirlThe first is with medical clinics. HOI has built and staffed several different medical clinics around the area where local residents can have a number of health issues addressed — both proactively and reactively. They have also initiated a dental program this year, complete with a mobile dental facility.

The second is with nutritional education. The beautiful girl to the right is just one of the many children we met on the 20th. (Click the image for a better view.) We marveled over the gorgeous blonde streaks in her hair until we learned that they were evidence of severe malnutrition. Her mother is one of the villagers who, with the encouragement and guidance of HOI, now has her own garden in order to grow the vegetables that will provide the nutrients that she and her little girl need. Convincing the people that they need more than rice and beans is just one of the many steps in breaking the cycle of poverty.

July 13 – 18

While Jennie and I were so thankful to have gotten to go to Honduras, we still longed to be able to have the kids experience it as well. That opportunity came in July as HOI led a trip to Nicaragua — a new location where they have recently begun work. It was valuable to see the beginning of the work, compared with the mature work in Honduras.

We had an absolute blast. I cannot recommend a family trip highly enough. Even Jonathan, who’s not yet five, had the time of his life.

Waking Up in Managua

We arrived in Managua late on Sunday night, so there was virtually nothing to see until we woke up on the 14th. Thankfully, Managua delivered right away. The kids got to eat breakfast in the open-air dining room as the cat wandered around.

Boo was digging it.

Managua Breakfast

From there, we headed up to Finca El Petén, our home for the next three days. Residing high in the mountains of Jinotega, the beauty of this place cannot be overstated.

Finca El Petén

Highs were in the upper 70s and low 80s during the day, with lows at night in the 60s. And there was always a breeze. Just as with Rancho Paraíso, it’s a stunning location.

After getting settled in, we visited Los Robles (the village where we would be working the next day) and the farm operations of Finca Java.

Village Boy

A Day in the Village

ColoringJuly 14th was our big day. While most of the group spent the morning mixing and pouring concrete floors for two of the houses in the village, Jennie and Jonathan colored and made sticker pictures with some of the children. They colored and played for hours.

Once the floors were done, we headed back to the finca for lunch and a little rest. Then it was time to head back into the village.

We dropped some of the group off at the local soccer field to play with the locals. The rest of us went back to the village gathering area to do a short Vacation Bible School with all the village children.

After the Bible stories and crafts came the best part (at least for me). Mary Elizabeth had made a Rainbow Loom bracelet for every child in the village — 22 in all. They were thrilled. Here’s a video of her handing them out.

Young Life

The next day, we left the finca and headed back south to Granada. On the way, we stopped at the Young Life camp in Matagalpa. Young Life has done some amazing work in Nicaragua, and it was exciting to hear about it and witness some of it in action.

Opportunity International

Opportunity International is another organization that we have supported for some time (Opportunity Nicaragua specifically) and couldn’t wait to see in person. After a fantastic dinner at El Zaguan on the 16th with Opportunity Nicaragua Executive Director (and Alabama grad), David Kone, we enjoyed a great night’s sleep and then hit the ground running on the 17th.

Yucca FarmerOur first stop was a visit with yucca farmer Don Concepcion. Opportunity’s work in Nicaragua started with the yucca farmers and has just exploded.

From there, we headed to the yucca processing plant. Opportunity buys the yucca from the farmers and harvests it for them, providing them much greater revenue than they ever had before. They then turn it into a wide array of products, using every single part of the plant.

After the yucca operations, we headed to their amazing school. There they teach the kids not only advanced agriculture or tourism skills, they also teach them how to do it specifically as entrepreneurs. The school includes a vast organic farming operation with a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as a large egg operation.

Finally, it was up to the edge of a vast crater lake where Opportunity is building a new ecolodge that will not only provide additional revenue for their Nicaraguan operations, but will also provide a place for on-the-job training for students of the school.

Seeing their work in person was every bit as exciting — and challenging — as we thought it would be.

August 6 – 12

By the Nicaragua trip, it was becoming apparent that God had in mind a much bigger role with HOI than we had anticipated. So I accepted an invitation back to Honduras for an opportunity to see things at a much bigger-picture level.

Biomass Power Plants

Our first stop, the afternoon of August 6, was a meeting in Tegucigalpa with Fundación para el Desarrollo Municipal (FUNDEMUN) to hear their plans for building several biomass power plants in Honduras. The country has an abundance of biomass fuel (and places to grow more), a severe power generation problem, and dramatic underemployment — making these plants a perfect addition to the economy.

Breakfast with the President’s Chief of Staff

The next morning, we had breakfast at the Casa Presidential with the Honduran president’s chief of staff, Jorge Ramon Hernández-Alcerro, a member of HOI’s board of directors. We covered a wide range of topics, including how the U.S. is helping the Honduran government in their fight against drug trafficking in the country and the latest with HOI’s work in the country.

New HOI Location in Southern Honduras

After breakfast, we hit the road to San Lorenzo. After settling into our home for the night, we headed to the offices of the Agrolibano Foundation, one of the companies who lobbied (successfully) for HOI to add southern Honduras as a new project location. There we learned about the community development that Agrolibano has already been doing, including the complete turnaround of the local hospital.

The next morning, we toured one of the villages bordering the vastmelon farms of Agrolibano, met with the ladies of the village, and visited their school.

El Sembrador School and Farms

Next it was back through Tegucigalpa and on to Juticalpa for the night. Bright and early the next morning, we were off to the school and vast farming operations of El Sembrador. El Sembrador takes the best and brightest students from all over Honduras and gives them not only an excellent academic education, but spiritual education as well. The farms help fund the school with extensive dairy and beef cattle operations — all of which were a great learning opportunity for us.

Have I mentioned that everywhere down there is just gorgeous?

El Sembrador

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

After our visit to El Sembrador, we hit the road to Rancho Paraíso for a couple of nights. We took in a soccer game at the ranch and met with a few of the Young Life leaders in Honduras to hear how their work was going. We were met at the ranch Saturday night by more than 200 kids streaming out of a Young Life meeting. Not bad for just a few months’ work by the Young Life couple newly arrived on the ranch.

Meeting with the President of Honduras

Sunday night, we got confirmation that the president of Honduras would like to meet with us Monday afternoon, so we headed out from the ranch first thing Monday morning. Over coffee in his Oval Office, we discussed several topics and just generally spent time learning about one another’s efforts at improving life in Honduras — a task that takes many hands.

Moving Forward

I have no idea what the future holds, but I certainly hope it includes more trips to Honduras and Nicaragua. A single visit is truly life-changing; three in one summer was amazing.

I know I can’t possibly answer even most questions in a short post like this, so feel free to fire away if there’s something you’re interested in. And if you’d like to get a better sense of what it’s like there, we have lots of great photos (thanks to my awesome wife) and many videos as well. We’d love to sit down with you some time and give you a more in-depth look.

Better yet? Go with me next time. I’m not kidding. We’ll put together a special trip designed just for you and what you’d like to see and do. With three different locations, there are a ton of options. Heck, just look at all the different things we did.

Mary Elizabeth asked me before we went if I thought she’d like it better than Disney World. I told her I thought she would. No one does it like Disney, but the depth of experience on a trip like this is one that Disney just can’t touch.

Ask her what she thinks now :)

Filed under Spirituality

What would happen if you suddenly raised the bar?

One of Neil Cole’s mantras is “We want to lower the bar of how church is done and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple.” I’ve written about it before, but raising the bar of what it means to be a disciple is just one of those topics that seems bottomless when you’ve spent 23 years with a very low bar.

A question that I have been pondering lately is one for you professional clergy out there.

Jesus had a very high bar for his followers; his call was absolute: Leave everything and follow me. He even went out of his way to chase off followers who had been following him but who weren’t 100% committed. He didn’t tolerate a middle ground.

So what would happen if you showed up to church one Sunday, read them one or more of Jesus’ ultimatums, and then told them this:

From now on, we will live by these words of Jesus. If you want to follow him to any lesser degree than he requires, we will not be the church for you. There are plenty of other churches who will be glad to take your money and include you on their rolls with no other demands of you, but we will no longer be one of those churches. From now on, we will follow Jesus absolutely, and we will help you to do the same if that is your desire.

If you are here and have never made the decision to be a follower of Jesus, we invite you to do so with the same conditions that he gave 2,000 years ago. Or, just hang around to see what this crazy experiment of actually living like Jesus produces. Either way, we don’t want you to have any illusions as to what following Jesus really means. He told those who were thinking of following him to first count the cost of doing so.

Obviously I’m sure you would phrase it differently, but the point is this: What if you drew a line in the sand once and for all? As Jesus did 2,000 years, tell people that they’re either in or out; there is no middle ground.

I’m sure it would get crazy in a hurry. Would you even keep 10% of those who regularly attended? Could you continue to pay the upkeep on the building and facilities (or even come close)? What would the fallout be?

More importantly, though, what would prevent you from doing it? Why don’t we do this every Sunday? I’ve been in church for 23 years now, but I can’t ever remember someone making sure I understood that it was all or nothing. If they had, how different would my life be now? How different would our churches be now? How different would the Church be?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. I am honestly posing this question to you guys as someone who is genuinely inquisitive. I am speaking from a position of significant ignorance.

It’s just a question that has been stuck in my head for over a year now, and I can’t shake it.

Filed under Spirituality

How Few is Few?

I decided in September of 1988 that I believed what the Bible said about God, the world, and the afterlife. I still had tons to learn (and still do), but I understood the core message well enough to know that I knew it was true.

From then on, the larger message I heard generally sounded like this:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son…

[M]y yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.

“Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside.”

I realize now that I had subconsciously developed a theology that God wanted me to be happy and comfortable. I can name several verses right off the top of my head that I knew then and that seem clearly contrary to that position, but I was very good at not thinking about those.

Thing was, I have been successful — in a lot of different ways of describing success — ever since that time. Couple that with the American Dream and the fact that we are constantly wrapped in the message that stuff equals happiness, and it’s nearly impossible for God’s message not to being to take the shape of America’s.

One verse gave me so many problems that I pushed it under my bed out of sight:

[C]ontinue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

I just couldn’t even begin to reconcile my theology with what Paul was saying there. It wasn’t even in the same ballpark. Why would I have any “fear or trembling” if all I had to do was “believe”? I mean, how hard was it to just believe something?

I can see now that one of the reasons God has had us outside of traditional church for so long was to force us to read the Bible with no outside influence, to let the Holy Spirit do what he said it would do.

One of the main things I’ve begun to see is how overwhelmingly different God’s definition of believing is from mine. The last few things I’ve written here reflect that, and this morning he led me back to a passage that he started teaching me about many months ago:

[T]he gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.

I’ve known that verse for as long as I can remember — which makes it that much more astonishing to me just how much depth he has shown me in it. We just keep going deeper.

This morning it was more instruction on just how few “few” is. I mean, just look at who Jesus said a few verses later aren’t part of the few:

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

You have people who prophesy, who drive out demons, and who perform many miracles — and that’s not good enough to get in. I was always fine with that, though, because “it’s not what you do, it’s who you know.”

Look at what he says right before that, though:

[E]very good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

It is important what kind of “fruit” I’m producing, because that’s the only indicator of my true condition. Prophesying and casting out demons and performing many miracles seems like pretty good fruit, though. Do I have any fruit that compares with that?

I can see now where the “fear and trembling” comes in. Jesus set such a high bar for entry in the Kingdom (one that we’ve brought much lower). When we honestly analyze ourselves in the light of his demands, it ought to cause some anxiety. Am I so confident that my life is more reflective of a changed person than those who prophesy, exorcise, and perform miracles?

Am I finding the road to be both narrow and difficult?

This commentary on Matthew 7:13 from The New American Commentary stuck out to me this morning:

The fulfillment of the Great Commission does not imply that a majority will respond with genuine faith. The percentage of true believers in places and times in which being “Christian” is popular is perhaps not that different from the percentage of Christians in times of persecution, when few dare to profess who are not deeply committed.

Just how few is few?

Filed under Spirituality