Hope for the Grieving at Christmas

Many households are preoccupied with shopping, extra events and added duties at the Christmas season. But for a segment of our population, the holidays come with mixed emotions. There is a sense of loss. For some of you this is a year of firsts without a loved one. The first birthday, the first trip to the shore or vacation in the mountains; and the first Christmas, without your precious family member or friend. You miss them and wish they were here. They may be gone, but they are not forgotten. God cares for you and wants you to turn to Him.

As a Christian, my hope is in Jesus Christ. Jesus came to abolish death for those who put their trust in Him. Jesus said in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” That gives me tremendous hope. But you may come from another faith backgrounds or no faith at all. Regardless of where you are with God, your pain is real and you may have questions of how best to handle it.

What I’d like to share with you today are not original thoughts. They come from Mr. James Miller in his article: “How Will I Get Through the Holidays?” Miller provides some very helpful pieces of advice. He offers 12 and I’d like to highlight just a few as you approach this time of year. For one, he says: “Accept the likelihood of your pain.” To put it in my own words, this Christmas will not be the same as others, nor should it be. Your loss is very real. And to acknowledge such is, in a way, a subtle tribute to your loved one.

Secondly, Miller advises to “turn to others for support.” Other friends and family care about you. They share your pain, to varying degrees. “No man is an island,” as the 16th century English poet John Donne said. We are called to bear one another’s burdens. The company of others can be a great support.

Most of all, God cares about you. Isn’t it comforting to know that Jesus experienced the spectrum of human emotion? He knew what it was like to love, to miss and to cry. The shortest verse in the Bible says a lot: “Jesus wept.” This was on the occasion of losing his good friend, Lazarus.

Maybe this Christmas is a time for spiritual renewal. Maybe this year you’re primed for a time of returning to God like you never have before. I have always appreciated the words of Psalm 46:1 and I quote it often to folks in need. “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in time of trouble.” God is not far off. He is near to those who call on Him.

Thirdly, be gentle with yourself. The holidays are a stressful time. It is okay to treat yourself lovingly, at a time when life is hard. Give yourself a lot of latitude.

Lastly, count your blessings. What is there to appreciate this time of year? Grief is also a time to slow down and reflect on those things that you would not normally, given your busy schedule. Being grateful can extinguish feelings of discontent and unhappiness.

Finally, some of you have children at home. They deal with grief in a different way than adults. Operate in a spirit of compassion, knowing that your children and grandchildren grieve, too.

Christ coming to our world was the sign of God’s love. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  Christ brought the gospel to this world and His good news is for all those who will trust and repent.  May your grief usher you to Jesus, who is the “Good Shepherd.”

Heaven: Who’s There?

Have you ever tried to describe a place that you’ve never seen? Never visited? It is impossible. But in the presence of someone who has, for instance, been to the Grand Canyon, you may hear them say: “Oh, it is beautiful! The vistas are majestic! You’ve got to go there! Take the mule down to the bottom! Take the helicopter ride!

Heaven is a bit different in that very few have been there and yet have returned to tell about it. Jesus and the Apostle Paul are two exceptions. Today, we approach the question: “Who is in Heaven?” Our answers are found in Holy Scripture.  Jonathan Edwards was a congregational minister in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the early 18th century. He was also a missionary to Native Americans and the third president of Princeton and considered by many to be the father of the American Church. Regarding heaven, he wrote:

 There are none but lovely objects in heaven- no offensive, or unlovely, or polluted person or thing is to be seen there. There is nothing that is wicked or unholy. …Everything is beautiful to behold, and amiable and excellent in itself.”[1] He was basing his description, not on personal experience, but on Revelation 21:27: “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Jesus said much about that place. In John 14, Jesus speaks of going to prepare a place for us. This chapter occurs in the context after Jesus announces His departure in 13:36.

Jesus spoke of “His Father’s house.” He was talking of heaven. He mentions rooms. These are dwelling places within the house. Jesus also spoke of “eternal dwellings,” in Luke 16:9.

Jesus is going to prepare a place for His disciples. But the way that He goes is through the cross: the public torture, the separation from His friends and supporters, and most of all, the separation from His Father. Jesus takes the time to reassure them of His love, along with the imperative: Trust in God; trust also in Me.” Moving is the face that on the night that He would be arrested and go through the most difficulties of hardships, pain and separation; it is Jesus’ character to encourage His disciples. He tells them that He is going to the Father in 13:1, 3, and 14:28. Jesus’ words bring up the question…

What happens when someone dies? That is a question that is quite common. Two years ago, I lost my mother. On one of our trips to visit her grave, a relative asked: “Dave, what happens when we die?”  The Bible is quite clear. Jesus said that not everyone who dies goes to heaven. In fact, He made it sound like relatively few people enter everlasting life. Matthew 7: 13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Finding out after you die is too late. Hollywood actor Brad Pitt was asked the question: Is your soul spiritual?

He replied: “No, no, no! I’m probably 20 percent atheist and 80 percent agnostic. I don’t think anyone really knows. You’ll either find out or not when you get there, until then there’s no point thinking about it.”[2] I disagree. To be prepared here and now, is far better and less reckless and irresponsible.

Once we die, a departure occurs. This is the testimony of the major Protestant catechisms such as the Westminster of 1646 and the Heidelberg of 1564. A comfort that the believer has is that once he has died, he will always be in the presence of Christ.   These teach that once a Christian dies…

  • Shortly thereafter, his body goes into the ground. As the pastor says at the committal: “Earth to earth; ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
  • But the soul departs and is in the presence of Christ. Paul reflecting on his possible death while in prison, wrote in Philippians 1:23: “But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better….” In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul said “…to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
  • The souls of Christians are separated from their bodies and reside with the Lord until the Second Coming of Christ. That place is known as paradise. Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43: “”I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” It is heaven, but not in its final state or condition that will occur when God brings the new heavens and the new earth.
  • On the day that Jesus returns, the soul will be reunited with the body and it will be raised, what is commonly known as “the resurrection.” Martha, Lazarus’ sister believed this in John 11:24 by saying: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
  • Then, once the final judgment takes place, Christ will bring the new heavens and the new earth, which will come down. From then on, our homes will be permanent. 2 Peter 3:13: “But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”

Maybe the situation can be described in this way. If you lived in downtown Chicago, in a difficult area. But you were notified that you had inherited a sprawling beachfront home in Cape May, NJ. On your trip to Cape May, you had a small layover in Pittsburgh. While in Pittsburgh, you met some other family members who would also inherit the home. You would tell others that you were headed to Cape May; but your trip to Pittsburgh was incidental; it was a necessary stop, on the way.

In such a place, death is conquered. Who will be in heaven? Jonathan Edwards writes:

“Every gem which death rudely tears away from us here is a glorious jewel forever shining there. Every Christian friend that goes before us from this world is a ransomed spirit waiting to welcome us in heaven. There will be the infant of days that we have lost below, through grace to be found above. There the Christian father, and mother, and wife, and child and friend, with whom we shall renew the holy fellowship of the saints, which was interrupted by death here, but shall be commenced again in the upper sanctuary and then shall never end. There we shall have companionship with the patriarchs and fathers and saints of the Old and New Testaments, and those of whom the world was not worthy, with whom on earth we were only conversant by faith.”[3]

Overjoyed, we’ll be to see our Christian friends and loved ones, and those we’ve only read about and admired over the years. Most of all, we will be in the presence of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are comforted and blessed to know that it is a wonderful reunion and a great discovery. More than can ever be described into words. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9).”

Until then, we know that we have access to the Father through Jesus. Now the Lord gives us a pretty exclusive response to Thomas’ question in 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Jesus is the only way of connected to God. He alone provides access to Him. If we think that there are many ways to God, you are in essence calling Jesus a liar or you do not know your Bible very well.

Jesus said in John 1:51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This is an Old Testament allusion to what is known as Jacob’s ladder, the dream that the patriarch had of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. Of that place, Jacob said: “And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven! (Genesis 28:17)”

Furthermore, Peter and John preached an exclusive message in Acts 4:12 when they said: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” This goes with what Isaiah 45:22 says: “Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”

That’s why missions is so important to the life of the church. We have a message to get out and preach and share. D.A. Carson states: “It is totally inadequate to claim that one knows God, …while disowning Jesus Christ.”[4]

Nevertheless, the culture says: “Oh, there are other ways to God. Why be so narrow?” But what did God say? What did Jesus say? What more needs to be said?

Some within the false church and many within the culture say that this is an arrogant statement. Why be so narrow? We confused criticality with narrowness. Jesus is clearly speaking in reference to His Father’s house and its access. The point is that Christ has opened up heaven. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple was rent in two from top to bottom.

Hebrews 4:16 tells us that based on the endurance of Jesus, and because He is our high priest, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” In Biblical times, no one could ever approach a king’s throne with boldness. You had to be summoned. If you went where you were uninvited, it could cost you your life. But we serve a different king that allows us to approach Him with confidence. Without Christ, there is no access, let alone confidence.

So, heaven is for those who know the Father through Jesus Christ. It is the place that Jesus has gone to prepare for us.

But Jesus is also preparing us for a place. That is called sanctification; the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who’ve trusted Christ. May the Lord’s words function as peace and encouragement to you who live for Him. May they function of motivation to know Him, if you’ve lived you’re life apart from Him. May it be to all of us a call to preparation; to know that this life is not all that there is. Rather this life is a preparation for the next. Your eternity lies outside of the material and outside of yourself. It demands trust in Christ and dependence upon Him.

Thomas a Kempis, a cardinal in the 15th century and the author of one of the best known Christian devotional works, The Imitation of Christ, said:

Follow thou me. I am the way and the truth and the life. Without the way there is no going; without the truth there is no knowing; without the life there is no living. I am the way which thou must follow; the truth which thou must believe; the life for which thou must hope. I am the inviolable way; the infallible truth, the never-ending life. I am the straightest way, the sovereign truth; life true, life blessed, life uncreated.[5]

[1] Jonathan Edwards, 14.

[2] http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/idolchatter/2009/07/quote-of-the-day-brad-pitt-on.html.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, Heaven: A World of Love (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1992), 17.

[4] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 1991), 491.

[5] Thomas A ‘Kempis The Imitation of Christ, 56. 1.

Prayer for the Pennsylvania State Senate

I was privileged to provide the opening prayer on the floor of the Pennsylvania State Senate today.  The following prayer was shared:

Father in Heaven, we gather on this day to give You thanks and praise for Your bountiful care in our lives. We live in a privileged country; We have a government by the people and for the people. We are a group that is relatively affluent and we have little need for anything outwardly in comparison to other countries.

But by the same token we know that man does not live by bread alone but from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Your word says: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people (Proverbs 14:34).”  We know that we are a spiritually poor land and in need of revival and grace. Apart from You, we can do nothing.  Forgive us for ways we have offended You.  Turn our hearts back to You, we ask.

I also pray for these men and women who have dedicated their lives to writing our laws and leading  our Commonwealth. Give them wisdom and grace to make good and upright decisions. Let them rule, knowing that they were elected by the people but allowed to occupy their offices because of Your sovereign hand (Romans 13:1).

Please bless our state.  But more importantly, may our lives bless You. Teach us the importance of obedience to your laws and service to others; love for You and love for our fellow man.

We pray this humbly in the Name that is above every name, the One who paid for our sins with His precious blood on the cross, and rose from the dead, Christ Jesus the Lord. Amen.

Heaven: What is it?

Maybe you’ve heard the old saying that “Christians can be so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”  But today, I don’t believe that is true.  The opposite seems to be more accurate: Christians don’t think of heaven enough!  We don’t study the Scripture enough to shape our way of thinking of the afterlife. In our rather diverse society, we must recover the notion tha the Bible must guide our thinking on the matter.

Listen to what pastor and author John Piper said about heaven:

“I believe with all my heart that in order to be useful in this world, we must fall in love with another world.  In order to transform this world for the glory of Christ we must be saturated with the glory and wisdom of another world.  In order to be changed from one degree of glory to another now we must hope fully in the grace that is about to be revealed to us soon.  In order to be the light of the world we must put our torch in the flame of heaven.”

It is quite possible for us to exist in this world, and even attend church most Sundays, and hear little about heaven.  In the following post, let’s consider two passages and ask the question: “What is heaven?”

First of all, it is a different place, unlike this world.  In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul discusses his trip to heaven.  Many think that this occurred when he was stoned and left for dead in Acts 14:19.  First of all, Paul calls it Paradise.  Jesus also called it Paradise when he said to the thief being crucified with him, who asked to the Lord to remember him.  Jesus said: “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.”  Paul says it was the “third heaven.” It is a spiritual place.  Paul does not know if he was in the body or out of the body. It is a high place.  Heaven is a place different from this earth, unlike anything we’ve experienced.  Psalm 148:4: “Praise Him, highest heavens, and the waters that are above the heavens!”  The scene of God’s throne in Isaiah depicts the Lord being surrounded by angels, who cry out “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Secondly, it is the place of God’s faithful.  Notice that it is the place of Abraham’s side.  Lazarus was brought there after he died.  Abraham is the father of many nations, the father of faith.  Abraham believed in God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.  Abraham was the friend of God.  All those who have a similar faith are known as children of Abraham.  Galatians 3:29 tells us: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Christianity is the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism.  As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:20: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.” All of those who have trusted in Christ, from the point of anticipation in the Old Testament, to the point of faith in the New Testament up to our present time and until He returns, will be there.

Thirdly, it is a place of comfort.  Unlike his time on earth, where his poverty ruled his life, Lazarus was comforted there.  He was given relief.  He was made whole.  Luke 16:25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”  In heaven there is no agony nor the causes of agony.  In the new heaven and earth, John the Apostle wrote: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  (Revelation 21:4)  There, bodies will be whole.  There will be no cancer, no diabetes, and no depression.  It will be a place where there is no infirmity; only complete wholeness and holiness.

Fourthly, it is a place where wonderful things are spoken; too wonderful for Paul to repeat.  The vision and the sound would otherwise cause him to boast, but he was prohibited. 1 Corinthians 2:9: “However, as it is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’– There will be surprises in heaven.  I do not know if our pets will be there; they do not have souls.  But we will recognize others and be recognizable.  Whatever and whomever will be there, it is a place of joy, happiness and peace, surrounding the glory of God in Christ.

Fifthly, everyone wants to go there, but not everyone will be there.  As a pastor, I’m surprised at how regular people speak of their loved one who is now “out of suffering” or “in a much better place,” when sometimes there is no outward evidence of that person trusting Christ.  Jesus said many will say on that day: “Lord, Lord, did we not do this or that.”  And He will say to them, “Depart from Me, for I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23)

I’m sure that the rich man, feeling confident in his Judaism, assumed that he would be at Abraham’s side. He may have attended synagogue.  He could have recited the Ten Commandments in order.  He could have given alms.  But he lived with no consciousness of God.  He believed that life was one continual party.  The rich man cared too much about worthless things and did not place enough care in things that mattered.

Notice the clear teaching that there is no second chance after death.  And there is no relief in hell.  The rich man is in agony.  He is conscious of his state.  He sees Abraham and Lazarus.  He asks for relief, but there is none.  He cannot communicate with his brothers who are still living.  He cannot convince Abraham of sending added testimony to them.

God has given us enough in the plain teaching of His word, what we are to believe about this life and the life hereafter.  And this story clearly shows that there are two places: Paradise and Hades, and arrival there is based your spiritual sobriety, to see your need for Christ.  Hebrews 9:27: “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment….”  The real question is are we prepared for death and that Day of Judgment?

Lastly, we must know how to get there.  Tom Curtis was a successful business man who lived in Florida in the 1980’s.  He had a family, a nice home and a fancy car.  But tragedy struck when his teenage boy was hanging out with his friends in the garage.  His son was splashed with gas and his friends lit a match.  Most of his body was burned beyond recognition.

The boy was rushed to the hospital.  In the ensuing weeks, the situation grew more and more difficult.  Before the son passed away, Tom talked with him.  The son said: “Dad, do you believe in Jesus?”  Tom said: “How can I believe in someone that is dead?”  The son said: “Dad, I’ve seen Him and He’s alive.”  Sometime afterwards, Tom became a Christian and has dedicated his life to seeing others come to faith.  He and his wife Carolyn operate SOS ministries in Florida.  Tom now tells people that there are three things that God cannot do.

He cannot lie. Titus 1:1: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness– 2 a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time,”  The God we serve is the God of truth.  He cannot mislead.

He cannot change. Malachi 3: 6 “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. 7 Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,”  God’s character is constant.  He is fair and just.

He cannot let anyone into heaven unless he is born again.  John 3:3-5: Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”

If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?  That is the most important question.  Are you 50% sure?  75% sure or 100% sure that you are going to heaven when you die? God has made a way that you could be 100% sure.

Admit you’re a sinner and turn from your sin.  All of are guilty before a holy God.  We are 100 % in need of forgiveness of sin.  The 17th c. Puritan John Owen said: “Poor souls are apt to think that all those whom they read or hear of to be gone to heaven, went there because they were so good and so holy…. Yet not one of them, not any one that is now in heaven (Jesus Christ alone excepted), did ever arrive there any other way but by forgiveness of sins.”

Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.  God has provided one way that we can be forgiven.  That is through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ.  1 Peter 3:18 tells us: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;” Jesus death on the cross is the only sufficient way of paying for our sin.

It was on the cross that Jesus provided for our atonement.  No other place did He do this.  Peter tells us: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed (1 Peter 2:24).”

Call upon Him.  Romans 10:13 tells us: “…for “Whoever will call upon the name of the LORD will be saved.”  It takes faith expressed to become one of God’s children. God wants us to communicate to Him and acknowledge our need for Him. Faith begins by humbly asking Christ to come in and rule your life.

Such expression usually includes a simple prayer, like the following: “Lord Jesus, I admit I am a sinner.  I believe you died on the cross for forgiveness of my sins; I ask that you forgive my sins, come into my heart and make my life new.  I receive you as my Savior.  Thank you, Jesus.  Amen.”

How to Prosper, Spirtually

I was recently confronted with the question: “How does one prosper spiritually?”  Another way of putting it would be to ask: “What is the key to spiritual growth?”

I believe the first Psalm has some insight into this question.  The book of Psalms has often been referred to as Israel’s hymnbook.  It contains songs- or poems, teaching on what it means to praise God and know God.  The emotions brought forth cover the spectrum of the human experience. When I was going through a dark time in my life, a pastor told me: “Go home and read the psalms.  You’ll know that David and others identified with you.”

The ESV Study Bible states: “The first psalm serves as the gateway into the entire book of Psalms, stressing that those who would worship God genuinely must embrace his Law (covenant instructions).  But its sustained contrast the psalm reminds readers that in the end there are really only two ways to live.”

Notice the agrarian illustration.  “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”  – Psalm 1:1-3

First off, to prosper spiritually, means to be blessed by God.  “Blessed is the man… (whose) delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”  The Hebrew denotes happiness, prosperity. It reminds us of the beatitudes in Matthew 5, Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.”  You remember those.  “Blessed are the peacemakers… .”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit… .”  “Blessed are the pure in heart… . ”  One commentator states: “What is given to us in this first Psalm is contrasting sources of values.  “The truly happy person guides his life by God’s instruction rather than by the advice of those who reject that instruction.”[1]  The blessed man or woman is favored by God because of the priority in their life to honor God with their ethical and spiritual decisions.

What does it mean to delight in the law of the Lord?  Might we substitute all of God’s word, the Bible for “the law of the Lord”?  Thus, we must participate in the following:

  • To read it; to actually know what it says. To study it.  Jesus said: “Thy word is truth.” (John 17:17); we need to know the truth, before it can set us free.  It is an oxymoron to be a Christian and not interested in what the Bible says and teaches.
  • To mull it over in your mind; to memorize it.  Psalm 119 is an elaboration of Psalm 1.  “I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You.”  This is the acquisition of the ability to call it to mind when you need it.  I know a woman who writes a central verse or thought from her devotions down and she glances at it throughout the day.  Other believers post verses in their car on the dash or on the refrigerator, to be continually reminded of God’s promises and precepts, that the word might become part of us.
  • To obey it, apply it; put it into practice.  Scripture must rule your mind, if you are to prosper spiritually.  You must be willing to submit yourself to God’s way of living, instead of living your own way!  Where are you getting your theology?  From the Internet, Facebook, Dr. Phil or Oprah?  Or do you sit with the Bible open and pray: “Lord, teach me.  Show me.  Whatever you say, I will do.”

Secondly, spiritual death is revealed in how one believes and lives.   Verse one says: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers….” Who are the wicked, sinners, or scoffers?  By the context, it is certainly those that give no mind to God, his presence, his instruction, his love or His wrath.  With these there is no fear of God.  Our country has suffered for a long time from no fear of God.

Today, our young people are falling prey to the idea that truth is relative.  In 2005, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton wrote Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Conducting the most comprehensive study of religion and teenagers to date, the sociologists discovered a newly dominant creed that they dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Rather than transformative revelation from God, religion has become a utility for enhancing a teenager’s life. Smith and Denton lay out the five points of MTD:

  • A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.Surely American teenagers did not invent this new religion. A quick scan of bestseller lists, television guides, or public school curricula will reveal MTD’s appeal. Indeed, the God of MTD sounds like the “cool parent” teenagers adore.

“God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process,” Smith and Denton write.  That’s one of the things missing today is a healthy fear of God.  Many live as if there is no God.  Lawlessness abounds.

In contrast, the blessed person recovers a healthy fear of God.  The awesomeness of the Lord affects how I think and how I live; my understanding of sin and my remorse over it.

One’s spiritual health must include a healthy reverence for the God of Scripture.  In contrast to our society, the Israelites participating in the exodus in 1500 B.C. were faced with an awesome scene on Mount Sinai: “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”  Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:18-20)

But without healthy reverence for God, there is spiritual death.  There is no middle ground; there is no state of limbo.  You can tell a lot about a tree or bush by the health of its leaves; whether it is getting enough rain; enough sun or is subject to bugs or disease.  The tree described in Psalm 1 is one that has taken root by a source of water.  Its leaves are robust.  Its fruit is plentiful.  Oh that we would have more of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

How do we prosper spiritually?  Caspar Schwenckfeld likened the spiritual life to the “School of Christ.”  Schwenckfeld explained Christian growth in these terms:

“The Christian also goes to school, drawn by the Spirit of God into the school of Christ, the Teacher of divine mysteries. Although God instructs His pupils, the Christians, inwardly in the Spirit, He has also appointed preachers and teachers to interpret Scripture and to instruct the outer man, to direct him to God and to the crucified Christ; to teach him the malice of sin through the outward worship-service, teaching, preaching, reading, studying, admonition and ceremony.”[2]

This “school” of the Christian faith also has a goal in mind: that we as Jesus’ followers would be more Christlike in love, belief and ethics, bringing glory to God.  That’s why Peter ends with the phrase: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be glory both now and forever (2 Peter 3:18)!”  The danger is stopping our progress.  Someone once said: “Christian growth is like riding a bicycle.  Once you stop, you fall off!”

The late Dr. Jack Rothenberger taught:

“The focus of Schwenckfeld’s life and thought was on the personal experience of the living Christ.  For him, God alone is the teacher; He touches the inner life of the seeker by granting experiential knowledge of Christ (what Schwenckfeld called, ‘Erkenntnis Christi.’)   Which defines the maturing awareness on the part of a believer that he or she is empowered daily by Christ to live for God and others.”[3]

Some of you may be familiar with the Navigators’ “Wheel of Christian Growth.”  Christ is at the center of the wheel and thus, at the center of our lives.  The spokes consist of Witnessing, Prayer, Study of the Word and Fellowship.  Each Christian is to be active in the following:

Prayer: This is simply conversing with God.  Jeremiah 33:3, “Call to Me and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty

things that you do not know.”  We need time alone with God.  Instead of looking at it as a duty, you must recover the sense that your spiritual life depends on it. If Jesus deemed it necessary to pray alone and often, we must place a high priority on it as well.  So our spiritual health depends on us meeting with the Lord. If Jesus needed it, how much more do we!?  His habit was to get up while it was still dark and pray with God. He would often retreat to a lonely place and pray. He would give his disciples well needed rest after serving the crowds whether it be feeding or healing.  Before He was arrested, what was He doing?  Praying!

Pastor Kevin DeYoung states:

“This is why prayer is so essential for the Christian.  The simple act of getting on our knees (or faces or feet or whatever) for five or fifty minutes every day is the surest sign of our humility and dependence on God.  There may be many reasons for our prayerlessness- time management, busyness, lack of concentration- but most fundamentally, we ask not because we think we need not. Deep down we feel secure when we have money in the bank, a healthy report from the doctor, and powerful people on our side.  We do not trust in God alone.  Prayerlessness is an expression of our meager confidence in God’s ability to provide and of our strong confidence in our ability to take care of ourselves without God’s help.”[4]   Wow!  So that’s why prayerlessness is sin!

Studying Scripture:  Psalm 119:104: “From Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Paul told us in Romans 12: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Our minds must engage the study of Scripture so that our spirit can be transformed from grace to grace.

Witnessing:  Christians have the best news in the world! 1 Peter 3:15: “… sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence… .”  Sometimes we underestimate the power of our testimony, which is really a testimony of God working in our lives.  The Lord has given you a world to reach.  We must not be timid about sharing Jesus, the Name which is above every name.  It is not witnessing if you don’t mention Jesus’ name.

Fellowship:  “No man is an island.”  We need each other.  Hebrews 10:24: “…and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”  Fellowship is obtained through attending worship, Sunday School, small groups & activities.  Open your life to give and receive love.

We must seek the fellowship of other Christians; you must be in His word and prayer on a regular basis; we must actively witness to and serve others;  If we are to prosper spiritually!  And most of all, the Holy Spirit must take up residence in our lives, which happens to every person when they trust in Christ.

God has wired us so that we get something out of something what we put into it.  Very little happens without effort and initiative.  Other things require us to be active in order to stay alive. I can sit here and say: “I’m going to boycott air,” and then try to hold my breath.  But after about a minute, I’ll be gasping for it.  I can try to boycott oxygen for a minute and a half, but sooner or later I’m a take a deep breath and give up my protest.

There is only so much of us to go around. Until we need to stop and take care of ourselves. Do you remember the illustration of the oxygen mask on the airplane? Before you take off the stewardess informs you that you must first put yours on before you put your child’s on. So it is with our own usefulness and blessing to others. We need to fuel up with God before we can be a blessing to others.

[1] ESV Study Bible.

[2] Selina G. Schultz, Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig: A Course of Study, “A Christian,” (Pennsburg, PA: Board of Publication, 1964), 67.

[3] See Dr. Jack Rothenberger’s article at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1989/issue21/2124.html.

[4] Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot, (Chicago: Moody, 2010), 232.

A Different Type of Rest

Labor Day is a great time of year; a reminder that summer is nearing an end.  It is one last holiday before the change of the season.  Hopefully the summer has afforded you and your family some time away.  That’s necessary.  Labor Day means a time to rest from your labors.  Labor Day weekend reminds us that work is a necessary element of our lives, balanced with rest and worship, part of the necessary balance that makes us productive.

What is rest?  Definition of the verb is “to cease work or movement in order to relax, refresh oneself, or recover strength.”  There are two types of rest.

It is interesting that rest is a divine idea.  God advocates personal refreshment and gave us the Sabbath for that purpose.  In God’s moral law, what we know as the “Ten Commandments,” He instructed the Israelites after they left Egypt: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. …For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Christians see their Sabbath as Sunday, because Jesus arose from the dead on that day and it is most appropriate to worship Him then.

We must recover the rhythm between work and rest.  The point is to not get overextended in one or the other, as you live your life for Christ. Some of us do not see work as a privilege.  Others see it as a necessity, but dread it, especially if you’re unhappy at your job.

Your mind and ability are gifts.  It is God’s will that you use them to provide a means of income to care for yourself and others.  But your purpose is not confined to your work or else we might be tempted to feel that upon retirement we’ve lost our purpose.  No, your purpose in life is not confined to your work.  Your purpose in life is to glorify God.  If you happen to be retired, you now have the opportunity to love, support, mentor and pray for others.  You have plenty of time and opportunity to glorify God and invest in the lives of others.

But today, I’d like to focus on the idea of rest.  Jesus spoke of rest, but of a different type than is commonly assumed.

Jesus said in Matthew 11:28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. 30 “For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.”

There is physical rest that comes from getting sleep; doing little, taking care of your body.

There is mental rest that comes from stepping away from a project to recharge.  I took a study course after a poor semester in college.  Professor Claude C. Olney’s “Where There’s a Will, There’s an A,” taught me that every hour it is good to step away for five to ten minutes to stretch, get a drink, etc.

But then there is spiritual rest.  Jesus called it “rest for your soul.”  The Greek means “relief,  ceasing, or stopping.”  Jesus was talking to those who felt the burden of religious legalism being imposed on them by the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:4; Luke 11:46).  He was also speaking to those who were living under the oppression of Roman rule.  He may have also been speaking to those living under circumstances that were beyond their control.

Jesus offers rest from all of these; a different type of rest than commonly assumed.  The rest that Jesus spoke of comes from knowing God and walking with Him; having the joy of your sins forgiven.  Having peace that “surpasses all understanding” as Paul wrote about from a Roman jail cell in Philippians 4:7.

How does one get that rest?  Some go through life avoiding the spiritual rest that is Christ invites us to.  Today, let’s look at some obstacles to such rest.

One obstacle to spiritual rest is unconfessed sin.  Sin has a burdening effect upon the spirit.  David, when he did not confess his sin to the Lord, he was burdened.  He said in Psalm 32: 3: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’– and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  The Lord wants us to walk in the freedom that only He can give.

Maybe you are one that doesn’t think about your sins too much.  Maybe you should.  Then there are those of you who beat yourself up.  Or you think you can fix it by doing better next time.  But confession is agreeing with the Holy Spirit.  1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”  He alone can cleanse you from the guilt and power of sin.

Another obstacle to spiritual rest is when we set our minds and hearts on those things that are not of God; This is when we chase after things, people or identifies that God would not have for you can weary you.  Numbers 15:39: “You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.”  Sometimes our goals are wrong; we want things that are not good for us.  The Bible calls this idolatry; anything that we place before God. Spiritual rest is only achieved by being content with who God is and what He has given you.

The opposite of idolatry is trusting in God.  Isaiah 40:31: “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.”

Prayer is trust in action.  Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Other times we forfeit peace and rest because we fail to trust God.  As the old hymn goes: “Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear.  All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”

A third obstacle to spiritual rest is disobedience; living your way instead of God’s way.  It is interesting that when Jesus spoke of “finding rest for your souls,” He could have been referencing Jeremiah 6:16: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.'” But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’  When we spurn God’s way, we invite destruction in our lives.

If we really love God, then we will follow Him and consider it a joy.  1 John 5:3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”  Following the Lord and obeying Him can afford us the peace that often evades us.

But the biggest reason there is no spiritual rest in your life could be that you do not know Christ.  You’ve never made that decision; taken that step to place your trust in Him; to repent of your sin and follow Him.  There is a rest that only God can give.  It starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ.  There are really two ways to live. Matthias Media has published a simple explanation of the gospel called “Two Ways to Live.”  It says:

“The message at the heart of Christianity is really quite simple- simple enough to be outlined in a few pages.  It is a message from the Bible about God and His Son, Jesus.  It is about life and death, and the choice that we all face.  And it all starts with a loving creator God.

God is the loving ruler of the world.  God made the world.  He made us rulers of the world under him.  But is that the way it is now?

No, we all reject the ruler- God- by trying to run life our own way without Him.  But we fail to rule ourselves or society or the world.  The Scripture says: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:23)  What will God do about this rebellion?

God won’t let us rebel forever. God’s punishment for rebellion is death and judgment.  God’s justice sounds hard.  But because of His love, God sent His Son into the world: the man Jesus Christ.  Jesus always lived under God’s rule.  Yet by dying in our place he took our punishment and brought forgiveness.  1 Peter 3:18 says: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” But that’s not all…

God raised Jesus to life again as the ruler of the world.  Jesus has conquered death, now gives new life, and will return to judge.

So that leaves us with two ways to live. There is our way, to reject the ruler- God and to try to run life our own way.  The result of which means being condemned by God and will eventually face death and judgment.

Or God’s new way, which means to submit to Jesus as our ruler; to rely on Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The result is being forgiven by God and given eternal life.”[1]

You must ask Christ to come into your life to rule, remake and reform you.  It can never be assumed.  Faith is you reaching out for God and accepting Jesus’ invitation to soul rest.

Only Jesus offers spiritual rest; rest for your soul.  But it means coming to Him and asking Him for it; while submitting your life to Him.  And if you have that peace, you can carry it with you in any circumstance and face any challenge.

In 1555, Nicholas Ridley was burned at the stake because of his witness for Christ. On the night before Ridley’s execution, his brother offered to remain with him in the prison chamber to be of assistance and comfort. Nicholas declined the offer and replied that he meant to go to bed and sleep as quietly as ever he did in his life. Because he knew the peace of God, he could rest in the strength of the everlasting arms of his Lord to meet his need. So can we!

So, we must decide to approach life God’s way.  If you’ve never known that peace, I invite you to pray in your heart with me.

“Lord Jesus, I need you.  I know that I have made sinful choices and gone against your will.  I also know that your death on the cross paid for my sin debt in full.  Please forgive me.  Please come into my life and change me.  Reign upon the throne of my heart.  I go from my way of living to your way of living.  Make me into the person that you want me to be.  In Jesus name, Amen.

[1] http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au/2wtl/.

Where Do We Go From Here?

After hearing of the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday, I was faced with a moral dilemma inside my soul. What do I preach on in light of the current events?  Do I remain silent and say nothing? Or do I comment on the present situation?

The recent decision by the United States Supreme Court demands a different message.  I hope these words are relevant, Biblical, and in good taste because history was made last week.

I share these words, fully realizing that in our congregation there are those that have gay friends and gay family members.  I do, as well.  My efforts are not to repel you or cause you to rethink your church membership. If anything, I want you to realize that it is possible to love a person and not agree with their lifestyle, or philosophy, for that matter.

As with any issue, it is important to think the way that God thinks on it.  Romans 12:2 tells us: “Do not to be conformed to this present world but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind.”  God’s word and God’s Holy Spirit are two instruments which He uses to renew our minds into thinking His way on various subjects.  John Calvin said: “It matters not what you say or I say, but what God says.”

Some believe that homosexuals were/are as God designed them and such is their lot in life. Some say: “They were born that way,” as if it were scientific. And yet a gay gene has never been found; it does not exist.  On the other hand, behavior does influence wiring of the brain. This has been found with those addicted to pornography.  Why would God allow someone to be born with a condition that was specifically against His ethical demands?  “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” – Leviticus 18:22

The secular world says that it is impossible for gays to change. You can’t “pray the gay away.” But the apostle Paul notes that some did change to the gospel message.  “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” – (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Obviously same-sex orientation is mysterious and rare (10%).  I think that there are many factors which influence a person identifying as a homosexual: environmental, social, familial, etc.  While undergoing mandated reporter training, I heard of a sad situation of a boy who was molested by an uncle.  He believed that there was nothing wrong with this behavior. He said the experiences felt good and that he developed a desire to do such things to others. As a result, he developed deviant sexual desires.  Former experiences can guide future decisions.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a shift in society’s feelings on the subject of homosexuality. There were sodomy laws in almost every state during the 20th century. Then in 2003 with the Supreme Court case Lawrence vs. Texas, such laws were removed.  Now society has said this behavior is acceptable. We have shifted from focus on the behavior to focus on the person.

But God has never changed his mind on the subject of homosexuality. He puts the gay lifestyle in a group of behaviors which He promises to exclude from His kingdom and to judge such individuals with His wrath, just like other forms of sexual sin or taking advantage of others (read Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Consider the following Scripture as it pertains to Biblical sexuality.  These verses speak to all forms of sexual behavior outside of one woman and one man committed for life in the covenant of marriage:

Hebrews 13:4: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”.

“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” – Ephesians 5:5

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” – Colossians 3:5-6

Furthermore, the gay lifestyle makes a person vulnerable to specific venereal diseases and infections that he would not normally be exposed to if he were living as God prescribes.  This is not to mention the personal guilt, ostracism, and other social and psychological effects of the lifestyle.

Is it loving for me to be silent with this information?  No; it may be politically correct for me to be silent!  God is calling Christians today to speak the truth in love. We must not conform to the culture’s philosophies, but hold fast to God’s word.

Just because something is now the law of the land does not obligate the church to go against the word of God.  We are not to fear our government that has lost its moral compass.  Jesus tells us who to fear in Luke 12:4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

Romans 13 tells us to obey civil authorities. But there are times when civil disobedience is an option.  Peter and John’s civil disobedience is found in Acts 4:18 “So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

What happened on June 26 is an example of how there are times in the Christian life where one’s government will go in one direction and the church must go in another.  As a minister of the gospel, I cannot conduct a same-sex wedding ceremony. Nor will any of our staff. To do so would oppose God.  The present situation presents a test to our loyalty to Jesus!  Our allegiance is not to the Supreme Court or to the laws of Pennsylvania when such laws are contrary to God’s specific teaching.

Many churches are making efforts to further protect their religious liberty in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.  You may say, “No such protection is needed.”  But listen to Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito:

“The decision will also have other important consequences. It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women.”

In other words, what was common understanding and conviction on this issue is seen as hateful and bigoted by those who champion a new ethic and a new level of acceptance to behavior that has been immoral since the creation of man.

The future is unknown. You might take our efforts as bigotry or hate.  That’s wrong, unfortunate, and presumptive. It is more to protect us should we be faced with litigation.

Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Seminary writes:

“The threat to religious liberty represented by this decision is clear, present, and inevitable. Assurances to the contrary, the majority in this decision has placed every religious institution in legal jeopardy if that institution intends to uphold its theological convictions limiting marriage to the union of a man and a woman. This threat is extended to every religious citizen or congregation that would uphold the convictions held by believers for millennia.”[1]

In March of 2009, our Church Council passed the following statement: “Believing marriage to be the sacred union of one male and one female, under no circumstances, will a same-sex ceremony take place at Central Schwenkfelder Church.”

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas states: “The majority’s inversion of the original meaning of liberty will likely cause collateral damage to other aspects of our constitutional order that protect liberty.”

Not everyone goes to heaven. 1 Corinthians 6 offers both warning and hope; warning to those who practice such things along with other sins will not inherit the kingdom of God. They will not go to heaven; they will suffer for an eternity, separated from God, just as anyone who is not redeemed by the blood of Christ.  Redemption brings about a changed lifestyle.

The hope is that through the power of the Holy Spirit and the presentation of the gospel that sinners would be regenerated; turn from their sins and be given the supernatural ability to live a changed life just like everyone who has genuinely come to faith in Christ.

Jesus said in John 8:12: “I am the light of the world.”  The church holds a privileged place being used by God  as He conducts His affairs in the world.  In Matthew 5:13, Jesus called us to be salt and light to preserve and illuminate this dying and dark world.  We are to reflect the light of Jesus Christ to a world that desperately needs Him. Jesus likened us to “a city on a hill.”

If we reject this role, we will become like the world and will be good for nothing.   We will blend into a world that does not know God.  We will become like them instead of being the missionary center that God has called us to be.

You will be tempted to go with the flow & fall into line. People on both sides of the political aisle are calling traditional folks to “come up with the times.”  But as John Piper wrote in his recent blog, the court’s decision brought us to a new low in our country.  Instead of sin being a choice, we have institutionalized it.

May we never hear those demoralizing words that Jesus spoke to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:15: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm– neither hot nor cold– I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

This morning, consider the words of Franklin Graham as a wake up call.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled today that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. With all due respect to the court, it did not define marriage, and therefore is not entitled to re-define it.  I pray God will spare America from His judgment, though, by our actions as a nation, we give Him less and less reason to do so.”

[1] http://news.sbts.edu/2015/06/26/mohler-responds-supreme-courts-same-sex-marriage-decision/.

All Star Dad

“All Star Dad.” I saw it upon his t shirt. He was just like any other 40 something at the gym.  Hopefully his children got him that t-shirt. Or, maybe he thinks of himself as an all star dad. As Father’s Day approached, I came away asking: “Am I an all star dad?” I guess it depends on who you ask.

If not, what do I need to do make the all star team? What makes an all star dad? There are those of us who want and need guidance on how to be an “All Star Dad.” Our passage today gives us some guidance on this matter.

This instruction comes towards the end of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The first three chapters explain the blessings that we have in Christ such as redemption by His blood, regeneration by the Spirit and predestination by His grace. The last three chapters tell us how to live in light of God’s blessings. This instruction comes right after Paul tells us of how wives and husbands ought to operate with mutual love and mutual respect. Now, he turns to the subject of how children and parents ought to treat each other.

Ephesians 6:1: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise),  that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.” We parents like that part! We expect it. We remind our kids of it. But what about verse four? “…fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Today, I want to focus on the actions and responsibilities of fathers. Similar words are used in Colossians 3:21 says: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, that they may not lose heart.” This passage speaks to every person who is called to be a mentor to others.

A lot can be said of how we should relate to kids and grandkids. The place of Christian teaching holds center stage in the act of mentoring and parenting. We have a responsibility to the next generation.

It is easy for parents to provoke their children.  If not careful, we can see our children as enlisted personnel in the army of your home.  Maybe you’re a dad that feels that kids must be given orders and must be reminded of them.  But there is room for parents to treat their children in a considerate way; to help them understand why there are rules and that things are done out of love, guidance and discipline.

Robert Duvall and Timothy O’Keefe star in the 1979 film, “The Great Santini.”  The film tells the story of a military officer Lt. Colonel “Bull” Meechum, whose success as a pilot contrasts with his failures as a husband and father. The setting is in 1962 before the US gets heavily involved in the Vietnam War. Bull’s son Ben is a basketball star. On the court at school, he is a dominating player. But when he plays pickup with his dad in the family driveway at home, his father won’t let him win.  He yells at him and humiliates him in an effort to “make him a man.”   Their relationship continues to suffer as Meechum never tries to get to know his son.  Their relationship is still fragile when the Great Santini flies one last mission from which he does not return.  It is a lesson in redeeming the time before it is too late.

In contrast, God gives us many opportunities to positively affect the lives of others.  We must make the most of those opportunities.  As men, we must take seriously the calling to be a mentor to those God has placed around us.  I had a friend and church member in Kansas who came to visit me at my home in Kansas.  I had a large black Labrador Retriever named Mac.  Mac was great!  Over 100 pounds of muscle!  He loved to jump on you!  He loved attention.  As Mac was jumping on my guest, vying for his attention, my friend looked up at me and said something like: “Dogs are wonderful creatures to have, if they are trained.  If you don’t train them, they’re just a nuisance!”  I started training Mac after that.  J  Sons and daughters, are you trainable?  Are you willing to listen to those that would take interest in your life?

God spoke to the two angels that visited Abraham in Genesis 18:19, telling of the patriarch’s importance and responsibility: “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”  How do we direct our children and our grand children in a way that they will receive the God’s word?  It is challenging to make the time to do that; to prioritize the spiritual lives of others, especially if we’re trying to keep our own afloat.

I think a proactive teacher and mentor in the lives of our kids is something that presents a challenge for men.  We have to learn it.  We are disadvantaged in comparison to the ladies around us.  We can be overwhelmed at the responsibilities of being a father or a grandfather.  Anyone can parent, but few do it well.

What does it take to be an “All Star Dad”? If we were to create a list compiled by children, they might say:

  • A dad who spends time with me;
  • A dad who is able to laugh and joke around;
  • A father who teaches me things.
  • A Dad who loves Mom;
  • A Dad who buys me things; (provides, not spoils).

What would you add to that list? The following are critical, especially in this day and age.

A dad that is concerned for my soul; One who prays and witnesses to those around him, not as if he is trying to sell something, but a father who speaks of God and bears witness of His mercy and grace. What has God done in your life!? Do you speak about it?

A dad who models Jesus Christ. A dad who trusts God! We must model the Christian faith. Recently, I asked one of our church members, Ollie Smith, what makes an “All Star Dad.” He told me: “Being a good example. Don’t use bad language, especially in front of the kids.” I thought, “He’s right!” If you want your children or grandchildren to act a certain way, you have to model it for them.

Jack Graham, author of Man of God: Essential Priorities for Everyman’s Life, refers to a survey that indicated:

“When both Dad and Mom take their children to church, 76 percent of those children become active in their faith. When Dad alone takes the children to church, that percentage drops to 55 percent. But when Dad drops out and leaves Mom to take the children to church alone, only 15 percent of those children remain active in their faith. And if neither parent goes to church with the kids, only 9 percent of those kids become active Christians in their church.”[1]

But let us not get the impression that it is just about attending church. Dads and Granddads, you must also bring church into the home. Do your kids and grandkids see you crack your Bible? Have they ever heard about your faith? Proverbs 22:6 tells us: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

A dad who is not afraid to share the lessons that the Lord has shown him, from His word and/or from experience. We cannot put a price tag on the opportunities that we have to make a difference in the lives of others. Moses instructed the Israelites in Deuteronomy 6:7: “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

What else?  I encourage you to go online and read JT Waresak’s “Ten Traits of Highly Effective Dads.”[2]  The following are great additions by Waresak:

  • If married, they uphold their wives as their number one friend and co-worker in life. As someone once said, “the best way to love me is to love my mother.”
  •  They practice the discipline of meekness. Good dads are gentle and approachable.
  •  They make their children feel special and believe in them. The former head basketball coach at NC State, Jim Volvano, once said: “My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.” Great dads believe in their kids and let them know that they are special.
  • Mercy and grace are a part of their households. They know the value of forgiveness and give it, as well as ask for it.

For some, the level of impact we make on those around us can go undetected for years.  For others, it comes out in the strangest of ways.  The point is we must never give up.  Every person is important; every opportunity is valuable.

A grown man awaiting surgery in the hospital was talking with his father.  “Dad,” he said, “I sure hope I can be home for Father’s Day.  I felt awful years ago when I was 10, because I never gave you a gift that year.”

The father replied, “Mark, I remember that Saturday before Father’s Day.  I saw you in the store.  I watched as you picked up the cigars and stuffed them in your pocket.  I knew you had no money, and I was sad because I thought you were going to run out of the store without paying.  But as soon as you hid the cigars, you pulled them out and put them back.

When you stayed out playing all the next day because you had no present, you probably thought I was hurt.  You’re wrong.  When you put the cigars back and decided not to break the law, Mark, you gave me the best present I ever received.”  Sometimes presents are not those things you buy, but actions and behaviors that say: “I’ve not lived nor taught in vain.”

[1] Jack Graham, A Man of God: Essential Priorities for Every Man’s Life. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007), 163.

[2] Available at www.drjamesdobson.org.

Why Mission is Critical to a Local Church

The fourth century church father Augustine of Hippo said: “Whoever…thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.”[1]

There are two types of love. One is the love that appeals to our spiritual needs which is satisfied in God alone. This is called our need-love. It is the type of love that responds to Jesus’ invitation: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Then there is benevolent love, that affection that we show others because God is good and we are blessed. We do the latter, not expecting anything in return. We do it because God has so wonderfully enhanced our lives; so we want to bless others.

It is with that benevolent love in mind that we give of our time and abilities in this special Global Aid Missions Sunday. This benevolent love is spoken of in Jesus’ words found in Matthew 25. The topic that Jesus is addressing is the Day of Judgment. At this event, all from human history will be gathered to appear before the throne of God to give an account of our lives.

Jesus speaks of the reward given to those who practiced benevolent love in the name of Christ. Verse 37 states: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Who are the least of these? They are Christ’s disciples or those that God will make His disciples. One commentator states that: “Christ identifies with His people. Their suffering is His suffering. Compassion shown to them is compassion shown to Him.”[2]

It is with this passage in mind that we address the importance of missions and the local church.  Missions is a critical part of the church’s operation for several reasons.


All of Matthew 24 and 25 is Jesus answer to the disciples’ question found in Matthew 24:3 and following: “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’” Jesus’ answer was an overview of certain events and circumstances that lead up to the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are wise to take notice of them. They are…

  • The presence of deceivers and false prophets; the rise of cults and the proliferation of false teaching, many of which is assumed to be legitimate Christian doctrine.
  • Wars and rumors of wars; (There have been nearly 20 that have started since 2011).
  • Famines, pestilence and earthquakes (natural disasters); These kinds of events seem to be happening all the time. Most recently, Cyclone Pam which hit the South Pacific island of Vanuatu with 168 mph winds, devastating that part of the world. Nearly 5,000 people in Tanna do not have drinking water.
  • The widespread persecution of Christians; Places like Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic state is crucifying and beheading Christians. Christians living in the Middle East are routinely jailed, beaten, have their property confiscated, have family’s homes firebombed and are unwelcomed in most instances. Religious minorities are continually persecuted.
  • And the wide scale preaching of the gospel where people are converted all over the world; People like Daniel Kamaraj who recently wrote Dr. Drake: “A total of 500 Bibles have been distributed to pastors for new believers in the field. There are 150 baptisms ready and I shall be widely travelling in our area to baptize and conduct one day foundational teaching in all our branch churches. Please pray and thank you for helping in this regard.  We are need of more Bibles in 5 more languages.”

We see many of these signs happening all around us. All of this will culminate in the Second coming of Christ. These signs serve as a reality check upon of our faith. Participation in missions is a matter of faithfulness. Christ is looking for faithful servants. Jesus used two illustrations. One is the parable of the Talents in 25:14-30. It was the slave who caused his gift to multiply that received the commendation: “Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master.”

In the next passage, Jesus talks about the final judgment where He will separate the sheep from the goats, those faithful slaves from the unfaithful. Sheep, here, are symbolic of Christians, people who have followed the Lord; those who lived to serve others. Goats, are the unbelieving; the sinners; those who have lived for themselves.

Some have tried to diminish the role of faith in the Lord Jesus, saying that this passage teaches nothing of faith and repentance in Christ, but stresses the role of good deeds. Good deeds, if they truly are good, are done out of the obedience that comes from faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:5, 16:26)! Motive is everything!

But what makes a sheep? Who is a sheep? According to this passage…

  • Those who gave food to the hungry; in the name of Christ!
  • Those who gave drink to the thirsty; in the name of Christ!
  • Those who took in the stranger; in the name of Christ!
  • Those who clothed the naked; in the name of Christ!
  • Those who visited the ill and the imprisoned; in the name of Christ!

These will inherit eternal life. These will hear the words: “…you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

In contrast, there are those who are labeled goats. They avoided the actions listed in the previous verses. Why? There are probably many reasons:

  • Indifference,
  • lacking sympathy (care for others) and empathy (experiencing the pain of others);
  • being stingy with resources;
  • those preoccupied with living for themselves;

These will be cursed, judged, sent away into everlasting judgment with the devil and his angels. This is the place we know as hell. It is where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. It is the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is real. Jesus spoke of it often. We participate in missions and outreach in anticipation of Jesus’ return. We participate in missions and outreach is in anticipation of Jesus’ return. Another reason why we are doing this today is…


Benevolent love is found repeatedly throughout the pages of Scripture. The second greatest commandment, as many of you know, is what Jesus stated in Mark 12:31: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In a long list of ethical mandates, how God’s people were to be truthful, trustworthy, looking out for others, giving to the poor and underprivileged, Leviticus 19: 18 states: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” Notice that the Lord is the basis we act with a certain ethical standard.

By practicing benevolent love, the church is a light in a dark place. Jesus said in Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world. …let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

It was the 19th century New England Baptist preacher A.J. Gordon who said: “The church who does not participate in missions will soon become a mission field.” Consider the many material blessings that you and I enjoy whether it is food, clothing, drinking water, etc. There are many parts of the world that do not have these basic necessities.

I was speaking with Rev. Ebenezer Browne, who is a church planter in Monrovia, Liberia. God has used Ebenezer to plant 22 churches in that city. I asked him what the biggest needs in his community were. He said without hesitation: Clean drinking water, food, medical personnel and supplies to deal with the Ebola crisis. It occurred to me that we are so fortunate to live in a part of the world in which we have plenty of those things. We are a privileged nation and an advantaged people. Doesn’t it make sense that you operate as your brother’s keeper and help those who do not have what you have?

There is widespread poverty and violence in our world today, causing thousands of children to travel into the U.S. from Central America. San Pedro Sula, Honduras is the world’s murder capital. A Pew Research article stated that some do it because they have nothing; others do it because their home is no longer safe from the violence of the drug cartels. The report stated:

According to the (Homeland Security) agency, the number of children caught at the border has nearly doubled in less than a year, a situation that President Obama has called “an urgent humanitarian situation.”[3]

Church, God has called us to do something. The GAIN project (Global Aid Network) is our way of helping people in these areas. The meals that we will package today will go to local churches and Christian groups who will then distribute them to those suffering from violence, extreme poverty, refugee camps and religious persecution.

I leave you with a quote from English cricketer and missionary C.T. Studd, who served the Lord in China, India and Africa. Before his death in 1931, he said: “Some wish to live within the sound of a chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell.”

Joe and Tanna Collins were a couple that felt called to be missionaries to China. So they packed up their belongings and moved there, along with their five children. They had served there at least five years when, on a flight, their plane crashed in Tibet in 1994. The entire family perished. The following note comes from a page in Mrs. Collins’ Bible that was found at the scene of the crash. She wrote:

“Lord, here in your precious Word I give myself, my husband, my children, and all that I have or ever shall possess, all to you. I will follow your will, even to China. Lord, open doors, and I will go and tell the Chinese of your great love. In time of need, supply for us; in time of sorrow, give us peace; in times of joy, send someone to share. Help me to never murmur nor complain. I love you Lord Jesus.”

[1] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine.

[2] New Geneva Study Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1548.

[3] See article at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/01/dhs-violence-poverty-is-driving-children-to-flee-central-america-to-u-s/.

Crucial for a Healthy Church

The following message is taken from Philippians 4:1-7 and addresses compromise and unity.

In his book, The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer gives this interesting illustration:

“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers [meeting] together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be, were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”[1]

Healthy relationships is a practical topic for all of us.  In our times together, we’ve looked at several personal associations in the Bible.  By God’s grace, we have learned the danger of jealousy, as we’ve studied Cain and Abel.  We’ve also learned the blessing of close friendships, like that of Jonathan and David.  We’ve understood that there will be disagreement among the most noble of people; for instance, Paul and Barnabas.

Today, I will conclude our series by looking at one of the more obscure relationships in Scripture that illustrate unity and sacrifice.  Our story today is about two women dedicated to their church, Euodia and Syntyche.  They both served in positions of leadership and service.  They were Christians among the faithful in the city of Philippi.

Paul visited the city of Philippi on his second missionary journey, told of in Acts 16:12.  This was Paul’s first visit to European soil.  He returned there twice to strengthen the believers.  The congregation that God birthed there became very dear to Paul, so much that he referred to them as his “joy and crown.”


Paul writes this letter from jail, possibly from his Roman imprisonment mentioned in Acts 28, around 61 A.D.  The city was named after Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.  The church there was largely Gentile.  It is a note written to emphasize the themes of Humility, Harmony and the Holy Spirit’s work.

For instance, Jesus is the picture of humility in the letter to the Philippians.  Just as Christ became a servant, so also the Christian becomes a servant of Christ’s.  Philippians 1:1 says: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons….”

The one who causes us to willfully become God’s servants is the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit’s work is emphasized in places like Philippians 1:6: “…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

And harmony goes with the work of God’s Spirit, as Philippians 2:12 says: “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. 14 Do everything without complaining or arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life– in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.”

Humility, Harmony and the Holy Spirit.  Paul’s exhortation is for the church to be at unity for the cause of the gospel.  It could be that this was a congregation that struggled with disagreement, in part because of the growing concerns that surrounded them.  The Philippians were faced with false teachers and opposition from the outside.

And so it was critical for the church to be united.  It takes a proactive attitude; a conscious effort.  This is why Paul identifies three individuals in our brief passage as leaders, who must make a conscience effort to lay down their own preferences and be united in the Lord.  Paul writes: “Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, so stand firm in the Lord, my beloved. 2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. 3 Indeed, true comrade, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

These women were being asked to lay aside their own opinions and be united in the Lord.  A key to living in harmony is the place of the Lord Jesus.  He holds a preeminent place in the life of the church.  He is the name above every name.

And one of the most challenging prices of being a member of Christ’s church is to remember that it is Christ’s church.  This takes a conscious laying aside our own preferences for His preferences.  It means that He calls the shots.  What I want is secondary to what His will is.

This attitude is tested with diversity.  The Roman Empire was a diverse, melting pot of races, religious backgrounds and economics.  The church is meant to be diverse for all who are willing to follow Christ.  God wants people in his church that are like you and differ than you!  The church of Jesus Christ has always been made of people from different backgrounds, languages, socio-economic classes. Everyone’s needs are different.  On the other hand, Biblical and theological truth should never be sacrificed for the sake of diversity.

The humble attitude of the Son of God was the prescribed attitude of Euodia and Syntyche and Clement. The church at Philippi existed for the glory of God and for the sake of the good news. This is what brought the church together. Regardless of what divided them, these individuals were on the same team as Paul. They fought for the same things. They were employed by the same God. They lived for the same cause.

The most profound illustration of humility is found in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Philippians 2:5: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!”

There’s a certain way that we ought to think about Christian fellowship. Thinking influences living. Sinclair Ferguson states: “…the details are, tactfully, not discussed by Paul. But the situation was obviously serious enough for him to address these women by name, and the division sufficiently long-standing for news of it to have reached Paul’s ears.”[2] The division between these two women affected the entire church. And that’s what divisions do, if not dealt with. They start out small, but then they grow larger and affect more people when sides are drawn up. Paul was sure of their salvation, but they still had a disagreement. It is possible for two people to be genuinely saved and to know Jesus Christ and yet be in disagreement with each other. We must check our egos at the door. Each of us has a choice to make- to be an agent of division or an agent of unity. Maybe God is calling you to heal a division. People will disagree, but the real issue is not to be disagreeable. And the call to be united is always upon us.

What does unite us?  One thing is our mission statement, which is simple: to love God, serve others and grow disciples.  That’s a message that is meant for us, so that we are reminded what our key business should be about!

It is important for the church to be united today.  All Christians will one day live in the same place for eternity.  So doesn’t it make sense that we learn how to get along this side of heaven?  The “book of life,” is that document in which all the names of God’s elect, the faithful are written; those who were willing to lose their lives for the sake of Christ, and to find it in Him as a result.  Remember that Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it (Matthew 16:24).”

But what is it that encourages unity in the church?  What is one thing that we might do to foster more unity among us?  How does unity relate to prayer and God’s peace?


Let us consider the role of prayer.  Verse 4 of our passage: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! 5 Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Maybe those verses could be summed up with the following: “why worry, when you can pray?”  The antithesis of anxiety is prayer.  When we commit ourselves to prayer, we no longer have the need to stalemate, to dig in our heels or be possessive of the church.  We pray and live as Jesus did when He prayed: “Father, not my will, but Yours be done (Luke 22:42).”

But we become self dependent when we say: “This is my church!” in the context of trying to get what we want.  “This is my church” does not mean that you will always get your way or that preferences will always be accommodated. Your personal history or heritage, years spent in service or amount of your offering does not determine your importance or strength of your voice. For your information, I have no knowledge of what individuals in our church give.

Being a congregational church does not mean that everything is a popularity contest.  Remember it is Christ’s church.  When we come together with a unified vision that seeks to glorify God, lay our preferences aside and seek His face, His plan and His purpose, then God will bring unity.  We realize the total dependency we have on the Lord Jesus, as He said in John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  Psalm 133 tells us that God commands his blessing where there is unity.

After our study of Thom Rainer’s I Am a Church Member early last year, we discovered that ministry is not about our personal preferences or desires, but about expanding and building up the kingdom of God.

Let us rally around this church’s vision statement, which is to… Become fully mature disciples of Christ by… 

  • Glorifying God individually and together as a church
  • Growing spiritually through Bible study and prayer
  • Supporting one another within our church family
  • Serving others as an expression of our faith
  • Witnessing in our neighborhoods and throughout the world

Would you be an instrument of God’s peace? St. Francis of Assisi, who ministered in the early 13th century, is thought to have prayed:

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”

[1] http://www.biblestudytools.com/pastor-resources/illustrations/11550051.html.

[2] Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Philippians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), 98.