Friday, October 29, 2010

Can Someone Who Has Messed Up Her Life Be Used by God?

A friend has had a difficult few months. In July, his wife left him and their children after committing adultery. He has been sharing his problems with me. We have been praying for reconciliation. A few weeks ago, she returned to him.

Today, he came to me with a question. He told me that his wife feels terrible about what she has done. She is depressed, feeling like the Lord cannot accept her and use her in his service anymore. My friend asked me, "Does the Bible say anything about God being able to use someone who has messed up her life?"

Immediately, I told him about the time that King David messed up his life. One night when he had little to do, King David caught a glimpse of a beautiful young woman. He decided to seduce her. They committed adultery. Not long afterward, they discovered that she was pregnant. After failing in a scheme to cover it up, King David arranged to have her husband killed. Then he married the young woman. (See 2 Samuel 11.)

Eventually, a prophet confronted the king about his sins (2 Samuel 12). David was humiliated by his sins. He repented and confessed his guilt. Although he lived with some awful consequences, he was forgiven by God.

In fact, he was not only forgiven; God continued to use him in writing portions of the Bible. After he had repented, King David wrote Psalm 51.

"Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

"For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment...

"Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

"Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you...

"O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise...

"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise" (Psalm 51:1-4, 10-13, 15, 17).

God used a messed-up, forgiven man in amazing ways. He can used messed-up, forgiven people today in amazing ways, too.

My friend's wife is in an excellent position to be used by God. He does not despise her broken and contrite heart. He loves her.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lessons in Urban Ministry

I've been involved in an urban ministry for approximately 10 years now. As I've been thinking about the last decade, I've been thinking about how naive I was when my wife and I first volunteered. Although I continue to have much to learn, I thought it would be a good time to write down a few of the lessons I've learned over the last several years. These are personal observations. They may or may not reflect the findings of social scientists or the views of others with experience in urban ministry.

1. Serve the children for their sake, not in order to reach their parents. Most children will come to the church's activities and worship assemblies without their parents. They will be attracted to a safe and fun environment in which they are supervised and guided by caring adults. They will be open to biblical teaching that can serve as the foundation for lives devoted to following Christ. They deserve attention simply because they bear the image of God, not because they can be used to lure their parents to the church.

2. Teaching a man to fish is not enough. Years ago, poverty-fighting ministries discovered that providing the necessities of life to the poor accomplished little long-term good. Such aid is always necessary, especially for children and the mentally and physically disabled; but those ministries discovered that they needed to connect the poor with jobs if they ever hoped to enable them to overcome poverty.

In many cases, however, the lack of employment and necessities of life are not the causes of poverty. They are the results. More often, poverty finds its roots in:

1. Drug and alcohol abuse. Addicts can have a hard time finding and maintaining employment. Many companies require drug tests before hiring a new employee. No company can afford to keep an employee forever who fails to do an adequate job because of drunkenness and drug-induced highs.

2. Family disintegration. Fornication, adultery, and divorce lead to multiple children born to young mothers who cannot support them. Fathers--and sometimes mothers--abandon their roles and responsibilities. Familial violence, physical abuse, and sexual abuse can scar a child for life. He or she will grow up without developing healthy social and coping skills. Anger and other negative emotions can control this individual, making it difficult for him or her to get along with others. He or she will have a hard time submitting to the authority of an employer, making steady employment an elusive goal. Even worse, he or she is likely to pass down these same problems to the next generation.

Urban ministries can do a great deal of preventative good by teaching the importance of self-control and sexual integrity.

3. Friendships are crucial. Broken people cannot simply be told to get their lives together. Like every one of us, they need the emotional support and encouragement of good friends as they make positive changes and learn to follow Christ. We need to be patient with each other. We need to challenge each other. We need to enjoy time with each other. We need our Bible studies and prayer meetings. We need to be able to confess our sins and to seek help from each other. Good friends give us the support we need to become what we were intended to be.

4. Good theology is essential. An accurate view of God, oneself, and others goes a long way in prompting us to make good choices. We need to see God as omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, holy, just, merciful, and sovereign. We need to see ourselves as flawed and in need of God's grace. We need to respect the completely justified wrath of God and the completely gracious gift of salvation through Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. We must recognize that we are in over our heads in a mess of sins--our own sins and the sins of those around us. We can't really make any progress of any lasting value without faith in the God worthy of our trust.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


This is a guest post from Kayla Bilby, a student at Oklahoma Christian University and a fellow member of the Contact Church. It first appeared as one of her notes on Facebook. I thought she did a great job of capturing the spirit of the Contact Church.

"During fall break my college group participated in a mission trip to Contact. We went out to both Edenwood & Parkview. It was such a huge blessing to have my college group here experiencing the ministry that I love so much!

"After being at Contact for over a year I have had to learn that often times I will meet children once. They will share their life story, and as my heart breaks I will tell them goodbye, knowing that I may never see them again. This is not always the case. There are also times when a mission group comes to help us & I meet kids that will start coming to Contact & I will get to develop a lasting relationship with them. But more often than not it is the prior scenario.

"Friday I had an experience with a girl that I will probably never see again. Her name was Makayla & she was 9 years old. She began to tell me her life story. Her 9th birthday was this past August. She said that she had stayed the night with her Dad. He acted as though her birthday didn't even exist! She didn't even receive so much as a happy birthday from this man. He cussed her & took her back to her Mom in the middle of the night. Spending a birthday like this had to be unbearable! She went on to say that when she got home her Mom had one cupcake for her. It had very little icing & was just the way she likes it. Her exact statement was, "My Dad was a jerk, but I'm so grateful that my Mom got me a cupcake & made me feel special!" Grateful? How in the world is grateful an emotion you feel when you are so mistreated & devalued by the man who is supposed to love & protect you? This nine year old little girl is stronger then I have ever dreamed of being!

"Hearing her story absolutely broke my heart! I had no idea how to respond to this situation. All I could say was, "Makayla, God is our Daddy that never messes up! HE has never forgotten your birthday & even better then that, you are special to HIM every single day, not just on your birthday." She went on to tell me that she would be moving this coming Monday. I gave her my phone number, hugged her, & walked away. I have no idea what good that will do. I have no way to know if she will ever call me or if I will ever see her again. What I do know is that God was at work during our brief encounter. I am finally figuring out that my job in inner city ministry is not to "fix" the problems in their lives. My job is also not to get them out of their situation. And it certainly is not to minimize the influence that one encounter could have on his or her life. My job is simply to point these kids to the one who CAN. My God CAN and WILL sustain HIS children through whatever life throws at them! Because of this today I am grateful for the opportunity HE has given me to be in ministry. I am grateful for a family who is involved in Contact. I am grateful for a boyfriend who doesn't only support my ministry, but does it with me. I am grateful for all of the kids that I have been blessed to meet through Contact. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet Makayla & I am grateful for what HE will accomplish through these relationships.

"Lord, never allow me to belittle the work that you have began. Help me to remember that you are not finished yet..."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pure Religion

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27).

James 1:27 is our family's latest memory verse.

As we have been working on memorizing it, we have had a few conversations about its meaning.

As I have looked at the Scripture, I have been struck by its first word: Religion. It refers to a devotion that ties one to God. James mentions that it can be pure and undefiled before God, implying that some religion can also be impure and defiled. It's been popular in recent decades to say, "Christianity isn't a religion. It's a relationship." I understand the sentiment, but I prefer James' way of looking at it. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he sees Christianity as a religion that can be pure and undefiled. He sees the Christian faith as something good and wholesome...something that connects us to the Father in a very positive way.

Then the verse focuses on what makes this religion pure and undefiled.

First, it asserts that pure and undefiled religion cares about people in need, especially orphans and widows who have no one to care for them. An impure and defiled religion would ignore or minimize the needs of people who are suffering. But Christianity, in its purest form, is a faith that takes the needs of people seriously. We follow Christ when we visit someone in the hospital, adopt an orphan, make a phone call to a widow, spend a day with a disabled man, read the Bible to a child whose parents do not believe, or sponsor a child in a poverty-stricken country. Pure religion prompts us to care about people who are suffering to the point that we will take action.

Second, the Scripture states that pure and undefiled religion motivates us to keep ourselves unstained from the world. We can do this in a number of ways:

~By accepting the word of God with humility (James 1:21)
~By eliminating our prejudice against the poor (James 2:1-13)
~By putting our faith into action (James 2:14-26)
~By controlling our words (James 3:1-12)
~By replacing envy and selfish ambition with a godly perspective of peacefulness, gentleness, reasonableness, mercy, impartiality, sincerity, humility, fairness, patience, and good conduct (James 3-5)

This kind of religion is not only pure and undefiled; it's compelling.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Loving Our Muslim Neighbors

This is a fascinating discussion about how Christians can reach out to Muslim neighbors among us. Thabiti Anyabwile and J.D. Greear are involved in the discussion at the recent Desiring God Conference.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What About People Who Have Never Heard?

My friend on my job asked another good question today: What happens to people who have never heard the gospel?

It's an uncomfortable question on many levels. On the surface, it calls into question the justice of God. On another level, it calls into question the commitment of Christians to fulfill the Great Commission and to love their neighbors.

Some churchgoing people have adopted universalism in response to such questions. They believe that eventually all people will be saved. Others have adopted inclusivism, the belief that a sinner does not necessarily need to believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved as long as he or she has never heard of Jesus Christ.

I can't accept either view. Jesus warned about the dangers of hell far too often for his followers to dismiss those warnings for universalism. Christ and his apostles emphasized the need for faith in Christ far too often to dismiss it for inclusivism.

As for God being unjust in requiring faith in Christ, I sympathize with those who find it difficult to accept. However, it remains the way by which we are brought into a right relationship with God. "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God" (Romans 5:1-2).

The hard truth is: sinners are saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). No one deserves salvation. I wish I did, but I don't. It's to God's glory that anyone is saved at all.

The more disturbing aspect of my friend's question centers on what it says about me. Do I really care about people who don't know about Christ and are heading to an eternity without hope? Do I really care about fulfilling the Great Commission ("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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you"--Matthew 28:19-20)? What am I doing to help people to know Jesus Christ? Am I sharing my faith? Am I praying for those who have never heard the gospel? Am I supporting Christians who are trying to reach unreached people around the world?

In this video, atheistic entertainer Penn Gillette challenges Christians who believe that unbelievers are in danger of hell to love them enough to share their faith with them. It's one of the most convicting videos ever made by an atheist. He "gets it" better than I do sometimes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why Did God Command the Complete Destruction of Some Nations?

Last week, a co-worker was reading Deuteronomy 20. He came to me with an important question: Why did God command the Israelites to completely destroy some nations?

This is my attempt to deal with this difficult question. (And I acknowledge that my response may not be completely adequate, but at this time, it's my best response.)

As the text states, the Israelites were commanded to completely destroy some nations as they were entering the Promised Land so that "they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 20:18). Leviticus 18 describes the total corruption of these societies. They tolerated and practiced incest, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and child sacrifice in service to their false gods. Evil was celebrated. Selfishness, brutality, and narcissism ruled the land.

"(W)hen God directed the Children of Israel to go in and conquer the Promised Land, He told them to destroy the peoples who lived there. This command was necessary because of the vileness of the pagan religions practiced in that good land. The most brutal worship of all was that demanded by Moloch. This cruel demon was represented by an iron idol with hollow belly and with both arms bent in front in a cradling position. A fire was built in the hollow belly, and each mother was required to sacrifice her first-born by placing him in the idol's arms to be burned alive. During this horrible ceremony, the priests and priestesses of Moloch beat drums which reached a deafening crescendo as the mother laid her baby in the idol's arms. The purpose, of course, was to keep the mother from hearing her baby's screams" (Drums of Moloch, Herbert C. Casteel, pp. 94-95).

Two factors made matters worse for the inhabitants of the Promised Land: 1. They had a knowledge of their sins and of the true God who expected better from them. 2. They had been given centuries to repent.

Like all people, they had a basic understanding of right and wrong. However, they chose to "suppress the truth" (Romans 1:18). "Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them" (Romans 1:32).

Although easy to overlook, we should also recognize that the pagan nations were well aware of the Lord's judgment long before destruction came upon them. In fact, Balaam was an internationally-known prophet of the Lord from a pagan land (Numbers 22). The true God was known in lands far away from the Israelites; and they did not have exclusive access to his prophets. Furthermore, as Rahab the pagan prostitute testified before her city was destroyed, "I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt..." (Joshua 2:9-10). For at least 40 years, the people of Jericho knew that their judgment day was coming, but they expressed no interest in changing their ways as the people of Ninevah would several centuries later (Jonah 3:6-10).

In addition, it should be noted that the nations inhabiting the Promised Land were given 400 years to repent (Genesis 15:16; Deuteronomy 9:5). Their destruction came fairly quickly, but it was only after God had waited patiently for centuries for them to change their hearts.

Also, different rules of warfare existed against the nations within the Promised Land than against the nations outside those boundaries. The nations within the Promised Land faced total destruction (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). They were facing the judgment of God. More conventional standards of warfare applied to enemy nations outside the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 20:10-15).

Finally, it should be noted that God's grace was extended to individuals even as their societies faced total annihilation. The prostitute Rahab and her family found grace. They were spared from God's judgment because they placed their faith in God and followed the instructions that they were given (Joshua 2-3).

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Conditional Forgiveness---Unconditional Love

"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Colossians 3:12-14).

On my job today, the subject of forgiveness came up. A couple of my co-workers were discussing whether forgiveness is conditional upon a change of heart or whether it is completely unconditional. They were talking about the concept of being like God in forgiving people. Then one of them asked about my thoughts on the subject.

As I understand it, I explained, God loves unconditionally, but he forgives conditionally. God wants what is best for us, but he wants a change of heart before he forgives us.

One of my friends objected. He pointed out that Christ prayed as he was being crucified, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). He argued that Jesus was demonstrating unconditional forgiveness on the cross.

However, Christ was actually demonstrating unconditional love rather than unconditional forgiveness in his prayer. Out of love for his killers, Jesus was seeking their forgiveness. He did not want them to suffer hell for their sins, but he was not granting forgiveness to them yet.

A few weeks later, however, many of the people directly responsible for the Lord's crucifixion received God's forgiveness.

When the apostle Peter preached his first sermon after Jesus' resurrection, he addressed people who had crucified Jesus (Acts 2:36). When the people discovered what they had done, "they were cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37). At that point, Peter offered them God's forgiveness: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). On that day, three thousand of them received the forgiveness for which Christ had prayed a few weeks earlier (Acts 2:41).

They were unconditionally loved by Christ; but they were forgiven only after a change of heart. God is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Francis Chan on Humility

This video features Francis Chan's challenging sermon at the recent Desiring God Conference. He spoke from the text in 1 Corinthians 8:1-3.

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that 'all of us possess knowledge.' This 'knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God" (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Few Biblical Principles for Voting

"Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:7, NIV)

These are some biblical principles that I keep in mind as I prepare to vote:

1. The government exists in order to protect innocent people from those who would harm them (Romans 13:1-7). In a democratic republic, ordinary citizens are more responsible for their government than are the subjects of a dictatorship. We are responsible for seeking good leaders and just policies.

2. God's people have an obligation to seek the good of their communities, even if they are a minority within it (Jeremiah 29:7). We may not win every battle--in fact, we may lose most--but love for our neighbors will prompt us to continue our efforts to benefit them.

3. Many political decisions are matters of applying wisdom to differing circumstances. For example, sometimes wisdom demands that taxes be raised (Genesis 41:28-36). At other times, it requires that the burden be lowered (1 Kings 12:1-17). We need humility and wisdom from God to know the best course of action. Also, we need to be gracious toward those who do not see things as we do. They may not have as much information as we do, or they may have more. We need to be open to learning from those we see as our political opponents. Sometimes they are right.

4. On most political issues, God's people can remain silent. However, when an issue involves an unjust threat to innocent human lives, we cannot keep quiet (Esther 7:3-4). We will speak up for them. We will use our influence on their behalf. They need people who will defend their right to life; and we cannot remain aloof.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Courage and Love of a Shepherd

This is an excerpt from The Mentor Leader by Tony Dungy:

"As I continually looked for examples of what it meant to be a good leader, I found a great one in John Thompson, the Hall of Fame basketball coach of the Georgetown University Hoyas. Coach Thompson was a crusader in many respects, having become the first African American coach to win the NCAA Division I national championship, two years later.

"Along with his success, he always seemed to find himself in the middle of controversy--probably from a combination of his fiery temperament and his willingness to be a trailblazer for individual rights and fundamental fairness for everyone. He took a stand on everything...His protectiveness of his players was seen in a negative light by many in the media, spawning the term 'Hoya Paranoia.'

"But despite his reputation as a rough, gruff coach, one demonstration of Coach Thompson's 'paranoia' made a profound impact on my attitude as a coach and what it meant for me to care for my players.

"During the 1980s, Rayful Edmond III was one of the most notorious drug dealers in Washington, DC. His network was thought to be responsible for numerous murders, and he reportedly was one of the first dealers to introduce crack cocaine into the District of Columbia. Unfortunately for Coach Thompson, Edmond became a big fan of Georgetown basketball and their great success.

"When Coach Thompson learned that Edmond was fraternizing with some of his players, including star center Alonzo Mourning, he sent word to Edmond through them, requesting a meeting on the Georgetown campus. Coach Thompson was well aware of the rumors linking Edmond and his organization with violence and murder, but he quickly got to the point when Edmond arrived: Edmond was never again to wear Georgetown gear, and he was to have no further contact with any of the Georgetown players...

"I tried to put myself in John Thompson's shoes. I simply couldn't see myself confronting Edmond directly. I probably would have started by meeting with Mourning, explaining to him the dangers of being around a drug dealer like Edmond, or maybe instituting a team rule limiting where players were allowed to go. Or maybe I would have gone as far as to approach the police, explaining the situation and looking for guidance and help--in other words, get someone who was trained in that environment to handle it. I was pretty sure I wouldn't have stood face-to-face with a reputed killer.

"But then it hit me. I immediately thought of Jesus' parable of the sheep and the shepherd in the Gospel of John, chapter 10. There, Jesus speaks of the difference between a hired hand and a shepherd. When a wolf comes and threatens the flock, the hired hand runs away, leaving the sheep--someone else's sheep--to fend for themselves. The shepherd, on the other hand, rises to the defense of his sheep. He will die for the sheep, if necessary, because they are his. I knew that Coach Thompson cared for his players--he had long had that reputation. But by putting himself directly in the middle, between his players and danger, he showed me just how much he loved them.

"It wasn't that he knew Alonzo Mourning and the others were talented players who could help Georgetown win games. That wasn't the point. Coach Thompson had told the players and their parents that he would watch over them as if they were his own. He did that, even to the point of placing himself in harm's way" (pages 93-95).

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Caring for Orphans

Churches across the nation will be observing Orphan Sunday on November 7, 2010. For more information, please visit

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27).

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Inspiring Lives

I am constantly inspired by the lives of fellow members of the Contact Church.

Today, I discovered another example of someone quietly making a difference for Jesus in this world. One of our members volunteers to help children at a local hospital. She shows up to demonstrate a little kindness and compassion to children in need.

Last month, she showed up to hold a 10-month old little girl who had been severely beaten and abandoned by her parents. The baby had broken bones, bruises, and a nasty injury to her head. Even worse, she had no one to care for her.

Our friend from the church held the child gently while praying for her.

This week, she found the little girl in the hospital again. But things were very different this time.

The child was continuing to recover; but beyond that encouraging news, she was in the care of Christian foster parents who were in the process of adopting her.

Our friend and the Christian foster parents are quietly making a real and positive difference in the world...while inspiring me to look for ways to honor God with a similar commitment to doing good for others.

"And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need,and not be unfruitful" (Titus 3:14).

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Gianna Jessen's Challenge

Gianna Jessen survived an abortion as a baby. Because of the attempted abortion, she lives with cerebral palsy today. In this video, she tells her story and issues a challenge to protect the weak among us. (Gianna is speaking in English, but the subtitles are in a language unfamiliar to me.)

"If you falter in times of trouble,
how small is your strength!
Rescue those being led away to death;
hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
If you say, 'But we knew nothing about this,'
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who guards your life know it?
Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?" (Proverbs 24:10-12, NIV).

Friday, October 01, 2010

Everyday Songs of the Faith

Yesterday, I was reading the devotional for the day from Our Daily Bread after dinner. Written by Cindy Hess Kasper, it began like this:

"Several years ago, my husband helped to lead a work crew of high school students on a short-term missions trip to a Christian school in an urban community. Unfortunately, Tom had broken his foot shortly before the trip and was supervising the work from a wheelchair. He was discouraged because he wasn't able to get around as he had hoped.

"While he was working on the ground floor, a few of the girls were painting on the third floor. He could hear them singing praise choruses in harmony as their voices echoed down the wide-open staircases..."

At this point, our 7-year old son Christopher interrupted the reading. He mentioned, "They must be Christians!"

He knew they were Christians because they were singing praise to God outside a church service. It was simply a part of their lives that they did not leave behind when they exited the church building every Sunday.

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Colossians 3:16).