Thursday, March 29, 2012

You Cannot Marry the Right Person

Stanely Hauerwas, a Duke Ethics professor, infamously said,
Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is . . . learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
No groom in their right mind would ever propose to his bride to be in this manner.  I can't imagine sitting on the beach with my wife almost 13 years ago and saying, "Look, I know you aren't the right person.  Well, no one is.  And since no one is the right person for me, I have decided that I would like to marry you."  I am pretty sure my life would have turned out differently if I had ventured off into that territory.  The truth is that when I asked my incredible bride to marry me on that beach I knew that she was the one for me.  I couldn't wait to start our life together.  But the professor is right.  Marriage teaches you in time that Stanely understands human nature.  No one can marry the right person--at least not defined by our definition.

One you put two human beings together in the closeness and intimacy of marriage, good and bad things are bound to happen.  I had no idea who I was marrying on June 10, 2000.  Laura had no idea who she was marrying.  If it is possible I had my best foot forward on June 10.  I thought Laura had pulled out all the stops on our first date--but this was different.  She was stunning.  Her dress.  Her hair.  Her body.  Her glow.  She was an angel indeed.  Our life was playing out with a soundtrack and a live studio audience.  And yet, we were strangers.  We are all strangers on our wedding day.  Even those who think that living together somehow makes them familiar bedfellows.  It's a lie.  Satan is the master of lies after all.  Marriage changes everything.

What happens is that marriage reveals who you are and what you are.  I recently heard a pastor speak about a spouse as an irritant.  He didn't mean it in the way that you might think.  He compared a spouse to a grain of sand.  A grain of sand in our eye produces tears and frustration.  A grain of sand in an oyster produces a pearl. The sand brings out the natural properties of the oyster and the eye.  The sun melts butter and yet it hardens clay.  It is the same sun that brings out different properties in butter and clay.  A spouse in the context of marriage brings out the person that we actually are.  We don't change so much as we are revealed.

Marriage truly is learning to love the stranger that you married.  You can't remain strangers forever.  The best marriages are those that are intimate on every level--sexual, emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritually.  If you want intimacy you have to let the stranger in.  On our wedding day I eventually had to take the tuxedo off.  Laura's wedding gown had to be hung up in the closet.  Eventually we couldn't hide any longer.  Strangers had to become great friends.  Great friends became an intimate husband and wife.

I didn't marry the right person.  I am not the right person for Laura.  Why?  Because we live in a fallen and broken world with fallen and broken people.  I can't begin to guess the depth of sin in my heart.  But I also can't begin to guess the depth of God's grace that covers a multitude of sin.  Diving into God's grace is what draws Laura and I together.  God's grace allows two strangers to remove the masks, the makeup, the wedding clothes, and everything else that we try to hide behind.  There is no shame behind the mask because we know our sin has been paid for.  We both strive to live in a Gospel centered marriage.  We are never able to hold a grudge or our rights over the other when we look through the lens of the Gospel.  Jesus paid for the garbage that I have brought into the relationship.  Jesus paid for my pride and sin.  If I can be forgiven I can certainly forgive my wife.  Jesus makes the wrong person right.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Enjoying Real Marriage

The church where I am the main preaching pastor, Stone's Throw, is in the middle of a series called, "Real Marriage."  It is based off of the ideas in a book written by Mark Driscoll and his wife Grace Driscoll who are leading Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington.  Real Marriage received a lot of press and continues to minister to many people.  Our church has benefited greatly from "Real Marriage."

I am not what some might call a "topical preacher."  It is not in my wheelhouse.  However, this is a topical series on a crucial topic for our culture--marriage, love, sex and friendship.  Each week I have had to pray over the material, search the Scriptures and apply them to specific topics.  I love to preach exegetically--meaning I like to preach the Bible by book, chapter and verse.  Real Marriage has been a real challenge to me in many ways but a great blessing in many more ways.  It is has been a real joy so far.  I knew that our church and our community needed to hear the message of "Real Marriage."  Marriage is based on the Gospel and is primarily a friendship between husband and wife.  This series has been such a blessing to me personally in my own marriage to my wife Laura and also a blessing as I have been able to watch as God transforms relationships into Gospel-centered relationships.

As a result of Real Marriage I have been able to meet a ton of new people at Stone's Throw.  Some of those new people are now in the process of receiving marriage counseling and premarital counseling.  Others have joined Community Groups as they plug in further to the life and mission of Stone's Throw.  It has been humbling to watch as husbands have renewed their vows to their wives, wives have repented of deep-seeded sin, single people have adjusted their expectations, and long-time married people have ministered to and been ministered to many others in the church.  I believe that God is doing a mighty work at Stone's Throw Church.

But what makes this series great is that it is about Jesus.  It is not a gimmick to grow the church.  It is not about "being relevant" or cool.  It is not about repackaging the Bible.  It is all about Jesus--plain and simple.  Jesus makes it possible for us to have a God-honoring marriage.  He brings healing where there was no hope.  He brings grace where there was only bitterness.  I know this because I have seen it personally.  My hope for the remainder of the series is that each person who hears the message will be able to see Jesus clearly.

Even as I am writing, I am preparing the final message of the first half of the series, "Taking Out The Trash" where we will learn what it means to argue righteously.  The second half of the series will mostly take a look at sexuality within the context of marriage and why God created sex as a gift for marriage.  Yeah--I could use your prayer!  The Church has always been a little weird about sex.  I am hoping to change that a bit.  If you haven't been around or were thinking about checking out what God is doing at Stone's Throw--now is the time!

Today, I received a bunch of notes about the past couple of weeks of sermons.  I just wanted to express how thankful I am for such great material from the Driscoll's and Mars Hill Church, and how grateful I am for a church in Middletown, Delaware that is truly seeking to make the fame of Jesus known in their community.  I am enjoying this.

If you want to check out sermon clips, full sermon audio or video, you can do so for free by clicking on our podcast links to the right on my blog or by checking out

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Men Need a Warplan

This past week, I preached directly to the men of our church on the subject of their role in marriage.  As our church moves through an 11 week series on marriage I have heard many stories from men as God speaks through His Word and changes their lives.  A lot men's lives are a big mess.  Single guys.  Married Guys.  Divorced guys.  Young guys.  Old guys.  They want to change and allow Jesus to be preeminent in their lives but they all have one resource that is quite limited and they can never seem to get enough of--time.  What they are missing is not more time but a war plan.  

in 2009 we began to lay down plans for a new church.  My wife and I had just returned from India with our new baby daughter Siddhi.  6 weeks prior, my wife had given birth to our fifth child.  I was busy making plans for a new church while we were trying to hold the family together.  I spent a lot of time coming up with a war plan and battle plans for the new church.  I knew where we would head, how we would get there, and why were headed there.  We planned out sermon series, community groups, strategy, leadership development, budgets and everything else that comes along with starting a new church.  We had to work through the unique problems of becoming a spin off church from a larger church.  We came up with ways to implant a new culture into the new church.  I was hard at work.  Meanwhile, my family needed help.  

One night, my wife and I sat down and it hit me--our family needed a war plan.  I had spent countless hours and energy on a war plan for the church and yet I was leaving my family's time and future up to the whims of randomness and playing it by ear.  What I found is that all of time was easily filled by work and rest without ever considering the goals and vision I had for my family.  It was time for a war plan. 

Laura and I sat down together and we talked about and wrote out the goals and vision we had for our family.  We talked about our relationship and our children.  We spoke honestly about time management and concerns that we had. For instance, Laura was able to effectively and lovingly demonstrate to me that I was addicted to my iPhone.  We also realized that our dates were inconsistent.  Our time with the kids was plentiful but it was not directed by goals and needed direction. After talking and praying through some of our convictions we took action.  I believe this is where most men will fail through this sermon series I am preaching.  Men are often convicted about change but never take any action.  God calls us to take action when we are convicted.  

First, we sat down with calendar in hand and planned out how we wanted each week to look, each month to look and what the year should look like.  We included as much information as we already had available to us and collaborated.  

Second, we planned out our date nights. There are goals and there is reality.  We were shooting for every week on Saturday.  We made plans with babysitters for many of those nights and have been pretty consistent.  Some of our dates end up at home and others end up at the movies with a late dinner.  The point is, we would connect at least weekly with just the two of us.  

Third, we planned out a weekly family night.  Our family night would be on Wednesday.  Family night consists of the entire family eating dinner together and doing somethings special together.  We also worship together, read the Bible together and take a mid-week break.  Our family nights have included board games, video games, special make-your-own dessert nights and more.  Once a month we have allowance night on Family Night.  This is where our children are paid according to their chore chart.  They can choose to spend their money or save their money for the night.  That has been an awesome time to teach our kids about stewardship.  

Fourth, we turned our pains into plans.  We examined the year before and we made changes.  We are going to do this every year.  If Christmas went bad the year before, we will evaluate it and change it.  If family vacation was too short or too long we will evaluate and change it.  If we grew tired the year before because of a misplaced time away, we evaluate and change it.  

By the end of our war plan we had a calender that was up to date, met our goals and our vision for our family and has been a general rule of practice for us.  

In war, there is always change and you have to adapt.  Laura and I have had to adapt from time to time.  But we always come back to the war plan.  We measure how we are doing up against our war plan.  The war plan has enabled us to move forward in our marriage and in our relationship to our kids.

Men spend a lot of time on their goals and vision and plan for their career.  But perhaps it's time to take a close look at your family and your marriage.  What does your war plan look like?  

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How Simple Will Your Funeral Be?

Today was one of the most painful days in my life.  My heart breaks for a family who is no longer whole on this earth.  I know that I feel emotionally and spiritually wrung out.  I cannot imagine what my brothers and sisters are going through.  But I want to share something while it is clearly on my mind and imprinted on my heart.  

The past couple of days, yes even the past couple of weeks, have been an extraordinary journey for me and for the church where I am pastor.  I have shared in my blog some of what has happened over the past few days as our friend and brother, Joseph Feeley went home to be with Jesus.  He was an extraordinary young 23-year-old man who battled hard against cancer for just over 2 years.  I had the honor and privilege of sharing in some moments with the Feeley family and with Joseph.  Last night, I was given the opportunity to share the Gospel with many people because of Joseph's testimony.  At the service to celebrate his life and testimony we sang to Jesus, prayed, wept, laughed, and heard the many stories that made Joseph so special and unique.  I was asked by his family to bring the night to a close with a Gospel message.  I can honestly say that the entire service was one of the most, if not the most, worshipful nights of my life.  There were moments of spontaneous standing ovations, applause, laughter and shouts of "Amen!"  Why?  How could a funeral be so moving?

Many people in attendance have already shared with me and with others that the service was very special.  Many thanked me and the other speakers and the family for such a beautiful service.  But thanking me is sort of like thanking the mailman for some good news that you received in the mail.  I do not mean to demean anyone who shared.  What was said, was said beautifully and was gospel-centered.  My response has simply been, "Joseph made our job simple."  I do not mean to say that the service was easy.  It was the most difficult night for so many.  However, Joseph made it simple because he was faithful to Jesus--plain and simple.  He was faithful before his cancer and until the very end.  Joseph was faithful.  He lived an incredibly full life for a 23 year old man.  I am saddened that the world will not be able to see what another 70 years would have brought with Joseph still here.  I am heart-broken for his family.  But in 23 years, Joseph made it easy on those who were to speak about his life.

The family, friends, coaches and pastor did not have to stretch the truth at his funeral.  They did not have to search long and hard for a few highlights.  In fact, it was more difficult to pick which highlights and which accomplishments, and which conversations and memories to use because there were so many.  I will always treasure sitting with his family and talking about the very funny things that Joseph said, the major accomplishments he made, the faith he had in Jesus, and the love he had for his family and his Lord.  Joseph made things very simple for his family and friends to plan what they would say at his funeral.  We did not have to struggle to inject the Gospel or Jesus into his life.  He talked it and walked it.  Plain and simple.  Joseph--a 23 years young man--left a legacy.

How simple will your funeral planning be for those who are left to plan?  Do your choices today make it hard on your family and friends to celebrate your life?  Will they have to stretch the truth?  Will your service be full of platitudes or Gospel truth?  I have had to plan funerals where the only message I could bring was hope for the living and not the deceased.  I had to steer clear of the eternal reality of the person whose body was lying in the casket.  I could not offer honest hope for the one who did not know Jesus.  I could only plead with those left on earth to place their faith in Jesus.  This was not so with Joseph.  What about you?  How simple of a job will you leave your friends and family with when it comes time to plan a celebration of your life?  Maybe, as a result of last night, you may need to reverse engineer your life.  What will your service look like?  What do you want it to look like?  You see, this life, these choices, what you say, how you speak, what you do, who you love, what you love and who you worship will all matter in the end.

I hope that one day, when it is my turn to meet Jesus, that my funeral will be like the one I attended last night.  I pray that my family and friends will walk away with hope even though they are broken.  I hope that it will be simple for them to see Jesus in my life.  I hope that they will not have to search long and hard for a few bright spots.  I know that I am not saved by works or what I do in this life.  But I do know that what I do in this life is a testimony to the truth of the Gospel.

Joseph, one day I will thank you for making it easy to tell people about Jesus under such excruciating circumstances.  Where Satan wants death, there is only life and a legacy to speak of--a legacy of the Gospel.  I also know for a fact that there are many others who plan to thank you.  Through your testimony they have come to know Jesus as Savior.  Number 7 is safe at home.  See you again brother.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Divine Appointment With Joseph

Sometime about a year ago the Lord led me to spend some time praying with and for specific people on a Sunday morning at Stone's Throw Church.  I announced to the congregation that I would be standing in the back throughout our worship time and that I would be available to pray for those who were sick or in need.  This is not something that I do every Sunday.  I believe that God had a special appointment for me that day.  I was to meet Joseph Feeley.

I had heard about Joseph from his friends and from the Christian community in Delaware.  He was 22 year's old and battling for his life against an aggressive form of cancer.  Joseph was an unbelievable athlete.  He excelled in baseball, cross country, golf and pretty much whatever else he tried.  He was a winner.  He was well-liked by his community and friends and family.  I had never met Joseph.  I had only seen pictures of him at his healthiest.  But this Sunday morning, Joseph and I had a divine appointment.

As I was standing there in the back of the sanctuary, Joseph made his way to me and asked if I could pray for him.  He had lost his hair due to his treatment.  I did not recognize him and so I asked, "How can I pray for you today brother?"  He said, "I have cancer."  Realizing that I was meeting a special young man I asked, "Are you Joseph Feeley?"  He smiled, "Yes."  I put my hands on him and he put his hands on my shoulders and we began to pray.  This was a divine appointment and I'd like to tell you why.

Joseph began to attend Stone's Throw when he was able to.  Joseph and I would talk with each other following some of the services.  I would pray for him.  He would share some of his struggles and victories with me.  I tried to soak in every minute.  We asked God for victory and for healing--no we begged God.  Eventually, we held a benefit concert with the Stone's Throw Band to try and help the Feeley family in any way that we could.  That night, was the single greatest musical/worshipful experience I have ever had.  We fought alongside of Joseph.  We prayed that he would win.

Now, tonight, I have been asked by his family to deliver the good news of Jesus Christ to his friends and family and the community.  I have been asked because of the pastoral relationship that Joseph and I established since that divine appointment.   There were many Sunday's when Joseph was a source of great encouragement to me as I watched him physically battle while I preached Jesus.   My relationship with Joseph was short but divine.  Because Joseph stepped out in faithfulness to have a pastor that he hardly knew to pray for him, I will be preaching Jesus as we look back on the testimony of Jesus Christ through the life of Joseph tonight.

I want to thank Joseph for the way in which he exemplified Jesus.  I want to thank him for the way in which he fought this earthly battle.  I want to thank Joseph for allowing me to pray with him and for him and for letting me into his battle.  If it were not for Joseph's faithfulness, I may not be preaching Jesus tonight as we look back at Joseph's life.

I would rather not be preaching Jesus under these circumstances.  I would rather be holding a celebration concert with God's people and with Joseph physically in attendance.  I would rather of heard of miraculous healing and restoration.  I would like to be able to thank Joseph in person.  One of the last things I said to Joseph was that I would see him again, "One way or the other, I will see you again brother."  I will have to wait to thank him and when I do, it will be in person.  I look forward to the day when I and all those who have come to faith in Christ because of his testimony will be able to thank him.  That Sunday was a divine appointment.  For many, their divine appointment is tonight.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Knowing About God In The Christian Ghetto

An Actual Christian Ghetto T-Shirt Design
In seminary and while living my life in the Christian Ghetto I learned a lot of knowledge about God.  I went to a Christian high school.  I went to church at least two days a week.  I am thankful for all of these experiences.  I spent a bunch of time with a bunch of Christians and learned a bunch of things about God.  We went on retreats together, bought cheesy Christian T-Shirts (that we didn't think were cheesy), listened to bad Christian Music (when we really want to listen to the real Def Leppard and not the "Christian" Def Leppard), and tried to hide everything we did from our parents, youth leaders, and Christian school teachers (we were mostly successful).

In the Christian Ghetto I also learned how to talk like a Christian and act like a Christian.  I knew right from wrong according to the Scriptures.  I knew that Jesus was Lord and Savior and that he died on the cross for my sins. But something was missing and I knew it.  In the Christian Ghetto the line between believer and unbeliever is invisible.  Parents and children made big assumptions about the eternal destiny of so many.  These assumptions are deadly.  The line between knowing about God and of God is almost imperceptible.  Many people in the Christian Ghetto know about God but they do not know God.

Recently, I was speaking with a long time friend who has lived in the Christian Ghetto along side of me.  When they were younger they had been involved in a tragedy that had changed their life forever.  Only recently have they begun to struggle with the repercussions of that horrific time in their life.  They are asking all of the same questions we would ask when peril comes our way--"If God is so good why did this happen to me?"  In the middle of their struggle and through conversations with me, it has became pretty clear that my friend does not have a real understanding of the Gospel and how it applies in their life.  They know the story but they don't know of the story.  They know about God but they don't know God.  Their tragedy has called the question.  They don't really know of Jesus though they know much about Jesus.  I believe that my friend's tragedy might have actually saved my friend's life rather than destroy it.  Because of this tragedy, my friend's deadly assumptions have been brought to light.  They lived in the Christian community but never knew Jesus.  

You see, in my context of the Christian Ghetto, knowing about God was often sufficient.  But there were much bigger pursuits--girls, sports, money, college, music, girls, money, music, popularity, girls, money, music and feeling good during the annual spiritual renewal week for all the girls and boys who were looking to score at the first available opportunity between retreat sessions.  In this context God was no big deal.  Knowing of God was not the great objective.  We were taught that God is most important but it never really panned out that way in real life for many of us.

J. Packer writes, "What makes life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?"

When I was younger I could think of many more exalted and more compelling goals than knowing God.  Today, I still struggle with having bigger objectives than knowing God.  But what can be greater than God?  What in my life can replace God?  Many of us make great and terrible assumptions about God.  We assume too much.  We assume that our knowledge about God is sufficient.  But you must have a knowledge of God not just a knowledge about God.  Packer states the difference, "We can state the gospel clearly; we can smell unsound doctrine a mile away. If asked how one may know God, we can at once produce the right formula: that we come to know God through Jesus Christ the Lord, in virtue of his cross and mediation, on the basis of his word of promise, by the power of the Holy Spirit, via a personal exercise of faith. Yet the gaiety, goodness, and unfetteredness of spirit which are the marks of those who have known God are rare among us—rarer, perhaps, than they are in some other Christian circles where, by comparison, evangelical truth is less clearly and fully known. Here, too, it would seem that the last may prove to be first, and the first last. A little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about him."

If you know of God and just about Him then:

First, your thoughts will be about God.  We have a lot of thoughts each day.  How many thoughts are dwelling on who God is and what He has done?  Many Christians are quick to share their knowledge about God, their theology and their opinions but their thoughts are not held captive to the glorious nature of God.  Your thoughts and not just your facts should be about God.

Second, you will be bold and talk about Jesus.  There are a lot of wimps in the church.  I'm going to side with the atheist Penn Jillette--if you actually believe that God is who He says He is, you'll stop wimping out and you will step up and tell people about Jesus.

Third, you'll stop your complaining and grumbling and find contentment in God.  Sheesh.  The church has been full of grumblers and complainers.  I happen to be in a church where the Gospel is going forth and so there isn't a lot of time to grumble and complain. When people do begin to get wilderness-Israelitish on us, we call them out.  When the church isn't bold for Jesus and thoughtful about Jesus they have much more time to complain because they are bored.  It is impossible to have knowledge of God and to continue as a grumbler.

Are your thoughts about God?  Are you bold in Christ?  Are you content with knowing God as the greatest objective in this life?