Here I Raise my Ebenezer

The hymn, “Come Thou Fount,” begins the second stanza with the following lyrics, “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.” For those unfamiliar with the storyline behind the usage of Ebenezer, one could think that someone is raising their child named Ebenezer in Lion-King fashion. However, Ebenezer is a reference to a stone that the prophet Samuel had established between two cities as a memorial to the Lord, representing how the Lord was a “stone of help,” helping Israel win the victory over the Philistines (1 Sam 7:3-17). Thus, the reference to raising one’s Ebenezer is raising a memorial—a remembrance—of how the Lord has been and is a stone of help.

As I was reading this account the other morning, I noticed two particular interesting points within the context of the raising of “the stone of help,” or the raising of Ebenezer.

First, the “stone of help” was raised after a much needed return to the Lord. If you read back a couple of chapters you will see that Israel had experienced a period of turbulent times. They had seen the corruption and evil of the sons of Eli—the priest of Israel. They had experienced multiple poundings by the Philistines. After their last beating, the Philistines captured their national sacred mascot, the ark of the covenant. In addition, they witnessed the death of the priestly family; both the sons of Eli died in battle, and at the news of their death Eli fell over and died. Furthermore, they were a nation chasing after other gods. After these events, Samuel, the established prophet of the Lord (1 Sam 3:20), called Israel to return to the Lord with all their hearts, which they did.

Second, the stone of help was raised after Israel cried out to the Lord in great desperation. As Israel gathered as a nation to repent and return to the Lord, the Philistines heard about the gathering and planned to crash the repentance party with an attack. When Israel heard about the attack, “they were afraid of the Philistines.” Given their recent history with the Philistines, of course they would be afraid. They were 0-2 against the Philistines, even though in the second face-off they brought what they thought to be their lucky sacred mascot (the ark of the covenant), which was captured. So yes, they are scared. However, they ask Samuel to constantly “cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” The difference between their actions now verses their previous actions was the central power and focus behind the fighting. Previously, Israel was fighting in their own power and for themselves. Their strategy in fighting the Philistines was their own ingenuity and creativity. They figured they could use God as a spiritual figurine and national mascot, which if they brought him and invoked him they would just have to win. There something here that we must learn, it is not that God saves us for us to do with him what we please, but for him to do with us what he pleases. Or think of it this way, it is not that we apply God to our life in order for us to get what we want, but for us to apply ourselves to the life and story of God in order for God to get what he wants. Here, prior to the Ebenezer being raised, Israel approached God in desperation, knowing that they could not win unless he fought for them. In other words, they were completely dependent on God for help, for aid—for victory. They no longer had confidence in themselves, thus they turned completely to the Lord in desperation.

Here’s the truth, this is where God wants us all to be—whether it is a marriage crisis, a parenting crisis, a family crisis, a vocational crisis, a health crisis, or an addiction crisis; whether it is in how we will respond to situations where we have been wronged or mistreated; whether it is a decision about a career or how we will spend our money; whether it is facing a tragedy or a dilemma; or whether it is simply living out our everyday life. God brings great aid and help to those who love him with all their heart, soul, and strength and who desperately call upon him as their great God, Savior, and Deliverer.

Whatever we face today, tomorrow, or down the road is something that God does not just want to face with us, but for us! Jesus has come to rescue us from sin and defeat. He has also come to not be “part” of our life as if to become the spiritual tack-on to our life; but rather has come to bring us life and to be our life! Thus as we renew ourselves daily to him, confessing and submitting to him with all our heart, and admitting our complete dependence on him, he wants to face life for us—living through us—so that we might experience the victory he alone can bring. Know this, we will find ourselves raising more Ebenezers (memorial stones signifying how God has been our stone of help, our victory) in our life when we completely surrender and desperately call out to our great God and King!

Ministry Lessons from Paul

Reading in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-20 the other day, I ran across at least six ministry lessons that Paul outlines that I believe are very relevant for those in ministry (vocational or laity) today.

1)   Ministry must go on even after negative and unpleasant experiences (v2). Paul writes, “For you yourselves know brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi…we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.” I think sometimes within the Western church we get an all too corporate, glamorous and Hollywood[ish] picture of ministry. According to Paul, ministry can be tough, brutal, negative, unpleasant, and many times painful. People attack, lie, distort, and try to undermine the ministry of godly men. And while many leadership gurus will say that “everything rises and falls on leadership,” which to a large part I agree with, I would take it a step further and say that within ministry (as well as life) “everything rises and falls on the centrality (the lordship) of Christ.” I am sure there have been many people in ministry who have led according to leadership principles, yet still find themselves facing turbulent times in ministry—falling victims to those who have their own agenda and preferences. In any case, I believe Paul knows and understands that ministry has negative and unpleasant landmines that can cause much pain; yet, he understands that ministry must go on.

2)   Ministry finds its fuel and boldness in who has approved and entrusted you for his great purpose (v3-4). Paul makes the point that God has approved him and has entrusted him with the gospel. Thus, he speaks, “not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (v4). The fuel for ministry is the presence and calling of God. The boldness to move forward in ministry—advancing the gospel, the good news of King Jesus—is found in the fact that God has entrusted you with such a precious and most powerful gift. It is the truth and message of the transforming power of King Jesus who has come to rescue, redeem, and restore all of Creation. As Paul writes elsewhere, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believers…” (Rom 1:16). Although one may have had a bad experience in ministry, moving forward and finding the energy to do so is only found in the understanding of who has approved, entrusted, and called you for his great purpose. The glory of God and his great purpose fuels the passion and wherewithal for ministry.

3)   Ministry should not be showy, glamorous, or have an ulterior motive (v5-6). Paul expresses to the Thessalonians that when they came they did not use words of flattery, nor did they come with the pretext for greed, nor did they seek glory from people. Ministry was simple to Paul. It was about Jesus and him redeeming a people for himself. Therefore, it was not about anything else. He did not feel as though he had to package it in a way that made it about anything else other than Jesus. In addition, he was not trying to get rich off the ministry of the gospel, nor was he trying to bring glory to himself by creating a following. He simply pursued ministry for Jesus, his glory and the advancement of his gospel. Paul writes it this way in 1 Corinthians, “And I, when I came to you…[I] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5). Paul simply tried to keep ministry simple. However, the simplicity in which he approached ministry and carried it out did not negate the need to do proper contextualization (but that is a topic for another time).

4)   Ministry involves functions of both a mother and a father (v7-12). In a motherly way Paul expresses that when he came to the Thessalonians he was gentle, “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (v7). We can infer a few things from Paul’s statement. First, he was personally connected to the people, as a mother is intimately connected with her nursing child. Second, he was caring and nurturing towards those whom he ministered to. As a mother gently cares for and nurtures her child, with the hopes of the child being healthy, so too Paul gently cared for and nurtured people with the aim that he may present them mature in Christ (see Paul’s aim in Col 1:28). And finally, Paul asserted that ministry to him was not only sharing the gospel of God, but also his life. In other words, just as a mother does not only give nutrients to the child in a mechanical non-detached way, but rather extends her whole life to her baby—so too Paul did not share the gospel at a distance, but extended his whole life to the Thessalonians. You say, why did he do this? Because Paul informs them that they had become very dear—very beloved—to him.

However, Paul does not stop with the mother analogy, but continues to describe how he acted also as a father. In verses 9-10, Paul describes his work ethic, and how he tirelessly labored both night and day in order that he may not be a burden to the Thessalonians as he labored among them in gospel ministry. He adds how in the midst of his labor and toil, working day and night in an effort to provide for himself and his colleagues while at the same time sharing the gospel, he conducted himself in a holy, righteous, and blameless way. I don’t know about you, it is easy to succumb to a lack of holiness when you have had a long tiring day. And speaking from experience, it seems that if not careful, tiredness can turn quickly to moodiness; and before long tiredness turns into exhaustion, which does not led to holy, righteous, and blameless behavior. Yet, what Paul was doing was conducting himself like a father with his children, exhorting, encouraging, and charging them to walk in a manner worthy of God. In other words Paul was setting the example of fatherhood by working hard to provide a living and also serving and leading the body towards the Father, all the while conducting himself with holiness, righteousness, and blamelessness.

5)   Ministry is rewarded through experiencing the mighty work of God (v13-16). As Paul has informed, ministry can have its share of negative and unpleasant, even painful, experiences; in addition, it can be very challenging and tiring just like parenthood. However, Paul wants to share that there can and is great joys and rewards in ministry. Paul points out two specific ones here—both relating to one another. First, he notes how the Thessalonians received the word of God and accepted it as “what it really [was], the word of God” (v13). And this reception and acceptance of the word of God was “at work” in them. In other words, Paul was witness to the fruit of the word of God in their life. Second, Paul notes that the Thessalonians were imitating the churches that are in Judea in that they were suffering for their faith. Experiencing gospel transformation and gospel living in people brings great joy for those who minister. Paul says in verse 19, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” And Paul was thankful to God for this, that the Thessalonians had been and were constantly being transformed by the gospel in such a way “that they became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. . . .  [And that] their faith in God had gone forth everywhere, so that [Paul] need not say anything” (1 Thess 1:7-8). The reward for those who serve in ministry (lay or vocational) is seeing the fruit of disciple making.

6)   Ministry contains a great desire and love for people (v17-19). The last lesson Paul gives in this passage is: those who serve in ministry will have a great desire and love for people. Paul shares that although they were “torn away” from the Thessalonians in person, they were not torn away in their heart. Thus, because of Paul’s heart for them—his love for them—he “endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see [them] face to face…” (v17). The love of people and the longing to be with them, I think, is a great litmus test to see whether or not God is calling or has called one into ministry. Paul, in his letters, constantly communicates of his great love for people and his longing to be with them. I believe the more one gives their life to the service (ministry) of the King, in the service (ministry) to people, the greater their love grows for the glory of the King and the good of all people.

10 Things I have learned in 10 Years of Marriage:

Today I celebrate ten years being married to one of the greatest, most self-giving, self-sacrificing, most-loving, most-beautiful women I know. It is hard to believe that a decade has past since we tied the knot.  In looking back over the last decade, I have learned so many things (too many for one blog post) about marriage. Therefore, as a celebration of our anniversary, I thought that I would write a blog on the top ten things I have learned over the past ten years of marriage.

  1. I have learned that marriage with a purpose will be a marriage with a measurement. Joannie and I have covenanted together with the purpose of bringing glory to God and making much of him. Obviously bringing glory to God is a high purpose with a zero chance of humanly measuring up. This is where the primacy of Christ in our life and the longing to be filled with the Holy Spirit plays an essential role. Nevertheless, having the glory of God as our purpose, we have a measurement by which to measure the effectiveness and health of our marriage. We have a gauge that tells us how we are doing.
  2. I have learned that marriage with an unmovable center will be a marriage with an anchor through storms. If you have been married for any stretch of time you have probably been through a storm. Family divorcees, family deaths, sicknesses, diseases, heartaches, job transfers, moves, and transitions. There are times when multiple storms come upon couples at one time making their lives seem that they are in a tropical depression or hurricane. Therefore, having an unmovable center that will anchor the marriage through storms is paramount. Looks, money, health, jobs, lifestyle, happiness, friends, houses, cars, etc. are all movable and changing. For us, the unmovable anchor and center has been the supremacy of Christ, his great love with which he has and is loving us, and the presence of the Spirit of God living within us. In other words, the gospel has been our center, our anchor. We echo what the author of Hebrews exclaims, “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” (Heb 6:19).
  3. I have learned that marriage with right priorities will be a marriage with correct alignment. In the past I have gone to see a chiropractor. Each visit the chiropractor would do some minor touch ups—cracking and popping my body back into alignment—so that it would correctly function. I have also taken my car to the mechanic to get my tires rotated and aligned, as well as to check all the fluid levels, so that my vehicle would be properly aligned to maximize its effectiveness and performance. Priorities in a marriage act as a mechanism by which a marriage is properly aligned to maximize its effectiveness and performance. When a marriage becomes disjointed or misaligned, chances are there is an alignment (or priority) problem. Therefore, it is important to set priorities and boundaries that would protect a marriage from being misaligned.
  4. I have learned that in a marriage couples must learn contentment not complacency. I remember some of the conversations that Joannie and I had prior to our wedding day. It seems like we had it all figured out. However, we have learned that things may not work out the way you planned. And for me, I am a planner, an organizer, and a visionary who tries to have it all mapped out. The problem is that there are times that what you planned for does not happen—whether it is a place you wanted to be in your career, life, finances, or health. As the apostle Paul learned, so too have I learned (and am learning), “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:11-13). Contentment is key, not complacency.  So for me, I have learned that while I may not like some of the circumstances and situations I found myself in and desire to be removed, I have learned that I am content and that in Christ I can endure.
  5. I have learned the love bank of a marriage is healthily full when the little things are done consistently. I have learned the importance of hugs, kind words, washing dishes, helping with the kids, changing a diaper, cleaning up after myself, helping around the house, communicating when running late, remembering to take out the trash, and calling throughout the day. These things, and more, demonstrate to Joannie that I care for her and love her. Therefore, if I am to make deposits into the love bank of my marriage, it will be healthily full when I remember to do the little things—and to do them consistently. Doing the little things build the platform to really enjoy and celebrate the big things.
  6. I have learned that being together and getting away is something you cannot afford not to do. Joannie and I have, and run, a very active family. We love getting out and doing things. Therefore, we love doing things together. We love having fun whether it is just the two of us, or with the whole family. It has been important for us to get away and do things together, to experience life and to have fun doing life together. But, it has also been important for each of us to get away by ourselves. For me, I have had opportunities in ministry and pursuing my PhD to get away by myself with other men. Over the past couple of years Joannie has taken a cruise, as well as enjoyed a weekend or night getaway with some of her close friends. Also, these times of individual retreats can be as simple as going to play golf or going to get your nails done. In any case, these times have been good and healthy for the both of us. They give us breathers from our everyday life.
  7. I have learned that thou shall laugh, or learn to laugh, with one another. In all honesty, Joannie loves to laugh. She really is a good audience! When we are together, whether it is driving down the road or sitting at the house, we laugh. Laughter is nutrients for the soul. Find things to laugh at. Many times, we take movies that we really like and have made us laugh, and in a similar situation repeat the lines.
  8. I have learned to seek redemption in our disagreements. Disagreements may be a politically correct term; some people know “disagreements” as fights. Whether they are disagreements or fights, they happen—especially when you have two first-borns, one who is from a New York Italian family and the other from a Redneck Tennessee family, and who are independent and stubborn. Therefore, I have learned to be redemptive, which works in a few ways. First, in the disagreements I strive to please and demonstrate Christ (which is easier said than done). Second, when you have crossed the line in the disagreement (which I have done many times over ten years), be very quick to say you’re sorry. In other words, repent. I have learned that being redemptive—both in striving during and even after disagreements—manifests that the marriage is not about me, my ego, my pride, or my desires; rather it is about Jesus and his glory.
  9. I have learned that a marriage covenant needs protecting. Marriage is not easy. God, nor anyone else, says it is. And there are a plethora of things that can threaten the health and vitality of a marriage covenant. Therefore, just as a garden needs protecting, a marriage needs protecting. Many of the previous things I have learned (and mentioned above) are ways that I, and Joannie, have sought to protect our marriage. In addition, we have set up other boundaries in our marriage in an effort to protect the healthiness of our covenant. If something is important to you, you will protect it at all cost. Joannie is the most precious gift and blessing to me (outside of my salvation), and I have been entrusted with a lifelong covenant of loving her as Christ has loved the Church and giving myself up for her (see Eph 5:25-33). This high calling faces threats everyday that requires much protection.
  10. I have learned that after ten years, I still have a long way to go. After ten years I am no expert when it comes to marriage. I know that I have such a long way to go in learning (and in application). In addition, given the fact that I desire for my marriage to go the distance, I have a long way to go in life. In an effort to learn and go the distance, one thing is for certain, “I must decrease, and Jesus must increase.”

Just “Be” You

Conversations surrounding reaching the culture happen everyday in evangelical circles. Many conversations revolve around strategies, styles and models—seeker, emerging, missional, contemporary, blended, traditional, etc. I think these are all good  and important conversations (and ones I like to have), since these conversations basically are about contextualization. While I believe there is a place to talk models, styles,  and strategies (i.e., contextualization), I would like to propose an additional way to reach the culture—those far from God—is to simply just “be” you. In other words, simply “be” the person and the people that God has created, and is re-creating you to be.

Going back to Matthew 5, Jesus, addressing his disciples on the Sermon on the Mount, preaches, “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world…” (Matt 5:13, 14). Jesus uses “salt” and “light,” two natural elements to describe the people of God. Just as salt will be salt, and light will simply be light, so too the people of God should simply be the people of God. In other words, they should simply be themselves. There are three common characteristics that salt, light, and the people of God have.

1)   They are all things that have been created for a purpose. Salt in antiquity was primarily used as a preservative agent. While we know of salt as a flavor enhancing spice, those in antiquity did not have refrigerators and therefore needed an agent of preservation for their food so that it did not spoil. Salt acted as a preservative, keeping food from spoiling. Light acts as an agent of revelation. Without light we could not see. Whether it is the sun or a lamp, light pierces the darkness and provides illumination for people to see. Light exposes darkness and provides revelation of what is true—what is reality. The people of God were created by God and for God, existing as his redemptive agents of humanity by which he would use to “bless” and “make disciples” of all nations. In addition, he desires to work and live through them, manifesting to a watching world the way (the reality) he intended life to be.

2)   They are natural and pure things, and therefore are devoid of any unnatural elements. Any attempt to mix salt with impure or foreign elements will prohibit it from being a preservative element; and any attempt to put a light under a basket will prohibit it from giving light. Therefore, God’s people should seek to be pure and holy, protecting themselves from foreign elements or idols, which would prohibit them from carrying out the purpose for which they were created.

3)   They are all something that benefit others and therefore are attractive elements that people seek after. Salt, light, and the people of God all exist for the benefit of others. Salt and light are commodities people seek after in order for their lives to flourish. As salt and light increase the flourishing of people as they preserve their food and provide light for their path, so too the people of God act as agents of “blessing,” of flourishing, as they live as the redemptive people of God in the world. They are people who talk of another King, who express allegiance to another kingdom, who love the unlovable, who accept the foreigner, who stands for justice, who works for the welfare of the city, who take care of the poor, the sick, the widow, and orphan, who create community, who meets needs of the needy, who forgives when they have been wronged, who suffers joyfully, who patiently endures, and who lives expectantly in light of the future. As the people of God live as the redeemed, forgiven, rescued, and transformed people of God, they become like the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” acting as agents of flourishing, which attract seekers who long for the life expressed in and through them.

In closing, one of the truest ways to reach the culture—people far from God—is to simply be yourself. But being yourself actually comes at a cost. It costs you your life. Surrendering to and allowing Jesus—through the Holy Spirit—to conform you into his image, transforms you into his conduit by which he reflects his glory throughout the world. Think about it, salt does not try to be salt, light does not try to be light, they simply “are” elements brought about through the Creator. Externally, we can strive to be the people of God, following man-made rules, regulations, traditions, strategies, and models, which can be effective to some degree. However, surrendering to Jesus, our great God and King to re-create us, allows him to internally transform us (as his image in the world) and externally shine through us, thereby [naturally] making us into the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” Remember to just be you where God has placed and planted you. Remember that you are his, created in Christ Jesus for his good purpose. Remember that you are his; therefore he is the preeminent aim in your life. Remember you are not to have any idols that would dethrone Jesus as the focal and center point of your life. And finally, remember that you exist for the glory of Jesus and the good of others. Seek out ways that you can be a “blessing” to others—showing and sharing with them the good news of your great King.