Over a series of three summers during college and graduate school, I was privileged to work at a medium-sized camp in the eastern hills of Pennsylvania.  It was a wonderful experience to touch the lives of so many campers and to form lifelong friendships with the year-round staff and my fellow counselors.

Early in that first summer, one of the full-time staff invited all of us to his house for a devotional time.  It made a deep impression that Rudy (not his real name) and his wife Violet (not her name) would go to the effort and invite us to get away from the camp for a while in their home.

The more I worked with Rudy and all the full-time staff, the more I saw his huge heart for God and for others.  In one situation, I saw him working with one of my campers who was more than I could handle.  Patiently, lovingly, and filled with God’s Word, Rudy touched that child’s life and started to deal with some of the core issues.  Some people wear off their testimony, but others grow on you; and that’s what Rudy and Violet did.

At one point Rudy shared with a group of us that he and Violet had tried to have children for almost a decade, but weren’t able.  So they told us they were going through the adoption process and kept us updated.  At some point in the following school year, Rudy called with the thrilling news that the adoption agency had located a child for them.  But within months, the birth mother changed her mind, and Rudy and Violet went home to grieve in an empty house.

The second summer I worked there, Rudy and Violet again got called.  A young teen was expecting a little girl, but didn’t want it.  They visited the birth mother and endured numerous other evaluations of their home and their suitability for a child.  But even these hurdles seems tiny compared to their joy.

After birth, the mother transferred the papers to my friends.  To say they were ecstatic is too tame a word.  They instantly became the godly parents we had observed every summer as they worked with campers and counselors.  They were happier than I’ve ever seen them.

A couple of months into the following school year, I again got a call from Rudy.  He explained that Pennsylvania had a law allowing a birth mother a certain number of weeks/months to reconsider.  If she changes her mind during that period, it cancels the adoption.  Their baby had only been with them for four to six months, but the teen mother decided she wanted to try to raise her daughter.

Again, we were all in shock and aching for our friends.  After having a baby and creating a family home, Rudy and Violet now had to pack up their nursery things and pass back the daughter who had been “theirs” since her birth.

Many of us questioned God’s goodness and His justice.  Here was a young couple dedicating themselves to ministry, praying for a child, but investing themselves in other people’s children.  Rudy, on the other hand, tried to help all of US work through our grief for them.

During my third and last summer of camp work, Rudy shared that they had once again been contacted with the possibility of an adopted child.  This time they were still excited, but more reserved.  The extra exciting thing we learned was that this was going to be a little boy–the perfect match for a Christian School teacher who was also a die-hard sports coach and fan!

We prayed about it all summer, and then kept in touch often to make sure nothing had gone wrong.  Nothing did…and little Michael has now been a part of the family for almost 20 years!

But less than a year after Michael arrived, Rudy called with news of Violet.  During some testing the doctors had found a mass in her abdomen.  It turned out to be cancer with limited treatment options, given its progression.  I wept with Rudy on the phone and again prayed and wrestled with God.  It just seemed that this couple DESERVED better from the God, Who had already tested their faith in heart-broking ways.

Violet endured multiple treatments, surgeries, nutrition regimens, and medicines, but the cancer continued to grow.  All in all, Violet had about three years more with Rudy and Michael.

When I heard that she was close to finishing her race and had been moved to a facility that tries to make terminal patients as comfortable as possible during their last days (otherwise known as “palliative care,” I called Rudy to let him know they were constantly in our prayers.

Even as the phone on his end rang, I began sobbing.  Rudy picked up, we cried together, and I asked about Violet and Michael.

Rudy shared something on the phone that I will never forget.  He said that he and Michael had just been down to the little stream on the property, because Rudy felt he needed to help Michael prepare for Violet’s Homegoing as best he could.  After talking about Mommy going to live with God and being free from any more pain, Michael asked simply: “Are we going to be OK without her, Daddy?”  Rudy answered, “Yes,” but Michael immediately asked how his dad knew that so certainly.  Rudy said he started internal panic prayer for the right answer.  Then God gave it to him.

“Michael, I know we’re going to be OK because God loves us, and everything that touches us is filtered through Him, to make sure it’s good for us.”  A short paused punctuated the conversation; then Michael looked up at his dad, satisfied, and said: “You’re right; we’re going to be OK with a God like that.”

That thought has often come back to me in hardship and many times in my own illness.  I pray it’s a thought that will change your life, too–whether people have hurt you, illness stalks you, or you daily wake to face disablement, Go back and read the first two chapters of Job, Christian.  Read them well.  Note Satan’s destructive, malicious intent, and then note that Satan could have never touched Job’s family, wealth, position, and body, unless God allowed it and intended good for Job through it.

Remember this blessing of being a Christian: Nothing can touch our lives unless it has first come through God.

(In Memory of Violet Soane–a friend, a Godly example, a wonderful wife and mother, and an ongoing inspiration to trust God’s hand and timing.)

Weakness stinks.  Coming to grips with dependence on others has probably been the most difficult and continuous challenge of chronic illness for me.  For those who haven’t experienced such challenges, let me use this analogy: Imagine yourself as a Navy SEAL–buff, tough, and unstoppable.  Then something as mundane as a car crash severs a nerve in your spine and leaves you paralyzed from the neck down.  Once strong and in control, you now must rely on others for feeding, cleaning, transportation, and numerous other things you once took for granted.

By God’s grace, I haven’t had to deal with paralysis; but I have had to rely on others (usually my wife, family, and close friends) for transportation, care, and even income.  Going from health and independence to illness and reliance upon others was a huge blow to my pride and my assumptions about myself as a man/husband/father.  In many ways, that affect of my illness has been even harder to accept than illness itself.

And that is where Christmas has taken on a more profound meaning in my life.  Though I would never choose to have to rely on others, that is exactly what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, CHOSE to do in His love for sinners.  The One Who is eternally self-existent and all-powerful took on human weakness by choice, becoming dependent upon a human mother and adopted father for nourishment, protection, shelter, and everything else that comes with birth and childhood.  He came to know loss, the attacks of Satan, rejection, sorrows, separation from the Father and death–all by choice and all because our salvation required a fully and perfectly human Sacrifice as our Substitute.

When we stop at Christmas and ponder Jesus’ choice to become “God with us” and all that means, it should lift our hearts to Him in awe-struck worship and praise, eclipsing the temporary losses and challenges of this life and renewing our commitment to bear our crosses daily out of love for One Who chose to bear our hell on the Cross.  Nothing is too great to carry while following a Savior like that!

When working with teens and college-aged students, two things become immediately clear: 1.) They can smell hypocrisy a mile away; 2.) They resonate with and respond to transparency from the generations before them.

While some older Christians wring their hands over these characteristics in young adults, I believe we actually should view it as a tremendous opportunity. We’re ministering to a generation that is a.) highly relational, and, b.) highly responsive to truth spoken and demonstrated to them.  What a perfect time to touch young lives!

Transparency should be a natural thing between older and younger believers. After all, it is the wisest man in the world who equates an “honest answer” with a kiss of true friendship (Prov. 24:26).  Additionally, Asaph the psalmist reminds Israel that God commanded each generation to tell the next about God’s works and commandments, in order that each generation might make its own choice to place their trust in God (Psalm 78:5-8).

That passage in Psalms makes it clear that the young generation HAD to know these things if they were to avoid the failures of/in the previous generation–failures of stubbornness, rebellion, inconstancy, and unfaithfulness.  And Paul makes it clear that the Body of Christ should be characterized by people who have left falsehood behind and now speak only truth to each other (Ephesians 4:25).

There are many pastors, parents, and others in the elder generations who understand and practice this with their own children and the young people entrusted to their charge.  But there are others who risk the next generation’s faithfulness by holding to a more stoic and distant approach that was modeled to them by generations that spoke right things, but didn’t often speak of personal struggles and growth.

To continue that approach is appealing.  After all, admitting we still struggle in our walk–inconsistency in time with God, wicked thoughts, pride, covetousness, the pressure to conform to this world, and all sorts of fleshly desires–is painfully humbling. Focus instead, however, on the fact that you would be sharing those words with younger believers who struggle daily with the same things–and often feel hopeless and failing in their desire for growth.  Sharing warnings and lessons from our own lives demonstrates that we’re after the bigger picture–commitment to and love for God in theirs.

We can also share with them that growth is possible; that God supplies grace and maturation over time (Philippians 1:9-11); that the struggles weaken when we’re walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-24); that God has given us His Word, His Spirit, and everything we need for life and righteousness (2 Peter 1:3); that God’s love is steadfast–independent of our performance, yet strengthening us to live in a manner suiting the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27); and that God’s forgiveness is faithful and just, no matter how many times we have to return to Him in confession of the same sins (I John 1:9)!

These are things that help put flesh and bones on the “pilgrim’s progress,” and they give encouragement that younger Christians aren’t alone in their struggles or their walk.  Christ has blazed a trail and left a testimony.  Older generations have followed Him obediently, though imperfectly.  And this generation can follow Christ even more faithfully, aided by the honesty and transparency of those who have already lived and learned these lessons–by God’s grace and to His glory!


P.S. This is part one of a two-part entry.  Obviously, this post is largely addressed to those 40 and above.  The next will be an appeal to younger believers to live as citizens of heaven.

Please forgive me if this post is personal.  It’s something going on in my heart right now, something that I have shared with college-aged friends before, and something I’ll undoubtedly need to use (for myself and others) again in the future.

As some of you know, God has put me in a desert period for the time being–for the last four years, in fact.  One October day in 2010 I woke with vertigo so bad I couldn’t get out of bed and couldn’t hold down more than one meal a day.  Over three years God led me to the help of various Christian doctors–beginning with our family doctor, Dr. Saito, and reaching as far as Christian specialists at Jacksonville Hearing and Balance Institute in Jacksonville, FL, and in the neurology and pain center at Cleveland Clinic in OH.

Through the help of those gifted Christians, my symptoms decreased in frequency and severity, but it has never pleased the Lord to bring things enough under control that I can do adequately and consistently enough what I believe the Lord called me to when I was about 6.  God’s goodness, shown directly to my family and me, and His goodness demonstrated to us abundantly and repeatedly through co-laborers and others in Jesus’ Body, has been astounding.

However, I have to admit that my faith grows repeatedly weak, emotions are always near the surface, and there are many days I cry out to God for release or relief.  Sometimes the “shadows” of this “valley experience” of the Christian walk seem too great to face one more day, and other times the Accuser shouts that God has somehow forgotten us and that friends and mentors have abandoned us (cf. Psalm 38-40, where the Psalmist felt almost identical, particularly Ps. 38:11), leaving our already-pained hearts and nearly broken spirits gasping and grasping for relief.

And all of those emotions are lies.  Sure, even David felt that way, but each time, God lifted David’s eyes heavenward and Truth-ward.  So I’ve done a lot of reading by Christian authors who’ve hurt.  I’ve got two books running now, and it helps to be reminded again and again that: a.) suffering is part of God’s plan for helping us die to ourselves and become even more fruitful; and b.) Jesus suffered first–unimaginably beyond anything we will ever be asked to bear–and He did it for the joy before Him–to exhaust God’s wrath against our sins, to demonstrate both God’s love and His justice, and to bring sinners like us to Christ for salvation.  That’s truth.

One of the Christian books that has helped prevent me from crumbling into self-pity over my own narrative of pain is “Off-Script,” by Cary Schmidt, a pastor who received a cancer diagnosis and was immediately thrust into the same kind of pain, doubts, and fear that almost every sufferer faces.  One thing that stood out in his book was his encouragement to write a prayer of thanks to God–focusing on what’s true, and leaving what’s uncertain up to God’s goodness and control.  So back in January, when my symptoms kept me holed up in a New York City hotel room for multiple days, I wrote a prayer.

God burdened me to share this prayer today, because it (combined with the ministry of the Word of God today), has helped plant my feet for another “round” of trusting God against the battery of pain, uncertainty, and the lies of my emotions.  Though God burdened me to share it, I’m burdened that in sharing some could see it as spiritual bragging–making myself out to be more godly than I am.  Exactly the opposite is true.  Sharing this is humbling, because it simply unveils my feebleness and carnality amidst “suffering” that Paul calls “light”–suffering that will one day be swallowed up and forgotten by the glory to be revealed to God’s children.

This is directed to our gracious, good, and sovereign Heavenly Father:

“I thank You for this illness, for its duration, and for the grace you gave in realizing that my resignation was the right thing for BJU and for us.  It hurts more than I can say, and the way ahead is dark; but if You’ll hold my hand, I promise to walk forward with You.

“Please help me steward this trial for my family and then for others around us.  Remove self from any of it.  Help me merely be Your servant seeking to take what You have entrusted to me and invest it for Your glory and gain.

“Please help me guard my emotions with Your Truth.  Please do whatever You know to be needed in my heart.  ‘Lord, I believe…help Thou my unbelief!’  And please draw our family closer to You and closer to each other as we walk each step with You and see You one day open a path before us.

“And in all, may Jesus Christ be praised and may Your Name be hallowed in and through our lives.

“I love You, my God and my Redeemer.”

Stephen (Jan. 12, 2014)

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who  comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Teddy Roosevelt

from http://www.goodreads.com

At some point in one’s growth–particularly for those who have been saved for a while–one comes to a massive decision point: Do I (Can I) trust God with my life?

At this point, you may look around you at Christian parents in ministry, a faithful pastor and his family who barely seem to make it by, or other Christians you know who are either suffering or are perhaps serving in near obscurity.  Pride and our natural instinct for self protection (and self-promotion) rise up and scream, “I want more than that!  I want better than that!”

We may cloak our resistance in spiritual terms–such as wanting to earn as much as possible to be able to support Christian works around the globe, or some such defense, and I’m not minimizing the need for Christians who actually DO that, rather than getting sucked into the materialism that seems to intensify with success.  There are people God has entrusted with material wealth and who are faithfully living on a little while distributing a lot.  But the point is, it was God‘s choice to give such a person success–not their own grasping or self-advancement.  Undoubtedly it took initiative and hard work on their part, but what I’m getting at is that at some point they also had to decide, “Will I trust God with the outcome?”

And no matter our upbringing or position, when we reach that point of decision–“Will I hold on to my rights to orchestrate my own life, or can I trust God?”–it comes down what we believe about God.  Does He know best and want what’s best, or do I?  Or you might better phrase it, “Does He love me sufficiently to trust Him, or am I better off loving and pleasing myself?”

When I came to that point as a college student (and it’s a point you may have to re-visit at difficult times throughout life), a friend shared two verses with me.  The first is Psalm 84:11, “For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly” [emphasis mine].

The second verse is from a familiar passage in Romans 8, where we usually stop with the wonderful truth of verse 28.  But I’d urge you to continue in that passage (which goes on to explain that the ultimate “good” to which God is working everything that touches our lives is our Christ-likeness), to verse 32.  That verse asks a question that has only one answer.  The verse reads: “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He [the Father] not with Him [Jesus] also freely give us all things?”  The answer is, “he won’t.”  God has proven He loves us better than we could ever love ourselves by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves–saving us at the cost of His Son!

God’s value system isn’t material or perishable–it’s eternal and ultimate.  Though trusting God may not lead to a life with three houses and two BMW’s, it will lead to a life where EVERYTHING that touches us is truly best for us.  It may lead through pain or times when the bank account runs low–or it may not.  But the point is, we can trust His love in every circumstance.  We can trust His leading.  We can trust His work in our lives.  He alone will always do what is only for our ultimate best.  And trusting Him with every aspect of our lives will never lead to regret…in this life, or the next!

Two days ago, a kind friend reminded me of a truth I used to share often with my classes or in conversations with struggling friends.  This truth gave encouragement I needed, and it seemed timely to share.

As a Christian growing daily in your walk with the Lord, it may begin to seem like you’ll “arrive” at some point–that the pressures and challenges the Lord uses to chip away imperfections will cease and all will be smooth sailing. Ultimately, of course, that is what God will do through the Gospel, when believers leave this sinful flesh behind. But until then, the opposite is true. Contrary to those who teach a health-and-wealth message, Christians can EXPECT pain in this life.

John 15 is the beautiful passage about our dependence on Jesus as the Vine. The opening verses make it clear that Christ (and the Heavenly Father as the Vine-dresser) desires fruitfulness from our lives. He desires to see increasing evidence of godliness in our thinking, dispositions, and actions.

Verse 2 is the pointed truth we easliy overlook. There WILL be some pain in every Christian’s life. Jesus gives two scenarios. The first is the truly saved individual who does not go on to grow and live consistently with his/her identity as God’s child. After patiently waiting for fruit and giving that believer every opportunity for growth (Luke 13:7-9), God may cut away the unfruitful branch, taking the consistently unrepentant Christian to heaven prematurely (see also I Cor. 11:30, where “sleep” means “death”).

The second scenario is for the growing fruitful Christian.  What can he or she expect?  Well, John 15:2 makes it clear they can expect some discomforts, too. God’s goal for us is that the Gospel fully accomplish its purpose in our lives, transforming us into obedient followers, whose lives are characterized by abundant fruit. That’s beautiful–and it’s an outcome that every devoted Christian would earnestly desire…that God find our lives supernaturally overflowing with fruit!

But how will God accomplish that in us? By pruning. By cutting away fruitful stems at the end of the season so that the next season they will grow back to be even more fruitful.

Abundant fruitfulness is what God wants to see in each of His children, and I pray that you desire to be abundantly fruitful from the very core of your being as a Christian. If so, keep in mind that the route to that abundance lies through a divinely wise and loving work of tenderly shearing areas of our lives (obedient, godly areas, even) to make way for an even greater harvest.

Pruning involves a severing of some kind (often bringing disappointments, hurts, loneliness, illness, or many other possibilities in the spiritual, emotional, or physical realms of our lives), and it makes us wince.  But don’t focus there. The cutting is just the process–not the end. In fact, it’s just the temporary route to a joyous outcome that will be far better than anything we could have hoped for.

As a Christian, anticipate discomforts in this life. And knowing they’re overseen by an infinitely wise and loving God, rest in Him. Take your pain to him, then wait patiently and trustingly for the life he’ll bring out of the “death” of that stem.

God has told us how He works and what He intends, so let’s not resist His work in us.  And because we know the great heart behind the work, we can be confident that the result will be worth it all–and then some!

My parents and others were always transparent with me that Christians will never be free of temptation until we reach heaven.  But beyond that, I assumed that temptation would somehow “cool” after youth.  After all, I’d heard from my Biology teacher that a man reaches his hormonal peak at age 17, so I took that to imply that the burning temptations of teen years would decline.  To a degree that’s true; but  lust of the flesh is only one category of temptation.  We also battle with the lust of the eyes (possessions or material covetousness) and the pride of life (desire for prestige, recognition, commendation).

What we must remember is that Satan, the arch enemy of our God and of our souls, is not limited to using certain types of temptation only during certain seasons of life.  In fact, it serves his purposes well when he can blind-side us with temptations we thought we had overcome (or outlived).  Scripture drives that lesson home when it tells the one who thinks he stands to take all the more heed, lest he fall (I Cor. 10:12)

Getting hit anew by temptations we thought we were overcoming can be a terribly discouraging and defeating experience–one that can even make us wonder about our salvation.  But I want to encourage younger believers to expect that kind of temptation…and expect those temptations to get WORSE the greater your level of responsibility and the more people depending upon your leadership in life.

For example, the first year I served as President of Bob Jones University was honestly one of the hardest years of spiritual warfare in my life.  I’ve told my wife and a number of young friends that my areas of heaviest personal temptation intensified about 400% throughout that year, leaving me confused, discouraged, doubting, and wanting out.  God got me through that year and ministered to my heart the following summer, but I was nearly overwhelmed by the fierceness of the battle.

Looking back, I realize that I shouldn’t have been a bit surprised.  In his ultimately doomed warfare against God, the devil tries to trip us up and defeat God’s purposes in our lives.  Ultimately Jesus WILL complete the work He has begun in us and will present us perfectly righteous before the Father.  But until then, we have a supernatural adversary trying to defeat us.  And the more responsibility the Lord gives us in life–a spouse, a family, positions of ministry or business influence–the more destructive Satan’s attacks have the potential to be.  Because if Satan can cause parents or pastors or successful Christian businesspeople to fall, there’s increased potential that our failures will also spell spiritual defeat for the individuals depending on us . . . or that he can bring scandal to the Name of Jesus through some public failure.

So please just store this tidbit away for the days when you inherit more responsibility, prominence, and influence.  When that advancement comes, EXPECT the spiritual battle to intensify and don’t be discouraged or surprised when the storms of temptation hit with new force.  In fact, get ready for it: Make no provision for your lustful flesh, commit God’s Word to memory in areas of your greatest struggles, be assured that “Greater is He who is in you, than he that is in the world” (I Jn. 4:4), lean on the Holy Spirit’s strength, and rejoice in God’s promise that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I Jn. 1:9).

Make use of God’s provisions for the battle.  Don’t let Satan bring you down just as God is lifting you to new heights of influence and effectiveness for Him.

January 4, 2014

Often while growing up, people allow you to believe things that will later prove untrue. It’s not an intent to deceive; in fact, if I could ascribe any motivation to it, it’s likely a desire to let childhood and dreaming last.

But in working with college age young people, I’ve found that many of them feel somehow short-changed when they realize marriage isn’t the answer to a habit of lusting, that the world isn’t made up of all black-or-white decisions, or even that they’ll still struggle to be consistent in having their devotions after college.

My wife and I have often talked about this unintentional disservice that people do to young people, and we’ve tried to be brutally (and biblically) honest with young people we counsel.

But my heart is as a mentor. Life’s challenging enough without incorrect information! So my intent is to deal with things here–as a Bible-believing Christian trying to help younger Christians navigate the road ahead of them. We’ll start with once a week, and I’ll deal with very real issues young men and women face. In fact, I’ll probably have faces of friends in mind as I write–usually young men I’ve gotten to know during their student days.

And I’ll call this “Paragraphs to my young friend.”

More paragraphs to come.