“At home” in God (John 15:9-17)

“Love” has virtually become a bankrupt word—a scarecrow of a word without life other than the dried meanings we stuff inside it.

After all, we can “love” anything, can’t we?  I love my fiancée.  But I also love tacos.  I certainly don’t love tacos the way I love my fiancée, but when I’m hungry the magnitude feels close.

One of the most fascinating books I’ve read in the last few years has been one by Yale professor Simon May as he chronicles the history of love in western cultures.  Though not a spiritual man, May begins with the Hebrew Bible and then moves through the years, from writers ranging from ancient philosophy to Sigmund Freud.

In surveying this wide spectrum, he concludes that “love” is a sense of “ontological rootedness,” or—more simply—love is a feeling of being “at home” with someone.  It’s a way of saying: I belong here. 


If you’re a follower of Jesus you probably have no problem using “love” and “God” in the same sentence.  Chances are you do so every time you participate in a worship service.

But I bet there are many of you who struggle to comprehend what it truly means to experience the love of God, and so you may find yourself wondering if your love for him is real—or perhaps just a bit one-sided.

Yesterday we started looking at portions of Jesus’ farewell address to his followers on the night he was arrested.  He encourages them to “abide” in him—to be saturated in his presence and to allow his character to become their own.

Now he describes the joy that the love of God can produce:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:9-11)

Love comes from God, Jesus tells us.  Jesus’ relationship to his Father serves as a model for our obedience to Christ.

Then Jesus clarifies the reason for these instructions.  In a word: joy.  What is joy?  Joy is not the same as happiness.  Happiness, of course, is utterly dependent on circumstances.  With a single phone call, a single bad day at work, a single negative remark, and our fragile happiness now lies on the ground in a thousand glittering slivers.

Joy is independent of circumstances.  Joy is finding contentment in God alone, knowing that he is enough regardless of what happens around us.

This is why understanding God’s love is so important.  I once heard faith defined as a willingness to relax.  Are there people in your life that you can relax around?  Not your boss; he or she probably makes you nervous.  Maybe not even members of your family.  There’s some people who you feel like you have to impress, or keep calm, or “manage” rather than relax around.

But there’s others—a small handful—around whom we can be completely comfortable, completely vulnerable.  Maybe it’s that close friend that you can pick up the phone at any hour, and resume a conversation as if you’d never hung up.  Maybe it’s your spouse, the one who knows your most intimate flaws and sees only the edges of God’s design in you.  Around these people, you are free to relax, to experience joy.

God knows you through and through.  To abide in Christ, to have faith, means to relax.  I don’t mean we’re free to be lazy; I mean that because we rely on Christ’s righteousness, we have the confidence that we are perfectly and eternally loved and accepted.

Breathe easy, dear Christian.  There’s joy here.


Still, it’s hard to fully wrap our heads around the magnitude of what God has done on our behalf.  Again, turning to Jesus, this is what he says:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (John 15:12-17)

Jesus speaks of the fact that we did not choose him—he chose us.  And we are joined as one by his blood, a blood poured out on our behalf.

Brennan Manning offers an illustration of this in his book The Importance of Being Foolish.  He tells the story of Casey and Jack—two best friends who served together during the heaviest combat of the Korean War. One dreary night, in the midst of a light snow, a hand grenade landed in the bunker where Casey and Jack were positioned.  Without hesitation, Casey threw himself on the grenade.

When the war ended Jack entered the religious life.  In sympathy for the loss of her son, Jack befriended Casey’s mother.  So strong was their bond that he would often divide his holidays between his family and that of his departed friend.

One summer he visited during a state of profound depression.  Unexpectedly, Jack asked if Casey—the same Casey that had thrown himself on a live grenade—really loved him.  Brennan writes:

She laughed. “Oh, Jack, ya sure got a way with ya.” It was a faint Irish brogue.

“Ya can’t be serious.”

“I am serious,” Robison replied.

There was fear in her eyes. “Now stop funnin’ me, Jack.”

“I’m not funnin, Ma”

She looked at him in disbelief. Then fear turned to fury…this night she stood up and screamed, “…what more could he ha’ done fer ya?”

Then she sank back in the chair, buried her head in her bosom, and began to sob. Over and over again the same phrase was endlessly, unbearably repeated: “What more could he ha’ done fer ya’?” [1]

We all experience seasons in which we may doubt the love of God.  We all have seasons in which we find it hard to “relax” in the love of God, to feel “at home” in his presence.

Then we look at the cross.

We look at the place where Jesus bled and died, we look at the place where love ran red as our sin washed white, where God’s justice was met and our debts were wiped clean.

And as we look, we are lifted out of the shallow narratives of discontent that we insist on playing in our minds, and instead lean into the great story of God’s redemption.

What more could he have done?


[1] Brennan Manning, The Importance of Being Foolish, p. 62.

Abide (John 15:1-8)

“If I were the Devil,” wrote Paul Harvey, “I should set out however necessary to take over the United States.”

Paul Harvey’s 1963 has now echoed with social conservatives for the better part of a century.  What would happen if Satan took control of our city?  According to Paul Harvey, the city would buckle beneath the weight of its social vices:

“I’d peddle narcotics to whom I could, I’d sell alcohol to ladies and gentlemen of distinction, I’d tranquilize the rest with pills. If I were the Devil, I would encourage schools to refine young intellects, but neglect to discipline emotions; let those run wild. I’d designate an atheist to front for me before the highest courts and I’d get preachers to say, ‘She’s right.’ With flattery and promises of power I would get the courts to vote against God and in favor of pornography. Thus I would evict God from the courthouse, then from the schoolhouse, then from the Houses of Congress. Then in his own churches I’d substitute psychology for religion and deify science.”[1]

Harvey, of course, was issuing a cautionary tale, one which connects the dots between moral decline and urban decay.

But what really would happen if Satan took over a city?  In his book Christless Christianity, Michael Horton recalls a sermon from Donald Grey Barnhouse that offered a vision altogether different from Paul Harvey:

“Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where Barnhouse pastored), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No ma’am,’ and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ is not preached.’”[2]

There are two kinds of “lost,” two ways to wander away from God.  Harvey envisioned a world of self-indulgence, but Barnhouse envisioned a world of self-righteousness.

And both are forms of disobedience.


“Superficiality,” writes Richard Foster, “is the curse of our age.”

In countless churches we’ve grown preoccupied with the perfected surface.  We understand the dance, the social customs.  We sing during worship, we may even scribble a few notes.  We’re doing alright, we tell ourselves. We measure success by our latest spiritual experience, all the while striving for kids who are well-behaved and city streets free of litter and crime.

It’s easy to rely on yourself for superficial things; masks are never that hard to make.  When we go deeper, when suffering or circumstances penetrate our surface defenses and pierce our souls—well, that’s when we need a greater source of reliance.

On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus gathered his closest followers together in the upper room, offering him the equivalent of a “commencement speech,” describing what life was to look like in their new mission:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:1-8)

Now, all throughout John’s biography of Jesus we read these brief little “I AM” statements.  Jesus uses everyday words and images to convey something deeper about who he is—and what he came to do.

A vine was ordinary enough.  In many Jewish scriptures Israel was compared to a vine (e.g., Psalm 80:8-16; Isaiah 5:1-7).  An image of a vine was even stamped on some ancient coins.

But Jesus was saying that he was the true vine.  Unlike every other religious teacher—both ancient and modern—Jesus wasn’t saying: “Come connect with my teaching;” he was saying: “Come connect to me.”

The word he uses (seven times in these eight verses alone!) is abide.  “Abide” is a simple enough word, but like the imagery of the vine its meaning runs deep.  The word literally means to “dwell in,” the way we might abide in someone’s home.  But Jesus is saying that we dwell in him.

We actually use similar expressions in English.  For instance, when learning a foreign language we talk about the need to be “immersed” in a language or a culture.  Why?  Because total immersion is the best way to learn a new language or a set of customs.  By inhabiting a place, the place rubs off on us in ways we aren’t always even aware.

Jesus is calling us to be immersed in him—to saturate ourselves in the customs and language and teachings and beauty of his Kingdom, and to lift our eyes from the bleak horizon of our own empires of cobwebs and dust.


Later in his life, John would pen the book we know as Revelation.  In the opening chapters, Jesus speaks through John to write letters to a series of ancient churches.

Among them is the Church of Laodicea.  This was the church that Jesus famously called “lukewarm:”

“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:17-19)

This was a church that had “prospered.”  You can imagine their success: worship music blasting, church programs thriving, services multiplying.  If you were new in town, this was the church to be at, that’s for sure.

But Jesus calls them to repent.  In fact, it’s to this church that Jesus writes: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Growing up I heard this verse a thousand times—usually in conjunction with a bad piece of Sunday School art depicting Jesus “knocking on the door of a sinner’s heart.”  The implication, of course, is that to be “saved” you had to “invite Jesus in.”

It was years before I realized that Jesus wasn’t saying this to a group of unbelievers; he was saying this to a group of Christians. 

It’s possible—dangerously, deliriously possible—that our churches could bust at the seams…

…but leave Jesus standing in the parking lot.

For our sake, for our city’s sake, for God’s sake, we need to return to Christ’s call to abide. We need to saturate ourselves in the exquisite richness of his gospel.

And most of all, if we have relied too heavily on our own religious performance, it’s time we invite him back into our lives, asking him to teach us to follow him anew.


[1] Paul Harvey, “If I Were the Devil,” October 13, 1963, WND.com, publisher.

[2] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church

Partners For Our City

As a part of this series, here on our devotionals page I am going to add a variety of articles about how we and other churches are working and serving together to be a blessing #ForOurCity.

I could be wrong, but I do not think there has ever before been a project of this sort that has gained such widespread support and participation in our church community. For the 22 years I have been in Hagerstown, I have not seen anything quite like this.

The genesis of this sermon series effort was in a regular monthly luncheon gathering of pastors back in the spring of this year. A conversation ensued upon the topic of what we could do jointly to address the heroin epidemic in our area that creates so many pervasive problems. One of the brothers remarked that about a decade ago a number of churches (including TSF) did a joint sermon series to address the teen pregnancy issue in our region. Ideas began to fly about how to do this and include it within a wider biblical context. A movement was born.

Bill Wyand of Broadfording Brethren Church is the functional leader of this group, though he was on a missions trip and missed this luncheon meeting. I emailed him a heads-up about the discussion, reflecting on challenges of the previous effort, while also suggesting some important contingencies I believed valuable for a successful campaign – including that it be widely supported by the leading churches in the county, opining also that Chris Wiles’ gift for teaching and research be a central part of the planning.

Several meetings were held at TSF in the late spring and early summer that included a number of pastors gathering to give foundation for the varied ideas. Chris Wiles and Patrick Grach (of LifeHouse Church) agreed to do a bulk of the planning, with Patrick committing the resources of his ministry to produce a variety of support tools in technology, marketing, etc.  Dates were set, and here we are doing it together.

You have likely heard that there are 24 churches and organizations partnering in this endeavor. I would suspect that many of you have had Christian friends and co-workers who attend other churches talking about the participation of their congregation as well. A number of churches beyond the immediate and regular fellowship of our evangelical pastors group also heard about this effort and have thrown in as well.

Here are the ministries that are partnering in this wide endeavor …

  • Broadfording Bible Brethren Church – west of Hagerstown, site of Broadfording Christian School
  • Bridge of Life – South Potomac Street, downtown
  • Celebrate Recovery Hagerstown – Friday night ministry on North Potomac
  • Christ’s Reformed Church – Franklin Street just west of downtown – home of REACH
  • Church of the Holy Trinity UCC – Oak Ridge DR, Halfway
  • Christ Community Church – Mapleville RD, Boonsboro
  • Covenant Life Church – Dual Highway, east of Hagerstown
  • Faith Christian Fellowship – east of Williamsport
  • Faith Worship Ministries – Oak Ridge DR, Hagerstown
  • Family Life Ministry AME Church – Leitersburg Pike
  • Hagerstown Christian Church – Linganore AVE, Hagerstown
  • Hagerstown Foursquare Church – meet on N. Pennsylvania AVE
  • Hilltop Christian Fellowship – National Pike just east of Clear Spring
  • Hub City Vineyard – Virginia Avenue, Hagerstown
  • Kingdom Ecclesia Ministries – North Cannon AVE, Hagerstown
  • Lifehouse Church – Wilson BLVD / Leitersburg Pike
  • Maugansville Bible Brethren – Maugansville
  • New Hope Alliance Church – Williamsport
  • New Life World Ministries – Frederick Street, Hagerstown
  • Andrew’s United Methodist Church – Maryland AVE, Hagerstown
  • Mark’s Lutheran Church – Washington AVE, Hagerstown
  • Tri-State Fellowship – Cearfoss Pike
  • Vision Quest Ministries – N. Pennsylvania AVE
  • Valley Grace Brethren – Halfway

That is quite a list, including a wide variety of denominations, cultures and traditions. But we are better together, and together is the only effective way we can be God’s people to serve our city and its communities well.

The lost art of repentance (Psalm 51)

Repentance is a heavy word, stretched at the seams with years of assumptions about its meaning.

I must admit, hearing the word “repent” I can’t help but think of those old-timey “fire and brimstone” style preachers, bellowing with holy menace from behind a massive oaken podium, faces slick with sweat.

Maybe for you the word “repent” makes you think of one of those bad TV preachers—the kind with slicked-back hair and a near-predatory grin, speaking winsomely about God so as to distract you from their hands reaching for your wallet.

Or maybe you picture the word “repent” scrawled in sloppy letters on a piece of cardboard, held aloft by a wild-eyed vagrant on a street-corner soapbox.  The end is near, he declares.  Better repent.

Maybe that’s because as Christians we’ve lost the art of repentance—mainly because we’ve lost the true understanding of our own sin.  Today’s world contains no shortage of self-help seminars and gurus and books that are poised to tell you that you are a beautiful snowflake, spectacularly unique in every way.  To say anything negative—such as you’re a sinner—is to “shame” them.  And so we’ve come to a world that finds no use for mercy and no place for repentance.  In their place we’ve enshrined the psychological idols of affirmation and self-acceptance.

So why does shame persist?  Why have we not stamped out all traces of moral condemnation?  Why does a culture of “selfies” only magnify our fragile souls rather than reinforce them?  Perhaps we’re not so self-reliant after all.

Perhaps repentance still has its place.


Part of the challenge is that to “repent” doesn’t mean to change one’s behavior.  Ideally, that comes later, as a result of repentance, and woe to us if we confuse the results of the gospel with the gospel itself.

To “repent” means to change one’s mind.  Sin, in one sense, is a mis-directed love.  Rather than loving God, we’ve chosen to love sex (lust), or wealth (greed), or our own leisure (sloth).  To “repent” means to re-order our loves—to make God once more the supreme source of goodness.

Psalm 51—the worship song we began yesterday—tells David’s story of repentance after his affair with Bathsheeba.  Here we’ll see four key aspects of repentance as contained in David’s life with God:

  • A new identity

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:10-12)

Pay close attention to David’s prayer.  Repentance isn’t something we do on our own.  David asks God to “create…a clean heart.”  God is the active agent here.  Granted, the process of repentance might include a change in behavior or personal habits (after all, we can hardly separate habits from hearts), but God is the agent of inward change.  As Christ’s followers we have the inward working of the Spirit to help us make progress in conforming to Christ’s good character.

  • A new purpose

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. (Psalm 51:13-14)

In his classic commentary, Matthew Henry said that “penitents should be preachers.”[1]  In other words, repentance should prompt us to go to others and share with them what Jesus has done for us, and what the Spirit is continuing to do in us.

  • A new religion

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:15-17)

In a world full of self-interest and empty gestures, David’s words are nearly soothing.  Our sin is so massive that it can never be covered by religious performance.  Such duties do nothing to satisfy God—if anything they are to his eyes “as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).  Only the death of Jesus can pay for the debt of our sins, and only my grateful obedience can serve as response.

  • A new hope

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar. (Psalm 51:18-19)

Finally, David speaks of God’s grace extended not just to himself, but to the city over which he presides. As always, we cannot expect God to interact with our city the same as he did with Jerusalem.  The promises God gave Israel were for her ears alone.  What we can expect from God is his future plans to “do good” to all the world, restoring it through the second arrival of Jesus.  Until then we look forward to that day with hopeful expectation, and serve our own city as new members of God’s family.


I know many people who, having been in Church for years, still struggle with this.  Perhaps you’re one of them.  The words are familiar, but they’ve yet to consistently travel the 12 inches from your brain to your heart.  You might find yourself feeling a persistent feeling of guilt, haunting you like a low-grade fever.

“I know God forgives me,” you might say, “but I can’t forgive myself.”

If this is you, then I have both a challenge and an affirmation.  First, I challenge you that in the moment that you say that, what you’re really saying is that you don’t trust Jesus for your salvation, but your own moral record.  If the God of the universe loves and accepts you in Christ, why do you insist on leaning on your own reputation?

Secondly, I want to affirm that this is not an immediately easy truth to understand.  In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther—the father of what became known as the Protestant Reformation—struggled with his own identity before God.  His advice to the readers of his own day was to learn to “preach the gospel to yourself.”  In his Preface to the Galatians, he wrote that when Christ’s followers feel themselves guilty or inadequate before the demands of the law, we should say something like this:

“O law! You would climb up into the kingdom of my conscience, and there reign and condemn me for sin, and would take from me the joy of my heart which I have by faith in Christ, and drive me to desperation, that I might be without hope. You have overstepped your bounds. Know your place! You are a guide for my behavior, but you are not Savior and Lord of my heart. For I am baptized, and through the gospel am called to receive righteousness and eternal life… So trouble me not! For I will not allow you, so intolerable a tyrant and tormentor, to reign in my heart and conscience—for they are the seat and temple of Christ the Son of God, who is the king of righteousness and peace, and my most sweet savior and mediator. He shall keep my conscience joyful and quiet in the sound and pure doctrine of the gospel, through the knowledge of this passive and heavenly righteousness.”

Repentance should stir within us a radical assurance of our righteousness—or, more specifically, of Christ’s righteousness that we are graciously permitted to call our own.

So repent, dear Christian—not because the end is near, but because God’s mercies are new with every morning.

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible. One volume ed. Edited by Leslie F. Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1961), 631.

I am what’s wrong with our city (Psalm 51)

What started as an art project turned into so much more.

In 2005 Frank Warren got the idea to invite anonymous strangers to write their secrets down on postcards, and send them to his address here in Maryland.

Warren never anticipated the tidal wave of responses he’d receive.

In the decade or so since Warren began PostSecret, he has been inundated with untold numbers of postcards.  They are collected and curated in books, on websites, and even in museum displays.

Confession, as they say, is good for the soul.

For many, the word “sin” must seem an archaic throwback to a religious era fraught with sexual repression and cultural regression. But if this is true, why does shame still linger?


Moral psychologists such as Paul Rozin have noted that feelings of shame are largely associated with disgust.  When we do something wrong, we often feel the same way as when we touch an insect, or smell something unpleasant.

The classic example of this is the “Hitler sweater” experiment.  The experimenters asked people if they’d be willing to wear a sweater if they knew it had been previously worn by Adolf Hitler.  Naturally, they declined.  But what if the sweater were thoroughly washed?  Still no.  What if the sweater were completely unraveled, re-dyed, then re-knitted into a brand new, completely unique sweater?  The answer, repeatedly and emphatically, was no.  It was if the respondents saw the garment as possessing some sort of moral contamination.  Touch it, and you’ll dirty your hands.

The writers of the Bible understood this implicitly.  Sin was associated with being “unclean.”  If you have a background in Church, you know that King David is remembered for not only slaying Goliath, but also for his affair with his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheeba.

After being confronted with his sin, David repents, and ends up penning one of the Bible’s most famous worship songs:

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

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 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.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

(Psalm 51:1-9)

There’s a lot of rich theology here, to be sure, but what I’d like us to notice something quite particular.  Do you notice the repeated contrast between clean and unclean? His prayer is that God would “blot out…wash…and cleanse” his sin.  His desire is to become “clean…whiter than snow.”


What do David’s words have to do with loving our city?


See, it’s tempting to look at the problems of our city and either dismiss them or find someone to blame.  We point fingers more than we extend our hands.  And why not?  Surely I’m not the one ruining our city, no sir.

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times pointed out the way our moral outrage emerges in response to scandal.  He writes:

“We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it…

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: ‘How could they have let this happen?’

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive?  But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”[1]

Christ’s followers can hardly point toward their “inner wonderfulness,” as Brooks puts it.  We recognize that we, like David, come into the world horrifically broken, and this brokenness does profound damage to our homes, to our relationships, and yes, to our cities.

Some years ago the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton made headlines with his response to a magazine inquiry which asked: “What’s wrong with the world?”  Chesterton responded with only two words: “I am.”

I am what’s wrong with the world.

I am what’s wrong with our city.

As Christians, our prayers for the city can’t start and stop for praying for problems out there.  We must instead see our problems as flowing from within.  “Out of the abundance of the heart,” Jesus warns, “the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

God help us all.


The radical good news of the gospel is that God offers his help.  More specifically, he offers himself.

On the cross, Jesus took our uncleanness upon himself.  At the empty tomb, he pronounced God’s victory over death itself.



The things that God offers us personally he offers our city corporately.  But it starts by each one of us dropping to our knees in humble recognition of our fallen state, then lifting our eyes to the cross for personal forgiveness and transformation.

He blots our sins; he cleanses our sins.

And only he has the power to make our city new again.


[1] David Brooks, “Let’s All Feel Superior,” The New York Times, November 14, 2011.

Praying for our city (Nehemiah 1:1-11)

“There are some realities that you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears.”  Nehemiah embodies this statement from Pope Francis.  Nehemiah was a man driven by compassion for his city—the city of Jerusalem.

In the opening chapter we learn that Nehemiah was the author.  We read that the book contains “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah.”  Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book.  Ezra told the story of the rebuilding of Israel’s temple; Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of the city walls.  They serve as historical memoirs but—if they were alive today—these two books would serve as the first “TED Talks.”  These men were innovators and leaders of their day, and through them we see God’s plan for restoration.


When we first meet Nehemiah, he is living in relative luxury in Persia.  If we jump down to verse 11, we read: “Now I was cupbearer to the king.”  This was more than just a butler.  His primary responsibility was to taste the king’s food and drink in the event that someone tried to poison him.  But this placed him in such close proximity to the king that he became the king’s unofficial political advisor.  He was probably handsome, cultured, sophisticated.  And above all, he occupied a place of power, privilege, and influence rarely seen by any of his fellow Jews.

So it shouldn’t escape our notice that from the very start, we see this man as deeply burdened for his people.  Starting in verse 1 we read:

Now it happened in the month of Chislev [that would be late November or early December, by our calendars], in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. 3 And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” (Nehemiah 1:1b-3)

Here we have our first lesson from Nehemiah: change begins only when discontent triumphs over indifference.  Under the decree of Cyrus, some Jews returned; some stayed.  Nehemiah was among those who stayed.  Hanani—who may have been Nehemiah’s biological relation, or simply a Jewish “brother”—was among those who returned.  Prophets such as Jeremiah had commanded God’s people to “flee Babylon,” but many—including Nehemiah—found chose comfort over conviction.  Now, confronted by this news, Nehemiah could only weep over the fate of his people.  In verse 4 he confesses: “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”

For most of us, it’s far too easy to hear news about our city and respond with either laughter or hostility.  “Only in Hagerstown,” we might say.  More than 20 years ago cultural analyst Neil Postman compared the nightly news to a bad game of “peek-a-boo,” where negative stories flash before our eyes and then quickly disappear.  This “peek-a-boo” world is only magnified in an age where news literally flashes before us through our Facebook and Twitter feeds.  It’s like the scene in the film Hotel Rwanda, where the Rwandan hotel owner thanks the American journalist for courageously covering the recent atrocities.  But the journalist apologetically tells him, “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘oh…that’s horrible,’ and the go on eating their dinners.”

No more.  No more saying “Only in Hagerstown.”  No more shaking our heads rather than bowing them in prayer.  No more clenching our fists in anger than opening them in love.  God never loved his people at a distance.  The gospel is a message of a God who sent his Son into our world, and likewise sends his followers into the world as his representatives, his ambassadors.  The gospel therefore stirs within us a form of “holy discontent,” a discontent that triumphs over our tendency toward silence and our propensity toward indifference.


For Nehemiah, the discontent stirred in his heart led him to his knees.  Most of chapter one is an extended prayer that the God of the universe would intervene, and that he might be used for the good of the city.  When we get to chapter 2, we’ll learn that four months go by.  Most of chapter one is just an extended prayer.  In his commentary on Nehemiah, Raymond Brown helps us see examine this prayer and see that Nehemiah’s prayer life contained several specific features.

  • First, Nehemiah began with praise for God.  In verse 5, we read: “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments…”  Praise matters because through worship, our hearts are directed away from earthly comforts toward the source of all goodness.  Only then can we truly have our hearts beat in time with the God of the universe.
  •  Second, Nehemiah sought God’s attention.  He says, “let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants…”  We can be thankful that through the finished work of Christ, we can freely approach the throne of grace and bring our needs before the God of the universe.
  •  Third, Nehemiah confessed sin.  He says that he is “confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.”  Nehemiah didn’t cast blame; he took ownership.  Now, we can’t always say that all human suffering is the result of human wrongdoing.  But we can at least acknowledge that before we move forward we must acknowledge our past failures.
  •  Fourth, Nehemiah appealed to God’s character.  Look in verse 8: “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ 10 They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand.”  Nehemiah, of course, is referencing the promises laid out through Moses.  The Lord’s promise to Abraham was unconditional: Israel would receive God’s blessing because of his character.  But to fully enjoy God’s blessing Israel was called to conform to God’s character through obedience to the Mosaic Law.  Today, we live by a different covenant, a different set of promises.  We look back not to Moses but to Jesus, whose death promises us forgiveness and transformation.  So like Nehemiah, we look back to God’s activity in the past for confidence in our present and hope for our future.
  • Finally, Nehemiah makes a specific request.  Look at verse 11: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”  I find that bold.  We don’t see him saying, “if it be your will” or any of the clauses that you and I might attach to our prayers, instead choosing to share his request with boldness and honesty.

We need that.  We need that for our nation, we need that for our church, we need that for our city.  But it starts with us, and that’s the second point to be learned from Nehemiah: prayer transforms us from critics to crusaders.  If you follow Jesus, you are said to be united with Christ.  Jesus inhabits our city through you, through me, through the body of Christ, his people, the Church.  Through prayer we re-orient ourselves to this greater, awesome reality, and move away from the tendency to criticize our city’s flaws but to allow the love of Christ to well up inside us and overflow into our homes, into our neighborhoods, and into our streets.  We need that, the world needs that, because now, more than ever, our world isn’t asking whether Christianity is true, but whether Christianity is good.  The actions of the “body of Christ” may well be the only gospel your neighbors ever hear.

Our application, therefore, is that we pray for our city—diligently and compassionately.  God is for our city, and together we proclaim his goodness so that we may lift high the name of Christ, and God would use these actions to draw all men to himself.


#forourcity: Overview

This Sunday marks the beginning of the city-wide For Our City sermon series.  Throughout the series, area churches will be sharing resources as we speak with one voice in bringing the gospel to Hagerstown.  To that end, we trust that you’ll blessed by this introduction to our series and to the book of Nehemiah, assembled by the staff of Lifehouse Church:

Everywhere we turn, we hear and see the tearing apart of friendships, homes, neighborhoods, cities, and nations. Turn on the news, the radio, or your computer. Pull out your phone or open any social media site. We are a house divided against itself, and it seems that we’re falling fast.

In a cultural climate of divisiveness it’s easy to allow fear to overtake us and isolate us one from the other. We start to see people divided into races or political groups or social classes or economic castes. We start to look out for our self-interest and survival rather than for each other.

Worse, too often churches use their convictions as an excuse to be hateful and treat others os lesser individuals. When this happens churches are reduced to a small-minded constituency and lose their spiritual authority in a culture that desperately needs a voice of hope. This, in turn, drives wedges between them and those already disenfranchised. As a result, hearing that the church is against them, too many in our nation and culture have wrongly concluded that God is against them.

But God, revealed through Jesus, showed up in poverty, in an occupied country, lacking political freedom – in a time of world turmoil, political oppression, and extreme abuses. Rather than coming to condemn anyone to death or eternal judgment. He took the sins of the world on Himself and died in our place. He stepped in between us and all that we deserved to offer His love, His forgiveness, a hope, and a future. As a result, we can confidently say God is for us, not against us. God is for OUR city! He is for our neighborhoods, for our schools, and for our families. And most importantly, God is for YOU!

Therefore, God has called every church and every Christian to be for OUR city—for the most marginalized, the weak, the poor, the hurting, the broken, the ill, the innocent, the most vulnerable, and the most overlooked. This is a call to actively unite in joining God in the transformation of our communities and cities. This is a challenge to follow Jesus as He leads us by His Spirit in becoming agents of change FOR OUR CITY.


The Book of Nehemiah from the Old Testament of the Bible appeals to anyone who is living in less than ideal circumstances but wishing for more. If things haven’t turned out like you expected or you’re looking out at the wreckage of life, burned out, weary, discouraged, and disappointed, then this is relevant to you Nehemiah is the historical narrative of a mon who is overwhelmed and heart-broken by the destruction of his homeland: and he’s determined to do something to change the tide of this ruin.

Here’s the setting: After the rise of the Nation of Israel under the reign of King David, his sons turned from God to immorality and idolatry. God had promised that He would bless them if they worshipped Him faithfully but curse them if they rebelled. The rebellion and pagan worship piled up, and they finally suffered the consequences of their sins.

In 587 BC, the entire nation of Israel had been divided and conquered, and the people were taken captive to foreign lands. The city of Jerusalem, their capital and center of worship, was destroyed and laid in ruin. Everything was lost and the Jewish people were once again homeless and trying to worship God as slaves and strangers in exile and among foreign religions. Nebuchadnezzar was Babylon’s king at the time, and under his leadership the nation flourished. But with his death in 562 BC, the decline of this world power began.

In 539 BC, the Persians attacked and conquered Babylon and became the new world power. King Cyrus II famously decreed that the Jews could return and rebuild their temple and the city of Jerusalem.

Finally, in 538 BC. Zerubbabel gathered a group of Israelites and returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple of God. However, they continued to live in moral and spiritual decay for several decades, until Ezra brought more Jews back to Jerusalem in 458 BC. Only then did they begin to restore the law of God, honor His Word, and worship Him alone. Unfortunately, under the rule of Persia, Jerusalem was still burned out—her fortifications in rubble, houses devastated, and people destitute.

Darius followed Cyrus as the king of Persia, and under him the Temple was rebuilt in 515 BC. This took place under the leadership of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. In 444 BC, the new King of Persia, Artaxerxes I (who may have been the son of Esther), had a cupbearer named Nehemiah, a very wise and passionate Hebrew nobleman. Nehemiah was heartbroken when he heard news that Jerusalem was still in such a mess. As a “dual-citizen,” in the service of the King but religiously loyal to the Jews, he longed to see his homeland restored. So, after deep anguish in prayer, he went to the King and asked if he could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city.

The Book of Nehemiah recounts this great historical moment, but this story is much more than just an ordinary history lesson. The narrative is very practical and relevant nearly 2,500 years later. As strong leaders, Ezra and Nehemiah led a reform in the spiritual, social, and economic life of their city with a deep concern for the reputation of the name of the Lord in the midst of pagan opposition.

Are we similarly driven by the devastation and ruin around us in our neighborhoods, cities, and nation to unite and work tirelessly in the name of God toward true restoration? Are we zealous for the reputation of God among our neighbors and a nation that has long considered faith and devotion to God irrelevant and even irrational? If your answers were ‘Yes’, then let’s come together and truly be FOR OUR CITY!

Productive Living (Titus 3:9-14)

Life is short. And it gets shorter and goes faster every day you live. There is only just so much time to be productive and to serve the Lord. There is much along the way to distract. The world is filled with damaged people, including some who find their way, often temporarily, into the church family. Some of these folks have agendas and viewpoints that are a bit warped and not squarely in line with biblical teachings. It might be the outworking of some sadness in their lives that they do not understand or grasp fully. These people may be able to be redeemed through biblical warnings and sound doctrinal teaching. Others are simply perverse and are working under a sort of disguise, fulfilling some personal agenda and deficit in their lives. They are not deserving of multiple warnings and interventions beyond a first couple of efforts in setting the truth before them …

3:9 – But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. 10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. 11 You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.

A part of living a productive life is to help enable those who have particularly committed their total time and energies to serving God and spreading the gospel message. Such workers have given up most of their ability to work in such a way to financially support themselves and are in need of the family of faith to help them in practical ways. Paul speaks to Titus about several of these folks (he and Titus being in this category largely as well), soliciting generous and practical support of those in service.

3:12 – As soon as I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, because I have decided to winter there. 13 Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need. 14 Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives.

15 Everyone with me sends you greetings. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.

As we have seen in all of these chapters of the Pastoral Epistles, we all have a part to play. We have gifts to use, and we have resources to help others serve better with their gifts. It is all about the advance of the gospel message through living godly and productive lives. How are you living for God today, and in what way are you advancing the Kingdom?

Doing Good – It’s What You Do (Titus 3:1-8)

Most commercials and advertisements are truly lost on me. Even after seeing a commercial many times and even memorizing some of the lines, I often cannot recall what is the actual product being sold. But that is not true of the GEICO clips, as I think they are very creative. If you’re a parrot, you repeat things (maybe that you shouldn’t), it’s what you do. If you’re Tarzan and Jane (a typical couple) you argue about directions, it’s what you do.

If you’re a person who is merely of this world, seeking only its pleasures and amenities, you are rebellious, contentious, inconsiderate and self-focused, it’s what you do. But if you’re consciously God’s child and an heir of eternity, you are devoted to doing good in the Lord’s name, it’s just what you do.

So if you are the latter rather than the former, act like the latter and not the former. Paul writes to Titus:

3:1 – Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.

3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. 8 This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

I don’t think there is a better summary of the gospel anywhere in the Bible than what is in this passage in verse five. You may recall an evangelistic emphasis we had a few years ago that we called “The 3:5 Project.”

Prior to the Lord’s work in our lives, there was a natural way of living that involved self-centered passions and pleasures. But then there was a radical change when God’s grace arrived upon the scene of our experience.

We tend to think, especially as entrepreneurial Americans, that one only gets what one works for, earns and deserves. That is honorable for basic life needs and responsibilities, but it will not work for eternal life. The deeds or works spoken of in verse five translates a word from Greek that describes what one undertakes to do … an enterprise or undertaking. The verse is therefore saying that there is no good set of things that we may undertake to do that can possibly save us. Rather, it is all a work of God to wash us from sin and renew us in His righteousness – the perfect standard.

This grace was poured out – literally dumped over us – by God’s grace. The result is that we possess a new status as an heir of eternal life. An heir is someone with rights and privileges that are not yet realized, but are guaranteed.

But all of this is not just an insurance plan or ticket of escape from hell. It is rather that a new devotion will rise within us to be different than before all of this happened, that rather we will live a life devoted to doing what is good … good works.  The works follow the salvation as a natural byproduct; they don’t precede salvation as a payment to obtain it.

If doing good as a lifestyle of devotion does not naturally follow and flow from our grace experience, it is symptomatic of something that is terribly wrong. It might be a lack of standing, or a lack of understanding, but it certainly should not involve just standing around. Understand?

Stubborn Facts (Titus 2:11-15)

Imagine you are listening to your favorite pastor-preacher (you know who that is, obviously) wailing away and building to a great crescendo on the theme of God’s greatness … listing all of creation from the beauty of the earth to the majesty of the heavens. And then, at the pinnacle moment of the sermon he breaks out by quoting the words of the 19th century Swedish poet Carl Gustav Boberg. You know the words!  Right?  Boberg?  Who?  What?  Yes, you do know. Again, at the climactic moment of the sermon, out comes …

“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee, ‘How Great Thou Art!’”

Every one of you would know what that was from – the hymn that is most often cited as the favorite in the western church for the past 100+ years.

After Paul works through a list of the various categories of people in the church who need to serve one another to model the gospel truth, out comes this following paragraph that in the Greek language is very majestically and colorfully composed …

2:11 – For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

We can’t say for sure, but this summary paragraph of theological thought was probably not a hymn, but rather a baptismal liturgy. Imagine the scene of some recent converts in Crete – saved out of a wretched and coarse culture with a public commitment now to live for Christ – ready to be immersed, with the officiant reciting these words over them. The phrase would become familiar, and Paul recites it here as he encourages Titus to consistently remind the Cretans of the high purpose for life that they have in Christ.

But pastoral types like Titus – who is probably not a very old fellow – can talk and affirm truths all day long, but people have to listen and respect the message. To bolster the young man, Paul says to Titus …

15 These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.

The message of the gospel that promotes preferring others above self is not always terribly popular. It is not only in the “Me Generation” that people like themselves more than others. Serving others at the expense of your own needs truly is counter-intuitive in a world where it is all about the survival of the fittest.

So Titus would be promoting an unpopular message that would land on the ears of the listeners as rather foolish and naïve. Add to this the fact that the messenger is a rather young fellow, and you can readily imagine the push-back and resistance. And so Paul says to Titus to be determined and authoritative, to be bold. Don’t let the hearers reject the message because it came from him, but rather to stand firm with the truth itself having the authority.

Again we stumble over a major theme of the Pastoral Epistles – that of timeless, objective truth. I am reminded of the great quote from one of America’s greatest statesmen, John Adams, who said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  He was not arguing for Scriptural truth on this occasion, but the principle surely applies. Don’t be afraid to stand for truth.