Would You Sell Your Plasma?

Or volunteer for medical research? Or spend hours clipping coupons? What would you do to earn a bit of extra cash for college?

I ran across an article from the New York Times discussing how college students are getting creative in their efforts to earn and save money in this tough economy. One girl volunteered to be a “hair model,” and allowed the salon to make her hair black and shaggy instead of blond and straight. One student admitted that she brings her own coffee to local coffee shops so she doesn’t have to pay for the expensive stuff offered there.

A friend of mine told me that when his dad was in seminary he volunteered for all kinds of medical experiments; I seriously considered being a human guinea pig myself when I was paying for school. My most embarrassing confession is during seminary I spent hours on a website that allowed me to earn “entries” for a supposed $10,000 daily prize. I remember seriously believing that $10,000 would solve just about all of our financial woes. I never won any money but I did win a free subscription to US Weekly, a terrible magazine that arrived every week at my apartment and stacked up in our bedroom until I walked them to the dumpster.

My life was the antithesis of Matthew 6:25-34 in those days — I was anxious about nearly everything.

I’m sure my readers are much better at handling that anxiety than I was, but I’m curious: What is the funniest or most creative way you’ve devised to earn extra money during college?

AND would you ever consider doing something out of the ordinary, like selling your blood or plasma or volunteering for experiments?

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The Less Obvious Evil in Twilight

I watched the first Twilight movie on an overseas airplane flight a few years ago, a fact that I figure slightly mitigates my responsibility for watching it at all. I found the movie disturbing for a number of reasons.

To my surprise, though, the vampire motif wasn’t the most troubling aspect of the story. While it does bother me that the most popular heroes of today’s youth culture are blood-sucking human parasites, there is something more sinister lurking behind the obvious occultism of Twilight.

Edward the vampire is a metaphor for the type of romantic “love” the story promotes. He’s a lover who consumes his beloved — yes, he nobly resists sucking Bella’s blood, but he does consume her. Without him, her life has no meaning. Without him, she might as well die. Her mind, heart, life, and soul are swallowed up in Edward.

They seek togetherness despite the costs; no consequences are too great. Edward and Bella are willing to endanger their families, separate from their friends, and even risk their very lives to be together.

To many modern readers (perhaps especially the target audience of teen and pre-teen girls), all of this sounds romantic and endearing. Who doesn’t hope to be swallowed up in an all-consuming and eternal love? But it’s the way that Twilight interacts with that hope that reveals its true darkness, which many Christian reviewers have missed.

Twilight takes a legitimate, God-given hope and badly misdirects it. In the process, I think the story ends up damaging the perception that young people have of romantic love and distracting us from the truly eternal love offered in Christ. It’s particularly upsetting to me that pre-teen girls are being encouraged to believe that happiness is really found in the right boy, the slightly dangerous one who loves you so much that he just might kill you.

I have two daughters, and one of my greatest desires is that they learn that healthy romantic relationships are grounded in a much deeper love than the flimsy substitute offered by Twilight. The love of Jesus will last forever and ought to truly consume us. Human relationships (or human-vampire relationships) will never measure up to that — and they aren’t designed to do so.

This will sound sacrilegious to those raised on romantic comedies and dark love stories like Twilight, but there really is more to life than romantic love. My love for my wife is motivated partly by romance, but also by other factors: she’s my close friend, the mother of my children, my sister in Christ, and my partner in ministry. And what’s more, my relationship with her is meant to open my heart and mind and spirit to God and others, not to close me off to the rest of the world (Ephesians 5:22-33; Prov 31:10-31).

I pray that my kids won’t become involved in romantic entanglements that consume them, distract them from Christ, and ruin their relationships with friends and family. I pray instead that their spouses will reflect the love of 1 Corinthians 13 — a love that is patient, unselfish, and doesn’t seek to possess or control others.

In all my years working with college students, I’ve never met one who crept around after midnight looking for necks to suck. I’ve also never met a person who genuinely believes that vampires are literally real.

However, I’ve met many students who seem to believe that finding their “one and only” will solve their problems, conquer their fears, and make them valuable. It won’t. You need only to look at the high divorce rate in our country to see the results of that attitude. When I believe that romance will meet all of my needs, what happens when it doesn’t? I leave on the quest to find my next “one and only,” right?

So if you watch Twilight and other films with similar themes, don’t buy into the lies it’s selling. Marriage and romance are great, but let’s be consumed instead with the faith, hope, and love offered to us by Jesus.

What are your thoughts or questions about the Twilight story? Do you agree with my assessment?

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Here I Raise My Ebenezer

Bear with me, because this post does relate to Thanksgiving.

Have you ever sung the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and wondered about that second verse? You know, the part that says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come”? I used to sing that and think, “Ebenezer Scrooge? How did he get into this song?”

The term “Ebenezer” comes from the Old Testament. It’s a Hebrew term explained to us in 1 Samuel 7:12. After the Israelites defeated the Philistines in battle, the prophet Samuel set up a stone between Mizpah and Shen (two cities in Judah). When he set it up, he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.”

Literally, Ebenezer means “stone of help.” The stone that Samuel erected was a constant reminder of God’s faithfulness in providing victory and protecting His people. Whenever the Israelites walked past that stone, they would remember God’s kindness to them and praise Him for it.

So when Robert Robinson wrote, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come,” he was acknowledging that God had directed his life and provided for him.

A few years ago, Shannon and I decided to create our own little Ebenezer stones, so to speak. When God provides for us in a way we need to remember, we write it down on a poster that is attached to the back of our bedroom door. Whenever we see it, we remember His faithfulness. When we’re tempted to doubt Him, we remember the Ebenezer. And at a time like Thanksgiving, we pause in a special way to reflect upon our God, who has helped us in the past and will help us in the future.

When I look at the list now, I remember stories from our own lives that provoke us to gratitude. Financial provision in unexpected and clearly providential ways. Protection over the health and lives of our kids. God’s direction as we’ve pursued his plans for our marriage and our ministry.

This year in particular, I’ve seen my middle daughter come nearer to understanding and believing the Gospel. I’ve also been blessed personally as God has given me a renewed sense of calling in ministry and opened up some new avenues of service to the church for the future.

For some people, this has been a tough year. For others, it’s been a great year. But all of us have stories of God’s faithfulness, Ebenezer stones that we can look at in order to remember His kindness. God has helped us until now, and He will help us in the future.

So what are your Ebenezer stones? What are the moments and events from the past year that move you to praise God for His faithfulness? I’d love to hear them!

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Are Real Christians Sinless?

A few years ago I decided to preach through the book of 1 John for the college ministry. I knew there were some difficult passages in the book, but that reality didn’t fully sink in until it was time to preach 2:28-3:10. My heart sank as I ran across the following in vv. 6-9:

No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

What in the world is this passage about? Is John really saying that Christians never sin, and if they do then they don’t know God?

There’s no doubt that Christians do sin. We know this through experience, but John also discusses it earlier in this same book! 1 John 1:8-9 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So we can’t conclude that 3:6-9 is teaching sinless perfectionism.

If you look at certain translations of the Bible (e.g. English Standard Version), you’ll notice that they’ve translated the tough parts to say something like this: “Nobody who habitually sins has seen Him or knows Him.” If we take that translation, the idea is that true Christians don’t sin on a regular basis — they can sin here and there, but if they make a habit of sinning then they were never saved in the first place.

A big problem with that interpretation is that it’s based on a questionable understanding of the Greek present tense used for the verb “sins.”  The present tense can carry a habitual meaning, but it normally doesn’t; unless there are strong reasons in the immediate context to believe that it’s a habitual present, we shouldn’t translate it that way. In a nutshell, the best way to translate this is simply, “No one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.”

The above interpretation also contradicts our experience. Christians do habitually sin. If continued sin disqualifies me from salvation, then I’m in big trouble. Further, how do we decide when we’ve sinned too much, when our ongoing sin finally separates us from God’s grace? It seems like this understanding of the passage leads to unhealthy introspection and fear.

So how should we understand this very difficult passage?

First, John is answering a group of false teachers who have infiltrated the early church (2:18-29, 26). Apparently their false teaching includes the lie that sin isn’t really a big deal. They’re teaching that Christians are free to engage in immoral behavior because they’re forgiven in Christ.

John responds in no uncertain terms that their doctrine is false. Sin is lawlessness, he says, and the person who sins is aligned with the devil rather than with God. The point is simply this: sin is not okay. He uses very stark and absolute language to convey his point (something John does quite often).

It’s not that sin (even habitual sin) proves that you’re an unbeliever; it’s just that sin is inconsistent with how a believer ought to be acting. At my alma mater, we memorize the Aggie Code of Honor: “An Aggie does not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do.” Of course, in a literal sense this is untrue: Aggies do those things every day. However, when you do those things, you aren’t acting like an Aggie ought to act. Similarly, when we sin, we aren’t acting like a person born of God ought to act. Instead, we’re siding with the devil. We’re acting like people who have never met Jesus at all, even though we have met Him!

John makes it clear that no true teacher of Christ would encourage people to sin. Teachers who wink at sin, who sin openly, and who hate their brothers are not really teachers from God. And Christians who believe those liars are headed down a terrible road.

So what is the application for us? Take sin seriously. There isn’t some threshold of “acceptable sin”. It’s all a big deal to God — so much so that His Son died because of it. So every day let’s pray that God will overcome our sin and allow us to reflect His character, as men and women born of God are called to do.

[Note: My interpretation of this passage does not reflect the views of every pastor at my church. My view is not an “official” teaching of the church, but it is within the boundaries of my church’s doctrinal statement. As you might imagine, it’s nearly impossible to agree on a universal interpretation for a very difficult section of Scripture like this one.]

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The Quick Road to Spiritual Immaturity

Recently I was cleaning my desk (a rare event indeed) and I ran across some old forms filled out by students applying for college leadership positions. In the past eight years we’ve had hundreds of young men and women involved in our ministry as Bible study and service team leaders.

As I scanned the applications, I noticed a pattern. There was one consistent character trait shared by every difficult and unproductive leader. To my surprise, I had often noted it during the application and interview process. Most students who shared this trait clashed with authority, struggled to keep people in their groups, and experienced significant conflict with other leaders. Few of them lasted in leadership for more than one year.

It wasn’t a lack of gifting — in fact, many of these students were the most gifted ones in their peer group.

It wasn’t a lack of personal purity — some students who struggled with pornography, sexual sin, or eating disorders eventually grew to be faithful and effective leaders.

What was the one trait that predicted failure, then?

Lack of teachability.

Without exception, every student who failed in leadership simply refused instruction and correction. If anyone suggested areas of improvement, these students made excuses or changed the subject. Every time somebody tried to teach them something new, the unteachable leaders simply said, “Yeah, I know that already.”

As a result, they never grew beyond spiritual infancy. In some cases they seemed less mature when they left their leadership positions than when they started.

A person who never listens is a person who will never grow. That shouldn’t surprise us. Look at what Proverbs says on this subject:

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15).

“A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (Proverbs 17:10).

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2).

“Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him” (Proverbs 27:22).

Lack of teachability is the quick road to spiritual immaturity. If we want to grow, we must learn to listen. If we want to become more like Jesus, we need to understand that we’re not there yet. Not even close. The godly person knows that and so eagerly seeks wisdom and correction.

So take a look at your own life. Are you quick to listen, or do you always need the final word? Do you trust the authority God has placed in your life or do you argue and make excuses? Do you already know everything, or are you willing to learn?

The answer to those questions will play a huge role in determining whether you progress toward spiritual maturity or whether you remain in your folly.

Question: Are there areas in which it’s particularly hard for you to accept correction? How can you and I become more teachable in order to grow in maturity?

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Worship Pastor or Rock Star?

I vividly remember the first time I led worship in front of a large crowd. The group I had led for five years suddenly grew dramatically, from 150 college students to more than 500 (obviously not because of me, since I wasn’t doing anything differently from before). To some that seems like a huge crowd, and to others it probably sounds small.

At the time, it was just enough people to make me feel like a minor celebrity. For the first time, people in my relatively small town began to recognize me outside the walls of church. They sometimes commented on how “awesome” I was, or mentioned that they were “star struck,” and other such nonsense. Nonsense or not, the comments had a way of inflating my ego.

There is something seductive about public praise, even in small doses. I’ve never experienced anything close to true fame, but I can only imagine the challenges it must pose to a person’s walk with God. How do you stay humble when those around you constantly praise you? How do you serve like Jesus did when others are constantly serving you?

Christians rightly criticize how our American obsession with fame has crept into the church. We have celebrity worship leaders, celebrity pastors, and celebrity authors. At times spiritual maturity takes a back seat to talent, and Christ-like leadership becomes less important than public visibility.

Fame in and of itself is not evil, though. Some people are famous for very good reasons. The Bible tells us of Solomon, who became famous because of the exceptional wisdom God had given him. Solomon’s fame brought glory to God, at least in the early years of his reign. It is possible for godly men and women to faithfully represent God in the public arena.

I’ve spent time with a few well-known Christian musicians, and most of the ones I’ve met are humble and gracious. There are exceptions to the rule, but I don’t think the majority are power-hungry, greedy, or egomaniacal. When they pursue their ministry faithfully, they can benefit the church a great deal. They provide songs for us to use in corporate worship, and they provide role models for young men and women who need leadership.

On the other hand, I’ve met a few young musicians who are seeking fame, and who allow that goal to supersede their desire for spiritual maturity. Most of them burn out or experience major moral failures before anybody really learns their name. The depth of their character is not sufficient to support the burden of their ministry, so they flame out quickly.

The most damaging ones are the fakers, the ones who somehow manage to achieve Christian fame even though they have gaping character flaws. They usually climb to the top with assistance from enablers, people who overlook their character flaws because they stand to benefit from the celebrity’s talent. I recently read a book written by Clay Crosse, a Christian musician from the 1990s who now admits that he was much more concerned with public adulation than with ministry. His friends and associates had no problem providing him with pornography to fuel his sinful habit.

Another example is the sad story of Mike Warnke, who achieved fame as a Christian comedian and musician by lying about his own personal testimony. Dozens of people knew his story was false, but never stepped forward to set the record straight. The public moral failures of such men and women inflict damage to Christ’s reputation around the world.

So how should we approach the issue of fame in Christian circles? With extreme caution. For those who are starting out in ministry (musical or otherwise), examine your motives. If you’re pursuing it in order to make a name for yourself, you should know that you’re on a dangerous path. If you crave the limelight and are pursuing Christian fame, it’s best to choose a different line of work than Christian ministry.

However, I don’t think we should condemn every “celebrity” worship pastor. While they can’t replace local worship pastors, I think they serve a different but important role. Most worship pastors have so much going on that songwriting is at the bottom of the priority list. Even if they have time for it, many of them aren’t gifted for it. In addition, I think there’s a valid place for those who serve the body of Christ at large through their exceptional musical gifting, just as there is a place for pastors like Billy Graham who don’t serve any particular church but instead the church as a whole.

Finally, I think as “fans” we need to evaluate our own relationships with our favorite Christian celebrities. Do we think about them or revere them more than we do Jesus? Have they become idols? To what degree should we be caught up in consumerism and a culture of constant entertainment, even if the entertainment is Christian in nature? Tough questions, but ones we must evaluate as followers of Christ.

What do you think about the concept of Christian celebrity, particularly in the realm of music? How should we relate to it as disciples of Jesus Christ?

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Are American College Students Out of Touch?

Last Sunday, one of my fellow pastors spoke to our college students on the subject of world missions. In the course of his talk, he mentioned some statistics that I found intriguing (these are derived from a National Geographic Survey a few years ago):

  • 63% of Americans between 18-24 cannot locate Iraq on a map.
  • 75% cannot find Iran or Israel.
  • 88% cannot find Afghanistan on a map of Asia.
  • 48% cannot locate the state of Mississippi on a U.S. map (and 50% cannot find New York State).
  • 54% believe that Sudan is in Asia (it’s in Africa).
  • 30% believe that the U.S. has a population between 1 and 2 billion people.
  • 48% think that the majority of India’s population is Muslim

Those are just a few of the somewhat alarming stats. I should mention that the survey includes those in college and those who are less educated. Still, many of the wrong responses come from college-educated men and women.

Do you think young men and women are ignorant of the world outside their small community? If so, why? And what can we do about it?

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I Am Youcef Nadarkhani (and So Are You)

He and I are roughly the same age. Both of us are married and have children in elementary school. Both of us are pastors.

We were baptized into the same name and we’re part of the same body. We both believe and proclaim the resurrected Jesus. His suffering is my suffering, and his victory is my victory. I am Youcef Nadarkhani and so are you.

There are some differences between us, though:

Youcef is from Iran; I’m from America.

While I was driving to church on Sunday, Youcef was sitting in a prison cell. While I was worshipping my Savior freely, he is facing potential execution for telling people about Jesus.

While we’re debating which presidential candidate will best serve our personal interests, Youcef is imprisoned by a government that plans to hang him for his testimony of faith.

Sadly, Youcef’s case is not isolated or rare. Iran is not the only country where men and women are persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, or executed for believing in Jesus.

These men and women should matter to us because they are a part of Christ’s body. If they suffer, we suffer. If they weep, we weep.

Caring about those who are in prison for their faith in Christ isn’t simply a nice thing to do with our free time. It’s an obligation commanded in the Scriptures.

Many of my readers are college students, young professionals, and other influential men and women. You’re in a position to have a voice and to make an impact. Let’s not allow Youcef’s story and those like it to be forgotten with the next news cycle. Let’s make it known that Christians don’t abandon or forget the suffering among us.

What can we do?

  • Pray. Pray that Youcef’s testimony will strengthen his fellow believers in Iran. Pray that he’ll be courageous and hold firmly to the faith. Pray the government of Iran will release Youcef and allow him to practice his faith freely.
  • Remember and help others remember. Keep spreading the word on Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media. When you pray with your friends, pray for Youcef and his family. As Hebrews 13:3 commands, let’s remember him because he is part of the body and so are we. We’re in prison with him, and with everybody who is there for the name of Christ.
  • Take action. This link includes a way you can email Iran’s representative to the United Nations and ask him to seek Youcef’s release.

For those who know Jesus, solidarity with the persecuted church is a reflection of our love for Christ. So in His name, let’s express our identification with Youcef and with our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.

I am Youcef Nadarkhani, and so are you. Because we are the Church, the body of Christ, united in victory and in suffering.

What other ideas do you have for encouraging and supporting the persecuted church around the world?

(Image via www.aclj.org)

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Five Ways to Make a Missionary’s Day

(This is a guest post written by my good friend Jerry Varghese. Jerry and his wife Suzanne are among the more than seventy missionaries supported by Grace Bible Church. This is Global Impact Week at Grace, so I thought it would be fun to shine a light on the everyday lives of our missionaries.)

Two months ago my wife Suzanne and I boarded a plane and moved to a little city in Greece called Ioannina.  The common reaction we got from people in the States was “Wow, Greece! That’s amazing!”  When we told them we were moving to Greece to serve as missionaries, their facial expressions changed from excitement to confusion.  “Uhh…You’re moving to Greece to be missionaries?”

When most Americans think of Greece, they picture beautiful beaches and little white houses with blue roofs and shutters.  That’s not the Greece we’re living in, though. We’re living in a small urban college town with no beaches in sight. The country is in economic turmoil, and most people don’t expect it to get better anytime soon. Greece has also become a forgotten place in terms of the Gospel, much like Western Europe.  Although first-century Greece was filled with thriving churches, today’s Greece is resistant to the Gospel. The people here are full of hopelessness.

Many days we wonder, “Are we really making a difference?” Even though we work with a great team of missionaries, we still need encouragement from our brothers and sisters who aren’t here with us. So how exactly can you encourage an overseas missionary?

Contact Us Regularly

I know how hard this can be when your life is already so busy!  But regular notes, handwritten letters, and emails can lift a missionary’s spirits tremendously.  It lets us know you’re thinking about us and that you value our ministry.  We also love to hear about what’s going on in your life, even if we don’t know you well. It gives us a connection to you and helps us to pray for you more effectively.

Send Video Messages

Isn’t technology amazing? Many of you have webcams built into your home computers or laptops.  Spend a few minutes planning what you want to say, click the record button, attach the video to an email, and press ‘send.’  Even if you’re technologically challenged, you can do this!  My sister-in-law sent Suzanne and me video messages for our birthdays this year. They brought us immeasurable joy and laughter.

Reply to Our Newsletters

We get very excited when people respond to our newsletters.  On the day we send it out, we wait eagerly to see if anybody responds.  When people do respond, we know that they’re reading our letters and that they care about what we’re doing.  Even a short response is fun to receive, but we especially appreciate it when people take the time to mention specific aspects of our newsletters that were encouraging or interesting.

Pray for Us

And tell us you’re praying for us! We know that people are praying, but it makes a big difference to hear them say so. When you respond to newsletters or send us emails, tell us specifically what you’ve been praying for us.  It’s so encouraging to know that our friends across the ocean are praying on our behalf. We love it!

Visit Us!

OK, so not everyone can do this. But we would LOVE the chance to show you our world.  We would LOVE to show you how your prayers and support are making a difference in the mission field.  Seeing someone from home is life-giving for a missionary. It’s like seeing a long lost friend and it’s very encouraging.

You might not be able to implement all of my suggestions.  But I’d like to issue you a challenge: pick one missionary and do one of these things consistently for the next year. When you invest in a missionary, you’re investing in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and it’s an investment that pays eternal dividends. No matter what the economy is like!

What other ideas do you have for encouraging the missionaries you know? We’d love to hear them!

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