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                The church I grew up in just celebrated its 150th anniversary. If my math is correct, that means it started in 1868 (Shallow Well began in 1831.) That church was well over 100 years old before I ever stepped foot inside of it. It (and Shallow Well) began before cars were being built in America and before the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk. It has seen two world wars, man walking on the moon, and the internet. When it started the church was the center point of the community and its leaders were also the leaders of the community who were highly respected.

                Man, have things changed since then. The church (all churches) no longer carries the same importance and its leaders are not highly thought of in the community. Attendance in churches in America seems to be declining, and the thoughts, values, and beliefs of the church are ridiculed. Some days it seems that the church is not long for this country. Research tells us about 4000 churches close their doors every year for good which means almost 11 churches a day stop being a church.

                You can drive through many cities and find closed church properties for sale for cheap. You can also find closed retail stores for sale. What were once major companies like Kmart and Toys R Us, have declared bankruptcy and all that is left (or will be left) are their buildings, just like churches. There is a big difference between the retail stores and the church. The retail stores will never open back up again.

                The decline of the church is actually greatly exaggerated. The same research that tells us that 4000 churches a year are closing their doors, also tells us that more than 4000 new churches are started each year (in 2014, 3700 churches closed and over 4000 opened.) These churches are not simply taking the members from other churches. According to this research, 42% of the members of these new churches had never attended a church or had not been in a long time (https://www.charismanews.com/us/53715-study-thousands-of-churches-closing-every-year-but-there-is-a-silver-lining).

                The news about churches should really not be surprising to us. The church is a God ordained institution. Jesus made it clear where the church comes from and how long it will last. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus takes the response of Peter about who Jesus is and says to him, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The great thing for us is that the church is not built upon Peter, who is a man, but upon who Jesus is. The gates of hell will not ever destroy the church. Churches may close and its leaders may be ridiculed, but when the church is built upon Jesus, and shows and shares Jesus it will not lose its power. It may appear that we are losing influence, but, if so, it is because we have lost sight of Jesus. When He becomes our vision and our direction, then even the gates of Hell cannot stop it.

                The interesting thing about Jesus saying the gates of Hell cannot prevail against it, gates do not march off into battle. They are stationary. You would attack a gate, but not the other way around. Jesus is telling us that a church will never be destroyed, and that a church is always moving forward. It is attacking the very strongholds of Satan, not the other way. A church that lasts is a church that fights, not each other, or other people for that matter, but fights against Satan.

                I love the church. I always have. My best memories growing up usually involve the church or friends I met through it. I sometimes get upset with people in the church (as well as people getting upset with me), but I will never stop loving it. It excites me to see old churches still around. It also excites me to see new churches start. I get excited thinking about the possibilities that are in front of Shallow Well. I know that the best of what we do is when we are moving forward and winning and teaching people about Jesus. Let us never stop attacking the gates of Hell and doing the Lord’s work.

MJ

                My son turns 13 today (April 12.) I cannot believe that I am now the father of a teenager. I can believe that he has turned out to be such a great son and person. I could tell that he was going to be that from the first moment I held him. I prayed over him and asked God to make him into a man that He would be proud of. I also asked God, what He was thinking making me a father? I prayed that I would also be a dad the He could be proud of. I don’t know if I have accomplished the father bit, but I know Caleb is well on his way to accomplishing his part of my prayer.

            Caleb is the first of our miracle kids. Jennifer and I did not expect to actually have kids. The doctors told us that it would be very difficult for us. We tried all kinds of medical interventions, none of which worked. Jennifer took it much harder than I, and I am not sure that I offered her as much support as she needed. What I did offer her was a pot of Gumbo and a trip to Kennesaw Mountain one Saturday. She got sick and blamed the gumbo. I took exception to that. A few days later she went to her doctor. She came and picked me up from work that day with something obviously on her mind. She did not want to tell me right away, which just worried me. Then she gave me the news. We were going to have a child. By this time, we had quit all the medical stuff. This was pure God. In case you were wondering, it was not my gumbo that made her sick – it was Caleb. We still laugh about that.

            I absolutely love this boy. He is one of the things that I am most proud of. I love being his dad. I hope he loves having me as his dad. I once preached a sermon, when I was much younger, based on God calling us Hid children. One of my points was how much I loved when my dad called me “son.” I loved it because I was the only person that Samuel Johnston could truthfully say that about. Many people could call me Marty, boy, dude, or strange person standing over there, but only one person could call me son and actually mean it. It was my favorite thing that my dad ever called me. I hope Caleb feels the same. He is my son. The only one that I have. I can call him something that no other man can ever say to him. I take that as a huge responsibility.

            I am proud of this boy. I am proud that in so many ways he is better than I am. I know that he is smarter than me (luckily, not yet wiser.) He cares about others so much more than I do. His heart is much softer than mine has ever been. I know that his heart and emotions sometimes leads him to pain I never feel, and that someday someone may take advantage of that and hurt him, but I would not ever ask that God would harden it. I know his heart will lead him to do things for others that I could not even dream of doing. I cannot wait to see where God leads him and what God uses him for. I will be one proud dad with whatever God moves him to do. My favorite picture of him was taken at a church that I served. It is a Christmas picture. He is wearing a shirt and tie and standing at the podium of the church, smiling at the camera like he just preached a sermon. I can only hope that one day that he does preach sermons. He will be better at it than I am.

            I believe that what I am most excited about for Caleb is that he is not just my son, but he is also my brother. At an early age, he asked Jesus into his heart. We were super excited about it, and we made sure he was serious about it. We even asked a lady at the church we were serving at, Barbara Tatum, to talk to him to just make sure. She came back just as excited as we were. She had no doubts about his salvation. On one of my greatest days, I was privileged to baptize him.

            I truly believe that children are a gift from God. A gift that is not meant to be used or ignored, but nurtured into something special. At least once a year I go back and read Ephesians 5 and 6, just to make sure I am doing the best that I can with my family. I take Paul’s words to heart. I try to love my wife as Christ loved the church, and I try not to stir up anger in my kids. I fail at both sometimes, but I am grateful that I have a Father that does not, and also forgives me when I do. I am thankful that my heavenly Father and my earthly father have shown me what a dad should look and act like. I hope I am doing the same for Caleb.

            Caleb I love you and am proud of you. I cannot wait to see what God has in store for you. I pray that I do everything that I can to help make that happen. Happy birthday, son.

MJ

                Recently, famed astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, sent out two tweets that summed up the problem many atheists face – that there is no real meaning for our existence. (I believe that there are two main types of atheists – those who reject God on the basis of science; and atheists who reject God because they do not like what God might represent in their lives. Unfortunately, they both find themselves in the same place.) On Christmas, Tyson tweeted, ”Merry Christmas to the world’s 2.5 billion Christians. And to the remaining 5 billion people, including Muslims Atheists Hindus, Buddhists Animists & Jews, Happy Monday.” On New Year’s, he tweeted, “Not that anybody’s asked, but New Year’s Day on the Gregorian Calendar is a cosmically arbitrary event, carrying no Astronomical significance at all.”

            Factually there is not a single thing he said that is wrong. Christmas was on a Monday whether you celebrated it or not, and New Year’s Day does not carry any real astronomical significance. The issue is not the validity of such statements, but the heart behind those kinds of statements (it would be interesting to see if he would be willing to make such a bold statement about a Muslim holiday.)

            What is the heart behind such statements? I believe, and having read more from him and those who believe similarly to him, the true issue is significance. If Christmas is just a Monday (and not the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, or a day we just celebrate being with our families) then does any day have any significance? If New Year’s Day does not matter scientifically, then does your birthday (the same truth holds – your date of birth is just an arbitrary day that you had very little to do with.)  Why celebrate your birthday if it only means that is started the countdown to the day you die? Your death is the end. There is nothing more after that. No day matters. No need to celebrate any event since only the Cosmos matters, and there is nothing you can do about any of it.

            The sad truth is, there are many people all around us who have this worldview. They try to find significance in anything they can, but if they have to be honest, all they can do is recognize that it is all fleeting or just by chance. Could you imagine living a life where the grave actually is the end? Could you imagine living as if nothing you do really matters? All your achievements will be forgotten shortly after the dirt covers you (for a good Biblical view of this type of life, read Ecclesiastes. The author clearly reminds us that this type of life is meaningless, just a vapor that exists for a time, then it is gone with nothing left.)

            What is our response to this? Should we scold them for not believing as we do? Should we pity them for their fatalism? Mock them for their doubts? No, we cannot do any of these. We will let them do that to us, but we must do something different. We must bring Jesus into their lives. The only real answer for life is Jesus. Apart from him, life really is meaningless. We really are just here today and gone tomorrow. When we introduce people to Jesus, we bring significance into their lives. We bring hope into their lives.

            Our excitement for evangelism (we should be excited to tell the story of Jesus) is not just to keep people from Hell, as good as it is, but also to bring real truth and meaning into their lives. Those around us need to know that life is not just random chance, but a divine plan from God. A divine plan that He has for each of us. A plan of significance with hope, joy, and a promise of life beyond death. 

MJ

            On Thursday, March 29, at roughly 12:30 pm, some relatively unknown Miami Marlins pitcher (if you watch baseball you will understand that nearly every Marlins player is relatively unknown) will throw the first pitch of the 2018 baseball season. After almost five months away, baseball, real baseball, is finally back.

The remarkable thing about Opening Day (and yes, it does deserve capital letters) is that all teams start out with the same record, and every fan has the same hope that this year will be their year. For the first game of the season, we put what we expect our teams to do aside, and believe that we will be the last team standing (I mean, in this century the Red Sox, the Cubs, and the Astros have won the World Series, if they can, any team can.) The poet, Alexander Pope (and yes, I do know more things than just sports), while not talking about Opening Day could have been, wrote these words:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never is, but always to be blessed:”

            The poet was actually trying to explain the human condition and his need for God. He was offering us hope. Each man and woman is born with hope. Hope that there is something better out there, hope that there is someone who will love me unconditionally, hope that my life has a real purpose. Even Stephen King of countless horror books understood the need as he wrote in The Shawshank Redemption,” Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Artists, philosophers, theologians, and many of the rest of us understand, it is hope that keeps us from falling into a dark abyss that would be near impossible to escape. The human heart is consistently trying to find hope in a dark world.

            On Sunday, April 1, at roughly 10:55 we will begin our 2018 Easter service. It will be a great day full of joy and hope. We will see people join the church, take part in communion, and The Word of God will be opened and given to us. All of this is possible because of the Easter nearly 2,000 years ago.

            Can you imagine what that Sunday was like? I would be willing to bet that “hope [was not springing] eternal in the human breasts.” I would say that doubt and unbelief were the greatest emotions and feeling of the followers of Jesus. Three days earlier, Jesus was nailed to a cross and all hope seemed gone. Not only, was the followers hope vanishing, but they also feared for their lives. If they could kill Jesus, surely a few fishermen and tax collectors would not be hard to silence.

            An amazing thing about hope is that it manages to show up in the least expected places in the least expected ways. A word from a friend can bring hope. A song at just the right time and hope will explode. A book or article ignites hope. There are a thousand ways for hope to be delivered in our lives, but none as great as the message of hope that the angel delivered to the women who went to Jesus’ grave that Sunday morning, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? … He is not here, but He has been resurrected.” (Luke 24: 5-6 HCSB)

            The women did not just encounter an empty grave. They encountered messengers from heaven. They did not hear empty platitudes about just trying harder and being a better person. They heard the greatest message they could hear. The one who died for you is now alive. The sins you once bore are now gone. The punishment you deserved had been delivered to the only one who could fully bear it. He was not dead. He is still not dead. At the empty grave, hope does truly spring eternal.

            As a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves, I witnessed in the ‘90’s them start a streak of 14 straight years of being a playoff team. They even managed to win one World Series. During this time, Opening Day was easy. There was not a need for a lot of hope because you just knew they were going to be good. Unfortunately, the good run ended, and they have been pretty bad, the last few years. Now, Opening Day becomes a day of hope. Hope that they will get back to being the team they used to be.

            Maybe you feel this way in your life. At one time, you did not seem to need much hope. You just knew life was going to be fine. Unfortunately, life changes, good times end. Now is the time in your life you need hope the most. Here is the great news – hope is offered at the times you need it the most. The cross and the grave make sure of that. The hope you need to get you through the toughest times is offered. All you must do is accept it. Jesus literally died to give it to you.

MJ

                Imagine that you travelled to a previously undiscovered island with inhabitants somewhere in the Mediterranean. These people that lived on the island were quite normal except for the fact that they had not been exposed to Western culture (which is not actually bad, in some ways.) As you spent time with these people, they invited you to their church. In their church they sang the most beautifully written songs, sung with the most angelic voices you had ever heard.  After talking to the people you realize that these songs are worship songs written to Personapapiza, a god made of pepperoni. One of the great oddities of their worship of a god made of pepperoni is that the people seem to have no real idea of what that delicious meat actually is. They are simply singing songs, great songs performed perfectly, to something that is not there with them and can do nothing for them.

              If we heard about something like this, we would probably shake our heads, and say “bless their hearts” in the most Southern way that we could. It would be strange for someone to worship something like pepperoni, especially if you had no idea what it was, no matter how well you do it.

            This leads us to the third part of true worship - the most important part of worship is not the songs we sing, or the volume at which we sing them, but the One to whom we are worshipping (don’t misunderstand – what we sing and how we sing is important, just not as important as to whom we are singing.). We can write the greatest songs and have the greatest singers perform them, but if the object of our worship is not worthy, or with us, then it is all done in vain.

            Worship is “God’s people, proclaiming God’s praises, in God’s presence.” When we come to worship God, we must always remember that God is with us as we do it. Worship is not a performance of our most talented, entertaining us (there is a time for being entertained by talent, but let’s not confuse that with true worship.) Worship is the most unworthy being allowed to praise the God of Eternity. Worship is a beggar standing before the King of Kings and letting the King know how great He is.

            A problem of many churches is that we forget that God is in the building with us (or at least He should be, if He is not we are doing something completely wrong), or, even as sadly, we take for granted that God is there. Church members show up and act as if God is impressed that we happened to make it on this particular Sunday. We muddle through Sunday school without taking full advantage of being able to study God’s word with fellow Christians, and then we go to a worship service and sit checking our watches making sure we get out exactly the prescribed hour. Everything about the service is about us, and if it is not to our liking then someone will hear about it. No wonder churches become dry, boring places. It becomes all about us, and compared to God of Heaven, we are dry and boring people.

           Worship is a time for us to be with God and let Him know how great He is and how satisfied we are in Him and His provisions for us. Church worship is where a whole bunch of us gather together to remind each other how great God is and lift Him up. When worship is done correctly, we do not leave feeling entertained, but we leave feeling excited. We have been in the presence of God, and we have lived to tell about it. Worship should be a fire in our bones that consumes us, and forces us to want more. If we walk out of the church building just like we walked in, then we are doing it wrong. No one comes into God’s presence without being changed. Worship is where this begins.

          Let us throw away boring and useless worship that does us no good, and barely allows God to be involved. Let us long for time to be near God with other fellow believers. Let our voices cry out to the goodness of God, and allow Him to touch our lives and change us completely.

 

MJ

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