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*This is an excerpt from my book “Captivated Anew: Restored to Pursue Him.” It can be found on virtually any major on-line bookstore in both digital and hardcopy formats.  

I’m always amazed when I consider what the early church did without. How, for example, was the early church able to function without ecclesiastical hierarchy? I can find no popes, bishops, presidents, vice presidents, or directors mentioned in the book of Acts; and while congregants trusted the leadership of the apostles, they didn’t seem to require a complex organizational chart to know who was responsible for what. Further, I see little proof of any committee that “organized’ the events at Pentecost (Acts 2), and I’m astonished by the absence of a “Committee on Committees” to oversee each house church’s evangelistic efforts and to keep all groups in check. When I heard of one modern church that named a Minister of Conflict Resolution, I thought, I bet Peter never considered appointing one of those! Soon after, I found myself wondering how the early church managed to win any souls for the Lord without modern “helps” in place. What I discovered changed the way I think about evangelism. 

Devoid of top heavy structure, the early church seemed to rely on an abundance of supernatural gifts and spontaneity to bring people to Christ. They didn’t need business administrators and marketing and advertizing campaigns. No one printed informational fliers and advertizing slicks to draw new people in. Congregants were unconcerned that they would run over budget or need to get the masses to pledge funds for an upcoming building program or to secure construction loans. They didn’t worry about the color of the carpet or whether or not stained glass would be most appropriate. Instead, they trusted God to provide for their needs and to draw people to Himself. 

One would think that the early church would need some type of church growth program to make sure they were on track for global evangelism. But they didn’t think to survey the crowds in the street that had gathered to celebrate Pentecost, and they weren’t particularly concerned with the advice of the latest pop-psychology guru or the throng’s “felt needs.” In fact, the early believers didn’t consider a seeker sensitive approach at all because they realized that “no one seeks God” (Romans 3:11). Given their lack of sophistication, then, one would predict only church growth futility among the first circles of believers. Instead, exponential growth quickly made Christianity a force to reckon with on the world stage. 

But what did the early church do without technology and media? There was no television, radio, God Tube, e-mail, tapes, DVD’s, or MP3’s to use to help new believers get connected and to grow in Christ. In fact, communicating the gospel used to happen primarily via personal relationships in which the Jewish Scriptures and some poorly circulated letters were shared (See Romans 10:17). The early church did without big-screen televisions. Yet even without high definition pictures and quality surround sound, people grew infatuated with the pure gospel and dedicated themselves to life-style evangelism.  

Many modern believers consider church without entertainment antiquated, yet the early church went without. Thespians, comedians, performers, and paid musicians are so commonplace now—worship and music style of a church ranking among the top three reasons that contemporary folks choose a church. No one within the original group of believers, however, had the creative vision of using a rock band called “Peter’s Call” to draw an amusement-infatuated crowd. Surprisingly, the early church cared little about crowd-pleasing; a fact highlighted by their obvious lack of Starbucks coffee and donuts to help congregants begin their day. But in spite of the early believer’s adherence to the archaic concept of drawing people to Christ through a culture of Christ-centered community, neighborly love, and the communication of transforming truth, the early church exploded with growth!  

Acts 2:40-41, 47 reports, “With many other words [Peter] warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day… And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The Lord was adding to his church by the thousands and doing so daily! Amazing! Obviously the church of Acts was prospering without all of the ministry tools to which we have become so accustomed and dependant. 

The tools that the contemporary church uses are not inherently wrong or unscriptural (and may, when rightly used, be helpful), but the early church’s approach was quite simple and had few moving parts. Listen to the description of their message:  

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:36-38). 

The early church had the supernaturally and exponentially powerful combination of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit at work on their side. I believe we are also capable of thriving in our modern churches should we choose to seek an extra measure of both and relinquish a few of our trappings in the process. It may be that many of our outreach tools have become a very poor facsimile for what we must promote and pursue: Jesus Christ. We must remember that the message our churches should send is that He is all we really need.

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*This is an excerpt from my book “Captivated Anew: Restored to Pursue Him.” It can be found on virtually any major on-line bookstore in both digital and hardcopy formats.   

Duty is a burden, but delight is a pleasure. Perfunctory performance brings little satisfaction and joy. A sense of obligation can only motivate so much. Yet most of us classify our religion as a burdensome duty and certainly not a spontaneous delight. Isaiah 61:10 says, “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Isaiah’s attitude toward serving the Lord was not one of grudging acceptance but reflected his joy in the privilege of a relationship with God. 

Unlike Isaiah, many modern believers approach their faith much as the Pharisees approached Judaism. These early leaders made the Jewish religion a burden (Luke 11:46). Under them serving God became a frustration. We need to recognize that duty bound service is neither what the Lord wants nor is it what we should experience. But why do so many of our religious endeavors feel more duty bound than delight driven? My own lifeless and weary faith compelled me to search the Scriptures for the source of true and lasting delight: the solution to the burden which seems to accompany religion. 

In Scripture God’s followers delighted in many things. They spoke as men and women not bound by duty, but as servants who basked in relationship. The 119th Psalm mentions the word “delight” on eight separate occasions: all but one are related to God’s Word. King David mentions God’s decrees, laws, commands, and statutes as “delightful.” He also speaks of finding delight in God’s works (Psalm 111:2). Isaiah indicates that we should delight in the Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13). Psalm 35:9 mentions delighting in our salvation. Paul also delighted in the Lord, rejoicing in his own weakness that God’s strength might be shown (2 Corinthians 12:10).  

What most amazed me as I searched for biblical references to delight is that it is actually part of God’s character. Scripture says that our God experiences delight: He delights in His creation (Proverbs 8:30); He delights in His obedient people (Deuteronomy 30:9); He delights in the well being of His servants (Psalm 35:27); and—not surprisingly—He delights in His Son (Isaiah 42:1). Our God is a God of delight and He is the source behind it. We must look to and delight in Him in order to find delight in anything else. This, then, is the critical link to accepting our faith with joy instead viewing it as a trial. 

Jesus was sent for us to delight in (Luke 1:14). So God is basically saying to His children, “Delight in Me.” As I intently focus on all that God is and all that He is to me, I find delight. I stop looking at my faith as a burden. I stop thinking about myself. As I gaze, ponder, magnify, adore, and extol the Lord’s infinite worth, I am filled with delight for Him and in Him. The Holy Spirit reveals His glory as I look at the majesty of the cross and the beauty of God.  

“God … is not far from each one of us,” Paul says in Acts 17:27-28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” The wellspring of living and being is delighting in God. Job 22:25-26 states, “The Almighty will be your gold, the choicest silver for you. Surely then you will find delight … and will lift up your face to God.” When God’s children pursue Him, we find the source of joy. The sense of duty is banished when our passion is to seek, to know, and to love God first and foremost; the end result is delight. That is why the psalmist says, “I [will] go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight” (Psalm 43:4). He looks forward to worshiping God. He wants to praise the source of his elation. 

When our joy is found in God, our delight comes full circle. After Isaiah delighted greatly in the Lord, he rejoiced. Only then did Isaiah begin to acknowledge and appreciate the Lord’s gifts of salvation and righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). When we begin to find our delight in God, we too will see the things of God as a glorious delight and not a burdensome duty.  

Jesus came that He might give us a delightfully abundant life (John 10:10). Pursue the joy He promised by pursuing Him.


*This is an excerpt from my book “Captivated Anew: Restored to Pursue Him.” It can be found on virtually any major on-line bookstore in both digital and hardcopy formats.   

All who’ve received Christ inherit a marvelous gift: spiritual freedom. In Jeremiah 33:8 the Lord says, “I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion.” Quite literally, He lifts sin’s stranglehold. In John 16:8 Jesus explains the role of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who dwells in all believers: “[He] … convict[s] the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.” Though believers are no longer bound to sin, we still require a counselor to guard our ways. The Holy Spirit checks the heart of each Christ-follower, gently prodding him or her to stay in tune with the Lord. This He does not to condemn us, but to guide us in the abundant life Christ offers. 

I’m constantly amazed at the number of professing believers mired in a pit of toxic guilt. Rather than accepting the Spirit’s leading with joy, they become despondent and defeated, wallowing in past mistakes and the sins which cause them to experience little motivation to serve the kingdom. We must understand that while the Holy Spirit does convict us of sin, He does not paralyze us with shame. Everything He does guides us closer to Jesus, the source of all truth (John 16:13).  

The Holy Spirit does not condemn us. He merely convicts us of the reality and guilt of sin, thereby reminding us that we are sinners in need of Christ’s salvation. We can’t get by without Him; righteous Jesus is our only hope. Conviction is meant to nudge us closer to the source of life and mercy. When we focus on our guilty feelings instead of reaching out to Christ, we quickly become completely self-absorbed. We mentally scold and abuse ourselves until we think not of realigning ourselves with Christ but only of our own failure. This form of self-flagellation causes us spiritual paralysis and a morbid and lifeless disposition. Those entranced with this cancerous syndrome shelve their Christian service and give up on abundant life. In this process Satan gains an upper hand. By deceiving us into a depressing malady of defeat and paralysis, he induces a spiritual coma that sidelines us from our calling and purpose. 

This is not an issue of self-esteem – just the opposite. Believers shackled by shame and toxic guilt share a commonality; they hold too low a view of Jesus! They allow guilty feelings to diminish and demean the power of Christ’s death as if it was not enough to cover all their sins. In wallowing in self defeat, we suggest that Christ’s atonement was insufficient. At that point our feelings of unforgiveness supersede the fact of His perfect sacrifice.  

True, without the Lord, we are all “without hope … in this world” (Ephesians 2:12). We cannot save ourselves or remove the shame of our sin. The beauty of the gospel, however, is that God gave us the gift of Himself and declared us righteous through His Son. Jesus became our perfect high priest and intercessor. Hebrews 2:17 says, “For this reason [Christ] had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” That same pure and exalted high priest intercedes for us before God, arguing for His righteousness as our standing before a holy God (Hebrews 7:25).  

When we receive Christ in faith, He forgives all our sins—past, present, and future. This is not to say we should willfully keep on sinning or become insensitive to the urgings of the Holy Spirit. Instead, we should embrace the freedom Jesus offers as a gift while constantly pursuing Him and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). Calvary and His resurrection mark the victory over our failures. When we receive Christ we can live with liberty. His infinitely valuable sacrifice gives us freedom to be and do what He calls us to.  

In accepting Christ’s remedy for our guilt we become motivated to live and speak by His power and for His glory. Second Corinthians 5:17 reminds us that those who are in Christ are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” We must turn our attention to the Lord and away from ourselves. Let us pursue Him as the only One with the power and provision necessary to free us. When we daily respond to His urgings, our lives will testify to His transcendent glory and infinite worth.


*This is an excerpt from my book “Captivated Anew: Restored to Pursue Him.” It can be found on virtually any major on-line bookstore in both digital and hardcopy formats.

The most memorable presentation I ever heard took place at a speech competition. The speaker was a tall and sturdily built young man with long, curly red hair and an intense stage presence that captured attention. The man’s content and timing were impeccable; he kept the audience roaring with laughter.  

The giggles, chuckles, and bellowing delight revolved around the speaker’s personal barroom experiences as a drunken reveler. His tales were rich with the humor of falls, curses, faints, cavorting, and his history of making a fool of himself. Each story built on the previous one as the man increased the intensity of the hilarity to a crescendo. The auditorium echoed with riotous laughter as he took a long pause. 

Then … BAM!!! He slammed the podium with his fist and screamed a curse. “What are you laughing at?” he demanded, “I’m an alcoholic!” Immediately the laughter ceased. The room became utterly still; the silence deafened. As the young man returned to his seat without further comment, his point was clear: Why do people laugh at tragedy and shameful topics? Why do we laugh at sin?  

Proverbs 14:9 says, “Fools mock at sin” (NKJV). The bulk of American comedy, in all of its forms, is generally crude, mean, offensive, and sacrilegious. Certainly we question the morals of those who would speak such filth in order to accumulate wealth and popularity, but few of us bother to avoid movies and television shows in which such comedy is embraced. Jesus said: “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander’” (Matthew 15:18-19). He also stated: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). I’m deeply distressed that Christ-followers find amusement in things that point to the tragedy of sin—things that only highlight the sad, evil thoughts that hold so many hostage. 

In First Thessalonians 5:22 Paul says to believers, “Avoid every kind of evil.” But often believers become intrigued by the vile and base language and stories shared in modern comedy. In doing so, we become participants in the propagation of trash. I agree with few Christian slogans since I find very little substance in “bumper sticker religion,” but one catch-phrase that holds merit when it comes to whether or not a Christ-follower should find enjoyment in vulgar or sacrilegious comedy is “WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?” We should constantly ask ourselves, Would Jesus listen to and laugh at this if He were watching and listening to modern entertainment? If the answer is “no,” we are wise to find entertainment elsewhere.  

Clearly Christ condemned the evil thoughts and words that contaminate our society and taint His creation. They indicate a deeper spiritual issue: our sinful and wicked hearts. In Matthew 12:34 Christ asked, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” On the surface, it’s easy to see the spiritual depravity of the purveyors of the kind of comedy I’ve mentioned, but to enjoy such filth is also a reflection of our sin-stained hearts. We must hold to Paul’s advice to the church as Ephesus: “There [should] be [no] obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place” (Ephesians 5:4). 

Our innate sinful nature and desire for base things over virtuous ones highlight why we so desperately need a Savior from our sin. When we peel back the layers of our human nature, we expose hearts that are radically different than the ones needed to have fellowship with Holy God. Despite the fact that both our culture and those who live in it have lost their innocence, purity, and naiveté, God still demands these virtues (See Colossians 3:8). God’s Word says, “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11). In the truest sense we can only find those things in Jesus, and so we must pursue Him.  

The Lord is certainly not against laughter; in fact, He created it.  However, let’s remember that He said, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) and that His ultimate standard is complete righteousness.  Second Corinthians 5:21 tells us that only in Christ will we find what we don’t have and yet what a holy God demands. That’s why pursuing Him and His way is no laughing matter.


*This is an excerpt from my book “Captivated Anew: Restored to Pursue Him.” It can be found on virtually any major on-line bookstore in both digital and hardcopy formats.   

Never is a good time for a funeral. With this in mind, on one snowy December night in East Tennessee, I found myself attending two. I didn’t look forward to either, but I forced myself to go. I’m so glad that I did because the events of that night created an inescapable and profound memory that changed me. The night played out like a parable: it taught a valuable lesson about life and, more importantly, death. 

As a pastor I had attended my share of funerals. Some were depressing, while others were celebratory. Some of the deceased were young and some were old. Some had professed Christ and some had not. Most of those for whom services were held died of natural causes, but occasional accidents and inexplicable suicides happened, too. Every victim of death left families and legacies behind. Those legacies played out at their final services. 

What I expected as I entered the funeral for a wealthy, prominent heart surgeon was the usual fare: a body, some grieving mourners, a simple sermon, and a quick exit by those made uncomfortable by death’s visit. But this night was unique: a sense of hopelessness and futility defined the evening. Dr. Gates was barely fifty but had achieved great earthly success and wealth. His services were held at an older funeral home. The room was dark and smelled musty. The mourners were primarily his older patients who seemed to know little about him personally. Only a handful of visitors gathered around the room and nearly all of the women wore expensive fur coats, including his ostentatiously dressed wife who was nearly thirty years his junior. The chapel was hauntingly quiet; the air was thick with morbidity. I felt that the atmosphere reeked with sadness and despondency: Jesus didn’t have any part in Dr. Gates’ life. Clearly there was no joy and very little evidence of faithful hope beyond this life. Also, I deeply sensed an overwhelming lack of real love. 

I left that dusty and dank funeral home and drove toward Jenny’s funeral. Jenny was 22 when she died. She had recently graduated college and had become engaged to one of my friends. Having little in the way of material possessions, she had one desire: to serve as a missionary. Jenny never achieved the dream. I felt as dreary as the inclement weather as I braved the icy roads and dodged inexperienced commuters to locate the church where her body lay. Surprisingly, it was easy to find; bright, welcoming lights shone on the pillars of the church’s entrance. The sound of singing streamed out of the building and into the night. 

Even though I was running late I stopped the car, paused and prayed. I remember that the prayer was more for me than the deceased or their families. After Dr. Gates’ funeral I needed God’s strength to face the next funeral and the seeming tragedy of such a young life’s end. But as I approached the entrance I realized that the singing I heard was anything but sad. I entered the church to find hundreds of folks crowding each pew standing and praising God in unison. “Victory in Jesus” was their joyous hymn. 

The eulogist at the service spoke of Jenny’s faith and ministerial dreams. He spoke of hope, love, glory, and Heaven. He extolled the infinite virtues of her majestic Lord. He confidently proclaimed that our friend was at home with Jesus and all was well. At Jenny’s funeral, joy was such an intense and prevailing theme that it made me jealous of her death. The words of psalmist rang in my ears and resonated in my soul, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). I saw firsthand why Paul felt confident to ask, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”… Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57). 

As I drove home that night, the snow stopped and the clouds receded. My mind, however, wasn’t on the weather. My heart explored the lesson taught by two diametrically opposed exits from this earth. The scene at Dr. Gates’ funeral reminded me of Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus. He described those outside of Christ as being “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Jenny’s service, on the other hand, pointed to death not as a sad, pointless end; but as a bridge to glorious, eternal life with Jesus.  “[She] overcame … by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [her] testimony” (Revelation 12:11a). 

Suddenly things became crystal clear. While Dr. Gates’ life may have seemed a success based on his financial worth and community standing, Jenny was the real winner. Though she had little of material value, she had Jesus. The testimony of her death trumpeted His truth.

When life’s curtain draws closed, nothing else really matters. Those who have Christ are the only ones who have anything of eternal value. For when our days on this earth reach a conclusion what do we really have to cling to but Him?


*This is an excerpt from my book “Captivated Anew: Restored to Pursue Him.” It can be found on virtually any major on-line bookstore in both digital and hardcopy formats.

When I was a very young pastor, the Lord used an unlikely person to teach me a valuable lesson. I pray I never forget it. That Sunday morning I preached the sermon of my life, having prepared and presented a theological treatise that would make John Calvin proud—or so I thought. While I planned diligently, chose a “deep” topic, and even threw in a few Greek and Hebrew terms, I was (in retrospect) a little too pleased with my presentation and myself that morning. I just knew that my wonderful speech would inspire the congregants. 

And I thought they needed inspiration. They were a little too rural for my taste. Although the church of 800 members resided in an upper middle class community in West Knoxville, Tennessee, it remained true to its informal roots. Much to my chagrin, their worship was unordered: hymns were chosen randomly as the names of each were called aloud by the attendees. Testimony time in that church could break out at a moment’s notice and would occasionally serve as the primary focus of the service. Sometimes, in fact, I was unable to deliver my intricately prepared sermon as the service took on a life all its own. Those times left me feeling as if my seminary education was a waste. 

On this particular Sunday, however, things went smoothly; I was brilliant! As I left the dais and moved to the altar area, I just knew that I had “wowed” them. I asked, as was my custom, if anyone had anything else they would like to add to the day’s message. I secretly hoped that there would be silence so that I could move on to the closing prayer and dismissal. Much to my shock, Mrs. Jones raised her hand and began to shuffle to the front of the auditorium.  

Mrs. Jones had been a member of our church for over sixty years. Though widowed, she never missed a worship service and always sat in the same place. Mrs. Jones would say “hi” or “good morning” but little else, and she certainly never testified. I was surprised to find myself gripped with fear and even a little resentment as she slowly made her way down the aisle. She was about to take the focus off of “my” sermon. Could it be that she’d noticed my pride? Was she about to call me out in front of the whole church? 

The usually restless group (who always seemed to run home after church as if they had roasts in the oven) was hushed in silent respect at the sight of Mrs. Jones tottering towards the front. I didn’t breathe as she slowly grabbed the microphone from my hand and paused. Here stood the lady whom everyone turned to for prayer. Here stood a servant who didn’t have to be the center of attention to teach that her faith was genuine and powerful. 

Faintly, her breath stirred through the PA system as she clutched the mike. When she spoke, it was in a whisper: “I love Jesus.”  

That was it. Nothing more.  

I was absolutely stunned and overwhelmed as her shaking hand returned the microphone to mine. As she shuffled back to her pew, tears flowed from every eye in the house—including my own. Thankfully, I was at a complete loss for words. There was nothing of value that I could add. Mrs. Jones’ words were so true that everyone was touched by the divine simplicity of her faith. I was reminded of the marvelous truth that we find in First John 5:10, “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart.” “I love Jesus,” was her testimony. It should be that of every believer.  

Mrs. Jones’ is still the greatest sermon I have heard. I was devastated yet consumed by its profound beauty. No Greek or Hebrew words. No theological jargon. No alliteration or three points and a poem to capture listeners’ attention. Mrs. Jones needed no seminary training. She had all she needed: Jesus and her love for Him. Paul’s words in First Corinthians 1:17-21 ring true:  

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 

I’ll always thank God for the role Mrs. Jones played in my life.  She reminds me that our testimony, no matter how simple, should confirm the indwelling presence of Christ. Her genuine words of faith powerfully reflected a life submitted to her Savior. I especially think of her when I read Paul’s words: “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way–in all your speaking and in all your knowledge– because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you” (1 Corinthians 1:4-6).


**** This is an excerpt from Captivated Anew: Restored to Pursue Him published in 2009. It was originally entitled “Ricky and the Rascals”.

The most interesting congregation I ever led lived in a nursing home. Every Tuesday night that I was not traveling on business, I ventured to their building to share Jesus. Part of my ministry involved retrieving them from their small rooms and wheeling them to the recreation room where our Bible study was held. Though I sincerely wanted to build them up with time in God’s Word, I often found myself having to focus more on crowd control than spiritual edification.

One evening, for instance, a near melee broke out as two octogenarians struggled over the same walker. Apparently the “thief” desired the Cadillac-of-walkers model possessed by another woman. For the thief, the 1960s bicycle bell it sported proved too much temptation; ringing it would warn other residents of the owner’s slow approach. As the tussle ensued the women struggled back and forth like two three-year-olds battling over a toy. Both possessed a death grip on their claim. And when Mary, the owner, released her hands from the walker; the perpetrator flew backwards and crashed into the wall without ever releasing her prize. Chaos broke out before order was restored.

On another occasion, Martha, who interrupted every meeting with the same question -“Will I go to hell because I can’t stop saying god d***?” – became particularly unruly. Her sacrilegious and inopportune profanity paralyzed me. She even asked the question in the midst of Scripture reading. I never found a good retort for her outbursts even though I knew the question was inevitable. I often found myself wondering, What in the world am I doing here?

Another challenge to my nursing home ministry was named Ricky. He was our most faithful attendee, providing Bibles for those who met in the tiny space where we convened. All Ricky’s Bibles were the same translation: The Old King James. (Ricky claimed it was the same version used by the Old Testament prophets. All others were “perversions.”) Many evenings, Ricky managed to derail the progress of our meetings with his incessant questions about eschatology. He delivered them in what I like to call machine-gun interrogation style. After several run-ins with his questioning, I found myself fighting the temptation to leave Ricky out of our meetings all together.

Deserting our group was the easy thing for me to do. Unfortunately, “deserted” defined the situation of many who lived in that home. They had nowhere to go: their families had abandoned them. I rarely saw a family visitor as I rambled down the halls and peered into the rooms of that facility. Instead, I found the sad faces of many whose families found them disposable. The busyness and self-centeredness of many of their families and friends had left many of the nursing home’s residents almost completely without family ties, interest, or love. As much as they craved attention, they rarely saw genuine caring and compassion.

Today the room where I used to share Christ is locked. It now serves as the occupational therapy room; Bible study there has ceased. I have not, however, forgotten the importance of my elderly friends. There are more people like Mary, Martha, and Ricky in our institutions than we care to imagine. They may be rascals, but they have souls. Despite their contrary and difficult personalities, they need dignity, love, and—most importantly— Jesus.

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus explained that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” And in Luke 10:30-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ encouraged His followers to show mercy to the hurting and the downtrodden. Our nursing homes are full of people who desperately need to hear about the love and hope that can be found in Christ. Their spiritual condition matters.

I want to encourage us as Christ’s followers to stroll the halls of our nursing homes and see the despair and despondency of lonely people forsaken by those they called family. In the name of Jesus, it’s the least we could do for least of these. In stopping in to say hello or to pass out small gifts and smiles, we can know that our efforts are unto Him. So many sit in a closet-like room silently pleading for someone to knock on the door and say a simple, “Hey, how are you?”  That someone could be you.


*****This is an excerpt from “Captivated Anew: Restored to Pursue Him” (published in 2009).

Never is a good time for a funeral. With this in mind, on one snowy December night in East Tennessee, I found myself attending two. I didn’t look forward to either, but I forced myself to go. I’m so glad that I did because the events of that night created an inescapable and profound memory that changed me. The night played out like a parable: it taught a valuable lesson about life and, more importantly, death. 

As a pastor I had attended my share of funerals. Some were depressing, while others were celebratory. Some of the deceased were young and some were old. Some had professed Christ and some had not. Most of those for whom services were held died of natural causes, but occasional accidents and inexplicable suicides happened, too. Every victim of death left families and legacies behind. Those legacies played out at their final services. 

What I expected as I entered the funeral for a wealthy, prominent heart surgeon was the usual fare: a body, some grieving mourners, a simple sermon, and a quick exit by those made uncomfortable by death’s visit. But this night was unique: a sense of hopelessness and futility defined the evening. Dr. Gates was barely fifty but had achieved great earthly success and wealth. His services were held at an older funeral home. The room was dark and smelled musty. The mourners were primarily his older patients who seemed to know little about him personally. Only a handful of visitors gathered around the room and nearly all of the women wore expensive fur coats, including his ostentatiously dressed wife who was nearly twenty years his junior. The chapel was hauntingly quiet; the air was thick with morbidity. I felt that the atmosphere reeked with sadness and despondency: Jesus didn’t have any part in Dr. Gates’ life. Clearly there was no joy and very little evidence of faithful hope beyond this life. Also, I deeply sensed an overwhelming lack of real love. 

I left that dusty and dank funeral home and drove toward Jenny’s funeral. Jenny was 22 when she died. She had recently graduated college and had become engaged to one of my friends. Having little in the way of material possessions, she had one desire: to serve as a missionary. Jenny never achieved the dream. I felt as dreary as the inclement weather as I braved the icy roads and dodged inexperienced commuters to locate the church where her body lay. Surprisingly, it was easy to find; bright, welcoming lights shone on the pillars of the church’s entrance. The sound of singing streamed out of the building and into the night.

Even though I was running late I stopped the car, paused and prayed. I remember that the prayer was more for me than the deceased or their families. After Dr. Gates’ funeral I needed God’s strength to face the next funeral and the seeming tragedy of such a young life’s end. But as I approached the entrance I realized that the singing I heard was anything but sad. I entered the church to find hundreds of folks crowding each pew standing and praising God in unison. “Victory in Jesus” was their joyous hymn.

The eulogist at the service spoke of Jenny’s faith and ministerial dreams. He spoke of hope, love, glory, and Heaven. He extolled the infinite virtues of her majestic Lord. He confidently proclaimed that our friend was at home with Jesus and all was well. At Jenny’s funeral, joy was such an intense and prevailing theme that it made me jealous of her death. The words of psalmist rang in my ears and resonated in my soul, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). I saw firsthand why Paul felt confident to ask, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”… Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57).

As I drove home that night, the snow stopped and the clouds receded. My mind, however, wasn’t on the weather. My heart explored the lesson taught by two diametrically opposed exits from this earth. The scene at Dr. Gates’ funeral reminded me of Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus. He described those outside of Christ as being “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Jenny’s service, on the other hand, pointed to death not as a sad, pointless end; but as a bridge to glorious, eternal life with Jesus.  “[She] overcame … by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [her] testimony” (Revelation 12:11a).

Suddenly things became crystal clear. While Dr. Gates’ life may have seemed a success based on his financial worth and community standing, Jenny was the real winner. Though she had little of material value, she had Jesus. The testimony of her death trumpeted His truth.

When life’s curtain draws closed, nothing else really matters. Those who have Christ are the only ones who have anything of eternal value. For when our days on this earth reach a conclusion what do we really have to cling to but Him?


“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39-43).

Ted is a drug addict. Due to multiple back surgeries and other debilitating illnesses he is hooked on numerous prescription drugs. I watched Ted groan and writhe in pain and nausea as he suffered from unintended morphine withdrawal. After a trip to the ER and the healing power of an IV bag dripping the necessary medications back into his desperate body he was back to “normal” within 24 hours. The hospital visit precluded what I thought was the perfect day to share the Gospel with Ted. But God, in His divine providence, had determined that this Saturday was not His perfect time for an explanation of His amazing free offer of grace and forgiveness. That was ordained to take place 72 hours later.

Ted was forthright on that overcast Wednesday, “I’ve committed every kind of sin. I’ve even killed a man…not because I wanted to but because I had to. My life has been a mess since I turned my back on God.  I got saved and baptized as a teenager but chose other things over Him.” He described the day that defined his life: “I was 18 and standing outside of a pool hall. The preacher was on the other side of the street. He told me to leave the joint, cross the street, and do the right thing. You know, to come over to that side. I wanted to. I knew I should. But I turned around and went back into the bar and never looked back. My life has been a mess ever since.”

Now in his mid-60’s, Ted has been homeless, sick, hurt, medicated, fighting, alone, and just surviving for most of his life. He is also illiterate. There is no family and but one friend to care for him. Ted now sits in a government furnished apartment for the indigent having nothing more than the bare necessities. He worries constantly about his Medicaid coverage and Social Security check and whether his pain and panic medicines will be available and affordable. He has a dark past, a dreary present, and, seemingly, a hopeless future. Ted is the type that most folks, including the Church, have given up on. But, in His infinite love, Jesus (and Ted’s one friend) hadn’t.

Ted started listening to some tapes he had been given that shared “The Gospel Made Simple.” As much as I was suspicious of that tagline, I found the tapes to be an accurate representation of the true message of salvation. Not forgetting the faith of his youth, theses tapes reminded Ted of the essentials of being born again; our sin, God’s holiness, the necessity of righteousness, the rightful judgment of God against our rebellion, repentance, and, most of all, how Jesus has made a way for sinners to be redeemed, forgiven, and receive eternal life (see John 3:14-18). Ted understood the Gospel and knew it was all wrapped up in Jesus and the cross of Calvary. He knew he had to see Christ as his only hope and believe and receive Him through the power of the Holy Spirit (see John 1:12-13).

Ted asked me on that providential weekday, “But how can this be?”  Without waiting on a response he continued, “I’ve been too bad for that. It’s too late for me.”  Quoting Romans 10:9-10, I told him there were only 3 things necessary to experience God’s mercy and unmerited favor, receive forgiveness for all his sins, and inherit eternal life in the presence of Jesus: sincerely believe (“if you believe in your heart”), have a life so transformed that it confesses Jesus as Savior (“and confess with your mouth”), and surrender your life to the dominion and lordship of Christ (“that Jesus is Lord”).  To alleviate Ted’s concern his sin was too great, I shared that Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). “What you have to do”, I explained to Ted as clearly as I could, “is to cry out with genuine desire the prayer of the wretched tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (see Luke 18:9-14).  Then I waited in deafening silence.

With his eyes fixed on mine, Ted paused. Finally, his emphysema filled lungs gasped and he carefully, tearfully, and emphatically said, “That is what I need.” An interminable, stunning silence ensued. “And that is what I want…I want to live the rest of my life for Jesus. Will you pray with me”? Grabbing the hand that had the letters “h-a-t-e” crudely tattooed on his fingers, we did.

Do I know with certainty the state of Ted’s soul? I do not. That is in our Lord’s loving hands. I do know, however, this opportunity came about because of one devoted, sacrificial woman. As a true follower of Jesus she took Christ’s words, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) to heart. She came often to visit Ted and brought food, love, and prayer. She took her Saturdays to make sure his meds and refrigerator were stocked. She came with warm, caring words and a comforting presence. She also introduced me to Ted. And, just maybe, by God’s grace and through her demonstration of Christ-like love reintroduced Ted to Jesus.

**** I’m thankful that today I will marry this same woman. I’m grateful that God did such a mighty and joyful work that now she will be called Rebekah Wolfe. Isn’t God so very good? He certainly has been to me!


**** This is an excerpt from “Captivated Anew: Restored to Pursue Him” published in 2009:

Ever eaten homemade honey—the kind with the honeycomb still in it? Nothing is so delicious. It is pure, simple, and satisfying. 

Living near the Great Smokey Mountains has its advantages. Years ago I took day trips to those beautiful hills to enjoy the grandeur of God’s creation. With a blanket, a picnic lunch, and my Bible, I sat next to a babbling brook and sensed the Holy Spirit’s presence in a unique way. Maybe it was the evidence of God’s greatness in creation or maybe it was escaping the frenetic pace and complexity of the world we reside in, but I know that I found incredible peace during those times.  

One of the biggest treats that I indulged in on these adventures was a planned stop at the local beekeeper’s shanty. In a remote and pastoral slice of Heaven that was as picturesque as a postcard, an elderly beekeeper lived amidst a hubcap collection and beehives. I don’t remember his name, and maybe I never knew it, but I will never forget him. The man was born and raised on that same piece of land and annually bottled the finest honey I ever consumed. Each year as I purchased the delicacy, I’d stop to rock in the chairs on his porch and chat with the man who seemed to live in overalls with a whittling stick in his hands. How he loved to share stories that were a treasure of wisdom and insight! 

The beekeeper had never been formally educated, owned a car, or had health insurance. He had only been to “the big city” (Maryville) three times in his life. But all he needed was right there in the woods. He bartered with and borrowed from his neighbors for necessities and could literally walk to his “House of Worship”—a grove of poplars and chestnut trees that spread their branches toward Heaven. The beekeeper, it seemed, was as pure and untainted as his honey. He didn’t see anything in modern society and its busyness that would bring him lasting satisfaction. For that reason, he epitomized simplicity. He was the picture of peace. I don’t remember much of what he said during our visits, but I know that he oozed contentment. The source of his uncommon satisfaction came from his Savior. Clearly, Jesus Christ was all that he really needed. 

The beekeeper is gone now. I stopped by once and his wife sweetly said that he was too ill to chat, but they did have some honey for sale. The next trip she met me at the door and matter-of-factly stated, “He’s now in eternal joy, and I’m not far behind.” On my final visit, the woman just gave me the honey: three jars. “Storing up treasures in Heaven,” she said.  

As I journeyed on to my place of refuge to seek after God, I left with the distinct impression that the rural beekeeper knew what life was really all about. In retrospect, he reminds me of another honey fanatic, John the Baptist: “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Unspoiled by the emptiness and misery of his own society, John paved the way for the One by preaching the simple truths that so confounded his own people. Ancient Rome thought John a lunatic, but he really held the right answer to life’s problems in his rudimentary methodology and message: “Make straight the way for the Lord (John 1:23). Through his preaching and even through his simplicity, John pointed to the incarnate Word (John 1:1) that was “not of this world” (John 8:23). 

That Word of whom John spoke is Jesus. His teachings are not of this world, but they are supernatural, pure, and satisfying truth. His words call us out of the world into His undefiled, untainted, and infinite beauty. His words give us meaning, purpose, and satisfaction that contrast with this world’s superficial deceptions, self-absorption, shallow reality, and dangerous lies. Christ’s perfect words tell us of the ultimate pursuit: eternal joy in Him. His truths tell us that, in the end, life isn’t all about us and our “stuff.” Instead, life is all about Him and the Word that tastes so pleasing and so satisfies our souls. I agree with the psalmist: “How sweet are your words to my taste, [Oh, Lord,] sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Psalm 119:103)! 

The beekeeper knew that a life in Christ, one based on His Word, is sweet like honey. He found satisfaction and fulfillment in what Christ accomplished at Calvary and so do I. The beekeeper trusted in the Word and so do I. That is why I still keep those three jars of honey after so many years. Life is not about frenzied pursuits of this world but about the contentment and peace that only comes when we trust that the Lord’s sweet presence and words are truly all we need.

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