On Sunday night, my wife gave birth to our newest addition in…our…home. That’s right! Inside our house. She did not want the hospital experience this time. I was torn up about the thought of it and was apprehensive until the baby came out. My wife had her crew present to soothe and coach. Worship music was playing in the background, and I was trying to keep my sanity.
As it drew closer, one of the ladies began singing along with the worship songs. By the time “It Is Well” and “Goodness of God” played back to back, I was bawling. I have been reading “Wounded by God’s People” by Anne Graham Lotz. In the book, she tells the story of Hagar, a woman who was wounded by God’s people, namely Abraham and Sarah. In Hagar’s attempt to run from her wounds, God revealed Himself to her. This story is a beautiful reminder that God pursues the wounded. Scripture says He is near to the broken-hearted. God pursued me in that moment. I was reminded that I allowed my wounds to keep me from experiencing God.
Obviously, this experience was not MY natural birthing experience. But God met me in the midst of it. And I pray I’m never the same!
If you were to write a script for your life, what would it look like? Would it have conflict? Drama? Problems? Or would it be more like a fairy tale with the traditional “happily ever after” ending? To be completely honest with you, I would choose the fairy tale. If you know my story, you know it is not horrible but it is certainly not a fairy tale. My story is a mix of my disasters and God’s plans.
While I am being honest, I can’t always say I like God’s plans. Why is that? Part of me is selfish. Part of me wants the delusional over the realistic. Part of me still wants the prosperity gospel (as false as it is) over the real call of Christ to deny myself daily, take up the cross, and follow Him. This false gospel has given many believers a false sense of security and a really warped view of God. They can’t make sense of why they would suffer while the prosperity pimps/pastors are living it up. This unbiblical view has many believers grappling with the difficulties of life and preventing them from seeing life through a biblical lens.
This verse has stuck out to me for the last week and a half. It is Proverbs 16:9 (TPT) – “Within your heart you can make plans for your future, but the Lord chooses the steps you take to get there.” I was listening to Pastor Heath Lambert from First Baptist, Jacksonville, FL share this verse and how the church’s downsizing plan took a different turn than they planned. A church that has dwindled by 6,000 plus in attendance over the last two decades, they have had to come up with a plan to operate with their means and get refocused on the Great Commission. In this process, they were looking at renovating one part of their facility for worship while God was blocking that plan to redirect them to renovating a different part of the existing facility. The church is finally able to pay its bills and operate within its means, so they arrived to the desired destination but did so via a different path.
My story is probably similar to FBC Jacksonville. Life and ministry used to be on a much larger scale. Due to a few twists and turns, I found myself on a much different path. Here’s the awesome part – I’m still in the game! Another pastor who has been divorced told me that I would be like a bird with a broken wing. I wouldn’t fly with the big boys, but I would still fly.
Dear reader, you may have had some unexpected twists and turns in your life. You’ve faced some disappointments, and life didn’t happen the way you planned. God is not caught off guard. And He is not far away! Only eternity will reveal the true story of your life. You might think God is done with you, but He may be using you in greater ways on a smaller level. We will never understand God’s ways because our minds aren’t made to comprehend them. Scripture says His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. It might be time to do what the song says and let Jesus take the wheel and surrender our disasters to God’s plans.
The month of August is historically a month of transition for me. My first August transition was bittersweet. It was in 2003 when I left Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hartsville, SC to step into the unknown, which would soon carry me to Southside Baptist Church in Hazlehurst, GA, where I would once again leave in the month of August, this time in 2009 to serve at Hepsibah Baptist Church in Seneca, SC. These three ministries were extremely key in shaping me. I saw both the blessing of God along with growing pains and am thankful for all the wonderful people I encountered during those years.
The month of August looks a lot different these days. Since then, the month of August seems to be filled with births of babies. Charisabella, my first child with Jennifer, was born August 3. Now, we are awaiting the birth of a little boy whose due date was the 6th.
Transition never ends, but I’m glad. If I never transitioned in my Christian growth, it would be a horrible thing. God never saved us just to sit around and wait for Heaven. Second Corinthians 3:18 says, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” As we grow, we are being transformed into the image of Christ by the Spirit of the Lord.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the same. As much as I enjoyed the victories I experienced at Emmanuel, Southside, and Hepsibah, I want new victories and blessings of God in ministry. I want new growth as an individual and minister of the gospel. If I haven’t grown, God help me. I also want to continue to grow as a husband and father. This may be my sixth biological child coming, but I know I have a lot of growth still as a parent. Blended families aren’t for sissies. (Stepmoms and stepdads should be shouting and waving a handkerchief right now.) I can’t be even halfway good at this without growth.
I have no idea what transitions face me in the future months of August. What I do know is that God will be there to help me face those transitions. I doubt there is a reader here who has not had your fair share of difficulties in life. I have. But I can testify that God is faithful.
I’ll close with these hymn lyrics as I reflect on God’s Grace during transition. I pray you will find them to be a blessing.
“He Giveth More Grace”
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater.
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase
To added affliction He addeth His mercy
To multiplied trials His multiplied peace
When we have exhausted our store of endurance
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done
You may be thinking, “Matthew, the answer is obvious. Of course, Jesus had a spine. He had a human body.” Others get where I am going with this. Have you ever heard someone being referred to as “spineless”? This means that they lack courage to say what needs to be said and take necessary action. I know the popular trend is to portray Jesus as this weak guy that went easy on everybody, but that is not the Jesus of the Bible.
You may say, “Matthew, why would you say such a thing? Jesus is all about some love.” This is true, but John 1:14 says He is “full of grace AND truth”. If He is full of truth, what do you think will come out of His mouth? Flattery? Southern charm? A good old “bless your heart”? Let’s look first at how He responded in an intolerable situation.
“Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Matthew 21:12-13 NKJV). Did you notice what Jesus did? He turned over tables and told the money changers that they had turned His house into a den of thieves. Southerners in America might say that wasn’t good manners. Jesus had the authority, didn’t He?
Let’s look now at some things He called the scribes and Pharisees.
6. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! (Luke 11:44).
7. Ye are as graves which appear not (Luke 11:44).
He was dealing with religious people who did not want any part of Him. Once again, I can hear you say, “Jesus shouldn’t be name calling.” He is God. He knows the hearts of people, so what He says is truth.
While Jesus is a compassionate Savior, He has no tolerance for sin. People are quick to quote Jesus for saying that those who are without sin should cast the first stone, yet they skip the end when He told the adulterous woman to “go and SIN NO MORE”.
Jesus isn’t spineless. He is very much confrontational. I didn’t say He was hateful. I said that He speaks against what is wrong while meeting them where they are. May we not shy away from speaking the truth in love because we have a weak, unbiblical view of the real Jesus.
Each of us wants an easy life, right? I know those with my personality type do. If you’re like me, you don’t like conflict. You will even go as far as to avoid it at all costs. If you are that kind of person, I have no doubt you would jump at any opportunity to be problem-free, especially if you knew you could also experience right standing with God. Many people come into the Christian life with an understanding that their problems will vanish, but this is not a biblical truth.
The Bible promises problems for the Christian. (I’m doing a great job selling the Christian life, huh?) In fact, the closer you walk with Jesus, the more likely you are to experience hardship. For example, most all the early disciples gave their life for the faith. When faced with the opportunity to live or die for believing in Christ, they chose to die pretty gruesome deaths. Jesus promised in John 16:33 that we WILL have tribulation in this world. He followed it with a word of hope, but that does not negate the reality of hardship. Paul told Timothy that “the godly in Christ Jesus SHALL suffer persecution”. So much for that prosperity package that many charlatans are promising! Nothing in the Christian life is gained without obedience, discipline, and even suffering.
We are definitely in perilous times. I don’t consider myself to be a doom and gloom preacher, but it is clear that Christian liberties are being attacked. Many of the rights and liberties our forefathers fought to protect are at risk. Other faith groups that don’t align with Christianity are included in that number. Many groups are under attack. Our forefathers fought against government control, yet we are seeing it come more and more to the forefront. Guidelines are one thing; control is another.
Many have asked me over the last few months if Jesus is coming back soon. Some think this might the Tribulation. I can’t give definitive answers to those questions, but I can say the stage is being set.
Jesus didn’t promise a problem-free life, but He did promise grace for the journey. When the Apostle Paul was faced with what he called a “thorn in the flesh”, he asked God three times to remove it. What was God’s response? “My Grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” That promise rings true today. Don’t run away because it’s not easy. Run to the Father and find the strength you need to face these difficult days.
As I was growing up, the Christian circles I was in didn’t care much about cultural relevance. I attended a very conservative Christian school that was not cutting edge (this is just an opinion, but please know I value the school highly because it was where I surrendered my life to Christ and later to the call to ministry). The church I attended was more on the liberal side and was very liturgical/traditional. My first 6 years of vocational ministry were not focused on cultural relevance. I was just glad to have a place to serve and wanted to learn all I could while obeying God’s call on my life.
In 2002, I was introduced to this cultural relevance, and I began to view church and ministry through a different lens. All of a sudden, my preaching had to be “relevant”. My song selections had to be “relevant”. Everything the church did could no longer represent its past. Every year, the church had to outdo the year before. I would like to think much was accomplished by that. Many people were awestruck by the methods of the church, but how many lives were transformed by the gospel? Am I saying churches should not have attractive ministries? No. The church should be its absolute best, but that level of excellence should be based on God’s standards rather than human standards. The bottom line – God defines relevance differently than we do.
Think with me for a minute. How relevant were the prophets of old by today’s definition? They were declaring words straight from God. Those in the Old Testament heard His voice audibly. They declared things that were insane. Even John the Baptist looked crazy and had a weird diet. No pastor search committee would choose them. They all had a common message – REPENT!
Fast forward to now! This generation, even some who claim to be Bible-based Christians, want little to do with a message of repentance or one way to Heaven. I’m not implying that we must walk around in sackcloth and ashes, speaking King James English, and wearing first-century clothing. I am saying that God’s truth is timeless. I know you are tempted to “change things up a bit” or “make things more attractive for lost people”, but don’t miss the message that people need. The message of “Jesus saves” transcends culture. While many are out here trying to be cool, relevant, or whatever modern term you want to use, just be the person God called you to be and proclaim the message He called you to proclaim. Christianity goes against the grain. Let’s stop trying to make it something it’s not.
I would dare say that the vast majority of people in churches are critical of preaching, and their preferences are as numerous as the stars in the sky. Some want loud preaching while others want soft preaching. Some want long preaching while others prefer brief sermons. The stronger criticism I hear in conservative circles is the hatred of what they call “feel-good preaching”. The critics of “feel-good preaching” speak of it with such disdain that you would think these messages were preached by the devil himself. The question is, “How does God feel about this kind of preaching?”
Let’s answer this question with Scripture. Second Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The truth here is that ALL Scripture is inspired by God. If you read enough of Scripture, you will discover that there are doctrinal truths that will make us feel good. When I read about the righteousness of Christ applied to me, a believing sinner, I feel good as I think about my positional righteousness in Christ. When I read the promises of God, I feel good. Some preachers only preach the stuff that makes us feel good. If ALL Scripture is inspired, it stands to reason that we should preach the stuff that is difficult to bear. No man or woman who is involved in sexual sin wants to hear a sermon on God’s truth about sex, but it must be preached. No dishonest businessman wants to hear a sermon about honest gain, but it must be preached. We can’t pick and choose the parts we like and avoid the ones we dislike.
Are “feel-good sermons” wrong? Absolutely not! Would it be wrong for me to only preach that and ignore that truth that we must repent and trust Christ as Savior? Absolutely! It’s all about balance. Let’s strive to preach all truth in a generation that desperately needs the light of God.
The context of this verse tells us to avoid making hasty vows, especially to God. There is, however, some practical wisdom here. I’ll share it from my own personal experience.
Hurt people HURT people. I wish I could say this didn’t apply to me, but it has. A few years ago, life and ministry circumstances were painful. For years, I was accustomed to having a ministry voice, and then it was stripped away. It seemed as if God were taunting me, saying, “I called you many years ago, but you’re just going to take up space for the rest of your life.” That was not God’s voice. That was the devil! God still has a work for me, and the devil can’t stand it. No divorce or any other life change can hinder what God wants!
When I was going through the time of immense hurt, I lashed out in my writing. That would have been a good time for me to heed the Scripture “let your words be few”. My words did some damage, and I wish everyday I could wish/pray them away or undue the offense they caused. I can’t. But here is what I can do – I can use the lesson to help other people. As I am working with pastors and ministry leaders each week, I have a truck load of “what not to do” responses I give them. I can also do what another pastor with a similar story advised me to do. He said, “Matthew, just prove yourself.” So that is what I choose to do. I can’t undo the past, but I can chart a new path in my best days of choosing to please God.
In the day of “free speech” (meaning free as long as it doesn’t offend anyone lol), don’t go to social media with your anger and cries for attention. The results aren’t so great. Find some wise counsel who can help you process your hurt. Until then, “let your words be few.”
Does anyone struggle with spending daily time in Scripture? You may do well for a while and then drop off in consistency after a while? Then you feel guilty for missing daily time in the Bible? You are not alone. I have been there over and over again. In this post, I want to share some of my struggles and offer some thoughts I hope will help you.
I did not begin to study the Bible consistently until I was 16. I had just surrendered to the call to ministry and could not get enough. I was cranking out sermons like crazy. When I went to Bible college, by nature, I was in Scripture all the time. Then I got out of the Bible college bubble into the real world. The pace of life picked up, and I found myself in Scripture out of obligation. Duty-driven spiritual actions often lack delight. I have been in this rut dozens of times and had to come back to the heart of worship over and over.
A pastor told me that preaching 3 sermons a week kept him in the Bible all the time, and he was thankful for that. During my 11 months of preaching weekly, I saw what he said fleshed out daily. Then I found myself out of the pastorate and out of the daily discipline. On top of that, my daily wrestling with God kept me away. The “why” questions of my heart built a wall that preventing my desire for Bible study from being aflame. I was saved, but my heart was far away.
Fast forward to today. At the beginning of this year, I decided I was going to successfully read through the Bible in one year. Thanks to the YouVersion app, I have a plan I can follow. I wanted to read through chronologically rather than from Genesis to Revelation (which is not published in chronological order), so I picked the “One Year Chronological Bible”. A daily plan will often cover the moments of overlap in the Bible. I love it. I do, however, find the historic books cumbersome. The historic books are Joshua through Nehemiah. At every turn, there is war, a sequence of good king, bad king, and the people returning to idolatry. I fell off the wagon of reading for 3 weeks during this time. I decided I would read along with the audio to keep myself engaged.
Today, I almost got caught up with the plan. As I was listening and reading, the truth of God fed my spirit. It was great! I am reminded that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). My weary soul found rest.
When you become inconsistent in your spiritual disciplines, there is no reason to beat yourself up. Guilt and shame are not God’s motivators. God wants to spend time with you, so get back up. It’s a new day, so get up and spend some time with God. Pray. Study the Bible. Spend time with other believers (even if it has to be on FaceTime or Zoom in the midst of a pandemic). Refuse to neglect your spirit. God wants the time with you, and you need it.
When COVID-19 hit and places began closing, it was prime time for the devil to prey upon me. As I mentioned in a previous post, the devil loves to attack when we are isolated. The attack took on a different twist. I was bombarded with tons of past memories. These were memories that hurt. Memories that caught me off guard. What was I to do with these memories?
I asked the Lord to show me what was going on. Why would these old memories hit me now? As I was trying to make sense of all this, one thing came to mind – I had not grieved some major losses in my life.
When people think of grief, they mainly think about the death of a loved one. While this kind of grief is valid, we often overlook other types of loss. We lose friendships, other relationships, jobs, money, social status, etc. I was left with processing grief for many things I lost – a marriage, a daily relationship with my kids, ministry as I knew it, people who no longer saw my calling as valid, etc. Some of these losses had been left ungrieved for almost 7 years. Now I know the freedom of having walked through the grief process of some of these things.
What losses have you experienced in life? Have you grieved those losses? If not, you will be stuck until you do. You will carry that baggage into chapter after chapter of your life. Grief is simultaneously painful and liberating. It’s time to grieve! This may sound odd, but you’ll be glad you grieved.