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In their blog this week The Gospel Coalition commemorated John Piper’s famous 2000 Passion Conference message “Don’t Waste Your Life” (aka, the “seashells” talk). It not only fixed Piper’s influence in the hearts of the 40,000 twenty-somethings gathered in Memphis on that afternoon in May but also became, as the blog notes, “formative for a generation.” For many, Dr. Piper’s words were prophetic, arresting, and spoke to them in the deepest of ways. I call that kind of a message a life message. It’s the kind of message that ruins you for all the right reasons and boldly changes the trajectory of your life.

It got me thinking about my own life message. I heard a talk (also a conference message) that spoke to me in the deepest of ways. It was one of those rare moments when you read or hear something by someone who puts into words what you believed but couldn’t put into words yourself. You just can’t quite formulate it yet. It was like an essential code in the back of your mind (and the middle of your heart) always frustratingly suspended on the verge of being broken. But the second someone finally deciphered it and you beheld its long-awaited clarity in all its glory, it became the Aha! moment where you shouted, “That’s what I believe!”

My “seashells” message was given by Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. This was before he had written his bestselling books or attained national notoriety. It was 2007. A friend of mine in NYC encouraged me to listen to “this Tim Keller guy” whenever I had the chance, so when I came across a video of his address to the newly minted Gospel Coalition in May of that same year with a message entitled, “Gospel-Centered Ministry,” I thought it something I needed to hear. I settled into my office, closed the door, and watched his 55-minute address.

I was spellbound almost from the word ‘go.’ Dr. Keller’s struggles in church paralleled mine. Yet his answer to those struggles was exactly what I’d thought but couldn’t put into words: a theology of gospel-centrality. My growing angst in ministry had finally found the answer. Indeed, as I heard him eloquently speak about not only what the gospel is but how it should intersect all ministry, especially the pulpit (as he also was a preaching pastor), I kept saying aloud, “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” Although his address wasn’t significantly animated or charismatic like John Piper’s message, I was continuously moved to tears throughout it.

Finally, I had the clarity I was looking for. The code was deciphered in my head and heart. It was such a “moment” for me I watched it again. Another 55 minutes of me nodding my head, dabbing tears from eyes, and saying in my heart, “This is what I believe!” In author Jared Wilson’s parlance, I was experiencing a gospel awakening.1

The grace in it all was Keller’s ability to not only put into words what I couldn’t about gospel-centered ministry but to provide a framework and paradigm for it as well. Now that I had it (or better yet, it had me), I was dangerous because I knew what this meant. I knew this would define me, my ministry, and the local church I served. There was no turning back. I wanted to know everything I could from those who sought to keep the gospel central to ministry. In short, I was ruined.

I read a lot, studied a ton, and even chose my doctoral work based on a seminary that would deepen me in gospel-centered ministry. I began to dialogue with those who were way ahead of me. I couldn’t get enough! I even called up Redeemer and asked for their discipleship materials, and our executive staff spent weeks working through them.2 Needless to say, gospel-centrality would be a defining mark of CCCC. Indeed, ten years later, it has. In a survey a few years ago of our staff and small group leadership, when asked what makes CCCC “CCCC,” at the very top of the list was our commitment to the centrality of the gospel in all things.

So, for all my Passion friends who were marked by God through Piper’s words, Keller’s did the same for me with this message3:

If I could give one piece of advice to spiritual seekers (or believers for that matter) who have nagging questions about Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity which keep them from embracing Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity, I could summarize it in two words: work hard. If there are troubles, doubts, or a lack of clarity keeping you from a deeper engagement or commitment to knowing and following God as revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ then I would encourage you to be industrious about finding the answers. If you attend a local church you might utilize her leaders or journey along with a small group of believers for help. Furthermore, you could read books from the best and brightest biblical scholarship over the decades if not the centuries. You could also see if the Church Historical has already encountered and answered your questions (I mean, we’re talking roughly 2,000 years here). Regardless how you pursue the answers to your questions, the point is to actually pursue them.

Far too often when I hear of someone’s journey for answers it seems less a journey and more an extremely abbreviated stroll…to their computer to google a question. Unfortunately for many, the “search” amounts to finding within the first page or two of results an answer which merely serves to reaffirm biases and preconceived notions1, and that’s it, they’re done. Back to binge-watching on Netflix. Or maybe the journey abruptly concluded because of a Facebook fake news post blasting long-held truths of orthodox Christianity that the reader assumes is legitimate simply because it’s on a webpage. Hear me, both illustrations are examples of those who aren’t looking for answers as much as wanting to retain excuses for unbelief. Real searching takes real work. Frankly, how hard we work at our search tends to indicate how genuine our search really is. In other words, working hard can be a litmus test for what constitutes a real question we’re hung up on versus something we just tell people we struggle with because we don’t want to come across spiritually shallow or lazy.

The 1992 Academy Award-nominated Lorenzo’s Oil tells the true story of a family with a child, Lorenzo Odone, who begins to show neurological problems, such as loss of hearing, tantrums, etc. The boy is diagnosed as having adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), which is fatal within two years. Augusto, Lorenzo’s father, an economist who worked for the World Bank, couldn’t find a doctor to treat their son’s rare disease, so he took it upon himself to find a treatment to save his son’s life. In their quest, the Odones clash with doctors, scientists, and support groups, who are skeptical that anything could be done about ALD, much less by laypeople – remember, he’s an economist, not a doctor. But Augusto is undeterred. He sets up camp in medical libraries, reviewing animal experiments, enlists the aid of a professor, presses researchers, question top doctors all over the world, and even organized an international symposium about the disease. And yet, in spite of research dead-ends and the horror of watching his son’s health decline, Augusto persists until he finally discovers a therapy involving adding a certain kind of oil to their son’s diet. The movie ends with his son’s improvement and future brighter than when it began.2

Why all the work? Why all the blood, sweat, and tears to get the right answer? Well, for Odone family, getting the answer was literally a matter of life and death. But is our spiritual quest amidst questions and doubts any different? On the contrary, I would argue it’s even greater, for the stakes are infinite. The consequences being eternal life or eternal death (cf., Heb. 9:27). This is why each of us should do whatever it takes to reduce the doubts we have by working hard to get the correct answers, even if we don’t like the answers we find.

Don’t settle for living a life where your “doubts” are really excuses in disguise. Think deeply about the questions you have and work hard to find the answers. Run to the real “oil” of truth and be honest with what you find, even if you don’t like it. Doing so will aid you in your spiritual journey for the present and hopefully for the life to come.

Work hard.

Nothing good ever happens here.

Those were the sentiments expressed by the people of Redenção, a small town in Brazil’s northeast. With drug trafficking, political corruption, abject poverty, and violence on the list of Redenção’s daily reality, it was easy to see why many believed it to be true. Even when a new church moved into the area saying it was going to be a place of truth and hope for the people, a place where children would be cared for and taught about Jesus, a place where the gospel would be known, most were skeptical. They won’t build a building here. They’ll take our children away from us. This will be a bad thing.

Me with Pastor Isaiah and Karl Garcia

And then Pastor Isaiah arrived. With the support of churches and organizations like Acts 29, The Church of 11:22, and Compassion International, not only was a local church established but a building constructed where families could bring their children to be cared for both physically and spiritually.

With Compassion International, I and other Acts 29 pastors had the opportunity last week to witness the Grand Opening of the church in Redenção. It filled my heart with joy to see a thriving gospel work – families were being reached, kids were ministered to, and a gospel dent was being made in the city. I was taken both by the dedication of the church to reach the city as well as Compassion’s intentionality with helping free kids from poverty. It was a powerful combination for those living in Redenção. One woman said that before the church arrived no kids would play in the streets during the day. Now they can. While much darkness still exists in Redenção, there is also light.

Grand Opening of the church with Compassion International’s sponsored kids

Enough light has spread that views are changing. Another lady who at first resisted the planting of the church has now begun to attend it. She’s seen the genuine love and concern of Pastor Isaiah and those who serve alongside him. She’s heard of the goodness of God’s grace in Christ. She’s tasted of what it is when God’s people are about God’s mission.  When asked about everything that’s happened she had a new tune to sing:

Wow! Something good CAN happen here!

And it wasn’t politicians, drug lords, or others in power who make promises to these poorest of people. It was Jesus. Jesus working through his local church.

Playing futbal with the kids

How fitting. In Portuguese, Redenção means “redemption.” It was named so because it was the first place in Brazil that abolished slavery (1883). Indeed, one of the Brazilian leaders told us that the ground on which the church was built likely was a place where slaves were sold. Now, over 130 years later, it is a place where another freedom is found. Freedom from poverty. Freedom from hopelessness. Freedom in the gospel.

Good things still can happen in places where no one thinks it can because the mission of Jesus is not only alive and well but also because it’s each and every one of our calling as Christians…to those across the street or over the seas. May the world find redemption in the Redeemer!