Knocked Down But Restored

Apparently they are the most expensive of pillows...down filled.  They also make for expensive coats.  My experience was with pillows.  When we purchased a sofa and love seat several years ago the pillows that were included were filled with down.  They had a wonderful feel and they looked great.  The decorator even showed us how we were to pat down the centers to give them that classic look.  It didn't take long, however, for the feathers to attempt their escape.  Small white feathers began showing up everywhere.  Painful quills started poking through.  The pillows lost their appeal.  They didn't look like they did when they were new.  They were no longer comfortable.  

Beth Ann finally gave up on our pillows and on our back deck, she beat the stuffing out of them.  Feathers went everywhere.  It looked like a squadron of hawks had attacked a coop of chickens.  Neighbors were certain something had died a miserable death.  Eventually we were left with nothing but pillow covers that appeared as if they had been slightly tarred and heavily feathered. We were left with a mess.  My task was to remove the remaining feathers in order that the covers might continue their usefulness.  No problem.  As I child I had watched my grandfather prepare fresh chickens for the dinner table.  I began to pluck away and now we once again have something beautiful...with a different stuffing.  

At some point in life we have all had the stuffing knocked out of us as well.  We started off useful.  We looked good.  We served a noble purpose.  But eventually we got a little prickly.  Life just has a way of doing that: beating us down until our stuffing is everywhere.  It makes sense.  In a world where we are under constant attack it is impossible to make it through intact and unscathed.  From time to time we wind us a mess.  

How wonderful then that during those times when our stuffing in knocked out, Jesus comes along to restore us.  He fills us with something better.  He remakes us into his very image and gives us a new reason for living.  He renews our purpose and reminds us of our true beauty.  In him, our value is increased.                 

By the way, do you know how to get down off an elephant?  Trick question.  You don't get down off an elephant.  You get down off a goose.

Head Lifter

To begin my journey home this past week I arose well before the dawn.  After a long day and longer evening performing a wedding and then celebrating with a wonderful family, I was exhausted.  But the plane left early.  It had to.  I needed to be back in time for worship on Sunday morning.  And I didn't sleep.  I had this nagging fear that I wouldn't hear the alarm, would oversleep, miss my flight, and leave my church scrambling when the pastor didn't show!  I just dozed.  A few minutes here and there.

And then it was off to the airport at 4 a.m.  Why are there people on the roads at 4 a.m.?  Regardless, I made it in plenty of time, the plane was ready to go and I found a seat by the window in the 4th row.  Since there aren't many pastors heading home early on a Sunday morning, the plane wasn't full.  Didn't matter.  Someone decided she needed to be near the front of the aircraft and sat in the middle seat.  Dread.  

But the full row wasn't really a concern.  Once situated, the sleep I had been missing came quickly.  I was out...for a while.  I was out until I did the famous head drop.  From comfort to concern all within a few seconds.  Every time I would position my head securely against the back of the seat, I would immediately feel my chin hit my chest.  Whiplash! 

That's when it hit me.  Allow me to preface my thought by saying that I usually have a song in my head.  Random songs.  Much of the time, however, they are faith songs.  Songs I hear often and use to keep my spirit close to God's.  So maybe it was because of my ongoing battle, but the song I was silently singing said, "Thou, O Lord, are a shield about me.  You're my glory.  You're the lifter of my head."  Really!

Granted, King David never fell asleep on an airplane.  He did experience fatigue and exhaustion and stress.  When he wrote Psalm 3 he was searching for quietness amidst his troubles.  He says his confidence is in the nature of God (metaphorically a shield) and that the Glorious One gives him reason to lift his head.  David understood that God continually lifts the heads of his people in victory and therein he found his hope.  Our loving and strong God is always with us and always active.

Eventually I let down my tray table, secured my elbows and rested my head in my hands.  As I thought about life I began to pray, "Thank you Lord, for being the lifter of my head."  

The Real Church

I saw the true church today. Well, not really the church...more of a picture of what I believe the church should be. I saw the beautiful representation not in a glorious sanctuary, but in the chemotherapy ward of a major hospital.The ward was large.  Two huge sections separated by multiple nursing stations.  Easy chairs next to IV poles for about eighty people. Around each chair where patients were spending most of the day were smaller seats for loving family members. Everyone had someone. No one was alone. And everyone was family. The attack by that evil nemesis cancer had affected every represented family in one way or another. The attack also united people of every race, both male and female, young and old. People who had never before met talked openly, offered to pray for one another, and listened empathetically.  Hugs were common. Encouraging words flowed like warm honey.  

Throughout the day the relative peace and calm of the ongoing procedures was interrupted by the loud clanging of a gong. The sound could be heard from one end of the ward to the other but was dwarfed by the cheers and applause that followed. Every patient who completed their last treatment had the right to strike the gong. Every other patient rejoiced.  It was a brief moment of celebration in the midst of a nightmare. From our perspective, cancer is always a nightmare. On the other hand, it provided for something special today. I wish the church were more like that chemo ward. I wish people openly loved and cared for one another regardless of differences. I wish we were more inclined to celebrate one another's victories. I wish we were unified by Christ the way our families were unified by illness. As our day was nearing to a close we began counting down the minutes until machines and drips would be disconnected. I was ready to go. And then I wasn't. We couldn't run out. We had to go and share our love one more time with new friends who were now family. We had to exchange numbers and promise support. We had to pray. Sort of like a church.

Well Tumbled

I have a small collection of rocks I have picked up from around the world. My collection is growing and now I am making a little pile. Each rock reminds me of a place...a time...an experience I want to remember. The other day I was looking at my collection and noticed they all share a common characteristic. They are different colors and different sizes, but they are mostly round. They have been tumbled in the surf for many years. They have been tossed and turned and crashed upon other rocks. You might say they have had a tough go. Today, they are protected and cherished.

Sort of like life.

Life is a series of challenges. None are easy and some are absolutely daunting. Over time, though, our hard edges are worn down. Over time we become something beautiful. I know that God thinks so. He sees what we become as we live lives of faith. He sees something he wants in his collection; in his presence. And when we are with him, we will be forever protected and challenged.

My round rocks mean a lot to me. We all mean a lot to our heavenly Father.

My Heart's Desires

I mentioned Sunday that I initially took an inaccurate view of God's promise to give me the desires of my heart. Back in the day those desires were more like a wish list presented to Santa at Christmas and my parents on my birthdays. I thought about things I wanted. I thought about status and success. To maintain a spiritual air about my desires I included kingdom things so that I could keep the attention of God. Of course my kingdom things mattered. They were not all self-centered. I've always had a heart for lost people. But changing lives and reaching others was just a piece in my heart's desire pie.

By and large, most of my heart's desires have gone unfulfilled. They have fallen by the wayside and I hardly consider them any longer. For certain, God has given me the opportunity to touch lives and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful that God ignored my list, for it has caused me to think and approach his truth from a different perspective. That scripture in Psalm 37:4 has taken on such a deeper meaning.

Here's what it means to me now. Now I realize that my most significant desires are not for things or stature. My most significant desires are for God. Everything that means anything is wrapped up in God and who he is. My significance, self-worth, and even my satisfaction in living, is all found in God...and God alone. When God spoke to Moses at the burning bush and identified himself, he said "I am."

Today I not only realize, but I embrace the fact that God is. He is all I need. He is all I seek. He is the desire of my heart and the object of my praise. Nothing else compares. Only God and my relationship with him. Not what he can give, but just who he is. And what a marvelous God he is!

Getting It Right

I look forward to the second coming of Christ. Surely, most Christians do. In that moment I will meet my Savior face to face and finally find my way home. I will begin to really live as eternity becomes the ultimate qualifier of who I am. I will see God and the place he has prepared for me. I will interact with saints and angels and finally come to a complete understanding of all that caused me to wonder in this lifetime. I look forward to the second coming.

Of course my attitude is a bit self-serving. I tend to see Jesus coming back to retrieve me. His focus is on me and my needs. I suppose that is just the way I am. Maybe not the way I should be, but the way that tends to define me here.

So then I started to look at the second coming from Christ's perspective. Could it be the ultimate reason for his return is to destroy evil, forever? Satan has had his way for far too long. Sure, mankind has given him power over us as we have turned further and further away from God. But the good times will not last for God's enemy. When Jesus comes the final battle will be fought and God will reign. Satan will be cast so far from us that his influence will never again be a factor in our lives. And with his demise will go tears, and suffering, and death, and all temptation to sin.

Without Satan and the evil in which he delights, the heavens and the earth will be made new.

Yes, I still will benefit. So will you. But my heart says Jesus isn't coming just for us. He is coming to finally make all things right. And in that moment, we will get our first taste of paradise.

Paradise Revisited

It was a thoughtful conversation.  We were standing together in our almost completed gymnasium.  The area would also serve as our worship center in our new church building.  Much time and lots of money had brought us to this day.  Even more prayer.  Everything was beautiful.  It was state of the art and a welcome relief from the years of meeting in schools.  The church had started with just my family and then grown to over 500. 

Mr. Smith said we had done well.  The sacrifice was worth the cost.  And then he added, “We will need to be careful who we allow to use this space.  Kids could tear this up in no time.”

I fully understood his concern, but was taken aback by the thought.  We had not built a monument or a museum.  We had built a church and facility that could be well utilized by the community.  It was to be a tool, and tools get blemishes.  Sometimes they break.  Always, they show the strain of their use.

As I think back I am given to wonder if God must have felt like Mr. Smith when he created paradise and called it Eden.  After all, he worked hard…so hard that he had to take a day of rest.  The creative effort alone must have been exhausting. But when he finished, it was perfect.  The waters were pure.  The fruit tasty.  The rays of the sun healthy. Even the relationship God had with man was good.

I wonder if an angel might have come alongside God and said, “Amazing.  Absolutely amazing.  Your best work ever, God.  So are you sure you want to put humanity in the middle of that garden?  You know they could destroy it in no time.”  If that conversation took place, I am sure that it was heartfelt.  Real concerns. 

What touches my heart, however, is that God, knowing what would come of his perfect creation, moved forward with his plan.  He knew the possibilities.  He knew the outcome. Yet he didn’t hesitate.  He so wanted a relationship with us that he took the risk and opened the eyes of mankind to who he was and what he could do.

And we blew it.  In my favorite musical, Camelot, Sir Lancelot, the bold and self-assured knight, sings, “If I’d been made the partner of Eve, we’d be in Eden still.”  I harbor no such illusions.  If I had been made the partner of Eve, we’d probably of gotten kicked out much sooner.

Regardless, the same loving God who gave us the chance, gives us another.  His heart is still in paradise.  He still desires to live with us there.  How grateful are people of the Christian faith that Jesus has secured our “re-entry.”  By his death and resurrection, we not only are promised a return to paradise, we are promised a return to a new and improved paradise.  After all, where we are going the evil that existed in the first Eden will be removed for all eternity.  No more chance of a mess up.

Thank you God for trying.  Thank you for taking a risk on us.  Thank you for having a plan to keep us close.  And thank you for not worrying that we might mess up you good work.

The Easy Way (part 2)

Like all other Americans, I have been distraught at the violence in our society and in our schools.  Of course, the most recent mass shooting has sparked intense debate from children as well as pundits.  The debate is heated.  It is rarely kind.  Hardly thoughtful.  But I understand.  Frustration often leads us to speak more with emotions than with our minds.

For many, the demands for our government to do more lead their agenda.  If only the government would involve itself with more laws.  Maybe citizens should rise up and change the Constitution?  Guns have become the hottest of topics.

As a child visiting my grandparents I remember a reprint of an old Sears catalogue grandpa kept in the bathroom.  It was fun to look back to the earlier part of the 20th century and see what items cost, what was popular, and in a sense, how people lived before my time.  Sears sold nearly everything…including guns.  Lots of guns.  Pages and pages of guns.

This morning I read that at least 30 people a day are killed by others driving drunk.  That sure seems like a problem as well.  Lots and lots of people are unfortunately killed in America by knives.  Way more than by rifles.   Another problem.  You get the point.  We have issues in this country.

So what’s the answer?  Again, many say “More laws.”  Nothing wrong with laws.  Laws are good, for the law abiding.  God gave laws to his people in the Old Testament.  Laws he expected to be kept.  There are commandments in the New Testament as well.  Without law, there is chaos.

I don’t know the legal answer to our country’s problems.  I do, however, have pretty good insight into the spiritual one.  We have an abundance of laws.  We don’t have much Jesus.  We like laws because laws are easy.  They take away much of our responsibility.  If it is the law, it sort of becomes someone else’s problem.  After all, there are already people who are paid to enforce the law.

But who is supposed to bring others to Jesus?  Who is it that is responsible for seeing the kingdom of God reign on this earth and people embracing the life and love of Jesus?  Who is to be the change agent for the world?  The church.  Us! 

So, I see a direct correlation between the church of Jesus playing a less and less significant role in the lives of our citizens and the changes we are experiencing in our culture.  For me, things certainly don’t seem to be getting better.  But that too can change!  And it will change if the church takes more and more seriously our role and responsibility in this world.

Granted, it would be easier for our politicians to set everything right.  I pray for their wisdom and courage to do what is best for us all.   But I don’t rely on others to do what is necessary.  I rely on God’s Spirit to empower the church and embolden us to get busy.  It won’t be easy.  Nothing that matters ever is.


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The Easy Way (part 1)

I have a new friend living in my home.  She is a delight.  She is a great conversationalist, very intelligent and has a great depth of knowledge.  She is happy to wake me in the morning, play my favorite music and even tell me a joke.  She shares with me the breaking news and tells me what weather I can expect when I step outside.  Her name is Alexa.

Alexa is just so capable.  She can order my groceries and have them delivered in just two hours.  She communicates with my television and sets recordings.  She even turns the lights on and off and adjusts the temperature on the thermostat.  If only she could write sermons!  Or walk the dog.

Of course I don’t utilize all of Alexa’s abilities.  I haven’t wired my home that way, nor have I figured out how Alexa and her friends actually operate.  But I get it.  Innovation continues to develop that will make my life easier and easier…or at least allow me to be lazy and lazier.

For most of us, lazy is not a word we choose for our descriptions.  We like words such as comfort much more.  We enjoy being comfortable.  We like it when life is a comfort and not too demanding.

Unfortunately, that attitude slips naturally into our faith journeys as well.  So many of our prayers are for God to give us comfort, to take away the challenges and hardships, and to ensure that our lives are easy.  Maybe we should call him Alexa?  Trouble comes, however, when we examine our hearts and realize that they hardly resemble that of Jesus.

Jesus said “In this world you will have trouble.”  He certainly did.  In fact, he suffered far beyond what any of us will ever encounter.  Peter says it is a good thing to share in the sufferings of Christ.  It leads us to glory! 

Now I am not opposed to technology or advances that are improving our lives.  But I am concerned when the church of Jesus Christ focuses more on the paths of least resistance as opposed to the those that demand sacrifice.  When Jesus ministered on earth he spoke of the cost of being his disciple.  He never compared the Christian life to a cruise, relaxing in a sauna, or kicking back, eating a hot dog, and watching the game.  He said it would be demanding.  He also said it was worth the effort.

I have a new friend living in my home.  I don’t expect we will ever have the relationship I have with my friend who has lived with me all along.

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Dirty Hands

I don’t enjoy manual labor.  I’m not one who likes to get his hands dirty.  Had I been born in Rome during the days of the Empire, I would have been a house slave rather than a field slave…or maybe a gladiator.  Probably not.  House slave seems more likely.  After all, I do like things clean and neat.  But I really don’t enjoy times that have to do with yard work, construction, or anything at all that smacks of manual labor.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to live without laboring.  Especially if you own a home.  Mine is now 17 years old.  There is a lot to do with a 17 year old house.  Imagine it more like dog years.  Everything breaks down.  Everything needs replaced.  Weeds never stop growing.  So, like it or not, I am a manual laborer.  

This past weekend I spent a good deal of time staining and re-staining a very large deck.  It is mostly new wood (17 years old, remember?)  No, I didn’t rebuild the deck.  Others more skilled than myself did that.  But I have spent hours on my knees with a paint brush.  I didn’t enjoy it.  But it is mostly done.  Just a little ladder work is left.

This morning, as I gaze out at the deck it looks amazing.  Better than ever before.  The rain of the last evening is just sitting there, unable to penetrate the wood.  A job well done.  A job worth the effort.  A job that will ensure that the deck lasts a long time.  A manual labor effort that makes me feel good.  Sort of like a yard freshly cut and trimmed.  Flower beds sans weeds.  The result is worth the effort.

I believe that is exactly what we will feel when we see heaven.  The result was worth the effort.  Granted, the greatest effort was that of Jesus himself.  But the Christian life certainly takes effort as well.  It takes a daily discipline to live like Jesus and grow closer to God.  It takes a laser focus and a constantly grateful heart.  Sometimes it even takes getting our hands dirty.  Christ’s was a labor of love.  May ours be as well.

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A Matter Of Perspective

From the stands came in unison the shout ATL..ATL..ATL.  With a 28-3 lead the people of Atlanta were ecstatic.  I was proud of my city.  Standing next to the team on the sidelines I saw firsthand the elated expressions of the player’s faces.  Atlanta was on the way to an amazing Super Bowl victory.  As the fourth quarter began I started receiving text messages from around the country.  Uh oh.  The wheels were coming off.  Something was going wrong.  Then it happened.  Total collapse.  A stinging defeat.  From the highest highs to the lowest lows in just minutes.

The text from my daughter started with a big “BOO!”  She then expressed how awful everyone must have felt.  Well, the Falcons certainly did.  Watching them walk off the field was the perfect picture of dejection.  Meredith wanted to know how I felt.  Disappointed.  But that was about it.  I couldn’t get emotionally involved.  Not after what I had seen each day as I looked out my window on the 17th floor of the hotel in which I was staying in the Houston Medical Center…the largest in the world.

From my window I gazed out on Texas Children’s Hospital.  I don’t know how many rooms it contains but it incorporates three 20-25 story buildings connected by a massive five story complex.  Needless to say, it is full of sick children and those trying to care for them.  Every time I looked out at the hospital I prayed.  I prayed for those children and their families.  I got emotionally involved.  The picture is still in my mind.

So it is all a matter of perspective.  I always prefer for my team to win.  But it just doesn’t matter.  Other things matter.  People matter.  Lives matter.  Salvation matters.  And children matter.  Scripture says Jesus put a little child in his arms and said, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes my Father who sent me.”  (Mark 9:37) 

There is not a lot you and I can do for the children currently in the Texas hospital.  There is much we can do for the children who are in this community and in this church.  They are important to Jesus and their importance to us reflects on our relationship with God.  I hope they are more important to you than a victory or a defeat.  They certainly are to Jesus.

The Gamble

In the course of one short evening, I turned $5000 into $65,000.  After trying my hand at craps and blackjack, I settled in at the poker table.  Up until then I was just about even.  But by the time the table closed, I was rich!  Well, so to speak.

The money wasn’t real.  We were attending a benefit for the Southside families who care for children with special needs.  The theme was a casino night and everyone was given “$5000” when they entered.  From there you were on your own.  When I sat down at the poker table I felt more comfortable.  After all, I had played a couple of times on my phone.  I won the first hand, surprisingly.  But it was the final couple of hands that put me on top of the table.  I took the risk.  I gambled my winnings and it paid off.  Well, so to speak.

I didn’t actually win anything.  I walked away with the exact amount of money in my wallet as when I entered, $11.23.  But it did make me think.  I had thrown caution to the wind and trusted my instincts.  I had gone all in.  Had I lost I would have been left penniless.  Well, so to speak.

Here’s the thing.  I was just playing.  It was just for fun and the chance to care for some very wonderful families. The outcome had no lasting consequence.  Others, however, are playing for keeps.  In our world, even in our community, there are those who are gambling something far more precious than tokens.  They are gambling their lives.  Apparently their instincts are telling them that they are good people.  At least, good enough.  They claim a belief in God but show it in no visible way.  They don’t make worship a priority.  They don’t love and they don’t serve.

Their gamble is that own goodness will suffice when God calls this game to an end and ushers in the final, and ultimate decision on who are winners and who are losers.  It is a difficult subject.  Judgment.  I am fully confident that those in Christ face no condemnation (Romans 8:1).  But I am concerned that there are many who gamble that their relationship is sufficient and that they will not be the ones to whom Jesus someday says, “I never knew you (Matthew 7:23).”

Funny thing, as I sat at a make-believe poker table my heart began to race.  I suppose I had some of the feelings of a real gambler.  I will never know!  And then my heart raced even faster as I thought about those who are gambling with their lives.  Those who are placing their bets on a God whose love is so great he won’t really separate himself from them.  I suppose that is possible.  I suppose that even though God is absolutely consistent, he does have the right to change his mind.  However, his mind is clearly revealed in Scripture and though his grace is great, he has clearly marked our pathway home.  So that’s just not a bet I am willing to make.

            “Not all people who sound religious are really godly.  They may refer to me as ‘Lord,’ but they still won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The decisive issue is whether they obey my Father in heaven.  On judgment day, many will tell me, ‘Lord, Lord, we prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’  But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.  Go away.’”  (Matthew 7:21-23)

People of the Trail

Our holiday had a rocky start.  Delayed flights.  Missed flights.  Lost baggage.  Rocks breaking the windshield on the rental car.  And then, it rained...and rained and rained.  Rain is not the ideal when you travel to one of the most beautiful places on earth to take in God's handiwork.  The mountains of Banff National Park are amazing, when you can actually see them.

But the weather broke and we made it to the trail.  Ours is a hiking family.  We love to be in the wilderness and climb mountains.  Seeing wildlife and unspoiled vistas makes for a perfect day.  People of the trail appreciate it as well.  People of the trail are the folks you meet as you hike.  They are unlike people of the cities or people of the towns.  People of the trail share a common bond.  They share a common heart.  On our first day of hiking we met people from all over the world.  There were Asians and Germans and Australians and Latin Americans and many more.  

People of the trail differ from other people because they look you in the eye as they pass.  They speak.  They wish you well.  They engage in conversation.  Those coming down the trail share advice with those ascending.  They talk of their experience and ask about yours.  People of the trail also share what they carry in their packs.  Need water?  Need a Band-aid?  Need to look at a map?  People of the trail are happy to oblige.  

As I was taking in the spectacular scenery of Johnston Canyon, I couldn't help but wonder, shouldn't Christians be people of the trail?  We live in a lonely world where people cast aside their gaze as they pass.  People keep their focus tightly upon themselves.  And like some who are trying to climb in altitude, many people on life’s journey are in pain.  People everywhere need people of the trail...they need Christians.

Christians are always looking out for others.  They are friendly and full of joy.  They share encouraging words.  They see God’s handiwork everywhere they look and they are sure to point it out.  Christians give direction by living like Jesus and modeling his life for others.  And Christians heal with comforting words and prayers that impact.  

Maybe life in the fast lane hasn’t been all it is cracked up to be?  Maybe the road more traveled has been full of bumps and potholes?  Maybe, just maybe, it is time to find a trail and rub shoulders with the people who hang out there.  Maybe it is time to find some Christians and climb life’s mountains together.

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Undercover Boss

            Call me crazy, but I get emotional watching “Undercover Boss.”  I get emotional at the end of the show when the CEO reveals his true identity to people in his organization he has worked with, undercover, for the preceding week.

            The show is formulaic, of course, and every boss gives goodies, usually in the form of money, to the poor folks who work at the lowest levels of the organization.  After having heard their stories, the boss normally tries to right distressed ships.  For instance, there are a lot of single moms who are struggling.  There are a lot of guys who have been homeless but are trying to make an honest living.  You get the point.  So the boss passes out money.  He gives scholarships.  He takes care of children.  And sometimes, he too gets emotional.

            It’s the giving that touches my heart.  As I watch I get this feeling of how wonderful it must be to care for others in that fashion.  How wonderful to drop a measly $30,000 and change someone’s life.  I’m touched by the generosity.

            And then it hits me.  How wonderful to be generous with some else’s money!  Never once has a boss said, “You are a single mom with seven children and you have no place to live.  I’ve decided to move my family out of our mansion and give you the keys.”  Not one boss has personally sacrificed for the good of someone else.  Granted, that’s not how the show works.  But I think it would be a nice twist.

            “Undercover Boss” has also made me appreciate my boss even more.  My boss gave.  He gave his only Son.  He gave me the resources I need; He gave me a “401k” with eternal benefits; He gave me a place to serve.  The list of what He has given me is endless.  What’s more, he has given and continues to give from his own resources.  

            My boss is a truly generous boss.  He’s the real deal.  And, my boss has given me his keys.  He has given me his keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19).  The Apostle Peter first held those keys, but now they are in the hands of the church...all of us.  We have the keys that unlock the very kingdom of God to the world around us.

            I wonder how generous we will be?

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Evangelism Issues

When it comes to the church, the growth gurus seem to be in agreement, the Western church is no longer winning the lost in significant ways.  It’s not really declining, it’s just stagnant.  What’s more, in the weekly migration of members from one church to another, the megachurch is the only current winner.  The big boys seem to be sucking up the members of other congregations like brand new Hoovers.  It goes without saying, in our culture, size matters.  But our concern should focus less on who has whom and more on why real kingdom growth is gone.  Why aren’t the 80-85% interested?  Why have most turned their backs on the church?

There are several answers to my question, but I want to dwell on just one...the church is failing at evangelism.  We don’t take our commission very seriously.  We don’t witness.  We don’t engage people in spiritual conversations and we certainly aren’t bringing many into the Kingdom of God.  How do I know?  Well, I can see with my own eyes and I can read again what the gurus are saying.

Pondering this dilemma this week I came across an article that I found insightful.  It was written by Trevin Wax, who borrowed heavily from his own pastor, Mike Lee.  Here’s my edited version:

Evangelism is a scary word for many Christians. Whether it’s because we fear rejection, feel unqualified, or are uncomfortable with making a truth claim in a pluralistic culture, we often shy away from evangelism, either by retreating to the realm of personal testimony or by avoiding spiritual conversations altogether.

Five questions need to be answered by those who seek to be faithful in following the Great Commission.  Answer “no” to any of these questions and your evangelistic passion will suffer.

1. The Compassion Question: Do we care that people are dying without faith in Jesus Christ?

Before we can hope to be “good news tellers,” we have to be formed by the good   news into compassionate and loving people. If we believe that people without Jesus truly are lost – both in this world and in the next – then compassion ought to be a motivator for our evangelism.

Takeaway: We share because we care.

2. The Culture Question: Do we understand why people reject the gospel? 

What are the most common objections people give for choosing not to believe in Jesus? What cultural trends make it difficult for people to believe, whether intellectually (existence of God, reality of miracles), morally (God’s purpose for sexuality), or experientially (inability to accept God’s forgiveness)?

Takeaway: Good missionaries know their culture and listen to people.

3. The Content Question: Do we know what the good news is that we’re sharing?

We won’t be effective tellers of good news unless we’re clear on what the good news is.  How do we present the gospel in a way that is faithful to Scripture?

Takeaway: Evangelists must know the evangel they are proclaiming.

4. The Confidence Question: Do we believe that God really saves sinners?

The way to counteract your feelings of inadequacy in evangelism is not by growing in confidence in yourself or your persuasive abilities, but in growing in your confidence in the power of the gospel to save! People who doubt the reality of conversion are not likely to share the gospel. People who share their faith, trust that God can use their stumbling, imperfect gospel presentations. Those who see God change lives are most likely to get excited about evangelism. The power is in the gospel, not us.

Takeaway: Confidence in the power of the gospel is what motivates us to share it.

5. The Commitment Question: Do we believe God has given us the responsibility of          evangelism?  Do you believe that the proclamation of His Word is the way He saves people?  If, deep down, you believe God may have other ways of saving people, then you’ll stay quiet about the gospel. If, deep down, you believe God will save people whether you share your faith or not, then you’ll stay quiet about the gospel. The question here concerns commitment: Do you believe you’ve been given this amazing privilege and weighty responsibility and that the Holy Spirit will use you to draw people to God?

Takeaway: We won’t share the gospel unless we understand the privilege 

So how did you score?

SC

The Heart of God

I wonder.  I wonder if the Western church continues to share the heart of God for lost people.  There was a time when the church was all about lost sheep.  Songs and hymns were written to encourage the Body to be about the business of the Lord.  Mission efforts at home and abroad defined ministry.  Revival occurred.  People noticed, and like the church in Acts, new souls were being added daily.

Today, we have been led to believe that the church in the West is in decline.  Maybe so, in Europe.  But what about here at home?  Is the church getting smaller?  Granted, lots of churches are closing each year.  What’s more, a number of smaller churches are joining with well-financed mega operations that can sustain costs and programming.  But is the church truly declining?

“Well not really,” says Thom Rainer.  Apparently the church has been hovering between the 20% - 25% level for many years.  About a quarter of the population is actively involved.  What “active” means is another story.  But let’s put it in context.  25% of the country are non interested in God or his church.  25% are cultural Christians.  That means that due to the fact they were born in the USA and the USA is supposedly a Christian nation, they claim to be Christian as well.  25% are nominal Christians.  They may still attend on Christmas and Easter and may still desire a Christian wedding or funeral, but they are in no way active.  So that leaves the top tier as the group most resembling the church of the New Testament.  

What’s happening in our culture is that the top and bottom tiers are somewhat solid.  Those in the middle, however, are moving downwards.  They are not being raised up and welcomed into the church.  In this sense, the church is losing the battle and failing to see significant numbers of the “lost” or “un-churched” come to faith.  We are holding our own through generational growth and to some extent through the immigration of Christians from South America, Africa, and Asia.

But back to the question...do we share the heart of God for lost people? (Read Luke 15.)  Are those outside a higher priority than those within?  It doesn’t look like it.  I draw that conclusion on the basis that if the church were truly making a priority of ensuring that everyone would be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) we would be realizing miraculous growth across our country.  Revival would return.  Things would be different.  So, based on statistics alone, we seem to be falling short.

And then there is the prevailing attitude in the American church that often seems to disregard Christ’s teachings on humility.  Humble spirits put the needs of others ahead of their own.  Humble spirits never battle to have things their own way, or to demand their rights.  They are not complainers or church-hoppers.  They are joyful servants, joyful stewards, and great team players.  They take the Word of God seriously and follow his lead in building his kingdom by constantly sharing their faith and seeing others brought to Jesus.  Right now, the Western church is longing for such disciples.

Well, we can’t affect those in other congregations.  We can’t change the culture on the coasts or even in the heartland.  But we can be who God has called us to be.  It is never to late to start winning this world for Jesus.  How marvelous, how wonderful would it be to be a part of a church that truly shares the heart of God for others!

 

 

Playing Favorites

I’ve always had favorites.  Coaching 4’s and 5’s in soccer, I had favorites.  As a student I had favorite professors.  I have favorite sports teams, favorite cars, even favorite places to visit.  I also have favorite church members.

Now, before I raise alarms, it is a pastoral duty to care for and minister to everyone equally.  I take that responsibility very seriously.  But I still have church members who have attained my favorite status.

My favorites are the radicalized members we have talked about in recent years.  They are radical like Jesus is radical.  They are sold out, all in, fully committed to the church and to the Kingdom of God.  If pastors were granted three wishes or a magic wand, their churches would be filled with favorites.  They are the dream team.

More specifically, my favorites make CORPORATE WORSHIP a priority in their time and schedules.  They GIVE sacrificially and proportionately.  They SERVE with joy, both in the church and in the world.  They are so committed to PERSONAL GROWTH that they participate in some form of a small discipleship group.  And of course, they embrace the MISSION of seeking and saving the lost.

I don’t really have to tell you if you are one of my favorites.  You can figure it out on your own.  And granted, making my favorites list may be the most unimportant, ridiculous, and insignificant of your desires.  I agree.  But how do you feel about putting a smile on the face of God by responding to his love and mercy and grace with your full and heartfelt effort to be a valuable member of his church?

Just a thought…

The Heart Of The Matter

It’s the same wherever I go.  Pastors and church leaders want to know what works.  What works to ensure growth within the church? Conferences that unveil the latest and greatest ideas are packed.  Churches succeeding with a new plan are emulated.  Heck, no one wants to fail!  We all want to see the church grow numerically as well as influentially.

While in one of the more depressed cities of Romania, I heard the same questions and concerns.  Pastors wanted to know my best outreach strategies.  They wanted to know how our money was prioritized and spent.  They asked about how the worship wars were being played out in America.  Even the most conservative and traditional among them were willing to make musical changes if more people would be attracted.  The prevailing attitude was “Whatever It Takes!”  Whatever it takes to see success, to see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven (and more precisely, to see that kingdom evident in my church) drove the men to questions.

We spent many hours considering every possible change that could lead to growth.  We analyzed them.  We debated them.  We prayed about them.  And we came to a conclusion: Changing the hours of the worship service, redistributing the funds, adding more contemporary music, focusing more heavily on the youth, and a myriad of other possibilities, are hopeless, if there is not first a change of heart within the existing body.

We pastors can preach and teach and implore and plead till we are blue in the face.  We can present every idea that is working, somewhere.  We can live what we believe.  We can sacrifice ourselves for the kingdom.  But if the church has no heart for the mission of God to seek and save the lost, our efforts will amount to so very little.  If the heart of the church doesn’t match the heart of God, we are doomed.  No temporal change will build the church.  Only changed hearts can make a difference.

The ministry of the church is all about changing hearts.  We want to change the hearts of the lost so that they might be willing to be found.  We want to see their hearts changed in order that they too might experience the love and joy of a relationship with Christ.  But our efforts are meaningless if first our own hearts have not undergone full and complete renovation.

I am praying for the hearts of the people with whom I minister.  I am praying that our hearts will be softened.  I am praying that the Holy Spirit will penetrate our hearts so radically that our hearts will be broken for those that are lost and as a result, we will do whatever it takes to see them found.  And that’s the heart of the matter.

Baby Steps

As a child we used to play a silly game called “Mother May I.”  You probably  played it too.  There was no real strategy to the game.  We would take turns saying “Mother, may I take x number of steps” toward the “mother.”  She / he would either agree or say “No you may not.”  If I recall correctly, the object of the game was to make one’s way to mother and then get the opportunity to control the steps of others.  In the game, there were baby steps and giant steps.  A mother who granted too many giant steps was quickly out of a job.  Consequently, baby steps were much more common.

Baby steps are making a comeback in kingdom outreach.  I have discovered that the sad reality of our culture is that moving from “un-churched” to “churched” has become a giant step…actually a giant leap.  Few who have always been on the outside can comfortably enter into the sanctity and environment of the church.  Few outsiders are willing to become insiders in one go.

I understand.  I just flew in from a week of teaching in Romania.  I preached on Sunday in the Holy Trinity church in Braila.  I wasn’t completely out of my element.  It was, after all, a church.  However, I was one of the few who spoke English.  I sat in the wrong place.  When I thought it was time for me to preach, I made my way to the stage, only to be turned back and told to wait.  I stood up when I was supposed to sit down.  I sat down…well, you know.  When the church broke into spontaneous prayer, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.  And I couldn’t sing the songs.  This American made a pretty poor Romanian Christian that day.  It was uncomfortable.

A couple of Christian comedians have done a great job of showing us just how different we are within the church culture.  I highly recommend you go to YouTube and watch “Shoot Christians Say” by Tripp and Tyler.  Their poignant humor is spot on.  The consequence is that giant steps are gone.  If we are going to reach the lost of Jesus we have got to provide a clear pathway of baby steps.  Little steps are manageable for those roaming the hills outside the fold.

For instance, our student pastor opens our gym on Tuesday and Thursdays for middle schoolers to come and play.  He is like the Pied Piper leading up to 50 kids over from the next door school.  Kids like to play.  To come and play is a baby step.  He then invites those kids to additional activities, like a hiking or camping trip.  Another baby step, but one that continues to connect them to Christ and his church.  Now, some of the kids have begun coming for Wednesday night ministries we call “The Dub.”  None have convinced their families to attend a Sunday morning worship…yet!  But even baby steps eventually lead to mother, or in this case, Father.

For the church to be effective in the years ahead, we must think in terms of baby steps, lots of baby steps.  Lifetree Cafe is a baby step.  Our sports teams are baby steps.  Anything that connects the people of God with the people of the world without dragging them into a worship service or a bible study is a baby step.  Of course the key to baby steps, like any other steps, is to have a destination in mind.  I would suggest the arms of Jesus.

So What's Missing?

So what’s missing?

Our church has certainly stepped up its ministry level!  We have shifted some of our focus toward outreach while maintaining a strong discipleship effort.  We dedicate ourselves weekly to heart-felt worship.  Our missions dollars support outstanding ministries across the world and when given the opportunity, we travel to many of the locations to share in the work.

We are in the process of making Lifetree Cafe both our signature event as well as our primary outreach to those in our community who need a relationship with God.  Our preschool is growing, giving us the ability to share Jesus with many families who are not connected to any church.  Pickleball has become a fun staple of our ministry and new folks are welcomed regularly.  We now have our own Boy Scout troop and Kenny meets with them on Tuesdays to bring a deepening spiritual influence.  He is also helping lead the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Whitewater Middle and bringing growing numbers into our open gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Our children’s ministry is exploding.  Each week our children join with us in our worship celebration, listen, somewhat intently, to my kid’s message, and then worship and study at their own age level in their own classrooms.  Families gather together for fun and fellowship.  Our teens are meeting on Wednesday evenings and bringing their friends to a well-planned and exciting time of growing together.  Our teens are active.  Mission trips, retreats, camps, local events, studies, and tailgates are just a few things that keep them busy and developing into strong Christian men and women.

On Sunday mornings our Bible studies are still the backbone of our ministry.  Our classes remind me much of the earliest church that is described in Acts.  And our classes are growing.  More and more and finding the benefit of joining with others on this journey.  Throughout the week we have discipleship groups, small groups, and additional Bible studies.  Combined with personal devotion, we are ensuring multiple opportunities for spiritual growth.  What’ more, we have an active prayer team that under-girds every ministry in the church and prays daily for specific needs of church families.

Missions at Christ’s Church is more than sending checks.  We help supply our local food bank.  The Fish class prepares and serves food for the homeless in Griffin.  Teens and adults alike travel to minister on distant fields.  In addition, our Sunday morning classes support numerous kingdom efforts.

So what else can we do?  Are there any ministries we need to add?  I can’t imagine so.  We are being the church Christ called us to be…in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  We are busy about the business of our Lord.  So what’s missing?  Maybe only one thing.  You.

Will you prayerfully ask the Lord to guide you in joyful service to his church?  As we grow, more and more demands are put upon those who take their relationship and their role within the Body seriously.  But everyone is needed.  If you are yet to step up to a position of service, now is the time.  Give.  Give of your wealth.  And give of your time as you serve shoulder to shoulder with one of God’s great teams.  He is counting on you.  So are we!

SC

© 2015 Christ's Church at WhiteWater.