Friday, September 6, 2013

Servant - The Highest Calling Possible

Last Sunday we began a series on the book of James. We will be addressing the misunderstandings,any people have about religion and pursuing the authentic Christianity James challenges us toward.i think our understanding of James' book begins with understanding how James viewed himself.

James’ identity in his own mind is that of a servant. He could have claimed “leadership” of the Jerusalem church, he could have claimed brotherhood to Jesus or sonship of Mary. Instead he chose to identify himself as a servant.

It would not be inconsistent to suggest that servanthood is one of the central character traits of those who have chosen to follow Christ.

Jesus suggested as much when he washed the feet of his disciples in John 13 and then told them to do the same for each other. This was a job reserved for servants and slaves.

Paul made a similar suggestion in Philippians 2 when he told the church to take on the mind of Christ, and then went on to describe Christ’s attitude as one of a servant, who subjects himself to an office far below that which he deserves.

For those who adopt servanthood as a marking identity, there is no room for pride, self-centeredness, entitlement, upward mobility, seeking personal advancement, etc. True servanthood requires the servant to be content with his station in life (“I have learned to be content…”) and to work only for the good of his master, not himself (“seek first the kingdom of heaven”).

If I am concerned with getting what I want or deserve, I am not a servant. If I am concerned with pusuing my own needs or advancement, I am not a servant. If I’m more concerned with how people think about me than with how they think about my master, I’m not a good servant. My only responsibility as a servant is to do everything within my power to bring the greatest possible benefit to my master.

James identified his masters as God and Jesus. When the cosmic dust has settled on the ever-waged warfare between right and wrong, it will be better to have been servants of the winner than to be king of the loser. Power, authority, fame, respect, and everything else the world encourages us to value and pursue for ourselves will all be meaningless if they put me on the wrong side of the conflict. The world promises many kingships and lordships and high offices, God promises none. In fact, there only exist two offices on God’s side, God and servants. If I am willing to be his servant, I am with him, if not, I lose.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Don't Drown in Life's Stormy Seas. Rest in God's Control

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. (James 1:6)

Some might like to take this tiny phrase and pull it out of the context of the surrounding paragraphs to suggest that no matter what we ask, if we have enough faith, God will give it to us. Some might take a similar approach and suggest that God will not give us something (which he otherwise would) because our faith is not strong enough, or because we have doubts.

This is not James’ point.

photo by Phil Jameson
James is telling his readers not to doubt that God has heard and answered their prayer. When they ask for wisdom, God may allow them a trial from which they will learn perseverance, and then become complete (full of wisdom). James does not want to see his brothers, while in the throws of suffering, doubt that God has answered their prayer. He wants them to believe.

Wisdom is the result of our knowledge being applied to our experience. We cannot gain wisdom without a variety of experiences, both good and “bad”. Therefore, when we ask God for wisdom, we should expect a variety of experiences, both easy and difficult. Rather than view our suffering as a sign that God has rejected our prayers, James wants us, in faith, to recognize that the difficulties we are facing ARE God’s answer to our prayer.

As the opposite of faith, doubt is a state we find ourselves in when we are uncertain that God is in control. Those who are not completely sure of God's ability find it necessary to exert their own effort and energy to control every situation. Rather than persevere through a trial to discover what God is doing, they are more likely to exhaust themselves trying to fix the trial, and in the process, miss the gift God is giving them.

When times are good, they believe God is blessing them; but when times are bad, they assume God has lost control and the resolution is now dependent on them. (Of course, very few people would consciously suggest that God has lost control; but their unwillingness to patiently be joyful in suffering demonstrates their lack of belief that God is in control)

A balance in life is lacking for those who are unconvinced of God’s sovereignty. Like waves of the sea, they are up and down, back and forth; driven into exuberance and depression by whatever situation enters their life. Unable to rest in God’s hands, they often drown in life’s stormy seas.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

15 Traits of Churches Who Reach Their Communities

No matter how much value you place on getting doctrine right, you’ve missed the boat if you aren’t making disciples.  I can’t escape this truth.  Of course, the first step in making disciples is sharing the gospel with people who are lost…

Here’s a list from Thom Ranier about churches that effectively reach the unchurched. I have two qualifiers for the list:

a) This list clearly focuses on churches that are “attractional" in nature. Thus it should be pointed out that this is not the ONLY way to reach the lost.
b) The items below are the characteristics of the churches that are effective, they are not necessarily the “steps" to being an evangelistic church.

That’s all I have to say about that. Here’s the list!

“Churches that are effective agents of transformation take the time to know the needs and expectations of those who are spiritually distant, and they focus on what is truly important.

Such Churches…

1. Major on majors
2. Are Biblical, conservative and convictional.
3. Give evangelism priority and passion.
4. Provide deep Biblical teaching.
5. Develop an effective comprehensive smallgroup ministry.
6. Discern patterns of relationships in their own church.
7. Check their facilities.
8. Cultivate a user-friendly greeter ministry.
9. Keep the friendliness issue before the congregation.
10. Seek excellence.
11. Provide an inquirers’/new members’ class.
12. Expect much/receive much.
13. Know their purpose.
14. Foster ministry involvement.
15. Never forget the power of prayer.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Stop Sinning.

Sin is bad and we shouldn’t do it. In fact, if you are sinning right now, you should stop. And if you sinned earlier today, you shouldn’t do that anymore. And if you are planning to sin later, you should change your plans.

Easily said.

The problem with sin is that it is somewhat habitual. We all probably have those times when we do something that is out of character for us, and are immediately repentant and take quick action to make right the wrong. But probably the biggest hang-up we struggle with is those issues that continuously evidence themselves in our lives. Our besetting sins. 

One of mine is impatience. My impatience often causes me to act in ways that are unloving toward others. Sometimes, my impatience gets in the way of my relationship with God. Impatience is something I need work on.

 Marco Adragna at wrote a short post with instructions regarding how to quit a bad habit. DISCLAIMER: Marco seems like a fairly intelligent dude, but is clearly a bit humanistic in his writing. Thus while common grace may have provided him with some statements which reflect wisdom, he should not be looked at as a guru for spiritual growth. Glean what you can. 

Adragna suggests five reasons why it is difficult to break a habit. I’ve listed four below:

  • The forbidden fruit is always very attractive.
  • Quitting something is difficult when you always think about it.
  • There’s no excitement in just saying no.
  • You never simply quit something, you do something else instead. 

Think about your besetting sin, and contemplate whether any of these are reasons why you struggle for victory.

Later Adragna gives four questions you can ask yourself to fire into “habit-breaking mode":
1. What will you do instead?
2. Do you really want to change?
3. Is now the right time?
4. What’s in it for you?

 I would suggest this. Give these questions serious consideration… Then, notice how individual-centric these are. Understand this, you cannot defeat sin yourself, or by doing what is “good for you". So if you want to break a sin-habit, you’ll have to change these questions.
1. What is the virtue God has called me to in place of impatience?
2. Does God expect me to change?
3. —— forget this one, it’s always the right time to stop sinning.
4. What kingdom benefit is in it?

 Of course, the final step is to figure out the how of changing. I must rely on the Spirit to change me, but in order to do so, I must utilize the tools He’s given me for change, namely, the Bible and the community of believers.

Stop sinning.
Rely on the Spirit.
Engage the Word of God.
Commune with the Body of Christ.
Open yourself to the correction of others.
Discover the actions the Bible is teaching you.
Consider the direction of the Holy Spirit in your life.
Determine the next step to end the sin that is besettting you.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Does this Oreo exist?

I'd like you to do an experiment. All you need is an Oreo cookie (you may substitute Meijer's Double-Os also as they are equally delicious). Place the cookie in front of you and ask a simple question. "Does this Oreo exist?"

Was this difficult? Why or why not? How would you handle someone who came up with a different answer than you? Would you tell them they were wrong? Why or why not?

How might you apply this exercise to other areas of your life?


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why I Don't List Following Jesus as My Top Priority

Recently I was explaining to a friend some of my "priorities" in life.

I actually used the expression "my roles" and began to list my life's roles in order of importance. "I am a husband first and a father second," I said. "When God allows it again, I will be a pastor." And then I went on to list a few other roles I play in my life.

Later I wondered if I had offended him (probably not) by not listing "Christ-follower" as my first role. But as I thought about it, I was glad I hadn't. And as I think about it now, I wouldn't list that as my first role if I had it to do over again.

I know that may be a difficult acknowledgment for some to hear, but please read the rest.I don't think following Christ belongs on the list of roles I play in life. It is not something I do. It is not a hat that I wear. It is who I am.

Every role I play is temporal. Even the marriage commitment (which is "til death do us part") is not forever. Jesus said there is no marriage or giving of marriage in heaven. Following Christ is the only part of me that is forever, and for that reason it must be so much more than just a part of me.

I am a husband first. But I am a husband that follows Christ.

I am a father second. But I am a father that follows Christ.

I am a soccer coach. But I am a soccer coach that follows Christ.

Sometimes, I am a bus driver. But I am a bus driver that follows Christ.

If ever my pursuit of Jesus becomes something other than the central definitive element of my life, then I have lost my compass. To abandon that core is to return to a life of death, a life from which I was rescued long ago. To say that He is my everything is nice, but to live knowing He HAS my everything is better, and to die to everything but Him is best.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Five Years of Conversation About Race and We Still Haven't Really Moved

A few nights ago, Marianne and I had dinner with some friends. One of them shared how they had once been part of a church which split over how to handle a group of children from a different ethnic background than the majority of church members.

"Ironic", said I. "I was once in a church which saw a mass exodus over the same issue."

As I thought about this sad commentary on SOME American churches, I recalled this post I wrote many years ago. While it is certainly out of date, I still agree with the same conclusion I reached almost five years ago. Here you go:

In the interest of self-disclosure. I'm not planning to vote for Obama in the general election.

However, I've been observing this whole "bitter Pennsylvanians" thing from afar and have some thoughts.

1) Obama is trying to open the dialogue about race in this country. I don't envy him. Unfortunately, we'll never be able to have open discussions about race or any other issues as long as we have campaigns and journalists who spend all their time focusing on what people should and shouldn't say, rather than on what they actually say.

This is a great example. All we're hearing from anyone is, "Oh, he shouldn't have said that. He's going to offend people." We're hardly hearing anyone say, "He's right, and this is why..." or "He's wrong, and this is why..."

I'm inclined to say, "He's right." More on that later.

2) I'm bemused at the number of news outlets who are getting away with running only a small part of the quote. What people are seeing more than anything else is that Barak Obama said:
So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations
Very few people are seeing is the context in which he said this. Before he said anything about people being bitter, he explained why they are bitter. It isn't any surprise the Clinton campaign wants to gloss over this part of the quote:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them, And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
This selective quoting is just poor journalism and reveals that Fox isn't the only network that is "fair and balanced" in an interesting kind of way.

3) Obama is right. As someone who lives in a Midwest town where the jobs have been slipping away from 25 years or more, I can say with great certainty that a week rarely goes by where I don't hear someone talking about these very issues; blaming immigrants, minorities, or trade policies for the woes of the economy. Obama is right, people in these types of communities are bitter, and I'll go a step further than him, often this bitterness manifests itself in racist/prejudicial attitudes.

4) I'm embarrassed that the church is sometimes a hotbed for this. About a year ago, our church did a "Justice and Mercy" series that really set some people on their ears. I spent hours and hours listening to people lambaste me, our other pastors, and our church because of this series. The stated issues were a lack of Biblical preaching, and a lack of Biblical emphasis in our small group curriculum.

Why am I pointing this out in a post about Barak Obama? Because this is a typical Conservative Christian response when confronted by the sad realities of racism. The real issue that was going on for these people was that they were angry (bitter?) that we had other believers (from churches with prominent memberships of other ethnicities) come to our church and suggest that racism is still a big issue in America. They didn't like that we had two African-American pastors share our pulpit and declare that the church has not been a beacon of light in their community. They were angry (bitter?) that these pastors suggested we need to reconsider our opinions on affirmative action. (fyi, this is not conjecture, this comes from actual conversations i had)

So... instead of looking into their hearts to see if the Biblical mandates toward love, reconciliation, no favoritism, etc. should be applied in the area of race and social justice; they decided this conversation wasn't Biblical, and they left.

Why tell this story? Because this is precisely what is happening today in the media. Instead of evaluating Obama's words to see if they hold up under scrutiny, everyone is feigning offense so they won't have to deal with the possibility that he may be exposing a little darkness in our lives.

It's sad when the media does this.

It's rotten when the church does it.

We All Need a Little More Failure in Life

No long ago Pope Benedict XVI resigned his role as father of the Roman Catholic Church. Now a new "Father" is making his way as leader of the world's largest religion.

Benedict's decision was unprecedented in modern history. He is the first in over 500 years to resign as pope. While health and age certainly played into this decision. I believe Benedict chose this road out of his desire to commit one final exemplary act. He lived out his belief that men wither and glory fades.

1 Peter 1:24 says, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall" (NIV)

Little in this world is permanent. Even the blessed gifts which last our entire life (marriage), carry an expiration date ("til death do us part). Yet it is human tendency to assume and desire that all good things are permanent. Whether it is a job, a hobby, a stage of life or our children, we have a difficult time letting go. This wont be a popular statement, but I would suggest this reluctance to accept the end of things is sin.

Permanence is a lie of devil. In fact, it was one of his very first ("you shall not surely die"). He must think it is one of his best, because he still uses it today. Most people live the majority of their lives without thinking about their death. One of the most common phrases heard at a funeral is, "I can't believe he/she is gone." Death is unthinkable because Satan has convinced us of the permanence of all things.

We have bought Satan's lie. We believe not only that we will not die, but also that we will not age or wither or fade. Every year, hundreds of thousands of surgical procedures are undertaken to repair the bodily damage of middle-aged men who still think they are high school athletes. The plastic surgery is a billion dollar industry because so many women (and a few men) seek to roll back the clock via a surgeon's scalpal. Every year, corporations fail because the CEO or the President waited too long to step down. This is why Pope Benedict's resignation was so stunning. It was an admission that he was fading. It flew in the face of all we believe about ourselves.

A little over a year ago, I read a book entitled Necessary Endings. The author, Henry Cloud, uses the analogy of pruning to discuss the importance of endings in our lives. He suggests three types of pruning which are all necessary:
1. Dead branches that are taking up space needed for the healthy ones to thrive 
2. Sick branches that are not going to get well 
3. Healthy buds or branches that are not the best ones
Too often we are afraid to prune or be pruned because we think it means we failed. In our success-obsessed culture, failure is another naughty f-word. As a result, many people hold on to things or continue pursuits or avoid endings because they believe they might possible succeed.

Henry Cloud suggests that:
Failing well means ending something that is not working and choosing to do something else better.
We could all do more of that. Pope Benedict reached the pinnacle of his world. There was nothing left for him to do but fail. He chose a necessary ending. Rather than continue to lead when he realized his leadership skills had departed, he chose to be done. Perhaps, it felt to him as a personal failure; but his personal pain certainly spared the Roman Catholic Church a massive amount of pain.

Glory fades. Whether you like it or not, you will wither, fade and die. You cannot control that. You can, however, control how you fade and how you wither. Will you face your expiration with grace? Or will you scratch and claw for one more chance? Or will you cling and grasp for the glory of ages past?

Open your hands. Let go. Embrace endings.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

When "I Love You" Means Nothing

After three unsuccessful attempts to steal Samson's strength and betray him to the Philistines, Delilah resorted to the last card she had to play... She played the "Do you love me?" card.
Then Delilah pouted, “How can you tell me, ‘I love you,’ when you don’t share your secrets with me? You’ve made fun of me three times now, and you still haven’t told me what makes you so strong!” She tormented him with her nagging day after day until he was sick to death of it. (Judges 16:15, 16 NLT)
"I love you"

These are powerful words. I still love to hear them from my wife of 17 years. I still try to say them to her several times each day. I also make sure I repeat these words to my children every day. For as long as possible, I want them to find their love at home, not from some boyfriend or girlfriend at whom they are making googly eyes.

Here's the scoop. If you are a parent of a middle school or high school child, or if you are in middle school or high school; please pay attention to this...

GIRLS: if some teenage boy tells you that he loves you, laugh at him and walk away. Not only is he completely incapable of understanding what those words mean, he is only telling you that so he can have what he wants from you... And it isn't a long-term relationship.

BOYS: if some teenage girl expects you to say you love her, refuse and walk away. She is seeking to use you to fill a void in your life. if you allow her to control you know, she will nag you forever (not my words, they are directly from the story of Samson).

Truth is: Until you have a ring to accompany the words, "I love you", they don't really need to be said. More often what they really mean is, "I want something from you", and that is likely a sign that this relationship is going nowhere.

I'm only telling you this because I love you.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Even Your Suffering is a Gift From God

This past weekend I made the statement that "Everything we have is a gift from God." I went on to suggest that even our life life's circumstances (good and bad) are a gift from God. Tonight, I received a super kind email asking if I would explain that concept a little more. I think this is a pretty common issue that people wrestle with, so here are some excerpts from my answer to him.

Please understand that I am NOT writing this as an ivory tower theologian or as a behind-the-pulpit preacher. I am a fellow pilgrim who has seen the swamp of despair and has endured the abuse of Vanity city. I have days when I am certain God has given me a burden better suited for someone else, and yet those same days are often marked by unmistakable interventions of his gracious provision. My life's journey is not resolved. In fact, it is decidedly unresolved and often I would be happy to give back the "gifts" God has deemed me worthy to receive....

Do I really believe that EVERYTHING is a gift from God? Am I saying that God is the author of evil?

In no way do I mean to excuse the terrible actions of sinful people. Much of the suffering in our world is a direct result of terrible decisions being made by sinful people. However, while I believe God hates the pain which is present in our world, I don't think that sin or the suffering it causes is surprising to God nor does it worry Him. I might not use the words "God caused it", but I am comfortable saying God is "in control" of it.

I look at James 1 as one of the passages which really inform my perspective on this issue. I believe that the "good and perfect" gifts of James 1:17 are actually our trials (which lead to perseverance and completeness). Like much of life, trials are best understood in the rear view mirror. While today's life circumstances may not feel like a gift, for those who faithfully endure there awaits a fuller understanding of the good God was forming in us. Joseph is a great example of this truth. I'm sure there were many points I his life when his situation didn't feel like a gift, yet when he saved his family's lives, I'm sure he gained a completely new perspective on his past suffering,

Of course you deal with suffering and pain that is likely far beyond what Joseph did. I hate that. I think God hates that. I know He hates the sin that has caused that. Yet, I have full confidence not only that He is capable of intervening (beyond what we could imagine), but that He will use life's darkest moments to bring glory to Himself and in so doing allow us to experience resolution and wholeness (in this life or the next).

God is not the author of evil, but He is the editor!


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Dear Pastor, Are You Preparing Your Church for Easter?

Dear Pastor,

Are you preparing for Easter?

I know... You just got past Christmas, Easter is months away, you have other people to do that stuff, you need to focus on this Sunday's sermon...

I know you are busy, and maybe Easter isn't really on your mind. But the truth is, you are already behind.

On Easter Sunday, more people will visit your church than any other weekend this year. More people who are looking for a welcoming church community will visit on Easter than any other weekend. More people who need to hear and believe the Gospel will be at your church on Easter than any other time. Easter provides you with an amazing opportunity, but it also carries a grave responsibility.

Will you be prepared to present the Gospel in a clear and relevant manner?

Will your people be prepared to welcome the explorers who show up to join your community that day?

Will your gatherings be planned and executed in a way that minimizes distractions and maximizes focus on the simple power of the Gospel?

Will your teams be ready to cultivate new relationships and graciously pursue those who show interest in the Gospel or in your community?

Are the members of your church empowered to go to the street corners and invite anyone they can find to the "banquet"?

Are you ready for Easter?

Dear Pastor, please begin today. You will have no greater opportunity this year to present the Gospel to such a large and needy group as you will on Easter. Please be sure you and your church are ready.