Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolute Action

In the swarm of a million possible self-help New Year’s resolutions I have tried to boil things down to just one that will make a difference in this world. A 20 minute extended baptism – also known as drowning – would have sent me straight to heaven and solved many of life’s problems, but there must be a reason that God wanted me to hang around this earth a few more years. The reason to stay is not to eat less, lose weight, make more, acquire more stuff, run faster, live longer, etc.

The goal is to reach people. My last post was a link to a Youtube video about why we should witness, and it was presented by an atheist. Since then I have continued our outreach activities but with a renewed urgency because I cannot escape the seriousness of Jesus’ command to make disciples.

I am a very shy person when it comes to witnessing, and that is because I don’t really like confrontation. However, this year I am resolute about one thing. I will confront many with whom I have been building friendships. I will do this in love, and some if not all will initially be offended or think I am a nut. There is no way around this though. I will just have to do it. If I don’t do this certain people might never be saved, but if I do it some and maybe many will be saved.

In order to accomplish this one thing I will also have to eat less, lose weight, make more, give more, have more strength, pray more, study God’s word more, be a better husband and dad, etc. This is a life built around a purpose, and that purpose is the advancement of God’s kingdom.

The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who is wise wins souls.

Prov 11:30

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Rebuke from the Lost

I am rarely as moved as I was when I listened to the Youtube link on Ed Stetzer’s blog site. It is a video clip from Penn who is one half of the magic-comedy duo Penn & Teller.

Penn is a rather strong atheist to say the least, but he has some rather surprising things to say about the heart of an evangelist. He actually appreciates it, and the words of an atheist in this case contain much valuable instruction.

In other news President-elect Obama has selected Rick Warren to lead the convocation at his inauguration. Liberals are shocked, and I think a few conservatives are as well. Why would Obama make such a move? Is it simply political? I think one reason is that honor begets honor. Rick held a very balanced civil forum between the two candidates at his church, so Obama might have just picked him for being a nice Christian.

See what Penn has to say about nice Christians in Ed’s Post: Prophetic Words from Penn

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Applied Theology

Some things in life are both funny and convey wisdom at the same time, and by nature they are usually the best examples to help us remember simple truths. One regularly scheduled event in my college days was the Friday colloquium where different scientists would present to the department a lecture about their research.

I could only understand a fraction of what was being said, but we never forgot the beginning. It was a running joke that the difference between a theoretical scientist and an applied scientist is that the applied scientist could turn on the overhead projector. Everyday in a laboratory the applied scientist was testing theories by tinkering with many stubborn machines that often had a mind of their own. A projector was easy to conquer.

The theoretical guy rarely came out of the office where he worked with pen, paper & computer. It was all math, and the secrets of the universe were waiting behind every equation - Greek I might add - for this guy.

Well, up steped the professor while fumbling pieces of paper and transparencies as the audience awaited the revelation of one particular cosmic truth. "Can this guy find the 'on' switch?" After a few walking orbits around this complex optical device – the projector – an applied scientist stepped up to help the theoretical guy find the switch while the rest of us chuckled.

This story can also describe the oftentimes gap between the accumulation of theological knowledge and the application of this knowledge. I personally love the study of theology, but these days I focus on the application of truth first in my own life, then I try to help others with their walk with God and finally I try to reach others.

In the classic movie
Glory with Mathew Broderick, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington there is a scene where one young soldier is showing his skill as a marksman at target practice. The colonel notices this skill and steps up to ask him about where he learned it to which the soldier replies, “Hunting squirrel.” The colonel then pulls a revolver and begins to fire it near the soldier’s head while yelling at him to reload and fire.

The young man’s skill fails him as the simulated stress of battle adds a variable that he had not yet anticipated. In battle you have to shoot well while someone is shooting at you. In applied ministry we have an adversary and a world that does not particularly want to be taken for Jesus, and there are many unanticipated trials that test what we think we really know.

God’s word contains all that we need for the goal of personal growth and kingdom advancement, but even though serious study and academics are involved the fullness of God’s truth is only realized and acquired as we advance, fight and experince God's truth.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2 Tim 3:16,17

Monday, December 8, 2008

Doobie Brothers & Evangelism

One of the most puzzling questions in my mind has always been, “Where did the attractional model of evangelism come from?” It you are not familiar with this it basically means that a particular church has a particular worship or cultural expression that makes non Christians get up early Sunday morning, drop what they are doing and go to church.

As for me I have always wanted to put nails on the road in front of the church and then offer free tire repair as an attractional method. However, there may be a few ethical problems with this approach.

Of course I am all for churches trying to remove those things that make it unnecessarily unattractive such as archaic styles, but is it reasonable or even biblical to expect that the main method of evangelism is to get people to church?

When I was a new Christian there was a great expectation and hope that if we as a church were to return to our origins as found in the Book of Acts then the world would hear the commotion, come and check us out and then fall to their knees. Revival would then ensue. After all, isn’t that what happened in
Acts 2 when the church was filled with the Holy Spirit for the first time? Many people came as a result of this, Peter preached his famous message and 3000 people were saved that day. Now that is something to write about!

Well, let’s do some math here. There were 120 Christians praying in the upper room of a house, and God showed up in great power. Then we read that this move of God attracted a lot of people, but it is unclear how many people or where they gathered. Next there is a debate among the nonbelievers as to what just happened – how did they get in the upper room? Then Peter makes his move with a powerful message.

I firmly believe that God used Noah to carry pairs and sevens of all animal life on the Ark, but I do not see how the first church fit over 3000 people in the upper room. I don’t even believe that Peter preached from the window. At some moment on this great day I believe that Peter took the discourse to the streets or to the community, and this is where the church often falls short in its understanding of evangelism.

We may indeed experience great moves of God within our insulated Christian communities, but does the result of these experiences ever make it to the streets? I fear that the answer is very seldom.

The real attractional model is to go to where the people are and shine: the streets, the community, the workplace, the university. Don't let the church building become a basket.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Matt 5:14-16

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Because They are Hard

"We choose to reach the nations. We choose to reach the nations in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

To all who love the great history of our nation you will recognize this quote as being a modification of a famous speech by JFK. I replaced the phrase “go to the moon” with my phrase “reach the nations”.

JFK was a great visionary in pursuing the conquest of space – as if such a thing can be conquered. Going to the moon was an impossible task in those days, but it was made possible by vision, determination and resources. This speech carries so much wisdom and instruction for our desire to fulfill the Great Commission that I want to underline a few of the main points:

  • It is hard. There is nothing easy or convenient about making disciples and planting new churches in other nations. It will cost us more than is convenient to pay, and it will take us longer than we anticipate.
  • It is the best possible use of our material and people resources in the kingdom of God. Any use of God’s resources for other than God’s goals is a waste of life itself. I would go so far as to call it spiritual embezzlement. This does not mean that we cannot enjoy life and creation along the way, but along the way to where?
  • It is a challenge that we are willing to accept. This challenge does not mean that everyone will get on a plane, but it does mean that all of our lives should be oriented around the purposes of God.
  • It is a challenge that cannot be postponed. We are unwilling to postpone it. Postpone it for what? The enemy has not postponed his plan for the nations so neither should we delay.
  • We intend to win this battle. We intend to obey our God. He gave us all power and resources, a personal directive and He will be with us along the way.

There is only one thing harder than attempting this great endeavor. It is to manage a future in a world where it is not being done. Now that will be hard!

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matt 28:18-20

Friday, November 14, 2008

Looking Over the Generational Horizon

A young leader recently asked me how to mentor up-and-coming leaders and especially how do we utilize what Paul told Timothy? “Entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Most leaders with whom I work understand the urgency of raising up the next generation - the Timothys - but Paul is teaching us something that is a little more unique.

We are not simply called to raise up the next generation, but we are called to peer in faith over the generational horizon and plan for those who are yet to be saved. Moreover, we should even plan leadership for those who are yet to be born. That’s right, we have to plan now for a time when we will not be here and for a people we might not ever meet.

In the military there is a specialty called artillery observer. These people are located next to or even behind enemy lines, and their job is to direct the artillery fire which may be located miles away. The artillery men are not just miles away, but they often cannot even see the target because they are beyond the horizon. They have to trust the instructions of the observers so they can deliver accurate fire. We also need visionary leadership in the church – and I will add here in our nation also - that will help us direct our efforts towards a future that we cannot and might not ever see.

As I travel I meet leaders in different churches and denominations, and there are many diverse styles of leadership. Some churches are in dire need of CPR, but even for those that are healthy I often feel concern because they are a one-lifetime church. This usually means several things all of which add up to a short-sighted view of the kingdom of God.

First is that the main leader has built everything to be dependent upon himself. Even if he is a great leader the church will wane when he passes. Even good leaders unknowingly do this, but this causes the next generation to be stunted, and within several generations this church might close or need a serious reboot from God.

Second is a leader who does not recognize the obvious Timothys in his midst. I wrote about this in a
previous post, but suffice it to say that young leaders are usually more ready to take the baton of responsibility than we would think. They don’t have to be as polished as we; they only need to be faithful and proficient.

Third is the mass of faithful men and women in every church who are waiting to be equipped for ministry. I distinguish here between going to Sunday school and equipping for ministry. Equipping encompasses learning, but the accumulation of knowledge does not always translate into doing. There is a task to be done, and people need to be equipped to do it. Equipping is basically purpose-oriented, directional learning.

Fourth is the mystery group. They are the others be they saved, not born again or maybe not even born. This is Paul’s goal as he writes to Timothy. As a seasoned man of God he is aiming at a target that is over the generational horizon, and he realizes that a church that has this generational approach to ministry is a church that will encompass and span many generations of leaders in its mission to make disciples of all the nations.

Aim far, shoot far.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Love Ukraine: Nations Unite to Help The Poor

Please take a look at what God is doing in Lviv, Ukraine and especially what can happen when nations unite to reach the poor.

Every Nation Lviv Ukraine

Every Nation London’s outreach to the poor in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine, check links below:

Video Links
Love Ukraine Dec 2007
Love Ukraine June 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

Surrendering the Baton

In the life span of any great endeavor there is a beginning, middle and an end. Some endeavors, especially those inspired by God, are so vast that those who begin them will never live to see their ultimate fulfillment. However, as with Abraham even he was able to see in faith the day that Jesus would come and fulfill all things.

As a missionary who is on such a journey I can recall times when I was convinced that I could run an outright sprint until my dying days and see all that God had promised come to fruition while I was yet in my vigor. I have seen many start this sprint only to drop dead in the process. Their focus and vision were so intense that they ignored all warnings and wisdom. With each lap they ran at full speed right past the person who was next in the relay because they were running for personal gold. Families suffered, health failed and the race ended early. Also, those who were waiting patiently for the baton grew frustrated and decided to start their own race.

Others who paced themselves a little better still had to face the reality of the end of their influence in a specific area. In short, they either embraced this or they fought it to the very end. I for one have sprinted until I dropped and also survived by God’s grace only to face a more sober reality, the reality that I will not take Ukraine for Jesus. The years of effective service in one area are finite, and this window is even narrower when I am ministering in a foreign culture.

My vision for Ukraine has in no way diminished, but I understand that I was never called to take Ukraine or any other country. The task is too great for any one man, and it will take longer than any one lifetime.

I am still ministering to young people, but I am now older than their parents so I know that another generation must take over this work. I am also not the best one suited to be a senior pastor in Ukraine. The main reason is that I am not Ukrainian. I can do the work, I speak the language but the job was simply not meant for me. It was meant for Ukrainians.

While some would see this as the end of ministry, for me it is in-fact the beginning of the greatest years. The reason being is that those whom I work with know that this is my value system. They know that I only want to equip them to do exploits in God, and they know that I do not want the glory, the individual gold. Because of this they only invite me more into what they are doing, and I have found that my effectiveness and influence are actually increasing. I am thoroughly content with this transition in life, and I can see in the next generation the second leg of the fulfillment of all that God has promised. Seeing the next generation rise up and run with greater agility is truly exciting.

Unfortunately, many leaders wait until they are on their deathbed before they pass the baton. They say, “Here my son, the responsibility is now yours. I am going to be with the Lord now.”

To this the young leader might reply, “But father, I don’t know how to do this, you never taught me. You did it all, and people will never trust anyone like they trusted you, the patriarch. Will you have email in heaven, a cell phone?”

The deathbed is not the place to pass the baton. We need to surrender it in our hearts from the moment it is put in our hand. The very nature of the baton is that it is not a scepter, and it must be passed. The race is simply too long and too important for us to run it ourselves.

So when do we start raising up the next generation to take the baton? From the moment we meet them. Do we end up sitting on the sidelines? No! We are to get as many people into the race in as many nations as possible until we see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Good runners become good running coaches, and good running coaches never really stop running.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Simple Christian Investment Strategies

No, I have not rediscovered some long-lost mineral mentioned in the Apocrypha that will extend your life to 120 years if you eat a bowl of it every day. Such things make it onto certain Christian TV programs as the newest thing that the church needs to buy. Within a month they go the way of the dodo and the latest exercise equipment that collects dust in our basements and garages. I never cease to be amazed at what some people will fall for.

Concerning Christian investments I am not talking about a business either, but it may involve some money. In a time where the bottom is falling out of investments there are some people who actually invest in things long-term, and when there is instability in the market they just wait for things to return to normal.

In God’s economy investment usually means something long-term. The resources that we invest are simple: time, people and materials. The things that we invest into are visions, projects and last but not least, people.

Investing in God’s people is probably the best and safest possible investment, and let’s take a look at why. First of all this is where God places His investment. He gave up His best possession, His only Son, to save people, so they must have tremendous value despite the fact that they are prone to self-destruction and are often
relegated to the basements of society.

God not only purchased these people, but He then invested His very Spirit into their lives. It is often hard to see why He did this because His Spirit is always in a tug-of-war with their stubbornness and self-will.

Now hold on Wall Street or Church Street because God is resolute in His investment strategy. He is not subject to change with the wind like these two aforementioned streets. God has an enormous arsenal of resources at His disposal. He can do miracles beyond comprehension – not to mention that man is one miracle and the earth that we stand on is another – to accomplish His goals. Alas, He forgoes this so that His investments, you and I, can get the word out instead. He does this even though we are not always the best promotional ads for His kingdom.

So why is investing in people the best Christian investment strategy? Because at the end of the day it has the greatest return because all the other bells and whistles, steroidal church growth methods, gimmicks, etc fail to realize what God’s goal actually is.

The goal is people, and investing in people so that they can in-turn become investors in people is the best way to reach people. It works this way because people respond better to people than they do to anything else. This is how God made us, and He made us this way so we could respond personally to Him.

As a husband, father, missionary-pastor and sometimes mentor I can attest that there is no substitute to investing personally into the lives of others. When we all do this using God’s values and goals the return is nothing less than a changed world. Any other investment will eventually become a dodo.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal. Matt 6:19-20

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 2 Tim 2:2

By the way, I know I overuse that last verse, but as long as the church underutilizes it I will keep harping on the same thing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Preparing to Speak

Just recently I passed a milestone in my ability to speak Russian. There are still days when I can barely ask for directions in the morning because that part of my brain still hasn’t felt the coffee, and I still can’t say “barber shop” (par–ik–ma-kher) to save my life. But I can now preach – some would call it stammering - in Russian rather freely without a translator. However, for a safety net there are usually a few bilingual friends on the front row just to throw me a few hints along the way when I stumble with a word.

I also noticed that I sometimes actually preach better than I speak. This was odd at first, but I soon figured out the simple reason why. I can prepare my topic ahead of time, I can craft my message and pray about it to make sure it is from God and I can test it with select friends to make sure it is relevant and understandable. This all helps me to be a better communicator for God and also lessens the chance that I will make an absolute fool of myself. However, in everyday conversation I often do make a fool of myself using the wrong word or just creating some kind of Slavic-inspired sound that causes people to squint their ears in confusion.

Now imagine that everyone had to go through a preparation process before they actually said anything to anyone. You have to make sure that that what you say is from God and that it is not stupid of offensive. You have to make sure that you actually know what you are talking about, and you have to make sure that those who hear you will understand what you are talking about.

One of the problems with this world and even in the church is that people just don’t prepare to say the oftentimes offensive and ignorant things that they say. Their words just spill out their mouths as they are jostled to and fro by the trials and circumstances of life, and very often what spills out is quite unsavory. Since opinion is less dense than truth it usually floats to the top and is the first thing to spill over and be heard.

As Christians we need to stay filled with God’s word so that when we are bumped only good things spill out. We also need friends on the front row of our lives who will lovingly correct us when we are just not making any sense. Lastly, we simply need to be prepared in our hearts to speak in season and out so that our words can change circumstances and not be a byproduct of those circumstances.

Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. Eccl 5:2

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Strength & Honor

As the soldier-general, farmer Maximus Decimus Marilius, prepares for battle in the epic movie Gladiator he walks among his troops looking them in the eye and says, “Strength and honor!” In this tense moment he is communicating that he is one of them, and they have the same value as he.

Honor begins with words and is culminated in deed as the leader states and shows his appreciation for those whom he is leading. This principle is seen in the military, in business and in everyday leadership situations.

Unfortunately, some leaders create an environment where they believe that those whom they lead exist to honor the leader. The result of this is a loss of confidence among the team, a lack of spirit in what they do and a frustration with not being fulfilled in their field of work.

However, leaders who honor their team find that it strengthens the team not only to excel but to at times achieve greatness amid trying circumstances. One of the greatest ways that honor produces strength is when it places a value on the person that the person did not think possible. Jesus did this when He told His disciples that they would do greater things than He when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and today we can see the same result when a seasoned leader looks in the eye of a young person and says, “I am convinced that you can surpass me, and I want to invest in your life to see it happen.”

Maximus came from a common background which meant that he was not born with his abilities. They had to be developed. Leaders who had to learn how to lead are usually better at encouraging young leaders. I know that I have had times of utter discouragement as a missionary when I felt invisible and insignificant, but in the midst of that feeling several leaders whom I greatly respected singled me out – they often did this in a public setting – and they bestowed great honor upon me for what I was doing. At this moment I felt like adrenaline was pumped in my soul, and I could then run another hundred miles or take any country. We can’t live on moments such as these, but we do need such moments to set our compass straight and show us the value and abilities that we really do have in God’s eyes.

In the movie, The Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom’s character is a knight from simple beginnings. When the battle was on the edge of disaster he was told by a religious man that the battle could not be won without knights, but all the knights had perished. At this he turned and knighted all the slaves and knaves who were at his side much to the dismay of the religious man. Can knighting a man make him fight better? You try it. Honor someone, and see if it makes a difference.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Two Kinds of Fire

“ I am going to burn you up!” This was the vocabulary of my youth when I was in some form of disobedience or a general nuisance to my parents. They did the best they could trying to make sure I made it through life unscathed by its dangers. “Burning me up” meant that there was an actual or perceived threat to apply friction to my gluteus maximus (my butt) as a deterrent to bad behavior. This method has been used for many millennia, and it still works today.

However, my oldest daughter, Abbi, grew up on the mission field far, far away from the language of my southern heritage, and one day I told the tender child in the heat of frustration that, “I am going to burn you up!” Well this really caught her attention, and I knew from the look of terror on her face that she thought that I was threatening to set her on fire or something. I quickly diffused the situation, and to this day Abbi knows that nothing her dad says will set off the smoke detector.

Speaking of fire one must admit that it is a very powerful symbol. It can describe heat, a personality or a great message that you heard at church last Sunday. Fire is also a strong motivation for us to proceed quickly in the opposite direction of where the fire is located.

There are several kinds of fire referred to in the Bible, and I would like to focus on two of them. The first kind is the fire of power and zeal bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us power to be witnesses, and this was so tangible with the first church that tongues of fire were seen over them when God first filled them with the Holy Spirit. God desires that this kind of fire should describe the perpetual state of readiness of all believers to boldly and lovingly share the hope that is within them.

The second fire is judgment or discipline. It could be the hell of the ultimate judgment or the trying situations that we find ourselves in when we disobey God like Jonah did. (vid
pt 1 & pt 2) As a young boy I heard the preacher talk about both fires, and both fires are still needed in every pulpit.

The preacher should have one of two goals when he preaches.

First is to see that all have the fire of the Holy Spirit over their heads. This means we are faithful and powerful witnesses.

Second is that if the first goal fails the preacher needs to light a spiritual fire under our chairs so that we are motivated one way or another to move forward. This worked with Jonah several millennia ago, and it still works today.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lord of the Harvest

In a recent post “Here I Am, Send Me” I talked about the spiritual process necessary to inspire men and women to want to join God in His mission for this world. That mission is commonly called The Great Commission, and the word “commission” already gives us a hint as to how it all gets going. The Great Commissioner is the starting point, and He is Jesus, the Lord of the harvest.

However, I still find myself leaning on human understanding as to how I can motivate people to go – actually for me it is to “come” to Ukraine. I can use multimedia and tourism methods that show how beautiful Ukraine is, but the novelty will wear off once someone has ridden enough times with 50 people in a bus that was built for 25. Winter here will also send you packing unless something other than adventure is the motivation.

Ukraine is not unique in this aspect because all who seek to increase the number of missionaries on the field are in the same proverbial boat – seemingly without a net I might add. How can we better motivate people? To that question I have discovered a truth that is so simple it is often drowned out by the background noise of human missionary activity.

And He was saying to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. Luke 10:2

First and foremost the harvest is presided over by Jesus. He is not only Lord of our lives, but He is Lord over the harvest. This implies that this realm called the harvest is His work place, and He governs everything from the finances, sowers, reapers and fishermen to the wheat & fish (people) who are brought into His kingdom.

Second is that He is more aware of the need than we are. He loves the lost more than we do, and He does not rest in His labor while there are nations that are still outside the saving grace of His kingdom.

Third is that He asks us to ask Him to send more workers. This is very odd indeed from my point of view. It is one of the few times in scripture where God tells us in detail what is needed, and then tells us to ask Him for it. I believe that another reason He confines the sending of new leaders to the simple process of our asking Him is that He wants to keep missions as a work of grace that glorifies Him and not the talents and abilities of men. In this context anyone can be a missionary, not just talented people!

Finally, there is a peaceful rest in this one verse for all Christians who love God and the harvest. Our responsibility is before God and not before ever-demanding man who too often only wants results at any cost. We need to simply ask Him in faith for workers and go on our way faithfully preaching the gospel and equipping those who have heeded the call to serve. It is God’s responsibility to do the commissioning and sending.
Ps 127:1,2

I preached a message based on my post “Here I Am, Send Me” last week at a conference in Novodnistrovsk, Ukraine. One young woman – the daughter of one of the pastors – came up to me afterwards and said she wanted to join our church planting team. She said that God warmed her heart as I was sharing. Another young youth leader also wants to join me in about a year. I did not know these people, but God did. He knows many more, so let’s join together and ask Him for the very thing that He wants us to ask Him. We can’t go wrong in this.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Don’t Sin Today

As a believer my approach to God is one of simplicity, and as the writer of this blog I endeavor to boil down ideas, current issues, truths & lies to their base elements. My question is always, “What is the real issue here?” This causes me to be a constant listener and observer, and sometimes I see and hear things that simply resonate God’s truth.

One such incident was a phone call with a friend who pastors a church in Ukraine. My friend invited me to a conference to preach on evangelism, and during the conversation he began to relate to me a difficult pastoral situation that he was dealing with.

Some Christians had created such a mess with their lives that he simply could not untie the knot that they had made. The main reason is that they had kept the knot secret for so long no one could remedy the problem. If they had sought help early on much pain could have been avoided. I sighed over the phone, and exclaimed, “What could be done?”

“Don’t sin today”, was my friend’s response. This really struck me, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Don’t sin today! He was not telling the people who made the mistake; he was telling me. He was telling himself. He was telling his church not to sin today.

The real impact of this was simple and profound. Daily sins that grow and go unchecked often lead to public disasters. The Bible says that it is the little foxes that spoil the vineyard, and seemingly insignificant unchecked sin can have an eroding effect on every aspect of life. Like a house built over a sinkhole all seems fine until one day the headlines say: Million Dollar Home Swallowed Up, Major Ministry Swallowed Up, Family Swallowed Up or Corporation Swallowed Up.

“Don’t sin today” has another implication apart from scaring our pants off (for some it should scare their pants on). It is impossible unless we are walking with God every day. Not walking with God today is a sure plan for sinning today. The two are mutually exclusive. I fear God just writing this…

Now walking with God does not imply "going on a walk" with God. We also need to be going where He is going. This relates to being a fisher of men because that’s where He is going.
Matt 4:19 Not being a disciple and not building His kingdom means that we are essentially building our own kingdom. This is also a sure recipe for sin and disaster either today or in the near future.

God’s wisdom for us is simple and direct.

But know that the Lord has set apart the godly man for Himself; the Lord hears when I call to Him. Tremble, and do not sin; Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. Ps 4:3,4

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin and if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. 1 Jn 2:1,2

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Look Straight Ahead

I came late to the school soccer game today, but Abbi could not play the first game because she had been sick. She could still watch though and called me to ask when I would get there. I said it would be soon.

When I arrived I saw her with friends, so I did not bother her. At the end of the game she did not see me and got worried. My cell phone rang, and the call was from her. I turned around to see her standing there looking right past me as I answered hello.

“Daddy, where are you?” I was 5 feet in front of her.

“Abbi, look straight ahead.” She was so stunned to see me right in front of her that she literally jumped in fright.

Now change the story completely around. There is no phone, but there is prayer. We are not talking about your earthly dad; we are talking about God the Father.

The game is life, and we are sometimes too unwell to participate so we just watch. God does not seem to be there, but He is quite close. We may call often and not see Him, but when He answers He is nearer than we expect. Just call and look straight ahead.

But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works. Ps 73:28

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Here I Am, Send Me!

In June of 1993 I experienced a sound that to this day I have not forgotten. I did not simply hear it, but I actually experienced it. The sound was the whizzing of an electric motor followed by a kerplunk. It was the sound of the landing gear closing on the plane as we left Raleigh, NC on our way to start a church in Lviv, Ukraine. I had quit my job a few months earlier, and the sound of the landing gear closing was like a giant umbilical cord being severed. All that was safe and secure was cut off, and our future was literally in the air. We were being shot from a cannon, and since we were some of the original missionaries at that time the net on the receiving end was not yet in place. The method of sending in those days was “Ready, Shoot, Aim”, and I felt ill-prepared for the task ahead.

Every missionary has their own version of this story, and I was reminded of our story just recently after I returned from a missionary pastors’ retreat in Warsaw, Poland. One of the common themes discussed was the lack of people who were willing to go to the mission field. “How could we generate more interest?” was my constant thought. The harvest was fruitful in many places, so how could we promote the need? Is there a better way to do this? What can possibly motivate someone to rip themselves up from their roots and choose such a path? The answer was elusive until I recollected how I was originally motivated towards missions.

I honestly would not have picked myself for a mission team in those days, and I often felt like a football player whose position was third-string bench. When all the other players were injured the coach would probably look in the bleachers for replacements before sending me in the game.

Still, I was the one that went, and this is the case with most missionaries. The secret of what motivated us is not found in methods and slick presentations, but it is found in God. We are ordinary people with ordinary giftings who simply had an extraordinary encounter with God. Something had gripped us to such a degree we could not let it go.

Isaiah was a man of God and a prophet, and something quite profound happened to him that I consider to be the motivation and basis of all true mission endeavors. The first thing was that he saw God, and he saw Him in all His glory. Heaven opened and shook beneeth his feet as the praises of God and of His holiness proceeded forth from all the angels. This scene struck the prophet: “Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Is 6:5

Isaiah was acutely aware of his spiritual condition, and he was also aware that not only was he polluted by sin, but the whole nation did not stand a chance before the holiness of God. In much the same way all true missionaries are acutely aware that they live in a world that is under the judgment of God. The renowned missionary Hudson Taylor even published statistics of how many thousands of Chinese entered a godless eternity every day, and this motivated him and a whole generation to literally lay down their lives to reach these dear people. Radical compassion and identification with lost people were and are essential for a missionary.

Isaiah also let God remove his own sin and guilt. The circumstances of this are rather incredible because it shows just how serious the sin issue was as angels took a hot coal from the altar of God to bring to him and touch his lips. Imagine the terror of the moment. The angels could not touch the coal themselves, and Isaiah was already laid waste by the presence of God. However, even as God’s holiness and judgment touched him he was not injured. Instead, his sin was removed. His guilt was gone, and he could not only stand before God but he could answer a specific question that was forthcoming.

Now came the call, and the call was not from angels or from man. It was from God. "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" Is 6:8 Even before God could tell Isaiah where he would be sent or what he would be doing Isaiah jumped in response, "Here am I. Send me!" Is 6:8 God then sent him to those same people of unclean lips, "Go and tell this people…” Is 6:9

There you have it, and to this day the preparation of any missionary is unaltered. They have a revelation of God, His holiness and their own inability to stand before him. They also understand His goodness, His greatness and power on behalf of those who believe. As for me I grew up knowing about the historical Jesus, but when He revealed to me that He was King of kings and Lord of lords I soon abandoned my kingdom and goals for His.

Those who heed the call understand that their sin and guilt have been graciously taken away by the work of Jesus on the cross. They cannot keep this secret like some absurd personal faith, but are compelled to make it known.

They hear the call like it is a personal call, but it is most interesting that God did not say, “Isaiah, will you go?” He asked, “Whom shall I send?” The call is open to all who have ears to hear and understand.

I for one am a strong advocate for understanding that we are all missionaries where we are, and after a bumpy beginning of “Ready, Shoot, Aim” I can attest that practical equipping is essential. However, the lack of interest that I see in foreign missions and the lack of a spark in the eyes of Christians when I talk about this need greatly trouble me.

As leaders we must drive people to the presence of God, and once they have met Jesus and continue to walk with Him they will be able to hear the call. Then sending people will be more like pulling a plow behind 50 race horses and less like coaxing mules with carrots.

Listen, hear & volunteer!

Friday, September 5, 2008

No More Poop?

We have a new dog. For those of you who are parents with pets that first sentence should be enough to evoke sympathy. My family wanted a dog, and after having parakeets, fish, a real parrot and a large rodent (guinea pig) we have graduated to a real pet who can actually return affection. The parrot was actually a puppy in disguise, but have you ever tried petting a fish?

The dog’s unofficial name is poo-er which is a contraction meaning “one who poops”. Pastor Igor’s mother in law, Nadia, gave us the dog. Pooer's mom, snoopy, belongs to Igor’s family, but it conveniently lives with Nadia. I asked Igor if he wanted the dog back, and he said that he would accept ownership as long as the dog continues to live in Kiev. Igor is infinitely wise.

After two months of cleaning up small reservoirs and landmines from our living room floor every morning today is the first morning that pooer neither pooped nor sprung a leak during the night. Hurrah!

However, the victory was short-lived; we now have kittens! Apparently they were living under the front porch, and they emerged for food when their mom did not show up to make dinner. Well, we will not have pet cats for several reasons. First of all, I don’t like them. Second, my family is allergic to cats. If you would like a cat then pay me a visit, stick around for coffee, tea or to help us plant this church.

This whole episode reminds me of discipleship, and if you get upset that I am going to compare Christians to pets then you will just have to get over it. God calls us sheep, and I for one could be compared to a dog chasing cars and turning over trashcans before I was saved - spiritually speaking of course.

Many of us have also pooped on the floor a few times – spiritually speaking again – as new believers. Our friends and leaders just put a clothes pin on their noses and patiently cleaned up after us hoping that we would eventually get a breakthrough. Once we think we have made progress with new believers along come kittens – more new people - to complicate things. More work!

However…Even though life can be messy where would life be without lives? My family loves these pets. We are having a lot of fun. Also, where would God’s kingdom be without new life, new people, messy people who need discipleship, lost people – stray souls - who need a home? The church would be a clean house, but it would also be an empty house.

What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost. Matt 18:12-14

Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much revenue comes by the strength of the ox. Pr 14:4

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Opposite of Community: Being Alone

There I stood before the church trying to figure out the best way to describe the need for small group ministry. What complicated this was that I wanted to use the word “community”, but this church did not understand that English word because they were Ukrainian. I also had to use a translator that day, Pastor Igor, because I cannot preach in Ukrainian.

As I discussed my message with Igor before the meeting the only word that we could come up with to describe community in a Ukrainian context was family. Still, this word did not convey exactly what I wanted because families here are often fragmented. As I began my message I could not resist playing with Igor a little. As I preached I used the word “community” anyway. Igor paused while not expecting my change, and two leaders on the front row immediately offered what they thought to be the best word to use.

I stood for a minute to let the lesson of this distracting example sink in. “You see”, I continued, “we cannot even agree on what word to use for this foreign concept.” In fact, it really is a foreign concept because every culture on this planet has a slightly different understanding of community. However, I still believed the concept was both biblical and universal. There must be a simple key to unlock this truth, and there was.

In the very beginning: The Lord God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone…” Gen 2:18

And there we have it. The best way to understand community in any cultural or spiritual context is to understand its purpose and even it’s opposite. It is not good for us to be alone.

About once a year I read the tragic story of some poor soul who was found dead in their home or apartment after a period of many years. This usually happens in Europe or the US, and one person was found to have died 10 years before. No one noticed the mail piling up because there was no mail. Shocked neighbors would later say, “They kept to themselves”, or “I thought that they had moved.”

While some would blame the relatives and neighbors for not being “neighbors” – and this is oftentimes the case - we cannot overlook the fact that some people have simply decided to drop off the map. This can include Christians who see no need for the local church, but when things go wrong in their lives they often become critical of the church for not responding.

Even people who go to church are sometimes just visiting a crowd that has no expression of community throughout the week. Hundreds of people can be standing around you, and you are still alone. I must add here that when I used this example in church that day there were two reactions on the faces of those listening. Younger people had a look of disbelief, but older people had a look of terror. They felt more vulnerable and had the greatest fear of loneliness and abandonment.

  • Community, family or whatever you want to call it in your language provides for things that are essential for the human soul: Love, nurturing, protection, encouragement, values, joy, fun and vision.
  • Spiritual community provides for the exact same things with the added elements of eternal purpose and equipping for life and service. To live without these is to at best simply exist.
  • Spiritual community is also important to the secular community. People would wander in darkness if it were not for the family of God, and they will remain without hope and vision without you.
  • Secular community is also important to spiritual community. You will not grow either individually or as a spiritual community if you do not reach and serve those who do not have the hope of eternal life.

Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Prov 27:17

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. Eccl 4:9-12

Monday, August 11, 2008

Spirit Filled or Spirit Full?

Gas prices are so bad these days that AAA has reported a record number of calls to tow the cars of their members that have run out of gas. People are trying to travel on the bare minimum, but a sputtering car in the middle of nowhere is not a good experience.

Christians also try to go far on an empty or near empty tank these days. I am speaking of being full of the Holy Spirit or lack thereof. There is nothing new in this, but over the years a certain lingo has developed among Christians to describe just how full they think they really are. The phrase most often used is “being Spirit-filled.”

I for one embrace the Spirit-filled life, but I must say that there is an often misleading usage of that phrase. The Bible only uses “Spirit-filled” in the very recent past tense. This means the person or group in question had just experienced a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit. They subsequently moved in great power because of this recent encounter with God. However, calling oneself Spirit-filled does not always indicate the last time you were actually filled with the Spirit. If I plan to take a long trip in my car my wife does not ask me, “Was the tank filled when you bought that car?”, as if once filled always filled. She will ask, “Is the tank full?”

So why am I splitting hairs here? So often I hear someone say, “He is a Spirit-filled brother, so how could he have done such a stupid thing?” What they are really saying is, “This man was once filled with the Holy Spirit with some evidence following, and he has now done something that indicates that he is not Spirit-filled.”

Unfortunately, "Spirit-filled" has become a phrase that is a bit worn out with misuse. Instead of asking if someone is Spirit-filled we should ask a more probing question. “Are you, and I mean right now, FULL of the Holy Spirit?” This is a question that lays us bare. It is not a historical question, and it does not concern our various spiritual gifts. “Am I full of the Holy Spirit?” What is even more telling than asking ourselves is whether or not others think we are full of the Holy Spirit just based on everyday observations and fellowship? Here are a few examples from Scripture that use God’s vocabulary instead of ours:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness Luke 4:1

Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. Acts 6:3

But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Acts 7:55

When we examine ourselves concerning being full of the Holy Spirit we should quickly know the result if we are indeed Christians. It is a question that we should ask ourselves every day, and we should endeavor to do whatever is necessary to be full of the Holy Spirit. What can we do?

  • Don’t lean on the nostalgia of past experiences. Seek God for more of His presense and power in your life. Acts 4:31
  • Repent of any known sins. Acts 2:37-39; Acts 3:19
  • Spend time with God every day talking with Him – aka prayer – and meditating on His words. Jn 15:1-11
  • Put yourself in a position where you need His presence and His power by serving and reaching others. Acts 1:8
  • All this makes us fillable. Now just ask! Jn 7:37-39

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Gal 5:22,23

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I Must Decrease

One of my favorite areas of ministry is mentoring young believers and young leaders. I enjoy seeing new believers discover more and more about Jesus, His grace and His call to reach others. I enjoy seeing young leaders take more responsibility and come up with ideas better than my own. I am also a little selfish here because if the young leaders will do more then I will have to do less.

LESS. Now that is not a popular word. As in fashion where “Green is the new Red” we now find that “Less is the new More.” I am hopelessly colorblind, green really is red for me, so I probably ruined that last example. The problem with this new – actually ancient – spiritual fashion is that some leaders just can’t get enough of “more”.

I often hear of leaders still trying to hold the reigns on peoples’ lives, on the creativity of their leaders and lastly on the pulpit. In its extreme it is both sad and tragic as a whole generation is stunted in their growth because of one person.

John the Baptist set the bar when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Jn 3:30 I think that this frightens many leaders because they simply cannot see the Holy Spirit moving in anyone except themselves. Other leaders think that the most talented has to be the one up front, and some are more simple-minded in their approach. They think that they are Moses incarnate.

“Less” and “Decrease” do not mean a decrease in the kingdom of God. This actually means increase in the right context. A kingdom that depends on one man being the conduit of the power of God will surely blow a fuse. The fuse is often the pastor. However, the increase comes from the enormous magnitude of effectiveness when God’s power, creativity and purpose are manifested in all His people. We want the lordship of Jesus to increase in the lives of all people, not our lordship.

There are several areas where this principle causes more growth:

  • The more I come to Jesus on a daily basis and rely less on my natural strength, the more His kingdom will be manifested in my life. Still working on this!
  • My daughters are at the age where I am mentoring them to make their own decisions. I often ask them what they think God would lead them to do in a specific situation. This sharpens their discernment, and this is necessary now because in a few years they might have their own families. They will still probably call me though to babysit.
  • Young believers have to be carried at times, but we need to help them stand on God’s word, and we have to instill a personal faith in them that does not rely on the people or things around them. They need to be weaned from us so they can feed themselves.
  • Young leaders need to be able to express their own creativity, and we need to give them reasonable latitude to make important decisions even if we might disagree. Letting people skin their knees a little with some not-so-so-well-thought-out-plans can be a valuable lesson. We can’t insulate them from pain and failure, but we can help them grow in wisdom to make mature decisions.
  • We can also simplify the vision so that our personal gifting is not projected over them. Let them be creative. They hear from God as much as we do. Let them take the wheel sometimes.
  • Let them take the wheel more.
  • Then give them the wheel.

When we hold on to the wheel we will eventually lose it, and God’s kingdom invariably suffers a setback. When we decrease and let Jesus increase in the lives of others we actually lose nothing. People grow, God’s kingdom grows and the leaders whom we helped only invite us back in as wise counsel and eventually peers.

Even Jesus wanted His disciples to do more miracles than He.

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. Jn 14:12

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Great World Religions or How to Give Yourself CPR

Salvation by works has often been compared to saving yourself from drowning. Many religions essentially teach that they can give proper swimming techniques in the midst of a vast ocean of personal depravity. Of course, they move you closer to the shore and decrease the depth of the water. In other words, they teach that you are not really that lost, and if you are not that lost then you do not need a savior. You just need a guide or a teacher.

Those who call themselves Christians often fall into a similar trap in their understanding of keeping God’s laws. They imply that these laws are also instructions to at least “keep us saved”. However, swimming instructions written on stone tablets are not the best thing to throw someone who is still in deep water. The deep water I speak of is the propensity of the flesh to steer left like a grocery cart with a bent wheel. It does this when God’s law steers right.
Rom 7:7-25 Denying this is like trying to hold a beach ball under water in a pool. It will come up somewhere.

The religions of man have it all wrong; we are not drowning at all! We are actually already dead, spiritually dead that is. Scripture teaches us that we are all dead in our sins and that none of us seeks after God.
Eph 2:1-10; Rom 3:9-20 The absurdity of saving oneself in this predicament is the same as thinking a drowned man can administer CPR to himself. He is utterly helpless. Yes, we do have a responsibility to hear and repent, and “NO” this is not a Calvinist argument about total depravity. We are dead in our sins, but a totally depraved person grazes naked in the field with cows. Sorry for that tangent.

Jesus had an interesting way of bringing religious people to an understanding that they needed salvation. He did not bring in grace at first unless people were humble. He brought in the law. He reinforced the fact that the tablets of the law were weightier that the Pharisees thought. He pressed this until the hearer exclaimed, “Who then can be saved?” This is when He introduced grace and mercy because it was only then that it could be appreciated.

One of the evangelistic mistakes that we often make in communicating the gospel to people of other religions is trying to explain the person & ministry of Jesus before they see their need for salvation. Even though our postmodern world rejects moral absolutes many world religious still accept them. In these cases we can establish a degree of righteousness using their own standards that brings in self doubt. We can then bring in the gospel that brings a correct fear of God. The terror of an inescapable judgment is actually desirable. It is not popular, but facing the
Dark Night of the Soul puts a person in the best position of understanding the hope of trusting in the finished work of Christ.

As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, "Follow Me!" And he got up and followed Him.

And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, "Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?" And hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Mark 2:14-17

Friday, June 27, 2008

Preaching: The Greatest Show on Earth?

When I was young Ringling Brothers Circus would come through town and advertise “The Greatest Show on Earth”. But I liked the State fair better than the circus because I liked to see the stuntman and daredevil shows. The announcer would always remind us adventurous boys, “These men are trained professionals, so don’t try this at home.” The shows were truly great, and as “boys will be boys” we would always attempt in the backyard a version of what we had seen the professionals do. I still have a limp.

There is a current three-ring debate in the church concerning using preachers via video from other churches, so I thought I would add a few comments of my own. The issue is really not about technology because using technology is unavoidable. The real question concerns using “trained professionals” too much. The result of this is that no one tries the same stunts in their home church, speaking of preaching that is.

I am in Kiev, and we have visited
Hillsong Church several times. Some may criticize them for being upbeat, but I will not do that. I saw something there that I really liked. I was there twice when the main pastor was not speaking. Instead, one of the home group leaders preached, and another time a youth leader preached. Those guys were pretty good, but better than that I saw that the congregation was satisfied with not having super preacher up there every time. (the pastor is also a great guy)

Some congregations are wowed into virtual spectatorship by the super preacher. They become connoisseurs of preachers and messages like a parody of
Ratatouille. The chef and the food must be just right, or they will make their own review of the quality. They constantly speak of how well they were fed..or not fed. My suggestion is that if they want to get fed then they need to work more in the kitchen. This means learning how to feed themselves and then feeding others. This will keep you quite full.

When a young man or woman without much experience ministers publicly it communicates several things:

  • It is not about having the super messenger. It is about reproducing as many messengers as possible.
  • It shows the congregation that they are expected to and can grow into all roles.
  • It drives the critical spectators to action, to grow or go. No food critics allowed!
  • Like the movie I have mentioned: Everyone might not be able to preach, but a preacher can come from anywhere.

Finally, the main issue that concerns me about video preachers does not concern the lack of preachers in the church. The main lack is actually in the area of reaching the lost. It is not about preaching. It is about reaching.

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 2 Tim 2:2

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? Rom 10:14

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Minimum for Salvation

It was one of the most eclectic groups of pastors I have ever been in, and we were all navigating our way through a class on Systematic Theology 101. The teacher had a Reformed background, but the pastors ranged from Arminian to Calvinist in their experience. They all agreed that they were at least saved, but they could not agree if they were saved before or after they repented. You might not be familiar with the debate on this, but it is humorous at times. Another thing they could not agree on was “how they stay saved”.

How to stay saved. It is also not a new debate, but I will state my belief here and now. Trying to stay saved is like concentrating on keeping my heart beating. The thing will beat whether I think about it or not, and thinking about it too much will probably shorten my life due to stress. Striving to “stay saved” will also wreck our walk with God. He keeps my heart beating in the same way He keeps me in His hand.
Jn 10:28-29

Anyway, the teacher was talking about grace that day, and those of a legalistic persuasion were getting nervous because all their “works” and energy to stay saved were being rendered null and void with each consecutive verse from the teacher. Then one pastor knew he had the question that would stump the teacher.

“So then, what is the minimum someone has to do to be saved?”

The teacher paused just long enough to inhale enough air to answer. He neither planned to hear such a question that day nor did he plan the answer that he gave. It just popped out to the astonishment of all the listeners.

“The minimum to be saved is the same as the maximum to be saved.” No one expected such an answer, and most of the class had that expression on their faces that puppies have when people try to talk to them, just a slight tilt of the head to one side and a tightening of the brow. It was a wonderful moment that I have never forgotten.

The teacher went on to explain several simple truths, and a few of these are from me:

  • It is not what we do to be saved, but it is what Jesus did to save us. He did the work. Rom 11:6
  • The Holy Spirit reveals to us that we are lost, no hope, no exit, just very lost. Jn 16:5-15
  • The Holy Spirit brings to life whatever we have read, seen or even thought about concerning the gospel and our lives.
  • The Holy Spirit reveals to us the person and ministry of Jesus through whatever we have read, seen or even thought about.
  • Something happens in us, a breaking, a softening. We can sit quietly, we can wail in terror or we can laugh. It makes no difference how we respond with our emotions.
  • In the end we yield; we give way to Another. He takes control ever so gently and turns everything to a new direction. This is repentance.

So then, where is the work? Sorry I left out our contribution, but it comes in various forms:

  • We work hard to resist the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives before we are saved…and sometimes even afterwards.
  • We work hard to convince people they are lost. Sorry, it is not our job. The Holy Spirit does the convicting.We are to be living witnesses who share our hope.
  • We work hard to punish ourselves even after God has forgiven us.
  • We try to clean our spiritual house with bulldozer techniques instead of letting God gently remove the baggage.
  • We run so far ahead of God in His plan to the point of exhaustion. He then walks by as we are straining at the oars – He is usually walking on water – and He instantly brings us to our destination. Mark 6:45-52; Jn 6:16-21

Yes, we do a lot of unnecessary work trying to help Jesus finish what He has already done and accomplish in our strength what He plans to do through us by His strength.

Because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. Heb 10:14

Monday, June 2, 2008

Pastor – Candidate Endorsements

My name is Mike Watkins, and I endorse everything that I say…most of the time. However, there may come a later time when I run for public office, and I will have to disassociate myself from me so that I will not be impugned by my past words. “I had no idea that I held those views!”

Such is the drama and dark comedy of this election season. Candidates have always gotten election-year religion, and this year is no different. However, the spectacle of this year’s US presidential election is unique because the candidates in question are not particularly careful with whom they rub shoulders in the religious community. They are also not that spiritual themselves, and the two-way relationship of endorsements is shaky at best.

Much can be said about the candidates, but less has been said about the pastors who court them. Yes, I said “court”. I do believe that a Christian has the right to voice his or her support for a particular candidate, but when a pastor or major Christian leader makes official endorsements they are stepping outside of their biblical authority. There are many pitfalls:

  • By courting favor we lose the ability to speak objective truth as the prophets of old.
  • A pastoral endorsement actually says, “As a Christian leader I am saying that this is the man/woman who is best suited for the job based on biblical standards.” This is slippery even when the pastor and the leader are friends.
  • One would be a fool to think that there is no temptation for a Christian leader to want to be in the inner circle of the president.
  • Pastors are usually not experts as to who would be best at foreign, domestic and economic policy.
Even though there are dangers, this does not mean that Christians and Christian leaders do not have a voice in the democratic process:
  • A Christian leader can vouch for the integrity of someone – a personal friend - running for office as well as their stand on specific issues that are important to Christians. Again, the leader needs to know what he is talking about and whom he is talking about.
  • A Christian leader can use his God-given authority to speak objective biblical truth into every issue.
  • A Christian leader can advise a candidate on matters where the leader is an expert: moral truths, family issues, societal problems, human rights, etc.
  • A Christian leader can be called upon by a sitting president for advice. A leader’s stature in the Christian community will make way for him before rulers. This is post-election, and the leader still needs to make it clear Whom he is really representing.
  • A Christian leader can call on a public official to simply repent.
Ultimately the best thing that leaders can do is what they were actually called to do, to make disciples who will go into all the world and make more disciples. This is the best way to change society and assure a future for the next generation. We will then have a better crop of candidates and citizens who have good foundations for making daily decisions.

When you sit down to dine with a ruler, consider carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are a man of great appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for it is deceptive food. Pr 23:1-2

Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin. 1 Tim 5:22

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. Eph 4:11-13

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gossip Part 2: Appeasement, Correction or Rebuke?

Most gossip can be stopped by preemptive positive comments. We can’t anticipate what others will say, but if we are in a group we can sometimes sense the direction conversations might lead. Gossip – our untamed tongues - is a part of our old baggage that God is still working on, and for most it is an occasional lapse that we regret.

However, for some it is a very bad habit that is based in bitterness, insecurity or it is the only way they can make themselves look good - by lowering others. The gossiper often fishes for a response to see if others will volley. You know the guy. He makes a joke or a verbal slight, then looks around for approval and then he ventures further out on thin ice. Each time he goes through this routine he gets more and more comfortable with the wagging of his tongue. It just flaps in the wind.

Sooner or later the tongue will start a great fire, so as Christians it would serve us all if we did some fire prevention. The first rule is: Don’t volley! Just don’t answer. Don’t smile. Don’t laugh. This is kind of hard when everyone else is laughing.

I am from North Carolina where everyone is very polite. We just ignore stupidity and let people make an ass of themselves. Then we talk later about how they made an ass of themselves. However, appeasing the bigmouth violates community. It weakens our discernment and strengthens the root of evil because evil gets more comfortable and brazen with practice. As a young Christian and leader my common response to gossips was, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” I just did not like confrontation.

The best and easiest way to stop gossip is to inoculate the situation. For example, a new acquaintance who has a loose tongue says, “Did you hear about what ______ did?” We can say, “I know him. He helped me in the past. Is he ok?” This immediately lessens what this guy is willing to say at the risk of offending you.

Sometimes, we have to be a little more direct in a group when the snowball gets rolling. “Listen, I know this seems important, but I know this guy and his family. It might be appropriate to discuss this issue, but it is not here and not in this fashion.” If we do this humbly we will only gain respect and set a standard.

Some people still don’t get it, so we have to take them to the side. “Friend, I don’t know if someone has offended you, but what you are saying is really hurtful. Can we talk about this? Maybe I can help?”

Some have crossed the line so many times that they are brazen in their public tongue wagging. I have encountered this only a few times in 15 years of pastoring. Someone, usually a guest with an axe to grind, tries to dominate a meeting with bitterness and accusation. First I would say, “Sir, this is not the appropriate place for this. We can talk elsewhere.”

If they don’t heed this then I say, “We care for you, and you are welcome but what you are doing is not welcome. Let God touch your heart and heal you.”

Finally, I might have to say. “Sorry, you have to leave. No discussion.” This was done to maintain order and protect the fellowship. I have only done it twice.

Appeasement is a cancer, but constant gentle correction as well as setting positive standards will stop the snowball before it gets too big.

So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! James 3:5