Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Jesus, Dawkins, Santa & the Tooth Fairy

Believe it or not this is my Christmas post, and all these names have something in common. Richard Dawkins is a world-renown scientist who is also known as Darwin’s Rottweiler because of his radical position on Darwinism. He is also vehemently opposed to any hint of deity being involved in the here-and-now or the hereafter.

Dawkins and his supporters also frequently parrot something like, “Sure, people have the freedom to believe in God, and we do not want to take this away. They also have the freedom to believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy.”

Well Mr. Dawkins, let’s solve the simple controversies first. The Tooth Fairy is an early European myth, and some think that it came from the tooth mouse that had more or less the same mission. No one really believes in this person into adulthood. There are no theological or philosophical books written about him or her, and there are no temples devoted to worship. This character never existed.

Santa on the other hand did sort of exist. He does not live at the North Pole despite Hollywood’s never-ending attempt to make us believe. Nicholas of Myra – no relation to my wife who is also Myra – lived in what is now Turkey which is a little further south. He usually tried to forego using reindeer to crash-land on roofs, but he was known to have done much for humanity in the name of God simply by walking on foot. Many aspects of his life are worthy of emulating even from a secular perspective.

Dawkins is a contemporary figure who is quite brilliant even though I believe his presuppositions are extremely prejudiced. You really need to have your ducks in a row – or primates in ascending order – to hang with this guy in a debate. I would however ask him why he stands so firmly against the God that Nicholas followed in a desire to do good, and I would ask him what moral questions he has against a man, namely Jesus, whose life brought about the greatest positive change in human history and whose birth and death have come to define our cultural landscape.

When it comes to the aforementioned names it is better to focus on just Jesus and Richard Dawkins for the sake of comparison and contrast, but Saint Nicholas without the reindeer is still worthy of mention having made a significant impact on natural history because of what he believed and did.

The final question is this. Does what we do or don’t believe about Christmas cause us to make a significant positive contribution to the moral evolution of our species, or do we just adhere to survival if the fittest in a hurting and needy world?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pepsi and Original Sin

Everyone who has ever met me knows that I have a significant scar on the left side of my chin. When I meet new people I can tell they are looking at it, so I just want to tell them it is a war wound or that I was bitten while wrestling with a shark. But that would not be true. I actually did it to myself.

When I was 10 years old I was walking home from a friend’s house and stepped on a Pepsi bottle that almost made me fall. In anger I picked up the bottle and threw it across the road at a large stone wall which made it shatter. A split second later the wall sent me a response.

I continued home, and as I entered the bathroom and looked in the mirror I was in shock as I saw that I was covered in thick blood from my chin down and caked around my neck and all over my shirt. Unbeknownst to me that wall had sent the bottom part of that bottle back to me as a token of my impulsiveness, but I only felt a slight bump when it happened. Most people would curse out something like, “Stupid wall”, or “Stupid bottle!” But in my case it was just stupid Mike. I think I also prayed the sinner’s prayer as best I could because I thought that I had cut my throat and was dying.

Very often in life we find that we are the victims of our own immaturity. We walk around mad at something or someone, and we are then surprised when someone is all of a sudden mad at us. I mean, who started this thing, Adam & Eve?

This is life, but every so often we have to make a difficult decision that, even though we may be correct, will cause us and maybe others some degree of pain. In these cases we need to make sure there are no rocks or Pepsi bottles nearby – namely in our hearts - that we can use to express our unique individuality, aka self-centeredness & immaturity. We will then find that the fewer things we throw around in frustration, the fewer ammunition others will have to throw back at us.

I still have that scar and always will. Maybe that is the real reason I drink Coke.

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Pr 15:1

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The First Steps of Leadership

I was talking with a pastor friend the other day in Kiev about the lack of a leader for his youth ministry as well as a problem that I solved in our new church meetings. My problem is that since we are small and getting started I was leading every aspect of the meetings. I opened the meeting, I lead worship, I made announcements, I preached & then closed the meetings. At the same time I noticed that the whole meeting had an awkward feeling that one of our team said was like being in school.

My friend was doing the same thing with his youth because he did not have anyone experienced enough to lead. After an hour of discussion, the root as well as the solution was uncovered. It is true we did not have anyone as experienced as ourselves to lead the team or the whole meeting for that matter, but we did have people who could lead individual parts of the meetings.

I had already decided to divide up various roles at this point so that I would not be seen as a schoolmaster or even worse, the church master. Our team had a great creative staff meeting where they even decided the topic that I would preach. Another guy helped me choose the songs, and since he plays guitar, he will also play a few.

In the end it was decided that my only role in the meeting would be to preach for 15 minutes, and our team was encouraged and empowered to have been a part of the whole process.

So who was the leader in all this? I lead our team, but I lead them to lead. The first step in my leadership is to help and encourage my team to take the first steps in their leadership. We have experienced full-time leaders on our team, but we also have volunteers who are just getting started. It is unrealistic to think that we will simply find someone among the untrained volunteers or new believers who is born with the full package for leading a meeting.

I am not the only one who is leading leaders either. We pass this principle of first steps on to everyone with whom we are working. The result is that we will have a happier team and less boring meetings, and as they grow in confidence and ability God’s kingdom will not simply grow but will multiply.

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

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Relationships: Becoming Sticky Again

In my last post I talked about how relationships before marriage can damage us and make our marriages less cohesive (sticky). Of course, it is great to enter into marriage as pure as snow, but the reality is that many – including Christians – come into marriage with a lot of unwanted baggage, including some photo albums in our heads that we can’t seem to get rid of. How can we remedy this?

As with tape or glue, we need to remove the residue of old relationships, and this starts with restoration of our souls in Christ Jesus. The very first thing needed is repentance, the removal of guilt and a subsequent clean conscience.

Another important step is to repent of the idolatry of relationships. Memories of old relationships are often so sticky because we have placed that person or that experience at the center of our lives. When a marriage goes through a difficult period, an unrenewed mind can become untethered and drift to so-called “better things”, and if that better thing is an old memory we are on a dangerous road. However, when Christ is the center He is the “better thing” and the anchor of our souls during stormy seasons of life.

The last point is that there is no better surface for tape to stick to than another piece of tape. This is why a man and a woman – unfortunately it is necessary these days to specify genders – with Christ as the center of renewed hearts and minds have the best chance of sticking together in a world where many forces seek to tear us apart. Therefore, don’t marry an unbeliever, and make sure you are spiritually prepared for marriage. (clean sticky surface again)

This may all sound oversimplified, but when anyone has overcome a difficult past to build a strong marriage they will look back and see that they have more or less done these very things.

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 2 Cor 5:17

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Relationships: Sticky, Stickier & Stickiest

Just last year my wife, Myra, and I lead a small group at a local university, and the topic was relationships. We posed a simple question, “Do multiple relationships before marriage serve as good practice for marriage, and do you want your future spouse to be experienced sexually before you get married?” What would you say?

To our surprise the girls said that more relationships were better, and they wanted their husbands to be “experienced”. The guys were a little more conservative.

Next we pulled out a piece of paper and some scotch tape. We applied a piece of tape to the paper, and then carefully removed it. “Is the tape still sticky”, we asked? They replied that it might be, but barely. We asked why not, and they replied that the tape removed some of the paper. We all agreed that you might be able to use that same piece of tape 3 times, but afterwards it would be useless.

I then explained that relationships are like that. The emotional and physical bond that occurs is deeper than we can realize, and when we break this relationship it damages something in each person. Each consecutive relationship is less sticky and the breakup is easier each time.

Finally, by the time we get married the only so-called “experience” that we have is how shallow relationships can get and how easy they are to break. We are left with the memories of others which further pollute the bond that we desire to have with our spouse.

Again we asked the students the same question, but the answer was different this time. “It seems that it is better to wait for the right person”, they replied.

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. Gen 2:24

Note: There will be a part two to this post on restoration and how to become sticky again. There is always hope!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Christianity: What Not To Wear

Nose rings, cup holders in our lips, tattoos, ties or a tattoo of a tie? Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend about Christians who have piercings and tattoos, and it seems that for some this theological question is the biggest thing on the heart and mind of God. Of course we were talking about young people and not our grandparents. What should church policy be on these issues?

Believe it or not I had faced the same theological dilemma over 30 years ago at my first baptism. (I have been baptized 3 times, but that is a hitherto unpublished post) My pastor at that time was a very godly preacher, but his short sleeved shirt on baptism day revealed a tattoo of a woman in a bathing suit dated to the 1940’s. He got it I think in the Navy during WW2. As a newborn 10 year old theologian I was shocked but have gotten over it. He went to be with the Lord last year, and he had a great influence on my life. It turned out that he was able to be a pastor and a Christian with that tattoo after all.

As a somewhat progressive church planter I am willing to try almost anything to reach the lost. I dislike ties except on formal occasions, and I have no desire or need to get a tattoo unless it is my phone number which I can never remember. I reach
gothic kids now and try to dress a little cooler, but there is no need to dye my hair black unless it starts to turn gray. I considered wearing a spiked collar to fit in with the Goths, but at my age it might be misconstrued for the aberration of a more dominant lifestyle. I try to be myself, but I know others who for the right reasons are a little more progressive than I am. I lose no sleep over this.

From a cultural perspective the question of what to wear and what not to wear can be complex, but from a biblical context it is simple. All women in the US have seen the show
What Not to Wear, and if you are a married man you have also been forced to watch it. Some poor soul is submitted to this show by his or her friends and family who think that they could use a change. Their unique daily dress & grooming styles or lack thereof are secretly filmed for a few days, and they are then presented with the evidence and an opportunity to change. BUT, they must get rid of the old, and some people religiously hold on to 20 year old styles, mullets and the like. It sounds like a few archaic church styles that I know of.

The concept of this show is not new. The spiritual version can be found in God’s Word:

What to take off: Eph 4:25-29
  • Take off worldliness
  • Take off selfishness
  • Take off bitterness, unforgiveness, etc. 2 Tim 3:1-4
  • Take off a religious spirit. 2 Tim 3:5

What to put on: Rom 13:12

  • Put on the new self. Of course this means to take off the old self. Col 3:1-7
  • The armor of God. This is a big one, but I would like to emphasize the footwear here. Eph 6:10-20
  • Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. This means to look like Jesus and not like us. Rom 13:10-14
  • Put on love. Of course, a lot has to be removed to put this on.

Ultimately, God is concerned with the style of the heart and not the style of the clothing, hair or what part of our face we hang our dad’s extra fishing tackle. It is the heart that ultimately shows our life’s purpose or who is at the center of our lives. A heart that is properly clothed and focused on the will of the right person, namely Jesus, is prepared to be what Paul stated:

…I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 1 Cor 9:22

What determines your personal style, Kingdom purpose or just personal expression? The two sometimes line up but sometimes don’t.

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal 3:27-28

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Church: In Lieu of Flowers…

I have been known to read the obituaries, which my wife thinks is morbid. What interests me is not death but what is said about a person’s life and the legacy that they left behind. One comment that often catches my attention is something like, “In lieu of flowers contributions can be made to the American _______ Society.” That society is often named after some awful disease that took that person’s life.

To me it is as if that person and their family fought that disease until the bitter end, and even after the fight was lost the family wants to celebrate the fight of life instead of giving honor to death. They continue that fight by investing and encouraging others to invest in conquering that dreadful disease.

As a church planter I am sometimes confronted by statistics on how bad the church is doing and how far certain nations have drifted from God. Many proclaim a woe-is-us mentality while accusing one person or another and discussing church and leadership spiritual obituaries as evidence that the sky is falling.

I for one do not agree because the world has always been more or less a mess, and Jesus knew this when He gave the Great Commission to “GO THEREFORE!” I would like to tack onto the end of every cynical church obituary or apocalyptic news headline the following: In Lieu of Flowers please…

  • Proclaim in faith that God’s kingdom will in fact come on earth as it is in heaven. I seem to remember this being included in a famous prayer somewhere.
  • Study your culture, its problems and dive ever deeper into God’s word to better understand how to communicate the cure. A right relationship with God, following Jesus & making disciples is the solution.
  • Take the step of faith to be a part of reaching others, and invest in other ventures throughout the world as other like-minded people do the same.
  • When the faith of others is derailed by the defeat or failure that they perceive in the church or in a nation then step in and stop the funeral. Jesus literally stopped funerals!

This battle begins with personal faith in God, but we must by all means proclaim this faith to others. The enemy does his share of proclaiming through secular media and even through believers who sometimes – pardon me here – just seem to be in morbid awe of what kind of mischief the antichrist is up to. I had better stop here before I necessarily offend someone.

We used to sing this song that was the proclamation of a pagan king. It would not hurt to sing it again.

…For He is the living God and enduring forever,
And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed,
And His dominion will be forever. Dan 6:26

Monday, July 27, 2009

Never Disappointed

For the Scripture says, "Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed." Rom 10:11

Imagine that you lived in a world where nothing lets you down. All politicians do what they promise, your job is secure, products work as advertised, everyone thinks you are great, your church exceeds your expectations and your pastor never makes mistakes or offends you.

In motivational seminars they often ask, “What would you do in life if you knew you would never fail?” They then offer to sell you a product that will help you achieve that goal, and if it does not work you will be disappointed with the people who sold it to you, disappointed that you couldn’t fulfill that dream and disappointed at yourself for either buying that product or not having the initiative or talent to make it work.

Yet God promises that in such a world of guaranteed pain and failure it is possible to NEVER BE DISAPPOINTED. That is, if we trust in Him. But what does it mean to trust in Him? The list of scenarios are as long as life itself, but trust in God implies ultimate trust and this is where we can begin in our understanding of never being disappointed.

Ultimate Value: If you allow anyone on this planet to define you or ascribe value to you then you will be disappointed. The best that I can do even as a Christian leader is let you know how God values you, but I might also be having a bad day and by not being as polite as I should you might judge your value by the amount of attention that I give. This is a best case scenario – it happens in every church every Sunday - but this world is even meaner and will rip you apart with unkindness. However, God shows us how He values us by what He gave to save us, His only Son.
Jn 3:16

Ultimate Purpose: Forrest Gump asked his mama if he had a destiny, but even his mama could not fully define his destiny and she truly loved him. We are not feathers floating around to nice theme music. The reality is more like hopscotch in a mine field at times.

God defines our purpose, but He does not wind up our lives like a toy and then walk away while we stumble through the pitfalls of this world alone. He is actively fulfilling His promises and causing all things to work together for ultimate good. Even when man lets us down by dropping the ball of our lives – case in point the
life of Joseph – God is the one who is really in control. It is a promise. Rom 8:28

Ultimate Accountability: I am accountable to many people, but ultimately I am only accountable to God. If I seek His face and obey Him the best that I can and still am not successful by man’s standards I can be content. I am called to obedience. I am also called to fruitfulness, but that fruitfulness is based on abiding in Him and may not always be deemed success by this world or even by some in the church. By some of the standards that I hear these days people would even call the life of Jesus a failure if I were to tell the same story in a modern setting and change the names. The same would go for the Apostle Paul. But God was pleased, well-pleased!

God never promised freedom from pain in this life. He never promised that people would not let us down. He never promised that everyone would love us and be for us and be excited about our destinies. But He did promise that our hearts would never be broken by Him, and if we will come to Him with broken hearts, He will heal us. He also made a few more promises that will not fit in this post, over 3000.

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Rom 5:3-5

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Honk If You Love Jesus?

You have all seen it if you have been behind the wheel enough. An elderly couple at the stoplight has stalled their car, and the impatient line of cars behind them resorts to a cacophony of honks and insults to remedy the situation. The longer they wait the worse it gets.

Of course it makes perfect sense, and everyone knows that loud complaining and inaction is the best way to change a scenario. Just the other day my car was having problems so I drove it to a local stadium – that’s right, a stadium – where I paid hundreds of people sitting on their laurels to shout at the top of their lungs, speak curses and you know, it was just the thing to repair my car!

It was then I knew I was on to something, and as a missionary this approach might come in handy. The church needs more material and people resources for the task at hand, and even Jesus said that there were not enough workers to go around. It must be someone’s fault, and I doth protest! The scandal! The outrage! Someone should write another blog!

Or consider the following. The frustrated citizen turns off his motor, unbuckles and gets out of his car. He stands on his bumper to look ahead to what is holding up progress and quickly discerns what must be done. He walks up to the stoplight, inspires a few more complainers and they together help to start the elderly couple’s car.

In the end action is much better than reaction, and in the church there is only one responsible party and one source of resources. Ultimately I am responsible to be a part of solving problems and not to just whine about them, and Jesus told us to ask Him for our resources and not to grumble and complain.

Anyone can parrot the nightly news, diagnose a traffic jam or complain about the church, but who can bring change? If you really love Jesus then get out and push.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Solomon’s Wisdom on Splitting Children & Churches

I have been walking with God for 25 years, and during that time I have experienced two church splits. The first time was when I had been saved for less than 6 months, and the second time was when I was a missionary.

Church splits are a lot like divorces in that there are irreconcilable differences, property disputes and finally child custody disputes. Behind it all – at least in churches – is usually an offence that has festered too long or even someone’s desire to take control. A person who takes control usually has difficulty distinguishing the difference between people and personal property.

1 Kings 3:16-28 two women came to Solomon to settle a dispute. They both had children about the same age, but one woman had rolled over on her child while sleeping and suffocated the child. When she awoke she exchanged her dead child with the other woman’s child.

Both women asserted their claim on the living child, but Solomon could not determine which was telling the truth. He then decided to cut the child in two parts and give one part to each woman. The woman who was lying agreed, but the true mother surrendered her right to the child so that it could live.

I remember asking a young leader who was a key figure in a church dispute about the fallout of a possible church split. Until my conversation there had only been a lot of discussion of doctrinal differences and offences, but I asked, “There are over 40 children in Sunday school who come to church without their parents. Have you thought about them? They will be scattered to the wind if you continue.” Unfortunately, wisdom was not heeded that day, and that church was almost brought to and end by the ensuing split which did in fact scatter those children to the wind.

Doctrines are very necessary, but doctrines are the foundations of new life for things that I like to call “people”. As in marriage where children are involved we need to solve differences in the church by considering more than our own personal tastes, dreams and opinions. The spiritual wellbeing of many who are not aware of our differences is at stake, and a selfish or impulsive move on our part can derail the spiritual walks of many others for years to come.

What then is Solomon’s wisdom? Sometimes it is better to lose a personal argument for the greater good. God is sovereign, and He can reveal through wisdom and circumstances who does and does not have the sheep’s and His kingdom’s greater good in mind.

So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Rom 14:19

Monday, May 4, 2009

NASA & Expendable Christendom

When NASA sent men to the moon it spent 20-25 billion dollars on the Apollo missions. Thousands of scientists and engineers poured their entire intellects into building a very expensive machine that was ultimately totally destroyed in the using.

There was no sorrow in the destruction of all their inventions though because that was a part of the plan. The
Saturn V rocket contained over 3 million parts that all served one purpose, to get three men to the moon and back safely. When the rocket left the ground the launch pad was incinerated. Each stage of the rocket was eventually lost to either burning up in our atmosphere or remaining in orbit as the rest of the rocket fought against the earth’s gravity to lift those three men to the heavens.

One part of the capsule landed on the moon, but to conserve weight it left its landing gear on the moon when it headed back to earth. That very capsule was jettisoned to also burn up after the three astronauts readied the last surviving part of the Saturn V, a small capsule, for reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.

After billions of dollars, thousands of man-hours and the incineration of the great majority of the 3-million part spacecraft NASA had successfully sent three men to the moon – only two of the crew actually landed – and safely back with the addition of some very valuable moon rocks. The vehicle was expendable, but the people were not. There was no grief for the lost rocket but only jubilation in achieving a monumental goal.

The church is a lot like NASA. One of its missions is to send people to heaven, and it is a forgone theological conclusion that no earthly device, organization, building, fame of man, etc. will make it to heaven, only people who have trusted in Jesus for salvation.

The church should have no grief in the expenditure of massive resources to get people to heaven, but it should have considerable grief when its mission to reach the nations is not accomplished. Unfortunately, some of the church could be likened to a NASA that built all those rockets only to never fly them. They would go directly to museums. Or like a NASA that used all those rockets as very expensive fireworks. However, the taxpayers would never stand for such a thing, and neither should the church stand for investing in anything that does not serve the expressed desires and purposes of God, to seek and save that which was lost.

In comparing a healthy church to NASA I would also compare a church with misplaced priorities to science fiction. So called miracles (there are still real miracles!) just become special effects that serve no other purpose other than shock and awe. I had better get back on the main topic before I say too much…

I can’t but help feeling nostalgic for the bygone days of great visionaries like JFK who rallied a nation to go to the moon, and I also miss the days when I was a young believer and there was a mighty call going forth to fulfill the call of God. We can have those days again. We must have those days.

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; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matt 6:19-21

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Big Toe Advocate

My first school bus was bus #133, and it was so old that it looked like one of those school busses you might see in a cartoon that actually had a face and could smile and talk. You know, like Thomas the Tank Engine. I was in the first grade, and during my first few weeks I felt like young Forrest Gump as all the older kids staked claims on the best seats.

Of course the most prized seat was at the back, and only the toughest guy could stake that claim. Not only did this guy - a 6th grade bully who was twice my size – claim the back of the bus as his
fiefdom, but for some reason he decided that the big toe on my right foot was his enemy. For many days he would stomp the heel of his shoe on that toe until it was swollen, bleeding and infected.

I was afraid to tell my parents, but my mom saw my limp and after seeing the damage she made me show my dad. Well, my dad, Arthur Watkins, was your typical working-class guy who slaved in a local textile mill his whole life. He was neither the best dad nor the worst dad. He had hands made of steel, and I was generally afraid of his wrath. However, I was soon to see a side of him that I will never forget.

Instead of totally losing his cool my dad just asked me how long this had been going on and who was doing it. He usually said things like, “If a bigger guy bullies you just pick up the nearest stick and knock him in the side of the head.” But this time was different. He just quietly said. “This won’t happen to you again.”

The next day I was on the bus heading home, and dad would arrive home from work an hour after me. The bus soon squeaked to a stop near my house, the double doors swung open and as I began to exit the bus I met the towering figure of my dad getting on. It was a
Clint Eastwood spaghetti-western moment, and I knew that some kid on the back of the bus probably would not live to graduate 6th grade. People get arrested for stuff like this these days.

I froze as my dad passed me and went to the back of the bus. He approached the bully who by now was getting spiritual. He looked the kid in the eyes and said, “You have been hurting my son. It will never happen again.” And then without another word we got off the bus and walked home together.

I have never forgotten this day, and it reminds me that if our earthly fathers protected us as best they could then what about our heavenly Father? If I had known what my natural father was capable of doing on my behalf I would have confronted this bully with confidence long ago.

If we also knew the advocacy and power of our heavenly Father we would not put up with the harassment of the bully of our souls, the devil.

By the way, that guy never even looked at me again until I met him over 30 years later. I was preaching in a church, and he was in the congregation. I talked with him after the meeting, but I never mentioned the incident because he did not remember me.

I’ll bet he remembered my dad though!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Death, Hell & Taxes

Ben Franklin said that, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I for one have been afraid of both. Mind you, I am not actually afraid of taxes, but I have a phobia of filling out tax forms. I actually dislike filling out any kind of form for that matter.

There are many fears in this world, and there is nothing better to help us walk through or overcome a fear than a friend who has passed through the same ordeal and who is now living proof that it is possible to survive.
2 Cor 1:2-7. Anyone who has overcome any adversity such as addiction, depression, sickness, poverty or loneliness is an eyewitness to the fear, hopelessness and finally eventual hope and victory that we all long for.

However, who has gone through the ultimate fear – the fear of death – that we all must face? And the next fear is what may or may not follow, judgment and hell. If I asked a crowded room, “Has anyone here died recently and come back? I am really worried about what comes next?”

And then some guy says, “Sure, that happened to me just last week. The doctor said that I had little time left, and he was right. I died, but then I came back. It wasn’t too bad.”

This is of course absurd, but allow me to continue. Most religions offer some hopeful explanation about death and what may follow, but it is only a hopeful theory without living proof. Atheists offer absolute certainty that there is nothing after death, but even they grow anxious near their own end.

Then there is Jesus whose entire ministry addressed this question. He taught about it, but it did not end with teaching. He displayed such a mighty authority over creation that He was able to overrule sickness, the forces of nature and death itself. Those who were closest to Him even wondered who He might really be during such occurrences.

I cannot fully expound here on the magnitude of what Jesus did when He was crucified, buried and was raised from the dead. However, there is one place in Scripture where His closest disciple, John, sees in one moment the truth of who Jesus is and what He did.
Rev 1:9-20.

John sees the risen and glorified Christ just as He is in heaven, the Lord of glory, the Resurrection and the Life. And what a light! John falls as a dead man at the sight, but then something happens and if you can embrace this truth it will overrule your greatest fears.

When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man And He placed His right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. Rev 1:17-18

  • The Risen Jesus is the same Jesus that John had fellowshipped with. Jesus lays his hand of authority, comfort and blessing upon John.
  • Jesus assures John that he should not be afraid because of who He really is. He is the first and the last.
  • Jesus tells John not to be afraid because He has gone though and defeated death once and for all. He is alive forevermore.
  • Jesus now has complete control and authority over the things that are our greatest fears, death and hell. There is no greater authority than Jesus.

When the main fear is defeated all the others will dim and eventually disappear.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?


But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rom 8:31-39

Imagine the potential of a life following Jesus based on such a secure foundation. Now embrace that foundation and live that life!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Resonance Truth

I remember trying to encourage a young believer once by telling him all the great things God thought about him. He nodded his head in agreement, but his eyes were looking downward. I actually reached out and lifted his chin with my hand so that he could at least look me in the eye. “God loves you”, I exclaimed, “and He has forgive your sins!”

He said he believed this, but as soon as I removed my hand his head fell again. Did this man believe what I said? Yes and no. His mind accepted it, but it did not resonate within.

Resonance. If you know anything about music you know that a well-tuned piano or guitar will resonate the same note as a tuning fork. In fact, if you sing a certain note into the body of a guitar or piano the strings that are in tune with that note will respond with the same note. Try it.

However, if you drop that well-tuned piano or guitar a few feet you will find it nearly impossible to find a coherent note in those instruments with a tuning fork. Humanity itself has been dropped more than a few feet. The drop was so great that we call it The Fall, and when fallen humanity comes into contact with God’s salvation truth it is so out of tune that there is no inner response unless the Holy Spirit strikes the chord. To keep the theology and the analogy simple I will call this chord “conviction.”

Even when we as believers agree with our minds we find it difficult for our emotions to be in tune with God’s truth. We still live in unredeemed bodies and in a fallen world, so the tendency of our souls is to resonate with the environment. The only solution is for us to tune our souls with God’s word on a daily basis to the point that the lies and temptations of the world no longer resonate as true. This is no mere exercise because in doing so the Holy Spirit is also at work.

The strongholds of the enemy also produce resonance, a resonant lie. This happens when a whole society or region agrees with one particular lie such as abortion, gay marriage, atheism, etc. To these people God’s truth sounds out of tune, and in fact they use that phrase, “You Christians are out of tune with your antiquated morals.”

The only way to retune society is with truth, and we usually have to do this one string – one person - at a time. The only way to change society is to change people, and the only way to do this is for them to meet their original composer, God.

In order for us to help people return to God our souls need to be in tune with God and not in resonance with the world. Imagine for a moment Lance Armstrong as he cycles to his umpteenth victory of the Tour de France. Just 200 meters before the finish some guy from the crowd yells, “Loser!” Lance hits the brakes, and walks over to argue with the heckler. NOT!

I do not think that an empty lie would resonate in Lance any more than an empty lie should resonate in us such that we quit the race.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dad, Can I Help With That?

We all remember growing up watching our dads, grandfathers or uncles assembling some contraption or building something in the backyard. We always wanted to lend a hand, and we were disappointed if they said, “No, it is too difficult for you.”

Even as parents we too lightly consider our kids when they want to be a part of what we are doing. We deem our work too important for their input at times, and moreover when they ask us to be a part of what they are doing or to show some interest we are too often too busy with our own thing.

I often try to remind myself the following. I say, “Mike, stop what you are doing, and go watch that silly YouTube video that your daughters think you must see.” When I do it we always have a good time and a good laugh.

I also try to talk about my work with my daughters to see what they think. They are interested in some aspects, and they even offer good ideas at times. This shows them that I value them.

Not doing this will put me well on my way to fulfilling that Harry Chapin song
Cats in the Cradle where the father has no time for his son, and when the son grows up he has no time for the father.

Not only is this important in parenting, but it is equally important in Christian leadership. Some leaders think that they are the only ones who can do the job right, and they never bring their team or others into their thinking on anything.

When the young leader grows older he may become frustrated because the main leader would neither let him help nor would he ever be interested in the “smaller” and less significant things that he was interested in. Once again the Chapin song plays, and the younger man learns oh too well how to do his own thing and does exactly that. They part ways.

On the other hand we can always bring younger leaders into our thinking even if we are the ones who have to make the decisions. They can help us, but even when they can’t they can stand close by and watch us as we discuss together the “what”, “why” & “how” of the task at hand.

Jesus did this with His disciples as He modeled ministry for them while talking about it. He asked their opinions on various situation, He sent them out to do the same work and He was interested in hearing about their exploits when they returned. Finally He told them that they would do more than He when He went to be with the Father.
Jn 14:12

Even in the Old Testament God had a high regard for Abraham to the point of bringing him into what He was going to do. We would do wise to follow the example of Jesus as well as heed the warning of Harry. If we do we can like Abraham be fathers of generations who will father nations. We just need to rememeber that the word father is both a noun and a verb.

The Lord said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him." Gen 18:17-19

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Sin Tax: Economic Boost?

Government leaders and businessmen around the world are pulling out their collective hair trying to find quick fixes and long-term solutions to the world economic crisis. One solution in the US for certain states and municipalities is creating or increasing the “Sin Tax.”

For those who think you need to be more careful about sinning in light of this, don’t worry. This means that certain things like the sale of cigarettes, alcohol and casino profits are taxed more. These are the “sins” that society is talking about.

Also in the news is a resurgence of the practice of
granting Indulgences by some Catholic Churches. You used to have to pay hard cash for this, but now the renewed practice of acts of penance in this life can supposedly shave days or years from your time or the time of a friend in purgatory. All I have to say about this it that it makes Christianity look like a divine comedy. What a perversion of Christian truth!

Anyway, back to the sin tax. Imagine for a moment a real sin tax. Every time you sinned there would be a price to pay, and if you did not pay it now you would really have to pay later, but I am getting ahead of myself. Mind you, I really mean a payment for every sin, and if this was levied against all human beings for every sin I think it would vastly increase the economic reserves of every nation on earth.

However, this would also cause catastrophic bankruptcy for every individual on earth, so this is not a good economic plan at all. Still, if it were enacted we would see all sorts of human mechanisms come into being that either redefined sin, or we would see new forms of tax corruption and tax shelters -
indulgences and absolvences - that would let people skate through life without any worries. Allow me summarize these under the category of “Other Religions”.

But there is a fundamental problem with all of this. There is no Sin Tax. There is simply a payment. The payment for every sin is the same, flat tax if you will, and the payment is not monetary. It is death,
eternal separation from God.

Here we see humanity’s bankruptcy in its basest state. We can’t pay because it cost more than we have or more than we are. We need to plead – ask – for bankruptcy protection. God will forgive our debt by buying back our lives with the life of His Son. The only stipulation is that ownership is ceded to God. Your life will no longer belong to you. Don’t worry though. God takes very good care of what He purchases.

God is not a banker, but He is able to cancel out the debt of the entire world with one grand payment. It is free to us, but it cost Him dearly.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rom 6:23

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Christian Glue: Trust

In my 25 years of walking with Jesus I have also been walking alongside people who are themselves walking with Jesus. I have seen friendships come and go as well as ministries come and go.

As I have pondered the joining and breaking of relationships I have noticed some unexpected characteristics. There are many who believe that the main bond that ties friends and even ministries together is a common belief, and for Christians to walk together it is essential to have the same foundations and goals. However, within Christendom there is another bond that can be neither taught nor bought. It is trust.

Some of my best friends are also those with whom I argue the most. We usually have the same goals, but differ on how to get there. We also differ on how to solve certain problems, but we agree on what the solution looks like.

Yet I know others who are more closely aligned ideologically, but they can’t seem to walk together. The reason more often than not is a lack of trust or broken trust. In light of this I see a few areas of trust that act as a strong glue when the forces of this world and the work that we are trying to do try to tear us apart.

Respect & Honor: There are fewer things more empowering for a man than being respected by his friends. This means both public and private respect. It is strong glue, but when it is violated it often damages things beyond repair. We need to watch over our words so that they always build up and not tear down.

Integrity: This does not imply perfection, but it does imply that the person is the same in private as in public. Some leaders strive to look good; however, good leaders strive to actually do good.

Ambition: I trust people who foster a collective ambition, and the greatest collective ambition is for God and His kingdom. I believe in a good kind of ambition for a ministry, but not when it is competing with another ministry to be more prominent. The worst kind of ambition is a personal ambition that will use others for self promotion rather than promoting others over themselves. When a person positions others as pawns only to sacrifice them later for personal gain he might become king, but he will never be trusted again.

Honesty: I had an argument with a friend not long ago about a new evangelistic method that I did not like. We both later admitted that we were both wrong and that the other had good points. I simply love and trust this brother. Nothing is hidden at the end of the day.

Catastrophe: When a man is in the midst of trials, falls or fails, his circle of “friends” sometimes distance themselves from the calamity so that they do not lose some kind of public status by having been associated with that person. They may even consider it expedient to sacrifice that relationship, but there is no such concept in God’s word. God seeks, saves, redeems and restores.

No one really trusts people who do this, but sometimes we hear of people who risk scandal by associating with a friend who is in real trouble. Which would you trust?

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. Prov 17:17

Friday, January 30, 2009

Missions: Pregnant With a Baby

The following is part of a comment I left on one of Ed Stetzer’s posts recently. He has a great blog and some great books for all you who dream of church planting or for all of you missionaries who dream of, well, the same thing, finally getting a church going.

As a church planter I can attest to the pressure to produce that outward gem, the dynamic Sunday morning meeting. I am in an environment - Ukraine and a few other places for the last 16 years - where there is no choice but to be missional. I have started one church, and we are now on our second. Starting a work from nothing is not easy, and many things that might be taken for granted in the west just don’t exist here. For example, I have never met a Ukrainian who has gone to
Vacation Bible School. They were in Pioneers or Komsomol.

I was recently in the US where a pastor asked, “So, have you started your church yet?” This really bugged me because it is like asking a pregnant woman if she is planning to have children in the near future. It is as dumb as my redundant blog title “Pregnant With a Baby” which I saw in a newspaper. What else would a woman be pregnant with?

Having a child requires an initial interaction (sex), conception, prenatal formation and birth. Then comes parenting, etc. Each part of a child’s life is important as is each stage of a believer’s life. Just focusing on herding a bunch of people into a well-organized meeting is both shallow and short-sighted.

A photo of the newborn in the hospital maternity ward is great, but this does not portray the actual labor and pain of the mother in carrying and giving birth to that child. The plan of God is not represented just by a gathering of His people in one place once a week. Life is more than a snapshot and so is Christianity.

I remember reading about the life of
Hudson Taylor years ago and his passion for Jesus and reaching the lost. Later in his ministry he was hit with the reality of the need to start churches, but that was secondary to reaching the lost. For him it was about the people and their relationship with God.

In Ed’s blog he talks about pastors who burn out on church planting. They lose their passion and become “shop keepers” while ignoring the spiritual disciplines. If we focus on the basics without yielding to a success-motivation I believe that more of us will cross the finish line actually breathing. “Crossing the finish line first and dropping dead is not victory.”

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Missions: Ejection, Reflection & Reconnection

When I served in the United States Air Force my job was aircrew life support. This had to do with everything that kept the pilot of an F-15 fighter jet alive: parachutes, ejection survival kits, water survival training, helmets, oxygen masks, etc. One day I had just changed out the survival kit on an ejection seat before the pilot climbed in for a mission. The kit including a life raft that automatically deployed and inflated after the pilot was released from his ejection seat. Hopefully, he would never need this…

I had a few more jobs that day, and upon returning to the squadron shop I found out that the same pilot had just
ejected over the Gulf of Mexico. I froze and turned pale with fear, but we later found out that all my equipment had worked and the pilot survived with injuries after punching out at over Mach 1 and landing in the Gulf.

The pilot was not in error, and the cause of the crash was structural failure. The Air Force knows that a pilot’s confidence is often low after a mishap, so they always seek to get the pilot back in the cockpit as soon as he is physically able. Our pilot was flying again in a month.

On the mission field there are also mishaps of various degrees where the missionary has to punch out, leave the field (eject). This could be battle-fatigue, health-related, severe persecution, marriage or family related or even spiritual failure.

Regardless of the reasons I have found that even though many ministries do a good or average job of sending out missionaries very few know what to do when a missionary has to eject. This is true for small ministries and large denominations alike. The ministries and leaders do care about their people, but they just don’t have the experience with this phase of ministry.

Some missionaries end up as adjunct staff members of churches with little definition, few who understand them and little to do because it is believed that they need an extended break from all ministry. This is often called “being retooled”, but this is not only a misnomer but a total misunderstanding of what the missionary needs.

I have experienced this to various degrees during our 16 years on the field, and I now find myself advising other missionaries who feel that they have failed, been fruitless or found themselves on the perpetual “sick list” of their ministry because they needed to eject for a season.

While the needs of many missionaries are very unique and not easily understood by the sending agencies there are some simple principles by which we can keep our missionaries encouraged and moreover, in a state of health in all areas of their lives. There are not many who will uproot their lives to move to another country, so we would be wise to help those who do as much as we can. The bench of replacements is usually empty, so I have compiled a short maintenance list that will keep us flying. To be fair to my own ministry many of us are working on ways to better implement these ideas.

I hate the way this word has become a blanket answer for actually doing little, but in the right context it means to sharpen or give a better tool for the task. The zeal of the worker is not in question, only the effectiveness of the tool. This is a matter of training, and training does not mean sitting. It means doing.

When something has been built wrongly it needs to be repaired or built again from scratch. It might need a new foundation altogether. Some missionaries have a works or a man-pleasing foundation that cause them to burn out quickly. This might also cause them to burn others out. Unfortunately, this may take an extended season of sitting and learning how to be a follower of Jesus all over again. The famous racing horse
Seabiscuit had been trained so badly – trained to lose so other horses would feel more confident - that his new trainer said that he just needed to learn how to be a horse again.

This happens when an attempt at launch reveals a faulty strategy or poor state of readiness. Reassessment, correction, and subsequent better preparation will make a relaunch more effective. Again, inactivity is not the answer. Listen, study, Work!

Refreshing or Refueling
When someone needs encouragement then we should simply encourage them. This is not a complex or deep concept. The umbilical cord from sending nation to the field is often long with limited nourishment – encouragement, coaching, mentoring – coming through. The missionary might have done everything right and still have met with little success. Refreshing comes with periodic breaks in ministry to spend time with God, family and missionary friends who know how to encourage us with new perspective and wisdom.

On most computers there is a “restore point”. This rolls back the operating system to a time before the virus or mistake was made that caused the computer to shutdown. Restoration when there has been personal error is not easy, but suffice it to say that there must be a plan to remove the error and reboot the person’s life and ministry at that point. The restoration can occur in proportion to the health of that person and the renewal of trust with those who were affected by the failure.

To bring back to life, from death or near death. This is essentially CPR. All people, saved or unsaved, are valuable to God. If you don’t believe this then look at the average price paid for each individual life. A good shepherd will leave the 99 for the one.

A battered reed he will not break off, and a smoldering wick he will not put out, until He leads justice to victory. Matt 12:20

He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary. Is 40:29-31

Monday, January 19, 2009

Darwin, Evangelism & Community

Throughout history there have been many explanations for various things from science to spiritual matters. It was once thought that ocean waves caused the wind, and since one always came with the other that seemed plausible (wind causes waves). When I was young I thought that cold water passed through a glass, but I now know that it is just condensation. I was also puzzled and annoyed that the underside of my pillow was always cooler than the top side. What was the mysterious source of heat on the top side? It turned out to be my head.

There are as many opinions on evangelistic methods as there are abandoned exercise machines in basements and attics. Some methods work in one church only to fail in another as do exercise machines for those who place their hope in the machine. There is no mystery with the exercise machines because some people really think that if they buy one of those machines that they saw models using on TV then they will lose weight even if they continue a sedentary lifestyle in front of the TV while eating TV dinners and watching infomercials about exercise machines.

The same is often true of outreach ideas. Churches buy into something new without realizing what really caused it to work in another church in the first place. They thought it was the new form, but it is often a hidden principle behind the form. In deciphering why some things really work I would like to look at just one element. Community.

While I lived in Asia I saw tremendous growth in our churches, and my friends in the west attributed this to a new method for small groups. They copied these methods which simply did not work for them. In Asia there was this one thing that was so much in plain sight that it was actually overlooked. Community. Everyone knew everyone, and believers still had many friends who were unbelievers. It was natural to simply invite someone to a group.

In the west community has all but vanished in many areas. In my home state of North Carolina people are very friendly and polite, but they don’t really know their neighbors. When churches in these areas buy into a new outreach idea such as small groups they find that they are immediately intimidated by the fact that they don’t really know anyone well enough to invite them to a group. They try the new outreach machine for a season, but upon finding out that it requires work to reach people they soon send the new model to the basement.

Fortunately for missionaries like me – and unfortunately I might add – we can rely on little in Christendom to help us reach the lost in unchurched societies. Attractional methods don’t work well, and people are suspicious of us. We are left with little recourse but to actually start from scratch and build community.

I am not speaking of Christian community though. I am talking about spending an extended season getting to know unbelievers, doing things together; serving them until the point they “invite us in”. This is the tipping point where real ministry can begin, but it only happens in proportion to the net of community that we have built.

This is one of the missing links in outreach, and there are no shortcuts. It takes time. It takes patience, and the only thing that helps us stay patient is to have a goal of reaching people rather than a goal of filling a church building on Sunday mornings. God will add people to the church if we do our part.

A few more random truths: I still like cool pillows, Evolution is just a story with no scientific mechanism, glass does not sweat, fasting does not eliminate toxins (your liver and kidneys do that), running your car on a full tank does not give better gas mileage and those TV models did not get those fabulous abs on those exercise machines that were invented just last week.

However, people sweat when they exercise, and it would not hurt the church to start a few evangelistic exercises and fast from spiritual junk food and Christian infomercials that clog the airways.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Discipleship or Eugenics?

Most people know the first word but not the second, and few would ever guess the connection between the two in the context of raising up leaders. Eugenics is a dark science that sprang from Darwinism. It basically tried to improve humanity by sterilizing those races or economic groups deemed to be substandard so that only the so-called best of humanity could multiply. In other words it allowed only a special class to bear fruit. The worst modern example of eugenics in action was the Holocaust.

When I was a young believer a school of thought had crept into the church which said the people most capable of changing society with the gospel were the ones that were already the cream of the crop. Some Christians were even told to target these people with evangelism and to bypass “ordinary” people. Even recently in the former Soviet Union this teaching has gained new ground where one Christian leader actually said that revival or lasting change could never come from “ordinary” people. It would only come when great world leaders repented. See Gattaca for some shock value.

All of this runs counter to everything in God’s word, and the ultimate root of this perspective I believe is a desire for success in the eyes of men. I thought that I was immune to it myself until I found an inner voice saying, “Don’t waste too much time with these people. They are not movers and shakers. They will take too much work to clean up.” Ah! Even though I did not agree with this I had still heard this teaching enough to have been stained. I am now glad to be free of it!

The subtle cancer of eugenics pops up all over the place in Christianity, and I have wanted to say the following for over 20 years. Why do Christian ministries hire models for church or ministry promotional photos rather than using their own people? Wow, it felt good to say that! Even though most of us do not hire models to represent our faith we do hire professionals to do the ministry that we ourselves should be doing.

I am thankful to have heroes of faith, but an over-reliance on the “super pastor” can essentially render the rest of us fruitless. The biblical purpose of leadership is to lead and equip others to minister, not to atrophy the potential of others by doing it all ourselves because we think we are the best at doing it.

I am not naïve in my position here because I do know that functional people can bring stability to a ministry when they come to Jesus, and dysfunctional people can be high maintenance for many years. However, we should try to reach and train them all and not be a respecter of persons.

I have seen functional people get saved and grow quickly as leaders as God used their natural abilities to advance His kingdom. There are also functional people who are self-reliant and stubborn about yielding to God. I have seen people from the so-called bottom of society rise incredibly by the grace of God out of profound dysfunction and bondage to a position of leadership and fruitfulness that simply confounded my reasoning.

What is the lesson in all this? Judging people by their appearance, abilities and position in life is ultimately judging God as an inept creator and an impotent redeemer. It is also a subtle seed of humanism which is a nice way of saying a spirit of antichrist.

Below our skin we are all the same. The same DNA. The same nature. The same price that was paid. The same glory given to God when one is saved. Shepherds, fishermen and one Carpenter can still turn the world upside down.

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. 1 Cor 1:26-29