Living fully alive

Taking truth from scripture and applying it to our daily lives so that we may live from our calling and experience life to the fullest.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Integrity? What is it and how do I live it?

With the crazy election and all of the accusations, I’ve thought a lot recently about integrity and what it means to live a life of integrity.  So I’d like to dig a little deeper into what that life looks like in the next few blog posts.  

One of my favorite quotes is from James Michener:
The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.”

I am a relational person who seeks to have fun in whatever I'm doing, so this quote really resonates with me.  When my faith, work, and play intermix and harmonize, I feel as much alive as ever.  An integrated (whole) life is one major aspect of living a life of integrity.

Yet this is not easy because most of us live our lives compartmentalizing work, play, family, and religion, especially those of my generation or older.  I can easily act one way for my family, another at work and play and wear another suit on Sunday and this feels as natural as eating and drinking. It is not even something I consciously do but is a built-in defense mechanism to keep certain beliefs and relationships separated from one another so they don't conflict.

That is why there is this perception of hypocrisy in the church. People see believers out on the town on a Friday or Saturday night partying it up and then in church on Sunday morning hearing about the evils of what they partook on Friday. It's the reason a pastor can preach on the sin of lust while having an affair or a business man who uses unethical business practices to make a bigger pay day and then sit with his family on Sunday morning listening to a sermon on integrity.  Living a compartmentalized life is living a life of hypocrisy and sin. 

I remember a skit that was done in one of the many summer youth camps I helped lead.  The skit was about a teenage girl hanging out with Jesus (a boy playing the role of Jesus) in her room. The girl gets a call from a friend inviting her to a party. She excitedly accepts the invitation and quickly gets ready and starts to walk out the door.  “Jesus” starts to go with her.  She turns around and tells him, “you must stay here”.  She turns to walk to the door again and Jesus continues to follow her.  This time she turns and adamantly proclaims, “I’m sorry but you can’t go! You don’t belong at this party, stay put!” The point was clearly made. There are places and areas of our life where we don’t exercise our faith, where we would rather not have Jesus taking part.
How well do you live an integrated as opposed to a compartmentalized life?  Consider how you keep your religious life separate.  Think about how much your faith has spilled over into other areas of your life.  Have you kept your faith life only for Sundays or do you take Jesus everywhere you go? If not, how can you better integrate your faith in the other areas?

More on living an integrated life in next week’s blog: the good news about the millennial generation and the church’s response. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

America's greatest problem few talk about

Photo curtesy of
My wife had cataract surgery a couple of weeks ago on one eye and she has been declaring what a difference her now "repaired" eye is from the other.  She'll look at an object and remark how much brighter and colorful it looks viewing from her surgically repaired eye minus the cataract as from her other eye which also needs cataract surgery.

I was thinking just how her experience with new vision is like how our lives can also become distorted, discolored and in need of some sort of operation.  Our culture is much like a cataract which slowly forms over our spirit and blinds us from the true life God has called us to live, the abundant life that we were created to experience. This distortion makes it difficult to see the world clearly and so we can easily be enticed to live a fraudulent life of death and destruction.

So many young adults have been deceived into believing that the good life is one of drugs, alcohol and sex.  One study indicated that 23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs. That’s approximately one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12 – roughly equal to the entire population of Texas.  And that is only those who have admitted to having a drug or alcohol problem, perhaps only the tip of the iceberg.

I'd say we have a serious problem - an epidemic.  I have personally felt the impact of this problem indirectly. I am close to seven couples, some friends and some family, who have young adult children struggling with drugs or alcohol. All of these young adults, men and women ages 18 to 37 have had children out of wedlock, that they are not able to take care of because they are not capable or just don't want the responsibility.  And much of the problem stems from their addiction to drugs or alcohol. And so this problem is not just one that affects the addicted person but it also wrecks havoc on the lives of their parents and has a great chance of being passed on to their children.

We have a lot of problems in our country but I can't think of anything that does more harm to the individual, families and to society than this.  None of the presidential candidates are discussing this problem. There are no demonstrations or protests. I think many families keep these problems hidden so we don't really understand the scope of the problem. You may hear people complain about the drug culture being an inner city problem but this goes much farther than the inner city.  We have a rotten culture nationwide which leads to broken lives of drug and alcohol abuse and it is an epidemic in all areas of our nation.  And its tentacles reach into all areas of society.

Faith based rehab facilities are our best solution now to this problem.  They serve much like cataract surgeons. These facilities remove the addicted person from the destructive culture that has so discolored their world view, so they can begin to see clearly, that there is another world full of color that is available to them.

However, only a small percentage choose to check into rehab and there are not enough facilities to handle all those addicted if they did. The Church is best positioned and has the potential to not only treat and heal but be the key to winning the war on drugs. Celebrate Recovery and identity groups are ways the church has addressed the problem but many churches aren't equipped or even want to do the messy work needed. Ironically ministry to those struggling with addiction may be the church's best opportunity for evangelism and life transformation. 

Only until one admits there is a problem and gets treatment will he or she be able to see the difference.  Then they can begin to understand their true purpose, their identity and the role they can play to make a difference in the world.  Then they will see a world of color and potential and hopefully be more inclined to choose life over death. God said "This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!" Deut. 30:19 It is much easier to choose life when we see clearly the choices before us.

Perhaps we should take a look at our culture that promotes and encourages this life of death and destruction. Maybe if we dealt with the root issue, to understand that we do have a culture of death that permeates our society, then we could prevent so many broken and wasted lives.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Keeping the main thing the main thing

One of the biggest problems we face in life is keeping focused on the most important thing.  Whether it's in our personal lives, business or church, the temptation to drift from your purpose is always a concern.  We see it in politics when candidates drift from the important issues and sports when players get distracted  and hurt their teams by getting unsportsmanlike penalties.  When we lose our focus, we seldom accomplish our goal.

One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 12:1-3 which speaks to the importance of maintaining focus "fixing our eyes on Jesus" and removing anything that distracts from that purpose, "throw off everything that hinders” or anything that keeps us from living the life God intended us to live. This is so important that there is a crowd of heroes of the faith cheering you on, to not be distracted and bound by the world's temptations and sin, to keep focused on the main thing.

For churches, keeping focused on the main thing is extremely difficult also. The 21st century church in America has drifted a long way from what the early church focused on which was to make disciples who make disciples. Now the church has become many things to all of us and the pastor's dilemma is that we get into so many well meaning activities that the main purpose gets put on the back burner for a season or sometimes gets neglected altogether.

I recently met with a staff member of a church who was hired to oversee several ministries of the church including missions. He was frustrated because there seemed to be no direction for any of the ministries. Many voices expressed a variety of opinions about what they should be doing and there was no limit on what "ministries" the church offered. The general rule was the more we provide, the more people we will reach.

Lost in all of the activities was the original purpose; to reproduce disciples. It's as if the church itself was ADHD. The staff, lay leaders and volunteers would jump from one emphasis to the next, juggling countless number of jobs but failing to do well the one thing that the church was created to do; multiply disciples.

When contemplating any ministry, shouldn't we begin by asking the question, will this help us accomplish our main purpose?  If so, then what is the best way we can do this to reproduce followers of Jesus?

Even in the ministry of missions, the purpose can get lost. We can do a lot of great things, supporting all kinds of beneficial missions from social support to missionaries on the field. We can send mission teams all over the world to work with all types of programs and churches. We can pat ourselves on the back, for all of our efforts but we often don't slow down enough to evaluate our missions, ministries and programs and whether they are accomplishing our goal of multiplying disciples.

When we view and filter ministry from that perspective, then a lot changes.  We don't do ministry because that's the way our denomination has always done it. We don't do ministry because so and so wants it. We don't do ministry because it puts butts in the seats. We do ministry to multiply disciples. Some ministries, even good things, may need to be tweaked or eliminated. Some long term, traditional acivities may need to be put on the shelf. This probably means some member’s pet ministry may have to be sacrificed.

These are difficult decisions and can be painful but Hebrews 12 conveys just how critical it is.  The whole spiritual world is rooting, cheering, encouraging you to not be distracted and keep your eye on, your focus on the main thing: Jesus.

More on keeping your focus click here

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

When death surrounds you, what do you do?

“In the United States people die from sickness or old age. Here people die by murder. If someone here actually makes it to old age, it’s – it’s…really surprising...”

This quote came from Darwin, the Honduran husband of Jennifer Zilly, the young missionary working in Honduras. Darwin receives a phone call to learn that his brother had been murdered, shot to death when he complained that his cows had been stolen.  Darwin goes to be with his family in their time of grief only to learn that his mother has died of a heart attack when she learned her son was murdered.

In her latest post on their blog, Jennifer sheds light on how dreadfully dangerous life can be in Honduras.
"If we were to sit down with our kids and make a collective family list of all the murders that have skimmed close to our lives – all the family members, neighbors and local townspeople who have been murdered – we would need many sheets of paper."

How do you deal with life in the midst of such heartache of relatives and neighbors being murdered? How do you grieve and how do you deal with the fear of death so near?  Jennifer relies on her faith and focuses on her job as a missionary.

Read the entire post here.

This is real life in a third world country. We complain about our first world issues, which are incredibly insignificant compared to the life and problems many missionaries encounter.

Reading Jennifer's blog, we are given a real example of what life is like when there is little to no police protection. Those who complain about the police in our country and those who actually propose we don't need the police, have no clue what every day life is like without law and order.

I've seen it in many of the countries that I've visited. When there is an absence of local police, there is always a gang or entity that steps in to fill the void, using threats and their corrupt power to control the people.  And even here in the States in isolated areas where there is no respect for the police, there is an abnormal amount of crime and death.

Thank God that we have a country that values law and order. We don't have a perfect system and we certainly can improve on many aspects but our system is the best the world has to offer.  We have much to be thankful for.

I'm also grateful for the many Christians like Jennifer who sacrifice what they have to serve God in third world countries.  They are putting their lives on the line every day to bring real hope to people in cultures that provide no hope.  Pray for Jennifer and Darwin as they walk through this difficult time, that Jesus would guide and protect them so that they might complete the work that God has called them to do.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Living the abundant life: 7 great things about your identity

Photo curtesy of
One of our most critical needs as humans relates to our identity.  Our identity defines who we are as a person.  Humans by nature seek to define themselves either by the people with whom they associate or by the things they aquire or accomplish.
So for most, their identity is derived from either their job, their wealth status, their family or heritage, their lifestyle or a combination of these. And yet, an identity based on any of these creates a variety of problems.  So many of our problems in the world come from racial tension, comparison, greed, power and control, much of which comes from the need to be someone. 
However Christians have an alternative.  We can choose to identify with Jesus Christ and live from our true identity instead of trying to create our own.  When we better understand who we are in relation to our creator, and live from that reality, the more fulfilling and abundant our lives will be. Here are 7 wonderful truths about humans:

1. We are tri-dimensional. We are body, soul spirit, similar to the trinity. One of the differences between man and animals is that we have a spirit. Animals are two-dimensional beings, humans 3 dimensional. 
2. We exist eternally. Many verses tell us that we are eternal beings and we have the opportunity to spend eternity with God.  John 3:16, Psalm 139 
3. We are moral beings. We all have a built-in sense of what is right and wrong and the ability to make choices. Genesis 1
4. We are designed to have a relationship with God: We are loved. 1 John 3, Romans 3:20
5. We are accountable to God. We will answer to him because God created us in his image. 2 Corinthians 5:10
6. We are created unique. Your DNA is unique to humans and a part is unique to only you.  Ephesians 2:10
7. Because you are made in His image, you are infinitely valuable. Genesis 1:27

As 2 Cor. 3:16 says as followers of Christ, we reflect God.  When I identify with Jesus, a part of His glory shines from me.  I don't have to aquire things to define me. I don't have to join this group or identify with this sexual orientation, or gain power or prominence to be somebody.  When Jesus was tempted by Satan with these things, Jesus refused because he knew who he was, whose he was and knew his purpose. 

I don't have to hide behind a persona that pleases others and helps me get the things and accolades the world tells me I need. I can be as honest and authentic as I can be, trying to be myself and being ok with who God created me to be. I can share my struggles and successes equally to lift up and encourage others. I am free to be me, knowing that God is working in me, growing me to become more like him, and one day I will be complete in Him.  Living from an identity in Christ changes everything!  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Faith in Christ gives athletes advantage in Olympics

There were a lot of amazing stories from the athletes in the Rio Olympics and many of those who won medals have used that platform to speak about their faith in Christ.  

David Bouda and Steele Johnson, after medaling in the synchronized diving competition, explained that their identity In Christ helped them stay grounded and unfazed by the pressures and demands of competing in the Olympics.  Watch the interview here.

Maya DiRado won two golds, a silver and bronze in her first and last Olympics, capping the final meet of her career with a stunning upset of triple gold-medalist Katinka Hosszu in the 200-meter backstroke. 

In an interview before the Olympics, Dorado explained how her faith in Christ helped her focus and stay grounded.  "Knowing that I’m a child of God and that his love for me is determined by nothing I can achieve or do on my own has given me a quiet confidence. I think that my faith has helped me chart my own course and pursue my goals when people around me may be going in different directions. Jesus’ love for me and all humanity is something that always helps me better love people around me when things get difficult. As for my swimming career, my faith has helped me remember that there are so many more important things in life worth doing. Swimming is a pretty selfish activity, and so I’ve always known that it can’t be my whole world."  Read interview here.

For the first time in history, the U.S. women swept the 100-meter hurdles event last night and won all three medals! When gold medalist Brianna Rollins was asked how she and her fellow athletes prepared for the race, she said "we formed a prayer circle this morning and we just let His presence come upon us. Watch interview after the race here.

The women's 4x400 team made up of Phyllis Francis, Courtney Okolo, Natasha Hastings and Allyson Felix won their race in Olympic record time. The four of them gathered in a circle at the end of each race, before they did any celebrating, and prayed.  

We heard from Michael Phelps how the faith of a mentor, Ray Lewis, and the book The Purpose Driven Life helped him recover from the depths of depression and reignited his passion to live. 

We also found out that Simone Biles, the greatest female gymnast in the world, learned her skills under the parenting of her adoptive Christian parents.  Ron and Nellie Biles credit their faith which compelled them to love unconditionally and to choose to adopt Simone and her sister and raise them with boundaries and Christian values.   

What I love about each story is that they don’t just make the common statement of thanks to God for winning, but share how their faith, in a tangible way, is responsible for where they are today. These are powerful examples of athletes who have excelled because of their faith in Christ, stories that have been witnessed by millions of people.   

Yes, life in Christ has its eternal rewards but it also gives us many advantages in the here and now.  When we exercise our faith, we can experience the abundant life that Jesus proclaimed He came to give us. Jesus wasn’t talking about gold medals, but a victorious life in the here and now connected to him with the ability to pursue your calling and overcome the adversity and challenges that keep you from realizing your purpose. 

The abundant life is not some mythical life but a tangible way of living by faith in a world that tries to chew you up and spit you out.  All of us, not just Olympic athletes, have the opportunity to live the abundant life Jesus came to give us if we only choose to live in Him.  

Here is a list of rewards that I have received as a result of my faith in Christ.  I wrote about them in a past blog.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Bullets fly in Rio!

Mission team in Rio
The Rio Olympics has brought back a lot of memories for me.  I’ve been to Rio four times on mission trips and those that have been to Rio de Janeiro will agree it is the most beautiful city in the world. The pictures you get on your television don't quite capture the magnificent beauty. And yet what makes the city even more fascinating is the great contrast between the breathtaking landscape and the poverty, crime, and trash.  I can attest to the danger first hand. The reports are not exaggerated. On my second trip to Rio, our mission team experienced two shootings within three days. Below is the story (much longer than my usual blog post) but it has an interesting ending and will give you a first hand look at Rio.

"We are not in Texas anymore!", I recall one of our team members remarking as our mission team sat in a church in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil trying to make sense of the crazy events of the past three days. We were getting some counsel from two different Brazilian pastors concerning two hair-raising experiences since we had arrived in Rio four days earlier. The first occurred following a Sunday night worship service in the small Juaniza favela (Brazilian slum).

We had divided our mission team into two groups for worship at two different churches. The larger group went with pastor Daniel Camaforte to his church in the favela. We were doing most of our work with his church. I kept a smaller group with me as I was preaching in the church which was our lodging for the week, located closer to the downtown area.

The team at Pastor Daniel's church had a great worship service and were fellowshipping with the members of the church outside in the courtyard beside the main road of the favela when the Rio police drove into the favela. All of a sudden, shots began to ring out coming from the drug gang in the favela directed at the police. The church members were suddenly in the crossfire of a shootout between police and the drug gang.

Pastor Daniel quickly and calmly urged everyone back into the church. He directed all of our team into a back room to avoid being hit by stray bullets and waited for the shooting to die down. During a lull he tried to get our team to leave but the shooting started once again, and so the team returned to the room. Finally the shooting stopped and Pastor Daniel got our team back on the bus and walked down a couple of blocks beside the bus to the exit of the favela to make sure we were safe.

You can imagine how disturbed and worked up everyone was when they returned to the church where we were staying. Two of the young ladies explained that they had just returned from the small store a couple of blocks from the church before the shooting occurred. If the police had come in a minute or too sooner, they would have been right in the middle of the shootout. Needless to say, our team spent a restless night but got back to work the next day doing some construction on the church in the favela and ministering.

The following day, Tuesday,  our team took the morning off to go to Copacabana beach. On the way back to the bus, about 10 of the team were walking through a nice neighborhood. Four of the team had stopped in a magazine stand to buy some refreshments. I was about 20 feet back from the stand when I heard a shot ring out. Now we were all very sensitive to the sound of gunfire, and so my first reaction was someone was shooting at us, the Americans. I heard someone yell get down, and I fell face first beside a tree. I looked up and saw a Brazilian man staggering from the magazine stand muttering something in Portuguese. The front of his chest was covered in blood. Obviously he was the one who had been shot. Todd Riddle, our Singles minister, hollered "let's get back to the van. Run!" I wanted to help the man but I couldn't understand just what was happening. I'm sorry to say, my fear took precedence over the care of the man and I along with the others took off toward our van. As I began to run I saw some police on the far corner of the street and hollered for everyone to not run but walk fast. I didn't want the police to think we had committed the shooting.

We made it back to the van where we met the rest of the team. There I found out what had happened. Those that were in the magazine stand said a young Brazilian man was in the stand with them. He pulled out a gun and shot the manager in the chest and took off running. They didn't know exactly why he had shot the manager, perhaps he had been caught stealing something. But you can imagine how distraught they were. One of the ladies on the team who was in the magazine stand just wanted to go home. She had been involved in two shootings within days.

We had planned to go to another favela to do a sports camp with kids that afternoon. But the shootings had unnerved the team to the extent I thought it best to take the afternoon off and allow the team to process what had happened and pray. I asked both the pastors, the pastor of the church in which we were staying and Pastor Daniel from the favela to talk to the team to help us understand what had happened. It was interesting the different perspectives from the pastors. The pastor of the church where we were staying, which was in an upper income area of Rio, was very surprised at what had happened. He said he had lived in Rio a long time and never had witnessed anything like this. Pastor Daniel, on the other hand, said it occurred all the time in the favela and it was something that those who lived in the favela dealt with on a regular basis. He assured us that God was in control but that we should realize that we were in a dangerous place.

We prayed a long time and then talked about how none of us had been injured, that God had protected us. We prayed for the man that had been shot and later heard that he was in critical but stable condition. We prayed for the people in the favela, for Daniel's church members who lived in the danger zone. We prayed that our mission would not be deterred, that fear would not cause us to divert what we were called to do in Rio.

That night our plan was to go to preach in a church in the favela in which we were to work that afternoon. I told the team that I was going to go and anyone that wanted could go with me but if there were any that felt uncomfortable, they could stay behind. Everyone would understand. All but a couple of the team went with me. We had a tremendous service where I challenged the men to step out and lead their families and the church. Afterward the pastor of the church took us to a house half way up the mountain of the favela which had an open porch that overlooked the city of Rio. A lot of the favelas as this one are built on the side of the mountain. The view was unbelievable. The pastor introduced us to a man who had once been a drug lord and sold drugs from this very spot. The former drug dealer explained that he had given his life to Jesus Christ and walked away from his old lifestyle and now led a Bible study on this porch where he once sold drugs.

The pastor then asked me, "Pastor John, would you like to meet the Drug Lord of this favela?" The question caught me somewhat by surprise. My wife, Barbara, was with me and I glanced over at her to get an idea of what she thought about this. I could tell she was very concerned but she gave the approval, saying "I understand, it is up you."

I looked over the team and asked Nick, one of our young guys, if he wanted to go. He agreed and we took off along with the pastor, our Brazilian guide, Caesar, and a female translator. There are no roads in the favela, just a small path up through the neighborhood. It was dark and very creepy, the only light coming from inside the houses. We would stop from time to time to visit with the neighbors as we made our way up the mountain.

After some time we stopped to talk to some men that were sitting on a porch alongside the pathway. They were dressed in army camouflage, three on the porch with several others hanging out behind them. I leaned over and asked our translator if this was the man. She said yes, he is the Drug Lord. I still remember his name, Carlos Gabriella, and he was much younger than I anticipated, in his mid twenties.

I was introduced to him and I began to tell him about our interesting adventures with bullets and shootings. As I told about the shooting of the magazine stand manager, he looked very agitated and indicated he would like to find the man who did the shooting and deliver the punishment. I was to learn that the drug gangs acted as the police of most of the favelas. They keep order and control over their neighborhoods.

I remember talking to him about King David of the Bible and how David was a leader but was not a perfect man. In spite of his sin and shortcomings as King, the Bible said he was a man after God's own heart. I told him that I realized he was the leader of this favela and I urged him to be a leader like David. I encouraged him to be a man after God's own heart, that God would forgive him of his sins if he just asked. I asked if I could pray for him and he said yes. I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him. I was told he had just become a new father and so I prayed for his new baby boy. A funny thing was that the translator told me that Carlos' baby was a girl, not a boy, but she had translated girl for me! Whew. Thanks for catching my mistake!

As we walked back to the church I had so many thoughts and feelings. I remember thinking how God so often turns tragedy into opportunities for him. Yes, Rio is a dangerous place but the only way out is transformation and redemption from Jesus Christ! If only the people of Brazil would look up and see the statue of Jesus as more than a statue or symbol but as a Savior wanting a real relationship. How great is the courage and faith of those like Pastor Camaforte who live and minister every day, risking his family and life for Christ!