Ephesians 1:18

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints... Ephesians 1:18

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

God is NOT Fair! God is...

As I write this blog, I'm recovering from quadruple bypass surgery. This was an unexpected event that came out of left field. I always considered myself to be a healthy 64 year old who works out regularly and eats a pretty healthy diabetic diet. 

So when the cardiac doctor told me I had 90% blockage in two of my arteries and 100% in another and needed bypass surgery, I could have easily complained about how unfair God was.  The doctor said it was probably hereditary. That made it seem even more unfair. 

But obviously life is not the same or equal for everyone. Some have more problems than others. We all probably know the guy who has a dark cloud that seems to follow him around, always in some kind of trouble. And then there is the jerk who seems to have made it in the shade!  And yet in the past few years fairness has risen to the top of our society's values and I'm not sure where that originated. We want everything to be fair and equal.  So we are constantly comparing our lives to others and there is this movement to somehow control all things, to level out everything. Many believe it is the government's role in society to make everything equal for everyone (except those in power).
And this idea that life should or could be equal on all fronts even slips into our theology. We believe that the God who created the world and governs should be fair to one and all as well. I heard a popular pastor recently preach about how God will balance all of your books in the end. He said that God is a fair God and if you have a lot of trials, sickness and disappointments in life, God will return blessings to you that are equal to your trials. I'm not sure where this pastor got this theology but it doesn't come from the Bible. 

The reality is that the God of the Bible is not fair. And praise God that he is not! Because if God were fair, I would be in hell, on my way to an eternity without God. We all would be because that is what every person deserves on earth. Because God's standard is perfection and one sin or anything short of perfection cuts us off from God. None of us are perfect. So if God were fair, we would warrant a sentence of eternity without God (Romans 5:8).

Fair is not a word I use to describe God. God is anything but fair. He chooses one particular race over all others to show his favor. He chooses the less qualified to be his leaders.  Check out Noah, Moses, Saul, David, and Esther. None of these were the most qualified or popular choice to be a leader.  In the New Testament, Jesus shares the parable of the hired workers in Matthew 20. The manager hires day laborers and agrees to pay a certain amount for a day's work. At the end of the day, when it is time to pay, the manager pays the same amount to those who worked 12 hours as to those who were hired late in the day and only worked an hour. "This is not fair", declared the workers who had toiled all day. The manager responds by saying he is not being unfair, but he is being generous.  

The same principle applies in the parable of the prodigal son. On the son's return home he receives a party in spite of his horrendous and irresponsible behavior, squandering his inheritance. In Luke 12:28 we see the elder brother, the responsible child, throwing a fit, claiming it is unfair to reward his brother and not him. 

So fairness is not a high value in God's kingdom. Mercy, love and generosity are the values that describe God. He loves us so much that he provides a way for us to be in a relationship with Him regardless of our past or how good we've been. There is no way to earn it. 

Therefore, I don't expect life to be fair or for all my trials to balance out in good things for me. I am not jealous of those who have it "better" than me.  I am very thankful that God loves me and is merciful to me and that I can spend eternity with him! Jesus didn't come to earth and die so that I might have a "fair" life. No, he came so that we all might have life to the fullest! (John 10:10). That is love that goes way beyond fairness. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Speaking So People Will Listen

Martha Garcia speaking to women in Honduras
I was partnered this past week with someone I didn't know on the golf course.  Sometimes I play as a single and look forward to the opportunity to get to know someone new.  On this day, I was paired with a guy who was in no mood for anything spiritual. As a matter of fact almost everything out of his mouth was a negative statement. What made it worse was that he used the "f" word in almost every sentence. He ranted about California where he lived and complained about the course we were playing.  He didn't like the greens and the holes were not marked correctly according to his GPS.  On and on he went. 

I told him I was a pastor but that didn't stop him one bit. I also tried to be encouraging but nothing seemed to work. I was worn out and depressed by the time we finished and didn't really want to talk to him any more.  The guy said he was a salesman, but I was wondering how he sold anything to anyone with that mouth and attitude.  It reminded me of the importance of our words, and how they make an impression and an impact on others.

As a chaplain to businesses, I have to be very conscious of my conversations.  I must remind myself to be slow to speak, to ask questions and listen. But when I speak, I have a great opportunity to impact a person's life, to lift them up and share with them the keys to the abundant life that Jesus offers us. We all have relationships, and opportunities to do the same.  And if you are a pastor, you have this precious 30 minute window almost every week, give or take a few minutes, to address an audience with your undivided attention. What a tremendous opportunity to affect lives for Christ. This should be your most important 30 minutes of your week and you should do everything possible to make the most of that opportunity. I pray you never take it lightly or for granted.  

If this time is so important, shouldn't we all work at communicating to the best of our ability? When planning a speech or sermon most of us spend a lot of time preparing the content of what we plan to say. Content is the most important thing.  But a close second is how we say what we want to say. How much time do you spend on your delivery, as opposed to the content?  It is my experience that most pastors spend very little time in preparing how they speak. Yet, if you do not communicate effectively or have an awkward speech pattern that creates a barrier for the listener, it may not matter what you say. 

I know a pastor who has a speech pattern of elongating certain words he wants to highlight.  "How are you doing chuuuuurch."  He does this at the end of his phrases, sort of an "up talker" but making his words much longer than necessary and pausing after the word. This slows his speech to a crawl and doesn't make listening to him very easy. He could be a much better communicator but he has to be aware of his speech pattern and then work hard to change it. 

Americans speak generally with a nasal tone, especially women. On a mission trip to Africa I was reminded of this when I heard the African children laughing at the way we talked.  They were imitating the girls speech, speaking out of their noses.  The Africans speak from their diaphragm with this very rich and deep vocal tone, much different than our speech. I hadn't really noticed the difference until the children pointed it out.  Great speakers often are those who speak in a lower tone so if you are one that speaks with a nasal tone, and you want to be an effective speaker, you probably should change your register from the nose to chest.

The best speakers have speech patterns that are not only easy to follow but are also pleasant and compelling to hear.  They will vary their cadence, pace and volume, pausing at the right moment to get across their point. There is an art to speaking well, but many never try to master it and never become the communicators they could be.  

So here are some suggestions on speaking so that people will listen:

1. Listen to yourself.  It is hard for me to listen to myself but I can't change unless I can identify what needs changing. You should record or video yourself whenever possible. Listen and make a list of the things you think should be changed or improved.  

2. Have a mentor or a vocal coach who can critique you and help hold you accountable to change. Often you will not catch everything that could be improved. I have a tendency to say, "you know", way too much and the word "kinda" for no particular reason. My wife is the one who pointed this out to me and holds me accountable now when I begin to slip those words into my speech.

3. Practice, practice and practice some more. Your speech patterns have been formed over many years and are difficult to change. But you can do it if you practice and focus on the areas that need to change. Practice in front of a coach.  Just like a batter taking batting practice while their batting coach watches.  

For more on speaking so that others will want to listen, check out this 9 minute Ted Talk by Julian Treasure. Half way through he talks about the importance of register, timbre, prosody, pace, silence, pitch and volume.   

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Are You A "Skin Tag" Christian?

My pastor, Will Davis Jr., used a crazy analogy this past week to illustrate the life of many Christians. He said many are like "skin tags", those little extra growths of skin we get that have blood pumping through but are absolutely good for nothing. I was laughing at the metaphor as he explained that these "skin tags" are like the spiritual lives of many Christians. They may have the spiritual blood of Christ running through them, but apart from attending an occasional church service, they are pretty much useless to God's kingdom. Kind of gross but it is a good analogy.  Watch the full sermon here.

It is my observation that my generation of Christians (baby boomers) is overflowing with "skin tag" believers. You'll find a lot who attend mega churches, those who want to pop in and out without being noticed. Our generation created the mega church phenomenon. Many have little to no investment in the church they attend and yet they believe they are doing their "Christian duty" by attending occasionally.  

One of the reasons I think this is so prevalent in my generation is that we baby boomers are experts at compartmentalizing our lives. We set aside Sunday mornings for church and a certain amount of days during the week for work and then some for rest or recreation. We live to keep them separate. And so, it is very easy for us to keep our spiritual life from intersecting with our daily life. 

One of the refreshing aspects of the millennial generation is that these young adults seek a different lifestyle than that of their parents. They don't compartmentalize as much. They want a more integrated life instead. Take work for example. They want life, not just a work/life balance. They would like to have time for their friends, family, hobbies, and other small pleasures and pastimes. They work to live, not live to work, and so they want their work to be fun and meaningful.  As one millennial put it, "I want my job to align who I am with what I do".  The older generations may look at them as lazy but I don't begrudge them for wanting to live an integrated life.  

This applies to their faith also. Millennials want to be able to live their faith 24/7.  It's not only a Sunday morning thing for them, it is a lifestyle!  That is what the first century Christians experienced and is what life in Christ should be. But that hasn't been the case for many Christians for years now. 

That may be changing as this new integrated life mindset is having an affect on the church today. The missional movement and the idea of "you don't go to church, you are the church wherever you go" are concepts that have been brought about because of this change of perspective.  There is a higher expectation to being a follower of Christ now, focusing more on application of faith than just knowledge.

It may be harder in the future to be a follower of Christ because of this. So there may be a decline in those who say they are Christians, but those who choose to follow Christ will be more devoted and hopefully a much better model of Jesus to the world than my generation of believers.
For more about the work habits of millennials, check out this blog post, 8 reasons millennials seem lazy at work.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Overcoming The Fear Of Sharing The Gospel

photo from Pixabay.com

If you have spent any length of time in an evangelical church, you've probably been encouraged to share the Gospel with as many people as possible. You are told that this is your responsibility as a Christian, to make disciples. But I know that many Christians have a fear of sharing.  The church has tried to overcome this through training programs. I've been a Christian long enough to have gone through several from Evangelism Explosion to F.A.I.T.H. I've memorized the Roman Road and used various methods on evangelistic outings here and in other countries.   

I came to the conclusion long ago that a programmed approach to sharing the Gospel is not the most effective way to lead someone to Christ. It may be the fastest way to touch the most people, but I don't think that it has the lasting impact that relationship evangelism has. It may also be the reason many Christians have an aversion to sharing the Gospel, being uncomfortable using this sterile approach which is more like a salesman trying to reach some numerical goal instead of a deep concern for an individual. 

Most pastors would agree that developing relationships and sharing with a circle of friends and neighbors is the most effective way to spread the Gospel. We build trust and a relationship before we talk about faith. We find common ground and discuss a variety of topics and begin to get below the surface conversation.  However, there comes a time in the relationship when we need to move into the intimate discussion about faith. This is often the most difficult part and where we fail.  How do I make a smooth transition from one topic to the Gospel? 

If you've ever been through an evangelism training course you've been taught to ask certain questions. A popular question is, "after you die, you stand before God, and God asks you why He should let you enter heaven, what would be your answer?"  That question may get to the theological position of the one you are questioning but it also puts them on the defensive. It assumes that the one asking the question has all the answers.  It is far from being the most effective way and may as easily shut down the conversation or turn someone away from faith.  

Here is a natural, relational approach with some suggestions and better questions to ask to open up a discussion about faith that can lead to sharing the Gospel.  

Start by sharing a frustration or problem that you have.  For someone to be more forthcoming about their problems, you often have to initiate by becoming more vulnerable. After sharing, if your friend still is not willing to open up about his or her life, you may ask a question like this.  
What keeps you awake at night?  
What do you struggle with the most?  
What brings you the most stress at this time of your life?

When someone begins to share a problem, we can respond with how we rely upon our faith in Christ to help us deal with problems in our life. So our testimony now becomes a part of the discussion. However, don't be too eager to talk. Take time to listen and probe about your friend's issues. 

Once you have shared on a deeper level about your own issues and how you handle them, then you can explore more about their faith. You've now opened the door to a faith discussion, and how your friend responds helps determine your next step. If you sense an openness, then you may want to ask questions such as:  
How do you cope with your problem?
What part does faith play in helping you with your stress or anxiety?  

The answer to these questions should help you to begin to discover what your friend believes about God and Jesus.  If you still are not sure what your friend believes, you may want to be a little more direct.  You can talk about your faith growing up, why you believe, or your conversion experience.  This leads to questions like:
Did you grow up going to church?  
What did your parents believe?  
Does faith play any role in your life?

If you find that your friend does not have a relationship with Christ, or their relationship with Jesus is not where they wished it was, the next question may be the key to helping someone take the a step to becoming a follower of Christ.

This question gets to the root of the issue and is one that Jesus addressed with the rich young ruler. In Luke 18:18 we read about Jesus' encounter with the rich ruler and the ruler's question to Jesus, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  Jesus doesn't answer directly but probes to determine the one thing that keeps the young ruler from a relationship with Jesus, and that is the ruler's love of money. 

This is a great question! 
What do you think is the greatest thing that prevents you from having a relationship with Jesus Christ?  

This question can be for the searcher who is struggling to make the decision to follow Christ or it could be for the believer who desires more in their relationship with God. Jesus knew what it was for the young ruler and he identified it for him. For us, we don't have that power so we must ask and probe to help one discover for themselves what the barrier might be to a life of full devotion to Jesus Christ. 

Once identified, then you can begin to suggest ways to overcome the obstacle that prevents them from believing. A common response is, "I don't feel worthy or good enough" or "I need to get my life in order first."  This can lead to a discussion about God's grace and what the Bible says we need to have a relationship with Jesus.  Now you are sharing the Gospel!  

Don't be afraid to share.  The key is asking good questions that bring about deeper discussion, intense listening, and the willingness to transition to sharing your faith and the Gospel. 

What is it that keeps you from having the relationship that Jesus desires to have with you?
What are some questions that you use in the process of sharing the Gospel?

Monday, April 18, 2016

681 God answers prayer in an amazing way!

Hurst Creek section of Lake Travis Jan. 2015
As I write this, much of central and south Texas is under a flood watch.  Only a few months ago we were praying for God to bring rain to the area and fill Lake Travis to 681 feet, the designated full level and now we are facing the prospect of too much water! Just two years ago the city officials of Austin were looking at an historic drought crises.  Not only was Lake Travis, an economic engine for this area almost dry, the city faced the prospect of having to buy imported water to meet its needs.  Weather experts were proclaiming that Lake Travis might never be filled again and that only a miracle, a massive amount of rainfall would fill the lakes back to normal. 

In May of 2014, Austin area pastors united with an idea to begin to fast and pray together specifically that God would fill Lake Travis (681 feet). So the pastors took the idea to the city of Austin officials who agreed to gather together for prayer on May 15, 2014 for a city wide time of prayer to end the drought and fill the lake. What is interesting is that God not only answered those prayers and filled the lake but from this prayer meeting to the day when Lake Travis was declared full, reaching the 681 foot level, was 681 days! God answered our prayers in an incredible fashion! And isn't it just like God to give us more than we asked for, to spill over the cup?  As Ephesians 3:20 says, God will do exceedingly more than you ever imagined.

Hurst Creek April, 2016
Was this a coincidence or act of God? We may never know for sure but your answer probably depends on your faith. The point we can gather from this though as Matthew 18:19-20 states, God answers our prayers when two or more are gathered in His name, and pray specifically.  Much can be accomplished in the body of Christ when we join together for God's purposes. As pastor Will Davis Jr. of Austin Christian Fellowship proclaimed, "it has never been about a full lake but always about our faith and our awesome God."

The Austin area pastors held another prayer meeting this past March celebrating and thanking God for his faithfulness in answering their prayers and they have not stopped praying for God to fill the cup. Now our prayer is to fill us up with his spiritual blessings, to move central Texas residents to be filled with the spirit of God so as to transform the city and surrounding areas. This of course is much harder to measure but we all anticipate seeing how God answers our prayers. 

  • There is power in individual prayer
  • There is great power in prayer when we pray unified
  • There is magnificent power in prayer when we pray together in Jesus' name 

Monday, April 11, 2016

How to receive God's blessings

People today are still very much like those in the New Testament times.  They want the blessings of God more than they want God.  We see in John 6:26-40, after Jesus feeds the 5,000, they begin to follow him wanting more food.  Feed us every day just like when Moses fed us as our ancestors wandered in the wilderness. 

We see the same kind of faith or lack of, today in the prosperity gospel churches where people come to receive "blessings".  "Give and you shall receive", the preachers proclaim.  "See how God has blessed me!  You too can have a nice car, a beautiful house and riches untold if only you give to God (me, my church) your money". 

And the prosperity gospel churches are not the only ones that rely upon such tactics. You can see it also used in mainline churches, only a more subtle version.  It's not the doctrinal belief system that the church is built upon like the prosperity churches, but in many churches you'll hear testimony from members to the fact that God has blessed them when they gave to the church, building campaign, pastors discretionary fund, etc.  It is a manipulatory tactic to get people to give more. Ironic that we use manipulation on our people by manipulating them to believe we can manipulate God into giving us material wealth, if we give to the church.  It's not that those giving testimony are not telling the truth. They believe God has blessed them and indeed God probably has. But the fallacy is in reason why God blesses his children. He does it because God loves us, not because we have earned it in some way.   

We see the same problem with those who followed Jesus around. They wanted to know just what they needed to do to gain the blessings of God, to get a free meal every day.  They wanted the blessings much more than they wanted Jesus.  Jesus didn't say you need to give money to the church or to me.  He didn't say you need to pray five times a day.  He didn't say you need to sacrifice a lamb or go to the Temple on the Sabbath.  He said in verse 29, "believe in Me". "God provided the bread from heaven, not Moses.  I am the bread.  I am the manna.  Put your faith and trust in me.  It is a relationship with you that I want.  Not your works or your money, just your time, your worship, your heart".

This may be the hardest concept for us to accept.  It is what separates all religions from true Christianity. We want so much to believe that we must accomplish something in order to receive God's blessings. It is so counter intuitive that this simple doctrine of grace is what keeps many from that relationship with Jesus.  
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10

What would it look like if we understood that Jesus wants our devotion not works? How would I live my life differently if I could fully comprehend the depth of that relationship and the grace that Jesus offers? 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

It's dangerous business going out your front door nowadays: Kingdom living in today's crazy world!

I love the scene in the Fellowship of The Ring when Sam hesitates to go with Frodo saying "if I take one more step, it will be the farthest I've even been from home."  Frodo encourages Sam to go saying, "remember what Bilbo always said, 'it's dangerous business going out your front door. You step onto the road and if you don't take your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to'."

Christians can be much like Sam when trying to make a decision whether to go on a mission trip, move overseas to serve God in a foreign land, or starting a ministry in a new place. And in today's world where we hear about almost every tragic event, the fear of travel can be a huge barrier to following God's calling. We in America have an aversion to taking risks. It hasn't always been that way. Our founding fathers risked much to make America the country it is. But just mention to someone you are going to Africa or to Europe to serve on mission and see the bewildering looks on their faces. "Are you serious? Why would you take a risk like that?"

I recently had a conversation with a friend who shared that she had been struggling with a decision that she believes is a calling from God to serve him in a specific way. Her idea for ministry would provide hospice patients a unique peaceful and spiritual rest during their last days on earth. The problem she explained was that her dream would require her to quit her well-paying job and take a big risk by starting a non-profit ministry. Many of her friends and family thought she was being foolish to do so.  Her dream required her to risk, sacrifice material things and security. She asked herself, am I being foolish or am I being faithful to God's call? 

Sometimes when I try to determine God's direction for me, taking a risk to serve others can often seem as being irrational, unsafe or imprudent. So many Christians pass up opportunities because they fear losing material things, security and often friends. Yet, when we look at just about any faithful person in the Bible, we see how they risked much and gave up much to follow God's calling. Think about what Abraham, Noah, and Moses were asked to do. From the outside what God was calling them to do seemed like folly. For them and the disciples in the New Testament, Kingdom living meant leaving the security of the present and stepping in with both feet not sure of where they would be swept off to, but knowing that God was with them.  

Our consumer culture demands the opposite of Kingdom living. It drives us to mostly play it safe, and when we are encouraged to risk, it is usually for the sake of possessions, power or profit. We are told to live up to our potential but as my pastor proclaimed one Sunday, "Kingdom living is not living up to our potential, it is pursuing our calling!" That calling often requires us to put aside comfort, safety, material security and the life we currently live, even the world's idea of sanity for something much more grand, much more fulfilling. 

Yet, when we are faced with a choice to join in God's adventure, we are much like Bilbo Baggins. We go to church and live our daily life. We don't like unexpected visitors and unanticipated surprises that break our routine. But as it happens so often, as it did to Bilbo Baggins, opportunity knocks at our door, out of the blue or as we are are minding our own business, God sends an opportunity our way to join Him in an adventure.  And we get to choose. 

Take it from someone that has been all over the world. When you say "yes" to God and enter His adventure, you'll go places that will take your breath away and serve along side of the most unusual cast of characters. I've experienced this all over the world, working alongside Muslim men to build a playground at a school in Morocco to worshiping God with inmates inside a prison in South Africa. 

So if you are contemplating going oversees on a mission trip, don't listen to the world, friends and acquaintances who will try to talk you out of going. You'll hear all kinds of reasons for not going. It's unsafe. It's too much money which could better be spent helping people here.  You are being irresponsible to your family.  Some of the arguments may sound logical. But often your friends won't understand because they view life from a worldly perspective, not from a Kingdom mindset. Just say "yes" to God.  I promise you won't be the same when you return!