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

Friday, November 27, 2015

Is Your Story in God's Story?

God's story of the creation of the earth and His purpose for his children is being written as you read this. If you are a child of God, you are in the book God is writing and you have your own chapter. You are writing that chapter now, and the experiences you have gone through are in that chapter and they are there to prepare you for the rest of the book, yet to be written. 
Why is this important?  Because the story of your life and how God has reconciled you is unique and significant. People need to hear your story because it represents the power of Christ, of what He has done and what He will do in the future. 

You may have grown up with two Christian parents like me and you think your story of becoming a follower of Christ to be rather boring. But I would bet there are some significant events that shaped your faith that are unique to you.  From the victories to the trials and heartbreaks of life, each experience has probably had some kind of relationship to your faith. Even though my story does not include a spectacular conversion, I look back and see significant events that chronicle a relationship with Jesus.
For me, I grew up with a thorough understanding of God's law because I had Christian parents but I had no clue about God's grace. It wasn't until I was invited to church by a high school friend that I began to learn about the grace of God. It was at this small church in West Covina, California that I would accept God's grace, become involved in the church for the first time and develop a passion for ministry. I vividly remember exchanging my life for Christ on a mountain side during a weekend church retreat. These four years radically shaped my understanding of God's grace and my purpose for living. Over the years, through my many mission trips and involvement with all kinds of people in ministry, my understanding of God's grace and truth has grown. It's like discovering the universe.  The further you go and the more of it you discover, the deeper it gets. You realize that you have just scratched the surface. 

I remember telling my story to a man from Scotland I was sitting next to on an African Safari. He and his mother were on a vacation of a lifetime and this safari was the highlight. The context of my story was that this Scottish man had been trying out the Mormon religion for a couple of years. I used my story to explain the difference between Christianity and Mormonism. It was a surreal experience because we were on this incredible photo safari, seeing amazing animals but he was more interested in hearing about the grace and love of Jesus Christ. He prayed to receive Christ the following day and I baptized him in a small pool attached to our lodge.  You never know how and when God will use your story to impact someone's life for Christ. 

What is your story?  How often have you shared it with others? There is someone who would benefit from your experience. When given the opportunity, ask someone about their story.  Give them a prompting to share and then share yours also.  You will both be blessed. And if you are not a follower of Jesus yet, God wants to include you in His book of life. Let Him write your chapter by giving your life to Him today!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

God's amazing personal love

I must admit I feel uneasy talking about my "personal" relationship with God. Someone once told me, "John, you would never say when talking about your earthly father, 'I have a 'personal relationship' with my Dad". You'd just say, 'I have a relationship with my Dad'. So why would you need to add 'personal' when describing your relationship with Christ"?  Yes, I guess it is possible to fixate on the personal aspect of our relationship with God to such an extreme that it becomes selfish and possessive. And yet what separates Christianity from the rest of the world's religions is that Christians believe that God is involved intimately with every individual believer. As Galatians 2:20 says, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. This is what makes God so incredibly great, that our triune God, (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit) has the power to answer individual prayers and work in the lives of every single believer to redeem, transform and glorify them.

I've experienced just how deep and personal God's love for me and others is during my walk with Christ over the years, I've encountered God's love in so many different ways, in every area of my life, all in ways very unique to me. When I needed comforting during a time of grief, He was the great comforter. Time and time again, when I needed strength to make a decision that required risk and courage, God provided inspiration and power.  When I needed words to say to comfort and encourage someone else, God gave me just what to articulate. When I needed to crawl up in His lap and be loved, I felt his presence through scripture, prayer and worship. His love runs deep, to meet our individual needs in every situation. And when a miracle is needed, yes God provides those too.

I remember a time when God provided miraculously during a mission trip to Mexico. Our mission team was working at an orphanage for special needs children run by a pastor in Piedras Negras. During a devotional time, I read a letter written by one of our missionaries overseas that shared how God seemed to always provide exactly what they needed at exactly the right time. I then talked to our team about the sacrifice that this pastor was making and how he had shared with us that this had been a very difficult time financially for his family and the orphanage.  I was about to pray that God would provide for the pastor when my cell phone rang.  I seldom received a signal in Mexico but somehow I had service at this time.  I didn't recognize the number so I thought I'd better take the call and I asked another member of our team to pray while I answered it.

The person on the other end of my phone introduced himself by saying, "you don't know me, but my wife went on one of those mission trips to Piedras Negras with you last year. She was so impressed with the pastor and the orphanage that we committed to giving money to the orphanage if we ever sold our business.  Well, we have just sold it and we want to send you a check for the pastor in Mexico." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I seldom received a phone call in Mexico and had never ever had someone call and say they wanted to provide for this orphanage. But here was a call answering a prayer at the exact time we were praying for it! 

When I returned to the team and told them, we were all totally amazed and in awe of God and spent the rest of the night praising Him.  God's love is so personal that He knows our every need and provides for us in our very unique ways at just the right time!

For more amazing stories about the miracles of God that I've experienced go to: Miracles on the Mission Field.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Finally a movie Christians can be proud of

I think we all understand the power of the media and entertainment industry has to shape culture.  
So it is not surprising to see more and more movies coming out today with a strong Christian message. We have finally come to realize the potential and started putting money into projects and movies but many faith-based movies are still made on limited budgets and are not accepted by the mainstream critics or attended by much of anyone but believers. Most of those that I've seen, the message was just too in your face or the production way below the multi million dollar standards of the major movies today. Many seem to do the cause of Christ more harm than good.

That is why I was blown away by one movie that is now showing.  Woodlawn is definitely the exception, by far the best movie I've ever seen in a long time.  It is a well produced "Christian" movie without any compromise on the quality or message.  And guess what? The critics actually like it! Over 90% of critics and 91% of audience give it a thumbs up on Rotten Tomatoes.  When has a movie with a strong Chritian message gotten high marks from the mass critics?  

There are several reasons why this movie may be a model for future Gospel centered films.
  • Woodlawn is very well done, a quality production, well acted with well known actors including Jon Voight as Bear Bryant and Sean Astin (Lord of The Rings).  The money was spent to produce a movie that would rival top box office films knowing that if they could produce a movie that was in the top 25 of the year, it would be seen all over the world and thereby its message would be communicated to hundreds of thousands of people.
  • Its message is one that is very relevant to today (Overcoming racial violence and hatred).  Woodlawn sheds light on the turmoil during the integration of an all white high school in Birmingham, Alabama in 1973. It tells the story of how a football team and a chaplain helped unite a team, school and city.  We see history through the eyes of Tony Nathan, a young black student struggling to overcome racism to prove himself on the school's football team. (Tony goes on to become a successful running back for the Miami Dolphins.)
  • The drama is compelling and the story is uplifting.  Woodlawn will move you, inform, entertain, but most of all inspire you, because it is a story of how a team, school and city united to overcome racism and bigotry in the south.   
  • Although Gospel centric, it avoids taking any particular political side.  It tells the story and lets the events speak for themselves, trying to portray historical figures accurately. Therefore it does not alienate half of its potential audience. 
  • The story is true.  The movie is directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin. Their father Hank Erwin was the team chaplain portrayed by Sean Astin in the movie.  The characters are real and the story is factual and often times in God's kingdom, truth is more amazing than fiction. That is the case with Woodlawn. 
Take your family and friends (older children), go see it with your Life group, and take an unbeliever. It's message is one that we all need to hear, one that can transform our hearts and heal our nation!  

Watch the trailer here. http://woodlawnmovie.com/

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Real God-sized Vision Coming To Fruition

I've met and read about many Christians who have accomplished amazing things like starting a church, opening an orphanage, bringing the Gospel to and transforming a neighborhood, many in the most difficult of places, wonderful deeds that could have been accomplished only with God's power. But this vision, to bring a source of clean water to every man, woman and child in an African country, along with the Gospel, within a few years, now that is a real God-sized vision! And not just any country, but to one of the most corrupt and impoverished countries in the world at that, by an outsider with little or no connection to the country, any government agency or large source of funding. Sound crazy?

But guess what, this wild, implausible God-sized idea is on the verge of being fulfilled! What most people thought a pipe dream, a crazy idea of a idealistic Christian, is close to halfway to becoming a reality and should be realized by 2020.

Liberia, a country on the west coast of Africa, established by Americans in the early 1800's, is the country.  Todd Phillips, a Texas pastor, is the man with the vision of bringing "living water" by the year 2020 to this African country plagued by water borne diseases because of internal wars, poverty and corruption.
I attended the premier of a movie entitled Thirst: Mission Liberia, Sunday night in Austin that documents Todd's vision and the incredible story of how this is being accomplished through Todd's non-profit organization, The Last Well. I'm especially excited about the project because of my connection to Todd, which goes back to 1994 just after he committed his life to Christ and moved from Colorado to Austin. I was the Minister to Single Adults at Hyde Park Baptist at the time, and had the privilege to mentor and disciple him during the first years of his Christian life.
A couple of years after Todd moved to Austin I was working with other Christian leaders in the area to get a singles city wide weeknight gathering started in Austin. We needed a speaker but could not settle on anyone. I saw something in Todd, a passion for Christ, charisma and a drive. He was a young Christian so there was a hesitancy to hand him the leadership. But he had started a Bible study at Dell and had grown it to over 40 people, so I thought we'd give it a go with Todd as our speaker. We began on a Thursday night with 12 people and within a couple of years with Todd's leadership and speaking, grew to over 700 single adults meeting every Tuesday night. 

Phillips went on to pastor a young adult church for several years in the Washington D.C. suburbs where his God-sized vision of bringing water to a whole nation was birthed. He explained that these young adults were inspired by the movie Amazing Grace and wanted to achieve a "William Wilberforce accomplishment" - something akin to ending the slave trade in England.  So with prayer and inspiration they came up with the idea of providing clean water and the Gospel to an entire nation, one that is on the list of the most needy countries in the world.
I was truly inspired by Thirst: Mission Liberia following the trials, obstacles and setbacks that Todd and his organization have had to overcome and the incredible victories. Through it all, you can see the hand of God every step of the way as they have already provided clean water wells (over 1,000 to date)  and the Gospel to almost half of Liberia and are well on their way to bringing "living water" to the entire country by his goal of 2020.

Besides being amazed at the scope of the task, these are some of the takeaways I received from the film: 
  • I often settle for good when God can accomplish much greater things through me. Ephesians 2:10
  • You can not accomplish great things without God and without others. You must make connections and develop relationships. 
  • God uses the most heartbreaking and discouraging events to help us accomplish His tasks. When you get discouraged, take heart that the trial you face may actually be the path to victory. 
  • Don't get distracted from God's calling. There are a lot of needs in the world and Africa, but Todd has stayed firm to accomplishing the two things he feels called to do in a specific place, knowing many other good things will follow if these are accomplished.
  • You never know the impact you will have on those whom you mentor and disciple. The one you lead to Christ might be the next Billy Graham. 
Watch the trailer here. Thirst: Mission Liberia 


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Cost Of Wearing The Pastoral Mask

photo from the-love-compass.com
Pastor Steve was on the brink of an emotional and physical breakdown. His health was not good and as he lay in a hospital bed after going through some tests, his mind traveled back to that first interview, fresh out of seminary, sitting nervously in a small church. Steve had heard that the church had been on a slow decline for the previous 5 years and had been searching for a pastor for over a year. He recalled how he sat wearing his best suit, displaying his super pastor image for a search committee of 7 elderly members, the remnant that held the church together. 

During the meeting, the committee had laid out their expectations: They wanted a man who could preach great sermons that would bring in lots of new converts. He was to lead the church in creating ministry opportunities, pastor the flock by visiting the sick and burying those who pass from this world. He was expected to bring in money to get the church out of debt. They counted on him to be a great teacher and administrator and of course, be above reproach and the example of what a true Christian should be and do. Steve convinced the church he was their man in that meeting and the church wanted to believe that this young man was God's choice and therefore would meet all of their expectations. 

For the past 7 years Steve had been wearing that same image. Looking back, he now wished he would never have put on the super pastor mask. He was worn out trying to live up to all of those expectations and felt foolish that he really believed he could do all of those things well.  He was ashamed and felt guilty of living a lie for the past 7 years as their pastor.  He felt like a failure in so many areas.

Steve was a good preacher and worked hard to please his members and to grow the church but it left him little time to handle the rest of his responsibilities.  Pastoring an elderly congregation, there always seemed to be a need to visit someone in the hospital or prepare for a funeral. He was a terrible administrator, he hated details but the church didn't have the budget to hire someone to handle the financial and business aspects of the church. 

Steve's family and marriage suffered because he just didn't have the time to give what they needed. He was working 6 days and 5 nights a week and there always seemed to be an emergency or meeting on his supposedly free nights. His spiritual life was running on fumes also. He knew things needed to change but what could he do? Admit that he was a failure, that he was a poser all this time as a pastor?
Coaching pastors, I find that Steve is not unique, unfortunately his situation is more of the norm. *This is the time most pastors begin to look for a way out, either leaving the pastorate all together or finding another church where they often begin the cycle all over again.  Steve was different. He broke down on a Sunday evening service and shared about his health and that he needed a break. He came clean about his feelings and guess what?  The congregation stepped up and agreed to take stuff off of his plate.  They seemed to understand and encouraged him to take a sabbatical in order to get healthy before returning.   
The problem is not all the fault of pastors. The American evangelical church has created the notion of super pastor that comes with unrealistic expectations and job descriptions. The truth is that most believers expect their pastor to have all five ministry giftings of the Holy Spirit; apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher. But very rarely does any one person have three of the five much less all of them.   Most pastors excel in one and they try to manage the rest as best as they can. But before long you'll begin to hear the chatter among members, "Our pastor is a great evangelist but he is such a lousy pastor." Or, "our pastor is such a great shepherd but I wish he could preach!"

So how do we address the problem? What could Steve have one differently from the start?  Here are seven ways that may help a pastor avoid Steve's problem.  I'd love to hear any other suggestions also.  
  1. Squelch the perception that the pastor is a super Christian. Two issues here are pride and expectations.  If a pastor never puts on the super pastor mask, he won't have to live up to it. There may be pressure to impress a church to get hired, but if you have to be "Jesus" to get the job, you don't want that job.  Be yourself from the start by being authentic and showing vulnerability. Talk about your strengths and your weaknesses, your struggles and failures. Remind the members over and over that you are not a "super Christian" but a human who sins and fails from time to time. I can only grow and succeed by the power, mercy and grace of Jesus. Stay grounded and resist the urge to be put on a pedestal.  
  2. Take the ministry seriously but don't take yourself too seriously.  Joke about yourself and the boneheaded mistakes you make. Help others identify with you.  
  3. Lead by casting a vision of unity and teamwork. Constantly remind the members that the church (members) should engage the world as a team.  The pastor usually plays the role of quarterback but unless everyone functions in unity doing their part, the church's goals and expectations will not be met.  
  4. Set firm boundaries with your time for your own devotion, your family and free time. Communicate up front with your leadership the importance of those boundaries. Call on your leadership to hold you accountable to keeping those boundaries. Stand firm!
  5. Work together with your leadership team to define your church's specific values.  Post those in a lot of places, preach about them, recognize and reward those who live out your values.     
  6. Delegate, delegate and then delegate some more.  Give as much ministry away so that you as pastor can focus on leading, casting vision, and using whatever ministry gift that God has given you.
  7. Don't isolate yourself.  Find a group of pastors from other churches that you can meet regularly with to play, pray and discuss your common problems. Make friends outside of your church that will allow you to get away from the business of your church.
*Average tenure for pastors at any one church is 5-7 years. http://www.gbjournal.org/8-82/
Here are other blog posts concerning this issue:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Miracles Continue at Honduras Orphanage

Living Water Children's Ranch, Honduras
This is an update on my post on my blog, Miracles on the Mission Field, about the miracles God has provided as we tried to build an orphanage in Honduras. You can read the fascinating story of its beginning here.  Since I wrote that blog, God has continued to bless our efforts and bring the ministry in Honduras to fruition and it has been fascinating to watch and see the hand of God in the process. 
Teresa Devlin, the missionary who helped find and secure the property and get the building built passed away in the fall of 2012.  She had suffered from scleroderma for years and became very sick in June of that year and had to be flown back to San Antonio.  She never fully recovered and went to be with God in October of 2012.
Teresa had been concerned for years about who would succeed her and be the one to oversee the orphanage. Two weeks before Teresa became ill, a young woman from Arkanas, Jennifer Zilly who had been referred to Teresa by a friend, flew down to Honduras to spend some time with Teresa in order to get a feel of the ministry and to see if working along side of her was a possibility.  
Jennifer, Darwin and 5 of the children at the ranch
That plan quickly changed while she was there, as Teresa became sick. With the timing of her visit, and Teresa having to leave Honduras, Jennifer was suddenly faced with a decision. Do I return to the states and forget about this opportunity or do I stay? She felt as if her timing was God's and that she was left to further Teresa's ministry. So instead of flying back home like most would have done, Jennifer stayed in Honduras and began to adjust and learn the Honduran ways. This young American, right out of college, found a job coaching girls basketball in La Ceiba, Honduras and made herself part of the community (that there was even a coaching position open is a miracle and another story).  Fairly quickly Jennifer adapted and over the year she began to pick up Teresa's ministry.
Today Jennifer is married to a wonderful Honduran young man, Darwin who was Teresa's main instructor at her music conservatory. They now live at and oversee the Living Water Children's Ranch, the orphanage we had been working to establish for several years. 
It hasn't been easy but they have 7 children living at the home now. The process of securing children for the orphanage is difficult and sometimes drawn out because they have to work with and through the Honduran government. So they take the children that God provides and wait for the next one.
Doing their schoolwork
What has been incredible is all of the ministry that they have started for the children and the neighbors around them.  Not only are they raising the orphans, but they have also started a school on the property for children in the neighborhood.  Darwin continues to teach music to children and oversee the music conservatory. And they have recently started a weekly Bible study for the families in the neighborhood with a surprising number attending. 

Jennifer is a prolific writer and she chronicles in a real and personal way their struggles with these very difficult children in this third world country.  She doesn't gloss over the ministry and you'll get a great up close and personal view of life as a missionary by reading her blog.
The interesting thing about the transition from Teresa Devlin to Jennifer Zilly was that I along with a mission team from San Antonio, met Jennifer that spring in Honduras during Jennifer's initial visit to meet Teresa. We didn't know how serious Jennifer was about moving to Honduras and working with Teresa, but most all of the team members did not think that Jennifer would be the permanent replacement for Teresa.  
However we were not in a position to make that decision, thank God, and a few weeks later we suddenly needed a person to fill in for Teresa and Jennifer was there.  We realized that she was God's choice!  
Darwin directing his choir
Jennifer is completely different from Teresa, in age, personality, life experience, etc., but what each have in common is a heart for God. Jennifer has turned out to be an incredible self starter, who has stayed as close to the word of God in her words and actions as most anyone I have ever met. She needs our prayers every day to continue the incredibly difficult and demanding work in Honduras. She has fought illness, difficult living conditions, an apathetic, uneducated and Godless people in which to minister.  In spite of all of this, Jennifer and Darwin are committed to reaching this community for Christ, and raising children with the knowledge of Christ so that they may choose an eternal home in His kingdom and may live productive, fulfilling and Godly lives as an adult.  
It is beyond my comprehension how God has provided every time we hit a wall with this project.  And not only did He provide, but God gave us more than we even imagined every single time.  So yes, I'm learning to accept God's will, wait on His timing and not try to control the process. He is infinitely wiser than his children.  Go here to read about the first children at the orphanage.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How Katrina dramatically changed a Texas church

10 years ago, Austin Christian Fellowship, a large congregation in an affluent area of west Austin, had big plans.  Their big vision was to raise enough money to build a 4,000 seat worship auditorium on a hill, the highest point in west Austin.  It would face Austin and the congregation would have a beautiful view of the hill country and the skyline of Austin, making it the premiere church of Austin, Texas. 

But a hurricane changed all of that. Hurricane Katrina came nowhere near Austin, but Austin felt the impact as hundreds of the New Orleans residents that were displaced from their homes by Katrina were bused into Austin. Most of those sent to Austin were housed in the Austin convention center, and churches all over Austin began to offer aid. AFC Pastor Will Davis, during a sermon this summer, told about how Austin Christian Fellowship responded and how it radically changed him and the church. 

ACF was one of several churches that worked with the city and state officials in a coordinated effort to provide basic essentials for those displaced by Katrina. But Will explained that he felt God telling him to become personally involved.  So he went to the convention center and found a displaced family from New Orleans and took them to dinner. The encounter moved Will to such an extent that ACF not only helped the family find housing but assisted 20 other families also.  The whole experience radically changed the pastor, the leadership and the congregation's mindset for missions and passion to serve. 

At the time of Katrina, Pastor Will explained, ACF was giving about 1% of its budget to missions, local or global. This encounter so changed the mindset of the staff, leadership and congregation that the "big vision" of building a giant auditorium now seemed very small. That goal of building a massive worship center was replaced by a vision of serving their community and planting churches. Instead of growing vertically, ACF would make its impact through missions and growing God's kingdom horizontally. Since the encounter with the refugees of hurricane Katrina, the church has increased its giving every year to where they now give over 50% of their annual budget to local and global missions. They are planting churches throughout the city and sending mission teams all over the world. 
Isn't it amazing how God uses many things, events, people, and even a hurricane, to change hearts, minds and attitudes? Whether you are a pastor, deacon or member, perhaps the greatest way to change yourself and your world is to take a step of faith and join God in what he is doing.  When you "go" incredible things happen.  Go here to watch Will's entire sermon as he shares the story of how Katrina changed him and the church.