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.

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!

Monday, August 8, 2016

For Such A Time As This

If you were like me, you watched the men’s 4x100  freestyle relay on the edge of your seat screaming for the U.S. swimmers. With the win Michael Phelps now has 19 gold medals in his fifth Olympics. An unbelievable accomplishment may be an understatement.  And yet what may be even more incredible is his story, which he is telling freely, from the highs of winning gold medals to the depths of wanting to commit suicide and back again to a restored life of purpose.
After his second DUI, Phelps was at the lowest point of his life, ready to end it all. “He had no idea what to do with the rest of his life,” said his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. “It made me feel terrible. I remember one day I said: ‘Michael, you have all the money that anybody your age could ever want or need; you have a profound influence in the world; you have free time — and you’re the most miserable person I know. What’s up with that?’ ”

A lot of his story revolves around his strained relationship with his father who divorced and left the family when Michael was nine. But what Michael is telling but often overlooked is the catalyst for the change. 

Michael says that when he was at the bottom, Ray Lewis, a strong Christian and former NFL great, encouraged Michael to not give up and recommended the book, The Purpose Driven Life. The book gave Phelps new direction, new hope and a new purpose in life. The result is a new life, a reconciliation with his father and a story of redemption that he can tell to help others change their life.  If you haven't watched the full ESPN story, it is worth your time.  The Lewis part starts around the 7 minute mark.

Watch the story here.

I’m wondering where Phelps would be without that encouragement from Ray Lewis. I think about Esther and the words of Mordecai, “for such a time as this”. For Lewis, his act of obedience to help lift up Phelps in a time of great need was crucial.  

Where has God placed you in this moment? For whom can you be a catalyst for change? Don’t miss the opportunity to encourage someone today to live a life of purpose in Christ Jesus. It may be the difference between life and death. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Pokemon Go getting people to church, Gospel Go getting the church to the world.

I see many things through the lens of the Gospel so seeing how Pokemon relates to our faith isn’t so crazy. But I can’t take total credit for the comparison. This observation came from a pastor I coach in a discussion about the Pokemon Go phenomenon. I don’t play but I understand the game sends players with their smart devices all over the place to find and capture Pokemon "monsters".

So it's been credited with getting young computer gamers outside, discovering their city instead of spending all their time on computers in their homes. One of the popular stations where the Pokemon characters are being placed is in churches. One gamer said that as many as 70% of the landmarks where you collect "monsters" are churches. I saw a tweet that said, what if Pokemon Go is just a conspiracy to get young people to church?  

It's ironic that a secular computer game is actually getting people to church.  My pastor friend pointed out in our discussion, "it is unfortunate Christians don't have the same enthusiasm and passion to go and make disciples as the Pokemon players do in capturing their 'monsters’". That ignited a discussion about the similarities between Pokemon and the great commission.  Think about it.  There are a few similarities.

First off, Christians have been given similar instructions as those playing Pokemon.  In Matthew 28:18-19 we are told to Go, get out of the church, your house, your comfort zone and travel to identify people, not computer characters but real people, and to share the love of God with them to make disciples. I guess you could say our task is not to capture them but to convert people to faith in Christ. 

In Pokemon Go I’m told you can accumulate points or monsters to compete against other players. When we participate in the Great Commission, we also receive something to help us with the task.  We receive power from God to help us accomplish His will. Acts 1:8.  

In Pokemon you are playing in a fantasy computer world that is integrated with the real world. In the great commission, you are participating in the Kingdom of God, the real world. 
Where the comparison ends of course is that the Great Commission is not a game, it is a matter of life and death for eternity for real people. 

There may be more similarities.  For those Christians who play the game, I'd like to know what you think and if there are other comparisons.  One thing for sure, it's a strange and rapidly changing world in which we live. 

I'm sure Pokemon is a fun game but I sure wish Christians would get as excited about the Great Commission and spend their time going out into the world to share the Gospel with those who don't know Christ as they do playing a computer game. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Power Of Perspective

There is one crucial thing you must do when trying to find and live the truth, one thing that most people neglect. It's the same as what it takes be a great putter in golf. You must get a correct read of the green. Will the ball go straight or break to the right or left? What is the slope and speed? To best determine all of those factors, it is crucial to see the line you are putting on from all sides. 

I've been lazy at times and just looked at a putt from where my ball rested. When I missed the putt by several feet, I couldn't believe how bad I misread the green. Then I'd walk to the other side and see that the green sloped down a lot more than what it looked like from where I was putting. You would be amazed how different a green can look from different perspectives depending on where you are standing. The green can actually look like you are putting uphill from one side of the hole and downhill from the other!

Life is much like that also. Problems and life circumstances can look a lot different when viewed from a different perspective. So it is always important to keep that in mind and always try to look at an issue more than just from your own eyes. 

For example, when I tend to complain about my circumstances, I just have to put myself in the shoes of those I have encountered around the world and realize how well I have it. One reminder is this fact sheet to help us put life into perspective:
  • If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep… You are richer than 75% of this world.
  • If you woke up this morning with more health than illness .. You are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week.
  • If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation… You are ahead of 500 million people in the world.
  • If you can attend a church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death… You are more blessed than three billion people in the world.
  • If you can read (and apparently you can)… you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world that cannot read at all.
  • If you have a little money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish some place… You are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
When we walk in another person's shoes, as the saying goes, or look at the problem, disagreement or issue from the eyes of another person or place, we can always get a much more complete picture.  Sometimes we get confirmation that our view is correct. But more often our reality changes. That is what the prophet Nathan did with King David to convict David of his sin, by telling Him the story of the rich man taking the poor man's only lamb. David's perspective was shattered and corrected.  2 Samuel 12.

To get a more complete picture we should:
  • Start with a Biblical perspective. This gives you a foundation of truth and God's perspective.  
  • When you are in conflict with another, set aside a time to talk about the issue. Each person must listen to the other, without making comments. Then repeat back what you heard them say.  Once done, then you can work on solutions to the problem.
  • Build relationships with those who are different from you, older, younger, from other ethnicities, or from different places. Listen to their stories!  
  • Expand your world. Travel.  Go on mission trips. Serve others. Discover how others live. 
We have little to lose and much to gain by taking the time to view life from all sides. Then we see and can better understand truth.   "Another Man's Shoes" poem.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What pastors can learn from Tim Duncan

I'm a huge Spurs fan.  So I was saddened to hear about Tim Duncan's retirement after 19 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs on my birthday no less! I spent the day reflecting on the character of one of the greatest power forwards ever and what we can learn from him.

Tim was obviously a very talented basketball player, a 15 time all star, leading the Spurs to 5 world championships.  But what made Tim great even more than his basketball skill was his character and leadership traits. Few can be what he was talent-wise on the court but we can be like Timmy in the areas that made him so respected. Pastors would be well served to study his leadership skills and learn from them. Here are some of the traits I so admired.

Tim was a team first guy. In a sport that highlights the individual, Tim was the consummate team player, "the ultimate teammate", always sacrificing self for what was best for the team, whether it was taking a reduced salary or a reduced role on the court. He could have made so much more money if only he would have become a free agent and gone to a big market team. Yet he stayed in San Antonio and helped build a dynasty. You would expect the same from pastors but it's not always the case.  

You see many pastors moving from church to church, climbing the latter of success on the backs of church members instead of staying in one place and building a dynamic church. Three years and they are gone to another church. Then there are those who stay and continue to take raises that would shock you even while their church is declining in membership. Thankfully many of the young pastors I coach have taken a modest salaries or in some cases no salary at all so that their church could give more to missions. Maybe times are changing. Wouldn't it be great if all pastors were as selfless and humble?

Tim was a mentor to many. He took the off season to mentor and teach other big men, not just his teammates but those from opposing teams as well. There are stories from other players on opposing teams who recount how Tim would instruct them even during games. Etan Thomas tells about the time Tim told him during a game after Tim blocked his shot, "that was a good move but you have to get more into my body so you can either draw a foul or not get the shot blocked." Then a few plays later Etan explained, I did it again but he didn't block the shot and he looked at me and said, "much better".

One problem I find many pastors struggle with is insecurity. I'm not sure why it is that a pastor is so protective of his senior pastor position. It could be the expectations from members and the pressure he feels to live up to those. I seldom hear about a pastor who mentors another pastor to step into his shoes or to start another church. Shouldn't all pastors be training one or several young pastors?  If a basketball player can give instructions to an opposing player, you'd think a pastor could do the same for a fellow pastor. After all, we are on the same team. 

Tim was a quiet humble leader.  He lead by example more than words. Tim was fun to be around, someone who never took himself too seriously but took his job seriously. He set an example for others to follow.  He didn't have to try to be a leader, it was just who he was. He seemed very comfortable in his own skin and never tried to be anything but Tim. Players looked up to him and were willing to follow not because of position but because of who he was.  

Many pastors lean on their position more than quality leadership to influence others. Some are often too quick to make changes, demanding the congregation follow without laying a foundation for change with leaders of the church. Leading from a relationship of service, humility and authenticity would be so much more effective. 

I'm sure there are other characteristics of Tim that could help all of us in life. I'm thankful I've gotten to watch him play basketball all these years and I'm sure he will continue to be an influence on others in the years to come. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Falling From Grace: how to recognize when we are on the verge

One of the greatest dangers for Christians is to literally "fall from grace".  I'm not talking about the world's definition, an idiom referring to a loss of status, respect, or prestige. No, I'm referring to the biblical definition apostle Paul expressed in his letter to the Galatians. In chapter 5:4  he wrote that the Galatians, having accepted God's grace were in danger of returning to the bondage of legalism thereby "falling from grace". We face that same temptation as Christians today. We can easily say bye to the grace life and slip into religion.  And it can be so subtle that often times we don't even realize it. 

The best way to tell if you've "fallen from grace" is to ask yourself am I ruled by precepts or am I living by principles?

Let me explain the difference because we can easily get confused. Principles are inward beliefs and motivation for behavior. Precepts are outward actions, training the mind in order to regulate behavior. Chuck Swindoll explained it this way. When you drive down the road and see the "Speed Limit 35 Miles an Hour" sign, that's a precept. If the sign reads, "Drive Carefully," that's a principle.

It is easy for a new Christian or a person seeking God to believe that he must obey a long list of precepts to earn their standing before God. But that is a religious trap and nothing could be further from the truth in the life of Christ.  And it is easy for a long time believer to slip into that trap also.  We can understand and accept God's grace for salvation and then fall back to living by works.  

The Jews based their faith on keeping God's precepts and also created hundreds more to try to regulate behavior.  Even the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament initially meant book of instruction. The Jews later changed the meaning to books of law. Jesus realized that even though the Jews were inclined to follow the letter of the law, their hearts were not right. The rules had the opposite effect, driving their hearts away from a loving relationship with God.

Jesus told them, “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ (precept), ’‘but I say to you, ‘if a man looks on a woman to lust after her, he has already committed adultery in his heart’ (violation of principle).
When he was asked "what is the greatest commandment?” (precept), Jesus answered with a principle, 
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the laws are based on these two principles.”  

Jesus constantly taught the need to live from principles as opposed to precepts. He warned the Jewish leaders, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." God desires to change us from the inside out. That is what grace does.  A believer who is living by God's grace is characterized by principle living.

Religion focuses on polishing the exterior and making sure all the rules are kept.  The right kind of obedience to God comes after a heart has been changed on the inside by grace.  Simple religious behavior modification doesn't glorify God it glorifies self. 

Here are some signs that indicate that you may be falling from grace:
       You are overly concerned with what people think about you, so much so that you don't feel free to be yourself and instead feel a need put on a righteous facade. 
       You get discouraged easily and feel like a failure when you make minor mistakes and don’t live up to the rules exactly. 
       You find yourself often judging others outward appearances and actions, either thinking critically or feeling envious. 
       You see most everything in black and whites and judge others by that standard. 
       You set the bar high for those you have authority over and are overly harsh when they fail to meet your expectations. 
       You get a feeling of superiority when you have kept a precept.
       You substitute rules for relationships. You sacrifice relationships for "being right".

Don't allow yourself to fall from grace!  Recognize the signs and seek God. Repent and fall back into a life of grace.  When you understand the principles of the faith and instill those principles into your soul, experiencing the freedom to make choices in life based on those principles, you will begin to experience the abundant life Jesus promised. 

John 8:36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

What are the most important principles that you follow in your life? 

Why do you think people gravitate to following precepts over principles?

When are you most susceptible to obeying precepts instead of following principles?