Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Abundant Life or Redundant Life, your choice

Joey on the left, Brandon in the middle and team Heart of Texas
Jesus said as recorded in John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

This verse came to my mind while reading the testimony of Joey Kelly.  Joey is my wife’s stepbrother’s son.  He posted his incredible story on Facebook recently to expound on a story alluded to on the NBC show Spartan: The Ultimate Team Challenge. Joey is competing with his adopted brother/cousin, Brandon, in the competition which is aired on Monday nights.  Joey’s sister Ally won the American Gladiator competition several years ago, and turned that into a successful business, Camp Gladiator. So this is a very athletic, physically fit family, made for a team competition like the Spartan team challenge.      

During their team’s introduction, the show makes a brief statement that Brandon lost his mother and brother in a fire when he was a teenager.  Well that wasn’t totally true and it's hardly the whole story. His mother and brother were killed by his father, John Brickley with a butcher knife and his father set the house on fire to cover up the crime, setting himself on fire in the process.  Joey, age12, at the time was there at the house, spending the night with his cousin Mikey when the attack occurred.  

It is a miraculous story of how Joey avoided death but also overcame years of pain, heartache, and psychological affliction dealing with the nightmarish experience in which he witnessed his cousin stabbed to death and survived an attack. It beautifully illustrates Jesus' statement in John 10:10.

Joey decided to tell the whole story and he has written beautifully on Facebook about what actually happened and how his faith in Christ saved his life.  He writes in detail how his cousin Mikey died and how close he was to dying also.  Joey said he watched as the father stabbed Mikey and he couldn’t move.  He wanted to save Mikey but perhaps something held him back because he would have probably been killed also if he had tried to rescue Mikey.   

Joey wrote, I couldn’t and didn’t move even as John, the father, got up and slowly walked over to me. He slammed me against the wall and I vividly remember thinking “I’m about to die...this is how I’m gonna die.”

I closed my eyes and had my arms up in front of my chest like I was trying to curl up into a ball. This was ridiculously divine as John attempted to stab me in the chest, but accidentally stabbed me through my arm and the knife just barely scratched my chest right over my heart.

Not only was I thinking about how I was about to die, I remember a feeling of complete acceptance of that notion and I gave up even attempting to survive. A grown man had me pinned against the wall and had a knife in me. I just wanted to die quickly. He took the knife out and tried to stab me again. God intervened on my behalf. This is really hard for me to explain, but it’s true. I blinked...and I was gone. I was about 10 feet away from John. I remember opening my eyes and thinking “how did I get over here?”

I know it sounds crazy, but God pushed me out of the way or something...whatever it was, I know with everything in me that it was a miracle. There is absolutely no way I should be alive today.

He chased me downstairs and we went around the bottom floor for a while. It’s hard to judge time in that situation. I don’t know if that went on for 5 minutes or 30 minutes, but I do remember thinking I might bleed to death. I did a lot of begging for my life and he never said anything. He was determined to kill me.

However, I heard him go back upstairs and felt it was my chance to make a break for it. I escaped to the neighbors, told them what happened, and they called the police.
A few minutes later, the house went up in flames. John accidentally lit himself on fire too and was rolling around in the front yard.

In no time police and fire trucks were there, followed by my parents. That is the true, full story. Phyllis and Mikey were stabbed to death, and then burned. I’m also a victim of domestic violence and by God’s grace had my life saved.

Joey goes on to tell how he grew up in a Christian home and gave his life to Christ at the age of 7 but the tragedy pushed him away from God, not understanding why God would allow this to happen.
He writes in his story, In high school, I was also holding on to that bitterness towards God. Considering what I had been through, I felt that I had the right to act out...to go “crazy”...so I did just that.  My senior year especially, I chased anything and everything but God. Partying, girls, popularity, etc. I was living life for me and lost sight of my identity in Christ.
Those were the problems on the surface. Along the way I battled a slew of issues...depression, post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, guilt that I didn’t try to save Mikey, and unforgiveness towards my uncle.  I chased all of those shallow things to distract me from dealing with all of those issues and to fill the void of not living for God.

At that point, the thief was winning the battle. Satan had stolen whatever abundant life Joey had, but the story didn’t end there. Satan would not be victorious over Joey or Brandon.  Joey's turning point was early on in his freshman year in college. 

I was attending Grace Bible Church and I can’t even remember the message, but it hit me like a ton of bricks that God had saved my life for a reason and that for the most part, I had been wasting my second chance by living for myself. God wanted me to live for him.

Joey sought Christian counseling, getting the help he needed to deal with all of the trauma, pain and guilt and turn his life around. He started putting his life and faith in Christ, trusting Him, walking with Him on a daily basis, and began to heal. He is now experiencing the true abundant life, fully alive, living for God and sharing his story so that others might choose the abundant life over the redundant life.  He explains it this way in his post. 

Chasing things outside of what God had for me was pretty much always fun in the moment, but always left me feeling empty and unsatisfied. In a weird way, I’m glad I experienced a lot of earthly pleasures, because now I know for sure that nothing compares to living for the Lord. Ever since turning my life around, I’ve never experienced so much joy and satisfaction.  Life is meant to be about loving and serving God and people. I have never looked back.

The apostle Paul wrote similar words in Philippians 3:8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.

Paul too contrasted life before Christ with that after his encounter with Christ, and like Joey, expresses that there is no comparison.  His other life, of self-righteousness, power and prestige was “dung” when compared to what he is now experiencing.  And Paul is writing from a prison cell!  

Many Christians today either take for granted the “riches in Christ” they have or just never access them.  As Paul says, they are unfathomable, deeper and far greater than we can imagine. Many of those riches can be quantified, and they include purpose, direction, identity, freedom, hope, wise counsel, love, forgiveness, security, comfort, spiritual gifts and the ability to love and forgive.  Joey received every one of these as he began to wade into that relationship with Jesus.  And the deeper he waded in, the more of the blessings he received.  

Joey's cousin and adopted brother Brandon’s story is just as compelling.  Brandon was asleep at his dad’s apartment when all this occurred.  He was awakened early in the morning by the police and his uncle Neal to be told that his mother and brother had been killed and his father seriously burned in a fire.  Brandon seemed to make the transition to his new family (he was adopted after the tragedy by Joey's family), without the rebellion and depression. His faith and walk with Jesus was strong and helped him overcome the grief and pain.  Brandon served several years on the mission field and has shared his heart-rending story of overcoming tragedy and evil to many around the world to bring them to Christ.   

All of the blessings of an abundant life and more are available to all Christians. But the interesting thing is we cannot realize the abundant life by pursuing the blessings.  The only way we can realize this amazing life is if we pursue the Blessed One, Jesus.  

Actually, the relationship with Jesus is the greatest blessing.  As Max Lucado so eloquently wrote, the cache of faith is Christ! Fellowship with him…walking with him…pondering him. The heart-stopping realization that in Christ you are part of something endless, unstoppable, unfathomable! And that he, who can dig the Grand Canyon with his pinkie, thinks you’re worth his death on Roman cross!  Jesus Christ is the reward of Christianity!

It’s your choice, though.  Abundant life or a redundant life.  

Joey and Brandon’s team, Heart of Texas, won their first challenge and will compete again Monday, July 10 at 9:00 pm on NBC.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A new low on violating religious freedom in the USA

I read in dismay this past week about a powerful senator indicating he would vote no for Russell Vought, President Donald Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, because of his Christian Faith. Bernie Sanders challenged Vought's belief that those who reject Jesus Christ are "condemned" as being racist and Islamaphobic.  Sanders indicated that Vought was not qualified for this government post because of his belief that those who did not believe in Jesus were "condemned".

As I read more about the questioning, the more upset I got. This senator had taken political correctness to a new low, way past the realm of politics.  He has insulted all authentic followers of Jesus, claiming that their faith is dangerous to the country. Sanders said Vought's belief is "indefensible, hateful, Islamophobic, and an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world."

The idea that our faith is racist is indefensible. All of Christianity rests on Jesus' statement, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but through me," The crux of Christian doctrine is that everyone falls short of God's standard for salvation. (Romans 3:23).  The Gospel is that God's son, Jesus, came to this earth to pay the price for our sin so that we would have a way to be reconciled and receive salvation through Jesus Christ.  Our faith is built on this truth and millions of Christians live their lives so that others will come to the life giving relationship with Jesus Christ. Our motivation is out of love for our neighbors and respect for every human being created in the image of God.

It is hard to believe that a former candidate for president would take this kind of position.  To say that this Christian belief is somehow racist, hateful and dangerous is in itself extremely dangerous. You can certainly have your own views on theology but when you as a government office holder representing the people including millions of Christians, decide which theology is correct and make it some kind of litmus test for public office, you have crossed the line.  This is indeed a violation of Vought's first amendment right of freedom of religion and threatens all Christians and people of all faith's religious rights.

Perhaps this is just another sign of the end times.  But I promise it will not deter my faith and my desire to share the Good News of the Gospel to those who do not have a relationship with Jesus.

One of the few things you can do to voice your disapproval of Sanders' action is to sign The Family Research Council's petition drive stating “Our Constitution guarantees there will be no religious litmus test. Americans should never be forced to choose between their faith and public service.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

This is what's missing for many Americans today!

A recent study showed that more Americans than ever before are suffering from depression, stress, and anxiety. It doesn't go into the reasons but I can surmise that it has a lot to do with hope...the absence of hope. It only goes to reason in today's crazy politicized, immoral, violent, and super charged society, where every ounce of bad news is made known almost instantaneously, that there is a very real sense of gloom and despair. Often when the future looks hopeless and you find yourself in a no way out situation, you can experience anxiety, stress and even depression.

My wife and I experienced that on a small scale during our recent vacation to Yellowstone.  We had flown to Denver, rented a car and drove to Yellowstone, spending time in Grand Teton National Park on the way up. It was a fantastic trip, but while we were in Yellowstone an unexpected storm dumped a large amount of snow throughout Wyoming and Colorado.  On our way back to Denver, we stayed overnight in Rock Springs, Wyoming.

We got up early the next day to drive the remaining 300 miles to Denver only to find that Interstate 80 was closed because of the huge amount of snowfall.  So we programmed our GPS to give us another route and we headed out on a state road south of Rock Springs that was the fastest course to Denver.

I had a half a tank of gas and had planned to get gas in Colorado, figuring it would be cheaper. But as we traveled away from Rock Springs and began to examine our route we realized that we were out in the middle of nowhere. There were no towns, not even farm or ranch houses, and there were few cars on the road, which was fairly clear except for some spotty ice.  We only had a map of Wyoming and a slim part of northern Colorado.  When we lost connection for our GPS, I really began to become anxious. The further we got from Rock Springs the more worried I became. I didn't want to turn back and waste all that time but the path ahead was very uncertain and I didn't know if we had enough gas to get to the next town and we couldn't even see another town.

When we hit the Colorado border the highway turned into a dirt road!  I'm thinking, they closed an interstate highway and I'm on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere and there are storm clouds ahead! Now I had gone from anxious to near panic mode. I had lost most all hope because I didn't have any confidence in where I as going, no road map or clear path.

So even though we had driven for a full hour, we turned around and went back to Rock Springs to try another route. As we headed out of Rock Springs a sign declared, "road closed ahead, take alternative route," so we turned back again and sought some advice at the visitor center.  We were told there was a third route which required us to backtrack even further but it seemed to be open and the road was a state highway.

Off we went after filling the gas tank, and headed to Denver a third time. It took us a lot longer but the route was clear and the scenery was spectacular.  Having a full tank of gas and a confident path, knowing my destination made all the difference in the world. All the stress and anxiety was lifted and I could enjoy the trip and the incredible mountains and canyons of Utah and Colorado.

I was reminded of the verse in 1 Peter 3:15 which says "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." 

Having hope, knowing the destination, and that no matter what we are going through, Jesus is with us and we will be victorious in the end makes all the difference in how we live our lives today. Without hope, it is difficult to have joy and peace.  With hope we can enjoy life even when we go through the storms of life.  It is this hope that is missing in so many of our citizens today.  Everyone needs the hope of Jesus Christ and the assurance that even death is not our final destination.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Learning from the Spurs way: TRUST AND OBEY

The San Antonio Spurs did it again, shocking the basketball world and doing what few thought possible, winning a playoff series against Houston without their two best players.  Not just winning, but blowing away the Rockets on the Rockets home court by a record amount. No one saw this coming.
I love the Spurs not just because they win a lot, but how they win and how they so often provide such great life lessons in the process. 

As I often do, I try to analyze what the Spurs do and find the parallel principles that I can apply to life.  The lesson from the win last night was pretty profound, simply trust and obey. It's like that old gospel hymn, trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey. 

I can imagine coach Pop telling his players before the game that if you trust our system and your teammates and do what we've told you to do, follow the game plan, we can win even without Kawhi and Tony.  You all have certain abilities, great skills or you wouldn’t be playing for the Spurs.  And the coaches have put you in position to win. If you play hard and smart and follow the game plan, you will win! Just trust, obey and play! And what a great motto for life in Christ also!

Jesus said I've come to give you, not just an ordinary life but extraordinary, abundant life.  This is a life of joy, fullfillment, significance and contentment.  I've given you all you need to succeed.  You are a masterpiece, created to do good works that I've already prepared for you to do and given you the skill and ability to do them (Ephesians 2:10).   Now if you would just trust me, follow me, obey the instructions I give you, you will experience that victorious, abundant life.  Proverbs 16:20 – Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is he who trusts in the LORD.

I know that the playoffs are not over.  Am I saying that the Spurs are guaranteed a championship? There is no guarantee. They certainly won’t be the favorites against the Golden State Warriors. And chances are they won’t win. Even when we trust and obey, victory over every battle is no certainty. The Spurs won’t win every championship and just like in life, this fallen world has a way of knocking us down at times. However, if we trust and obey, especially in the difficult times when we've been knocked down, received a set back like losing our best player, we can turn a sure loss into an incredible victory.  Trust, obey and go play! 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The power over worry and anxiety

Photo by John Hain Pixaby.com
During the early morning hours I often find myself thinking the most pessimistic thoughts. I’m not sure exactly why it is, but it's in the waking up period as I contemplate what I have to do that I seem to have the most anxiety. The self talk focuses on the negative and I have to fight the mental battle to stay positive. Once I'm up and going, I don't seem to have a problem.

One way I’ve discovered to overcome the early morning anxiety is to remember what my purpose is, what I was created by God to do.  I remind myself with a statement asking God to go with me and declaring my faith and trust in Him. Meditating on that statement and spending time in prayer helps me overcome my worry.

David Guinn recently posted what the men and women of the Bible might have said as they readied themselves to take on the day.  We can use these examples to help us with our personal declaration. When we start each day off on a positive note, it helps relieve our anxieties and makes our day much more productive.

● Moses would say, "Lord, if You don't go with us or before us, we are not going anywhere."

● Abraham would say, "The Lord will provide."

● Jacob would say, "I won't let go of You unless You bless me."

● Joshua would say, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."

● Samuel would say, "Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening."

● Nehemiah would say, "The joy of the Lord is my strength."

● David would say, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." and "This is the day that the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it."

● Solomon would say, "Trust in the Lord, oh my soul, and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your path."

● Isaiah would say, "Arise and shine for my Glory has come." and "No weapon formed against me shall prosper."

● Jeremiah would say, "The Lord has plans to prosper me and not to harm or fail me."

● Jabez would say, "Oh, that you may bless me and enlarge my territory."

● Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would say, "We will not bow down to any image but will serve the Lord."

● Ezekiel would say, "Any dry bones in my life, live again."

Choose your daily statement of faith. Meditate on it! Speak it over your life every morning! What is your daily declaration? Mine would be, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength!"

Friday, April 7, 2017

Is your church growing an audience or building an army?

One of the greatest hinderances to the expansion of God's Kingdom is the failure of churches to develop new leaders, pastors and missionaries. We have been pretty good at gathering an audience to worship services and even into bible studies and small groups but are very poor in discipling leaders who reproduce other leaders. When asked in a recent leadership study, 92% of the 2,000 pastors surveyed said developing leaders was critical to the health and development of the church.  Yet only one in four churches said they had any plan to develop leaders.

For many pastors, missionaries and leaders, their path to the ministry was that they participated in ministry and were inspired, felt a call by God or conviction to serve full time and "surrendered" to the ministry.  They were the bi-product of ministry.  For me, I was offered an opportunity to get paid for what I loved to do in an area of ministry (sports). As I developed my faith and leadership skills another door of ministry would open and I simply walked through it.

But for me, and many others, there was never an intentional effort from my church to develop me or anyone else for ministry beyond the specific needs of their church. And even when we needed a paid staff position, we never looked to the members who were being developed because none were. No, the staff just sent out a search comittee to interview candidates outside the church and hired the best one. I was the exception, one of the few members who went from volunteer to a ministry position.

I was fortunate to have had a mentor that spent countless hours pouring into me, but I was never exhorted to develop others or pursue a calling outside of my ministry at this church. I learned by osmosis and when I led our Singles ministry, I developed leaders in our Singles ministry because I needed young adults leaders to attract and disciple other young adults. I didn't really know what I was doing or had any plan. I discipled out of a need and did what my mentor had done with me. I had the pleasure of investing my life into many young leaders and continue to this day.

In most churches that I am familiar with, the pastor or the staff does all the leading and most all of the ministry in the church.  Yet, there is really only one job description in the Bible for pastors.  Ephesians 4:12 tells us that we are to equip the saints for ministry. And even when a church makes an effort to do just that, equipping the saints consists of teaching and training. We tend to either dump ministry upon volunteers (tell and command), or delegate (teach and train).  But there is a higher level that gets neglected because of a lack of time or incentive to develop leaders (mentoring, modeling and coaching).

There is little immediate benefit in developing so for most pastors, the weight of the desire and or need to grow the church, to get bodies into seats, money in the plate and volunteers into ministry positions takes precedence. The developing takes time, investing hours into another’s life.  Yet it is critical for the long term growth of the church and the Kingdom that pastors make a priority to develop leaders. Not out of a selfish, what can this person do for my church motive but for sake of the Kingdom.  Every leader in the church should always be mentoring, encouraging and developing at least two or three people who can be sent wherever God leads them to serve, minister and multiply other leaders.

If you are in ministry in a church or non-profit, what was your path to ministry? What part did your church play in your development?  Who are you developing now?  What strategy does your church employ to develop leaders?

For a great perspective on developing leaders in your church, check out this Carey Nieuwhof podcast.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Learning from the Spurs Way

"We don't talk about MVP awards. We don't talk about any awards," Gregg Popovich said, when asked if Kawhi Leonard should be MVP. The buzz was all about Kawhi and his amazing late game heroics in the Spurs come-from-behind victory over the Houston Rockets. "We don't talk about championships. We just play the game. Everybody tries to do what they can to make the team better, and whatever records or awards or wins that come, that's the way it is," Coach Pop exclaimed to reporters.

The San Antonio Spurs do things differently in the NBA. While most of the teams pride themselves in having flashy players and promote their players as MVP candidates, the Spurs intentionally keep out of the limelight and focus on one thing: playing their best.  Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs soft spoken forward certainly has risen to become one of the top players in the league and a Most Valuable Player candidate this year.  But you won't hear coach Gregg Popovich promoting any Spur for MVP.

What is refreshing in this world that keeps detailed statistics of most everything and celebrates records of every sort, comparing individuals and teams, the Spurs don't care about any of it. They focus on each player doing their best for the good of the team. Their attitude is that we can't control all outcomes. The only real thing we can control is our effort. When we focus on effort and execution, then we can let go of our need to control the outcome.

I'm reminded of the scripture in Colossians 3:23, Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. When we focus on doing our best for Jesus, we can always be content with the outcome even if we come in second. Sure we want to win but our world doesn't fall apart when we don't.

Our true measuring stick should be our own capacity to excel. There will be others who are naturally better and we will not win every contest or challenge in life. But if we do our best for God, we can always hold our heads high and be encouraged to press on.  The awards may or may not come on this earth, but far greater awaits us in heaven.

Abundant Life or Redundant Life, your choice

Joey on the left, Brandon in the middle and team Heart of Texas Jesus said as recorded in John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and ...