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

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Take the Grace Gondola! Life lived in grace!

Viewing some Facebook pictures of friends on the ski slopes today, I began reminiscing about the many times I went on ski trips and how much I enjoyed flying down the mountain. Then suddenly a thought occurred to me about how much skiing down a mountain is so similar to the Christian life lived in grace. There is such a great sense of excitement, joy, peace and freedom on those slopes, much like a life lived in Christ. Unfortunately, I've run across so many non-believers and even Christians who miss out on that kind of life in Christ because they live by works instead of experiencing God's grace and living from that grace.  

Snow skiing provides a great visual picture of the difference between living by works versus living from grace. Use your imagination.  Picture a mountain with a ski slope. To experience the joy of skiing, obviously one must get to the top of the slope.  There are two ways to get to the summit, one is by the ski lift and the other is to climb up on your own.  The lift has been built and paid for by one so that you can get to the summit.

I remember taking my first ski lesson and having to traverse up the hill several times with skis on as part of the learning process and how exhausting it was.  When we finally got to go up the slope on the ski lift, I thought, wow this is great! Why didn't we do this from the start?  That is much like my Christian life also.  I grew up in a Christian home but my early life as a believer was spent trying to earn my favor with God.  I didn't realize that the cost had been paid for already and that I didn't need to and couldn't earn my way to heaven or God's approval. Once I learned to live from God's grace, life became so much easier and more joyful.  

In this spiritual analogy to skiing, everyone has two choices to get to the mountain top. You may choose the way of grace, the ski lift, to get to the summit or you can choose to climb up on your own. On your own is not only very exhausting, it is impossible because there is a canyon that prevents anyone from reaching the top on their own (sin).  God says I have paid the price for you to get to the summit with my life, believe in me, take my way, the ski lift.  Yet, how crazy is it that people choose to follow other religions which give out all kinds of instructions on how to make the climb yourself or try to tell you how to make it with this expert guide even though it is impossible to make the climb on your own. 

Salvation by grace is the foundation of the Christian faith and is what separates Christianity from all other religions (Ephesians 2:8-9). We know that non-believers stumble over grace and that becomes their greatest barrier to an abundant relationship with Christ.  And yet we see believers often fall into the same trap. Once having received grace, suddenly they try to live by works. They will twist scripture and add their own rules and codes of conduct just as the Jewish religious leaders did. And once you fall into that trap, you begin to feel the weight of living under the law and life feels like walking up the side of a mountain with skies on.  The Apostle Paul admonished the Galatian believers to live by grace. "How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?", Gal 3:3. 

When we reach the summit on God's grace (riding in the gondola), now we get to live by grace through His power and spirit. It's like the joy of skiing the slopes instead of constantly having to climb up and down the mountain. I am free to live my life in Him, for His purpose, to love God and to love and serve others with joy.  I fly down the mountain joyfully with a new purpose propelled by the spirit. Yes there are markers and warning signs along the way, boundaries in which I am to stay within. But the slopes are wide and well defined. I have no burden of the law to carry with me so my way is swift, light and exhilarating as I encourage those who are laboring up the mountain, to accept God's grace, to get on the grace gondola and to fly down the slopes of grace as well. 

Why live like so many Christians who have taken the gondola up the mountain only to refuse to ski down, opting instead to walk. Why would anyone want to settle for a life of climbing up and down when God has provided a way that is so peaceful, joyful and free?  Choose God's grace! John 10:10 "I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly." John 8:36,  "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!"
Live in grace and by grace!

Photos courtesy of Pixabay.com

Saturday, January 30, 2016

One Great Hindrance To Spiritual And Emotional Health

At our recent Missional Association lunch our church planters were discussing the critical need for pastors to have friends who will hold them accountable.  A fellow pastor shared how he was meeting regularly with a small group of fellow pastors they called "holy friends". This group's definition of a holy friend was really poignant. 
"A Holy friend is someone who challenges the sins we've grown to love, affirms the gifts we're afraid to claim and helps us dream the dreams we could not otherwise dream."
Wouldn't it be great if we all had a friend or group of friends that would do this!  How much healthier would we all be?

I believe the lack of "holy friends" in a Christian's life is one of the greatest hindrances to a spiritually and emotionally vibrant life. Men tend to have this void more than women. Men usually form friendships based on activities. Our conversations usually consist of sports, politics, family and sometimes religion. But seldom do men get to a level below the surface conversations. I admit it is very difficult to share your weaknesses and failures to another. And yet we all need a friend or friends with whom we can declare our aspirations, disclose where we struggle and divulge our fears. We all need "holy friends". "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another" Prov. 27:17. To be spiritually mature we need comrades with whom we can be real and honest, guys we can trust, who will pray for us, who won't condemn or gossip but lift us up and encourage us to be more like Christ. 

The Bible emphasizes how critical relationships are to each member of the body of Christ. The term "one another" is only one word in Greek and is used 100 times in 94 New Testament verses. Galatians 6:2 counsels us to bear one another's burdens. Ephesians 4:25 admonishes us to speak truth to one another.  Colossians 3:9 instructs not to lie to one another and 1 Thessalonians 5:11 exhorts us to encourage and build up one another.  James 5:16 exhorts us to pray for one another.  Spiritual maturity is best achieved through relationships.

Pastors have a unique dilemma in this regard because they find opening their life up to church members a dangerous proposition. Unless a pastor has close friends outside of his church or a group of fellow pastors he meets with, he can find himself all alone and susceptible to using unhealthy escape mechanisms like drugs, pornograpy or affairs to deal with the pressure of the ministry.  Let's face it, pastors and all Christian men and women need holy friends.

Some churches try to organize men's and women's small groups to facilitate these kinds of relationships.  But it's very difficult to program this level of openness and commitment. It almost always happens organically. But you can be intentional about finding and developing this level of relationship.  Here are some suggestions and I'd love for you to share any other ideas. 
  1. Take it slow.  Look for friends that you already have and be their "holy friend". Discuss the possibility of a "holy friendship".  Set aside a regular meeting to discuss personal issues. 
  2. Keep your discussions confidential. Agree to tell no one, not even your wife, what you disclose in your meetings and honor that covenant. 
  3. You be a holy friend and open up first. As you share deeper, this should encourage your friend to open up.  If it is always a one sided discussion, then you probably need to look for another "holy friend". 
  4. Focus not on the sin, but on the reason for the sin. Talk about why you feel the need to do what you do.  
  5. Set goals and guidelines and ask about them each time you meet.  Be honest and transparent. You can only be held accountable to that which you reveal. 
  6. Give permission for your accountability partner to kick your butt when you need a butt-kicking. 
  7. Seek progress not perfection.
  8. Don't focus totally on the negative. Discuss dreams and aspirations. Affirm and encourage each other. 
  9. Keep the circle small. Many find it more beneficial to have three persons meeting for accountability. But the more you add beyond three the more difficult it becomes to have everyone at the meetings consistently. Consistency is critical to success. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Thank God you didn't win the lottery!

I didn't win the lottery, but I confess I didn't even buy a ticket. I guess I'm a party-pooper cause it seems every one of my friends played the lottery.  I must admit there is a great temptation to buy that lottery ticket, especially when everyone you know is talking about how they are going to win, almost giddy with anticipation, waiting to hear their numbers called. And I have heard many of my Christian friends describe what they will do with the money when they win. They really believe that God is going to facilitate their winning and they all say they intend to give a lot of it away.

So, I do feel left out of being part of the experience. This may be the only reason I would consider buying a ticket. But I never have and there is really one big reason I don't play - I don't want to waste my money on something that would absolutely destroy my life. Yes, you heard me, if I won, the money would change my life, but only for the worse.  It doesn't matter if the pot is 2 million or 40 million, winning would ruin me. (This is another thing that perplexes me. Why is it when the pot reaches an enormous amount do people decide to join in.  It's as if 25 million is not enough, but when it reaches 40 million then I think I'll play.)  So I figure for me, there are only two scenarios that could happen if I buy a ticket.

1. I don't win, so I've just thrown my money away.
2. I win and destroy my life.

I've talked to a lot of Christians about the lottery and most think I'm being a killjoy. But here is why I say winning the lottery would ruin my life and probably your's also.
1) I know that I am not prepared to be a multi millionaire and very few of us are. The burden of even giving all that money away, not to mention investing and spending it wisely would crush me. Most people who win, lose their friends, destroy their marriage and end up miserable because they can't handle all that comes with being very wealthy. That life of a rich person from down here looks wonderful, but in reality, it is nothing like what we think.

If you earn your money by hard work, you have a better chance of managing the money and its affect on your life because you have acquired it over time and adjusted over time. That won't exempt you from the negative affects of having an excess of money. But when you acquire it all at once, you have little to no preparation, mentally, spiritually or financially to deal with all of the change. If you think you have stress in your life now, you can't imagine the weight and worry you'll suddenly experience if you come into millions of dollars. You may think you can handle it, but that is almost as big a fantasy as winning the lottery. 

2) I believe the Bible and Jesus.  The truth is as Jesus says, money and wealth can turn your heart away from God. Get rich quick Schemes will lead us away from trusting God as the real source of our financial security.  In other words, the more money you accumulate, the harder it is to trust in almighty God and the easier it is to trust in the almighty dollar.  

Matthew 6:24 ; 
 No one can serve two masters. He will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money.
1 Timothy 6:10;
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
Hebrews 13:5
“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.””

These are wise words to consider for all of us, whether we play the lottery or not. Never think money will be the answer to your problems. None of us are exempt, especially if all of a sudden you go from earning a modest income to having millions.  And when it comes to the lottery, if you believe that you are going to win and believe you could handle the large payout if you should actually win, you are living in a make-believe world. 
Or think of it this way. We have already won a lottery so to speak just by living in this country and this time period. I am rich by world's standards and I have a hard enough time devoting myself to God as it is without having millions more to deal with.    

So when you feel the urge to spend that one dollar, or one hundred dollar bill, on a chance to ruin your life, think again. And be thankful to God!  Not playing or not winning may just have saved your life. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Avoiding the deadly Worm In A Jar of Horseradish Syndrome

"To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish". This Yiddish proverb paints us a very vivid picture of a major predicament, a sort of "ignorant bliss" people and many Christians find themselves living in.  The worm has limited horizons because all it knows is a jar of horseradish and doesn't realize that there is another world outside of the jar. So it is with many Christians who live in their own small world isolated from the surrounding culture.  And this condition leads to a significant portion of believers failing to understand and interact with the dominant culture around them. Just like the worm, many Christians don't even realize it because they are content with living in the jar.  And when a large proportion of believers are not interacting with the world around them, being the "salt and light" of the world, then Christianity begins to decline and has less and less of an impact on the world.
All humans are susceptible to the worm in a horseradish predictament, some by choice, others because of circumstance. Christians seem prone to this as much or more than others because we think we are called to be separate from the world. But Jesus instructed us just the opposite, to be the salt and light to the world, to be in the world but not of it.  He instructed us to be an influence not only in our own neighborhood (Jerusalem) but to neighboring areas (Judea), and to cultures that are very different than ours (Samaria) and even to other countries (the ends of the earth) Acts 1:8.

I recently was reminded that I was the worm in that horseradish jar. During one of my early visits to a high tech company in Austin for which I'm a chaplain, I sat at a table in the break room getting to know a group of the young employees. One of the employees turned to his fellow worker next to him and said, "I'm so sorry they kicked your friend out of the clan. I guess he wasn't ready for war". They proceeded to talk about wars and stuff that I had no clue about. It was as if they were speaking another language. Then one of them turned and looked at my perplexed expression. He chuckled and explained, "we are talking about a video game". I admitted I was very confused and was afraid to even ask what they were talking about. We all had a good laugh. Then they began another discussion about role playing games and some movies I'd never heard of. I quickly recognized how far from their world I was. I don't have plans to take up playing Warcraft but It may serve me well in this culture to at least become familiar with their world. 

My point is the world is changing rapididly and we all can begin to wall off ourselves from the people we are called to serve, if we allow it.  Pastors are even more susceptible to this because they spend so much of their time tending to all of the demands of their members. Their whole world is their church and most of their time and energy goes to the church.  So a pastor can easily become that worm and their church, the jar of horseradish, losing touch with the world around him. Ministry can become stale and lose its relevancy. The church can easily turn inward and isolated from their own neighborhood. The church then loses any potency to be salt and light to a world in need.

I saw this first hand while on staff at a large church. Once a vibrant church that reached out to the community and wasn't afraid of doing innovative ministry, the church slowly turned inward and began to isolate itself from its own neighborhood. It's members seemed to live in a church bubble thinking that they had a patent on ministry and their way was the right and only way to worship. They would dismiss anyone who spoke about a different way or changing anything to minister better to the changing culture.  As the world and ministry methods changed, the members dug their heals in and created an "us vs them" mentality and soon became the worm in the jar of horseradish. Over the years it has lost half of it's membership and its potency and impact on the surrounding community.

To avoid the worm in the jar dilemma, here are 7 suggestions:
1.  Take a mission trip every year.  You don't have to go oversees every year, but go some place that you are unfamiliar with (a Samaria). A mission trip, especially one that works closely with the indigenous people, will give you a totally different perspective on life and culture. You can receive some benefit by just vacationing somewhere different, but doing a mission will give you a much deeper experience with the people and culture.  My pastor, Will Davis Jr. said it well, "no one gets a better view of God doing the same thing over and over again from the same place." 

2.  Read historical, cultural and educational books 
I've had pastors and other Christians say they don't have time to read. Then there are others who refuse to read anything that is counter to their values or theological and political beliefs. Yes, most of what we read will be books that we are aligned with, however, if this is all we read, we will never walk in the shoes of the non-believer and understand his or her thinking and belief system.  Just reading alone is critically important for leaders as Michael Hyatt's blog points out so well, but we all need to throw in a book now and then that stretches our thinking. 

3.  Office in a Starbucks 
You'll find most pastors of church plants hanging out in coffee shops every day because they have no office. But even when they get an office, many will still set up shop in a Starbucks because they know the value of being in a public space and meeting people.  Find a place that gets you into the world where you can meet non-believers. 

4. Occasionally visit a church that is different than yours
Pastor, when you take a vacation or go on a sabbatical do you take the opportunity to go to other churches beside yours?  I don't mean speak at another church, just go and be an attender and feel what it is like to visit a church. If you visit one that is somewhat different than yours, you'll be able to learn a lot about this church and your own as well. 

5. Mentor a young person
Find someone that is at least one or two generations younger than yourself and mentor them. Discover their values and aspirations. Learn how they see the world differently from you. Talk about your differences.

6. Get to know your neighbors
Even if you live in a gated community, your lifestyle and worldview will probably be different from many of those living around you. Our neighbors in San Antonio included an Iranian family living on one side, a family from Mexico across the street and a black family on the other side of us. We didn't have to travel but a few feet to get out of our jar of horseradish. I've had pastors admit that their home is a sanctuary from the world and they don't want to engage with their neighbors. I wonder about someone's calling to pastor if they have no desire to reach those who are closest to them. 
7. Befriend a non-believer
Intentionally build a relationship with someone who doesn't know Jesus. Ask a lot of questions and do more listening than talking. Resist the urge to judge or argue about your differences. Look for opportunities to share your story and in no time you'll have long discussions about faith and will understand more about those who don't believe.  Being the salt and light to the world is not conforming to the world. The apostle Paul is a great example to follow in that he knew the value of understanding culture to address it and win people to Christ.  We too must avoid the "Christian bubble" to be salt and light to our world. 

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/