Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Meaningful Christmas Season Requires Intentionality

Now is the time to start planning how you will spend Christmas.  I'm not talking about a destination as much as I'm talking about a spiritual condition- not the state your will be in, but the state of mind you will be in.  This year why not make Christmas a season instead of just another holiday?

To accomplish this, you will need to be proactive and now is the time to get your reindeers in a row.   Here are a couple of things that will help you accomplish it:

1.  First of all, FOCUS.  It is important to embed the concept of a season into your heart.  To make this happen you will need to discipline yourself each day and TAKE THE TIME to reflect on what the season means.  When I say "take the time" that is literally what I mean.  You will need to aggressively take possession of your own time.  You will need to create space within your day to reflect on what is most important about life and do this without having any form of media within reach.

The internet immersion culture we live in is giving us all a dose of attention deficit disorder. For example, studies have shown that couples who are in close proximity to cell phones have less meaningful conversations with one another.  You only have a certain number of hours in your day and a certain number of brain cells to focus on what is in front of you.  Time and attention spent in front of a blue screen is time and attention away from the things that really matter.  Advent begins December 1 and ends December 25.  Within those brackets is enormous opportunity for change that could greatly impact your spiritual life.  If you force yourself into a season of reflection you can effectively reclaim some of the spiritual territory you may have lost as a result of spiritual priorities being sucked away by thousands of other less meaningful distractions.

A season is a period of time in which we intentionally remind ourselves of some aspect of our Christian belief. In the case of advent, we focus our attention on the incarnation event in which God Himself came to us in human flesh.  There are numerous aspects to this doctrine that should be continually emphasized in the Christmas season.  These themes are hit upon in the great Christmas hymns and sermons of advent.  Get yourself a good advent devotional that hits on these themes and take your family or community group through them (I just happen to know of a good advent devotional  here.)  Make the season a time in which you come to worship and involve your family and children in worship in your local church.

2. Secondly, it is important that you SACRIFICE in order to make the kinds of changes necessary to bring meaning into the season.  The only truly meaningful things in life are those things we gain through sacrifice.  The divine incarnate theme is one of sacrifice and humility. Again, this is a concept that runs against the grain of culture.  The mantra of which is that life is all about SELF.  We are a product-driven me-centered entitlement society that forces a consumeristic mentality into all of life. This way of thinking is deadly to the soul.  C.S. Lewis observed that a persons "hell" begins with a grumbling mood.  The more entitled we feel about life, the more lifeless we become.

As Christians, we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and are set free from the bondage of our sinful condition.  But that doesn't mean we are not susceptible to all the temptations of the culture we live within.

The only hope we have of breaking free from this bondage is the discipline of self denial.  Advent is a season to start giving things away and I'm not just talking about Christmas gifts.  We need to give away our time, our desire for more, our need for attention and affection.  We need to give away our selfish hearts, give away our anger, give away our petty demands and senseless expectations of others. We need to give away our desire for comfort and convenience that hold us back from meaningful ministry and new relationships.

How is this accomplished?  How do mere mortals learn to sacrifice in this way?  The answer of course is to rely on the grace of God and the work of His Holy Spirit within us.  But a sense of awareness of that grace has to wash over us in order to bring about so radical a change.  In this regard, I agree wholeheartedly with Tim Keller:
Humility is only achieved as a byproduct of understanding, believing, and marveling in the gospel of grace. But the gospel doesn't change us in a mechanical way. Recently I heard a sociologist say that for the most part, the frameworks of meaning by which we navigate our lives are so deeply embedded in us that they operate "pre-reflectively." They don't exist only as a list of propositions, but also as themes, motives, and attitudes. When we listen to the gospel preached or meditate on it in the Scriptures, we are driving it so deeply into our hearts, imaginations, and thinking that we begin to instinctively "live out" the gospel.
I guess the major point I am making in this post is that a meaningful Christmas season is something that has to be nurtured.  You have to seek it to find it and knock for it in order for it to be opened. These things may not be the whole answer to a meaningful season, but certainly focus and sacrifice are a big part of the answer.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pray for Christians in the Middle East

The horrible stories of persecution of Christians by the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq have reminded me again of how Christian communities in that part of the world are evaporating at an ever increasing pace.  It is a tragedy of epic proportions that the very people groups that are the blood descendants of the members of the earliest church are losing their homes and their lands to the degree that in the not to distant future they may completely disappear unless the Lord intervenes.

For this reason I want to repost at blog I wrote in March of 2008 after a remarkable visit I had with some pastors from the Gaza Strip:

"Rami was just a few days short of his 29th birthday," his pastor in the Gaza strip told us. Our new friend had had come to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, to meet our group and to pray and fellowship with us. He speaks with good English, obviously very well educated and polished.

"He had talked to one of our church members just minutes before they kidnapped him. He called his family about an hour afterward and told them, 'I will be with this group for a couple of hours. If I am not back after that, I will not see you for a long, long time.'"

Rami Ayyad was beheaded about 5 hours later. "The group gave him a choice- deny his Christian faith and convert to Islam and live- or deny Islam, and die."

The pastor takes some time now to regain his composure.

"For him the choice was already made. The saddest part of all is that his little boy George at 4 years old still doesn't understand what happened to his daddy. Every time he sees his picture on the computer screen, he goes to the screen and hugs the computer."

Although no one claimed responsibility for Rami's death, it is widely believed it was carried out by the "Righteous Army of God", a radical Muslim group that just a few weeks before had blown up Rami's book store. Rami was a very popular and dynamic young Christian leader.

We sit in silence for awhile.

"It is very hard" He says.

As our conversation unfolds it is very clear to me that I am in the presence of a different kind of Christian. Here is a man who studied in the states, receiving a doctor's degree, and yet chose to return to Gaza. He pastors a church of about 150 believers who are living out their faith in possibly the most hostile environment on the planet.

"We are having to learn forgiveness all over again", he says.

Our group gathers around him and lay hands on him and pray. It is very moving. I am standing behind this man with my hand on his shoulder crying out to God for His continued work and strength in his life while his 2 year old daughter rests in his arms.

And yet I know that tomorrow I am going home to a very comfortable existence, and this man is going back into a place that is plagued by hatred and despair, poverty and starvation.

Here is a man who gives to people who have nothing to give back. He is not in it for acclaim, for applause, for material gain. He silently and lovingly pours his life out for others.

His is the applause of heaven.

The church in Gaza is gathering children out of the slum and putting them in school and taking care of their physical and emotional needs. They give them clothes and blankets and textbooks. They show them to unconditional love of Christ.

But the church is not just proclaiming the gospel, it reaching out to the terrible physical needs and with the help of Christians from the states, meeting those needs when they can.

"When the Christians give, they give without condition", one of the Gazan church members tells us a little later, "but when Hamas gives, there are always strings attached. It makes a big difference in the way Christians are perceived."

This is just one of the many remarkable stories we have heard in the past few days in Israel and the West Bank. There are so many I would want to tell you.

Like the story of the Arab pastor in Haifa who leads a Messianic Jewish congregation. His church is growing rapidly with several worship services and home groups. "The Messianic movement in Israel is just now taking off" my friend in Haifa tells me. The church is made up of Jews and Russians and Ethiopians, who each have a worship in their own language.

Or like the story of the 25 year old Israeli Army officer I met who is a former Druze and is now a dynamic follower of Jesus. He is right now in the middle of an intensive 3 month discipleship course in which he will actually travel to the different places where Jesus taught and learn about His teaching in a very intense way. He is very bold in his witness. One of the ways he trained younger Israeli soldiers in his unit was to teach them about Christ.

Or the story of the Palestinian husband and wife who are committed to ministry in the West Bank. They are providing blankets and food and clothing and are meeting the physical needs of the impoverished people of the West Bank and Gaza. They risk their lives every day to show the love of Christ to the people around them.

After lunch with them and the drive back across the line and through the huge concrete walls that now separate Israel and the West Bank, I think of my new friends. One a dynamic and focused believer an Israeli Army officer who has fought for his country in Gaza. The others are Gazan believers whose lives have been so devastated by the affects of that same war. They are worlds apart. And yet they are one.

There is also the story of the American family that lives here who are committed believers and who work for a Christian ministry. A few years ago their oldest daughter was killed by a suicide bomber. Her grief stricken parents and 4 sisters made the decision to not leave Israel- but to honor her memory by investing the rest of their lives here. Recently a high school student in Israel made a film about this family- about their love for Israel and their love for Christ. Each one in the family was interviewed for the film. They shared their joy and their desire to serve the Israeli people, both Jew and Arab. The final scenes showed pictures of their daughter who was killed and details of the bombing.

When the film was over, the entire school- parents, teachers and students stood to their feet in thunderous applause.

I can't help but think that it is nothing compared to the applause of heaven.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Most Miracles Heaven Applauds We Never See

I'm convinced the really beautiful and significant things God does in and around us He does in quiet ways.  Most miracles heaven applauds we never see.

Take Tamara Ellis for instance.  Tamara is a 17 year old PCO student in our group. Several months ago she was checking out the Mission of Hope Haiti website to get more information about our trip when she learned she could sponsor an orphan for 35 bucks a month.

Most teenagers Tamara's age would have passed over that knowledge without giving it a second thought.  Thirty-five bucks a month is a lot of money for a high school kid whose only income is babysitting.  But something stirred in Tamara's heart when she saw the picture of a cute little orphaned girl named Rosalinda.  It was in that moment that Tamara made a fateful decision.  She decided to set aside 10 dollars every time she received baby sitting income so she could sponsor her.

So for the past several months Tamara has turned her babysitting business into a missional enterprise to impact orphans.  She did it all on her own without any fanfare.  In fact, Tamara is so shy and unassuming none of us had any idea of what she had done.

The first time Micah found out about it was when we drove onto the Mission of Hope campus and disembarked from the bus last Saturday.  A staff member walked up to him and told him she was looking for a "Tamara Ellis".  Micah was surprised and asked her why?  The staff member told him Tamara was sponsoring a little girl in their care and that they would like to arrange a meeting for the next day.  Micah was shocked, Tamara was thrilled and arrangements were made.

So Monday morning when the rest of our group set off to paint houses, Tamara took the little teddy bear she had packed for Rosalinda and went to meet her.

The Mission of Hope staff told us later that when Tamara arrived at the school to meet Rosalinda something completely unexpected happened.  When they told Rosalinda that her sponsor had come to see her, she jumped out of her seat, ran outside and directly to Tamara and jumped into her arms.  The children are normally not nearly that demonstrative, the staff explained to us.

It was a connection that had been several months in the making because of quiet unassuming obedience to the Holy Spirit.

It was all the reward Tamara could have ever hoped for.  And one she had never meant to publicize or call attention to.  And that's what makes it so beautiful.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Yes to Short Term Missions

This week I am with 33 CRBC student and adult volunteers doing mission work in Haiti. This incredible group of teenagers are giving up their Spring Break in order to work in the poorest nation on the planet doing things like painting houses and digging latrines in addition to personal evangelism.  Their sacrifice and commitment to the gospel is impressive, but some would still ask, "Are trips like this really worth it? Why not just give that money directly to the ministry?"

Watching our kids today, most of whom have never been on a mission trip or been out of the country, some very important answers come to mind:

1.  First of all, while ministries like this can certainly do a lot of good building houses and digging wells and providing food for the poor without short term volunteers, there really is nothing quite like the personal experience of actually reaching out and touching poverty in a third world country for yourself.  Teenagers in America who grow up in middle class families often have very little experience seeing and feeling the desperate conditions many people who are poor live with.  I understand all of the arguments against making poverty a sideshow, but my thinking is that all the potential benefits are worth the risk.  Hearts are not moved and changed toward "the least of these" by simply reading words on a page, seeing images on a screen or watching from a distance.  To understand the issue you have to get right in the middle of it and see, taste and feel it for yourself.  Nothing replaces human touch and eye contact.  Any time we can get our teenagers to take their eyes off their cell phones and start looking into hard core needs of another human being it's a big win.  If this were the only thing that ever happened on a short term mission trip, it would be worth it.

2. The second point I would make when people ask "Why not just send them money to the mission?" is that the question makes a presupposition that likely is false.  People who go on short term mission trips are not always saying to themselves, "Should I spend my money on this mission trip or should I spend it on this mission?" Instead, they may be asking, "Should I spend this money on a fun trip with my friends or should I spend it on this mission trip?"  If you ask the right question the answer is more obvious, "Would it be better for me to spend this money and time so that I can make myself happy or should I spend it for the benefit of someone else?" As a parent, this is the kind of question I want my kids to wrestle with and answer for themselves.  That process is priceless it seems to me.

3.  The third point to make is that the trip itself is not just about blessing people in impoverished nations (although certainly that is a big reason for it), it is also about what God does to the heart of people who are eventually called into a lifetime of mission work.  Jesus taught us that it is more blessed to give than to receive and that certainly is true on trips like this. For eight years I served as a trustee for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.  All of that time I was on the personnel committee and heard and read the testimonies of thousands of missionaries who had felt called into the field.  The VAST majority of them, maybe up to 90% of them, stated that the call first came when they went on a short term mission trip.

So to the question of "Is it really worth it?"  My answer as a father interested in raising godly children, and a church member interested in good stewardship and as a pastor interested in growing disciples, the answer is yes yes yes!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Celebrate the Entire Season, Not Just the Day

Why do we, as an evangelical church, celebrate the entire season of Lent?

There is one simple answer:  We are all about the cross.  It is our magnificent obsession.   We seek to be a cross centered church.

There is nothing more important to us than our daily habit of focusing on the cross and the intricate meaning of the gospel.  We find it a very good discipline to focus our hearts and minds for an entire season on the central issue of our existence- that our sin is so wretched and devastating that our lives are being pulled into a Christless eternity except for the incredible unimaginable grace of a Holy and loving God who was willing to give His life as a sacrifice for our sins.  And the more we focus on that reality the more our lives and hearts are changed.

We believe the Lent season is an excellent way to teach our kids the meaning of the cross and to help bring their lives in alignment with the priorities of scripture.  All of scripture points to the cross, from Genesis to Revelation.  Every story of the Bible is a reflection of THE story- the story of our redemption.

In a similar way, our lives should point to that one overarching truth- that our sin was so bad that God had to die to pay the price but at the same time His love for us was so incredible that He was willing to die.  On the cross we have both bad news and the best news.  The bad news is that our sin has a terrible price.  But the good news is that God's grace is greater than we could ever dream.

At the cross we see an intersection of God's justice and His mercy.  Jesus satisfied the sense of wrath and justice of a Holy God and at the same time demonstrated the incredible compassion and grace of a loving God.

It is a season to focus, to meditate, to fast and to prioritize our lives around the meaning of the cross.  In our worship songs, prayers, scripture reading and preaching we focus our attention on the meaning of the cross.  We encourage all of our families to go through a daily devotional around the meaning of the cross each day of the forty days of Lent.  In other words, we are not just celebrating Easter over one weekend, we are creating the space to celebrate it for an entire season. We see this as especially important in a culture that is becoming increasingly secular and materialistic.

I hear the arguments people make about not celebrating this event because it could be confused with what we don't like about catholicism.  My response is that we as a church are not confused about what WE are celebrating- we are focused like a laser on the meaning of the gospel.  And just as the Catholic celebrations of Christmas, Advent and Good Friday have not obscured our meaning when we celebrate these events, the meaning is not obscured in this one either.

I encourage everyone to come to our Ash Wednesday worship tomorrow night and begin preparing your heart to celebrate the meaning of Easter not just for one brief weekend in April but for an entire season!

Friday, January 31, 2014

On Humility and Exaltation

This week everyone seems to be talking about after game interviews.

The first involves the inflammatory comments of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.  After being asked about a great play he made at the end of the game he looked straight into the camera and shouted,

"I'm the greatest corner in the game!  When you try me against a sorry receiver like Crabtree, this is what your gonna get!"

The second involves Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant. After leading his team past the  Miami Heat and MVP LeBron James Wednesday night, he was asked how he explained his great play lately:

"Thank God. That's all I've got to say.  (It's all about) Jesus Christ."

ESPN reporter Doris Burke was so stunned by that answer that she laughed out loud as she asked "You had nothing to do with it?"  To which Durant answered, "No, nothing".

Sherman's interview has caused controversy because his claims to the reporter seemed outlandishly rude while Durant's interview has caused controversy because the reporter's response to his claims seemed outlandishly disrespectful.

I think there are a couple of really good lessons from both of these responses.

The first lesson is from the words of Jesus who said, "Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted."  (Matthew 23:12)  This is an example of the use of paradox in scripture.  Many of Jesus' most important principles seem like oxymorons.  He teaches that "the first shall be last" and "to find life you must lose your life" for instance.   In the case of Sherman and Durant the truth of the principle could not be more stark.  Durant remains one of the world's most popular athletes, while Sherman, a 3.7 GPA graduate from Stanford University, has come across looking like a petty and rude thug.

The second lesson involves making religious claims after sporting events.  Many have criticized the reporter's laugh, saying that it was disrespectful.  But in truth a lot of people wonder about comments like this after a game.  I think her laugh was more exasperation than disrespect.  She seemed genuinely surprised that Durant would be so blatantly religious about a basketball game.

Is it appropriate to thank God after playing a sport?  Does the God of the universe really care how many times a round ball goes through a metal ring?  Some will say that God certainly doesn't take sides so how can Durant imply that he has some kind of divine favor in competition?

But Durant was not claiming that God was a Thunder fan.  He was asked specifically how he can explain how great he has been playing. His answer was to give God the glory.  In this sense his response was perfectly appropriate.  Durant was espousing a very common Christian teaching that all of life is given to us by the grace of God.  We Christians believe that all we have in this life that is good and worthwhile is the result of God's favor.  The Bible teaches that "Every good and perfect gift comes from above..."  (James 1:17)

2 Peter 1:3 says that "By His divine glory He has given us everything we need to live a godly life…"

We Christians believe that every breath we take is the result of God's grace.  We believe that our lives, our talent, our place of birth, our wealth, our health, our family, friends, every resource and influence, business or basketball talent was given to us by God.  We even believe that the hardship that comes into our life is used by God to accomplish good.  We believe that "all things work together for the good of those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28)

As a result, we believe

The truly good things in life cannot be taken away
Even bad things will eventually be used for good
And the very best things are yet to come.

The reason we can make such bold claims is because of our belief that everything we have in this life was give to us by a loving and all powerful creator.  So yes, it was perfectly appropriate for Durant to say "Thank God!"


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

12 Books to Read in 2014

One of the best resolutions we can make each year is to read more.  When you read a good book you are enriching your mind, heart and soul.  A person who is well read has a big view of the world and tends to see life in a healthier way.  Studies have shown that people who read are happier, more independent, make more money and are better in relationships.  From a spiritual perspective, when you read a good book from a Christian teacher you are in a sense being mentored by that person.  Through the years my life has been greatly enriched by many mentors I have never met such as C.S. Lewis, John R.W. Stott, Tim Keller, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon.  So each January I like to recommend a book a month as a challenge for the coming year.  Here is this year's installment:

1.  Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup. This would be a good book to start the week we celebrate MLK day.  I found this book accidentally this year before I knew there would be a movie about it.  I had been researching American history and was curious about the living conditions of 18th and 19th century slaves in the south.  I stumbled on  this book and was glad I did. This book articulately details those conditions from a first hand account.  It was one of the most heartbreaking and compelling books I have read on the subject.  I believe that every son and daughter of the South NEEDS to read this book.  It is the account of how a free black man living in New York was kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans and his subsequent 12 year struggle for liberation. One cannot fully understand and appreciate the horrible ramifications of the institution of slavery on our society without looking at it with raw honesty.  This books accomplishes that.  As is usually the case, the movie doesn't do the book justice. 

2. Every Good Endevour by Tim Keller.  Keller has a way of distilling down the most important biblical truths in a way that are easy to understand.  In this book he deals with the subject of work and how the Bible says we are to understand it.  The book gives a refreshing perspective on the meaning and purpose of profession. 

3. Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxes.  I love biographies.  Metaxes is the author who brought us the biographies "Bonhoeffer" and "Amazing Grace".   In this book, he details the lives of seven men who were game-changers in their lifetime.  

4. Love Does by Bob Goff.  In this book Goff makes the compelling case that Christianity is more about getting in the game than it is about platitudes.  He is a great story teller and has lived an adventurous life for Christ and wants everyone to see that Christianity is more about how you live your life than what you say you believe.  His can-do spirit is infectious and challenges believers to grab life by the horns and dare to dream big and live big.  He is a living testament to the challenge of the founder of the modern missions movement, William Carey, who said, "attempt great things for God, expect great things from God!"  Goff has lived that kind of life and his stories are inspiring and wonderfully challenging. 

5.  Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything by Tullian Tchividjian.  As the name implies, this book written by the grandson of Billy Graham is all about the meaning of grace.  It will challenge you to think differently about what grace filled life looks like! 

6.  Even Silence Has An End by Ingrid Batencourt.   In yet another book about kidnapping and captivity, Batencourt writes in great detail about her years as a captive in the Amazon jungle and how the experience changed her but didn't ruin her.  Batencourt was a well known and respected presidential candidate in Columbia before her captivity.  She came through the experience with a resolve to love more, to forgive, to see her life in a different way.  She writes of how her constant reading of scripture was liberating and gave her strength.  She explains that it was her knowledge that she was loved and cherished that helped her to maintain her sense of humanity.  

7.  Orphan Justice by Johnny Carr.   In case you missed it last year when we had Carr in our church, this book is a must read for every believer.  If we are to look at life through the lens of the gospel and care about what Jesus cares about, our hearts will be drawn to "the least of these".  My favorite quote from the book, "Adoption isn't for everyone, but caring for orphans IS for everyone." 

8.  Paul Revere's Ride by David Fischer.  No doubt all of us have heard about the heroics of Paul Revere's ride at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, but to truly understand the full meaning of that event, you need to know the bigger story.  Revere was more than just a courier, he was a catalyst.  The huge numbers of colonials who stood their ground against the greatest power the world had ever seen  (the British war machine), and how their history as Puritan descendants with a fierce streak of independence and belief in God's providence set the backdrop of the showdown that launched the war is the story behind the story.  There are many lessons here for modern America. 

9. Till We All Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  This is one of the most obscure books by Lewis and yet when he was asked at the end of his life which book was his favorite- this was the book he named. This masterful novel is the story of Cupid and Psyche rewritten as an allegory of how love changes the way we see ourselves. 

10.  Where the Conflict Really Lies by Alvin Plantiga.  Plantiga is a serious and respected philosopher who also happens to believe the Bible.  In this book he makes a very compelling case that there is little conflict between science and monotheism, but there is serious conflict between science and naturalism.  He uses traditional philosophical methods to argue that to believe both science and darwinian naturalism is self defeating. But if one believes in the God of the Bible who consistently interacts with His created order, it is completely natural and consistent to embrace scientific method.  In essence, he turns modern atheistic arguments against Christianity on their ear and does it on the atheists own home turf. 

11.  The First World War by John Keegan.  To understand the world map as it is currently drawn, is to understand the first "war that would end all wars" and the lines that resulted from the aftermath.    So much of what we inherited in the modern world was brought about by these events.  Keegan does a masterful job of telling the story in a concise and compelling history.  

12.  Turning Points by Mark Noll.  If you don't have a Mark Noll book in your library- you should. Noll is a terrific evangelical scholar who understands the value of a Christian world view.  In this book he highlights the most important transformative events in Christian history and why we should know about them.