Sunday, November 30, 2008

I Don't Have All The Answers

Periodically, people in the church will email me with various questions that cover a smorgasboard of topics. I try to give my best answers based on what I see in God's word. But I'll be the first to admit I don't have all the answers. Here's a (partial) list of stuff I just don't get:

  • Why God chooses not to accomplish anything in this world, except through people (especially since we're so undependable);
  • How people can make a conscious choice to reject the God who gave them life;
  • The unconditional love for me shared by my son (age 3) and my Father (The Rock of Ages). No matter how often or how deeply I disappoint them, they still just want to be with me;
  • People who attend church their whole lives, yet never change their lives in any perceivable way;
  • Why we make the automatic assumption that God agrees with all my opinions (of course!);
  • How anyone can find a lukewarm faith satisfying;
  • Christians who can't explain why they believe in Christ;
  • Why there's so much antagonism toward anyone in authority, simply for exercising that authority;
  • How anyone can look at a sunset and not believe in the existence of the Artist;
  • The depths to which sin can take people enslaved in its grasp;
  • How love, fear, anger, and hope can all feel nearly the same;
  • Why God allows so much to ride on our prayers;
  • The bizzare combination of innocence and evil in children;
  • How Satan makes wealth so seductive, even when we can easily see that so many wealthy people are miserable (although, to be fair, many poor and middle-class people are miserable too);
  • How God can make such a consistent universe that is still so rife with paradox (that, in itself, is a paradox... and yet consistent with God's pattern);
  • Why people expect the solutions for their lives to come from the government, instead of the God who designed them with a purpose they're not fulfilling;
  • The way God can bring good out of any evil. His powers of redemption are incomprehensible!
  • How I can learn so much every day from a kid who still can't pronounce his R's properly;
  • Why God chooses to use people who are totally unqualified for the tasks to which he calls them;
  • The simultaneous greatness and smallness of humanity.

This is a mysterious world. That doesn't mean that we are incapable of understanding it, but we are incapable of understanding it fully. That is why we must live lives of faith--accepting God's pronouncements, believing his promises, trusting in his goodness and justice, and yielding to his commands.

To remove mystery is to remove humility and therefore to renounce God's grace (Jas. 4:6).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Juggling Christmas

Well, I can tell you, after being down-and-out with the flu bug on Sunday, it sure is good to be back to my old self again. Thanks to Pastor Brent for preaching for me--I hear he did an exceptional job.

Sunday's message was about "Thanks & Giving", and I hope everybody enjoys their turkeys on Thursday, but it seems like this week's holiday is almost completely eclipsed by the monolith that is Christmas. Already, there are Christmas displays in all the stores, door-buster sales, Christmas trees at Kroger, and a nativity scene at the BP station at Parnall & Lansing. Already, the news media is wringing its hands about the impact the soft economy is going to have on the "Christmas shopping season"--that is, the season formerly known as "fall". Today, I got my first, "Are you ready for Christmas yet?" (I told the asker that I was ready for Thanksgiving.)

On Thursday, after our meal-induced naps, many of us will pore over the sales papers, readying our battle plans to take on the stores on Friday. And despite the dire predictions, we will still buy digital cameras, flat-screen TVs, and entire seasons of syndicated TV shows on DVD. It will still be impossible to find a Nintendo Wii, and the traffic at Jackson Crossing will still be awful.

All of this is why we're starting our new series next Sunday called "Juggling Christmas." It seems that "the most wonderful time of the year" has actually morphed into the most stressful, chaotic, exhausting, expensive, can't-possibly-fit-in-one-more-thing time of year. Between the presents, the gatherings, the office gift exchange, the secret Santas, the parades, the candy, the expectations of family, the traffic, the weather, and the lines at the mall... well, it's tough to keep all the balls in the air.

Truth be told, our lives are probably already too complex, and trying to appease the beast of Christmas is a pretty daunting proposition.

The greatest tragedy of all is that all of this activity is meant (allegedly) to commemorate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ--a birth that was simple, quiet, and largely unnoticed. But in reality, most of the time the manger gets lost in all the hoopla. Oh, certainly, we trot it out as one of our decorations to adorn the mantle or the table or the hutch, and we may attend the Christmas Eve service, or read Luke 2 on Christmas morning. But is it really for Him that we rev up the Christmas machine? Or rather do we do it for ourselves? Or for other people who expect us to do it?

The message of this series is a basic one: SIMPLIFY. We have a month. What can we chuck? What can we dump? What can we unload to make this Christmas different, more meaningful, less a production and more an act of worship? Because if the frenzy of our Christmas doesn't center around Him, then why even do it?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Praying On Purpose

Last week, I talked about "Winning on Purpose," and I think a huge part of that (whether we're talking about all of us winning together as a church, or each of us winning individually in our spiritual lives) is rooted in praying on purpose.

So many times, our prayers are actually aimless. They lack genuine thought, conviction, or a clear objective. We say things like, "Bless them... be with me... help her..." and after that, we've pretty much run out of ammunition.

But if we want to win spiritually, we need to learn how to pack more power and purpose into our prayers. They are our main weapon for attacking the strongholds of our enemy, Satan.

To help us, I want to take a look at one of the prayers of the apostle Paul. If you want to learn how to pray for somebody--to really pray for them--he provides us with a great example. Here's what he writes in Colossians 1:9-12:

Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

Here are some of the important features of a purposeful prayer:

  • Persistance. "We have not stopped praying for you." For myself, I find this is a great weakness for me in my prayers. I have so many different concerns that are new each day, I often forget about what I have prayed yesterday or last week or last month. It just sort of slips off the prayer radar. But the Bible does instruct us to be persistent in prayer (Luke 18:1-8) and not to give up. Our needs are ongoing, the opposition of the enemy is ongoing, so our prayers should be ongoing too. If it continues to be important, it should continue to be included in our prayers.
  • Comprehensiveness. "fill you with... all spiritual wisdom and understanding... please him in every way... every good work... all power..." Many times, our prayers are too small, and we don't ask for very much. But God wants us to be bold and to be outrageously successful in our struggles against the forces of darkness. So let's lay claim to all the power of God, all the wisdom of God, all the faithfulness of God to be brought to bear in every situation, every relationship, every conversation, every decision, so that we can bring him all the glory possible through our lives.
  • Goal-Consciousness. "We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way." There is a clear reason for the prayer, a specific aim that Paul has--something that he wants to see take place in the lives of the Colossian Christians. Truth be told, sometimes we can't even express what exactly we're praying for. We might say something like, "Lord, help Sam on his test today." And what does that mean? Do we want God to help Sam pass the test? Get an "A"? Do we want God to supernaturally help Sam get a better score than he deserves because he hasn't really studied that much? Do we want God to help Sam stay calm? Be intense? Undistracted? What kind of help are we looking for, and why? Probably, we can't even really say what we're praying for. But a purposeful prayer has a clear objective.
  • Kingdom-Focus. "worthy of the Lord... please him... bearing fruit... great endurance and patience..." This whole prayer is built around the idea of propelling God's kingdom forward. It's all oriented toward his glory, his cause, his plan. Notably absent from Paul's prayer are the sorts of things we often center our prayers around--make things easy for us, keep us comfortable, bless us, make it go smoothly, keep us safe. Instead, Paul prays for development of the kind of character that will help the Colossians be victorious through their trials and struggles, rather than praying that they could avoid them.
  • Eternal Perspective. "the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light." So often we get bogged down in the day-to-day stuff that we exaggerate its importance. Even small details become "urgent" and "critical" and "essential." But a purposeful prayer sorts out what is ultimately necessary in light of eternity. We relinquish our own desires and preferences, and we let God declare what truly matters. If we pray with an eternal perspective, we might find ourselves completely letting go of many of the things that keep us stirred up.

There's a ministry of our church called the Prayer Posse; it's composed of individuals who have committed to praying at least once a week for the mission, vision, and values of our church. I send each of those individuals a weekly email (we place a paper copy in the church mailboxes of those Prayer Posse members without email), asking for specific prayer requests. If you want to sign up, you can do so by simply sending me an email. It can also become a helpful tool for learning how to pray on purpose.

If we adopt a strategy of purposeful prayer for ourselves, our families, our marriages, our church, our county, our nation, and our world, not only will it change our lives, it could change eternity as well for the people we're praying for.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Yesterday, I led a retreat here at the church for our leaders (elders & Church Council members). The main focus of our time centered around the idea of winning. Sometimes, in church culture, we get uncomfortable talking about winning. The reason for that reluctance is because so many churches are actually losing, and it's not considered "nice" to point that out, or to suggest that failure is not ok.

But the principle of winning is woven throughout the Bible:

There are many, many other passages I could have listed here. I'd encourage you to look through each of these, but I think the most significant ones are the first and the last. Genesis 3 is the point in human history at which sin enters the scene. Revelation 19-22 is the end of the Bible when God's plan is brought to completion. From the moment sin is inserted into God's creation, he declares his intention to win, to beat it down, to destroy it. The rest of the Bible is the unfolding of his plan, until its culmination in Revelation 19-22, when GOD WINS!!!

In the Old Testament, God is concerned about Israel winning wars. He is concerned about them being successful in taking the Promised Land. He is concerned about them being victorious over the nations that they are supposed to drive out.

In the New Testament, God is concerned about the church winning over the gates of hell. God is concerned about winning people to faith in him through his son Jesus. He is concerned about us winning the prize of the heavenly reward that is in store for us if we are faithful and fruitful.

God wins on purpose, and he wants his followers to win on purpose too. In his book, Winning on Purpose, John Edmund Kaiser writes: "Thinking of success in the church is neither an encroachment of corporate business culture nor an inherently modern fixation of Boomers. Even the sports metaphor in [this book] dates back as far as 1950--1950 years ago that is. See Paul fight. See Paul run. Run, Paul, run. The emphasis of this image in 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 is not on the discipline of training but on the purpose for the discipline, which is to win the race. Wait, doesn't God love losers? Of course! In moral terms, all of us sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are losers. But God doesn't love us because we're losers. And his love doesn't leave us as losers. God is the Ultimate Winner, and he makes a place for us on the winning side. The name of his team is not Losers Anonymous, it is Those Who Overcome. God has a redemptive purpose in the world and is serious about prevailing." (pp. 18-19)

As a church, we can never win unless we boldly declare our full commitment to winning.

  • Good intentions and good tries are not enough;
  • Purposeless, aimless busyness is not enough;
  • Thinking that winning is a nice notion is not enough;
  • Feeling that we compare favorably in some way to other churches we know of is not enough;
  • Continuing to pay the bills and keep the lights on is not enough;

Let me say it clearly. There is only one reason we exist as a church. There is only one thing that we do. There is only one thing we aim at. And that is winning--i.e., accomplishing the mission of the church.

Anything less or other is unacceptable. It is failure. It is losing. We cannot be content with losing. We play the game to win. Only, it's not a game. There is nothing more real, nothing with higher stakes, nothing more important. It is eternal, it is infinite, it is the center of what this life and this universe are all about.

Monday, November 3, 2008

UB Musings

Most of my posts here relate to our local church and the mission we pursue. But from time to time, I also like to share some perspectives on the goings-on in our denomination. Next June, the United Brethren in Christ will be having our bi-annual National Conference in Ohio, where we will elect our next bishop. Our bishop sets the vision and direction for our denomination and leads us to stay true to our heritage, our purpose, and our joint mission.

Our current bishop, Ron Ramsey, stated at the beginning of his term that he would not be seeking reelection; he took the job intending from the get-go to be a one-term bishop. On a recent bishop blog, we learned that Pat Jones, our current Director of Healthy Churches, who serves as the bishop's right hand man, will likewise not be seeking the office of bishop.

This announcement leaves a leadership void at the top of our denomination, and it leads me to wonder who might be qualified to take the reins of leadership for the United Brethren in Christ. In my mind, there are only two types of potential candidates:

1. A well-respected UB pastor who has demonstrated a high capacity for leadership and is currently leading a healthy, dynamic church that is successfully fulfilling the Great Commission. This person would need to be someone who has a proven track record and is adept at leading with gentleness and firmness (someone who is a velvet-covered brick).

Unfortunately, the list of qualified candidates in this first category is exceedingly short. Due to many factors, our denomination is composed of largely dysfunctional congregations led by dysfunctional pastors. An embarrassingly significant percentage of our approximately 200 churches in America had an average attendance last year of fewer than 30 people. With an average attendance of 125, we are in the top 25% in terms of size.

There are probably fewer than 10 people (and I think that number is optimistic) who meet the criteria I've set out here. And I'm not sure any of them would want the job. Why give up a rewarding, successful, exciting ministry leading a local church to take on a discouraging, frustrating one that brings endless attacks from pastors who do not want to be faithful to the Great Commission and who do not want to be led?

2. The second type of candidate is someone from outside the denomination who has experience leading a denomination or a district or some other group of churches. This person would preferably have demonstrated an ability to help unhealthy groups become healthy again.

In many ways, I believe this is the right choice.

  • It begins to address one of the main weaknesses of our denomination--a paucity of true leaders. One of the reasons we have so many unhealthy churches and unhealthy pastors is because instead of allowing leaders to lead, we have handcuffed them, and they have decided to minister in other denominations. We need to bring effective leadership back into the United Brethren.
  • A fresh perspective is certain to help us identify our blind spots and the weaknesses we have that we weren't even aware of. Such a person can provide us with other ways of addressing issues and tackling problems that we haven't heretofore considered or known about.
  • It is a quintessentially "UB-thing" to do. Our denomination is predicated on the importance of majoring on the majors and minoring on the minors, tearing down the barriers that separate Christians for the purpose of boldly advancing the kingdom of God. It is naive and arrogant to cling to a UB-only stance, as if God is incapable of using someone from outside our current circles.

I'm not opposed to choosing someone from the first category--if they truly are qualified, if they truly believe God is calling them to the position, if their church is truly supportive in surrendering their pastor for the sake of the denomination. But if those criteria cannot be met, I am opposed to someone rising to the bishopric who lacks the leadership abilities necessary for continuing to move our denomination forward.