Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Place to Fly

“Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.”
-Paul to the church at Thessalonica, in 1 Thessalonians 5:11

If you pass a car from North Carolina as you drive to your beach vacation this summer, you will  
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notice these words at the top of their license plate: “First in Flight.”

North Carolina’s “First in Flight” slogan refers of course to the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, who made the first successful powered, controlled, sustained flights on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, 4 miles south of Kitty Hawk.  Their flying machine success would soon be shown to the entire world, changing aviation and moving human technology several leaps forward, and those quiet, barely-noticed first flights in North Carolina would become legendary.

But one thing that’s interesting to me about North Carolina’s rightful claim as “First in Flight:” the Wright Brothers actually lived in Dayton, Ohio (where the local university today is appropriately called the Dayton Flyers).  Orville and Wilbur Wright owned a bike store there in Dayton, where they made their own personal study of aviation and worked on their flying machine on the side.

Many of the big steps in aviation history were made right there in that bike shop in Dayton, Ohio.  So how did they end up in North Carolina, making those first historical flights so far from home? 

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Well, when the Wrights felt that they had their first glider ready, they began looking for a place to test and practice it, and they decided they needed somewhere with consistent wind.  They wrote letters to the weather stations at several locations along the eastern seaboard, asking about wind, weather, and lodging.  It was a time when many people made fun of flying machine attempts (since they always seemed to end with a big crash and someone getting hurt), so it’s no surprise that they didn’t get many replies.  But the Wright brothers did get a reply from the weather station chief in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  What’s more, they also got another Kitty Hawk reply from William Tate, the area’s county commissioner and former postmaster.  Tate wrote the Wright's a long letter, confirming that the beaches near Kitty Hawk had plenty of wind and dunes, and not many trees to run into.  And as I first heard in David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers, the clincher may have been the end of Tate’s letter, where he said: “If you come down here, I can promise you one thing, you will find friendly people who will do what they can to extend a hand and help you with your experiments.”

And that sealed it.  Kitty Hawk was a place where the wind was good, and what’s more, they were being welcomed, assured that both in the weather, location, and the hospitality, this was a great place to fly. 

So what made North Carolina “First in Flight?”  It wasn’t that North Carolina developed flight or even had people who studied aviation seriously.  But what they contributed to the cause was just as important: they offered an environment and an encouragement to those who wanted to fly.  The Wright brothers were ready to do great things - they just needed the right environment in which to do them.  North Carolina provided it, and soon they were flying.

Learning From North Carolina

There’s a great lesson for the church in that story, isn’t there?  I’d like to think that there are many people who are ready to grow in their faith and draw closer to God.  They want to serve in meaningful ways.  They want to be transformed in Christ, with Christian teaching and Christian relationships that will elevate their faith.  What they need is a place to help them in those goals – a place to grow, to fly.  The church is supposed to be that place.  If we are teaching and serving and living in the church as God intended, we will grow into a church ‘culture’ that provides the environment, the hospitality, and the encouragement for true spiritual growth.

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Is that culture present in your church?  If it isn’t, recommit yourself to building that spirit.  I truly believe that one of the first big “outreach” steps for a church family is to begin by building a culture of genuine, Christ-like encouragement among themselves.  And that depends on you and me.  Will we be a place of criticism or a place of encouragement?  A place of complacency or a place of mission?  A place of following the surrounding culture, or a place of real faith in a real God?  God has set His goals before us in Scripture, but then you and I must decide whether the church will grow into the type of culture God desires. 

When the church grows into that culture God wants, we become that all-important place where faith can flourish.  We become a place where anyone of any background can walk in the door and find kindness, genuine love, and friendly faces.  A place where there are opportunities to deepen fellowship, to serve others, to learn about Christ.  A place full of encouragers – not just people who pat us on the back, but people who also encourage us to really know and obey Christ, including all the difficult steps of life change that are sometimes required of us. 

Do we want to reach out to our communities, and help each other grow in our faith?  It begins by building a culture inside our church family that encourages people’s faith the way Jesus did.  Because when a true Christ-like culture is present, people who want to be more in their faith will find strength and growth.  Lives and eternities will be changed, and souls will draw near to God.  All because the church followed God’s plan and provided the Christ-centered family that God knew we all needed. 

As North Carolina’s license plate reminds us, simply providing the right environment may be all someone needs to do great things.  Let’s become the encouraging church culture God wants us to be, and people will soon recognize that this church is a good place to fly. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Hosanna to the King

A Tense Passover

It was spring in Israel, and the crowds were flooding into Jerusalem for Passover.  Passover was the biggest week of the year, an exciting time, a time where faith and family and tradition floated in the air. 

But for Jesus’ disciples, it felt like a dangerous time.  The religious leaders’ anger at Jesus had reached a fever pitch, and they had resolved in their council meeting to kill Him (John 11:47-53).  Jesus had stopped being out in public around Jerusalem (John 11:54), and the leaders had given orders for the people to report where Jesus was if they saw Him, so that they might seize Him (John 11:57).  In fact, the Jewish leaders even planned to put Jesus’ friend Lazarus to death, since stories of Jesus raising him from the dead had caused Lazarus to become a minor celebrity himself, and had resulted in even more people believing in Jesus (John 12:9-11).  Some of the feast-goers arrived with stories of having just seen Jesus and Lazarus at a meal together in nearby Bethany, only heightening the anticipation of a public showdown (John 12:1-2,9). 

 The gossip among the incoming Passover crowds including talk of what might happen (John 11:56): Will Jesus come to the feast or not?  Will He try to sneak in secretly?  If He comes, what do you think the religious leaders will do?  It was Passover, but the tension over Jesus could not be missed.  Everyone was watching to see what He would do.

An Entrance No One Would Forget

As the Pharisees spied on those incoming Passover crowds, making sure Jesus didn’t sneak past   Jesus would not sneak into Jerusalem.  In fact, He would come in as public a way as He ever had:
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them, one of my favorite moments in all of Scripture takes place.

Jesus sat on a donkey, and slowly rode into the city, His disciples alongside Him for all to see.  The people noticed Him, whispers began, then shouts, and soon crowds were running to see what was happening.  The crowd had heard so many good things about Jesus – many had seen those good things with their own eyes – and so they spontaneously began taking off their coats and cutting palm branches, setting them down on the road for Jesus to enter over, an honor suggesting that Jesus deserved to enter on a carpet spread before Him rather than the dust that everyone else walked on. 

Joyful delirium spread through the city.  The impromptu parade gave repeated shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew. 21:9)  Hosanna means “Save now!”  It was a shout of praise, often given to God in the Psalms.  The crowd, young and old, was shouting to Jesus as the Messiah to save the people.
I wish I could’ve seen the Pharisees’ faces.  Jesus’ bold entrance must have surprised them.  And for their part, they did not have the courage to interrupt what had instantly become a city-wide celebration.  They stood in the back, complaining in frustration that they needed a different strategy, because “the world has gone after Him” (John 12:19).  A few of them shouted at Jesus about the crowds saying such God-like things about Him.  “Teacher, rebuke your disciples,” they said.  Jesus reply was beyond priceless, a truth that must have made their mouths drop and their sinful anger rise: “I tell you,” Jesus said, “if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:39-40).  Who does He think He is?!  The crowds knew.  The stones even knew.  They were the ones missing it.

It was a day I imagine the people would never forget.  And I’m so happy for Jesus that He got that moment.  Now, I realize that Jesus doesn’t need me to be happy for Him, but for all that He went through and was about to face – from criticisms and lies to spitting and nails, and patiently letting it all happen – I’m happy that God’s plan included this moment, where the people honored Jesus as He deserved to be honored.  As the Son of David and King of Israel.  As the one who alone could save, just as the term ‘Hosanna’ implies.  As the one so big the Pharisees couldn’t dare touch Him.  The disciples must have beamed with surprise and delight.  The danger ran away to hide, at least for a few days. 

A Detail We Shouldn’t Miss

But as much as I love that scene, which we often call “The Triumphal Entry,” there’s one detail that doesn’t seem very triumphant: Jesus is riding on a donkey?  Not exactly the ride of a king!  

Kings are supposed to at least ride on something grander, horses perhaps, animals that seem built for a parade.  I read years ago in David McCullough’s book 1776 about King George III of England, who rode on a grand royal coach he had ordered to be built, 24 feet long and 13 feet high, weighing nearly four tons, “enough to make the ground tremble when under way” (4).  That’s the type of thing a king rides on.  More lightheartedly, you might remember the Disney animated movie Aladdin.  If you’ve seen it, you remember Aladdin is trying to win the princess, and he thinks he must give the appearance of royalty, so the magic genie creates a larger-than-life spectacle of people and animals and music, with Aladdin riding above it all on a giant elephant, a picture of strength.  That’s the type of thing a king deserves. 

Yet Jesus comes in on a donkey.  A servant animal.  Why?  Well, for one thing it fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9.  But it also symbolizes something we can’t miss about Jesus, and one way His kingdom is so different from our worldly way of thinking. 

That difference might be summed up in what Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 20, when the disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)

Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve.  To give His life for others.  And, Jesus says, His followers must do the same.  That donkey ride points us back to the humility of Jesus.  A donkey’s job was to serve.  And here He carried the ultimate Servant, a King with humility that we rarely see in our world.

We are used to seeing leaders serve themselves.  Finding ways to get more attention, more money, more power, and trying to defeat anything that might challenge their positions of honor.  People step all over each other for celebrity and wealth, desiring to be envied and adored.  And here is the King of all the universe, and He’s doing the opposite.  He is lowering Himself to lift others up.

Sadly, we follow the world’s way more often than we’d like to admit.  We look for ways to lift ourselves up.  More money.  More attention.  More “success.”  We are tempted to pursue our own glory, to make it all about ourselves. 

But Jesus comes to serve, and His servant attitude shapes His kingdom.  So if I want to be in His kingdom, I need to take on that same servant attitude. 

And you know what’s amazing about that?  God does incredible things through those humble servant attitudes.  Jesus took on the form of a servant, even dying on a cross, and God used it to bring blessings to all those who would follow Him.  If we will live out the servanthood of Jesus, it will allow God to work through us as well.  It will change our goals.  It will change our relationships.  It will change our effectiveness for God’s kingdom.  As James 4:10 promises: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.”  Christian humility provides the perfect channel through which God can do great things.

Joining the Parade

When we follow Jesus, we do indeed join in a triumphal parade.  There is joy in all that God is doing through Jesus Christ.  But we must remember that our triumphant Savior is seated on a donkey.  If we’re following Him, He expects us to stop trying to lift ourselves up and take our own seat next to Him.  “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).  That can be a hard lesson to learn. 

So we shout along with that joy-filled Passover crowd from so long ago: Hosanna – save us – O God.  Save us from our sins.  Save us from the temptation to follow the world’s way of thinking.  Save us from trying to lift ourselves up.  Save us from our own pride and selfishness.  Save us by making us more like you – a servant.

Friday, February 9, 2018

3 Steps to Healthier Spiritual Thinking

I had the opportunity to speak on healthy spiritual thinking earlier this week, and studying for that lesson reminded me just how important our thinking is.  The Bible says that all the springs of our life come from inside us, from our heart (Prov. 4:23).  Jesus said that sinful actions come from our hearts (Mark 7:21-23).  Being transformed in Christ comes from “being renewed in the spirit of our mind” (Rom. 12:2, Eph. 4:22-24).  Those verses tell me this: the battle for our souls will be fought inside our own thinking! 

So it’s worth reflecting on what my thoughts are, and where they’re going.  Am I thinking more like Jesus?  Do I see the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) more in my attitudes?  Or is negativity and bitterness changing my heart?  Is materialism or temptation or pride getting a foothold in my thought process?  We are surrounded by people who have been changed for the worse by years of sinful thinking, and we must not allow ourselves to go down that path. 
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What can we do to move our thinking patterns in a more Christlike direction? 

1)      Remove sources of negative thinking.  Philippians 4:8 tells Christians to “think about” things that are good, so we need to avoid things that are producing unhealthy, frustrating thoughts.  Turn off the news for awhile if necessary.  Get off Facebook if it’s a problem.  Distance yourself – while still being polite – from the people who are continually bringing you down by the way they talk.  Take a break from the sports world or the world of political talk if they are putting you in a bad mood.  If there is a consistent source of negative thinking in your life, see if it’s something you can avoid.

2)      Match bad thoughts with godly thoughts.  The only problem with #1 above is that it has limitations.  We can avoid some bad voices in the world, but we can’t avoid all sources of frustration.  We still have to go to work every day and see the self-centered co-worker or the overbearing boss.  We still have to face rush hour traffic.  We will still see things on TV or Facebook that make us shake our heads.  Parenting will still produce frustrating days, and I don’t think God wants us to avoid our kids!  Some sources of frustration will always be there.  What do we do then?

Well, we must learn to match bad thoughts with better thoughts.  Instead of letting negative thoughts grow in our minds, we must find the self-control to cancel them out with something better.  Eventually, that negative way of thinking will lose its power, and the better thoughts will become more natural.  This step is even more powerful when we use Scripture for matching thoughts.

Do you need to keep some of these ready when you are tempted to bad thinking?

·         I will be strong and courageous.  I won’t be frightened, because God will be with me wherever I go. (Joshua 1:9)
·         I won’t be overcome by evil, but I will overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
·         I will show love to others because God has shown love to me. (1 John 4:11)
·         I will put God first and trust His promise that I will always have what I need. (Matthew 6:33)
·         I brought nothing into this world and I won’t take anything out, so I will choose contentment (1 Timothy 6:6-8).
·         I don’t want sinful things, I trust God’s way is best and He will bless me (James 4:10, Proverbs 3:5-6).
·         This situation is too big for me to do anything about it, so God I hand it to you, trusting that you know what to do with it (1 Peter 5:7).
·         I won’t stress about tomorrow because Jesus promises it will take care of itself (Matthew 6:34).  Besides, God is already there.
·         This is not my home; I’m seeking something bigger and better (Hebrews 11:13-14, Colossians 3:1-2).

Reflect on what negative thoughts you’ve been battling, and have a Scripture ready to match those thoughts when they arise.  Don’t let a spiritually negative thought remain unchallenged in your head.

3)      Make time for “thankful prayers.”  In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul says that the bridge from “anxiety” (verse 6) to “peace” (verse 7) includes prayer, and he specifically mentions prayers “with thanksgiving.”  Do you have a time when your mind rolls through things that frustrate you?  When you’re driving to work?  When you’re laying in bed at night waiting to go to sleep?  During a commercial break?  Instead of letting those unhealthy thoughts keep growing in our minds, perhaps we can shift to more godly thoughts by praying to God, and simply listing things we are thankful for.  How great would it be to make a “thankful prayer” the last thing we do each day, as we lie down in bed?  To go to sleep each night, not replaying the unkind word someone said to us, but instead drifting off in the midst of positive, thankful, godly thinking about all the blessings God has given us.  More “thankful prayers” can’t help but produce a more healthy, God-centered attitude.

How we think is important – that’s where our battle with Satan plays out, and the results of that internal battle will be seen in our actions.  Satan will try to grow “roots of bitterness” in our hearts and minds (Heb. 12:15), and we must not allow that to happen.  I believe these 3 steps are a good start down a better path.  Let’s turn our thinking toward God and more godly attitudes, and we will see our hearts and lives transformed into the Christ-centered, fruit-of-the-Spirit people God knows we can be.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Where To Go When The World Feels Unfair

Jason turned off his phone, and sat on his couch for a minute in silent frustration.  Everyone else had gone to bed, but his mind couldn’t stop running.  Clicking through the news headlines had made it feel like the world was falling apart.  It felt that way at work too.  Dealing with difficult people – demanding, ungrateful people – had tested his patience, and he had to clench his teeth to keep himself from saying some things he knew he shouldn’t say.  And when he heard that his co-worker – the one everyone knew was dishonest, rude, and incredibly self-centered – had gotten promoted to a much bigger position, with a much higher salary, he wondered why no one seemed to notice the people who were actually doing the work right.  A look through Facebook and Instagram didn’t help either – he felt like everyone had an agenda, or wanted to make a political statement, or wanted to tear down other people, and he felt himself starting to feel bitter and annoyed at everything.

He also started wondering: why does God let stuff like this go on?  Why do the bad guys win so often?  Why are good people overlooked and ignored?  Why wasn’t God showing everyone what was right and what was wrong?

In Good Company

My guess is you’ve had similar moments.  Frustration at life, feeling that the wrong side is winning, and wondering if maybe you’re wasting your time trying to stay on the right path.

If you have had those moments, it might make you feel better to know that many people of faith before you have wondered the same things.  Job, for example, was one of those people.  He was among the most faithful people the world has ever seen, but he couldn’t understand why bad things were happening to him, while everyone else seemed to have it all.  In the conversation with his friends, Job essentially says “Look around us – those that are evil have luxury and get everything they want!  Good people just get run over by the wicked!” (Job chapter 21)

But the person I want us to learn from in this study is a man named Asaph.  Asaph tells his story in Psalm 73, one of my favorite psalms.  It reminds me of one reason we love the Psalms: they reflect all the ‘real’ emotions of life, emotions we have all felt, and filter those emotions through faith in God.  In Psalm 73, Asaph tells us about the faith struggle he had with the unfairness of life. 

Learning From Psalm 73
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Let’s notice 3 things about this psalm…

First, Asaph tells about his struggle:

“But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, My steps had almost slipped.  For I was envious of the arrogant As I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Psalm 73:2-3)

He looked around, like we often do, and felt frustration at the unfairness of the world.  The wicked seems “always as ease” and “increased in wealth” (verse 12). 

It made Asaph question whether he should still be trying to live for God and do right.  He says that he thought:

“Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure And washed my hands in innocence; For I have been stricken all day long and chastened every morning.” (verses 13-14). 

Second, if we skip ahead we notice that Asaph ends the psalm with renewed commitment to God.  

He says that when his heart was “embittered” that he wasn’t thinking straight, acting “senseless and ignorant” (verses 21-22).  He reaffirms his commitment to continually be with God and letting God guide him (verse 23-24).  He says that he desires nothing on earth besides God (verse 25), and that “the nearness of God is my good” (verse 28). 

What an amazing change from the beginning of the psalm!  That’s the kind of faith I want to have, even on the frustrating days.  So what changed Asaph’s perspective from bitterness to renewed commitment?  We see it in verse 17…

Third, the hinge point of the psalm in verse 17.  

Asaph said his frustration at the world was troublesome “until I came into the sanctuary of God” (verse 17). 

What changed Asaph’s perspective?  Asaph went to worship.  He went to the sanctuary (for him, probably the Jerusalem temple), and simply being in the presence of God reminded him that God will eventually make everything right.  The wicked may win for awhile – they WILL win for awhile.  The innocent will often suffer.  Those who do right for God will be mocked and ridiculed and blamed.  But eventually, as Asaph was reminded, there is an “end” to the wicked’s path (verse 17).  The path away from God ends by going over a cliff, and sin results eventually in God’s judgment, in this life or the next.  Those who stay with God will face different types of earthly hardships, but afterwards God will receive them to glory (verse 24). 

Where To Go On Those Days

That’s worth remembering: on the days when I find myself frustrated at the world, feeling that life is unfair and wondering why God won’t do more about it, I need to remember the bigger picture.  And a great way to regain that perspective?  Worship.  Go into God’s presence.  Go to church assemblies with God’s people.  Get away to a quiet place and spend time in prayer and study.  Sing a song of faith to God. 

When worship is done the right way, it has a way of shaping us the right way.  And one of the ways it shapes us: worship gives us a higher perspective on the world.  It reminds us that God is good, and that He keeps His promises.  It reminds us that life is temporary, and that God is big enough to make everything right at the end.  It reminds us that we are aiming for something bigger than the earthly stuff that everyone else seems so obsessed with.  That’s what worship did for Asaph, and that’s what it can do for us as well.

My guess is we will have many more days when life’s unfairness tempts us to bitterness.  When those days happen, let’s not just sit and soak in frustration.  Let’s not check out on our faith.  Let’s certainly not withdraw from God and His people.  Instead, like Asaph, let’s remember to go spend some time with God in worship.  Being with God is a powerful reminder of what is real.  And in a sin-broken world, that’s a reminder we are going to need.   

This week, when everything feels frustrating, remember Asaph: go spend time with God in worship!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Becoming a Contagious Christian: Words of Faith Encouragement

We have spent this first month of the year thinking about how we can be more missional in our faith in 2018.  To help spur our thoughts, we’ve used the book Becoming a Contagious Christian, which I
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believe presents a good vision of how Christians should reach out to others in a more genuine, natural way than is often taught.

If you have read the book or read our first two articles on this topic, you remember that the book has a formula built around Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:13-16 that His followers should be salt and light:

HP (High Potency) + CP (Close Proximity) + CC (Clear Communication) = MI (Maximum Impact)

We first explored the idea of being “High Potency” Christians – we must truly be salt, people who are different from the rest of the world, with a commitment and love for Christ that will be obvious to anyone who is around us for any length of time. 

Last week we considered being “Close Proximity” Christians – the salt must make contact in order to make a difference, and too often Christians don’t form the friendships with unbelievers like Jesus did (Luke 15:1-2, etc).  We called this “The Ministry of Friendship,” the idea that we should extend kindness, encouragement, and some measure of friendship to those God brings into our lives.  Whether they eventually become Christians or not, we can be like Jesus by showing people we genuinely care about them and trying to be a blessing to their lives by being a part of their lives.

The last part of the book’s equation for Maximum Impact is “Clear Communication.”  Here they point to Jesus’ image of light (Matthew 5:14), reminding us that light shows the way, and encouraging Christians to speak the words that show the way to others.

The Intimidating Part, We Think

This is the part of outreach that tends to scare us: actually speaking words to people about faith.  Faith conversations may scare us because some people present outreach as if Christians are giving a salesman routine in order to trick people into becoming Christians.  That’s not what biblical evangelism is.  We are not trying to manipulate people into becoming Christians – people are not combination locks that will magically open if you just turn the right numbers and say the perfect words.  Sharing the gospel with others is much more genuine than manipulation or salesmanship.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Becoming a Contagious Christian: The Ministry of Friendship

It’s January, and we’re thinking about how we can be more missional in our faith this year!  So we’re starting by sharing some thoughts inspired by the book Becoming a Contagious Christian
If you remember from last week’s article, the book has a formula, based in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:13-16 that His followers should be salt and light:

HP (High Potency) + CP (Close Proximity) + CC (Clear Communication) = MI (Maximum Impact)

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So last week we began with “High Potency,” the idea that we must first be salt.  If we want to make a
difference in the world for Christ, we must first be different in ourselves, with a genuine love, faith, and commitment that others can see in us.  That starting point makes sense to me.  I told you my favorite mental image of evangelism is “overflow,” the idea that I first have a strong faith and passion in myself, which naturally overflows onto those around me.  So before I have anything to share with others, I must make sure that I am truly living a genuine and committed life (not perfect, but genuine and committed) for Christ.

Once I have committed myself to truly being salt, I can then think about the next step of being missional in my faith…

Close Proximity, Just Like Jesus

Salt makes no difference unless we take it out of the salt shaker and let it make contact!  In the same way, we must have genuine (there’s that word again) contact with the world to make a difference.  How do we do that?
Well, let’s first notice that Jesus is once again the example for us.  He leaves heaven to come to earth, to be physically present with those He wants to draw closer to God.  And in His time here, we often see Him simply spending time with people.  Some examples:

·         The woman at the well is surprised that Jesus talks to her and shows kindness to her.  That’s the first thing she noticed about Him.  (John 4:7-9)
·         He goes to wedding feasts with family and friends (John 2:1-11). 
·         He eats in Levi’s home with a great crowd of tax collectors, showing friendship to people the Pharisees considered beneath them (Luke 5:29-32).
·         He regularly eats with people in homes (Luke 7:36-39, Luke 14:1-24). 
·         Jesus was with people so much that some criticized Him for “eating and drinking” as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).

In fact, that last statement is a good summary: Jesus was a friend to people.  Now to be clear: Jesus wasn’t just a friend – He had a message people needed to hear, and He was eager to share it (more on that next week).  So it wasn’t that Jesus was “just a nice guy.”  But He started by extending friendship to anyone He came across.

And do you know what Jesus’ friendships often led to?  Opportunities to help people draw closer to God.  Look at Luke 15:1: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him.”  People who were far from God – tax collectors and sinners – wanted to listen to Jesus!  Why?  Not because He told them what they wanted to hear, but because of what the Pharisees said in the next verse: “this man receives sinners and eats with them.”  Jesus had the ability to “receive” people as friends, to “eat with them” as friends, and that ability to extend friendship led to open doors for them to hear the gospel.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Becoming a Contagious Christian: Starting With Me

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It has become a January tradition for me to sit down and flip through the book Becoming a Contagious Christian, a book I first read years ago and have taught in Bible classes before (I probably need to teach it again sometime soon).  The start of each year causes me to think about about how we can be more missional in the next 12 months, both in our church family outreach and in my own personal faith, and that book is one of my favorite evangelism books to revisit.

If you’re looking for a book to help you become more missional this year, I think Becoming a Contagious Christian is a good one.  Like most books, you’ll find things you don’t agree with.  The writers have a different denominational background, and so you’ll notice their belief that you become a Christian in a different way (saying a prayer) than what we find in the New Testament (faith, repentance, baptism).  But if we can look past that (important) disagreement, I think the book as a whole shares a good perspective on evangelism.  It’s a very real approach, not salesman-like or manipulative.  Too often, Christians fear evangelism because it doesn’t feel real to them – it feels fake or forced, as if we are trying to trick people into becoming Christians, and doing it through approaches that don’t feel natural to our own personality.  This book helps overcome some of those misunderstandings, and points us toward a more relational and encouragement-based perspective, sharing our faith in ways that allow people to see the gospel in us and make their own decision.  Even more importantly, it draws from the teaching and example of Jesus.

So I’d like to take 3 blog articles (starting with this one) to share some thoughts from and inspired by that book, perhaps helping us be more missional this year, or at least help us plant seeds to grow in that direction.

The “Formula” of the Book

The book presents a “formula” based on Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5:13-16:
(13) You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.  (14) You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  (15) Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. (16) In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.  (ESV)
The formula they get from that passage is based in Jesus’ images of Christians as salt and light:

HP (High Potency) + CP (Close Proximity) + CC (Clear Communication) = MI (Maximum Impact)

As the book suggests, all 3 of those elements are needed to add up to Maximum Impact for Christ.  The first part of the equation, High Potency, demands that we truly be salt.  As Jesus said in verse 13, if salt loses its saltiness you might as well throw it out.  It’s not going to make a difference like it should have made.  So if I want to have Maximum Impact on the world (the last part of that equation), I first must have High Potency in myself – I must truly be distinct as someone who is living with a real faith.

Am I Salt?

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Real Story of 2018

Have you settled into 2018 yet?  We are already 5 days in, but with so much still left to go! 

I always enjoy the articles around this time of year that summarize the big events of the past year and preview the year ahead.  They make us think about how every year brings new stories and new things we’ll be talking about.

So what will be the big stories we will be talking about in 2018?  Well, we of course don’t know the specifics, but if we simply pause to think ahead, we know several things that will happen this year:
  • Some of America’s Winter Olympic athletes will become new household names (February).
  • People will celebrate Britain’s royal wedding (May).
  • The soccer world will be focused on Russia, who will host the World Cup (July).
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    • Moviegoers will be excited about another Star Wars movie, another Jurassic Park movie, and another Marvel movie.
    • Business people will anxiously watch to see which city Amazon will choose for its new second headquarters.
    • Like recent years, we will see more technology advances in things like phones and driverless cars and voice-recognition assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Home.
    • We will hear the media talk nonstop about how every government action will affect the upcoming midterm elections for Congress.
    • People will argue about Donald Trump.
    • The sports world will have another year of heros, championships, disappointments, and endless TV debates.

    Those are some of the things people will be talking about in 2018.  They will be the headlines, along with the controversies and scandals and public apologies that we know will happen, we just don’t yet know who or where or what. 

    But from a faith perspective, will those really be the stories of 2018?

    Thursday, March 10, 2016

    Be Courageous!

    “Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous!  Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
    -God speaking to Joshua, in Joshua 1:9

    Could Joshua Really Do This?

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    Moses had died, and now Joshua was beginning his leadership of God’s people.  But how do you follow Moses?  Moses was a legend in his own time, and his legacy as an all-time great leader would only grow through the years.  Joshua had to be at least a little afraid of failure, trying to stand in Moses’ shoes.

    What’s more, how was Joshua supposed to lead the Israelites in taking the promised land?  Joshua had always been a good military leader (that’s how we first meet him in Exodus 17:9), but conquering the stronger, entrenched nations of Canaan?  There’s a reason the Israelites had been too scared to try about 40 years earlier. 

    Yet God’s command to Joshua is given repeatedly in Deuteronomy chapter 31 and Joshua chapter 1: Be strong and courageous! 

    How Do You Build Courage?

    I have often thought about what a strange command this is.  If I am afraid, how can I just “be courageous?!”  How do I stop being afraid?  Fears are real, and oftentimes they really do hold us back.  It seems strange to just tell someone to stop being afraid and start being courageous.

    Friday, July 24, 2015

    Simplicity on the Musical Instrument Question

    Picture by Kelly Ginn, Great Oaks Church of Christ
    Great Oaks got a new website earlier this year, so we had to make decisions about what needed to go on the site and how it could to best be communicated.  To help that process, we spent time checking out other church websites, to see how churches communicate who they are and what they do.  This was encouraging for us,  not only to see how churches communicate, but also to see the many good ministries and outreach efforts going on in other places.  

    As a result, I still occasionally glance through websites of congregations I’m not real familiar with, seeing how other places do things and keeping my eyes open for things that might help our own communication and/or ministries.  A few months ago, I stumbled over this simple but effective paragraph explaining why the Smyrna Church of Christ (TN) sings acapella in their worship:

    Based upon our understanding of N.T. scripture, God does not desire musical instruments in Worship. Whether or not God regards the use of instruments in worship as a "salvation issue" is His call and is not our decision to make (Romans 14:1-4; 9-12). However, we should be certain who we are trying to please. If we love Jesus we will keep his commandments (John 14:15), and do that to the best of our ability. Based upon the N.T. we can know that God is pleased if we sing during our worship, but we can't know He is pleased if we play instruments. No scripture authorizes instrumental music in worship today; it cannot be found. The confidence that God is pleased if we sing during our worship is very important to us.
    Matt. 26:30; Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 2:12; James 5:13

    Here’s a couple things I appreciate about that simple explanation:

    1)      First, I appreciate that the key question is NOT “is this a salvation issue?”  Trying to argue whether instruments in worship is a salvation issue is a distraction from the real question of whether God wants them or not.  And if we’re trying to please God only on what we decide are “salvation issues,” aren’t we missing the idea of giving our entire lives – big, small, and in between – to God?  Wouldn’t we really be saying, “I just want to give God the minimum amount required for me to get into heaven, and then I want to do the rest my way regardless of how God feels about it?”  It seems to me the person of faith always asks first, “what best honors and pleases God?” and then proceeds to act on the biblical answer, in trust that God knows what He’s talking about.  Let God decide in eternity what is or isn’t a salvation issue.  For now, let’s try to give Him what He wants in every way possible.

    Friday, June 26, 2015

    Thoughts On The Day Same-Sex Marriage Became Legal

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    My phone made its familiar sound that told me there was a news update, so I glanced down to see what was going on.  “Supreme Court Declares Same-Sex Marriages Legal in All 50 States.”  I didn’t really have a reaction, just setting the phone back down and getting back to work.  Given our cultural and political climate, I don’t think many people are surprised.  More than anything, I just thought about enduring another day of people in the media shouting about it.

     Later, I began to wonder how other believers in God were feeling about the news, and so I paused to write out a few things I hope we will remember on a day that I’m sure some people will feel like we have somehow “lost”…

     First, I hope we remember that “legal” and “right” are not the same thing.  The American government is not the judge of what is morally right (though people sometimes act like they think it is).  Adultery is sinful before God, but it is legal.  Abortion is sinful before God, but it is legal.  Getting drunk is sinful, but it is legal.  Lying is sinful, but it is in most cases legal.  We could go on and on.  There are many things that are legal, but they’re not right in God’s eyes.   God’s truth has not changed today.  Today just adds one more item to the list of issues where we must show people that God’s truth is wiser than what our culture says is OK.  

    Wednesday, June 17, 2015

    Faith on Vacation

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    Several years ago, we sat in the auditorium at the Myrtle Beach Church of Christ.  We were on summer vacation, and our family felt fortunate to find a spot to sit in the full Sunday morning auditorium.  The worship was meaningful, the sermon was very well-presented, but something in the announcements is what has always stuck with me.  The man giving the announcements asked the Myrtle Beach members to stand, and only about one-fourth of that full auditorium stood up!  We all laughed as we realized that most of us were out-of-town visitors.  I think part of our laughter was appreciation, an appreciation that so many families from all over the country had made it a priority to worship God with a local church family, even on vacation.  Knowing there was so much commitment to God in that room was really encouraging. 

    Tuesday, March 10, 2015

    The Richest Man in History, Against All Odds

    In recent years I have become a fan of biographies, and this past week I’ve been listening to an audiobook about the life of John D. Rockefeller, who became the richest person in history in the early 1900’s (and adjusting for inflation, I understand that still today no one has yet surpassed the wealth he accumulated).  Rockefeller was very religious (a devoted Baptist), and he was extremely generous, founding universities, helping church ministries, funding medical research, and basically creating the type of intentional philanthropy we see today in people like Bill and Melinda Gates.  

    One thing that has amazed me so far about Rockefeller is that his father was – how to say it? – an absolutely horrible person.  He was a fraud, literally, claiming to be a medical doctor (often under a false name), traveling around the countryside and using his charm to convince people to pay ridiculous prices for fake medicines that pretended to cure cancer, among other things.  He was a fraud of a family man, also, disappearing for months at a time, cheating on his wife repeatedly, and eventually even marrying another woman in Canada without bothering to tell either wife about the other.  After being hurt by his father’s actions over and over, eventually John came to realize that he was ashamed of his father – a realization that must have been painful.

    Despite such an embarrassing and disastrous father, John Rockefeller not only did well in life, but his work in the oil industry revolutionized business and brought him to unparalleled levels of both worldly success and generosity. 

    Friday, February 20, 2015

    Scripture, or just What People Say About It?

    Dan loves to dig into faith issues.  He listens to several podcasts each week from his favorite
    speakers.  He just started the newest religious book that everyone is talking about online.  He checks in regularly with popular blogs.  Twitter points him to great articles about the new ideas in biblical scholarship and what the younger generation wants from churches.   He can tell you all about the latest doctrinal issue that’s splitting American churches and about mission trends in Africa and about whatever N.T. Wright just wrote and about the newest “we got big quick” church.  

    We would love Dan’s enthusiasm, and we would hopefully share his zeal in seeking to understand our religious context.

    But there is one problem with Dan’s faith, and it’s a big one: he has left Scripture behind. 

    It’s not that Dan doesn’t believe in the Bible.  He read through the New Testament (more than once!) years ago, and he even made it through the Old Testament one time.  Dan believes in Scripture; the problem is that he hasn’t been spending much time with it lately.  Scripture has faded into the background, and he now fills his mind and heart with the voices of people talking about Scripture.  Those voices are often helpful, but they are most certainly not the same. 

    3 quick reasons why we need to make sure we keep spending time with Scripture and not just be experts in ‘what others say about Scripture.’

           1)      God’s word is where the true spiritual power is.  It is only God’s word that is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).  It is only Scripture that is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16).  It is only the word of God that gives life (John 6:63).  It is only the word of God that is the Spirit’s sword (Eph. 6:17).  If I want true spiritual life, shaping my soul in the way God wants it shaped, I need a lot of time alone with God’s word.

            2)      Every human voice is slanted, intentionally or not.  We all have blind spots.  We are all still in the learning process.  I suspect we are all influenced by the world’s ideas more than we realize.  So when people put together books and blogs and sermons, we have limitations.  The tone may not be right.  The idea may not present a fully-balanced view of Scripture.  It is not enough to just hear others talk about faith ideas; by itself, that will result in a people-slanted version of Christianity.  We need to hear Scripture itself on these issues to get a more well-rounded perspective of what’s important, what’s true, and what’s just trendy. 

            3)      There is a personality within Scripture that we need in our life.  If you’re a reader, you know the experience of reading an author long enough that you find yourself thinking or talking in the author’s writing style.  Similarly, as we spend time with Scripture, we find its personality sinking into our mindset.  And we need that! 
              We need to not only hear people tell us what Jesus was like, we need to actually read the gospels and see Jesus the full range of Jesus’ teaching and talking to people.  We need to spend time hearing David’s love for God in the Psalms.  We need to feel Paul’s passion for truth, for saving souls, and for avoiding false religious ideas.  The best way to really let God shape us is to spend enough time with His word that its personality becomes part of our own.

    We are blessed with so many wonderful faith resources today.  Personally, I could spend half a day just looking through the religion section at Barnes and Noble, reading back covers and tables of contents.  I could easily spend the other half-day exploring the internet to hear great speakers and to learn how other churches start effective outreach ministries. 

    So if you love to look into religious ideas, I’m right there with you.  I hope you keep using those resources to grow in your faith.  But make sure you don’t just become an expert in ‘what other people say about Scripture.’  That’s leaving the real foundation behind.   God is real, and He has spoken.  To know Him, I need to get deeper than the human voices can go.  I need to make sure God’s word has the loudest voice in my faith.   

    Spend time with God’s word today!  

    Thursday, February 12, 2015

    Why He Didn’t Give Up On The Church

    “One woman at church said something critical and rude to me…I will never go back to a church again.”

    “I knew too many of those guys, and I knew some of them were complete hypocrites.  If that’s what Christians are, I don’t want anything to do with it.  You won’t see me in a church ever again.”

    “I used to go to church.  I watched a church split over personality issues.  It was the biggest mess you’ve ever seen; people yelling, gossiping, lying.  I promised myself I would never set foot in a church again.”

     You’ve heard stories like this, haven’t you? 

    From Barna Group's 2014 Book Churchless
    There are at least 2 reasons stories like this are so common:
    1. First, the church is made up of people.  People will eventually fail us, because they are all sinful.  So if you are in church long enough, you will see people do things that are against the spirit of Christianity.  They will disappoint you, and you will be tempted to give up on church altogether.
    2. Second, we hear these stories so often because 1 in 3 Americans are now “de-churched,” according to a Barna Research study released in November 2014 (see graphic on right).  For every 3 people you pass in the grocery aisle, 1 of them used to be actively involved in church before deciding to just stop going.  Something happened, and they quit church.  If that survey is right, there are well over 100 million “de-churched” people in America.  No wonder we all know people who tell these types of “why I quit the church” stories. 

    If Anyone Should’ve Quit Church…

    But if anyone had a reason to hate the church, it was Paul.  He could’ve told his own stories:

    “When I went to church in Jerusalem, no one would even talk to me.  They all whispered behind my back that they didn’t believe I was a real Christian.  All they could talk about was my past.”  
    (Acts 9:26)

    “I helped start the church in Corinth.  Now all they do is criticize me when I’m not around.  I’m just trying to follow Jesus and help others, but they keep badmouthing me.  They say I’m weak.  They criticize my speaking ability.  They say I’m not trustworthy, and that I’m not even a real apostle.”  
    (2 Cor. 10:1,10)

    If Paul were like most people, he would’ve followed those stories by saying: “so I will never go back to church again.” 

    But instead, do you know who absolutely loved the church?  Same guy.  Paul.  How?

    If you look in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, you see Paul speaking about the church in majestic terms.  The church is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23).  The church is the place where God lives (Eph. 2:19-22).  The church is God’s voice in the world to proclaim His wisdom (Eph. 3:10).  The church is the bride of Christ, who Jesus was willing to die for (Eph. 5:25-27,32). 

    And in those descriptions we find the secret to Paul’s love for the church…

    The Connection That We Often Miss

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    In all of those passages, Paul connects his high view of the church to his high view of Jesus Christ.  He doesn’t say he loves the church because the people are always polite and the preacher is always excellent and the worship is an entertaining experience.  It’s not human perfection that made the church special.

    Paul loved the church because he loved Jesus Christ.  And since Jesus Christ loved the church, Paul wasn’t going to quit on it, in spite of the imperfect – and sometimes downright mean – people he found there. 

    It reminds me of what Jesus said to Peter.  In John 21:15-17, the resurrected Jesus is getting Peter back to the mission of being an apostle.  Jesus asks 3 times if Peter loves Him.  All 3 times Peter says yes.  And all 3 times Jesus replies: then feed My sheep.  Who are His sheep?  His people.  His church. 

    Notice the train of thought: Peter, if you love Me, then join My mission to help My church. 

    “But Jesus, they were hypocrites!” we might say.   “Yes, but you’ve been a hypocrite at times also, and I still love you.  If you love Me, feed My sheep.”

    “But Jesus, didn’t you hear what they said to me?!”  “Yes, but I’ve heard you say some pretty mean things too, and I still love you.  If you love Me, feed My sheep.” 

    A Deeper Foundation for Loving the Church

    If you and I truly love Jesus, we will look at the church differently.  Loving the church because of the people will only go so far.  We must go deeper than that. 

    If we love Jesus, we will feed His sheep.  We will join Jesus in pouring out our lives to help make His church a little more like the majestic bride He wants it to be. 

    Christ’s church needs you.  It needs you not to give up on its failures.  It needs you to show others what it means to love Jesus.  It needs you to help it serve and grow.  Paul believed in that mission, because his Savior believed in that mission.

    Do you love Jesus?  If so, don’t ignore what He calls us to do: let’s keep loving His church.