Friday, August 29, 2014

Fill Up Their Cup, Let It Overflow

This is just a little something I shared with children's workers at my church.

Children’s Ministries is an exciting thing to be a part of in the church. We get to take an empty cup and fill it with good stuff. The scripture is filled with promises of what happens when we follow God’s plan. We know that part of His plan is one generation passing along the stories and the good news to the next generation. We’re given the hope that by doing this, generations will continue to grow up and seek God.

In this way, being among the first to fill a cup with the contents of our choosing is an exciting thing to be a part of.

But there is a second reality in being a part of children’s ministries in this day. It’s the sad fact that not all the cups are empty. Some of them are dirty and have been damaged. Many have been filled with ugliness that we recognize as being ‘from the world’.

Rather than discourage us from trying, it gives clarity to our call to teach children ‘the way they should go.’ It becomes our desperate hope to clean the cup and refill it with stories of hope and redemption, truth and love.

If they do not hear it from us, then who will tell them?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I Have to Wonder

Check this out...

One day as Jesus was preaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee,[a] great crowds pressed in on him to listen to the word of God. He noticed two empty boats at the water’s edge, for the fishermen had left them and were washing their nets. Stepping into one of the boats, Jesus asked Simon,[b] its owner, to push it out into the water. So he sat in the boat and taught the crowds from there.When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.” For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him.10 His partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were also amazed.Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!”11 And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus. ~Luke 5:1-11

I have to wonder ....

Peter was amazed at the catch. Surely he had had good fishing days before. Then again...

Have you ever looked at the body of work Pete and the other fishermen had when we read about them fishing? It seems to me that most of the time they were not catching anything at all. Here, in Luke 5, Pete and the boys had caught nothing all night. After Jesus rose from the dead, they caught nothing until Jesus came along with the bright idea to try the other side of the boat. 

The one time we read of Peter catching a fish was just that...a fish. One fish. Inside the mouth was money to pay for his and Jesus' temple tax. I kind of imagine that Jesus had something to do with that catch as well. 

My point is that I don't think Pete and his crew were great fishermen. We always read of them catching nothing. And when Jesus suggests the other side of the boat, they don't argue and say they had already done that. What kind of fishermen only tries one side of the boat?!? Of course it doesn't make much sense, but neither does trying the same thing over and over again with the same sad result. 

But it says in Luke 5 that Peter was amazed and knew the great catch was caused by Jesus. I wonder if he assumed catching men with Jesus would be as amazing. Did he brim with confidence at what was going to happen?

What if we were to approach evangelism in the same way? Actually, what if we were to approach everything in life this way? What if we had confidence that God was going to cause some big amazing fishing trips and that we would be in awe as we participated? 

What if we came to realize that, without Jesus helping us, we weren't really good at what we do either?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Where Belief and Action Meet

I preached recently from the book of James, where Jimmy was talking about faith and deeds. He foolishly believes the two should line up. Actually, I am just foolish enough to believe the same.

But as difficult as it might sound to actually do what you say you believe, faith is harder than that. See, I think faith should actually translate into how you hope for things. This is where I've struggled lately and I've been appreciative of some people who have reminded me so.

I believe in God. But more than that, I believe God has great plans for me and for the church I work with. This is not me saying I believe in my best life now or some pie-in-the-sky romance novel version of my life. You know the kind; where money always rolls in and you achieve everything practical and impractical, all within a nice abbreviated version of what reality would ever afford.

But I do believe my faith in a BIG God should move me to hope BIG. To dream BIG. To expect BIG. This only makes sense if I actually believe in a BIG God. This only works in a reality where I am not at the center.

2 Chronicles 20 tells a story of King Jehoshaphat. He received word that a big army from Moab and Ammon were coming to attack. They pray and ask God what to do. God tells them not to worry. Go and take up positions, but God tells them they will not have to fight.

King Jehoshaphat accepts this and sends out the choir ahead of the army to sing praises to God.

You only send out a choir to the front lines if…

1. You really hate how that choir sounds.
I mean, you really hate how this choir sounds. The sopranos are shrill, the altos are flat, the tenors are sharp and the baritones can't find a right note to save their souls, no matter how many times you've practiced the same line.

How do you fix a broken choir? Send them into battle.

2. You actually believe God will do what He says He will do.

It's simple math. You believe in God + You believe what He says = Your actions.

People that kill and steal and say they believe in God are liars. I sometimes wish it were more complicated than that, especially when it's my actions that are contrary to what I say I believe. But it isn't complicated. Sometimes I am just a liar. A hypocrite. A sinner who needs more grace.

But I believe in a God of BIG time grace. So my action, even when I stumble, will be to turn back to God. Not only do I hope for it. I believe in it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Greatest Accomplishment

What’s the greatest thing you’ve ever done? (Go ahead and think about it. I'll wait right here.)

Are you back? Okay, read this verse.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. ~John 14:12

Now that I have read to you words from Jesus, who wants to tell me what they think about the greatest thing they have ever done?

Yeah, if nobody wants to answer, I don’t blame you. Conquering Super Mario Brothers just doesn’t seem all that great when you consider that God has given us each His Holy Spirit power to be able to accomplish things. Somehow, the ability to eat a pancake bigger than your head doesn’t seem to be what I imagine Jesus was thinking we’d do with this awesome power.

So your follow-up question may be; “Okay, well, how am I supposed to know what God does want to accomplish through me?”

I've told my teens about a book I read many years ago by Henry Blackaby called Experiencing God. The main thing I've recalled from the book is this;

God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways.

This line is a mouthful and I don’t expect you to remember it after hearing it just once. But what I like about everything Blackaby writes is how it involves application.

If God speaks to us through the Bible, what are we going to need to do? (Read the Bible!) It should make common sense.

If God speaks to us through prayer, what will we need to do? (Pray!)

If God speaks to us through the Church, where do we need to be? (The Church!) Yes, make it a priority. I don’t hesitate to tell you that church is where you should be. It’s not because I think I’m so awesome or always come up with the greatest things. It’s because everything I say is from scripture, everyone I find to work with you loves God, and because there is wisdom to be found when we work together towards the same goal. Again, what do we really believe?

If God speaks through circumstances, what does this mean? This one is a bit tougher. Here is where we need to pray for wisdom and discernment, so we know how to interpret what happens in life. If a tornado destroys a murderer’s home, should we assume God is punishing the guy for being a killer? No, tornadoes destroy things. If we get a postcard advertisement from Colorado, should we assume God wants us to move there? Maybe, but it’s probably safer to assume its just advertising. If you get an encouragement from someone just when you’re feeling down, should you assume God is trying to help you? The answer is yes!

My Greatest Accomplishment is putting myself in a position to do whatever God wills of me. This could refer to the moment I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It could refer to the moment I accepted His call to become a pastor. Or it could simply refer to when I do today what God wants me to do today.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ministry Monday - You Don't Want This Job

My pastor is going through a series of messages from the book of James. Recently he hit on chapter 3, which starts out this way;

Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.
Now, it's not like I ever get distracted during a sermon, but here's what went through my mind.

1. Is Jimmy basically saying "you don't want this job?"

Any pastor can tell you the practical application of this verse. Judged more strictly? You bet! Because anyone sitting in the pews knows what we could have been done better. It's like armchair quarterbacks. Every guy who watches quarterbacks can look at the screen and yell about the throw that should have been made. But we don't normally have 300-pound defenders aiming to knock us down.

I've never had a 300-pounder come at me after a sermon, but I've had my share of criticism come for something I said, or didn't say.

2. Is this going to make it more difficult to recruit volunteer teachers?

I imagined my next recruiting conversation going something like this:

Me: I'm looking for someone to teach the fourth grade class.
Them: Well, I'm trying to apply biblical truth to my life. And the pastor did just preach about not many presuming to be teachers.
Me: I'm so happy you heard that sermon and not the one I preached about your faith becoming action the week before.

But just so you don't think I didn't get anything out of the message that day.

3. There is truth that teachers carry an expected burden that comes with teaching.

God rightly expects more because teachers do have influence. There's really no getting around this fact. Teaching, or any kind of leadership, in the church is not the fairy-tale life. It is a privilege that couples as a burden. And it is not to be taken lightly.

That's why I would suggest being sure it's a calling. In the end, nothing else will help when the judgment comes.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Oh Be Careful Little Eyes What You See

We're not victims.

Yes, we are barraged with images everyday. Some of them come out of nowhere. Many of them are surprising.

But we're not victims.

What we see and, for that matter, what we hear is mostly a matter of choice. Not always, mind you, but we absolutely have a lot of choice in the matter. Let me explain with a story from what feels like the distant past.

When my wife and I were doing ministry in Michigan, we were doing so in a very rural area. This translated to lots of farms nearby. Farms meant lots of farm boys. And some of those farm boys were big. So once when my wife was driving by one of these farms, she passed a house in which lived a farm boy. A big farm boy.

She wasn't stalking, but with windows wide open she caught a glimpse of this farm boy walking around his house in his whitey tighteys.

She kept driving. But now the image was burned into her retinas.

The next time my wife and this (purposely left unnamed) farm boy were in church, she mentioned to him that he might want to close his drapes. She explained what she saw and may have mentioned that accidents could occur if he kept walking around like that. He replied, "If people want to look in my windows, they can see me as I am."

Lesson learned. Jen kept her eyes forward when driving past their farm. She knew what the possibilities were when she drove by. So do when we turn on a certain radio station or scroll through particular websites. You can be surprised once. After that, you're no longer a victim.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Meet the People Who Don't Think About Me

Have you ever walked in a crowd of people and considered just how much they are not thinking about you? I have. Reality is eye opening. 

See, I wake up in the morning, either because I can't sleep or because I stupidly responsibly set my alarm the night before. And as I yawn and stretch and attempt to figure out what day it is, my thoughts soon turn to...


That's right. I sense my hunger. I know exercise is needed. What will I wear today? Will anyone be close enough to notice if I shaved? And just before my to-do list comes rushing at me with the force of a monster truck, I know I need to head to the bathroom. So there is no time to be hitting the snooze. 

My first dozen thoughts are all about me. Which, by my math, will equal more thoughts than everyone else in the world, combined, thinks about me all day. It's not even close. And it shouldn't be close. 

Because it's not about me. Not that this truth will keep me from thinking about myself for the next hour or so as I actually get around. Will people appreciate the flavor of deodorant I chose? Will people like how I coordinate my shoes with my outfit? Will people notice my chiseled muscles and my finely manicured face?

Like I said, I'm quite ridiculous. 

But every once in a while I will be walking somewhere, be it a store, sidewalk or any other place groups of people who don't care about me congregate. And I'll notice them not noticing me. Weird, I'll think to myself. Perhaps if these people got to know me, they would pay me more attention. 

Then my face starts to hurt, as reality comes up and gives me a good smack. They wouldn't. They shouldn't. And someday I will stop putting in so much effort to get them to do otherwise. I will. I should. 

Because it's not about me. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Can I Ask That?

When I normally think of sticky, I think avoid. I like things clean. I stray from messy. Sticky things have their place. Honey goes on a biscuit. Glue goes in a bottle. Children go in their rooms.

But I love the good people at Sticky Faith, youth ministry gurus who provide great resources for helping the Bible stick in the minds of teens. See, as much as I abhor stickiness in my home, the youth room is a great place for sticky things. This would apply both to the weird smells in the youth room as well as the conversations on deeper matters that we have.

We've all read about the dangers of teens faking a form of Christianity through high school, only to leave it behind in college. So it is important for us to ensure that teens own their faith. Can I Ask That? by Jim Candy, Brad Griffin and Kara Powell is a great tool to accomplish just that.

It's a set of books, one for the students and one for the leaders, that ask the difficult questions and allow space for students to struggle for the answers. This book covers essentials such as trusting the Bible and knowing who Jesus really is, as well as other controversial topics like homosexuality and violence.

The student book offers spaces for teens to read ahead and answer some questions before a group meeting. This may be the only practical weakness of the whole idea. I'm not sure my group of teens would read ahead or fill out answers. That could just be me not expecting enough.

The leader's book and the discussion guides are well thought out, giving instruction both for transition of questions as well as advice on how to lead through these topics. I'm already planning on how I will fit this curriculum in to my plans this year.

My good friends at Youth Worker Journal gave me advance copies of this for free. Youth Ministry has its perks as well. I would recommend this resource to other youth pastors. You can find out more about Sticky Faith and Youth Worker by clicking the links.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Choir Boys, Kevin Bacon and the gods We Make

I think I have sometimes pictured pre-Jesus Israel as this nation full of choir boys. They all knew their part. They all knew God's Law. They all knew, and practiced, right over wrong.

A simple glance around any church should have told me I was an idiot. Not that the church I am a part of is full of idol-totin', sailor-talkin', sin-saturated pagans. (Then again, I'm not saying we don't have our share...)

But to assume that the ancient world, with their lack of agenda-pushing media, was a world similar to any opening-number of a Disney movie, is just silly. Sin entered the world through Adam. It didn't wait until 1984 to get started corrupting people. Why 1984? That's when Kevin Bacon corrupted an entire town by telling them there was a time to dance. Perish the thought!

Listen, I've been educated about Bible matters, history and the like. But it's interesting the preconceived notions we carry, such as people now are more corrupt than in the old days. Not exactly true. What's different is that we have the internet to help spread our shared sin farther and faster.

I digress. Here's what I found to prove people were just as stupid back then. A guy by the name of Micah (not the prophet, also not a choir boy) makes himself some idols and pays a priest to ignore the Law of Moses and come be his well-paid, well-fed, personal priest. You can find this all in Judges 18, perhaps the only other time in history when reality TV would have thrived like today.

As happens with corruption, the priest got greedy when a better offer was made, helped steal Micah's idols and skipped town. Micah, however, wasn't one to take things sitting down. He rounded up his posse, chased the thieves down and asked if they wanted to rumble. The thieving party acted surprised and asked what the matter was.

"You've taken away the gods I have made."

Do you want to know why many people today are angry? Upset? Frustrated? They have made their own gods and found them wanting. They have built and established a life on their own terms and now wonder why it is lacking. If something is empty, one has to ask what it was filled with.

The empty promises of the world, which we continue to buy into, are stolen by a bigger dream. Our idols are found, once again, to be empty and without any real use in times of trouble. We find our friends and wonder together what has gone wrong.

I would suggest we look to a God whom we have not made. We could not have possibly made God. He made us. And someday the gods we have fashioned for ourselves will be taken away. They will be shown for what they really are.

We'll look awfully silly chasing after a god which could not protect itself in the first place.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Decisions Only We Can Make

I know not everybody who follows me, follows sports. But this is simple, and you don't even have to appreciate touchdowns to get on board with this. 

Recently Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, got into some trouble with the law for domestic abuse. The National Football League, for whom Ray wears a uniform, has long been known for being strong in punishments that effect their image. They suspended Ray for two games and then everybody lost their minds. 

ESPN voices all over said the punishment wasn't large enough and the NFL missed an opportunity to send a message about how women should be treated. I tend to agree. 

But one guy stood out above the rest, in my opinion. It was Herm Edwards, a former coach, and now an analyst working for ESPN. Herm was asked about the punishment and he talked of a similar situation when he was a coach, one in which one of his players was also caught mistreating a lady in public. Herm talked about how the league was slow in offering any punishment. But that didn't stop Herm.

He sat his player for 3 weeks and it didn't matter to him what the league did. Herm, as coach, was in a unique position to make a decision about this. As coach, he had the right to not play this player. He informed the player that he would be expected to practice hard, but that he would not be playing on Sundays. Herm, looking back on the incident, said that his moral code would not allow him to do any less. 

He reiterated that it did not matter to him what decision the league was going to come up with. I think this is very good advice.

We cannot make every decision for everybody. But there are decisions that only we can make. Nobody can make it for us and it is up to us to make the right decision.

So what decision do you need to make?

Monday, August 4, 2014

A When-Then Kind of Life

Most of us live in a what-if kind of dream world. I don't mean that in the way most children dream. As kids, do you recall dreaming about what you would do if you won a million dollars? This is not the kind of dreaming I mean. 

We're adults, right? Our dreams are perhaps a bit more grounded. (I said perhaps, because I know someone out there is still dreaming of that million dollars.) We dream about what we will do if certain things happen. For instance;

  • I'll go grocery shopping if it stops raining.
  • I'll have plans on Friday if somebody invites me to something.  
Our dreams, to varying degrees, are based on things that could actually happen. But the mass effect of this kind of realistic day-dreaming is that we daydream multiple possibilities for our day, our week, our month and even into our distant future.

  • I'll move to Chicago if I get a job there.
  • I'll marry that girl if I work up the courage to ask her out.
There's only one problem with this kind of thinking. (Or there's only one problem I'll mention.) This manner of planning leaves us in the driver's seat, with no need for a touch from God to ensure success. 

Whatever happened to asking God what needed to be done and then acting accordingly? Whatever happened to taking a step of faith and then watching for God to move? Because if He didn't, we might fall flat on our faces. And if God isn't a factor, then what are we doing with our lives anyway?

There was a guy that lived this way, though you may only be familiar with his son. If you even glance at the book of Judges, you will see a mostly derelict group of leaders over Israel, and Samson just might top the list. This guy was every bad stereotype of a jock rolled into one. And as a former band nerd, I hold plenty of stereotypes. 

But Samson's dad?

In Judges 13, the Lord appears to Manoah's wife and tells her of this miracle baby she's about to have. She in turn tells Manoah, who prays for the angel to come back so he could hear it for himself. God obliges and, after a few pleasantries, Manoah gets down to business. 

“When your words come true, what kind of rules should govern the boy’s life and work?” ~Judges 13:12

Did you catch it? Manoah didn't begin making contingency plans. If we have a baby we will do this. If we don't, we'll do that. He didn't begin daydreaming about what might possibly come to fruition. He did not use the word if. He used the word when

More of us should live in expectation as Manoah did when told he and his wife would have a baby.
He said "when your words come true."  We have been given many promises from God. We have multiple opportunities and gifts to match. 

Instead of living by a rule of if...then, I believe it is time for us to begin living a when...then kind of life.

Friday, August 1, 2014

What Do We Really Believe?

Last month, when we had that giant storm come through and cause all sorts of ruckus, I was awoken in the middle of the night by my wife saying, ‘There’s a tornado warning. I have all the kids downstairs. You should come downstairs.’ 

Jen and I have been married for over 17 years. We’ve had discussions on what to do in a storm. Despite my tendency to scoff and doubt weathermen, I went downstairs and promptly fell asleep on a couch next to one of the kids. Jen stayed up for a few more hours on high alert.

After about an hour of the roof not falling in around us, I went back to bed, seeking a spot where a child's leg would not be lodged in my back.

I think we discovered our differences in storm situations back when we were engaged. She was spending some time in Florida one summer, when the people on TV started telling us to evacuate to nearby schools because of impending hurricane-like weather. Jen looked to me and asked what we needed to pack and if we had an emergency bag to take along. I just laughed while my dad changed the channel to find something else to watch on TV.

We laugh about it now (well, I laugh about it now) but it’s a perfect example of how our beliefs should dictate our actions. My family didn’t take action that day in Florida because we’d never before been hit. (I know you can say there is always a first time, but that’s for another sermon.) Our actions reflected our beliefs.

We might want to ask ourselves, if all of our actions were written down, what someone reading our story would assume we believe. What do we really believe?