Monday, January 30, 2017

Dear Indiana

Dear Indiana, 

I know I've lived here for most of my adult life, so this may seem a bit late in coming. I understand that living in Indiana means loving, or at least tolerating, basketball. Don't get me wrong. I've watched Hoosiers. It's good. 

I do love basketball. I enjoy playing it, watching it and even talking about it. I don't root for your teams, but I get the love for this sport. 

But there's a few things we need to clear up. You see, my middle school son started playing for one of your teams this year. Needless to say, the experience has only confirmed what I already suspected. 

The place in your heart that this sport holds, at least borders on idolatry. I should also mention that I am a youth pastor. So I have watched time and time again as basketball crowds out the space for anything else. I know what lessons can be learned when our sons and our daughters learn to sacrifice and work as part of a team. But I also know the lessons that are taught when sports are not properly seen as a part of the whole, instead of being the whole.  

Coaches, remember it's a game. I know that on the college and pro level, there is money and jobs on the line. But when we treat the lower levels like this, we do our children a disservice. Instead of teaching all the kids the thrill of success and the disappointment of failure, we teach the better athletes to be revered and the rest to enjoy the show from the bench. 

In a  society where only 1% ever play professionally, why wouldn't we give all our children an opportunity? Why would we discourage so many to the point that they find something else to do when they tire of being left out?

Parents, remember it's a game. Every game I have attended, from elementary on, has been a practice in patience. The good news is I now know how to take deep breaths before I say anything in a crowd. But when the thought of yelling out, "It's only a game" gives me the fear of being lynched, then something is very wrong.

If the size of the trophy is determined by the intensity with which parents criticize referees, then this is a trophy I really want to see. 

Parents, we need to be the ones who instill good values in our children. If we don't, we'll just continue this cycle. We also need to help our sons and daughters realize the need for balance in life. When we show more intensity in a game than we do anything else in our life, this lesson gets lost.

Lastly, to our sons and daughters, let me remind you of a few details. You are more than an athlete. Much more. I've never woken up my children by referring to them as a sports star. For that matter, I don't start their day calling them artists, students or anything else. I remind them they are my son or daughter and that I love them very much. I remind them that God has a plan for their life. 

Remember your identity. Your real identity. Work hard. Play hard. Love others and build lots of relationships.  There is a great big world out there and it doesn't end when the whistle blows. 

So, Indiana, I guess if there's anything I want you to hear, it's this; I want you to know your place. The futures of our sons and daughters will be shaped by the lessons we teach them today. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Surrender to His Grace

Over and over again, God’s love for us has been proven by action. We are called to reciprocate. We are called to commit. And most of us will nod our heads in agreement, believing we have committed.

We talk about commitment. I’ve been reading through the book of Isaiah recently and came across this little pearl.

In the year when King Sargon of Assyria sent his commander in chief to capture the Philistine city of Ashdod, the Lord told Isaiah son of Amoz, “Take off the burlap you have been wearing, and remove your sandals.” Isaiah did as he was told and walked around naked and barefoot.
~Isaiah 20:1-2
Oh, ok. Now it’s not enough to simply declare and teach the Word of the Lord. There’s a uniform. But wait, there’s more.

Then the Lord said, “My servant Isaiah has been walking around naked and barefoot for the last three years.
~Isaiah 20:3
Hold on. Three years?!? Isaiah walked around in nothing but what God gave him for 3 years!?! On the bright side, you’d save time doing laundry. But you are going to get a sunburn in some places where the sun don’t usually shine! I am in awe of the commitment that Isaiah displayed.

Let’s play a game. Anybody in the room want to talk about your commitment? Let’s form a line. After each one shares what they’ve done for God, I’ll just ask one question. Would you like to serve in that way….naked???

Consider all the things that happen in church that require volunteers. Now consider them being done...naked.

Stop it! That’s enough!

Listen, I know not every commitment can be compared to another. Simply because God has not called us to some of the more extreme measures that He called some of His prophets, does not diminish our commitments.

But if you’ve ever said there was something you weren’t willing to do, I want you to go back and read Isaiah 20 and ponder what that conversation between God and Isaiah was like.

God: Isaiah, I have a message for you to share with the king of Assyria.
Isaiah: You got it, God!
God: One more thing…you need to be naked.
Isaiah: Hmmm….ummm….couldn’t I just draw a picture in the sand? Perhaps some little naked stick figures?
I believe the conclusion of this matter is grace.

Who else has held the oceans in his hand?
Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers?
Who else knows the weight of the earth or has weighed the mountains and hills on a scale?
Who is able to advise the Spirit of the Lord?
Who knows enough to give him advice or teach him?
Has the Lord ever needed anyone’s advice?
Does he need instruction about what is good?
Did someone teach him what is right or show him the path of justice?
No, for all the nations of the world are but a drop in the bucket.
They are nothing more than dust on the scales.
He picks up the whole earth as though it were a grain of sand.
All the wood in Lebanon’s forests and all Lebanon’s animals would not be enough
to make a burnt offering worthy of our God.
~Isaiah 40:12-16
I don’t know how much wood was in Lebanon’s forests. I also don’t know how many animals were in Lebanon when Isaiah wrote this. The way he writes, my hunch is that there was more than plenty of both. Yet all of it together would not be enough to make a burnt offering worthy of God.

All of our commitments will equal to the same. Not enough.

We need to come to a point of surrender where we trust more in God’s love for us than we do in what we return to Him. We will do things for God. We should. But we do these things as a response for the flood of love and grace that God has poured on us.

Surrender to His grace. Allow it to free you to do what God has planned for only you to do.

We can't commit like the heroes of old. Maybe God doesn't intend for us to. We won't lead like Moses, love like David, sound wise like Solomon or… get naked like Isaiah. But we can aspire for great things to be done through us because God loves us and wants to do great things through us.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

If I Had a Parenting Do Over

Image result for if i had a parenting do over

Opening a Jonathan McKee book is like starting a conversation with a friend. I know, I know...he has written several parenting books (many of which I own) and he has written lots of youth ministry books (most of which I own as well). It would be so easy for Jonathan to come across as the guru who knows all.

But the very title of the book, If I Had a Parenting Do Over, reveals his heart and authenticity. Jonathan is the friend who is in the trenches with the rest of us. He writes this book about 7 Vital Changes I'd Make.

The book reveals some parenting mistakes Jonathan has seen through his years of working with families with teenagers, as well as mistakes he made personally. Parts of this book were really convicting, as if there were cameras in my own home.

But that's the point. Teenagers everywhere have common struggles. So do their parents. This book comes along with some very practical advice on how to honor God in our parenting. Along the way, we should experience a closer relationship with our children.

After giving us the changes he'd make, Jonathan goes one step further and gives us easy applications to the theories we just read. This is something every how-to or advice book should do.

Parents, I would encourage you to put this easy-to-read book on your reading list for 2017. You can click on the cover image to grab a copy for yourself and see what others are saying about this incredible resource.

Monday, January 16, 2017

God's Victory Depends On Us?

There’s a pivotal scene in the superheroes movie The Avengers, which I think we can all agree is now a classic, along with other greats such as Gone With the Wind and Rocky. 

That's right, I just compared a superhero movie, to a classic sports movie, to simply a classic. That's the kind of ridiculous I am.

Without revealing all of my geeky knowledge of superhero movies, suffice it to say there is a bad guy, Loki, who is bringing an army to earth. And there are the good guys, the Avengers, who are trying to stop him. One of those good guys is Iron Man. And just before the big battle begins, Iron Man makes a speech to Loki, where he concludes,

It's all on you, whether your plan succeeds or fails.
How is our focus on God like this? Not in a combatant way, of course, but our whole trust should be in God. This is His plan, His mission, and it's all to His glory. So the plan, whether it succeeds or fails, is all on Him.

And of course, we can have confidence that it will succeed.

Here’s the thing about this truth. If we say we trust God to be victorious, then we have to be all in. We can’t waffle between the sides in this war. Choosing to not take a side is to choose to not put your trust in God.

Jesus modeled this when He was tempted in the desert. The devil tempts Jesus to turn a stone into bread. Jesus was hungry. If He had any doubts about whether God would let Him starve, He could have chosen to have some bread right then.

Then the devil tempts Jesus with ruling over the kingdoms of the world. If Jesus had any doubts about whether He would rule over all the nations of the Earth, this was His chance to grab them.

Lastly, the devil tempts Jesus to throw Himself off the highest point of the Temple. Both Jesus and the devil knew God would send angels to protect Jesus. This wasn’t about protecting His life, but about attracting public attention. If Jesus thought He needed to become the first century Evil Knievel, this would have been a grand opportunity to make a splash. If Jesus had any doubts about His ability to draw a crowd, He could have chosen to do this.

But Jesus didn’t succumb to any of these temptations, because, just as He taught us to trust in God the Father, He did so as well. He knew the outcome was all on God.

Understand that God’s love can be believed because it was proven by action. If we say we are going to love people, then it must be shown by our action.

Something we like to do in youth and children’s ministries around Thanksgiving and Christmas, is to ask youth to list the things they are thankful for. Oftentimes we’ll get blank looks returned to us, as they struggle to figure out what they have to be thankful for.

Fresh on their minds is a recent math test, a fight with their sibling, a list of things their friends have but which they don’t. I often find it helpful to return to a list of the basics, things that are universal for us all.

  • Even in industrialized nations, we don’t have to look far to recall all the beauty God has made. Look to nature to see the beauty of God. Look up to see the vastness of space. Even if buildings and streetlights impede our view, Google it and look up some of the incredible views around this globe.
  • Look to the manger to remember how God willingly humbled Himself to be surrounded by us.
  • Look to His life and miracles to discover how God will bend the laws of nature simply because He can.
  • Look to the cross to remind yourself that there is absolutely nothing God was not willing to do to bridge the divide that stood between us and Him, a gap that was present because of our choices.
  • Look to a resurrection that tells us death is not the end.
  • Look to the promises lived out in the book of Acts, as we read how Jesus will return, but that He won’t leave us hanging in the meantime. His Holy Spirit, complete with guidance and power, has been imparted on every believer.
God's love is proven by action. And the success of His mission is resting all on Him. Perhaps we should live this year as if we believe that. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Surrender to His Mission

Like many other pastors, and especially youth pastors, I like to pick a title that catchy, and perhaps bordering on irreverent. Here was the idea I had for my most recent sermon.

People Jesus liked hanging out with more than he liked hanging out with people at church.
Maybe that's too wordy a sermon title. But read through the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and you’ll discover a list of people that Jesus liked spending time with; sinners, kids, smelly fishermen, prostitutes, drunks at weddings, women with shady pasts, tax collectors, ....

I speak slightly with tongue in cheek because the truth is that we are those sinners and people with shady pasts, no matter how much we try to play dress up.

The truth is we worry about a lot of stuff. If the stuff we tend to worry about had as much impact on the kingdom of God, compared with the commandments and commission of Jesus, then maybe we’d have a reason to stress ourselves out.

But it doesn't. Sorry. It just doesn't.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that your problems aren't real. I'm not saying that your problems don't have to be dealt with. I AM saying that Jesus told us to find our peace in Him

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
~Matthew 11:28-30
I AM saying that Jesus told us to give Him our burdens and to seek His kingdom first

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
~Matthew 6:25-27
I would love to hear a sarcastic tone in the words of Jesus here. I could imagine Him asking, ‘Aren’t you far more valuable than birds? Duh!’ But Jesus is much, much better than I. So I believe these words came from His lips gently, almost as if He’s unsure how we have not heard this message before.

‘Don’t you know how much more valuable to me you are than any silly bird?’

“And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
~Matthew 6:28-33

Surrender to His mission. If we did this… If we practiced joy, kindness, and thankfulness more than we worried about any do not commands, maybe we would notice just how much God is working around us and how much more He would work through us. Until then, we may have to settle for God working in spite of us.

Our grand mission, called the Great Commission, has been given to us. Our great command, love God, love people, has been handed down from a Supreme Court where we don't have to worry about who will be appointed next, because God will not fall off His throne.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Surrender To God's Love

Matthew 3:13-1713 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Jesus is doing a pretty cool thing here, being baptized. This marked the beginning of His ministry and connects Jesus to the people He came to save.

I work with teens and, of course, have a couple of them in my own home. There is this fascinating dance between parents and their teenagers. Parents have to somehow impart wisdom to teenagers without it sounding like a lecture. Their best bet is to somehow trick the teenager into thinking that they, the teenager, came up with the good idea all on their own.

Teenager: Mom, Dad, I think I should show more respect to adults.
Parents: Wow, that’s a great idea! What a novel concept that you thought up all by yourself.

Teenagers, on the other hand, attempt to make right and good decisions without it being noticed by their parents. They don’t want the fanfare, because then they might have to admit they learned something from their parents. Pshaw, I’ve always known how to make every right decision in every area of my life. Please don’t make a big deal out of this.

Now Jesus is 30 years old when He gets baptized, so perhaps He’s past all the moves and countermoves of adolescence. But if there was any part of Him that didn’t want His baptism to cause a scene, that hope flew out the window as God the Father decides to part open the skies and send the Holy Spirit flying around like a dove. A spotlight shines on Jesus and a big voice from Heaven booms, ‘That’s my boy!’

God the Father may have as well been wearing plaid pants, a striped shirt, had a gaudy camera slung around His neck while waving real big, ‘Jesus! Hey buddy! Over here! Looking good, Jesus!’

I drive my teenagers to school in the mornings. It’s been getting cold recently, and my daughter has been taking a blanket with her to keep warm in the truck on the way to school. She’ll tell you it’s because her father won’t warm the vehicle up. I think she’s trying to extend the feeling of still being in bed. Regardless, she leaves the blanket in the truck when she gets out. A couple of weeks ago, just as she opened the door, with lots of students pouring into the school, I yelled out, ‘Baby, don’t forget your security blankie!’

She rolled her eyes, responded, ‘Nice’, then closed the door and escaped any further embarrassment as quickly as possible.

As you can tell, I’m taking my role as a dad pretty seriously.

I’m fairly certain that God the Father was not trying to embarrass Jesus. I’m also quite certain Jesus did not roll His eyes and try to avoid the attention. He surrendered to the love of His Father.

When it comes to God our Father, we should do the same.