4 Major Immigration Myths

Ironically, it might help to begin this post with something that could upset both sides on the two main political spectrum’s. First, the title of this article has probably already upset many of my conservative friends, as apparently 68% of white evangelicals believe that the US has NO obligation to accept immigrants (See Article Here). I find that revolting.

However, this article, and my views, are not some left-wing liberal propaganda either. I can tell you (much to the disappointment I am sure of especially my younger or more “progressive” friends) that I am not a liberal and take issue with much of the Democrat platform (especially their stance on abortion, which I find to be terrifying in their minimizing, justifying and even celebration in some cases of a terrible holocaust among the absolute most vulnerable people of all. See my article on Abortion here). Personally, I think if you are going to champion refugee’s at the border, then be consistent and champion children in the womb. And if you are going to champion children in the womb, be consistent and champion refugee’s at the border.

So…now that perhaps all my friends are disappointed, let me go on to the current immigration debate. While this has become a hot political issue in our culture with intense rhetoric, I don’t view it mainly as a political issue (of which there is enough hypocrisy on both sides to be completely nauseating). I see this as an issue in which we are dealing with real people, in real need, who are really vulnerable; and yet, we are filled (coming from both sides) with misinformation, fear and misunderstanding.

That said, it is an issue that absolutely requires political action (such as a new and updated immigration system) and of which politics plays a vital role. At the time of writing this, this article has come out: Trump Officials Pressing to Slash Refugee Admission to Zero. This is a problem, but the real problem is in our hearts and heads. Thus, I have written this article to try to speak into a few of the top common immigration myths I hear in our current rhetoric.

  • We are being invaded by people who want to destroy America and our way of life!

First, I think it’s important we remember our own history here. Could our subconscious fear and suspicion of others destroying our way of life perhaps have anything to do with our immigrant past in this country and treatment of Native Americans? Just saying…

That aside (as an issue in and of itself), this fear is unfounded. The vast majority of refugee’s would prefer not to leave their countries of origin if given a real choice. We might think America is the “greatest.” Others may admire certain realities. But home is often home. This is certainly true for most refugee’s seeking asylum. (Just talk to a real refugee). They are being forced out by religious persecution, war, systemic poverty, injustice, and violence often perpetrated by corrupt governments or gangs. Most love their countries and find it a last resort to seek a new life in a new country that is completely foreign.

If you have ever uprooted your family and moved to even another community or state, you know it is not easy. Even if in the same country, speaking the same language, there are cultural differences and fear of the unknown. I grew up in rural Lancaster Country, PA. After being married and having our first child, we moved just two and a half hours away to the Jersey Shore where we didn’t know anyone and weren’t from that community. We found out quickly that while there were many similarities, there were also many differences in the way we talked, in the values of the community, and certain ways of life.

Virtually all immigrants/refugee’s come to America because they believe life, for various reasons, would be better here than their home country. They come here specifically because of what they perceive the American way stands for and could mean in their lives; not to destroy it.

Yes, they bring some cultural differences and diversity, but this is not the same as destroying America or it’s “values.” If anything, the majority come with strong faith backgrounds, family values, a hard-work ethic and everything we would say is truly “American.” Plus, their diversity, adds a dimension of vibrancy that is healthy and what America is all about (E pluribus unum: out of many one)! Think of all the amazing food we now enjoy right here in America that have come from around the world (German, Italian, Irish, Indian, Middle East, Asian, Mexican etc). Our staff just got back from eating at a Little India/Nepal restaurant and it was wonderful!

Imagine how boring life would be if we were all robotically the same. Diversity is a good thing and within diversity there still can be unity. Heaven for example, will be filled with people from every tribe, tongue, language and nation (see Revelation 5:9-10), all united around the throne worshiping Jesus. Faith in Jesus does not eliminate diversity. Rather, it destroys all that so easily and unnecessarily creates fear and division between us, such as race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, etc (see Ephesians 2:14-17, Galatians 3:26-29).

Also, let’s keep in mind that immigrants who have entered this country legally, or refugee’s who have found asylum, have been required to undergo an intense immigration screening process and orientation that sometimes makes them more knowledgeable and appreciative of the American constitution and history than many natural citizens born in America who take being American for granted.

Ironically, this fear is actually nothing new. Did you know Benjamin Franklin articulated this very fear all the way back in 1751 when a wave of German immigrants started coming to America: “Why should [immigrants] establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to [change] us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?”

That turned out to be quite the misguided fear didn’t it?

  • Immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, are taking away American Jobs!

This is blatant misinformation. Statistics show that immigrants actually help the economy not hurt it, and often expand or create jobs rather than “steal” American jobs.

As is pointed out in the book Welcoming the Stranger: A common frustration with illegal immigration stems from the presumption that undocumented immigrants fail to pay taxes while receiving governmental services. In reality, the reverse is often true: almost all undocumented immigrants pay taxes in one form or another, even though they are ineligible for many of the services that tax dollars support. As the book goes on to detail, undocumented immigrants pay close to $7 billion a year in taxes from purchases made in the US in addition to $3.6 billion in property taxes.

In addition, many immigrants become successful entrepreneurs. It makes sense, as the very fact that they risked so much to leave their countries shows initiative, determination, and resourcefulness. Some of the biggest companies in fact, from Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Amazon have been created by immigrants to the US (See Article Here). Immigrants are often the one’s who fuel innovation, ingenuity, creative solutions and new jobs.

  • Refugee’s are people coming from countries of violence and therefore are dangerous to let into this country!

It is true that many immigrants are fleeing countries of violence. But it is mistaken to say that immigrants are violent and dangerous themselves.

First, they are the victims of horrible violence themselves. They are fleeing because they are on the receiving end. And even for those who have entered this country illegally, they are 44% less likely to be imprisoned than native-born US Citizens. When they are imprisoned, it is mainly because of being undocumented, certainly not because of violent crimes. Statistically, they are far more likely to have crimes committed against them while in the US than to commit crimes themselves in the US! (See article here).

Secondly, almost half of the refugee’s that have been legally accepted into the country over the last ten years have been Christians, many fleeing persecution in their countries. The vast majority of current refugee’s seeking refuge in the US are also Christian. This means for those of us identifying as Christians, we are rejecting our brothers and sisters in Christ! And what frightens me is that according to Jesus himself In Matthew 25; he takes it personally. Whatever we do (or do not do) for the “least of these” we do (or do not) do unto him. That’s some pretty serious words to dismiss so causally. It should give us pause before rationalizing or justifying our rhetoric and attitudes towards immigrants.

Thirdly, for those who are not coming into this country as believers, shouldn’t we as believers consider this a historical opportunity instead of a political problem or threat? For years, Christians have gone on mission trips to other countries or prayed for those in dangerous parts of the world. But now that others from these same countries are coming here, we protest instead of witness? What’s the deal?

I believe we have elevated “love for country” above “love for neighbor” and in doing so are buying into all kinds of misinformation, political propaganda, fear based rhetoric and are more concerned with maintaining our comfortable and complacent life-styles than doing the hard work of putting our love for God into action by loving our neighbors (and strangers) as ourselves. Perhaps we don’t grasp the Gospel, Great Commission, Great Commandment, and what it means to be a Christian as we think we do. Perhaps we are committing idolatry, elevating love for country above love for Christ, one another and others. Perhaps we have lost an eternal kingdom perspective and are operating from an earthly only mind-set. Perhaps our views are more informed by our feelings and political talk-shows than Scripture.

  • We have no responsibility to accept refugee’s from other countries that are a mess. Let them go back to their own countries and solve their own problems!

First, let me just start from a mere human compassion perspective. I find it shocking that this is spoken with such little compassion or empathy. Just from a sheer humane response perspective how can we be so cold-hearted as to dehumanize real people, created in the image of God, and view them as problems that need to go away? We are facing an historical global refugee crises (over 60 million people) and our attitude is that it is “not our problem” and “not our responsibility!” Is this how we would want to be treated? This is a very dangerous slope to go down when we stop seeing people as human, but see humans as problems.

Secondly, from a Christian/Scripture perspective: does that attitude sound like Jesus at all? Is that rhetoric and response reflective at all of God’s heart and Scriptures numerous commands from beginning to end regarding our treatment of the foreigner/refugee? (See Article here: What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees). This is Jesus in disguise and we are turning him away (See my Article: Welcoming the Refugee)! Jesus clearly taught us that our neighbor is anyone, anywhere in need (no matter how different from us) in the story of the Good Samaritan. We have a Christian responsibility. We can come to different conclusions (helping solve root problems in countries and work to create conditions that refugees can return etc) or sense of leading in how best this might be done, but we all need to be personally and collectively engaged in serving those in need.

One could even argue that the Bible (and history itself) is a story of immigrants/refugee’s that God used to bless the world or change the world. From Abraham, called to immigrate from his hometown to Canaan, to Joseph taken against his will to Egypt, to the Jewish people who left Egypt to take possession of the promised land, to Ruth and Naomi, to Esther saving her people in a foreign land, to Jesus himself and his followers who were dispersed by persecution, but brought with them the Gospel to the places they went. The New Testament even reminds believers that we were once “strangers” cut off from God but he welcomed us. And now, we are to live our lives as “strangers” on this earth, since our true home is heaven and we are citizens of his kingdom.

Thirdly, is this even an American response? Whatever happened to what is on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty itself:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Or, what about from George Washington’s lips himself: The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to participate in all of our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the employment.

Fourthly, let’s talk about these “problems of other countries” and what created them. It has been clearly demonstrated (See Article Here) that the current crisis we see at the border in Mexico has been at the very least, partly created by US intervention over the past half century specifically in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador). This means we bear some responsibility and can’t just tell people to “go back and fix their own problems.” It is our collective responsibility. We need to deal with the immediate crisis and also long-term solutions dealing with root issues.

Fifthly, let me ask a simple question: is that what our ancestors did who came to the US? Did they turn back to fix their own problems in their own countries or did they enter the America’s seeking for a new start? Is this what you would want to tell your ancestors? Isn’t it a double standard and hypocritical to tell others to do the very opposite of what we did or want?

Lastly, let me ask two more questions in closing this article out. What are we really afraid of? Can we just admit our fears and seek true understanding while showing human empathy even while ensuring a safe, secure and just immigration policy? And secondly, can we see our own biases, prejudices, and arrogance in our rhetoric towards immigrants and refugees? Even if we think America is truly the greatest country on earth, what is it that has made it great? I submit to you a big part of it has to do with her immigrants and refugees.

***For some articulate books on this issue I recommend the following:

Where is the Fear of the Lord?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. -Proverbs 1:7

A few weeks ago I was speaking each evening at a camp in Arkansas, mostly aimed at middle-school to high-school kids. The first two nights after sharing I felt something was missing and by the second evening I spent a restless night in prayer. The third evening I decided to deviate at the beginning from my planned message. I spoke from Isaiah chapter six where Isaiah has an encounter with God, then shared some of my own testimony. In Isaiah’s case, he saw God, and convicted by the holiness of God, confessed his sin with a sense of utter fear and trembling. It was only after acknowledging his sinfulness and there being nothing he could do about it, that he experienced the grace of God and cleansing of his sin. Following this, Isaiah hears the voice of God and responds to the call to “go” to wherever and to whomever God wanted him to go.

When I was twelve years old, I had an encounter with God that changed my life and the entire course of my life ever since. While I did not see God as Isaiah did, I did become aware of his presence and without knowing what the word holiness even meant, I knew I was “in trouble” and that I needed Jesus. It was in that moment that I fell to my knee’s and said, “Jesus I need you, and I want to give my life to serve you.” While I wrestled throughout my high school years of the second part of that prayer, it was in that moment at twelve years old that something changed completely inside of me. I experienced a peace, joy and love of God and for God that I had not known before. I believe it was in that moment that I was born-again as Jesus said was necessary to be brought into his kingdom (John 3).

After high school, I returned to the second part of that prayer and rededicated my life to seeking the Lord with all my heart and serving him with my life. That has led me into now leading an international mission organization called ServeNow. I certainly am very far from being perfect or sinless, but I am aware that sin is sin and hopefully sin less in light of God’s holiness and grace in my life.

After I shared about Isaiah and my own story, I noticed a shift that moment onward at this camp among the campers. I used those two stories to speak about what I sensed was missing: a fear of the Lord. I believe in fact, that what is being lost or has never been experienced by many in our generation to begin with is a true fear of the Lord, leading to a real conviction of sin and resulting in a cleansing from sin and willingness to obey, serve and live for the Lord according to his word. After the camp, I heard two other pastors communicating messages that conveyed their concern too about the lack of and need for the fear of the Lord.

We live in a culture and age (even among professing and church-going Christians), where much like the book of Judges, people are doing what is right in their own eyes, according to their own standards, feelings and desires. There is a loss of respect for God, awe of God and reverence for God that leads to a real relationship with God. There is a lack of engagement in taking Scripture seriously, let alone even reading it anymore. There isn’t a sense of daily seeking the Lord first in our lives as more important than anything else and living in light of eternity. There is a nonchalant attitude towards giving, missions and praying. There is a lack of trembling at his word, being aware of his presence, and being convicted of our sin. There is barely any talk even of hell or the judgment to come from many pulpits.

I just started re-reading the book of Deuteronomy recently. Moses, the author of the book, begins by reminding the Israelite’s, the people of God, of their history with God. He writes of how God delivered them from bondage as slaves in Egypt. This is a picture of how we are all under the oppression of sin, Satan, and this world, until Jesus, our Savior, delivers us. Moses then recalls how they were led by God into the wilderness and to Mount Sinai, where they encountered the presence of a holy God and received the law of God. It was here that a fear of the Lord was instilled in them and they understood clearly what was right and wrong in his eyes, and how they were to live differently in this world as his people as a witness to the world.

While the Israelite’s were called to move on from this place to take hold of God’s promises, goodness and blessing in the promised land; I wonder, has our generation even experienced this place? Have we experienced God in such a way that we tremble in his presence, stand in awe of his holiness, are convicted of our sinfulness, and learn what is right and wrong in his eyes according to his word? Before good news is good we have to become aware of the bad news and how bad it really is. Before we experience God’s grace, we have to become aware of our need for his grace. Before we can know his goodness, we need to behold his holiness.

Many people think that having a fear of God is a bad thing. While there is an unhealthy fear of God that keeps us from coming to him or causes us to think he is not good; a proper fear, respect, awe and reverence for God is healthy and needed. It is in fact as the book of Proverbs points out, the starting point for all true knowledge and wisdom that leads to a life lived well in the eyes of God. We might have some knowledge about God but that is far different than actually knowing God. It all begins with a fear of him.

But we see the fruit of this lack of fear of God playing out right now. After all, if we don’t take God seriously, why would we take his word seriously? If we have no fear of God, why should we take sin seriously? If we have no awe of God, why seek God above all else? If we have no respect for God, why care about the things that matter to his heart? If we have no reverence for God, why listen for his voice and follow his leading in our lives? If hell isn’t real why be concerned for others eternity?

I believe what is most needed in our churches, culture and generation is a fresh awareness and experience of God’s holiness. We need to return to a healthy fear of God that causes us to take him, his word and ways seriously. We need to stand in awe of God again. And it begins with each of us getting on our knees or faces before God in holy reverence.

These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. -Isaiah 66:2

The Playfulness of Jesus

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic (play) there. -Psalm 104:24-26

This week I have been speaking at a camp in Arkansas and decided the theme of my messages would be “Jesus as You have Never Seen Him.” The second evening I talked about “Jesus, the Playful Comedian” and shared some situations where although we often miss it, Jesus used humor to highlight spiritual truth and seems to have a playful personality. In this article, I would like to build the case of this often overlooked reality. This is something I have only recently begun really seeing and thinking more seriously about (pun intended!).

First of all, just think of creation itself. Built into all of creation is a certain playfulness. From dolphins, to dogs, to cats, to many other animals, they love to simply play and exhibit playful characteristics. The passage this blog started with speaks to this truth when it says that a certain sea creature was created by God simply for this very purpose, to frolic or play! As human beings (especially children) we also love to laugh, play and have a good time. If creation truly does reveal certain attributes of God, then surely humor, laughter and play are one of those realities.

I think the problem (at least for me) is that the older we get the easier it is to lose our child-likeness. I shared with the kids at this camp that while it is a good thing to grow out of childishness, it is a horrible thing to cease being child-like. And what do children do? Children play! In fact, it seems that creation itself was God playing. Why after all, did he create all the kinds of animals he created, or different scenery, or make things look like they do? And why so many of certain things?

G.K. Chesteron, a well-known writer, once put it this way, Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

In Proverbs 8:27-31 is clear that God had fun when creating. While it was certainly awe-inspiring, it was not sober and serious. Read carefully the language and tone used as the world was being created, I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.

Rejoicing. Delighting. Filled with joy. Is this how we think of Jesus? Is this how we think of God? Is this how we think of creation? One author began by saying, the world is a vast and magical playground of jumping dolphins, spray-blowing whales, frolicking baby deer. Yes, the world, because of sin, is a battleground, but God created it first as a playground. It was sin that made us serious and caused us to lose our joy, playfulness and child-like awe.

And then there is Jesus himself. We miss what several scholars have noted as humor, because Middle East humor at that time was very different than what some of our cultures might find funny today. For example, when Jesus spoke about the hypocrisy of religious leaders (Matthew 7:3-5) he said it is like walking around with a plank or tree truck sticking out of their eye while trying to remove the speck in another person’s eye. His audience probably laughed or at least smirked at that imagery. Jesus didn’t have to describe it like that. He could have just warned about hypocrisy using normal language but it would not have been as memorable. Humor, satire and absurdity can help people remember spiritual truth. This is really what the best professional comedians do, and Jesus seemed to utilize this method at times as well!

There also appear to me to be moments of playfulness especially after Jesus rises from the dead and begins appearing (and disappearing) to his disciples. In one situation (John 21), Peter tells the others he is going out to fish. That night they catch nothing. As they begin to come back to shore, they see a figure standing there and he calls out to them, Friends, have you caught anything? When they say no, this man tells them to cast their nets on the other side. They do so and suddenly they catch a lot of fish. It was at this point that Peter makes the connection that this whole situation is strangely familiar to what happened to them once before a few years back when Jesus first called Peter to follow him (Luke 5). He suddenly recognizes the man on the shore is Jesus. Peter jumps out of the boat, swims the rest of the way, greets Jesus and then you know what Jesus does? He cooks them breakfast with some of the fish they caught.

This whole story is loaded with a sense of playfulness! First of all, who prevented the boys from catching any fish? Secondly, why did Jesus call out and ask them if they caught anything? Why did he then grill some fish for them and have breakfast with them? The man was just resurrected from the dead, but there he is doing something as ordinary as cooking and eating with friends! I imagine this all happened with a twinkle in Jesus’ eyes. He is playing with them!

In another situation, (Luke 24) some of the disciples are walking together on the road to Emmaus, completely depressed over the events that had just transpired with Jesus being crucified. They are also completely confused because some of the women were claiming to have seen Jesus alive. While they are discussing all these things, guess who turns up? Jesus himself. However, he very casually begins walking with them and asking them what they are talking about. He does all this in such a way that they are kept from recognizing that it is even him! It’s as if Jesus is amused by all this! Only later, when he breaks bread with them, are their eyes opened and do they recognize him. And then, just like he appeared, he disappears again!

My kids love playing hide and seek. What kid doesn’t? I think Jesus likes that game too. However, he doesn’t make it so hard for us that we can’t find him. The younger are kids were or are, the easiest we make it for them to find us. And if they begin getting frustrated, we sometimes even begin to give some clues to re-orient them towards finding us.

The same is true with Jesus. Scripture does speak of God hiding himself, but also clearly revealing himself. If we seek him with all our heart, he promises we will find him (Jeremiah 29:13). And he has given clues to all those who want to find him. Creation. The Bible. Transformed lives. Our conscience.

Maybe we have just sadly grown up from the joy of seeking and finding God. Maybe it is we who have walked away and become too serious. Maybe it is we who have lost our child-likeness that is required for real relationship with a playful God.

Jesus has a playful personality. The last proof in fact that I will submit to you is this: just take a look in the mirror if you doubt his sense of humor!

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. -Proverbs 25:2

What Jesus’ Ascension Means

Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. -Romans 8:34-37

In between Jesus’ death, resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit was an event that perhaps gets the least attention in most Christian circles today. However, it is the event that made possible the coming of the Spirit and also continues to provide protection and provision in our lives as believers today. When we fix our eyes on this truth, it is also where we find confidence, as it addresses our anxiety, fears, worries and needs. In fact, I believe it may be for lack of understanding this truth that we find so much insecurity in our lives today.

The event I am referring to is the ascension of Jesus and his “sitting down at his Father’s right hand.” This has been part of the historic Christian creed for centuries, but I fear too many of us really have no idea what this practically means in our lives today. So, may the Holy Spirit illuminate this truth and make it applicable in a way that we leave rejoicing in the security we have in Christ.

Did you ever wonder what Jesus has been doing these last two thousand years? We have been waiting his Second Coming for all this time, but what is Jesus doing? At a surface level, “sitting down at His Father’s right hand” sounds quite passive doesn’t it? Is he just kind of chilling in heaven, while the world seems to come unglued and our lives feel out of control?

The truth couldn’t be further from this lie! The imagery being provided by Jesus “sitting down at his Father’s right hand” simply speaks to his finished work on the cross in paying in full the penalty for our sins. In regard to satisfying our sin debt, there is no price left to pay. As Jesus cried out on the cross, it is finished!

However, we all know we continue to stumble and fall short of God’s glory even upon being saved. We also face all kinds of battles, spiritual warfare and very challenging situations or difficult circumstances beyond our control. And this is where the ascension and continual faithful intercession of Jesus comes into play. As the passage above states, Jesus is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. The application and assurance given immediately following this is that this is why we need not have any fear or doubts, because nothing in life, no matter how challenging, will ever be able to separate us from God’s love. Because he has ascended in complete victory, we too are more than conquerors through the One who has perfectly loved us and completely overcome on our behalf!

I like to remind my children that Jesus is doing two primary things right now. He is praying (interceding) for us and preparing a place for us. We have even imagined what kind of place he is preparing for us and spent time dreaming about what that might be like. But we have spent less time focusing on Christ’s intercession for us, even though that is what currently provides all things for us right now, and protects us from all that would threaten to separate us from God’s great love for us.

While it would take too long to cover all aspects of what Jesus’ ascension means for us today, one of those aspects is that because Jesus is Sovereign over all, there is no greater authority above him. This is what gives us assurance, security and confidence in knowing that not only is God for us in principle and with us through his very presence in the person of the Holy Spirit, but he also possess all authority over every other authority that would threaten us, accuse us, condemn us or undo us. One of my favorite Hymns puts it this way:

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea;
A great High Priest, whose Name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.

My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart;
I know that while with God He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

Notice, Christ’s ascension enables us not to look within to summon a strength and confidence we don’t possess in and of ourselves (as self-help therapy tries to falsely assure us of), nor around at our circumstances (which can change suddenly at a moment’s notice), but upward to the only Perfect and Faithful One who rules and reigns as Sovereign over all. Our confidence comes not from within, not from around, but from looking upward to Christ who has triumphed over all and rules over all!

It is in the reality of Christ’s ascension as rightful heir to the throne and triumphant conqueror over sin and death, that we find confidence in our lives today. It is because he ever lives to intercede on our behalf that we find courage to face whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, fight whatever battles we fight, or deal with any situations that come our way. It is because of his ascension and intercession that we find security that he is able to fully save, sustain, protect, and provide for our every need.

It is because Christ has ascended in triumphal victory, now crowned with glory and honor (Hebrews 2:9) that we find assurance that we too are victorious and more than conquerors, as he did this all for us out of his great love towards us. It is because of his ascension that we find assurance of our salvation and belonging to his family forever. It is because of his ascension and intercession that we can be confident that all the mercy, grace and wisdom we ever need are available to us in and through Christ who serves as our merciful and faithful high priest in heaven (Hebrews 2:17-18). We can be strong in intercession and prayer because he is perfectly strong in intercession and prayer for us.

As the world is being shaken and all seems like chaos around us, we need not be shaken or afraid, for Jesus has ascended and is faithfully interceding on our behalf.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. -Hebrews 4:14-16

When You are Led Into the Desert

Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. -Mark 1:10-12

At the time of writing this article we have just celebrated Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit. I wrote about this in my prior article (Pentecost Insights). What an amazing time for the people of God! When the Spirit comes, he comes in power and gentleness, lives are transformed and the wonders of God are proclaimed! The Spirit of God makes real the presence of God to the people of God.

But often, we stop here as believers. Pentecost really is the culmination of the promise Jesus made to his disciples following his crucifixion and resurrection which are celebrated during Passion Week just fifty days prior. But then…we seem to wait till Christmas to reflect deeply on any other truth we can glean about the life of a Christian.

Therefore, I would like to focus on what happens after the Spirit comes and fills his people and we go forth into the world. I believe a lot of our confusion, disillusionment and despair comes from a lack of teaching and understanding about how the Spirit leads his people.

Here is the bombshell: The Spirit of God does not lead the people of God to “safe” or “comfortable” places. Rather, he often leads his people into “dangerous” and “uncomfortable” places!

Notice what happened right after the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and the Father voiced his approval and delight in his son. At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Wait…what? The wilderness? With the wild animals? To be tempted by Satan? Without physical food or drink for forty days? Doesn’t sound very glamorous does it?

A careful reading of Scripture (and even autobiographies of saints through the ages) reveals this is not an isolated experience. God calls Noah to build an ark because a flood is coming. And while yes, they are kept safe in the boat, the floods and storm rock the boat back and forth for 150 days! I am sure that wasn’t very comfortable with all those animals in there for that long too!

When God called Abram to leave his country for a new country, promising to bless him and make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and sand on the seashore, Sara remained completely barren for 39 years following this promise. Joseph, when given a dream from God, was 17 years old, but waited 13 more years, seemingly forgotten and languishing in Egypt (some of that time in prison) before he became prime minister.

Moses, before God appeared to him in a burning bush, spent 40 years tending sheep in the back-side of a desert. David, from the time he was anointed the next king, to actually becoming the next king, waited around 15 years, most of that time being spent hiding in the desert, mountains and wilderness from the jealousy of King Saul!

Jesus himself, lived in obscurity for the first 30 years of life before revealing himself as Messiah and beginning his earthly ministry. And preceding him, his cousin John LIVED in the dessert, eating a strict diet of locusts and honey until the time came for him to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah. And the early church was persecuted and scattered after the coming of the Spirit in the book of Acts.

The desert is a familiar place for the most anointed people and leaders and prophets of God! Of course the desert speaks of hiddeness, dryness, uncomfortablness, challenge, danger, even isolation. Yet, this seems to be the place the Spirit of God himself leads his most trusted servants. It seems to be their “proving ground”, the place their character is forged, sharpened, and strengthened. It is the place they are tested and tried, and although feeling weak, emerge with a strength of spirit unrivaled by others who have grown up in more pleasant circumstances.

But let’s not pretend the desert is where we want to be. Mother Teresa spoke of it as the “dark night of the soul.” Scripture speaks of it as a place of spiritual warfare, temptation and hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. It is the “boot” camp for the spiritual solider. The place where you are pushed to physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.

So, here is a word of encouragement. The desert can become the most holy of ground and place of most intimate and meaningful encounters with God. Think of the Psalms that were inspired as David was on the run hiding in the caves, mountains and wilderness. Think of Moses, on the back-side of the desert encountering the holy presence of God himself in the burning bush.

And notice again “who” else was present with Jesus in the wilderness: the angels were there ministering to him and strengthening him for the battle. It sounds so simple as to be obvious, but we forget we don’t need strengthened by God unless we are in a position of needing strengthened by God! We don’t need refreshed by the Spirit if we are not in need of being refreshed. We don’t realize our need for God if we don’t sense our need for God!

Sometimes we assume something must be wrong if we find ourselves in dark, dangerous, uncomfortable, dry places. Sometimes we think God must be angry with us or we are being punished. Sometimes we wonder if God has forsaken us, abandoned us, given up on us, or forgotten us. But rather than assuming something is wrong, perhaps we should assume something might be right!

Yes, God’s people can find themselves stuck in the wilderness like the Israelites because of their unbelief and sin. But there is a difference between being stuck verse being sent. The Israelites were initially sent, by God, into the wilderness, not to get stuck there and die, but to encounter him and live! Jesus himself, immediately after being filled with the Spirit and hearing the approval and delight of his Father, was sent by the Spirit into the wilderness…for a time! It was just a season. I am sure those days, especially while fasting and being tempted seemed to drag on, as dry, desert and dark seasons for us seem to linger too long. But, take heart, you who are loved by the Lord, it is just a season!

And let the season and it’s purpose do it’s work in you. Growth happens when we are uncomfortable. Character is forged in the desert while being tempted and tested. Seeking God happens when we are aware of our need for him. Encounters with God happen when we “turn aside” from the normal routine of life on the back-side of the desert. The view from on top of the mountain can’t happen unless we first scale the mountain. And the intention of God is not to destroy you or leave you to die, but to empower you for service according to his purposes in the lives of others.

Notice, that Jesus went into the desert full of the Spirit, but when he emerged, he came forth not just full of the Spirit, but in the power of the Spirit: Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. -Luke 4:14-15

You are not being punished but equipped. God is not angry with you, he is pleased with you. You are not being abandoned, your character is being forged. God has not given up on you, he is entrusting you with his kingdom power! Don’t give into despair, seek God. He will strengthen you, sending even his angels to minister to you!

Pentecost Insights

Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased. -Mark 1:10-11

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. -Acts 2:1-3

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reflecting more than usual on “Pentecost”, which is when Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. I wanted to take some time to put some of my recent insights in writing for what it may be worth to those who read this. It’s been interesting to compare the similarities in the descent of the Spirit of God on Jesus at his baptism as he began his earthly ministry; and the descent of the Spirit of God on the people of God as the early church was birthed and began it’s earthly mission.

First, in both cases, there is language used that involves “intensity.” In Jesus’ case, heaven was seen being “torn open.” The imagery reminds me of what happens at the birth of a child when entering this world. There is a sense of “violence” which is the very word used in Acts 2 when the sound that is heard is described.

Another way perhaps to think of this is that there was an observable “disruption” that took place when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus and then later the early church. When the Holy Spirit comes he “disrupts” our lives and things change! You can’t have the Holy Spirit without there being transformation, change, and our lives being “disrupted” by God. An encounter with God will change the trajectory of your life!

Secondly however, there is also a kind of gentleness that clearly comes through both of these passages. In Jesus’ case, it explicitly says the Spirit descended on him “like a dove.” There is a quietness, ordinariness, innocence, purity and gentleness contained in that imagery. With the first disciples, there were tongues of fire, but note that it “came to rest” on them in a gentle way that didn’t destroy them.

In other words, the Holy Spirit may have come “suddenly” “dramatically” “disruptively” and even “violently”; but also “gently” “tenderly” and “sensitively.” Combining these two realities together we could say that when the Holy Spirit comes, he comes in a disruptive, life-transforming way, but also in a gentle and tender way upon his people.

Third, in both cases there is a burst of outward divine pleasure and activity. In Jesus’ case God the Father can’t help but beam with delight and declare his pleasure in his Son. In the case of the disciples, the presence of God clearly fills the place where they were externally. When the Spirit came upon Jesus, there was a physical form (like a dove), and when the Spirit came on the early believers, “tongues of fire” took form and rested on them. When the Spirit came upon Jesus, the voice of God was heard, and when the Spirit of God came on the disciples, a “sound like a blowing of a violent wind from heaven” was heard. In both situations there is a “tangible” sense of God’s presence and noticeable activity from heaven outwardly. In other words, when the Holy Spirit comes he makes real to us the reality of God. Jesus is the word made flesh; the Holy Spirit is the divine made noticeable to us.

However, there is also a clear internal reality in both cases too. When the Spirit comes upon Jesus, he is filled internally with the Spirit, as are the disciples in the upper room. In both cases the result was an inner fiery passion for the glory of God. Jesus would go on to speak with a fire for the things of God and the disciples would go on to boldly declare the wonders of God. When the Holy Spirit comes he fills his people with a holy fire for the glory of God that we can’t help but share with the world! The Holy Spirit infuses boldness and enables us to declare the Good News to all people.

So, to conclude, we cannot dismiss the very real and observable activity of God that he ushers into our lives. When the Spirit comes, he comes with power and gentleness. When the Spirit comes, he fills us with a sense of the Divine Presence of God inwardly and externally. When the Spirit comes, it is heaven interacting with earth. When the Spirit comes, there is a passion and fire that rests on and fills God’s people to declare his glory to all people. When the Spirit comes, he disrupts our lives and transforms our lives. When the Spirit comes, he fills us with the reality of God and sends us out to take that reality to others.

I encourage you to forget (or frame differently) any “charismatic” verse “non-charismatic” debate. (It’s actually often only in certain circles and not in every country that this is even a distinction or issue). John, the forerunner of Jesus, made clear that Jesus would baptize his people with the Holy Spirit, which was the greater fulfillment than his water-baptizing of people (Mark 1:8). The word “baptize” speaks of being immersed and submerged in water. This is what the Holy Spirit does in our lives spiritually. He immerses us in the reality of God. He enables us to die to self to live fully to the glory of God as water-baptism also represents and is a commitment towards. The Holy Spirit is the one who makes that external commitment an inward reality in our lives.

Rather than being afraid, embarrassed, confused or ashamed of the Holy Spirit, we ought to celebrate his coming and embrace his activity in fullness in and through our lives. Yes, he is a “disruptive” presence in our lives, but he is also “gentle” in his dealings with us.

Come Holy Spirit and immerse us in the reality of the presence of God! Fill us to overflowing with the praise of God and enable us to declare with courage and confidence, the glory of God to others!

Ukraine Mission Trip 2019

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. -Jesus, John 10:10

I just returned from a fantastic trip with a small team from the US to Ukraine on behalf of ServeNow, the mission organization I lead as President. I thought I would share a few personal highlights of this trip as a means of conveying the needs we saw, but especially the ways God is working in transforming real people’s lives and hearts in Ukraine.

The first story I will share has been quite a remarkable journey. A few years ago, our Ukrainian Directors had it on their hearts to provide a skill training program around baking for young girls in vulnerable situations. The young girl behind the inspiration for the bakery training was an orphan named Anita. We met Anita on this trip as she was home for Easter (pictured below on the very right next to me). Anita is now serving in the war-zone, having felt called by God there despite the constant danger to her life!

Anita

But years ago, she told Tanya, our Ukraine Director, that at a very young age she saw friends of hers being raped, caught up in prostitution, and swept into human trafficking; and so to protect herself she began to dress like a boy, talk like a boy and act like a boy for a time. This is a vicious cycle for a high percentage of orphan girls in Ukraine.

When Tanya heard this she felt ServeNow had to do something to protect girls like this by giving them a practical life skill. At the same time, the wife and husband who adopted Anita and other orphan girls (the wife is pictured on very left of above picture with me and Tanya and Anita), had been praying for their girls to have the ability to learn baking skills. Over these last few years, we have been offering a bakery skill training program in answer to those prayers, and on this trip met the 3 newest graduates (pictured below with a bakery graduation gift)!

BakeryGraduates

But the remarkable part of this trip in connection with this project, was how it seems God is bringing together the collective dreams of multiple parties towards a full cafe/bakery training program. Over the last few years, we have been looking for and discussing our own building/cafe. However, nothing was coming together or working out despite our efforts and prayers. This was also causing discouragement on the part of our bakery teacher and her husband who have this dream on their hearts; along with the rest of us.

But during lunch with the pastor of a local church (where we have held some of our bakery training classes in the past), we learned of their new church building plans that would include a cafe which we could operate and be able to provide training from if we are able to work out a partnership agreement! This would benefit the local church (which is our goal in every project) as a way of serving the community and creating a bridge with the local church, while costing us less than purchasing/owning our own building.

The remarkable thing is that our new teacher’s father, who is on our board in Ukraine, shared with our team through tears in his eyes how he had told his daughter he had had a dream where the bakery would be inside a church and that she was not to worry about trying to figure out a location for all this, as it would happen in God’s timing! It certainly left us excited that perhaps this could be God’s solution…

The next story I would like to share happened while we were at our directors local church for Orthodox Easter where I preached, and then spoke the next day at their church charity picnic. The church was having this special picnic to help raise money to pay for the train tickets of some of the kids ServeNow brings to a summer camp each year. We met a couple of those kids at the church and even got to hear some of them recite some verses of the bible and hear one of them (Liza) sing which was extremely special. Ever since the camp, she has been taking the bus often by herself, to come to church in the next village (since her village doesn’t have a church). She loves to sing and has an amazing voice. I told her she is famous in America because I have shown video of her singing to many people!

SummerCampKids

But what really touched my heart was how her and a friend had their own table at the church charity picnic where they were selling items they had made so other kids could go to camp this year! I bought a picture from one of them to help support their efforts! Ukraine is a very poor country, and this is not something typical for churches to do. So, it was a very special event and moving to see them raise enough funds for 16 train tickets!

SummerCampKids1

During that same picnic event I also had a conversation with a couple who has it on their heart to start a literacy program with nearby Roma/Gypsy people. This is something we have been talking about for the past several years as a huge need within this community. The cool part would be that the wife is one of our cosmetology graduates! She has started her own business out of her home, being she has six kids of her own.

Speaking of our cosmetology training…

That same day, I have to admit I had a brand-new experience that I was a bit nervous about. I had my first manicure and pedicure!

BenNails

The only reason I did this is because of who it was done by. Several years ago, our Ukraine Directors shared with me the story of Luda, a refugee from Crimea (pictured above about to do my nails!). Because of the invasion of Crimea by Russia, Luda and her husband were forced to relocate. However, she had a specialized job that did not carry over when she was forced to flee. After trying several jobs, she decided to take cosmetology lessons. She then had a dream to train other refugees and women in need of a skill, so they too could generate needed income. We helped her to do just that and have had several classes go through the training already. As a result she opened her own beauty salon, called Dream in Style, hiring some of the graduates!

Cosmetology1

It was quite amazing for me personally to see the salon and meet some of the women we helped provide training for! It struck me that just a couple of years ago this was just a one-page piece of paper on my desk and a dream in the heart of a refugee! But to hear how this has completely changed the lives of women, and to hear some of their stories was touching. We were also able to welcome the two newest students who have just begun their training and hear their stories.

Cosmetology5

One of them grew up in an orphanage. While in school, she fell in love and got married. However, her husband was an alcoholic and abusive and so she has been living alone in what you can barely call a one-room “apartment” with her two daughters. But, a couple summers ago, her two daughters were at one of our summer camps and have been going to a local church ever since and now her mom is able to go through our cosmetology training!

The other woman lost her husband and was pregnant at the time with their third baby who also tragically died. She is also a refugee from the war zone. Before they shared their stories with our team, I had shared with them the story of Ruth and Naomi which seemed to resonate with them. Later, one of them posted the following: The Lord gives us only good people! I meet the wonderful Americans yesterday who believe that dreams come true. These wonderful believers help me to gain a new profession! I am grateful to every good person who is now in my life and help in such a way so I do not fall into depression! You are my incentive to life! Thank you for my new life and new awesome friends! I believe that now I will be fine and my dream will come true!

The last thing I will focus on is the medical equipment and wheelchairs we help provide to hospitals and disabled people throughout Ukraine. Many hospitals lack even enough beds or the beds they have are absolutely horrible for patients. We saw medical equipment and furniture dating back 30-40 years/to Soviet Union Days!

Hospital1

While hospitals have wonderfully dedicated staff, doctors and nurses, they do not receive the medical equipment, medicine, or funding they need to adequately function. Attempted reforms have been put forward in recent years, but state funding only provides a bare minimum that hardly even covers the cost of electricity and very low salaries. Some hospitals don’t even have hot water!

Additionally, disabled people cannot afford to buy a wheelchair. Some try to make their own kind of wooden slab devices with wheels (if lucky) to at least get around some in the house, while most are not able to leave their room/house at all!

Larisa for example, one of the women we visited, was not able to leave her room for 8 years because of not being able to walk! This was devastating to her because she loves being outside. It was as if she became a prisoner in her own room. However, this all changed for her recently, when we were able to provide her with her own wheelchair! She was so excited to tell us that now she can go outside again.

UkraineWheelchair

Peter was another elderly man we met who is disabled. When he was very young he stepped on a landmine left over from World War 2 times, right near his home where we were. It was only recently through ServeNow that he received his first wheelchair for outside use. His sister, who helps take care of him, made sure to tell us that now he can help her as she has helped him all these years! As we were leaving, a team member said they would be in our prayers, but they said they would be praying for us so we can help more people! That made us more excited about another 100 wheelchairs that will be released from customs soon for others like Peter in Ukraine!

Wheelchairs2

While there is much more that could be shared from this trip those are a few of my personal highlights. It was a reminder to me of something I felt personally called to: “Make the God given dreams of others a reality.” While that is not something I can do, God is doing it through all involved in ServeNow, whether through giving, praying or serving. He is a God who answers prayer, cares especially for the most vulnerable, gives us the desire of our hearts as we delight in him, and brings to pass every promise he makes to us, providing all we need to do whatever he calls us to do through his grace!

To God be the glory, great things He has done!

***The team that went with me is wanting to raise funding for another “container” of medical equipment for hospitals and wheelchairs for disabled people. You can help bring hope to a world in need with them here: Help Change the Lives of the Most Vulnerable in Ukraine.

To learn more about ServeNow and get involved click here: www.weservenow.org. Or feel free to e-mail me personally: bfoley@weservenow.org.

Abuse & The Cross: 3 Powerful Truths

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. -Isaiah 53:4-5

I love this time of the year where as Good Friday and Easter approach our thoughts turn to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I always enjoy writing or speaking on various powerful truths we can apply to our lives out of these two historical events and central tenants of the Gospel message.

But for this past year, I have had something different than before deeply impressed on my heart that I am now ready to share. I usually focus on how Jesus bore our sin on the cross and then the reality of the resurrection. The theme is often forgiveness, grace, mercy, salvation, reconciliation with God, redemption and eternal life.

However, this year I want to share some thoughts designed for those who have been victims of abuse of any kind, those who have been hurt or wounded by others, or those who suffer from post-traumatic stress.

I want to draw your attention to three powerful truths and one conclusion that can bring immense healing to our lives. Before I share the three points, here is the conclusion: On the cross, Jesus endured the greatest amount of abuse and trauma of any human being. But through the resurrection, Jesus overcame and rose to new life by which we can find healing for our broken and shattered lives as well. As someone I follow on Twitter recently posted: Jesus said, “It is finished” not “I am finished” on the cross!

Here are the three points of application to our lives:

  • Jesus Christ identifies with us in all our suffering, pain and sorrow, because of his death on the cross for us.
  • Jesus Christ has power to impart healing to the broken places of our lives and heart, because of his resurrection.
  • We can overcome anything we have gone through or will go through, because Jesus has overcome the worst that anyone could or will go through.

Let’s start with point number one: Jesus Christ identifies with us in all our suffering, pain and sorrow because of his death on the cross for us. This is important to recognize and know. Jesus is not some outside observer of our suffering. God is not a distant God removed from the pain of human injustice, suffering, abuse and trauma. On the cross, he absorbed all our personal and collective pain.

Just let that sink in for a moment.

No matter the earthly hell any of us may have been through; no matter how awful the abuse we may have endured, no matter how painful the suffering or intense the trauma; Jesus Christ has felt it all. He fully identifies with us. He is the only one who can say he truly understands. We are the one’s however that cannot ever fully relate to him in his suffering. Only He has endured the pain of all the world. Darkness covered the land as he hung on the cross. While truly incomprehensible to us; our pain is not incomprehensible to him. In this we can find comfort; he does understand our pain.

Secondly, Jesus Christ has power to impart healing to the broken places of our lives and heart, because of his resurrection. If Jesus had only died on the cross, we would find a companion in our suffering; but not a conqueror through suffering. We would find comfort; but not healing. The resurrection of Christ to new life has direct application to our lives in a similar way; we too can find healing and new life no matter what abuse or suffering we have endured.

Let me be quick to point out however that when Jesus rose to new life the scars or wounds remained. Likewise, we cannot erase what we have gone through. But we do not need to be crippled by what we have been through. Through his resurrection, there is healing power for our broken and shattered lives.

Thirdly, we can overcome anything we have gone through or will go through, because Jesus has overcome the worst that anyone could or will go through. Over the past year, I went through a personal journey of dealing with some symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress I realized was affecting me in various ways. One of the crippling aspects of this is that what happened in the past seems to be happening all over again in the present when it flairs up through various triggers. One of the most simple but powerful things I learned to say to myself when this would happen is “that was then, this is now.”

What this does is two things. First, it acknowledges that what happened did indeed happen; instead of denying or suppressing the reality of it. Secondly, it reminds me that there is a distinction between the past and present and I don’t need to live in the past as if it is happening all over again. Just as those who have found redemption from their past at the cross; the abused can find healing from the pain of the past at the cross too. Jesus’ scars do remain as a reality of what happened on the cross. But He is not subjected to crucifixion all over again; he has risen to new life! That was then, this is now. He overcame and we can “come over” into new life as well!

In conclusion, I want to share a few very practical tips that have helped me and others I have spoken too in this journey. But I wanted most of all in this article to show how the core of the Gospel message is so relevant to our deepest pain, abuse or trauma. The central events of the Cross and Resurrection have direct application to our lives today:

  • Jesus suffered more abuse and trauma on the cross than any other human being. In this painful reality there is comfort for victims, because He can fully identify with our pain. He “hung” there on the cross experiencing it all with us.
  • If anyone could claim the “victim” label it was Jesus. However, while he identifies with victim’s, this is not what most defines him. Scripture in fact, emphasizes his victory on the cross! Redefining how you see yourself and view your experience is important to finding healing. Click here to read an article I published on this titled: Victim or Victor.
  • Despite the abuse and suffering he endured, Jesus extended forgiveness from the cross. Forgiveness is critical to our own healing. Bitterness in our heart does not destroy those who harm us, it only poisons and destroys us. To be clear, forgiveness does not minimize or make what others have done to us ok; but it does open the way for God’s healing in our hearts. Forgiveness is also not a feeling, but a choice. And because it is a choice it is empowering to the one extending that forgiveness. Even though we can’t control what happens to us, we can control our response. Remembering all that Jesus has forgiven us of empowers us to likewise forgive others.
  • The story does not end with Jesus being abused, traumatized and crucified. It ended triumphantly when He rose again to a new life. While his scars were a reminder of what he had endured, his life was now defined by a resurrected glory! He rose with “healing in his wings”, and because He overcame the worst trauma imaginable, we too can overcome and be resurrected into a new life. We can find healing, new life, joy and peace in his resurrection power.
  • What happened to Jesus on the cross was not good; but it resulted in immense good for mankind. While not everything that happens to us is good, God works all things together for good to those who love him. Finding meaning and purpose out of the pain you go through can bless and comfort others and can help in your own healing.
  • Embrace grief and mourn what has been lost. Nobody likes to grieve but grieving what has been lost is important in order to move forward. Trying to suppress our sadness or grief only delays the process. However, there is healing in grieving and in the Bible, we see a full range of emotions visibly expressed. Talking about our struggles with a trusted counselor or friend also helps us process our grief.
  • People suffering from PTSD often have “flashbacks” where what happened to them in the past feels like it is happening all over again. That is one of the symptoms of PTSD, the past bleeds into the present when triggered by any number of things. One of the most helpful mental switches to make is to simply say “That was then, this is now.” In other words, distinguishing between the past and present is vital to overcoming trauma.
  • Taking Art, Music, and Dance lessons can be helpful, especially for kids, as they often do not have the ability to articulate their feelings of pain. It has been demonstrated that these forms of self-expression can have a healing effect. Mastering a new skill is another way to build confidence and find new life and hope after a traumatic event.
  • Victims of PTSD are afraid of something similar happening again and begin to go into survival mode. In some situations, this is necessary, but the human body cannot flourish in constant “survival mode.” Learning to “take every thought captive” is vital. Developing a sense of optimism and not thinking of the worst-case scenario in every situation is also important.
  • Finding security and taking refuge in Christ is essential. Recognizing he is Sovereign and rules and reigns is critical. He has been given all authority over heaven and earth. While life may not be “safe” we are safe in Him.
  • Looking ahead to eternity when God will restore all things fully and make every wrong right again for his people: Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”…He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5).

Ultimately, staying focused on the Gospel message, on Jesus himself, is the true source of comfort, healing, hope, security and victory. He identifies with us in our pain, rose to new life through which he imparts healing, and because he overcame, we too can overcome whatever abuse, trauma or pain we have endured or gone through. He is Risen!

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. -Revelation‬ ‭1:17-18‬ ‭NIV‬‬

“Celebrity” Church Culture Needs to End

I believe a movement has been underway for some time in the church in the US that is now beginning to surface more visibly. Scandal after scandal has been rocking the church; from sexual abuse scandals to financial scandals to character scandals. It is telling that perhaps the most visible, Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek Church, has played such a vital role in the “seeker sensitive” megachurch model. In the early days, it seemed their original vision was spot on in pursuing the kind of church we see reflected in Acts 2. But somewhere along the way it seems that vision got clouded over by other ambitions, ego, and lack of leadership accountability (which is a similar pattern unfolding in many other recent cases).

While I am not ready by any means to condemn every megachurch as unbiblical (there are many great churches that are large in size), I and many others across the US, have felt uneasy for years that we have a serious flaw in our approach or even idea of “church.”

We have become a country of consumers looking for the latest, greatest, newest, most hip, most popular church that can satisfy our wants and needs; instead of asking “how can we serve each other?” We look for leaders with the most charisma instead of character; to a few gifted people, instead of a community of people. We look for preachers who are excellent communicators with sound-bite statements that make us feel good; instead of messengers sensitive to the Holy Spirit, who are faithful in sharing what God has to say to us from His Word in season. We also look to one or maybe two “pastors” only to hear from God for us; instead of coming together where everyone has something to contribute as the Spirit leads (1 Corinthians 14:26-39).

We put our faith in “celebrity” pastors or dynamic leaders; rather than focusing on the presence of the King of Kings in our midst working through ALL his people. We limit God to an hour or at most two, once a week, to operate on our schedule, according to our agenda, leaving no real time to allow him to work or move in our midst as his people. Worship easily becomes a show on a stage designed to entertain us by a few talented people.

We need to also see that more people are not always a sign of “success.” Yes, God loves every person on the planet and desires none to perish. We need to “go” and share the Gospel with as many people as possible using every possible mean to do so. But we need to do more than lead people to Christ or hold church services. We are called to make disciples. True disciple making cannot happen once a week in a big group context. Jesus preached to the crowds, but he was not enamored by the crowds. In fact, his teaching often purposely became “harder” the larger the crowd, resulting in people walking away (See John 6), so that only the truly committed remained. We need to stop watering the truth down in an effort to be “sensitive” and make people comfortable. Jesus is not going to ask us how big our churches were; but whether we made real disciples. This is truly all that matters in the end (Matthew 28:18-20). Everything else is just “hay” and straw” that will be burned up and amount to nothing in eternity (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

Francis Chan is one of the leaders on the forefront of this movement away from spectator churches and celebrity leaders, having lived in that world himself for many years. He recently wrote a book called Letters to the Church that I highly recommend all believers, leaders and churches wrestle with and work through how that could be applied to our various context’s. I know I have wrestled with these same thoughts and ideas for over a decade. At the very least, we need to see that our approach to “church” is flawed and often very unbiblical and sets up or enables ambitious and talented leaders to be elevated in an unhealthy way that leads to scandals and shattered faith.

One of the best exercises I ever did was after six years of being a pastor, sitting down to write a little book for the mission organization I lead, called, The Basic Things You Need to Know About the Church where I simply went to the bible to see what it said about what the church is and what it is do to; instead of everything we have become accustomed to. If we simply focused on what Scripture says, and stripped away everything else that has come to define “church”, I believe it would look a lot different from what we have accepted or defined as “church.”

We also have to stop looking to leaders in a way that our faith depends on them. We need to be intentional about our own walk with Christ and living that out in the context of community, which does not happen just by “going to church” on Sunday’s and depending on a few leaders to “feed us.” If our faith is in people, we will always be disappointed and left with a faith that is shattered. We will also become disillusioned and disappointed perhaps even with God himself, instead of realizing it’s sin in people that results in scandals. We need to place our loyalty in Christ and Christ alone; not our leaders unconditionally or uncritically. No leader should demand unconditional loyalty or suppress those with concerns from the freedom to share without fear of losing favor or being labeled as “problem people.”

The church is no place for a “good ole boy’s” network to thrive. The church is a place for all people, of all backgrounds, to come together as a diverse people, around the person of Jesus Christ, the only one worthy of our unconditional loyalty and obedience.  The age of celebrity churches and leaders needs to end if we ever hope to truly be a healthy people and credible witness again to a world that is watching with deserved skepticism.

Enabling Abusers or Protecting the Vulnerable?

Remember how the enemy has mocked you, Lord, how foolish people have reviled your name. Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever. Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land. Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name. Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long. Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries, the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually. -Psalm 74:18-23

Let me just come right out and say something that this article is about: leaders and churches need to review their theology on mercy, justice, repentance, forgiveness, church discipline and trust. We need to stop enabling perpetrators of injustice and sexual predators while doing nothing serious to protect the abused and vulnerable.

First of all, I know all too well as a former pastor the pain of most people siding with abusers or predators OVER the abused and vulnerable. I had to deal with several sensitive situations in the church I pastored. In each case, many people were appalled at my “lack of grace” and felt (without knowing what I knew) I, or leadership, was being “judgmental.” The focus always got shifted to people feeling sorry for, and rallying around the person being dealt with as if they were the victim rather than seeing or trusting leadership was taking steps necessary to protect the flock from potentially dangerous situations and people. While this was personally very painful, I do not regret in hindsight taking the steps I took to protect those potentially vulnerable or the church at large from destructive people or those living in blatant sin that needed confronted for their good and the health of the church. I have been deceived before by manipulative people and know the damage it does.

But let’s talk about why so many of us as leaders today are so timid in this area. I believe it is due to a faulty theology and fear of what people will think of us. For example, a common misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:1-6 is about not judging. Out of context the first two verses seem to indicate this very thing, that we should not “judge” others. But in context, (and in light of other passages) this is not what Jesus is teaching. Jesus is rebuking the judgmental hypocrisy of the Pharisee’s who could identify lesser “sin” in others while they had greater “sin” in their lives that they were not dealing with. Jesus calls them to first deal with their sin SO THAT they can properly deal with the sin in others: You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5).

It is not possible to live life without making judgments. We make judgments every day about everyone we meet. The issue is making wrong judgments or being hypocritical in our judgments. In John 7:27 Jesus directly says, Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly. Notice, he did not say to not make judgments. He said to judge correctly.

Secondly, let’s talk about justice and mercy. It seems to me we have emphasized God’s mercy to the exclusion of God’s justice. This has resulted in perpetrators of abuse being enabled, instead of victims protected. The #MeToo Movement and #ChurchToo movement have done much to expose this shameful reality and how wide-spread this problem truly is even in our churches.

We need to recognize that Scripture talks A LOT about God’s justice and that He is in fact a God of passionate justice; not just a God of mercy. Just read through the Psalms and Prophets and note how often his justice is referenced and how many tearful prayers there are for God to defend the oppressed, the victim and the abused and bring perpetrators to justice.

Secondly, while mercy triumphs over judgment; it is vital we note that mercy is conditioned on true repentance. Proverbs 28:13 clearly says, Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

At the same time, it is important we understand that mercy for our sin is not the same as being spared from the consequences of our sin. When King David repented of his sin with Bathsheba, God forgive him. But there were still certain consequences that played out in tragic ways in his family as a result (see 2 Samuel 12).

Thirdly, let’s talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. At the cross Jesus did say, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. But the extension of forgiveness is not the same as the experience of forgiveness or reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation can only be received where there is godly and genuine repentance (2 Corinthians 2). We are not forgiven and reconciled to God until or unless we repent of our sin and put our faith in Christ (Acts 2:36-41). In our eagerness to show “grace” we often run ahead of even the Lord in this area. When was the last time you even heard a sermon or evangelistic call that emphasized “repentance?” Yet, this was the very first message and core response Jesus emphasized when he began his public ministry (Matthew 4:27). Forgiveness and reconciliation is conditioned on repentance.

Likewise, in human relationships, we are to forgive as God has forgiven us. But for a relationship to be reconciled there must be confession and repentance on the perpetrator’s part.

Additionally, we need to distinguish between forgiveness and trust. Forgiveness is to be freely extended, but trust needs earned and discerned. Manipulative people prey on our lack of discernment and shame us into trusting because our theology is faulty in this area. Proverbs is full of verses that help us discern different people and warn of trusting the wrong people.

While I long to see and rejoice in even the most wicked repenting and experiencing God’s redeeming grace, the church today in the US has a problem that is leaving people vulnerable, enabling predators, and preventing healing for the hurting, abused, victim and oppressed. Jesus has become more of a “Mister Rogers” nice-guy than the zealous, whip making, over-turning tables, infuriated by injustice, Savior that He is.

In fact, I will end with this very passage. Read it again carefully. Note the impact and result of Jesus’ actions in the temple. Apparently his righteous rage did not scare away those who needed his healing touch; on the contrary it created a place of “safety” for them to find the healing they needed, while dealing with those abusing and taking advantage of the vulnerable. The blind, the lame and children found shelter because Jesus dealt with abuse and injustice. Can the same be said of our churches and leadership or are we unwittingly having the opposite effect?

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?” -Matthew 21:12-16

Anxiety Antidotes

Unless the Lord had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy. -Psalm 94:17-19

I am writing this article hopefully as an encouragement to others who may battle with anxiety. I have read various statistics about the increase of anxiety in our culture and know personally how crippling and defeating it can be. Early in my walk with the Lord I really could not relate to or understand those who struggle with anxiety. However, over the years my own battles with anxiety have given me understanding, sympathy and compassion for those who do. It is easy to judge or tell people they shouldn’t worry or wonder why they are so anxious; but much like fear, anxiety is very real even if often irrational. But I believe our Lord is particularly sensitive towards those with an anxious mind/heart and rather than condemning, desires to comfort us.

In writing this, my hope and prayer is that you will experience the comfort that He alone can provide us as we apply the antidotes he has given us to combat anxiety.

Let me start with a personal example. The other evening I went for a quick walk and began pouring out some frustration in my heart. That morning our pastor had preached a great message on anxiety, but all day I was still restless and agitated. It finally spilled out while walking and praying. My prayer essentially was this: “God I am tired of the anxiety of feeling like I have to depend on you on a monthly-weekly-daily basis.” As soon as that came out of me, it was as if God showed up and whispered the following: “The problem is not a life of depending on me daily, but your anxiety in not trusting me as your Heavenly Father. I want you to daily depend on me, but without anxiety.”

Something broke that moment for me and since then I have been thinking more on what Jesus taught about daily dependence on God, especially in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). First of all, in the “Lord’s Prayer”, he taught us to pray “give us today our daily bread.” Notice, two things. First, we are to broaden our prayers from “me” to “us” and “my” to “ours.” This is not a minor point or irrelevant to our lives. Part of the problem of worry is that it is very self-focused and isolating. Broadening our prayer to include the needs of others takes the focus off ourselves and makes us sensitive to others. It reminds us we are not alone, the only ones, or unique with having needs.

Secondly, he did not teach us to pray for the bread we need tomorrow to be given to us today; but for what we need specifically for today. This is a critical point because most of our (my) anxieties revolve around the future. Usually our fears are not so much for today but tomorrow. We worry about next week, next month, this year or even years later. And if I am being honest, I know I am looking for God’s provision now for what I need later, which means I am really wanting to find security and certainty in the provision instead of the Provider. But this is not the way Jesus wants us to live.

Later, in Matthew 6, Jesus spends a whole section (25-34) talking about not worrying about our needs for tomorrow or making that our main concern, promising that as we put the priority of his kingdom and righteousness first in our lives, he will tend to our needs. He concludes with this, Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Until my recent “conversation” with God over this, I found this way of life to seem stressful and irresponsible. As Americans, we are always worried about our savings, investments and retirement plans for the future. While there are Proverbs about being responsible in those areas; worrying about the future is not the place any of this should be coming from.

But what really has struck me anew is how liberating it is to just live in today, rather than worrying about the future today. God’s grace is sufficient for our needs for today and God’s grace will be sufficient for our needs every day when those days become “today.” We need to take it literally one day at a time as God’s grace and mercy is only given (and new) each day and when actually needed.

Worrying is evidence that we aren’t trusting Him as our Father. Worry means that our focus is on the wrong things. While we all wrestle with anxieties, worry, and fears for different reasons, in different seasons, to different degree’s, giving into those anxieties is sinful, as our faith is not in the reality of God as our Father, His promises, and his love for us. Worry can lead us to taking life into our own hands and becoming our own “god” instead of being still and knowing he is God. It also cripples us in what He wants us to do, the joy he wants us to have, and the peace he wants us to walk in.

Part of the issue with our anxieties is also our expectations. When I am anxious about something, I want the cause of it to be resolved. I want solutions. I want my circumstances to immediately change or troubles to go away. However, this is not what Jesus promised us. He has however, promised us his peace in the midst of situations that are not ideal as we pray. Consider the following verses:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 4:6-9

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. -Jesus, John 14:26-27

Jesus has promised us his peace which comes through the person of the Holy Spirit who is our comforter and comforts our hearts. Nowhere has Jesus promised to make our lives “comfortable” but he has promised to comfort the hearts of his people as they look to him in faith, gratitude and prayer. It is the “consolation” of the Holy Spirit that soothes our anxious hearts and minds. It is as we rest in his promises, receive from his person, refocus on who He is, and remind ourselves of what He has already done for us, that we come to know his peace.

When you are wrestling with anxiety here are God’s antidotes:

  • Reflect on Who He is as our Heavenly Father who is good
  • Receive from him the comfort, peace and joy only He can provide as our Comforter
  • Rest in his promises, unfailing love and unchanging character
  • Remind yourself of all he has already done for you or brought your through
  • Remember to take it one day at a time
  • Refocus your thoughts on His Word
  • Recommit to a life of obedience and walking in his ways

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.Philippians 4:8-9.

We Don’t Need to Figure it All Out

“If you describe a kiss in sheer physical terms, it sounds repulsive. Two people press their moist, ceased facial orifices together, cinch tight the sphincter muscles to draw the flesh around the orifice into a bulbous mound, and exchange saliva and breath. It takes imagination to transmute that into an act of intimacy and eroticism. It takes the power to see beyond and beneath the stark physicality of it. Those who look at the stars and see only dead rock and gases are like men who have spent their lives analyzing kisses and have never kissed anyone. We do that; Christians do, churches do.” -Mark Buchanan, Your God is Too Safe, pg 54

Western Thought has been greatly influenced by the Enlightenment. We have a great need to explain everything and analyze all things rationally. We operate with pragmatism as our mode of life, endlessly asking “does this practically work in my life?” In our “microwave” culture, if something doesn’t “work” immediately we often have no use or time for it.

While there are positive aspects to this way of life, it leaves no room for wonder, mystery, rest or awe. In our need to explain God we have failed to experience God. In our need to understand the Trinity, the Lord’s Supper, miracles etc; we have failed to receive, rest in, and be comfortable with the supernatural. We have reduced the Sovereign unpredictability of God to religious formula’s. We have replaced relationship with God with principles. We have it all figured out instead of daily admitting our need for God and trusting in him to lead us. In doing so we have lost a healthy fear, reverence, awe and dependency on God.

Not everything needs explained rationally. Not everything needs to satisfy our intellect. Some things simply need to be received with child-like faith and experienced with a sense of awe and wonder. God cannot be tamed or domesticated. Scripture does not need apologized for. If it was in fact put truly to a movie in all it’s “rawness” it would be more than R rated! This is not something to be embarrassed about, but rather it is what makes it so real and relatable to our lives. This life in this fallen world is not G rated after all! We need to stop “dumbing it down” or “dismissing” uncomfortable parts or truth.

Our God is wild; yet He is good. He is unpredictable; but we are secure in him. He is not out to make our lives comfortable; but he does comfort his people. God cannot be controlled by our prayers, obligated by our piety, manipulated by our sacrifices or reduced to religious formulas. God is God. There is a holy unpredictability and wildness about him that is humanly frustrating but divinely perfect.

Personally, I think one of the most challenging but liberating things to learn in regard to relationship with him (especially in the context of prayer/faith) is to “expect without expectations.” God just doesn’t work in our ways, timing, or according to our expectations. While this breeds frustration, disillusionment and disappointment, we can choose to succumb to our bitterness with him not working as we want to dictate, or, in humility, we can discover the ways of God more fully as we ask him to teach us.

This is not a 3-point sermon or “5 Steps to a Blessed Life Now.” This is a call to simply accept God is God and we are not. This is a call to stop trying to figure it all out and simply rest in who He is. This is a call to resist reducing relationship to formula’s. This is a call to be free from trying to explain everything and instead to experience the beauty, majesty and power of God. This is a call to simply trust Him. There is after all a vast difference between knowing about God verse actually knowing God.

Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you— majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? -Exodus 15:11

5 Things the US Church Needs to Realize

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. -Jesus, Matthew‬ ‭28:19-20‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Over the past four years I have been traveling around the world and the US with the mission organization I lead called ServeNow. It has been awesome, exhausting, inspiring and exasperating! I have learned much, my faith has been stretched, my patience tried, leadership enriched, and eyes opened even more to the vibrancy of faith around the world. I have been humbled by the sacrifice, service, passion, compassion and joy of fellow believers and co-labors in other nations and many generous people here at home.

But, I have it on my heart to share five insights I think the church in the US is in desperate need of being challenged by and encouraged with. I pray this article could be used for both those purposes.

  • The world has changed dramatically in 100 years…even just the past 20. We need to change as well in our mindset and primary methods when it comes to missions.

In 1900 about 83% of Christians in the world lived in Europe/North America and only 17% lived in Asia, Africa and Latin America. But did you know, just 100 years later, those numbers are almost exactly reverse? 75% of Christians in the world now live in Africa, Asia and Latin America, while only 25% live in Europe and North America.

On the one hand this represents one of the most remarkable and exciting periods of the growth and expansion of Christianity around the world. On the other hand, the church in the US has not yet truly realized this shift (other than being depressed over the decline of Christianity in the West) and it’s implications when it comes to our perception of Christianity, approach to missions, and future of the church.

The world has changed. The church is growing and is incredibly vibrant in Asia, Africa and Latin America with historic growth also happening now in the Middle East. One of the lessons we need to learn is that we have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world. We can be inspired, encouraged, challenged and revived through their example and witness.

In fact, I believe this is the key to renewal within the church in the US; a combination of vibrant Christian immigrants coming to the West (in our heated political rhetoric we don’t realize that roughly 2/3rds of refugees coming to the US are Christians (see here) and they have been bringing new life to the Church in Europe/US) as well as believers from the US going to other countries and seeing for themselves what God is doing and can do in our hearts, lives and churches again.

In regard to missions, we have truly entered a time where the Great Commission is being fulfilled by believers in all nations going to all nations, as a pastor friend of mine recently put it. Missionaries are not just sent from Europe/North America anymore; but from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In addition, while we think we are the “center” of the world/Christianity, North Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population, while 75% of the world’s population lives in Asia and Africa combined! They are also closest to the majority of the most unreached people. Therefore, it makes most sense normally, for us to come alongside them so that they can reach out to the unreached sharing similar cultures, language, customs etc; and since they also possess the passion, vision and vibrancy to do so.

  • 83% of Church-going Christians in the US have no real idea what the Great Commission is or means…let alone engaged in any real way. What in the world is being taught (or not taught) in our churches?

This is absolutely shocking to me. This was revealed in a study in 2018 put out by George Barna. He found that 51% surveyed had no idea what the Great Commission was at all. 7% said they may have heard of it and 25% said they had but couldn’t recall the meaning of it. This leads me to this question: what in the world is being taught…or not taught…in our churches if that many people don’t know and aren’t engaged in the Great Commission?

What else does the church exist for but to make disciples who make disciples? If our church programs/activities are not resulting in true disciples being made then we should shut down those programs and do what Jesus told us to do.

Additionally we have become too internally/domestic focused. ECFA recently came out with their 2018 giving report and while giving has been up 5.9%, giving to international missions has been down negatively that same amount. This means people are giving more domestically but not internationally.

But the bible, from the very beginning to the very end, is missional. Our God is a missionary God. He told Abraham that he would bless him to be a blessing to all the nations (Genesis 12:3). David, in the Psalms makes clear in his prayers that his motivation in asking for God’s blessing was so God’s name and salvation would be known in all the world (Psalm 67:2). The angels who appeared to the shepherds said they had come with good news of great joy that will be for ALL people. (Luke 2:10). Jesus clearly stated to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20) and his last words to his disciples before ascending to heaven was, But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8).

Yes, start right where you are, but heaven forbid it stop there! This is not an either/or issue but a both/and. The Gospel is for our neighbor next door and neighbor across the world. The classic story of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) began with a man trying to justify himself with his limited and prejudiced definition of who his neighbor was. Jesus’ parable blasted his prejudice and made clear who our “neighbor” is: anybody, anywhere we come across in need; no matter how different from us culturally, religiously, politically, racially or anything else that could divide us.

God’s love breaks all barriers and the Greatest Commandment is that we love God and love one another as we love ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). The day is fast approaching when around the throne will be people not just like us; but from every tribe, every tongue, every language worshiping Jesus (Revelation 7:9).

  • For all our appearances of generosity, US Christians collectively are not generous. We need to become a generous people reflecting the character of our generous God.

Did you know Christians in the US gave more during the Great Depression (3.3% of income) than we do now percentage wise (2.5%)? If we tithed just a minimum of 10% (4X what is being given currently) we are talking about $165 BILLION dollars. Check out this article on what could be accomplished: What Would Happen if the Church Tithed?

What is also disturbing to me about this overall is that giving is at the very heart and core of God’s nature and character and the Gospel message itself. For God so loved the world…what did he do? He gave. And He didn’t hold back. He didn’t give the minimum out of obligation or less than his best. He gave his all, his only, his best, in a way that was most sacrificial out of the generosity, grace, love and passion of his heart. When we give, we demonstrate God’s heart. We give expression to his character. And it is clear throughout Scripture that we are to give, give generously, give cheerfully and give to those most in need (James 1:27).

I believe a big part of the issue is that we have a spending problem. We are often selfish, earthly minded, materialistic and unmoved with compassion for people in need and people who need to hear the Gospel. We have lost an eternal perspective and think only of this life. Our hearts are in the wrong place because we pour our resources into ourselves instead of others.

But Jesus said, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21). Your heart is where you invest your resources, talent and time. Where is your heart?

  • The question our generation is asking is no longer “what is truth?” but “what is good?” We need to show God is good by doing good deeds and proclaiming the good news.

I believe this study was put out by Josh McDowell’s group that found those 21 and younger are not starting from the same place prior generations started from in what they are asking. While some may shake their heads over this, I believe it is a wonderful opportunity for the church.

The reason is because of what Jesus said, In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16). Good deeds done in Jesus’ name demonstrate that God is good. And this truth, that God is good, is so core and central to the Good News and God’s character.

I have seen the power of this over the past four years through ServeNow around the world. When we give blankets out to people for example in Asia, we hear statements such as, I experienced God’s love through this blanket you gave me. One girl at a summer camp in Ukraine shared the following, It was so good to be around Christians, I did not know that is so good! She came to Christ during the camp, is going to church and as a result her mom is now coming too!

The apostle Peter, in Acts 10:38, when he is describing the ministry of Jesus talks about how Jesus went around doing good. Jesus simply went around serving people in need, whatever those needs were. In this way, through his message and deeds, people came to see that God is good. It’s as simple as that and that is what this generation needs to see through our words and deeds, remembering that faith without deeds is dead. (James 2:14-16).

  • We are guilty of biblical injustice when it comes to the Good News and God’s Word. We need to repent and come back to doing what Jesus has told us to do.

I just met with the leader of another mission organization called Global Disciples. Galen Burkholder talks about and writes about the fact that there are 2 billion unreached people in the world today who have never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ. 42,000 people die everyday without hearing the Gospel even one time. If you were to line the caskets up they would stretch 6 miles. Every day. Additionally, 1 billion people lack access to any Scripture in any form.

It is an injustice that we have such access, resources and opportunity while other parts of the world do not; especially if we do nothing about this. Jesus was clear that those who have been given much will have much required of them and that our judgment will be more severe the more we had but squandered (see Luke 12:47-49 below). I just want to repeat here that if you are not doing anything to reach the unreached around the world you are part of the problem and guilty of injustice.

That may sound severe, but I think we need and can benefit from some “shock value” to shake us from our complacency and apathy. We are in need of repentance, humility and a return to God’s heart and passion for the world to know him and his salvation. I actually believe there is much to be hopeful about in the world, and even much hope for the church in the US/Europe. But let us live this short earthly life in light of eternity each day, making the most of every opportunity to do good and share God’s goodness, if we want to see renewal and revival here in the West.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. -Jesus, Luke 12:47-49

A Perspective on Abortion

“The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.” -Revelation‬ ‭12:4‬ ‭NIV‬‬

A lot of thoughts and emotions have gone through me since New York passed a bill allowing for abortions up to the due date of a baby if the mother’s health is at risk. In this blog article, I would like to share a few things that present a perspective on abortion slightly different than what others may be writing about in one major way.

First however, let me just say that for as bad as abortions are in the US; we are not unique. In fact, many countries of the world are far worse when it comes to abortion than the US. This is not a US only problem; this is a global problem.

Secondly, while for years this has been viewed as a “political” or “culture war” issue, I take issue with that. This is debated politically, but this is something beyond politics even though politics of course impacts this issue greatly. I prefer to view this as a leadership issue (reflecting a cultural issue) as well as a human rights issue affecting the absolute most vulnerable people of all: the unborn child.

But it’s more than that…

I could spend this article trying to logically, scientifically, philosophically and Scripturally make the case for life and against abortion. But I believe at this point, the majority of those who promote abortion are willfully choosing to ignore true science, reason, Scripture and evidence for the humanity of a child in the womb. So while I think true science, Scripture, reason and evidence is on the side of those promoting life, I think there is more at play than reason and evidence alone can convince.

That leads to this perspective that may be slightly different than what others are focusing on. While I believe everything should be done to champion life for the unborn and laws should be passed to ban abortion, it is not going to solve the issue. Even if there were strict abortion laws, people would find a way, because the problem goes deeper than laws; it’s a problem of the heart. And on top of this, it is a problem of real demonic evil.

Consider the passage above quoted from the book of Revelation. This is a description of a realm at work behind the visible that we see on a human level. We can read in the Gospel of Matthew for example, of King Herod’s murder of children in his attempt to kill Jesus after his birth being threatened that he was “born king of the Jews.” However, here in Revelation, we see that Satan was the inspiration behind Herod’s murderous slaughter of the most vulnerable. Here the visible and invisible meet together.

The only difference then and today is that babies can now be murdered in the womb before being born not just after being born.

There is something very real, demonic and evil behind abortion. Humans carry it out but Satan himself inspires or deceives people to carry it out, celebrate it and justify it. There is no other way to spin it or explain it. It defies reason, science, Scripture, life, and evidence.

Before I go further, let me offer the grace of the Gospel at this point. Although this in no way justifies those who have abortions, I also have seen or heard the weight of guilt many struggle with after having an abortion. And there are many reasons that we can at least understand why women may consider abortion due to vulnerable circumstances.

There is forgiveness for those who repent and confess their sin. Jesus specializes in redemption and is full of mercy and grace for those who come to him in brokenness.

But when abortion is celebrated, something evil is truly at work. When the most vulnerable are not safe and this is perceived as a good thing, it is a sad day and indication of human depravity. It is further evidence that this is something beyond politics; but a spiritual battle. It is the manifestation of the destructive work of Satan himself, the thief, who as Jesus warned us, comes to steal, kill and destroy. (John 10:10).

In the prophetic books of the Hebrew Scripture, we find children being offered as sacrifices to other gods. We find the prophets lamenting and crying out about this evil and injustice. And all through history, to this current day, different regimes and leaders have ordered or passed laws justifying the slaughter of children.

Behind this all is the true enemy of humanity: Satan himself. He is against life. And He is doing all he can to destroy life.

This is nothing new. From the beginning, Satan has been at work to destroy especially the most vulnerable, for this touches the heart of God most deeply. In the beginning of the book of Exodus, Pharaoh tried to prevent Hebrew male children from being born, and decreed that they should all be aborted (in that case drowned in the Nile river after birth). It was in this context that Moses was born, survived and went on to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt and lead them to freedom.

Imagine how different history would be had he not been born!

The same is true of Jesus. If anyone was born in more vulnerable circumstances it was him. If you put yourself in Mary’s shoes, she had all the justification to abort him had this happened today. There was the “shame” factor (by appearances it looked like he was born out of wedlock). There was the “economic insecurity” factor (they were not wealthy, where would they find resources to provide for him?). There was the “inconvenience” factor (His birth would drastically alter their future). There was even the “suffering” factor (Mary was told that his life would be a blessing, but also bring great sorrow to her heart as she would watch him suffer an agonizing death in the most brutal of ways).

Yet, despite all this, Mary choose life and choose to submit her life to God’s plan for her. Imagine if Jesus had been aborted!

Jesus is all about life. He has come that we might find eternal life through faith in him. He has come to heal our broken hearts and world. He has come to redeem and restore. He has come to save and deliver. He has come to forgive and reconcile us to relationship with God. He has come to give us “new life” and a new heart. He has come that we might be “born again” and find life that is truly life.

This new level of evil and celebration of murder is another reminder of our depravity and need for a true Savior. But it is also a frightening reminder that without repentance there will be only future judgment and justice when Jesus returns.

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” -Isaiah‬ ‭5:20‬ ‭NIV‬‬

A Reason For Your Faith

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. -1 Peter 3:14-16

The Christian faith is not a blind, irrational, subjective faith devoid of reason, reality and evidence. As Christians, we should not turn our minds off and fail to engage the culture around us and questions people have. In fact, we are commanded to be ready to give “the reason” for the hope that we have. This is called “apologetics”; not because we apologize for our faith, but because we are to defend our faith with credible reasons for why we believe. True Christianity does not fly in the face of reason; rather reason supports the claims of Scripture!

However, it is important to note that there is a “way” in which we are to do this: with gentleness and respect. We do have solid reasons or evidence but we can turn people away with our attitudes as easily as failing to reason credibly and clearly. In fact, this is becoming an increasing problem in our culture and may be the biggest stumbling block for giving people a reason not to embrace Christ; Christians not acting like Christ!

Ed Stetzer writes about this in his new book, “Christians in the Age of Outrage.” We have to model something different and not think we will win anyone through anger, being disrespectful or spewing our political venom. In other words, we need to be like Jesus, if we want to influence people for Jesus. Sadly, we are our own worst enemies in many cases. Ghandi once expressed it like this: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Ouch.

But this article is a plea for Christians to do a better job of engaging in apologetics. We do not need to be embarrassed, defensive or intimidated by those who appear intellectually superior. We have overwhelming evidence and reason for believing what we believe (such as a creation pointing to a Creator, Jesus as a historical person who did indeed rise from the dead, miracles being real and supernatural not superstitious, the bible being trustworthy etc).

From the “fine-tuning” of the universe in more ways possible than chance could explain, to moral law and human consciousness, to secular works at the time of Jesus providing clear evidence of his historicity, to hundreds of eye-witnesses to his resurrection and evidence that makes the case for the resurrection being the only logical and reasonable explanation, to archeological finds that again and again prove the reliability of Scripture, to much more; the evidence is in our favor.

There would not be time to go into all these (and more) arguments for why we can have confidence in what we believe in this blog article; rather my purpose is to encourage us to do our homework as Christians. In the age we live in, it is vital to our own faith, our children’s faith, and in effectively witnessing to others.

I just finished a much needed book called “Scientism and Secularism.” As the author, J.P. Moreland points out: “Christians must be taught not only what they believe but why they ought to believe it…Obviously, with glorious exceptions, the local church is a complete failure in this regard. We practice “ostrich Christianity”-we put our heads in the sand…Unfortunately, our failure…is causing young people to leave the church…the church’s shallowness of thought, including it’s biblical teachings and practices; the feeling that it is an unsafe place to express doubts and get answers to questions; it’s isolationism, that is, it’s failure to interact fairly with the surrounding culture; and, last but not least, the church’s anti-science attitude, including being out of step with scientific developments and debate…we try to “grow the church” by using watered-down, intellectually vacuous, simplistic preaching that is always applied to a parishioner’s private life while failing to deal from the pulpit with the broad cultural, intellectual, and moral issues facing us all; by emphasizing worship and good Christian music; and by trying to get people into small groups…there is nothing wrong with the last two practices, but conspicuously absent is any place in weekly church practice for people to learn; for their minds to be stretched; for learning to defend their faith; for becoming godly, intelligent ambassadors for Christ. People lack the courage to stand up for their faith in a non-defensive, winsome way…today, faith is choosing to believe something in the absence of evidence or reasons for the choice. Faith used to mean confidence or trust based on what one knows.” (pg39-40).

So, we need to do a better job learning, studying, and loving God with not only all our heart, soul and strength; but also our minds.

If you are wondering where to turn for this, consider the following  authors/apologists. This is not at all exhaustive but a good beginning place. Research different articles and books on apologetics in addition to the following people/authors:

Bible Engagement

“Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” -Joshua‬ ‭1:8‬ ‭NIV‬‬

One of the most alarming and growing concerns in the United States is the reality of “Biblical Illiteracy.” As a culture, less and less people are familiar at all with what the bible teaches or the stories of the bible.

However, what is even more concerning, is the lack of “Bible Engagement” in the church among God’s People. The numbers continue to slide and point to a rather pitiful reality that God’s people are not reading, let alone engaging in, or applying God’s Word to their lives.

Before God led the Israelite’s into the promised land, a land that was hostile and unfamiliar, he gave Joshua a little “pep talk.” In that “pep talk” he gave Joshua the key to being truly successful in what he was being called to do. That key was remaining in God’s Word and being sure to put it into practice.

Before Jesus would send his disciples out with the Gospel message, he gave them this promise in regard to their prayer life and bearing fruit in service to him: If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:7-8).

God’s Word is central to our effectiveness as his witnesses and ambassadors in this world.

The other day, I finished a book by Ed Stetzer called “Christians in the Age of Outrage.” In that book, he wrote the following that statistically proves this very word Jesus spoke to his disciples:

“After 10 years of research, LifeWay states two things about maturity:

1. Bible engagement is the #1 spiritual discipline for growth.
2. Bible engagement affects every other discipline. People who engage the Bible give more, go more, & evangelize more.

Read the Bible this year!”

As we head into 2019, I encourage you to prioritize spending time in the Bible. Commit to even just 15 minutes a day. Find a daily reading plan. Challenge a friend to join you to help encourage and hold each other accountable. At the same tine, don’t beat yourself up or quit in despair if you miss a day. But recognize that spending time in God’s Word and ensuring God’s Word is in us, is the key to spiritual effectiveness, service and witness.

Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you already know the bible or stories. Information is different than application. God’s word is to be read, mediated on, and applied to our lives. Additionally, the bible is unlike any other book in the world. Being that it’s God’s Word, it has an endless depth to it that we can never exhaust. God is always revealing more of himself and new insights in different seasons of our lives and situations we find ourselves in.

Ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes and heart anew and afresh as you engage in his Word. Ask him to give you a love for his word. Ask him to help you not take it for granted, for there are still over 1 billion in the world who don’t have access to the bible in any way, shape or form…

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. -Psalm 119:105

Becoming Effective and Productive

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. -2 Peter 1:5-8

Jesus has called us as believers to bear fruit for his glory. We are expected to be effective and productive in our witness of him in this world. But bearing fruit and being effective requires a deep commitment and being intentional. It doesn’t just “happen” without effort, discipline and focus on growing in the very character traits Peter highlights above. Therefore, in this article, I would like to draw your attention to these seven traits, but first we have to start with what has to come first before we can grow as God intends in these ways:

Faith

There is no Christian life apart from the life of faith. It is through faith in Christ that we are reconciled to God and forgiven our sins. It is through faith that we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and empowered by God to be like him and to serve him. True Christianity is not a religion of self-improvement, it is a radical life-transformation into a new reality, relationship with God, and relationship with others. It all begins by faith, continues by faith, and will be completed through faith. But our faith is not to end with salvation. That is just the beginning! Our faith is to increase and to our faith we are to add the following in increasing measure:

Goodness

Faith in a Good God who so loved us that he made the greatest personal sacrifice possible to reconcile us to himself, should lead to our lives reflecting that same goodness towards others. If the God we say we believe in has been rich in mercy, kindness, grace and goodness towards us, shouldn’t we demonstrate that same goodness in our relationships?

Goodness is the practical outworking of faith. It is not just an attitude, but an action focused on the benefit of others. One of the interesting things about this list Peter provides, is that for every internal reality there is an outward expression.

Knowledge

If God is God, then there is an inexhaustible store of knowledge for us to grow in. Our faith is to be intelligent, that is, it’s not a blind faith, superstitious faith or shallow faith. We are called to grow in the knowledge of God. Think of it this way: when you marry someone, it’s just the beginning of living with and getting to know that person. Salvation is just the entry into the vast knowledge of God. We are called to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Self Control

What good is knowledge however, if it is not put into use? Knowledge becomes merely information if it is not rightly applied. One result of true knowledge is a greater measure of self-control. Self-control is the ability to “control-self” or be in control of oneself. This is something that seems to be decreasing in our culture as people are becoming less and less in control of themselves, their behavior, their words, their anger, and their lives. Technology has made it easy for us to react and respond without thought or care. Yet, we are called to be a people who exercise self-control and refrain from unhealthy, excessive and unrighteous behavior. We are to grow in gaining control of our tongues, our hearts, our minds and our bodies as we seek to love God in a holistic way.

Perseverance

Anybody can perhaps exercise self-control in certain situations or for a certain time. But we are called to grow in our ability to persevere in our faith and situations that test our endurance. Again, in the culture we live, it is far to easy to walk away from anything that is difficult or challenges us. We walk away from conflict, instead of working through it. We walk away from relationships, instead of working on our relationships. We walk away from church communities if something rubs us the wrong way or we are offended over something or some way someone treated us. But is this the way of Christ? Did he walk away from us? Did he decide the cross wasn’t worth it for us? Christ, as our example, models a perseverance and endurance that we should seek to grow in in order to be effective and productive in our faith. Bearing fruit requires not giving up.

Godliness

Godliness is simply being like God. We are called to be holy as he is holy. Another way of saying this is that there ought to be something very different about our lives in this world compared to those who don’t know God. We are to reflect his character and nature as we grow in the knowledge of him and behold in increasing measure his beauty.

Brotherly Kindness

Godliness is not true godliness if it doesn’t result in brotherly kindness. Scripture is clear that if we truly love God, we will love people who have been created in his image. It is impossible to love God if we do not love people made in the image of God. Love for God is in fact expressed by loving people. Godliness is not something that distances us from people, but rather leads to expressing brotherly kindness. Holiness, rather than separating us from people, propels us towards people. And this love is pure. It is the kind of love that produces a sense of being family. We didn’t choose our natural family and we don’t chose our spiritual family. We are connected through faith in Christ and expected to treat one another as we would family; as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Love

After Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves; he was asked by someone who their neighbor was. The man asking this question wanted some boundaries and limitations put on this responsibility and command. The parable Jesus shared, famously called The Good Samaritan, made clear that our neighbor, whom we are to love, is not just those “near us” or “like us” but anybody, anywhere, that we come across in need. God’s love knows no limits or boundaries. God’s love has no prejudice, does not discriminate, and shows no favoritism. We are to grow in this type of sacrificial and unconditional love towards others and one another.

As we enter a new year, these are seven areas we can resolve to focus on so that we are effective, productive and bear fruit in increasing measure.

But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. -2 Peter 1:9-11

 

Unfulfilled Expectations

John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” -Luke 7:18-19

The holiday season, along with advent, is a time of heightened expectation. For some, it is “the most wonderful time of the year” but for others, it is the most challenging time of the year. As New Year approaches, people also begin dreaming of a “fresh start” and thinking about new resolutions. With anticipation that “this year will be different” people begin to make plans to implement changes that they hope will fulfill the desires or longings in their heart of what life should look like.

Whether it’s the holiday season/New Year’s resolutions or not, we all have different expectations of life, ourselves and others. We also have expectations of God. For those who choose to follow Jesus, we also develop more expectations based off his promises of what life should look like in following him.

And all of us, to one degree or another, wrestle with the reality of unfulfilled expectations and the confusion, frustration, grief and disillusionment that come as a result.

Let me cut to to the chase. When you find yourself in this place, first of all know that you are not alone. Not only are you not alone, but you are actually in good company. Some of the “greatest” hero’s of the faith faced severe seasons of doubt and disillusionment revolving around unfulfilled expectations.

Consider Job. An entire book of the bible (the oldest of all the books of the bible) chronicles his journey through his wrestling with God over why what happened to him happened, to Mary and Martha in John 11 when Jesus doesn’t heal their brother but let’s him die, to Jesus’ own disciples when he is crucified, to John, Jesus cousin, who was the first to boldly call people to put their trust in him as the long-awaited Messiah; life did not turn out the way they expected, and as a result they found themselves wrestling with doubts and all kinds of emotions. This is very human, even for those we hold up as the greatest men and women of faith.

Secondly, it’s not about whether you wrestle with doubts or not, it’s about what you do with or in your doubts and disillusionment. When expectations are shattered, when longings go unfulfilled (and they will), when God’s promises seem to have failed, the question is whether you will turn to God with your confusion or away from him in bitterness. It is at this point that many people harden their hearts, fall away, and stop following Jesus. (See John 6).

But if you come with the openness that while you are hurt, confused and struggling, but could have missed it with either misplaced expectations, misunderstanding of his timing or incorrect interpretation of his promises, your faith can be restored. In fact, your faith can even become stronger in the end, even though it will initially feel weak and fragile.

When John sent his disciples to seek clarity about whether Jesus was the one or if they should expect another, Jesus said two extremely things to strengthen John’s faith. The first was this: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

In other words, Jesus was saying: “John, don’t just consider your personal situation and unfulfilled expectations in your life, consider all the other evidence that points to me being who I am claiming to be.”

When we are dealing with unfulfilled expectations in our lives, we normally and naturally become consumed with that situation. Our focus therefore becomes very limited and narrow. In those moments, it is important to consider not just our personal experience that has confused us, but all evidence that confirms the claims of Jesus. Our faith can easily become too subjective to our individual experience and emotions, instead of objective in outward evidence. Sometimes we need to get the focus off our situations in order to see more clearly.

The other very important thing Jesus said to John was this: “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.” (John 7:23).

Jesus says the same to us today when we find ourselves in a crisis of faith because of unfulfilled expectations: “My child, if you will continue to trust me in spite of your disappointment, disillusionment and doubts, you will be blessed in the end.”

In other words, we have one of two choices when things don’t turn out as we thought, hoped or expected. We will either fall away or continue to trust no matter what Jesus does or does not do in our lives. If we choose to continue to trust Jesus, we will be blessed because this is when faith becomes most real and thus most rewarded.

Faith becomes most real when trust has to be exercised in the midst of doubt, not because of lack of doubt.

In John’s case, Jesus did not come to deliver him physically from prison. He was in fact beheaded. For Jesus’ other disciples, all but one of them would also end up becoming martyrs. Their reward would not be an earthly reward in their life-time. But we consider them blessed, for they endured to the end in their trust in Jesus, and so stored up great treasure in heaven and the promise of a greater resurrection.

In Job’s case, God never directly answered his “why” question regarding his suffering. However, God did reveal himself to Job in a powerful way (see Job 38-42) and he was blessed more in his latter life than even the first part of his life.

In Mary and Martha’s case, Jesus didn’t heal their brother because he had something far greater in store: a resurrection! However, before Jesus raised him from the dead, he called personally for Mary who was keeping her distance from Jesus out of bitterness of heart. But after Mary comes and pours out her emotions at his feet, Jesus calls them to exercise faith saying: “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” He then proceeded to raise Lazarus from the dead, a miracle far greater than the miracle they were looking for! Perhaps, your prayers have gone unanswered because Jesus has something better in store than you could have imagined or asked for! (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Ultimately, Jesus is saying the same to each of us that He said to John, Mary and Martha: You will be blessed and you will see my glory if you continue to believe despite your doubts and emotions.

Whether God has something greater in store on earth for us now, or in eternity, he wants us, as someone famously put it before, to trust his heart when we cannot see his hand.

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” -John 6:67-69

Peace on Earth?

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” -Luke 2:14

Over 2,000 years ago the heavens opened for a moment and shepherds on a hillside saw and heard a choir of angels proclaiming peace on earth, for the Prince of Peace had come. What a glorious sight and moment that must have been!

Yet, looking at the world since then to this day, where is that peace on earth?

Our pastor at our “Christmas Eve Eve” service (yes, you read that right!) shared with us about the man who wrote the Christmas hymn “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and how one stanza speaks to this seeming illusion and false hope:

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

So, what’s the deal with this promise of peace on earth? Why after so many years, if Jesus truly is the Prince of Peace, has peace not come or stayed? And it’s not just wars around the world between nations, it’s the fighting, conflicts and destructive wake of broken relationships we have all experienced and been contributors towards.

Has this promise failed? Is Jesus who He claimed to be?

The answer lies in reading more closely what the heavenly host actually said and promised. It was not a promise of universal peace to all without condition. The promise of peace one earth has one condition that first must be met and application to only one kind of person: those on whom his favor rests. And on whom does his favor rest? Those who bring glory to God through their faith in Him.

God’s blessing or favor is available to all for this peace to become a reality, but people must first bring glory to God by turning to him in faith. Until we are personally reconciled to God and find peace with him through faith in Christ, we will not discover the power of reconciliation and peace in human relationships.

Jesus came as the Savior of the world, born in a wooden feeding trough, to become a man who would die on a splintered cross on our behalf.

The cross first of all extends from earth to sky; pointing to relationship with God. Christ has made possible reconciliation with the One True and Living God that we have sinned against and become separated from. Scripture in fact says, we were enemies of God, alienated from him by our evil behavior (Colossians 1:21). But because of his death on the cross, and through our faith in Him, we have been reconciled to God (Romans 5:10).

But this is not where the message of the cross ends.

The cross also extends outward. Peace with God paves the way for peace with others. Salvation enables us to imitate Christ in extending forgiveness, mercy and grace even to our enemies. It calls us to the heart of Christ in becoming “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and seeking reconciliation in broken relationships.

Only when the reality of Jesus and message of the Gospel becomes the focal point of our relationships will we experience peace on earth in relationship with others.

However, this will only occur on a small scale until Christ returns to rule and to reign. Jesus’ entrance into our world over 2,000 years ago was not his last, but his first. He was born in obscurity and humility, but he will return in glory and power. He came the first time as the Lamb of God to be slain to bring peace between God and man. He will come a second time as Prince of Peace to bring peace on earth by judging the wicked and rewarding the righteous. He will return to set right what is wrong.

The question for us as individuals today is whether we know first of all the beauty and power of Christ’s promise of peace by bringing glory to God on high through faith in him. The message of Christmas is one of “good news of great joy for all people”…for all who will believe (Luke 2:10, John 3:16). Have you been reconciled to God through faith in Christ?

If you have, this reality will begin to change your relationships with others. We now have the Spirit of Peace at work inside us. the Apostle Paul would put it this way: And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:19-21).

As Ambassadors of Christ, called to call people to peace with God, we are to model that spirit of reconciliation in our relationships with one another. This requires the spiritual effort to seek unity, peace and reconciliation. It demands that we who know Christ’s forgiveness, mercy and grace; extend that same forgiveness, mercy and grace to one another. It calls us to the noble task of turning from fighting with one another, to fighting for peace with each other.

This is the only hope for the world to know what peace on earth can look like. It’s up the church, God’s people chosen out of the world, to model something different in relationship with one another irrespective of our backgrounds, races, experiences, social status, gender, political views or differences.

Christmas must go further than a reminder of an historical event long ago or holiday traditions we partake in once a year. It must become an ongoing reality we enter into through faith in Christ. Only then, will God be glorified and peace on earth be more than a wishful song we sing each year.

But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men
Then ringing singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men
And the bells they’re ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
And with our hearts we’ll hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Do you hear the bells they’re ringing? (peace on earth)
The life the angels singing (peace on earth)
Open up your heart and hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

The Gift of the Holy Spirit

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” -Acts 1:38-39

At the time of writing this, it is the Christmas season. During this time, we focus of course on the coming of Christ; God in human flesh. And while each truth wrapped up in the incarnation of Christ is beautiful and worthy of reflection, his birth is the beginning not the end.

In fact, right before Jesus’ crucifixion, he shared with his disciple something they could not grasp in their grief over Jesus saying he was leaving them, But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7).

If you have ever thought that you wish you had lived during the time Jesus physically walked this earth and imagined that that would be better than now, Jesus says otherwise! The time we live in now, is better than when he was physically here.

The reason?

Because of the person of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus was here, even though he was God in human flesh, he was limited in his physical body. He could not be everywhere at once physically. And while Jesus is “Immanuel” God with us, that reality is fulfilled in and through the person of the Holy Spirit who is not only with us, but now in us!

Peter in his sermon to the crowds that formed on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came, referred to this fulfillment of God’s promise as “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The gift of Christmas is not just the historical event of the birth of Christ. It is the unfolding of the promise of God’s presence in our lives as we trust in Christ. This promise of his presence is fulfilled in the person of the Holy Spirit to all who believe.

Yet how often do you think of the Holy Spirit? Many of us shy away from “the third person” of the Trinity because, well, the Holy Spirit is harder for us to understand. Some might even say “strange.”

To begin with, the first introduction we have in the New Testament to the coming of the Holy Spirit is described by “comparing” to something we can relate to; a “rushing” wind and “what seemed to be tongues of fire” appearing over each of the disciples. They then began to speak in other languages and a crowd formed because of this strange “sound” they heard. Then, as people heard the Gospel proclaimed in their languages, they thought the disciples were drunk! (see Acts 2:13).

Despite this, and other “strange” things, many just don’t recognize the true gift of the Holy Spirit; God with us, in us and working through us. The Holy Spirit is awesome! He guides us, reveals the truth of God’s word to us, convicts of sin, empowers us, helps us, strengthens us, revives us, fills us, restores our joy, gives us spiritual gifts to bless and serve others, imparts peace to our hearts, and so much more.

The Holy Spirit in essence, makes the reality of Christ real to us as a Living Person not just a Historical Figure. You and I can’t know God and enjoy his presence apart from the Holy Spirit’s work. Even the spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit gives are what I like to call “expressions of the reality of God’s presence.”

The Holy Spirit makes all the difference in our lives of taking what is ordinary and transforming it into something supernatural. This is in fact, how the birth of Christ came about in the first place. Luke 1:35-37 records the angel explaining to Mary that; “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

The Holy Spirit is the one through whom God’s word is fulfilled and never fails. The Holy Spirit is a gift for all who believe. A gift that keeps on giving and is for all generations! It would do us good to thank God for the gift of the Spirit and discover more of the Spirit’s reality in our lives and families, presence in our midst, and power working through us to be and do what God has called his people to be and do in this world.

So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. -Zechariah 4:6

Victim or Victor?

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. -Colossians 2:15

There is so much pain, suffering, violence, and trauma in the world. The statistics are staggering beyond human comprehension. Everyday and every moment, someone, somewhere, is undergoing some kind of abuse, injustice, or traumatic experience. We live in a very dark, broken and fallen world.

And yet, it is in this very context, that the coming of Christ, Immanuel, God with us, the Light of the World and Savior of the World, becomes all the more meaningful. God himself has not shied away from or shielded himself from pain, trauma, violence, abuse and rejection. The very circumstances of his birth foreshadow an even greater suffering he would endure on a cross. From no room at the inn, to the false accusations and rejection his parents experienced, to being born in a wooden feeding trough, to not being recognized or celebrated by the very world he created and came to save; his birth was just the beginning of the agony of the cross.

When you think about it, no one has suffered greater abuse, trauma, rejection or injustice than Jesus. Having committed no wrong-doing of his own; he was wrongly condemned to the horrors of crucifixion. Having lived a sinless life, he was sentenced to death on a cross.

If anyone ever had the right to take upon themselves the identity of “victim” it was Jesus.

And yet, this is not the identity Jesus took for himself. In fact, it’s not even the emphasize in Scripture. Rather than painting him as a victim, Scripture describes him as a victor, conquering and defeating his enemy on the very instrument that would seem to shout “victim!” Jesus is described as the champion of a great battle that by his very death on the cross, disarms all demonic power and destroys the power of sin that holds us captive as slaves.

His very endurance of these traumatic events crowned him a victor rather than a victim!

Here is what I believe God recently impressed upon my heart: the fact that you have simply endured whatever trauma, injustice, abuse or suffering you have experienced, and because of your identity in Christ as a child of his, deeply loved by him, you are a victor not a victim!

This is not at all to diminish the pain you have suffered. It is not at all to justify the unjustifiable. This is not to say whatever happened to you is ok. But it is to say the way you view yourself and the identity you take upon yourself makes all the difference.

Here is the truth of God’s word to you no matter your circumstances or situation:

Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. -Romans 8:34-37

If you feel forsaken; Jesus understands. If you feel forgotten; Jesus understands. If you feel mistreated, abused, rejected; Jesus understands. If you are suffering, have endured trauma or pain; Jesus understands. He has entered our world, our brokenness, our pain, our suffering, our trauma. He is “Immanuel” God with us. He is our light in the darkness, our Savior in our sin, our hope in our despair, our joy in our sorrow, our strength in our weakness.

In Christ, you are not a victim, you are a victor. Your very endurance and faith in Christ, is proof of your victory. You are, in Christ, because of his great love for you, more than a conqueror, no matter your circumstances.

Distracted & Over-Stimulated

The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. -Revelation 12:9

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. -Ephesians 6:11-12

Scripture is clear that we are locked in a spiritual battle. The earth in it’s fallen state is not a safe playground. It is a war zone. There is a real enemy with real evil intent. It may be an invisible war, but it is no less real than anything visible. And this evil enemy is hard at work to deceive and lead astray the whole world. He will do all he can in his fierce rage to draw people away from the truth, reality and relationship of a God who loves us.

One of the devil’s main tactics is distraction. Often subtle, but extremely effective. And I am growing more and more convinced he is succeeding in distracting our current generation. We are daily inundated and over-stimulated with an unprecedented amount of information and sensory overload through technology, entertainment, activities, social media and media in general. We are a distracted generation…with studies showing an attention span that is less than a goldfish!

I believe this is a spiritual battle…and the enemy is winning.

Have you ever thought about how we are always too tired or busy to truly spend quantity or quality time with God? Too restless to be still and know He is God? Too stimulated to quiet our souls and spend time in solitude and silence before God? Too many things we “have to do” that are more important than spending time in his word, in worship, in prayer, in fellowship with other believers at a truly meaningful and authentically deep level?

Have you ever noticed that we have every justification and excuse possible for why we can’t participate in spiritual activities and yet we never make those same excuses for other pursuits?

We don’t make excuses about ensuring our kids education. What about making sure they are at all their practices, plays, performances, sporting events and recitals? What about the fact that we find time for entertainment, movies, going out to eat, watching sports, hanging with friends, or watching our favorite TV shows?

How is that we have time for everything but getting alone with God?

How is that we can listen to a thousand voices in a day…except for the One that truly matters and loves us most?

I believe it is a spiritual battle. He fights against us so that they very thought of reading the bible or going to a bible study, makes us feel overwhelmed and exhausted. He keeps us busy with life to keep us from breathing the very oxygen we need to live a truly fulfilling life. It’s as if he entices us to prioritize anything and everything else except that which is eternal, transcendent and holy. He works to prevent us from drawing closer to God and connecting deeply with him in a life-transforming way. He subconsciously convinces us that anything spiritual is not worth the effort when anything and everything else is so effortless…and yet in the end, so empty.

So is the effort worth it?

Well, if you consider joy, peace and hope worth it…then yes. If you consider eternal reward and fellowship with God worth it…then yes. If you consider encouragement of soul and a sense of significance and purpose worth it…then yes. If you consider the true wealth and riches of wisdom worth it…then yes.

Is the enemy distracting you from what is most important?

Put on the full armor of God. Your foe may be strong. The battle may be wearisome. But the victory belongs to the Lord…for our enemy has been defeated! We just need to be on guard, be aware of his schemes, and put our foot down spiritually! Get alone and get with God. Turn aside from the ordinary and pursue the holy. For if we seek, we will encounter God once more and find what our hearts are truly aching and longing for.

“…and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” -Exodus 3:1-5

Offense & Reconciliation

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. -Colossians 3:12-15

There seems to be on ongoing trend and growing problem in the church world that I believe needs addressed. It is something that flies in the face of the very message of the Gospel and way of life we are called to model as representatives of Jesus and brothers and sisters in Christ.

But before I speak into this issue, let me acknowledge a couple things. First of all, I am personally and regrettably guilty of what I am about to write about on more than one occasion. This is not coming from a place of condemnation, but sorrow over my own actions and of the church in general. Secondly, this is a highly emotional and difficult reality to work through, which is why, although unbiblical, it is understandable. The easier way is to walk away than to engage in efforts of reconciliation.

The issue I am writing about is how easy it is for us to get offended and walk away from relationships, friendships and churches, instead doing the painful but biblical work of seeking reconciliation.

We have a problem. If we don’t agree with something, we feel it is justified for us to walk away from a church. If we get offended, we feel it is justified for us to walk away from relationships. If what we want isn’t offered, we focus on how our needs aren’t being met, instead of focusing on meeting others needs. If it isn’t our worship style, doesn’t suite our schedules, isn’t in line with our agenda, we bail. We often even coat it in “spiritual” language, along the lines of “we feel God is calling us to move on.”

But really, can we be honest? Most people leave a church, relationships and friendships because they have been hurt or offended. We leave because we don’t want to be vulnerable, don’t want to work through forgiveness, don’t want to do the hard work of reconciliation, admit we might be wrong or that our pride was wounded. It is all too easy to walk away and off to a church that is bigger, doing something better, around the corner…or none at all.

This is not the way of the cross however. This is not the way of how we are called to live as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is not the way we are called to be as a family and church.

The reality is every relationship has it’s struggles. Every marriage has it’s challenges. Every church has it’s flaws. Everybody who seeks to serve and to love will be hurt and offended.

But what difference are we showing the world by just moving on when this happens? What message does this convey to a broken world looking for a place where family means family? What does it communicate about the message we say we believe…a message that at it’s core is all about reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy and grace?

The bible has so much to say about forgiveness and how to handle offense (see Matthew 18:15-35). It happens to us all, but how we handle it is the issue. The interesting thing is that the focus is all on repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness. It’s theme is humility, patience, bearing with one another, striving with all our might to live at peace with one another and to be peace-makers (fighting for peace not just walking away).

Yes, there are legitimate reasons for leaving a church, friendship or relationship. However, we have justified every reason for just walking away instead of seeking to reconcile and walk in forgiveness.

But is this not what Jesus does in pursuing relationship with us?

Is not he long-suffering towards us? Is he not patient with us despite our flaws? Does he walk away and abandon us when we offend him? Did he not go to the cross in order to make reconciliation and peace possible? Did he not suffer in agony personally in order that our relationship with God might be healed and we could receive mercy, grace and forgiveness?

How then, can we not seek the same, despite how hard and painful it might be with one another? How can we preach a message of reconciliation if we are unwilling to forgive or ask forgiveness? How can we call people to repentance if we refuse to reconcile and seek restoration of relationships with one another? How can we so easily walk away when Jesus says he will “never leave us or forsake us?”

What would happen if the world saw us model this way with another as Christ models towards us? How might that heal divisions in our country? What might this do for marriages, families and churches? What if the church was different? What if we placed higher value on relationships than our own ever fluctuating emotions, feelings, preferences, opinions and agenda’s?

Why do we wait for others to take the first step…instead of us taking the first step? Is our worship even true or acceptable to God if we refuse to make right our relationships with one another?

I think we need to remember the dual message of the cross. The cross extends not just vertically between us and God. The cross also extends horizontally…between each other. At the cross relationships with God are restored…but so are relationships with one another. The cross calls us to move towards one another…not away. Shouldn’t we value relationship with one another with the kind of passion Jesus values relationship with us?

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. -Matthew 5:23-24

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. -Romans 12:18

But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. -Matthew 6:15

Division & Outrage

It has been a while since I have written a blog article. A major reason has been because of needing to prioritize other things in my life and schedule. Another reason however, is a sense of despair in wondering what difference it really makes in a culture that is so bitterly and politically divided on nearly every issue. There are a thousand voices out there all trying to speak to these issues, an endless stream of information, and yet all I see is it either re-enforcing previous held positions or entrenching people deeper in their views that they are right and the other side is wrong…or worse yet, evil.

To be honest, I really don’t know who is right and wrong anymore. All I know, is that I think we have a bigger problem on our hands than any one issue. It is an issue beyond politics (believe it or not!). It is a problem of pride and lack of humility. A problem of no longer being able to see people as people beyond a political position. It is a problem of not being able to listen to others and allowing each other to be heard. We have gone to extremes and can’t seem to acknowledge there are legitimate concerns on both sides.

There is truth for example that we need to be careful about assuming guilt until proven innocent. However, there is also truth that for far too long those who have been abused (a staggering and horrible percentage of especially women) have been silenced or discredited…they too are being presumed guilty of lying until “proven” otherwise.

There is truth that racism and prejudice is still a problem. But there is also truth that now it feels like to some that if you are a “white male” you are being viewed in a negative way. There is also truth that many in positions of authority abuse their power. But there is also truth that not all can be lumped into this category and presumed guilty or viewed with suspicion just for being in a position of authority.

We have become a country of extremes who seem bent on using our “truth” as a political weapon. And yet, all this is doing is polarizing this country further apart, creating deeper divisions and pain. Whether Democrat or Republican people are people and there are issues of hypocrisy, injustice, double-standards and abuse on both sides. Both sides are bitterly “angry”, self-righteously “right”, and “outraged” over the other.

What could I possibly write that would make any difference?

I really think there is a need for humility first of all and above all. There is a need to recognize on both sides, that even in the extremes, it is coming out of a sense of frustration of not being heard, not being taken seriously, not being listened to…not being treated as a human being created in God’s image and deeply cherished. There is a need for humility. A need to hear one another. A need to be able to say “I am so sorry” instead of only “I am right and you are wrong!”

We don’t have to agree with each other in order to respect each other. We don’t have to agree politically in order to care for one another. We don’t have to agree with each other on issues in order to listen to one another and not so quickly dismiss someone for their views. And we don’t need to get so easily offended and angry that we walk away from relationship with one another!

On these levels, why can’t we take positive steps towards each other where we can find common ground, instead of further away from each other where we disagree? Why can’t we admit that there is some truth on either side, but not all truth on one side? Why can’t we place more value on relationships and reconciliation than being “right?” Why can’t we place more value on “humility” than our own “pride?” Why can’t we place more value on people…than politics? Why can’t we see what both sides are doing to whip up their followers into a frenzy for political purposes and their own agenda? Why do we allow media (on either side) to prey on our emotions and report only on sensational things that are always negative? Why do we value being entertained and enraged over each other?

Respect. Civility. Reconciliation. Relationships. Humility. Self-control. Healing. Forgiveness. Understanding. Listening more than talking. Dignity. Christ-likeness.

Believe it or not, the bible has a lot to say about not only these issues of justice, but also our character and relationships with one another. This is the hour that Christians/the Church need to begin better showing a different way. A way that transcends the politics of this world. A way more noble than political talking points, rhetoric and stances. We need to model the way of Christ that reflects his heart and character. A way that represents well God’s kingdom, a kingdom not of this world, and way of life much different than the world is used to seeing or knows. A way that results in life. A way that results in reconciliation and healing.

Here are just a few verses that come to mind in how we are to conduct ourselves towards one another:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. -James 1:19-20

Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor. -Proverbs 29:23

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. -Colossians 3:12-17

Battling to Believe

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”” -Genesis‬ ‭3:1‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Ever since the garden of Eden, the enemy of our souls has been using the same tactics, doubts, lies and attacks to turn us away from God. The essence of these attacks can be summed up in one statement: God is not good, he cannot be trusted and he is holding out on you.

The battle of the Christian life is a battle to believe that God is indeed good, his word and promises are true, and he is not holding out on us…no matter our circumstances and regardless of any situation we ever go through in life.

Therefore, the most powerful weapon we posses and most worshipful act of faith we can exercise is declaring and believing that God is indeed good.

It may sound very simple, but the power of this declaration could not be more profound. A great example of this is found in 2 Chronicles chapter 20. In this chapter, the Israelite’s are about to be attacked by an army far greater than their own. They had no human chance of success and had every reason to despair.

But what happens next is one the most beautiful and moving scenes in all the Bible. The king, along with all the people, gather together before the Lord and in humility they confess they have no idea what to do but their eyes are on the Lord to deliver them.

Then, a prophetic word comes forth. The word was that God would indeed fight for them. God was going to take this situation personally!

The next day they were to march out without fear or intimidation and face the enemy. But it would not be with human weapons or human wisdom that they would fight. Rather, they sent the worship team out in front of the enemy to sing a very simple chorus. Verse 21 says After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying: “Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever.”

As they declared God’s ever faithful, never failing goodness, God began to do exactly what he promised and began to fight for his people granting then victory over their enemies. In the end, God not only protected and provided but the people plundered the enemies camp instead of being pummeled by the enemy!

It’s not confidence in our abilities we need, but confidence in God’s goodness, character, promises and word.

The Psalmist in verse 13 and 14 of chapter 27 made this declaration of faith: “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

No matter what you are facing or going through, declare your faith in the goodness of God. No matter your circumstances worship him and believe that he is good! Trust that he will fight on your behalf.

More than anything, the enemy wants to convince you that God is not good. He wants you to believe his lie that God is holding out on you and isn’t faithful to his word and promise. And so, more than anything, it blesses God when we declare our faith in Him and his goodness, even when we can’t “see” that goodness. This is after all when faith is most real, most needed and most pleasing to God. The very definition of faith is being “certain of what we don’t see.” (Hebrews 11:1).

And whenever we doubt, we need only look to the cross. As the apostle Paul put it: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” -Romans‬ ‭8:31-32‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Amazing Grace…

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. -1 Timothy 1:15-17

As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. -2 Corinthians 6:1

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. -Hebrews 11:1-2

In the past year, I’ve been paying closer attention to people God is or has used in powerful ways. The reason is because I have always had a strong desire to be used by God in mighty ways too. So, I have been seeking to analyze and even scrutinize others lives (some that are alive that I personally know, others from a distance and others from books) to find out “why” they have been particularly used by God. Is it because they are smarter than the rest of us? Is it because they are more educated? Is it because they are more “godly?” Is it because of their relational ability, emotional IQ, personality profile or connections to people/wealth? Is it their circumstances, communication skills or intellectual capacity? What is their secret?

My discovery may surprise you, because it has surprised me more deeply than I anticipated. But even more so is the personal application this has on my life and yours.

The answer, I believe is found in the three passages I quoted above in what Paul wrote to Timothy, urged upon the Corinthian church, and then is captured by the author of Hebrews in the great “faith” chapter.

The key to being used/blessed by God is the humility found in a person of faith who knows their desperate need of, and continually receives, God’s abundant undeserved grace in their lives.

As I have been studying and watching the lives of those used by God in special ways a certain “hero myth mentality” is finally being more fully broken in my mind. In fact, it seems the exact opposite is true: God seems to delight to use the most profoundly, those who most profoundly deserve to least be used!

I am absolutely convinced the more broken, messed up and still flawed a person is, the more God loves to use that person in significant ways despite themselves. The only thing I can attribute to this is God’s grace. While I do believe it is true that God will hold up rich examples to the rest of us of godliness in certain people (think Daniel or godly people in your life who may not be “famous” but you would want to be like) I find these examples to be exceptions not the standard “pattern.” And while they should absolutely be the examples we strive to model our lives after, there is an undeniable truth: God often uses the most flawed in the most significant ways.

Let me break it down: Paul was a terrorist before he was an apostle. This is clearly stated as the qualifying reason as to why God chose to save him! Paul is a testimony to the purest truth of the Gospel message: God’s grace is not for the godly but the ungodly! Salvation is for sinners not saints. Jesus came for the unrighteous not the righteous. So, God held Paul up as an example not to glorify Paul’s godliness but to demonstrate the radical patience and grace of God! The Gospel is not about how great we are, but how good and gracious God is. Therefore, Paul qualified more than anyone at that time to accomplish that purpose! This also means that anyone who would feel unqualified or undeserving could see from Paul’s testimony that that is the very reason why they too qualify for God’s grace!

Secondly. Is it the righteous or unrighteous who know they need grace and therefore has the capacity to receive grace? To the church of Corinth Paul urged them not to “receive God’s grace in vain.” This is what holds most of us back…we either don’t see our need to receive God’s grace or we close ourselves to his grace for various reasons. The people I have studied had either the humility to know how desperately they needed God’s grace or/and the ability to receive it. Therefore, grace transformed them and empowered them in special ways. It wasn’t their goodness but God’s goodness operating powerfully in them and through them! It was their very “weakness” or “humility”; their  looking away from themselves and to God that enabled them to receive a greater portion of grace.

Thirdly, Hebrews 11 is “God’s Hall of Faith.” If you study that chapter and the people held up as examples of faith, you do not find a totally “saintly” list of characters. Sure, each accomplished some amazing feats and experienced all kinds of miracles. But, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all had lying problems. Their offspring, the twelve tribes of Israel, were a total dysfunctional mess. Just look what they tried to do to their brother Joseph in one of their lowest moments, let alone the idolatry, immorality and rebellion against God over the generations and their history, despite being his chosen people! Noah got drunk after getting off the ark. Samson was…well Samson (a womanizer, narcissistic, vengeful, and a self-centered man). Moses was a murderer with a temper. David an adulterer. Samuel had sons who did not follow in his footsteps. Gideon was a doubt-filled coward. Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter out of a rash vow made to the Lord. These guys were a mess!!!

It’s like a miracle of God’s grace in itself that they were not only used by God, but held up as examples of faith to the rest of us!

And that’s the point.

God is not looking for perfect people, but people who recognize their need for his grace and will not receive it in vain, but take hold of his promises by faith.

Confession time. Over the years I have grown to realize I am less godly than I thought I was or even hoped to be at this point in my life. For example, before I got married, and after I rededicated my life to Jesus, I thought I was starting to become a pretty spiritual person. Then I got married and slowly (still too slowly) began to realize how selfish and self-centered I really am. Then we had a child. And three more followed. Each one, and the combination of all together, have exposed more deep layers of selfishness, impatience and lack of godliness. I am a mess!

I also failed as a pastor. I was not patient, gracious or loving as much as I imagined I was or would be. I also have a temper and am impatient with myself and others.

And now as a leader of a mission organization, and having come to know myself a little more in my personality temperament, ways of interacting with people etc; I have come to an awful realization: I am a difficult person and worse than I imagined myself to be. I even told my wife the other day that if she finds it difficult to live with me at times…imagine how I feel having to live with myself all the time! 🙂

But herein lies my salvation and provides the key I have been looking for. For the first time, I may have found the way to position myself for God to use me as I have always desired. The worse I have realized myself to be, the more grace I have the potential to receive. This is no excuse for sin, but rather the antidote to my sin. It is the answer to self-centeredness because it means I must look desperately to God and away from myself. It is the protection against pride because how can I glorify myself when God is so good despite how much I don’t deserve it?

Paul was nearing the end of his life when he wrote to Timothy about his testimony and being the “worst of sinners.” It’s interesting to note that Paul did not merely speak of that “past tense.” He said “I am the worst” (present tense).

The reality is, the history of God using people in remarkable ways has less to do with that person’s deserving of it and way more to do with God’s grace despite them not deserving it. If anything, these men and women recognized their need of God’s grace, received God’s grace, depended on his grace, and looked to God in faith as their hope and help exclusively. They were not commended for being perfect people, but for their faith in a perfect God. And any godliness they did display was due to the fact that they had “not received God’s grace in vain.” It was his grace that forgave and overcame their sin, not because they were great, but because they looked to God in faith. It was his grace that empowered and shined through their flawed and broken lives. It was his grace that held them up as examples to the rest of us. And it is his grace that we all still so desperately need in our lives too.

If like me, you are realizing in an increasing measure how unworthy and undeserving you are, perhaps it is because God is positioning you to be held up to others as an example of his grace, so others can look at our lives and say, “if God could save or use them, than perhaps there is hope for me too!”

Sure, we should shudder at our sin. We also need to confess and repent of our sin. But let us not forget that it was for sinners that Christ came and it is only sinners who have the capacity to “not receive God’s grace in vain” and thereby please God by their faith in Him. It is only sinners that have the ability to experience their lives being transformed and empowered by a gracious, good and perfect God. And it is only sinners that need God’s grace and can become a testimony to others of that grace. Yes, loathe your sin, but receive, rejoice and rest in the grace and immense patience of Christ Jesus our Savior.

The Messiness of Relationships & Ministry

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”-John‬ ‭13:1‬ ‭NIV‬‬

He loved them…to the end.

If you knew one of your closest companions was about to betray you, another would deny even knowing you, and the others abandon you, what would you do?

If you knew the very people you showed up for and served in their deepest and darkest hour of need would fail to show up in your deepest and darkest hour of need, what would you do?

If you have been alive for more than a few years, or in ministry for even a few years, you have experienced some version of the above relational hurts. I’ve been in “ministry” for over a decade and it is nothing like I thought it would be. I had a glamorous and unrealistic view of ministry. I believed if I prayed enough, revival would always come. I believed if I taught well enough, people would become like Jesus. Some version of the above also applies to marriage and parenting. I was unprepared for the “messiness of ministry and life” and had no idea of the disillusionment I was setting myself up for.

People are people…and people aren’t perfect.

I have been reflecting lately on Jesus’ last hours before he would be led away to be crucified. He knew exactly what was coming. He knew precisely what was about to happen. And it wasn’t just that his enemies were going to mock him, beat him, flog him and have him crucified. Enemies are expected to well, treat you like an enemy!

But it cut deeper than that. It was even more close to home…

He knew that the very men he had poured three years of his life into, were about to abandon him. He knew one was going to betray him. He knew the “rock” (Peter) was about to deny even knowing him…yet He loved them to the end.

The question is how?

The answer lies in John 13:3-5: Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Jesus knew who He was, where he had come from, where he was going, and to whom he belonged.

Don’t miss this.

One of the most dangerous conditions and points of vulnerability that can grip our hearts is cynicism and bitterness. This happens when we lose our focus in who God is and who we are in him. But when we are confident in who God is, who we are in Christ, and to whom we belong, we can, like Jesus, continue to serve and love others no matter how they may “fail” us and no matter how much pain they may cause.

Let me be clear, betrayal hurts…even the heart of God. Being abandoned by those closest to you hurts…even for Jesus. But there is a way to rise above and continue to love. There is a way to wrap the towel around your waist and continue to serve, rather than toss in the towel and walk away. There is a way to forgive, not just your enemies, but those closest to you who may fail you, forsake you, or forget you.

When we know where we have come from and where we are going we can find courage. When we know that God is Sovereign and we belong to him, we can find confidence.

And we can also find comfort in the reality that even Jesus, the most perfect friend, teacher and leader; experienced betrayal, being abandoned by those closest to him, forgotten by those he served, and turned on by those he came to save.

What makes us think we who are imperfect are better than him who was perfect and somehow deserve superior treatment?

The real question and test is not whether we will go through similar relational pain, but whether we will respond like Jesus even to those who hurt us, fail us, forget us, or fail us most.

And herein lies a paradox for many of us…including myself. Others may have failed us, but have we failed them by throwing in the towel rather than picking up the towel and embracing the messiness of ministry and relationships? Have we walked away, rather than loving to the end, despite the pain and through the pain? Have we learned to love and serve like Jesus or are we too still learning to be more like Him?

I know I am…

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?”he asked them.“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. -John 13:12-17

Lessons from Nature

“The world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks, and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of earth. We learned to do what only the student of nature ever learns, and that was to feel beauty. We never railed at the storms, the furious winds, and the biting frosts and snows…bright days and dark days were both expressions of the Great Mystery, and the Indian reveled in being close to the Great Holiness.”-Chief Luther Standing Bear, The Wisdom of the Native Americans, pg16.

Ever since moving to Colorado, I have taken a greater interest in nature and gained a much deeper appreciation for the “natural world.” Being located so close to the beauty, majesty and allure of the mountains has certainly played a role. However, personality also is a factor, because by “nature” I am an introvert who loves solitude, silence, and being away from the hustle and bustle of life, people and drama. I love to read, think and slow down enough to ponder bigger mysteries, draw more intentionally to God, and reflect on life.

I have also been more deeply discovering that God has built into the “natural” world so many life lessons that also point us to him and reveal aspects of his nature and character. Not everyone may study Scripture to receive specific revelation of the person of Jesus Christ, but everyone has access to nature, it’s general revelation of God and way he designed life to function, whether they acknowledge or accept this or not. God has much to teach us through his created creation!

Recently, I found a book titled “The Lost of Reading Nature’s Signs.” While not intended to correlate specifically with “biblical truth” there was nonetheless some fascinating spiritual insight and life lessons I wanted to write about in this blog article, that I hope you enjoy and will find edifying!

Lesson 1: Storms have a constructive, not merely destructive, purpose!

“Storms are part of the natural cycle and for many species a necessary expunging process. After a big storm, trees with light, nimble airborne seeds, like birches, will spread to areas that were previously denied to them by shade.”(pg56).

We tend to fear and dread storms both literally, and metaphorically speaking. We know the damage and destruction storms can wreck or leave in their wake. However, I never thought of the “constructive” purpose storms have in serving as a “necessary expunging process for many species.”In other words, storms spread seed to places they otherwise would not go!

Taking this spiritually, it’s not too hard to see it’s application in our lives or the history of the early church. What was it that sparked the early believers in Jerusalem “spreading” out beyond their home turf? It was the “storm of persecution” that “carried the seed of the Gospel” and propelled them to take the Good News to the ends of the earth! (See the book of Acts).

Storms in our personal lives have a similar effect. As I write this, I think of two ministry friends. One is a woman from New Jersey named Jennifer Sands, whose husband was killed in the 9/11 World-Trade Center terrorist attacks. The other is Chad Barrett, a church planter, adventurer, and inspirational speaker/author whose young daughter died of cancer. For both Jennifer and Chad, those terrible storms in their lives resulted in more than just destruction. It has propelled them to “spreading” the seed of the hope of Jesus Christ in further places and to more people than they could have imagined!

Storms are going to come and wreck destruction in our lives. However, they also serve a redemptive purpose and lead to new life springing forth wherever storms may cause us to “spread” out. Out of the ashes, God brings forth new life and beauty (Isaiah 61:1-4).

Lesson 2: Being “sharp” verse being “gracious” can be a sign of whether further healing is needed or has occurred properly.

“…it is not unusual to spot a…twisted “rib” – that is, a hard thin protuberance that works it’s way up and around a tree. This is a symptom of an internal fracture caused by excess stress on the tree. If the rib is smooth and rounded, it means the tree has managed to heal successfully, if it is sharp then it means the fracture has not healed and the tree has not overcome the problem and is possibly vulnerable.(Pg62).

This is quite fascinating and hit home quite personally for me. We all have been, and will be, wounded in life. We all suffer “internal fractures” of the heart and soul. Those wounds or fractures can happen in a million different ways, but if they do not heal properly, we do become vulnerable.

The fact that you can determine whether a tree has healed properly or not by noting whether the protuberance is “smooth and rounded” verse “sharp” is reveling when it comes to discerning whether we, or others, are in need of further healing. Based off this information, I know I had to acknowledge I clearly have some “internal fractures” in my life that have not healed properly yet. I have a lot of “sharp” edges…

The good news is Jesus is Healer and Sanctifier!

Scripture again and again speaks to the fact that he “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds”(Psalm 147:3). But we must, in vulnerable humility, turn to him and ask him to do this work in us, O LORD, if you heal me, I will be truly healed; if you save me, I will be truly saved. My praises are for you alone!(Jeremiah 17:14).

Lesson 3: True beauty, attractiveness, sweetness, fruit, healthiness, life, growth, etc, is dependent on us orienting ourselves to the “son.”

“…the orientation of flowers is no more random than the places we find them. Flowers have a job to do and it is a visual one. They need to be attractive…to bees and other airborne insects that will distribute their pollen for them. Light plays an important part in this process and so the closer the flowers face to the sun the more visible they become…if you look more closely at the taller ones, you will spot that many of their stalks have a gentle curve toward the southern sky…it is the light they are orienting themselves toward…”(pg81).

“The sweetness in fruits comes from the sugars, the sugars take a lot of energy to produce and this energy only comes one place: the sun.”(pg82).

This spiritual life lesson is fairly obvious: we become more like Christ, more attractive to others being drawn to him, healthier and more productive spiritually, the more we “orient” ourselves to “The Son.” Just as flowers are dependent on drawing energy from the sun to function as designed, so are we dependent on drawing from “the light of the world.” It is by “gazing” on him that we reflect more of his glory, character and beauty in our own lives (2 Corinthians 3:12-18).

Oh Lord, help us orient and bend our lives more to you! Help us seek, search and stretch towards your light! Help us draw upon you as our source of all life, energy, fruitfulness, and sweetness to attract others to your beauty!

Being the Answer to others Prayers

The only thing they did suggest was that we must always remember to help the poor, and I, too, was eager for that. -Galatians 2:10

Over a decade ago, long before the mission organization I lead called ServeNow even existed, I wrote a document on an old computer, that was essentially a dream to one day have a mission organization that would exist to make the dreams or prayers of others around the world a reality. Over the next 8 years I forgot about that document, but continued to have a growing passion in regard to coming alongside pastors and leaders in other countries to ensure their dreams would become possible and prayers answered.

In fact, during those next years I attempted to help in a variety of ways, including calling the church I pastored to respond to needs such as an orphanage in Myanmar, a well in Sudan, aid for persecuted believers, Christmas gifts for children around the world, help for women at risk of human trafficking, supporting missionaries, relief aid for those dealing with disasters, and more.

Personally, we also got involved in giving to various needs, missionaries, organizations around the world, and taking part in many mission trips. Even though we may not have had a lot compared to others in the US, we did what we could and sometimes even beyond that sacrificially. I believe for those of us in America, or those who have abundance compared to most of the rest of the world, we have a responsibility, and also tremendous privilege, to help people in need with far less (or no) opportunity, access, ability or means like we have.

This is part of God’s calling and Scriptures exhortation on all our lives.

How can we live comfortably and complacently when others around the world lack the access or ability to afford basic things such as food, water, shelter, education, medicine, bibles, hearing about Jesus and more? Can you imagine if this was you or your family?

How can we ignore the cries of the poor and yet think God will still hear our prayers? Proverbs 21:13 makes it perfectly clear that, Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered. Scripture calls us not to forget and certainly not to ignore the poor. Giving and being generous, is a core part of who God is and who he calls us to be!

Our response to the cries of the poor has an impact on God’s response to our prayers.

That’s not a guilt tactic. Rather, it is a reality of God’s heart, sensitivity and passion for the poor and how seriously he takes our response or lack thereof towards those in great need. How we treat the poor is a reflection of our relationship with Jesus and whether we truly know him or not. (Read Matthew 25:34-46). Jesus made clear, whatever you do (or don’t do) for the least of these my brothers, you do (or don’t do) for me.

Back to my journey. One day, I sat across a table with the founder of a new mission organization called ServeNow. After three hours of sharing all the details of what ServeNow was doing, the founder asked if I would be willing to be trained by him for a couple years to then step into his role as president of this organization.

It didn’t take long to say yes, because as he was going into detail about ServeNow, I remembered this document I had written years before. I went home and found that document and when I compared it to what ServeNow was actually doing, it was eerily identical down to specific countries and specific projects! It was also identical in “philosophy” of ministry in that ServeNow was all about coming alongside local, indigenous pastors, churches and leaders to make their God given visions, dreams and prayers a reality!

It has been an exciting three and a half years of seeing many dreams around the world become a reality and great needs being met! I have found no greater joy than in serving others and being an instrument or conduit through which others prayers are answered. It’s fun to have God answer your prayers, but for God to use you as the answer to others prayers is even better! To then share those stories and ways others are making a true difference is also fun to see the joy not only of the recipients, but the givers.

This year, I am more excited than ever because I believe we are on the verge of seeing some growth in making more dreams, even new dreams, a reality. My “word” for this year has been “growth.” And I am believing God will give that growth, multiply our resources, and enable us to “reproduce” in new ways as he brings new people, new funding, new partnerships, new networks and new projects our way.

But the main thing we are asking for is people. I have come to see money is not the issue. There are reports out there that to end extreme poverty, it would take less than one percent of combined income of the richest countries in the world!

Relevant magazine even came out with an article that showed Christians in the US are only tithing on average 2.5%. If that was increased to just 10% that would be an additional $165 billion!

Do you know what that could accomplish?

ServeNow’s entire budget for everything…is around just $1 million! And yet, over the past five years, we have served over three million people in some specific, direct way! (Read more here to see what $165 billion would accomplish if Christians gave simply 10% according to the Relevant magazine article referenced).

Last year, I asked all our national directors what their dreams would be to see happen in their countries over the next five years if money wasn’t an issue. When we put those plans together and put actual numbers to those dreams, I was amazed because I realized it wasn’t all that far off or impossible: it was just $25 million over 5 years. It’s possible…with people! (see a video on this here: Making Dreams a Reality!).

The point is this: money is not the issue…people are. Jesus said the harvest is plentiful…but the workers are few. God is looking for people. When God has people, when He has our hearts, money will not be a problem, and there will be a great reaping that will take place around the world!

Can you imagine what we could accomplish together and how we could multiply and grow, if we put our hearts, heads and hands together?

My prayer this year is consistently asking God to raise up and send us people, whether that means people going on trips, giving towards needs, volunteering in various ways, engaging others about ServeNow, or joining our staff. I believe if we have the right people, with the same heart, passion and sense of responding to God’s call and commission, we will see the growth we dream of…to make the dreams of others a reality!

What is your dream?

What prayers of others can you be the answer to?

What is keeping you from doing something, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem?

Remember, in the kingdom of God, two loaves of bread and five fish given to Jesus…equal feeding over 5,000 people…with left-overs! Never under-estimate what Jesus can do with whatever you have and give to him!

Here are some of the projects we are dreaming of making a reality that you might be able to be a part of making possible:

  • A New literacy Program for Roma Children in Ukraine: Read more here.
  • Meeting urgent needs of Sudanese Refugee’s in the third largest refugee camp in the world right now (located in Uganda): Refugee Aid
  • Training women at risk of human trafficking with a skill of tailoring, cosmetology, or bakery: Click here.
  • Providing School Buildings and Child Sponsorship’s for orphan/disadvantaged children in Uganda.
  • Children’s efforts in slums of Asia.
  • Medical Clinic’s for people and children who do not have access or cannot afford to see or doctor or obtain even basic medicine.
  • Basic Series discipleship booklets for hundreds of churches: Read more here.
  • Bicycles for pastors: Click here.
  • Where the Need is Greatest: There are many needs and dreams we can respond to quickly through this avenue!
  • Monthly Partners: Helps provides a consistency, stability and ability to meet needs.

If you would like to learn more about ServeNow, feel free to visit our website (www.weservenow.org), or contact me to discuss ways you could serve, get involved, volunteer, engage others, or give to specific needs or projects to make others dreams a reality and be an answer to their prayers!

And I was a constant example to you in helping the poor; for I remembered the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ -Acts 20:35

***Please feel free to share this article with others!

What we Miss about the Cross

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.-Ephesians 2:14-18

I absolutely love this time of the year when we reflect, remember, and celebrate Christ’s death on the cross for our sin, his burial, and resurrection. To think on God’s love for us, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, is such a beautiful reality. To know that Jesus would go to such horrific lengths to demonstrate that love, despite the fact we are unworthy of it, is indeed awe-inspiring.

But lately I’ve been under conviction that we (I) often stop here. We stop at what this means for us personally. We stop at the fact that Christ’s death and resurrection reconciles us to God. And yet, that is not all it means, accomplished, or makes possible…

Here’s what is puzzling: despite the fact Christ suffered and went through searing pain so we might have peace with God, we struggle with loving our enemies, showing mercy to the ungrateful, extending grace and forgiveness to the unworthy, and enduring pain to work for peace in our relationships with each other instead of just walking away.

Christ did this for us, so why then do we struggle with this towards one another?

In the Scripture passage quoted above from Ephesians chapter two, we find that more was happening at the cross than just our relationship with God being reconciled. Peace with God means there is now a way to have peace with one another.

The cross doesn’t just extend from earth to heaven. It also extends and stretches out from one side to the other.

The cross is meant to soften our hardened hearts not only to God, but also to each other. The cross is meant to reconcile us not only to God, but also work to bring about peace with one another. The cross is meant to not only overcome our hostility towards God, but also our prejudice and hostility towards one another. The cross not only provides a way for our sins to be forgiven; it enables us to forgive one another. The cross not only opens a way for us to approach God; it breaks down all that divides us in our relationships with each other.

In Ephesians chapter two, Paul writes about the big relational “divide” in his day; Jews verse Gentiles. The cross is the solution. The cross unites and brings all to common ground, despite any and all differences. The cross roots out all prejudice, hostility and division. The cross in reconciling us to God, reconciles us to each other.

The message of the cross is one of peace. Not just peace with God, but peace with one another. What would this look like though to practically be worked out in our relationships? What does this mean in regard to not just those who agree with us, but those we disagree with? With those we consider our “enemies?” With those we have hostility, anger, unforgiveness or bitterness in our hearts towards?

Let’s get real practical. Everyday, people walk away from relationships, churches, marriages, etc because they have been hurt, offended, feel like they have been wronged or slighted. But is this the way of the cross? I am not casting any stones because I am realizing my own guilt in this in a new way. My biggest regrets are not just in regard to broken relationship with God, but broken relationships with others.

Ryan Lokkesmoe, in a new book called Paul and His Team, has a powerful chapter titled, Relentless about Reconciliation. The title alone is convicting. I know I have been relentless in proving I was right when others have wronged me; but I have not been “relentless about reconciling.” Therefore, how much have I truly grasped the Gospel?

He goes on in fact to say, we have to understand the lengths to which God went to reconcile with us. We have to allow that to burrow down into our hearts. If we do, we will be compelled to seek peace with others, because we understand how far God went to reconcile with us. We will no longer be comfortable allowing broken relationships to waste away. (pg156)

Ouch…we will no longer be comfortable allowing broken relationships to waste away.

So, this is where the rubber meets the road. Are you, or I, allowing any broken relationships to waste away? Is there a broken relationship where we need to set our pride aside and despite the pain work towards reconciliation? Is there anyone to whom we need to humble ourselves and ask forgiveness? Is there anyone with whom we are harboring unforgiveness, anger or bitterness towards?

This is what I am seeing I often miss about the cross. I like knowing I am forgiven, but am I too willing to forgive? I like knowing that despite being unworthy, Christ shows me undeserved grace, but am I willing to extend that grace to those in my life not “worthy” of it? I like knowing there is mercy for my sin, but am I willing to show mercy when others sin against me? I find it moving to know the length to which Christ went that I might have peace with him, but what length am I willing to go to to work towards peace with others? I find it moving to think of all He endured for me that I might be reconciled to Him, but what pain am I willing to endure to reconcile with others?

Have I really grasped the meaning, power and application of the cross…or am I missing an important reality of what the cross really means? Am I really following Jesus and walking in his way; the way of the cross, or still living in and bound by my own selfishness and pride?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.-Matthew 16:24

Smarter than Jesus?

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. Jesus, Matthew‬ ‭10:42‬

Sustainability is all the rage and “hip” trend right now in world missions. To be clear, there are some wonderful, innovative, strategic and beautiful things happening because of this focus.

The mission organization I lead, ServeNow, also engages in some sustainable and self-sustaining projects. For example, we have provided water tanks to pastors in communities where they have no clean drinking water so that they can reach out to those most in need. In Asia and Europe, we consistently host anti-trafficking skill training programs for women at risk, so they can learn a marketable skill, open their own business, generate an income, and become independent.

There is also a good imbalance being corrected by initiatives like this, where certain communities, countries, churches and people have become completely dependent on outside or foreign aid in an unhealthy and damaging way. In some cases it has also set us up as the “hero’s who know best” and leads to an arrogance and ignorance towards others and how best to help.

Many books and documentaries have highlighted these extremes and some new initiatives to correct this has been a good thing. However, recently I have begun warning of the other extreme. The pendulum always tends to swing to one extreme or the other and there are ditches on either side of the road.

Perhaps what triggered my sensitivity to this was after recently being pushed over the edge by a foundation I was meeting with to discuss partnership opportunities. I felt not only like I was being interrogated, but looked down on and lectured for over an hour regarding the issue of sustainability. Their position, along with the foundation I met with an hour before them, was now only on funding “sustainable” projects. I was questioned in fact, on why we give away anything “for free.”

At one point, I had enough and said, because if we don’t they will die! While we sit here and talk on a very strategic, theoretical and “smart” level, people are dying!

There is a time and place for developing sustainable initiatives, but I want to make the case there is also still a place for “unsustainable” but life changing initiatives.

I am writing this while in an airport coming back from speaking to hundreds of leaders from around seventy countries around the world. I decided one way to attract them to my workshop would be to ask this question: are we in danger of becoming smarter than Jesus?

Afterwards, I had many humble leaders serving the poorest of the poor come up to me and thank me for speaking to this. One even said, your the first American I have heard speak about value still being in unsustainable projects!

So let me explain what I am talking about. In the passage this post opened with, we find Jesus concluding a training session with his disciples and future leaders of the church. The passage quoted at the beginning was the closing instructions and promise to them.

Here is simply what I take away from this: Even just a cup of cold water given to the most “insignificant” person or child, matters. A cup of water might not be a permanent earthly solution, but it can make a permanent impact and will be rewarded in eternity.

It’s as simple and profound as that. But are we in danger of being smarter than Jesus?

Here is another way to ask it. As I was speaking to this group of leaders about serving children in the four to fourteen age range, I asked them, and now you, to think back on your life when you were that age. What was it that had the most profound impact on your life at that age? Was it something “sustainable” or was it something as simple but significant as an encouraging word of a teacher, a coach who believed in you, an adult noticing you, an act of kindness from a stranger?

I shared that for me, what I most remember was one elementary teacher who greeted us each morning with pure joy, a big hug and a lipstick smeared kiss on the cheek. None of those things were sustainable the rest of my life, but they left a permanent mark on mine, and many other tender, affection hungry hearts.

This winter, we were giving out warm winter blankets in the Himalayan mountains. These are people who have no heat in their homes and yet temperatures fall below freezing. Hundreds get sick and/or die every year, especially children and the elderly. The blankets we give are very good quality, but they might not last forever. However, again and again I see in the eyes of these beautiful people and children how much that simple act of kindness means to them.

One woman shared with us the following this year, I experienced God’s love for me and my child through this blanket you gave me.

Unsustainable…but significant.

Or have we become smarter than Jesus?

Let me share one more story. During the summer months in an Asian country, we provide clean water every week for entire small villages, communities and families. These are the poorest of the poor.

However, we only do this for a couple months during the hottest part of the year. We also aren’t digging wells as a sustainable or long term solution. As I mentioned, we have provided water tanks in some communities, but for the purpose of this article let me stick with our main approach and explain why we do it this way with these three reasons:

First, we enable the local church to go family to family to give clean water in a very personal and relational way. It’s not just about meeting physical need, but other deeper human needs. (Many people Jesus healed physically, also experienced a spiritual or emotional healing as well). This also often opens up hearts to share the Good News of God’s love in a powerful way. In some cases this has opened the door for the Gospel to be shared openly for the first time!

Secondly, this helps the local economy and businesses. We even had one water company become so inspired by what we were doing that they offered water at a discounted price!

Thirdly, in many of these villages, a well is not practical due to ground conditions and other socio-dynamics (caste system). In some communities a well already does exist but has dried up, or those of lower caste are prevented from drawing water from the well.

Regardless, here is what it comes down to for me. It was Jesus himself who said even a cup of water has eternal implications and matters. As I shared with these leaders serving the poorest of the poor who do not have the resources or ability to do more “advanced” sustainable projects, I saw them breath a sigh of relief. My sense was that they were starting to feel they weren’t “doing enough” “doing it right” and struggling with the fact that they are surrounded by people in need that they simply want to serve and show God’s love to even if simple and unsustainable.

Maybe you too think you can’t make much of a difference. Maybe a cup of water sounds too insignificant. Maybe because you think your “small” efforts won’t matteryou do nothing. Or maybe you are discouraged wishing you could do more.

Jesus himself makes clear that even the smallest gestures of compassion matters greatly to him and even eternally for you. And it matters perhaps more than you think to the one you serve, no matter how small it may seem, and temporary it might be.

Let’s not over complicate it. And let’s certainly not become smarter than Jesus.

The Power of Godly Character

Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another obscure village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty, and then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself. He had nothing to do with this world except the naked power of His divine manhood. While still a young man, the tide of public opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth while He was dying—and that was his coat. When he was dead He was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today He is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life. -One Solitary Life, James Allan Francis

Lately, I’ve been thinking anew about the power of true godly character. I must admit, I have given more time and thought to strategies for being successful in ministry, how to grow a church when I was pastoring, how to communicate more effectively and speak more powerfully, how to raise more funds as part of the mission organization I now lead, how to reach more people with the Gospel, etc, than I have godly character.

But the above quote about the life of Jesus really does say it all. What made Jesus great was not merely what He did, but who He was. In fact, it was out of who He was that He did what He did, not the other way around.

I am also still thinking about the life of Billy Graham since he recently died. Billy did preach the Gospel to more people in person, than anyone in history. However, at his funeral, what I found most moving was the story his daughter Ruth shared about how he showed her the heart of God, in her darkest moment of sin and failure. (If you have not seen it, watch it here: Ruth Graham’s Story).

Godly character is really all about showing others the heart of God or what God is like. While I believe the following quote, attributed to Saint Francis, (even although he didn’t actually say this), is misguided, preach the Gospel and when necessary use words; it is true to say that when we lack godly character, the Gospel suffers. I believe part of why Billy Graham was so effective and powerful in his preaching was because he was a man of godly character. Clearly this is true when we consider the impact of the lives of people like Jesus, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham and others. It was because of who they were, not merely what they had or did, that impacted the world so powerfully.

If anything is needed in our lives and culture today it is likewise men and women of Christ-like character. This is in fact God’s one and only purpose for our lives as Christians, that we become like Jesus (Read my recent article on this here: God’s Purpose for Your Life). Further, when I consider my biggest regrets in life and ministry, they all revolve around a breakdown in walking in godly character.

So allow me to very briefly share six attributes of Christ that I have been reflecting on and asking God to work more of in my own life, recognizing my lack in these areas, and need to be conformed more to the likeness of Christ. In reality, we all have room to continually grow in these core character traits until the day we see Christ face-to-face and are perfected in full likeness to Him.

They come from Colossians 3:12-13: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

  • Compassion

Compassion is a word that means to be “moved to the very depths of our being” by the sorrow, struggling, suffering or pain of others. However, Christ-like compassion always moves us to some type of action to help alleviate that pain in others. Compassion is never just a feeling, but a coming alongside another in their suffering or distress. How often are we moved to action on behalf of the suffering of others?

  • Kindness

The word kindness does imply a sense of “good-will” towards others. However, Christ-like kindness goes further again than just a “feeling.” The Greek word for Kindness used in the New Testament actually means “to show oneself useful to another.” In other words, true kindness finds joy in practically serving others according to their need. Kindness reveals itself in being charitable, hospitable, meeting needs and in acts of kindness. It is “good-will” expressed by “good-deeds” towards others.

  • Humility

Humility is that trait that doesn’t put oneself above others. It doesn’t look down on others, but stoops down to serve others regardless of who they are. When we are humble, we acknowledge our sin before God, are free from pride and arrogance, walk in obedience to God and His Word, and do not boast about ourselves. True humility is God-focused and other focused rather than self-focused. Humility is the cloak we put on that enables us to serve God and others in a pleasing and sincere way.

  • Gentleness

I struggle with gentleness. Gentleness is a disposition of being mild of temper, sweet in relationship with others, and possessing manners that are not rough or rude. Currently, I am reading a nearly 1,000 page book on Ulysses S. Grant. Towards the beginning is a quote of his in the context of taming and training horses, one of his early loves. In this quote he says the following, If people know how much more they could get out of a horse by gentleness than harshness, they would save a great deal of trouble both to the horse and the man. Gentleness requires much self-control, patience and a longer-term view than immediate but shallow results. Gentleness endears trust and respect more than harshness ever will. I know I need to work on being more gentle when dealing with my children and in relationship with people.

  • Patience

The reason most of us struggle with patience is because the word really means “to suffer long” and who likes to suffer at all, let along long?! Patience is the bearing up under pain or being provoked, rather than breaking down and exploding in rage. It is a calmness under pressure, stress, affliction or frustration. It’s the ability to bravely endure trials, testing of the soul and/or unfair treatment as you await justice.

Christ has been patient with us in our sin and stubbornness. He patiently endured his suffering on the cross on our behalf. He bore up silently under his unfair treatment, mock trial and abuse, without lashing out in hatred or anger at his persecutors. He also did not give up on his disciples, despite their failures, faults and weaknesses.

  • Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the very heart of the Gospel message. Christ died on the cross and suffered on our behalf to forgive us of our sins. If this is how He treated us, (not treating us as our sins deserve), how much more should we forgive one another? Forgiving is not excusing people’s sin, but pardoning their offense. Being forgiving means we no longer hold that transgression against that person. It means we do not retaliate in like or worse manner, but instead return the offense with mercy and grace.

This requires more strength and is more powerful in bringing others to repentance than retaliating could ever do. While not everyone will respond with repentance, it does demonstrate the heart of God and gives room for God to work in that person’s life, rather than taking it into our own hands in an emotionally charged and vengeful way. Forgiveness protects our own hearts from becoming bitter and poisoned.

All of the above character traits are actually expressions of one word: love. And when we think of love, we think of God, for God is love. Therefore, when we walk in love, we show the world who God is. And scripture says, without love we are nothing, for the greatest of all is love! (1 Corinthians 13).

Lord, help me grow more in Christ-like character. Thank you for being compassionate, kind, gentle, long-suffering, forgiving and gracious towards me. Help me reflect those same realities in relationship with others that they might see you through me.

Authentic Christianity

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.-1 Peter 3:14-16

This may be one of the most important blog posts I have tried to write. I heard something on the radio the other day that was enlightening and alarming but maybe not for the reasons you might initially suspect. Josh McDowell, a leading Christian apologist, was sharing some insight of a recent research project.

What he found is that for those in America twenty one years old and younger, the question for them is no longer “what is truth” but “what is good.”As he elaborated on that, he shared that not only do feelings (subjective) rule over truth (objective and Scripture based), but many perceive Christianity as “evil” because to them, and what they have seen or experienced, it doesn’t seem “good.”

Now, here is what “alarms” me about this. It’s not the fact that objective reality and Biblical truth are no longer the basis for life, nor really the starting place if we are going to reach a new generation. It’s the fact that the “Christianity” most are seeing is perceived as not good, and that means we have been failing to show and reflect the goodness of God. This is alarming because the very core of authentic Christianity, the character of God, and the Gospel message, could be summed up by the “grace or goodness of God!” Gospel itself means, “Good News.” The message we have to proclaim is “Good News.” It is the message of God’s goodness and grace. But this generation is not hearing or seeing this goodness.

Instead they are seeing anger, outrage, politics, hypocrisy, judgemental-ism, prejudice, and pettiness.

For years, I have been trying to both speak, teach, warn and write about how “conservative” Christians are failing to convey the love, grace and compassion of God because of our angry, fearful, political rhetoric and frustration about how “bad” the world is. Even if there is truth in some of what is stated, shared and spoken, the truth is not being spoken in love, respect or gentleness; but the exact opposite. No wonder this generation is rejecting that kind of Christianity! To be honest, I don’t want anything to do with that version either, because I just don’t see Jesus reflected in it or through it.

Here’s another reality that troubles me. When I travel to other parts of the world where the church is growing (Asia, Africa, Latin America), I see a very different kind of Christianity being expressed. What do I see? I see Christ more clearly. I see his goodness. I experience his presence. I feel his love. I sense his compassion. I see his humility. I witness those living a life of true sacrifice, devotion, passion, service, faith and prayer. I experience what I see in the book of Acts, and would describe what I sense in my spirit as a more “authentic Christianity.”

Of course no church, country or Christian is without it’s faults and problems. No church, country or Christian is perfect. We all fall short, myself most of all. I am also not saying that doesn’t exist at all here. I have seen, and do experience, God’s goodness in ways here too.

But frankly, I have been tempted to say to people, come with me on a mission trip to experience a more authentic Christianity and taste the goodness of God, because the experience is very different than what I see in most of our churches and our own lives (mine included more than I would like). I come away from the countries I travel too with a longing and hunger to be more like what I see there. It exposes my own spiritual poverty. But I come away having “tasted” and “seen” that God is indeed good.

In America, we have made everything about being “right” that we have failed to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15-16). In America, we have made our focus political rather than the person of Christ. In America, we have succumbed to fear, anger and outrage with those who disagree with us or hold a different worldview, instead of living a life of hope, joy, respect and gentleness. In America, we have failed to show this generation the goodness and grace of God by our attitudes and rhetoric.

I am writing this article on the day of Billy Graham’s memorial service and burial. As I have been reflecting on his life, I think what endeared him to so many was that he so consistently reflected the character of Jesus. He was humble. He was gentle, even though he spoke the truth so powerfully. Those who knew him, spoke of his genuine love and care for all people, even those who disagreed with him. He was even gracious, forgiving and did not lash out at his critics or enemies. He was kind, forgiving, winsome and charming.

As I think on what his daughter Anne-Graham Lotz wrote about his death, I think it is exactly what is needed for this generation. Her prayer was that God would raise up not merely another Billy Graham, but thousands of men and women who will carry this “Good News” and demonstrate God’s goodness whether they become “famous” or not.

That is exactly what is needed if we want to reach a generation to whom truth is not their starting point or question. They want to know whether Christianity is good and how else will they know and see unless we speak the truth in love and show the goodness of God by our lives, attitudes, actions and behavior?

I see this as an opportunity actually. But first, we have to get over the fact that people, even those who grew up in the church, no longer hold to a Christian worldview. Ranting and raving about that will not win or attract anyone to Christ. But authentic relationship with Christ, out of which our character is conformed more to his likeness, and his love is authentically experienced through us towards others; this will present us with opportunities to be a witness, and to witness to a world far from the truth of Jesus Christ.

Lord, help us show the world your goodness, share the Good News, and speak the truth in love, with kindness and gentleness, and in a way that honors you and respects others, even when they disagree or mistreat us. Help us be authentic, consistent, faithful, compassionate, forgiving, kind and gracious in our attitude, actions, words and behavior.

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
    blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. -Psalm 34:8

A Jawbone of a Donkey

So they bound him with two new ropes and led him up from the rock. As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. -Judges 15:13-15

I’ve been thinking about this story this week and how it might apply to our lives today. Samson’s story is a very interesting but curious story. On the one hand, his life from birth to death is filled with God’s power and heroic feats. He was set apart and raised up by God for his generation in a special way. Yet on the other hand, his life is full of compromise, promiscuity, unchecked anger and tragedy. He certainly wasn’t perfect, but he is held up as a “hero” and example of faith in Hebrews chapter 11, which is a chapter I like to call “God’s Hall of Faith.”

That reality alone teaches us a lot that ties in with the focus of this article. It shows us that Samson wasn’t used by God because of his perfect morality. He wasn’t used by God because he used the most perfect weapon to defeat the Philistines in the passage above. It wasn’t even because his motives were perfectly pure, because he often acted out of his own agenda and anger to accomplish God’s purposes.

Over and over again the secret to Samson’s strength, accomplishments and feats is found in the phrase the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him.

To accomplish great things in the kingdom of God, it requires the power of the Spirit of God at work in your life. The good news is, this dynamic is open to all God’s people as they pray and act on faith. God can use anyone who will allow him to use them. He will use whatever “tools” you have or can find, no matter how “primitive” or imperfect they may seem. He will use even you, no matter how imperfect you may be! (that is not a good reason to justify compromise in your life, which is another lesson from Samson’s life. He faced a lot of sorrow, tragedy and consequences because of his sin).

But I think this is important because sometimes we think things have to perfect for God to use it or us. We may even think God is hindered in using us because we are imperfect.

Personally, I know I struggle with this all the time. If I am preaching, I want it perfect (though it never is). If I am writing, I beat myself up constantly because my grammar is not only not perfect, it’s rather poor! If I am working to raise funding for the mission organization I lead, I want the perfectly written appeal (even though it always falls short). I am constantly looking for the “perfect” tool, strategy, sermon, article, connection etc, but always coming up short.

The story of Samson shatters all of that. It reminds us God is God and he uses imperfect people, works in unconventional ways and can use anything we “pick up” to serve him. Even a jawbone of a donkey will work against a better equipped army of 1,000!

Just this week, I watched God use someone with something that was nowhere near good quality or modern form to raise funds for a project. I also remember one time being on a missions trip and one of the new believers was sharing his testimony but was all over the place in his talk. One of the older guys leaned over to me while he was speaking and whispered “you should give him some pointers.” 

However, after the speaker was done, and the opportunity was given for those who heard to respond, the Spirit of God moved in a powerful way and many came to Christ that night! We laughed together, when this older gentlemen leaned back over to me and whispered, “never mind.”

When I look back on sermons I’ve preached, articles I’ve written, e-mails I’ve sent, or “tools” I have used, I can say with 100% confidence it wasn’t because they (or I) were so great or perfect…it was because God is good! 

I’m not exaggerating either. I was just talking with my mentor about this and I’ve talked with many others who have been used by God in special ways and most have a common experience: the sermons or e-mails or strategies they thought were so great, usually fell flat, but the ones they thought were not great, often were used the most! I can remember many sermons were I wished the floor would literally swallow me alive while inwardly swearing I would never preach again…only to find out later God used those very sermons (somehow!) in some of the most remarkable ways.

So here’s the application to our lives today. What do you have, what can you use, what can you find laying around, that you can pick up to use to serve the Lord? It’s not about the instrument or even you as the person. It’s about having faith in God and allowing His Spirit to empower and work through you for His purposes.

When the Spirit of God comes upon you, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you can or cannot do. It doesn’t matter if there is a more experienced and equipped “Giant” mocking you, and all you have is a sling and some stones. It doesn’t matter if you bound by ropes and a whole army with advanced weapons is coming against you and all you have is the jawbone of a donkey. Use it…because God will use you!

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?” Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied. The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the Lord , “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob–has appeared to you.” -Exodus 4:1-5

“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”… Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. -John 6:9,11

Inconvenience or Divine Opportunity?

One day some parents brought their little children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But when the disciples saw this, they scolded the parents for bothering him. -Luke 18:15

As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind beggar was sitting beside the road. When he heard the noise of a crowd going past, he asked what was happening. They told him that Jesus the Nazarene was going by. So he began shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Be quiet!” the people in front yelled at him. But he only shouted louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” When Jesus heard him, he stopped and ordered that the man be brought to him. As the man came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord,” he said, “I want to see!” And Jesus said, “All right, receive your sight! Your faith has healed you.” Instantly the man could see, and he followed Jesus, praising God. And all who saw it praised God, too. -Luke 18:35-43

At the time of writing this, I am getting ready to speak at an event representing what the organization I lead does in regard to serving children around the world. Did you know that the majority of people who come to faith in Jesus do so between the ages of 4-14? And yet, the question remains, do we really make that age a key, core, specific, and strategic focus of our efforts, outreach and ministry? Or, like Jesus’ first disciples, do we consider children a “distraction” from “real ministry” to adults, and look at kids as an “inconvenience” instead of kingdom opportunity?

Around this same time, I was helping to try to connect someone in need of something, to the pastor of a large church that could help in that particular area, which in turn would also be a great opportunity for their church.

However, instead of that church seeing it as an opportunity, we were informed it would take months before an appointment could even be made to see the pastor. Months. Just to get an appointment! It would also take over a month for a discussion and decision to be made. This pastor and church were initially too “busy” with “important” work to be bothered by this perceived inconvenience.  They couldn’t see the opportunity it was for them as a church, let alone in simply meeting a need within their community.

Before we are too quick to judge however, I am sure we could all point to similar situations in our own lives where we mistook an opportunity for an inconvenience.

Let me give three recent examples. 

The first happened at a restaurant with my daughter. We were eating donuts when an older lonely looking gentleman sat down beside us. To be honest I was annoyed. However, after we left I felt really convicted and realized I probably missed an opportunity to be Jesus to this man. It was an opportunity lost because I perceived it as an interruption.

The second example turned out better than the first. I signed up for a little conference but as the day approached I really did not want to go and did not know why I had signed up. I was very close to cancelling but felt I should keep my commitment. That day, I met, and sat with a man who needed encouragement. He has now become a good friend and I am excited to see how God is going to continue to use that friendship not only in his life but mine. Both of us later in fact told each other that neither of us knew why we were at that conference…but after meeting each other we now know why!

Last example: recently, I was traveling for a couple of meetings. I was staying at a hotel (in the US), where before I went to bed, I killed a coach-roach in my room. Then, at 4:00am I was awakened to the fire alarms going off. However, there was no fire. It was just a malfunction that they couldn’t resolve until two hours later! By that time, it was useless to try to go back to sleep, so I left an hour earlier than I intended or thought I needed too.

What I didn’t realize however, is that there was a one hour time zone difference between where I was staying and where I was going! Had the fire-alarm not woke me up when it did, and had I not left an hour earlier, I would have missed that first important meeting! (Plus I got a discount on the hotel and saved our organization some money, which always feels good even if it means being a little uncomfortable!)

What I saw as a major inconvenience turned out to really be an opportunity!

These recent experiences have caused me to reflect on the Bible passages above and wonder how many other “opportunities” we mistake for inconveniences? In fact, I bet you can think back on situations in your life where you later realized that to be true.

Jesus saw in advance what many of us fail to see until afterwards. He saw not just the present reality of children, but their future potential. He saw not just a blind beggar unworthy of his time, but a man created in the image of God who could become a testimony of the power of God that would result in praise being given to God.

In the role that I am in now, I often feel like an inconvenience to people and their busy lives as I try to arrange meetings to share about ServeNow. Many may in fact feel like I am approaching them simply “begging for money” or as “useless” to their agenda; as a child may seem to an important person or inconvenience to “real” ministry.

But what if the things we perceive as inconveniences are really God’s intervention in our lives and great kingdom opportunities?

What if needs that seem to annoyingly “shout” after us are really miracles waiting to unfold if we will only “stop” like Jesus did and personally take time to tend to that need?

What if that child becomes the next Billy Graham because of a prayer we pray over them or time we take to pour into their lives and bless them?

What if that person going on a mission trip, or ministry presenting an opportunity to get involved or give, is God’s way of allowing you to be a part of something special through which your resources can make an eternal difference?

What if the biggest perceived inconveniences and interruptions in your life are really Divine opportunities?

Maybe we should ask God to help us better see things from his point of view…it may just result in fulfilling his calling on our lives and seeing others lives changed!

The Life-Transforming Glory of Jesus

But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see (contemplate) and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord–who is the Spirit–makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. -‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭3:16-18‬ ‭NLT‬‬

In my last article I wrote about how our culture is seeking in vain that which is perfect, instead of the Perfect One. Jesus alone is able to fulfill every longing of our hearts and transform our lives, for only He is perfect. His perfection is in fact glorious!

But until we turn to to the Lord and keep our gaze fixed on him, we are blinded to his beauty. His glory is veiled or hidden from us until we look to him in faith. But when we do, we discover the never ending awe and wonder of who He is. This in turn changes us, as God’s Spirit goes to work in making us more like Jesus; producing a life of joyful obedience and eternal worship of the Living God who alone is Worthy (Revelation 4).

If anything is needed in our time it is a turning away from our inward selfishness and a turning to the selfless and sinless person of Jesus Christ; a beholding of his glory that can truly transform us. Therefore, in this article, I want to draw our attention to a few aspects of the character of Jesus. More than ever we need to seek him with all our hearts and learn his life-giving ways, becoming in the process more like Him. We need to fall in love with and gaze in awe of Jesus again!

  • Perfect Righteousness

Psalm 25:8: Good and upright is the LORD; Therefore He instructs sinners in the way.

My pastor preached a message this week out of Psalm 119 that hit on the head the issue within our culture today resulting in the destruction and breakdown we see. We have forsaken the Lord and righteousness. The word righteousness means to not only live “rightly” but to “relate rightly” with others. God deals and interacts with us with perfect justice, merciful compassion and absolute righteousness. But when we break relationship with him, our relationships with each other break down too. When we fail to walk righteously before him in accordance with his ways, Word, nature and character, trouble and distress are the result. Blessing on the other hand occurs when we seek first his righteousness and righteous ways. This was the whole essence of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” teaching in Matthew 5,6 & 7.

While we cannot be perfectly sinless as God alone is, we are called to be perfect in reflecting the character of God in the sense of being mature (God-like) in our dealings with him and one another. We are called to walk in righteousness. But we can only do so by looking to the righteous One. Scripture in fact says, the righteous shall live by faith (Romans 1:17).

This is where “The Gospel” (meaning the Good News of Jesus Christ) comes into play. We can’t live a righteous life in our own efforts and “wisdom.” Rather, the first part of Romans 1:17 shares with us the true power of looking to Jesus, For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. In other words, by beholding Jesus we see what a righteous life looks like. By turning to him in faith and putting our trust in Him, we are made righteous (made right with God) and shown in Jesus how to live a righteous life (properly relating to God and one another). This is the way of blessing, peace, joy and life! Behold the perfect righteousness of Jesus and allow him to make you righteous too.

Matthew 5:48: Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

  • Gracious Compassion

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. -Exodus 34:6-7

God is just, but if He were only just, we would only tremble before him in fear. But the glory of God is what He revealed to Moses on the mountain, that at the very core of his being He is a God of perfect love. However, for the Israelites below, Moses returned with God’s righteous law (and a veil over his face as the glory of God was blinding). The law reveals the holiness and righteousness of God, but it only convicts, condemns and exposes us as sinners. It cannot save us but rather points to our need for salvation. It reveals our imperfections and unworthiness. It leaves us guilty before God and separated from God. It teaches that we are indeed in need of a Savior.

And so, in the fullness of time, Jesus came full of grace and truth (John 1:17). Through His perfect life and subsequent perfect death in our place on the cross, He payed the fullness of our debt in full. He redeemed us from the curse of the law. He reconciled us to God. Through faith in Him, our sins are forgiven and we are set free from sins grip, blindness, bondage and destruction. He came not to condemn, but to save the world through him (John 3:17).

When we see Jesus touching lepers (considered unclean), eating with “sinners and tax collectors” (considered unworthy), forgiving the woman who committed adultery (considered condemned), healing the sick (avoided at all costs), offering the gift of eternal life to Samaritans (viewed with prejudice by the Jewish people),  casting out demons of those possessed (counted as impure), forgiving even the Romans crucifying him (considered the Jewish people’s enemies), ministering to women (treated as of less value than property), speaking hope to the poor (considered as getting what they deserve) and dying in our place on the cross (despite not deserving it)…we see that the heart of God is full of gracious compassion.

And as we behold his gracious compassion, our hearts are softened and can be filled with gracious compassion towards each other too, despite the pain we inflict on one another. If God deals with us in gracious compassion despite our unworthiness and the pain it cost him, how much more should we be quick to forgive and full of mercy and grace?

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. -Psalm 103:8-14

  • Beautiful Holiness

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness. -Psalm 29:2

The word “holy” means “other-than” or “other-worldly” or “set apart.” God is “different” than us. He is unique and “not like us.” He is perfect in all of his ways, and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). He never sins, doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve, and doesn’t ever act outside his perfect nature and character. In studying the life of Jesus we see what it looks like to “be holy;” to live wholly unto God. Part of holiness involves a submission to God and his will, something we see Jesus perfectly modeling. Jesus was “set apart” in complete devotion to God and interaction with others.

Likewise, we are called to be “set-apart” unto God. We are not to “be like” everyone else and live according to the ways of the world. We are to walk in accordance with God’s Word and Jesus’ example. This is why we must spend time in God’s Word and beholding Jesus. This is why we must commune with God and “set-ourselves apart” from all that would distract us from God and his will for our lives.

There is something beautiful in the ways of God and holiness of God. There is something special in the life of one devoted wholeheartedly unto God. It’s a beauty not of outward appearances by inward character and heart. But this happens, and we are made holy only as we look to the Holy One. 1 Peter 1:15 puts it this way, But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

God’s purpose for our lives is to mold us into the image of Jesus, just as a potter patiently molds his clay into a work of art, beauty and purpose. Yet this only happens as we gaze upon Jesus, seek him with all our hearts, and come to know him and learn of his ways according to his word.

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. -Psalm 27:4

Myth of Perfect verse The Perfect One

Surely the righteous will never be shaken; they will be remembered forever. They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord. Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. -Psalm 112:6-8

For the past decade, I’ve noticed a troubling cultural trend that seems to only heighten each year. It is something I have seen in myself, struggled with as a pastor, and now deal with in leading a mission organization. It is also something in conversations with others, both within the Christian world and non-Christian world, that seems to be a problem in every sector. 

The issue revolves around how our society specifically, but also in general in regard to human nature; seems to be in an ever restless state, seeking a “perfect work environment”, a church that fulfills our expectations, a spouse that perfectly meets our desires, children who perfectly behave, a home that is the “perfect space” or in the perfect neighborhood, a school that is tailored perfectly for our child, a magic diet that will change our lives, or formula that will work flawless to make us successful…etc, etc.

The tricky part about this is that there is a sense we should seek to make the world a better place and improve in all areas of our lives. However, when we begin seeking the perfect place or environment in order to have peace in our hearts, or stay faithful despite rocky times or when storms of life inevitably come, we are never going to find what our hearts are looking for. We are never going to be content.

When we begin to seek externally that which will always make us feel comfortable, safe, secure and stable, we will end up disillusioned and seeking the next best thing that catches our eye, rather than staying committed, faithful and focused on God’s will for our lives and being where he wants us to be whether it’s easy or not (normally his will is never “calm” externally, but full of challenges that test us, in order to build his character and perseverance within us).

There is such a high and quick turn-over rate in the work-place, in churches, in marriages, in nearly every arena of life, that it is staggering. I recently had separate conversations with a pastor, a successful non-Christian business man and his wife, and a founder of a non-profit organization, and each were puzzled by, and not quite sure how to deal with, the reality of the seeming fickleness of people within their worlds. I too have been at a loss as to how to truly build a team culture that endures together, whether in the church, non-profit or business world, when people expect the best, feel entitled to the best, and bail at the first hint of turbulence or trial.

The truly challenging part is this seems to be the reality even among those viewed as the most “faithful” or “stable.” It also seems that those who actually are the most faithful, teeter on the edge of walking away too when times get tough or when they constantly feel under attack or pressure. They are tempted by wanting to believe the lie that there is somewhere else to go that will be easier, more comfortable and more “perfect.” I find myself falling into this trap.

In one sense, as I shared with a pastor who was unloading some of his burdens with me, this reality is seen in Scripture, from even the Israelites, God’s very people, whom he rescued out of Egypt with some of the most dramatic miracles imaginable; to Jesus’ own disciples who walked with him and witnessed all His miracles for three and a half years. Specifically, the Israelites were quick to rebel in the wilderness when conditions were not ideal; despite God’s awesome act of redeeming them from slavery. And Jesus’ disciples, even his most faithful, likewise fled and forsook him in fear when he was arrested in the Garden, despite having just pronounced they would never do such a thing, when things turned chaotic.

So what do we do when we find ourselves on either side of this equation? What do we do when we are disappointed by others and what do we do when we find ourselves disappointed by circumstances that are not as perfect as we imagined? Do we keep going from place to place, fad to fad, relationship to relationship until we find that which is “perfect?”

I believe the answer lies in what my pastor preached this past week. It is contained in the passage this blog post began with. Here would be a few other verses that speak to the same answer:

You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. (Isaiah 26:3).

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7).

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:29-31).

When we are seeking favorable circumstances our hearts will fail us the minute the winds change and storms come. But when we keep our focus on Jesus and maintain our trust in him, our hearts will be protected by a supernatural peace that passes understanding. It’s a internal peace that doesn’t make logical sense when viewed in light of external circumstances.

When we are seeking ideal environments, we will end up disappointed and disillusioned. But when we stay focused on the faithfulness of God, we will not falter in times of trouble and trial.

In other words, we need to stop seeking that which is “perfect” and keep our focus on the only One who is perfect! Only in Him can we find true rest, peace in the midst of storms, and fulfillment despite situations that are not ideal, challenging or even uncomfortable.

Ironically, this advice applies no matter which “side” of this reality you are on. If you are the one frustrated by the shallowness or fickleness of people, you can find peace by turning your focus to the faithfulness of God. And if you are the one whose heart is restless and constantly disappointed by the lack of finding the “ideal”, you can find rest in the reality of the One who alone is perfectly faithful.

Here’s the deal. This fickleness and constant seeking for the “perfect” is robbing us of God’s ultimate purpose for our lives. That purpose is not our “comfort” but our being conformed to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). That process is spoken of in Scripture as God “disciplining” or “training” his children (Hebrews 12) for a greater reward than anything earthly and temporary.

Becoming like Jesus is not an easy or comfortable process; but it is required of a true disciple of his. He calls us to “deny ourselves” “pick up our cross” and “follow him.” (Luke 9:23). Jesus certainly did not take the “easy, more comfortable road.” His was a way marked by constant turmoil, conflict, suffering, ridicule, misunderstanding, even death.

What we truly need is not perfect circumstances that pass our test.  We are in need of men and women of character who are becoming more like Christ by keeping their focus on Christ, no matter how fierce the winds may howl and the storms may rage. God in fact is looking for those who will faithfully pass his testing of their lives so that we might become all that he calls us to be. Instead of looking outward, look upward, and allow him to transform you inward…no matter your circumstances.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. -James 1:2-4

The Heavens are Speaking

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.   -Psalm 19:1-4

Last year, I wrote a series of blog articles on how creation is speaking to us (The Sea is Calling Part 1, The Sea is Calling Part 2, and The Mountains are Speaking). I wanted to follow those up with another on how the universe reveals some beautiful truths about the God of all creation. As the passage above points out, the heavens and skies are speaking to us about the glory of God!

  • The Vastness of God

Often, we get so caught up in our “little” worlds that we forget we are just a very tiny part of a vast universe. While this can make us feel very small, it magnifies just how great God is. When King Solomon was dedicating the new temple in Jerusalem he made mention of the vastness of God in his prayer: But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you (1 Kings 8:27).

Just let that reality sink in! The earth itself is “big”, let alone our own galaxy. To think that there are billions of galaxies and stars more numerous than we can count, let alone see; is overwhelming. But what is more overwhelming is to consider that God is “bigger” even than the universe and that the universe cannot contain Him!

That may be overwhelming, but it also can be endlessly comforting when we apply this truth to our lives. It means that no situation is to big for God to handle. It means no matter how great our need might be; God is always sufficient for all our needs. It means no matter how overwhelmed or perplexed we might be, God is above it all.

For as vast as the universe is, God is even greater! He created it after all, and by his power holds it all together: For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17). Take heart, God is greater!

  • The Faithfulness of God

This first truth of the vastness of God leads right into this next truth of the faithfulness of God and the promises of God. Scripture is full of promises God has made to us and continually speaks of his faithfulness to us. The vastness of the universe speaks to, and reminds us of the faithfulness and power of God to fulfill every good promise He makes in our lives. Sometimes, looking up to the sky, looking to the heavens, considering the stars in the sky, is exactly what we need to give us new vision and confidence in the power of God to fulfill his promises in our lives.

Consider Abraham. When God told him that his wife Sarah would bear him a son despite their old age and the human impossibility of this; he took Abram outside his tent and told him to look to the sky. Here was the conversation and the result of this visual reflection on the universe: He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6).

Sometimes we need to be “taken outside.” Sometimes we need to “look up.” Sometimes we need the witness of creation to inspire vision, faith and confidence in God’s faithfulness and his promises to us. Scripture is loaded in fact with these reminders from “the heavens.” Consider just one from the book of Isaiah:

To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 40:25-28).

When you are overwhelmed, facing an impossible situation, having a great need, or feeling forgotten; just go outside and look up! If God is bigger than the universe and yet knows each star by name; how much more will He remember you, for you are the crowning work of all his creation! As human beings God has set his affection most tenderly on us, as we alone have been created in his image and likeness! And He loves us so much that He made the ultimate sacrifice, in the person of Jesus Christ, to rescue, redeem and reconcile us to Himself so that we might have eternal life with him. You are the apple of His eye and He will not forget you!

If therefore, he met our deepest and greatest need of forgiveness of sin; how much more will he meet every other need? This is exactly what Romans 8:31-32 says,  What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

Oh, how He loves you and me! He is faithful to all his promises; for he has power to fulfill all he has promised. He will not forsake us or forget us.

  • The Glory of God

There is not much else on earth or in the heavens more breath-taking and beautiful than sunsets or sunrises. Or what about the Northern Lights? Or what about the images of the earth from space? Or pictures from the universe in deep space, showcasing the beauty of galaxies, planets, stars and more?

If the universe is that gloriously beautiful, what does it say to us about God? Scripture in fact tells us there is nothing, and no one, more “glorious” than God himself. Job 25:5 in fact states, God is more glorious than the moon; he shines brighter than the stars.

Just meditate on that for a moment! Imagine how breath-takingly glorious God must be! This is in fact the word used when God reveals himself: the “glory” of God. The reaction of any who have experienced or seen even a glimpse of God in Scripture, have likewise been overwhelmed to the point of not being able to handle it in their physical bodies! (Isaiah 6, Revelation 1, Ezekiel 1, Daniel 10 etc).

There is something in the heart of man that longs for that which is glorious and beautiful. And yet, nothing can satisfy that longing except the creator of beauty himself. Everything else is finite and fleeting; God alone is infinite, eternal and glorious.

The heavens are pointing us to a reality greater than we can possibly imagine or comprehend. They are speaking to us of the vastness of God, the promises of God and the glory of God. They are pointing us to something (or more like someone!) beyond ourselves, beyond our own little worlds, beyond our “small” problems and even beyond the universe itself. It is speaking to us of the faithfulness of God to fulfill every good promise in our lives. It is speaking to us of an eternally glorious God; a God of beauty and delight who alone can satisfy the thirst of our hearts and longing of our hearts.

He alone deserves all our praise, wonder and worship!

“Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.” “Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. -Nehemiah 9:5

The Problem in the American Church

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. -Luke 15:11

I was in a meeting recently where several people were sharing their efforts in different arena’s. One man shared about his efforts to address homelessness, another spoke of prison ministry and rehabilitation, and yet another missions work around the world. There was one more who spoke about political issues.

Want to take a guess who got the biggest applause and only standing ovation that day?

Keep in mind this was a Christian group.

The answer to this is what I believe is wrong in the American church as it reveals our most passionate priority, and it is sorely and discouragingly misplaced. Politics have their place, but are not the answer to the worlds problems. (By the way, I happened to agree with much of what this speaker spoke…but not always the way in which it was spoken. Her personal story was powerful, but she made the other side the enemy in a way that will persuade no one but just get the “amen’s” of the choir).

It’s extremely disheartening to see this is where the most fervor, energy and passion (really just anger that divides) continues to get put by Christians in a very emotional charged, angry, divisive way that makes everyone else “enemies” when our real battle is a spiritual battle not against each other (Ephesians 6).

Let me get right to the point: people will not be won to Christ and enter his kingdom (in a truly trans-formative way) if we are more concerned about our earthly kingdoms and political views than God’s eternal kingdom and people’s eternal destiny. When we speak so disparagingly and use such heated personal rhetoric, we persuade no one, but rather reinforce positions and stereotypes. It also taints our witness as those professing to follow Jesus. It turns people off to the Good News we are supposed to be most passionate about proclaiming.

Here is another way to put it and it dates back to over 2,000 years ago when Jesus himself began a parable this way: there was a man who had two sons. We have historically mislabeled this parable and done it an injustice by calling it by it’s popular name: the prodigal son. But this story is as much as about the second son (what we would call a conservative today) as it is the prodigal (liberal) son. Both sons were lost, just in different ways. I would submit this same dynamic is playing out today in our culture.

But perhaps the shocker to Jesus’ original audience (a response to the Pharisee’s, representing the older conservative son) is that the one who begins the story as most obviously lost (the liberal prodigal) ends up being found, while the one who doesn’t overtly appear lost ends up angry and blind to his own heart and lostness. The parable ends with us knowing the prodigal is found, but hanging in regard to whether or not the older, angry, conservative son will repent in light of his father pleading with him to have a change of mind and heart too.

Jesus reserved his strongest words for “conservatives” (Religious Pharisees)…not liberal (“sinners”).

Here’s the deal. Jesus represents a “third” son. Jesus is neither liberal or conservative. His kingdom is not of this world. He has come to deal with the heart of the real problem and it’s not political. The issue is the sin and darkness in every human heart. The problem is our sin has separated us all from God. Though made in his image, we have fallen short of reflecting his glory, perfection, heart and character. Jesus came on a rescue mission. He came to pay our sin debt by his death on the cross. He came to die in our place so we could be forgiven and reconciled to a holy but loving God. He came that we might know God. He came that we might have eternal life. He came so that we might enter into and learn the ways of his eternal kingdom; where there is peace with God and peace with one another. He came to redeem us that we might become like Him.

As Christians, we would do much better to focus our most passionate energy on being more like Christ. That is after all, the focus of the entire New Testament when addressing Christians. (Read my prior blog article on this here: God’s Purpose for Your Life) and representing him/reflecting the heart of God who longs to draw all into relationship with Him and reconcile the world to Himself. That is what the world truly needs and is the heart of all problems in the world.

Why can’t this become our greatest passion rather than politics?

PS…I am grateful for godly people involved in politics who are trying to make a better and more just world. I know several personally…and we need to pray for all in government. The world also needs more politicians of integrity, character and godliness. The point of this article however is to point out that American Christian priorities are out of alignment when politics are what we get most passionate about. That becomes idolatrous and looking for salvation in the wrong place. True salvation is found in the person of Jesus Christ, so let’s stay focused on Him and the message He called us to bring to this world.

***Also, another article would be required to speak to some extremes on the other side I am seeing surfacing in reaction to the issue above. “Liberals” can be filled with equally as much anger, bitterness and prejudice as conservatives in other ways. We can become the very thing we hate if we are not careful to reflect something else entirely: the way of Christ and heart of God.

God, sanctify us by your truth not our own, and help us see people through your eyes that long to draw all into relationship with yourself above all else.

Welcoming the Refugee

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.         -1 Peter 4:7-10

A few weeks ago I attended a free seminar that quite honestly I had no idea why I had signed up for it. Even that day I tried to think of every way to get out of it or just not show up. But something, (or more like someone!) kept nudging me to go. It turned out to be for a reason other than the actual seminar itself, but for a connection that would happen rather quickly with another man as he was signing in right as I was.

That connection that day, led to getting together for coffee this week, to hear more of his story. It was funny too that as we were leaving, I said to him, “I had no idea why I was going to that seminar, but I now I know why…it was to meet you,” to which he replied, “I thought the exact same thing that day, until I met you!”

His story was remarkable. He is Egyptian and moved to the US about six years ago. He did not want to come and even despite all he went through, resisted coming even though He sensed the Lord calling him to come, otherwise he or his family would have wound up dead. They were being followed, harassed, interrogated and literally threatened with death due to being a Christian with a high profile. He would appear on TV because of his successful business; but was also involved with Christian ministry in Egypt. That got him on the radar and made him a “threat.”

This was during the period before, during and slightly after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, which many of us might have seen or read about in the news. He talked of how during that time they lived right in the middle of all that chaos, constantly hearing tanks firing in the streets and knowing many people killed, even vanishing with no trace. At the same time he was being wire-tapped and followed everywhere. One wrong move for a period of six months would have gotten him killed. And yet, he would have stayed in his homeland, had it not been for the Lord convincing him it was time to leave.

So, he came to the US and will become a citizen this year. But what is sad is that he hasn’t found a very welcoming attitude towards him as an Arab immigrant in the US. Even more tragic is that I am speaking of this attitude in churches and among Christians. At first, many churches and Christians were eager to hear his story, but his message about being hospitable to the “stranger,” building relationships, and not being afraid of refugees and immigrants etc, was not welcomed.

Even in the middle of speaking along these lines, the missions pastor of his own church, a good friend of his, stood up while he was speaking, cut him off and declared that it was not Biblical to do ministry in the context of “undefined relationship” outside of “church programs.” He was simply talking about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves and how when engaging with Arab or Muslim people, you must show you genuinely care about them in a relational way. Sounds pretty Biblical to me, but the reality is much of the church has exalted and substituted programs over relationships, as if this is “real ministry.”

Slowly, he began to not be asked back to churches and to speak, as he challenged the fear of the “stranger” and genuine relationships with Arab/Muslim people. And yet, as he pointed out, if anyone had reason to fear, it was he and his family who faced real harassment and threats of death, not just the “fear of it.” For him, it was a present reality not a future “possibility.” When the Egyptian secret police threaten someone with death, it is followed through 90% of the time!

As he talked I couldn’t help but think, here is a brother in Christ who should be treated as a hero; yet he is feeling isolated and alone! At the same time it was a highlight of my week to be in a position where he could openly share with a new friend and feel encouraged and to know he is not alone. I invited him to a coalition I have been hosting through the mission organization I lead, with other like-minded mission agencies and people, in an attempt to try to speak into the fear, misinformation, even prejudice towards refugees among Christians; while calling the church to positive action in showing hospitality and serving refugees/immigrants here and around the world.

But this conversation made me saddened again by much of the rhetoric and deeply held attitudes towards immigrants and refugees. Don’t misunderstand me; I believe policy has it’s place to protect citizens, but the overwhelming majority of refugees fleeing their countries have not wanted to leave their homeland, and have been leaving due to persecution while facing great suffering and loss along the way.

If anyone should be showing hospitality, regardless of political beliefs, it is Christians who claim to follow Jesus; the One who Himself was a refugee, forced to flee a bloodbath as a vulnerable child, and whose people have often been refugees, persecuted and forced to flee their homes. We are even called “aliens” and “strangers”, as this world in it’s present fallen form is not our true home. Our true citizenship is in heaven! We too are “refugee’s” looking and longing for our true eternal home.

In addition, let me make this strong but biblically true statement. Our attitude towards, and how we treat refugees, says an awful lot about our relationship with God; a God who often comes as a “stranger” and is pretty sensitive to how we treat the “stranger.” (Matthew 25).  There is an excellent new book I just read, called “God is Stranger.” It is about how God’s people often encountered God when they themselves were “strangers”; and how God often appeared to his people as a “stranger.” Linked to that is practical application of how God’s promises and blessing in our lives can be tied to these two truths and our attitude towards the “stranger.”

And yet, there is a very clear problem in this area in the Western Christian world. In fact, sometimes I am amazed at how much of our “Christianity” is really just cultural, political and fear-based, verse truly biblical and Christ-like. And if anything needs restored in the Western church today it is hospitality. Even for those we “know”, who we go to church services with week in and week out, we are often still “strangers” to each other, never really getting to know each other in a real, authentic, guards-down, Biblical fellowship kind of way.

So what is the issue? I am convinced that the issue is something the Holy Spirit highlighted to me early on when I was called to ministry. He showed me even then, that the number one issue I would face in my own life and in the lives of those I would minister too would be fear. At the time, I didn’t see that or believe that would be the number one issue. And yet, as the years have gone by that has proven more and more true.

Fear causes us to react emotionally instead of biblically. Fear is the opposite of faith. And fear has clearly gripped many hearts, paralyzed many lives and is distorting our perception in many ways. For example, while we all have been alerted to “stranger” danger, it is alarming but enlightening to note that most of the abuse, assault, and homicide that occurs in the US is not from random “strangers” but those we think are not “strangers”; ie…family and friends. Yet because we are more “familiar” with those we perceive “safe” we “feel” safer even if statistically it is not true.

Please understand that I am not advocating we throw away all discernment. Compassion and discernment do not need to be an either/or thing. Jesus himself said we are to be as shrewd as serpents and yet as innocent as doves. There are wolves among the sheep; but let’s remember that there are more sheep than wolves and those sheep are fleeing the same wolves we fear.

Also, consider this. For all the rhetoric and fear I hear, I wonder how many actual refugee or immigrant families the same people speaking like this, have taken time to personally get to know and pray for? It is easy to make this a political stance when void of personal relationship and prayer. And many of these “refugees” are in fact our Christian brothers and sisters! For the others who are not yet, why not make that a matter of personal prayer instead of passionate political statements that isolate and hurt the witness of God’s people, instead of attract people to the beauty of Jesus?

In addition, for all the “negative” stories that might be reported in the news, there are thousands of other untold stories of how so many are encountering Jesus, coming to faith in Him, or hearing of Him and his love for them for the first time. Christians have been praying for those in the “10/40 window” for a long time, and these are some of the very people in these closed/least reached countries that are now coming to us. And yet, as my friend pointed out in a baffled way; now we don’t want them! Instead of seeing this as a kingdom opportunity, we are view it as a national, political, cultural, personal headache.

I want to propose as I advocate for the refugee, that much of our fear, though real, is irrational. And much of our current response to this issue is being driven by emotion, not biblical exhortation. We are diminishing this to a mere political stance rather than realizing these are real people we are talking about. How would you feel if you were in their shoes? How would the current rhetoric spewed on social media or attitude even within churches and among Christians make you feel?

Government is responsible for the safety of it’s citizens. Policy and laws have their place in every country. But as Christians we have a higher law and standard; a law and standard of love. It is so radical and counter-cultural to the American way, that it even says that if it does happen to come down to it, living a life of service is to be a greater priority than our own personal safety. Do we trust a Sovereign God or worship the golden calf of comfortable Christianity?

Yes, be wise, but heaven-forbid we not show the compassion of our Savior to refugees, immigrants and strangers. Of all people, we as Christians, even as American’s, should be the most hospitable.

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.-Hebrews 13:2

God’s Purpose For Your Life

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. -Romans 8:28-29

Yesterday, I had a couple conversations where the idea of “God’s purpose” “God’s will” and “God’s calling” on our lives got brought up. In the first conversation, the person I was talking to was struggling with what God’s purpose is for her life. She was feeling like others around her seem so clear about their “calling” or at least “pursuing some specific purpose.” In the second conversation, the friend I was talking to was struggling with this whole concept of whether God really has a “specific calling” on people’s lives.

I believe there is an easy answer to that question.

In addition, I believe it’s something that believers in Jesus desperately need to refocus on, even by those of us convinced God does have a “specific calling” on our lives. I also believe the lack of clarity and priority of this answer is at the heart of what is especially wrong with the American Church today.

But before I get to that answer, let me explain (albeit somewhat generally) what I mean by the statement “what is wrong with especially the American Church.” In the US, Christians have become focused and obsessed with “issues” “political stances” “opinions” “preferences” and “doctrinal systems.” But the “issues” “stances” and “systems” that we seem to so deeply and emotionally (dare I say obsessively, even idolatrous) focus on and become divided over; are often not the issues the church in other parts of the world are divided over or make the “issue” like we do.

This is not to say I am against causes, doctrine or taking a stand on issues. I just believe we often take on a cause but lose sight of Christ. We exalt a certain doctrinal position over the person of Christ. And we take a stand on issues but fail to be Christ-like in the process.

I believe this happens because we make championing these things the “purpose” of our lives. But God has one purpose for my life and yours and every other Christian in every generation and every generation to come, until Christ comes back and we are perfected. It is a singular purpose that is the same for every one of us.

It is found in the verse this blog article began with. Verse twenty-eight of Romans chapter eight states clearly that God works for the good of those who love and have been called according to his purpose. What is “his purpose?” The next verse explains, though with some heavy hitting theological terms! But it simply boils down to this: God’s purpose for my life and yours is that in knowing Jesus, we become like Jesus.

That’s it. It’s as simple (and for the rest of our lives as challenging) as that.

What does God want for my life and yours? What is His calling on my life and yours? What is His purpose and will for my life and yours?

It’s that we know and become like Jesus.

No more. No less.

Think about it this way. What is the primary focus and emphasize in all the New Testament epistles? Is it on finding God’s specific and unique calling in each of our individual lives? Is it about finding the perfect church? Is it about the right political beliefs? Is it about finding the exact “special task” God has for our lives? Is it about finding a “cause we care about?”

If God’s purpose for my life or yours is merely a specific “calling” such as being a teacher, pastor, missionary or whatever, then what happens during the times you are not functioning in that role or that role or task comes to an end? Does that mean you have no purpose for the rest of your life? And what about in eternity?

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe God calls and leads people to certain roles or tasks. I believe as Scripture teaches, He gives His people grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit to serve in specific ways. I believe He raises up leaders and anoints people to perform certain things. I believe there are causes we should get involved with and care about.

But none of those things or tasks are God’s purpose for my life or yours!

In fact, we can do all kinds of “activity” for Jesus and yet not be like Jesus or become more like Jesus. And when we get more focused on issues, stances, positions, and systems over our Savior and being like Him, we can entirely miss it.

So, think about this: isn’t the New Testament primarily, if not almost exclusively, focused on who Jesus is, who we are in Christ, and therefore how we are to live, act and be like Jesus? Is it not about us reflecting His nature and character to a corrupt and lost world that they might see a difference in our lives and come to know Him too?

And what is it the world really needs?

It’s easy for us to rail against it. It is easy for us to complain about it. But what really draws people to Jesus and results in life-transformation? 

Is it our stances or Savior? Is it us judging and condemning the world or reflecting the character of God, showing the love of Jesus in action and sharing the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ while we are in this world?

What does the world need more than anything else?

I would submit to you it is simply this: God’s people becoming and being like Jesus. For us to not only witness…but be his witnesses. Be his ambassadors. Be his hands and feet. Be his representatives. Be the light and salt of the world.

Be. Like. Jesus.

Imagine if we started focusing on that every day. Imagine if we made that the purpose of every situation and question we asked in every situation: how can this mold me and make me to be more like Jesus? How can I reflect his nature and character in this situation?

Do you realize, no matter what people might do to you, no matter what circumstances you might be going through, no matter what trials or suffering or hardships you might face, you and I have opportunity to grow in Christ-likeness?

In other words, if this was our focus, nothing can rob us of fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives no matter the situation!

In every situation, if we just lived as Jesus did, with an attitude of serving rather than looking to be served; an attitude of loving God and loving others; an attitude of simply going around and doing good wherever there was need, and we had opportunity; wouldn’t the world be a much better place? Wouldn’t that way of life and character attract others to Him? 

It was Gandhi after all who famously said, ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

What a sad statement about us all to one degree or another! Granted, this side of heaven we will all fall short, but we should never use that as an excuse, because this side of heaven God is laser focused on one thing in each of our lives: us knowing and thereby becoming like Jesus.

This is his primary concern. This is his purpose for our lives as believers while here in this world. In God’s Sovereignty, He has predestined and orchestrated the course and events and circumstances of our lives for this means and end goal in mind. 

Everything that happens in your life is for this purpose to be fulfilled and everything that happens offers you this opportunity to know something of Jesus and become more like him!

Therefore, I believe we miss the mark and fail to show the world the beauty of Jesus, by exalting issues, opinions, stances and systems about our Savior.

I believe we become frustrated, confused, even disillusioned when life doesn’t turn out as we might expect or hope or think it should…because we become focused on a different purpose and agenda than God’s single purpose and agenda for our lives.

I also believe looking for some “specific calling” or “specific purpose” can become an excuse for not living and serving like Jesus did and becoming more like him. As I said to one person who was struggling with God’s “purpose” for their life, why don’t you just look every day for opportunity to be like Jesus? Serve someone in need. Show hospitality. Be generous. Be gracious. Be forgiving. Love God. Love people. It may well be that as you do that, God will open some specific doors to serve Him in some specific ways, but in the meantime, just stay focused on being like Jesus! The result or end goal is not some special task, calling or role; but being more like Jesus.

I know I need this reminder in my own life. In fact, it might even be harder for those of us in “full-time ministry” because it is very easy for me to be way more caught up in what I am doing than who I am becoming. It is easy to focus on tasks over character. It is easier to become complacent in being like Jesus when you feel like you are doing “God’s work.” And it is easier to exalt “ministry” than Christ-likeness.

But God is more concerned not merely about what we do, but whose we are, who we are becoming and who we are reflecting to this world. God’s purpose for our lives is that we know and become like Jesus. And every moment of every day, every situation of life, has the potential to fulfill that purpose.

An Honest Wrestling: Part 2

If you missed the first part of this two part blog series, check out part one here: An Honest Wrestling: Part 1.

4). Anger with those who call themselves “Evangelical Christians” but are prejudice instead of reflecting the heart of God.

I think this is a big problem in much of the American evangelical church world. So much so that it has tainted the very meaning of what it means to be an “Evangelical Christian.” It is a term that now seems to be associated with “white, hypocritical, conservative, angry, judgmental, prejudice, sexist, and anti-everything people.” Sadly, I think there is too much truth in some of this, whether reality or perception. And I believe it’s because many who identify as “Evangelical Christians” are more political than truly “evangelical.” The very word “evangelical” has a root word that means “Good News” and yet we seem to only champion “bad news” in a political context.

I believe at the root of the real problem is a lack of seeing and knowing the heart of God. It’s easier to take a “position” than it is to know a person. It’s easier to take a “stand” than it is to serve. It’s easier to voice an “opinion” than it is to love those different than us. It is easier to “fight for our rights” than to lay down our lives in service to God and others. It’s easier to live in fear than to live by faith.

But I admit this shallow and cross-less and un-Christian “Christianity” makes me mad. It is poisonous and toxic. I can sympathize with those who want nothing to do with this “Christianity” because it lacks any of the real Christ, and I don’t want anything to do with it either! The real Jesus does not have an ounce of prejudice in Him, in fact He purposely breaks every human and social barrier created out of the prejudice of people’s hearts. We need a fresh revelation of the basic Gospel message and God’s heart.

However, can I say one word of caution here? If we don’t deal with our anger in a way that channels positive change, we are at risk of becoming the very thing we hate. I think there is a new prejudice emerging against conservative, white, male, evangelicals! Let’s be careful of not falling into the same stereotypes we claim to loathe in others.

5). Christians who seem to have no conviction about blatantly living in sin, rationalize it as not sinful, and side with other Christians living in sin; while turning on those, or a church, that dares to speak to the need for righteousness, truth and real biblical love.

This is the opposite problem of point number four and it is another disturbing trend. There is a shocking level of “liberal” and “loose” living among other professing Christians. The language that I am about to use is probably pretty foreign to many today, but it is true. It is also not to say that we don’t all sin or that I am being “holier-than-thou.” Trust me, spend just a day (or less) with me and that would quickly be dispelled!

But here is the issue: there is blatant disobedience among many professing to be Christians, with no sense of conviction, confession, repentance or fear of the Lord. (I have written recently more fully on this here: Where is the Conviction?) Perhaps it comes out of hurt and hardened hearts, but whatever the reason, there seems to be a shrugging off of conviction and dismissing certain parts of the Bible that don’t align with our lifestyle, instead of allowing God’s word to transform our lives.

To make matters worse, when sin is dared to be called sin, I see a lot of Christians “rallying” to those in sin as if they are the victims. And then they turn on the pastor, church leadership or church itself, that is obeying the Biblical command to exercise church discipline when a professing believer is living in unrepentant sin. None of this is easy and emotions run very high, but we need to find that place of being equally as strong on “neither do I condemn you” but also “go and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11). Jesus came full of both “grace” and “truth.” (John 1:14).

So, on the one hand you have “conservatives” railing against the world (when they should be bearers of the Good News to the world) and on the other hand, you have “liberals” rallying to “Christians” who are living in sin as if they victims (when they should be confronting and calling to repentance). This is completely backwards. Could Scripture be any clearer when it says this in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.

5). Discouragement over the state of the church in it’s spiritual apathy.

This kind of ties in with the above. There is a lack of the fear of the Lord, hunger for the Lord, living for the Lord and presence of the Lord in our lives. We go through religious motions once a week, or we might even do a lot of “religious activity” through the week, but too much of the Western church is powerless and impotent in it’s impact in the world and culture. Missions is not the heart-beat of the church, prayer is not central or sometimes even present, and we rarely go any deeper than “inspirational messages” in our Bible study.

Worship is reduced to a few songs and offering, instead of a life-style and time of waiting on the Lord for any extended amount of time until He meets with us. “Fellowship” has become mere social discussions but lacking any real spiritual dynamic of sharing in the life of Jesus and walking with Him together. Hospitality has been reduced to coffee stations in a church building, rather than meals around a kitchen table in our homes.

That said, the above is a generalization. It is also not representative of many passionate and committed followers of Jesus who yearn for something more and authentic. There is a movement afoot that is rediscovering some of these seemingly lost realities and that is hopeful! The true church of Jesus Christ will always prevail, but there is no doubt there is a great need for a true renewal and revival in the Western world.

6). The seeming lack of any real action within the social media world…other than liking and sharing posts or complaining about all that is wrong instead of actually doing something positive to make things right.

I run a social media page for the ministry I lead. The ministry name is ServeNow and our tag-line is “procrastinate later.” Yet, it drives me crazy when people “like” posts but take no action to actually “ServeNow.” It reminds me of this passage out of James:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Don’t just “like” something…do something!

Don’t just complain about all that is wrong…do something positive to make it right!

And that call is something I now need to heed in conclusion. What good is all of the above if I don’t do something positive about it myself? Will I merely be reactive in regard to all that is “wrong” with the world, or will I acknowledge all that is wrong with me and allow God to do a work to renew a right spirit within my heart, that I might work to bring about what is right in this world?

What is the point of wrestling if we never allow that to build within us a determination to drive change?

Wrestling with what is wrong, must turn into working for what is right. Anger must turn to action that brings forth positive change. Bitterness must be replaced with mercy and grace. Being hurt must lead to becoming more compassionate and sensitive to others hurting or feeling unnoticed. And being upset about all the “un-Christ-like” Christians out there must lead me to becoming more like Christ myself not less.

That is the point of honesty and the goal of all wrestling…not to become bitter, but to become better and make the world a better place.

You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. -Isaiah 58:4-9

An Honest Wrestling: Part 1

This week I prayed an honest prayer in front of my staff. It was a little unnerving for me and I think uncomfortable for them. In that prayer, I was wrestling with God over an issue (without coming to a definite resolution) and wrestling with my emotions in a rather raw way that might not have sounded very “Christian.” Normally, I would save those “darker” prayers for private, but to be honest, I’m kind of tired of what seems like an only “positive” (and hence somewhat superficial or one-sided) Christianity in public.

Perhaps in fact, we have become quite ineffective and irrelevant to much of our culture and generation because we seem to struggle with being “real” in public. I confess, I am normally equally as guilty, as I know how to put on my “Christian smile” and project a certain “respectable Christian” image. I can fake it with the best of them.

But here is a question: is that truly Biblical? Is it genuine spirituality? And could it be excluding those who genuinely need space and grace to wrestle with God until they experience His transforming touch? Could we even be creating a distance between us and God by fearing to face our fears and acknowledge our own struggles and emotions?

Let me share with you some of my recent wrestling’s. But fair warning: it might make you uncomfortable. It might sound rather “whiny.” It might even offend you. But others might be able to relate. Some might see in this the freedom to be real, to wrestle, and instead of suppressing and being enslaved by their emotions, find freedom where these emotions and wrestling’s can be channeled into positive action and change. If you read to the end of part two, you will see that this is where this all is going…

1). Frustration with God (or maybe more so God’s people) over the inability to serve more refugees around the world.

This might be the area of my deepest wrestling with God right now.

Before you become concerned about my “faith” let me explain that I am actually not afraid to wrestle with the deep and painful realities of life and suffering anymore. I find it strengthens my faith, not weakens it. I find that it draws me closer to God not away from God. I think the reason is because I have decided I am going to go to God rather than turn on God; and seek Him in these things, acknowledging I am human and therefore don’t see things from His perfect perspective, rather than arrogantly claim I know better than him or am more “good” than He is.

I travel to many of the poorest places in the world. I am surrounded by need and requests for help all the time. For example, I was just in Uganda. I was teaching at a pastors conference, and there were twenty pastors from a refugee camp in Sudan. At this refugee camp there are one million people who have been forced to flee all the violence in Sudan. For an overwhelming number of people, their husbands, wives, parents, children…have been killed. These pastors stood on the stage the last night of the conference and as we prayed for them, many had tears streaming down their faces. The pain is raw and the need is real. I’ve been communicating with one of the leaders and he gave me a whole list of the needs in this camp. Not only is it overwhelming, but it is frustrating (no, it makes me angry) that we can’t do more right now to help them.

But that is just one example. I cry out to God so often to enable me/ServeNow to be able to help other refugees in other parts of the world too. But then my wrestling with God turns more into a wrestling with so many that call themselves “God’s people” but seem to be doing nothing or don’t even care to want to anything or see the reality of all the suffering in the world. How can we live so comfortably when so many are suffering? How can we live with ourselves for being more “afraid” of refugees than having God’s heart for them? How can we turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the poor while living in prosperity and plenty? How can we justify, make excuses and live within our own little cultural bubble, maybe giving a gift here or there, but only to appease our semi-guilty conscience rather than devote our lives to serving those in need out of Christ’s compassion?

I don’t think “lack of awareness” is a good enough excuse in today’s global world. Perhaps we don’t want to know, rather than truly being ignorant of not knowing.

2). Bitterness with those I thought were friends, but have wounded me by their accusations and actions, without seeming to want to repair relationship or acknowledge where they might have hurt me.

This is probably were I made my staff uncomfortable today while praying. I prayed honestly the way I was feeling; that God would “smite” or at least “slap” those I thought were friends but were not acting like friends. Before you “gasp” at how awful I am, consider two things. First, have you ever read many of the Psalms of David (that were actually put to worship songs in his day)? There are quite a few where he (a man after God’s own heart) doesn’t seem to hold back his prayers (that were made into songs) for God’s vengeance (See Psalm 69 as just one example)!

Second, I was quick to pray that I didn’t really mean it in the sense of actually wanting God to do that, but that is the way I felt emotionally because I’ve been deeply hurt. We all know the reality that those we love the most often hurt us the deepest (and those we love the most we often hurt the deepest). My wife and I have said some deeply hurtful things to each other. Why? Well, without justifying any of those words, I can tell you it comes out of a place of feeling deeply hurt by the other. And because we care or love each other so much, it hurts more and therefore human tendency is to hurt back even worse!

I think honesty comes before healing. I think we have to acknowledge our real feelings, in real prayers, before we can overcome and rise above, rather than be overcome and sink beneath our emotions. I think we have to give those raw emotions to God in order to not act out on those emotions. Perhaps we take out our bitterness on others because we aren’t really being honest about our bitterness with God. Perhaps because we don’t wrestle with Him, we fight with each other.

When was the last time you heard a sermon however on that? Are we afraid God can’t handle honesty? How silly is that when He already knows our hearts and all our thoughts! Is it that we feel we can’t really trust Him to be God so we take matters into our own hands as if we were god? Are we afraid He won’t love us anymore if we are truly honest? But how can that be when He loved us while we were still sinners? He loves us the same in our best moments…and worst moments.

3). Feeling unnoticed or that people don’t care…about my life, insights, views, articles, video’s, efforts, ministry.

I’ll be honest. I am currently struggling with this especially in the realm of social media. People seem to notice or care more about cute dog and cat pictures than human beings in real need around the world. People seem to notice and care more about sports and politics than anything spiritual or of actual substance that will make a difference in the world. People like “trite” sayings more than truth. And very few will take time to read this because it’s “too long.”

But what is social media really all about? What “need” is it supposed to be meeting? Isn’t it a place to be noticed? A place for community? A place to share what matters to us? But what happens when you seem to go unnoticed and feel no one really cares? In that space, it might be even more painful because it’s the place where being noticed and feeling a part of community is supposed to happen.

This isn’t a pity party. This isn’t to say anyone owes “me” anything. In fact, in my more “mature” moments, it creates in me a deeper compassion and desire to be someone who notices others. Someone who values others. But this is an article where I am being real. And in being real, I struggle with what to me seems like a very superficial social media culture.

In Part two, (You can read it here: An Honest Wrestling Part 2) I will express a couple more recent areas of honest wrestling, but I will also tie this together in positive action to bring about change. Complaining or seeing problems is easy. However, that doesn’t bring real or positive change. Allowing ourselves space to wrestle with God should result in working towards positive solutions and modeling something different. Our pain and disappointments, if handled well, can be recycled by God into something that can bring healing into the lives of others!

Five Keys to Real Joy

You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. -Psalm 16:11

Joy. Who isn’t looking for true, inner, and lasting joy? From an early age I have battled depression. I also find myself deeply frustrated many times when things don’t seem to be going as I hope, or happening as quickly as I might want. Joy is something that can seem elusive, but could it be because we mistake real internal joy with fleeting happiness? And more so, if that is true, how can we not only find, but remain filled with joy, regardless of circumstances?

I believe more than anything, the enemy seeks to rob us of the joy of the Lord and the joy that is only truly found in the Lord. I believe the enemy of our souls hates true joy more than anything else. I believe as Jesus said, the thief comes to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10) and it begins with our joy. But I also believe more than anything, God wants His people to be joyful and for us to know and be filled with His joy. I believe Jesus constantly seeks to restore our joy and fill us to overflowing, for it is his joy that is our strength and serves to protect our hearts in more ways than one.

Recently, I had my joy restored while on a mission trip to Uganda. It was not the place I expected it to happen, but the joy of the believers I was with was undeniably contagious! The surprising thing too is that as I travel around the world and especially serve the poorest of the poor, I have discovered they often have more joy than those of us who live in greater comfort and prosperity. They may be “poor” in regard to the world’s wealth, but I have found they possess true riches that are eternal. In fact, their “richness” has exposed my own “poverty!”

I wish I could take everyone from the Western world to some of these slums to be among these joy-filled believers. The reason is because it demonstrates that joy is not dependent on our circumstances and is not found in material possessions; it is rather found in the presence of God and is a gift from God.

So let me lay out five keys to not only obtaining real joy, but retaining joy (or having our joy restored). This is by no means exhaustive (for example I did not talk about serving others, which is a key to real joy. See Isaiah 58 for this key).

1). You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. (Psalm 16:11).

Joy is found in the presence of God. Joy is found in encountering and gazing upon the multi-faceted beauty of God.  Joy is found as we worship Him! Some people seem to think that God is a cosmic kill-joy, (and judging by the way we sometimes worship Him, that would seem to be the case) but the opposite is in fact true; there is no one more joyful than God! (Hebrews 1:8-9). I preached on this in Uganda to a group of pastors. You can listen to more on this here: Restoring the Song. The point is this however, get in His presence! Joy is found not in focusing on our circumstances, but the character of God. Joy is a fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in us as we abide in Him (John 15, Galatians 5:16-26).

2). We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make your joy complete. (1 John 1:3-4).

Joy is found in a genuine relationship with Jesus and others who know him. Sometimes, the reason we lack joy is because sin interferes with our fellowship with Jesus and one another. We speak of the Trinity of God; One God in three persons. While it’s a hard mystery for us to grasp with our human minds, it speaks of an unbroken fellowship and community in the God-head. In other words, God is relational at His core and created us to be in relationship with Him and one another. Where fellowship with Him and one another is hindered by sin, our joy is robbed. But through confession and repentance of sin our joy can be restored as we are reconciled to God and one another.

3). Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9).

Joy is robbed from us when we give into unbelief. However, when we are truly trusting in Him, we are filled with an “inexpressible and glorious joy.” Faith in Jesus is the avenue to joy in life. Faith in Jesus doesn’t mean life suddenly becomes easy; but it means we can possess a joy no matter our circumstances. Living by faith results in being filled with joy. Believing in Jesus opens our hearts to his joy being poured into us in a way we can’t explain but nevertheless is real!

4). “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:44).

Many of us lack joy because we lack proper perspective of what is of true value and worth. We try to hold on to what we think makes us happy (even though we are not) instead of discovering the joy of surrendering all to Jesus. Why do we have such a hard time “letting go” and surrendering all to Jesus? It’s simple really. We are afraid that by “letting go” we will lose out. We focus on what we are giving up, instead of all that we are gaining!

The reason this man was able to sell all he currently possessed, to obtain what he didn’t yet possess, was because he realized what he was releasing was not worth comparing to what he was receiving! He recognized what he was gaining was of greater value than what he was giving up. We fear giving up what we are familiar with even though the promise of what God offers is of infinitely greater value!

5). Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Philippians 4:4).

Ok, let me be honest about this one. I hate this verse! And yet, it is a key to maintaining our joy. Sometimes the reality is, we don’t feel joyful, but God calls us to rejoice anyway. Joy therefore, is a choice. But notice what we are to rejoice in. We are called to rejoice in the Lord. The truth is circumstances are always changing and are not always ideal. However, the Lord never changes! He is the one unchanging constant.

Therefore, no matter our circumstances we can always rejoice in Him. And as we refocus on Him and rejoice in the reality of who He is, we will find our joy being restored. Even when we can’t find joy in anything else, we can find our joy in the Lord by rejoicing in His unfailing love, goodness, mercy, grace, kindness, faithfulness and unchanging character.

Sometimes you just have to choose to be joyful! 1 Thessalonians 5:16 in fact commands us, “rejoice always.” The prophet Habakkuk poetically and beautifully put it this way: Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. Joy is more than a fleeting feeling of happiness; it is a choice as we focus on the Lord. And that choice gives us strength to rise above any circumstance.

Therefore, if you have lost your joy, focus on the source of all joy and the great joy-giver! He delights to fill us with His joy. Jesus has come to restore our joy by bringing us into right relationship with Himself and one another. Joy has nothing really to do with our ever-changing circumstances but the unchanging character of God. Let Him fill you with His joy! It is His joy after all that is our strength.

Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. -Nehemiah 8:12

The Mystery of God in Deep Darkness

The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. -Exodus 20:21

I am writing this article on the eve of a new year. We have also just come away from celebrating the birth of the “light of the world” (John 1:1-14). Light is therefore, a common theme right now. And light is a wonderful thing! Light gives understanding. Light makes former things that were unclear, clear. Light gives insight and guidance. But may I also propose that light can be blinding and that there is more to God than what His “light” might reveal? What if I told you that God, who is light, also dwells in deep darkness and has an air of mystery and unpredictability about him that should excite us and encourage us to want to know him in a deeper way?

By saying that God dwells in darkness, I am not saying God is darkness or has any sin in him. Rather, I am saying God is not just with us when we “see” him, “sense” him or are aware of His presence. I am saying God is actually especially with us in times of great darkness, that in fact, we can come to know Him in a much deeper way, the deeper the darkness. What if it is in the unfamiliar, uncomfortable and unknown places that we discover God the most? What if in this new year, God is calling you deeper into the mystery of knowing Him in ways unknown before?

This is a truth of Scripture that I believe is rarely talked about. Furthermore, I believe this is a truth of God that very few dare to venture to explore. But consider the verse in Exodus that this article began with. It explicitly says that while the people were afraid and remained at a distance (like most people today?) there was a man who dared to venture into the thick darkness…where God was. And if you go on to read what Moses discovered of God in place, there was an awful lot of revelation not only from God, but a revelation of the glory of God! (See Exodus 33-34). And, in Moses’ case, he didn’t just hear about this; he experienced this reality of God and revelation from God firsthand and personally.

This isn’t an isolated text. King Solomon, in his dedication prayer of the temple, repeats something God himself had made clear to His people: Then Solomon prayed, “O Lord, you have said that you would live in a thick cloud of darkness. Solomon got this from his father David who wrote in Psalm 97:2, Dark clouds surround him.

Before him, Abraham has a strange encounter in Genesis 15 with God that involves a thick and dreadful darkness, an animal sacrifice and birds of prey. You would think at first that this is something out of a black and white Alfred Hitchcock horror movie! But this all foreshadows Jesus himself on the cross. Mark 15:33 speaks of darkness covering all the land for three hours while Jesus made atonement for our sin. It was simultaneously the darkest moment and day in human history…but also the pivot moment where the payment of our sins was secured that we might be reconciled to God.

There is a mystery to God that can be both frightening and comforting.

It is a beautiful truth to know that Jesus has come to give us light, that we might know God. But I believe it is also comforting to know that God is not absent in our darkness, but perhaps closer than we might realize. Darkness can be scary. But let me submit to you that not being afraid of the darkness “where God is” can lead to some of the most precious encounters and revelations of God that our hearts long for.

In fact, let me take this a step further. I believe the majority of us in the Western world worship (which means to ascribe worth or value) the “god” of comfort, security and “control”; not this unpredictable God that cannot be controlled and dwells in deep darkness. Like the Israelites, the majority of us are afraid to enter the “thick darkness” for this reason. But this is where God is! How much might we be missing out on because of our fear?

Consider the following three Scriptures:

  • Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. (Psalm 77:19). In other words, God’s ways and workings are unpredictable and humanly unknowable or untraceable (Romans 11:33-36). There is an air of mystery about the way He works, but I believe we have tried to reduce this all into principles and formulas that we can understand and control. Yet, there is no denying God works in unique ways and often unseen ways, not on the “safety” and “security” of the land, but the ever churning and formidable “seas.” There is a “wildness” about God. There is an air of mystery and unpredictability about Him that might unsettle some, but at least means He is not a humanly predictable bore! He is truly God.
  • I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16). How can God guide you if you already know the way? God delights to guide us into new places, new paths, take us on new adventures and lead us in new ways. But first, He wants us to trust Him and depend on him even though we feel “blind” and “in the dark.” Things become clear only in the place of following Him into the unknown. The real Christian life, a life that follows Jesus into the unknown and unfamiliar, is anything but boring! But I would submit to you that very few are actually following Jesus. Most only mentally ascribe to concepts or want principles to apply to their life in a way that guarantees success or improves their life in some controllable way. For most people their “theology” is only an intellectual exercise, not a journey in which they are submitting to following a real person; especially a God that leads in ways not familiar to them! But that is where God is and where God is calling us and where we truly come to know Him in deeper more intimate ways.
  • Some went out on the sea in ships, they were merchants on the mighty waters. They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep. (Psalm 107:23-24). Again we see the “mighty deeds” of the Lord were witnessed not in the safety, security and familiarity of the “land” but in the depths of the unpredictable “sea.” Mark Batterson, a pastor in Washington DC, put it this way: “Everybody wants a miracle; we just don’t want to be in a situation where we need one.” That sounds so obvious, but yet it is so true isn’t it? The idea of miracles sounds exciting, but being in a situation where there is no human solution and you are utterly dependent on God can give you stomach ulcers! I often hear people in the Western world ask why we hear of so many miracles happening in other parts of the world, but experience so few here. Could this be why? Could it be we see so little of God because we have not put ourselves in positions of truly needing God? Is it because we are afraid to venture beyond the comfort and security of our pews and what is familiar to us? Is it because we dare not venture out into the great unknown of the raging sea but are content to remain on land where we feel more in control?

Here is the point: there is more to discover of God than any of us know! There is a mystery about God, an air of unpredictability about Him. He dwells in thick darkness. Deep darkness, like a cloud, surrounds him, even “hides” him from our immediate sight. But for the few who dare to venture out of their place of “safety” and “security” and “comfort”; for the few who will dare to enter the “darkness”; they will come to know a depth of God and see a display of God’s deeds, that otherwise cannot be known.

This is where we begin to form our own testimonies, not just read or hear about them in other people’s lives. This is the real adventure of faith, such as what we read of in Hebrews chapter 11. These were people who knew God (not just about God) and accomplished amazing things because they dared to trust God and “enter the thick darkness where God was!”

But it also reminds us that in times of great darkness, God is there too. In fact, He may just be closer than you might know. Some of the greatest insights, some of the most precious truths, some of the deeper mysteries of God, some of the most intimate encounters with God, are discovered in times of suffering, sorrow, pain, tragedy, despair and trials. He doesn’t cause these things, but He is there with us during those times in special ways.

It is comforting to know that God dwells in thick darkness. He does not shy away from those places. He is not absent, but unusually present, even if it is hard for us to perceive. God is light, but God dwells in thick darkness. You are never alone. God will never even for a moment, forsake you. And there is more to God than we might be aware of.

Don’t be afraid of the thick darkness and great unknown…for God is there!

He may in fact be beckoning you to enter the thick darkness where He is. He may be calling you into a place of discovering the mystery, beauty and glory of knowing Him in a much deeper way than ever before. I know He is calling me.

3 Characteristics of Heaven 

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit -Romans 14:17

What comes to your mind when you think of heaven? For some people it might be images of angels eternally sitting on clouds and playing harps. Others might have thoughts of relatives or friends reunited with each other and enjoying what they loved in life. For still others it might be sentiments of being “in a better place.”

People have both specific and vague ideas of what heaven is like. Some have superficial impressions and perhaps at best kernels of truth mixed with much that is not biblical. Some think all people go to heaven and others don’t believe there is anything after death. In this blog post I want to attempt to begin to paint a foundational picture of heaven according to Scripture.

  • Joy

“You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” -Psalm‬ ‭16:11‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Any discussion on heaven should start with the presence of God. Heaven is only heaven because God is there. Yes, there is a sense that God is everywhere, but there is also the reality that God is somewhere. And it is the fullness of His manifest presence that makes heaven what it is. Without God nothing good exists. James 1:17 informs us,  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. Heaven is being in the presence of God where all good dwells; whereas hell is being cut off from his presence where no good exists. Heaven is being brought into the presence of God; hell is being separated from his presence. Heaven is more than being with loved ones; heaven is being with the One who loves us, is love itself, and is the source of all love.

It is the presence of God that brings fullness of joy and eternal pleasures. It’s his person that satisfies and eternally thrills the human heart. Heaven is not boring because God is infinitely fascinating! God is not a cosmic kill joy, but the source of all true and lasting joy. In Matthew 25:21, Jesus speaks of the eternal reward of those who have lived a life of faith. One of the realities his faithful servants will experience is joy: Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness. Heaven therefore is a state of sharing in the unending and eternal joy of God.

  • Peace

Secondly, heaven could be characterized by peace and true rest. However, before I speak to that briefly, let me qualify that statement by what it does not mean. It doesn’t mean we will sit on clouds with harps for all eternity. Back in Matthew 25:21, one of the rewards given for earthly faithfulness is greater eternal responsibility. Depending on your view of work that might worry you, but understand that it is not meaningful work that God has cursed, but rather the ground upon which we work. Before the fall, Adam and Eve were placed in the perfect environment of Eden. But they were placed there not just to lay around all day. They were placed there to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). This was not painful and futile labor like we now experience; but meaningful and fruitful work that brought deep satisfaction and pleasure.

This is more the idea of heaven being a place of “rest.” In heaven we will be free from the pain, sorrow, frustration, disappointment and curse of sin. There will be finally be true satisfaction; void of frustration, worry and fear. God does not just impart peace to our hearts, but Jesus is the Prince of Peace. In His presence there is real and eternal peace; rest from our struggle with sin, burdens of this life and broken world. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants. Truly I am your servant, Lord; I serve you just as my mother did; you have freed me from my chains. (Psalm 116:15-16).

  • Righteousness

Thirdly, heaven could be characterized by righteousness. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. (Psalm 89:14). Righteousness is about right relationships with God and others. It is the absence of evil and injustice. Further, it is healing from the pain of evil and where wrongs are made right. This world is full of suffering, sin, evil, pain, abuse and injustice. But Revelation 21:4 speaks of how Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Eternal joy, pleasure, purpose, peace and righteousness. These are just a few of the characteristics of heaven. It will be glorious because our God is the God of all glory! But let me end this post with two thoughts by way of application to our lives now.

  • Jesus spoke of the kingdom (or culture) of heaven as now but not yet. Therefore, as those who have been born again, we have already become citizens of his kingdom. The things that characterize heaven in fullness should at least characterize our lives in part and in increasing measure. The world needs to see demonstrations and examples of the “culture of heaven.” This is what the Church and individual Christians are to model before the world. We should be the peacemakers. Inner contentment and joy should be fruit that begins to show forth from our lives. Righteousness should represent our relationships. The more this is seen by others, the it will attract people to the kingdom of heaven where perhaps people will give their lives to Christ to become citizens of heaven as well.
  • The only way to heaven and into the kingdom of God, is through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said in John 14:6, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If that seems arrogant and exclusive to you, consider the following. First of all, the invitation and call to be reconciled to God is open to anyone and everyone who will believe. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). The only condition God requires is faith in Jesus Christ, a turning from sin and turning towards the Savior. It’s not about knowing enough or doing enough good things; but simply receiving the unmerited grace of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). He has already done all the work for you and I in atoning for our sin on the cross! He lived the perfect life we have all failed to live and died the death we all deserve to die. That is as inclusive and loving as it gets! 

The reality is sin has separated us all from God (Romans 3:23). The price of that sin is death or eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23). Nothing can bridge that gap except God himself. And that is exactly what He did. In the person of Jesus Christ, God took on human flesh to extend to us the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23b). Heaven is not something we deserve; it is something freely offered to us because of Christ’s good work for us on the cross. I encourage you to receive that gift of eternal life by faith today, so that you might know His joy forever!

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. -Jesus, John 14:1-6

Learning the Secret of Contentment

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. -Philippians 4:11-13

Contentment. Isn’t that something everyone seems to be chasing but very few of us find? Oh, we have our moments of contentment, but who of us has learned to be content no matter our circumstances?

Last month, I was in Asia for two weeks in some extremely impoverished places. Next month I will be in Uganda, once again exposed to some raw poverty. However, at the time of publishing this article, I just returned from the only resort in the world to achieve four Forbes Five-Stars nine years in a row!

Going from one extreme to the other is often a reality for me. On the one hand, I am with people in extreme poverty. On the other hand I meet with people in places where there is great wealth and live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And while many of us might pity the poor, I have come to see that prosperity presents a unique set of challenges and temptations.

In fact, being a part of a newer mission organization, I have come to appreciate more fully the struggles of both poverty and prosperity. There have been a few months where I have had to hold off depositing a pay-check or have skipped some meals to try to save money either for our organization or family. The fear and worry that lurks in those seasons is a battle to be content and trust God. But when times are good, the comforts of life can be distracting and lull you to sleep spiritually. It can weaken the vibrancy of your faith and dependency on God.

Both poverty and prosperity can make it difficult to be content. You would think it might be easier to be truly content if prosperous, but I have not found this to be the case in my life or with others. Prosperity can bring with it a tendency towards feeling entitled or having higher expectations of the finer things or treatment of life. It can also lead to complicating and cluttering your world. Wealth also adds new burdens and responsibilities. Furthermore, especially when exposed to poverty, wealth can cause a sense of guilt.

I remember when I had one of our international leaders at our house for a few days to share about the ministry. He informed me of how he skipped a few lunches when he saw that it would cost $5 or more. The reason he gave was that he felt guilty knowing that $5 could feed for an entire month, one of the slum children he was trying to take care of. At times I have also found it difficult to enjoy some pleasures of life once knowing the price-tag, and what that amount could do in the lives of those living in poverty.

But what I find encouraging about contentment (according to the passage quoted at the beginning of this article), is that it is something learned. Even the “great” apostle Paul said he had “learned the secret of contentment” regardless of circumstances. Whether having plenty or living in poverty (he was in prison when he wrote this) he had over time discovered the art of contentment. There is a reason he refers to contentment as a “secret.” It’s not that it’s impossible to be discovered, it’s that not many have acquired the ability to be content no matter their circumstances.

So what is the secret?

First, I believe it begins with accepting deep down that contentment has nothing to do with circumstances. As outlined above, both poverty and prosperity present their own unique set of challenges that can easily rob us of contentment. To be content we cannot look to our ever-changing circumstances. This just leads to a sense of uncertainty and instability.

Secondly, Paul concluded with a verse that is often quoted but taken out of context. He states that he can do all things through Christ who gives him strength. But in context, he is referring to the fact that the way he has learned to be content is not by perfect conditions, but finding the strength needed in every situation through personal relationship with Christ.

Circumstances are always changing or can suddenly change. Seasons come, and seasons go. People can go from poverty to prosperity or prosperity to poverty or bounce back and forth. However, Christ never changes and always remains the same regardless of circumstances. His love for us and our identity in Him remains constant no matter our situations. When we remain in the place of actively trusting Christ and depending on Him for all things and in all circumstances, we too can possess the reality of contentment. We can learn the secret of contentment by keeping our focus and confidence in the unchanging character and person of Jesus Christ. He can give us the strength we need in every situation.

Are you focused on your present circumstances or the person of Christ Jesus Himself? Will our gaze be on outward conditions or the inner life of faith in Christ? Whatever your struggles may be, whether in dealing with the reality of not having enough or having more than enough, you and I can learn the secret of contentment by focusing on the daily grace supplied to us in and through Christ. For this we can be grateful. And by the way, that may be the other secret to contentment; cultivating an attitude of gratefulness no matter our circumstances, not necessarily because of certain circumstances.

May the Lord give us the daily strength we need to be content no matter the circumstances. Conditions change but Christ will always remain the same!

Be Kind to Your Pastor

Pastor appreciation month is approaching. This concept started back in the 1990’s by Focus on the Family, largely because of all the pastor “burn-out” stories that were accumulating. Having been a pastor myself for six years, I can attest to the fact that being a pastor is can be one of the most emotionally draining calling. As a result, I have become much more sensitive to what pastors go through emotionally (and behind the scenes), than what I was aware of before. (In fact I’m pretty sure I was one who caused emotional drain for pastors unfortunately). 

What I am referring to however, might surprise you. It’s not the weekly preaching and teaching of God’s Word that leads to pastor burnout or takes the real toll on pastors. Most pastors would in fact agree that that is the highlight of their week! It’s also not even visitations or praying for the sick, or counseling those who come with need and issues. It’s not even so much dealing with funerals or the tragedies that occur. These aspects of pastoral ministry do take an emotional toll to be sure. But they are not really what lead to pastors burning out and not feeling appreciated.

It’s all that happens in between, often behind the scenes, that is the most emotionally taxing.

What really drains pastors emotionally are the continual negative e-mails, threatening phone calls, false-accusations, personal agenda’s, church-gossip, constant criticism and opposition from within; usually over personality differences, preaching style, petty disagreements or offenses that lead to division and people leaving the church; and/or the arguing and complaining over non-essential issues and non-biblical matters. It is the unnecessary church drama/selfishness that has nothing to do with it’s real purpose or mission.

It can also be the gnawing feeling of not being good enough, comparisons to other preachers or churches, or unrealistic expectations placed on pastors and their families, by congregants (or sometimes themselves). Most church issues are not over real issues like false teaching or sin, but personality differences, personal preferences or agenda’s and opinions. This is a major contributor to pastoral burnout.

The above paragraph is not to over-analyze or critique whether that’s true for your pastor or not. Granted, different pastors have different personalities and temperaments, are in different seasons and have different outlooks. But having been a pastor, and relating to other pastors around the world on that level, the number who struggle with discouragement, (often revolving around these issues) is quite high. The real point is this: be kind to your pastor.

The word kind means something far more than “being nice.” The word used for “kind” in the Bible and in the Greek language is a word that means “to show oneself useful.” There are far too many “nice” people in churches who are actually anything but “kind.” Real kindness means that you look for ways to meet real needs in others lives.

One of the greatest needs and ways to show kindness to your pastor is to find any and every way to encourage them instead of pointing out their mistakes, grumbling about non essentials or aspects of their style or personality you don’t like. (Sin and false teaching is an entirely different matter. See verse at end of this post on how sin is to be dealt with).

The point is this: pastors need more people to be a “Barnabas” to them. I challenge you to determine that you are going to be a “Barnabas” to your pastor and his family. Barnabas was the nickname given to a man in the early church that means “son of encouragement.” He was recognized by others as one who was always coming alongside of, and finding every way, to encourage others. There are too many “discouragers” and discouragements that pastors face. Be a Barnabas instead.

Support your pastor(s) in every way possible. (This also isn’t to say you have to agree with every position or decision or can’t voice a differing thought in situations). But it is to say they are there to shepherd you and lead the church in the ways they believe God is calling them. Support them in that vision so long as it is Biblical. Differentiate between personal preferences verse Biblical truth. Be there for them. Uphold them in prayer. Show up to serve instead of just to be served. Free them up from tasks that do not revolve around preaching, teaching and prayer.

The pastor is not “hired” to do all the work for the church. It’s actually the opposite. Their role as a leader and shepherd is to see people maturing in the faith and equipped for “every good work.”  This can be a big source of pastoral burnout; a congregation that won’t grow up spiritually and “servantly;” that only keeps pews warm, while expecting the pastor to do all the “ministry.” That’s not the model laid out in Scripture however (see Ephesians 4).

Another very important way is to tell them how their ministry or messages impacted your life. (Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.” –Galatians 6:6). Most pastors spend hours preparing sermons, but then wonder if their messages really made or make any difference in people’s lives. Often they only hear criticism or vague comments like “good message.” Be specific in what God spoke to your heart or did in your life through a message. Don’t worry about giving them a “big head”; most sincere pastors I know are already too hard on themselves and insecure behind the scenes, no matter what confidence they might exude publicly. They need to know that God is using them and that the church is growing in their faith and as disciples obedient to the Lord Jesus Christ.

And please don’t feel it is your God’ given duty or assignment to correct their grammar! The last thing a pastor wants to hear after preaching his heart out is correction from the grammar police. The message that sends is that you missed the whole point of the message. You were more concerned with how they said it, then what they felt God was trying to speak to your heart or into your life, from His word. Be gracious. A pastor hasn’t been called to be a “professional” but an obedient servant to God’s call on their life and His Word.

Pastors also simply need time to rest, be personally refreshed and renewed. In my opinion, I believe pastors should be allowed, with understanding, to take Sabbaticals every so often, sometimes even for a month or summer or even year, without feeling like their “job” is on the line. They need their congregation to support them and understand them and pray for them.

Another way a church can show appreciation to their pastor is by blessing them with gift cards out to eat with their family or joining together to send them on a vacation with expenses paid. Or maybe you own a second home. Offer access to that home for free to the pastor and his family. Rally together to also invest in a pastors marriage and family. Bless them with a weekend away for a marriage retreat or seminar or family time. Most pastors and their families are not living the high life. They make many sacrifices to serve you. Many are actually very under-paid. Be intentional in finding ways to bless them and their family. These gestures can go a very, very long way. There were people at the church I pastored who would do this for us from time to time and it was such an encouragement and blessing.

In fact, find ways to serve and encourage not just the pastor, but the pastors wife too. Often they are overlooked, judged unfairly with undo expectations, and face their own battles that they may feel unable to share as openly as others in the congregation for fear of judgment. Plus they have to live with the “pastor!” They have to deal with their husband’s discouragement and others comments about them that are often not complimentary. They see him with his guard down and the toll some of these things take on him. They hear or see how they are mistreated but expected to not react or be hurt. These things affect the whole family, including the kids.

If you are another woman in the church, treat the pastors wife out to eat, not to gossip,  but to bless and encourage. Open up your home, instead of always expecting the pastors family to open up their home. Be the church to their family too and recognize they have the same basic human needs and feelings as anyone else.

In short, pastors (and their families) need to be appreciated and honored, not just once a month, but continually and consistently. The Holy Spirit, through God’s Word, in fact commands it. Therefore, it is actually not merely sin against a pastor, but sin against Jesus Himself, the Great Shepherd, who gave the church pastors and leaders, not for our wants and desires, but for the maturity and growth of the church into Christ-likeness (see Ephesians 4).

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. -1 Timothy 5:17-21

Ten Mistakes in Missions

It’s been several years since I joined a non-profit mission organization, but ever since I rededicated my life to Christ (on a missions trip) I’ve had a heart for missions. In this post, I’d like to share some common mistakes when it comes to thinking about missions…and what solutions there might be. This might be a bit controversial or offensive to some, but I do actually hope it is thought-provoking when it comes to mission engagement. I know I have made some of these mistakes myself, so don’t get too offended if it touches on something that might be true for you! 🙂

  • Thinking missions is only for some Christians.

This might be the most troubling mindset and attitude I see. It is true that not all are called to be “missionaries” in the traditional sense of leaving their culture or country to live in another location, but this doesn’t mean we don’t all have a responsibility when it comes to missions and being “missional” (Missional living simply means we work out what it means to reflect Jesus and share Jesus in whatever culture we are in).

But secondly, if God’s heart and vision is for all the world (John 3:16), why should ours be any less? If Jesus places as much value on the person in another country, as He does those in our own countries, why shouldn’t we? Many will argue (often angrily) that we should “take care of our own” (first or only) or that we “have enough problems of our own.” While it’s right and good to help those in our community, city and country, I truly don’t understand this line of thinking biblically when it stops there. Why? Because it’s not God’s heart and flat out contradicts the whole over-arching reason and purpose we are still here on this earth.

Jesus commissioned us to make disciples of all nations as one of His last statements before ascending to heaven (Matthew 28:18-20). If final words are often our most important, what does this say about the heart and mission of Jesus for his disciples and church? Yes, start right where you are, but heaven forbid it stop there! The biblical model is an ever-widening circle of influence, impact and witness (Acts 1:8).

Thirdly, if we are truly living as His disciples, we will have his heart increasingly more, the closer and longer we walk with Him. If He truly is living His life through us, we will have an ever growing passion for missions, a heart for the world and be a generous people. Plus, how can we, if we are thinking biblically and eternally, with the eyes and heart of Jesus (rather than culturally or with a desire to be in control of our own earthly lives) not care that millions have not yet even heard the Name of Jesus? (Romans 10:11-15).

Honestly, I think we have lost (generally speaking) a real conviction of the reality of eternity, and that the greatest human need is the forgiveness of sin and gift of eternal life. It’s questionable whether we really believe in (or at least live in light of) the reality of heaven, or especially hell anymore. If we did, wouldn’t we be compelled more than we are, despite the cost or sacrifices, to reach the lost?

To be clear, I am not advocating an either/or position when it comes to serving locally verse globally, but a both/and. Our neighbor is anyone in need (read more here) and we have a responsibility to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. That may be a combination of physically going, praying faithfully for those going, or giving to those going, depending on different seasons of our lives and calling. But all are called to work together towards fulfilling the Great Commission at home and around the world.

  • Mission committees/boards that do not go on mission trips.

If I could have one “legalistic” rule for Christians, it would be that every believer should go on at least one missions trip outside their own country. The world is very different than our own! But how much more so, should this be true for those serving on a missions committee or mission board. I do question how wise of decisions can be made, how well we can represent world missions, understand the needs of those in the field or missionaries/mission organizations…if we never go on a trip to see for ourselves! How can we really have the vision and passion without interacting with those being reached?

There may be exceptions, but time and time again I have seen how even those already generously giving, or with a heart for missions, have come back giving even more after going on a trip. They become more passionate and committed. They become stronger champions, ambassadors, voices and prayer warriors. They catch the vision!

  • “Hero” mentality

American’s like to think we know better than the rest of the world. We also like to think of ourselves as the “hero’s” coming to rescue the “victims” or enlighten the “ignorant” in the right and best way to do things. But being ignorant of the Gospel does not make one stupid. Being poor does not make someone dumb. And being able to give lots of money doesn’t make us a hero. At best it makes us an obedient and faithful servant.

I like to remind people going on trips that we are not coming in with a “hero” mindset, but a “helper” mindset. Just because our culture does things a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s always best; especially in another culture. And even the Holy Spirit didn’t refer to himself as the “hero” but as a “helper.” There is only one “hero” and his name is Jesus. We are not there to promote ourselves, feel better ourselves or find praise for how wonderful we are. We are there to let the light of Jesus shine so that people might see that God is good and praise Him (Matthew 5:13-16). We are there to lift high the Name of Jesus. Don’t be a hero. Come alongside and lift up instead of standing above and looking down. Come in the humility of Jesus, not pride of man.

  • Going on a short-term trip…but doing nothing to help after returning.

Let’s be honest. There is only so much that can be accomplished on a short-term missions trip. The real work should begin after returning home. You are now the eyes of those who couldn’t go. You are now the voice of those without a voice. You have an opportunity to actually do more good and be more of a help after you return from a trip. You have a network around you that will be curious to at least hear about your trip.

Think about what those you were with would want to say if they were in your shoes. You have pictures and video of real people you met; share their stories. You saw first-hand the impact the missionary or missions group was having; champion the cause. Beyond those crucial first few weeks of returning, commit to becoming an ambassador or volunteer in whatever ways possible. Talk to the missionary or missions organization about what would be of most help to them and what ideas they know might work. Organize a fund-raiser. Send their newsletters on to friends. Share their Facebook posts or news stories. Think strategically. See that your purpose has only just begun when returning, not that it has ended!

  • Separating the Great Commandment and Great Commission.

Sometimes there is a tendency to separate the Gospel message and good deeds. Again, this shouldn’t be an either/or but a both/and. By just doing “good deeds” we miss an opportunity to point people to Jesus. Isn’t He what compels us to love our neighbors in the first place? But also just preaching the Gospel (without taking care of the poor or caring for the orphan and widow or meeting real needs) can limit our effectiveness. (This is not to say that some sense a calling to focus more on one side of the coin than the other, or that circumstances are different for different missionaries or mission organizations. My point is simply that these are not in conflict with each other, but go together and compliment each other).

For example, in many countries “good deeds” can blow open the door for the “good news” to be received. We have seen that so many times in our mission organization. I just got a story about a woman who was worried about her many children that were falling sick. They couldn’t afford to see a doctor or purchase medicine. Just then, we showed up in her village to conduct a medical clinic. Her statement to us was this: “we were praying to all our gods, but it seems your God heard our prayers!” The Gospel and Good deeds are not mutually exclusive of each other, they go hand in hand beautifully. Jesus taught and preached, but He also healed the sick and performed “good works” in people’s lives. It can be a mistake to exclude one over the other.

  • Thinking sending missionaries is a waste of money….or thinking sending missionaries is the only way to do missions.

I believe God is still calling people to be missionaries in the sense of leaving their homes and living in other countries and cultures. But I also believe God is calling many organizations and people to invest in local national leadership. I believe context, culture and calling are the keys here. There is an argument to be made that it is far more costly to send missionaries than to invest in local leadership. The model of the mission organization I lead, believes strongly in raising up and working through National leaders. Under this model we can stretch the dollar further and serve more people. Plus, those already in country know the language, culture, customs and have networks already developed that would take years to develop. But I also know of faithful, committed, and effective missionaries that have been clearly called by God and ought to be supported.

Granted, there are missionaries who are very ineffective (and perhaps not truly called), but there are also mission organizations that are not effective too. However, I believe this is where great caution and discernment is needed. It is not wise to compare one missionary or mission organization to another. Context, calling and talents are different.

One missionary for example could be laboring in an unreached place for years with little to no visible fruit to show, but that doesn’t automatically mean they are ineffective and support should be cut off (Think even Isaiah and Jeremiah in their day. Nobody listened to them then, but now their inspired messages have born so much fruit!). The issue is faithfulness to God’s calling. Another way to put it would be this, what value does God place on one life? Jesus was willing to give his life and paid the price with his own blood for us. Pretty costly! There is only one message, but not one right “model” or “method.” There are rather many ways, callings and different gifts to reach many different people.

  • Thinking giving a “cup of cold water” is ineffective…or that giving a “cup of cold water” is always enough.

I believe there are two extreme mistakes to this point that would appear contradictory. The first has to do with a seemingly growing movement out there today that speaks in terms of “ending world poverty” or “world hunger” or “human trafficking” or other world issues. While I think some of the creativity and passion is commendable, sometimes if something is not “self-sustaining” or resolving the entire issue, it is deemed not worthy of being supported. So it’s no longer enough to simply take care of someones immediate needs.

But I do not think world poverty, hunger or human trafficking is ever going to be resolved, until Jesus returns. He seemed quite clear that the “poor will always be among us.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, Matthew 26:11). However, this doesn’t mean we throw our hands up in despair and cease working towards alleviating poverty, world hunger or human-trafficking (and it’s root causes). On the contrary, Jesus spoke that reality to remind us that it is a continual calling and responsibility we have to take care of the poor. And there are some organizations and people doing great things to change entire societies or structures to tackle these problems. The organization I am with provides skill training to women at risk of human-trafficking, believing that is the best way to stop human trafficking from happening in the first place. Sometimes finding self-sustaining models is the best approach.

There can also be an issue of dependency that can develop in some situations that is unhealthy. And working to not damage a local economy or business is something to take into consideration (as some recent documentaries have exposed lately). Being as strategic as possible is a good thing. But I don’t believe “self-sustaining models” are always practical or possible. Take digging wells for example. Some say it is a waste to just give out water, without digging wells. But first of all, Jesus himself did not frown down on “giving a cup of cold water” or providing clothing for those in need. He said there will be eternal reward for even those small temporary gestures (Matthew 25:31-46).

Further, in some parts of the world we work in, wells won’t work for various reasons. In addition, while our method may not be as self-sustaining as a well would be, we find it much more effective and strategic to help local churches  provide clean water in large jars a couple times a week, during the hottest months of the year, person by person and village by village. This personal touch actually opens the door to conversations about Jesus and about the local church. It breaks down many barriers. The same goes for disasters. Sometimes immediate life-saving aid is needed. It may be food that only lasts a few days, or medicine that runs out, or water that will need replenished or clothes that will be ruined over time. But for that particular moment it meets a legitimate need and demonstrates God’s heart of compassion.

The sustainability question should absolutely follow (and is something I address in the next point). But to conclude this point: my beef comes with those who look down on this under any circumstances, but also those who stop at only at this. It is a cultural problem that when a disaster hits, we can be very generous in the moment, but then completely forget about it within a day, week or month. We move on, but we find in many of the countries we work in, the people haven’t been able to truly move on. We invest in relief, but especially (though not exclusively) we can be very poor at truly helping rebuild. That ties in to the next point:

  • Being excited with the “new”…but failing to “sustain” what has been started.

We get excited about new things. This is not wrong in and of itself. However, it is wrong if after the excitement wears off, we walk away. There are too many cases (even within my own 5 year old organization) where excitement to start a new project gets funded…but then the monthly operating costs can’t be funded or sustained. There is just a massive drop-off once something starts verse ensuring it can continue forward in it’s purpose and programs for being started in the first place. Missions needs to be a long-term commitment, not just a short-term adventure or high to feel good about ourselves.

  • Getting annoyed with “asks”

I was just reading a book on Bob Pierce (founder of World Vision and Samaritans Purse) and there was an ironic story told about a prominent and wealthy businessman who got angry over an appeal and said “As far as I can see, this Christian business is just one continuous give, give, give.” Bob tells of how the pastor responded by saying, “I want to thank you for the best definition of the Christian life I’ve ever heard!”

Is not continuous giving at the core of the heart of God? Is not sacrificial giving at the core of the Gospel? Why then, do we get so offended over being approached or asked to give to missions? Does God get weary of giving? Scripture seems to indicate He does not, that He in fact calls us to come to Him with every need and simply ask as a child would his Father. Rather than putting him in a grumpy mood, it delights the heart of God to give! Shouldn’t we too be delighted to give? Think about it! We are meeting a need, being an answer to another persons prayer, displaying the character and heart of God, storing up for ourselves treasure in heaven and participating in fulfilling the Great Commission! Shouldn’t giving be viewed as a blessing and opportunity instead of a burden and an annoyance? It is true that we can’t say “yes” to every ask. We can’t meet every need. But it should be considered an honor to be approached and asked.

  • Advice and theory….verse little to no action.

I want to say this without offense being taken because I think many mean well; but often advice on how to do missions better, implies missionaries are stupid. Americans in particular sometimes think they are experts who know best and that other cultures are ignorant. But trust me, once you really spend some time with and get to know people of other countries, it is amazing how innovative, shrewd and discerning they can be. Personally, I know without trusted leaders and staff in country I would never make it! 

To be honest, American’s can come across quite arrogant, spoiled, rude and obnoxious to other cultures. And quite frankly, our ideas that would “change everything” or be “how it would work best” is one of many such claims or promises that actual missionaries have probably already thought through or know won’t work or materialize. If you do have advice or input, approach it in a humble and helpful way, (most missionaries or mission organizations are under-staffed and desperately need volunteers, not well-meaning but often misguided or unpractical advice) instead of “I know the best way.” It may not be your intention, but it is how it often comes across.

If you see a need, own it and do something about it, instead of simply pointing it out! Advice might be good in theory, but missionaries need action, help and funding…now! There are times advice and theory is helpful, especially in a committed relationship, but combine it with action to show you are in the real world and not in a theoretical world. They live in the real world and need real help. Advice, theories and promises that never materialize can be quite disheartening. Choose to be a servant instead of a “savior.” The role of Savior has already been taken!

A World of Suffering

It’s been a tough couple weeks around the world news wise. Hurricanes, flooding, fires, earthquakes and an already marginalized Muslim ethnic minority group (over 400,000 Royhinga’s) in Myanmar have been driven out of the country, their homes burned, and becoming unwelcome refugees (read more here) in surrounding countries. There have been some really horrible, tragic and sad images and stories. Children who died in the Mexico earthquakes. A couple million in Asia who have lost everything in floods along with 1,400 who died (read more here to help). Hurricanes demolishing entire islands and thousands losing their homes in the Caribbean/US. In the article linked above, there is a picture of a Royhinga mother holding her dead infant child, gazing with grief at his lifeless body.

Where is God? What is He trying to tell us? Doesn’t He care? Why doesn’t He stop these things? Is He powerless? Unloving? Is it evidence that there is no God? These are real questions people have. These are real feelings people deeply feel. And Christians should not shy away from this issue. In fact, we often wrestle with these questions and feelings as much as anyone else.

On the bright side, it is interesting to note that there are many articles out there of how Christians have not been shying away or turning away from the suffering of the world. It is in fact an encouraging thing when Christians “let their light shine” as Jesus called us to do (Matthew 5:14-16), not for our own glory, but to reveal and reflect His goodness. For as many tragic stories there are also as many heart-warming stories of rescue, relief and God’s providence in placing His people in places were they were able to help (Read this story of a prominent pastor who was stranded in the Caribbean and had to ride out the hurricane, but as a result was able to get aid in, in a bigger way than may have been the case, had he not been there).

Many churches, believers and non-profits have in fact been outpacing government efforts and are often the ones to race towards suffering and stay alongside the suffering. (This is not to minimize the compassionate and heroic efforts of many other relief agencies and people of good-will who wouldn’t identify as Christian). But the answer to why Christians tend to always show up and stay in the midst of human suffering, is found in a profound reality they have found in their Savior: it’s what Jesus did and where He is, in or moments of pain and suffering.

Christianity does not try to shy away from suffering or try to ignore it. (That is not to say anyone enjoys it or looks for it!). But it does deal the most honestly, rawly, directly and deeply. Suffering is a theme that runs all throughout the Bible. And Jesus himself, God in human flesh, did not avoid it, but entered into it and endured the worst conceivable. The suffering of Jesus on the cross for our sin, is at the very heart and core of our entire faith. His coming and living among us, as one of us, suffering as we do, and even because of us, makes him truly “Immanuel, God with us.” While Jesus was sinless, He was not immune to the suffering of a fallen world due to sin. And a powerful question to ask is, what other “god” is there like this? What other “king” would suffer for his people and take their place and punishment upon himself? What other “religion” deals so deeply and honestly with suffering? What other “savior” makes it this personal and enters into it so fully?

If there is one truth it is this: God is not passive or absent in the face of suffering. To the contrary He is actually very present. In fact, there is verse after verse in the Bible, of how He is especially near us in times of sorrow, suffering, pain and grief. Rather than repeal him, suffering actually attracts Him. The problem is, we often push away the very One who truly understands and comes to comfort us, in our anger and grief. But even in this, He understands and grieves for us and with us. He knows we wrestle, even with Him. The Bible is full of characters who wrestled with pain and with God (Job is perhaps the most classic example). And yet, He calls us to trust Him even when we don’t understand and as we wrestle. He invites us to draw near as He draws near to us.

And so, for the Christian whose heart is sensitive to Christ, for those who have tasted of His comfort in their suffering, and see his heart in the pages of Scripture, they too are compelled to bring comfort to the afflicted, even at personal cost and sacrifice to themselves. They are compelled to “be present” as He has been present for them, and as they see in the pages of Scripture.

Where is God? He is right there, working through His people who show up, and even those who don’t know him, but are moved with compassion and take action.

The second question is this: what is God trying to tell us through these things? First of all his mercy and compassion in the midst of these disasters, remind us that He loves us. Circumstances may try to dictate otherwise, but you only have to look at the cross on which He hung for or sin, to remember He cares. You only have to remember that Jesus left the glory and perfection of heaven to come to this broken, fallen and suffering world. And He came especially to heal, save, deliver, redeem and restore the hurting and weary. He came to reveal the very heart of God. For God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16).

Secondly, these disasters are much more than a debate over global warming. They are a reminder to the world in general that we live in a sinful and broken world. These “disasters” and events are not necessarily brought upon us (or those affected) because somehow “those people” affected directly, are worse sinners than anyone else, or even because “their” (or our) personal sin is being directly punished. Even the righteous suffer due to simply living in a fallen world. But they are a wake up call in general to all of us to repent. Jesus once spoke to two “national tragedy’s” in his day. His message was this: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:2-5).

Jesus was taking these earthly events to directly remind of a tragedy worse even than earthly death: eternal death. The world is messed up and bad things happen because sin has all kinds of consequences and plays out in many different forms. And death is the result. But physical death is not the worst tragedy. Eternal death, separation from God, is the worst tragedy of all. These events, if we are willing to look deeper, remind us of this reality that we typically spend very little to no time even considering, let alone living in light of.

This life is not all there is. There is a judgment to come and we will give an account of our lives before God. The problem is, we are all guilty of sin. We need to repent in order to live eternally. Jesus Himself was quite direct and clear on this. He spent a large portion of His time and messages warning of these realities. We all need a Savior who is in fact, seeking to draw each us to Himself and save us from ourselves. These events can serve to shake us out of our complacency to realities much more significant than our earthly lives. There are issues bigger than a life of ease and comfort. There are eternal matters greater than only earthly concerns.

This world is broken and fallen because of sin. Creation itself has been thrown off balance because of human sin. This is not God’s fault. His righteous wrath against human sin is demanded of true justice (Romans 1:18-32). But in His mercy and undeserved kindness, He offers salvation through Jesus Christ. The call to repentance is the most gracious and compassionate of all. But there are only three possible choices we have in times like this: we get angry with God and reject him, we soften our hearts and run to him, or we remain complacent (which is also a form of rejection). Two of these ways lead to a heart and conscience that becomes harder towards God and leads to eternal death. The other leads to salvation and eternal life.

***If you have not repented of your sin and placed your faith in Jesus Christ, now is the time, because you do not know how much “time” you may have left on this earth. If you are not convinced of these eternal realities, I would encourage you to seek out the truth for yourself. I invite you to study Scripture with an open and honest heart. You may dismiss them as untrue, but I would ask this one question: what if it is true? Do you really want to risk being wrong without first being open to the fact that it could be true?

Secondly, if you are suffering, I encourage you to reach out to the One who truly understands suffering. Scripture assures us, if we draw near to him, he will draw near to us. Answers to “why” will never be sufficient. But his very presence, and the comfort He provides, is what our hearts most need in times of suffering. He invites the broken and weary in fact to come to him, assuring us He is gentle and humble in heart and that we will find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28). 

Thirdly, as Christians, let us continue to show his compassion, mercy and grace through good works and deeds that meet real needs. Christians are to be known for their generosity and “showing up” in times of need. There are many ways to get involved, whether through local churches, volunteer teams or non-profit organizations such as Samaritans Purse or the mission organization I lead, called ServeNow.

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