More Good Reading

I haven’t posted any links in over a month, so let me give you a few good articles to read this weekend.

7 Ways to Fight Distraction During Prayer


5 Incorrect Assumptions About First-Time Guests

Three Common Idols in Churches

It’s not a problem if you prepare for it

The Only Six Words Parents Need to Say to Their Kids About Sports—Or Any Performance


A video about an unbelievable Typewriter Artist

I Am Not Sure You Should “Just Be Held”

I have a tendency to obsess over little things. My wife will tell you it is true. I hear something I don’t agree with and I can’t get it out of my head. I think about it over and over until I work out the next step.

Such is the case with the song, “Just Be Held” by Casting Crowns. I first heard the song a few months ago on the radio I began to wonder about it but thought it might just be a passing song. Then the song climbed the charts to number 1 on Christian radio. Then no less than a dozen people recommended the song to me. As a result I have heard it over and over.

I am going to be honest; I don’t care for the song. In fact, I am a little concerned about it being Biblical. I am pretty sure it is bad advice to say the least.

Before you run me out of town thinking I am a heretic, please hear me out.

If you have not heard it do a quick google search or go to YouTube. The main idea is that life sometimes gets hard. Answers don’t come easy. And then he says the line that bothers me. “Stop holding on and just be held.”

I did a quick commentary search and found a few verses that told about God holding us. Psalm 139:10 says that God holds us in his right hand. But if you do a little more digging you will find that most of the verses that contain the words “held” or “hold” are about us. The continual call is for us to hold onto the teaching or doctrine we have received in our life. (See 1 Corinthians 15:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and Titus 1:9.) Four times the book of Hebrews encourages us to hold onto our faith (3:14, 4:14, 6:18, 10:23). Also, the bigger picture places us holding onto God and not God holding onto us (Deuteronomy 4:4 and 2 Kings 18:6 are examples).

The Bible never pictures our faith as a passive activity. My fear is that this song pictures that type of thinking. That the best thing for me to do when life gets hard is to set back and take it easy. Rest in the fact that God is there with me and do nothing. Wait quietly for some warm feeling to come over me and let me know everything is going to be alright.

I see the Bible teaching the exact opposite. There will come times when life is difficult and confusing. In those moments you go back to what you have been taught about God in the Bible. You rethink what you believe with a Bible in hand while on your knees praying. You hold onto your faith and try to learn from those dark hours. You allow God to fill you with hope as you hold onto your faith in him. Instead of being passive you should actively seek to learn what God is teaching you and how that aligns with scripture.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to be mean or calloused. Sometimes life gets hard and you need to take a minute to refocus on God. But that does not mean that I passively wait for something to happen. I catch my breath and then I grab a hold of my faith with both hands and hold on tight. I spend my time reading, praying and thinking rather than just sitting.

Fred Craddock tells the story of being at a Church one Sunday morning as they unveiled the new picture that would be on the wall behind the preacher each week. He expected some painting of Jesus but instead saw them reveal a big picture of the face of a bulldog. The caption underneath said, “If we are going to make it, we need to hold onto our faith like a bulldog.”

Maybe the song would be better if it said, “Keep holding on while you are being held.”

Spiritual Growth That Works

Most people are familiar with the story of David and Goliath. We know about a huge hulk of a man who was slayed by a shepherd boy with a sling and a stone. We love the story of the underdog defeating the opponent who is larger than life. Most people know the story and I think most people like it, including me.

Lately my imagination has been captured by another small part of the story though. Before David goes out on the battlefield to face Goliath he has a conversation with King Saul. Saul wants David to wear his armor out into battle. Interestingly enough, David tries to put the armor on. That is interesting because Saul is described as being “head and shoulders” taller than everyone in Israel. In other words, he was a lot taller than any shepherd boy. Even so David puts on Saul’s armor and tries to get it to fit him. Eventually he takes off the armor and heads out onto the battle field with his sling and stone.

The reason I have been thinking about this story is because I read a lot of articles and posts about ministry and spiritual growth. Every article I read tells me how this person grew their faith this one particular way. The conclusion that follows is that for you to grow in faith you must do the same things they did. In the last week alone I have read articles saying I should go to bed early and get up early, skip email in the mornings, take a special day off every month, have a date night, cancel my date night, read 50 books this year, and so on and so on. Everyone has all kinds of advice for me and you to grow. I really do appreciate all of their ideas. In fact, I often share some of my own ideas to help people.

Honestly, most of what I read feels like I am trying on Saul’s armor. I am trying to fit my life into patterns that simply do not fit me. I stretch myself and try to get other people’s ideas to fit me. Usually I am left with another failure and the disappointment that goes with it.

One of the biggest parts of my spiritual journey was learning to be myself. I do not have to fit into anyone else’s armor. God made me unique and there are certain rhythms and patterns that work for me that may not work for other people. It is okay for me to learn, read and pray in a way that works for me, even if it does not look like what everyone else is doing. Don’t get me wrong, I still am grounded in the Bible and connected to the Church. But when it comes to how I grow my faith there are a lot of wide open possibilities.

So my encouragement today is that you find your own voice, form your own patterns and grow your own way. Get up early, stay up late or take a long lunch to spend time in prayer – whatever works for you. Read quietly, listen to the Bible on computer or rewrite every verse in a notebook – whatever works for you. Give daily or weekly or monthly of your time and resources – whatever works best for you. Find what works best for you to grow in your spiritual life and do it.

David did not fit in Saul’s armor. You do not fit into mine. You only fit in yours.

The Lessons of Long Suffering

Two Sundays ago I preached a sermon about handing people in the Church. One of the words used in the passage from Colossians is translated “patience.” Other places in the New Testament it is translated as “patient endurance.” The original Greek word is best and most literally translated as “long suffering.”

I love the image. There are some people God has put in our lives that our relationship with them is best described as a continual suffering. The picture is not one of mutual love and respect but a tolerance of another person out of my obedience to Christ.

Here is the funny part about reading and studying a word like this from the Bible. As soon it is explained to us, all of us immediately have someone who pops into our mind. Yes, even in the Church. Maybe especially in the Church.

Over the past couple weeks I have wondered why God would want us to keep people in our lives that we have to endure. Why not just sever all bad relationships and just live with joy and happiness all the time? I have come to believe there might be some good reasons for this.

1. I may need to learn something from them. Some of my best teachers were not the people I agree with, but rather the people I didn’t agree with in their thinking. They pushed me and pulled me in directions I never would have chosen on my own.

2. They may need to learn something from me. It is easy to think only in terms of the benefits of a relationship for myself. I believe God sometimes brings difficult people into my life so that I can have an impact on them.

3. Maybe God is teaching me something about people. There is often a big lesson to be learned even from difficult people. Honestly, all of us have things we can learn even from bad examples.

4. They may push me to trust God more. I have a couple of people in my life that the moment I see them coming I stop and say a prayer. The prayer is usually something like, “Lord, help me to handle this person.” Maybe it is more specific like, “God, don’t let this encounter end with the arrival of the police.” Difficult people push me to rely on God to teach me and use me when I don’t want to be taught or to be used.

5. In time people and relationships change. Sometimes I think God wants me to endure difficult people because in a few years there might be a change that will bring us together. I have known many teenagers that tried and tested me who then went on to be wonderful adults. Sometimes we endure people because it brings long-term benefits. Benefits that would have been lost if I had given up on that person years ago.

It is hard to imagine that one of the ways God sees our relationships with each other is a form of suffering. But all of us know it is true. There is that difficult person at work, in our extended family, or even at our Church who we struggle with each time we talk. We might want to give up, but God tells us to be patient. He is at work in every situation and will use it for good, if we allow Him.

Volleyball and Serving God

Last year I did something I had not done in over 20 years. I attended a volleyball game. My wife played through High School and eventually played in college. In fact, the first time I saw her was at a college volleyball game. When we began dating she played and then she continued playing through our first year of marriage. Then we moved and she no longer played competitively and I no longer went to watch a game.

Well, for the past year my oldest son has been dating a girl who is very much into sports. One night we went to watch her play volleyball. As I watched I became more and more intrigued by the position of “setter.” This is the person on the team that gets down low and sets up the ball for someone else to spike. I immediately thought that being a “setter” is not a very glorious position. Setters do not get highlight films. The highlights are reserved for people who are tall and make dominating spikes down on the other team. Highlights are for tall girls with long legs that jump high and spike or block. They are the ones whose actions directly relate to the team getting a point. A person who plays “setter” is lucky to get a picture on the internet from her mother.

Here is the thing about people. Everyone wants to spike the ball and very few people want to set the ball for other people. My wife was on a recreational volleyball team a few years ago and her complaint was simple. One of the team members always wanted people to set him and yet he was never willing to set anyone else. He wanted the fun and the spot light all to himself.

As you can imagine in volleyball there is a simple truth. Without someone to set the ball, there is no spiking, no points, no glory and no victory.

This truth about people crosses many lines. A youth football coach told me that he had all his players try out for different positions. Only one kid wanted to be a lineman. Everyone else wanted to be the quarterback, running back or receiver. I once read about a college that had accepted applications from well over 1,000 students. Of that 1,000 plus high school students only 1 said that they would like to be a good follower. Everyone else wanted to be a leader.

As I reflect on my years of ministry, I have come to a realization. Every great Church is not built on great leaders alone. It is built on people who are willing to swallow their pride and work behind the scenes – people who are setters, linemen and followers. Those people who give of themselves without the glory of the spotlight. Jesus reminds us that our heavenly father will reward what is done “in secret.” While your service may never make the highlight reel on the six o’clock news it will not go unnoticed by the eyes of God.

Life Under a Microscope

It was a spur of the moment remark that has helped shaped my thinking. It was made in a leadership meeting about the Church. This person said, “We need to be careful about doing ministry under a microscope because the field of view is too small.”

The statement stopped me in my tracks and I quickly wrote it down word for word. I then took the note and put it into my “idea file” on my computer. It has remained in that file for almost one year and I have read over it at least 35 times. Every time I read that line I stop and think about the truth of its content. In fact, I have changed one word and gave it an even greater meaning.

“We need to be careful about doing life under a microscope because the field of view is too small.”

It is possible that every day when we sit down at night or lie in bed we replay the events of the day. We dissect events scene by scene or conversations sentences by sentence in our minds. We replay the day under a microscope. As a result we feel bad because things didn’t go well today that one time. We feel good because of that one compliment. We feel worthless because the day lacked the productivity we wanted that one time. We ride the roller coaster of our daily emotions.

The problem can arise in this type of thinking because the field of view is too small. I believe God works in our lives on a daily basis but I believe his overall plan is much bigger. Think about it this way.

1. Sometimes a failure is the opportunity for something better. One of my first ministries was a flop. It didn’t grow and I nearly quit the ministry altogether. That one year of my life did teach me about life and ministry. It shaped my approach to ministry today and I am a much better pastor because of that failure. That one ministry changed my thinking and would eventually lead me to new Church planting. Short-term failure lead to long-term success.

2. Sometimes a short-term success is not real success. I laugh when I read articles about parenting by people whose children are not yet adults. Many times a good Jr. High student does not equal a healthy Christian adult. Having a good day or week or month does not mean that I am successful in my endeavors. Real success is the long-term results.

3. Sometimes change is bigger than a single event. It is great to make a decision to change. Everyone has to start somewhere. But success is being able to live that decision out a thousand times over. Success and failure are bigger than single events. Success is the result of getting up more times than you have fallen down.

4. Sometimes your greatest advice will come from senior citizens. Our tendency is to listen to our peers. They are fighting the same battles. They understand us and our struggles. The problem is that they have not seen the long-term effects of their thinking and actions. I encourage people to listen to people older than themselves. They have long-term perspective. While they may not understand every small issue we are having they have seen their share of struggles and lived successfully.

5. Sometimes the Bible simply provides us with perspective. I could dissect the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis in a dozen sermons. In fact, I think I have done that. Lately I am convinced that the beauty of that story is not found in the details of Genesis chapters 37-50 but in the perspective. At least two times the story stops and reminds us that God has been at work in the life of Joseph. In slavery, in false accusations, in prison, and even in being forgotten God was working a mighty plan. If we look at one day in the life of Joseph we might see a failure but the big picture is much different.

Be care of thinking that your life is summarized in one day or in one small event. The story of your life, your marriage, your parenting and your Christian faith is written as a long story that cannot be summarized in any cliff note form. Broaden your perspective and you might just see the work of God in your life.

Everyday is a Sermon

In 2009 I found myself between jobs. I was looking for a new place to preach and then I found a job in Alaska. There were several months I spent while interviewing and then accepting and finally moving. During that time I went to see a comedian with a couple of friends. The evening was going pretty well and the comedian had a few funny comments. About three-quarters of the way through his show a lady who had obviously had too much to drink became very disruptive. The comedian tried to move on but she persisted.

After a few failed attempts to proceed through his material he said, “I am just going to give up since I can’t finish a bit.” “Instead” he said, “let’s get to know the crowd.” He began calling out people and pointing at them and saying, “What do you do?”

As you can imagine he eventually made it to my table. He said, “You in the glasses, what do you do sir?”

I said “I’m unemployed.” Hoping he would drop the question. But no, he continued, “What did you do before.”

I simply stated “I was a preacher.”

I found his response very interesting (and it is the reason I tell you this story). He said, “Well, you never quit really being a preacher do you? You just preach in a different way to different people.” And finally he said, “I respect that” and he moved on to asking other people.

He never came back to our table after that but throughout the rest of the evening he would refer to me as “father” and everyone would laugh.

While it was uncomfortable in the moment to think of what he might do with the information of my career, he did make a very perceptive statement. Preaching the good news of Jesus is not just something you do from the stage every Sunday. It is something all of us do in different ways. It wasn’t really funny, but it was true.

A Few Lessons on Prayer

I have mentioned before that over the past 12 months God has taught me the power of prayer. As a result I have being trying to focus more time and energy into my prayer life. While trying to put an emphasis on prayer I have learned a few simple things.

1. Talking about praying is not the same as praying. It is easy to talk about my prayer life and how I need to pray more. Honestly, that really gains me nothing. Saying “I’ll pray for you” is not the same as praying for you. Writing on Facebook, “Praying for you” is not the same as actually praying.

2. Talking about prayer requests is not the same as praying. Hearing someone ask for prayer, receiving a prayer list on Sunday or being on an email prayer team is not the same as praying. My fear is that most of what we call prayer is actually gossip. Do you want to hear prayer requests so that you have information or so that you can actually pray?

3. I don’t need to pray for the other people in the room to hear. Public prayer scares me. I say this because I do it frequently and I hear it even more. I often have to ask the prayers I ask are really prayers or preaching. I know I can find myself praying something like, “I pray these people will take what I just said seriously.” Now, am I asking God something or am I trying to emphasize the importance of my sermon? I really hear people do this when dealing with children. They will pray something like, “Help these children to behave and be nice today.” Is that praying to God?

4. I don’t need to pray about prayer. Recently I have noticed how many times that myself and others actually pray about prayer. “I thank you God that I can pray to you.” Then after all my platitudes about prayer I never actually pray about anything.

5. Prayer is coming before God. He knows me. He loves me. He wants me to thank, ask and seek in His presence. Would my prayers sound different if I was the only one in the room? Would my prayers sound different if I just spoke to God directly? What is really on my heart when I pray?

I want to be a praying person. I want to be a part of a praying Church. I want to experience the power of prayer as an individual and as a community. I think for that to happen we need to grow in our prayer life. I hope these thoughts will help you today.

How Will You Use Your Words?

Words flow from us. They fill the air when we speak. They fill up the internet and email. They are constantly filling my phone with text messages. I read words and I write words. I speak words and I listen to words. Words, words, words.

The question on my mind for the last week as been, “How will I use the words that come out of me this week?”

Will I –

1. Use words to encourage other people or tear them down?
2. Use words to proclaim truth or will I hide behind lies?
3. Use words to help or to hurt?
4. Use words to replay failures or offer a second chance?
5. Use words to forgive or slander?
6. Use words to grow in Christ or fall into temptation?
7. Use words to fight injustice or support it?
8. Use words to give hope or dash hope?
9. Use words to express love or reveal hate?
10. Use words to do good or do nothing?

There are so many options that I can use my words for this week. What will I chose?

Your future is shaped not just by the quality of words you hear but by the words you use. Choose wisely.