Doing My Best

Joel Harvey is a young man with a disease known as AT. Those letters are short for Ataxia-telangiectasia. It is a rare disease that causes disability, and eventually, it breaks down the immune system until an illness cannot be fought off by the body. Most people who have the disease die in their teens and a handful make it into the twenties.

Joel is the son of Tony Harvey. Tony served as an elder in one of the Churches I pastored years ago. He and his wife hosted an annual walk for AT. They tried to raise funds through numerous events in a one-day celebration. The family also supported other victims of AT and their fundraising projects as the scientists searched for a cure.

One day I was talking with Tony, and he was in a very serious mood. He told me that he did all of these things because he wanted to tell his son, “I did everything I could.”

I have not forgotten that one moment in time. A loving father desperate to find a cure for his son, but he knew so much was beyond his control. He could not magically make a cure; he could not remove the pain, and he could not stop this awful disease from taking over his son. The only thing he could do was to love his son and raise as much money as possible for research. He could tell the world about this disease most people have never heard of and try to generate their support. He was doing all he could do to help his son.

I was thinking of this story last night as I was helping with the youth group. Three of my boys attend youth group each week and I was watching them and thinking. I cannot control my children. I cannot force them to follow Jesus. I cannot keep them from walking away from God when that decision is all theirs to make. I do want to be able to look them in the eye one day and tell them, “I did everything I could do.”

Sure, some of the youth groups I have put together have been terrible. Sure, I have taught Sunday School lessons that bored them. Sure, I have preached sermons on topics that they have heard a thousand times. Sure, it led me to make some decisions they did not like at the moment. In spite of that, I hope they know that I did everything in every possible way I could to help them to follow Jesus.

Sometimes this feels like an incredibly lonely journey my wife and I are on each day. We pour out our heart and soul trying to make a difference in just a few lives, even if that is only my children.

I guess my question is, “What will you tell your children one day?” What will you say when they ask about your faith and what you did when they were young. What will you say?

Sure, they may reject the faith I am teaching them. They may not follow Christ like I want them to. But it will only be despite a lifetime of trying everything at my disposal to reach them.

The Proofreading Problem

I had read and reread the document over and over. I knew every word backward and forwards. I knew exactly what I was thinking in every word. I thought my words were clear and my presentation almost flawless.

Then I turned it for a grade.

Man, was I wrong. My professor found typos. He found problems with sentence structure. One of my ideas was missing an essential word.

In my mind, it was an A+ paper. In reality, I received a B+, and that was probably generous.

That was 21 years ago, and it was my final paper as a senior in college. It was a 25-page magnum opus on the cross of Christ. It represented a semester of detailed work and five years of general study.

To my credit, at the time I was using a word processor to type the paper, and there were no computers with excellent proofreading programs like I have now. Honestly, not that much has changed. I was reading back through my blog and found numerous mistakes of all kinds in my previous work.

The real problem is not the computer program I use as much as it the fact that I proofread most of my own work. Proofreading your work is hard to do because you are too familiar with it. You read words into sentences that are not there. You mentally add the needed punctuation. You are so close to the work that you cannot see its flaws. Your mind tricks you into thinking your work is flawless when it is only a B+ at best.

Why do I tell you this? Because each one of us is proofreading our own life. We are judging the work we do each day. A problem can arise because we fill in the missing spaces in our head. We think we are a great spouse, a wonderful child, a terrific parent even a fully committed follower of Jesus when in reality we are making huge mistakes.

One reason God made us a part of the body of Christ is to help us proofread our lives. We need someone to speak truth into our lives about the mistakes we are making each day. Each one of us needs 1-3 close Christian friends to tell us what they see in our lives. We need someone who cares about us but is detached enough to tell us the hard things.
I know it is frightening. Handing my work to someone else is terrifying. They may rip it apart. I may have to make changes. I may have to cut out parts and rethink my overall structure. But if my goal is to do my best work, to live the best life I can for Jesus, it has to be done.

Who is helping you see the mistakes in your life? Do you have anyone? If not, you might be living a B+ life when you could be living a solid A.

Why We Decided to Not Have Worship on Christmas Day

This year Christmas Day falls on Sunday morning. This creates an interesting situation for Churches. What are Churches to do?

Recently I have read a few articles which have stated that their Church is having worship on Sunday morning and they seemed to underline the deeply spiritual reasons for their decisions. Well, the Church that I lead stands on the other side of this issue. We decided not to have worship on Sunday morning, rather have it on Friday night. Unlike 89% of Churches in America, we are not having any worship program on Dec. 24 or Dec. 25.

Here are some of the factors that lead to this decision.

1. We are Still Worshipping God. Does it matter what day we meet? Some Churches offer Thursday or Saturday or Monday programs. Are those okay for believers? Yes, the early Church met on the first day of the week, but it is not a law for Christians. We worship Jesus and not a day of the week.

2. The Quality of the Program Issue. It takes about 30-40 people for us to have worship on the weekend. We have greeters, nursery workers, children’s Church leaders, a worship team, sound crew, and a several other people who we need to serve. On Christmas weekend, it is hard to find enough people to have a quality worship program. I know some people say, “Well just keep it simple.” My response is, “So what do we cut?” Nursery? That way no young families will want to attend. The worship team? Who will lead the singing? Sound? What? We want to put on a quality program for worship and not just a “get-by” program.

3. My Past Experience. I have vivid memories of the past two times that Christmas fell on Sunday. In Alaska, I was leading a Church of about 50 people and 25 showed up on Christmas morning and most were very tired and distracted. The time before that I was leading a new Church, and we were averaging about 200 people, and we had 50 show up on Christmas day. Everyone was tired, and they seemed very disappointed. The major conversation was about all the missing people. I have yet to be a part of a great Christmas Day program.

4. Outreach. I know of no non-Christian families who will want to go to Church on Christmas day. Christmas is not a big Church day, like Easter, for people on the edge or outside of faith. I think that more guests are likely to come on Friday night than Sunday morning.

5. We Already Quit Our Christmas Eve Program. After talking to dozens of people at our Church and those in our communities we discovered that most families go to one side of the family on Christmas Eve. Then they stay home on Christmas morning. Then they go to the other side of the family on Christmas night. With that in mind, we transitioned to a Christmas Eve Eve candlelight program with great success. Last year we averaged 168 in worship each week, and 136 people attended our new program. It was by far the most successful event yet.

6. We Value Family. I do not just preach about spending time with your family, I practice it. I believe every family should have a Christmas morning together with one another. They can celebrate and party and enjoy this wonderful holiday.

I do appreciate my Christmas friends who are having worship on Christmas morning, and I hope and pray it goes well for them. In fact, the handful of families might end up attending their Church for a Sunday. At my Church, we have simply decided to do something different. We believe this decision was God honoring in every way.

O Christmas Tree

Every year across the United States and across the world people will put up Christmas Trees and decorate them for the holiday season. What is that all about?

Well, it is no secret that evergreen trees have always held a special place in the minds of people. Of all the trees, they are not affected by the fall and winter. They stand green when the world has turned cold and dark. They are a symbol of life in even the worst of times. It is believed that many ancient religions had a place for the evergreen tree in their worship symbols.

Somewhere along the way people of faith connected this practice of using evergreen trees in their religious observances to Christmas. As Christians began to celebrate the birth of Christ, they attached it to the days when winter was at its peak. The days are dark, but light is starting the process of winning over the hours. From the end of December until the middle of summer the daylight hours are getting longer and the weather is getting warmer. As the celebration of Christmas found its roots at this time of year, the evergreen tree also stood tall as a bastion against cold darkness of winter and of life.

No one knows for sure who was the first person to bring a tree into their house at this time of year. Several places and people take credit for it, but everything is mere speculation. The most famous story says that it was Martin Luther, that great religious reformer, who brought the Christmas tree into the Church in the 1500’s. As the story goes one night, he was walking home and saw the stars shining through the trees, and he went and added candles to his tree as the first decoration. History tells us that he used a passage in the Bible to support this action. Isaiah 60:13 (NIV) “The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the pine, the fir and the cypress together, to adorn the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify the place of my feet.”

Once the tree made its way into the decorations to celebrate the birth of Christ, it slowly spread across the globe. It moved from Germany and then across Europe. By the mid-1800’s the practice was being endorsed by the royal family in Britain. Eventually, it became an accepted practice in the United States, but it was slowly accepted by everyone. Now trees are one of the most popular Christmas decorations and symbolize the beginning of the holiday season in many locations.

For believers, the Christmas tree was to be a reminder of life through even our darkest hours. It points us to Jesus as the eternal form of light and life in the world and reminds us that he came one dark night to Bethlehem. Christmas does not bring us to a place where we worship a tree, rather the tree is to point us to an eternally existent God who is not subject to our ever-changing struggles in the world. He is light, and he is life, and it is him that we worship this Christmas season.

Being a Complete Christian

Many years ago, Rick Warren wrote a book called The Purpose Driven Church. He followed it up with his enormously popular book The Purpose Driven Life. In each of those books, he introduced his readers to the idea of living and doing Church with a purpose. He wanted each follower of Christ and each Church to be driven to do all the things God desires.

He stated that his study leads him to believe we each have 5 Purposes:

1. Worship
2. Fellowship
3. Discipleship
4. Ministry
5. Evangelism

I have read the Bible and done my share of study, and I think that is a great list. I really have no idea what anyone could add. Each of us is designed to love God, connect with other believers, grow in our faith, serve other people and share the message of God’s grace.

The problem is that most of the people I know, including myself, tend to focus on two of these areas.

First, we have our primary strength. Some of us love to play music and sing. Others of us prefer to visit and connect with other believers, and still, others love to read and learn more about the ways of God.

Second, we each have a secondary area of interest. We might want to read and study, but we also like teaching what we are learning. We may love to worship and sing, but we like to involve other people into the place we serve.

I would encourage everyone to spend some time thinking about how God has gifted you and where you really are designed to fit.

Also, this means there are three areas we tend to neglect. For example, I love to learn and to teach, but I am not very good at connecting to other people. I like worship, but I get tired of singing. I enjoy sharing my faith, but it does not come naturally to me.

If this is all correct, and I believe it is, then let me give you two important thoughts.

1. Be sure not to completely ignore your areas of weakness. I am not telling you that need to become an expert in things you do not care much about. I am telling you that each of us should desire to be a total follower of Christ, not lacking in anything. Once you know your strengths, you will also know your weaknesses. Be sure to plan some time working on those weaker areas and developing fully as God desires for each one of us.

2. Don’t judge people for not being like you. Just because I do not get excited about worship does not mean I am inferior Christian. God just wired me up differently than you. You may not be a person who likes to read and study, and that does not make you less of a Christian than I am. We each are unique in our heart and gifts. No one is greater than another.

Together the Church is a picture of a complex body. We each have different parts for the overall good of everyone. I encourage all believers to discover their strengths and weaknesses so that we might be a Church and believers who are completely whole.

“I’m Tired of Christmas Already”

There I said it.

I don’t mean that I am tired of Christmas this year. I mean, as a Christian and as a pastor, I am tired of the Christmas story. I am now 44 years old. I have been a Christian for 36 years of that time. I have been a preacher for the last 23 years of this time too. Every year I have had to listen to 3-4 sermons about the Christmas story or more. Many years I have had to preach those sermons. Couple that with all the Sunday School lessons, youth lessons, special programs and candlelight programs it makes a whole lot of Christmas.

Before you label me as a Scrooge, please hear me out. There is not a lot in the Bible about the birth of Jesus. It comes down to several stories in the books of Matthew (chapters 1-2) and Luke (chapters 1-3). Mark has nothing. John has a couple of veiled references. The rest of the Bible contains a handful of prophecies and a couple of passing references. There is very little information on the pages of scripture.

On top of that, nowhere are we instructed to observe the birth of Jesus. We are told to remember his death and resurrection but nothing on the birth. The celebration of his birth is added to the list of holidays much later in history. It has more secular roots than religious.

And yet, every year Christians and the Church spend the weeks from Thanksgiving to Christmas talking about the birth of Jesus. In religious circles, it is called “Advent.” The word is defined as the arrival of a notable person. This is the season we celebrate the arrival of Jesus as a human being into the world he created.

I would argue that most of us know the scriptural stories of Christmas far more than any other part of the Bible. We know all about angels, shepherds, wise men and the birth of a baby in a stable. Mary and Joseph are some of the most well-known Bible characters. In fact, when I talk about Joseph in the book of Genesis I refer to him as “Joseph, not the one of the Christmas story.”

With all of that said, I am tired of Christmas.

I do not mean that I am not thankful for Christmas. I am thankful that God sent his son to this earth. Recently I reread a passage that struck me. 1 John 3:8 (NIV) ends with this statement “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” I am thankful that God sent his son to do battle with the forces of evil and secure a victory for my soul.

I like that image so much that I am thinking about preaching a Christmas series on “Jesus the Destroyer” one year. None of the traditional characters of the story – just Jesus, Satan, a cross and a bloody battle. The children may or may not like it. Parents will be frustrated and maybe frightened. But I bet no one will be bored.

Anyone with me?

Backhanded Comfort

The people who follow Jesus cling to the belief that he was perfect. The Bible affirms that truth in Hebrews 4:15 where Jesus is described as just like us, yet without sin. He was like us and yet remained perfect.

I believe that means he did everything correctly. I mean everything. His relationship with God was perfect. He prayed the right amount, read his Bible the right amount, served the right amount and gave the right amount. It also means he handled other people perfectly. He said the right words. He handled every situation without rage or unrighteous anger. He loved his neighbor and his enemy. He did not judge in an ungodly way. In every situation involving other people, he demonstrated what God would like us to do at that moment. In fact, many believers have asked themselves, “What did Jesus do that I can learn from?” It is one of the cornerstones of all preaching and teaching on the life of Jesus.

This is where it all takes a turn for me. If Jesus did everything God desired in his life, then people should have loved him and treated him with dignity and respect. Unfortunately, that is clearly not the case. Yes, some people loved him, but the majority hated him. They spent large amounts of time trying to catch him in a mistake. When that did not work, they made a plan to kill him. Before they executed him based on lies they made sure he felt the maximum amount of pain. He was beaten, flogged, spat upon, mocked, humiliated and tortured because the people he offended wanted him to suffer. Jesus life of love ends with an ugly death on a cross.

I tell you this because I am so often driven by the desire to have people like me. Somehow I came to the belief that if I did the thing God desired in every situation, then people will never be offended by my actions. Everyone will love me and respect me and treat me with kindness if I just act like Jesus. Then I have to remind myself, oh yeah, that is not how it worked for Jesus. Doing the right thing, saying the right thing and being in line with what God wants us to do is usually a recipe for more pain and humiliation. Frequently it creates more enemies than friends.

I find what I call a “backhanded” comfort in the life of Jesus. The obvious application is found in what he taught and how he lived. I can learn directly from those passages of the Bible. Also, I learn indirectly from the way people responded to Jesus. Many times it was not what I would expect or want. And yet, that is exactly the model of life Jesus left for us to follow. Maybe the best indicator of if we are truly following Jesus is not how many people love us, but rather how many hate us.

Today I take comfort in the fact that people hated Jesus and why would we expect any less?

Ebenezer

Most people are not familiar with the word Ebenezer in the Bible. This time of year our thoughts might go to Ebenezer Scrooge and the story of A Christmas Carol. Beyond that, we have no idea what it means.

I think of this word every time we sing the song “Come Thou Fount.” The second verse starts with a line that says “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” I have sung it many times, and it is possible that you have too, but what in the world does it mean?

The primary story still comes from 1 Samuel chapter 7. The people of Israel had spent twenty years trying to live without God. They had given themselves over to idols and neglecting the God of their fathers. In turn, God had allowed the Philistines to conquer and rule over the people of God. By chapter 7 the people come to Samuel and seek the Lord’s guidance for the first time in years. Samuel instructs them to get rid of their idols and rally together to fight the Philistines. Apparently, the people do as instructed, and God is pleased with them. The result is that God confuses the Philistines and the Israelite army pushes the Philistines out of their land.

Then in the middle of this story, there is a pause, and it says in 1 Samuel 7:12 (NIV) “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’”

Samuel sets up a rock and calls it Ebenezer. First, I think that is weird. It’s like, “This is Samuel and his pet rock Ebenezer.” Second, it is not that weird when you understand what is going on in the story. The name Ebenezer means “The stone of help.” Samuel sets up this stone as a memorial to the work of the Lord. He calls attention to the fact that it was God who led them out of captivity and to victory over their enemies. Samuel wanted a visual reminder that God was their ultimate helper. He wanted people to walk by that stone and be reminded of the work of the Lord.

I can only assume that the writer of the hymn “Come Thou Fount” recognized the work of the Lord in their life. Then he added this one obscure Biblical reference driving the point home. He wrote that he was going to raise his own Ebenezer stone to remind him of God’s work of blessing in his life.

I have often wondered if I should do the same thing in my life. Whenever I receive an enormous blessing that I know is clearly from God, I stop and set up a little monument to his achievement. That way when I walk across my property, I am reminded of the goodness of God in my life. Oh yeah, he blessed me that day and that day and that day and that day and on and on.

Maybe it is a gift from God that every holiday season I am reminded of the word Ebenezer because of the story of A Christmas Carol. It is a simple nudging that in a time of asking for more and more that I have been blessed abundantly by God already.

Today I raise my Ebenezer. Would you join me?

All I Really Want for Christmas

Every year brings the usual question of, “What do I get them for Christmas?” The question doesn’t change if you are a Christian or a Non-Christian. We live at a time where very few people really need the things we used to get for Christmas. So what are some of the good Christmas gifts we can give that people desperately want?

1. Your Undivided Attention. I honestly believe this is the greatest gift we can give anyone in 2016. Take your spouse out to eat. Take your kids to a park. Stop and visit with an old friend. Before you do those activities take a minute and shut your phone off. That’s right, off. Don’t silence it and still feel the buzz of other people trying to break into your time. An hour or two of undistracted time is a great gift.

2. A Handwritten Letter. (Okay, if your penmanship is terrible, use a computer). This could come in a Christmas card, but space is limited. Take the time to put your thoughts into a long letter and don’t make it a form letter. In a world of one line texts take the time to express yourself deeply. This is a great gift for people who live far away from you.

3. Service. I am sure you know someone who could use a helping hand. Maybe that means watching their kids so they can go Christmas shopping without charging them. Maybe that means you help a young mother get her house clean. This may be very labor intensive, or it might be a hand to someone who is failing. Help someone out.

4. Take a Child for Something. Obviously, you need the parents’ permission. Once you have secured the opportunity, you can do almost anything. You can take the kid anywhere and show them your world. As a parent, I have limited resources and knowledge, and I would love for people to expand my children’s world through their life. Show them how to do something, teach them a skill, play a game with them, take them somewhere and give them an opportunity they would never have otherwise.

5. Enter My World. I know I have a lot of passions and interests. I love, love to talk about what interests me. I think this is true for most people. Some people are passionate about sports, others about racing, others about cooking and the list goes on and on. These are easy to spot when you mention a topic and the other person lights up and quickly beings to talk. Who wouldn’t love an hour of sharing their greatest passion with someone who truly acts interested?

6. Make a Memory. Most people have little need of anything. They do long for connection. Having an experience together can be one of the greatest gifts in the world. Go to a game, watch a movie together or do anything you enjoy. Please remember number 1 if possible.

The great thing about these gifts is that they are free. Well, free is a tricky word. They will cost you time and for most of us, our time is more valuable than money. I think that is what makes these great gifts.

One More Time: Read Your Bible

Jesus was once questioned about the resurrection of the dead. The question is specifically about the topic of marriage at the resurrection. The group of people who asked the question are a curious group. They are called the Sadducees. This group did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, so that means they are simply trying to trap Jesus in his words.

The Sadducees ask Jesus about a hypothetical woman who is married and her husband dies. Since they had no children, his brother is to marry her and try to keep the family name alive through a child. The poor lady has this same thing happen to her seven times. Each and every sibling in the family marries this cursed woman and each one dies. So in the resurrection of the dead whose wife will she be since she was married to seven different men?

Jesus gives the most interesting response to this question. In Matthew 22:29 (NIV) it says “Jesus replied, ‘You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.’”

Say what Jesus?

Could he not give them one straight answer? Just say a number between one and seven and this issue will be settled.

Instead, Jesus points them to an important detail about their question. They had not understood what the scriptures said about marriage and the afterlife. They also did not understand how God worked. They had arrived at conclusions about people and issues without an adequate knowledge of the Bible, or the nature of God revealed in his word.

This is the trap of all generations.

There is a possibility that the questions you have about God and faith are right there in your Bible and yet you never look. The answers you find there might surprise you. They may not be the easiest or most natural answer.

To this question, Jesus says that they missed the fact that there will be no marriage in the resurrection. Then he goes a step further and says that those who have died are still living in the afterlife. God is not the God of the dead but the living.

What he says astonishes the crowds gathered that day. The Sadducees leave, and the quiet sound of deep thinking filled the air.

It sounds like the most basic Sunday School answer to longtime believers, but it still the best one. Read your Bible. Read it again and again. Study it. Think about it. Bring it into your life both morning and night. Spend time in God’s word.

The answer to most of the questions in life is found within the pages of scripture. When we mess up, it is often because we do not know the scriptures or the power of God.
Easy answer. Simple application