God’s Guidance Through Life’s Transitions

This blog will post while I am moving through another life transition. Right now, I am taking my second son off to college for his Freshman year. He is headed off to college and will no longer be under my supervision. Sure, he will be home at Christmas for three weeks and will most likely return next summer, but life is changing.

Tomorrow my oldest son will load up his car and drive himself back to college for his second year. He has probably spent his last summer at home. He has already been working on an internship for next summer. He also plans to come back for Christmas but his days under my roof are limited.

It is hard not to write this with a heavy heart. I love my boys, and I wanted them to stay little forever. Without slowing down, they grew up, and now I only have two boys left at home. In four years both of them will be gone, and the nest will be empty.

The transitions in my life are coming fast, and I am not sure how to handle all of them. Here is how God is guiding me through these changes.

1. I thank God for the past. The years I have had with all my children have been an enormous blessing. Every new adventure and each new phase have brought joy along with challenges. Memories have been photographed and imprinted on my mind. I am happy for every moment I have been there.

2. I embrace each new moment. It is easy to spend all my time looking back and forget to look around. New memories are forming as my boy steps into manhood. There is joy even in the separation.

3. I pray like never before. I pray for my children with greater intensity in this season. I pray for their safety, wisdom and God’s guidance.

4. I wait excitedly for the future. Who alone beside our God knows what the future hold for all of them. The stand on the edge of degrees, careers, relationships, possibly marriage and children of their own. The future is wide open, and I am excited to see where God will take them.

I would be lying if I said this transition was easy. It comes with hidden tears and a breaking heart. I love my children, and I do not want them to move on, but I understand that it is necessary. Therefore, I will follow God wherever he leads as he leads them.

Thank you Lord, for today and all that it brings.

Two Ways to Start Church Ministries

Our Church has taken on the initiative to have everyone complete a membership class. The course teaches about the fundamental doctrines of the faith and explains the importance of Church membership. One part of membership is serving the Lord through a local body of believers. So after the class is over, I meet with each person to ask about their salvation and answer any questions. Then my wife meets with everyone to talk about participation.

Through the years my wife and I have noticed that there are two ways people approach ministry.

First – many people come with an “I have an idea for you” mentality. The words flow fast and easy, “Our church should have …” It might also sound like, “Pastor I have an idea for you.” Numerous times I hear about great ministries that “someone” should start and lead.

These people have no real desire to start these ministries. They rarely even want to participate in them. They are just individuals who want someone to do something.

This is what I have learned through the years. When I start these ministries, they usually fail. Some of the ideas are genuinely good ones. They make sense and would help our Church. I get a little excited and try to throw things together and make it work. Those that work are the exception. No one has a passion for this ministry. They approach it as a job and lack the enthusiasm to help it thrive.

Second – some people come with an “I have an idea I would like to start” mentality. It is common for this group to be so excited about their idea that they have not through all the details. They see a need and want to meet it. They have little regard for budgets or guidelines. God has laid something on their heart, and they are sure it can work.

What I have noticed is that quite often these ministries take off and thrive. The enthusiasm is infectious. The details are covered by blood, sweat, and tears. They accept responsibility and make it work by overcoming any obstacle. If someone has a passion for doing something for God, there is nothing that can stop them.

Interestingly enough, if the person who started that ministry is called away from the Church for a job or another reason, the ministry begins to fail. People live on memories of past success and have little passion for the present or future. Great and life-giving ministries struggle and fail because the individual who brought it to life is gone.

I would bet that through the years some of your favorite ministries have died and you felt sad. Some people tried to make it work, but it just didn’t happen. The simple reason was the leader and visionary was gone. Everyone who followed was just filling a position and did not have the heart for its success.

Great ministry happens when God’s people follow his leading and serve with their unique dream and gift. If God has laid something on your heart, then it is your responsibility to help bring it to life.

One day it will die. That does not mean it failed; it only means God has a new dream on the rise for a new follower to help make happen.

And so goes the cycle of ministry.

I Am Sorry About Whoever Hurt You

His hostility was apparent from the first words out of his mouth. He hated Christians and the Christian faith. Over time he had developed a list of reasons why he hated religion and numerous arguments against it. He was angry and ready to shame anyone who stood against him.

I recently saw this behavior on a YouTube video. It was posted as a tool for motivating us to develop better apologetics or defense of the faith. I watched the video twice and kept thinking about all the possible arguments that I would have used in this situation. Quickly my mind began to replay every discussion I have experienced like this through the years.

A few days later I was reading an article on the internet, and I did the unthinkable. I scrolled down the page and read the comments section. As usual, it was a brutal example of the worst communication on the planet. Within the lines, a man had begun to list all the reason he did not believe in Jesus and the Bible. One by one people had tried to refute his arguments and each time he shot them down. Once again, I sat there wondering how I would have handled this situation had it happened to me.

There is this natural inclination inside of me to argue my point and try to convince other people that my view is correct. Through the years I have developed an extensive list of responses to defend my faith. I believe my life of faith is easily supported on many levels.

Honestly, this is the way the Church usually tells people to approach the topic of belief. Have a list of arguments ready and set yourself for a verbal war.

I want to suggest something else to you today. Years ago, speaker Bill Gothard said an important line (at least that is where I first heard it). He said, “Behind every atheist is one extremely painful event.”

Through the years I have found that his insight was correct. The people who adamantly oppose faith are those who have been hurt the deepest. Someone they looked up to hurt them and that person claimed to be a Christian. Possibly someone who should have looked out for them in the name of Jesus didn’t do their job. Maybe they lost someone they loved to death or distance, and it hurt their soul. There are one of a thousand possibilities of where the damage might have come from for anyone. This hurt fuels a passion not for the gospel but rather against it.

As a result of my experiences, my new response to those who argue against my faith is simply, “I am sorry about whoever hurt you.”

Their general response is to deny the pain. They have been living in denial for years, and one line is not going to change that mindset. But I reiterate to them that I am sorry for whatever has caused them so much pain that they feel the need to lash out.

Honestly, the conversation usually goes nowhere. At least initially it does not. Hopefully, they will process what I am saying in the privacy of their own mind and understand my point. I find it frequently produces better conversations down the road than arguing.

I am not trying to convince you to stop defending your faith. I think you should know what you believe and why you believe it. I am asking you to offer grace to people who are hurting, and their only stance has been to lash out in anger. Extending grace opens the doors of the heart better than kicking on them.

Expanding God’s Kingdom

We live in an age of action by way of a computer keyboard. I realize that I am a total hypocrite as I write those lines on my laptop. Every day I try to write something God is laying on my heart with the hopes of encouraging, challenging and instructing people of like mind. I am trying to use my computer for good.

I know there are a lot of people who feel the same way that I do. They take to their computers and smartphones to help change the world. They write, and they comment as a Christian effort to help mold and shape the world.

Lately, I am losing faith in my keyboard. I am part of a ministers group on Facebook, and it is scaring me. Several people spend countless hours online arguing back and forth about how their view is correct. They pick apart each other’s politics. They comment about things I am sure of which they have no complete picture. Unfortunately, spending a few minutes reading the posts always leaves me feeling frustrated, confused and a little angry.

Slowly my mind shifts to the idea of how we use our time. How much time do we spend online? How much time is spent at my computer, tablet or on my smartphone? How much time do we spend reading and commenting instead of doing anything productive?

I am continually drawn back to the words of Jesus in Matthew 25. Jesus is teaching a parable about the separation of the sheep and the goats. It is a description of the end of the world and the judgment of all humanity by their maker. After the division, there are some questions as to why the groups were split as they were. Jesus responds to the sheep, “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger, and you invited me in, (36) I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36 NIV)

It appears that for Jesus the spreading of his kingdom was not done at a keyboard trying to change some person’s views who lives “out there.” His view seems to be that we are called to take the kingdom of God in little ways right where we live. A meal is better than a like on Facebook. A drink of cold water is better than a share. A free change of clothes is better than any post of any kind. Help and companionship are greater than any online victories.

Don’t get me wrong, I will still write every day, but if that is all I do for the kingdom of God, then I am missing the point. We need to be sure our online life is nothing compared to your actual life. We need to take the kingdom of God that exists within us to the world that is immediately around us. God’s plan is to change the world one small selfless action at a time.

Church Growth Isn’t Fun for a Pastor

I am struggling to get through the morning work routine. I am tired. In ministry preachers often refer to my feelings as the Monday morning hangover. I suffer not from the consumption of alcohol but from a full day of work and public speaking. Yesterday we held our usual worship program where I preached and led the Church in the worship of God. Then after our regular programs, our leadership participated in an 8-hour leadership meeting.

The meeting had been discussed for months and then planned for several weeks. I have read hundreds of pages and typed dozens of pages into my computer to share. Our plans for the past 18 months have been completed, and it is time to plan and prepare for the future.

You need to understand that God has been blessing our Church through the addition of numerous families and individuals. Almost every Sunday we see new faces, and they are happy to be here with us. It is a great time in the life of our Church as we are experiencing numeric growth through the blessing of God.

I suppose that most people would consider this to be a pastor’s dream come true. Church growth means that my ministry is successful. I will receive the admiration of colleagues and the accolades of other Churches. You would think that I would be overjoyed at our growth and in part, you would be correct. You would also be correct in saying that I am tired. Church growth isn’t fun for a pastor.

Growth means more meetings. Yesterday was a great example. Our leadership needed to talk and not have strict time constraints. I have a great leadership. There are no power struggles or harsh arguments. The time is usually productive and worth the investment. But with growth, there are more meetings than ever.

Growth means more work. I am busy planning, preparing and praying for the future. A days work used to take seven and a half hours each day. Slowly I have noticed my days adding an hour or two. Nine hours days are the average day at a minimum. More people means more to do for the kingdom of God. It is a blessing and a curse.

Growth means more responsibility. I feel greater burden with every new face I see. I desperately want to reach each one of the with the message of Jesus. The responsibility God has given me is ever-increasing, and so is the need for his help. I find myself praying more and more, and when I have a spare minute, I feel like I should be reading and growing personally. Church growth means that I have been faithful with a few things and now I pray I am faithful with more.

Growth means more temptation. Any success can be greeted with pride and arrogance. There is a temptation to puff out my chest and say, “Look what I have done.” That is usually accompanied by shame and guilt. Those unchecked can lead to other temptations knocking on the door. I firmly believe evil does not want to see any work of God succeed and it will do anything to stop it.

Seeing our Church grow is a wonderful experience. I am not complaining in any way. But if you think the pastor of a growing Church is full of pride and self-satisfaction you are wrong. We are tired, scared and are continually throwing ourselves on the grace of God. What God has called me too is not easy, but it is the most rewarding exhaustion I have ever felt. Thank God for the growth. It is great to be a part of something God is doing.

Searching for the Right Words

I never know exactly what to say.

I am afraid I will not say it right. My words will become jumbled, and my tongue will get tied. Somehow, I will take a simple idea and lose it with the wrong words. I will say too much or possibly not enough.

I am afraid you will not feel these words correctly. What I am saying to you is coming from the depths of my soul. I feel an overwhelming depth of gratitude, and I want you to know how much I appreciate you. The hurt deep inside my heart will not translate into words. Joy will sound like laughter, and I don’t want to be misunderstood. I just know you won’t feel what I am trying to communicate.

I am afraid I will forget something. My mind is full, and I usually miss something in my words. You will notice not just what I say, but what I do not say. You will think I didn’t notice or that I didn’t care.

I am afraid that my good intentions will be lost and you will get angry. A barrier will be built in our communication rather than a bridge. Instead of moving forward in our relationship we will get sidetracked or even worse, we will take a step backward.

I am afraid my words will not come out just right. I will be misunderstood. The result will not be what I desired. Instead of love and connection, there will be loss and separation.

What if I interrupt you and ruin the moment? What if I misunderstand you? What if you don’t respond the way I want you to answer?

Have you ever felt this way? You need to talk. You need to say something. You want your relationships to grow, but the words will not come out.

Communication is hard. It is the most difficult with the people closest to us.

Many of us will choose not to say the words. We will keep quiet. Quite possibly we will go the other route and talk about trivial things just to fill the space.

What if today, or maybe this weekend, you said the words? What if your faith was reflected in your words? What would happen if you trusted God to take your words and accomplish something beautiful in your life?

You will never have the perfect words. Do you believe in a God big enough to take your words and accomplish good things in your life?

Reading the Old Testament is Difficult

My Bible reading plan has me in the book of Isaiah. This book contains 66 chapters and trying to read 4-5 chapters a day means I will be here for over two weeks straight. Can I be honest? It is killing me. At times it is confusing, other times boring, and frequently shocking. I am working through it this month, and I will finish it, but it will come only through determination.

Does any of this sound familiar? Have you ever struggled to read through your Bible, especially the Old Testament? Have you ever wanted to give up on your Old Testament and skip through to Matthew one? Me too.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you read through the boring parts of the Old Testament, particularly the book of Isaiah.

1. Look for the Big Picture. I read that the book of Isaiah has eight major sections and is not written chronologically and can be very confusing. That is the truth. For me, I try to focus on the big picture. I have found at least four themes in this book and much of the Old Testament:
1) God’s plan and purpose.
2) Current events (to them) as judgment or blessing.
3) The coming of Jesus and a new era.
4) The last days and God’s final judgment.
I try not to get lost in all of the minute descriptions and poetic language of the prophets. I try to see the big picture of what God is doing and saying.

2. Study What is Most Difficult. The Bible I am reading right now is a type of study Bible. It allows me to read little one-page descriptions of topics I might miss. There are dozens of resources out there to help you understand any part of the Bible, take the time to study if you want to know more. Ask questions, take notes and dig deep. I know of a guy reading through Isaiah and is studying every line. He plans for it to take well over a year.

3. Notice the New Testament Connection. The book of Isaiah is quoted 55 times in the New Testament. There is a connection made through the coming of the Messiah. They were looking forward to a hope that we now look back on. I try to listen carefully to hear the hope of Jesus in any passage.

4. Write Down Some Takeaways. There are some great lines in every book of the Bible. Just today in Isaiah 44 I read a story about a man taking a piece of wood and cooking lunch over part of it and then making the other part an idol. The point is the foolishness of man to see one piece of wood in two different ways. Wood is wood no matter how you fashion it. There are several levels of application to all of my possession and worship. Look for the one line or chapter that can touch your life today.

5. Ignore Some Parts of It. Yes, I know it is God’s word, but oracles concerning Tyre and Sidon have little application for me. If I do not find something meaningful in a chapter, I move on without regret.

I hope that you will one day read the Bible. If you do, there are parts that will be a struggle to read. Develop a plan and move forward as best you are able. You can spend a lot of time looking at every word or move quickly looking for the big picture. Either one is beneficial for your spiritual growth.

Two Surprises in the Local Church

I have spent my entire life as part of a local Church. My parents attended a small local Church until I was five years old. Then we transferred to another Church where we remained until I went to college. Since then I have led six different congregations while attending dozens of others. I not only lead, but I am deeply connected to the local Church. I love it, and its people and I am glad to have spent time with some of these wonderful people.

There are a couple of things that have surprised me about the Church through the years.

1. Many Christians are Fiercely Independent. I know the Bible often refers to believers as sheep. This metaphor might lead you to believe that its members are quietly following Jesus without questions or any exercise of their will. I have found the exact opposite is true. Church people are often strong-willed, heavily opinionated, and constantly questioning. They settle into a set way of doing things and stand up to anyone who brings change.

I thought leading a Church would be like leading sheep and it became more like herding cats. Though their independence they become God’s unique creation. While stubborn, most of them are wonderful people. They love deeply, give generously and serve selflessly in the name of Jesus.

2. They Gather to Listen But Seldom Hear. I believe God created me to be a public speaker. When I was in the 5th grade, I wrote a speech and ended up going to teach a lesson in every class in our elementary school. God has molded me since I was little to stand up and speak to groups of people in a way they could understand. This gift led me to the role of the preacher in the local Church. Each week I present a lesson from the Bible and then wait to see results. At first, it surprised me of how little people heard of my well-crafted sermons.

One Sunday I preached a sermon and used a powerful illustration at the end of Satan and all the demons of hell. The next Sunday as people were leaving Church a lady caught me and said, “I heard a TV preacher give a great illustration using Satan this week.” She then proceeded to give me about one-third of what I had said the week before. When she finished, she smiled and said, “You can use that someday.” This is just one of a thousand times my own words have been repeated back to me with mistakes, half quotes, and misunderstood lessons. Yet, through all of the distorted words and mixed signals, people still manage to grow. Each week I am reminded that God does the work of taking my words and pouring them into people’s hearts to somehow bring growth.

Early in life, I dreamed of one day leading a local Church. I would be this powerful orator who could command respect as people hung on my every word. The Church where I preached would grow continually as people’s lives were changed and inspired to “go into all the world.” Then I went into ministry to find people who smile and nod throughout my sermon and then do whatever they want.

Then one day a truth hit me like never before: this is the Lord’s Church. He is the one who calls this group of misfits together. He is the one who is molding them through his word. He is in charge and leading these individuals somewhere as a group.

The Church has never been assembled to worship a preacher and follow him without question – that is a cult. A Church is a group of individuals seeking God’s guidance together. My role is to partner with God to help him accomplish his mission in everyone’s life. That is your role too.