The Final Product Does Not Always Look Like the Original Plan

I now keep two notebooks of ideas for my blogs. One is a traditional paper notebook that I carry in my backpack at all times. The other is a digital notebook that is on my laptop and phone. These two resources enable me to get ideas down in print the moment they come to me. I now have several dozen ideas that range from one-line titles to a paragraph description.

Each day I sit down and decide on which idea I want to write into a full post. I type in a title and then I start developing the concept. Recently I put my thought at the top of the page and began putting ideas underneath. Within a few minutes, my concept had taken a right turn into a new article that was much better.

In the end, my final product looked nothing like my original plan. Sure, it had the same title, but it was different from what I imagined. Can I say this humbly? I thought it was much better than my original thought.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned in writing a blog for the last five years is just to follow your ideas. Take a thought, start typing and see where it leads.

This concept is valid in life also.

Many of us started out life with all kinds of dreams and ambitions. Maybe we thought we were going to be this great star. Our name would be on the list of the best in the world for sports or music or writing or whatever. Possibly we dreamed of our financial success. Maybe we had simple dreams of this type of career in this town while married to that person.

Then somewhere along the way, things took a right turn. There was a job setback, a relationship change or some unforeseen obstacles that blocked us from achieving our dreams. Somehow life did not work out anything as we planned. In faith, we kept moving forward continually trusting in God.

My faith tells me that God will work everything out for the better. He will take my life and make something great out of it, failures and all. He will rewrite the mistakes into a new and beautiful masterpiece.

Your life may look nothing like the teenage dreams you thought were so perfect. Thank God for the path he has allowed you to walk instead. Even if you are still working on the rewrite and the end is unclear. Take hope; God has a better plan for your story than anything you initially thought.

I Don’t Mind Sounding Unspiritual

I don’t use much religious language.

It is not that I have little interest in the things of God. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. I want people to understand everything they can about God. So, I use analogies and metaphors to explain profound truths. I speak in an everyday language to help people comprehend profound spiritual truth.

I have concrete reasons for the way I speak about Christianity.

1. People in the Bible Used Everyday Language. Jesus is the best possible example of this type of teaching. He helped people understand the kingdom of God by talking about seeds and soil, a pearl of great price, and a dragnet. The rest of the Bible follows his cue in their teaching. Most of the big religious words we know today were familiar words to the first-century believer. Ideas like atonement were rooted in the Jewish culture and painted an image like me saying “Thanksgiving.”

2. Big Religious Words Repel Non-Believers. Imagine you go to a doctor’s office, and he does a thorough exam. He comes in and sits down with you and starts using huge medical terms. He doesn’t explain them; he just assumes you will figure it out on your own. He leaves, and you have a page of notes and questions and feel no closer to a cure. Would you return to that doctor? He is smart and knows his stuff. He might have even given you the correct diagnosis, but is it helpful if you have no idea what he was saying? Now flip that story over. I may hear someone describe their life and tell me about their need for spiritual enlightenment. I can tell them they need to be saved by the blood and sanctified by the Spirit. I can give them all kind of big religious words, and it may not help them at all on their walk with God one bit. Sadly, it might actually repel people as they think Christianity is out of touch with reality.

3. Most Believers Cannot Explain Big Religious Words Because They Don’t Understand Them. The New Testament writers used numerous everyday images to help them explain the deep truth of the cross. We should do the same with our words, but first, we must know what we are talking about. As a believer, you should seek to understand words like atonement, justification, and redemption and then put those concepts into your own words. My best understanding of the cross has come through personal stories and descriptions that helped me see the work of God in a more precise way.

Why do I tell you all of this? Because I overheard a conversation between a believer and an unbeliever. The Christian used words and phrases that were confusing to the other person. When the discussion was over, I felt like I should grab the lady and say, “Do you want to know what the other lady just said and how it applies to you?”

I may not speak much about “the blood” or the “Holy Spirit” or “sanctification” on a daily basis. It is not because I do not believe in them, it is because I want everyone to understand them, so I use ordinary language. True spirituality is about making God present in the everyday, not sounding like a religious expert.

Our Church is a Little Unprofessional

I believe that everything in the Church should be done with the highest level of quality. I make every effort to have the have the best-printed program we can produce. I want our facilities clean and updated. Our signage should be clear and plentiful. Music should be well thought through and thoroughly practiced. There is no reason to allow our program to be of low quality over the things we can control.

With that said, I also prefer that some parts of our program be a little unprofessional. Each week I am thrilled to see people step up in our worship program who are volunteers trying to share their faith.

I appreciate both our younger and older people helping with worship.

I am honored to have various members of our leadership leading the Church in prayer.

I enjoy hearing several of our men sharing their thoughts about communion.

It is a delight to have people of all backgrounds sharing their lives in one way or another during our worship on Sunday mornings.

The Church is a place where people of all ages, all backgrounds, and varying degrees of spiritual maturity work together in faith. It is not just a place where paid professionals show off what they have been trained to do in Bible college.

When I see different people on the stage on Sunday I sometimes do not listen to their words; I look at their life. I wonder how many struggles they have been through and how their faith has grown over their journey. I hear young people full of potential who are facing life with faith for the future. I know people who want to touch the lives of others by sharing what they believe.

Sometimes the most productive thing the Church can do it to let the non-professionals have the microphone. They are the example of faith for all who worship with us each week.

Learning to Enjoy the Journey

Recently a man asked me the best way to handle some of the disappointment in his life. Things have not been going well, and he is getting discouraged. After numerous texts back and forth about life and faith, I offered up a couple of practical suggestions. One of my thoughts was merely to say, “Enjoy the journey.”

This is original with me, yet I still see it as an essential viewpoint in life. Each of us needs to understand; we will not enjoy life more once we have accomplished our goals, purchased specific items or had that dream vacation. Life is a journey from the cradle into eternity. While on this trip we need to find joy each day in some way.

Here a couple of things I have learned about enjoying the journey.

1. Be careful what voices you follow. Advertisers will tell you that your life is lacking without their product. Travel resorts try to sell you on the idea that joy is found in their location. And social media … well … I often feel like it a self-promotion machine highlighting your shortcomings. I mean if you look at social media for long you will see people promoting their wonderful marriage, perfect children, dream job and fulfilling personal time. If you are not careful, you can begin to look at your life as imperfect and incomplete. You can feel like, “How can I have joy when others have so much more than I do?”

Be careful who you let influence your life. Are you motivated by your own personal quest for joy or by the voices telling you that your life is less than joyful?

2. Walk slowly through life. This is so counter-cultural. Everyone is rushing from here to there and trying to be a part of everything. Our schedules are overloaded, and we have deceived ourselves into thinking that it will bring us joy. If we do more and accomplish more won’t we find more joy? If we make more money and use it for vacations and fancy things won’t we find more joy? My answer is usually a resounding “no.”

Slow down and do less. Enjoy a meal with our family. Sit on the porch and watch the sun rise or set or both. Listen to children tell you a story without interrupting. Ask your spouse about their feelings and listen for an answer. Tell the people you care about why you love them and how much they mean to you. Pray and sit quietly. Eat cheesecake. Enjoy this life without the burden of more.

3. Say “Thank You” for one thing (at least) every day. Said another way, “Develop an attitude of gratitude.” Force your self to be thankful. The more you work to see the good in yourself and others the more joy you will find. The more you are grateful for all you have and have done, the more pleasure you will find. I would almost guarantee you have things in your life that other people can’t believe are not making you happy.

The words are true. Enjoy the journey.

Life is short, and the road is hard. One day you will look back on today and wonder why you were so unhappy. Time will give you perspective, and your worries will all seem so trivial. There is no reason to wait for joy, find it today.

A Parable of Cheap Screws

Last Fall, our Church finished putting in a new sign for our building. It was part of a long project that including trenching and electrical work. It also needed numerous revisions to the design that would appear on the sign. There was metal that needed to be fabricated and plastic cut. All total the project cost about $8,000 to get our new sign in front for the world to see.

This past Friday morning I received a text from a woman in our congregation saying that our sign had fallen. I was sick, and it was my day off, so I didn’t think much about it. I assumed a few of our letters showing the worship time had fallen and it was a minor problem.

That night I was feeling better and decided to drive over to the building and give it a quick look. Sure enough, the sign had fallen. Not a few letters but the entire North side of the sign had detached and dropped to the ground. One corner was broken, and there was a significant crack on the other side.

I was disappointed and unsure exactly what to do so I contacted the Church leadership and told them the situation. One man called the installer and the next day they came out to look at it.

The problem with the sign was a series of cheap screws. The added weight of the ice along with the cold had caused some cheap screws to snap in half. All of them had broken on one side, and the other side was three-quarters of the way broken. One $8,000 sign had been rendered useless by a handful of screws worth a couple of bucks.

How easy it is to accept cheap substitutes. Those screws looked like good screws. They did the job of a quality screw. They initially held everything in place. They worked well until the weight was added to them. Then it came crashing down.

Jesus tells a parable of a man who built his house on the sand and one who built his house on the rock. Both houses looked fine until the pressure of the waves beat against them. The storm revealed the weaker version to be less than needed to withstand a struggle. The one built on sand came crashing down.

The point of Jesus parable multilayered. One application seems to be that you cannot know a strong person until life gets difficult. It may look like someone is building a great life when everything is going well. Their family looks happy, their children seem to be doing well, and they seem to have it all together. Then the weight comes, and the storms hit, and you find out who built their life on a foundation of sand using cheap screws.

The primary application of this story is the importance of building our lives on the solid foundation of Jesus teachings. He says, “Whoever hears the words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock (Matthew 7:24).”

Somedays my life may look the same as the people around me, who have no faith in Jesus. In fact, some days their life may look better. They saved time by skipping the foundation. They saved money by using cheap materials.

At those moments when I feel like they have chosen the better path, I need to be reminded that I did not build my life this way just for today. I made it for the long haul. The choice of cheap screws will eventually reveal itself with a big crash.

An Open Letter to My Home Church

I grew up attending Woodland Heights Christian Church in Crawfordsville Indiana. My parents started attending there when I was five years old, and I was a frequent guest until I got married and became a full-time pastor. My mom still attends there today, and we held dad’s funeral there last year. It is the Church I call home, no matter where I lead across this country.

I am sure if I was to visit there this week only a handful of people still know me. Most of those people would be my mother’s friends and her Sunday school classmates. And yet, I still feel this sense of connection I cannot fully explain.

Today I was thinking of a few things I would like to tell my home Church.

1. Thanks for Teaching me the Bible. From children’s Church to Sunday School to Youth group to worship you taught me the value and meaning of the Bible. The foundation I received there has allowed me to build an active life of faith.

2. Thanks to the Hundreds of Volunteers I Do Not Remember. My life was shaped by people who will never know what I became in life. They decided to give an hour to help with an event or sponsor a trip or teach a lesson. These people shaped my life without ever knowing it.

3. Thanks for Letting Me Fail with Grace. In High School, I embarrassed my family and myself and the people who believed in me, and yet no one ever gave up. While I know, there was a disappointment in my behaviors I was never made to feel like a failure. I was always reminded of grace while being shown the love of Christ. This example kept me in the faith when it would have been easy to walk away.

4. Thanks for Your Financial Support in College. I was blessed to receive a check to help with the financial burden of higher education. I don’t know how many people even knew I received the money, but thanks anyway. Not only that but thanks for the special gifts people mailed me during those five years.

5. Thanks for Supporting Me as a Missionary. In 1993, I wanted to go on a summer mission internship, and my family along with my church paid every dime. When I felt called to start a church in Iowa, the church once again rose to bless my life. They supported me with one-time gifts and two years of support. They even let me be their VBS missionary. Lives were blessed with your support.

6. Thanks for All Your Prayers. I know many of you have lifted me up in prayer through the years at times I do not even know. You have prayed for me and my ministry, and God has honored those prayers. I thank you for all your spiritual support and encouragement.

I believe that no one in the Church ever imagined the good God would do through me over the course of my lifetime. By my calculations, I have now baptized somewhere around 200 people in the past 20 years. It all started with the love of my family and the support of my home Church.

I also write this information to the Church I now lead. You will never know the way God will use your time, talent and treasure. You will never completely understand the support your prayers offer to our young people. Your actions are shaping the lives of the youth in our Church and one day it will bless people across this city and literally across the world.

Life’s Simple Pleasures

Last Thursday night I became ill with a stomach virus of some sort. I was awake almost all night and felt awful into the morning hours. By early afternoon my tummy began to settle, and I was feeling much better. I mustered up enough energy to attend my boy’s basketball games in the evening. That night I went to bed exhausted, and it was the best night sleep I have enjoyed in a long time. I slept sound until after 9:00 am on Saturday. I was physically feeling better, and I had nothing to do that day, so a sense of total relaxation flooded my morning with a peaceful feeling.

This morning was different. Last night we traveled to a ball game and ended up eating late before going to bed. I tossed and turned part of the night usually waking with some thoughts about work. The morning came early, and I was still tired while trying to get into the morning routine.

As I sat in my office, I began to think about all of life’s simple pleasures that I overlook so often.

-A good night’s sleep.
-A warm house and a hot shower.
-Air Conditioning
-Going out to eat with my wife.
-Steak and Pizza and crab legs
-An automobile
-Computers and the internet

Slowly my mind began to move from physical things to feelings.

-The joy of knowing my family is all safe.
-The excitement of my bobber going down while fishing.
-The indescribable feeling when people appreciate you.
-The peace of knowing I am free from my past failures through Jesus forgiveness
-The confidence I have in knowing God is guiding me.
-The hope I have of eternal life in heaven.

Today I was reminded of all the things in life I take for granted.

I believe each of us has been blessed in so many ways. Physically we have all the modern conveniences of living in 2018. Personally, there are numerous things for which to be thankful. Spiritually, I often forget the blessing I have in Jesus. My past is forgiven, my present is empowered, and my future is secure.

Today I hope you take a few minutes to think about all the ways God has blessed your life. In a world where we are always being pushed to do more and have more. Maybe the best thing we can do is to take time to be thankful for what we have already been given.

Two Tensions of Spiritual Growth in the Church

There are two primary goals in my ministry. One is to lead people into a saving relationship with Jesus. The other is to see those people grow in their faith until they reach spiritual maturity.

It sounds so simple, but it is the most complex project in the world. People have different backgrounds and personalities that lead them to learn and grow in unique ways through the various seasons of life. Through the years I have seen two tensions that make spiritual growth so complicated.

1. Attendance and Activity do not equal growth. Everyone in Church can point to that one individual or couple who attend worship every week and yet seem to be so spiritually immature. They are often selfish and frequently mean-spirited. As I clean up the mess they inevitably leave in a church, I usually think, “Regular worship has done them no good.” The hard truth is that you can attend worship, Sunday school, small group and be present every time the doors of the building are open and can still be a spiritual infant.

2. Growth is rare without attendance and activity. While attending church does not guarantee spiritual growth, I have yet to find anyone growing without it. People who try often discover that they drift toward apathy more than commitment. There is nothing to remind them of their faith decision or push them to live more deeply. They tend to gather around themselves people who agree with whatever viewpoint they maintain, and genuine growth comes through tension. Pushing back against church rarely results in the development into Christlikeness.

Every Monday I replay the events on the past Sunday. My mind rolls over everything from the sermon, the conversations and the observations I made of other people. I ask myself, “Am I accomplishing my goals in ministry?” Every week I wish there was some easy way to help people mature in their faith. If there were just four or six steps to becoming a complete Christian this project would be so much easier. I could measure where every person was on their walk with Jesus and tell them the next step clearly. Unfortunately, there is just no clear metric for spiritual growth. It doesn’t exist for the pastor or the Christian.

Each week I hope you come to worship and I hope you plan on returning the next week. It is not a guarantee of where you are in your faith, but there are people here who will keep teaching and pushing you toward a more profound faith in Jesus. You have the choice to follow their lead or ignore it. Maybe the most significant part of growth is the choice you make every week.

One Person at a Time

My Facebook feed is full of penetrating questions. Things like, “What is the Church going to do about the immigrant crisis?” Another says, “How should Christians respond to the issues of sexual assault and abuse in our country?” There is quite a lengthy list of issues going on around our country and our world that need to be addressed in a thoughtful Christian way.

While I understand the overwhelming need to confront the evils and issues of our society, I usually meet them with silence. Please hear me; this is not the silence that comes from apathy. This is something different. My seeming lack of response comes from watching those who form platforms, shout angrily into the internet and join political movements usually accomplish very little.

I believe the transformation of our world happens best one person at a time.

The problem I see so often is that people will stand up giving speeches and write pointed posts on social media but do very little actually to help others. Their words speak the truth, but their actions betray them. I want to be a part of a movement that is focused on real change, and I think that happens best one person at a time.

How would the world be different if we each began to reach out in Christ’s love to one individual or family?

What needs are near you that you could bring about positive change? I bet you work with someone who has been a victim of abuse and longs for a sympathetic shoulder? What if you connected with that young mother who is going through an unplanned pregnancy? How about you quietly mentor with that one boy who is struggling without a father? I would wager some people walk through your life who need the forgiveness of Jesus and a connection to his community.

Honestly, I understand the need for actions groups and the power of working together for good. I do hope you support groups who are making a difference beyond your reach. But never let your pleas for a kinder and more loving society be louder than your actions to achieve those things in the lives of those around you.

Why I Share My Stories … And You Should Too

Sometimes I worry that I share too much about myself on my blog. I fear it will shift the spotlight on me or it will glorify my behavior. I pray it does not detract from God’s work or elevate my life about Jesus. I do not want to be self-serving or self-promoting.

With that said, I continue to share stories from my journey of faith, and I think you should too.

1. You Are Most Familiar Story. Every other story we tell is based on guesswork. We have insights into our thoughts and intentions that we do not have with other people. Not only that, we do not have to research or memorize our story. It comes out of each one of us naturally, and therefore it is more engaging.

2. You Have Perspective Others Do Not Possess. When we share our personal story of faith, we have the ability to see large blocks of time at once. We can remember our infantile steps on our journey and the person we have slowly become today. This is important because it allows us to explain the work of God in our lives more fully.

3. People Want to Know About You. This may shock you, but people want to hear about your journey of faith. Other people want to hear about where you have been and how you have changed. They like to hear about your experiences and your transformation through Jesus.

4. God Wants to Use YOUR Life. Hear this clearly; your story is an example of God’s unique work in the world. There is the only one you and you have your own individual story. God does not want to waste your life and encounters. I believe he wants to use all that you have been through in your life for his glory.

I once taught a college level class about evangelism. The first part of the course was to show them the Bible basics of why we need to share our faith. The second thing I taught them to do was share their own story. Some them were disappointed because the wanted some technique or gimmick to reach people. I wanted them to know that the best tool God has given us is our own story of faith.

I use mine, and I hope you will use yours.