Raising a Well-Mannered Non-Believer

Recently I spent time with a man who is very strict in his parenting. He makes sure his children are well-behaved, polite and respectful in almost every way. I will not lie; his children are kind and pleasant to be around.

There is a hard part to that story, his children are far from God. While they occasionally attend Church, there is no other indication of a commitment to the Lord. No Christian service, no attendance at growth events and I would be shocked if there were any Bible study in the home.

My interaction with this person reminded me of something my college professor said one time. He said, “Imagine a group of young men. Their hair is clean-cut, and they are physically fit. They respond to instructions with ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No mam.’ They work hard when assigned a task. They work together well, no matter how hard the job. What would you think about a group of teenage boys like that?”

The class began to respond with approval. Then he said, “Now what if I tell you they were Neo-Nazi’s?” He told us that everything he said was a fitting description of a group of white supremacists. Then he told us, “Remember it is our belief in Jesus that makes us Christian, not just our behavior.”

The truth is hard to swallow. You can raise a child who looks good on the outside, but who is spiritually empty or a total mess.

Here are two ways I have seen people raising well-behaved non-Christians.

1. Focus on Behavior Over Beliefs. Now, I do not want my children to disobey me, but if they do, I want it to be a time for spiritual growth. I would rather them learn some profound spiritual truth as teenagers than have perfect behavior. I want them to understand sin and disobedience alongside the grace of God. I do not just want them to act well, I want them to know God.

2. Prioritize Social Activities Over Christian Service. I firmly believe that activities like sports and clubs at school are essential. They develop teamwork, social skills, and a solid work ethic. Unfortunately, they do not create a Christian heart. Usually, they lead to pride and arrogance more than Christlike behavior. I would rather my child be the last player on the bench with a Godly heart than a starter devoid of Jesus.

These are just a couple of examples of how we can fail our children as Godly parents and grandparents. I would challenge you to ask yourself, “Do I want my child to be a good person or a Godly person?” Those two things are similar, but they are not the same.

I wish my time with this man were unprecedented and no other parents acted the way he does with his children. The sad reality is that I know of a number of Christian parents who are raising a generation of nice people without God. I hope believers will strive for something more.

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Having a Spam Folder in Life

Everyone who uses email regularly is familiar with the spam folder. It is that wonderful little file on your email provider that catches all your junk notes. Once every couple of days I open it and scroll through the subject lines quickly to make sure nothing good made it into the file by mistake. Mostly it is filled with advertisements, letters from rich people overseas who want my bank account numbers, mysterious links and of course directions in places I can access porn. After a quick look through the titles, I hit the button labeled with “delete all spam.” With one keystroke dozens of emails are deleted that did not warrant my time.

Spam is the title given to emails we receive that were unsolicited. We gave no one permission to send us these letters, but they came to us anyway. Spam is the junk mail of the digital world.

One day it hit me that I need a spam folder in my life. There are hundreds of people pouring information into my life every day. It comes through people at work, social media, magazines, TV, family, and a hundred other places. Some of the material given to me is valuable. I might want to listen carefully and replay it in my mind. Also, some of what people say to me is just junk.

There is information coming into your life that is not helpful. In fact, it might be destructive if you were to listen to it. Some conversations need to be sent to the spam folder where they can be deleted forever.

There are two big questions I ask about the messages coming into my life.

1. Has this person earned the right to speak into my life?

Do they have the right to speak to you about anything? Does the two-time divorced coworker have the right to give you marriage advice? Should you listen to the parent whose kids are both committed Christians offer parenting suggestions? Is there room in your life for the rantings of a middle-aged person who is apparently unhappy telling you how to live? You get the idea. Some voices do not deserve your time. Other comments deserve particular attention.

2. Does this person genuinely care about me as a person?

This is a tough question to ask, but it is necessary. There are people in your life who will give you instructions without even knowing your story. There are people in your life who see you as a project. They want to make you better, but not because they care about you. The long for the power and admiration it creates with others. Then there are those people who have watched your life. They have prayed for you and cared for your needs. They want the best for you even if the information is hard for you to hear.

In a world where everyone has a voice, through places like blogs, do not be afraid to use your spam folder. Not everyone should have a voice in your life, only the people who are making you a better person and follower of Jesus.

Let me give you permission to develop a spam folder in your life and use it liberally.

When the Experts are Wrong

This past weekend was the start of what is called “March Madness.” It is the time of year the NCAA Division 1 basketball has their championship tourney. There are games spread out over a three-week period where 68 teams will be reduced to one winner. My boys and I love to watch all the basketball during March. It is always a wide ride of last-second game-winning shots, all-star performances, and unexpected events.

This past weekend was unprecedented in the history of college basketball. A number one seed lost their first game for the first time ever. Numerous top teams were beaten by underdogs leaving a unique group of teams left for the second weekend of play. In fact, it was so eventful that many of the teams picked to win by the so-called experts on sports TV and radio fell to defeat. One of my favorite basketball personalities saw his pick to win it all fall in the second game.

This weekend proves that those people who spend their lives observing game after game, know very little about what really happens. They cannot predict a team that has prepared for big moments, coaches who have a great game plan or players to rise when the spotlight shines on them. They are unable to foresee when an underdog plays with heart and determination while a big school seems to care less. They cannot imagine a player having the game of his life in a crucial moment that propels his team to the next round. Nothing the experts have seen over the course of the year will adequately prepare them for tournament play.

This leads me to the conclusion that no one has any clear idea about the future. The unexpected will happen, and people will surprise you.

While I may not know you personally, I know this about you. If you are a Christ follower, you have the potential to prove the experts wrong. The Bible tells us story after story about people who trusted God and found themselves shocking the world. Joseph grows from a hated young man to become the second in command of Egypt. Moses goes from leading sheep to leading Israel. David goes from shepherd boy to king. Along the way, he kills Goliath with just a sling and a stone. Gideon defeats an entire army with a handful of men. Peter goes from failure to Church leader. Saul, called Paul, went from approving the murder of Christians to being an Apostle. Whenever people attach themselves to the power of God, they often prove the experts wrong.

Up to this point you may have been labeled with less than flattering titles. You were the unappreciated, undeserving, unrespected and underperforming person. The people who know things would count you out and never take a bet on you to succeed. But your story is still not over. There is still a game to play. You have to potential to surprise everyone as you move forward trusting in God.

The experts were wrong this weekend, and I hope they are wrong about you too.

Five Things This Pastor Wants from His Congregation

I am not the type of person to ask for much, especially from the congregation I lead. I have no desire for expensive gifts, overseas vacations or any other kind of compensation. The leadership makes sure I get paid, and I am happy with what they give me. BUT there are a few things that I want from the people I lead each week that will help make my ministry more pleasant.

1. Your Prayers. Words cannot express how much I appreciate your prayers. Frequently I am caught a spiritual battle for my mind. Sometimes it comes through disappointment and feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes it comes through the flesh and the carnal desires of life. Sometimes it comes through pride and arrogance that stand contrary to the work of God. Pray for me to have spiritual strength through the power of the Holy Spirit.

2. Your Support. I never want to feel like I am the hired gun of the Church to do ministry alone. My hope is to be a part of a community of believers who are all working together for the glory of God. Yes, I get paid to do this job, but I still need the support of the body to extend beyond my own limitations.

3. Your Kindness. Treat me like a real person with real emotions. I am not asking you to do anything special for me. Just treat me like you would any other believer. Smile. Shake my hand. Talk to me about things other than Church. Invite me to do things. Speak kindly to me and about me. Don’t treat me as an evil villain or as a superhero, just as a fellow believer.

4. Your Trust. Honestly, not everything I do will be right. I will make some poor decisions. Sometimes it will be the right decision, and you will just not like it. That is okay; we do not have to agree on everything. What I am asking you for is the benefit of the doubt. I want you to know that my desire is to further God’s kingdom and nothing more. I am not making decisions to make you mad or just as a power trip; I am doing what I think is right. Trust my heart even when you do not understand or agree.

5. Your Love for My Family.
God brought me to this Church to be their preacher and leader; my family just came along for the ride. My wife donates significant amounts of time to the Church. My children have no other option but to come here each week. When people are friendly to them, it means more to me than when you are kind to me. I want my Church to pray for them, talk to them rather than about them, and show them love and support.

This is my list of hopes from my congregation. I hope none of them are selfish. These just make life and ministry more enjoyable. Near the end of the letter to the Hebrew Church, there is this great statement. The people of God are told to work with their leaders “so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)”

Thanks to everyone who makes my work a joy and not a burden.

Giving People the Benefit of the Doubt

Most people know that I am an introvert by nature, but time has also made me a pessimist. Through my years of regularly dealing with people I have learned that the glass is always half empty and what I am being told is half the truth.

I wish this were not true about myself, but there is no denying it. Most people tend to let me down, confuse me, lie to me and distort their words to their own advantage. My time in ministry has frequently shown me the worst in people more than the best. In fact, I challenge people to spend a week or two in the Church office and see if that does not begin to change them too.

Recently I realized how cynical I have become in my dealing with people. This led me to challenge myself to handle people from a more positive standpoint. It is not an easy endeavor for me to undertake, but I have learned a few things already on this journey.

1. My distrust of others can come from my personal struggles.
There is an old saying that goes, “to a thief; all men are thieves.” I must continually remind myself of that when dealing with people. It is easy for me to project my flaws onto another person even when they do nothing to deserve it. I know what goes on inside my private world and it is easy to assume that all people have the same issues. When I get frustrated with other people, the first place I need to look is a mirror.

2. It is difficult to give people the benefit of the doubt.
For some reason, possibly just my sinful nature, I often attribute other people with negative actions and emotions. They said that to hurt me. They did that because they know I hate it. There is this subtle shift in my thinking that makes everyone else the villain trying to destroy me as the hero of my story. The truth is that this is rarely happening. Most people are not even thinking about me. I must force myself to give people the benefit of the doubt and not attribute them to some heinous motives.

3. Every sinner stills need the love of Jesus and his people.
The people who do have negative intentions are the most in need of grace. I often wonder how people treated Jesus. He was called a friend of tax collectors and sinners and being of that type of character probably led them to lie to him and hurt his feelings. I am sure they were not always perfect friends in return. Yet, Jesus remained their friend because he knew it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. The same is still true today.

4. Ultimately, I am responsible for my actions alone.
When I am kind to someone, it might be greeted with anger. When I am generous, it might be met with selfishness. Other people’s response should not dictate my actions. The followers of Jesus turn the other cheek when they are struck. They pray for those who persecute them. They do not become cynical and self-centered because other people are acting that way. The call is to rise above my natural reactions to those who abuse my good nature.

I must admit to you, the journey back to optimism is a rough road. Every day my patience is tested as I clench my teeth and ask God to help me. But I want my life to be shaped by Jesus and his desire for me far above my common everyday response. It is never easy to give people the benefit of the doubt, but it always the best for everyone.

Some Things are Only Understood in Hindsight

Lately, I have been preaching through the seven “I am” statements of Jesus in the book of John. These are the times Jesus spoke of himself and used a word picture to help us understand his work. Each one of these is essential for us to explore as they give us insight into the reason Jesus came to earth in his own words.

Recently I was struck by how much of what Jesus said was entirely incomprehensible to his followers at that time. For example, he told his disciples that he was “The Good Shepherd.” Then he went a step further and stated that as the good shepherd he was going to lay down his life for his sheep.

The modern reader of these words knows exactly what Jesus was talking about when he said this. His followers in the crowd that day may have smiled and seemed happy at his comments, but they had no idea he was speaking of his own death on the cross. Apparently, they would not understand any of his predictions of death until after his resurrection and ascension. It was not until they looked back at the events of their lives and laid them alongside his words that they understood what he meant.

I wonder if there is not a principle there for believers. Many of the events of our lives are not understood until we look back in hindsight.

It reminds me of Joseph in the book of Genesis. He has this tremendous God-inspired dream for his life. The pursuit of that dream leads him to slavery and prison before he receives his blessing. Near the end of the book he tells his brothers that God was working in the situation and what they meant for evil, God used for his good.

Perhaps one characteristic the people of faith need is reflection. There needs to be a time in which we set down and look over our lives to see the hand of God at work. The practice of taking a spiritual inventory of your journey will continually remind you of all God has done. Maybe you don’t need for God to do a fantastic work in your life to increase your faith, maybe you just need to remember all that he has done.

Dear Frustrated and Angry Christian

I understand that when you read the title of this post, you probably thought, that is not me. I want you to know that I can see the truth. You are hurting inside. You are confused about your life, and you do not know how to express it properly. I am sure things did not work out as you planned. Your life was supposed to go this way, and it just didn’t happen. You are not happy, and frequently it shows.

My guess about your situation is that you once had big dreams. You were a sports star, homecoming royalty, popular and everyone thought you were the most likely to succeed. You set the bar high for yourself and rightfully so because everyone saw your potential. People knew that one day you would conquer the world and be rich or famous or both.

Somewhere along the way, things took a wrong turn. One of several things might have happened to you. A sports injury ended your career and left you sidelined from your dreams. Maybe a poor decision led to a series of unfortunate events that left you labeled with ugly terms. Perhaps you threw yourself into your dreams, and you simply failed.

In the wake of devastation, you turned to God. You realized your need for forgiveness. You came to understand and accept grace as you tried to rebuild your life. It was a wonderfully defining moment that saved you from deep despair.

And yet, something is still not right. You harbor bitter feelings of disappointment in yourself. There is a deeply hidden pain when you look in the mirror. You are sure everyone else is judging you and saying to themselves how much of a failure you really are. The frustration you feel about yourself is projected on other people. Without realizing it, you have become this bitter and angry person.

You feel separate from other people. No one seems to want to draw close to you anymore, and you are convinced it is their problem. The anger becomes your entrenched attitude toward everything and occasion blowup is becoming more frequent.

If this is you, can I make a couple of statements for you to think about today?

First, let me assure you that no one feels about you the way that you think of yourself. In fact, most people do not think about you at all. They are fighting their own internal battles. The majority of people see you as a wonderful person with issues, just like themselves.

Second, let me remind you that God forgives you. He not only forgives you, but he is also rewriting your story toward a better ending. God has better dreams for your life than you ever had. Cling to grace every day.

Third, your current anger is doing more damage than you realize. In your frustration, you are hurting people who love you. You have the power to stop the pain for them. Do a daily attitude check and resist the ugly emotions that fill your head.

Finally, I hope you will allow this season of your life to be a time of growth. Don’t run away from people who care about you. Don’t lock all these emotions inside and allow them to fill your future. Let these difficult feelings bring you closer to God, push you toward grace and become a kinder and gentler person.

As your pastor, I know you are struggling. Although you would never articulate it to me or to anyone else for that matter, we all know what is going on inside of you. We are afraid to say something because we feel like you will blow up and it will make matters worse. The people around you care about you, and we want to help, please let us.

You are God’s precious child no matter how you feel about yourself today.