The Joy of Repentance

Recently I have been preaching about John the Immerser, although you might call him John the Baptist. He is the one who comes to prepare the way for Jesus. The Gospel writers all give us a few basic facts about this wild-haired preacher out in the region of the Jordan. First, they all say his sermon was a one line as a refrain, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Second, they tell us that he performed a “baptism of repentance.” It is clear that repenting and repentance were the foundation of his ministry.

The primary image of repentance is to turn around or do a 180-degree rotation. I am told it was used in the military as a call for a change of direction. I am also told it was used of runaway slaves when they changed their heart and no longer wanted to run. It is a change of attitude seen in our actions.

John came preaching, and the gospels tell us that people went out in large numbers to hear him. They came from miles away walking in the hot sun to listen to a sermon and then stand in line to be baptized. All of this as a chance at repentance. Repentance was a powerful message that the people wanted to hear.

You are not bound by your family of origin. Your lack of parents, the words of your parents and the attitudes of your family do not direct your actions. The future is yours to create.

You are not defined by your youth. The naïve mistakes you made when you were younger do not define you. Those failures of your former self are not chains that bind you from a better tomorrow.

You are not defined by your sin. That sin that you cannot shake is not a permanent condition. You can break free from your addiction. There is hope to overcome your struggles by walking a new path into the future.

If you have been around Church very long, you have heard the words repent and repentance so much that they might not get you excited anymore. For the people of John’s day, the message was life changing. It meant the chance to let go of the past and form a new future. The word for us today is still the same, and maybe we need to be reminded that there is hope for a better tomorrow, only if we live a life of repentance. Today is your day. Take life in the direction of your dreams with Jesus as your guide. In other words, repent.

Five Things I Never Regret

One of the struggles of faith for me is letting go of my past failures. Regret and remorse seem to be my default emotions. Frequently my mind wanders into the vault of past mistakes and lingers there as it flips through the files of my shortcomings. Unfortunately, there are numerous stories to remember. There is that time I said this, and that time I did that which fill my brain.

It is incredible to me that with all my regrets some actions never leave any residue of negative emotion. Personally, I never regret …

1. Saying a Kind Word. Those moments when I thought I should compliment or encourage someone is never a wrong decision. I think one positive practice in our life would be to speak one word of kindness to every person we encounter each day. If you don’t have the opportunity to say it, then text it, email it, Instagram it or snapchat it. Find a way to build people up with your words.

2. Showing Appreciation. This is letting people know how much their words and actions mean to you. I know how much it means to me when someone stops to say “Thank You” for anything. This helps people to understand that their work is noticed and their actions are making a difference.

3. Doing a Kind Action. When I find myself in a place to help someone, I never feel sorry for doing it, no matter how inconvenient. Helping someone has a built-in reward of good feelings. Sure, at the moment it might be a hassle, but once the task is complete, there is a sense in which you know you have done something meaningful.

4. Being Present. As an introvert, I struggle with this one. There are times in life when the best thing to do is show up. That visit to someone who is sick or in the hospital is always a blessing. Stopping to see those elderly folks is generally a joy in disguise. Attending a ball game of a young person is a special gift, even if they do not say it. There is nothing like being there for someone.

5. Praying.
Whenever a special need comes across my desk, I try to take a moment to pray. If I am busy, I try to put it on my list of daily prayers. Now, I never entirely know what those prayers do for the person. I am not sure how God will work in their life, but I know it makes me feel more connected to God and that person just by saying a few lines of supplication.

Wouldn’t it be great if every day were full of positive events like these more than those negative regrets? The only way that will happen is if we purposely remind ourselves of the need for unregrettable behavior every day. To say to ourselves inside our souls, “Today I am going to do and say things I will not regret.” Whenever I am tempted to good, I will respond in a way that will bring me joy in the future instead of sadness.

Changing the World Like Jesus

One essential Christian belief is that Jesus is God in the flesh. He is the embodiment of all things holy in a person who lived 2,000 years ago. He is the object of our worship and the savior of our souls.

With that said, you would think that when Jesus came to earth, he would demand the highest quality of life. Giving him the best of everything would be the only fitting way to treat our leader and God. Spare no expense for anything. Fine clothes, gold jewelry, the nicest form of transportation and all the luxuries this life will allow should be at his disposal.

Yet, Jesus is born in a stable. He lives 30 years in obscurity. Then he spends the next three years living as an itinerate preacher on handouts and sleeping in borrowed beds. His life is lived without any of the luxuries that we so desperately seek. To explain this less than glamorous life to his followers, he said in Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. He came to change the world. He would ultimately defeat sin and death for all of humanity. The way he would do it was through service. A man who could have demanded anything instead chose to serve to the point of giving his life.

I need to remind myself of this daily.

I want the world to change for good. I want a happy home with a great marriage, wonderful children and the admiration of the neighborhood. I want people to make moral choices and forgive the failures of others. I want to see a world in which people care for the poor, hurting and lonely. I want a world that looks like the kingdom of God.

Most of the time I try to achieve this in ways that seem very unlike Jesus. I want to change the world through shouting. If I get angry and use a loud voice, I somehow think that will change people. I want to change the world through condemnation and judgment. If people knew that I did not approve of their actions, then they will change. I want to change the world through criticism and sarcasm. If I put people down and make sure they see their mistakes clearly, then they will change. If I post my disapproval all over social media in a funny and insightful way, then I am sure the world will begin to change for the better. Jesus understood that world revolution comes not with power or policy, but in a kind hand and an encouraging word.

Every day I need a reminder that the world is only changed through service.

Great families are built through service. Great marriages are about two people serving one another. Great Churches are those where people selflessly serve other people. Great communities are filled with people who serve behind the scenes for the betterment of others. A great world comes when we serve one another in the name of Jesus.

This week is the perfect opportunity for me to change the world, at least my little part of it.

Four Things My Dad Did Right

Sunday is Father’s Day. It will be my second one without my dad. I hate it. I miss him. I still cry at least weekly as I want to tell him something about my life and my boys.

I am also thankful. Thankful that he was my dad and I was close to him. I am grateful for all that he did in my life. I hope to learn from his example in my life and pass on the lessons he taught me.

Here are four of the things I think he did correctly as a father.

1. He was present in my life. When I was young and involved in sports, he was my coach and my fan. When I quit athletics in high school, a move I am sure broke his heart; he became my hunting and fishing buddy. When I told him I was going to watch my friends in high school play basketball he would tag along and sit on those hard bleachers that I am sure hurt his back. He was always present in my life. Even when I lived 4,000 miles away, because he hated to fly, he drove the whole way twice to visit my family.

2. He led our family in faith. Dad was a youth leader, an usher, then a deacon and finally an elder in our local Church. He served and taught Sunday School right up till his first stroke. He alone prayed before meals with the family. I have an image of my dad sitting at the kitchen table reading his bible and looking at a lesson book or commentary getting ready for Sunday. Dad loved Jesus, and I knew it without a doubt.

3. He endured my stupidity.
The story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 tells us a story about a father. His son wishes he was dead and wants his inheritance. The father gives it to him, and he immediately leaves home. Soon he returns with nothing but a speech about being a servant. The father smiles and embraces his son, even after all his stupid actions. I know that story because I have my own prodigal stories. There was a time I thought dad was an idiot and I was willing to tell him. I am sure he shed a number of tears over my mistakes, mean comments and childish ways. He never gave up on me, even when I am sure that it would have been easier. I will never know why the walls I tried to build were torn down continuously, but I am thankful for his patient endurance.

4. He loved us. Pop was raised by a man who literally never told him “I love you.” Not once. When he asked my grandfather why he never said it, grandpa said, “You always knew I did.” He still would not say it. As a result, he lived the exact opposite. He always told me how much he loved me. He hugged me. He kissed me, even as an adult man. He did everything he could to show me how much he loved me. Words, actions, gifts, and companionship were offered as evidence of his love for my family and me.

These are some of the ways my dad shaped my life. I am sure your dad has done some of these, or better yet, I hope you will do them for your children. I hate Father’s Day, and secretly I hope that my boys will one day hate it just as much when I am gone.

Your Preacher is Not Perfect

The rain was coming down, and I had several boxes to unload. I pulled up next to the back door of the Church and began to take the items up the old concrete steps into the copy room. Soon the steps were wet, and on my third or fourth journey down those stairs, I slipped. My feet went up in the air, and my back hit the concrete with a thud. As my body quickly adjusted for the impact and I had actually positioned myself to roll down the steps. One hit moved my body to the side, and I turned over as I tried to stop from moving farther down the steps. My readjustment caused me to slide on my back down another six steps or so. Finally, I hit the landing with missing skin, certain bruises on my back and pain all through my body. Without thinking, I yelled a four letter word that no preacher should ever say.

Suddenly a thought went through my brain. Was anyone else in the Church? Did anyone hear me yell that? Sure enough, someone else was in the building, but if she heard me, she never said a word. Maybe it was because I hobbled around the Church like I was looking for an emergency room. She asked if I was okay and then we laughed about my clumsiness. Well, she laughed, I half heartedly moaned.

I went back toward my vehicle through the auditorium. I stopped and asked God for three things. One, I hope nothing is broken. I can’t afford an injury. Two, please forgive me. God, I need your grace. Three, Lord, please do not let me own sinfulness ruin my ministry.

Those three prayers have been repeated in my life over and over.

First, I still cannot afford to be injured or sick in any way.

Second, “God forgive me” is my daily prayer. I need his grace every day.

Three, I fear that my sinfulness will ruin my ministry. I am sinful and stupid beyond measure. I have thought things inappropriate and sometimes let them slip. My theology has had flaws that I now see clearly. I have misled people, not on purpose, but in the naivety of youth. My tongue has betrayed me, and my heart is a real problem. The days I seem to get it right, I am filled with pride, yet another trespass against God. Sin is always knocking and in moments of weakness I have open the door. Like with all sin, I live with regret and remorse over the actions I see in myself every stinking day.

I tell you always to remind you that your preacher is working out his faith just like you are doing. He is flawed and sinful. He needs God’s grace. He also needs yours.

The truth is that everyone needs grace. God’s and yours. If preachers are supposed to be close to God, and they are so messed up (and believe me, we are), then this is true of everyone. Each one of us has moments of weakness that could destroy us and our witness for Jesus. Grace and forgiveness flow from the throne of God into the lives of his followers and finally out of our hearts to the people around us. I need other people’s mercy in my life, and so do you.

Five Things You Are Not Doing, That Are Hurting Your Marriage

When I meet with a couple for marriage counseling, there are usually two things I can be sure I will say. One is that there are things you are doing that you need to stop. Two, there are things you are doing that need to change. There are wrong actions, and there are misguided actions.

Lately, I am adding something new to my list of instructions. People need to know there are things they are NOT doing that are hurting their relationship. Stuff like …

1. Not Spending Quality Time Together. There are two parts to this concept. The first is that you need time together. One person running one way and the other going a different direction is a set up for a split. The other side of that concept is that it needs to be quality time. You need to listen, talk, kiss, touch and share your lives in deeply intimate ways.

2. Not Communicating. When I sit down with someone and ask them about their problems with their spouse, they can usually give me two or three items of disagreement. Quite often the other person will say, “I never knew.” Open communication is vital to every relationship but is most significant in a marriage.

3. Not Speaking Their Love Language. Gary Chapman introduced a new idea when he wrote about Love Languages years ago. The basic concept is that each of us feels and receives love in one of five primary ways: receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. I am convinced that if you ignore your spouse’s language and focus on your own, eventually the spouse will search for love elsewhere. You need to be aware of how your spouse feels love.

4. Not Doing Anything to Connect. This is a little different from quality time. Quality time is spent alone away from the crowds on a date night or vacation. A connection is about doing something together like a hobby or activity. This can range from watching movies to sports to hiking to whatever. Find something to do together that you both enjoy. Become a team by working together doing something you find fun.

5. Not Putting Your Phone Down. I have heard hundreds of people say this and heard numerous jokes about being on your phone too much. Still, I see very little change in many people’s lives. Once upon a time, you could do something, and you were out of touch. Now we feel this need to be open to interruptions at all times. They do not need to talk to you now. That text can wait. Put the phone away, put it on vibrate, or better yet just shut it off. Focus your attention on this one person when you are together.

There are other things I might add to this list. You are probably not be listening to the other person, and you are might not be together spiritually. There are several possible things you might not be doing that are hurting your marriage. These are five of the biggest ones I see that are slowly hurting marriages. I suggest you spend time this week doing things that improve your relationships and move beyond your inaction.

The Strength of Small Churches

Currently, I am a part of a book discussion group online with some ministers who are serving in small Churches. All of us lead Churches under 250 in attendance that are a part of our brotherhood of Churches, and each leader attended my alma mater Ozark Christian College. Together we are reading the book Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters. We are all reading the book on our own, and every other week we have a video conference to discuss what we are learning.

Yesterday our group had a conversation about chapters 4-5 of the book. Basically, smaller Churches find their greatest strength in relationships while larger Churches find their strength in vision and programs. The two sizes of Church are both serving the Lord, but they are unique in the connection people feel. The discussion yesterday focused my thinking on three different issues.

1. Do people in small Churches realize the power of relationship? It was stated by these preachers in almost those exact words. Do you, as a member of a Church under 250, realize the potential of connecting to other believers in the Church. A small Church is a great place to meet new people and share your life with other members of your community. This is a place where people want to share life with you.

2. Do people know the benefits of these relationships in Church? On Sunday I was asked a question from a lady in our congregation after the program. She invited a friend to Church, and he responded by saying something like “I can worship God anywhere, why should I go to Church.” She asked me, “What should I say to that?” I told her that Jesus says the Old Testament hangs on two commands. One is to love God, but the other is to love our neighbor. A Church community is a place where we can fulfill both the first and the second command. The Church is the place where we can care for sick and hurting people. We can also receive care when we need it. The Church is the place where can express love and be loved by people of like faith. All of us want to feel important to someone; the Church community exposes us to people who are trying to show us our value and worth in Jesus.

3. Do people realize that the primary relationship they need is with other believers and not the preacher? To say the strength of a small Church is in relationships leads some people to believe that everyone needs a relationship with the leader. That is just not true, in fact, it can be detrimental to your spiritual growth. Let me be honest, I love the Church I am serving, but one of three things are going to happen. I am either going to have God call me somewhere else, I will be called home to heaven, and if not, one day I hope to retire. I am going to move, die or quit as a leader of the Church one day if the Lord continues to delay his return. What then? Through the years I have watched small Churches ride the roller coaster of growth and decline based on the leader. Quite often this is because they are the primary relationship for most people in the Church. This is a dangerous position for you and the preacher. The relationships we need are with people within the Church that we can walk through all of life together.

Having been the pastor of a small Church for almost 25 years, I totally agree it is a great place to build strong relationships for a lifetime. I hope you know that, understand that and are trying to connect with people in the name of Jesus. If not, we will get together again this Sunday morning, and it would be a great time to start to get to know someone new.