How You Finish Your Story

Standing in a worship program, I started looking at the people in the seats that surrounded me. Through the years I have stood with several different people together in the Church auditorium. I have watched people come and go from the community of faith.

Three stories I see played out regularly.

1. People who start strong in their faith and finish poorly.
All of us know that kid who seemed to be bound for gospel greatness. They appeared to be the next great preacher, worship leader or missionary. They seemed to have a fire for God that none of the other young people had in their faith. Then one day something happened. High school became difficult, their friends left the Church, or a member of the opposite sex led them away from religion. There is a long list of possibilities, but now they are no longer a part of anything that resembles faith. It happens not only to kids but believers of all ages. At one point they would do anything for Jesus, now they have no faith at all.

2. People who start poorly and finish strong.
Next, there is that kid who everyone thought would end up in jail. They grew up resistant to all discussions of faith and Jesus. Their life looked from the outside like a downward spiral into the abyss. Then something happened, and suddenly their life took a dramatic turn. A midlife crisis sent them searching for something meaningful, and they found Jesus. Not only did they attend Church, but they served and became a leader. The second half of their life looked nothing like the first. They finished life on earth with an ironclad faith that ushered them into eternity.

3. People who start strong, become weak but finish strong.
These people also come in various forms, but the one I most often see is this. There is a child who grows up with their parents taking them to Church. Somewhere along the line, they attend a camp or a conference that leads them to place their faith in Jesus. Unsure of their new faith they try to walk a line that is dedicated to God but not enough to seem fanatical. Eventually, their parents allow them to choose their own path and they walk away from the faith they once professed. The years that follow are a sordid mess of good times and bad. They fall in love get married and start a family. Not having a unified center for their new life, it quickly falls apart. Divorce and separation are terms that become real. They struggle with loneliness, and they search for joy. One day someone invites them to Church and a fire is reignited in their soul. They step back into faith with hesitancy but slowly grow into a devoted follower of Jesus.

As a pastor, I see these stories played out again and again in the life of the Church. People come and go. The first story breaks my heart. Unfortunately, I have seen it happen dozens of times. I pray for those people and hope their story will have a different ending.

The second two narratives are why I stay in ministry. Watching people change their lives from darkness to light is a story I can enjoy a hundred times. The good news I want to share with you today is that no matter what chapter of your life book you are currently writing. There is still time to alter the ending. You can compose a new future with God in the center. Forgiveness is possible, and a new conclusion can be secured.

Honestly, I do not care how your life started. How you end your story is what is significant.

Attending Versus Participating in a Church Community

Each week hundreds of people attend the Church I lead. One of my goals for them is to move from a person who attends Church to a connected part of a community of faith. I long to see people become a part of the family of God.

Lately, I have started to notice the difference between attendees versus active participants who are connected to one another.

An attendee walks through the door with an eye of judgment. A connected person arrives with a heart of joy and love.

An attendee will be critical of a mistake on the stage during worship. A connected person will be encouraged that someone used their gifts on behalf of the community.

An attendee will listen to prayer requests for the latest piece of gossip. A connected person will add their hurting brother or sister to their prayer list.

An attendee will be annoyed by people who disrupt their morning with issues. A connected person will see the actions of others as a chance to help them on their journey with God.

An attendee listens to the sermon as a consumer, rating the message like the latest movie. A connected person hears God trying to lead them through their preacher.

An attendee comes to get. A connected person comes to give.

An attendee will find a legitimate reason not to come back next week. A connected person will see reasons to return.

An attendee must tell people they are a part of a Church. A connected person shares their community as an extension of their life.

Somewhere on the journey of faith people cross a threshold. I am not exactly sure where that doorway lies, but at some point, people move from being attendees to connected members. When they crossover I notice a difference in their approach to Church.

Where are you on this journey? What would it take for you to become a vital part of the family of God in your area?

You Will Want This Day Back

One day you will want the hours of this day back to relive over.

You may not want this specific day, but at least you will want one like it.

One day your kids will be grown, and you will wish they were little again.
One day your children will leave home, and you will wish they were still with you.
One day your parents will be gone, and you will long for one more conversation.
One day you will lose someone you love unexpectedly, and you would give anything for a few more hours.
One day that friend will drift away, and you will miss the good times you had together.
One day your eyes will blur, and you will wish you had read and written more.
One day your grandchildren will grow up, and you will miss the fun of youth.
One day your health will fail and will dream of all the things you once did.
One day everything you have today will be gone, and you will feel the sadness of loss.

What do you do when this realization hits you? There is no sense in worrying about it. Jesus tells us that no one can add even a single hour to his life by worrying. It doesn’t help to make big plans. The Bible writer James reminds us that our life is a mist that is here and then gone.

The only thing we can do it enjoy it. We are to spend each day savoring the moments. We are to use our time wisely as the days go by. There is a need to take our time and linger in the precious present of these hours.

You may want this day to fly by so that you can get on to the next thing. I am telling you now, one day you will want this day back. Why not use this time to do something you will be thankful for long into the future?

A God-Shaped Hole in Life

Many times, I watch our youth grow up with great sadness. I have observed young people filling their lives with the opposite sex, alcohol and the endless pursuit of pleasure. Each one of them is searching for something they cannot seem to find.

This is not just true for young adults; it is true for everyone. I believe each one of us is created with a God-shaped hole in our soul that can only be filled by him.

1. Only God can give you the unconditional love you want. The greatest need we have as humans is to love and to be loved. People who grow up in homes with absentee parents are driven to find the love they did not receive in their youth. They search for it in romance and sex. When they still feel unfulfilled, they start a family hoping this child will give them the love they so desperately want. This is why the Bible reminds us over and over how much God loves us. It underlines that he not only loves us, but his love is unconditional. He continues to care for us no matter what we have done. We are his child, created in his image, redeemed by his son and a part of his family eternally.

2. Only God can forgive you and make you new. Many times, people are driven by regret, remorse, and shame. We have done things we are not proud of and want them to be removed from our past. Insecurities and doubt become our default emotions as we try to hide from the public view. God offers us forgiveness in Jesus Christ. In him, the Bible reminds us, we are a new creation. The old has gone the new has come.

3. Only God can give you purpose and direction. If we cannot dull the pain through relationships and artificial stimulants, then we will seek to fill the hole a different way. We throw ourselves at trying to make an impact in the world. If we could do more good in the world than harm, maybe we will be able to sleep better at night. Frequently it helps for a while. Then one day we wake up and find our efforts were wasted or that the world didn’t really seem to care about the good things I was attempting to do. Cynicism is often the final product. God offers us something different. His word pushes us to use our gifts for his kingdom. We can partner with God and see results that will last into eternity. Even when it feels like we have failed God does something unbelievable with our efforts that producing good in his name.

4. Only God can fill your soul with joy. The primary motive most people reveal to me is that they want to feel good. There is a desire to feel good about themselves, their work and their life. Many times, this leads people to the pursuit of pleasure. We think that if we would work less and do things we enjoy more, then life will be complete. Instead, we find ourselves overcome by a sense of emptiness. Joy is not found in the pursuit of pleasure; joy comes from satisfying the soul. God offers us joy, but he does it in ways we would not expect. Joy comes from serving God and others. Joy comes through the discipline and hard work. Joy comes with loving others more than ourselves. God gives us a path to happiness that seems so counter-intuitive.

I am sure this is not an exhaustive list of ways that God fills our soul, but these are some of the most significant. Humanity is on a quest to fill their soul with this single life we live each day. We can spend our time filling it with junk that has repeatedly proven to let people down. We could also choose to insert God into our lives to fill the hole entirely with his presence.

The Grace of Nothing Spectacular

I do not want to reduce the grace of God. I believe the goodness of God is amazing beyond words. In fact, I think it sometimes happens in ways that we might not even notice.

Recently, I was walking up the boat ramp after a day of fishing. A couple of guys pulled up in their truck to get their boat ready. Suddenly a pit bull jumps out of the truck and charges at me. To be honest, as it growled and barked while running at me, I screamed like a little girl. The dog jumped up and put its mouth on my arm, and for some unknown reason, it never bit down. My arm had some slobber and one scratch from a tooth. The owners pulled the dog away, and it circled the truck and came at me again. Once again, I screamed and knew that this time he meant business. The dog jumped at me and then backed away. The owners finally secured the dog, and I walked to my truck breathing heavy and questioning my manhood.

When I arrived at my vehicle, I climbed inside with a combination of unbelief, anger, and fear. Then my emotions let loose, and I said out loud, “Thank you, Lord.” That situation could have gone much worse, but nothing spectacular happened.

Suddenly my mind went back through a photo album of close calls. The time a semi almost hit my vehicle when my kids were little. The time I was in a terrible storm on Lake Erie, and I was sure I was going to drown. Hundreds of moments when my life could have been turned upside down and yet nothing happened.

I have no explanation for these events other than the goodness of God. Some might call it luck or fate or Karma or some different mystical label. I call them grace. God’s unmerited favor in my life. Sometimes I think he even allows these incidents to remind me of how good things are for me.

My life and yours is the product of numerous factors, but don’t forget the grace of God that occurs when nothing happens.

Partnering with God in Your Life

God is trying to do something wonderfully unique in your life.

I believe God wants to make you into the very best version of yourself. He wants to transform you into the likeness of his son Jesus. He wants you to think and act like him in every situation.

Imagine taking your life: all your family background, your personal experiences, your personality, your quirks and idiosyncrasies, your heart and mind, and using them for God.

I believe that is what God wants to do with your life.

What is holding him back? YOU.

I am convinced God does not want a bunch of preprogrammed robots to serve him. Instead, he gives us free will. The choice not to follow him is what makes the opposite decision to love him so compelling. Each one of us can choose to partner with what God wants to do in our life, or we can choose to develop our own plan. We can love and serve him, or we can walk away to serve ourselves.

The God of the universe wants to partner with you in the transformation of your life. That revolution will then change your family, your church, your community, and the world.

Today God is quietly nudging you to walk a different path. This might come through a passage of scripture, through a book, by the words of a friend, or possibly just the voice of your conscience before you act. He might be reaching out to you in an unexpected email or text. He might even come through a sparked memory of something from years ago. The knock on your heart could come from the words of a blog. There are literally hundreds of ways that God might be trying to move you a new direction. Will you follow him and see where this journey leads or will you ignore his prompting?

Today you can partner with God and watch where your life goes. The choice is yours.

You Should Be a Part of It

I slumped back into my chair exhausted on Sunday night. Then I repeated it on Monday and Tuesday. Just for fun, I did it again on Wednesday and Thursday. Every day this week has ended with that completely worn out feeling that accompanies a Church Vacation Bible School (VBS) program.

This week almost 65 volunteers helped to share the message of Jesus with about 140 kids each night. Many of the people worked all day and then came to the Church to donate another three or four hours. Other volunteers are retired, and they took their time to come in early to start preparing for the children hours before they arrived. Everyone gave of themselves for the sole purpose of making this a great week for our young people in the name of Jesus.

It is awe inspiring watching those little lives singing and shouting their praises to Jesus. There is a joy in watching these kids grow in their knowledge of Jesus over the course of the week. It is encouraging to see the other workers donate their time with kindness and love for children, many of whom they do not know. The sight of people serving and learning in the name of their Savior is a blessing that will last beyond these few evenings.

This week has been exhausting, but it is a good type of exhaustion. It is the kind that comes with doing something meaningful. It satisfies the soul with a sense of purpose. It touches the heart with unspeakable joy. It fills the mind with good thoughts. It is hard to completely describe the thoughts and feelings that come after a week like this. It happens at VBS, but also at Church camp, mission trips and retreats for teens. These types of events are special. They leave a residue on your soul that can never wash off.

I hope you didn’t miss it. If you did, know that you should be a part of the next one.

The giving of yourself on behalf of others is exhausting, and it is the best feeling in the world.

You Never Know with God

There is no way of predicting when God will show up.

Recently I listened to a man tell me about an encounter that led his father to faith in Jesus. It was a chance meeting that changed the trajectory of his dad’s life. Then there was the lady who had a stranger walk up and question her bruises. That chance conversation changed her life forever. Each one appeared to be an ordinary moment when God showed up and transformed it into a divine appointment.

I have seen this in my own ministry. The sermons that I felt were total failures were later described as having the most impact. Conversations in which I thought I failed to speak the truth plainly and accurately end up touching someone deeply in unexpected ways. The hour I was sure nothing significant happened proved to be the time lives were altered through the power of God.

You just never know when God will show up and change everything you think will happen.

Never underestimate the power of saying something for Jesus.

Never downplay the impact of one random act of kindness.

Never forget that one minute of service in the name of Jesus can send a ripple through eternity.

Every chance meeting can be a moment where God breaks into the world and does something extraordinary. Today might be the day God shows up in your life.

My Blogging Journey

Over the past year, several people have asked me about my blogging. They want to know how I got started, what have I learned and why do I keep doing it. Today I want to tell you a little about my blogging journey.

Eighteen years ago, I was starting a new Church, and I was looking for ways to reach people using the internet. One article I read shared information on this new area of possibility called weblogs (now just called “blogs”). Several preachers in large Churches were trying it out, and there seemed to be unlimited possibilities for a guy like me to write useful material. At first, I tried my hand at writing a daily devotional. I would post it on a website and create my own blog without anyone’s help. This was fun, but the work was tedious.

Soon after came places like WordPress that offered professional looking sites with easy to use features. I signed up under my name and started the regular habit of writing. The first attempts were longer more humorous pieces somewhat modeled after Robert Fulghum’s writing. Those contained some decent material but had little practical use. They were also difficult to create five days a week while trying to plant a Church.

Phase three of my blog was really directed at the Church I was serving. It was more of a journal of the events happening in our little community of faith with my commentary added. During those days I would often post six or seven days a week. The popularity of blogs was growing, and most days I had 400 hits or more.

When I left my Church plant, I was exhausted. I took some sabbatical time and spent several months in reflection. I quit blogging and took a break that was only going to last a few months and ended up being two full years. During this time, I gave up my old blog and lost over eighty percent of what I had written. It was a mistake I regret, but I was able to start with a clean slate.

At one point, I was a preacher in Alaska and was learning so much about life there that I wanted to share with people. I was also feeling a tremendous burden for those who were far away from God. I relaunched my new blog with a double emphasis on second chances with God especially for people in Alaska.

One more move in ministry changed my writing again. Going from Alaska to Missouri removed part of my mission, but it opened new opportunities to speak to fun topics. The past few years I try to write four to five days a week. I try to focus on anything that will help people in their walk of faith. Right now, I have about 50 readers every day on email and another 25 who visit my blog page. Several of those people have told me they visit once a week and read everything instead of stopping by daily. I am blessed to have numerous people who read these words I write.

This whole experience has taught me several lessons about life, ministry, and writing. The biggest thrill I get from blogging is the chance I get to help people, quite often from all over the world. I have discovered that something I wrote years ago is still helping people today. Through the years, many things have changed about the way I write, but I find it to be a joy most days to post something.

My encouragement to everyone is for them to find their voice. Who are YOU and what do YOU have to share with the world? Your words may come in teaching, music, poetry, leading children, writing, or numerous other ways. What has God put inside of you that might touch the life of another believer? The internet is full of people typing their thoughts and ideas, but you have the words that only you can provide.

These are my words, and I thank you for stopping and reading.

Living with Real Friendships

Yesterday I met with an old friend. We have known each other since college, and while we have not seen each other in years, we have managed to stay in touch by phone, email and social media. It was great to talk with him and catch up on some of the significant events in each other’s lives.

My conversation yesterday has me thinking about true friendships that are deeply embedded in the soul. I fear that many people today are walking through life with a shallow substitute for real relationships.

1. Real Friendships Start with General Knowledge. The first step in solid friendships starts with getting to know the other person. This sounds like an easy step, but if you are like me, you like to talk about yourself too much. To develop the connections we desire, we must ask people about themselves. What do they like? What is their background? What are they feeling?

2. Real Friendships Go Past General Information. This second step is the most difficult, and I am afraid that is where many people stall. It is great that I know your name, your spouse, and your kids. It is a good start that I know where you live and where you work. But my knowledge of you is not that same as a friendship. In an age of social media, we can gather all kinds of facts about people, without ever really getting to know them.

3. Real Friendships Know Both Joy and Hurt. I define a true friend with two descriptors. First, they know what makes me laugh. They are in tune with what will bring me joy. They see a movie or comedian and think of me. There is an understanding of what I enjoy in life. Second, they know what makes me cry. They know what makes my soul hurt. They know when words are spoken that will hurt me. There is a clear of idea of topics that make me sad. Real friends have insight into my soul.

4. Real Friendships Endure. This one hit me just yesterday. A real friend is someone you can meet up with years later, and it is almost like no time has passed. There is a connection that exists that is truly beyond explanation. Maybe it comes from common interests and experiences or possibly it is just built on the past. Real friendships are forged over the anvil of time.

The question I find myself asking, “How many real friends do I have in my life?” Have I accepted surface levels of interaction as cheap substitutes for the real thing?

And what about you? We live in a world where there are more ways to stay connected with people, and yet loneliness grows. It is easy to blame society and even shout at other people about how they should include you in their lives. I am finding the best solution to loneliness is taking the initiative to invite other people into my life. We all need friends, but it will take a little work to get them.