A Lesson in Gratitude

Recently I was listening to a sermon by Andy Stanley on gratitude. It was based on a story found in the gospel account of Jesus, written by Luke. The account is found in Luke 17:11-19 and is about ten lepers who are healed by Jesus. It is a familiar passage for anyone who has ever been to a Thanksgiving program in a Church.

Ten lepers see Jesus, and they cry out for pity. He tells them to show themselves to the priest as the Law of Moses required. On the way, they look down and see that they have been healed. One of the ten runs back to Jesus and thanks to him. Jesus seems indignant that nine of them did not come back to thank him, only one did, and he was a foreigner.

Andy, in his sermon, asks an interesting question. He inquires, “Do you think all ten were thankful for this life change?” The obvious answer is yes. If you were an outcast to society, your family, and in many ways, your religion, of course, you would be grateful for being healed. Then he makes a keen observation, “There is a difference between being thankful and expressing thanksgiving.” Then he said something profound that I would like to share with you this day and this week. “A lack of expressing gratitude is received as ingratitude. When you fail to express gratitude to others, they see it as ingratitude.”

The applications are almost unlimited. Your parents do not know you are thankful for them unless you tell them. Your spouse may feel like you are ungrateful for them because you have never expressed it. Your heavenly Father may not know you are thankful for his work in Jesus, simply because you have never fallen before him and said, “Thanks.”

May this week not just be filled with thoughts of thankfulness. May we express them so that everyone will know how we feel.

I Hope It’s My Fault

Many times, we spend our energy trying to avoid blame. We think of all the reasons the issues are someone else’s fault, what others could do better, and how we are not responsible for our failures. This concept applies to almost every area of our lives from our grades in school, our career, our marriage relationship, the ways our children behave, and even our spiritual growth. Surely, if everyone else were more in tune with me and my needs, then life would be better for everyone. The problems with my life are their fault.

This type of thinking is extremely counterproductive. You cannot change someone else. Yes, you can teach and instruct them on the things they can do better, but that is no guarantee of change. You have zero control over the actions of other people, even those you love the most.

The only thing that you can control is your actions. You can think differently. You can behave more productively. You can change yourself.

Because of this truth, when anyone from your spouse to your boss comes to you with a problem, our best reaction is to think, “I hope it’s my fault.” Because if it is your issue, then you can improve. You have power. You have control.

As a believer, I submit myself to the will of God. I believe he is sovereign and had the power to do anything. But I also believe he created us with free will, and as a result, we are required to do the right thing. Our actions create an impact for God, on other people, and shape our world.

We like to think of the week of Thanksgiving as a time when people are happy. We spend time with our families, we eat, and we relax. The truth is that there will be difficulties. Families will clash, ideas will be opposed, and actions will be less than Godly. This week, instead of placing blame on other people, ask a different question. Ask yourself, “What can I do differently?” If we take our responsibility seriously, then we have found a key that unlocks many doors.

I Still Need to Talk to Dad

Last week I did something stupid – not sinful, just stupid. A dumb mistake that is going to cost money and is embarrassing. Surprisingly it hit me really hard. My mind spun out of control, and darkness overtook me. I lost control of my emotions and went to the scary places of my mind I never want to visit.

It honestly surprised me that I went so dark so fast. My wife tried to console me, but nothing seemed to work. The next morning, after a night of replaying my stupid behavior, I found myself still in a funk. Then I started scrolling through Facebook quickly before I started the day. There I found another preacher had made a post about his father that he had lost a few years ago, at that moment the dam burst. The tears flowed, and pain swept through me that I haven’t felt in a couple of years. Suddenly I knew what was wrong with me. I needed to talk to dad.

My dad was far from perfect, but he stood beside me through a lot of boneheaded mistakes. He was there when I wrecked his truck, when I considered dropping out of college, when I wasted money and when I did all those things that young men do. He would listen to my story of stupid behavior. He would ask a few questions, get mad, and offer some advice that I would probably not take. Then he would try to make everything alright. He would offer to pay for stuff, tell me a story about his failure, and how he had no one to bail him out, so he was glad to help me. I would deny the money, tell him I was an adult and that I appreciate his support. Before I left, he would slip a $100 bill in my pocket and say something about giving me more when I needed it. Somehow through this dance of frustration, advice, and money, I would know that everything would alright. He was in my corner, and the story was over. Life moved on, and rarely did I ever hear him mention my mistakes. Dad somehow made things better.

This is my biggest mistake since he has been gone, and somehow without him, I am having a hard time finding a resolution. My wife has been great, and my kids are supportive, but I really want to talk to dad.

I tell you all this for one simple reason. Thanksgiving is this week, and some of you still have your father. I ask you to hug him, tell him you love him and listen to his unfunny stories once more with a sense of wonder. One day he will be gone, and you will grab the phone to call when you have made a fool of yourself, and there will be no one to call.

For you, maybe it is not dad, possibly it is mom. It could be grandpa or grandma or some older family member who stands behind you. It might not even be a relative; perhaps it is just an older friend. Whoever it is, I pray that you would thank God for them this week. Also, let them know how much they mean to you before it is too late.

As parents, we often think about how fast our kids grow up, but as kids, we also need to remember how quickly our parents can be gone. Treasure every moment you have with them, even when it comes on the heels of one of the dumbest mistakes of your life; perhaps, especially then.

Five Prayers for Sunday Worship

Here are a few of the things I am praying about for our Sunday worship.

  1. Pray for People to Come. There are a thousand things people could do this weekend. I pray that people will consider being a part of worship with us or somewhere this Sunday morning. I usually am also specific in my prayers. I ask that God would encourage those to come who need this message. For example, a sermon on parenting might not be needed by everyone, but someone may desperately need it.
  2. Pray for a Welcoming Church. I ask God to be present in people’s lives from the moment they arrive on our campus. I hope they find our guest parking. I want people in the parking lot to be friendly. I pray for the greeters at the door to make a great impression. I specifically ask that people get connected in a meaningful way as part of their worship experience.
  3. Pray for the Worship. People have planned and prepared for morning worship, but we still need God’s intervention in every aspect. I want the people on the stage to be smiling and leading us with a positive attitude and a faithful heart. I pray the music connects to the overall message of the day. I plead with God on behalf of all the speaking participants. We can do everything right, but we need the Spirit of God to be present during our worship.
  4. Pray for the Sermon. I have prepared all week for this one half-hour of speaking. I ask that God would fill my mind, heart, and soul with his Spirit. I pray I would speak clearly and accurately. Lately, I have been earnestly praying that he would limit the distractions from the people listening.
  5. Pray for the Children. While I am speaking, twenty to forty kids will be gathered in back at our Church. I ask that God would bless the leaders of those children with a wise and discerning voice. I hope they are full of love and grace, even with difficult kids. I ask God to work in every part of our children’s ministry, from the nursery worker to the fifth-grade leader. May this time on Sunday shape those children for a lifetime and prepare them for eternity.

These are the prayers I offer up each week. I pray each one of them off and on throughout the week. Then, I pray them on Saturday night and at least twice on Sunday morning (once alone and once with a group). Maybe you would consider joining me in prayer. Anything good that happens at Church worship is because of the work of the Lord. In everything, the Lord be praised … and thank you for your prayers.

The Jesus I Need

Most people like Jesus.

We picture him as this wise, deep-thinking leader who is full of knowledge and understanding. He always wears white and talks in smooth tones that make him appeal to everyone. He is full of grace and love and smiles at everyone he meets. He is kind, and flowers appear whenever he is near.

Well, maybe we don’t believe all of that, at least not all the time. We do, however, have this picture of Jesus as a nice guy who people love to be around.

That is the view of Jesus most people hold because they have not read any of the stories of his life. They may have heard a few scattered stories here and there about not judging, letting a woman caught in sin go free, and him telling us to love one another. And all of those are little glimpses of things that Jesus did while he was on the earth, but they are limited.

Those stories are not the whole picture of Jesus. Two times, he was angry at the money changers in the temple who were profiting off religion, and he turned over their tables. One account says he picked up a whip and drove the people out of the area. It is hard to picture Jesus with a whip and not a shepherd’s staff. Another time he called the religious leaders “white-washed tombs.” That is not a compliment. It is a picture of people who look good but their dead inside. Still another time, he calls a lady a dog. Not because she was ugly, but because she was a Gentile and not a part of the people of God. I could go on and on. There are times he is angry with his disciples when he curses a fig tree, parables told to make people feel bad, and the time he healed one man and left all the other cripples behind.

Most of these tales don’t fit our picture of Jesus very well. That is because we have created a version of Jesus that fits our preconceived ideas. We have actually recreated him in our image. We go to Jesus with a set of beliefs and pick out the stories that fit them. One warning sign is when Jesus no longer surprises us. He teaches only what we believe, and he likes the exact things we like and doesn’t approve of the attitudes and actions of which we do not agree.

The gospels present an authentic version of Jesus. As I get older and more mature in my faith, I find that the real Jesus is the one that I need. He confronts sin. He tells me I need to change my heart, my thinking, and my actions to align with him. He broadens my faith and challenges my previous convictions. The Jesus I need is one that pushes and pulls me. He stretches my faith in him, along with my understanding of the nature of God. The Jesus I need is not my watered down, twenty-first-century version of him. I need a Jesus who leads me rather than follows my desires. The best version of Jesus is the untamed one I find in the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

One challenge in faith is to let Jesus be Jesus and not to mold him in my image. This week as you think about Jesus, I encourage you to read the stories you don’t like and look for ways Jesus might be stretching you. It might be uncomfortable, but it might be precisely what you need to grow in your faith.

The Separation of Body and Mind

The early Church faced a problem that would not come into full bloom until the second and third centuries. By the end of the writings of the New Testament, people were developing a system of belief called Gnosticism. While there are numerous variations of the idea, there are two primary concepts that compose this body of teaching.

The first concept is that knowledge is king. What is really important is what you know. The goal of faith is to increase your knowledge and change your thinking. Sin is not seen as a problem with the things you do; instead, it is a lack of knowledge.

The other idea is that the physical is unimportant. This can range from the things you do with your physical body are insignificant to your faith to your body being evil and needing to be mastered.

Jesus becomes a figure who comes from God to lead his people to enlightenment as a form of salvation. He did not come to change our world physically but to merely create a spiritual kingdom that exists only in the hearts of people who know about him.

(I admit I am not an expert on the teachings of Gnosticism. There are numerous articles on the internet that can help you get a better understanding of this belief system and the struggles with the early Church.)

I am growing more and more convinced that a form of Gnosticism is on the rise again. Do any of the points I stated sound vaguely familiar to you? Do they reflect anything you have heard or read lately?

One work of evil is to create a separation between the body and the mind of the believer. It works like this: It doesn’t matter if you go to Church to worship, serve, and fellowship. All that matters are that you claim to have a relationship with Jesus in your heart. It doesn’t matter what you do on Saturday when you are with your friends at that party. All that matters are that you have a personal relationship with Jesus as your Savior. It doesn’t matter what you look at on the internet if you know Jesus. It doesn’t matter that there is nothing in your life that looks like Jesus if once upon a time you made a confession, said a prayer, and were baptized. It doesn’t matter that the people I love have no evidence of following Jesus in their life. All that matters are that they know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Do you hear the deception? We slowly separate action from knowledge. Gnosticism is born.

It is a cheap and easy form of grace that lacks responsibility for our actions. That is why the early Church pushed back against its concepts. What you truly believe will be expressed in your actions. People should be able to watch your life and see your relationship with Jesus. Your body and soul are to be in harmony with the teaching of Jesus.

To know Jesus is not enough; we are required to live for him with our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

When You Stand Before God at Judgment

When I was in college, there was a class called Personal Evangelism. It was the basics about how to share your faith with unbelievers. I was taught biblical insights along with the practical application. One lesson was on a thing called “Evangelism Explosion.” This is a program where you go door to door and ask people questions about their faith.

While the door to door method probably doesn’t work in most communities, one of the questions remains with me. You were to ask the person, “If you were to die tonight and stand before God and he asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ how would you answer?

This is an excellent question because it reveals what we really believe. It exposes our hearts and ideas about faith and heaven. I fear that today, most people, even in the Church, would say something like, “I am a good person who has done numerous good things for other people.” We could list how we helped with school projects, or went on that mission trip, or were kind to those elderly people next door. We could detail our work with the underprivileged, helping the homeless, and even providing a few meals for those in need. We could explain to God how we never hurt anyone and pointed out those who were doing wrong in our world. Our list of the good things we have done would be long and quite uplifting. In a world of darkness, we tried to be a light.

While this all sounds good, it has two critical flaws. One, it misses all the good things we did not do in our lives. The times we walked by the homeless or got angry at that kid or did nothing in the face of injustice. Two, it misses all the times we did something bad. All the times we lied and cheated to get ahead. All those moments where we were not so good. Our view of ourselves as good people who did good things and so God should allow us into his good heaven is flawed. We are not good enough and not good all the time.

The only answer we can give at the time of judgment is to plea for a Savior. We need someone who can make up for our shortcomings and pay our debt. We need someone to be a mediator between God and us. In short, we need what Jesus offers. The only answer that God will listen to when he decides about your eternal destination is, “I appeal to the work of Jesus, my Savior.”

Our salvation in Jesus is the message of good news that the writers of the New Testament share with us. We are saved by him, FOR good works. Salvation is not based on our good works; rather, they are the result of making him our Savior.

I fear that most believers do not understand this foundational truth of the message of the Church. Instead, the Church is viewed as a civic organization that exists for the good of its community. Reading my social media feed from most Churches, you might believe this to be the only reason this group exists. While I hope the followers of Jesus are a blessing to their community, their primary message is about the salvation offered in Jesus.

When you stand before God and must give an account of your life, your goodness will not be enough to save you. Salvation comes only through Jesus. This is the message of the Church from its inception, and it must remain the message today.

Tech Problems and Our Life Struggles

The Webinar is a seminar held on the internet. In the world of the pastor, there are hundreds of them being offered every year on a wide variety of topics. About once a month, I join one of these instructional videos to help me in one area of ministry without ever leaving my office.

Early this year, I decided to view one specifically designed to help pastors with technology in their small Church. It was to mainly focus on websites, social media, podcasts, and a few other random things. I registered. I received an email. I was ready to watch when the time came.

The day and hour arrived, and I clicked on the link provided. My computer opened a viewing page, and nothing was there. I closed the window and went back to the email and tried again. Once more, it led to nothing. I tried four or five times for a few minutes and finally landed on a page that stated, “We are experiencing technical difficulties.” I sat and waited for what seemed like an hour, and I was going to give up when an image popped up. Now, there were people speaking, and I could hear nothing. I tried my speakers, and it didn’t seem to be me. Then suddenly, voices came through my computer, and the words did not match the lips of the people. All this time, there was a message on the bottom of the screen declaring, “We apologize. We are experiencing technical difficulties.”

During this time, the only thing that seemed to be working was a live feed on the right side of the screen. People could type in a question or comment on the material. I watched with delight and horror as the words scrolled down the screen. Twenty minutes into a technology seminar and none of their technology was working made people angry over wasting their time, concerned for the people involved, and a point of humor for those of us less spiritual people.

I think of this event every time I mention the name of Jesus. I want people to know him as their Savior and Lord. I want them to understand the new life I have found and how I am different because of him. I want people to know Jesus. Yet, I continually betray my own cause. Like a webinar on technology that can’t get its technology right is a person who proclaims Jesus but can’t get their life right.

I held on through the twenty minutes of the chaos of the webinar until they got the bugs worked out. I admire them for their willingness to keep working to make it right. Once they had everything fixed, they apologized and tried to make a joke of it before awkwardly moving into their material. The next thirty minutes was good stuff. I took notes, learned new things, and generated good ideas for my ministry. To get the good stuff, I had to look beyond the failures and focus on the possibilities.

My prayer for a Monday is that God will do the same thing with me. That someone will hang on even when I betray my own cause. I want them to listen even when my mouth has betrayed me and said some unchristian things. I want people to hold on through all the junk in my life and try to see the good. Today I ask God to use my life even when I have not seemed to master the material myself. My prayer is that people will look beyond my failures and focus on the possibilities. I ask this for myself and you. Mondays can be full of regrets leftover from the weekend. Just keep plugging away and allow God to work in spite of your flaws.

The Winter of Our Discontent

Some people hate winter. I can understand the sentiment. The weather here in Missouri has been cold, windy, and snowy over the past few weeks. It has been an excellent time to stay inside where it is safe and warm, but we all know that this is just the beginning.

The writers of scripture don’t spend much time discussing the weather. Paul speaks of where he was going to stay through the cold months, and he wanted his friend Timothy to come and visit him before winter (2 Tim 4:21). The Psalmist writes that God created both summer and winter (Psalm 74:17).

I find this a curious notion as many of my conversations at Sunday morning worship have revolved around the topic of the weather for years. These range from the rain we wish would stop, to the rain we wish we would receive. Snow and winter also are hot topics and never escape the dialog of people both before and after they arrive.

Nowhere was the issue of winter more relevant than the five years I spent in Alaska. You prepare for the coming of winter all summer long. We would watch the mountains across that bay received snow that was called a “termination dust” as a sign that winter had almost arrived, and summer was terminated. As the winter wore on, we would complain about the shortness of sunlight and sadness of being trapped inside. The weather shaped not only our conversations but our very lives.

There is a line in Shakespeare’s play Richard III where the character speaks of our winter of discontent. I have been feeling that lately. The weather has made for a great dissatisfaction with life for me and others. Interestingly enough, his line is not one of despair, but of hope. Richard is celebrating his family’s victory and the coming time of peace. The line is about our winter being turned into summer. The frustration of one season will give birth to something new and better. It is so optimistic that is it reminds me of a line from the Apostle Paul.

In Philippians chapter four, Paul tells the Church that they need to learn to be content whatever the circumstances. He qualifies that with statements like whether we are in need or have plenty. Maybe he could have said, in winter and in summer. Then next he says, I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. Finally, he gives us the key ingredient, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil. 4:13).”

As winter settles onto our land, do not let it sink into your heart. God will get you through, and he will turn your winter of discontent into a summer of blessing. So when the wind cuts like a knife, the snow hits your face, and the kids are sick another day; Trust that God will give you the strength to make it through another day, and summer is right around the corner.

It’s Okay to Be Unavailable

The phone started vibrating. I glanced at it and looked away. For a moment, there was a guilty feeling. I thought, “Maybe I should answer. They know I have a cell phone with me all the time. What will they say if I don’t answer? I bet they will be mad.” Then I went back to my conversation. Within moments the call was done, and I glance to see that there was no voicemail. Nothing.

While I was holding the phone for a second, the phone started vibrating again – the same person. A second call, I thought, “It must be an emergency. I should probably get it this time.” I then wondered why they did not leave a voicemail. If it were important, surely they would have left a voicemail and kept trying. I placed the phone back on the table, and the vibration ended.

After about 15 minutes passed, the phone started vibrating a third time. This time my frustration level growing. I looked again, and it was the exact same person. This time I thought about answering and yelling or voicing my frustration. Instead, I placed it back on the table and ignored the call.

At this point in my story, you are probably having one of two thoughts. One is about my relationship with the caller. You might think that I don’t like that person or do not want to talk to them. Maybe I am angry, or I owe them money. None of those are the case. It was a friend with whom I have a good relationship.

The other thought is about me as a person. You might be thinking, “What a jerk. Answer your phone. Why have a phone if you are not answering when someone calls? What if it was an emergency? What if someone’s world is falling apart, and they need you?”

Now back to my story, I didn’t answer my phone because I was out with my family at dinner for my son’s birthday. Sure, I could have taken the call, but I wanted to be fully engaged with my family. I probably would not even have my phone with me in that situation, but there is the possibility of an emergency, and I would have answered if one of about ten numbers had called. Otherwise, my night was given to my family. Completely.

Here is a little piece of truth I want you to hold onto today; It is okay to be unavailable. In fact, I would encourage you to accept this as a preferred way to live. Just because you have a phone does not mean everyone gets an equal share of your time. Your spouse, your children, your parents, your family, and even your God need your attention. Everything else is a periphery.

Today I want to set you free. Let go of those feelings of guilt for not answering the phone. It is okay not just to put your phone on vibrate but to even shut it off occasionally. You need a break. Other people need you. You need to be free to enjoy the moments that God gives you.

I know for some of you this is not difficult. You don’t get the phone thing anyway. For others, this is terrifying. Know this, those who love you the most will find it a blessing in every way.