The Appearance of Fun

This weekend is the big game. I don’t need to tell anyone in the Kansas City area as the town is abuzz with Chief’s mania. Sunday evening, the game will kick-off, and a new world champion football team will be crowned. The event will be celebrated in many ways in the area with all kinds of gatherings and parties. There will be food and alcoholic beverages in abundance.

This is not a post about the evils of alcohol, although I have thought about writing a perspective on the topic. No, this post is about the impression people give when they drink. Having spent time counseling couples, working with struggling adults, and trying to guide teens into wise decisions, I have learned a thing or two about what you will see this weekend. The outward picture will be of people have a good time. There will be an appearance of fun that looms large at every party.

The problem is what lies beneath the surface. Most of the people I speak with are drinking for darker and often more sinister reasons. We, as believers, need to be aware of the ugly struggles many people have when they begin to drink.

  1. Some are Carrying Lifelong Pain. There is a long list of struggles that people carry with them throughout life. An absentee father (or parent), an abusive relative – both physically and emotionally, and sexual abuse, to name a few. Some people are trying to erase the emotions from years of struggle.
  2. Some are Struggling with Current Issues. Some of the problems are from the past, and many are still present today. I am amazed at the difficulties people have in their private lives, that they have not told a single person. That woman who is so much fun at parties is dying inside because of the way her husband treats her at home. The list is also long and troubling.
  3. Some are Trying to Escape Their Past Mistakes. These people have issues with failures that were not the result of someone else, but the work of their own hands. I once had a guy who would drink at every opportunity; his current wife called me and told me to come to their home and see it for myself. As I talked with his drunken personality that night, he only talked about one thing. He failed his first marriage, and he was not the dad he wanted to be for his girls because of it. He was carrying an enormous amount of pain from his past mistakes and tried to numb his feelings any way he was able.
  4. Some are Attempting to Numb Their Emotions. Some people will drink because they are lonely. Others are sad at how life turned out. One woman I know has a marriage that is falling apart, and she attempts to find joy in any way possible. She always looks happy, but it is just a show trying to veil the pain she is feeling.

Please hear me clearly; I hope you have fun this weekend. Also, we need to understand that many of the people around us are looking for something more. They are trying to hide behind the appearance of fun. We need to keep our eyes and ears open for places the gospel can help far more than a drink.

Didn’t Know What I Was Missing

When I started dating my wife, she asked me to go out to eat at a Chinese Buffet. I told her repeatedly that I do not like Chinese food. Every experience of anything remotely oriental was disgusting, and rice was a waste of plate space. Finally, after her begging and pleading, I went. As you can imagine, I loved it. It was so good. I ate till I felt sick and then asked if we could go back the next week. I had no idea what I had been missing.

I thought of this story recently after a conversation with an elderly lady in the Church. She had spent her whole life living outside of faith. She never went to Church, never understood Jesus, and definitely had no interest in Christians. Over time her children became believers, but she was still not interested in any of that religious stuff. Finally, a couple of years ago, she came to a worship program one Sunday morning to quiet her son. She never imagined what happened next.

She explained that the people were so friendly. “They shook my hand and made me feel comfortable,” she stated. No one pointed out her flaws and failure, even though many could have done so. She thought it was because she came on a special Sunday. She returned to find the people happy to see her again. Over time the focus went from the people to the message, and she heard the good news of grace and forgiveness. The story of Jesus and his work on the cross made sense to her. It was an opportunity to let go of the past and start fresh. Soon she decided to follow Jesus and was baptized.

Now almost three years have passed since the first visit. As she told the story, she said, “I had no idea what I was missing.”

I wonder how many people could tell a similar story. They had an idea about Church, Jesus, and Christians, and then they actually attended and experienced something incredible. Then my mind turned a different direction. I wonder how many people we know would change their mind if they joined us one Sunday. People will never know until they try, and they may never try until we ask. One invitation could change someone’s perspective and maybe their life.

Some of the Best Decisions of My Life

Today marks the 17,532nd day of my life. One date calculator says I have spent an estimated total of 5,840 of those days asleep. It seems like wasted time, but I know all of us need rest. Setting that aside, I wonder what I have done with those remaining days. What are the decisions that have moved me to this point in my life?

There are obviously three answers that you might expect me to say were the most significant. The accepting of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, marrying my wife and the decisions to have four children, would all be the top answers. What else has made an impact on my life over these days? Here are a few answers that I hope inspire and encourage you.

  1. Daily Routines. Twelve years ago, I made a commitment to spend time in prayer and Bible reading no less than five days a week. I also decided to tell my wife every day that I love her. On top of that, I write blogs five days a week. These few daily routines have done more to mold my life, thinking and emotions than anything else.
  2. I Left Busyness Behind. In the same time frame as above, I realized that a hectic pace of life, crowded schedule and long hours of work were killing my family and me. So, I decided to block out days off, keep evenings free, say no to some activities, and have a less busy schedule. This has allowed me time to think, connect with the people I love and be far less stressed. My days are full, but my life is not busy.
  3. Taking Care of Dad. For 18 months, I drove almost nine hours one way to help my dad. I made 16 trips during that time; I would not trade a minute for all the gold in the world.
  4. Letting Go of Sports. My children love sports. They played basketball, football, and a little baseball. We used to dream of scholarships and careers in one of these areas. After seeing the truth about sports five years ago, my wife and I decided to take a different approach. Sports are for fun and nothing more. No more travel ball, long hours at the gym or wasted time and money trying to make our life about a game.
  5. Keeping the Faith. Three times in my life, I have thought about giving up on God. I could have packed up my Bible, books and walked away for good. It would have been easy to do, and no one would have blamed me. In fact, it might have been what people expected. But I didn’t quit. I fought through the hurt, shame, and anger to come out a better person. I am far happier about my faith today than any other point in my life. I have people who care and support me while maintaining love in my home.

These are some of the best decisions I have made during my days on earth. I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about these this week. I wrote a list, and some items did not make the cut. Is there anything you would add to my list? What about your list? As you look back over your life, it is easy to see the big mistakes, but what about the positive choices. I thank God that I made these, and I pray that your life is guided by some good decisions as well.

The Power of Unsaid Words

The opportunity was obvious. I could say something that would be the truth, but it would also be hurtful. The words would sting but help me with the argument.

But I held my tongue.

When he spoke, it made me angry. I knew I could not openly attack in this setting, so I thought about making a passive-aggressive statement. It would bring laughter and make him feel the sting of my wit.

But I held my tongue.

My wife was clearly in the wrong. I could yell and let her know that this failure was not acceptable behavior to me.

But I held my tongue.

The Bible has a lot to say about the use of the tongue, especially the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs 18:21, it says, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (NIV 2011)” The tongue has the power of life … and death. Obviously, he is not speaking of literal death. He is underlining the possibility that the words we use can kill people emotionally. It can break their spirit, ruin a relationship and leave other people feeling dead inside.

Sometimes the most significant thing you can do to improve your life is to hold your tongue. I have done it a few times, and they were some of the best decisions I have ever made. Maybe the most productive thing you can do today is to listen more and speak less.

The Changing Hands of Love

When you are young, love comes with passion. You can’t wait to see each other, touch, kiss, and be close. Those feelings supercharge your emotions and make you feel alive. Young people write love, songs, poetry, and make art. The love of youth is full of energy that pushes people to do crazy and fun things together.

The other day I saw the other side of love. I watched an older couple getting into their car. He struggled to walk. She took his hand and helped him into the passenger seat. I am sure he once drove that automobile everywhere, as she was rarely allowed to drive. Now she was in control. She helped him into his seat, loaded his walker in the trunk. She came back to his door and made sure he was buckled up and secured. With all her might, she closed the door, walked around and maneuvered into the driver’s seat. The car started and off they went.

They never saw me watching them, even though I was staring to the point that might be considered embarrassing. I marveled at his trust in her. Her compassion for him. The teamwork that made their life together magnificent. By appearances, I would say they had been married at least 50 years. The fire of passion was dim, but their love has never burned brighter.

After watching their act of love, I spent time thinking about my wife and how much love changes. The passion of youth gives way to the teamwork of parenting. The fun of adventure transitions into the joy of time alone together. The hands that once touched with delight now help to support one another in times of difficulty. The feelings remain the same, but the expression becomes new with each season of life.

Real love is about joyfully changing yourself to meet your spouse’s needs. The hands that one day are buying lingerie will then wash baby clothes, and next will help your son pack for college and finally will hold your hand in the doctor’s office.

My challenge this week is this one project. If you are married, go home and grab your spouse’s hands and kiss them. Thank God for the things those hands have done. Ask God to guide you into the things those hands will do for you. Take a moment and recognize that the hands of love have many forms and each one is a gift from God.

Reasons to Try A New Seat This Sunday

I am a creature of habit. I eat the same things, wear the same things, and when it comes to Sunday morning, I like to sit in the same place. Likely, you do too.

Last week, as part of a joke, a family in our church came up to sit with me on the front row. They are the first people ever to do that, and it was nice to have people beside me. This got me thinking about why it is a good practice to sit in different places around the worship auditorium on Sunday.

  1. It will make the Church more guest friendly. When you sit in different seats, then no one area becomes your territory. If you walk into worship and someone is setting where you might typically sit, it is not a big deal.
  2. Moving helps you to meet more people. Since all of us naturally gravitate to the same general areas, a move across the room might enable you to meet some new people.
  3. It gives you a different perspective. When you sit somewhere new, your eyes will be opened to new things. I know this is very true in our Church building. The sound is different in various places around the auditorium. The view is unique from each location. Different seats help you to visualize what other people see each week.
  4. It will make change a regular part of your worship. Once you start sitting in the same chair every week, then you are going to want the same order of worship, the same songs and the same people on the stage. Moving seats starts you on a path of continual change. Frequent small changes will help you handle the significant changes when they come, and they are coming.

This Sunday, when you walk into worship, how about trying a different seat than usual. You never know, it might change your perspective and even make you a new friend.

Why I don’t spend much time away from Church

I struggle to take vacations. When I do take them, more than half of the time, I end up coming back to my Church to worship. Last year I spent one Sunday away from my Church family.

One of the most recent trends is for a preacher to only speak about forty times a year at the Church where they are on staff. The goal is to keep the preacher fresh and spiritually healthy while developing a team of speakers. My only problem with this approach has been a single question, “Do you still attend your Church when you are not preaching?” That question usually ends up with this pastor telling me they are always doing something productive for the kingdom on Sunday morning. The short answer is no.

This bothers me to my very core. How can we expect people to value the community if we don’t? If we only attend the Church we lead three times a month; there is a problem, in my opinion. We should never expect our people to be in attendance more than we are.

Let me explain my thinking. You see, this is not just the Church I get paid to lead; this is my faith community. This is where my Christian friends attend. These people love me, encourage me, support me, and stand beside me as the family of God. We cry together and we laugh together. For this reason, I enjoy preaching here every week, and I attend, even if I am not speaking. Yes, my wife will attest that there are seasons I need to take some time off to clear my head, but it not because I have no desire to be in worship together.

Recently, I took a vacation, and on the second Sunday I was off, I came back to be a part of worship here. As I shook people’s hands, everyone said the say type of thing, “We didn’t expect to see you today.” I was a little more than surprised at people’s responses.

I am here today to tell people that as a preacher, I love my Church family. Just like I enjoy being with my own family as much as possible, I delight in being with the people in my faith community. I am not saying this because I think I am more spiritual than other pastors or better than anyone who calls on the name of the Lord. I simply want my Church to know you are my family in the faith, and I want to be with you.

I hope and pray you will want to be with me also. If so, I will see you Sunday.

People Leaving the Church

Every year 15-20% of people attending a local church will leave. I once heard Lyle Schaller say, “You people are all going to move, quit or die. We can’t count on any of you to be here in the future.” While he said it with a smile, there was also a harsh reality behind his words. Eventually, all of us will no longer be a part of the Church we love now.

The most challenging group for the pastor to handle leaving is this the second group. I am okay with people who move, and those who die are sometimes hard to accept, but we have no control. The group that quits are the ones who break my heart. Every pastor I know agonizes over the pain of someone leaving the congregation they lead. And yet, every year, no matter the size of the Church and the quality of the ministry, people will leave.

Here is my list of how people leave the Church community:

  1. The Painful Split. Some people will be offended by something, or they will not like the changes that were made. The disagreement is over methodology and not theology. Most often, these people will leave the Church with a loud voice, frequently inviting others to join them. It is an ugly scenario, but it repeatedly happens in Churches, especially small ones.
  2. Drifting Away. When someone’s life hits a busy season, for whatever reason, they stop coming as their schedule fills with other things. Their three times a month attendance becomes once a month, and then once every other month, and then once a year. They never really intended to leave. It just happened.
  3. Placing Blame. This group leaves the Church and lets everyone know that it was because a person or family did something that offended them. They did nothing wrong, and this other person is the problem. It is a matter of intrapersonal relationships gone awry.
  4. Distraction. These people come to me and tell me about some theological problems they feel causing them to leave. Almost without exception, there is something else going on in their head. If they can blame their departure on a Biblical stance, then they are justified in their behavior. I once had a guy leave the Church and blamed it on the topic of baptism, what he didn’t tell people about is a private meeting where a ministry associate and myself questioned his motives as a leader the week before this happened.
  5. The Direct Approach. I can count on one hand the number of times this has happened. But I have encountered a few people who have come into my office and sat down so they could discuss an issue. When we could not find a resolution, they left the Church, by mutual agreement. One time this happened because our Church was not able to have the children’s programs this family felt they needed. There was nothing I could do, and the family moved on to another group.

Through the years, I have come to terms with people leaving the Church. My biggest frustration is that people leave and quit attending anywhere. They claim to go for because of some high moral standard and then spend the rest of their lives away from Church, and most unfortunately, often away from the Lord. I wish they would find some place to go where they can grow spiritually. I understand that people don’t like me or feel they can grow spiritually somewhere else. I will never get those who don’t just quit the local Church but the Church entirely.

My suggestion is that if you are thinking about leaving, go and talk to your pastor about it. He will be more understanding than you think. I can speak for all of us when I say we really do want to see you grow spiritually somewhere, and while it may hurt to see you leave, we still want you to grow in the Lord.

Transformation and Grace

Sin is not just a blemish on our past, and it is also a detriment to our future.

As a result, God calls us not just to grace but also repentance.

In Biblical terms, we need both justification and sanctification. 

These are foundation truths of the Christian faith.  I fear that the second part of this equation is being lost to the tide of culture. 

We love the message of God’s amazing grace.  It is fantastic news to hear that God knows our sins, mistakes, and failures and offers us a clean slate.  He does not hold our past against us; instead, he forgives us through the power of the cross.  Everyone who hears that message says a hearty “Amen.”

The other side of the equation is equally important. The call of faith is not merely a message of grace but also of transformation.  We are to leave our sins behind in exchange for a new tomorrow. The sin that stains our past is also entangled around our soul and must be severed to live the life God desires for us.  We die to our old self so that we may walk in a new life. 

This message has increasingly been coming under attack.  Culture tells us we were born this way, and there is nothing we can do to change.  It is in our DNA.  God made us like this, and there is nothing flawed with anything he makes.  Yes, we need grace, but it ends with me letting go of my past. 

In the past year, I have been accused of lacking grace, unloving, and being pharisaic.  Why such harsh accusations?  Because I told people they needed to leave their sin and live differently.  It has been deemed unloving to tell people they need to change the behavior that is against God’s will.  These actions are destroying their life. 

Today, I want you to know I do not believe it is ungraceful to tell someone to change.  It is great to pick someone up out the filth of their life and clean them up, but it is also necessary to instruct them not to return to living in the dump. Jesus said we are to take up our cross daily and follow him.  We are to die to our old self and live a life where Jesus is the sole leader. 

Grace without transformation is not only unbiblical, and it is also detrimental to the future God desires for you.  A message of anything less is a false teaching that does more harm than good.      

Precious Memories, How They Linger

I first heard those words from the Woodsman quartet at my home church one Sunday evening. An all-male gospel quartet was big in those days, most churches had one, and ours was better than average. Bud sang bass notes that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Together they sang, and those words rang out through the Church auditorium at a special concert I was attending with my parents. Later, Alan Jackson would record the song, and it became a radio hit, but nothing can top the music from my youth by four men in matching red jackets.

At the time, I had little idea what they meant. I did not understand the pain of losing someone and how sweet it was to recall a moment you spent together. Precious memories are precisely what the title suggests. They are recollections of past moments that we hold dear because of the person to whom they were connected.

The problem with anything I find precious is that it may not be regarded as that to others. I first learned this with possessions. There were things I treasured, like an old fishing lure given to me by my father, that other people treated as common when I showed them. Similarly, my most treasured memories may seem like frequent everyday events to others, but they hold a special place in my mind.

Nothing I have said so far is surprising or challenging, but I always like to flip ideas over and seem them from a different angle. The things I see as ordinary, others may find as precious. The conversation I had as I was rushing to get home, might have meant little to me but was a blessing to the person with whom I spoke. That visit, meal, card, email, or even text may have been shared while busy, but it may be a touching moment to someone else. I think we need to be continually reminded that we have no idea the impact we are making for good.

I heard a preacher one time talk about the three most common things that Jesus did for people. He offered them a look, a word, and a touch. To people who were ignored, he looked at them with value. To confused people, he spoke a word of clarity. And to people who felt alone, he compassionately touched them. All of those are everyday acts that we might take for granted, but to someone else, they may be a precious memory of someone who cared.

So go into the week and offer the world kindness in the name of Jesus, you never know the difference it will make in someone’s life. They may treasure your time and it lingers with them for the rest of their life.