My Youngest Son’s Final Basketball Game

I have spent years in the bleachers cheering for my boys while they played basketball. I know most gyms in Alaska and western Missouri by heart. This week my experience as a basketball parent came to an end as my youngest played his last high school game.

At times like these, there are so many things that go through my mind. While I have frequently written about merely enjoying the game, this year I want to add a second thought: Don’t build your kid’s nor your life on sports.

This season has been unique. Our football team did well, and their season went long, so we canceled a couple of games before the season began. Then we had an extended holiday with the way that Christmas and New Year fell. Next, we had two weeks off because of Covid. A coach came down with it, and the team went into quarantine. Finally, the season ended with an eight-day shutdown for the weather. Altogether the team canceled multiple games; they did not make up. It was a stop and started the season that saw the team play more games than they had practices and the results were not what we hoped. A fifty-percent winning season with third fewer games is not what anyone had in mind.

For my son, Gage, and the Harris family, it was disappointing but not spirit-crushing. This is because my son’s identity is not wrapped up in sports. Gage is our son, a brother to three young men, a friend to one, and a Christian in a Church family. He just happens to enjoy playing basketball. His life, along with the rest of our family, has never been about sports only. He has not played any travel ball, special tournaments, or invested numerous hours into practices. He has enjoyed playing, and I am sure he will miss high school sports as all people do. But his spirit is not crushed, and his life is not over.

I tell you this not just because I am proud of my son but as a warning. Life is going to throw you curveballs. A little illness and some bad weather should not make anyone question their self-worth and meaning in life. Life should never be built on sports because it will one day let you down. Help every teen to know that their life has infinite value and worth because they are made in the image of God, and he sent his son to redeem them. A life built on solid values will endure some setbacks and changes without being devastated. I am proud of my son, and I hope other kids will find meaning beyond the court.

Moments When Eternity Matters

There are two moments when eternity matters to every single human being. 

First is when we lose someone whom we love.  When a close relative or friend dies, it leaves us with the major question of, “Where are they now?” At this point, most people assume that heaven is real and their relative is there, no matter what they believed or how they lived.  But deep down inside our soul, the question of “where” persists no matter how strong we might appear.

The second moment is when you are facing death yourself.  When you reach the final years or possibly months or weeks of your life, the questions about eternity seem very applicable.  What will happen after you die?  Should you go forward with fear or faith?

Our thoughts about heaven revolve around death and the pain that comes with it.  At these moments, even the strictest atheist must think about eternal issues.  The first question about the afterlife of others comes when we see their body when we see the coffin close or watch the casket lowered into the ground.  It hurts not knowing where this beloved soul has gone once they left their body.  We imagine magnificent places with family and fun. 

The second one leaves all the questions for those left behind.  Our passing will answer all our questions, and we will know with certainty what happens next as we move into it.  Since we do not know when our final day might come, why not care about eternity now so that no one who loves us is left guessing at our funeral. 

Personalized Gospel

One of the things I attempt to do in my membership class is have people read through the conversion stories in the book of Acts. Thirteen passages tell of someone asking to be saved, coming to saving faith in Jesus or telling their story of coming to Jesus and being saved. Each student is to go home and read each piece of scripture and list what the people were told to do or did as a response.

If a student were to do that, they would discover that the responses are not the same. Quite often, they even seem to offer completely different answers. The goal is not to pit one passage against another but to see them in harmony. There are basically five responses given throughout the New Testament but often not at the same time.

Why is this, you might ask? My answer is simple because the real question people are asking is, “What is MY next step in following Jesus?”

Everyone is in a different place on their journey with God. When you want to know the next step, the answer is custom-fitted to your situation. There is no cookie-cutter journey with God. We each take unique actions, and the biggest question is not, “Do I fit the pattern some theologian or preacher thinks should come next?” No, the most significant issue for you is “What is the next step YOU are to take on YOUR journey with God?”

The point of this exercise is to get people to ask the same question for themselves. If the early Church sought to meet people with a personalized gospel, I think the Church today should do the same. Spiritual growth is not taking a class or having a belief system without errors. It is taking the next step on your journey of faith as God is directing you.

The Devils Tricks

Ravi Zacharias was a friend in my faith.  I first heard him in college, and he strengthened my belief in Jesus.  He helped me build a strong faith with the Bible at its core, reason and logic as a guide, and apologetics as a way of life.  His teaching helped pull me out of some dark moments when my faith wavered.  So when I heard of the possibilities of his moral issues immediately after his death, I dismissed it.  Over the next year, a team of people researched the accusations, and recently the findings were released, and it was devastating.  The report tells of moral compromise, bullying, manipulation, lies, deceit, and sin – all hidden just beyond the camera’s view. 

I listened to a trusted speaker on the issue, and he made a passing statement that I will not soon forget.  He said something like this, “The devil is not creative; he keeps using the same old tricks.” Then he mentioned others who have fallen to the same temptations over the past couple of years.  In fact, all fallen Christian leaders are seduced by one of three things: sex, money, and power. 

Satan wants to see all Christians sin and separate themselves from God, especially its leaders.  One might think he would use incredibly creative tactics to seduce these people into their failure.  His tools may now include phones and computers, but the temptations are not any different.  He comes and appeals to our sense of pleasure, possessions, and power.

My guess is that your life is under attack in one of these areas too.  He places the bait on the pedal of the trap and waits.  Sooner or later, we will compromise and reach for that thing we cannot resist because of our heart’s desires.  Satan placed the bait in front of Ravi, and apparently, he could not resist no matter how well educated he was in God’s word.  He ignored the warnings and went for the same old bait, and soon he was caught in the trap that involved lies, manipulation, and deceit to cover up the first sin. 

Recently I have been reflecting on Ravi’s fall into sin.  I am saddened for his wife and family.  I am angry that another believer embarrassed the name of Jesus.  I am reminded that if someone like that is not immune.  Then stand guard, lest I fall too … and the same goes for you. 

The Churches Where I Serve

I am a preacher in the Independent Christian Churches.  We have a rich history over the last 200 years that includes names like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Raccoon John Smith.  These men started in Kentucky and spread their work across the world.  There are now over 6,000 Churches like the one I serve in the US and over 10,000 worldwide. 

We are not a denomination, and we have no governing body which tells us what to believe, who our preacher will be, or where the money collected will go.  There is no hierarchy to whom I answer other than the local Church leadership.  As a group, we call ourselves a brotherhood as we work together across congregational lines like brothers, not members of a franchise.  Our colleges are one of the things that unite us as they train the preachers and leaders.  I went to Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri, and have kept close ties throughout the years through the conferences I attend and professors who come to preach when I am gone. 

Not many people are familiar with our brotherhood, primarily because we have no large institution behind us like the Southern Baptist or Assembly of God.  Our smaller size does not diminish our effectiveness both locally and globally.    

Today I want you to know a little more about this group, but I also want you to understand why I am a part of it.  The primary reason I remain part of this brotherhood is because of our stance on scripture.  We believe the Bible to be our authority in practice and theology on everything.  It doesn’t matter your background previous to attending a Christian Church.  I can get along with anyone willing to sit down and study what the Bible says and agree on its meaning so that we can move forward together.  There is no theological system that is imposed on the word of God, and then we make everything fit inside of it.  No, the goal is to study what the scriptures say as a whole and move forward in love together. 

I love my Church and the movement in which I am involved.  I remain committed to serving within its ranks, not because it is perfect, but because it has a unifying plan.  If you and I agree to take the Bible seriously, then we can all get along.  To this end, I strive every week. 

From ME to WE

The pronouns you chose are significant.  They express your view as an individual or as a member of a team. 

A basketball player who is continually talking about his stats and his performance underlines what he feels is important.  The same is true for the player who talks about how we did and what we can do to improve. 

This is true for a Church member as well.  When someone talks to me about her gifts and her ministry ideas, she is saying something about her priorities.  When he doesn’t like the music or thinks he is the only one qualified to lead a group.  It becomes clear who is his focus.   

On the other hand, anyone who says, “How can we help more people to know Jesus,” has a different viewpoint.  People who speak of our Church and what we are doing for the Lord have the opposite perspective. 

Paul writes in Philippians 1:18, “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (NIV 2011)  He clarifies that no one is unwelcome in Church or trying to do their best for God.  But I would add that one of the biggest steps of spiritual growth I see is when someone moves from “me” to “we.”  For in that same letter, Paul encourages believers to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3 NIV 2011)

The next time you speak of the Church and your activity there, listen to the pronouns you use.  Perhaps they are revealing an area of faith that you need to grow.  Church is a team sport, and everyone plays a part in the success of God’s kingdom together as one.    

Pastor and Spiritual Director

One of the most significant transitions in Churches is in the responsibility of the guy who leads.  You can call him the preacher, the pastor, brother, evangelist, or whatever you like, but the guy who leads the local Church role has changed because of Covid. 

We were shepherds who loved people in the name of Jesus on behalf of our community of faith. Many of us used to visit the sick, and that is no longer allowed.  We were present for families going through trials, couples needing counseling, and held the hands of individuals making life transitions.  Most of that is not advised at this time in our ministries. 

Over the past year, our job has transitioned from a pastor and shepherd to a spiritual director.  I picture the change like this.  I once knew a retirement community that had an activities director.  His job was to organize events for people to grow, connect and have fun.  The work included leading games, showing videos, getting outside speakers, and promoting all activities so that everyone had an opportunity to use the resources. 

That is what I am seeing most Church leaders doing these days.  They are doing everything within their power to help the people who follow Jesus grow as believers, connect as a community, and enjoy the work of the Lord.  They are using social media and the internet, zoom meetings and skype, blogs and vlogs, linking to outside resources, and promoting tools to help believers. 

For many of us, this is entirely new territory.  This is not how we were trained, and it is not what our experience has prepared us for.  We are trying our best to rediscover Church leadership during a pandemic. 

The most challenging part of this change is that we can only do so much.  We can provide videos but cannot make you watch them.  We can organize groups to help you grow but cannot make you attend online or in person.  We can attempt to lead you into serving others but cannot make you get off the couch.  Someone can have the best director in the world, but they will fail if you do not use what they are providing. 

I am sure the roles will adjust and change in the future, but for now, your leader is doing their best to help you become a fully devoted follower of Jesus.  They are attempting to direct you spiritually the best way they know how.  Whether you grow to be like Christ or not is totally up to you.   

A Full Life or a Long Life?

In the middle of a Biblical chapter that contains some enormous statements by Jesus, there is something worth stopping to ponder.  This chapter has two of the “I am” statements of the seven in John’s gospel.  Here Jesus says. “I am the gate for the sheep,” which refers to how people enter the kingdom of God.  Next, he will state, “I am the good shepherd.” Above all the people who tend to the needs of others, Jesus is the best.

Between those two statements, Jesus says in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (NIV 2011)

Some translations have Jesus saying he gives life abundantly.  The word could also mean overflowing or, as the New International Version translates it, “full.”

But what does he mean by a full, abundant, or overflowing life?

There are only two possible explanations. One is that he wants us to have a long life.  The followers of Jesus will make choices that will lead them to have an abundant number of days.  In part, this makes sense.  If you remove yourself from the destructive actions of sin, you are bound to live longer.  But the problem is both practical and theological.  Jesus was perfect, and he was killed at 33, and that doesn’t seem very long.  Also, what about suffering or martyrdom?  And haven’t we all known someone who was a wonderful person and still died young?  It just doesn’t seem to fit the description.

The only other option is that Jesus was talking about the quality of life.  The people who follow him will find a life that is more than breathing in and out for the maximum amount of time.  His people will be marked by a life that is filled with meaning, purpose, and joy.  Their life will overflow with goodness, mercy, and compassion.  They live life without guilt, remorse, and regret.  His followers will experience the kingdom of God on earth while waiting for their eternal residence.  The master shepherd will lead them throughout all their days.  The people who trust Jesus will experience life at a deeper and more meaningful level.  Their lives will be full of the goodness of God. 

It would be nice to have both, and that is why Jesus gives us eternity.  For this life, the goal is to pursue Jesus and find the life he desires for you.  Too many people are giving their time, resources, and energy to add more days to their lives, which we have no control over anyway.  A full life is only found in following him, and it makes every day, no matter how many you get, worth living. 

Passively Aggressive

One of the most significant struggles with communication for a Christian is the use of passive-aggressive speech. This type of speaking is marked by disagreeable statements, negative attitudes, non-active resistance, and avoidance of direct confrontation. It is the use of words to resist an idea or the person presenting it indirectly.

I hear people say things like, “It was wonderful that people came to your aid in that time of crisis. I really wish someone cared about me enough just to drop me a text.” Another time I heard, “I’m not mad, but I think it could have been handled better if you just used your head.” These are the kind of statements that destroy relationships in the home and the Church.

For many of us, it has slipped into our regular dialog so much that we do not even notice it anymore. Unfortunately, it should not be a part of how we communicate if we wish to form stable, Godly relationships in our lives.

One quest for a believer is not just to change the kind of words we use but also how we use them. Sometimes that means we need to keep our mouths shut. Other times it means we need to ruthlessly eliminate the passive-aggressive statements we have used since we were kids. The phrases seethe with anger, and we feel like if we use them backhandedly, then we will accomplish our goal without confrontation. In reality, we are building walls and alienating people, even in our own homes.

Christians are to use words that help build others up. We are to speak the truth in love. We are to be kind, gracious, and wise with the things we say. When issues need to be addressed, we do it directly.

Here is a simple challenge. This week evaluate your conversations and see how many times you are passive-aggressive in your speech. Know that one time is probably too much.

The Voices in Your Life

When the darkness sets in and you are all alone with just the thoughts in your head, whose voice do you hear? 

Is the voice one of an approving or disapproving parent?  Is it the words of a spouse who loves you or is disappointed in your behavior?  Is it the calming speech of a loving friend or the harsh words of a critic? Whose voice do you hear when you are alone? Do you hear comfort or criticism, encouragement or anger, joy or sadness, or even possibly love?

We all have those voices who speak loudly into our lives.  I think that one of the quests of believers is to make that voice the word of God.  One reason to read your Bible and then return to it repeatedly is to increase the volume of the words above all the others.  When God is the primary voice in your life, then you will hear exactly what you need to hear at just the right time. 

Some days it will sound like a coach pushing you to greatness, and other days like a nurse comforting your pain.  Sometimes phrases will make you uneasy and stretch your thinking, while other passages will remind you of what you already know to be true. 

One goal for all believers is to listen to the right voice and silence the crowds who are not inspiring you to be more like your Savior.