Monday, March 31, 2008

Prayer of the Week

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel. Ephesians 6.19

Some people believe that Paul, the author of this passage, was the greatest preacher ever. The great missionary and evangelist asked his supporters to pray for him so that his preaching could be more effective.

Billy Graham, the most popular and important evangelist of our life times, has said that the three most important components of his success are prayer, prayer and prayer. Now think about how you and I approach our faith-sharing. Our prayer time is anemic, if it exists at all. We want to be powerful and successful, but praying for the Holy Spirit to empower and anoint our words and our work seems very time-consuming and hard. And yet, prayer is what we most need. When we commit our lives, and our words, to Christ, he will make a great difference for us.

PRAYER: Make us evangelists for you, O Lord. Give us confidence to share our faith. Give us wisdom to share in positive, hopeful ways. Give us grace that your message might be attractive and effective to those around us. And give us your anointing, that our words would be replaced by your words. Amen.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What I Believe About Sin

Well, here it is. We knew we could not avoid sin forever, so now it is time to face the music. Sin is an important part (albeit a negative part) of Christianity.
  • Every human is born with Original Sin. Original Sin is the desire that each of us has to sin. We inherit this problem from Adam and Eve who blessed us with this gift. Our natural tendency is to be selfish, to take care of ourselves. And although self-preservation is not necessarily bad, the kernel of every sin ever committed is selfishness. We lie because we are ashamed of the truth, or we do not want to get caught. I cheat because I want more stuff. The Bible teaches that every person is a victim of Original Sin (Romans 3.10, 23). It is one thing that we all have in common.
  • Because our nature is to sin, we do sin. Without a strong commitment to avoid sin, some accountability from someone helping me out, and help from God I will continue to sin, often without remorse.
  • Sins of commission are the things that we are not supposed to do, but do anyway. In the Ten Commandments there are several “Thou shalt nots.” When we know that we are not to do something (kill, steal, covet…), and yet we do it, we are guilty of a sin of commission.
  • Sins of omission are those things that we should be doing, but do not. A simple way to think about this would be that when God wants me to do something and I fail to do it that is a sin of omission. Some examples include prayer, good deeds, church attendance, Bible reading.
  • All of our sins can be forgiven. The good news of the Bible, and all of the Christian faith, is that no matter what you or I have done, we can be forgiven by God. In fact, I believe that he wants to forgive us. The Bible teaches that God will forgive us no matter what (1 John 1.9).

Of course this is not all that can be said about sin. For example, I do not believe that God holds degrees of sin. One sin is not worse than another, at least in God’s eyes. The only unforgivable sin is dying before you have asked God to forgive your sins.

Some people have complained that I am too easy on sin. The message that I teach, preach and write about is all about love, grace and acceptance, the complaint goes. People do not realize the depth of their sin or the universality of their depravity. Let me conclude by saying that I emphasize the grace of God, because I believe that God emphasizes grace. The New Testament, especially the gospels, is all about reconciliation, forgiveness, new beginnings and grace. That is good news for all of us. I am excited about that.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"All your dreams will come true..."

I am an idealist. I believe that things ought to be handled the right way. I think that good things can happen. I try to see the best in people. I believe in second chances (and third and fourth chances). I look for the silver lining- always. I am a dreamer. I am always trying to make things better, smoother, faster, easier. Its just who I am and how I am made.

I try to encourage others to be more positive in outlook. I try to point out the good qualities in those around me. I want everyone to be more positive. Sometimes I appear to be a Pollyanna, but I would rather be that than complain about everything.

I do not believe that everything always works out in a positive way. I know that bad things happen and I cannot always explain it. When that happens bad things move quickly to tragedy. But I have learned that there are some things I can do to make things better, more positive. They will not make all my dreams come true, as Napoleon Dynamite is famous for saying, but they will make more of my dreams come true.
  • Believe in your dreams. If you don't believe it, no one will.
  • Write your dreams. When you write it down it becomes more permanent. You will be reminded of it regularly. You cannot escape your dreams when they are staying back at you. When you write you create an historical record.
  • Pray your dreams. Giving your hopes and dreams to God is never a bad idea. In fact, he will help to refine and perfect your dreams. What better advocate can you have for your dreams than God himself.
  • Tell someone else your dream. When you speak your dream you move into a relationship of compatibility. You create an atmosphere that is very risky, vulnerable. Others might make fun or dismiss your dream. If your dream is worthwhile you will hold on to it.

Dreams come from God. So, dream on.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Prayer of the Week

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints. Ephesians 6.18

Last week I shared some thoughts from this verse on praying in the Spirit. This week, I would like to use the same verse to discuss praying "for all the saints." It seems that this would be a fairly simple task. But it is not. After all, we usually do not even get along with all the saints in our own church. And this admonition is to pray for saints everywhere. All of our anger, bitterness, bigotry and jealousy will come to the fore when we start trying to pray for others.

But here are a couple of helpful thoughts to remember when praying for other believers or Christians around the world. First of all, God desires to love all people through me. The pressure of loving and praying for someone I don't even like is diminished as I allow Jesus to love them. Secondly, every person is valuable in the sight of God. Jesus died for every person. I should be sure to pray for those that Jesus loved enough that he was willing to die for them.

PRAYER: O God, I wish that I could be more loving. I pray that you would help me in this area today. However, until I love people more will you love them through me? Remind me to pray for all your children, and in my praying, make me love them. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Waitress: Unseen Power

Jenna is a waitress at Joe's Diner, a greasy spoon-type hometown restaurant specializing in unique and unusual pies. Jenna is the star pie baker. She has been baking original pies since she was a child. She is an expert. Baking pies is the greatest joy in Jenna's life. In fact, her pie baking is Jenna's only joy.

She is trapped in an abusive marriage that she longs to get out of. That is the basic plot line of the movie. Jenna, played by Keri Russell, is one of the most winsome movie characters of the year. She is fun, level-headed, attractive and sympathetic. We cannot help but like her and care about her terrible marriage.

We feel even worse when her plans for escape are scuttled by her unexpected pregnancy. One night of drunkenness left Jenna with a child that complicated all her plans.

One caveat: abortion is never an option for Jenna. She has made her bed, so to speak, and now she must lie in it. Her seemingly simple (really complex) life gets even more complicated when she immediately falls for the new doctor in town. As Jenna and the doctor begin to carry on, we see how Jenna can be happy, even as she is in the midst of all this confusion and conflict. She knows that her affair is wrong, at least as wrong as he marriage is, but she seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

This is a great movie. I loved it because it is simple. The story is good. The characters are eccentric, but you want to believe in them. Everything about this movie, even the illicit relationship, made me smile. I know why I liked it now. It is hope.

In real life, like in Jenna's world, it seems that there is too little hope. A bad marriage, an abusive relationship, an unplanned pregnancy, an extramarital affair, surely there can be no hope in that setting. And yet, Jenna remains a hopeful optimist. She always believe that there is something better coming. She always has hope.

This is what is missing from the world too often. We need more people like Jenna. We need people who do not become overwhelmed with the negatives in life, but rather inject every situation with a smile and a positive word. Jenna made me smile and she gave me hope. Now I plan to spread hope and a smile to someone else.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Being a Difference Maker

One of the biggest frustrations I have in life is trying to make a difference. There are so many things that are wrong in the world that I am tempted to throw up my hands and surrender at the impossibility of it all. I am just one person, after all, what can I do? There are so many needs, so many causes, so many hurts, so many opportunities that I get overwhelmed.

I am not the first to come to this place of confusion and futility. It is likely that you have had these same thoughts and concerns. You want to change the world, but it is hopeless. The problems are overwhelming. There are thousands (millions?) of people smarter than us, richer than us and with more influence than us who cannot solve these problems. Who do we think that we are?

Unfortunately, many people get to this point in the process and give up. There is no point in continuing when you cannot find and enact solutions. So we decide to do nothing. We sit on our hands and complain about how bad things are and that no one is doing anything about it. Shame on us.

In earlier posts I have encouraged doing "something." The idea is that no one can do everything, but everyone can do one thing. So I want to suggest that everyone do one thing. Find a place where you can make a difference, and then make it.
  • Become a mentor for a younger person.
  • Volunteer for Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
  • Teach a Sunday School class.
  • Help out with story time at your local library.
  • Get to know some young people in your community.
  • Volunteer to be a part of your local community association.
  • Sponsor a child in a third world country.
  • Read to an elderly neighbor.
  • Visit your local nursing home.
  • Offer to help your local youth sports leagues.
  • Give time to a charity that you would like to support.
  • Offer to clean or do office work in a free medical clinic.

Here is how I am currently trying to make a difference:


Fred is pastor of the Mutungo United Methodist Church in Kampala, Uganda. His church meets on a rented lot with some poles on it. The wooden poles hold up part of a roof over their dirt-floor sanctuary. The few members of the church cannot afford the rent on this "shed." The $40 monthly is more than they can raise. The ladies of the church make beads that they sell to raise some of the necessary funds, but that is not enough.

I cannot do much, but I can make a difference for Fred and his church. I have brought some of the ladies' beads to the USA and I am selling them for Mutungo. In addition, my congregation has committed to support the rent for this church for two years. It is not a lot of money. In fact, we will likely not even miss it. But it will make a huge difference for Fred and his little church.


Joseph is young man who was born in Rwanda. During the genocide of the 1990's Joseph watched as soldiers cut off his father's arms and legs and then killed him. Later his mother died of HIV/AIDS leaving Joseph to care for his HIV positive twin sisters. Joseph is now going to college. He survives on money he earns from selling second hand blue jeans.

I cannot solve all of Joseph's problems, but I can help him. I regularly encourage him via email. Occasionally I am able to help him with his college and living expenses (one year of college in Rwanda costs about $1000).

You see, you can make a difference too. Just find a place and do it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Three Questions + 1

Several years ago I read an interesting book by Robert Schuller. This was definitely a stretch for me at the time. I had a firm belief that Schuller, and people like him, were guilty of "watering down" the gospel to make it palatable for the masses. I believed that Schuller resisted preaching the hard parts of the gospel because it would hurt his crowd and his offerings.

But, I also knew that he had built a very large, innovative and creative church. I wanted to know how he did it. So I read my first Robert Schuller book, Your Church Has a Fantastic Future. I was not disappointed. I got information on what Schuller did, how he did it, and most importantly, why he did it. The books contains a lot of the groundwork for his ministry philosophy. It turns out that Robert Schuller is a pretty orthodox Christian after all.

The most important thing in the book- for me anyway- is the questions that Schuller asks before embarking on any ministry programming. There are three questions that Schuller uses to evaluate any idea, ministry, mission or program. Since reading this book, I have added another question to the list. (I am sure that I heard it somewhere else, but I am not sure where.)
  1. Will this ministry be a great thing for God? Do not even begin anything that will not have a great impact on someone, somehow.
  2. Is there a need for this ministry? There is no use in spinning your wheels trying to do something that no one wants or needs.
  3. Is anyone else doing this ministry? If they are, support them. If not, get moving on it.
  4. Will this ministry help people? There are lots of programs that are popular events, but do not make a difference. Do not waste your time with unnecessary, ineffectual window dressing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Need is the Call

I have been influenced by a lot of people throughout my life. Some of my influencers are people that I know or have known personally. These people have- and continue to have- a great impact on my life. There are others who have had a less direct influence, but it is often no less significant.
  • I remember the first time I heard Tony Campolo speak. He changed the way I thought about my faith and the acceptable parameters for preaching.
  • Early in my adult life Calvin Miller, the Christian author, effected me with his writing. The Singer Trilogy was a good introduction, but then as I read some of his non-fiction work on ministry and leadership I began to grow in my calling.
  • Gene Edwards is another author who has influenced me greatly. A Tale of Three Kings is still the most formative book I have read on leadership. I re-read it every few years just to remind myself of all the tricky relationships and perspectives of leadership.
  • Recently, Brian McLaren is wrecking my life. The way he pushes me to think about the Christian faith is liberating, freeing, refreshing, scary and intimidating all at the same time.
  • Jack Hayford reminds me that Christians do not have to be idiots. We can read and write in thoughtful ways. We can use our brains to discuss issues in the Christian faith. Not only that, we never have to be embarrassed about what we believe.
  • Finally, Tommy Barnett has taught me that every person is important and deserves to receive the ministry of Jesus Christ. No one is too insignificant, too sinful, too lost or too much trouble to hear the message of the gospel.

Barnett has a philosophy that says, "Find a need a fill it; Find a hurt and heal it." Bill Wilson, a former disciple of Tommy Barnett adapts that to say, "The need is the call."

That is powerful. When I see a need in the world, that is God calling me to work on meeting that need. There are needs everywhere. In fact, every person should be able to look around them and find several things that need attention. Whether Christian or not, you can see people hurting, systems that need to be changed, problems that need attention. I believe that when you notice the needs, God is calling you to work on the needs.

Now think about this: What would happen if every person decided that they were going to work toward meeting one need? What if each of us decided to devote our time and energy to solving one problem? Wouldn't this be a different world?

God put you here for a reason. You can make a difference. That complaint you have about that thing that bothers you so much... That is God calling you to change it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints. Ephesians 6.18

In previous entries on prayer we have discussed the idea of praying always. It is difficult and intimidating, but it is not impossible. This week I would like to focus on the very important concept of "praying in the Spirit." There are many times when the Christian comes to the prayer time, but does not know what, or even how to pray. This is when we should "pray in the Spirit."

Obviously, the reference to the Spirit is the Holy Spirit. We are encouraged to offer our prayers according to the will of God. Again, we may not know, understand or agree with God's will. That is why praying with the aid of the Holy Spirit is so important. God, the Spirit will inform your praying. Your only responsibility is to pray. God will provide the attitude, the words and the answer as you obediently pray to Him.

PRAYER: We don't know how to pray, Lord. We know we should. We want to pray. But we are at a loss. It seems that we are ineffective in our prayers. We get discouraged, distracted and lost. We need your help. Take our attempts at prayer and fill them with your love, your Spirit and your grace. Amen.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Broken Things

One of the advantages (or disadvantages, depending on your perspective) of lively in a wealthy time and place is that you accumulate a lot of 'stuff.' I have way too much stuff. I collect things (books and records) and in addition to that I have a lot of things that are useful or enjoyable to me. My home and my office are filled with things that are frivolous.

One of the consequences of this pattern of acquisition is that things are not valued as much as if they were rare to me. I do not get attached to my possessions the way I would if there were fewer of them. Scarcity creates an almost selfish preservation mentality. For the most part, I do not have that problem.

When I am finished with an item it is no problem for me to put it in a garage sale or flea market. I regularly take my clothes and other discarded items to Goodwill or some other thrift store or charitable/ mission organization. I can easily share the wealth with others, especially those who I perceive to have greater needs than I do.

This makes it much easier to dispose of broken things. I find it relatively easy to discard things that have worn out or been broken. Things that are no longer useful to me or anyone else get thrown away. I have thrown away dishes, clothes, cameras, computers, records, magazines, cars, toys, food, tapes, videos, mail, telephones, light bulbs and too many other things to name.

Often, it is more efficient to throw things away. After all, it is less expensive to buy a new television than to fix your old one. Just throw it away.

When things get broken, I get rid of them. Every Wednesday evening I cart a barrel full of broken things to the end of my drive and on Thursday morning a truck comes and takes it away. It is convenient and simple. I like it that way.

This is complicated when I encounter broken people, however. There are a lot of people who have problems. They have difficulties that I cannot understand. How easy it is for me to want to throw them away. How I am tempted to dismiss these men and women and children as too much trouble. I throw away everything else, why not people too?

But that is not God's way. God fixes broken people. No person should be thrown away. God is patient, willing and able to put together the broken pieces and restore life and health to anyone. This is a great lesson that I need to learn. I should be more understanding. More loving. More like God.

I want to throw broken people away, but God wants to fix them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cause vs. Call

It is very easy to get caught up in and consumed with a cause. There are many to choose from: global warming, save the whales, anti-war, pro-choice, civil rights, gun rights, etc. The list could go on forever. I have been committed to causes in my lifetime- many causes.

Usually I get inspired by a dynamic speaker or a great injustice. I see a problem and I want to do everything I can to solve the problem. I will give money, volunteer, speak out, almost anything to bring attention and assistance to the elimination of some difficulty. The problem is that almost always, I get bored. My attention span is usually shorter than the problem requires. I have great respect and admiration for those who are filled with enough substance to fight on at all costs.

Me, I go from one cause to another. Last week it was AIDS orphans in Africa. This week child slavery and human trafficking. Next week it will likely be poverty in America's cities. My causes change. I bounce from one to another. Consequently, I accomplish very little for any of my causes.

That brings me to a very important distinction. Causes do change, but callings never do. I believe that when you are called to a certain thing, you do not get bored with it. You are able to devote all your energy and your entire life to it. This was the case with William Wilberforce and his war on the slave trade in 18th century England. Martin Luther King, Jr and the US civil rights movement of the 1960's is another great example. There are many more that we can point to throughout history: Gandhi, Joan of Arc, Mother Theresa.

So what are you called to? What is it that you can give your whole life to? What would you die for? When you get bored with all the causes of the world, spend some time in reflection to hear what God is calling you to do with your life.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Acts 1.8

One of the biggest problems that Christians have in the area of prayer is direction. We all know that we should be praying. We want to pray. We even try to pray- often giving up in discouragement and defeat. The problem is that we are haphazard about our prayers. We pray at meal times and before bed, but otherwise our approach is pretty random.

We should always consider the Scriptures, however. Throughout the Bible we read about the definite direction that God has for the world. There is always a plan. Creation is accomplished in seven days. Plagues, tribes, rains, commandments and disciples all come in specific numbers. Surely our prayers should be definite and specific as well. Andrew Murray, a great teacher on prayer, said, "Let intercession be a definite work, carried on as systematically as preaching or Sunday school."

PRAYER: Lord God, although we are never careless with our prayers, sometimes we are less than systematic. Our prayer lists are ever-changing. We struggle to have a regular prayer time. Help us to commit to the ministry of prayer in a real, specific, regular and systematic way, for your glory and our good. Amen.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Threat to Marriage??

For about 30 years Tony Campolo has been a favorite of mine. I remember the first time I heard him speak, he preached his famous "It's Friday, but Sunday's a-Comin'" sermon. Later, he spoke at Taylor University while I was a student there. I will never forget his dramatic, controversial use of profanity. I was changed forever (in a good way). Since then I have read many of Campolo's books. I have heard him speak several more times, listened to his tapes and watched his videos. I have tried to follow his career/ministry on a pretty consistent basis.

That's why I was so excited when Campolo did an interview with Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report a few weeks ago. I was watching the program and Campolo just showed up. What a wonderful surprise. And then, like he has done so many times before, Tony Campolo wrecked my life.

Here is what he said; "Homosexuality is not a threat to marriage, divorce is." Did you get that? I have always had reservations about the anti-homosexual position that many evangelical Christians hold. I do believe that homosexual activity is sinful in the eyes of God. But, at the same time, I believe that all people are created in the image of God. God loves all people equally, no matter what their lifestyle choices. I am uncomfortable with many of the political positions that Christians take in this area.

If God loves my gay brother as much as he loves me, should I hate him? Shouldn't I love him and show him love?

And isn't it completely possible that you and I (and a lot of other people as well) have ruined the God-created and ordained institution of marriage? Don't we corrupt marriage when we diminish the significance of extra-marital sex? Don't we decrease the importance of marriage when we accept unmarried people living together? When we look the other way as couples are divorced don't we lessen the integrity of marriage?

And so, let us realize the hypocrisy of accusing the pro-homosexual elements of the political world of endangering marriage. Collectively, we have endangered marriage. By what we have done and by what we have left undone we have created (or at least allowed) a crisis in the USA. Let's not blame someone else. We did this. I wonder if we would even be considering civil unions for gays if we had not already been treating marriage with such contempt.

Let there be no mistake; I am not making a case for the acceptance of civil unions. I am making a case for the reclamation of marriage and sexuality, as God intended it to be.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Who I Am

I have always been a Christian. I do not remember a time that I did not attend church, either with my parents and family, or on my own. The church, my faith and community have always been important to me. I knew, even at a young age, that I would never stray far from my faith. In fact, when I was very young one of my favorite things was to play church. I would line all my stuffed animals up in a row and preach to them. One Christmas my father built me a tiny pulpit so that I could complete the game.

By the time I had reached my teen years I had chosen a different path, however. I was planning a career in politics. I believed (and have not changed my mind) that we need honest, Christian men and women to represent the needs of all people in government. I was planning to become a Christian Congressman.

But God had different ideas. There are three distinct things that happened to change my orientation and focus.
  • I was in the bedroom of my house playing my guitar and worshiping. I was alone and was convinced that I was on the right track with my life. I believed (and still do) that God needs people in all lines of work. I was being called into politics. That is until that night when the thought entered my head that I should become a pastor. However, my path was planned. I knew where I was going and what I was doing. I dismissed this call (the first) as a figment of my imagination.
  • Several months later (maybe a year) I was attending a youth crusade led by the evangelist Bob Laurent with my youth group. I was very impressed by everything that happened, and especially by Laurent himself. He was fun and funny. He was likable and I liked him. While he was preaching one night the thought entered my head that I would love to do what he was doing. I spent some time talking to him after the service and he seemed genuine and godly (a good combination for an evangelist). I sensed God's voice speaking to me again. But once again, I dismissed it as my imagination.
  • Finally, I was studying between classes about six months later in the Student Center at Ball State University. While taking a break I looked out a window and saw a girl walking under my window out of the building. I heard God say, "Someone needs to tell her about me." I knew then that I was the someone. I was to do God's work. He was calling me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Prayer of the Week

As for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you. 1 Samuel 12.23
It is easy to give up on a prayer. We do not want to nag God. We do not want our constant praying to be a sign of a lack of faith. But this verse puts it in a different context. We should never stop praying for the needs that we are aware of. If the need does not go away, neither should our prayers for it.

You and I are called to pray and to fail in that calling would be a sin. I refuse to sin in that way this week. A life of holiness before God includes consistent, persistent, persevering prayer.

PRAYER: Praying every moment is daunting, Lord. I am intimidated by the thought of it. But you have called me to holiness, and I want to be holy. You have called me to faithfulness and I want to be faithful. Build me up so that I can pray regularly, selflessly, ceaselessly for the needs of others. Amen.