Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Two Ways

I have been on a personal self-improvement quest over the last several months. There are several aspects to this venture, but the most obvious and the most significant is that I am working to improve my communications with people. This blog is one attempt to do that very thing. I am writing here so that people can know what I am thinking about things.

In addition, I have made, and continue to make several changes in my local setting. I am making my plans more well-known. I am providing weekly emails to my congregation outlining events, schedules, etc. I am including sermon topics and Scriptures in many publications (paper and online). I am working hard to communicate.

But it has occurred to me that communication goes two ways. I can give you all sorts of information, but there is more to the equation.
  • For communication to be effective, I have to give you information. I cannot assume that you know anything that I know. I need to tell you over and over again.
  • For communication to be effective, I have to listen to the response you have to my information. There is an inherent give and take in effective communication.
  • For communication to be effective, you have to share information with me. I can spew out information all day long, but you have to give information as well.
  • For communication to be effective, you have to hear the information that I am offering. That means paying attention, listening and absorbing information that is offered.

Communicating is one of the hardest- and most important- things that we do. I am constantly working to improve my communications. You should do the same.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

I will extol You, my God, O King;
And I will bless Your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless You,
And I will praise Your name forever and ever.
Psalm 145.1-2

Sometimes I think that praising God is the most difficult part of prayer. I love the Lord and I am glad for all that he has done for me, but some times its difficult to put that into words. Praise often comes out sounding artificial, to my ears anyway. The problem with praise is that it asks us to worship God for who he is. And God is a mystery. That makes it tricky.

Thanking God is much easier. We can point to the things that God has done for us and express our gratitude for those things. The benefits that we have received from God are limitless. We can thank him for things that he has given us, ways in which he supports us, for answers to prayer and even for answers to prayer that have not come yet. When we think about it, thanking God is an enjoyable experience and relatively easy.

Praising God is no less important than thanking him, however. We can offer praise by simply telling God how much we love him. We can praise him by recognizing our dependence on his grace and care. We can praise God sometimes by just being silent and enjoying his presence. We can praise God by singing him a worship song, or reading him a favorite Psalm. It may require a little bit of effort, but praising God is worth it.

PRAYER: We offer you praise and worship, Oh Lord. You are great and greatly to be praised. We honor you for who you are. You are higher than all we know, and yet you care and love us. We love you, Lord Jesus. We offer you all glory and honor and blessing and power and majesty and might, now and forever. Amen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Natural Disasters and the Will of God

  • Hurricanes in the US Southeast
  • Tsunami in the East
  • Cyclones in Southeast Asia
  • Earthquakes in China
  • Tornadoes and floods in the Midwest USA
  • Drought in Africa
  • Global warming everywhere

There can be no doubt that there are natural disasters all around us. In fact, it seems that there are more such events now than ever. It seems that you cannot turn on the evening news or open the morning paper without being assaulted with some new tragedy somewhere in the world. Hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people are suffering and dying because of some catastrophic event.

Before we get too carried away with how terrible things are, let's temper our panic. It is probably not as bad as we think. The modern news media excels at reporting dramatic (which often means terrible) news. And if it is something that they can show on television through a video, that makes it even better. It could be that there are no more catastrophic disasters now than ever before. Our sensitivity could just be increased because of the nature of the news media.

This proved to be true a few years ago in the USA. During that summer we were hearing reports of shark attacks every few days. There were dramatic pictures and interviews with survivors and warnings about sharks every day. However, it turns out that there were actually fewer shark attacks that summer than in the average summer. It was just that there was no other news to report, so the sharks became a menace. As much as they like to deny it, we cannot underestimate the importance of the media in shaping the news.

But, let's assume that there are more natural disasters today. Let us assume that more people are killed, injured or displaced than ever before. Let us suppose that the news media is accurately representing the problems that we see. Where does that leave a loving God? Shouldn't we expect God to protect people from such catastrophes? Does this mean that he does not care? That he cannot do anything about it?

First of all, I do not believe that as a general rule God punishes people through natural disasters. Earthquakes in San Francisco and hurricanes in New Orleans have been labeled as God's punishment on homosexuals. What an outrage! If this were the case, we would have to believe that God was so full of wrath against one particular sin that he devastated thousands who were completely innocent of that sin. In fact, there were people killed, people lost everything, who were adamant in their personal stance against that very same sin. I do not know this for sure, but it would not surprise me to learn that Hurricane Katrina was more destructive to the church than it was to those who support a homosexual lifestyle. Be careful when you lay the blame of these disasters on God's doorstep.

So, are these natural disasters the will of God? No. I believe that these disasters come because of the Fall of man. If there were no sin in the world, there would be no disaster. I do not believe that sin is the cause of disaster, but without people sinning, God would be in complete control. As it stands now, we have tried to take control from God. As a consequence, disasters are inevitable.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you. Matthew 5.44

I learned this morning that my uncle has "a mass" (those dreaded words) in his stomach. It is to early to know what his future is. We know nothing yet about possible treatments or prognoses. Yet in the midst of this uncertainty, I found it easy to pray for Uncle George. I am sure that I will continue to find it easy to petition God for his health and healing. However, I have not found it so easy to pray for some others.

Jesus addresses that concern, that problem, in the Sermon on the Mount. If ever we thought following Jesus was simple, this simple statement changes that. There are no qualifiers, Jesus tells those who would follow him that they are to love, bless, do good and to pray for those who are our enemies. We are to pray for those we love, and those that we do not love.

Two things happen when we follow this rule. First of all, God answers our prayer and the attitudes and actions of those who treat us unfairly are changed. Those who curse, abuse and persecute us will stop doing those things when God intervenes. Secondly, we will grow to love all people when we pray for them. Our attitudes toward those who treat us badly will change when we pray for them. So do not be selective in your prayers. Pray for those you love, but also pray for those that you do not.

PRAYER: I have a hard time loving and praying for everyone, Lord. I need your help. Give me a loving heart, a caring spirit and a generous mind so that I can lift up the needs of all who hurt me. Bless those who take me for granted. Encourage those who ignore me. Care for those who ridicule and persecute me. Love those who abuse me. Amen.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

In the Loop and On the Web

Generally speaking, this blog is a collection of my thoughts. There are some general themes, but for the most part what you read here is what is going on in my head, good or bad. Today is no exception to that rule. I am thinking about relationships and networking. I am focusing on being in the loop and extending on the web.

The reason that I am so concerned with this is two-fold. On the one hand, networking seems to be an important way to get things done. I try to remember who I have met, and what they do. I hope to respond to people who call on me for help or assistance. I feel as though a big part of my life is helping others explore issues of faith. I want to be available for anyone who wants to move farther on that journey, or who wants to help others move along that path.

On the other hand, there seems to be a very real danger. How am I to be sure that I am not using and abusing the relationships, the friendships, that I have developed? When do a cross the line between caring about another person to using them for their gifts? Or, more personally, how do I know when someone is using me to further their agenda?

I do not want to ever lose sight of these questions or diminish their significance. I want to build a network that seeks to do the work of the Kingdom of God, but I do not want to take advantage of anyone. I want to help others, and be helped by them, but I want to avoid ever taking anyone for granted, or being taken for granted.

To those ends, from here on, my priorities in relationships are:
  • To care for each person for who they are, not for what they can do.
  • To listen and care about needs, and to not be concerned about the time they are taking.
  • To connect people to one another for God's purposes, not my own.
  • To love all people, regardless of their abilities, connections or position.
  • To always remember that God is first, others are second. Me and my needs are always last.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Christian Prayer for Dummies

I have declared 2008 as a "year of prayer" for myself and my congregation. This is taking on several manifestations.
  • During prayer time in worship congregants are coming to the altar for prayer.
  • We are emphasizing and re-vamping our prayer chain ministry.
  • We have installed a "prayer board" to increase the visibility and accessibility of prayer concerns.
  • We are working together on a weekly prayer devotional (on this blog called either "Prayer of the Week," or "Weekly Prayer Thought")

Personally, this year of prayer has influenced what I am reading and what I will be reading. So far this year I have read How to Pray, The Everyday Guide to Simple Prayer, and The Path of Celtic Prayer. I plan to read more prayer titles before the year is out. In addition, I am hoping to get away for a 2-3 day prayer retreat.

One of the books I have read is completely out of character for me. I read Christian Prayer for Dummies. I would normally not read something from the Dummies series mostly because I want substance in my reading. If I am to invest several hours in a book, I want to know that it is going to do some good. I generally think that anything written for dummies is probably not for me. (Maybe it really is for me, but I just do not want to admit it.)

But I tried this one because the author, Rich Wagner, is an old friend of mine. Rich has written several books, but I had never read one until now. I am glad that I finally got around to it.

As the title implies, this book is a basic, introductory course in prayer. It covers everything, but does not get bogged down on too many details. A lot of the information contained here was review for me, but it was a healthy review. After all, is it possible to be too prayerful? There were also many new things. I learned new prayer patterns, interpretations of Scripture and insights.

I commend Christian Prayer for Dummies, and not just because the author is a former buddy. This is a good review for seasoned pray-ers, and a helpful introduction for would-be prayer warriors.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dylan's Faith

I have been a fan of Bob Dylan since I was a high school student. By the time I had heard of Dylan he had already brought folk music to the masses, brought protest and change,changed rock and roll at Newport, become the conscience of a generation, found "The Band," left "The Band" and had the Rolling Thunder tour. He had several superstar- type careers before I ever hear Blowin' in the Wind.

I was brand new to the Dylan world when I heard, and then read, that he had become a Christian. There were all kinds of rumors, some of them turned out to be true. But when I first heard "Slow Train Coming" I was more than a believer.

Do not get me wrong. I was a Christian before I knew Bob Dylan. But when I learned that my music hero was now among the faithful, lights went on, bells rang, angels sang. My hero and I had something in common. Rolling Stone said that he was not singing any of his old songs in concert. He was performing only Christian music. It seemed extreme to me, but when I went to my first Dylan concert during my Junior year of high school, I saw it for myself. Bob Dylan was a Christian.

After releasing a couple more Christian albums, "Saved" and "Shot of Love," the Christian music seemed to stop coming from Dylan. Many in the church and the Contemporary Christian Music scene seemed to think that Dylan had lost his faith. He occasionally would sing a Christian number in concert, but for the most part he returned to secular music. Christian critics believed that he had somehow backslidden, or lost his faith. We probably will not truly know in this lifetime.

However, there was not a corresponding outcry when Amy Grant began recording secular music. There have been grumbles, but very few condemnations when other "Christian music celebrities" have fallen into sin. And yet, Bob Dylan is not allowed to sing "I Shall be Released" without being called into question.

  • Bob Dylan may have forsaken Christian music and the Christian lifestyle, but it is more likely that the music from about 1978-1982 was one of his phases, much like his country music phase of the late 1960s.
  • Bob Dylan may have never become a Christian. He may have been experimenting with the newly lucrative Christian market. His Christian-phase could have been a publicity stunt.
  • Bob Dylan may have forsaken Christianity and his Christian commitment. He may have turned back on Christ and embraced his old life and lifestyle.

Whatever else is true, we know that

  • Dylan has never fit into any particular category for very long. He doesn't fit anywhere very well and he is constantly changing and growing.
  • Artistically, Dylan has never completely left anything. He is a product of all his phases and stages, including the Christian one.
  • Dylan remains one of our most "spiritual" musicians.

Whatever his faith may be today, his music is still worth considering. It is still provocative.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My Favorite Religious Movies

I love movies and I love religion. It only makes sense, then, that I would love religious movies. However, sometimes the religious movies that I enjoy are not necessarily religious movies at all. They may not have positive messages about faith, but they are almost always thought-provoking.

Here is my list of my favorite religious movies (in no particular order).
  • The Apostle. God can use anyone, even people who do bad things. I love this movie because Robert Duvall loses everything that is important in his life, yet allows God to lead him. I also like any movie where the lead character's name is Dewey.
  • Leap of Faith. Steve Martin gets his chance as a healing evangelist. Martin's charlatan should be required viewing for all ministers.
  • A River Runs Through It. Could there be a more idyllic, yet tragic, setting for a movie. The atmosphere is wonderful.
  • The Mission. Robert DeNiro is a missionary? That is enough to recommend this movie by itself.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. A good adaptation of a classic book re-telling the Christian story. Adventures abound as the Pevensie children save Narnia and meet Aslan.
  • The Lord of the Rings. All three of these films are excellent. There are very few, if any, movies that set good vs. evil in a better context.
  • The Ten Commandments. This is still one of the greatest spectacles in movie making. And although the special effects look a little dated and awkward today, Charlton Heston will always be Moses.
  • Elmer Gantry. Not unlike Leap of Faith, Burt Lancaster plays a traveling evangelist on the take. His crusading against the evils of alcohol disguise his own sins and shortcomings.
  • The Rapture. This is a rarely seen film that is not for the faint of heart. Rated R for good reasons, it raises important questions about faith, community, sin, salvation and the end of the world.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Prayer of the Week

"If two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven." Matthew 18.19

"Anything they ask"... "It will be done." What a great promise. Jesus tells his disciples- and us- that God will answer all our prayers. In the words of Napoleon Dynamite's candidate friend, Pedro, "Your wildest dreams will come true." I do not want to diminish the significance of the promise. It is true. It is valid. There is an unequivocal assertion of God's ability and desire to answer requests. But we must temper our excitement with the first part of the verse.

"If two of you agree..." We Christians, particularly we American Christians, should be ashamed of our privatized faith. We have translated the popular phrase "personal relationship" to mean "private relationship." This is terribly unfortunate. There is nothing private about the Christian faith. We are to share it at every opportunity. We are to tell others who are not Christians so that they will want to join the faith, and we are to tell those who are Christians so that they will be encouraged in the faith.

What Jesus is advocating is that we should be praying together. Our efforts on Sunday morning are a good start. Joining other believers at the altar rail in unified petition is a wonderful thing. But we should also be praying together in small groups throughout the week. The most practical way to do this is to pray with your family, but you might also have co-workers or neighbors that you could pray with.

There is power in praying together. Jesus promised answers when we move from private to public prayer.

PRAYER: Lord God, send me a prayer partner. Help me to find a person, or persons, who are of like mind. Knit our hearts and spirits together so that we can lift our prayers to you on a regular basis. Make me a prayer warrior. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A New Thing?

It is too soon to tell, but we may be seeing a new thing. I know, that seems awfully dramatic and I am sure there is at least a little bit of hyperbole contained in that statement. But why don't you judge.

Readers of this blog will know that I periodically address issues concerning teens, young adults and particularly ministry to young people. It is a very important thing to my heart. And although my job description- in real life and on this blog- do not necessarily bear this out, I believe that a big part of my life is to work with young people and encourage them to move into leadership.

In recent years we have seen more and more young people getting serious about there faith. Some examples of this phenomenon include the growth of Passion Conferences, Teen Mania and other missions organizations devoted to recruiting and deploying teens throughout the world, and the increase in emerging, or post-modern churches and congregations. Whatever you think of the practices and theology of the emerging movement, it is bringing young people to the church and life to dead places.

I think that I am seeing this new thing "up close and personal." Last week the youth of my denomination made a stand at our regional Annual Conference. Although the issues are insignificant in terms of the church at large, or even my denomination in particular, our young people are proclaiming their faith and asking to be encouraged, supported and taken seriously.

Here is what they are trying to do...
  • They are recruiting more teens from across North Indiana. Their purpose is to encourage committed Christian kids and to draw new teens to Christ.
  • They are building a support network of adults to advise, encourage and assist them. They are wise enough to know that credibility and respect are still beyond their years and their experience. They are turning to others to counsel and help them.
  • They are using many tools to communicate with each other and with others. They are using all the normal tools that teens typically rely on, email, texting, IMing and cell phones. But they are also trying to build a web-presence starting with a blog (http://youthministries-ccym.blogspot.com).

I am looking forward to seeing what inspiration and energy can do. I am excited to see what the future of the church and ministry in general can be.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

How to Think Like a Christian About Capital Punishment

I know that this is a risky topic. I could very well offend a lot of people, regardless of what position I take on the issue of capital punishment. So you do not have to worry about what I will say, or what side I am on, I am against capital punishment. Now, let's talk about why.

To begin with, I am well aware of the biblical requirements of an eye for an eye. I know that the Old Testament standard was that justice would be meted out in a tit for tat fashion. There are some problems with this, however.
  • It is in the Old Testament. However, Jesus, in the New Testament, admonished his followers to love and forgive everyone. He said that he had fulfilled or completed the law.
  • The death penalty in the Old Testament was administered by God through a prophet, judge or king. The judgment of guilt, and the sentence of death came from God. There is no way that thinking Christians can follow this sort of system in modern times.
  • It is virtually impossible to determine guilt to an absolute certainty. Over and over again we hear stories of convicted, death row inmates who are exonerated through modern DNA testing. How many innocent people have we already killed?
  • The Apostle Paul was very possibly a murderer. We know that in his pre-conversion days he was a zealous defender of the Jewish faith. As such, he went to great lengths to persecute and imprison Christians. Many of those Christians that Paul, then known as Saul, put into prison were no doubt killed. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Saul himself participated in executions and worse. If the death penalty were strictly enforced, Saul would have been executed before his conversion.
  • If prisons and the justice system are for the purpose of rehabilitating criminals, then by executing them we deny our system the opportunity for effectiveness. Although this is not a "Christian" argument, we must take into account the consistency of our efforts and attempts to change people.
  • When we execute criminals, even the worst, we do not allow them the opportunity to experience repentance, forgiveness and grace. In essence, when I execute an offender, I am sentencing him to hell. I believe that God's grace is high and wide and broad and deep enough for everyone. I should not eliminate some from being in Christ no matter how unsavory they seem to me.

I know that I have not won many (any) converts to my way of thinking today. But it is important that if we are going to be pro-life, we need to be completely pro-life. We must advocate for life by opposing abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I have decided that for me- and my congregations- 2008 will be a year of prayer. There is no special significance to this designation. I have not received any prophecy that would indicate that this is an especially important time for prayer or the church. It is merely my attempt to re-focus myself, and others, on the value of a deep relationship with God.

To that end, let me make a suggestion to you. When you hear of a need, you may be tempted to encourage another person with a phrase like, "I'll be thinking of you." Thinking of someone, I believe, is an empty sentiment that may hold meaning emotionally, but does nothing to effect change in either the thinker, or the one being thought about. It would be much better to say, "I'll be praying for you." However, this only works if it is true. That means that you must pray for the person, situation or need that you promise to pray for. The world would be a much better place if we all promised to pray, and then did.

I want to also suggest that praying for someone is a sign of caring for them. It was no mistake when Jesus suggested that we pray for our enemies. Revolution would come if we could begin to pray for those who have wronged us. But that is not even the point of this essay. Be encouraged to equate prayer with caring, if only in your own internal dictionary. When I begin to pray about something, I will begin to care about it.

Often I find myself feeling guilty about apathy in my own life. I know that climate change is a problem, shouldn't I care more? I hear about genocide in the Sudan, I would like to be more concerned. I want to care about natural disasters around the world. I want to care about the neighbors who get on my nerves. All of these things can begin to be remedied if I will begin to pray.

Let us look at the reverse of this proposition as well. If prayer causes you to care about an issue, isn't it true that caring about something is the first step to prayer? When I grow concerned about the children in my neighborhood who are unsupervised for too long every afternoon, I am just a short step away from praying for them.

This year, prayer is the theme. And if you and I are going to pray, we need to care. When we care, we cannot help but pray.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

My Problem with Steve Martin

Let me begin by saying that I love Steve Martin. I remember clearly the first time I saw him do stand-up on the Tonight Show. I was in high school and he was a revolutionary. I love his stand up material. He is creative, original and unafraid.

I love his writing. His essays from the New Yorker, his short stories, his novellas and plays, even (especially) his recent memoir, Born Standing Up, have been exceedingly funny and entertaining to me. His humor, particularly his broad public persona, belie an intellect that is witty and sharp.

I always loved his appearances on Saturday Night Live. (It hasn't always been SNL.) And, I have to admit that I really like his movies. Some of the funniest, sweetest movies of the last 25 years have featured Steve Martin.

But here is my problem. Too often he plays the same character. Compare the parts he plays in Father of the Bride, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Cheaper by the Dozen and you will see that his character's name changes, his career is different, but he is essentially the same.

Steve Martin is too good to give us the same thing over and over again. We saw him in Shop Girl, Mixed Nuts and Leap of Faith. We know that he can amaze us with his words and his acting. I miss that and I am ready to be amazed again.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Weekly Prayer Thought

Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you, and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men; for not all have faith. 2 Thessalonians 3.1-2

It is often said that the last thing you hear is what you will remember. Some people claim that they save the best for last. When I attend a concert, the weaker singers and groups are always early in the lineup. The best and most popular groups are always last. And so, Paul leaves us with a final thought that is really the most important thing to remember. PRAY!

Specifically, we are enjoined to pray for Paul and other servants of the gospel. We are to lift up in prayer those who are missionaries, pastors, leaders, evangelists. Pray that the gospel will go forward and that our leaders will not be discouraged.

Here is a confession. I often get disgusted by the "ministers" that I see on television. I get upset about their loose theology, their flamboyant lifestyles and theatrical presentations. I sometimes talk bad about them. But now I know better. It is my job to be praying for those who are most visible. I need to pray for the leaders of my church, my denomination, and the church at large whether I agree with them or not. They have enough trouble without having to deal with any dissension that I might cause or exaggerate.

PRAYER: Forgive me, O Lord, every time I think or speak poorly of the leaders that you have placed in spiritual authority in my life. Bless them. Give them wisdom. Help them to follow you closely so that they can lead me effectively. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.