Monday, October 27, 2014

What season are YOU in?

I recently spent a little time reflecting on my prayer life. That topic may not sound exciting to some of you, but, for me, it is just as much a staple as meat and potatoes. (No offense intended, vegetarian friends.) Anyway, I took a few minutes to notice how my prayers have changed over the years. So far, I can identify three distinct seasons. I won’t be surprised if I discover a fourth before I go Home.

Season One: Confess/Bless
Though I was only dully aware of the depth of my sins when I was young, I spent much of my first season confessing. That season started in childhood and continued well into my late twenties or early thirties. I was constantly reminded at the time that I was broken by sin. There were sins I confessed with true repentance, meaning that I stopped doing them; other sins I confessed again and again because I kept going back to them.

It was near the end of my first season that I got fed up with my hypocrisy in some areas and cried out, “Lord, please do whatever you must do to give me the victory I have lacked.” He answered that prayer…my life started falling apart. It was my first experience at having Him shake everything in me that could be shaken. It was also exactly what I needed to bring me (literally) to my knees so that I could experience His life in me.

Along with constantly confessing, Season One was filled with asking God to bless me and those important to me. Much of that was the immature hope that He would bless me with the things I wanted. Sometimes He did just that. At other times, He taught me that He has higher purposes than I do and that “No” can be the most positive answer I receive from Him.

Season One, as I now understand, was largely about dealing with the barriers between me and God. I was just getting to know Him. There were some powerful and intimate times in those years, but I can’t now say that I really knew Him very well.

Season Two: DISCIPLINE/joy
If you haven’t noticed, my second season was one of big discipline and little joy. That season lasted from my thirties through my mid-fifties or a little later. At the beginning of the season, I went through a training course designed to help a person start praying an hour a day using the Lord’s Prayer as the outline. During those years, I would often walk through the fields and along the canal banks behind our house and pray point by point through the model prayer that Jesus taught: “Our Father, Who are in heaven…” Each point in Jesus’ model launched me into a plethora of sub-points, helping me worship, confess and intercede. I prayed for my family and for missionaries around the world. I prayed for people who need to know Jesus. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed.

I look back on this season, grateful for the discipline I learned. Cathy and I have many conversations about the unique way God designed each of us. She is far more a “task/structured” personality, while I am more a “people/unstructured.” We have discovered that I need discipline to help me get some structure in my life, thereby training me and setting me free for service to God and others. That same level of external discipline which works so well for me completely stifles her relationship with God. It chokes her spiritually and she has had to learn how to walk free from it.

What I lacked in my second season was joy. I had the small joys of accomplishing something important, but they took away from the large joys of really getting to know God as a person. I’m so thankful that I was given a third season!

Season Three: Relational Intimacy
My third season started just a few years ago. A variety of things were happening as I aged. One of them was the growing confidence I had in God. I started coming to know Him as who He is…God in three persons! Romans 8:15 is a wonderful word picture of our what it’s like to know God as our Father. Better words describe the tenderness He wants in that relationship. Read the verse in various translations and you just might become comfortable calling Him “Abba” or “Papa” or “Daddy.” Jesus called Him by such a familiar term.

Jesus Himself taught in John 14:19 that the day would come when the world would no longer see Him. His followers, though would continue to “see” him through the power of the Holy Spirit. I have long been fascinated by Paul’s distinction between the “Holy Spirit” in Acts 16:6 and the “spirit of Jesus” in Acts 16:7. Clearly, He related to them differently. The more I know God, the more I am learning something of the difference between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in my prayer life. He is still One God, but He clearly reveals Himself as one of the three in different situations.

This third season has been the time when I finally got consistent at keeping a prayer journal. With it, I am beginning to notice more of the nuances of my own personality and what causes me to pull away from Him. I am also learning his faithfulness in every circumstance. Finally, this is the season in which some of the old, classical writings on prayer are beginning to make sense to me.

Season Four?
I won’t spend time speculating if I will have one more seasonal shift…that is up to God. If I do, I think it will be more and more focused on “Thy kingdom come,” both on the macro and micro levels. It’s easy to see that our world is in a mess. God is calling intercessors into a full-scale “air war”, softening up targets for the “ground war” of gospel presentation to change lives. The mess isn’t just “over there”, though. It’s very near, often in those to whom I am closest.

The human idea of “retirement” isn’t really in the Bible. While I expect to retire from my active role as a pastor, I don’t plan to fully quit until the End. Whether that end will include an entirely new prayer season, only God knows.  I’m along for the adventure and enjoy it more every year!

I took this time today to reflect back on some of my own journey because prayer will be center target as we continue our Sermon on the Mount study, “From here to where?” this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. I’m quite excited to talk about prayer with those who attend our services and hope you can be there. If you can’t join us, catch the podcast!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Simple Life

Am I the only one who spent years of my youth mystified by how many things Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell III loaded on the S.S. Minnow for a “three hour tour?” I’m quite certain that many Americans didn’t have some of those luxuries in their own homes, but the castaways enjoyed them as they desperately hoped to be rescued from their deserted island. Truly, the simple life of Gilligan and the gang would have been much simpler if it weren’t for all the Howells' conveniences.

 

I’m including a picture today that may take a bit of explanation for you to “get it.” In it, Patti (who works on our staff) is playing with a couple of Dominican boys in Guananico, Dominican Republic. Guananico is an out of the way place, a bit like Gilligan’s Island. Rather than being surrounded by water, it is surrounded by hills and small mountains. It’s hot there and the humidity can completely sap you if you’re not careful. It feels even hotter because the cooling ocean breezes from 20-30 miles away are blocked by the mountains.

 

Unlike the bigger cities in the D.R., Guananico is far enough out in the country that life is quite a bit slower and less connected. It’s not unusual these days to see many Dominicans in the cities with their smart phones, checking their Facebook friends’ updates. The villages and towns, however, are far more likely to rejoice when they see someone like Patti show up…

 

…because Patti brings baseballs.

 

She loads up a bunch of baseballs in her suitcase when she goes and gives them out to kids as she does ministry there. And, to get a full-fledge ball game going, all you need is a baseball. You don’t need gloves or bats or catcher’s gear or a ball diamond. You don’t even need to go very far, since the “windows” of the houses are wooden slats and there’s no glass to break.

 

That day in Guananico, we pitched and caught and hit with a group of Dominican kids. We used tree branches as bats and did the best we could, laughing and figuring out how to communicate in two languages. These kids needed no inspiration (Bartolo Col√≥n grew up nearby and these kids' heroes are the Dominicans who play in the Major Leagues), just a couple crazy Americans…and a baseball. Game on!

 

I contrast the simplicity of that afternoon in Guananico, Dominican Republic with the complex noise of our own lives. Everywhere we turn, we run into things that interrupt us from our own fast-paced agendas and some of us have reached the point where we can’t stand the quiet. How many of you turn the TV on as soon as you enter the house, just so you have noise in the background? Why? Is it because of what you fear you might hear if the distraction weren’t there?

 

Let’s face it: life’s a blur these days and we need a way to restore some focus. Believe it or not, Jesus had some things to say that can help us get there. We’ll talk about His words this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can’t join us? Catch the podcast!

 

Monday, October 13, 2014

What "bombs" do you fear?

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Germany’s bombings of London were intended to slap down the "stiff upper lip" of the British and render them as yet another victim of their blitz across Europe. Instead of crushing England’s will and thereby rendering them helpless to a Nazi invasion, the bombings actually increased the British determination to stand up to Hitler’s minions. How? The explosions created a long series of near misses that emboldened the victims to believe they would live through anything the enemy threw at them.

I thought of Gladwell’s description as I reflected on what happened to me about two years ago. In September, 2012, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This was the very disease that took my dad’s life in 1990. What I gained from watching him succumb to the invisible monster was the determination to keep a close watch to hopefully stop it long before it was unstoppable.

What did I lose? I lost a lot of joy because way too much of my time was consumed by worry and fear that I would get cancer and die. Virtually all that fear was baseless, but it destroyed many good hours (or days) nonetheless.

Two things happened in the Fall of 2012 that changed something in me. The first was when a friend — a man with a strong gift of intercession — was praying for me one day. I told him of my impending biopsy and my anxiety. He simply said, "You don’t need to carry that load anymore." With those words, he began to physically brush me off and prayed a prayer, breaking the power of fear that had gripped me. Amazingly, the anxiety left.

The second thing I experienced was something like the "near miss" Gladwell had described as the bombs fell on London. My biopsy came out positive. In the long night after getting the test results, I asked God for some word of confirmation that He was with me. Almost instantly He reminded me of two conversations that took place in the previous three months. The first was with a lady in the Dominican Republic who regularly prays for me and my family. "God told me to tell you," she said, "to not be afraid. He has everything under control." The second conversation, about a month later, was with a man in our church. "The Lord has placed you on my heart for the last three weeks," he said. "As I have been praying for you, He told me to tell you not to fear. Everything will be okay." A few hours before, I heard the dread words: "You have cancer." Now, as I reflected on those two strange conversations, I fell asleep and slept like a baby.

A couple days after that, I was sitting in a urology office in Phoenix, hearing a doctor recommend surgery and predicting that it would go well. Cathy and I knew that this was the right path for us and made the decision to schedule the operation in November of that year. The pathology of the removed prostate determined that the cancer had been more aggressive that the original biopsy showed and it seemed to be growing even more aggressive, but the news was good: the cancer was gone.

That combination of my friend’s prayer to remove the anxiety and the successful operation to remove the cancer changed something in me. Most of my old fears were neutralized. All of this brings me to something Jesus said: "Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?" (Matthew 6:27 New Living Translation) The obvious answer is, "no," but that doesn’t always break the power of worry for those who struggle with it.

For that reason, I’m very excited about the next installment of "From here to where?" at Stone Ridge Church this weekend. "From ‘What if?’ to ‘God is!’" promises to open up life-changing possibilities. I hope you can join us! If not, catch the podcast!


Monday, October 6, 2014

Relocation

The summer of 1972 was pivotal for me.  Cathy and I were married that August, but it was what happened earlier in the summer that taught me some life lessons that still affect me most every day.  

 I was 20 (almost 21) years old.  I had left college without graduating (which came later) and took a job for a Christian organization in Ohio.  Cathy and I had gotten engaged that spring, then spent most of the summer across the country from one another.  She was in Oregon as a summer missionary.  Even though my pay was low, it was the closest thing to a real, steady job that I had known.  The people I worked for provided me with a car and I enjoyed a level of great freedom.  
 
I got involved in a tiny church in the college town where I lived.  I had been involved in small churches before, but this one was about the smallest, with only about 20-30 people in attendance each week.  I recall a certain twinge of guilt when the offering plate was passed during worship, but that uneasy feeling was minor compared to the temptation I felt in other areas.
 
The building where I worked was on the main street of town, and a nice men’s store was just a couple doors down from us.  I got to know the owner, which made it easy to stop in there and admire the latest in men’s fashions.  When I saw a pair of slacks I liked, I got them.  Ditto with belts and shirts and ties (yes, I used to wear them!).  When I didn’t have enough money in my checking account, they made it easy to charge my purchases.  
 
The freedom of a vehicle added the possibility of regularly going to movies and I ate most meals in restaurants or fast food places.  There was always something to do in my off hours and most of it cost money, which ran through my pockets like water through a tea strainer.  
 
No amount of angst over my lack of money to give to the church offering seemed to lessen my drive to spend on all the things that called out to me from every direction.  
 
I almost didn’t tell this story because of the sadness it still brings me.  I wanted to tell it, though, because God has radically changed this part of my life over the years.  I’m so glad He did.  Jesus said, "Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be." Matthew 6:21 (New Living Translation)  I remember what life felt like when my treasure and my heart were both firmly planted in the world’s lie that life consists in my possessions.  I tell my story because I am convinced that many of you, like me, are still fending off the guilty feelings of not giving while you are yielding to the temptation to keep spending more and more, with the hope of finding happiness.  
 
By God’s grace, I changed.  Here’s how:
  1. I married Cathy.  I smile as I say this, since she’s taken and not available for anyone else!  But I emphasize this point because Cathy had something I didn’t have enough of at that age: discipline.  Cathy had been taught (so had I) that the tithe (10% of income) comes first.  It was her discipline that helped me do what I had known, but failed to do, before.
  2. I discovered that God genuinely cares about our needs.  Over and over, we have seen Him provide when problems seemed insurmountable.
  3. I discovered that it really IS more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35)  Life’s deepest joys have come to us from giving.
  4. I discovered that you can’t out-give God. (Luke 6:38)  God is so generous and He loves it when His people start living by His divine design!  He created us in His own image, which means He created us to give.  
  5. I discovered that my heart fills with deep joy when it’s located near God’s heart.  God’s heart is in the needs of the people He created.  This is the treasure-heart principle being lived out.
42 years later, I write this with a longing that everyone…EVERYONE…would learn to live this way.  I don’t have it down perfectly yet.  There are still hiccups and messes, but the joy that comes from living this way surpasses anything I ever imagined back when I tried to fill my life with this world’s stuff.  If this can help encourage you on that journey, it would bring me great joy.
 
This weekend, we will dig into Jesus words on this subject.  It’s part of our “From here to where?’ series.  I hope you can be there!  Can’t make it?  Catch the podcast

Monday, September 29, 2014

Playing to the Crowd

Crowds have this effect on people.  Whether it’s the crazy faces people make as they snap their “selfies” or the bizarre antics the moment they realize they are on the big screen of a sports stadium, crowds can cause us to say and do strange things.

 
I have little friend named Kate.  Kate is about 11 months old and the source of many smiles for us.  She surprised us all when she started walking at about 9 months, then rapidly proceeded from walking to running to…dancing.  The other day her mom sent us a video of Kate moving to tunes coming from Pandora.  I got this big smile as I watched her rhythm; many kids aren’t walking at her age.  In the middle of the video, Kate's mom gave away the fact that she was dancing in front of an iPhone.  Rather than shut down in embarrassment, Kate broke into a wide smile and turned up the force of her jiggle.  “All the world’s a stage,” said some guy named Will.  
 
I wrote most of this post while sitting in front of a football game at my brother’s house.  I don’t watch sports very much and this experience caused me to reflect on how the players on the field do their job to be seen by others.  A couple years back, an NFL quarterback seemed more interested in what God thought about him than he was about the people who cheered for his team.  A lot of fans didn’t like it.  
 
So, is it okay when little Kate gets excited in front of a camera?  How about when a wide receiver makes a spectacular catch and the crowd goes wild?  Neither scenario seems at all unusual or critical.  But, is there a danger in living our lives to be seen by others?   Jesus obviously thought so and he had a point.  Crowds are fickle by their very nature.  What happened to the popularity of that star football player whose most famous video is not some stupendous play on the field, but the very ugly behavior toward his wife in an elevator?  In simplicity, doing good works to be seen and applauded by others limits the favor of the One who will love us even when we stumble or behave badly.
 
Jesus had much to say on this subject and we will learn from His words this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  I hope you can be with us.  Can’t make it?  Catch the podcast

Monday, September 22, 2014

Those Powerful Words

I once heard the story of the man who picked up his small son and stood him on a table. The boy looked at his daddy, then glanced down at the floor, which seemed a great distance below his tiny feet. The father held out his arms and said, "Jump! I will catch you."

The boy, quite afraid of the height, cried, "No, daddy, I’m scared! What if you miss?"

"I’m your big strong daddy," the man said. "Of course I won’t miss. Jump!"

The little boy looked again as his papa’s arms, then down to the floor, and began crying in earnest. "No, daddy, I’m afraid!"

A stern look in his eyes, the man said again, "Jump! I will catch you! Jump, boy!"

As a feeling of hope swirled around inside him, the little boy lifted his eyes from the floor so far below and fixed them firmly on the arms of his father. Then, crouching slightly to launch himself, he sprung off the table to his dad’s waiting arms…

…only his dad was no longer there. He took a quick step backwards and let the little boy fall to the floor. The little one, shocked and hurt, said, "Daddy, you moved; you let me fall!" To which his father replied, "That will teach you never to trust nobody!"

I grew up in a home where my dad’s word was his bond. His promise was no less powerful than a signed, notarized contract. I think about his generation and the way business was often done with a handshake. Promises were most often kept. My dad also taught me to be wary of those whose promises were regularly broken. In his car business, he knew the ones who brought a vehicle in for repairs and would want to pick it up, promising to pay him later. His principle was simple: when you pay, you get your car back. That might sound harsh, but it kept his customers honest and kept his bills paid.

King Solomon, known for his wise sayings, knew something about those powerful things we call words. He said, "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." (Proverbs 25:11 English Standard Version) I find this proverb both beautiful and challenging in this day when so many promises are made and so few are kept. Becoming a person who says what she means and means what she says might quickly distinguish someone, in the home, in the school, in the church, in the neighborhood and in the marketplace.

You probably won’t be surprised that Jesus spoke of the power of promises. That’s the topic this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. On our "From here to where?" journey, Jesus set a high standard for the way our word must be our bond. Hope you can be there. If you can’t, catch the podcast!

 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Unknown

Cathy and I like to joke about the kinds of movies she enjoys.  Three subjects seem to fascinate her: twins, kidnappings and amnesia.  Twins is a “no brainer” subject for her, since we have twin daughters.  I’m not sure how she got fascinated with kidnapping.  Amnesia?  I used to understand that one…but I forgot!   When she was a kid, Cathy followed a comic strip that had all three.  Kidnapped twins, with one having amnesia.  Totally cool!

 
Though it contains none of Cathy’s favorite subjects, one of our favorite movies is a romantic comedy released a few years ago.  In it, the destined couple meet, start falling for each other, then go their separate ways early in the story.  Both of them end up trying to find love in the arms of others, but neither can quit thinking about the love they “lost.”  At various times in the story, they come amazingly close to running into each other, but always miss…until the end.  It’s easy to love stories like that.
 
Today, though, I want to mention a lost love that never gets found.  It’s the story of a guy who is full of selfless love for the girl of his dreams.  Over and over, he looks for ways to meet her and demonstrate the kind, gentle, unselfish love that he knows will fill her heart to overflowing.  When she seems to ignore his attempts to reach out to her, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate his love in ways that she might understand.  Each time that fails, he calls on some of his friends to approach her and tell her how great his love is.
 
Over and over, the girl spurns the kindness of the most caring person she will ever hear about.  She ignores him, quietly walking the other way.  Sometimes she finds other people, people who hurt her and take from her without ever really caring about her…but she flaunts those relationships, throwing them in the kind one’s face.  Sometimes she acts as if she might change her mind, having a brief conversation with him.  Those talks, though, always end with her rejecting him and running off to others.  
 
The sad end of this story comes when it is too late.  All his attempts to develop a loving relationship have been pushed away.  The day arrives when she can no longer say yes…even if she wanted to.  On that day, he will say the most painful words he could ever utter: “I never knew you; get away from me.” (Matthew 7:23 New Living Translation)
 
A careful reading of the Bible will reveal one of the great themes of the text: God designed us to have an intimate relationship with Him.  Over and over again, He is seen as the patient, persistent, loving Bridegroom, seeking His bride so that He can shower her with His loving presence.  We, you and I, are the bride.  Our whole existence is based on a huge divine attempt to KNOW us.  He gives us chance after chance to accept His offer of love.  If we do, His heart rejoices and we begin to know a life beyond our previous imagination.  If we don’t…
 
…we end up UNKNOWN.  For eternity.
 
This weekend at Stone Ridge Church, we will talk about endless love.  I can’t wait to discuss it with you!  Can’t be there?  Catch the podcast