Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas!

I confess. Cathy and I like to watch Christmas movies. In addition to It's A Wonderful Life, which is pretty much an annual tradition, we enjoy taking the occasional quiet evening during the Christmas season to relax in front of a family-friendly film. Some of them are cheesy, some are funny and some are ridiculous. I was caught off guard, then, by a quite serious and subtly hopeful film called Midnight Clear. Midnight Clear was written and produced by Jerry B. Jenkins, who co-authored the popular Left Behind series of books.

I mention this movie because I found it quite depressing at the start. It seemed as if every character was in emotional, relational pain. Each minute of the story seemed more hopeless than the last. I found myself wondering what would happen to turn this story around. I mean, isn't Christmas suppose to be about hope rather than hopelessness? Isn't hope a big theme in Hollywood? The stories are supposed to drag you to the depths, then give you a fast elevator ride to a hero (at Christmas, it's usually Jesus or Santa) who saves the day, makes you want to cheer and causes an "I'd watch that again!" to escape from your lips.

Midnight Clear didn't do that. Most of the characters were still in significant pain at the end of the story. Why, then, would I take the time to write about this film and even use "subtly hopeful" to describe it? It was only after a few hours of reflection that it hit me: real life isn't like Hollywood movies. Real life is far more about small decisions, subtle changes and stubborn determination to step into pain than it is about some hero flying in to instantly save the day. Real life is about real hope and Midnight Clear is full of it; you just have to look closely to find it.

If nothing else, Midnight Clear will make me look at this week's Christmas services with different eyes. Who will attend with a family member, grasping the last strand of hope that maybe -- just maybe -- their family can be healed? Who will miss because the loss they have suffered is just too overwhelming? Who will do something out of raw obedience and experience the joy of watching God work through it?

Those are the real joys at Christmas. They may not have people lining up to pluck down a small pile of hard-earned dollars at the box office, but I think they are pretty popular on heavenly screens!

This is our 42nd Christmas together and our 28th to share with Stone Ridge Church family. Cathy and I are overwhelmed with gratitude. Merry Christmas! May you experience the fulness of God's tender mercies and the speechless joy of discovering His purposes as you enter 2014.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Purposeful Protection

On a recent night, I was tossing and turning, not able to sleep. It was on a weekend when I experienced an oppressive spiritual attack. As if out of nowhere, I was fighting off feelings of fear, anxiety, worry and hopelessness. I had suffered such attacks before and each time I arrived at a place of peace, experiencing God's presence in an unusual way. On this night, I was praying my way through and I suddenly sensed that Jesus was speaking to my heart. (Those of you who don't believe will struggle with this and I'm comfortable with your skepticism.) He took me back to the time my mom almost miscarried when she was pregnant with me. "I protected you then," He said.

Then He reminded me of how ill I was as a tiny child. "I brought you through," He said gently. One by one, He brought to memory different times that my life was in danger. At least one was my own fault, but several times I was suddenly thrown into dangerous circumstances. Each time He said, "I protected you."

I suddenly realized that there were other times; times He protected me and kept me alive that I never knew about. He orchestrated events to keep me from danger that was coming, but, instead, never got there. As I felt amazed by His goodness, He again spoke to my heart. "I created you for what is coming. I protected You because I designed you for my purposes which must be lived out." In other words, the God of the Universe designed me for a purpose (He did the same for you!) and He has faithfully worked behind the scenes of my life to put me in the situations where that purpose can be realized.

Some consider it just silly that we might be part of some giant, cosmic plan. In their world, we create our own destiny, either for good or for evil. In that way of thinking, there is no God or he isn't really that interested in us personally. We carve out our own niche, we reap the rewards for doing a good job or we pay the penalty for not doing well.

"Odd," you might say, "that you are focusing on this subject at Christmas." But, it's not odd at all...when you discover what was happening in the invisible realm as the familiar characters were experiencing the first Christmas in the visible realm. Not odd at all! Find out more this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can't be there? Catch the podcast!


Monday, December 9, 2013

God's Orchestrations

Head spinning and knees ready to buckle, I stood on the parade field. I had been sick for several days, but I was NOT going to miss our graduation for boot camp. I was in the U.S. Army at Fort Ord, California and we were one day away from the ceremony that would mark the end of the beginning of our military duty. I was sick with the flu, but I refused to go on "sick call."

During the previous two or three nights, I had to wrap myself up in several blankets to stave off the chills. I slept all I could and got up each morning with enough energy to get the day started. As it wore on, I became weaker and weaker, with me plodding through classes and physical training, then finally dropping into bed as early as possible. Now we were at the last day of training and I was standing in formation on the parade ground; this was the final run-through of the ceremony which would take place the next day.

That night was the hardest of all. Other men in my unit were busy getting ready to enjoy graduation and I was bundled up on my bunk shivering. Several interruptions during the night added to my physical discomfort. Each time something woke me up, I wanted nothing more than to roll up in wool blankets and go back to sleep. The morning arrived with just enough hope that I could get through this last day. The graduation went as planned; I barely remember it. It was what happened after the graduation that was forever etched in my memory as one of God's mysterious ways.

Some of the men in my unit had family who came in from nearby cities for graduation. Others just took advantage of the liberty granted to them and headed into town for the night. I went back to my room, wrapped blankets around me and went to sleep. Late that afternoon, a couple of the guys came in to check on me. I will never forget their kindness. Others were out partying and these two guys from the Deep South were concerned about me. They told me they thought I should go on sick call. I was finally so ill that I simply said, "Okay."

The Fort Ord hospital was right across the street from our barracks. My two fellow graduates walked me across and took me to a medic who was on duty. The medic heard my symptoms and stuck a thermometer in my mouth. A couple of minutes later, he pulled out the thermometer, looked at it and walked out of the room. My temperature was so high that he came back in wearing a surgical mask to help protect himself from whatever I had. "We're admitting you to the hospital," he said. Within a few minutes I was upstairs in bed, being filled with medication and given strict orders that I had to drink a huge glass of fluids every few hours.

The next day, Friday, was transition day following graduation. Everyone was shipped off to their next duty station for advanced training. Many, like me, were assigned to schools at Fort Ord, so they were simply "shipped" to a different barracks on another part of the base. I, however, was lying in the hospital. I was told that I would stay administratively attached to my basic training unit until we knew how long it would take to recover. Then I would be assigned to an advanced unit for my next phase of training.

Cathy and I were in our first year of marriage at the time. Those brief months of separation felt like forever to us. We had been told that we could live off base during the next phase of training so we made plans for her to fly out. She was scheduled to arrive the Monday after graduation, Memorial Day. Fortunately I was much better by Saturday afternoon and was released on Sunday morning.

The following Friday was another transition day on that large training base and I was "shipped" off to my advanced training unit. I wrongly thought that I would be with the guys from my boot camp unit who were attending the same school. Instead, I was assigned to the company right next door to theirs. When I arrived, I discovered that the possibility of living off base with my wife was completely up to the Commanding Officer of the company to which I was assigned. Fortunately, Charlie Company's CO was inclined to let us have this privilege, within very tight restrictions. I wasn't there very long before I ran into some of my own buddies from basic and the conversation came up. Their company commander was unwilling to let them live off base, even if their wife was there.

I spent a very sick weekend in a hospital and it opened the door for me to stay with my wife rather than living apart. God orchestrated my illness to give us a great blessing. Also, Cathy's presence during that season helped open up a whole sequence of events that changed the direction of our lives.

The Christmas story contains pain, hardship and even the slaughter of innocents, with God orchestrating it all to accomplish His greater purposes. If you look at the story with the eyes of faith, you can begin to understand a little more of the mystery of God's work. We will talk about it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can't be there? Catch the podcast!


Friendly Light Up Ahead

I usually took a shortcut across an orchard and through a couple of barbed-wire fences. Dodging cow patties was no problem and well worth the effort when the fruit was ripe. "Ripe"was a relative term for me as a kid; by the time the Jonathan apples were about an inch in diameter, I was forever grabbing one off the tree to eat. I actually liked the Yellow Delicious apples better green than ripe. Worth the effort indeed! But, sometimes the shortcut wasn't available. That's when I had to take the long way; the country road next to our house.

My destination was almost always the same. My best friend Mike lived around the corner from us, less than a quarter mile away. Whether we walked across the orchard or on the road, we each burned up the trails between our houses. Day and night, every season of the year, we were almost constantly together. Even today, I can "see" almost every step of the way. I picture walking up the Smith's driveway and around the back patio into the back door. With adult eyes, I imagine looking down upon myself as a kid. I see a carefree boy walking, running, and skipping, picking up a rock to throw at a fence post, pulling the mature head from a blade of grass and chewing on it to taste the sweetness.

Those memories have faded with time, but one night I made a trip to Mike's that I won't ever forget. One of us called the other and we decided that I would go over to his house. I told my parents where I would be and walked out into the night air. As I stepped into the shadow created by our front porch light, I realized how dark it was. Moonless, the night sky was ablaze with stars, but they weren't enough to really light my path. At that time, none of the people in our country neighborhood had streetlights. Without the moon, it was hard to even see the road I was walking on. One or two neighbors, like us, had their porch lights on; otherwise it was pitch black. Only those few familiar points of light helped me know when I got to Mike's.

For you to get the full picture, you need to know that I was a little afraid of the dark. Not terrified, but just a bit fearful of what I couldn't see out there. With heightened senses, I noticed every tiny sound, concerned that the din of my own footsteps would awaken some pouncing horror. Step by tenuous step, I walked along that road. Then I saw Mike's driveway and felt the comforting glow of lights shining inside his house. I walked around the side, into the darkness of the back patio area...

...where Mike jumped screaming out of the shadows and scared the living daylights out of me!

I'll never forget that trip. I thought of it again recently as I pondered some profound verses about light and darkness:

"God is light and in Him is no darkness..." (1 John 1:5)

"People loved the darkness more than the light." (John 3:19)

Truth is, we all enjoy the darkness at times, especially when it hides our own inner darkness. In the end, though, something in us wants to find a familiar driveway and the warmth of friendly light up ahead. Light is one of the great promises at Christmas. We talked about it recently at Stone Ridge Church. Catch the podcast.


Monday, November 25, 2013

The Power of Promises

I have been listening to the audio book of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert A. Caro published this Pulitzer Prize winning biography back in 1975. (Before you rush out to get a copy, be aware that it's 1344 pages in length.) Robert Moses had a vision for parks -- places to play and rest -- and became the power behind the development of such parks and the parkways (limited access highways) to get to them.

What began as a desire to beautify and provide something helpful to the millions who moved into New York from around the world, got warped into a way for Mr. Moses to collect and wield personal power. He learned the tricks of patronizing, bullying, and character assassination to literally bend elected politicians to his will. One of his favorite ploys was lying. He would intentionally underestimate the cost of a project so that elected officials would release the money to do it. He knew that, once a project was started, those same officials couldn't afford the political fallout of calling it a failure and stopping it. Instead, they would just release more money to pay the real cost of the project, the cost that Moses knew from the very beginning. He used this deception again and again.

The result of Robert Moses' actions was that millions considered him a genius and a friend of the little guy throughout most of his life. It was only at the end of his career when the judgment of history would tell the true story of his corruption. I thought of him and did a quick comparison to another man who lived during a similar era: my dad.

"My word is my bond," my dad used to say. If he gave his word to someone, it carried the same weight as a stack of notarized documents. As I write this, I can hear the voice of Samwise Gamgee saying, "I made a promise, Mr. Frodo; a promise..." in The Lord of the Rings. Sam wouldn't let Frodo sneak off into Mordor by himself. Why? Because he promised. And Samwise kept his promises. That's the way my dad lived his life. You gave your word and you kept your word; your integrity rested upon it.

I'm reflecting as I write this, thinking about the many people I know whose dads (and/or moms) made promises that they didn't keep. They may have been as intentionally corrupt as Robert Moses, or they could have simply developed weak character, not learning to follow through on their words. Either way, those unkept promises left a mark. For many, those empty pledges have become like an emotional leprosy, constantly eating away at things like joy and hope. Dwelling in those shadows can cause a person to believe that ALL promises are made to be broken.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, we kick off our Christmas study in God's Word. It is fitting that we begin with a simple, profound reminder: God keeps His promises! This message could be the best gift you receive in all the Christmases of your life. Bring a friend and join us at Stone Ridge! Can't be there? Catch the podcast!


Monday, November 11, 2013

Communications Conundrum

I punched in the number and pressed "Send." My heartbeat jumped a couple of notches as I waited for the call to go through. Trying to keep my focus on the road in front of me and the vehicles around me, I thrilled to the response on the other end of the line. A familiar voice. In another state. Far away. I don't think I will every forget that call.

Who did I call? I don't really remember. Why was I so excited? Oh, that was the real issue, you see. I was excited because I was talking on a cell phone to someone in another state as I drove down the road in my car. And this didn't happen last week or last month; it happened about twenty years ago. What an advance in technology! What a leap in communications possibilities! I had no idea where this was heading. Most likely, neither did you.

It was only a year or two later when I discovered that one of my friends, a businessman who worked extensively in both Phoenix and Yuma, did non-stop business deals on his phone as he commuted along Interstate 8. He called me one day and we talked for at least a half-hour. His signal dropped for a couple of minutes, then he called right back. I remember dreaming at the time of the possibilities.

We still didn't understand where it was going.

A couple years after that, mobile phone companies came up with plans that didn't charge you for minutes in which you called another of their mobile phones. Suddenly we saw an exponential increase in the number of people who had a "cell phone." Then, shortly, mobile phones moved from "toys" to necessities.

I am writing these words on an iPad, using an App that will allow me to send it or post it in more directions than you can shake a stick at. By the time it goes online, some of you will read it in an email, but far more will read it directly from my blog. The largest number of readers will come from Twitter and Facebook, with some linking in guessed it...LinkedIn. While all these different ways of communicating still amaze me, one of the biggest changes in my life is not that I can send these words out through so many various channels, but that you can communicate back to me through just as many media (probably more).

Suddenly...SUDDENLY we can see where this was going!!

We can Skype or Facetime with someone across town or on the other side of the planet, often for "free." We can hold meetings in which we all sit in our own homes and offices, seeing and hearing each other. We can send and receive messages, carrying on running conversations with each other. WE. CAN. COMMUNICATE! But many of us have all but forgotten how to shut it off.

And it's sucking the life out of us.

That's why I'm going to talk about it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can't be there? Catch the podcast!


Monday, November 4, 2013

Tears Can Bring Hope

Before that day, tears had been hard to produce. Up until then I wanted to cry, but couldn't seem to squeeze the liquid out of my eyes. I knew enough by then to understand that tears can be a sign of emotional health; but, for me, they had always...always (as an adult) been hard. When the dam broke, I found myself standing in a hospital hallway wracked with sobs. I didn't care who saw or heard the awful picture of my grief.

I was 25 years old at the time. My 20 year old sister, Carol Beth, had just been removed from a ventilator. Within a few moments, her heart stopped, her lungs exhaled their last breath and she was pronounced dead. Frail since childhood, her heart had been ravaged by an infection that couldn't be eradicated. Her cardiologist, a Christ-follower, said to my parents: "Her heart is beating as long as we keep pumping air into her lungs. However, her brain activity makes me think that she...your cherished already with the Lord."

How does a person walk through such a dark valley? How does one endure the loss, the loneliness, the "Why?" that seems to scream from every fiber of being? The answer to those questions is what I began to understand that day as I stood in a hospital hallway sobbing. The Bible puts it this way, "And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them." (Romans 8:28 New Living Translation) As my tears flowed, I knew from somewhere deep inside...

"...God causes..." God wasn't asleep at the switch and He wasn't passively sitting by while we suffered. The very chapter where this verse is located has some of the greatest love promises in the world located there. I knew that God wanted to cause something to happen through this tragedy. I knew that the "something" He wanted to cause would result in "good."

"...everything..." The sinner wants to take credit for the good in this world and blame God for the evil. The saint wants to do the opposite; credit God with the good and blame humans for the evil. Both can lose sight that God is in the business of taking even the darkest of this world's events and turn them into something right and good and redemptive. It was the darkness of the concentration camps that gave us Jews like Elie Wiesel and Christians like Corrie Ten Boom. God is in the business of turning tragedy into triumph.

" work together..." No, everything is NOT good. My sister's early death was NOT good! But God had good that He wanted to bring from it, and He did! That day in the hospital hallway, I heard Him whisper to my heart: "I am teaching you about grief. I am shaping you to help people who are hurting." Not long after that, I began talking with families in times of great loss. I stood with parents who lost their children and children who lost their parents. I couldn't begin to imagine the depth of their individual pain. But I could understand something about grief and what it does. I also had learned first-hand how God pours out His grace to people when they are in one of the dark valleys of their lives.

Whatever your challenge, regardless of the intensity of the pain, God wants to use your broken times to prepare you for a future you can't imagine. It's a future in which He will take the very hurts that attempted to destroy you and use them to shape you into a conduit of His love and hope for the world. Trusting Him for that future is critical for you to get out of your rut. It's what we will talk about this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can't join us? Catch our podcast here.


Monday, October 28, 2013

Getting Out of Your Rut

The real question that day was which one I would listen to: my adventurous, risk-taking brother-in-law or my conservative, safe father-in-law. We sat, facing the road ahead with a decision: do we take the short route or opt for the longer one?

We had started out that day to visit home-building sites in the Yuma area. My brother-in-law is a contractor in another part of the country and he has constant curiosity about what other builders are doing. My father-in-law built a few homes when he was younger, including the one which Cathy grew up in. That beautiful place has been their home for well over 50 years and still amazes me with its tight doors and windows. Together we went from site to site, walking through houses in various stages of construction. The two of them saw things I didn't and showed me how some builders cut corners while others were building houses to last. It was fascinating, to say the least.

We had ended our tour of new construction near the college and were headed east into the foothills when we literally ran out of road. We could see more new homes about a quarter mile away, a strip of Arizona desert directly in front of us. Tire tracks indicated that someone was driving across that desert, but we couldn't tell if my Honda Accord would make it.

"Maybe we should go around," I said, realizing that we might have to drive two or three miles out of the way to get to the construction zone in front of us. "I think you might be right," my father-in-law quickly agreed. "No use driving out in the middle of that and getting stuck."

"Go for it!" my brother-in-law said with enthusiasm. Those three words have probably been his life's motto; most of the time he has been right. So...

...I went for it. At first, it seemed like the right choice. But, somewhere, right out in the middle of that stretch of desert, the gravel content in the soil gave way to pure sand.

We were stuck almost up to our axles.


Being stuck in a rut is no fun when you're driving somewhere. It's even less fun when you're traveling through life. I find it interesting that God allows ruts to develop in this world...but he never intended for us to stay stuck in one. But how do we get out of our rut? That's the topic this November at Stone Ridge Church. Can't join us? Catch the podcasts here.


Monday, October 21, 2013

A Time of Favor

College freshmen are known for many things, but good sense isn't usually one of them. I was a typical college freshman when God started stirring something in my heart. It was life-changing season for me and a group of friends. Though we were learning much about what it means to be a Christian at that time, we wouldn't have received a good sense medal. We tended to pray when we should have studied, play when we should have worked, and generally react toward authority the way a young stallion responds to the approach of it's first rider.

Even with all the senseless things going on in our lives, my friends and I thought nothing of taking audacious risks as we tried to understand what it means to follow Jesus. One such risk landed us in chairs across the desk from the Governor of Arizona. It's a story of great favor which we in no way deserved.

It was the Spring of 1970. The turbulent sixties were still being lived out with millions from our generation choosing to "Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out." Stephen Stills and Buffalo Springfield had inadvertently painted a word picture of our generation:

"There's battle lines being drawn

Nobody's right if everybody's wrong

Young people speakin' their minds

A gettin' so much resistance from behind."

In 1970, the early signs of a coming spiritual tsunami called the "Jesus Movement" were just beginning to be noticed. Viet Nam was under full assault, by our troops in Southeast Asia and by the protesters here at home. With large universities among his constituency, Arizona Governor Jack Williams had his hands full. Students were screaming for change, law enforcement was being pushed to the limits and the possibility of riots lingered in the desert heat.

So here we were, four goofy guys from a small Christian college, who got the audacious idea that we should ask for an appointment to go and pray for the governor. Looking back, I can think of a pile of reasons why almost anyone else should have done this task. We were full of spiritual fervor, but our maturity was in the tank. Still, one of us called and asked for an appointment. I don't think we were surprised that we received one.

Late one afternoon a couple weeks later we arrived at the State Capitol. We made our way to the elevator and up to the Governor's office on the top floor. The Governor's secretary graciously received us and a few minutes later we were ushered in. Governor Jack Williams greeted us with a handshake. He then asked a little about each of us. Quickly, one of the guys got to the purpose of the visit. "Governor," he said, "We have seen the news and know that you aren't very popular with many college students. We wanted you to know that we are concerned and would like it if you would let us pray for you."

It was a moment of great favor. We sat in a place we didn't deserve to be and spoke with a man who didn't have to see us. To top it all off, he very humbly and gratefully wanted our prayers. We prayed and left.

Favor is getting things you don't deserve to get, going places you don't deserve to go and meeting with people you don't deserve to meet. Jesus said, "The time of God's favor has come." (Luke 4:19) We will talk about it this weekend at Stone Ridge. Can't be there? Catch the podcast here.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Overcoming Vicious Dogs

Some time back, Cathy and I were serving in a local church that set aside one night a week to visit people in their homes. We would take the addresses of recent visitors at our church and knock on their doors hoping for spiritual conversations. At a certain time on those evenings we would gather back at a church building to report on our visits. Needless to say, I was intrigued when one of our visiting teams returned to tell how they were prohibited from getting to the door of a house by a huge, angry dog standing just inside the front gate. My intrigue turned into something deeper than curiosity when a different team tried to visit that house the next week and met the same large, vicious canine.

Side note: I grew up with dogs...big dogs. In fact, most of the people who lived in the farming area where I was raised had big dogs. I am used to dogs barking and acting mean, only to have them start wagging their tail when they no longer feel threatened. My background made me consider the challenge of this particular feral beast as something of a personal problem that I needed to conquer. It felt as if I was being told, "I double-dog dare you," if you get my drift.

The next week on visitation night, I intentionally took the address of the "dog house." I couldn't wait to come back in a couple hours and report to the other teams how Cathy and I were able to make friends with the wicked animal, meet its owners and have a great talk with them about God.

We parked our car at the curb next to the aforementioned house, said a quick prayer and stepped into the early evening air. We were barely a step or two onto the sidewalk when a huge and vicious dog came running to the fence to see what we were about. His barks carried an ominous note, but I had heard many other dogs do the same and I wasn't really intimidated. We got to the front gate and the the animal increased his furious warnings. I stopped, spoke gently to him and slowly reached my hand over the fence for him to sniff. It took a moment for him to stop barking long enough and warily take in the scent of the back of my hand. Bit by bit, he saw that I wasn't threatening and he relaxed noticibly. Sensing that we were now on safe ground, I gingerly reached over to unlatch the front gate and the dog went into orbit. The pitch of his voice and the fire in his eyes told me that he would have none of it. I tried unsuccessfully to settle him again and let him sniff me; we were through. Cathy and I went back to the church and reported that this dog was the best gatekeeper we had ever seen.

Some dogs just can't be messed with. You can't trick them or coax them or lure them away from their vicious nature. This becomes ever so personal when you realize that some of those vicious beasts aren't just animals that run around on four legs; some take up residence inside human hearts. Did you ever feel like something dark and grisly was happening inside you and you couldn't seem to escape it? You may have tried every conceivable way of coping, but you still find yourself chained by a force you can't seem to break.

Jesus Christ spent a huge chunk of his ministry breaking the chains that bound the people around him. It's a ministry that still exists today among his followers. Come this weekend to Stone Ridge Church and find out how the "dogs" that keep hounding you can be neutralized so you can be set free. Can't be there. Catch the podcast here.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Speaking Truth With Love

A mom I know recently told me the story of a conversation she had a few years ago with her daughter. The daughter was unhappy, complaining bitterly about one friend, then another. Finally the mom wisely said, "You know, you are telling me about all the problems between you and all your friends. While I understand that everyone does and says things that hurt others at times, the one constant between you and your friends is you. Could it be that the really problem is within you rather than them?" The daughter grew silent. The mom wait, concerned that maybe she had said too much. Finally, the daughter responded in a way that showed her understanding. She had never before considered that she might be the center of all her problems. Her mom's courage to tell her helped her get her attitude straight and change her relationships.

I love stories like that. What that mom did was "speak the truth in love." She took a risk that her daughter might just add her to the list of people to complain about. She had no control over how the daughter would respond, but she said what she needed to say, hoping for the best.

If you follow Jesus, one of your responsibilities it to have spiritual conversations with those who don't know Him. Most of Jesus' followers, at least in our part of the world, make a fatal mistake. They choose either truth or love. Truth without love is abrasive, rejecting those who don't fall lock-step into line. Love without truth feels nice and comfy at first, but forces even the deepest friendships to a surface level when it comes to things that matter.

Is there a way that we can have rich, meaningful conversations with those who don't believe and conduct them respectfully? Is it possible to talk about the big questions of life, even risking disagreement, but do so with such kindness that we maintain our friendships? It must be, because Christians through the centuries have been doing it. This weekend at Stone Ridge Church we will talk about how to ask great questions and open up meaningful conversations with our broken friends. If you can't attend, catch the podcast here.


Monday, September 30, 2013

"New" Toys

 In the mist of my memory, I recall the day my dad brought a box of "new" toys home from work.  Dad worked in the service department of the local Ford dealership and occasionally he would bring something unusual home.  One day it was the autographed 45 (for you who have grown up in the digital world, that was a single play record that played at 45 rpm) by an up-and-coming country star.  Sometimes it was some small item that came from a wrecked vehicle he towed.  But, one day it was a box of toys.  "New" toys.  


I call them "new" because that's what they were…to us.  Looking back, I'm sure that a connoisseur of toys would have called them "junk."  But, to us, they were new.  They were partly broken and nothing much to look at, but something in them sparked a creative fire in me and my siblings.  We didn't get new toys that often and we were excited!  For days we set a high value on those toys, figuring out ways we could use them to have fun we might not have had without them.  


I'm thinking about those "new" toys today because I realize that they are a pretty good metaphor of the way God looks at the people whom people connoisseurs have assigned to the junk pile.  Some of you will immediately get a little defensive when I say this because you have heard that "God don't make no junk!"  In and of itself that statement is true, but our "junk pile" status is always because of the mess we made, not something that God did.  We end up broken and stinky, feeling pretty hopeless and trying to find some way to piece ourselves back together again.  In the meantime, the God who created us DEEPLY VALUES US EVEN IN OUR BROKEN CONDITION!  In fact, I'm convinced that our broken condition is the first step to discover just how much He really values us.


And we aren't just momentary playthings to Him.  HIS purpose has always been to help us discover OUR purpose and to find a life worth far more than we could have imagined without Him.  Our broken condition is the conduit to get us ready for what He alone can do.  


Stone Ridge is a church of broken people for broken people.  We consider our part in God's plan to pour our His love upon the brokenness of our culture to be one of the greats privileges of our lives.  I can't wait to talk with you about it this weekend!  If you can't be with us, catch the podcast here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Art of Conversation

At our house, the kitchen table was used for more than eating meals; it was the place of conversation. At the time I discovered this, I was unaware of the major turn it would make in my life. The home where I grew up was the regular gathering place for crowds of family and friends. My dad's outgoing personality and my mom's gift of hospitality opened the door for literally hundreds of get-togethers over the years. In my youngest years, those days were full of fun activity outside, where we ran and played to our hearts content. Something happened, though, as I was entering my young teens; I discovered conversation at the kitchen table.

With younger kids running around outside and naps and/or ball games in the living room, the kitchen table seemed to fill up with a hodgepodge of folks ready to talk about life. Whether it was the latest news, the weather, the most recent family updates or something else, people would sit around that table and visit for hours. "Ugh!" I thought as a little guy. Who in their right mind would want to sit around and talk when we could be outside throwing a ball or having a rotten apple war? (We had apple trees, much fruit would be blown off by the winds and, yes, we had "wars" of throwing them at each other.)

One by one, my older cousins lost interest in our outside games and migrated toward the kitchen table. Somehow the day finally came for me to do the same. I remember the fascination I felt at watching how stories would link together to comprise long, interesting visits. Some detail in one person's comment would erupt into a similar recitation from another. On and on these testimonies would travel until someone would call a halt for evening chores. At that point, the town folk in the family would gather up their young-uns and head home.

I recall those moments today because I realize that I loved being the center of attention and I could ALWAYS think of something to say to keep a conversation going. What I couldn't do very well was keep silent. It was hard for me to imagine that everyone around the table was anything but mesmerized by my brilliant tales. Today I think that their politeness got the better of them and they put up with me constantly talking rather than rudely tell me I should be quiet and let someone else speak for a while.

As I grow older, I have come to understand that God has, like those around our kitchen table, often had to put up with me talking nonstop during prayer. I know better than to believe that I will be heard for my many words, but I still must discipline myself to shut up long enough to listen...really what He might want to say to me.

What is your prayer life like? Do you regale God with endless stories? Do you barrage Him with long lists of requests delivered in machine-gun staccato? Do you quickly gush your prayer list out to Him, then hang up and go about your day? If so, you are missing one of the biggest joys available to those who pray; that of listening for and learning to hear His voice. More this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Will God REALLY supply all my needs?

Eyes flitting back and forth, the old man stepped gingerly through the grove. Every few moments he found himself trying to scratch away the itch that seemed to afflict him wherever the rough fabric touched his skin. "How can peasants become accustomed to such coarse cloth?" he wondered. He spat with disgust. Why would he stoop to these lengths just to get an answer to the question plaguing his thoughts? He was the king, was he not?!

Finally, he saw the cottage among a tight knot of sycamore trees up ahead. Wisps of smoke curled out of the crude, clay chimney. She was home! With his two bodyguards, he paused behind one especially large tree. He couldn't be seen here. He himself have declared that women like her should be executed. They waited, perfectly still, as the gathering dusk overtook the sky above. The shadows deepened until all they could see was the tiny flicker of a candle from cracks in her old house. Finally, satisfied, he stepped out into the opening and went to the door.

"What do you want?" The wary gleam in her sharp eyes spoke of her constant fear. The sight of the three men was sufficient to raise her internal alarm to near panic. People rarely found their way to her and most wanted to be far away from her grove before darkness fell.

The old king, satisfied that she didn't recognize him, conjured up a pleading tone: "I need to speak with the medium," he whined. "Is that you?"

Fearing a trap, her heart pounded as she answered slowly. "A medium? Why would you need one of those foul creatures?"

“I have to talk to a man who has died,” he said. “Will you call up his spirit for me?”

“Are you trying to get me killed?” the woman demanded. “You know that Saul has outlawed all the mediums and all who consult the spirits of the dead. Why are you setting a trap for me?” But Saul took an oath in the name of the Lord and promised, “As surely as the Lord lives, nothing bad will happen to you for doing this.” (1 Samuel 28:8-10 NLT)

On the night before his death, King Saul stepped willfully into the lowest pit he could imagine, hoping to save what God had decreed would be taken from him. The Lord had promised him that his heirs would rule throughout the generations if only Saul would seek and obey Him. Saul did neither. In fact, it was his failure to humbly ask God for his needs and wait upon Him for answers that doomed the monarch. It is the choicest irony then, that Saul spent the last night of his life asking a woman to conjure up the spirit of dead Samuel to give him the answers he could no longer get from God Himself.

In the New Testament, Paul wrote, "Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done." (Philippians 4:6 NLT) Had Saul lived by that wisdom, his family would be remembered with honor rather than humiliation...

...which leads to the question: How are you doing with this command? Are you taking your needs to God, trusting Him to supply according to His wisdom and love for you? Or are you, like Saul, impatiently jumping in to do it yourself when you don't get the answer you want when you want it? The name for such trusting prayer is supplication. We will dig into it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can't be there? Catch the podcast here.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Encouragement During Difficult Times

I walked down the spacious, comfortable hallways of the mega-church we were visiting. I was wearing my letter sweater, the one with the huge capital "F" on the front. The "F" was invisible to the human eye, but I was sure that most people could see it just as clearly as I did. "F"..."FAILURE!"

Amazingly, I was "wearing" my letter sweater on the very trip that was supposed to help our church recover from a train wreck. Months earlier, we were shocked by a series of events that left our church wondering if we were about to die. Most of our vibrant, young leaders had left to help start their own new church that seemed to mushroom in size overnight. In the meantime, those left with us were in pain, often angry and frustrated by what had happened to us. It was during the ugly aftermath of that perfect storm that I tried to gather some key leaders to trek off to a large, effective church so we could learn and re-calibrate our ecclesiological GPS (God Positioning System). Full of hope, leaders sacrificed time and money to board a plane and fly off to the midwest.

When we got there, the initial excitement about what we saw quickly morphed into frustration. Why wasn't our church more like that one? What had happened to cause us to fall apart so catastrophically? Surely we could recover more quickly than we were. The conversation kept progressing with increased tension. Finally, one of our young leaders -- a good friend -- pointed out the problem as he saw it. The problem, he explained, was that I wasn't a good leader. Though his words cut to the core of my being, I wondered if was right.

I tossed and turned that night, waking to the new day with more emotional pain than I could handle. As the morning progressed, I found myself walking down the spacious, comfortable hallways of the mega-church we were visiting. The invisible "F" on the front of that sweater felt like a flashing neon sign that everyone around me could see.

You might wonder why I took time to recall those painful days in my life. It's because that was the season when I discovered my need to keep a file. (No, it's not a file of information about leaders who have hurt me. With joy, I tell you that the young leader who hurt me so badly on that trip came to me right after we got home and sincerely apologized. We survived those relational rapids, friendship intact.) The file I keep is called "Encouragement During Difficult Times." It was during that same season of pain that I was blessed with many letters and cards from people I respect. They shared hope from the Scripture, reminders of ways I had helped them, and words of thanks for my work. One pastor who has a reputation of being insensitive and hard on others, sent me a long letter in which he expressed appreciation for me and the exhortation not to give up.

I keep my file and regularly add things to it. From time to time, I hit an emotional wall. While we have never again experienced a train wreck like the one I just described, leading ministry is hard work and fraught with challenges. When I feel like giving up or at least like screaming, I pull out that trusty file folder.

It isn't by accident that Thanksgiving is part of a healthy prayer life. God designed us to be at our best when we live with an attitude of gratitude. That gratitude begins with our relationship with Him, but it must extend to how we live every day. More about it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can't join us? Catch the podcast here.