Archive for March, 2009

Making Faith Possible

by on Mar.31, 2009, under View from the Pew

This post originally was written and published as a column in Enrichment Journal.

Dear Pastor:

Most laity have never attended church growth seminars. We don’t read books on the subject, and few of us have ever heard about “unchurched Harry and Mary”. We’re not overly familiar with what “seeker sensitive” means and, if we are, we may well harbor some doubts about its methods. But for churches seeking to grow and impact their communities with the Good News, we are the key that can lock the church’s back door and swing the entry doors wide open. If we have the vision. If we understand its importance. If we are seriously obedient to His call. That’s where you come in.

Perhaps there is no more pronounced difference between pastors and laity than the reception each of us receives on our first Sunday in a new fellowship. For pastors, the event is much anticipated and well publicized. Your background is known. The role you will play in the future is understood. You’ve already formed preliminary relationships with key members of the church serving on the Board or Pulpit Committee, and these contacts were positive or the invitation to candidate would not have been extended. Your first Sunday is filled with pressures that we will never experience; your sermon will be followed by judgment and a vote. Will they like what they see and hear? Is this the place to serve? Will these people extend a call? Your style and your sermon are the probable topics of discussion as the parking lot empties and, later, as dinners are prepared.

Contrast your experience with ours. We’re visitors, new to the area, looking for a place to worship. Like you, we drive to the church wondering if this will be the place God has for us, but our first Sunday is filled with pressures that you will never experience. Will anyone reach out? Will anyone care? No one is expecting us. No one knows who we are. We enter – and leave – anonymously. In the midst of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, we are alone. People greet us with a handshake as they move past to spend time in comfort zones with familiar faces. Friendship surrounds, but does not touch us. We are disconnected; hurt and disappointment are our homeward companions.

There are no words that can adequately express how it feels to be turned away by followers of the One who said “Come”. Yet too often laity turns away. We have forgotten what it was like when we were on the outside; sting has been supplanted by satisfaction. We have grown too comfortable, and we need to be called to repentance. You must remind us of our responsibility before God to love His people; remind us what is stake. You must move us beyond our own anxiety so that we touch the truly anxious. Help us embrace a vision for growth that is born in His heart, proclaimed from His pulpits, and flourishes in His pews.

A church that does not enthusiastically welcome and embrace is a church that eventually withers and dies. It is a church that fails to comprehend the reality and totality of grace. None of us is deserving of the friendships and favors that have been given us. They come by His grace. All of us, as recipients of grace, must now remember that we are intended to become its instruments. Will our response to grace be inclusion or isolation? Welcome or walk away? Remind us that while we are free to choose our response, only one is consistent with being a follower of Jesus.

Few of us, pastors and laity alike, take the time to think about the gift of being included. How precious are those times when we can say to others: thank you for including us. Five words. They follow times of sharing; they reflect the gift of time. When spoken often, they are enough to make a difference. When they are spoken in response to the thoughtful acts of those who value people – even strangers – they can close the church’s back door. Spend time in creating an environment of inclusion among your people, it will be an investment that pays dividends. Challenge us to act like the Samaritan, not the priest or Levite of Luke 10 when we encounter those who need kindness and friendship.

Yet growth in the church obviously has a much broader meaning than waiting for others to come, and welcoming them when they do. To grow, we are commanded to go. Our churches are not meant to be sanctuaries from the battles faced in the everyday world. They are to be staging areas for rescue parties returning to the battlefields in search of wounded and others in need. Too many of us in the pews view this work – evangelism – as something we are not equipped to do. We want to leave it the pastors, the deacons, or just about anyone other than ourselves. But we cannot.

Near the exit of a church parking lot was a sign that said: share your faith with a friend. That means evangelism … something laity must do. But since we’re not always certain how receptive our friends will be, we are sometimes reluctant to share. Somewhere, I’m not sure where, was another sign. It said: make faith possible for a friend. This also means evangelism, but it means much more than our doing something. It means we are called to be something. We are meant to be His followers. We’re not just commanded to call others to repentance, we are commanded to live out our own life of repentance. We’re called to do more than leave our sinful ways; we are called to embrace righteous ones. We are called to do more than share the words of the Good News with others, we are called to actually care for them. When our friends – and when strangers we’ve never met – are struggling, and feel like they have no hope and no place to turn, we must make faith possible for them by the example of our lives. We must model the character of godliness that attracts them into the Kingdom. When we make faith possible for friends and strangers we throw open the front, and lock shut the back, doors of the church. Call us to this task.

God bless you, your family, and the work He has called you to do.

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A Prayer for Pastors

by on Mar.23, 2009, under View from the Pew

This post originally was written and published as a column in Enrichment Journal.

Dear Pastor:

Each day, countless numbers of lay people respond on your behalf to the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit. They pray for you. They listen not only to the voice of God, but they listen for it. And when they hear His call, they answer.

Their prayers are as diverse as their backgrounds. But they are as unified as the One who prompts them into action. Some are energized by personal experience, the words of others are formed only in obedience to what He asks. One appeals for wisdom, another for strength or encouragement. The health and well-being of you and your families are regular petitions. The content of many has meaning only in the context of spiritual language.

These prayers flow from the heart of God, but they are offered with the concern of those you serve. We in the pew care about you. We are concerned that you not attempt to fulfill your responsibilities alone. Yet we recognize that in many ways we have made it more difficult for you to share with us. Still, we realize that the mantle of ministry is a garment that is not to be worn by the pastor or teacher alone, but was meant for the entire body. So we seek answers to the questions of our concern.

When the demands of ministry weigh heavily on your shoulders, who do you have to share the burden? When spiritual warfare is most intense, do you have capable soldiers to fight by your side? When you need a listening ear to help you work through the hard times of ministry, who sits with you as a quiet confidant, withholding judgment but generously sharing comfort and encouragement? Is there a Joshua in your fellowship to fight battles at your command? Do you have sufficient Aarons and Hurs to raise your arms with sustaining strength until the victory is complete?

There are no easy answers to these questions. It is one thing to acknowledge your need for laity to assist you, and quite another to identity those capable of fulfilling such trust. So we pray for you, that the gap between need and fulfillment will not be insurmountable.

Heavenly Father, you have called us all to your work, but you have asked those who serve us as Pastors to walk a special kind of obedience. We pray now for our Pastors, and for all the needs that are unique to their calling out by You. Give them a deep assurance that what they do is worth the cost. Teach them to know what it means to rest in their work.

Send people of faith to minister to our ministers. Call us, we laity, to such a ministry. Give us a glimpse of the pastor’s burden. Raise us from our sleep. Disrupt our complacency. Show us the need. Cause us to act. Let us experience the joy of serving and sacrifice, so that we too will one day hear you say “well done”.

Lord, we ask you to provide great wisdom to our Pastors. Help them to know who among us is worthy of their trust. Lead them to those that are safe, and give safety to the sharing. Provide an Aaron and a Hur to each pastor in this fellowship. Equip each of your servants with people willing to share of their own strength. Let this be as natural as Your Word describes the function of the body.

Heal the hurt in our pastors caused by our sins against them. Redeem past memories when we did not rightly handle their trust, when we violated their confidences. Do not let past scars prevent them from finding assistance for their present burdens. Give discernment to our pastors, Lord, so that they will know those with whom they can share, and give them wisdom to know the extent of the sharing. In each instance where they extend their trust, teach them what is appropriate and what is not. When to share and when to not. Whom to trust and whom to not.

Bring down the walls of distrust that too frequently were justly built, but serve only to isolate our pastors from your provision. Defeat our enemy’s plans by causing this to happen. Knit your body tightly together, so that it truly acts as a one. Remove any irritant from its proper functioning.

Lord, call and send Joshuas throughout our fellowship; men and women that prevail in battle while our pastors lead, even in those times when leadership is manifested by “sitting and resting”. Teach us Your ways that so often seem foreign to us, and cause them to become as familiar as anything is our reality. Prepare your people for this, both pastors and laity. Show us the vision you have of how we should work together. Give us your mind in this matter, we pray.

We also remember each family member of our pastors, that have many of the same needs for sharing and caring laity. Meet these needs, Lord. For the spouse who is struggling to cope, who has little hope of encouragement, we ask for your provision. Bring into these circumstances people of genuine compassion, and restore joy and meaning in the way only you can do. We know that your mercies and new every morning, Lord, but sometimes it helps us to experience your mercies through the friendship of others, and we ask you to dispatch friends – true friends – to us on these occasions.

And we remember the children. Lord, be faithful. Cause there to be role models for each pastor’s child or teenager, role models that confirm the reality of your existence to them, and assist them in coming to a saving knowledge of you as Lord and Saviour. Teach them, as you teach us all, the reality of the realm of the Spirit. Give to our pastors, Lord, the blessing of families that know and serve you.

Father, we all stand in need of your sustaining power. Give it generously. Let us experience the reality of your presence each day. May we know this because we see your church act as you have ordained it to be, with each member serving the others. Thank you, again, for the gift that you have given to us in our pastors. Thank you for all that they do. Keep them in our minds, Lord, by calling us to prayer on their behalf and to share and care for their well-being. Bless them in Jesus name. Amen.

Pastor, these words give such an incomplete story of the call He has given to us on your behalf. These are not just our concerns for you, but His. So we agree with the prompting He has put into our spirit, and we petition Him as best we know how. May you find in His provision, the answer to every need facing you and your ministry at this time. God bless you.

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It’ll Never Happen to Me

by on Mar.21, 2009, under Musings

Until it does. The Nurse Practitioner removed part of the lesion for biopsy yesterday, and the waiting began. I’m not really worried because I’ve had other encounters with the consequences of a lifetime under the California sun. Odds are that it’s a basal cell or maybe a slightly more serious squamous. No problem, and yet ….

It’s times like this that get us thinking. Sure, we know that bad things are happening all around us. Cancer. Drunk drivers. A toddler left unwatched for just a moment. But life experience for most is surprisingly free of tragedies with permanent consequences. Our earliest encounters with pain or sickness ended well. Mommy kissed the skinned elbow and “made it all better.” The foul-tasting syrup or shot at the doctor’s office took care of the problem. Life went on. Certainly not problem or pain-free, but life goes on. Intellectually we know that something terribly bad could happen but our inner self has convinced us: it’ll never happen to me.

Then we discover a lump, a shadow appears on the x-ray, or the doctor asks to see us instead of a nurse sharing the expected news over the phone. Just like that life changes. Healing kisses don’t work and neither do all the treatments of modern medicine. Broken hearts struggle with haunting memories and what ifs. Christians unite in prayer for healing. But nothing changes.

We see others touched but not us. Why Lord? is our constant companion, and invitations for prayer and healing are seen not as times of expectancy but disappointment. It’ll never happen to me remains a part of us but takes on a whole new meaning.

What do we do then? How do we live when hope is gone?

The book of Mark tells the story of a woman who – and I absolutely love this expression – “had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors.” (Mark 5:26) . Twelve years. She spent all she had. “Yet instead of getting better, she got worse.” How easy it would have been for her to give up. To think: it’ll never happen to me. If you identify with her situation keep following her story.

When she had nothing left, she heard about Jesus. “If I just touch his clothes I will be healed.” That’s faith. She held onto hope for healing when hope had disappointed so many times before. But this time her hope was in someone that does not disappoint. Jesus.

Years ago I heard Jack Hayford say it this way: “God always acts suddenly, no matter how long it takes.” That’s the truth. For twelve years the woman suffered, then suddenly …. 

Everything changed. God is like that.

As people of faith we must resist the temptation to live our lives in a mindset that it’ll never happen to me. Because we know the God of the Suddenly. No matter how long it takes.

I’m going to keep that in mind … as I wait for the lab results.

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Generous Grouch?

by on Mar.19, 2009, under A Steward’s Journey

When was the last time you met a Generous Grouch? I’ll bet you never have, I’ll bet your experience is the same as mine: generous people are the least grouchy people on earth. They are, in fact, and most happy and contented people you’ll ever meet.

People who are into themselves, who are into money and the things money can buy … they’re just not very much fun to be around. But people who are into others, who generously share their money and possessions … they’re like stepping into the sunlight on a too cool day … their presence enough to surround us in warmth. 

Chapter 10 of A Steward’s Journey is about the grouch and generosity. The Bible has a lot to say about both, and the wise will follow its counsel.

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by on Mar.17, 2009, under Faith in the Public Square

I discovered a short book by Marja Meijers called Breath of Life and highly recommend it. It can be ordered here. The engaging story is a powerful apologetic for choosing life and is narrated by a wonderful little personality named Sorek. Follow the links, Sorek will appreciate it!

When I finished reading Breath of Life I knew I wasn’t finished with Sorek. This brief poem is written in his honor.


Who will side with Sorek?
Who will set him free?

God has formed his features
God has shaped his plan
This God who holds his future
Still gives a choice to Man.

Choice to seek his purpose
Or choice to turn away
Choice that stops a beating heart
Erases birth that day.

No laughter in his future
No hugs, no friends, no wife
Because a choice was wrongly used 
And took his Breath of Life.

Millions are their numbers
Sorek all their name 
Lives not lived but slaughtered
Choice reduced to shame.

Must it always be this way?
Is there nothing we can do?
To value life above false choice
What’s next is up to you.

Who will side with Sorek?
Who will set him free?

I will side with Sorek
I will help him be.

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War on Words

by on Mar.14, 2009, under Musings

We’ve ruined a perfectly good word: WAR. And in the process we stand to lose much more. In times past, war was used to describe major conflicts with life and death hanging in the balance. Not just for the soldiers who fought in them but for the nations and governments that dispatched them. When wars were lost societies changed. National boundaries were re-drawn. Civilizations fell.

Then things got fuzzy. We had something called a War on Poverty that wasn’t really a war. It was a policy initiative – the means by which a political party identified things it wanted to accomplish. While the goals of the War on Poverty might have been worthy, it was not the same as war. There was never a time of joy in victory or being vanquished in defeat. If Poverty would have won the war it would have imposed its conditions on all of us. Society would have changed for the worse, but we continued essentially unchanged.

The same thing for the War on Drugs. Was it really a war? Or a political slogan created to garner public support for another policy initiative? Winning these so-called wars wasn’t a matter of life and death as much as it was gaining or maintaining political power. Neither initiative was successful; we still are faced with the challenges of poverty and drug abuse. Yet we have not suffered the consequences experienced by those who lose real wars.

The whole concept of  what War is and the consequences of winning or losing a War have become confused. It seems we now see war not as a threat to our national existence that needs to be met with unity and bi-partisan resolve. It’s just another plank in the Party Platform. We form teams of cheerleaders on either side of the aisle and spend more time trying to conquer the Red or Blue States than we do the real enemy.

Then an actual war came along and we couldn’t recognize it. Worse, we recycled the old “War on …” label and the threat became political rather than existential. Faced with a real war with a real enemy and very real consequences for losing, we didn’t take it seriously. The need for bipartisanship was met with hyper-partisanship. Seemingly the only point of unity was the unwillingness of anyone in a position of authority to clearly articulate who the enemy was.

Many a preacher has shared this homespun truth: aim at nothing and you’ll surely hit it. Our unwillingness to identify the enemy is resulting in our inability to marshal the resources needed to defeat it. This must change if America is to continue. The threat is not political it is existential. This War cannot be solved at the ballot box with a shift in national priorities. This War is real. This threat is real.

Tomorrow March Madness begins and the NCAA basketball tournament brackets will be announced. In all seriousness, we need to identify with the tournament rules if we ever hope to prevail in the “War on Terror”. There’s only one thing that counts now: win and you get to keep going, lose and you go home. Except that if America loses this very real war, home won’t look the same as it used to.

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Biblically-shaped Leadership

by on Mar.14, 2009, under Faith in the Public Square

A friend of many years posts here on how the wisdom of Proverbs is aligned with characteristics that are found in successful leaders. A great blending of Scripture and secular research, the posts are concise,  convicting, and are must reading for anyone who takes leadership seriously … and wants to take their leadership to the Highest level. Check it out.

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More on Truth

by on Mar.07, 2009, under Faith in the Public Square

I wrote about truth in the post below, then ran across this interesting post. Whether you approach the subject from the left or right, it’s thought-provoking and a good discussion starter.

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Soundbite-sized Lies

by on Mar.07, 2009, under Faith in the Public Square

Increasingly it seems as if both sides of the political spectrum are adopting the Al Davis / Oakland Raiders mantra – Just Win Baby – as a guiding principle. Win, what ever it takes. Ruining a reputation is no problem, not if it leads to political victory. In this world, twisting words is a legitimate tactic even if it results in a new meaning that is 180 degrees opposite of what the speaker actually said and meant. After all, it’s all about winning.

In the world of politics, professional image makers manipulators are perfecting the soundbite-sized lie. They extract words from their proper context to paint an entirely false and deceiving picture. They’re unconcerned with the collateral damage they cause. Not if their tactics score a jump in the polls for their candidate or position.

Truth is never advanced through falsehoods. That fact should be especially apparent to people of faith who follow the One who said: I am the Truth. When people of faith engage arguments in the public square some tactics are off limits. Because when we knowingly craft soundbites into enticingly attractive – but false – arguments, we damage our integrity. And we discredit the One who has called us to be salt and light to the world. Lies are not legitimate weapons in the battle for truth. Period.

Here’s an example of what I mean. In the 2008 presidential campaign ABC’s Charles Gibson interviewed Sarah Palin and asked her this question: “You said recently, in your old church, ‘Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.’ Are we fighting a holy war?” Palin responded by saying, “You know, I don’t know if that was my exact quote.” Gibson came right back by saying they were her “exact words.” So, what’s true here?

The truth is that Gibson was factually accurate in saying that Palin spoke those words. But in making his assertion he was, at the same time, acting either out of ignorance or with deliberate intent to deceive. Because Palin’s words were clearly separated from their intended meaning. Judge for yourself. Here are Palin’s words taken in context. “Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending U.S. soldiers out on a task that is from God.”

Breakdown those two sentences and you will find a two-part prayer request:  First, pray for our men and women who are striving to do what is right and, second, pray that our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers out on a task that is from God. This prayer request paints a far different picture of what Palin actually said than the words put in her mouth by an argumentative interviewer. But, hey, it’s all about winning, right? No! Not if we are acting with integrity.

Radio talkshow hosts often play a similar version of the game themselves by constantly replaying “gotcha quotes” they think will drive their ratings or favor their positions. And if truth gets misplaced in the process, so what? It’s a small price to pay, or so it seems. How unfortunate and dishonest this game is regardless of the players involved.

You see, it is quite possible to be factually accurate while at the same time being deliberately deceitful. Soundbite-sized lies are not the truth, they are distortions. People of faith have no business operating in that arena. Because compromising truth for temporary gains is no victory at all.

Before leaving this post here’s a final application, this time a personal and not political one, because all of us can be tempted to “color the truth” for our own advantage. Years ago I was late for a meeting because I carelessly lost track of time. En route I passed a checkpoint on Interstate 5 in northern San Diego county. Usually the checkpoint was a traffic bottleneck that added about 10 minutes to the trip but at the time I passed that day it was closed. When I finally arrived for the meeting I could have commented innocently, “Sorry to be late but the checkpoint traffic was not what I expected it to be.” It would have helped me cover being tardy. It would have been factually accurate. But it would have been deliberately deceitful. And my integrity would have been compromised.

If the truth is always our ally we have little to fear and we’re in exactly the right place. In politics and in our personal conduct.

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Dear Pastor

by on Mar.04, 2009, under View from the Pew

This post originally was written and published as a column in Enrichment Journal.

Dear Pastor:

Please forgive us for not writing earlier to express our appreciation to you for being our pastor. We want you to know that the influence of your ministry and the model of your life mean more to us than can be expressed in an occasional hallway thank you. Too many times we don’t stop to think of all the unseen contributions you make and the sacrifice you pay to make them. We do not appreciate the depth of your work. We do not appreciate your fatigue.

We do not encourage you as we should. We fail to properly express our thanks. We are undisciplined in our prayer for you.

Forgive us for not honoring all you do and taking you for granted.

Thank you for being there — for the times your evenings are interrupted by the telephone’s intrusive ring and your rest is shortened by an unscheduled late-night trip.

Thank you for your weekends that are punctuated by the joy of weddings, and your vacations that are cut short by the sorrow of funerals. Thank you for being all too familiar with hospital corridors, waiting rooms, and nursing homes.

Thank you for the peaceful spirit you bring into the first anxious moments that surround sudden loss.

Thank you for your listening ear and godly counsel. Thank you for ensuring that our young children are properly cared for and our teens are affirmed in their journey to adulthood. Thank you for teaching them the simple truth that one day will be more important than any other: Jesus loves me, this I know.

Thank you for praying with and for our family during hard times and for sharing our joy and laughter when the darkness lifts.

Thank you for choosing to patiently love the part of us that God is disciplining and not abandon us to our failures.

Thank you for enduring all-night graduation parties and junior high camps.

Thank you for the example of your life and the precious gift of your time.

Thank you for being a friend.

Thank you for working through your own seasons of discouragement when God seems far off. Thank you for keeping on when the fruit of your labor does not appear to be an abundant harvest.

Thank you for enduring unfair criticism while embracing criticism that is uncomfortable but constructive. Thank you for the spirit of servanthood you reflect.

Thank you for sowing peace. Thank you for the integrity of your witness and for being strong enough to value the strength that comes only from being broken.

Our list of thank yous is endless.

Pastor, continue to serve for your service pleases Him. Continue on the path He has shown you. Do not weary at the challenge, but draw strength from His provision.

Thank you for being obedient to His calling.

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