Friday, September 14, 2007

Grace Bearers

Have you ever wondered of what it would be like to have a video camera running during your worst moments? We can look so good at church, at work, and when friends come over for dinner. But what about those unguarded moments, when we let our sinful nature take over and we do things that we'd be appalled by if we heard others do?

My worst moments are usually at home. Late at night. When I'm tired and in a grumpy mood. And often when I have some pent up anger that is unleashed on someone (or something) that was not in the least responsible for the anger.

Okay, confession time. I don't have a video of the incident (thank You, Lord). But someone else witnessed it. A person full of the grace of God.

Right before going to bed we tried spraying our dog's tail with something that's supposed to stop her itching. I tried to distract Oreo (the name of our Jack Russell Terrier) while Susan attempted to apply the spray. But Oreo knew what she was doing and so she kept moving away from her "Vet." The bottom line was I lost my temper with the dog, Oreo won and I ended up with a couple small bites.

After she went outside for a few minutes (Oreo, not Susan), she came back in, was as friendly as ever and wanted to lick my hand. I felt like I was in the doghouse, but Susan extended me grace for my blow up. And we went to bed at peace. Well, kind of at peace. I was trying not to beat myself up for doing what I shouldn't have done.

I'll likely share this incident with my men's prayer group this Tuesday and with my buddy Randy at our weekly Wednesday lunch. Oh, how I need the grace of God each day! The Father who sees EVERYTHING in our lives keeps extending His mercy and grace because He's given us the merits of Jesus - even when we feel lower than the woman caught in adultery.

And I feel so blessed to be around "grace bearers" -- those who know me well, warts and all...and love me anyway. And I'm grateful they don't carry a video camera around with them!


Monday, September 10, 2007

Why Go to Church

I seem to run into so many folks that come to the Service Center who say they believe in Jesus but are not currently active in a church. They may have either stopped going quite a while ago or just pop in and out of a Sunday service periodically.

Others I've known over the years have said they've accepted Jesus, that they believe in Him, but they never took the step of obedience in baptism and haven't yet experienced the richness of regularly connecting with other believers in Christ.

I've been an active part of a local group of believers ever since my conversion and baptism at a small church in Southern California 30 years ago. Having been a vagabond for many years, I ended up being active in churches in Dallas, Arkansas, Memphis, St. Louis and the Northeast. Some of the churches I've loved. One or two were too sectarian and I started going elsewhere. But in all of them God did His work of forming me in Christ and helping me to see Him work in the lives of other Jesus-followers. And I pray that He's used me to impact other Christians in those faith communities.

The Highland Church has been my family's spiritual home since 1990. I feel deeply rooted in this church and have experienced so many rich moments in this fellowship -- teaching and being taught, being shepherded by some wonderful elders and now privileged to shepherd others, going on mission trips to Mexico and Brazil, participating in small groups, working with the prayer ministry, baptizing both of our children and watching them learn the value of Christian community. On and on it goes.

I could not imagine being a lone ranger Christian whose main spiritual nurturing comes from watching Christian T.V. or dropping in and out of a church. I must admit that at times I find myself in a routine of going to church and not really thinking about why I keep going Sunday after Sunday, and usually Wednesday night after Wednesday night. Occasionally I'll skip a Wednesday night, wanting to stay home and chill. And yet invariably I regret doing so -- not out of guilt over missing church but rather over a missed opportunity to build up the body and be built up by them.

Why do we go to church?
Why should we become deeply involved in a local band of believers?

Our minister of adult faith formation at Highland, Mary Lee Mattis, triggered this thought when I received from her this wonderful quote on the power of staying committed to Christian community:

"In answer to the question about why go to church, writer Nevada Barr answers, "...Why go inside with a bunch of hypocrites instead of staying outdoors in God's country? Because God made we hypocrites, too. Because Jesus said, 'Whenever two or more gather in my name, I am there.' The mountain is for finding and adoring God in the wilderness. Church is for finding and adoring God in community: with others, through others, because of others, in spite of others. Only by finding this place of human interaction focused around the need for the spiritual was I able to recognize God in other people and so, in myself.

Without community,

How would I learn to share?

Who would I help?

How would I learn to accept help?

Would I learn to serve others without others to serve?

And could I know how if I wasn't taught?"

Great thoughts. Jesus has promised us that He will be in the midst of a gathering of believers in His Name. And if He's going to be there, I certainly don't want to miss that opportunity to experience His presence again and again. At church. Week in and week out. Not out of duty but because it is such a privilege and necessity for my growth in Christ to be with others who are indwelt by the living God.

How has your involvement with a church -- imperfect as it is -- been instrumental in your formation in Christ? If you really thought about it for some time, I’m sure you’d be convinced that the living Christ has become more real to you and to those you encounter as you've stayed regularly connected with other followers of the Way.


Friday, September 07, 2007

Giving with Joy

One of the most significant books I've read over the past few years has been Margin by Richard Swenson. He is a medical doctor who many years ago reached the burnout stage, which led to the birth of this very timely book. Dr. Swenson did an extensive look at busy, debt-ridden, overloaded lives that are so prevalent in our culture. And then he "writes out a prescription" for how to alleviate the pain we bring upon ourselves and our loved ones. He convincingly makes the case for how we need margin -- space, wiggle room -- in every area of our lives: financially, our time, physical energy and our emotions.

I especially like his chapter about providing margin in our money matters. He makes the case for how debt is such an emotional and relational virus that cripples our lives. And then he shows what we can do once we get out of debt and have extra money each month. The prescription for Christians? Give it away! Here are a few gems from this chapter:

Meeting the needs of others delivers us from the world of selfishness and into a world of grace and gratitude. In are choosing Heaven as the place you will put your treasure. You are doing what God asked you to do, and what He did Himself. In giving, you are pleasing Him. Money is powerful -- very powerful. It is so powerful, taught Jesus ,that it competes head-to-head with God. How is it possible to break the substantial power money holds over us? Very simple -- give it away...When we give money away, we not only neutralize its power over us, but we also bring it under the domain of the Kingdom of Light. God is honored, and His lordship is confirmed.

I haven't thought of Swenson's deeply challenging and freeing words for some time. However, as I read Paul's persuasive exhortation to the Corinthians to give generously, this book came to mind. He reminds his fellow believers that our Lord will always provide what we need when we give to others:

God loves the person who gives cheerfully. And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say,“Godly people give generously to the poor. Their good deeds will never be forgotten. -- 2 Cor 9:7b-9

Isn't that one of the keys of being a generous person? We trust God to take care of us when we give some of our resources away. And isn't that the battle we struggle with? (I certainly do): we're fearful in giving away "our money" because we won't think there is enough for us.

I love the phrase that I read in one of Stephen Covey's book years ago: ABUNDANCE MENTALITY. If I really believe that our Lord owns a cattle on a thousand hills, that there is an abundance of resources in His storehouse, then I will more likely give away more money and more things to those in need. And it just seems that being a giving person in the name of Jesus is a powerful witness to the giving nature of our Father, who He gave us the ultimate gift.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Faith Heroes

This past Sunday I began a three week series for Highland's "Early Birds" class -- those in their later years. What a sweet bunch of senior saints. The series is titled, "Heroes of the Faith," and it deals with biographies of three different Christ-followers who have had a profound impact on my life. The first lesson was on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a man I've mentioned before. He preached for 30 years at the Westminster Chapel, just down the road from Buckingham Palace. We even heard an excerpt on tape of one of his sermons, where he preached passionately from Galatians on the power of the gospel.

This Sunday I'm going to tell the story of William Willberforce, whose story was portrayed so beautifully in the recent film, "Amazing Grace." I've probably mentioned this before, but I've been reading his biography, which was also released this year and has the same name as the movie. A man named Bruce Metaxas wrote it and did a tremendous job (although his British vocabulary is so beyond my knowledge -- where did he come up with all those words?)

Of course, Willberforce is most known for his courageous battle in the Parliament against slavery. It took 20 years from the time he first put forth a bill for abolition to the triumphant day in 1807 when the House of Lords overwhelmingly voted for the wicked slave trade to be abolished in the British Empire.

In reading this book, I came to realize that this deeply committed Christian man, whom God strategically placed in a position of power as a member of the Parliament, championed several other causes for the oppressed. He personally supported many efforts of the poor. And as I read last night, he fought against a horrendous law that kept missionaries out of India. The East Indian British Company had outlawed missionaries, saying that it would be cruel to force these people to give up their religious traditions. But Willberforce couldn't tolerate such a law, especially when he heard of the horror of one particular tradition in India.

In those days, when a woman in India was widowed, her husband's body was burned as part of his funeral ceremony. As hard as it is to imagine, the other part of this ritual was that the widow was thrown on the fire with him. Willberforce recognized how sin leads to such atrocities in people's lives and how their only hope was the gospel. Therefore, he strongly pushed for this law against missionaries in India to be repealed.

Late last night as I read an eye witness account of this practice of burning alive widows in India (which Willberforce read in a meeting of the British Parliament) I was deeply disturbed and once more convicted by the courage of this man. And it made me realize the urgency of evangelism and mission work. Because when an individual, family or entire culture have not been redeemed by the blood, the pain they experience from the oppression of the devil is at times unspeakable.

No wonder that God so loved the world that He sent Jesus to suffer on that cross in order to deliver us from the penalty of sin. More than any of us realizes, the Lord God knows how awful and destructive sin is to a human life and how desperately all of us need a Savior.

Reading about one of my heroes of the faith reminded me of this eternal truth.


Friday, August 31, 2007

Our Secret Doubts

I'm sure that millions of people will find it fascinating to hear of the book being released that describes the doubts that plagued a spiritual hero to many -- Mother Teresa. This excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor expresses my reaction to this news:

The book, "Come Be My Light," puts together in one place her writings about her private, inner conflict which were penned in letters to her confessors and superiors.

The writings, edited by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, a proponent for her sainthood, show not only a religious leader tormented by doubt, but pained by it for almost 50 years. The struggle lasted right up until her passing a decade ago.

"Where is my Faith – even deep down right in there is nothing but emptiness & darkness...," she wrote in an undated address to Jesus, at the suggestion of one of her confessors.

From all walks of life, and at all levels, people struggle with doubt – religious and otherwise – on a daily basis: youngsters facing their first day of kindergarten; alcoholics struggling to recover; presidents with world-shaping decisions to make.

Abraham Lincoln was filled with self-doubt, and yet overcame it to lead the country through the Civil War. Martin Luther King Jr. often talked about his doubts – about his ability or willingness to commit to and sustain the civil-rights movement, and his fear of assassination.

It's tempting to think of great moral leaders as unshakable warriors, but that is so rarely true. And it's tempting to think that their courage and good deeds are not possible for the general population to achieve.

But the case of Mother Teresa should make her works feel more accessible to people. If "the saint of the gutters" was tormented by personal failings, then those who feel less saintly can also commit to acts of charity. (From “The Doubting Mother Teresa,” Yahoo News, August 30. 2007)

Let's be honest here -- aren't we reluctant to let others know of our doubts? Especially if we are placed in a position of leadership. We want to appear strong, trusting God for every challenge that comes our way. Having an unwavering confidence in Jesus and our relationship with Him. I have a feeling, though, that many of us have our moments of doubt. I certainly have.

For many years as a Christian I viewed prayer and confession as a private matter. I wasted so many years hiding my struggles from other believer. Two things held me back from asking from admitting these battles with doubt:

1. My pride. I wanted to appear strong in the Lord in front of other believers, especially those who seemed to struggle a lot.

1. My ignorance of how other Christians were struggling with some of the same things as I was – but none of us were communicating and therefore we were all attempting to handle our problems on our own.

I recall a time many years ago when I was in a dorm room at Harding University, studying for the ministry. I had doubts about my faith and questions that I was afraid to ask my professors. And I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the legalism I witnessed in the church. But I didn’t know who to talk to.

When I shared some of these struggles with Susan, who was living in Dallas at the time, she began sending me some tapes by a preacher named Lynn Anderson. Of course, many of us who have any awareness of the Highland Church knew that he preached here for 19 years. And he was one of the few ministers of the gospel who expressed publicly his struggles. And people love him for it -- probably because he expressed some of the same things they battled, but were afraid to admit.

I decided to write Lynn a letter and open my heart to him. And he wrote back the most encouraging letter, empathizing with me. What a blessing he was to me.

Mother Teresa's confession don't shock me, though they do sadden me that she suffered so much. But her journals do remind me that all of us believers in Jesus have feet of clay -- which often may include periods of doubt.

How do you handle your times of doubt? Do you have a special friend with whom you can tell your secrets, including your doubts?


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Claiming Our Freedom

At lunch yesterday, just as we were about to leave from our meal at Los Arcos, my good friend asked me, "What word from the Lord do you have for me today, Jim?"

What immediately came to mind were the words from 2 Corinthians I had read that morning.

My words to him were something like this, "Randy, because you believe in Christ, you are free, my brother. Free from rules and regulations. Unbound from the interpretations of men. Don't let anyone put a yoke of legalism on you. You're a new creation. You're a living letter from Christ because the Holy Spirit lives in you. Because you're now living under the New Covenant you can be bold and confident in Jesus."

I felt myself getting very passionate as I preached the good news to my dear brother in Christ. His eyes lit up as he heard this word from the Lord. His spirit seemed lifted up.

I just love speaking the gospel to other believers, reminding them of the incredible freedom we have in Christ. Freedom to now serve the living God and not a law or a tradition or ourselves.

And there's something liberating that the Lord does in our own soul as we overhear ourselves telling this good news to others. We just might claim this freedom for our own soul once more.

By the way, I think you'd be blessed by checking out yesterday's blog post by Mike Cope -- It's about the scandal of the gospel and has some great quotes from Galatians.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Different Sort of Birthday Party

Students from Abilene Christian Schools at Trevor's Birthday Party

A man called me recently to let me know of an unusual event that would impact our ministry. His thirteen-year-old son, Trevor, was having his birthday party in a few days at a gymnastic center. I've been to several of such parties for our kids and others. But this one was going to be much different.

Trevor decided that instead of asking his friends to bring him gifts, he wanted them to bring something that would bless some children in need. His Dad asked me how they could benefit the Christian Service Center and the first thing that came to mind was school supplies. His Dad said, "That's perfect. I'll call you next week from the party so you can come pick up the supplies."

A few days later I found myself at the gymnastics center surrounded by a bunch of giggling adolescents. I arrived just in time to see Trevor's Mom cut the cake. Then Trevor's father introduced me and let me speak to these kids. I was so moved by what they did. And after joining them for cake and ice cream and taking the above photo, I headed out the door with several bags of school supplies and $113 in cash that the kids had donated.

Through their generosity, we were able to bless even more low-income children in Abilene who were in need of school supplies. I just love this story of some young teenagers who could be the normally self-absorbed kids that I certainly was at that age. But through the influence of their buddy Trevor, they experienced the joy of giving to others which Jesus tells us far surpasses the experience of receiving.

Happy birthday, Trevor. And thanks for the tremendous lesson you taught us about being others-centered.