Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Princes and the Paupers

I spent the last two days at a poverty workshop here in Abilene. The first day I found myself surrounded by about 200 others, mainly school teachers who were off from school. The rest of us were from agencies that help the poor. Yesterday, there were just 30 of us, crammed into a small classroom, learning how to use a book designed to help those stuck in generational poverty to escape from this trap.

Both of the presenters were excellent. The main topic of Monday's session was on how to understand the differing rules and language and perspectives on money/lifestyles/relationships between the middle class and those trapped in generational poverty. In general, these are some of the differences:

Those in generational poverty:

1. Think in terms of today, the moment. They have no future story. "I just need to get through today," is their mantra.

2. Live by survival.

3. Value relationships above everything else. If their child is sick and they must leave work or not go in, even if they'll lose their job to do so, they'll take care of the child.

4. See entertainment as very important -- even if it means taking a 5 minute cigarette break. The presenter told a story of a family that was given a refrigerator. A few weeks later, the kids weren't in school for several days. When their teacher asked where they were, they said that the family went on vacation. How did they afford it? They sold the refrigerator.

5. Transportation is often erratic and unreliable (depending on the bus schedule and cars that are always on the verge of breaking down)

Those in middle class:

1. Are more future-oriented (since today is taken care of). They're more likely to have the privilege of putting money away for retirement or their child's education

2. Work and achievement are much higher on their list than that of the poor.

3. They're more likely to have stable housing and reliable cars

4. They have more access to regular health care

I realize that these are generalizations and don't hold true for everyone in these classes. However, stepping back and recognizing the vast differences between the middle class and those in generational poverty was so helpful. I realized how incredibly blessed I have been materially. In the words of the presenter, many of us started off life on 2nd or 3rd base. My family always had a house, plenty of food, extra money for vacations. My parents assumed that all the kids would go to college. The university I attended was subsidized by the state of California and so I came out debt free after graduating (thanks also to help from my parents).

Then I think of men like "Wilson," who comes by the Service Center at least two or three times a month -- needing some food or some shoes. His work is sporadic. The house he lives in was condemned. His wife/girlfriend is in and out of his life. Wilson probably didn't worry about hearing that the stock market took its sharpest plunge yesterday since September 11, 2001. That news brings anxiety to the wealthy and many in middle class circles. While Wilson just hopes to have enough food for today.

What am I going to do with all this information and training?

1. I hope that the Lord will give me a deeper compassion for the poor.

2. I pray that I'll learn from the poor in how to trust God for my daily bread, rather than putting my trust in my job or the economy.

3. I ask the Lord to make me more generous to those in need, as He reminds me that I was very privileged to start out life on 3rd base while so many others are still trying to get on base. Many folks that come through our doors each day have struck out so many times that life has become very discouraging. They may be on the verge of giving up. And they need followers of Christ, who are filled with the Holy Spirit and thus care deeply for the bruised and broken, to care enough to "go to bat" for them.

When Jesus "saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matt. 9). May we do the by day.

Lord, I want to do be a champion for the harrassed and helpless that cross my path each day. For Your sake. And for Your glory. Amen.


Monday, February 26, 2007

The Important People

Susan and I made it back last night from our weekend getaway in Ft. Worth to catch much of the Academy Awards -- unpacking the car and preparing for the next day while the commercials were on.

There is so much hype about this annual event that is watched by a billion folks (which elicited some pretty clever T.V. commercials). And everything seems so glamorous and exciting. Either during or after watching this event, do you ever feel that these film folks are doing all the important stuff while what you do for a living doesn't feel all that significant? Me, too.

Hey, I love a good film and am glad that filmmakers put out some really good products (and then there are the many movies that I'll avoid due to their gut-wrenching violence, as were two of the movies that won most of the awards last night). Susan and I went to the opening night of "Amazing Grace," a very well-done movie about the steadfast opponent of slavery, William Willberforce. I HIGHLY recommend it and thank God for Christian producers like Ken Wales who fight to put on the screen such redemptive stories.

But I need to fight this tendency to be jealous of high profile folks, especially creative ones like those we saw last night. And to recognize where true significance is found. The words of Jesus brought me back once more to His heart and His priorities:

If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will find true life. (Mark 8:35)

And so I keep seeking my significance in Jesus and give myself over to Him to use me however and where ever He wants to use me as an ambassador of the gospel. It may be high profile, or it may be in obscurity. And yet if you and I let His Spirit work in us to do His good and perfect will, how can w not be used to make the kind of impact on this world that pleases Him.

Even if most of the world doesn't seem to notice or care. But Jesus does. And He will hand out some amazing awards some day to His faithful followers. Awards that will last much longer than an Oscar.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Allowing Jesus to Ask Us Questions

One of the most delightful retreats I've ever participated in was last year when God blessed me with the opportunity to attend a pastors' retreat in Oceanside, California. It was held at a Catholic retreat center on beautiful grounds, kissed by gorgeous Southern California weather. When I first got there I wondered why I left this area. Then I recalled how I met my wife in Dallas and life has been so rich in this second half of my life where I've been away from the gold coast.

Ruth Haley Barton led our retreat. It was two and a half days of enjoying the rhythm of going into solitude, then community, and then solitude -- back and forth. We heard her speak several times. Had morning, noon and evening worship in the chapel -- very simple worship with Scripture reading, listening to God and singing a hymn.

We ate meals together, spent afternoon and evening breaks enjoying fruit and snacks (and on the last night we could enjoy a variety of wines). At various times she had us go to our room or find a place to sit in the gardens or lovely courtyard -- where we spent 30 minutes or so listening to Jesus speak to our souls.

It was a wonderfully refreshing soul feast -- something I need at least once a year.

Two nights ago Susan noticed in the paper that Ruth was going to speak at Hardin-Simmons last night. We both decided to go and though it wasn't quite like the Oceanside retreat, it was an evening of respite for the soul. Ruth took us through an exercise where she read the story of Jesus healing the blind man, Bartimaeus. She called us to settle down in quiet before Jesus and allow Him to speak into our hearts as we let Him ask this question:

"What do you want me to do for you?"

We all sat there for 15 minutes of silence, letting Jesus come to us face to face with that question. I felt uncomfortable at first. Out of control. It was not an exercise where I studied God's word and tried to get some answers and figure out what it was saying. Rather, I was letting Jesus examine my heart and telling Him what my deepest desires were.

What eventually came to mind was this: I felt like there were certain things in my life of which I had no control. Issues that have bothered me for a long time that I knew that in my own power I could not change -- just like Bartimaeus could not make himself see. He needed the healing touch of Jesus to make him well. So did I.

I asked Jesus to deliver me from this self-centeredness that I feel in bondage to and replace that hole with His love, His joy, His presence. And now by faith I'm going to claim that He is going to deliver me from this junk, this sin, and replace it with my greatest desire, my greatest need -- which is the very presence of Christ. It was a precious moment last night.

So let me ask you this: what if some time this weekend you spent at least 15 minutes of silence before the Lord and stayed with that question of Jesus:
"What do you want me to do for you?"

And then just be very honest with Jesus. Tell Him your greatest desire. And listen for His answer back to you.

I pray that Jesus will remove whatever blindness, whatever burden, whatever sin is keeping us from enjoying the fullness of life He offers us each day. And then, like Bartimaeus, get up and follow Jesus. Every day...and forever.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Living in Shadowland

A friend of mine has watched a co-worker walk through a battle with cancer for many years. Now he's having to watch this colleague walk through "valley of the shadow of death," since she can receive no more treatment and may die this year, barring some miracle from God. She's on medical leave, spending lots of time with friends and saying goodbye to her family.

I'm wondering how my friend's colleague is seeing life so clearly now. She is a very strong Christian and is ready to go home. And in her fight with cancer over half a decade, she's already been able to see what really counts in life. I would think that now it's even clearer.

In Psalm 39, David ponders the brevity of his life, and of ours:

LORD, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
Remind me that my days are numbered,
and that my life is fleeing away. My life is no longer
than the width of my hand.
An entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
human existence is but a breath.” We are merely
moving shadows, and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth for someone else to spend.
And so, Lord, where do I put my hope?
My only hope is in you.

This woman battling this deadly disease is very aware of how brief her time is on earth. However, if you and I presently healthy, we live under the illusion that we have lots of time here. I'm just wondering how differently we'd live if we recognized that our lives are "fleeing away" and that "an entire lifetime is just a moment" to the Lord. Here's a few ways that I think I'd carry out my daily pursuits if I were keenly aware of this life being like a vapor:

1. I'd forgive much quicker.

A while back we had some people over for Sunday lunch. I needed to leave early before cleaning up. When I came home, the kitchen was huge mess, Susan was asleep taking a nap and apparently none of our guests helped clean. The dog got into some of the food and spilled stuff on the carpet. I spent about 45 minutes putting the kitchen and dining room back together – and was mad the whole time.

In the grand scheme of things, however, is it really that big of a deal? Life is too short to become bitter and unforgiving.

2. I wouldn’t let little annoyances bother me. The movie, “Regarding Henry,” tells of a high velocity, wealthy attorney who is injured and ends up in a rehab hospital. When he finally comes home, he’s obviously a changed man. At breakfast, his daughter spills a glass of milk and instead of yelling at her, this transformed man simply says, “That’s all right, honey. We can clean it up.”

3. I’d worry less. Isn’t worry a matter of us not trusting God and trying to be in control?

4. I’d give away more money and material things. If we think we have this long life before us, our tendency is to stockpile money and stuff. Have you noticed that when people know they’re going to die they sometimes give things away? But if we realized how fleeting our days are and how temporary this world is, I believe we wouldn’t hang onto cash and things we “own.” We’d recognize that everything we have is really just on loan from God. It’s all his. So why not share it with those in need?

5. I’d dwell on heaven a lot more. Others have observed that there aren’t as many songs about heaven among churches as there were during the hard times of the depression. Is it because when life becomes more comfortable here on earth we don’t long for the perfection and bliss of heaven. A perspective on life where we knew that we’re going to die and it will come quicker than we think would surely prompt us to recognize that heaven is our real home.

G’ampa C’s response to yesterday’s post summarizes well what I’m trying to convey to all of us today:

"Oh, to be able to see, right now, the important things as I will see them looking back on this life. "

So true, brother, so true. Lord, please give us these eyes of eternity.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Desperate for God

For a few years I used to lead prayer workshops -- for small groups, a few churches and mission teams. The focus was on intercessory prayer. Out of these workshops came a book I wrote about congregational prayer called More Than You Can Ask.

At nearly every workshop I read excerpts of this riveting article that I came across in Pray! Magazine. It's called "Desperate for God" -- a Cure for Prayerlessness." I hadn't thought of this article for awhile -- until I read in the gospel of Mark this morning of how desperate people came to Jesus for healing. Jairus had a daughter about to die. The woman bleeding for 12 years, with no help from doctors, reached out to touch the garment of Jesus. When Jesus walked on this earth, those despairing of life's problems and heartaches flocked to Him. As do many people today.

Nancy DeMoss, who wrote this wonderful article, tells of a season of her life when God opened her eyes to her prayerlessness and how deeply she needed His presence day by day. She asks the question: "Why don't I pray more?" Then she answers it. "I don't pray because I'm not desperate. I'm not fully conscious of my need for God."

The one book that really lit my fire about intercessory prayer was Jim Cymbala's Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. This book was born out of the crucible of his ministry in Brooklyn, New York, where Jim leads a church full of desperate people. It truly is a praying church. About three years ago I was privileged to visit their Tuesday night prayer service. The huge theater turned into a sanctuary was packed with folks, crying out to God.

Nancy was also deeply moved by her visit to Brooklyn Tabernacle. She quotes Cymbala:

"In our prayer meetings, you've got desperate people crying out to God. Some of them don't have jobs. Others have husbands who are alcoholics or strung out on drugs. Many are women with no husband at all, trying to raise their children on welfare. Every day we are dealing with crack/cocaine addicts. AIDS patients, people who are HIV positive, people who have never had any family to speak of. These people are desperate! They need God; they don't have anywhere else to turn. That's why we pray."

I need to read articles like this regularly because too often I forget how desperate I am for God. Having a steady job (at least for now), feeling healthy, being in a supportive church -- all these things are great blessings. But if I'm not careful, these blessings can give me the illusion that I'm in control.

How do we cultivate a desperate heart? Nancy has several suggestions. Here's one of them:

Ask God to make you desperate.

Ask Him to make you conscious of your need for Him.

Ask Him to give you an intense hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Ask Him to place within your heart a longing for intimacy with Him, for purity of life, for the salvation of friends and neighbors, for revival in His church, and for the advancement of His kingdom in the world.

Would you join me in this today in asking God to make me desperate? Let's see what the Holy Spirit will do in our hearts as we confess to Him our great need for Him each day.

Jesus did some amazing things in the lives of those who cried out to Him in desperation. And He still does that today.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

One of my Heroes

Every Tuesday morning, we have a regular crew of workers come in to work at our receiving room. One of them is sweet Bobbie Foster, a 91 year old widow who lost her husband many years ago. She has amazing energy for her age and has such a positive, Christ-like attitude. Bobbie has been a steady volunteer at the Christian Service Center for over 25 years! And she's here today.

Each Tuesday Bobbie works all day in our receiving room, serving as a clerk. This responsibility involves overseeing the workers who welcome people dropping off clothing and other items for donations. She works with the others in that area to begin sorting clothing, preparing these items for other volunteers to take the items to our back rooms.
In 1994 Bobbie received our prestigious Dorcas Award, which is given each year to an outstanding female volunteer who has displayed a servant heart over years of working here at the Service Center. Our records show that since the year 2000, Bobbie has worked over 2,800 hours. However, in the 25 years she has served here as a volunteer, we estimate that she has worked over 10,000 hours!

Besides the amount of time she has put into her work here, Bobbie displays one of the most patient and kind attitudes of anyone who has served at this ministry. As one of her fellow volunteers wrote:

“Bobbie is always thinking of others and how she can help them. She does her work at the Service Center in a quiet and efficient way -- doing any job she is asked to do.”

For our Winter newsletter, we're telling Bobbie's story. And so I thought I'd share her story with you today. Bobbie, you're one of my heroes. You show us how to continue serving others -- way into your golden years. I pray that I'll be able to do the same, with as many years the Lord gives me.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Closer and Farther

During the early part of Mike Cope's sermon yesterday, he told the story of Tyler Sheets, the young college student who was killed in a car accident over the holidays. He must have been some great kid. As his grief-stricken parents cleaned out his room here in Abilene, they found a list that Tyler made. It described two things: what drew him closer to God and what fulled him farther away.

Don't tell Mike, but for the next few minutes of his sermon I checked out mentally and started making my own list for today's blog. I couldn't believe all the things that flowed out of my mind. Here are a few:

What draws me closer to Christ?

1. Reading God's word early in the morning before talking to anyone else

2. Reading Christian biographies (especially John Piper's series, "The Swans Were Not Silent" -- stories of Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, etc.)

3. Sitting around the dinner table with family or extended family, talking about what we thank God for that week or that year

4. Praise and prayer times in our small group, especially when Rod Pringle leads us in worship with his guitar

5. Sunday morning worship and classes at Highland

6. Great films with redemptive stories ("Millions," "Chariots of Fire")

7. Being in the Highland prayer room or the prayer room of a Walk to Emmaus with some prayer warriors

8. Hearing the gospel spoken out loud (especially passages from Romans and Galatians in The Message). Also, if you ever want to hear a very powerful reading of God's love for us, read out loud Ephesians 1 in The Message

What Pulls Me Away from Christ?

1. Reading secular literature for an extended period (Time Magazine is often fascinating, but usually leaves me empty and hungry for God)

2. Channel surfing on the T.V. late at night by myself (why do I even bother with that junk? O, the battle of the flesh!)

3. Small talk at lunches or social events (especially when it's with Christians with whom we should be having much more substantive conversations)

4. When I get critical of others and start dwelling on their flaws and sins, and forget about the log in my own eye

5. When I allow myself to get jealous and envious of others, and not focus on how the Lord has blessed me so much.

What draws you closer to Christ...and farther?


Friday, February 16, 2007

Intertwining Relationships

I want to continue the discussion of yesterday's post, where I encouraged us to "give love a chance again." When we get hurt in relationships, our human tendency is to close off our hearts and try preventing it from being wounded again. And yet we miss out so much in life if we close the door to our hearts.

I love this comment by G-ampa C:

Isn't it our reluctance to let others inside our personal space which blocks us from relationship? I am also becoming convinced that the same walls which keep the Body of Christ out keep His Spirit out, as well. We sometimes don't realize how our relationships with each other hinder our relationship with God.

When you read Scripture, it's so clear that our relationship with the Lord and with others is so intertwined:

Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." – Matthew 22:37-40

Forgive as the Lord forgave you. – Col. 3:13

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. -- Rom. 15:7

These passages, and my experiences over the years of being part of the body of Christ, make me think of the wisdom of God’s plan in creating the church. We learn so much about Christ as His Spirit works through other believers with whom we interact. That’s why it’s so vital that we stay in fellowship with other Christ-followers.

Just yesterday, my dear brother Lou Seckler had me to his office for a brown bag lunch. He told me about a book he had read while on a mission trip to Mexico last week. He read to me excerpts from this book -- Benny Hinn’s Good Morning, Holy Spirit. Before I left, we prayed together, asking the Holy Spirit to take more control of our lives. We both confessed to the Lord how we tend to do things our way and yet we want Jesus to take over our lives more and more. I just have a feeling that this prayer time was much more meaningful and transforming than if he and I had just prayed individually in our own offices.

We really do need each other as we’re intertwined in Christ’s love together – in the midst of the joys, conflicts, misunderstandings and differences.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Give Love a Chance Again

While having lunch with my dear friend Randy, a friend of his walked up to us and gave him a hug. After she left, Randy said that this woman had been gone through a very painful divorce years ago (are there divorces that aren't painful?). A few years later God brought into her life a wonderful Christian man whom she married. She took the chance to love another man and by God's wonderful grace this time marriage has been for her a blessing.

Then Randy said, "Jim, I want you to write something to those you minister to about never stop loving. So many people who get burned in relationships are reluctant to open their hearts up again to love. Encourage them to give love a chance again."

All of us have some wounds in our hearts – inflicted in some relationship. Could be marriage. Maybe something that happened to us as a kid. Or a mistreatment by a boss; being betrayed by a friend; disappointed by a fellow believer in our church.

When we’re hurt by someone we expected to nurture our lives, the wounds can linger for some time. I think that’s why people that are let down by someone in the church can get so angry at the body of Christ – and at Christ Himself. They expect so much from someone who claims to be a Christian. And so the wounds hurt even more.

About seventeen years ago, Susan and I were in the Northeast as part of a team planting a church. In time we realized that the situation we were in did not fit us. After prayer and seeking counsel from those outside our small band of church planters, we decided to leave and move closer to Susan's home state of Texas. It was a painful move. We both felt very guilty. Many of the team members had a hard time with how we left earlier that we had originally planned. In retrospect, I could see why they were hurt and at times angry with us.

We ended up in Abilene in the summer of 1990 -- with two young children, Susan starting to teach at ACU and me going back to school and working part-time. And we did join a church -- Highland -- and slowly became involved. But quite frankly, I was afraid to get too close to others because I didn't want to get hurt again. Probably unconsciously, I was protecting my heart. Yet I knew that I must love again and take that chance to be disappointed by others, and yes, disappoint others.

However you’ve been hurt in a relationship, let me encourage you to listen to the wisdom of my friend Randy. Give love a chance again. It may not mean necessarily getting remarried. It may just involve letting someone get close to you – a person you can trust and yet someone you realize will not love you perfectly. Only Jesus can do that.

I think this is why the Hebrew writer urges believers to live peacefully with others and let no bitter root grow in our hearts (Heb. 12:14-15)

So let me say once more – give love a chance again. Yes, do so with your eyes open. Recognize that the love from others will always be imperfect…just as ours is. And yet God cannot work through a hardened, protective heart.

And when we love again, in the name of Jesus, I firmly believe we’ll receive a healing in our hearts from Him that will give us the strength to keep our hearts tender towards Him and others.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Following Your Passion

When I came home from work last night, there was a package in the mail waiting for me. My thoughtful sister-in-law, Tami, had sent me a book. She is a voracious reader is often gives away books after reading them. Tami knew I'd like this one in particular.

It's the autobiography of Phil Vischer. He's had an enormous impact on our culture for good. You and your children and grandchildren have likely been influenced by him. Years ago he and a college buddy formed Big Ideas production and went on to produce the most popular Christian children videos in history -- Veggie Tales!

More than 50 million of his videos have been sold. One in three households with children in America has a Veggie Tales video.

Whenever I know about such a successful media person such as Phil Vischer, I love to read about how he got started. Last night I flew through 62 pages of his book and became fascinated with his journey and how God prepared him for making these wildly entertaining and faith-filled animated stories for kids.

What I found particularly fascinating about Phil's early years is how he sought God's will for how to use the creativity, filmmaking talent and wacky sense of humor to produce animation that would glorify Him. As a young teenager, he began making movies with high school friends, even putting together a makeshift optical printer to create special effects. When home computers came to the market, Phil began experimenting with computers and film. He attended seminars and met John Lasseter, who was experimenting with computer-generated short films that would eventually evolve into Pixar productions (ever heard of "Toy Story?")

When Phil was a young boy he sat in church hearing preachers calling young men and women to go into the mission field. Phil didn't think that was his call. When he was in Bible college, he was asked to do street witnessing. However, being the introverted, shy young man that he had been, the idea of verbally sharing his faith with strangers terrified him. But when someone invited him to be a part of a puppet ministry, he jumped at the idea. He loved the craziness and spontaneity of these puppet shows. And he could write scripts, one he called "Forgive-O-Matic," that would one day become the basis of a Veggie Tales video.

After Phil got kicked out of Bible college for missing too much chapel, he was given the opportunity to work for a video production company in Chicago -- at the ripe old age of 19. Door after door opened, as he learned more about editing and animation. And by the time he was 24, he felt ready to launch out and start his own animation company.

As I fell asleep after reading the early stages of Phil Vischer's video career, I thought a lot about calling. Doing what you love and doing so for the glory of God. I pondered how we can be tempted to choose a career that we think our parents or peers expect of us. Or we enter a field of work because we think we need to. We become driven more by duty than passion.

Several months ago I asked one of our elders, Vince Swinney, to have lunch with our son, Aaron. Vince has had about three careers, one being a pilot for United Airlines. After we discussed different possibilities for careers that would fit Aaron -- such as flying or being an air traffic controller -- Vince looked right into Aaron's
eyes and asked him a very important question:

"Aaron, what is your passion? What do you love to do?" I've known too many men who have worked a job for years and yet they hated it.

Without hesitation, Aaron said, "Refereeing basketball." Vince responded, "Well, maybe you should pursue that dream."

And that's what Aaron is doing. He really has a gift in this area and lately has been refereeing Abilene High and Cooper Varsity games. Last summer he attended three camps for referees, including one in Las Vegas where NBA refs trained him and 24 others. As the camp ended, one of these NBA guys told Aaron, "You're a good ref." Those worlds meant the world to Aaron and kept his dream alive.

Susan and I, along with several others who have watched our son on the court, have told Aaron to pursue his dream and follow this passion. Why not try?

What if Phil Vischer decided to not go into video animation because he felt that he should do something else? This world is so blessed by this man who went with his passion to the glory of God. Let me ask you a question:

What is YOUR passion? What are some of your dreams?

Why not lay them at the altar and ask the Lord to take this passion inside of you to a new level? Go for it. Mr. Veggie Tales man did. Our son is doing it. I feel the urge to write another book and this week plan to start editing some of these blog posts.

Tell us your dreams and passions. Share it on the comments, so we can all pray for one another and use these stirrings in our heart to impact this world for Jesus in all sorts of creative and diverse ways.

Who knows? There may be some BIG IDEAS about to emerge from this family of bloggers.


Monday, February 12, 2007

By Grace Through Faith

This morning one of my volunteers stopped me in the hall and asked me this very pointed question: "Jim, do you believe that someone must be baptized in order to be saved?" Of course, this has been a classic question asked about and debated in and out of our brotherhood for decades.

After studying this subject and wrestling with it for years in pastoral contexts, I have come to be a strong believer in God's grace, justification by faith and the importance of expressing our faith in Christ in water baptism. I tell folks that my conviction from reading God's word is that baptism is not an addition to faith but an expression of faith.

After visiting a few minutes with my volunteer friend, I took him to my office and handed him two documents from my file:

1. A Purpose Statement on baptism from the Oak Hills church (I'm sure that it's available online). To me, this is a very balanced view on this rite.

2. An excerpt from the statement of faith concerning baptism -- published on the website of the Manhattan Church of Christ. It reads as follows:

We believe that we are saved by God's grace as a free gift from God.
This grace is received by faith, that is, by trusting in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We believe that this grace and faith are life transforming in power. They are manifested through repentance (a change of mind and life toward God's values), by confession (publicly affirming one's faith, even in the face of opposition), and by baptism. We believe that Jesus has given baptism to believers as a special sign to express the meaning of what grace and faith do in our lives. This sign - a plunging in water - is a public, physical expression of faith that marks our identification with Jesus' death and resurrection, the forgiveness of our sins, and a new birth by the Spirit of God.

I'm not saying that "I am of Max" or "I am of Manhattan." It's just that they both articulate so well what I've come to believe.

So, that's where I stand. What would you say to my friend if posed that same question?


Friday, February 09, 2007

Family Storms

My wife loves live theater. Occasionally she talks me into going to them. Every once in a while I enjoy them. But a few times I've left after the intermission -- not that they were poor productions. It's just that I'm more of a visual person and thus I prefer film over a bunch of dialogue.

Last night was different. I had to go to the play because my wife was asked to speak at a "talkback" immediately after the end of this opening night. This week Susan read the script and then put together a thorough response piece from a Social Work perspective. She gave me a summary of the play so I could be familiar with the plot and hopefully enjoy it more. I still didn't relish sitting through this nearly three-hour production.

Although it is an American classic and won a Pulitzer prize, "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a downer of a play. However, as I witnessed this production of the hugely talented direction of Adam Hester and his ACU Theater students, I was deeply moved by this play. And reminded that domestic violence is much more than a play to millions of people in our world.

I was so proud of Susan as she began the "talkback" session that followed the play. She was on a panel with Adam and several of the cast. Susan discussed the common cycle of spousal abuse and how so many women keep coming back to their husbands, even after they are so cruel to them. I loved what Adam said -- this is a story of several hurting people who are in desperate need of a Savior. He noted that Blanche, the main character, was like the woman at the well in John 4 -- although sadly, she never encountered Jesus to receive that new life He offers us.

A 34 year-old memory flashed in my mind as I sat in the aftermath of this production. My family was having a Sunday evening dinner and my parents had invited some relatives over. This couple had been married for years but had unfortunately endured a rather stormy relationship. Right in the middle of our wonderful steak dinner they had a huge fight. Their words to each other across the table were so caustic.

The husband ended up storming out the door and waiting in the car for his incensed wife as she continued to put him down. It was, to the say the least, very awkward for the rest of us.

My Mom headed to the sink to start washing the dishes and I decided to join her. I'll never forget her words to me as she stood next to me, scrubbing those plates: "Jimbo, people need Jesus."

Yes, indeed, Mom. Yes, indeed.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

His Distressing Disguise

As I interviewed her in my office yesterday morning, I could see in the eyes of "Rachel" a sadness and distress.

Such a young woman and yet already having major marital problems. Her husband lives in Centeral Texas. They have a two-year-old between them. So far they have a fairly civil arrangement of trading their son back and forth. And yet this family pain is taking it toll on Rachel. She's already on depression medication and is seeing a psychiatrist. As she awaits getting an apartment and saving up for a deposit, she's feeling more stress in her financial pressures.

When she found about our services and the various ways we could help her, Rachel was so pleased. We prayed together and then one of our volunteers helped her get some clothes. I was thankful that we also had some funds to pay for some of her medication.

I thought about Rachel this morning as I read the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 -- so familiar to me, and yet so fresh:

Then the King will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

I forget so quickly that when I encounter the Rachels of the world, I'm meeting Jesus. And when I help them in His Name, I'm actually doing this to my Lord. The old song by Michael Card, "Distressing Disguise," describes so well what happens when we view those in crisis as if they were Jesus:

He is in the pain, He is in the need
He is in the poor, we are told to feed
Though He was rich, for us He became poor
How could He give so much, what was it for?

In His distressing disguise
He waits for us to surmise
That we rob our brothers by all that we own
And that's not the way He has shown

Every time a faithful servant serves
A brother that's in need
What happens at that moment is a miracle indeed
As they look to one another in an instant it is clear
Only Jesus is visible for they've both disappeared

He is in the hand that reaches out to give
He is in the touch that causes men to live
So speak with your life now as well as your tongue
Shelter the homeless, take care of the young

In His distressing disguise
He hopes that we'll realize
That when we take care of the poorest of them
We've really done it to Him

Father, please give me Your eyes so that I will see people in pain and distress as if they were Your Son. Amen.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Now and Then

I love the story once told from the Highland pulpit by one of our elders, David Wray. I think he told it around the time when we were going to take up a special collection for Missions Sunday.

An couple named the Shaws were long-time members. They lived in the same house for 40 + years. Dressed plainly. Drove an old Rambler. And never had children. Upon their death at an old age, they left about $300,000 dollars willed to Highland and one of the ministries that was spun off of Highland years earlier. It was a marvelous story of good stewardship. The Shaws could have spent this money on themselves, buying a new car or bigger home. Rather, they chose to live below their means and thus were able to leave a third of a million dollars to go into kingdom work.

As I've been reading all these parables Jesus tells about being ready for His return, the story of the Shaws came to mind. He urges His followers to be faithful and watchful. This morning's reading was the story of the three men who were each entrusted by their master with a certain amount of gold. The first two invested the currency wisely, made double the amount and were richly rewarded when their master returned. Yet the third man, who received only one bag of gold, decided to take no risks. He buried the treasure, failed to make a dime and was thus punished severely by his boss for his poor stewardship.

It's obvious that how we live for Christ now makes a big difference in how we'll experience heaven then. Big rewards await the Shaws because they handled wisely the resources that the Lord loaned them during their earthly journey.

Reading this parable inevitably makes one think of how Christ-followers need to be good stewards of all the gifts that the Lord has entrusted us. So true. And yet I'd think us to think of the One who rewards us. It's pretty amazing, isn't it? He saves us by His grace but then He blesses us (now and for eternity) for how we live out this life of grace.

Knowing how deeply Christ loves us, how can we not but strive to be the best stewards of everthing He's entrusted to us -- our family, our time, natural talents and spiritual gifts. It's all His. His to be invested in good works that make Him famous.

Jesus promises rewards to His faithful stewards. And couples like the Shaws show us how to do it.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

While We Wait

One of my sisters-in-law told me a hilarious story of when her kids were little. She left them home one morning while she ran a quick errand. Her kids took this as an opportunity to watch some T.V., an activity that Mom limited them in. She preferred that they read more.

As soon as Mom left the house, they turned on the T.V. and enjoyed a few minutes of entertainment. Then they heard the car pull into the garage. My niece and nephew, quickly turned off the T.V. , slammed the door on the entertainment center, jumped on the couch and each of them grabbed a book. When Mom came in, she could sense what happened and soon got a confession out of them that they had disobeyed her while she was out of their sight.

This story came to mind early this morning when I read the sobering words of Jesus in Matthew 24. He urges His disciples to be ready for His return.

Know this: A homeowner who knew exactly when a burglar was coming would stay alert and not permit the house to be broken into. You also must be ready all the time. For the Son of Man will come when least expected. (Matt. 24:43-44)

You know the story that follows. For the servant who is ready for His return, living as a faithful steward, there is a great reward. But for the evil servant who mistreats the other servants and lives for self, "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

As I reflected about how Jesus really is coming back soon, I wondered how differently I would live if I was deeply aware of this truth:

1. I would focus more on love. I'd want to forgive others more and not get so upset by the petty offenses of others. I'd want to extend grace more since I keep receiving it from Jesus.

2. I'd have a healthy perspective on stuff. It's not my car, our house, my clothes. It's all on loan from God. I know of people that when they realize they'll soon die they start giving things away. But what if we'd give stuff away now, when we're healthy?

3. I would handle money differently. Howard Dayton, the Christian finance guy, told a story on his radio show about a couple that got out of debt and ended up paying the college expenses of a foreign student. This student ended up becoming a Christian while in college, earned straight A's and will return to her country debt-free and with a powerful testimony to her family. If I realized that Jesus could come back any moment, wouldn't I more likely use the money He's entrusted to me to further His kingdom, rather than hoard it?

4. I'd be more bold and urgent in telling others the gospel. Too often I worry about offending people. I want to get over that hangup and care so much for the eternal destiny of others that I'd take the risk and share this Good News with everyone I meet -- even if they get mad at me.

One thing for sure, when Jesus suddenly appears in the skies, if our trust is in Him and we're living for His glory (as imperfect as we are in how we follow Him), we will rejoice that He has come to take us home.

While we wait for His return, how do you think you would live differently if this reality was in the forefront of your mind?


Monday, February 05, 2007

Religious Spirit

Sometimes I take awhile answering a question posed to me. Often, a good response comes later after I've thought about it. That happened again yesterday.

In our men's class we were talking about spiritual warfare and how the religious spirit can be used by the devil to keep us in bondage. A quote once more from John Eldredge:

"Religion and its defenders have always been the most insidious enemy of the true faith preciously because they are not glaring opponents; they are impostors. A raving pagan is easier to dismiss than an elder in your church. ...The Pharisees and their brethren down through the ages have merely acted -- unknowingly, for the most part -- as puppets, the mouthpiece of the Enemy."

"If you want the real deal, if you want the life and freedom that Jesus offers, then you are going to have to break free of this religious fog in particular. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselve be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Ga. 5:1) So here's the bottom --line test to expose the Religious Spirit: if it doesn't bring freedom and it doesn't bring life, it's not Christianity."

While teaching this subject in class yesterday, one brother asked, "Jim, what exactly is this religious spirit?" By this time, our time was over, I felt rushed to say a few other things that I had prepared, and just couldn't think on my feet how to answer him. But later that day some stories came to mind that illustrate this religious spirit.

1. It's the eldership I heard of that refused to let the women go through a Bible study by Beth Moore because she wasn't of their brand of Christianity.

2. It's the woman who called me at the office one morning wanting to know if I teach our clients about "the Lord's church." When I said that we try to focus on Jesus and enourage people to give their lives to Him, this woman got angry and accused me of being like Max Lucado. The more I tried to keep the topic on Jesus, the madder she got at me. She finally hung up the phone in her fury.

3. The religious spirit is when I put my trust in trying to be right and in being in the "right denomination" and yet I wasn't feeling that peace Jesus offered. It became clear that I was putting my trust in the church and "getting it right" and not in Jesus. I felt insecure in my salvation. I was judgmental towards Christians in other groups. And I was scared of the Holy Spirit. It was a crumbling foundation, this religious spirit. And the only way out was to get my feet on the Rock, to leap into the arms of my Savior and let Him give me this freedom and life. This was a humbling and sometimes painful journey. And yet it was so worth it! Hallelujah. What a Savior.

How have you found the religious spirit manifested? And what is your story of how Jesus has brought you (and is still bringing you) freedom and life?


Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Queen

Before I jump into work this morning, I must quickly say that Susan and I saw "The Queen" last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. Superb acting, especially by Helen Mirren, who is probably a lock-in to win the Oscar. Fascinating look at the monarchy of England and the tension between the queen and the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair. I had forgotten that this was such a huge event in England -- the way the queen was so silent for many days after Lady Di's tragic death, while "the commoners" grieved publicly for her.

Although it dealt with a very serious subject, there were some humorous moments -- at least to Susan and me. The properness of the British royalty made us both giggle, partly because Susan has witnessed dinners at my family's home in California. My mother has lots of British in her, being raised in Canada. And it certainly came out in our formal dinners during the holidays -- plum pudding, paper Christmas hats, the works.

I woke up early this morning still thinking about that film -- especially the contrast between the Queen and how distant she was from her people and Diana, who was so deeply loved by the British -- and much of the world. Made me think of Jesus. He is King of Kings. Almighty God. Alpha and Omega. And yet while on earth He was approachable..and the common people who knew how desperate they were for healing and a touch from the Master flocked to Him.

And because of His shed blood for us, to all those who put their faith in Jesus, He is still approachable. His majesty, a friend of sinners and "commoners" like you and me.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Needs vs. Wants

Needs vs. Wants

I have a routine when I open up the paper on Sunday morning. I try to get it all organized for Susan (she's more of a paper reader than I am. I prefer magazines since they have more substance). One thing I do is throw away all the colored ads -- Office Depot, Lowe's, Best Buy, etc. All but one -- the Target ad. My Susie loves to see what's on sale at Target. So I make that one concession and toss out the rest of those alluring inserts. Why? Because I don't want those advertisers tell me what I "need." It's hard enough battling the temptation within me to buy more stuff without having outside forces whistling at me and saying in essence, "Come over here. You NEED this."

Early this morning when I couldn't sleep, I read more of Richard Swenson's Margin. Here are more of his insightful words in how to find more financial margin in our lives:

Discipline Desires and Redefine Needs. The list of what we call "needs" today is certainly much longer than the list was in 1900, which in turn was much longer than the list at the time of Christ. If the list expands each year, is this an expansion God approves of?...Our true needs are few and basic: we need God, love, relationships with fellow human beings, meaningful work, food, clothing, and shelter. Most of the rest of what we call needs are instead desires...

In this process, we are greatly aided if we tune out advertisements, which are nothing more than artificial "need creation."

"Tune out advertisements." I love that line. I'm happy with my two-year-old Sanyo phone. Do I really need a Razor or Blackberry? The T.V. ads say, "You've got to have it." But I hear my Lord calling me to contentment. The cell phone I now have is a luxury itself. Why must I upgrade it now? Or my computer? Or our 10-year-old van?

The words of 1 Timothy 6 have always given me such a wonderful, God-centered perspective on needs vs. wants. I love how The Message translates vss. 7-8:

"A devout life does bring wealth, but it's the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that's enough."

Reminds me of the man with little money who sat in front of his piece of bread and bowl of soup and said, "All this, and Jesus, too?"