Monday, December 31, 2012


Reading the Bible from the comfort of my couch, I find myself pointing fingers at individuals like Elijah. I can throw them under the bus for missing the point. It's easy for me to see how they got it all wrong. I'm amazed how apparent the presence of God can be one minute and the very next minute they sink deep into despair with this 'woe is me' attitude--all the while thinking God has abandoned them. But, as an onlooker, I have the privilege of seeing the whole story. I'm not living in the moment waiting for things to unfold. The Bible has extended to me the privilege of seeing the big picture, which makes it easy to see that while God is sometimes found on the mountain, or in those big cinematic experiences--conquering prophets, healing the sick, reviving the dead, conquering death--other times he is found in the valley, or in that still, small voice.

But then again, I have to wonder if I'm really any different? Don't I have the same struggles today? How often do I get caught up in the circumstances and lose sight of the big picture? I have some big mountain top experience--the money comes through, the deal works out, I got the job, my fear and anxiety dissipate, the mission trip is life changing, the sermon was exactly what I needed to hear--and, it never fails, the next minute I feel as though God has abandoned me. Doubts surface about whether or not God really has my best interest at heart. I wonder if he can even use someone as broken as me. What causes such a drastic change?

After wrestling with this a little more, I came to a disheartening conclusion--I have a tendency to seek an experience instead of God. And I've come to the realization I'm not alone. Just google the phrase 'experiencing God' and you will see what I'm talking about. There are numerous sermons, blogs and books on this topic. In college, I took a worship class in which one of the required readings was dedicated to discussing this issue. The pages within that book laid out principles on creating an environment conducive to experiencing God. That same semester, I wound up discussing this idea with a worship leader. One Sunday evening, after our student led worship service, I questioned why we always seemed to end with an upbeat, joyful, "Jesus Loves Me" type song. I thought, on occasion, it might be appropriate to end the service leaving us in a repentant mood. His very telling response was, "People should leave the service feeling warm and fuzzy inside."

All of this, at least for me, raises some red flags. Not because I believe God cannot be experienced via our five senses like some might argue. Neither is it because I have a hesitancy with an experiential faith. Nor does it bother me that experiencing God can fill us with hope, joy and peace. I also don't take issue to the fact that God comes in displays of grandeur. Rather, it bothers me because I fear that we are unintentionally creating an environment where people come to the church seeking a certain experience. Like Elijah, they have a tendency to put God in a box assuming any experience has to fall within certain parameters.  

Perhaps it seems like I'm just rambling and not making any sense (I don't blame you for thinking that, I kind of feel the same way). Let me try this approach. Every week many of us pray that we would experience God in a powerful way--at this particular place, at this particular time. Hours are put into every Sunday morning worship service to ensure God shows up. The music is arranged in a specific manner. The lights are dimmed just so. The videos evoke certain emotions. The sermon is compelling and has just the right amount of humor.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not condemning any of these things. I'm glad we don't haphazardly throw together our worship services. I think it's important to be intentional and prayerful. And I'm a huge fan of technology--when it works. But I wonder if we are too busy manipulating the various elements, that we miss the fact God is already present?

Sadly, sometimes I have been too blind to realize this. I've left church feeling no different than when I entered. Unmoved, I begin critiquing the music, picking apart the sermon, commenting on how distracting this or that was. I make comments along the lines of: That was a waste of time. The service just didn't do it for me. I didn't experience God today.

God made it clear to Elijah, in the span of a few days, that he can't be nailed down. He isn't confined to mountain tops, tabernacles, worship centers, or prayer rooms. I just don't picture Paul wandering the streets of Jerusalem asking: Who has the best worship music? Where do I go to hear most compelling sermon? Which tech crew is top-rated? Of all the temples, where am I most likely to meet with God? Yet, if I'm honest, I do this very thing.

The reason I don't experience God has very little to do with where I attend church. It has more to do with my perspective and the receptiveness of my heart. God can be experienced in numerous environments--the coffee shop around the corner, the bar down the street, the shelter across town, my cubicle at work, the park by the river--if only I would learn to see. To think otherwise is just another form of idolatry.

I've been doing some soul searching, asking myself some pretty revealing questions. What if I showed up to church and the building had no air conditioning? How would I respond if the worship team wasn't as polished as usual? Would the absence of ambient lighting change the way I viewed the service? What if the sermon didn't strike a chord with me? What if I had to stand because there were no chairs? Given these circumstances would I still find God? Or would I walk away looking for a different place to worship because it offered a better experience?

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Let me tell you what I like about the Bible. To begin with, this book doesn't sweep anything under the rug. No details are spared, no matter how insignificant, terrible, or ridiculous they seem. When a big-time player is caught in the middle of a scandal, there's no cover-up. Unlike any other news source, the Bible really is fair and balanced. Nor does this book pull any punches. It tackles some pretty hefty topics head on. There's no skirting any issues or beating around the bush. The Bible tells you like it is. I can respect that. It also means the Bible is actually relateable. It's not account after account of these super-spiritual people that get it right all the time. Yes, it shows their incredible successes, but it also shows their struggles with doubt, their insecurities, their bouts of depression, and even their blatant failures. Because of that, I am able to catch a glimpse of myself in these individuals. The most recent story I got caught up in is the story of Elijah.

For this story, let me take you back to a time when Kings still ruled the land. During a period of great divide for the Jewish nation, God raised up a prophet named Elijah. He becomes a key player in the midst of some of the most extraordinary oppression the Jews had faced at that point. King Ahab, a push-over of a Jewish man, was married to Jezebel. She pretty much dictated every decision he would make as King. At her beckoning, Ahab began a campaign to eradicate anything Jewish. At the height of this campaign, around 99% of the Jewish population either submitted to Ahab and Jezebel, or was killed. Elijah, the lone surviving prophet, is part of the remaining 1%. Even then, Elijah doesn't back down. He actually makes a prediction about 3 years of drought and famine--the original Hunger Games story--that comes true. Needless to say, this infuriates the royal couple even more. From then on, their sole purpose in life is to hunt down Elijah and kill him.

The story reaches a head when Elijah sets out to settle this dispute once and for all. He decides it is time to set Jehovah against Baal. Like a grade school boy, Elijah sets the time and  place for the throw down. Early one morning, on top of Mt. Carmel, the showdown between hundreds of prophets of Baal and Elijah (talk about an unfair fight) takes place. Both sides make an altar for their god to set on fire. Elijah, being such a gentleman, offers the prophets of Baal the first opportunity. After a morning of shouting and dancing around, the altar Baal was to set on fire is still sitting there. So, antagonist Elijah comes out and taunts the prophets (did I mention there are hundreds of them--not too smart) saying "Maybe your god is sleeping. Perhaps he went on a walk. He might be busy or hard of hearing. It's possible he's going to the bathroom. You better shout louder." In desperation, they cut themselves, dance more erratic and shout even louder; all to no avail.

Finally, Elijah steps up and takes center stage. He begins by dousing the altar with several jugs of water, just to show off a little (I can see myself doing something like this). After offering up a quick, little prayer, God sends a bolt of fire and the water dries up, the wood is consumed and the offering is burnt to a crisp. With that, there is a clear winner. Elijah then has all the prophets of Baal detained and he kills each and every last one of them. From here, Ahab heads back home and, as you might guess, tells his wife everything. Upon receiving this news, Jezebel sends word to Elijah that she will kill him by tomorrow. And we read that "When Elijah heard this, he was afraid and ran for his life."

Here, we have Elijah coming off this mountain-top experience, where God showed up in a big way and proved himself more than faithful. On the heel of that we find Elijah running like a frightened little girl (no offense). Are you kidding me? 450 prophets of Baal died at his sword; and here stands Elijah scared of one woman. Come on dude! What happened? Where's your confidence in God now? What happened to that 'bring on the world' attitude? And I can't believe you don't have a sarcastic response to this. This entire time Elijah commanded my respect...until now.

There's a lot we could unpack from this story. But my most recent reading brought one question to the forefront of my mind. Am I seeking God, or just an experience? And honestly, I think it's a question we all need to ask ourselves.

What I mean by that, I will try to flush out in part 2.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I pulled into the parking lot located behind the hundred year old brick building and backed the truck into my designated parking spot. Sluggishly, I gathered my belongings and climbed out of the vehicle to make my way into work. As usual on Monday, I was not looking forward to work. Regardless, I headed toward the fire escape covered in numerous layers of sea-foam green paint. I guess it takes the focus off the fact that the fire escape is probably just as old as the building itself and looks like it might collapse into a heap of rubble with the slightest breeze. Carefully, I ascended the rickety, wooden fire escape attached to the back of our building, my morning coffee in hand. When I came to the first landing, the back door loomed before me. I reached for the handle, let out a sigh and entered the machine room. Making my way through the engraving room, Darci gave me a quick glance and greeted me with a hello. I responded with a similar salutation and continued on to my office and sat down at my desk.

As if on cue, the phone started ringing and the fax machine kicked in spurting out orders. I could already tell this was going to be an long day. Sitting in my chair, I spun myself around to face the computer. Waiting for the computer to boot up, I laid my head on the desk to relax for a few seconds. Just then a customer started shaking the front door, not realizing you actually had to use the handle to release the latch from the strike-plate. "This is a hundred year old building. People are too accustomed to those high-tech automatic doors." I thought to myself. Pulling myself out of my chair, I mustered enough energy to walk to the front and open the door for her. Returning to my desk we started discussing her stamp order. After a few minutes, she turned around and left. My day has officially begun.

Contrary to what I originally thought, the morning seemed to fly by. Just half an hour away from lunch time, I was making great progress on the stack of orders sitting neatly on my desk. However, my stomach began to growl and for the next few minutes, time seemed to stand still as I stared at the clock. Eventually, I turned my attention back to work, typed up a few more orders and answered a few phone calls. Again, I glanced up at the clock just in time to see the minute hand disappear behind the hour hand. It was finally noon! Grabbing my jacket, I raced out the back door and down the fire escape, the entire thing shaking under the weight of my feet pounding against each step.

My 45 minute lunch break was mostly ate up by driving home to feed the dog and let him run off some energy. I then made my way to Taco Bell for a quick bite to eat. You can't go wrong with the $2 meal deal (even though they aren't just $2 anymore). Where else can you get a chicken burrito, some Doritos and a pink lemonade for that price? That's right, nowhere! Running a few minutes behind, I may have exceeded the posted speed limit on my way back to work. Again, I parked in the back and made my way up the fire escape, praying this wouldn't be the time it collapsed. When I got back to my desk a few papers were laying there with stamp orders scribbled on them. With that, I sat down and got back to work.

Around 2:30 everyone, with the exception of me, decided it was quitting time. My co-worker had an appointment, so she was ducking out an hour earlier than usual. The other guy, who happens to be my boss, needed to run some errands. He informed me it would take a few hours and I needed to lock up this evening. For the next few minutes, I sat there enjoying the silence, basking in the fact that all my work was done. Just as I turned around to my computer screen to kill some time searching for new music a woman outside the window caught my attention. I watched as she paced back and forth on the sidewalk right in front of the store. She must have been working up the courage to walk in the front door, ordering stamps is a pretty intimidating task.

As the door slowly opened, with a squeak, the woman stepped into the building. She took a few steps toward my desk when I noticed that her gaze was glued to the ground just in front of her feet. I greeted the woman and asked if I could be of any assistance to her. There was no response. During the moment of silence that followed I noticed her ratty shoes. And upon closer inspection I could see her jeans were a bit dirty. Beneath her dark blue hoodie, which was half zipped, I could also see a grungy looking t-shirt. Atop her head was a brown, knitted stocking cap that had seen better days. Again, I asked if there was anything I could do for her. Finally, she titled her head up just slightly and began to speak. In a quiet, shaky voice the woman informed me she wasn't from here. She went on, explaining that she had no family here, was homeless and hungry. I was taken aback. It's not everyday someone wanders into your place of business with this story.

"I don't have any cash" I told her, "but let me go in back and see what we have." Immediately, I turned around and walked towards our break room. On the shelf, next to the microwave, in a bag were a few leftover blueberry bagels. I grabbed the bag and made my way back to the front. The woman seemed a little more upbeat as I strolled up to her. I handed her the remaining bagels and apologized I didn't have any cream cheese to go with them. As she reached out her hand, I extended the bag in her direction. Grabbing the bag, she turned around and took two steps toward the front door. After a brief pause, the woman turned around, placed the bag of bagels on my desk and said "No thanks." With that, she turned around and walked out the door.

A bit bewildered, I stood there as she made her way across the street. She reached the sidewalk and stood there, contemplating which direction to head next. The woman then proceeded straight ahead to the driveway of the bank. A car turned into the driveway and drove up to her walking right down the middle of the lane. Both her and the car stopped as if preparing to face-off. The car remained motionless as this strange woman walked straight toward the vehicle. She came within a foot or two of the car's grill when the driver backed up and drove around. Unfazed, the woman again stood there, looking confused. Another car made it's way through the driveway in her direction. This time she made a B-line toward the vehicle, without any regard to her safety. Again, the driver of this vehicle stopped, waited for just a moment before eventually driving around her. With that, she took off across the remaining few feet of the driveway and disappeared around the corner.

I replayed the whole encounter over in my mind a few times. At first I came to the possible conclusion that she had a gluten allergy. Why else would you pass on a few perfectly good blueberry bagels? Then it got me wondering, "What did people with a gluten allergy eat just a few years ago, before it became such a booming business?" I redirected my focus back to the situation. More options to respond raced through my mind, "What could I have done differently? Should I have sent her to the church? Could I have closed the store and taken her to get something else? If I had any cash, would I have given it to her? It's not like it would break me. How would I have done things differently if given the opportunity?"

Upon pondering these ideas for the remaining few hours of work a story Jesus told kept popping up. The lesson he gives at the end goes like this, "I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!"
I then came to a few conclusions. In society, individuals like this woman definitely fall into the category of "the least of these." They are the ones we turn a blind eye to. The ones we ignore and write off, deeming them someone else's "problem." In situations like this, my only responsibility is help them. Ignoring them is not an option. I can definitely meet their need in a tangible way by giving them something to eat. I can even cough up a few dollars. I don't think it's really going to perpetuate their poverty, homelessness or addiction. The bottom line is this, I should respond in whatever way God impresses on my heart--which, by the way is always with grace. It's not like God offers us forgiveness only if we promise to never, ever do something again. How they respond and what they do with my offering is ultimately their decision.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I have a friend that has become uncomfortable about his spiritual life.* He's adamant about the fact that he wholeheartedly believes in God. While his prayer life could use some improvement, I have to admit he does better than some. Almost religiously, he attends the services at his Church. He intently listens to the preacher and even manages to jot down a few key notes about the message every week. As far as the music goes, he can sing most of the songs verbatim without even looking at the screen up front; but even he will admit, his worship is sometimes mechanical. Come payday, my friend even places a check in the offering for no less than ten percent of his income. Yet he still feels somethings awry. He has this impression that he's missing something important. All the worry and uneasiness tends to keep his stomach in knots. "What if all of this isn't enough?" he asks himself.

Unfortunately, for my friend, it's not enough. All that 'doing' makes it appear the sole purpose of the Church is to be a conduit for self-help; which only results in apathy and passivity. And for that, the crucifixion of Jesus was a bit overkill. If that was God's only desire, he could have just given us the Bible and called it good. But he didn't! He sent his Son to show us how to live. To help us understand what the Church was all about. For that reason alone, I can't help but think God intended the Church to be far greater.

Sadly, my friend is not alone. There may be thousands or even millions of Christians who find themselves in the same predicament--passive spectators of irrelevant ritual. Their life of faith has been plagued with complacency and passivity. All because Church has been narrowed down to a Sunday ritual. It has been become about the building, a religion, a doctrine, or a denomination. This shift has resulted in a people that have become content with playing Church.
Dwight Robertson, the founder of KBM, illustrates this point quite well; “Unfortunately, much of what we’ve seen portrayed as Christianity in the past century has been a fireless counterfeit of what Jesus spoke of in the First Century. Christian faith has often been reduced to church attendance. And our concept of ‘church’ has often been reduced to fireless religious institution.”

It amazes me how the most exciting message known to man has been presented as one of the most boring messages ever heard on a Sunday morning! How have we idly stood by while the message of Jesus has been hijacked? We have narrowed the Gospel to a message of sin management and a personal relationship. The early Church saw the Gospel in a much different light. They knew that eternity hung in the balance! They understood that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. They recognized that it's implications stretched far beyond themselves. They saw it as a movement, if you will, that had the power to change the course of human history.

So, what happened? I think an obscure passage of Scripture might offer some insight.

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”

The problem has been our passivity. When it comes to matters of Church, I wouldn't exactly use the term forceful. Unless of course you are talking about bull-horn guy. You know who I'm talking about. The guy that's always asking you pointed questions. Making awkward transitions in conversation to bring up matters of God, faith, and salvation. Asking where you will go if you die tonight. Things like that. I think now is as good a time as any to clear up a few things. This passage of Scripture isn't conveying that kind of force. It's not condoning a Crusade-type attitude; it's not talking about turn-or-burn evangelism; and it isn't referencing smacking anyone upside the head with the Bible or forcing Jesus on anyone. The Greek word for forceful means “sought with burning zeal; to make a way with triumphant force.” Here, forceful is a reference to our purpose and our passion.

Why do you do what you do? Going to church isn't really advancing the kingdom anymore than drinking diet pop drops the pounds. Taking notes on the sermon doesn't do much good unless they are reviewed and put into practice. The same prayer before every meal isn't really praying ceaselessly, is it? Jesus even seems to make an off handed remark to the Pharisees about how they tithe, but overlook matters of justice, mercy and faith. And when it comes to those songs, are we actually engaging and worshiping in spirit and truth? The way we answer these questions will determine if we are being passive or forceful. And Jesus isn't looking for the passive! "Deny yourself and take up your cross." he says. There is nothing passive about that. The bottom line is this, do we want Jesus--and nothing else--or nothing at all?

There can be no more living defensively, trying to distance ourselves from the secular world. That won't keep anything at bay. Instead, we must live offensively. We should be leading the charge. It is our duty, as followers of Jesus, to fearlessly pave the way for the kingdom. Just as John paved the way for Christ’s ministry, we must pave the way for Christ's second coming. That's the only way we will ever overcome that which stands opposed to the message of Jesus.

“You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my church.  And not even the gates of Hell will prevail against it.” The sick are being healed, lepers are cleansed, the dead raised, the blind see, the lame walk and sinners are raised to a new life. That's the picture of the Church Jesus gives us. The kingdom of heaven isn't for the faint at heart, the weak, or the passive. Nor is it for the indecisive. It's for the vigorous and forceful. It's for those who are working out their own salvation in fear and trembling, all the while not compromising with the world. The kingdom of heaven is only for those who are prepared to follow the whole counsel of God, no matter the cost. It is these individuals who are forcefully taking possession of the kingdom of heaven. And they are the ones helping others get there through a fearless proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. Until we understand this, we will continue to wonder if this is enough.

The Bible is full of men and women, who perceived this call, surrendered all, and forcefully pursued the kingdom of heaven. The "Faith Hall of Fame" lays it out very clearly for us in the book of Hebrews.“And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned into strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and even in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, and yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” These are not passive people. Last time I checked, the passive don't conquer kingdoms. The passive are more likely to avoid confrontation at all cost. So, it is highly unlikely they would be shutting the mouths of lions, quenching the fury of the flames, escaping the edge of the sword, or anything else along these lines. Nor do I recall the passive, being flogged, chained, and thrown in prison. Please understand I don't want to downplay the importance of attending church, or tithing, or anything like that. Nor am I intending to negate the fact that the Gospel saves. But, if that's all it does, it's not the whole message of Jesus. It should also move, motivate, stimulate, instigate, inspire, encourage, arouse and stir us! That is all.

*This hypothetical friend is sometimes me.

Friday, November 16, 2012


When I was in high school, for some idiotic reason, I found it necessary to wear only Lucky jeans, even at $50 a pop. The reason they were $50 and not $80--because I could shop in the kids section of the store. And to a certain extent, I still can. But that’s beside the point. One of my favorite things to wear was a pair of Lucky jeans and this long-sleeved yellow shirt sporting the Lucky brand shamrock. That outfit probably cost me in the vicinity of $80. The moral of the story is this: I was paying $80 to promote their product to everyone that so much as glanced at me. If you think about it, that's not highly intelligent; after all, brand recognition, marketing and advertising are multi-million dollar business's and I wasn't reaping any of those benefits. I've heard that if you are really desperate for cash, there are some companies that are willing to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 for entrepreneurs (I'm not sure that's the correct word here) to tattoo their logo on their body.

If you think about it, this makes all of us a bit too much like cattle. You and I have been branded! To find out, look no further than your closet. On most of my clothes, the company's brand is blatantly obvious. For instance, a pair of shoes I own has the Nike Swoosh 5 times...on each shoe. Isn't that a bit excessive? From where I'm standing, it seems that everything, to a degree, is less about the product and more about the brand. Why else would we pay exorbitant amounts of hard earned cash to purchase one brand over another. Are they really that different, or are we just trying to stand out? And that's another thing, are any of us really standing out when we're all sporting the same brand? Again, my apologies for getting off topic.

Most of us have been told we're not to judge a book by it's cover; but I've come to the realization many of us don't really take it to heart. You and I are constantly making assumptions based on the brands people choose to associate themselves with. The clothes they wear. The cars they drive. The neighborhood they live in. The job they have. Even, the coffee they drink. With each of these brand factors, we have a tendency to determine someones place in our society. If people don't happen to wear certain brands of clothing, we usually conclude they are poor. If they drink a specific brand of coffee, we might deem them sophisticated. If they shop at one store more than another we think they are cheap. Depending on what vehicle someone drives and which part of town their house is located in, we make assumptions about their annual salary. The fact they could be to debt up to their eye-balls doesn't really cross our mind. Even when it comes someones career choice, we tend to determine the importance of that person in society. You are intelligent people, I think you get the picture.

And this kind of branding has infiltrated the church. In all honesty, it's not too much of a shock to hear that, but it really should be. As church-goers, we seem to participate in branding more than our secular counterparts. We brand other churches, making assumptions about how holy they are based on which translation of the Bible they use. We view them as less missional because of the programs they have implemented. We determine how relevant the church is by the style of "worship" they engage in. We brand fellow believers based on what church they attend. Apparently the church they choose to align themselves with must reflect their character and quality of faith. If they go to the church across town they must be shallow. And the biggest problem of all is the judgments we make about one another's eternal salvation based on the sole fact that they don't see eye-to-eye with us on certain moral, cultural, and political issues. But, the branding doesn't stop there. We even brand those outside the church. We try to level judgments against them based solely on the fact they don't attend a church.

All of this discussion leads me to a passage I stumbled across in Scripture the other day. And I admit to you I really did just stumble across it. I glossed right over the short passage at first. To me, it just seemed like filler; which is never the case with the word of God. So I decided to take the time to read it again and soak in what God wanted me to catch. 2 Corinthians 3:18b tells us, "...we can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord. And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him and reflect his glory even more." So, what does this have to do with talk of branding? And more importantly, what is the principle behind this small passage of Scripture tucked away in this small book of the New Testament?

Let me answer those questions with another question. What does it mean to 'reflect the glory of the Lord?' It seems to me the significance of this passage can be found in John 14:9, when Jesus informs us "Anyone who has seen me has seen the father." Granted, none of us is Jesus, but the implications of this reality extend to you and me as well. A translation for present day believers might go like this, "Anyone who has seen me has seen Jesus." That's a pretty daunting responsibility that has been placed on you and me. Claiming to be a disciple of Jesus means that we are to carry out the work he started. In short, we now wear the brand of Jesus. Unfortunately for most of the world, the brand may of us are sporting is not really the brand of Jesus. Looking to us, many have concluded Jesus must have been a Bible-thumper. Others have come to the conclusion that Jesus was self-righteous. Still some see him as judgmental. While Jesus may have appeared judgmental to the religious, but his life couldn't be classified as such. Yet there are even more who view Jesus as hypocritical because that is how we have portrayed him. If what the world sees in you and me is what they see in Jesus, is it a wonder why they see him as pomp, delusional, ignorant, uneducated, disengaged, or greedy? Because these are the brands many of us have chosen to represent this Jewish carpenter.

What, then, is the brand of Jesus? You might be surprised to discover I'm not talking about some ridiculous fish. And when I talk about the brand of Jesus, Christian trinkets like t-shirts, window clings, Jesus action figures or Testamints aren't even on my radar. The brand we should be sporting has far less to do with outward appearance than any of those. What I'm referring to has less to do with making judgments and casting stones and more to do with loving people, giving them hope and showing them grace. I'm going out on a limb, but I think Jesus might say that 'reflecting the glory of the Lord' can be summed up by "...doing what is right, loving mercy and walking humbly with your God." (In case you are wondering, I didn't just make that part up. It actually came right out of the Bible. Micah 6:8--another small passage of Scripture tucked away and waiting to be discovered.) Or to put it more clearly, "Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples."

The brand of Jesus is an interweaving of love, mercy and humility. And now, the biggest question of all. What am I personally doing to bring about a positive re-branding of Jesus? Because as someone so poignantly pointed out in lifegroup, it's easy to be critical of the church, but the responsibility still lies with you and me.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Like everyone, there are are a few skeletons in my closet. Most of them are quite embarrassing. And unless you are one of the privileged few, they tend to stay hidden. But, lucky for you I'm in the sharing mood today and I'm going to plaster one of my secrets on the Internet for the whole world--or at least the 6 of you who read my blog--to find out. Growing up, I used to be involved in choir and theater. I know what you're thinking--"That's not embarrassing!" What if I up the ante a bit?

Throughout Elementary School I enjoyed singing. My voice could only be described as an interweaving of Adam Levine and Michael Buble. One year, I was offered the part of Frosty the Snowman in our Christmas program. They dressed me in a ridiculous snowman costume and even gave me a solo. To say I knocked it out of the park would be an understatement! As the years passed and I transitioned to Junior High School, my enjoyment of singing waned. I decided to move onto something more lucrative and found my passion to be acting. My career started off pretty small, basically as extras. But after participating in just a play or two I landed a major role. In our rendition of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, I played the part of Quasimodo! On a side note, if any of these pictures exist, get rid of them. Shred them. Burn them. Do whatever is necessary so there is not even a trace of evidence left--other than this blog. I swear to you, if I discover any of those pictures on the Internet someone will pay. That's right, I'm talking to you mother! Sorry about that rant; I will now get back to the point.

In both cases, we had to audition for the various roles. While everyone had a part in the programs and plays, only a few of us were able to have the more significant roles. After auditions, the results would be made public to the class. Off in the corner of the room you could usually find someone crying because they didn't land the part they hoped. Of course, my teachers would make their way through the rows of desks and console the student. And it never failed, they would take advantage of that opportunity to teach, those of us who were the stars, a lesson in humility. In the most stern voice, they would inform all of us, "There are no small parts, only small people." followed by a glance in my direction. To this day, I still think that was a jab at my height, but again, that's off subject. Either way, getting those important roles was a huge boost for my ego. And if I'm honest, I might have relished the attention I was receiving just a bit.

Come on, who doesn't like the attention? Who doesn't want to be important? Who doesn't want to be a star? The accolades. The attention. The benefits. Honestly, things aren't all that different in the church. Even when Jesus flips our paradigms upside down and tells us things like, "the first will be last; the humble will inherit the earth; whoever loses his life will find it;" we still find ourselves taking part in an epic struggle of significance and stardom. But, as is always the case, this is nothing new. We see one such event unfold with Jesus' followers in the midst of his short ministry. The disciples, the ones who knew Jesus best, missed the point yet again--just like you and me. As you turn to Matthew 18:1-20, allow me to set the scene.

Over the weeks preceding this conversation, the disciples had witnessed some amazing events. In short, Jesus miraculously comes up with a shekel for the temple tax by telling Peter to catch a fish that will have the coin in it's mouth. Even if that could be written off as coincidence, just before that Jesus cast out a demon from a boy in the crowd--something the disciples apparently tried to do but were unsuccessful. And to put the icing on the cake, the text leading up to all of this informs us that Jesus was transfigured before the disciples very eyes. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. All after meeting up with Moses and Elijah--whom have been dead for quite some time--on the top of mountain. And right on the tail of those three awe inspiring events, the disciples lose focus and resort to bickering. And they confront Jesus with a very pressing question; one we are still asking today. "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

Essentially the disciples were asking Jesus which of them was paramount in his kingdom. The whole "there are no small parts" mentality Jesus had would no longer suffice for the self-absorbed disciples. In hindsight, Jesus should have seen this coming. He went out of his way to specifically choose these men. They were hand-selected by the son of God to be his disciples. That should count for something. Is it a wonder the disciples egos got the best of them so often?

And we pick up this conversation in Matthew 18. Jesus replies by launching into an expository far more in depth than the disciples had likely bargained for. He addresses their need to receive him like children, which leads to some discussion on their response to sin, the lost, and forgiveness. In other words, Jesus seemingly skirts around the question. But the underlying theme seems to be of concerning themselves more with participating in the Kingdom of God now as opposed to bickering over which of them is more important. What a profound thought! Think of the implications Jesus was bringing up here.  In his lecture about "the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" Jesus shuts them down. He tells them to stop seeking distinction and start addressing the more important issues--accept him like a child; make sacrifices to avoid sin; seek out the lost instead of fraternizing with the affluently spiritual; almost haphazardly forgive others--only then will you be great. Jesus makes it abundantly clear he isn't really looking for the great or the important. They really don't have much room for God. In the simplest terms Jesus points out that importance and greatness don't come through exaltation, but humility.

This teaching is so basic, yet so important because we easily get so wrapped up in our own kingdom. We get caught up in the sub-plot of our own lives and lose sight of the grander story in God's cosmic movie of redemption. We try to make our role seem more significant than it is. We seek attention that doesn't belong to us. We promote ourselves and forget what is truly important. Truth be told, we all have an important role to play, no matter how small it may seem (see Romans 12). Even so, in the script God has masterfully written, we are no more than extras. The thing about extras is that if they don't fulfill their duties, someone else is usually ready and willing to step up and take their place. Furthermore, the leading role belongs to God rather than any of us. It always has and always will. When we understand this, it puts everything in it's proper place.

Think of it this way. In Hollywood, nobody knows who the extras are. Nobody can ramble off their names, their list of roles, how much they make, and they are never on the cover of any magazines. Yet the extras are absolutely necessary. Without them, Hollywood wouldn't be able to sell the story. How dull would the high-speed chases be without the semis, family vans and imports dispersed across the highway. Without them, the Porsche 911 Turbo would just cruise across the asphalt, at a steady speed, in a straight line, being followed by the police car that is never going to catch up. Or how about the romantic dinner the couple takes? It would be kind of awkward if the restaurant was empty and they had to seat themselves and take their own order. If the extras disappear, the viability of the story goes with it.

Can you imagine a Sunday morning without the tech crew? No sound coming from the speakers. No lighting for the stage. No words or video clips being projected on the screen. Who can fathom what the facility would look (and smell) like if nobody took the time out of their schedule to clean things like the bathrooms. I'm 99% certain nobody would show up at the 8:30 service if someone hadn't arrived, before the sun even rose, to make the delicious Zambian coffee. We would never be able to keep track of who came, who signed up for what, or what commitments were made if there wasn't anyone willing to cut out the connection cards. Parents would be nervous the entire service if their children were all just thrown into one big room with no adult supervision. But then again, it's not all about the building or our Sunday services.

Let's look at the bigger picture. In my Evangelism class at college I heard it takes the average person 7 times hearing the Gospel before they make a conscious decision to respond. While you may not be the individual that sits down with them and says some prayer to get them "saved" (I'm not a huge fan of that terminology), you may have brought them one step closer to that point. You see, we all have a part to play. And it really is important, even if we are just an extra.

Let me conclude my rambling with one final thought. In the scheme of things, even the biggest players in our eyes--the evangelists, preachers and missionaries--are only extras. So, I guess my teachers were right afterall, "There are no small parts, just small people."

Monday, October 22, 2012


I have something I desperately need to confess to you. It's pretty tough to admit; but I know I will feel better getting it off my chest. Well, here it goes. At 29, I still wish I could be a superhero! Whew, I feel better. From the time I was a young boy I was enamored with the likes of Superman, Spiderman and Batman. Around the age of 4, I must have convinced myself I was like Clark Kent and could actually fly. My parents were building a deck off our front door. The platform was finished but there were no rails built. I took it upon myself to take a few laps on my big wheel (Do you remember these things? The 100% plastic trikes with a giant front wheel.). I became bored and worked up the courage to launch my big wheel (and myself) right off the deck. You might be surprised to discover that I flew that day. In all honesty, it was no further than a few feet, but just as quickly as I left the deck, I plummeted face first into the ground below. The result was a trip to the hospital to have gravel removed from my face. Given that setback, I still want nothing more today than to be a superhero. Little did I know, I would be given that opportunity on more than one occasion.

Before you jump to conclusions, let me set a few things straight. I didn't inherit a fortune to pay for my secret life-style. I'm not out late at night fighting crime while the rest of the city is peacefully sleeping. I haven't discovered how to fly. I can't scale walls. I am not handy nor do I have any handy gadgets. Just ask my friends, I have to borrow simple tools from them like lawn mowers, saws and drills. I don't even have a side-kick, unless you count my spoiled dog. What I have is far greater and more profound than any of those things. And yet, I overlook it on a regular basis. The secret to my superpowers is...we will get to that later.

These past few weeks in church we have been diving into a series titled 'Who's Counting on You?' And to be quite honest, throughout this series I have found myself thinking the answer to that question is-- nobody. I don't have a wife at home counting on me to bring home the bacon. I have zero children counting on me to be there for them, set an example, provide for them and raise them. While they rely on me at work to get the job done, any number of people could really do what I do. So, it seems they really aren't counting on me per se. Yes, I volunteer at church, but again, other people could easily fill my shoes. And if I can admit something else to you, this isn't where I envisioned I would be when I was in college. Please understand, this isn't a pity party. I don't need anyone to tell what I'm doing is important and is making a difference--deep in my gut, I already know this. I'm not looking for a pat on the back, recognition, or accolades. What I'm sharing with you has just been the battle taking place in my soul during each of the messages in this series.

Permit me one last time to pour my heart out to you. I want to make a difference. I don't want to live for money, or possessions, or vacations, or anything else that is temporal. I desperately want my life to count for something. For something more. I see others pursuing amazing things and self-lessly giving themselves away to to a dark and hurting world. They regularly waste their time and money on those Jesus refers to as "the least of these." They are making a difference. And you can be sure their lives are counting for something! In my book, that's what real superheros do. And I want to be a superhero!

I sat there listening to Justin share about his life all the while finding common ground in my own life with everything he said. Knowing the truth from an early age, and yet doing nothing with it. Continuing to use Jesus as a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card. Selfishly living the way I wanted. Spending my money on things I wanted. Wasting my time on what was important to me. I was even justifying why I couldn't make this next trip to Mexico, knowing full well that I needed to go again. Then Micah comes and shares about the life of Richman and the ministry of Poetice in Zambia, and the battle intensifies. Here are three ordinary men (Justin, Micah and Richman), who saw a need and decided to wastefully give themselves away to meet that need. None of them are financially wealthy. They don't have secret identities veiled by masks. And as far as I know, the only one with a utility belt full of handy gadgets is Justin (remember, I'm not handy so I consider a cat's paw a handy gadget). What each of these men have is is humility and compassion fueled by the Holy Spirit. Those are their superpowers. That is what sets them apart from a majority of the world. That is what makes them superheros--not to the entire world, but to those they serve and lead. The amazing reality is that you and I have access to those same superpowers, but sometimes we trade them in for the pursuit of security and comfort.

In hindsight, I see that every day I am presented with opportunities to be a superhero. Instead of embracing them, I tend to make excuses. I tell myself things like: "That's not going to make a difference; I'm too busy; I don't have enough money; It's too tough; This might be uncomfortable." Either that or I simply write these opportunities off as insignificant. Is sitting down with the homeless guy on the corner and sharing a cup of coffee or burger with him going to put a dent world hunger? Not really. Is giving a few dollars a day to an organization that provides basic necessities to children in third-world countries going to solve poverty? I highly doubt it. I am so focused on the bigger picture and the end result that I squander opportunity after opportunity to actually do something. It's not likely that I will solve any of the problems facing the world today. I probably won't go down in the history books as someone truly significant. A few times I have heard Phill say, "Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone." By embracing that mentality I can actually live up to the calling God has placed on each of our lives to be a superhero to those we actually come into contact with.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Finally, we take a look at the last truth many of us have inadvertently exchanged for a lie. God is more law than grace. Yes, Jesus did tell us that he came to fulfill the law and not abolish it. But I intend to make the case that doesn't make God more law than grace.

When we take this statement--God is more law than grace--to it's fullest (and seemingly most logical) conclusion we find ourselves in quite a predicament. It would only go to show that we are still bound to the law in its entirety. And if that is the case, we are all in way over our heads (more so than we are now). Bottom line is this: none of us has the ability to uphold every aspect of Mosaic law. We are all liars, cheaters, covetous, thieves, etc. However, my understanding of the point Jesus was trying to make is a bit different. Having said that, you should know that I'm not willing to just throw the law out the window. The law still has a purpose and holds a place in our faith--which I will address later.

To begin this discussion, let's take a look at the word "abolish." The Greek term "kataluo" literally means "to loosen down." It can also be translated "to overthrow, to render vain, or to deprive of success." The word is found seventeen times in the New Testament. In classical Greek, it was mainly used in connection with institutions and laws in order to convey the idea of invalidation. So, we see that Jesus really does not intend to invalidate the law, but to uphold every bit of it. He is not going to do away with the seemingly less significant aspects of it. Nor is he going to render it vain. Not just yet, at least. And from reading the account of Jesus' life, we see he did in fact do exactly what he said he would do. Jesus upheld and fulfilled the law. Not just part of it either. In the 33 years he walked the earth, Jesus followed everything God commanded. Some might argue there were times he didn't when it came to things like threshing grain or healing on the Sabbath. However, it seems to me he may have just put a different spin on it. And it was this total adherence to the law that made him capable of becoming the perfect sacrifice that would finally fulfill the sacrificial law...for good. Don't believe me, just read Romans 5:9: "And since we have been made right in God's sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God's condemnation."

So, if Jesus came to fulfill the law and not abolish it, aren't we still bound to the same law? Not the way I see it. Jesus, himself, said that not a single "jot or tittle" would pass away until all of the law was fulfilled. And he took the burden off our shoulders by doing exactly what he said he would. This means that, in a way, God's wrath has been appeased and we no longer bear the brunt of that law. Basically, the point I'm trying to make is this: the law no longer has the same binding effect for us today. Paul makes this point abundantly clear in Galatians 3:23-25: "Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law." We are actually living under a new law; the law of grace!

Now you are probably asking, why not get rid of the law? If we are no longer bound to it, what's the point? I'm glad you asked. The purpose of the law has always been two-fold. Both are contrary to what you may have heard about it's intended purpose being to make us closer to God. Rather, the law has the opposite effect. The Pharisees were a prime example of this truth. They knew and followed the law better than anyone and missed out on so much of what Jesus came to show them. The law serves its true purpose quite well today! To begin with the law points out how sinful all of humanity is. It places everyone to have ever walked this planet on a level playing field. The law reveals how inadequate humanity is and how far we have fallen from God's standards. It clearly points out that we are all sinners. And with that truth laid out, it reveals we are all in need of a Savior. Which is why the Old Testament meticulously lays out all those rules and rituals regarding offerings and sacrifices in which blood had to be shed. They demonstrated the severity of the consequences of our sins--the penalty for sin is nothing short of death.

Now that my head is spinning, let me try to clear things up a bit. The law is the bare minimum. It is the minimum standard for everything—how to treat yourself, how to treat God, how to treat other people.  The amazing thing about grace is that it, in a way, is above the law. The law says you can’t commit adultery, whereas grace says you don’t even have to think about a woman with lust. The law says you must tithe 10%, whereas grace says you can give joyfully. The law says you must serve God alone, whereas grace says that if you serve God alone, He will set you free and you will not desire to serve any other god. Where the law commands us, grace gives us freedom to choose!

This is why I contend that God is in fact more grace than law. When it comes to issues of the law, grace has already won. When God declares us guilty, Jesus presents to him the trump card of grace. However, I must reiterate this does not mean we can live our lives any way we please. Afterall, we have been bought at a high price and we should live in a manner worthy of the price that was paid.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Faith is kind of a big issue in the Bible. However, it really isn't something concrete; so faith is a pretty tricky thing to nail down. In actuality, the Vikings winning the Superbowl might be more probable than concisely defining what faith looks like and how it plays out. Having said that, when it comes to faith, there are a few things in which we we can be certain. To begin with, we can't please God without it (Hebrews 11:6). Paul informs us it is faith alone that saves us (Ephesians 2:8). Jesus spends an awful lot of time talking about it (the Synoptic Gospels). Faith isn't a natural response, nor does it come easily. On numerous occasions Jesus says things like "You have so little faith" and "You need more faith." More often than not, most of us can probably relate to these statements. No matter where we are at in this journey we call life, faith plays a vital role. And we can be certain, like jello, there is always room for more.

In faith, Noah built an ark in the midst of a draught. Because of his faith, Daniel stood firm in the face of death. Jesus tells a Roman officer, "I haven't seen faith like this before." "Your faith has healed you," he told the sick. This list of those with exemplary faith is in no way exhaustive. Hebrews 11, known as the 'Faith Hall of Fame' tells of countless others whose faith is worth emulating. And this is the kind of faith many of us are striving for. Faith that instills confidence. Faith that moves mountains. Faith that heals. Faith that makes a difference.

What, then, is faith? According to Random House dictionary, faith is "confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof; a system of religious belief." According to Scripture, Hebrews 11:1 to be exact, faith is "The confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see." Let me summarize all of this into a clear, concise, workable definition. Faith is not believing that God can; it is knowing that He will! The Bible set the standard pretty high. And, I would contest, anything short of that standard isn't a lesser degree of faith; simply put, it isn't faith--period! And that, sadly, is right where I find myself more than I care to admit.

Several months I go, I embarked on a journey that would give me a much different understanding of faith. During a week long mission trip to Juarez, it was made abundantly clear that I am just like the disciples. They walked, talked and lived with Jesus for three years. Every single day they witnessed the miraculous that can only be explained by the divine. And yet these 12 men continued to question and doubt God in the flesh. I, like the disciples, have been given an extraordinary gift. I grew up in the church and, from the time I was young, heard the accounts of Jesus' life. On a regular basis I have seen the power of God at work. Lives have been transformed right before my eyes. My mother has been cured of cancer. Inexplicably finances have come through. Broken relationships have been restored. Hearts have been mended. My life has been given purpose. I have single-handedly witnessed miracle after miracle, yet I, just like the disciples, still find myself doubting.

Allow me to explain my dilemma in a little more detail. I have a steady job. While I may not make exorbitant amounts of money, there is always enough to pay my bills, put food on the table and have fun. I have a roof over my head. This means I don't have to worry about where I am going to sleep at night, because under that roof is a king size bed. There is food in my refrigerator--well, mostly condiments, but in the cupboards there is an array of food choices. So, wondering where my next meal will come from doesn't disrupt my day--unless I'm having difficulty choosing between Arby's, Qdoba or Jimmy John's. I have a reliable vehicle--most of the time. I have two different bank accounts, both of which have at least some money in them. You see, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that I can go through an entire day without having to acknowledge God's provision at all. To make it through most days doesn't really require faith on my part.

The family we helped in Juarez was living in a shack (that term doesn't even do it justice) about the size of the shed in my back yard. This was home to 6 individuals--mom and dad, along with their 3 children and granddaughter. Mud bricks, scraps of drywall, rocks, corrugated tin, pieces of wood and anything else lying around fashioned the roof and four walls. Dirt covered the 8' x 8' floor; partly due to the fact that the door was just a hole in the wall covered by a sheet. I guess the fact that the floor was made from dirt had something to do with it as well. The only window was, as you might guess, another hole in the wall. Just inside the door and to the left was a mattress supported by several 5 gallon buckets to keep it off the floor. On the adjacent wall sat a love-seat which was the only other piece of furniture they owned. Dinner, when they could afford it, was made out back using a small wood burning stove. The bathroom was located just off the side of the house, enclosed by two blankets hanging on some twine. Their only water source was a garden hose down the hill on the edge of the street. Even in the midst of dire circumstances, this family had enough faith to sit on a waiting list for 4 years in order that they might receive a home.

In the midst of all of this, I find myself standing at a crossroad. And faintly I hear Jesus utter, "Jordan, why so little faith?" All things considered, it's a reasonable question. If that family can have enough faith for God to provide their basic necessities, what is wrong with me? It's not like Jesus is asking for a lot. All it takes to move a mountain is a faith the size of a mustard seed. And if I'm honest, most of my problems are less like mountains and more like ant hills. Yet, on any given day, I can't seem to muster up enough faith to even budge them. To be quite honest, I don't have an answer. So, the following is my best attempt to explain how I'm working it out.

First things first. Faith is not a feeling. It is not an emotion. Faith is not even just a choice. Faith is a deliberate way of life! Faith is not passive but active. Every morning requires waking up and acknowledge everything around me is a gift I do not deserve. When I wake up and choose to disregard this reality, it's easy to write things off as merely luck or coincidence.

Romans 10:17 tells us that faith comes from hearing God’s Word. Notice it did not say that faith comes by praying, going to church, denouncing all worldly things, or anything of the sort. Faith comes by hearing the word of God. That's the bottom line! If I don't know how this unseen God has been faithful  in the past, it will make it difficult for me to see how he is providing and what he is even capable of in the present. As I have shared before, diving into the Bible and consistently reading it is a struggle of mine. Is it a wonder why my faith is so anemic at times? The solution? Establish a routine. Schedule a regular time every day to get into the Word. Lay out a reading schedule; even if it's just a few minutes. Personally, I have a time in the evenings when I attempt to read one chapter from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament and either some Psalms or Proverbs. The key here is not to let other things crowd out or spill over into that time. That time is sacred! Part of this time is spent finding scriptures in the Bible which contain specific promises for specific life circumstances. These scriptures then become a part of daily confession and prayer.

Believe it or not, the Red Hot Chili Peppers speak to another way of working out our faith. Just "Give it away!" Sometimes, the best thing for our faith is to simply give things away--our money, our time, our energy, our emotions. To purposefully place ourselves in need of God's provision will do immeasurable things for our faith. You see, the things we hold onto and value the most control us. The moment we relinquish control of these things is the moment God begins to do his best work. If you are at all like me, the two things I have a tendency to hold onto the tightest are time and money. When we are subservient to things like this, it doesn't leave much room for faith. I was at a point in my life where I had to choose to make more room for faith. In order to make room, I needed to give something away.

I signed up to take the trip to Juarez knowing two things: money was tight and the number of vacations days I had left was minimal. That is why the trip to Juarez was absolutely essential for my faith. For weeks I went back and forth on whether or not to go. On numerous occasions I argued myself into believing taking this trip was the most irresponsible and irrational thing I could do. But for some reason irresponsibility and irrationality won. When I committed to just go for it and offer up my time and what little money I had, God's provision came through. My boss was more than willing to give me the time off and let me borrow a few days of vacation from next year. And for some odd reason he even gave me a raise. On top of that, friends and family responded by donating just about enough money to not only cover the cost of my trip, but to buy my passport as well. In the end, the trip didn't really cost me much. But I discovered that God leveraged my generosity (even as minimal as it was) to grow my confidence in him.

Lastly, I have come to the realization that having faith doesn't necessarily mean I no longer experience doubt. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest hang-ups for many of us. Reality is, life is full of surprises--some good, some not so good and some just plain terrible. But each surprise we encounter is actually a divine opportunity to trust God--even in the midst of our unbelief. When doubt creeps in and all else fails, I resort to the tactic of the desperate father we find in Mark 9:24. Like him, I simply cry out to God, "I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!" Sometimes, in and of itself, that may be the biggest act of faith of all.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


If I'm going to be honest with you, I have to admit that one area of my spiritual life that has always been lack-luster is prayer. While my grandmother didn't have a problem with prayer, I have always struggled with the notion. I recall watching her, from a distance, my head peeking through the screen door. She was knelt down in the flower bed, her hands sifting through the black dirt and pulling weeds. It was there my grandmother didn't seem to have a care in the world. She was enjoying the beautiful weather and  carrying on a conversation with...herself; or so it seemed. This was a regular occurrence. One day curiosity got the best of me. I stepped out from hiding and confronted her right there in the serenity of the moment. "Who are you talking to Grandma?" I asked with the most puzzled look. Her response will forever be etched into my memory. My grandmother, in the most serious, yet loving voice, echoed some of the most comical, yet profound words a young boy would hear. "God, he's the only one who will listen!" But it wouldn't be until later in life I realized how true that was.

You see, my complacency with prayer is deeply embedded. To begin with, prayer wasn't really something that was consistently modeled throughout my formative years. This is partly due to the fact that I didn't grow up in what most people would call a Christian home. On second thought, I did grow up in what most of America would call a Christian home. We went to church just about every Sunday. My parents dropped me and my brother's off at our Wednesday night services every week. Summer camps were even a highlight of the year for me. But, you see, a lot of times that was the extent of it. The only time prayer was a significant part of life was in church. Even then, it seemed like it was more of an afterthought or "this is just part of the routine" kind of thing. On occasion, prayer made it's way into the routine of regular life. There were times it was part of the routine for family dinner on Sundays. And my mother would occasionally ask me to pray when the proverbial, uh...stuff...hit the fan. If things weren't going well, that was the time to turn to God in prayer.

My other hesitancy with prayer has always hinged on the idea of opening up and sharing my hopes, dreams and feelings with this invisible, omniscient being. I'm a guy, so I tend to shudder at the thought of baring my soul to another person. What made this even more awkward was the fact I was supposed to do this with someone I couldn't see. To me, this seemed like a ridiculous notion. First off, since God wasn't physically present I always felt as though I was talking to myself. And they lock people up in padded white rooms for less. To top it off, if God knew everything already why did I have to voice it to him anyway. The way I saw it, I was doing the big guy a favor. He had better things to do than listen to my first world problems that he was already aware of. By remaining silent, I was allotting God more time to take care of more important things like world hunger.

If any of this sounds familiar, you're not alone. I'd go out on a limb and say that you are probably in the vast majority. And take comfort in knowing that prayer was just as awkward and confusing for those who walked with God in the flesh. Even Jesus' closest friends seemed to be at a loss when it came to prayer. The crazy thing is they saw it modeled right in front of them on a regular basis. Jesus would retreat to a quiet place. Jesus would break bread with them and offer prayers toward heaven. When he healed the sick and crippled, he would lay hands on them and pray to his father. But still, the disciples weren't sure about the whole thing. Eventually, curiosity got the best of them as well. The time came when they approached Jesus and asked if he would teach them how to pray. Of course, Jesus obliged (Luke 11:1-4).

When it comes to prayer there seems to be a lot of confusion as to what that means and how it looks. Here are some lessons I have learned (rather, am still learning) about prayer. A lot of these principles have come through trial and error. Even more have come from Scripture and the examples Jesus gave us (like in Luke).

Just start praying! Anything is better than nothing. Does that seem too simple? Well, it is! But somehow the most basic things have a tendency to turn into the most painfully difficult and laborious activities. Open your mouth. Put letters together to form words and words together to form sentences. Big theological words don't impress God. They don't increase the chances of your prayers being heard. They don't make God work faster. You aren't required to speak some crazy language. Prayer is all about opening up the lines of communication between you and God. He's there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And the craziest part of all is that he is eagerly waiting for you to talk to him. If speaking is too difficult, just sit there in silence. When words aren't adequate, Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:26).

The next thing is to pray consistently (Philippians 4:6). I'm not talking about retreating to some secluded place and setting aside hours at a time every day. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, I have a hard time making it happen. I'm quite envious of people who can do this. Unfortunately my mind starts to wander off after a few minutes. So I have to attempt to offer shorter prayers throughout the day. When my patience is wearing thin because traffic is at a stand still, it's time to stop and pray for patience. When I get some exciting news, I try to take a moment and thank God in prayer. Those short prayers offered every so often keep me constantly in communion with God throughout the day. In addition to that, pray for the same thing. Again and again and again. Until you have an answer. Do I fail at this sometimes? Of course! But, I just pick up right where I left off.

The next two coincide with one another. When you pray, pray specifically and pray big  (John 14:12-14; 1 John 5:14-15)! It seems to me we utter these broad prayers that can be taken numerous ways. "God, please provide for my family." Provide what? He's given you a house. You've got a steady job. How do you want him to provide? If you're $100 short for bills this month, specifically ask for it. I wonder how often we don't reap the full benefits because our faith is so minuscule. We limit the blessings God is waiting to bestow; all because we tend to lob the ball over the plate in order that it will be easier for him to knock it out of the park. That way, if God doesn't come through the way we hoped it requires less explanation, we are less disappointed and it's easier to make excuses. In short, we have a tendency to limit God. It's here I should offer a disclaimer. Just because you pray specifically and pray big doesn't mean God will grant that request. It may not fall in line with what he is working out for you right now.

Navigating the path of life and coming to wise decisions requires communication. And as my grandmother pointed out, sometimes God is the only one who will listen. So keep praying. And do so audaciously, because of this you can be certain--he will answer.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


On my left wrist is a yoke (Not to be confused with a yolk. You'd be surprised how many people make that mistake.) with Matthew 11:28-30 inscribed below. I got this tattoo with my intern in Wyoming after hearing a compelling message on the beauty of the yoke. Behind this tattoo you will find a story about my difficulty completely surrendering to God. This tattoo represents a specific story, but know that there are times every day when I have trouble trusting God, walking with him in faith and allowing Him to lead...especially when I have no clue where he is taking me.

To understand everything, I should inform you that I like to drive. I get such a weird feeling sitting in the passenger seat; especially when it is in my own vehicle. You see, when I'm behind the wheel I make the decisions. I determine the speed. I determine the stops. I determine the course. Ultimately, being behind the wheel means I am in control. When I'm in the passenger seat, everything changes! I tend to get a bit antsy. The future of me and my vehicle is in the hands of someone else. Things start going through my mind like "I would pass this car. We should be in the other lane. That route would have been quicker. You better slow down so you don't rear-end them."

Often times, this spills over into my spiritual life. Here's how it usually unfolds. After a time, I relinquish control of a certain area to God. As time goes on and we navigate various twists, turns and detours I begin to get antsy. That's when I resort to being God's back-seat driver. I begin asking questions like: "Do you really know where you are going? How is this all going to play out?" And then I reach for the wheel and offer God some advice along the lines of: "You should speed this up. We should change directions. I really don't want to go there. How about we take a different route."

Now for the story behind the tattoo. I was about a year into my first ministry position. To say things weren't going as I hoped and expected they would is an understatement. I was a young man with visions of grandeur! I was going to make a difference. I was going to change the church. I was going to change the world. I would be someone! About the only thing I became was frustrated and discouraged. The reality of ministry and my expectations were separated by a vast canyon. There were lots of meetings, a bunch of paperwork, and plenty of other boring responsiblities. I felt very little of my time was actually spent doing anything worthwhile and productive.

That first year I had my fair share of disappointments and struggles. There were numerous battles to gain the trust of the parishioners (in their defense, previous staff gave them reason to be wary). The anemic youth ministry gathered two evenings a week--one night about 5 Jr. High students would gather and another night was reserved for about 3 or 4 Sr. High students. Mediating between parents and teens in the youth group created struggles I hadn't foreseen. The parents wanted to see a thriving ministry of small groups, outreach events, mission trips and various other programs. I wanted the same things but to be honest, putting hours into prep every week, not even knowing if anyone would show up became exhausting. It took months for others to agree merging the two groups into one night a week would be beneficial. A while later the youth was granted a room dedicated to the ministry I had envisioned. Momentum was building and on a weekly basis we saw 30 some students come through the doors. There was just one problem, in my mind, nobody still seemed to get it. And then things seemed to plateau.

Some of this was partly due to my feelings of inadequacy, but mainly because of my own unrealistic expectations. Throw into the mix a new city and a new marriage at the age of 21 and you might see the picture a bit more clearly. There were mornings I woke up, so stressed and full of worry, I spent the better part of breakfast--how do I put this delicately--throwing up. I was on the verge of throwing in the towel. It was then, the summer of 2006 at youth camp, the speaker delivered a message on the yoke.

I was certain the message was directed right at me! It was as though he had been following me around for the past year making notes on my hopes, dreams, frustrations and struggles. And now, he was able to see all the symptoms and diagnose my ailment. I was trying to be self-sufficient! I was doing everything on my own strengths, according to my own passions, out of my own giftings. I was no longer following God's vision but my own. And to top it off, I hadn't tapped into the source of true strength he was offering. That is why I felt the way I did. That is why the ministry seemed to become stagnant. That is why I was nearing burn out.

In his message, he talked about the the yoke as a symbol of submission. By using this illustration, Jesus was pointing to the fact that we are to submit ourselves to Him every day, in every way. None of this wasn't anything new to me. For those of you who don't know what a yoke is allow me to give an explanation. A yoke was a wooden crossbar with two U-shaped pieces placed around the necks of a pair of oxen. Usually a younger, more wild ox was yoked with an older, more mature ox. This way the younger ox was not allowed to stray and kept focused on the task at hand. It also was a way to allow the older ox to harness the power of the younger. A yoke caused the two animals to rely on each other. It kept them in balance and unified their effort. As I mentioned earlier, the word yoke tends to have a connotation of submission. For many of us, this tends to be a bit negative. It reinforces the improper idea that we are under God's control and have no freedom. No wonder we hate this idea!

Let me paint a little different picture for you. First you should understand that a yoke was usually hand carved. This means time and the utmost care was taken to make sure it fit the neck and shoulders of that specific animal. A yoke isn't a one size fits all kind of thing. The reason being, the customization was meant to prevent pain or discomfort. Creating a perfect fitting yoke was a labor of love. That's why Jesus says "his yoke is easy and his burden is light." That day, I began to understand the yoke is more about sympathy, understanding and grace than it is about limitations and suppression. I could now see the freedom offered in the yoke.

On it's most basic level, this tattoo serves to remind me that I am yoked with Christ. The two of us are walking this sometimes rutted, narrow path of life together. While he is not physically present, his spirit resides within. Whatever comes my way, I am not alone! It reminds me he has been in far more desperate circumstances than I...and yet he did not stumble. It reminds me that if only I will submit, the burden will be more bearable. It also symbolizes that in my submission, I am able to rely on his strength to carry the load when I no longer can. The image of the yoke brings to mind a couple of verses in the fourth chapter of Hebrews, "This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most."

Understanding this makes it a little easier to willingly place my neck and shoulders beneath the weight of his yoke.

Friday, August 31, 2012


The third truth we have exchanged may be one of the most pervasive and dangerous of the 4. 

God and his Word are absolute! We have, just like the other truths, bought into this one. And we have every reason to. That statement is entirely truthful. But, let me tell you what it doesn't mean. Just because God and his Word are absolute doesn't mean they allow no room for margin. When Scripture tells us that God and His Word are absolute, we tend to believe that this means everything, with God, is black and white; however, I don’t see this to be the case.  I see a God who can function in the vague and yet remain absolute.

For this discussion we will turn to the 14th chapter of Romans. If you have time, read it! But for the sake of this post, let me give you a summary. Paul lays out a teaching on two types of people. We find the two types of people he mentions are the "weaker brother" and, through our powers of observation, we see the second person inferred is the "stronger brother." A few key things to keep in mind about these individuals. First and foremost, I find it interesting Paul refers to the individual that cannot eat certain things, worship on certain days, etc. as the “weaker brother.” So, the individual who is so constrained by these boundaries, these “absolutes,” is the weaker brother. Why? Because this individual doesn’t see that God is much bigger than all of that. And Heaven forbid, there might be more to Christianity that what is in black and white. It is highly probable there are some gray areas...which we will get into in a bit. The second important element of this teaching to take note of is in reference to the "stronger brother." To them, Paul warns not to condemn the weaker brother because it is very possible God has accepted them as well. (I realize I am oversimplifying all of this, but bare with me.)

Reading through this passage, it seems to me, the logical conclusion is that there are certain areas God will speak to each of us about differently. Believe it or not, people within the same denomination, the same church, or even the same household may have differing “convictions” regarding food, drink, worship, or any other number of things. If you didn't believe that last statement, what I'm about to say next will totally blow you away. This might be hard to swallow, but it is entirely possible for people to have varying beliefs, still be Christian and, catch this, get along. It's a shocker, I know!

God is large and in charge! So much so, that he may tell me it is fine to do something or go somewhere all the while telling someone else the exact opposite. Does this mean God and his Word are not absolute? Absolutely not! To believe otherwise would show a blatant disregard of Scripture. Furthermore, it would make God very impersonal.

Here's the deal, God knows my past experiences, my present circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams. And given the fact that he is God and knows what he is doing, he is able to utilize all of that in a way he sees fit. Andy Stanley offers some great insight on this topic; "In light of my past experiences, my present circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing to do?" Let me illustrate this point. I may have a past that doesn't allow me to participate in certain behaviors that Scripture does not condemn. For example, if my past involves addiction, drinking (not condemned by the Bible) would not be a wise thing for me to do. If my present circumstances involve some sort of purity battle, dating (perfectly legitimate way to interact with the opposite sex) may not be a wise thing for me to do. Perhaps my future hopes and dreams hinge on being debt free; buying that brand new vehicle would not be a wise thing for me to do. As I hope you see, there is nothing wrong with any of these things in and of themselves--until they are put under scrutiny and we ask ourselves, "What is the wise thing to do?" There may be things that are perfectly acceptable or not Scripturally forbidden that I need to abstain from…simply because they are not wise.

Therefore, when it comes to the gray areas, God advises that we establish Biblical convictions. (And, contrary to what some believe, you should have several Biblical convictions.) Know that if you take a stand, you will have to be ready to offer an explanation. In addition to that, be on guard that you don't look down on others with varying convictions nor should you presume they need to follow or agree with you. God, in his sovereignty, has given some people the freedom (or grace) to fulfill his purpose in their life. But here is the key: While your convictions may be personal and may vary from everyone else, they are in no way ambiguous! The more you are in God’s word, the more you will know what your convictions should look like.

Following is a list of questions to help determine what convictions may or may not be legitimate in God's sight:

1. Does the Bible prohibit this conduct in specific or in general terms?
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.”  ~2 Timothy 3:16

2. Will this conduct be an example of good stewardship?
“To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.”  ~Matthew 25:29

3. Will this conduct help or hurt me with the mission God has given me?
“We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry. In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God.”  ~2 Corinthians 6:3-4a

4. Does this conduct align with the standards I profess to uphold and expect of others?
“So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.”  ~Matthew 23:3-4

“You may believe there is nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God. Blessed are those who don’t feel guilty for doing something they have decided is right…If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning.”  ~Romans 14:22-23b