Monday, August 26, 2013

Heart-check: Seeking God or just settling for His Word?

I'm working on a new topic of study for New Song, it's on how to study your Bible.
I love the topic, and I know a lot of people find this interesting too.
In nearly 20 years of ministry I've never led a congregation through this, so I'm very excited!

As I'm preparing, I'm aware that there is a temptation to love the Word of God more than we love God.
Sounds bizarre.  I know the temptation firsthand.  As a minister, I spend time in the Bible working on sermons, lifegroup lessons, etc, and it would be easy to only go the Scriptures when I'm working.

As a personal check of the heart, I remind myself that Jesus faced people who had a deeper allegiance with the Word of God than they did with God:
"You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life." (John 5:39-40 ESV)

I want to be a believer who not only knows the Word of God well, but I want to know the God who inspires the Word.  I hope our study will not be seen merely as an academic endeavor, but that our study will be a way to better understand the heart & mind of God by grasping the depths of His inspired Word.

We'll start our study on Sept 8th and we'll go for about 6 or 8 weeks in this study.
It will be on Sundays at 9:00 a.m., before our 10:00 a.m. Worship service.
Everyone is welcome to join us.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Stories of grace & mercy...

Tonight a couple of friends invited us to see Les Miserables with them.
I've seen the movie/s and have seen the off Broadway production.
Did I really need to, I mean need to see this again? Yes.
Did I cry? I do every time.

If you know the plot, then you know this is a narrative saturated with grace & mercy and how once shown, this can change the heart for good.  The scene of the priest's silverware is priceless.

What you might not recognize, is the results of grace that is spurned.
Javan, the bitter inspector who hunts Jean Valjean to the bitter end, when he is shown grace & mercy, he rejects that people can change for the better, and the mercy he is shown is more than he can bear. He ends his life because his legalism can't conceptualize the offer of unconditional grace.

I needed this tonight, I needed to hear the story of grace repackaged and repeated.  Maybe you do too.  Grace & mercy never get old for me, and I find I need it often, and I know I hope other people find it too.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A review of "Heaven’s Star"

By Jim Woodell
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012
ISBN-10: 1478281006
ISBN-13: 978-1478281009

Why do need another book on soul-winning?  
There are a lot of books written on the subject of sharing the Gospel; many that can leave you with the impression the author is only sharing untested theories.  There are other books on this subject that are filled with impractical methods, which are really just fluff.  Woodell has a different book for us; an authentic one that is straightforward and saturated in commonsense.  In fact, the tone of this books reminds me of when I questioned Bob Russell about his simple-preaching style.  Bob’s response was, “From the pulpit, sometimes people just want ‘meat and potatoes.’”

Readers will find themselves confronted with several healthy-personal challenges throughout the book.  For example, if lost people aren’t asking you how to be saved -- what is missing in your lifestyle?  And, readers will be reminded of the reality of Hell and that people we know, who are apart from Jesus, are going to Hell.

Woodell writes to equip the average, mature believer who would like to add a few tools to their evangelism toolbox.  Preachers, small group leaders or anyone in leadership would find the book worthwhile -- but this book isn’t restricted in any measure to any one segment of the congregation.  If you have a table to sit around (and coffee to drink) and a lost soul who will hear you out, this book is for you.

Don’t be deceived by the simplicity or lack of “sophisticated” complexities you are used to in books on evangelism.   Woodell demystifies the process of sharing the Good news; he simply wants to help instill confidence and competency in the typical believer.  There is an assumed proposition in the book that many of our past evangelistic methods are either flawed or tainted with empty dogmatics.  Basically, Woodell is delivering a timeless plan, method and message that you can easily outline in your favorite Bible to take with you, to be ready at a moment’s notice to make an eternal impact in the life of those who are lost.  

You will find an abundance of Scriptural references all throughout, but the heart & soul of the book is a survey of Romans chapters 4-8.  The book is broken down into two parts, Section 1 on Preparation, section 2 on A Plan, and then the Addendum which is the actual outline of study the author references throughout the book.  The reader would probably do well to read the included study first, so that you can better follow along with the author’s intentions along the way.

No book is perfect, and this is no exception.  If you have a copy, there are a few typos in chapter 10 on Scripture references that Woodell will have corrected in future printings.  Beyond these few very minor mechanical errors, it’s worth asking of this book if Woodell isn’t taking a risk in disappointing some of us who read it.  Woodell is obviously a gifted evangelist and let me be clear, he is not overselling, manipulating, nor is he deceiving anyone -- but to the point I’m trying to politely raise -- Woodell states many people have responded to his approach after just one study.  In a couple of hours, he has repeatedly walked various people through the study and after just one session he leads them directly to the baptistery.  I mean no disrespect, and I hold Jim in the highest regard, I simply want to point out not everyone will see such fruition, so soon.  One other observation here, Woodell assumes a certain level of Biblical-literacy with the lost people being studied with; a depth that we might not enjoy with all of the people we are trying to reach.  Not everyone we study with will know who Abraham or who Paul or was.

With personal vignettes, several testimonies from others, and passages of Scripture thoroughly woven in, Woodell is a gentle coach who walks alongside the eager evangelist, blessing the Kingdom as he writes this much needed book.  I am honored to review Heaven’s Star -- in chapter 13, Woodell shares a personal story of baptizing a Midwesterner named Gary.  It just so happens, about 15 years later in Gary’s life as a byproduct of Jim’s ministry, Gary baptized me.  And so I have to ask myself, where would I be if Jim hadn't put into practice the principles of this book... and who do I need to be sharing these truths with.

Monday, August 5, 2013

To be a reader:

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember.  One of my great joys as a dad was reading to our boys when they were young, and reading with them once they learned how to read for themselves.

Not all of our boys love to read, so I guess the love of reading is not genetic?  Actually, reading naturally is not a genetic trait that's passed on like verbal language skills are... the brain has to learn how to read and the brain actually is changed physiologically by learning to read.

I do not know how many thousands of books I've read, but I can't think of too many I regret reading.  Reading is by far is my favorite pastime activity.  It's more than a hobby to me, it's a lifestyle.  I never leave the house without a book, and I don't I've gone a single without reading from a book in years.

I am always trying to think of reasons I can share as to why reading is important.
So here are some random thoughts that ran across my mind today, as I considered the value of reading:

Reading says ~
You know you don't know it all.
Your mind is open to learning.
You want to be influenced. 
You want to grow, personally.
Other people have good ideas, and you'd like to hear what they have to say.
Your mind is open for transformation.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Handling control freaks

(Timesnews religion column 8/2/13)
No one likes to be manipulated or pushed around.  Control freaks can make you feel like you are stuck in a game of cat & mouse, and you’re the one who likes cheese.  When controlling people bulldoze over us, rarely do we see positive results --rarer still, do we see controlling people who reform on their own.  

Maybe when you get “your back up” you retaliate against your control freak -- behind their back.  Or, when you come home from work you whine to your spouses about the unreasonable, dominating manager/co-worker.  Or, you commiserate with others, rehashing horror-stories of the crazed control freak who ruins every get-together.  Or worse yet, you lie awake at night, wanting to sabotage your irksome control freak.  But you realize sooner or later, passive-aggressive approaches can’t create healthy changes.

It’s easy to assume that most control freaks are simply self-centered bullies who want the world to revolve around them.  We assume that the control freak is a coldhearted dictator who enjoys watching the rest of us dance on the end of our marionette-strings.  It’s not easy to want to take the time to understand why certain people have controlling tendencies.  We’d rather not deal with their rage when they don’t get their way -- so, sadly, we settle for walking on eggshells.  

When we are confronted by a control freak, we could feel overwhelmed, and out frustration we can quickly lose our patience.  Typically, the result is either fight or flight.  But what if there was a better way to face controlling personalities?  

Once I was entangled in a deep conflict with a controlling person and I felt helpless.  The more helpless I felt, the less effective my responses were.  A very wise, capable person was brought into the situation to facilitate resolution to our strife.  He soon noticed that a lot of people were overlooking the controlling person’s poor behavior; some were sympathetic saying, “Oh he can’t help it, that’s just the way he is because of his childhood.”  When the wise man observed what was going on, he said, “Your past explains you -- it doesn’t excuse you.”

So, without excusing or denying the damaging behavior of a control freak, here are some proactive steps we can take to be peacemakers.  These steps are basically rooted in two primary principles:  Stay in control of yourself and seek to understand the other person.  

Whether we are dealing with a micromanager or a tyrant, we still need to maintain self-control.  The only person you can really ever control is yourself, and Biblically that is a source of true strength,  “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32 ESV)  Remember, the Bible is filled with instructions on how to relate to people, even difficult people.  Jesus says we are to avoid being judgmental and first get the log out of our own eye before we can inist other people change (See Matt 7:1-5).  

An important, but overlooked insight into the mind of the control freak is that often times they think they are being helpful.  We’ve all been to the playground and have seen an older sibling take a younger sibling under their wing, cautiously protecting them, showing them the ropes.  Extrapolate that -- the controlling person may see their role as the protector, since perhaps they were hurt once, they “have to be” in such tight control to prevent you from being hurt.

Also, we mistakenly believe control freaks know how we perceive them, and that they realize the damage they are doing.  Shockingly, most often, they don’t recognize any of the problems they are creating.  They believe they are “holding it all together” and that everyone else appreciates their sacrifices.

After seeking a better understanding, we should always be loving.  Being loving, isn’t turning a blind-eye to the situation, love shines light in the darkness.  We think the “kind” loving thing to do is to remain silent to avoid hurting the controlling person's feelings.  Actually, not addressing the situation is unkind; it perpetually leaves the controlling person at odds with others.  Communicating the truth, lovingly, is a big part of being mature-believers in Jesus, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15 ESV)   

While controlling people may belittle us, embarrass us or cause us to have self-doubts, mostly they rob us of our peace.  But as believers we can have hope in all situations, Jesus said,  “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 ESV). As you actively seek peace, hold to the promise Moses offers Joshua on the threshold of the Promised land, as Joshua faced fierce nations who were certainly intimidating, “It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:8 ESV)

We don’t have to approve of their unhealthy behavior to be able to empathize with a controlling person.  Try to discover what is driving their need to be in total control.  The typical control freak is a more than likely a very anxious individual. Their “command presence” is really a front, masking their deep insecurities.  They may have had an extended period of their life where they lost their “say” in many important decisions.  They were possibly betrayed and as a result they have deep trust issues.  Since controlling people probably operate out of fear -- the fear that if they don’t seize control, worse things are going to happen, one of the best ways to defuse the fears of a control freak is to overload them with information.  Telling them ahead of time what your plans are, keeping them up to date, then following through on your commitments will help “soothe the savage beast” within the control freak.  May you find the compassion to lovingly address life’s many control freaks, and may God grant you peace.  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

“Shadows, darkness, and dead-ends”

As children we are taught to imagine life through fairytale eyes.  The dragons are always slain, the princess is rescued every time, and, the bad guys face the music.  This spills over into our faith.  Our Sunday school and VBS Bible stories are all safe and sanitary.  A typical sermon series has “seven easy steps” to happiness... or some similar cliche.   The message we send is clear: The good guys always win and if you do the right thing, you’ll never suffer.  I guess happy endings sell.

Sadly, there are Country & Western Songs from Johnny Cash or David Allan Coe that do a better job than most Sunday mornings do at hitting the nail on the head.  The factory does close down, spouses do leave, life doesn’t always go our way.  So, I’m not so sure we are doing such a great job at either accurately describing reality or equipping Christians.  

Eventually, we grow up, but the childhood dream dies a slow hard death.  Life gets fuzzy and we wonder as we face fears and pain, and sometimes doubt gnaws on our soul -- mercilessly.  When we don’t do too well at acknowledging, embracing, or accepting pain and suffering, we contrive all sorts of Theodicies.  

We need to be more considerate when it comes to our efforts at comforting others, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” (Proverbs 25:20 ESV)  You should have your mouth washed out with soap if you ever quote Romans 8:28 to someone who is in the middle a tragedy.  

I think we do ourselves a disservice when we offer trite answers to the paradox of the problem of suffering.  It’s easy to spout “reasons” why a loving God would allow cancer to ravish the body, until you watch a loved waste away.  It’s one thing to talk in abstract terms about suffering from a distance, but it’s another thing when we have a concrete case of real gratuitous-evil engulfing us.  

I’m doubtful we’ll ever find a waterproof answer to why God allows suffering.  I’m not saying He doesn’t have His reasons, but I doubt I’ll find one I could articulate.  I do know this much, when I read the Bible satan was already in the Garden when Adam & Eve started strolling around.  Job wasn’t given any answers after his tragic turn of events, not one, but he was apparently satisfied in the end.  Jesus was predicted to be a “Man of sorrows,” in Isaiah 53:3.  Then there’s the Book of Habakkuk to mull over.  Paul seemed to be convinced that if we claimed the Christian life, we were guaranteed to be persecuted in II Timothy 3:12.  And, the Book of Revelation has its share of information on the suffering of believers.  The Bible doesn’t give easy answers -- it doesn’t pretend like we live in a Utopian world either.

Instead of trying to offer insufficient answers, maybe we need to learn how the Bible, the Word of God, leads us in the darkness.  This is all to say, the Bible doesn’t avoid or deny the reality of suffering, but the Scriptures have outlets for our suffering: Lamenting.  

There are dark, disturbing passages of Scripture that have purpose and meaning, beyond trying to provide simple “answers” to our questions.  For example: In Ist Kings 19, Elijah curls up under the broom tree and begs God to take his life.  Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations uses heartwrenching poetry, as he mourns over the destruction of God’s footstool.  Understanding the 22nd Psalm and its expressions of betrayal and abandonment, apparently by the hand of God, or trying to express the depths of despair in the 88th Psalm as God seems cruel and distant -- that would be nearly impossible.  The Book of Job is raw with emotion and abounds in profound questions. Maybe there’s a good example worth following in these examples?  I think God has big shoulders, and in most of these passages, people get more than a little gruff with God when asking “WHY?” and He seems to understand.  He seems to enter into our suffering too...

Sooner or later life gets hard, “curse-word” hard if we want to be honest.  We bring plenty of trouble upon ourselves and then there are the bleak days when calamity and catastrophe hits out of the blue.  Life isn’t always cheery, satisfaction isn’t guaranteed, and we can’t escape pain.  I like the question Lynn Anderson raises in his book, "Talking back to God"" Lynn writes on page 70, “For years I have advocated praise teams to help lead us in worship.  I still do, of course, but I have been wondering if we don’t also need “lament teams” sometimes.”