Winnipeg, Canada. We’d just stepped off the plane, collected our baggage and loaded up in the two Chevy Astro vans Johnnie and Alex drove over from Camp Of The Woods, a ministry FCC supports near Dinorwick, Ontario, Canada, and settled in for the five hour trip back to camp. As our van pulled away from the curb I heard (we all heard) a horrible metal to metal scraping sound. SKRRRRRR!

“Oh yeah, that’s just the brakes eh?” said our driver Alex “Finny the fish whisperer” Finlayson. “It quiets down once we get going a bit, eh.”

From that point on, all the way back across the prairie and into the wilderness, every time Alex would touch the brakes … SKRRRRRRRR!

Having grown up with a mechanic father and worked as one for five years it was like hearing fingernails grate across a chalk board.

The problem was: the brakes were Canadianized. The Canadian environment is extremely harsh on cars. Salt corrosion on Canadian roads destroys metal. The brake rotors disintegrate. The pads get stuck in the slides. Calipers get sticky and won’t release. It’s possible to fix before it gets so bad. But Johnnie didn’t have the time to pay attention to it before he drove to Winnipeg.

I knew what the brakes were supposed to look like, sound like, and behave like. But the damage was so severe that they had to be dismantled, worked on and reassembled three times before they would work properly.

Something similar happens to churches. They become Americanized. We know from the Bible what church is supposed to look like, sound like and behave like. But there are corrosive factors at work inside and outside, just part of the environment that eat away at the parts and cause them to jam and scrape.

The founders of the church I lead recognized this long ago and wrote a “fix,” really a kind of preventive maintenance system, into its bylaws to protect it from Americanization. It’s called Membership Renewal and it forces us to do an annual inspection on ourselves to see if we are operating according to the Maker’s specifications. There are three reasons for that.

The Americanized Church is About the Individual
Americans are the most individualistic people on earth and we bring that set of values with us into church life. The feelings, rights and preferences of the individual supersede every other value. Forget sound doctrine. Forget obedience. Our personal pleasure and peace is the scale upon which every spiritual value is weighed. If it adds to my sense of self and wellbeing I embrace it. If it challenges my comfort zone or — God forbid — calls me to change my thinking and behavior then I reject it.

But church “doesn’t work,” there’s a scraping sound, when it’s focused on the individual.

In his book, Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson said: “Love cannot exist in isolation: away from others, love bloats into pride. Grace cannot be received privately: cut off from others, it is perverted into greed. Hope cannot develop in solitude: separated from the community, it goes to seed in the form of fantasies. No gift, no virtue can develop and remain healthy apart from the community of faith. “Outside the church there is no salvation” is not ecclesiastical arrogance but spiritual common sense, confirmed in everyday experience.”

The real church is not about the individual. It’s about Jesus Christ working himself out in the life of his body, changing the individuals. See Colossians 1:8.

The Americanized Church is Optional
Americanized church life is optional. We show up when we feel like it. We participate when it’s convenient. We give out of our surplus. We serve until it no longer feels good. It’s optional.

Christ’s church is not optional. His church is his body, his ongoing physical presence on planet earth. (See Eph. 1:22-23).

Sometimes people will say to me, “I can’t feel God in my life.” And I say, “What am I, chopped liver?” You and I are part of Christ’s “fullness that fills everything in every way.”

Jesus works through us, his body, to meet each others needs. He nurtures us, cares for us, gifts us, cleanses us and matures us for his own purposes. He takes care of us the same way we take care of our physical bodies. He has appointed us to do good works planned before the church began (Eph. 2:10). But it doesn’t work that way if we treat it as optional.

The Americanized Church is Cliquish
It has in groups and out groups, super-spiritual groups and not so spiritual groups. It tends to break down into socioeconomic layers.

Cliques have the right to decide who is in and who is out, who gets included and who gets excluded. SKRRRRR! But there are ways to fix that part of the Americanized church.

First is a commitment to the growth of others as much as to our own growth (See Ro. 15:1-2). This is contrary to much of evangelical culture. We ask, “What’s it doing for me? If it isn’t meeting my need, I’m not going to go.” Rather — with balance — we should evaluate: will my presence be an encouragement to a weaker brother or sister? Will my service edify someone other than me?

Second is a commitment to personal examination and submission to scripture (See 2 Tim. 3:16-17). The scriptures challenge and correct my thinking. I can’t be cliquish when they’re doing that. They equip me for good works. Without that — when my mind is not “washed with the water of the word” — I’m “equipped for bad works.”

Being part of a church is a commitment to doing all of these things in a community of others who are also doing them. It’s building friendships that are more than skin deep.

In his book, The Me I Want to Be, Pastor and author John Ortberg writes of the power of that kind of vulnerability.
“One of the most important moments of my spiritual life was when I sat down with a longtime friend and said, “I don’t want to have any secrets anymore.”

I told him everything I was most ashamed of. I told him about my jealousies, my cowardice, how I hurt my wife with my anger. I told him about my history with money and my history with sex. I told him about deceit and regrets that keep me up at night. I felt vulnerable because I was afraid that I was going to lose connection with him. Much to my surprise, he did not even look away.

I will never forget his next words.

“John,” he said. “I have never loved you more than I love you right now.” The very truth about me that I thought would drive him away became a bond that drew us closer together. He then went on to speak with me about secrets he had been carrying.

If I keep part of my life secret from you, you may tell me you love me. But inside I think that you would not love me if you knew the whole truth about me. I can only receive love from you to the extent that I am known by you.”

So how well is your church working? Are you hearing a loud grating noise coming from the sanctuary? Or is it humming down the road in good order, ready for the next task the Lord assigns it? Whatever the case, it’s never a bad idea to take it in for an annual inspection.


I have a knee-jerk reaction to most overtly religious T.V., or maybe I should say thumb-jerk: my thumb immediately jerks the channel button to find something more authentic, better written, and better produced.
Not so with A.D. The Bible Continues, the follow-on to husband and wife creative team Mark Burnette and Roma Downey’s huge hit mini-series, The Bible. I was either too busy, or too sleepy, to watch the original series, but I’ll be staying awake on Sunday nights to watch this one.

Part of the reason is that Acts is my favorite historical narrative in the Bible. It’s like Joshua for the New Testament, full of action and adventure. But A.D. has other, more important reasons to commend it. A.D. is good T.V., good story-telling on the most important medium in the world, telling the most important story in the world.

The cinematography is very good. It isn’t quite up to big budget movie standards, but it’s good. Downey and Burnette and their production partners are professionals and it shows. I do not have a professionally trained eye for these things, but the sets, the historical settings, the lighting, the camera work, and the audio are high quality for a weekly T.V. show that is trying to cover so much ground. The special effects, while not quite up to Noah standards, are nonetheless convincing and adequate to the narrative. I’ve been studying New Testament history for a long time and everything about how they are portraying the era feels right.

More importantly, the storyline hews close to the book of Acts in the three episodes I’ve seen. The political situation, the tensions between the factions, the Roman’s frustration with trying to govern Israel, all of these are dead-on accurate. The writers add just enough extra-biblical dialogue and action among key players to keep the story going, yet without straying or changing the biblical plot in any significant way. Parental warning here: Acts is often a bloody story. Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, and the Zealots who opposed them were brutal men living in a brutal time and the camera does not shy away from that. But this commitment to accuracy makes the retelling that much more authentic. That’s the way it was and modern viewers need to know it.

The acting is also first rate. Vincent Regan brings the ruthless Pilate to life especially well. Richard Coyle’s Caiaphas is utterly convincing as the politician–high priest playing a high-stakes game of cat and mouse with Pilate and James Callis’ Herod Antipas. Adam Levy skillfully animates the passionate and bold Peter, revealing him as a man very much like the one I’ve always imagined when I read Acts.

You might expect a few critiques, and I have three. I would have preferred the actual words of Jesus in Matthew 28:16-18 at the Ascension as they stress his authority. Instead, the script has Jesus leave us with the simple command to preach the gospel–accurate enough, but incomplete. The disciples’ prayer during Pentecost is a constant, even ecstatic repetition of “The Lord’s Prayer” as recorded in the gospels. I understand why the writers would do that, but it’s a shallow rendering of what was no doubt a deeply biblical time of prayer. These men and women were serious Jews who had been trained by Jesus not to engage in “senseless repetition like the pagans,” (Matt. 6:7). They would no doubt have recited from the Psalms in worship and prayed after the pattern established in “The Lord’s Prayer,” not in a manner akin to the repetitious incantations of a tribal shaman. Finally, the effect of the gift of tongues on the crowd is missing in the retelling of Pentecost, but maybe it was just too difficult to portray the diversity of languages that would have been present in Jerusalem at that feast.

I can remember when biblical movies that were on broadcast T.V. were aired almost without commercials as an act of reverence. Now, it seems the only television event that gets that kind of respect is the Masters Golf Tournament. Go figure. Still, television is the most powerful storytelling and therefore culture-shaping medium of our time. More people will get a better introduction to the gospel via A.D., The Bible Continues than will ever be reached by a church or evangelist. It’s worth watching and worth sharing with your friends. A.D. is good T.V.


Motorheads know that, in cars designed for it, higher octane fuel produces more horsepower. It does that, not because it burns faster, but because it burns slower, more completely than the cheap stuff, making for better efficiency and greater power.

Not everyone cares about more power for their cars, but most believers would like to know how to get more power in their prayers. Nehemiah shows us how to do that.

The Book of Nehemiah is the personal memoir of the governor of Judah during the second half of the fifth century BC. It records his success in an impossible task, one that many others before him had failed to accomplish.

The ruined city of Jerusalem lay bare and defenseless before all enemies. Two miles of massive stone wall lay battered into tons of rubble, ten gigantic gates gouged out by fire, and perhaps more important than all this, a pummeled and demoralized people waited and longed for a leader to turn it all around. Nehemiah was that man. He did it in fifty-two days and he began his task with “high octane prayer.”

America isn’t in the same sad state as Jerusalem was, but we face difficult problems that could quickly take us there. Massive and ever-growing national debt threatens our economic security, race continues to divide us, the epidemic breakdown of the nuclear family undermines the future, and political polarization stifles effective government. All of these seem insurmountable, not to mention ISIS, a nuclear Iran, and an increasingly belligerent Russia. We need God’s help more than ever. As we approach the National Day of Prayer on May 7, we would do well to follow Nehemiah’s example.

Nehemiah’s prayer (Neh. 1:4-11) follows a well-known biblical pattern that can be laid out in an easy to remember acrostic: A.C.T.S.

The “A” is for adoration, and adoration is worship. Worship works like octane booster for our prayers. Adoration concentrates on the attributes of God–not what he has done but who he is–and calls them out.

Verses five and six are short, but list six of God’s attributes. He is: The God of heaven, the creator God, the universal God, the God who reigns over all, the omnipresent God. He is: The Great God, the God of power and might, the God who delivered the three children from the furnace and shut the lion’s mouth, the omnipotent God. He is: the awesome God, holy, awesome in its original sense of “awe inspiring,” approached with great reverence and wonder. He is: the faithful God, the covenant keeping God who can be depended upon to do what he has promised. He is: the loving God, the God who always acts with love toward his people. “This is how God showed his love; he sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9). And finally, he is: the God who knows and sees all, (Vs. 6) the omniscient God. Nehemiah began his high octane prayer with adoration.

The first time you do this–begin your prayers with adoration–a little wave of static might wash across your mind, “My, my, aren’t we being flowery! Do you really think God cares?” Let me urge you to ignore that and pray on. We live so much in this world that we lose connection with the spiritual world, which is more real than this one anyway. Consider adoration as a way to tune the soul’s receiver to the right station. Prayer that begins with worship is stronger prayer than prayer that begins without it.

Nehemiah continues his prayer in verses six and seven with two kinds of confession: intercessory and personal. He takes ownership of the sins of the Israelites–naming them specifically–and owning the fact that he too is a sinner. Two observations flow from these two things.

First, leaders are conscious of their common humanity. They aren’t so taken with their talents as they are aware of the fact that they can fall just as fast as anyone. High octane leaders need to take ownership of their sins and be willing to be held accountable for the sins of the nation.

Second, recovery from sin requires naming the sin. The Israelites were suffering because of specific sins. Sometimes we’re suffering greatly and want restoration without first confessing the sins that brought us into that trouble. Confession is most effective when it is specific.

The third ingredient to high octane prayer is thanksgiving. In verses eight and nine, Nehemiah illustrates one of the best ways to offer thanks: recalling what God has already done. (Scriptures like Ephesians 1 can be helpful here).

High octane prayer says, “Father, these are the blessings you have already given us title to. These are the things that you have done. Our request is based on those gifts, not any merit that we bring to the table. You are the God of goodness and grace and you have shown yourself good in these things. So we ask with confidence.”

Move out from there to the blessings you’ve seen in your own life. (A prayer journal is helpful here). When we do that we start to see patterns of answered prayer. We begin to recognize the ways God has intervened in our lives, over and over again preparing the way ahead of us, giving us insight when we needed it, and help when we were weak.

The last ingredient of high octane prayer, the last letter in Nehemiah’s acrostic, is also the shortest.

Supplication – The “Ask”
This is where we usually start: our needs. But when we start on the horizontal plane the needs just seem to grow bigger and more impossible. Not so for Nehemiah. He spent the majority of his prayer in Adoration, Confession, and Thanksgiving so that when he finally got around to asking for what he wanted, he saw a very large God answering a very small request.

No doubt during that fifty-two days Nehemiah discussed many aspects, avenues, and angles on the rebuilding project with God and with his friends. No doubt his friends were praying with him. But when A.C.T. is first, the S. is always less complicated and more confident.

One last observation: It’s ok to ask for success! Do you ever get nervous about that? Asking God for success in some difficult endeavor? “Who am I to be asking for that? I’m not good enough, worthy enough.” But that’s why A.C.T.S. is such a good approach. In the end, high octane prayers aren’t about us or for us. High octane prayers, the prayers that God hears, are prayers about God’s plans and those plans come to us as we pray through Nehemiah’s pattern. God’s will gets bigger, ours gets smaller, and his purposes in our lives are achieved.


We are busy, responsible people. That’s a good thing. God expects us to be good stewards of the things he’s given us and honors hard work. But, as Solomon noted, there’s a time for everything under the sun, a time to work, and a time to take a break. The scripture calls it Sabbath, which at its root means: Cease, desist. As Jesus explained, the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. It isn’t meant to be a religious straitjacket. It’s meant to bring restoration, to put back in what six days of life takes out.

The problem is that we aren’t very good at it. Once the belt is moving beneath our feet it’s hard to get off the treadmill. Here then are four reasons resting is hard for us to do along with some suggestions on how to build rest back into your schedule.

First, we feel guilty when we relax. We live in one of the most productive societies in history. Our cultural value system idolizes productivity, makes a god out of it. If I’m not aggressively using my waking hours to “make something happen” I’m going against the grain and feel out of sync with the rest of the world.

Rest Suggestion One: Give yourself permission to smash the productivity idol. Offer your rest up to God as an act of worship.

Second, we live passively. We are led around by life instead of leading ourselves through life. But our lives are a stewardship from God. We care for them and invest them on His behalf. We need to be proactive about how we spend them.

Rest Suggestion Two: Think of time as a suitcase full of hundred dollar bills. Would you leave it open on a picnic table in the wind, or bank it and figure out how to invest it? That’s what I thought. Do the same thing with your time and you’ll find time to rest.

Third, the ability to rest is a values decision. Dodge tells me I can’t be macho unless I drive the newest RAM truck. Apple tells me I won’t be cool till I have the Apple Watch. Disney tells me I won’t have family fun till I take my kids to Disney World. But my checkbook tells me I can’t have those things unless I work two jobs. So what do I value more?

Rest Suggestion Three: Figure out what you value most and budget your life accordingly.

Finally, as soon as I figure out what I value most, rest becomes a boundaries decision. Our physical, emotional and spiritual energies are finite, limited. “The need to establish boundaries that allow us to say no is a mathematical necessity,” said Richard Swenson. We can’t fill all the demands and expectations of family and friends and colleagues. So we have to learn to say “no” gracefully.

Rest Suggestion Four: Give yourself permission to say no. As you do, your energy margins will increase and you will have more to give to the people that matter.


Last Monday I took the motorcycle out for the first time this season. I ride an old cruiser bike (I gave up asphalt blistering power years ago) and I pride myself on taking good care of it. In the two weeks prior I had changed the oil, inspected the pads and flushed the brake lines, installed a new luggage rack, and polished the chrome. It has lots of chrome . Right before I stored it for the winter I had mounted a new back tire.

Like I said, I take good care of it. That’s why I was rebuking myself less than a block away from the house because I noticed two things right away: the low fuel light was on and the front end was wallowing. That meant I’d left a parked bike with an empty gas tank over a cold, humid winter, the perfect recipe for rust inducing condensation build up inside the tank. Further, I’d forgotten to check the air in the tires before I rode.

Rust and gasoline don’t mix. If it did take hold it will be the dickens to get out. (Anybody got a bore scope to loan?) And if you’ve ever pushed a heavy wheel barrow with a nearly flat tire you have a feel for riding a five hundred plus pound motorcycle on underinflated rubber. Rust in the tank can plug up the fuel system and stop your engine. Low tire pressure can wreck you. Thankfully, neither thing happened. I filled the tank and the tire and got home safely. But I was ticked at myself for polishing chrome, outside stuff, when I should have been tending to fuel and air pressure, the invisible, inside stuff. (You see where this is headed, right?)

What’s all that got to do with the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42? When Jesus came to visit, Mary sat at his feet, filling up her soul. She was working on her inner person. Martha was so busy fussing with preparations, making the meal, serving and no doubt cleaning up, she didn’t have time to tend to inner things. When she complained that Mary wasn’t helping “polish the chrome” Jesus gently rebuked her.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

In other words, Mary was paying attention to the invisible stuff of life, communing with Jesus in soul and spirit. Martha wasn’t. It’s not as though dinner wasn’t important. It’s just that it shouldn’t have been the only thing on her agenda. She could have let the dishes sit and tended to her soul.

Here’s the thing, all of us are Marthas from time to time. It’s easy to keep ourselves so busy, so overloaded with external responsibilities that we let the inner tank run dry, the inner tube run flat. Staying spiritually healthy means taking time to fill up on Jesus, to talk with him and to listen, to worship and to learn in the daily rhythms of life, Sunday morning alone won’t do it.

What about you? How’s the inside stuff doing? Got enough air in your spiritual tires? Keeping your spiritual tank full? Remember, the chrome can wait. When you get out on the road of life, it’s the inside stuff that matters.