RENDEZVOUS WITH JESUS: Alpha 2017

A new friend sat across the table at the local deli, eager to tell me what had happened to him.

“On the third week, when Nicky Gumble led in prayer, I prayed with him and gave everything to God. I told God I couldn’t do anything without him and didn’t want to try. Up until then I had some good days and some bad days, well, really a lot of bad days and some OK days, full of anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression. All of that is gone. I felt this incredible lightness after I prayed. I’m sleeping the night through now, and I’m so happy.”

That was in 2011, about five weeks into our first Alpha Course, and conversations like it have continued to happen ever since. That’s the reason our church will offer Alpha in September for the eighth time since 2011. I’m writing today to ask you to pray for the course and for friends you might invite this summer.

Haven’t heard of Alpha? Wonder what it’s like?

The Alpha Course is completely apolitical. More importantly, it isn’t built around a sales pitch of the gospel. It is a course, Christianity 101 if you will, founded instead on two fundamentals: Process and Community.

Learning is a process that happens best when we are in the presence of friends. This is what makes Alpha so enjoyable and encouraging. No one is pressured to “buy” anything and all questions are welcomed in a community of friends who’ve gotten to know one another through shared meals and laughter.

Alpha is for everyone. People who have attended church all their lives will enjoy it. Those who’ve never entered a church or considered Christianity will also enjoy it and come away enriched, with new understanding and new friends.

The Alpha Course Team, the people who make the event happen each fall, consists of two parts: task force, and hosts / facilitators. The task force prepares the meals and handles logistics. The hosts / facilitators make  guests feel welcome and facilitate small-group discussions. The only prerequisites to serving on the team are to have attended the course at least once and meet a few times prior to launch for prayer and training.

One of the most important things our Alpha team has learned over the years is that the primary reason people attend the course is because a friend has invited them. So even if you choose not to serve on an Alpha Course team, your prayers for and invitations to friends really count. Of course you’ll also want to attend with whomever you invite.

The coolest thing in the world is to sit with new friends, see the peace and joy on their faces, hear how awesome it is to know that they are loved and cared for by the Creator of heaven and earth, and know that we got to play a small part in their rendezvous with Jesus.

Interested? Visit  http://alphausa.org.

FOG ON THE MOUNTAIN: Staying Upright in Zero Visibility

“Uh oh,” I said out loud inside my helmet, “not good.”

Post rainstorm fog had descended on Route 8 south of Floyd, Virginia, skirting the edge of the Rocky Knob Recreation area through which we now rode, some three thousand feet above sea level. We had avoided most of the wet that day, the return leg of our two-day spring motorcycle ride, and prospects were good for a fairly dry trip home, but visibility was fading fast.

Fifty feet, I thought, now thirty, now twenty, now … who cares! I can’t see! Get the face-shield up! Forget the distance, just stay on that white line!

I was experiencing, or right on the edge of experiencing, spatial disorientation–that unnerving feeling that happens to pilots, divers, and sometimes motorcyclists in fog, when the visual cues don’t match up with the little motion detectors in your head and body–making up seem like down, and down seem like up.

Those God-given motion detectors, called kinesthetic sensory receptors, are one of the reasons I love to ride, especially in the mountains. Carving the climbing curves with my old Beemer, swooping down switchbacks, soaring up the slopes, beveling my boot heels on the asphalt just before the foot pegs scrrrape! Pushing opposite bar, weight-shifting to the inside of the curve, down-shifting, grabbing some brake to preload the suspension, focusing everything on nailing the next apex. Then throttle on coming out, letting the physics of acceleration on uncoiling springs stand you up, ready now to fling it into the next turn going the other way.

If you can identify with that, you can understand why my friend Jamie and I love motorcycling so much. The wind in your face and bugs in your teeth are fun, too, but not nearly so much as the sensation of flying. I thank God every time I ride for the sheer joy of it.

Except when I run into fog; then I pray for deliverance, I slow down, and I concentrate on one critical thing: that bright white line along the edge of the road. Visibility may be ten feet. It may be less, but I know that line will lead me out of the fog.

Remember what the Psalmist said? “I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.”[1]

Life is like a long ride through the mountains and valleys, sometimes in sunshine, and sometimes in rain and fog. It is easy to stay upright when the sky is clear and the roads are dry. But some days the visibility will drop to almost zero and spiritual disorientation will make you wonder which way is up. That’s when you need to slow down, keep your eyes fixed on the bright white line of God’s word, and follow it out of the fog.

[1] Psalm 119:104-106, NIV.

THE CERTAINTY OF UNCERTAINTY: Encouragement for Millennials Who’ve Hit A Wall

“I’m not happy with where my life is at the moment, and I’m not real sure what to do about it, but I’m working on it,” said my friend. I could feel his frustration, having been there and done that.

Similar conversations with a number of twenty-something friends who have run head-on into a string of disappointments have had me praying and thinking about how to encourage the millennials among us.  I know what it’s like to see thirty coming up on the horizon with little in the way of success to show for it. Now that sixty isn’t that far off, some constants stand out, not only in my life, but in those of the people I most admire.

Let’s call them three keys to handling the certainty of uncertainty.

First, a successful life is something that you build, not something that you have. Adjusting expectations to that reality is tougher today, where our social media personas only show the “A” side of life, than it was thirty years ago. It takes time, tact, and tenacity to build the skill sets, the relationships, and the track record that open the doors of opportunity. These things form the platform of a prosperous life. There are no shortcuts. Be willing to start small, but start somewhere, and build.

Second, expect setbacks. The old word for this one is prudence. Everyone loves Solomon’s advice in Proverbs, “Commit your way to the Lord, and he will direct your paths.” It sounds like clear sailing to serial successes. But we tend to forget his warning that, “Time and chance happen to them all.” I call that Black Coffee Theology, the certainty of uncertainty. It’s not that God isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care about your life. His eye really is on the sparrow, but he won’t suspend the effects of the fall for anyone until Christ returns. Until then, the cosmic Murphy’s Law remains: You will experience failure. You will be frustrated. But there is an up side: Failure and frustration teach us more, and faster, than success. Learn the lessons early, and well, and they will protect you down the road. On the financial side, build an emergency fund for the inevitable, and develop a back-up skill set that can pay the bills until the opportunity you are looking for appears.

Third, persevere my friends, persevere! Do not let the inevitable setbacks and difficult lessons convince you that you are a failure. Discern your calling, or at least choose a career path where your interests and aptitudes meet, zero in on that path and trim away trivial pursuits. Then take the long view and start putting one foot in front of the other. Lay your plans–your dreams too–before God, and watch, and pray, and live before him in trust one day at a time. Learn the secret of contentment in the day to day, but keep the goal ever before you and press on! Nine times out of ten, the people who succeed are the people who refuse to give up.

Finally, one last word from those of us who can see you in our rear-view mirrors: we believe in you, we believe in God’s good purposes for you, and we look forward to the day you go whizzing by us in the fast lane.

 

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him … Luke 24:30-31

Are you happy? If not, do you know why?

Several things can make us sad and stress us out. Illness, family problems, financial set-backs have their place in our day-to-day contentment quotient. But all things being equal are you a generally happy person, satisfied with the life you live?

Many of us would have to answer “no.”

Peter Moskovitz, in his article America’s Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy, reports that we have a multibillion dollar happiness industry bent on helping us find contentment, yet over forty million of us have diagnosed anxiety disorders.

We are obsessed with happiness, yet not finding it. Perhaps we aren’t finding it because we are pursuing it the wrong way.

Read Mercer Schuchardt suggests as much in a recent CT Mag article, The Future of the Church is Analog Not Digital, when he wrote, “The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the crockpot and warming plate.”

Schuchardt’s peice struck a chord in a song the Spirit has been singing in my soul for some time. I hear it in Sunday School as Jamie Laine leads us through Ray Vanderlaan’s excellent video series, Becoming a Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World. I see it in the faces and hear it in the stories of friends attending our Alpha Course this fall. I read about it in books like Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered and articles like Peter Moskovitz’s interview with Ruth Whippman, author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.[1]

If the song had a title it would be something like: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, (but somebody already took that one). The chorus would be:

Sit at table with new friends,

Make room in your life for them,

You never know what God may grow,

By simply inviting them in.

Corny, I know, but it gathers up the power of God at work community. Let me explain.

Whippman notes that, “If there was one thing that’s consistent in happiness research it’s that the main source of our happiness is our relationships with other people in our communities (emphasis added). It kind of cuts across class, race, gender, age, and everything. But the focus in America is very much on happiness as kind of a personal, individual journey; looking deep inside yourself, about mindfulness, about your own thinking. All of that being inside your own head, and remaking your own thoughts from the inside.”

Here’s the thing, as long as we pursue happiness as strictly personal, as a goal only to be achieved as individuals, we will remain isolated, empty, and anxious. Happiness is found in community, in common purpose, in shared successes and sorrows, the great and the small threads we weave with others to create the fabric of a meaningful life.

I know the objections, “Other people rub me the wrong way!”  Indeed they do, but the point is, we need them to. Their idiosyncrasies reveal the cracks in our characters that Christ has yet to fill and force us all to pursue him higher up and farther into life in the Spirit.

More to the point, the life, the Shalom, that flows from the Spirit of God cannot be found, or lived, or shared in isolation. Technology can deliver a sermon to your “personal device” (see the irony?) but cannot include you or others in the body of Christ. Only you can do that as you commit to be there, both body and spirit, and to welcome others to the table.

[1] Whippman is the author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, and the interview can be found at:  https://flipboard.com/@flipboard/flip.it%2FBDcPRo-americas-search-for-happiness-is-drivin/f-869a36fce5%2Fvice.com

FIND YOUR MARGIN: How to Put Back In What Life Takes Out

A young friend, and when I say young I mean thirty years younger than I am, recently confessed that he had said yes to so many things that he finally had to say no to a regularly scheduled workday.

“I’ve found that when you have construction skills you also have lots of friends with projects that need your help,” he said. “I became so wrung out that I had to shut down for a day. I wasn’t sick, but I was going to be if I didn’t rest.”

Richard Swenson, M.D., author of the book MARGIN wrote: Something is wrong. People are tired and frazzled. People are anxious and depressed. People don’t have the time to heal anymore. There is a psychic instability in our day that prevents peace from implanting itself very firmly in the human spirit.

Swenson calls the problem marginless living. “Margin,” he says, “is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed.”

Jesus understood better than most the need for margin. He called it Sabbath. To Jesus the Sabbath was not created for its own sake; it was a gift of God to man. Its purpose was not to put man in a kind of straight jacket. It was for his good–to provide rest from labor and opportunity for worship. (Mark 2:27).

We work in a world cursed by sin. That makes work difficult and draining. It taxes us spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Sabbath compensates us for the energy we spend dealing with the challenges of living with frail bodies in a fallen world.

Fatigue, I have learned, is incremental. It is also cumulative, building up unrecognized in our souls until we become ill or have a nervous breakdown. We know we are tired, but we don’t know we are impaired, skating along the edge of physical and psychic burnout.

We need Sabbath time. It restores us.

Pastoral work doesn’t require much in the way of physical labor. But it does demand a lot of psychological energy and careful concentration on multiple strands of information, multiple relationships. It is stress inducing. Motorcycling on roads like the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and Cherohala Skyway is one of the things that restore me. The physical exertion of wrestling a six-hundred pound bike through the mountains at speed, the concentration required to keep it on the road, and the sheer joy of experiencing grass, tree, granite and sky in beautiful combination puts something back in that work takes out. It drains me physically but restores me spiritually. It helps me think about things that the normal flow of life prohibits.

God wants us to be strengthened by the gift of Sabbath, but like so many gifts we have to learn to use it. Often all that is needed is the setting aside of a day, like Sunday, for worship and celebration and rest. But sometimes we need more than that. I find Sabbath on two wheels on the BRP. Where do you find it?

Sabbath is one of the best things you can do for your soul and your body. For, when a man or woman is not resting, he is not reflecting, she is not thinking about the things that are most important in life, he’s not thinking about what he’s investing his precious, limited time and energy in. More importantly he or she is not putting back in what life takes out.

OLYMPIC IDENTITIES: Who You Are is Greater than What You Do

Michael Phelp’s amazing return to gold medal form for the 2016 Olympics is the story of a man with a new mission in life. He was contemplating suicide in 2014 when his friend, Ray Lewis, an All-Pro linebacker and Christian, convinced him to enter rehab and gave him a copy of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

Phelps recovered and thanked Lewis, saying to an ESPN reporter that the book “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”[1]

Phelps isn’t the only American medalist whose identity is anchored outside the pool. The silver medal winning U.S. 10M platform synchronized diving team of David Boudia and Steele Johnson also gave credit for their poise under pressure to something other than their training: their “identity in Christ.”

What’s going on here?

Ask the average Christian about their identity according to scripture and you often get a blank stare, or sometimes, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” But the New Testament fairly bubbles over with illustrations of the principle that once we have been “born again,” as Jesus said, or “regenerated and renewed,” in Paul’s idiom we are no longer simply saved sinners, we are “new creatures in Christ. The old things have passed away, and new things have come.”

Here are just a few Scriptural phrases that articulate the concept:

  • Colossians 2:13 – You have been “made alive with Christ” and are no longer “dead in trespasses and sins.”
  • Colossians 3:1 – You have been “raised with Christ” and your life is now “hidden with Christ in God.”
  • Hebrews 10: 10 – You have been “made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Christ once for all.”
  • Romans 6:3-4 – You died with Christ and were raised with him to a new life.

Athletes are, by definition, under loads of “performance pressure.” How they do on the field or in the pool will determine not only whether they win or lose, but often how they feel about themselves as persons; their self-worth measured by the few tenths of a point or hundredths of a second between the bronze medal and fourth place. At the highest levels, as was the case with Phelps, they often have no identity outside of their sport and once they age out, or can no longer compete with the best, become depressed. The internal need to succeed is enormous.

That’s why Boudia’s answer to how he handled the pressure was so important.

“You know,” he said during an interview after their dive, “it’s just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this, thinking I’m defined by this, then my mind goes crazy, but we both know our identity is in Christ.”

His diving partner, Johnson, agreed, “I think the way David just described it was flawless. The fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace. It gave me ease, and it let me enjoy the contest.”[2]

Take a lesson from these athletes and remember: if you’re a believer your identity is greater than your performance. You are accepted in Christ, you are loved by God, you belong to him and whether you have a gold medal day or come in somewhere back of bronze, nothing can change that.

[1] Michael Phelps is Driven; Breakpoint Daily, August 11, 2016, with Eric Metaxas.

[2] http://www.cnsnews.com/blog/michael-morris/us-olympic-divers-following-silver-medal-performance-our-identity-christ

Rx for Anxiety

ANXIETY, I am not immune to it. I doubt you are either. Yet something Jesus said just before his crucifixion reminds me that we have a choice about our anxieties.

The Apostle John describes the scene for us in chapters thirteen and fourteen of his gospel. Jesus, already in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, is in the upper room with his closest followers, his twelve, hand-picked men. There is a price on his head. He washes their feet, shares the bread and the cup, and most notably, predicts his betrayal. All are aghast. All are frightened. They are well aware of the threat they are under, the risks they are running by being in Jerusalem. It is a time of great anxiety.

Into this fractious moment Jesus speaks some his most familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). I’ve read those words hundreds of times, often at funerals. But this week the first three words stood out from the rest in a way they haven’t before because I realized Jesus repeated them near the end of his talk, just before they left the upper room, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).

The first three words of each line tell us something about ourselves that can be hard to believe: We have a choice about our anxieties. Jesus’ two “Do not let(s)…” make an emphatic statement about our ability to select worry and its gut-wrenching results, or trust and the peace that accompanies it.

The fact, the physiological fact, is that we can worry ourselves sick. Psychiatrists have reliable evidence that the more we worry, the more we fixate on some fearful thing over which we have no control, the more likely we are to push our brain chemistry out of balance. Once the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and others get off-kilter it can be very difficult to return them to an even keel. In some cases medications are necessary to help restore the balance. But for most of us medication is a temporary fix. If we don’t address the underlying habit of fear in the first place the imbalance is likely to reoccur.

Jesus has a prescription for preventing such brain disorders in the first place. “Do not let” it happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God (instead). Trust me (instead).” Do not choose worry and it cannot enslave your mind. Choose to trust God and he will set it free.

Easier said than done? Yes, certainly. But it can be done. Let me offer a couple of practical steps to help. Call it Rx for Anxiety.
First, it may be necessary to confess that we’ve allowed the source of our worry, in our minds at least, to become more powerful than God, more important to our wellbeing than Christ. That’s actually idolatry and it requires confession and repentance. “Father, thing A or thing B is occupying front and center in my life. That’s your place. I now repent of that and confess that you are God and nothing else. I confess that I am not in control.”

Second, remembering that physical expressions of worship often help us deal with difficult emotions, take a step of faith. Take that thing over which you have no control (which includes most of life, does it not?), write it down on a piece of paper, and in an act of worship offer it up to God. Then set it on fire.

Some things are more difficult to offer up like this than others. Some may require a daily offering for a while. But make it a habit with all of your worries and peace will become your companion.

We have a choice about our anxieties. As you think about all that Christ accomplished for us during his Passion this week, choose trust.