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.

ISIS, JONAH, NINEVEH, AND US

Immigration and refugees were powder-keg issues in the 2016 presidential elections and remain pivotal today. A dear friend of mine, a former Muslim and native of the Middle East, who is now an American citizen with multiple ministries to Muslims, has a unique perspective on these issues. I asked his permission to share the following with you. I’ve withheld his name for reasons that will become apparent as you read. DS.

“The current political atmosphere has impacted ministry to Muslims and refugees. When I speak to churches about this subject, I find a growing number of believers who are apathetic to Muslims, and who are more interested in how awful Islam can be, than in why and how they can love Muslims. Some, who are interested in becoming missionaries, are reluctant to consider ministry to Muslims.

We need to ask ourselves these tough questions: Are we angry with Muslims, afraid of them, or do we love them? Is there in our hearts any hatred toward them? Do we pray for the salvation of the terrorists? What if an ISIS terrorist became a follower of Jesus? Would we forgive his or her atrocities? Could someone like the current Caliph of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, be saved?

We are familiar with the story of Jonah and Nineveh. Some may even know that modern Mosul, a stronghold of ISIS where the Caliphate was first declared, and now undergoing liberation by Iraqi forces, sits on top of ancient Nineveh.

Nineveh, during Jonah’s time, was not that different from Mosul under ISIS. Both were brutal, evil, and godless.

Jonah 1:1-2 says,

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’

How evil were the ancient Ninevites? Here is an example:

The head of Tiumman was fixed over the gate of Nineveh, to rot before the eyes of the multitude. Dunanu was slowly flayed alive, and then bled like a lamb; his brother Shambunu had his throat cut, and his body was divided into pieces, which were distributed over the country as a warning.[1]

ISIS does the same kind of barbaric and brutal things to its enemies today. Jonah did not like the Ninevites, just as most of us do not like ISIS, the modern Ninevites. He was reluctant to deliver the word of the Lord to them and tried instead to flee to Tarshish (in modern Spain), which was the end of the known world in his day. He wanted to avoid the mission altogether.

Are we also abandoning our mission to ‘deliver the word of the Lord’ to those we consider to be our enemies today?

I am not naive to the dangers of ISIS. I was one of those who gave early warnings about terrorist creeds, strategies, and tactics that you hear of today. My name appears on one of their published ‘hit lists.’ They have executed people I know and care about. I watched their executions on ISIS videos. Neither my family nor I feel safe, even in America.

But I think some of us are like Jonah. We are either trying to buy a ticket on a ship which will take us as far as possible from the Ninevites, or we have already set sail.

If we are to avoid Jonah’s mistake, we need to remember something: yes, all ISIS are Muslims, but not all Muslims are ISIS. In fact, ISIS atrocities are more disgusting to most Muslims than they are to us. Because of ISIS, Muslims are questioning their religion and attempting to reform it, or reduce it to simple cultural observance, like Americans with Christmas, or are abandoning it altogether.

Muslims are also children of Adam–like we are. They are born under the sin of Adam, like we are, and they need a redeemer, like we do. Let us not allow the atrocities of some Muslims cause us to reject all Muslims. You can hate Satan, but not his victims. May we all learn from and obey Christ who said: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Matthew 5:44.”

[1] Maspero, G. (Gaston), The Passing of the Empires, 850 B.C. to 330 B.C., London 1900, P. 413.

 

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

GOD’S LOVE AND CHOCOLATE CAKE

“I love you,” I blurted out on one of the first dates with the woman who would one day be my wife.  I’ll never forget how she replied.

“I love chocolate cake. What does that mean?” She was skeptical of a guy who would say he loved her with so little understanding of who she really was.

The Bible says “God is love.” Few people would argue with that. But most folks think God’s love is no different in kind or strength than my wife’s love for chocolate cake.

It’s much more powerful than that.

An old song says, “Love is a many splendored thing.” But when it comes to understanding the love of God it is perhaps more accurate to call it a many splintered thing. God’s love has been cut from its frame of reference, hacked to pieces by well-meaning people and heretics alike.

So let’s try to put it back in the frame with a few key concepts.

First, God’s love is sacrificial. The Apostle John, who penned the words, ‘God is love’ spelled it out for us.

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:8b-9). John also wrote the very familiar, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).

That tells us that God’s love is sacrificial, but a sacrifice for what?

In his excellent book, The God Who Loves, John MacArthur points out that God’s wrath is also part of our frame of reference. “We have forgotten that “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). As Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “We do not believe in that kind of God anymore.”[1]

We can decide not to believe hurricane warnings either, but that won’t keep them from coming ashore.

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” [2]

Ever been party to the suppression of the truth? Anytime? Ever? I have. All of us have and are deserving of wrath. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Rom. 3:23.

The love of God cannot be understood apart from the wrath of God. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact neither one can be fully appreciated without the other. God’s hatred for sin and evil is the back side of the coin of his love. He wouldn’t be loving if he didn’t hate evil, including the evil that is inside each one of us. Only the power of his love could overcome our sin and absorb his just wrath against it.

God’s love is sacrificial because it absorbed the wrath that we deserve.

If you’ve looked for a job lately you know that the benefits are almost as important as the salary. We know we’ll be paid. But will we be covered?

That’s another piece of the frame.

Psalm 103 says that God’s love ‘has us covered’. “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits”— Then the Psalmist lists the benefits and the first on the list is: “who forgives all your sins…”

God’s love is not only sacrificial; it is also beneficial in that it makes us guilt free.

Guilt is the great crippler. Guilt stunts God-given potential. Guilt saps courage, binds us to the past, and alienates us from God and one another. A guilty mind can’t think with power. A guilty heart can’t love with abandon. Even if there was such a thing as an insurance policy for sin, a guilty soul could never do enough to cover its own deductible.

But the Psalmist says, “Praise the Lord O my soul and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins…” God’s love frees us from guilt.

If you are feeling burdened by guilt remember, God loves you so much that he’s paid the debt, absorbed his own wrath against our evil, and removed our shame. Take your sins to him and ask for forgiveness. He will give it. He’s got you covered.

[1]MacArthur, J., F., Jr. (2003, c1996). The God Who Loves. (10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Ro 1:18–19). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

ALPHA: The Anti-Sales-Pitch Gospel

It is called the Rule of Seven and it was developed by marketing expert Dr. Jeffery Lant. It is one of the reasons that Christianity has become so distasteful to so many people in western civilization.

The Rule of Seven states that, “to penetrate the buyer’s consciousness and make significant penetration in a given market, you have to contact the prospect a minimum of seven times within an 18-month period.” My dad, who sold life insurance among other things, summarized it thus: “It takes six NO’s to get a YES.”

I can remember my seminary professors making similar statements regarding evangelism. I don’t fault those men. They were simply trying to obey Christ’s command to make disciples with all the energy and expertise they could muster. But their methods, so closely modeled on the most effective sales strategies of the twentieth century, only alienate people today. All of us are so tired of being “sold,” so fed up with being approached as prospects with Pay Pal accounts, instead of people with problems and needs, that anything that smacks of marketing, anything that treats us like just another “YES,” is insulting. We mute commercials, hang up on phone solicitors, mass delete our inboxes and even slam the door when the Girl Scouts come cookie calling. (OK, that’s hyperbole. I don’t know anyone who isn’t a sucker for a seven-year-old selling Slim Mints).

Add to that the political stench that follows evangelicals like the dust cloud around Charlie Brown’s friend Pig-Pen, and one wonders why anyone would ever be interested in the message of Jesus.

The Alpha Course is the antithesis of those things. That’s one of the reasons the church I lead is offering it for the fifth time since 2011. First, 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 learn 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. If you’ve been a church member all your life, you will enjoy it. If you’ve never entered a church or considered Christianity, you will enjoy it and come away enriched with new understanding and new friends.

Find an Alpha Course near you by visiting http://www.alphausa.org.