BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

The church I lead ran its first Alpha Course in 2011. We’ve hosted it eight more times since then (twice one year and none in 2018) and 2019 was the best ever! The reason? Not because our team was any better than previous years. We had many of the same people. And not because the food was any better, although it was great. And not because the Alpha Course now features a high-quality video journey with two young hosts in fascinating global locations along with in-person interviews instead of just a guy giving a talk on a stage. We used the new videos in 2017. The difference was that the 2019 Alpha Course at our church had more prayer support than any previous year and it showed in at least five ways.

First, prayer preceded the partnership between the Task Force leader, me, and the Alpha Course Host, Jeff Good. Jeff and I went into this partnership after attending the Alpha Course National Leadership Conference in Arizona last winter. We prayed together in the hotel room and at other times during the conference and came away convinced that God would have us offer the course this year. After that, we agreed to meet weekly to pray for this year’s course.

If you’ve ever spent a long time praying for a specific project, you know what I mean when I say that many direct answers to prayer don’t seem all that spectacular. Things just occur or become obvious or apparent that weren’t apparent before. Things flow. For example, all we knew when we left Arizona was that we were going to offer the course and we needed to pray. We didn’t know who would lead the Task Force and who would be the Host. The Task Force leader oversees setup, meals, and clean up. The Host does PR and everything else. But over time it became apparent that, even though I’d been the host most years and I’m no cook, I should lead the Task Force and Jeff should be the Host.

Direct answers to prayer and evidence of its power appeared in other ways as well.

I realized we probably didn’t have enough budgeted to pay for all the food and the necessary advertising. We also needed a new catering plan that would involve the whole church. But before we even had the catering plan, someone donated $1,000 for the food. Then, a thought “occurred to me,” You dummy, Karen Schopen owns the best restaurant in town and has been in the hospitality business her whole career. Ask her! And voila! We had a new catering plan that included the whole church working together as a team.

But we still needed someone to massage the menus and recruit the cooks and select the right serving setup and make sure I kept everyone up to speed. Enter my excellent wife who, though she’s never cooked for fifty people in her life, knew exactly what to do and how to get it done. Almost the whole church participated. No one felt exhausted and burned out at the end. The meals were great! And the cost? We spent $942.04 on food!

Then there was childcare! Before we could even ask her, Karin Theo offered to do a children’s program concurrent with Alpha. Karin recruited helpers from the whole congregation, and we didn’t have to worry about this part at all. A big relief for me!

Technological problems overcome. We wanted this Alpha Course to feel seamless and high quality to our guests, but we also knew that, technology being what it is, glitches happen. We prayed about that and sure enough, about halfway through the course, the sound card went bad on the computer. One of our guests who is a whiz with technology had it figured out for us before dinner was over.

Finally, and most important, friends who are genuine seekers felt free and safe to ask their hardest questions and hear answers. People in the small groups developed great relationships, shared their deepest struggles, and grew closer to God. One, totally new to the area and our congregation, even joined the church.

With all that in mind I want to ask you to do three things. First, join us each week in prayer for the 2020 Alpha. Second, ask God to show you what part you can play in an Alpha Course near you. Third, begin praying and talking it up with your friends as God provides opportunity. Be ready to invite them when the time comes. I believe the 2020 Alpha Course will be the best ever!

Haven’t heard of The Alpha Course?Click here: The Alpha Course.

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

In an interview one morning with Shankar Vedantam, Steve Innskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition, offered a fascinating peak behind the façade of American religiosity. Innskeep reported the findings of a study that surveyed our actual church attendance versus our professed church attendance. The bottom line: 79% of Americans report themselves as associated with an organized faith group. Nearly half, 45%, of all Americans report that they attend weekly religious services versus only 20% of Europeans. But the actual attendance is about equal: 20 % of Christian Europeans attend religious services each week versus 24% of Americans. Why the discrepancy? According to Vedantam, Americans want to see themselves, and want to be seen, as the kind of people that attend church. But when the clock strikes nine on Sunday morning we’d rather stay in our PJ’s watching Meet the Press than slip on our shoes and shuffle off to Sunday School.

It’s like when the dentist asks if you’ve been flossing. Everyone wants to be seen as someone who flosses. But our teeth tell a different tale. [1]

In the same way, Americans want very much to be spiritually deep people. We want the power that comes from a real, intimate, experience of the living God. But we either don’t know how or else we are confused and disillusioned by what we see in the professing Christians around us. The Church, it seems, looks little different from the world. And in some cases, it looks worse. Our spirituality, measured by positive transformation into healthy, happy, and honorable people, is one thousand miles wide and one inch deep.

Pastor and author John Ortberg summarized our angst well in an interview with Dallas Willard, “I went through this long era of intense dissatisfaction and confusion about spiritual life… It’s the cry of the heart,” he said, “God! I don’t know what to do. I know I need you. I know I want you. But I don’t know what to do. Then I picked up this book (referring to Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines) and opened to the preface and read, “authentic transformation really is possible if we are willing to do one thing and that is to rearrange our lives around the things that Jesus practiced in order to receive life and power from the Father.”

Church attendance isn’t always a good measure of spiritual depth. But that is only one of the spiritual disciplines, and one of the most passive. We can no more expect to experience the transforming power of life in the Spirit via one hour a week of sermonic spiritual dentistry, than we can expect to become professional baseball players by watching the World Series. We have to get in the game. If we want to experience the presence and power of God in our lives, we must put into practice the habits and attitudes that Jesus modeled, the Scripture encourages, and that serious believers have practiced for centuries. (See for example 2nd Peter 1:3-9; Colossians 3:1-4; etc.)

These habits, known as the spiritual disciplines, include: confession, devotion, Bible study, celebration, sabbath, serving, stewardship of time and energy, solitude, self-denial, secrecy, listening, and the many forms of prayer.

Perhaps that is what many of us are saying when we fib to the surveyors about our religious lives: We really want to know God. We just don’t know how.

Want to know more? Three sermons on listening to God from the series The Spiritual Disciplines, are on fccsobo.org. Click the “podcast” tab and then click “Topical Sermons.”

For further reading: The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard; The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg (John calls this “Dallas for Dummies.”); The Transforming Friendship, by James Houston; Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, by Gordon MacDonald; Finding God on the A Train, by Rick Hamlin; Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. You may view the seven minute interview with Dallas Willard and John Ortberg, along with at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj5UaLzIiDA.

 

[1] See NPR.org /  Religion / What We Say About Our Religion, And What We Do

Shankar Vedantam and Steve Inskeep

 

 

PRAY WITH YOUR BOOTS ON: The National Day of Prayer

PRAY WITH YOUR BOOTS ON: The National Day of Prayer

The ruined city lay bare and defenseless before all enemies. Two miles of massive stone wall battered into tons of rubble, ten gigantic gates gouged out by fire, and perhaps more important than all, a pummeled and demoralized people waited and longed for a leader to turn it all around.

Nehemiah was that man. Against clever, well-connected political foes and threats of violence he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the morale of his people in fifty-two days.

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. He began his task with prayer, prayer with his boots on, we might say.  Nehemiah 4:7-9 tells the story:

“When Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the repairs of the walls of Jerusalem were going so well—that the breaks in the wall were being fixed—they were absolutely furious. They put their heads together and decided to fight against Jerusalem and create as much trouble as they could. We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.[1]

Not what we normally imagine when we think of prayer, is it? We pray as a last resort, often expecting things to go downhill from there. Nehemiah prayed and posted a guard saying, ““Don’t be afraid of them. Put your minds on the Master, great and awesome, and then fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”[2]

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, the vanguard of the new sexual orthodoxy threatens anyone who disagrees,[3] the opioid epidemic rages, and political polarization stifles effective government. All of these seem insurmountable, not to mention ISIS, North Korea, nuclear-armed Iran, and increasingly belligerent Russia. We need God’s help more than ever.

As we approach the National Day of Prayer on May 3, we would do well to follow Nehemiah’s example: pray and keep our boots on. I invite you to join me and hundreds of others from our community at Halifax County High School Auditorium at 6:30 PM this Thursday evening. Then go out and keep doing the family strengthening and community building things that will ensure our nation’s future.

[1] Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ne 4:7–9). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[2] Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ne 4:14). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[3] http://www.breakpoint.org/2018/04/breakpoint-california-to-ban-books/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2018/04/the-point-chick-fil-as-infiltration-of-nyc/

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

John Donne famously wrote,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Nevertheless, everyone feels isolated, everyone feels alone now and then, perhaps especially during the holidays. It’s part of the human condition, a result of the fall. Eve caved to the serpent’s song followed closely by Adam, each seeking to be like God, only to find that they lost connection with God and each other. Loneliness began in the garden.

From that day to this every man, woman and child knows the ache of loneliness, the pain of separation from his fellows and his Creator. Loneliness assails us especially on significant anniversaries when we feel the loss of loved ones long gone. The divorced also feel the pain, with the added grief that separation was by choice rather than by chance.

It was with such melancholy mental meanderings that I turned to meditate on John 14:1-4, a passage so familiar that the words felt lukewarm on my tongue as I recited them back to God. Lukewarm that is, until I spoke verse three: “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” said Jesus to his downcast disciples, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

… that you also may be where I am. That little phrase lit a pale flame on the horizon of my soul that grew in magnitude like the sun rising in the porch window, filling it with warmth and banishing the night.

… that you also may be where I am, is Jesus telling us that he is just as unsatisfied with the separation as we are, that he knows the ache in our hearts, and that he is doing something about it.

… that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us how much he wants to be with us, even more than we want to be with him.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are welcome at his table no matter how inadequate we may feel about being there. It is he who prepared the way, not us, for he was the only one who could.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are not alone.

I don’t know where this meditation finds you today, perhaps full of joy and good fellowship. But if you are experiencing that existential ache, if you are feeling deeply the losses of life, Jesus offers the way home.

How? Funny, that’s the same question Doubting Thomas asked, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

BECAUSE HE IS GOOD

“Dad, I need some lunch money for school this week,” said my youngest daughter one evening when she was still in high school. Without a thought I opened my wallet plucked out ten dollars and handed it to her.

Then I asked, “Did you get the chores done we agreed on?” I had given her a list before leaving on a trip to Canada and had only just returned.

She said, “Well, I got most of them done but I didn’t clean out mom’s car yet like I promised.”

It didn’t matter. I gave her the ten bucks anyway. You can tell where this is going right?

Think back to the last time you felt like you failed God in some way. You failed to give an offering at the worship service, or you missed the service altogether. You skipped your devotions but somehow had plenty of time for your favorite TV show. You got exhausted and cranky and hurled invective at someone else who failed. You’re nodding your head aren’t you? We’ve all “been there done that.”

Jesus told a parable on prayer for people like you and me. It’s about a man who receives a late night visitor but has nothing to offer his guest. So he goes next door and asks his friend for bread. It’s recorded in Luke 11:5-13. The most well-known verses are 9-10: Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will be opened.

But the lesser known verse, the one with the message we often miss, is verse 8: I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (Emphasis mine).

Jesus concludes: Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Here’s the bottom line on answered prayer: You don’t have to be perfect to receive the power of the Holy Spirit necessary to live the Christian life. You just need the boldness to believe that God is a better parent than you are. God does not answer our prayers for his power because we’ve been regular in our devotions; or because we are faithful tithers; or because we’ve faithfully taught, or sung, or served in some other way for so many years. He answers them because he is good.

So be bold, ASK, even when you feel like you don’t deserve God’s power. He gives it because he is good.