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.

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL part 3

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL part 3

In 2003, my daughters had a funny lesson on the inevitability of change. Their uncle Mike had given them a whole box of VHS tapes containing 144 episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation. The videos dated back into the 1980’s so watching them was like being in a time machine for commercials. But what really tickled the funny bone was seeing an ad for a brand new 1989 Chevy truck on Tuesday night, and then standing at the bus stop Wednesday morning, watching that same truck with 14 years and 175,000 miles on it go by. “It’s a heap!” They cried. Talk about a lesson on change!

Change is inevitable. It’s how we meet it that matters. The one luxury we cannot afford is to assume it will not touch us and refuse to prepare for it.

The nature of the human animal is to be dominant and territorial. We like to set ourselves up in a good situation and stay there. We work hard at creating stability and predictability so that we can enjoy life with the least amount of hassle. We are control oriented. Unexpected change reveals our lack of control and makes us feel naked in the cosmos.

The Bible is full of examples of God’s people meeting unexpected change. Consider Moses’ successor, Joshua, and the changes he witnessed: Slavery in Egypt, miraculous escape across the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments, the wandering in the wilderness.

For 40 years Joshua witnessed change, but that paled in comparison to what he was about to do. He was about to lead the people of God into the Promised Land itself. He was facing the walls of Jericho and he was doing it without Moses.

God had two commands for Joshua as he took up the challenge of this change, commands that still apply today.

Be strong and courageous.

In the decade leading up to 9/11 the notion was spreading that the days of strong, forthright leadership operating from the courage of conviction were passé. The world – it was assumed – was becoming a kinder, gentler place and there was just no need for confrontation when therapy or diplomacy could do the job. This was just as true in the church as it was in geo-politics.

The Bible is much more realistic than that. It teaches us that evil and danger, deceit and treachery will be in the world until Christ returns. The only way to meet those things is with strength and courage.

Those manage change well who have the courage of their convictions. But what convictions?

Stick to fundamental principles.

Strength and courage are dangerous if they aren’t harnessed to core principles that honor God and respect people. But strength and courage in the service of those principles enable us to adjust our approach to meet the need at hand.

Thomas J. Watson Jr., founder and CEO of IBM from 1956 to 1971 wrote, “I firmly believe that any organization, in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of beliefs on which it premises all its policies and actions. Next, I believe that the most important single factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs. And, finally, I believe [the organization] must be willing to change everything about itself except those.”[1]

Those manage change best whose principles are changeless.

Fear is the biggest hindrance to change. Change forces us to think, to adjust, to adapt. We prefer cruise control. When contemporary music first began to make its way in to worship many congregations rejected it. But that indicated more faith in the method than in the message. When new translations of the Bible began to compete with the KJV many churches rejected them. But that indicated more faith in the translation than the message.

As Chuck Swindoll wrote, “Extraordinary times will require of us extraordinary wisdom, vision, boldness, flexibility, dedication, willingness to adapt, and a renewed commitment to biblical principles that never change.”[2]

When the changes come—and come they will—go back to core principles and with strength, courage and wisdom apply them.

When change comes ask yourself: Am I operating with courage on core principles?

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.[3]

[1] Citation: Thomas J. Watson, Jr., A Business and Its Beliefs (1963); Bill White, Paramount, CA

[2] Swindoll, Chuck; Come Before Winter pg. 26.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jos 1:6–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

WHY CAN’T WE COMMUNICATE?

WHY CAN’T WE COMMUNICATE?

“Are you listening to me at all?” My wife asked gently as we waited for our meal at Applebee’s.

Oops, I thought. You’re so busted! “Uhhh…No, I was trying to see who won the game last night,” I replied, still snatching glances at the wall-mounted screen over her right shoulder. Good thing she likes sports, or she would’ve really been mad.

Have you ever said something to someone and, having listened to their response, realized that they didn’t grasp the tenth part of what you were saying? Or felt like they weren’t listening at all?

Perhaps this is only common to preachers (and football widows). After all, preaching, as they say, “is just talking in someone else’s sleep.” But I have a feeling that you know what I’m talking about, that you’ve experienced communication frustration. Where does it come from? Why is communication, especially communication about spiritual things, so difficult? Well before you take a megaphone to the next person that doesn’t listen consider a few things.

A friend who is an engineer for a large utility company tells me that when he had to hire some new engineers, he required applicants to hand write sample repair instructions to a mechanic. Something like two out of ten could do it with any competence. Our education system is not what it used to be. More and more people are graduating from high school and even from college without the ability to make themselves understood.

We are also in a much denser communication environment than ever before. Commercials are shorter and faster, cell phones, Twitter, and text messages interrupt normal conversation, emails, pop-ups, dual screens – all of these technologies force feed us with hundreds more messages than earlier generations had to process, causing us to erect thicker message filters than we did forty or fifty years ago. We humans can only absorb so much information at a time. As a result, attention spans have shrunk. We are also becoming more reliant on pictures and music and less on words. We are a nation of receivers tuned to the elemental frequencies of image and melody. Language is becoming harder to digest.

But there is a third reason that people often cannot hear what we’re trying to say, especially if our message concerns the kingdom of God. Spiritual forces are at work. Consider Jesus and Paul’s comments on the matter:

Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. (Jesus in Mark 4:15 NIV)

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (Paul in 2 Cor 4:3-4 NIV)

The ability to communicate clearly and powerfully is a skill that can be learned. But in the end only God can penetrate the darkness, the spiritual veil that covers the heart of men and women. So, no matter whom you’re talking to or when, before you begin to speak, pray for the Lord of light to open the eyes and ears of the soul in your listeners. He alone has the power to make his light “shine in our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6).

THE FACEBOOK PROVERBS

THE FACEBOOK PROVERBS

I can see it now, an ad headline on Yahoo or Youtube: SECRET BIBLE CODE PREDICTS HOW TO ACHIEVE FACEBOOK SUCCESS! We are such suckers for looney lines like this that it would likely get a million clicks. The surprising thing is that the headline is true, from a certain point of view.

I discovered this by doing something else you will no doubt find looney: Reading Proverbs backwards.

Before you call for the guys in white jackets, let me explain. I read the Book of Proverbs through two or three times a year. Every time its accuracy and insight fascinate and instructs. But the phrases and cadences have become so familiar that I found I was just passing through, ignoring the scenery the way you do on an oft-traveled road. So, I decided to read the book in reverse order. That’s when things started to pop, especially regarding Facebook.

I am a daily Facebook visitor. Sometimes it is a time waster. But other times it is, as it was designed to be, a great facilitator of relationships. Given the shredding of our sense of community in the last fifty years social media is increasing our ability to stay connected across the artificial divides created by our suburbanized, isolated, hyper-mobile car-culture. It is the electronic front porch where neighbors stop briefly for a friendly chat, share helpful information, and strengthen the bonds of civilization. That’s a good thing, usually.

Then there’s the dark side of Facebook, the crude comments, political rants, and thoughtless posts and re-posts that with neighbors on one’s own front porch, we wouldn’t normally utter. Facebook can’t recreate the proximity that prevents us from disgracing ourselves and as a result people have lost friends, jobs, opportunities, careers, and reputations, sometimes permanently. As a result, most large employers now have strict social media rules in place and restrict access on their in-house networks.

That’s why The Facebook Proverbs are so important. They were written long ago for a people trying to achieve honorable community in the land of Israel. Their composer and compiler, Solomon, was one of the most wise and successful leaders who ever lived. Using them as a guide to all of our social posts will help us achieve that rarest of cultural commodities: courtesy. They are marked in the margin of my Bible with a large F and now that this post has grown so long, I will only share a few in hopes that they will whet your appetite to look for more. You will be amazed at how relevant they are.

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding

but delights in airing his own opinions. Pr. 18:2

 

A fool’s lips bring him strife,

and his mouth invites a beating.

A fool’s mouth is his undoing,

and his lips are a snare to his soul.

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;

they go down to a man’s inmost parts. Pr. 18:6-8

Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud,

but humility comes before honor.

He who answers before listening—

that is his folly and his shame. Pr. 18:12-13

The first to present his case seems right,

till another comes forward and questions him. Pr. 18:17

From the fruit of his mouth a man’s stomach is filled;

with the harvest from his lips he is satisfied.

The tongue has the power of life and death,

and those who love it will eat its fruit. Pr. 18:20-21

This last is not from The Book of Proverbs but from the late L. R. Barnard, my mentor and professor of Historical Theology: Cultivate courtesy gentlemen; it is the oil that lubricates the fine machinery of civilization.

THE POUND CAKE HAS LANDED and other thoughts on community

THE POUND CAKE HAS LANDED  and other thoughts on community

The “Smith” boys got arrested last week and I couldn’t help them. My brother is moving this week and I can’t help him either. And the pound cake landed in my office today, but I didn’t bake it.

Those three things percolated in my head this morning as I sat down to write. Though they are unrelated events in a typical week, they share a single thread: Healthy community isn’t optional, and it doesn’t happen by accident. It must be intentionally built.

I’ve been acquainted with the “Smith’s” since they were born. We greeted them as toddlers on our daily walks past their house, one block over from ours. We watched them graduate from training wheels to big boy bikes. I helped them refill their tires once with my air compressor. We waved and said hello every time they passed our house on the way to the basketball court at the park. But we never built a real relationship with them or their parents. Their vandalism—the neighborhood always knew it was them—escalated with age. Now they are under arrest, charged with  murder.

Maybe, just maybe, if I’d hosted that annual 9-11 block party I dreamed of shortly after the terrorist attacks, a relationship could have taken root. Mentoring might have happened. Now I’ll never know.

My brother is moving from the gulf coast to north Georgia this week. He is desperately tired with all the preparations and needs a lot of help to get moved in. I’m too far away, there is no room in my work schedule to go anyway. He doesn’t have a network of friends there yet. I’m hoping and praying the church he visited on one of his house hunting trips will hear of his need and give him a hand.

Healthy community doesn’t happen by accident, it must be intentionally built.

And just in case you were beginning to get depressed, the pound cake has landed, and I didn’t bake it.

We’re not talking just any pound cake here either. We’re talking Ann Chaney’s finest lemon-glazed, melt-in-your-mouth, make you wanna slap your Momma ‘cause she never gave you anything this good! southern Virginia masterpiece of a pound cake. Ann, who has been my administrative assistant for fourteen years, baked it for our upcoming Alpha Course. I’ll never be able to bake anything that good. But I can’t wait to bless our guests with it.

Life is tough and people have free will. We can’t save every wayward boy or help every worn-out brother. But we can, if we are intentional about it, create an environment where relationships can grow, people can hear the gospel, receive the gift of life, and experience the community of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

But it won’t happen by accident. Healthy community must be intentionally built. Sometimes all it takes is a really good piece of pound cake.

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Php 2:4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

MEN ARE FORMED, NOT BORN

The news of men has not been good of late. My friend Tommy died last week. The last I heard he was in the Roanoke Rescue Mission. But in the end, he was homeless, doing crack, meth, and heroin. The drugs took him at 52.

There’s the porn epidemic. As Catholic writer, Benjamin Wiker, has said, “Our sexual environment is about as polluted as China’s air, and the harm caused by such pollution is just as scientifically demonstrable.”[1]

Then there’s the swelling cohort of insecure, indecisive, incompetent young men whose directionless energies are squandered in endless pursuits of, well, that’s just it, nothing special. As Auguste Meyrat recently wrote, they are “hapless chumps” who can “make observations, crack jokes, ask questions…but they cannot make theses and support them.” Women may “friend-zone” these guys, but they won’t marry and have children with them.[2]

And its common knowledge that one of the greatest common denominators for mass shooters (not counting jihadis) is that they are young, alienated men, with absent, abusive, or just irrelevant fathers.

Males are born, but men are formed. And our culture is failing to form them.

Cultural trends for the last forty years mitigate against it. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” founding feminist Gloria Steinem said, and a whole generation of women believed her and did without. That movement, along with constant media mockery of men as sleazy sex addicts or buffoonish oafs, removed much of the motivation men had to become something other than overgrown boys.

Healthy masculinity, the kind that gets tough when the going gets rough and tender when it doesn’t, has also been undermined by hypocrites like Bill Cosby and pedophile priests. But they are only the most famous of a multitude of men who hide predatory natures behind a faith and family friendly mask.

What’s to be done? Specifically, what can the church do? The most important thing we can do is buy into my thesis: Men are formed, not born.

There are definite attributes and specific disciplines that separate the men from the boys that can be passed down from one generation to the next. They have nothing to do with physical or sexual prowess and everything to do with character formation. We can work out the details of how to do that later, but we must buy in first. We must believe that positive masculinity can and should be formed in young men by older men.

Too many fathers and too many church men assume that “boys will be boys” and just let them raise themselves or worse, “let their Momma do it.” That’s not meant as a slam on moms who sacrifice endlessly for their children. But the truth is that young men do not respond the same way to women as they do men they respect. As a result, we have a generation of “feral children,” who—wishing they were real men—have mistaken real masculinity with owning powerful weapons and hyped-up pick-up trucks. Or else mistaken it for feminine virtues that, while admirable, aren’t masculine and therefore do not satisfy the innate need of a male to achieve manhood among other men.

My friend Tommy grew up a feral child. His father abandoned him early in life and rarely offered anything other than criticism for his son’s failings. Like all of us, Tommy made choices for which he alone was responsible. He had multiple opportunities to turn his life around. But I can’t help wonder how his life might have turned out if the right set of men had taken him in and committed to train him how to be a man.

[1] https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/08/04/sexual-pollution-is-a-scientific-and-destructive-fact/

[2] https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/ts-eliot-poem-describes-modern-males-perfectly

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.