HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV)

In my first year at the church I lead, I met a wonderful woman, about sixty years old, named Violet. I was just getting to know her when I got a call that she was in the hospital. I went to visit, and she said, “I just got dizzy and weak one day. The next day they told me my heart was bad and here I am, on my way to Duke for bypass surgery.”  Less than a week later, we were burying Violet.

The economists tell us that we are experiencing full employment, the economy is stronger than it has been in fifty years. But over the last month, five friends find themselves looking for new jobs.

Life is tough. And it only gets tougher. I’m discovering as I get older, and I know you are too, that “life is good, no worries” is at best a temporary arrangement.  “Life’s a witch” is usually waiting just around the corner.  The tough things in life are one heartbeat, one doctor’s report, one emergency phone call, one company meeting away.

And lest we think “that’s only for the older folks” I remember how suddenly I lost my friends Joseph Ramsey, a high school senior, and Steve Kotter, aged 49, who died in car accidents in 2002 and 2004. I also remember how quickly our small town lost over five thousand textile jobs, mostly to China, in the first few years we lived here.

Life is tough and it gets tougher.  In fact, life can get downright crazy. And the temptation is to spend all of our time as Christians in the “emergency room” of soul work – helping wounded people heal – instead of in the gym or on the practice field, training believers for strength and endurance and skill to face the battles.

Healing is necessary. But healing is a temporary state, or it’s supposed to be. (No one I know wants to spend one day longer in the hospital than necessary.) Growing up into full maturity, coming back into the game after an injury or illness, and playing ‘all out’ to the end is what following Christ is all about.

God wants us to be strong people, active people, resourceful people, and balanced people as we face the challenges of life. I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about how to get there.

Until then, …be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph 6:10-11 NIV).

THE WATER BUG IN MY TRASHCAN

Scratch, scratch, scratch. I lifted my fingers from the keyboard and listened, but the noise had stopped. I refocused on the sermon I was writing and clicked away at the keyboard, trying hard to put in print the thought flitting through my head before it escaped into the ether of ever-shrinking memory.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. There it was again! So soft any conversation, any music, any noise above the faint whir of my computer would have squelched the sound. But I was completely alone in my office and I could definitely hear…something. Was it a mouse?

That’s when I remembered. We’d been having problems (since solved you’ll be happy to know) with water-bugs in our building. That’s probably not their real name, and the pest-control man assures me they aren’t cockroaches. But I was picking up three or four a day in the hall near my office, crunching them between my fingers in a paper towel, and tossing them in the trash. Apparently, I hadn’t squeezed the last one hard enough. He was trying to climb out of the trashcan and make a break for the baseboards.

I decided to let him scratch while I warmed up lunch. (Don’t judge! Would you go digging through your trash to re-squish a bug? I didn’t think so). That’s when this thought hit: How like conscience is that bug in the trashcan. How easy it is to miss a sound like that in the constant noise of 4G life.

The Scriptures show us the power of a keeping a clear conscience: great boldness in any conflict.[1] It also warns that failure to keep it clear can lead us, among other things, into meaningless babble and shipwrecked faith.[2] But the quiet required for reflection and confession is hard to come by these days. We have to be intentional about it.

So, if a water bug was scrambling around in the back of your conscience, could you hear it?

[1] 1Peter 3:13-16

[2] 1 Timothy 1:5 & 19

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.

HOW TO BEAT BURNOUT

HOW TO BEAT BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. But knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. When my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiable’s and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

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.

WHY ALPHA?

WHY ALPHA?

If you long for meaningful community you know that social media only goes so far. People long for real connection. That’s one of the reasons we run the Alpha Course. It brings people from all walks of life together and builds friendships. For eleven weeks we enjoy a meal together, watch a very interesting presentation on some aspect of the faith, break for coffee and desert and then have discussion groups for about 30-40 minutes. Even people who are not Christians enjoy it because of the relationships that are built.

Most Americans have a smattering of knowledge about the faith, but a surprising number don’t really know the basics.  Although there is no test and no college credit, Alpha is educational. Anyone attending Alpha will come away with a much better, more comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Guests can ask any question they like, express any opinion they have, and they will not be ridiculed or scolded.

Another plus about Alpha is that the whole thing is very relaxed, encouraging and fun. I think that’s because the developer, British pastor Nicky Gumble, started out as an atheist and is very sensitive to the feelings of people who have a hard time with faith. The new videos, hosted by Toby Flint and Gemma Hunt, are all available online here, and are phenomenally well done. Alpha does present the basics of the faith and encourages people to believe, but there is no pressure.

Alpha has been around for over thirty years and is a worldwide phenomenon, so it feels like you are part of something big with lots of support and you are. Alpha is a way for the whole congregation to get involved in sharing their faith with their friends without putting them on the spot or asking them to act like salespeople or expecting them to be experts in the field of apologetics.

That’s how Christianity grew in the first place, not through crusades and revival type events, but small groups of friends discussing what they’d learned about Jesus. The Alpha Course builds on itself. People come on the course, find out about Jesus, become believers and get excited about sharing what they’ve learned. Then they naturally want to bring their friends to the next course.

The first group that attended Alpha at our church was very diverse. One African American lady saw a bumper sticker on my car and asked me about it in the grocery store. She came and brought her sister. One man said, “I came to the course thinking I was already a Christian. But I had terrible anxiety, and anger, and depression issues. I couldn’t sleep at night. On the third week of the course I prayed along with the guy on the video and a huge burden lifted off me. I’ve not had those troubles since and I sleep like a baby. I believe I became a real Christian that day.” Another lady attended the course with her husband. Her understanding of Jesus completely changed, and she was baptized. Her husband, who had never attended a church, began to believe that not all Christians were nuts, and started attending regularly.

So, if you’re looking for something deeper and ready to explore life with good friends, try Alpha.

7 SIGNS OF GREAT FAITH

7 SIGNS OF GREAT FAITH

In the last eleven months I’ve traveled over forty thousand miles to meet three of the most remarkable men of faith you’ve never heard of. These men, with the unfailing support of their wives and co-workers, lead some of the largest church planting networks in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. For their security and the safety of the people in their ministries they will remain anonymous, but I can assure you they are quite real.

Luke wrote of Barnabas, “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”[1] These men fit that description, indeed go beyond it. They are small “a” apostolic leaders. While they do not speak with the authority of Paul or Peter, they are men whose gifting, vision, faith, and energy enable them, like the late Billy Graham or Bill Bright, to bring others together to accomplish amazing expansion of the church in difficult parts of the world.

As I recovered from my last bout of jet-lag, my mind began cataloging the common threads woven into each man’s persona, seven signs of great faith. Perhaps they will encourage you as much as they have encouraged me.

First, they are full of cheerful positivity and optimism. All three men had powerful encounters with Christ at an early age, one as young as six. Now in their sixties, they have experienced enough loss to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. Yet they remain confident that God has yet more amazing things to do in their ministries.

Second, they are willing to sacrifice personal comfort. All three are successful professionals who could have had trouble-free, upper middle-class lives. But they chose to take on ministries that grew exponentially and now consume most of their waking hours as well as put them at great personal risk with their governments.

Third, all have experienced deep personal brokenness of one kind or another yet continue to trust and walk with God. One, whose childhood friend and fellow minister was murdered by an Islamic regime, experienced a break in his relationship with God. “It was as if my prayers were turning to ice blocks and falling on my head.” When he asked why the Lord replied, “You must forgive the murderers.”

“I shouted and screamed at God for what seemed like hours,” he said. Finally, he said, “I can’t Lord. I can’t! I don’t have it in me to forgive them. I want you to judge them!”

“I know you can’t. Ask me and I will help you,” said the Lord.

“It was the most difficult thing I have ever done,” he said. “But the moment I spoke the word I was set free.”

Fourth, all of them are relentless in “seeking first the kingdom,” in their spheres of influence. They are bold, headstrong men, impatient with limits and excuses. But they are also humble and sensitive to the Spirit, willing to receive counsel from others as dedicated as themselves.

Fifth, they are innovators in their professions and carry that spirit into their ministries. If something isn’t working, they aren’t afraid to cut it and start something that will. If an opportunity appears on the horizon, they have the vision and courage to risk big resources to pursue it.

Sixth, they deeply love their countries and want nothing more than to see them set free from spiritual darkness. And they are deeply loved by the people they lead in return.

Finally, they are all men of deep and continuing prayer. But I bet you knew that.

As we travel through the rest of 2019 together, let’s imitate their faith and see what God will do.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ac 11:24). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.