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.

DISCERNMENT IN THE D.C. GLADIATORIAL GAMES

Politics is blood-sport where power is the prize and those who play it will stop at nothing to win.

I learned that ugly truth in a beautiful room in the house of one of the power players in Washington D. C. The owner, whose issue is tax reform, was not present, but had made his home available to another special interest group for a meet-and-greet. I was attending their conference as a guest who could offer an evangelical perspective on their issue.

As I sipped my drink and circled the room I came upon an older, white-haired gentleman, erect, clear-eyed and almost elegantly dressed compared to the rest of us. This old gent looks nice enough, I thought; I bet he can give me a real feel for their movement. So I introduced myself and asked something innocuous like, “I’m new to this. Can you tell me what drew you to this movement and what how I might help?”

With little more than his name and state as preamble he said, “Young man, this is about power plain and simple and I am willing to break your legs in order to get that power and defend my rights and achieve my purpose. If you are not willing to do the same you don’t belong here.”

I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. If that’s what this is about, I thought, count me out. But that happened about ten years ago, and the more I watch the D. C. gladiatorial games, the more I believe he was right. While there are a few “Mr. Smiths who have gone to Washington,” honest people seeking to serve, we are witnessing a ruthless battle for power into which all have been swept. Those who have it want to pursue the agenda for which they were elected. Those who do not have it want to stop those who do and will fight dirty to win.

The question for us is: who is telling the truth? Answering that requires the biblical quality of discernment. It is what Solomon asked of God when he became king of Israel, “Give me a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.”[1]

Discernment is the ability to see the character beneath the costume. It perceives the chill in the kidnapper’s eye as clearly as the fear in the real mother’s when threatening to split the disputed baby in half, as Solomon did in his most famous case.[2]

Like Gamaliel, who reminded the Sanhedrin of the fate of earlier messianic movements when he stood to speak on behalf of Peter and the apostles, discernment sees the whole context, remembers the rest of the story, not just the parts on momentary display.[3] It reads between the lines of testimony and sees that what is not being said is as important as what is.

Sound judgment also distinguishes a partisan player from an honest broker, a manipulative speech from a straightforward question, and a witch hunt from an authentic investigation. As Megan Basham, who attended the Comey hearings, reported on World Radio this morning, “Everything sounded so scripted that all the drama was taken out of it. The only thing that raised journalists’ eyebrows was Mr. Comey’s admission that he had leaked information to the press via a Columbia Law professor.”

No one person has access to all of the facts, so discernment in the D.C. gladiatorial games depends on reliable reporting based on biblical objectivity, or the “God’s-eye” view. It is impartial, fact-filled, and thorough and recognizes that “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account,” including the biases of the reporter. [4] 

For that I can only recommend WORLD Magazine and World Radio’s The World and Everything In It podcast. You can get a risk-free three-month trial membership by going to www.getWORLDnow.com.

[1] 1 Kings 3:9 NIV

[2] 1 Kings 3:24 NIV

[3] Acts 5:34-39

[4] Heb 4:13

THE SELAH CENTER: New Help for an Old Problem

“We need to talk.” The message alarmed Tom because his girlfriend, whom he had dated since middle school, usually felt free to text anything. But this time she would only agree to meet in person. With his subconscious screaming, you know what this is! but his frontal lobe in full denial mode, he made his way to their favorite spot in the stairwell at the high school. The look on her face said it all, “I’m pregnant.”

If you can identify with the desperate situation in which these teens find themselves, and statistics tell us that about thirty percent of us can, you know what it is like to be unmarried, pregnant, or with a pregnant girlfriend, and totally unprepared. For over forty years the standard procedure for people in this situation has been to find the local abortion provider and “deal with the problem.” One in seven pregnancies still ends in abortion.

But a combination of improved ultra-sound technology, multiple stories of abortion-injured women, and Planned Parenthood scandals is causing more and more women to seek an alternative solution.

That’s the role that Southside Virginia’s newest crisis pregnancy service provider, The Selah Center, hopes to fill in ever greater ways as it observes its first anniversary in operation.

The Selah (pronounced Say-la) Center, located at 403 Virginia Avenue, between Pizza Pub and United Country in Clarksville, opened on May 26, 2016, has helped many clients in its first year with services including pregnancy testing, post abortion peer counseling, pre-natal and parenting care techniques for mothers-to-be. But Selah also provides male mentoring, peer counseling, and classes on finding a job, making and keeping a budget, and how to buy a good used car for future fathers.

The Center is also committed to the development of expectant moms as whole persons. Clients receive “Boutique Bucks” for each class attended that are then redeemed for diapers, wipes, bath items, children’s clothing up to 2T, and other baby care necessities.

Selah Center Executive Director, Christie Russell says, “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that God would ask me to join Him in this work.” But Russell, who holds a B.S. in Global Marketing Management from Averett College, and a Masters in Biblical Counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that over the years she had so many conversations with so many hurting young women, that when a speaker from the Tidewater Area issued a challenge to her congregation to open their own pregnancy center she found she could not say “No”.

With Transitions Pregnancy Services in Danville, and The Selah Center in Clarksville, Halifax County women and men now have two options for help during a crisis pregnancy. If you need help with a pregnancy, or you would like to donate, you can contact them at 434-362-2207, or find them on the web at theselahcenter.org.

STAYING PUT: Lessons from Long-Term Ministry

“Thank you,” seems inadequate for all of the honors I received from Faith Community Church  last Sunday. The church took the morning to celebrate my twentieth anniversary as its pastor, taking me by surprise in the process.

Some themes stood out in the comments, and others came to mind later, which might prove helpful to you someday. Call them Leadership Lessons from Long -Term Ministry, but many will apply even if you are not a preacher.

Preach the Word. Expository preaching, interpreting and explaining a passage of scripture in its historical, grammatical, literary, cultural, and biblical context, demonstrating how it applies to the listener and points them to Christ, is key to the vitality of any church or believer. It is a time-consuming endeavor that preachers either have to fight for against other demands, or are gifted with by a congregation. FCC made the decision long before I arrived to give its pastor, and by proxy itself, that gift. All of us benefit from it. Find a church that values this and you will usually find a healthy church.

Decide to stay. If you want to have a deep impact on a community you have to commit to the long term. Randy Pope, Eugene Peterson, Rick Warren, and many others advocated for this in their writings as I was preparing for ministry, and I believed them then. But now I’ve seen the generational effects of hoeing one row for two decades and the fruit is sweet. Warning: You cannot do long-term work without short-term rests. Build Sabbath into your lifestyle and vacations into your years.

Speak hard truth with soft words. Speak with grace and gospel faithfulness to the difficult cultural trends of the day and do not flinch. It will force you to examine yourself, be fair to others, and rely more on Christ. It will also stiffen the spines of your listeners.

Be with people one-on-one. Love them for who they are, where they are, as they are. Grieve with them, celebrate with them, honor them, and respect them. They will do the same for you.

Make sure you have a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy; a mentor, a brother, and a disciple, or trainee into whom you can pour your life. They will coach you when you are clueless, strengthen you when you are weak, and challenge you to keep growing.

Believe in people and don’t micro-manage them. Find good people, give them the goal and the support they need, and then get out of their way. Look for and expect their best, and they will usually give it to you. Related: recruit people to your team who are strong where you are weak. I learned long ago that I was too emotional and empathetic for my own good. That’s one reason I try to surround myself what I call “concrete rational” personality types who can help me stay grounded in biblical objectivity.

Pray more than you politic. Consensus building and deal-making have their place in life. But no amount of politicking can accomplish what prayer can do.

Plan ahead and then give your plans to God.  Every leader needs to be at least five months, and preferably five years, ahead of his organization. But as in war, so in ministry, no plan survives combat. Keep the goal clearly in mind, pay attention to the dynamics of the situation, listen to His Spirit and be flexible with the details.

Offend early and often. I’m a recovering co-dependent people-pleaser. It took years to realize that people come into churches and other organizations with all kinds of expectations of the leadership, some conscious, some not; some reasonable, some silly, and some outrageous. Trying to keep them all happy was suicidal. I learned to make sure they knew what to expect, and what not to expect, as soon as possible. It felt offensive to my empathetic soul to do this, to disappoint some people up front, and anger others. Thus the motto, but the proof — the stability and harmony generated by uniform expectations — has indeed been in the pudding. FCC’s Handbook has been a great tool for this. If your organization doesn’t have a handbook, you should write one, and then require everyone to read it.

Finally, hold everything loosely. Any entity you lead is a stewardship from God, including your family. It doesn’t belong to you and he can take it from you whenever it suits his purposes. Live with gratitude and open, up-raised palms.

Phil 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Php 1:3–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

GOD BLESS YOU DOGFACE

Two hundred and eighty-four combat missions in helicopter gunships over Vietnam, flying in support of the SEALS and River Patrol Boat squadrons along the Mekong Delta, followed by a stint with Air America, the CIA air force in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh trail, qualify a man to comment on the meaning of Memorial Day.

My late friend, Paul Steube, who flew those missions, was rightly proud of his service. Of flying with the Helicopter Attack Light 3rd Squadron (HAL 3) Seawolves, he wrote, “It was sort of like dancing around the sky, hurling thunderbolts at anyone foolish enough to reveal themselves by shooting tracers at us.  And they couldn’t touch us.  We were too good, too lucky, too cute, and we were so young. Lord, we knew we were something.”

It wasn’t until much later in life that Paul came to appreciate the role of the common, “dogface,” foot-soldier. That’s when he wrote the following tribute.

“I want to tell you something that took me 54 years to learn.  And I am so glad that I learned it in time to tell my brother (who was an infantryman).

I was a mustang in the Navy. That’s someone who gets a commission after serving as an enlisted man. After I’d been in the Navy for a couple of years, I was fortunate enough to get into the NAVCAD, or Naval Aviation Cadet, program.

Going to Pensacola! Going to get those wings of gold, the Holy Grail! It was a demanding program, especially difficult for me, but I made it. I made my five requisite carrier landings and got my Naval Aviator Wings and a commission as an Ensign.

Years later, in the observations memorializing the Fiftieth Anniversary of the D-Day landings, I learned about what some other people had done, and still do. And it finally dawned on me that I didn’t amount to a pimple on the behind of the noblest man on the field of battle: The Straight Leg Infantryman.

Usually not much more than a boy.

Usually given not much more than a hunting rifle.

Usually told not much more than, “Go that way and kill anything that tries to stop you.”

And thank God he does.

And that is why, if ever again I were in uniform, walking down a street or through an airport concourse, and I met a private wearing a small blue enamel rectangle with a rifle mounted on it, I wouldn’t stop to explain.  He would simply have to wonder the rest of his life, why did that Navy Commander salute me?

God bless you, Dogface.”

Study the killing fields of Pol Pot that ran with the blood of innocent millions after America withdrew from South East Asia and the truth of Scripture will stand: As long as sinful man remains on this fallen planet there will be ruthless aggressors who seek by violence to impose their will on peaceful populations. Thank God for the soldiers past and present who have died to defend them.

LISTEN TO YOUR SQUEAKERS: Preventive Maintenance for the Spiritual Life

“Dad,” my daughter sounded worried over the phone, “I hate to tell you this, because I know you just checked, but my brake pedal just went to the floor when I was on the expressway.”

This kind of thing did not used to be a problem. As a formerly ASE certified service technician I had always been able to repair the family cars, usually cheaper and faster than a local shop. But now my girl’s life was in danger because I had missed a critical diagnosis on her last visit. Not only that, but she was five hours away in a big city. What would have been a $300 job at home became a $750 repair bill. It stung my ego, because I had missed the warning signs, but I was happy to pay it to make sure she was safe.

That mistake reminded me of a spiritual lesson from King Solomon that might save us all a lot of heartache, if we are able to hear it.

Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23 NKJ).

For as long as I can remember General Motors products with disc brakes have been equipped with what I call “squeakers.” Squeakers are small flat wear indicators made of flimsy spring steel that are attached to one end of each inner disc brake pad in a set. When the pad wears down to within a few hundredths of an inch of the backing plate the squeaker contacts the rotating disc, emitting a high pitched squeal that will get the attention of any driver who isn’t making an audio assault on the neighbors with his stereo. When you hear the squeak you know it’s time to replace the brake pads. If you don’t you’ll soon have the stopping power of a greased bowling ball and a simple $150 repair can rapidly become a $750 repair or worse, a car wreck.

King Solomon’s admonition, along with many other verses in Scripture,[1] is a reminder to pay attention to the state of our hearts, to listen to our spiritual squeakers. They’re warning us of little problems that can become big ones in a hurry. But they aren’t quite as noticeable as the ones GM uses so I’ve listed a few below.

You know your heart is squeaking:

  • When gossip is easy and prayer is hard.
  • When you’re spouse is annoying but your colleague is alluring.
  • When wrath makes more sense than reconciliation.
  • When vengeance seems more logical than forbearance.
  • When fear and foreboding replace faith and courage.
  • When lust looks lovely and purity looks pathetic.
  • When devotions are dull but distractions are dynamic.

We could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.

Listen to your spiritual squeakers. Put the brakes on runaway desires and ask God, “What’s missing? Where do I need a little soul maintenance? What has dulled my relationship with Jesus Christ and made me insensitive to his warnings?” He’ll help you replace the worn out parts and keep your spirit strong for the long haul.

[1] 1 Timothy 4:16a; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8;

YOU MIGHT KNOW A NARCISSIST IF: Defining & Dealing with Difficult People

Are you dealing with an average, run-of-the-mill jerk, or a bona-fide, nth-degree narcissist? Paul Meier and Eleanor Payson may be able to help you.

Psychiatrist Paul Meier, M. D., founder of Meier Clinics and author of over seventy other books, published a best seller back in the nineties titled, Don’t Let Jerks Get the Best of You: Advice for Dealing with Difficult People. The book breaks people down into three categories: First degree, second degree, and nth-degree jerks. It includes advice on how to identify and deal with the average jerk (1st degree), and the jerk within–how many people did you cut off in traffic this morning?—as well as the narcissists (2nd degree), and sociopaths (nth-degree) among us.

Meier’s is a great book, user-friendly, mostly non-clinical and entertaining vocabulary, and illustrations that strike home.  Eleanor D. Payson’s 2002 book, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping With the One Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, is less so, but still helpful. Payson, who holds an M.S.W. and has been a licensed marital and family therapist for over thirty years, addresses issues faced when dealing with narcissists in chapters entitled: “Seeing the Emerald Forest for the Emerald Trees,” on identifying people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and “Follow Your Yellow Brick Road,” on finding the boundaries of self.

If you’re dealing with a true sociopath–think Saddam Hussein–you don’t need a self-help book; you need an escape route. But how do you know if you’re in a relationship at work, or at school, or at home, with a 2nd degree jerk or even, as Payson might say, a person truly afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A few clues from Meier and Payson (pronouns interchangeable):

Narcissists are highly controlling, focusing attention on themselves most of the time. He has a grandiose sense of self-importance, truly believing in his “special” status, and isn’t afraid to let others know it. She’s also vindictive, remembering every slight, intent on ultimate payback. He almost never apologizes or takes responsibility for being wrong. His ego is too fragile for that. And he always has a blame-shifting explanation for his abusive behavior. She operates with a quid-pro-quo mindset, a flatterer who enjoys helping and protecting popular, successful people, as long as they understand that “they owe her.” He lacks empathy, but more than that, he is cold and ruthless when challenged. She is never vulnerable, never open with anyone about her shortcomings, but can be quite sexually seductive and even exploitative. He doesn’t believe rules apply to him and he uses others to advance his own agenda.

Narcissists, or 2nd degree jerks, are not to be trifled with, and if you are prone to co-dependency you will need more than a self-help book to deal with them. But these books are a good place to start. Meier, who holds degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, writes from the biblical worldview and therefore communicates more hope for change. He has seen the power of the Cross of Christ at work in narcissists and their victims. Payson is less hopeful, but still helpful in identifying not only the abusers among us, but also the coping mechanisms best suited to stopping their harmful behaviors. Both books are worth adding to your summer reading list.