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.

CALLED TO SOMETHING MORE: Os Guinness on finding life’s purpose

CALLED TO SOMETHING MORE: Os Guinness on finding life’s purpose

Are you a doctor, a lawyer, a mom or a dad? Are you an engineer or sales rep, a husband or wife or any of a list of a hundred other things? Or are you something more? Have you found and fulfilled the central purpose of your life?

The great mistake so many of us make is to imagine that only preachers and missionaries have a “calling” from God. Some of us go as far as entertaining the thought that maybe doctors and nurses and others in the health professions have it too. But mechanics and plumbers? Engineers and inventors? CEO’s and wait-staff? Calling? From God? You’re kidding right? Our jobs aren’t callings. We just pray, pay and play. We make it possible for others to pursue callings.

Not so says Os Guinness in his 2003 book, THE CALL: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.

Calling is the truth, writes Guinness, “that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” Calling is the ultimate “why” for human living. “Follow Me!” was not just a command for Peter, James, and John. It’s for all of us.

The book is arranged in twenty-six short chapters, each addressing an aspect of calling from finding our purpose in the way we are made—the talents, passions, and aptitudes inherent in our DNA—to determining our ethics and discovering our passion by living before an audience of One. But they aren’t dry and academic. Every chapter connects to real life by beginning with an interesting story—from Thermopylae to Studs Terkel—and ending with a devotional challenge to apply what’s been learned. It also includes a study guide at the end for group discussion.

Unlike some very popular books on purpose, THE CALL is not a rehash of worn out motivational ideas that flatter in order to deceive and fail to deliver over the long haul. Guinness covers the pitfalls of calling as well as the potential and reminds us that we are not the center of the story, Christ is. And calling is not something we achieve on our own. The timing and opportunities are of God’s making. He calls us to be what he alone knows we can be.

As book reviews go, I realize I’m behind the curve by reporting on a book released 15 years ago. But, if you are like me and find the world is a more challenging place than a simple page or two of soft devotional thoughts will cover each morning, pick it up. It moved me, so I think it will move you.

With that in mind I’ll leave you with one of Guinness’s chapter ending devotional challenges:

Do you have a reason for being, a focused sense of purpose in your life? Or is your life the product of shifting resolutions and the myriad pulls of forces outside yourself? Do you want to go beyond success to significance? Have you come to realize that self-reliance always falls short and that world-denying solutions provide no answer in the end? Listen to Jesus of Nazareth; answer his call.

WAITING ON GOD AND PIZZA

I’ll never forget my boss’s reply to a demanding department head who wanted his project moved to top priority for our maintenance crew: “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency for me!”

I gasped and laughed out loud.  I did not think anyone, much less the head of a lowly maintenance department, could talk that way to one of the senior ministers in Atlanta’s largest megachurch and get away with it.

But he did.

I wonder if God wouldn’t say something similar to us when, in our hurry to achieve the next thing on our agenda, we run smack dab into the reality that our lack of patience does not constitute a crisis for him.

Ps. 27:14 Wait on the Lord;

Be of good courage,

And He shall strengthen your heart;

Wait, I say, on the Lord![1]

True, sometimes we use the excuse of waiting on God to cover a lack of planning or initiative. As Denzel Washington said, “Dreams without goals remain dreams, just dreams, and ultimately fuel disappointment.” But waiting on God is a pattern that runs throughout scripture.

Noah spent more than a year inside the Ark, sending out first a raven and then a dove to see if the ground was dry. Yet still he waited, even when the dove did not return, until God said, “Come out of the ark …”

Abraham waited till he and Sarah were past their normal childbearing years before God fulfilled his promise of an heir.

Joseph waited years in slavery to Potiphar the Egyptian, then two more years in prison before he was called to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and elevated to Prime Minister of the kingdom.

I doubt that Moses had this message in mind when he recorded those stories in Genesis, but for those of us in the smartphone generation, where information is instantaneously at our fingertips, it’s important to understand that life does not move on our timetable and God is never in a hurry.

The list is long and full of success for people who learned to wait on the Lord. Moses, David, Daniel, and Elijah come to mind. But waiting on him is not the same as doing nothing. It is more like waiting on the pizza delivery man by putting the plates on the table, the ice in the glasses, and the salad in the bowls and getting the dressing out of the fridge. It is a time of watchful expectancy instead of indolent passivity; patient trust and preparation instead of fussy anxiety and inconsequential busyness.

When the trust is total, the heart is quiet, and the preparation is complete, the task is entered into with confidence and the results, usually, are satisfying. Either way we are living with respect for the One who is truly in charge.

[1] The New King James Version. 1982 (Ps 27:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

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;

THE CERTAINTY OF UNCERTAINTY: Encouragement for Millennials Who’ve Hit A Wall

“I’m not happy with where my life is at the moment, and I’m not real sure what to do about it, but I’m working on it,” said my friend. I could feel his frustration, having been there and done that.

Similar conversations with a number of twenty-something friends who have run head-on into a string of disappointments have had me praying and thinking about how to encourage the millennials among us.  I know what it’s like to see thirty coming up on the horizon with little in the way of success to show for it. Now that sixty isn’t that far off, some constants stand out, not only in my life, but in those of the people I most admire.

Let’s call them three keys to handling the certainty of uncertainty.

First, a successful life is something that you build, not something that you have. Adjusting expectations to that reality is tougher today, where our social media personas only show the “A” side of life, than it was thirty years ago. It takes time, tact, and tenacity to build the skill sets, the relationships, and the track record that open the doors of opportunity. These things form the platform of a prosperous life. There are no shortcuts. Be willing to start small, but start somewhere, and build.

Second, expect setbacks. The old word for this one is prudence. Everyone loves Solomon’s advice in Proverbs, “Commit your way to the Lord, and he will direct your paths.” It sounds like clear sailing to serial successes. But we tend to forget his warning that, “Time and chance happen to them all.” I call that Black Coffee Theology, the certainty of uncertainty. It’s not that God isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care about your life. His eye really is on the sparrow, but he won’t suspend the effects of the fall for anyone until Christ returns. Until then, the cosmic Murphy’s Law remains: You will experience failure. You will be frustrated. But there is an up side: Failure and frustration teach us more, and faster, than success. Learn the lessons early, and well, and they will protect you down the road. On the financial side, build an emergency fund for the inevitable, and develop a back-up skill set that can pay the bills until the opportunity you are looking for appears.

Third, persevere my friends, persevere! Do not let the inevitable setbacks and difficult lessons convince you that you are a failure. Discern your calling, or at least choose a career path where your interests and aptitudes meet, zero in on that path and trim away trivial pursuits. Then take the long view and start putting one foot in front of the other. Lay your plans–your dreams too–before God, and watch, and pray, and live before him in trust one day at a time. Learn the secret of contentment in the day to day, but keep the goal ever before you and press on! Nine times out of ten, the people who succeed are the people who refuse to give up.

Finally, one last word from those of us who can see you in our rear-view mirrors: we believe in you, we believe in God’s good purposes for you, and we look forward to the day you go whizzing by us in the fast lane.

 

BEWARE BLACK FRIDAY

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Jesus (Luke 12:15)

One of our church members, who worked in a well-known department store, mentioned something one Thanksgiving week that made me gasp. “I have to be at work at 2:00 AM next Friday morning.”

The next day, at the teen ministry I co-sponsored at the middle school, one of the kids said, “I can’t believe it. My mom is waking me up at 1:00 AM Friday to go shopping!”

I confess that I am not a serious shopper. I know that it is sensible to try to save money by taking advantage of sales. But let’s be honest about this, Black Friday is a Greed Fest, a singularly American celebration of buying and selling that rivals any other holiday on the calendar. (Note: Holiday is a word derived from Holy Day – a special day for celebration of the deity). Our dedication to getting THE DEAL on the latest trendy toy or 4G gadget is so fanatical that we will stand in line in sub-freezing temperatures at two in the morning and then literally run over each other for the limited supply of DOOR BUSTING BARGAINS! (Lucky for you southerners this year, the temps will be mild).

Let’s not kid ourselves. This is worship. Worship includes sacrifice, adoration and celebration. Fanatical dedication to Black Friday shopping has all the ingredients. There is sacrifice. Can you remember the last time you got up at two in the morning to pray or give or serve or go to a worship service? There is adoration. “Wow! I’ve always wanted one of these!” And there is celebration. “Can you believe it? What a DEAL I got!” We don’t like to admit it but this kind of activity is what worship is made of. It is the great American sin that we never condemn. But the apostle Paul puts it right up there with the sins we do condemn.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these…( Col 3:5-8 NIV)

One day in the department store is no different from any other. Shopping on Black Friday is not a sin. Looking for bargains is not transgression. And if you are going shopping on Friday I hope you find what you’re looking for. But beware the ethos of Black Friday — the culture that celebrates the abundance of possessions as life’s highest good. There is much, much MORE to life than finding Friday’s best bargains.

THE CUBS AND EVERLASTING HOPE

“Maybe deep heartache takes the nearly impossible to cure because, having lost hope, the only remedy is for it to be replenished by what feels too much like a miracle to ignore.”[1]

Bill Reiter’s opening to his piece on the Cub’s improbable victory–pardon me, mauling of the Indians last night strikes a chord in the heart of every underdog-loving American.  We were watching when young Cub Addison Russell crushed a third inning grand slam over 434 feet, through the exit tunnel in center-right field.

Pandemonium! What a hit! What a reversal of fortunes! Maybe they can do it! Maybe, after 108 years, and down three games to one, the Cubs can win the pennant!

As exciting as it was to watch I have to admit that I am bemused by Reiter’s and other sports reporters’ spiritual allusions to what is, after all, only a game.

“When they move us to tears,” he writes, “to joy, to ebullience, to uncertainty and captivation and heartache and, most importantly, to awe — that is when they rise above some silly game and become something deeper and richer. Something truly lasting.”[2]

Reiter isn’t wrong to say that. In fact I agree with him. Yet the ephemeral nature of such events and our attraction, even our need for them, speaks to something deeper, reveals subterranean longings in our souls.

I remember the thrill of local hero Ward Burton’s 2002 Daytona 500 win. I was ready to paint my station wagon Caterpillar yellow. Yet Ward left NASCAR a few short years later. Current Cubs’ players, like my Atlanta Braves hero, John Smoltz, will sooner than later, be sharing a broadcast booth rather than standing on the mound in the world’s biggest baseball contest. And of course, the Cubs could go down in flames tonight!

Our enthusiasm for these transient victories testifies to deeper longings, truer truths, and our need for lasting hope. The deep heartaches we endure as members of the human race can only be healed by a miracle that offers hope.

That miracle happened and is not ephemeral, but lasting, truly too great to ignore. For one day long ago the underdog of all underdogs went up against a dynasty and went down three straight days. Buried under a curse his fans fell away with no hope at all until an amazing thing happened – like a bases loaded homer with two outs he came back to life. Hope everlasting was reborn on that day and continues down to this.

So if you’re looking for hope and awe that will outlast this year’s World Series, look to Jesus who took your brokenness, your shattered dreams, all of your errors and mistakes, and crushed them at the cross sending them, as it were, over the fence, as far as the east is from the west. Look to Jesus and live with everlasting hope.

[1] http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/cubs-indians-world-series-could-end-up-as-one-of-the-greatest-sports-stories-ever/

[2] Ibid.