Thursday, March 22, 2007

Like Magic....

I've always been a fan of magic tricks. I remember my geeky high school days when I actually carried a deck of cards with me at all times with which to perform tricks. I had a deck of marked cards with a marking system I'd developed myself. I practiced some coin sleights for hours so I could pull off the simple "make a quarter disappear and reappear" trick. I've forgotten some of the stuff, but I can still do the coin flourish I spent so long learning. I guess what amazes me about magic is the unexpected expectation. I mean, we all have expectations that a magician will try to amaze us, but the good ones do it in ways that catch us off guard. They are able to amaze us despite the fact that we are watching them closely, looking for the "trick" part of the magic. When they manage to pull off the prestige despite our scrutiny, we are amazed and entertained.

Some people have this mental image of God as some sort of cosmic magician. They scoff at his power by using flawed logic to make the Creator of the universe seem petty, ie: Can God create a rock so heavy that even He can't lift it? Nonetheless, we are amazed when we examine certain passages in scripture. One such passage that comes to mind is Romans 4:17-18.

17As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations." He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. 18Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be."

In this passage, Paul is explaining what happened to Abraham. Because of his faith in God's promise, the promise became reality. Paul is highlighting the power of faith in God. I'd like to point out the last bit of verse 17: [God] calls things that are not as though they were. Did you get that? Here is God doing His cosmic magician bit... look carefully... something isn't... then it is. Did you catch the trick? God speaks and the universe itself rearranges to accomodate God's spoken word. Oh, this isn't a new trick. That is how God got it all started, remember?

Genesis 1:3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.

For us lesser magicians, we rely on something rather less impressive to accomplish our goal of amazing entertainment: misdirection. That's right folks... we can't really make rabbits appear out of hats and scarves stand up and dance of their own volition. While the magician directs your attention to one area, something subtle is happening where you're not looking to cause things to appear to be something that they are not. When we pull it off, you are amazed. So it surprises me a bit to find that so many people tend to place God in the humdrum category.

God doesn't rely on tricks or misdirection or deciet to accomplish His works... He merely gives voice to His will and VOLIA! there it is. So, back to Romans... God calls things that are not as though they were. Remember when Jesus was told about the little girl who was dead? They laughed at him when he said that she was not dead, but merely asleep. He said that she was alive and inexplicably, she was! No misdrection, just the power of God's word at work.

Now, I hope at this point that you've bought what I'm trying to sell: God's word is powerful and creates something where there previously was nothing. When God says something, it is powerful to change the universe in instant and inexplicable ways. Something from nothing. Let's go back to Romans again, the second half of the passage I quoted:

4:18Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be."

It says, "...Abraham in hope believed and so became..." So, here we have the second half of our miracle formula. God's power to effect change in the universe is in no way hinged on whether we believe him, however, in our individual circumstance, our belief in God's power and faithfulness to fulfil his promises is the factor that determines how effective God is in our lives. For Abraham, it was a no-brainer. He believed in God's ability to make good his promise and God rewarded him. If we can mimic Abraham's faith, what promises can we patiently expect God to make good in our lives?

Hebrews 13:5b: God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."

1 Corinthians 10:13: No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

Of course, the Bible is full of God's promises to his children, to those who come to him in faith and obey him in the hope that he will be faithful to fulfill his promises.

God calls those who obey his commands his children, and so they are.
God calls those who follow his Son, "blessed", and so they are.
God calls those who undertake to be disciples of Christ his "heirs", and so they are.
God calls the broken, the tainted, the worn, the rich, the poor, the proud, the humble, the sad, the joyful, the unloved, the outcast, the sinner...

Are we ready to respond in faith, against all hope that the Creator of the universe could be calling me.... in hope beliving and so becomming what God desires us to be... His. It is no trick. It is the real deal.

God calls that which was not as though it were. Yup. God can do that. It is amazing, like magic.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Edgy Sermon

Note: This is a sermon for Sunday, March 18th, 2006. The church I work with has had some bumpy roads recently and this, for me, is pretty edgy. Please pray that it is well recieved.

I turned 30 years old last November. >pause< Each of you responded in a unique way to that statement. For the teens, if they were paying attention to me at all, they might be thinking, “Man, that is old!” In fact, it is probably hard for them to wrap their brains around the idea of having lived 30 years. It is about twice as long as most of them have been drawing breath. When they were born, I was a freshman in High School. They only way they have to relate to my declaration is to compare me to some standard they have of “old”, for instance.. their parents. Now, the parents of the teens probably reacted a little differently. They might be thinking something along the lines of, “I remember 30. That wasn’t so long ago for me…” They laugh at me when I tell my stories about my young children and secretly think, “Heh, wait until your kids become teenagers!” Now, for those of you older than 30, I’m going to lump you all together because, frankly, my realm of experience and ability to guess how you might react to hearing someone talk about turning 30 is probably going to miss the mark. That’s because I suffer from the same myopic point of view into your world as the teenagers suffer looking at mine. You might be thinking something along the lines of, “Jeff’s just a kid. He’s got his entire life ahead of him at 30!” or I might have lost you completely as you started to day dream about what life was like for you when you were 30.

Anyhow, the reason I started this morning with this little diversion is because I’m taking a class right now called Family Life Cycles. The purpose of the class is to help me to be a better counselor by expanding my horizon and helping me to look at a person in the context of where they are at in life. When a person comes to counseling, they usually give a reason that they are in need of some help working through a particular issue. But two different people may want counseling for depression and although the issue is the same, their circumstances are so wildly different that the counselor needs to look at the context of a person’s life. For example: their age, their family of origin, their socioeconomic status, their profession, their education, their gender and so on.

Obviously, it would be helpful for me as a young whippersnapper of 30 tender years to have some idea of the general life issues that a 60 year old couple may face when I am seeing a husband and wife who’ve been married for 34 years. Also, if I were to counsel a 15 year old who is angry with his parents for divorcing, it would help me to be able to remember what it was like at 15, so I can begin to understand the situation.

So it got me thinking about my Christian perspective on life in general. I think I may have mentioned before that I believe that God gives us things in the physical to help us understand thing in the spiritual. I began to contemplate what a “Spiritual Life Cycle” would look like and where I would fit in that paradigm. In my class, I’ve been able to identify myself in the “Parents of Young Children” stage. I wonder where I would be on a spiritual chart.

If you remember your Bible and Jewish customs, you will probably recall that most Jewish men really entered into their professions in their early thirties. According to the book of Luke, Jesus was about thirty when he began his ministry.

Luke 3:21When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." 23Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.

Immediately after this, we learn that Jesus was tempted and tried by Satan in the desert. It makes me wonder if there is a place in everyone’s spiritual life cycle where we reach a point that Satan puts us through our own trials and temptations. Jesus had just been affirmed by God at his baptism. He’d spent thirty earthly years preparing to do the work that God had prepared in advance for him to do and before he even got a chance to start his ministry, Satan tries to take him down.

Hebrews 4:15 tells us that one of the reasons that Jesus suffered everything that he suffered while on earth, including this time of testing by Satan, was so that he would be able to sympathize with us because he’s gone through what we go through. This leads me to think that maybe if I’m not feeling that Satan is testing me and tempting me that my faith is not yet at the point where God is ready to allow that to happen to me.

I recall a time when a friend of mine confessed to our life group that she was afraid that her life was too easy. We were all a bit confused by that statement until she clarified it for us. She said, “Well, I read in scripture how Jesus promises us that if are really going to be his disciples that we will be persecuted and reviled and looked down upon, you know? I just feel like my life is going so well right now… I have absolutely nothing that I’m worried about or stressed over… why am I not suffering for my faith in Christ? Perhaps I’m not where I need to be spiritually.”

I really think that my friend was able to do something that most of us don’t do: a self-evaluation of where we are in our Spiritual Life Cycle. You see, it is pretty easy for us to identify our stage of life when defined in a text book based on the aggregate experiences of millions of people in our society. So far, I personally have been through Early Development and Adolescence, Young Couple hood and Marriage and Parenting small children. Next thing I know, I’ll be Parenting Adolescents and then Launching my children into adulthood before sliding right into retirement years. It is all there in my textbook, easy to diagnose and treat. It is not so easy to know where we are spiritually.

I do know that in the New Testament writings, there seemed to be a lot of spiritual growing pains for the young churches that Paul wrote to. Hear what he says to the church in Corinth when he learned that there were factions in the church:

1 Corinthians 3:1Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 4For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men?

He goes on to admonish the church at the end of the same chapter in verses 18 and following:

18Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"[a]; 20and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile."[b] 21So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas[c] or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

What was going on there? Apparently, word got back to Paul that people in the Church in Corinth were fighting about Paul and another preacher, Apollos. Some of the people in the church first heard about Christ through Paul’s teaching. Some of them became Christians as a result of Apollos’ ministry. Maybe they argued about who was the better preacher. What we do know is that it caused a division in the church. Paul tells them here that their spiritual maturity was lacking. He called them “infants in Christ”. I wonder what Paul would have to say to us if he were to write to modern churches about the divisions we have.

I want to issue a challenge for us all this morning. Take a moment to reflect on your own spiritual development. Outside of God himself, you know your own heart better than anyone else, so look deep and ask yourself where you are in your spiritual walk. Have you been living for many, many years on basic principles, on spiritual milk? Would Paul deem you capable of being taught the weightier matters? Are you like my friend, who wondered why she was not being challenged in her faith and worried that things were too easy for her spiritually?

Let me stop right here for just a minute and point out that I’m not trying to pigeon-hole anyone today. I’m not speaking to or about anyone specifically. If anything, when I preach, I preach to myself and y’all just happen to be there to listen. But I hope this morning that the Holy Spirit will move in your heart to help you see where you are in Christ and where Christ wants you to be in him. The book of James offers practical advice for anyone wanting to evaluate their spiritual lives in the first chapter of James:

2Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

9The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 11For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.

12Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

16Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

Listening and Doing

19My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

22Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Do you hear yourself in that passage? Does it help give you some reference points to help you evaluate where you are, spiritually? I hope so.

Now, I want to take a sharp turn in our conversation this morning. Up till now, I’ve been asking you to think about yourself individually. I’ve asked you to look at your own heart, your own spiritual journey. However, I’d like to point out that as the philosopher pointed out, “No man is an island unto himself”, this is especially true of disciples of Christ. You see, when we accept Christ as our Lord, he adds us to his body and we are told that we are no longer our own, but we belong to the Body of Christ. So, even as Paul wrote to entire churches about their spiritual development, I want to also ask you to evaluate where we are as a congregation.

I asked Bill Oldham if there was anything the elders wanted me to talk about specifically in my sermon this morning. He told me to just speak about whatever was on my heart. I’ll be very frank. I feel like an outsider/insider in this congregation sometimes. Because I live in Abilene and the very nature of my agreement with the congregation here precludes me from being part of the lifeblood of this congregation. On the other hand, I’ve spent a year and a half now being involved in the lives of people in this church and I feel very close to many of you. Having said that, I am a member of this congregation, but the real work of evaluating the spiritual health and direction of this congregation is going to come from those who have been here for a long time and whose lives have shaped the church in Gorman and from those who choose to remain here for the long term. It is my opinion that there has been some spiritual stagnation in Gorman. Some of the worldly ways that we use to measure the “health” of a congregation is our attendance and our contribution. Both of those numbers have been pretty anemic. I hope at this point that you haven’t raised your internal defenses and that you’ve not shut me out because I’m not here to condemn us for getting to where we’re at. I hope we can be honest and see that it is time for an open evaluation and diagnosis of the Lord’s church in Gorman. Where is this congregation in it’s life cycle? Have we entered the “retirement and later life” stage and are ready to shut down? Or are we in another life stage where we should be growing and developing but we’ve gotten sidetracked? You see, that is one of the reasons that families come to the clinic that I work at in Abilene. They are good people, but they’ve got something in their family system that is keeping them from functioning like a healthy family should. What is going on with our congregation that has caused this stagnation? More importantly, can we deal effectively with it and resume the being the healthy, functioning, growing part of Christ’s Body that we are called to be?

I’ve been at churches where when problems arise that threaten the spiritual health of the congregation, the standard operating procedure is to bicker and gossip until someone leaves and then everyone else deals with uncomfortable feelings until time and distance finally prompts them to live and let live and they put their happy faces on and keep going to church. Too often, we’re too proud to admit that we’ve done things or said things that have hurt each other and we aren’t willing to swallow our pride and seek forgiveness. If we’re the injured party, we are inclined to pack up our marbles and go elsewhere or simply stop coming to church at all.

The irony here is that God’s grace is sufficient to cover all our issues if we are willing to seek Him and reflect Christ’s mercy and forgiveness toward one another. If we can imitate Christ’s humility, God promises us he’ll exalt us in due time.

This type of spiritual evaluation is critical. Paul wrote about his own weaknesses and shortcomings in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul saw times of hardship and difficulty as opportunity to seek the Strength of the Lord. To risk being vulnerable, for Paul, was an opportunity for the humility of Christ to be seen in his life.

I turned 30 years old last November. I don’t know where the next thirty years is going to take me, but I pray that I will be able to journey on the road of life with waypoints where I can honestly evaluate my spiritual journey and make the course corrections necessary to continue walking with Christ.

Today, if God’s Holy Spirit has convicted you to come forward and seek prayers, the time is now. If you want to know what means to be a part of the Lord’s church and desire to become joined in the Body of Christ through Baptism, the time is now. You may come forward as we stand and sing.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Photoblog 1.0

Greetings! One of my hobbies is Photography and I thought I'd share some ways that I enjoy this hobby. Yesterday, I was with my kids at the Jacob's Dream sculpture, taking pics of them playing and I noticed this stone and thought it would be funny to pose with it. In a moment of madness, I gave my thousand dollar camera to my 3 year old son and quickly coached him on how to frame a shot and ran to pose behind the rock. He did a surprisingly good job, considering I wasn't even sure I was in the frame when he finally clicked the picture (it is hard to take a bad pic in broad daylight using the auto settings on the camera). Anyhow, here is the picture Ethan took:

Yesterday evening, I sat down and opened the picture in Adobe Photoshop and did a little editing. First, I cropped the picture and allowed the zoom effect to work. The shot would have been better, but more difficult to frame if I'd used the lens to do the zooming manually, and, seeing as Ethan's 3 year old fingers barely reached the button to snap the picture, I figured I'd get the close effect when editing. After I cropped the photo, I used the BURN tool, setting it for about 25% flow with a soft edge and burned in the word GOD, going over the shadows. After darkening just the shadows on the rock, I used the Text tool to select a font that resembled the GOD font and used the eyedropper tool to choose the same color as the GOD text I'd just finished burning. After typing in the verse from Psalm 18, I went to blending options and embossed the text to make it look like it was carved on the rock. Finally, I used the lasso tool to select the area above the stone wall and grabbed the sky (it was that day's sky) from another picture I took that day and created a new layer for the sky and cut away all the parking lots behind me. Finally, I merged all the layers and saved the image at size I could upload and volia... a nifty picture!

I'll try to share some more stuff like this in the future. I like to use my camera for interesting photos and I enjoy playing around with them in Photoshop, too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


I remember missing teeth, but I don't remember the day I actually lost my first tooth. Actually, I may have actively tried to repress any "tooth" memories after suffering several years of orthodontia... but that is another story.

Today's story is about my daughter, Mary Hannah. She was very excited about losing her tooth and so we recorded this momentous day by taking pictures. Several days ago, when it began to wiggle a little, MH made a "tooth pouch" so that when it fell out, she could have a place to put it for the Tooth Fairy to come collect it.

OK, time for a quick aside which seems unrelated, but will come into play in a bit... Mary Hannah is almost 6 years old and has recently been the source of no small amount of consternation for me and her mother. She has been moody, unreasonably fussy and emotional about little things. This is a change from her customary good nature and happy spirit. She has been increasingly disobedient and non compliant when asked to do a chore. However, today, she was all smiles and her old manners and good spirit returned, much to our delight.

Back to the story: During dinner, I commented that perhaps that the tooth was a "trouble" tooth. Perhaps all the "wiggling" she'd done on it in the past few days was prompting her to wiggle against mommy and daddy and be fussy and disobedient. I complimented her on how gracious and kind she'd been all evening and how we were happy to have her good manners return. She liked the thought and immediately began to catalog the events that had gotten her into "trouble" over the past few days... losing her jacket at school, yelling at her mother, ignoring various instructions in favor of playing around or watching TV. Each event was the fault of "Trouble" that she now agreed had lived in her trouble tooth.

So, skip forward to bedtime... Mary Hannah suddenly reverted to her fussy manner, getting out of bed multiple times to tell us that she either did or did not want the tooth fairy to take her tooth. After the third time out of bed to inform us what she wanted to do concerning her tooth, I told her that we would take it away from her for the evening if she didn't stay in her bed and go to sleep. She fussed back to her room, emotions running high.

Her mood swings and her behavior are pretty normal for her age as she explores the limits of her ability to manipulate her parents and other adults. I'm not really writing to complain about Mary Hannah or even to document her life achievement. I want to take a little leap and I hope you can follow me...

How many of us "wiggle" our "trouble tooth" and get into trouble? If we externalize the bad things we do (sin) and personify them a bit... do we do this a lot? I know that there have been times in my life when I haven't walked in faith and displayed the light of Christ in how I have lived on a day to day basis. I remember with some shame a time when a person I knew from my job happened to visit my church and commented, "Oh, I didn't know you were a Christian." I'd like to chalk it up to my youth and the "exploring the envelope of God's grace and forgiveness". But when the times have come when God confronts me about my "trouble tooth", the place where I keep my ungodly behaviors and desires and tells me that it is time for me to grow in my walk with him and give up the "baby" things... I fuss and whine and want to hold on to my "tooth" a little longer... just a few days more... then I'll give it up in exchange for the gift God desires to give me. What sins do I cherish so much because they are a part of me that I am so unwilling to give up so that I can become a part of God? Just something to think about.

in Him,

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

When goofing around with my camera recently, I took this series of photos. The left panel is a close up view with the acorn tops in focus. This is the limited perspective. You can notice details of things all around you, but things a little distant are blurry and hard to comprehend. The middle picture has the middle branches in focus. In this view you are able to see beyond your immediate surroundings, but you lose the details of those things closest to you. In the right picture, the top of the tree is clearly in focus, but too far beyond what surrounds you to be practical.

With the camera, I could have selected a very broad depth of field to get the entire tree in focus, but it would have damaged my perspective. What the camera took three pictures to do, the human eye does with subconscious thought in an instant. I think that we have this shift in our vision every day, as we balance the urgent, important, immediate things in our lives with those things that are approaching and those things that are distant. However, just like our eyesight, we can get caught being myopic and focusing too narrowly on any one perspective. How do you balance these three areas in your life? What areas do you need to spend more/less time focusing on so that you are better equipped to move forward in your life? Just something to think about.


Monday, March 5, 2007

My Pew!

I don't know how universal this experience is... but in churches I've been to, people tend to sit in the same place every Sunday. They may have a "Sunday morning spot" and a "Sunday Night spot" and even a "Wednesday night spot", but by and large, they sit in the same "spot" every time. I suppose it is partly just human nature to be comfortable and get established in a routine. We even joke from time to time that the pew has our name on it, because we always sit there.

I think this is a pretty universal experience too: when the rare occasion comes for people to move, we are remarkably reluctant to do so. Sometimes it may be the random visitor who happened to get there before we do and they take "my pew", so I am forced to sit elsewhere. I'm pretty gracious about that, after all, they are visitors and didn't know any better.

The reason I'm writing this though, is not the occasional visitor who sits in my spot on Sundays. I'm writing because of a pet peeve. Think back to that Wednesday where, because of weather or a holiday, the attendance is lower than usual. The preacher or song leader asks everyone to move in a little closer. Stand up, move down, gather up front, huddle for warmth, it sounds better for singing when we're close together and not all spread out... I've heard all the pleas for movement. A few courageous souls stand up and move down. A couple of husbands are goaded into action from their wive's elbows. But a good number of people cross their arms and refuse to budge. The pleas for togetherness fall on deaf ears.

You've seen it happen haven't you? Why do people act like that? What possible valid reason could they have for not moving up? Let's pretend for just a minute that the person has a broken foot. "C'mon, Jeff, " you say, "he's got a broken foot, give him a break." How did he get to church? How much effort did it take for him to get there in the first place? Sure, it might be a little inconvenient, but I submit that it is more unwillingness than inability to get up and move.

Now, I'm not trying to judge people's hearts or motives here, but I am trying to make you think about this. After all, the job of a good preacher is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. I told this pet peeve to a friend of mine one time and he laughed and said, "I know what you mean! I think that if Jesus Christ himself stood at the front of the room and invited everyone to move closer, he'd get the same reaction." We laughed at that, but later I thought about it and it was a pretty sobering thought. In a very real way, our relationship with Christ is just like that. We get so comfortable with where we're at while Jesus is standing in front of us, begging us to move forward. We make all kinds of excuses why we are unable/unwilling to get up from where we're at. After all, I'm already at church... what more does he want from me? I'm here when most others aren't. Why can't he be satisfied with that? I can see him and hear him from here, why should I move closer? I like this pew just fine, why should I give up my comfortable spot and have to adjust to something new? This pew is no different from the pew down front, it is just a little further back. All the while, Jesus is pleading with us to move down. We may not know all of his reasons, but it seems to be important to him, just not very important to us.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that if you don't move forward when the preacher asks that you are going to hell. I'm just saying that we might want to stop and consider our motives. Are we at a point in our lives that we are so comfortable with our relationship with Jesus that we have stopped moving toward him? Is it reflected in our attitudes and actions? I personally believe that if you ever stop growing toward Christ, you'd better be dead and in his presence already. So, the next time you're at church and you're asked to move closer, do so with a joyful heart. Not only will you have overcome a behavorial barrier, but you'll probably make the songleader happy, too.

in Him,


Working for a church of working for God?

Ok, I'm going to start with a little bit of self disclosure: I've been involved in one form of ministry or another for as long as I can remember. I've been leading singing, teaching class, conducting camp, doing visitation to shut-ins, leadinng spring break campaigns, doing Vacation Bible Schools, preaching sermons, writing curriculum, publishing daily devotionals, doing one-on-one studies, and baptising those who respond to God's call. I've hiked the tallest mountain, swum in murky lakes, cleaned shaving cream out of places I don't shave, paintballed, rappelled, canoed, bivouacked and eaten spam cooked over an open flame, alll to trying to be a reflection of Christ in the flesh to teens seeking to find their place in this world, to seniors trying to cope with a terminal illness, to couples my age dealing with the stresses of life change. While you might look at that list and conclude that I've worked the miracle of combining high adventure with ministry, you'd only be partly right. You see, probably 15% of all that was personal enjoyment and the rest was lots of hard work, planning and angst.

I'm not going to try to convince you that I am a spectacularly talented minister, but I do believe that God has been able to use me to touch the lives of people who needed to know the love of God. I'll tell you that the best thing about ministry is the people God brings into your life, to minister to and to be ministered by. I'll also tell you that some of the most painful, hurtful, awful moments in my life have happened in conjunction with my ministry. I've been dismissed from a ministry job, fired from one, let go due to "lack of funds". I've had parents hate me, elders sabotage me, people outside my ministry area criticize and revile me. I've had anonymous letters accuse me of theft of church funds and question my eternal salvation. I've had deacons dress me down for imagined offenses. I've suffered some slings and arrows.

I've worked hard to try and learn and grow from these experiences so that God will be able to better use me in the future. I've gained great insight and maturity by wrestling with these struggles and glowing in the triumphs. But the reason I've told you all of this is to ask this question:

Why does working for (with) a church seem to be at odds with working for God?

Perhaps it is the struggle that shapes and forms us more closely in the image of Christ? I've worked with some wonderful individuals at churches over the years. I've been blessed beyond measure with relationships with special people who have sustained and encouraged me, even when the suffering I was going through was legitimately from my own stupid mistake(s). But by and large, I feel that in every ministry I've been a part of, I've had to work against someone with an agenda. It has been an influential parent; I've seen elders who have no business being elders; I've had to work against the spectre of a previous minister whose ministry poisoned the hearts of those he left behind. I just don't get it. In fact, I think that one of the greatest miracles in scripture is mentioned in Acts 2:40-47.

The day after I lost my youth ministry position in Enid, I got a call from an Elder at a nearby church. He offered me a position at their church and told me that in his opinion, the reasons behind my dismissal were unjust and hurtful and it shouldn't have happened. He was trying to comfort me, as I was still reeling from some shock at the unexpectedness of the whole situation. I remember he said to me, "Jeff, it is not like that at every church." I thanked him and told him I would consider his offer and get back to him, but as we ended the call, I recall thinking that he was mistaken. I told my wife that night that I didn't want to work with a church again in a way that would jeopardize the security of my family if I lost my "job". It was overwhelmingly clear( from my perspective) that the congregation at large didn't want me to stop ministering there. It seemed to be the opinion and efforts of a few key individuals who had enough influence and authority to make it happen. I resolved that I would seek out ministry opportunities that allowed me to "work for God, but not be subject to the caprciousness of powerful individuals in the church". I decided that if God wanted me to work in a full time ministry position again, he'd make it abundantly clear.

So... what do you think? Am I in a place where I'm responding out of my own personal bitterness? Can any other ministers validate my experience with their own? Would any elder type folks like to repudiate my claims? I can only imagine the blessing of working in an environment where everyone is together and had everything (goals, visions, ministry styles, grace and tolerance, good intentions and talents) in common and used them for work in the Kingdom. And yet, God is still good and His kingdom advances... so maybe there is still a lesson here I need to learn. >grin< Perhaps God knows what's he's doing after all, and I'm just along for the ride.

God, you've brought me to a place where I believe you want me to be right now. The path has been terribly wonderful, but I've seen your hand guiding me the entire way, though sometimes I've had to look back to see how you guided me. Father, I pray for those who minister. If my experience is a common one, my prayer is that you will sustain them by your grace. I pray that you will give them key individuals who minister to the ministers and act as a fountain of refreshing in their ministries. Lord, I pray for those you've set in authority in your church. Being an elder, deacon, preacher or other leader is not easy, I know. I pray first and foremost for humility for them (and me). Next I pray for discernment as they guide the church, plan for the future and model your love in their lives. Finally, I pray that you will sustain them as well, by your grace. Father, I pray for those whose hearts long to serve you. I pray that you will accept their hearts and mold and shape them to be your instruments in this world. Temper and refine them, and help them to come through the fires of church work, they can better reflect your glory in their lives. This is my prayer for them, and for me.


Yeah, but are you sorry?

I used to get together once a week with a group of men from my church for a time of reflection and prayer. Our purpose was to have an open forum to be able to share our struggles, confess our sins, encourage each other and just shoot the breeze. I apprecitated the open, honest time that I was able to share with these brothers in Christ. At the time, I was a minister and it was nigh unto impossible to be able to have a forum to take off the "minister" mask and unload. Too often, congregations put their preachers and ministers under a standard to which they don't hold anyone else, including themselves. A minister may have struggles with his faith, but he'd better not show it to the congregation. We expect our preachers and ministers to be better than we are. We might struggle with various sins or temptations, but they aren't allowed to. In fact, on those occasions when a minister has been caught in a sin or succumbed to a temptation, anything from financial mismanagement to sexual sin, the church's reaction is quite un-Christlike. I'm not opposed to removing a minister from a position of authority when his judgement is called into question. However, most of the time, the church's reaction to a minister's (public) sin is not one of gracious concern and desire for forgiveness. There is no forgiveness and continuing relationship with those men who have betrayed our trust and faith. There is only sending them away, in shame, to be somebody else's problem. Anyhow, I'm just trying to help you understand the tremendous pressure that most ministers labor under.

So, anyhow, my Friday morning prayer time with this group was precious to me. One day, I was moved to share a thought with them. I want to share it now with you, because it was a watershed moment for me and I suspect that many people would benefit from hearing, understanding, and applying this train of thought to themselves.

First, more self-disclosure... You probably wouldn't think of it to look at me now, but I got around a bit when I was in high school. Come to think of it, when I was in high school, most people probably didn't think of me as being as worldly as I was. I was sneaky. I didn't get caught being naughty, so everyone assumed that I was pretty good. When the time came for me to choose where I was going to go for college, I decided to move away from Lubbock and start again where no one knew me in Abilene. My reason was mostly, that I was pretty ashamed of the behavior and reputation that I was getting in Lubbock (at least, my perception) and I thought that I could just move on and start over at a new place. So that is just what I did. I moved, got involved with school, a new church, decided on a Bible major at ACU and then got married, graduated and started a career. So, here I was, years later, as a minister. I remember just days before, working with my teens in the youth group and trying to help them see the dangers of loose living. I never told them just how bad I'd been, but I told them enough to let them knew that I knew that if they were typical teens, they probably thought that they were being sneaky and no body knew that they: listened to inappropriate, ungodly music; drank alcohol; partied inappropriately; smoked; engaged in sexual behavior; experimented with just how far they could "sin" without it being "too far". I was able to relate to them and hopefully gave them something to think about... they weren't really getting away with anything. God knows it all. That is one of his little tricks, you know.... the whole omniscient, omnipresent thing he does.

So anyhow, I went to bed that night, feeling pretty good that I'd been able to come through those "sinful" experiences and still be of use to God. I mean, hadn't he brought me to this place and given me a ministry and people to minister to? I turned out alright (again, in my perspective), despite all my sinful dabblings. Suddenly, I felt that I had been moved by the Spirit to examine myself. I realized that I had held on to those memories of the sin I'd indulged in. I thought about them from time to time, fondly. I didn't long for them, don't get me wrong... it was just that I'd never really repented of them. It was as if I thought somewhere, deep down, that it was ME that overcame them. *I* decided to give them up and start a new life in Abilene. It was my will and effort that let me turn down offers and decide to make a change in my life.... but I never once felt sorry for my sin. I never once stopped to think about how my sin affected me. I never once stopped to consider how my sin continued to affect my relationship with Christ. It occurred to me that in addition to shame, I should have felt remorse. But I didn't, not really. I wasn't sorry for the consequences for the other's I'd sinned with. I never acknowledged God's role in helping me break free. So, in a way, I hadn't made such a clean break after all. I'd not been broken by my sin, because I still carried it with me. I had yet to give it to Christ. When I re-lived those sins in my mind, I committed them again and again. The Spirit's conviction to me that night was made manifest in deep sorrow and remorse. Finally, years after I thought I'd given those things up, I finally laid them at the cross and actually *asked* to be forgiven. I finally repented of them and recognized the hurt I'd inflicted on the person of God. It was as if I'd been proud of my ability to overcome and denied the work of the cross all those years.

So, one Friday morning, I shared that realization with my dear friends and they wept with me. I don't deny the power of Christ's blood to forgive those sins, even if I'd never come to that realization. However, I do believe that those sins hindered my ability to truly reflect Christ in my person. That day, it became less about me and more about Him. The next time I had an opportunity to disclose my experience, I would be able to speak about the power of Christ in my life, and not the power of Jeff.

I hope I was able to get my point across by sharing this with you. You may have stopped committing a particular sin, but unless you've really recognized the power it had over you and experienced godly sorrow, I'm willing to say that you haven't really been transformed. It still has power over you in the form of misplaced pride in your own ability to overcome.

Here's hoping for grace to swoop in and free you. Cheers.