Thursday, April 2, 2015

Necessary Suffering

There are many reasons why people don't pray. Some people don't pray because they don't believe. Others may not pray due to busyness or lack of discipline. However, a few people are timid to pray because “I’m afraid of what God will ask me to do.” And in all reality, that is a very good reason not to pray. At the very least, this reason implies that they know the power of prayer. It's interesting that whenever angels appear in scripture, the first thing they say is “fear not.” They say “fear not,” but we are afraid, and we have every right to be. To be used and changed by God is a scary thing.

I wonder sometimes if one of the reasons many (American) Christians struggle to grow spiritually is because we do not expect to suffer. In fact, we do everything we can to avoid it. Most of us are willing to serve...as long as it doesn't interfere too much with my schedule. Most of us are willing to help others...as long as it doesn't require me to sacrifice. Most of us are willing to give...as long as it doesn't affect my current life style. We seem to assume that we should not have to bear any heavy burdens. We seem to assume we have no cross to carry. We are quick to conclude that God would never want us to struggle or suffer for the sake of others. 

A few disclaimers before we move on: (1) I struggle with this "comfort" mentality as much as anyone. (2) I am not advocating that we work ourselves to death. (3) I am not saying we should seek out pain and suffering for the sake of being spiritual.

With that said, I rarely see God call someone to a life of comfort and ease in the Bible. I'm still looking (because I really want to find it), but it's not there. God's call typically requires people to leave their comfort zone and it usually includes trials of some sort. The early church did not seek out pain and persecution. However, their view of suffering was much different than ours. They rejoiced when they suffered for the cause of Christ. They even counted suffering as a privilege! I know...weird, right? 

But maybe they understood something we don't. Maybe really loving others requires sacrifice and struggle. Maybe really serving God requires surrender and faith. Maybe suffering brings us closer to Christ in ways that are not possible otherwise.

Don't get me wrong: it is not a sin to own a couch or to go on a vacation. However, in our culture we need to be careful that comfort and ease do not become our main priorities. We need to be careful that self-indulgence does not become our god. We need to be careful to heed God's call even if it requires suffering...because it probably will. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Three (Kind-of-Different) Ways to Have a Healthy Marriage

My wife and I have been married 8 years (almost 9) and so by no means am I a marriage guru. I do not work for Focus on the Family and I am not a professional counselor. With that said, in reflecting on some things that have helped our marriage I realized some surprising helps. Of course the core stuff that you always hear about are essential: good communication, resolving conflict in a healthy manner, quality time, never demeaning and abusing one another. All the things I'm about to mention will not help much if you're not doing these basics. But here are three kind-of-different ways to have a healthy marriage.

1. Travel Together

I am a firm believer that "getting away" periodically is essential. It's very easy for life (and a relationship) to get stuck in a rut. Traveling is a simple way to break the daily routine. Some people have more money than others, but just about anyone can find simple ways to get a change of scenery. You can travel with your kids, but I do think one couple trip per year is vital.

* Side Note--As a a pastor, I spend a lot of time with the elderly in hospitals and nursing homes. One thing they have taught me over and over again is to not waste my mobility. Do not wait until it's too late to travel and see things...one day you will not have that ability.

2. Support Each Other

This may seem kind of obvious and not so different, but I rarely see true support in most marriages. By "support" I do not mean tolerate, endure, or just get by. I mean being intentional in encouraging and complimenting one another. I mean being there for one another and sacrificing to help your spouse achieve their goals. Stay away from manipulation and competition with your spouse. Instead, "take delight in honoring one another."

3. Live for Something Big

As a couple, pursue a lifestyle that helps those in need. Live for something bigger than your own relationship. I think Jesus would like this and it's a great example for your own kids. Mission trips, adoption, and foster care has brought us closer in a variety of ways. Of course, we do not serve in order to have a healthy marriage; but looking back it has had that affect. The scriptures are correct: "It is more blessed to give, than to receive."

* Side Note--Please do not read this and think I have the perfect marriage. We have faults and weaknesses like any other couple. We are a work-in-progress, but I love this journey together.




Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Avoiding Spiritual Blind Spots

Religious extremism and violence is something that has plagued humanity all throughout history. All religions (and all worldviews for that matter) have been used throughout history to justify some pretty heinous actions. Christians are not immune to spiritual blind spots. Christians have used the Bible to justify crusades, slavery, and segregation.

Of course, there were Christians against each of these injustices, but there were many who defended these actions. It's easy for us to look back and say, "what were they thinking?" However, what blind spots are hindering us that we may not see right now? And how can we avoid these blind spots (as best we can)? Here's the start of a list that may help. Of course this list is not exhaustive and I do not have the space to fully explain each, but this is a start. Let me know what you think.

1. Your beliefs should produce a deeper love for God and others.

As Christians, if our faith is making us more angry or bitter or mean, we may want to question who we're really following. The fruits of the spirit are "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control."

2. Your beliefs should be consistent with the main themes of scripture. (love, mercy, redemption, holiness) 

No doctrine should be based on a single passage of scripture. Less clear passages should be interpreted by clearer passages. The Old Testament should be interpreted in light of the New. As Christians, our faith should include the major themes like grace, redemption, and holiness because they permeate throughout the whole Bible.

3. Your beliefs should be consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. He is our final and complete revelation of God.

Jesus is the complete and full picture of God (see Hebrews 1). Thus, our theology should begin and end (and default) to Jesus. Love this quote...

"The historic Christine doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means God is like Jesus. In other words, the doctrines of the incarnation and deity of Christ are meant to tell us that we cannot start with a predetermined, set-in-stone idea of God derived from the rest of the Bible (or philosophy) and then extend that to Jesus. Jesus is not intended merely to fit into those predetermined categories; he is intended to explode them, transform them, alter them forever, and bring us to a new evolutionary level in our understanding of God. An old definition of God does not define Jesus-the experience of God in Jesus requires a brand-new definition or understanding of God." –Elton Trueblood 

4.Your beliefs should NOT major on the minors and minor on the majors. 

The Pharisees had the habit of doing this and it seemed to bug Jesus (see Matthew 23). This doesn't mean the "minors" are unimportant...just don't miss the "majors" in the process. Stuff like justice, mercy, and faith.

5. Your beliefs should NOT force the Bible to answer questions it wasn't asking and your beliefs should NOT confuse Biblical truth with cultural preferences. 

Do not look for Bible verses to prove your predetermined belief. This is called proof-texting and it always leads to trouble. If we're not careful, we can "make" the Bible say (or justify) anything we want. Also, we often confuse being a Christian for being republican (conservative) or democrat (liberal) or traditional or hippy. This will quickly skew our ability to understand and apply scripture. I'm not saying we should be apolitical, but never let it be your first allegiance.

6. Your beliefs should have conviction but always open to deeper understanding.

The Pharisees are a classic example of individuals who held so strongly to their beliefs that they were not open to a new understanding of how God's kingdom works. They missed the messiah standing right in front of them. Often are own cultural bias and fears can keep us from learning and growing.

7. Your beliefs should produce a deeper love for God and others.

I know this is number one as well. I'm being redundant on purpose. As followers of Christ, our faith should always lead to love for God and love for others. These are the two most important commands. If we miss this, we miss everything.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Orphan Care-How We Can Help



Why We Care for the Orphan?

Our calling is clear:

“Learn to do good! Seek justice! Help the oppressed! Defend the orphan! Fight for the rights of widows!” Isaiah 1:17

“Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refuse to let the world corrupt us.” James 1:27

The need is great:

There are an estimated 153 million orphaned and vulnerable children around the world. Here in the United States there are nearly 400,000 children in the foster care system.

How Our Church Helps:

1. United Methodist Children’s Home-our church assists with any needs our group home may have and promotes adoption and foster care training through our United Methodist Children’s home. Our church is also used for training classes as needed. Our senior pastor is also on their advocacy board and we take up a special offering for this ministry annually on Christmas Eve.

2. Project 82 Kenya-the mission of Project 82 is to be the evidence of God’s grace and perfect love to orphans in Kenya. They protect, shelter, clothe, feed, educate, disciple and support the precious children of Kenya in an environment of family and community. We partner with this ministry through child sponsorship, special donations, and an annual short-term mission trip to Kenya.

3. Belarus Mission-each year a team from our church travels to Belarus to assist with a variety of projects including home repair, Bible School, and orphan care.

4.Child Sponsorship through World Vision and/or Project 82 Kenya-we promote individuals sponsoring children through organizations like World Vision and Project 82 Kenya. These ministries assist children and families by tackling the root causes of poverty.

5. Operation Christmas Child-each year we pack and collect gift boxes that will be distributed to orphans and other vulnerable children around the world.

6. Imagine No Malaria-unlike many other diseases that are awaiting a cure, malaria was eliminated in the U.S. in the 1950s. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa, malaria continues to kill a person every 60 seconds causing many children to become orphans. But there is hope! In 2007, the World Health Organization estimated there were more than 1,000,000 malaria related fatalities. By 2012, the number had been reduced to 627,000. While that is still a staggering number, a nearly 50% increase in life is worth celebrating! Thanks to the efforts of The United Methodist Church and our partners, we are on our way to beating malaria for good. Our church will highlight this ministry during the season of Lent and take up a special offering to support it.

7. Orphan Sunday-each year we celebrate Orphan Sunday in order to raise awareness and gain greater participation for each of our ministries.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Undefeated Love

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

The whole story of scripture is the story of how God can’t be kept out. When we sin and mess up our lives, we find that God doesn't go off and leave us—instead, he enters into our trouble and saves us. The good news of the gospel is that God is for us. God is present. God is with us…

despite our past mistakes…
despite our sins…
despite our selfishness and pride.


God continues to love us regardless of who we are and what we've done. God continues to show up regardless of how often we ignore him. From Advent to Easter, the story of Jesus should teach us that God’s love cannot be defeated. His love is greater than sin, greater than hate, and yes, greater than death. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Advent and Turmoil -Further Reflections on Ferguson and Eric Garner

"So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. 
He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness." (John 1:14)

The last few weeks in our country have been difficult to say the least. The turmoil, suffering, and racial division has been heart wrenching. These moments have been a fresh reminder to me for why the advent of Christ was so necessary.

Our society teaches us to avoid suffering at all costs and to seek our own happiness even if it requires being indifferent to the pain of others. This is why Advent has been replaced by holiday parties and shopping. Don't get me wrong, I like cheesy Christmas songs and exchanging gifts as much as anyone. I am not a scrooge.

However, sometimes the holidays can cause us to forget the true essence of Advent. Advent reminds us that the gospel is very different than our cultural values. Advent is the season when we remember that Jesus put on flesh and dwelt among us. Christ being born in a manger reveals a God who does not avoid our suffering and messiness, but enters into it. Jesus knew suffering from the moment he entered the world. He was born into poverty as a refugee fleeing from genocide. He served others and healed wounds. He wept for us and with us. Eventually he was tortured and executed by the very people he came to save. Advent is not simply a sweet story about a baby born in a manger. Christ came to a world filled with darkness. He came as a light for the world. He came to show us that there is another way. We do not have to sin. We do not have to hate one another.

"I am the light of the world." Jesus (John 9:5)

So during this season of Advent, let us seek ways to be light in a dark world. Let us seek to be instruments of peace and healing. Yes, the world is still dark. Suffering, pain, and injustice are still very real. But the darkness will not win. Christ has come...and he will come again.

"...the darkness is disappearing and the true light is already shining." (1 John 2:8)

"The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it." (John 1:5)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson...



Watching the news last night left me sad. I am sad for Michael Brown's family. I am sad for good police officers who are given a black eye due to events and actions they have no control over. I am sad for the whole city of Ferguson. I feel sad for the continued divide our nation has about race. This division is amplified by my social media feeds. The majority of my white friends either rejoiced or remained silent when they heard the news of no indictment. The majority of my African American friends were disappointed and discouraged.

On the one hand, I have family and friends who are police officers that work hard every day to protect and serve their community. I am very thankful for their service. On the other hand, I have friends with black children who have legitimate concerns about their safety and the fairness of our legal system. Regardless of how you feel about this particular case, the statistics concerning the justice system and African Americans are staggering. In the U.S., African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. White people by far use the most illegal drugs, but African Americans are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for drug offenses. Also, the mounting number of young black men who have been killed unarmed is disturbing.

Our son, who we adopted last year, is African American. Right now he is 11 months. He is a chubby, adorable baby that everyone loves. But one day he will become a young man and I fear how people may treat him. In fact, I will even have to talk to him about how people (including law enforcement) may treat him differently due to the color of his skin. I hate that I (and many other families) must have this conversation. Our country has come a long way when it comes to race, but cases like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown reveal that we still have a long way to go.

We need to pray.
We need to listen and learn.
We need to work for healing and reconciliation.


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review--Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry: A Wesleyan Field Guide By Jeremy Steele

Before I review the book, I must confess two things: (1) Jeremy Steele is a friend of mine and (2) I’m a major Methodist nerd. Therefore, my review may be a bit biased. With that said, let me begin by saying that Jeremy has written a book I wish I had written. I recommend that every youth minister and pastor read through this material. Jeremy does a masterful job of weaving together Wesleyan theology and scripture with everyday insights for youth ministry. The book is full of great material and powerful quotes. Here are just a couple of examples:

“Prevenient grace changes our conversations. We are no longer introducing people to Jesus. We are no longer delivering to them something with which they have never been in contact. Instead, we are talking about the being who has been blessing, protecting, and wooing them for their entire life.”

“Sanctifying grace is not some magical motivational method to help you break bad habits and start good ones. It is not a new (old) way to justify legalism and judgmentalism. Sanctifying grace is a person captured by God.”

As someone who spent many years as a youth pastor, finding a youth ministry book written from a Wesleyan perspective is nearly impossible. This is why I’m so excited about this book being published. Jeremy Steele maps out a distinctively Wesleyan approach to youth ministry. He covers a variety of Wesleyan theology including prevenient grace, class meetings, and even the quadrilateral. He covers each topic in a very clear and concise way, and then gives the implications for ministry. I believe that is the strength of this book. Jeremy has a wide variety of knowledge, but he’s also an everyday youth minister. He has a good understanding of how Wesleyan theology can actually be applied to ministry with students.  In fact, the main point of the book is that what we believe about God should inform how we do ministry. Our theology should impact our praxis. “Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry” is practical theology at its best. John Wesley would be very proud!