Are You There God? It’s Me, Jerry.

AreYouThereGodI don’t remember exactly how old I was, but when you see a book title that just drips with intrigue as much as July Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” does…well…you don’t get that out of you head very easily. I vaguely recall seeing this book on the floor of the bedroom my two older sisters shared. And that was at least 30 years ago, probably more.

I had no idea what it was about.

Turns out it’s a coming-of-age book for pre-pubescent girls. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never actually read it. Because as it turns out, I couldn’t get past the title. And as it turns out, that’s a good thing.

I’ve always been taught that God loves us. And by “us” I mean us. The world. You know, John 3:16 and all that stuff. All of us. Everyone. You know, US. But when I happened upon that book, it occurred to my young brain that there might be more to “us” than I thought. It occurred to me that if you look closely inside “us” there’s a “me”. That in actuality “us” is nothing more than a bunch of “me’s”. And if God loves “us”, could that mean that God loves “me”?

I’m sure Margaret had no idea she had had this affect on a young boy’s view of God.

Now, you might chalk this whole shift up to one of many cerebral upgrades I received as my kid brain developed. But when I think about the time in my life when I began to think of God in terms of “me” in addition to “us”, I’m pretty sure it was around the time I saw that book. Coincidence? Probably.

I wonder if there might be someone who might even be reading these words that can’t really make the leap from God loving “us” (generic) to God loving “me” (specific). Probably because you know you and you think you know Him. Can God care about just one person? Isn’t He way too big for that? And if He can, does He? Let me tell you a story.

Many summers ago I was going to be going on a mission trip with some teenagers. But it was still a few weeks away I had some things I needed to get done before leaving the country. One of those things was to buy a new antenna (the metal, extending kind) for my young son’s remote control car that he loved playing with. Having that car would give him one more thing to do while I was away and hopefully somehow help my wife in my absence. But without an antenna, the remote control car wouldn’t work. The trip got closer and closer and I simply ran out of time to get that antenna fixed. I was sorry about that, but what was I to do? Oh well.

It was the last day of our trip and I’d be returning home late that night. It was a Sunday morning and I was getting dressed for a local church service we’d be attending. I put on my khakis and felt something in the pocket. I reached in and I kid you not–pulled out a brand new metal antenna that would fit my son’s remote control perfectly. You may not know me, but you’ll have to trust me that to this day I can say with all confidence that no one knew about that antenna, that I hadn’t gotten one before leaving, or anything else about it. I stared at that antenna is shocked awe, knowing that God cares about “me”.

God cares deeply about you.
Where you are.
What’s hurting you.
Your joys, your aches, your questions, your stresses, your thoughts, your fears, and anything else you could think of ever.

Maybe you need to come to a place (or return to a place) of just knowing Emmanuel is not merely “God with us”, but He’s also God with YOU and that the things that are on your mind are on His mind as well.

“Cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for YOU.”   -1 Peter 5:7

The Christmas Spikes

We’re less than 17 days till Christmas. We’re neck deep in the elements of the holiday that seem to set our minds on the sounds, smells, songs, and stuff of the season. The radio stations have long since switched over to all Christmas music all the time. No doubt about it: Its Christmas!

I’ve been preoccupied however. Truth be told, my mind hasn’t been as much on the manger, or the star, or the wise men, or the shepherds, or the angels. For some reason I can’t quite explain fully, my heart has been focused on the spikes. The ones found nowhere in the Christmas story.

CYMERA_20141208_095043I remember so well the soft, almost breakable feel of my own four children’s skin when they were babies. I can remember just holding their arm or fingers as they lay in that crib or car seat. I can still feel that tender skin on my finger tips. And I’ve got to believe that Mary felt the same kind of skin as Jesus lay there in that manger. I’ve got to believe that Mary would shutter at the very thought of that skin taking on the sin of humanity some 33 years later. I’ve got to believe that Mary would–at all costs–protect that skin from bruises, from scrapes, and from pain.

But Jesus put on that skin knowing fully that those spikes would one day tear through it. If you could know that during your next car ride you were going to be in a collision with another car, would you get in? If you could somehow know that the next time you tripped and fell you’d certainly break your arm, would you even dare to walk? If you could know that a gunman was outside your home, would you even go outside? Jesus, in the definitive act of divinity, grace, justice, and mercy knew beyond any doubt that those spikes awaited him and yet he willingly put on that skin and came to us for that very purpose….for those very spikes.

But I suppose those spikes are part of the Christmas story after all, aren’t they? We may not sing merrily this month about them, but if the purpose of the incarnation of God in flesh was ultimately to offer that flesh on a cross for all people everywhere, doesn’t it make sense to include them in the Christmas story our hearts retell?

I certainly don’t mean to skip over Christmas to get to the cross. And believe me, I’m soaking in every bit of this season as I possibly can; the tree, the lights, the songs, the food, the family, the joy, the celebration, and the manger. But deep in my heart I’m captivated by the spikes and the fact that those spikes, that cross, and my death were why the baby came at all.

Preaching Dissected

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.”  -2 Timothy 4:2
kid preacher

I’m not totally sure why quite yet, but I’ve never really loved the word “preach”.  And this coming from a guy who’s been referred to for years as a “preacher”.  Not only that, but I’m literally “the son of a preacher man.”  But with the instruction the apostle Paul gives his young protégé Timothy in the verse above, I should probably have kind of a comfort with it, don’t you think?

Maybe it’s because the word “preach” has taken on a type of negative connotation. When I say “preacher”, you might get a mental image of a televangelist in a thousand dollar suit standing behind some gold-plated pulpit with tears streaming down his face as he confesses some private sin made public.

Maybe you hear the word “preach” and you think about what its like to be “preached at” and that propels you back to your teen years when your parents lectured you for hours on end over whatever mistake you got caught making.

Maybe you hear the word “preach” and you think about a church and the baggage that comes along with that word and those people who go there.

Or maybe its something else entirely.

I’ve had several times immediately following different sermons I’ve “preached” when someone would approach me with a smile and say, “That was a good speech.”  Honestly? I cringe inside when I hear that. Of course I know what they mean and I appreciate them taking the time to share their gratitude, but…well….nevermind.

But I suppose there is a lot more to say positively about the word “preach” and as I was listening to a sermon recently, I began to think of the different components, styles, or methods of “preaching”. So, just for fun I’ve come up with a variety of components that are commonly (or should be) found in effective “preaching”. And just to make it corny, I’m using the acronym PREACH. (Let’s all roll our eyes together, shall we?)

PPractical: Believe me, I trust the Spirit of God to lead you to places of application as you listen to the “preacher preach”, but I also appreciate when a pastor gives suggestions for practically living out the truth from God’s Word that they just spend time teaching. Personally, I think there’s too much “how to do” preaching and not enough “how to be” preaching.

R. Relatable: The best preachers I’ve heard have dirt under their fingernails. With all due respect to polished and refined teachers of the Word who seem like they’ve got their act together, I find myself more connected to preachers who are living life as they preach. There’s an approachability that comes along with the sense that this preacher isn’t just preaching, they’re wrestling. That being said, I also see the value of a preacher being careful not to make their sermon a place for dirty laundry. There’s something to be said for a preacher having settled (and won) some wrestling matches as well.

E. Exposition: I mentioned earlier being the son of a preacher man. My dad is one of the most knowledgeable Bible preachers/teachers I know. He’s my go-to when I’ve got questions of my own. And he is an “expository” preacher who is passionate about expository preaching. Now, I don’t think the average pew-sitting listener is really up at night wondering how to pronounce the Greek word “dikaiosune”, but I do think there’s power in preaching the original, honest, true-to-intent words of the Bible. While I may not literally speak a Greek word in a sermon (or I may), you’d better believe that I’ve studied them in preparation for that sermon so that I’m preaching what the original author intended.

A: Anecdotes: I don’t mean silly stories with no point, I mean stories that connect the listener to the truth being preached. I’ve got a word for sermons with no stories: boring.  Look at how Jesus taught; he used stories all the time. The word “parable” actually means “to set beside for the purpose of comparison” (I’ll spare you the Greek word for parable). Jesus knew the power of story and knew that stories are the #1 way to connect. A preacher who doesn’t leverage stories needs to understand what’s missing…and fix it. If you’ve ever heard me preach, you may know that I find humor to be one of the best ways to connect with the listeners. And a preacher who doesn’t care about connecting with those listening should stick to preaching to a mirror.

Conviction: There are few things more compelling than seeing someone with passion. Think about it. Passion is what moves people. I had a professor in college that taught hermeneutics with zero passion. He was brilliant and if you could pry him away from his 3×5 note cards he read from every day of class, you could see glimpses of that passion. At the end of the year evaluation, I told him he missed the off ramp to retirement years ago. Without passion, his content–no matter how great–was dry and difficult to absorb.

Humility: As with any follower of Jesus, this is perhaps the greatest, most critical ingredient for preachers. I’m so gratified by compliments I receive regarding my preaching. If you’ve ever given me one, you’ve likely heard me say two things: “Thank you!” and “Praise the Lord.”  I’m genuinely thankful when people take time to share if/how a sermon has affected them. And saying “Praise the Lord” isn’t me being churchy and speaking Christianese. I’m actually reminding myself that the credit is His alone. Its like getting a compliment for a tie I’m wearing. Its nice, but all I did was tie it in a knot around my neck.

As I prepare to preach, I refer to a list of questions I keep nearby. Maybe I’ll share those some other time. For now, what are YOUR thoughts on “preachers” and “preaching”?

Or do only preachers think about this stuff?

Thinking through attacks

Please don’t file this one under “R” for rant.  Its just something I’ve been thinking about.  And I freely admit its not fully cooked yet.  So, if you’re willing to dive into some dialogue then please read on.

I’ve heard many times from wonderful people I love and admire that when they’re under what they consider “attack from the enemy”, its only because God must be getting ready to do something really amazing. To them, those two things always seem chess-12958to go hand in hand: Satan’s attack and God doing some next-level-whatever-you-want-to-call-it.  As if Satan and God are at a chess board and Satan has moved his knight into check and God is about to blow his mind with some counter-defensive-never-saw-that-coming maneuver. Boom.

Now, I’m not any kind of expert, but I don’t see that kind of idea in scripture.  I suppose in an indirect way we could construe that God is always ready and willing and moving and able to deliver His children from attack, but what I trip over is the idea of using an attack from the enemy as THE indicator that God is “on the verge” of something great.

Certainly our experiences of God’s deliverance can verify and bear witness to the truth of God’s goodness, but when we use our experiences to define God’s goodness…well…I think that’s a tricky, slippery, and even dangerous place to build your theology.

I just want my view of God to be built more on what He has said than poetic sentiment more likely found in a greeting card.

Too harsh?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Seeing What You Can’t.

As I plummeted to earth and toward the Atlantic Ocean at breakneck speed, I pondered this question:

“What is faith?”

Fair question, right?  I mean if you think about it we all put our faith into lots of things everyday.  On the highway today you’ll be putting your faith in the other drivers to stay where they belong.  On that narrow backwoods road, you’ll be putting your faith in that oncoming driver not to drift into your lane when they look down to text a message, change the radio, or light a cigarette.

I’m putting faith in the chair I’m sitting in right now.  You put your faith in the neighbors who live around you not to shoot you when you step out your front door.  (Remind me later to tell you the story of when I got shot by my next door neighbor.)  I put my faith in the dentist when he gives me that injection that its actually Novocaine and not mercury because he’s secretly part of the Taliban and is killing infidels one by one in his suburban dentist office.  You put your faith in your coworkers to give you a heads up when the boss is passing by so that you can stop reading this blog and instead look over that spreadsheet the boss asked you to put together by the end of the day.

Yup.  Faith surrounds us.

You want to find yourself in an interesting conversation?  Ask the next person you see what they’re definition of faith is.  Go ahead.

faith-road-wallpaper_1920x1200Hebrews 11:1 gives us God’s definition of faith.  Feel free to look it up here, but let me give you the Cliff notes version (or Spark notes for those born after the mid nineties): Faith is trusting the invisible.  Faith isn’t in the chair you’re sitting on, the drivers who surround you on your commute, or your dentist.  Faith isn’t in those things.  Faith is the silent transaction you make that drives fear far enough away for you to operate.

All that is admittedly generic and quite frankly pretty benign.  You might find similar sentiments in a greeting card.

So when we talk about faith and the invisible, we can’t not talk about the spiritual realm you and I are actually swimming in constantly.  The Bible teaches us that the visible is temporary and the invisible is eternal (2 Cor. 4:18).  In other words, if you can see it, it won’t last.  If you can’t see it, it will.  I’m not trying to insult your intelligence here, I’m just trying to re-calibrate our thoughts correctly.

Faith says to fear “You’re not the boss of me.”  Faith allows you to rest when questions are unanswered.  Faith stands you up when your knees want to give way under you.  Faith assures you that despite the present conditions, literally nothing is now as it will be later.  Faith stands on the crazy idea that God is working things out for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

So where is fear present in your life?  Where has it elbowed its way in and declared presidency?  Let faith speak up.  Let faith have the floor.  Let faith in the loving God of heaven show you how powerful He is and what depth of peace only He can establish in the midst of chaos.

Faith isn’t blind.  Quite the contrary, actually.  Faith sees clearly.  Not in the present conditions, the tangible, or the visible details we can see; but in what God might be up to for our benefit and how in His good time He is going to prove Himself faithful as long as we hold tight.

To the Grads.

Graduates in Cap and GownHey there Graduates of 2014.  I’ve got some advice for you while you celebrate this milestone.  I know you’re busy so I’ll make it quick.

1.  Move on.

Your education thus far has been like a water balloon.  Your school is the balloon and the people you’ve gone to school with have been the water.  On graduation day, that balloon pops and nothing at all is holding you all together any longer.  The majority of those people you perhaps tried hard to impress and fit in with are people you’ll have no further interaction with.  Likewise, there are those who have squirmed their way into your heart and you cherish them.  Keep hold of those friends and move on.

2.  Stay hungry, yet humble.

Over the next year or two you’re going to have your mind blown finding out that you’re not nearly as smart as you thought.  Keep an insatiable hunger to learn, grow, and stretch.  But keep in mind that the older you get, the more you’re going to realize that you have so much more to learn.  Let that reality keep you humble as you hunger for more life experiences that will teach you valuable lessons.

3.  Never ever settle.

I’m not advocating workaholism.  I’m not advocating greed.  I’m not advocating discontentedness.  I’m saying always be on the lookout around you for what else can be bettered, who else can be loved, where else can you serve.  Don’t settle for a life that has its focus on your own comfort.  If you do, I promise you you’ll reach the end of it all and kick yourself for being so shallow.

4.  Eat the termite.

I was once on a boat in the mangroves of Costa Rica.  The driver of the boat pulled it up to a tree with an enormous termite nest on it.  He took out his knife and sliced off a slab of that nest while termites crawled all over his hand.  He lifted his hand to his mouth and licked several termites off.  He then offered anyone who was willing to join him in his little feast.  I jumped at the chance to eat termites with Raffa in a boat in the jungles of Costa Rica.  Whenever you get a chance to do something, do that something.

5.  Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Make your life about Him and He’ll make your life matter in ways you never saw coming.  It really is as simple as that.  Whether you know it or not (and whether you like it or not), this man died to purchase you.  Until you embrace that, living your life will be like driving a stolen car.  Your life isn’t yours.  It’s His.  Turn it over to Him and see what happens.

Congratulations graduates.  Stand still for a minute, soak in the sun of this milestone, then get moving.

funny-graduation-pictures-6

 

A Different Perspective on Consumer-Driven Worship

consumer drivenA hefty indictment has been leveled against modern worship services in the past years.  The term “consumer-driven” has emerged as the front-runner for describing what we as worshipers have created.  In a well intentioned desire to be relevant, attractive, and welcoming, we have served up a worship service that is geared mostly toward the idea that worshipers are best viewed as customers coming to consume.

I’ve even heard the term “customer service” come out of the mouths of church leaders when they’re talking about caring for people we’ve been entrusted by God with.  And you know what?  I get it.  I understand why a local church should position itself as a place of refreshment, enjoyment, and acceptance.  I get why we should seek to make people feel at home, feel welcome, and feel at ease.

But at what expense?  It seems far too often that its at the expense of forgetting an even bigger, far more important truth.

I have no problem creating a “consumer-driven” worship experience as long as we agree that God is the consumer.  God is the one to be focused on.  God is the one to be adored.  God is the one to be made welcome.  Consumer-driven?  Sure.  As long as God is consuming us instead of us consuming our preferential entertainment and calling it worship.  THAT’S the only kind of consumer-driven worship I can get behind.

Hebrews 12:29:  “for our God is consuming fire.”

1 Corinthians 6:20: “You were bought with a price…”

1 Corinthians 7:23: “God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world.”

Sounds a lot like God is the purchaser here, doesn’t it?  So how are Christians reckoning themselves as the center of attention?  As the ones consuming?  As the ones to be catered to?

Do I think churches should do all they can to be engaging, to meet needs, to embrace anyone and everyone who comes to worship, to go all out in creating an atmosphere of love and acceptance?  Absolutely.  But in our quest to win the guest, we have lost our grip on Who is to be the ultimate object of our affection and attention.

Bill Hybels has made Willow Creek famous for this.  For all intents and purposes, the concept of “seeker friendly worship” was coined at Willow Creek.  Its now commonly referred to as the “Willow Creek model” of ministry.  Popular?  Sure.  Effective?  It surely can be effective at certain things.  But it can also be taken to the extent where we lose sight of the One we are worshiping in exchange for the comfort of those who come to worship.

What do you think?  Am I off?  Where have you seen consumer-driven ministry?  Can this approach be done “right”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.