Aug 31, 2007

I Don't Know or is it I Don't Want to Know

One of the things I get to do quite frequently is that I get to listen to people about the problems and issues they are facing in life. I find it interesting that when people are faced with difficult decisions, they often confess that they don't know what to do.

• What do you think God is saying about moving in with your girl friend? – I don’t know.
• What do you think you should do? Divorce and move on or stay and fight through the difficulties to save your marriage? – I don’t know.
• What do you think you should do about your current financial mess you find yourself in? – I don’t know.

But here’s the thing – most of the people I counsel do know what to do. It’s just that they don’t want to know.

• I know what the Bible says and I know what I should do, but what I really want to do is to move in with her.
• Getting a divorce and running away seems so much easier than having to work through all that stuff. Besides, I might have to fess up to how I’ve played a major role in how broken our marriage is.
• But, I don’t want to give up my shiny new car, my satellite tv service, my regular trips to the salon…

The choice is yours to make. We can stay exactly where we are – having to deal with the same messed up situations, dealing with the same messed up outcomes, or we can come to our senses and start doing what we already know to be the right thing to do.

Aug 30, 2007

Birthing God's Dreams

If our dreams don't die, God's dreams won't get birthed.

I hate to admit how many times my dreams and my hopes and my expectations get in the way of what God is doing in the world. And you would think, that of all people, the pastor guy should have God's dreams on his heart. And I agree with you wholeheartedly.

The problem that I confess is that often times I have such a hard time separating out my dreams and my hopes from what God desires. The only way I can tell the difference is by hindsight.

Fortunately, I think I am learning how to differentiate between the two. And the more we walk the journey of faith, the more we can come to recognize the patterns of identifying God's dreams.

Honestly, I don't like some of the stuff I am discovering. God's dreams have everything to do with God's glory. And God's glory may not include me in the picture at all.
  • I think about Moses who led the people out of Israel and through the wilderness, and the guy never even got to set one foot in the promised land!
  • I think about David who was called to get everything ready for the building of the Temple. So the guy gets the architects, the timber, the gold and silver, and everything necessary for the Temple, and he never even got to see the groundbreaking.
Am I willing to follow even if I won't ever see the fruit of what God has in mind? Are you?

The glory of God will be totally worth it. The better we get at letting our dreams die, the better we will get to seeing God's dreams get birthed.

Called to be Shepherd Kings

"The terms king and shepherd were almost interchangeable in the ancient Near East. To be a king meant to shepherd one's people from death to life. This leader had to be vigilant, equally detail oriented and able to see the big picture. This shepherd also protected the sheep from enemies and provided them with food, water, and rest.

"Many a king misunderstands or abuses his calling and ends up devouring the flock - and then he blames the sheep for the dwindling numbers." (Dan Allender in Leading with a Limp, p. 61)

One of the temptations of the leader is to see himself only as king at the exclusion of being a shepherd. With the leadership territory comes great responsibility and power. The leader is free to wield it as he/she pleases. But if the leader wants to lead, leaders need followers. And when the leader forgets that they are also the shepherd, the flock flees, the flock dies.

More than ever, we need to be praying for our leaders. That our leaders become the shepherd kings guiding people from death to life.

That's my prayer for myself and every single other leader I know.

Aug 29, 2007

When Are You Rich?

Let me ask you a question - are you rich?

Most Americans would never admit that they are rich. But if you make over $34,000/year, that puts you in the top 5% of the world's income earners. Most of the world would look at us and think that we were rich.

What would it take for us to be rich? How would we know when we've moved from being one of the middle class to finally make it to the rich club? And how would one know when that happened?

The Gallop organization polled people regarding this topic and here's what they found. "Among those who earned $30,000 or less, a household income of $74,000 was 'rich.' For those who earned between $30,000 - $50,000, it took $100,000 a year to be rich."

But here's the thing. If you were to ask people making $74,000 a year if they were rich, I doubt anyone would say they were. I mean, they have mortgages to pay, there's the kid's college and tuition, and they live in neighborhoods where plenty of people make more than $74,000 a year. I doubt anyone making $74,000 would say they were rich.

And if you were to ask the people who earn $100,000 a year if they were rich, I don't think they would say they were rich either.

In fact, I don't think those who make a million a year would say that they were rich. Because they know plenty of people who make more money than they do. In fact, the really rich crowd said that one would need to have everything paid off and have an asset of at least $5 million dollars that was generating at least $200,000/year to be rich. But I bet you, if you were to ask those people if they thought they were rich, most of them would say that there are far more rich people.

So again, the question is, "When does someone become rich?" When does someone cross that mysterious line that separates all of us from the rich?

And here's why this question is so important - AS LONG AS WE DO NOT SEE OURSELVES AS RICH, WE WILL NEVER BE SATISFIED.

And if we are never satisfied, we will never be content. And if we are never content, we will never be happy.

This must be why we're surrounded by such grumpy people all the time!

There is nothing wrong with striving to be better. But until we come to understand that our worth is not based on how much money we make, but how much life we make, we will always be a nation of unhappy miserable people. It's not about how much stuff, but how much life we make by adding value to the people around us that counts.

The magic line separating the rich is not defined by dollars, but the lives that we were able to touch by adding value to them.

So, let's be rich. Add value to your spouse. Add value to your children. Compliment them. Tell them how much you love them. Add value to your neighbor and coworker. Go out of your way to be kind and respectful. When we live like that, we are rich - and the smiles around us will prove it.

And you can take that to the bank!

Growing up

One of the most frequent reasons for someone leaving a church for another is that they say, "I'm just not getting fed there." The preacher no longer speaks to me. The sermons don't touch me the way they used to.

I agree that there's some truth to this. Folks like me - who are in the profession of preaching - can get a lot better at communicating in a way that connects with people. I too have heard some preaching that puts me to sleep, and I was the one preaching!

But I think there's something far more serious than that happening. For the most part, people have been led to believe that all they needed to do to mature as Christians is to show up to church and participate in small groups, Bible studies, and church events. And the implied message was that all you will ever need to grow up as Christians can be found in church.

I think, the church needs to start articulating a brand new message - the more mature we get, the more we grow up, the more we need to become self-feeders. That's one of the biggest signs of maturity. Whereas we used to need someone to spoon-feed us stuff, now that we're grown up, we can feed ourselves.

I was reading about the life of King David and came across an incredible passage. It says in 1 Samuel 30:6, "And David strengthened himself with trust in his God."

Let me give you some background information on this passage. David and his men went out to battle with the Philistine lords because David had found refuge with Achish when Saul was hunting him down. But when the other Philistine lords saw David coming out to battle, they were like, "He's not going to fight with us. He's going to turn against us in the heat of battle." So they demanded that David and his men go back home. And when they returned home, they discovered that their city had been burnt to the ground and everything they owned and their wives and children had been taken captives by the Amalekites.

Not only did David and his men rejected by the Philistine lords, they lost everything they owned, and their wives and children had been taken captive. And if you think that's bad, it only gets worse. Now the men he had been leading turn against David and want to kill him.

And this is when we come across this passage - And David strengthened himself with trust in the Lord. David was able to find strength even when all hell was breaking loose and lead his people to destroy the Amalekites and restore everything that had been lost.

Here we come to an amazing truth. David was able to find strength - not because other people were propping him up, not because there was a small group to pray with him (not that these are bad things, but I degress) - because he relied on God to strengthen him. David was a self feeder. He knew where, no who, to go to find strength. David knew that his present situation wasn't about to change the promises God made to him. God told him that he would be the king of Israel, and there was nothing that was going to prevent that from happening. So he found strength in the promises of God.

David was a self-feeder. He knew who to turn to for strength. One of the ways we demonstrate our spiritual maturity is by learning how we too can become self-feeders. No one else is responsible for our own spiritual health and wellbeing more than ourselves.

Aug 24, 2007

Full of Grace and Fully Accountable

Christians like grace. We like grace because we so desperately need it. I think that's why we sing about grace, pray about grace, and preach about grace. It's the one thing that gives us hope to enter into the life that God offers. We love grace. We couldn't be saved without grace.

But here's the thing. The Bible makes clear that God is not only full of grace, but that God is absolutely holy and just. And that means that we are held accountable. This means that what we do and fail to do, that our obedience and disobedience really matters.

I don't know how these two work together, but I know that this is what the Bible teaches.

One of the most frightening passages in scripture for me is found in 1 Samuel. Here's what it says:

Do you think all God wants are sacrifices – empty rituals for show? He wants you to listen to Him! Plain listening is the thing, not staging a lavish religious production. Not doing what God tell you is far worse than fooling around in the occult…Because you said no to God’s command, he says no to your kingship. 1 Samuel 15:22-23

This is the story of King Saul. He was commanded by God to absolutely wipe out the Amalekites. They were to leave nothing. Here's God's clear command to Saul, "Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys" (1 Samuel 15:3).

I don't know why God would command such killing. All I know is that it's in the Bible, and, yeah, it makes me really uncomfortable.

But the point is that Saul had clear instructions, but he chose to disobey. And because of his willful disobedience, look at what God says, "Because you said no to God's command, he says no to your kingship."

God rejects Saul due to his disobedience.

Sure we like grace - because we all need grace. But remember that we are also fully accountable. What we do and fail to do matters. There is a great difference between messing up, and willful disobedience. Grace more than adequately covers mess ups. But only discipline can cure willful disobedience.

If you and I are smart, we opt for grace.

What Leadership Does

Colin Powell says, "Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible."

One of the things that sets leaders apart from others is that they are able to get so much more out of the people and its organizations than others are able to. There is something about them that pushes the envelope and pushes the people to do more than they ever thought possible. It is leaders who help people stay motivated and stay on the vision of what can happen when everyone in the organization gets on board of the same goal and starts rowing in the same direction.

In a healthy organization, you have to have both great managers - ones who understand and know how best to make the organization run as efficiently and effectively as possible, and a healthy organization also have strong leaders who are able to lead the organization to do more than what it thought possible.

That's a great definition of leadership.

Aug 23, 2007

Taking things into your own hands

I was doing my quiet time in 1 Samuel this morning when I came across this passage. 1 Samuel 13:12 reads, "So I took thing into my own hands, and sacrificed the burnt offering."

A little background. Saul had recently been anointed to be the king over Israel. And after he tasted his first victory as the king, he found himself once again under attack from the Philistines. The prophet Samuel instructed him to wait seven days for him to arrive to offer the burnt offerings before the battle was to begin. But during the seven days, the army of Israel began disintegrating right before Saul's eyes. His troops were filled with fear and they began running away. This was when Saul took things into his own hands and offered the burnt offerings that only Samuel was to offer.

And the rest is history. Because Saul refused to wait on God and His timing, the kingdom of Israel was taken from him and given to another.

I find this passage so applicable because that's my tendency. When I see things going awry, my first impulse is to take things in my own hands to do something about it. I think this is one of the greatest temptations for a leader - we are wired to be activistic. We've got to do something. The troops are running away and hiding in the caves. I've got to do something to encourage and rally the troops.

But isn't that the times when we get ourselves into trouble - when we take things into our own hands rather than waiting on God's promises?

No, waiting is not being passive. Waiting requires the leader to keep reminding the troops about the promises of God. Waiting means that the leader continues to encourage and rally the troops. Waiting requires the leader to continue holding on to hope, holding onto God's promises.

You may find yourself in a place where the situations seem bleak. Hold on. Hold on tightly to God's promises. God will come through. The temptation will be to take things into your own hands. But if you do this, you will get what you are able to produce. Hold on. Remember God's promises. And keep standing your ground against the darkness. God will come through.

Aug 22, 2007

Persistent Faith

Jesus asks, "But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when He returns?" (Luke 18:8).

Persistent faith. A faith that is not wavering due to the changing circumstances. A faith that persists through the difficult times. A faith that has resolved, "God is faithful."

In life, we will experience our ups and downs. There will be storms, just as there will be sunny days. There is no such thing as a trouble free life on this side of eternity.

That being the case, what is needed, and what God is calling us to be is ones who demonstrate persistent faith.

Here's what I believe this means. I believe this means that we will not let failures and challenges to dictate the truth of God's promises. It means that we will work through the difficulties because we know that God promises transformed outcomes. It means that when we face the storms of life, we will not allow the storms to take our eyes off the promise. We will persevere. We will keep striving. Because it's precisely striving and persevering that's going to make a difference. Nothing will change if we cave in.

I write this more to myself than anyone else. No matter what difficulties and challenges we face, because we have resolved to place our trust in God, we have no other choice but to work until God's will is established. Everyone faces challenges and difficulties. But Christ-followers work through the challenges until they find themselves on the success side of God's promise.

Persevere, saints. Let us be a generation that will fight for God's Kingdom and its establishment. Let us be the generation what refused to cave in to the kingdom of darkness.

Persistent faith means that we will never give up. Persistent faith means that we will keep fighting for God's promises until they are a reality.

I will see you on the success side of God's promises!

Aug 21, 2007

A Matter of Faith

Jesus was with his disciples when he began teaching them about forgiveness. Jesus told the disciples, "If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." Luke 17:4.

The disciples couldn't believe what Jesus was telling them. How can we possibly keep forgiving like that? It's impossible. So they respond to Jesus by saying, "Increase our faith."

And here, Jesus says something amazing about faith. Jesus says, "You don't need more faith. There is no more or less in faith." Luke 17:6 The Message.

When it comes to matters of faith, when it comes to those times when we are called to be faithful, it is not a matter of how much faith or how little faith we have. It has everything to do with who our faith is in. Faith is not about how much I fervently believe or how luke-warm my faith is. Faith has to do with who I trust and what I trust in.

Because the Christian's faith is rooted in Jesus Christ and the promises of God, for those things that we are dealing with, when we place our faith in Jesus Christ and what he promised, we can be sure that God will do what he promises.

So, no matter how crazy things may be in your life, you can rest assured knowing that when we place our trust in God and do things God's ways, God will do everything that his Word promises.

That's good news. In fact, that's great news, my friends.

Stop! Pray! Wait! Go!

Things have been pretty crazy lately. There are a bazillion things swirling around in the church offices. I'm not even sure if there is a number like a bazillion - but it's surely got to mean something close to what we're experiencing these days.
  • new children's ministry director
  • new youth ministry director
  • finding and coordinating office help while Karen (our church secretary) has been out.
  • currently searching for an interim Trinity Tots Director
When things go crazy like the way things have been around here lately, it is the ultimate test to see what we're made of. Either we will collapse and blow up as a result of all the stress and challenges that comes from all the changes happening, or we will rise to the challenge and demonstrate what the power and the grace of Jesus Christ is all about.

If we're going to be in the latter - rising to the challenge and demonstrating the glory of Jesus Christ - we will not do it by our strength and wisdom.

Here's something that's been helping me. Whenever I find things going crazy around me, and when I find that the chaos and uncertainty swirling around wanting to suck me in to its vortex, I say to myself, "Stop! Pray! Wait! and Go!"

The first thing I do is to stop! There's not a thing on earth I can do about the things that are swirling around me. And I just need to tell myself to stop. And the craziest thing starts to happen - things that were swirling around me slow down. I can see them more clearly. I can see what needs to get done. But before I can do that, I need to stop.

The second thing is that as I begin to see the issues and problems, I need to pray. I don't need my own thoughts on how to fix things. I've found that when I try to fix things they tend to get worse. We need an expert opinion. What more expert expert do we need than God who created all things? The second thing I do is to ask God what He thinks about all these things.

The third thing is to wait! God will speak. God will guide. But we must wait to hear. It's not because God is not speaking that we have to wait. We have to wait so we can be ready to hear. Often times, when I pray, I am not ready to hear. I'm too busy spouting off what's going on in my heart and in my mind. I need to wait to quiet these things down so I can hear God.

When God does speak, I need to Go! I need to act. It may very well be things that I don't particularly feel like doing. It often times is confronting things in people and me that I would rather avoid. But, what's the point of praying, waiting and listening, if I'm not going to do anything about that?

Final thing is that we must act. We've got to go.

So, as I find myself in the place where the swirling storm wants to suck me in - I'm going to Stop! Pray! Wait! and Go!

I'll see you on the other side of this storm!

Aug 14, 2007

What's with the Blog?

Hi friends,

I am writing this blog to jot down my thoughts on things happening at TPC, in the life of the denomination, with the books I'm reading, things I think are interesting, and things happening with our mission partners. But most of all, I want to use this blog to share about what God is doing in my heart through all these things.

It would be best if I had the opportunity to visit with each of you in person to share about these things, but the reality with both our schedules, that's not going to happen. So, I want to use this blog to share my thoughts with anyone who would be interested in the things that are going on with me and the life of TPC.

Feel free to leave comments or send me an email. I trust that you will be challenged and blessed.

Why Does Pastor James Spend So Much Time Travelling?

I get asked that question a lot, and I am sure that this question is asked far more than the actual people who ask me. One of the vows I took when I was ordained to be a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is to be a faithful colleague in the entire church and not just the local church.

But there's another real practical reason why I've been intentionally engaged in the leadership of the PC(USA). Here is a quote from an ordained minister of the Word and Sacrament in our denomination:
And the bottom line for me is I really don't care what the Bible or Reformed Theology says about this or that or if its opinion on this or that is presumptuous enough to tell me how to live my life. I can make my own decisions. I am impetuously autonomous and an incorrigible smart-ass.

This means that...
  • if even 500 verses of the Bible and
  • if Jesus himself proclaimed on the Mount of Transfiguration and
  • if Jesus appeared to me on my back deck in the glory of his resuscitated corpse and
stated to me as clearly as the four p.m. sun is hot, that homoerotic love is a sin and that if I support gays and lesbians in their relationships I would join them in the fires of hell, I would look him in his piercing eyes and say (if I had the courage of my convictions):

"Fine then. Send me to your hell. You are wrong, Jesus."

Why? Because I know Tony and Mike. Because I know dozens of other couples and individuals and I know who they are and that what they do is as good and sacred as what anyone else does.

I wish that I could tell you that such a position is an aberration. I wish that I could tell you that writing like this is being censored and ministers like this are being disciplined by the church. I wish I could tell you that. It's just that I can't, because that's not the case. There are others who have such opinions.

And the question for evangelical conservative Christians like us to ask is: should we bail? leave this denomination to folks like this because there is so much ministry that needs to get done?

Many evangelicals do. And the reason why our denomination continues to come out with crazy policies and the reason why we as a denomination cannot hold one another accountable is because the evangelicals disengage. If we want our denomination and the church to look different, we must be engaged. We must get involved and be a part of the solution.

That's the reason why I serve on the Form of Government Task Force that is re-writing the Book of Order. That's the reason why I serve on the Coalition's Board. That's the reason why I am on the Church Development Committee and the Evangelism Committee in Grace Presbytery. Because I want to be a part of the solution, and I believe you do too. In order to impact the culture of our denomination, we must be engaged. God is not done with the Presbyterian form of church. God is still looking for people who will faithfully engage the church and change the trajectory of its future. It's time for us to engage.

Aug 12, 2007

I Didn't Love God!

You know what I realized while I was on vacation? I realized that I really didn’t love God. In fact, I hadn’t loved God for a long time. I read the Bible, I prayed, and I went about my Christian and pastor thing, but I really never spent any time with Him. It’s like we lived in the same house and did all the same things, but we really never talked about anything. I’ve been so busy doing my Christian thing and pastor thing, that I hadn’t sat down with God face to face to listen, to talk, to laugh, to cry. I hadn’t done any of the relational things. I treated Him like a book, a thing, and not the person He is.

I have been working hard to remember that Jesus is a person, and it is that person I love. I want to know God’s heart. I want Him to know what’s in my heart.

It’s been awkward at times because I didn’t even know where to start because it had been so long since I’ve sought intimacy with Him, but it’s getting better. I’ve been talking to Him much more and seeking Him out more. And seeking intimacy with God has totally changed my prayer life. I am happy to report that my relationship with God is improving steadily. I am learning to listen to His heart.