Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Gift of Belief...

I had a great conversation with a friend of mine yesterday. She's had a difficult life - one full of relational struggles and health challenges. In the last year she's had a heart attack and watched both her mother and brother die. We spent some time talking about her difficult year. And then she got brutally honest. She shared that she really wants to believe that there is more to this life, but sometimes it just seems impossible. She worries that as she faces death there will be nothing beyond. One thing that I really appreciate when it comes to our spiritual lives is honesty. I think that when we are honest with what's really going on in our hearts that God honors that by giving us deeper glimpses of who He is.

We talked a lot about what it means to believe. Jesus said that all the faith that you need is faith the size of a mustard seed. That encourages me. If I have even a shred of belief He honors that.

Sometimes we all feel like the man in Mark 9:17-27.

A man in the crowd answered, "Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not."

"O unbelieving generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me."

So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?"

"From childhood," he answered. "It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."

"'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes."

Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. "You deaf and mute spirit," he said, "I command you, come out of him and never enter him again." The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, "He's dead." But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

"I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" How's that for honesty? Can you identify with that?

So that's my prayer this Christmas - for my friend, for me, for you. That God will give us the gift of "belief" - the size of a mustard seed. And here's a tip. It begins with spiritual honesty.

May God bless you as you trust Him to bring to birth in you the very Christ child who changed the world 2000 years ago. Merry Christmas.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

My favorite books...

...of 2005. I am a firm believer that God uses books. Time and time again I have found that he brings a book into my hands at just the pivotal moment. There is a crucial nexus of information and the need for that information. It goes without saying that the Bible is the ultimate guide to my thoughts and hopefully my actions. But here are some of the other books that have impacted me over the past year. I give them to you in no particular order - and I encourage you to read them.

Wishful Thinking by Frederick Buechener

This is a beautiful book that looks at words, primarily theological words, and restores some of the wonder to them. I found myself smiling, laughing, and feeling the truths expressed by words my mind had long filed away as somehow important but irrelevant.

Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J. Donovan
This book chronicles one man's journey to communicate the essence of Christianity to people groups who had never heard. It's quite insightful in regards to helping identify and challenge the cultural baggage we strap on to Christianity.

The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer
I have become a big fan of Parker Palmer this year. His main premise in this book is that you teach out of who you are. Until you can realize your own fear and weaknesses and learn to teach from a place of humility you can never help others learn.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
A great "leadership fable" about how teams work. This book came along during a time that I had very little hope for the team that I was leading. It gave me a new understanding of team dynamics as well as some practical steps to take to make things better.

The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church by Reggie McNeal
This is a must read for anyone wondering what the church needs to be asking itself in order to impact our rapidly changing North American culture.

Unceasing Worship by Harold Best
Harold Best calls us to a worship that is more than music - a lifestyle of worship. This is without a doubt the most valuable book that I have ever read on worship.

The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs
Want an education about the state of poverty in the world? Read this book. Feeling overwhelmed with the need and wondering what you can do? Read this book.

Lifesigns by Henri Nouwen
Nouwen always challenges me to a deeper faith in Jesus - one that is more than just doing things for Him - one that calls me to deeper intimacy with Him. This book is no exception.

Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us by Scot McKnight
McKnight deals with one of the questions that I think we have to ask as a church today. "What is the Gospel?" It's a question that we think we know the answer to, but I'm not so sure we do.

Confident Witness - Changing World by Craig Van Gelder
Much like The Present Future, this book talks about the intersection of cultural change and faith in Jesus. How do we maintain our confident witness to Christ in our ever changing world?

There are so many more that have impacted me. I encourage you to read - and read a lot. It changes your life...

And by the way, if you're wondering what I want to read next year you can look at my Amazon wishlist here.

"No matter how maddening is the Christmas rush…"

"It might be easy to run away to a monastery, away from the commercialization, the hectic hustle, the demanding family responsibilities of Christmas-time. Then we would have a holy Christmas. But we would forget the lesson of the Incarnation, of the enfleshing of God—the lesson that we who are followers of Jesus do not run from the secular; rather we try to transform it. It is our mission to make holy the secular aspects of Christmas just as the early Christians baptized the Christmas tree. And we do this by being holy people—kind, patient, generous, loving, laughing people—no matter how maddening is the Christmas rush…"

-- Andrew Greeley

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Yeah, what he said...

Once again, I find someone who expresses some of my thoughts in a much better way than I could...
"When I was in seminary, I got the impression that my job as a pastor was to help lessen the gap between the Bible and the 'modern world'. Here was the Bible, mired in the First Century. Here was the skeptical, critical modern world. The pastor, through preaching and various acts of pastoral ministry, labored to lessen the gap, to bring the gospel close to where modern Americans lived. Since then I have come to the conclusion that today's faithful pastor ought to clarify, accentuate the gap between the Bible and the modern world rather than lessen the gap. Evangelism calls people, not to agreement, but to conversion, detoxification, the adoption of practices meant to save them from the deceits of the 'modern world'. In churches which have for so long called people to adjustment, we are calling for pastors willing to call people to alienation..."

Read the rest of what William Willimon has to say here.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A little cash on the side maybe...

Not sure if I should enter or just be a little disturbed by it all...

"Sermon contest offers $1,000 and England trip for Narnia preaching - If you go to a standard evangelical Protestant church, chances are very good that you're likely to hear a reference to Narnia in a sermon sometime this month. No problem there: The books preach without being 'preachy,' and Lewis's way with words can brighten any sermon. If you're a pastor who has preached on awe without quoting the Beavers on Aslan not being safe but being good, you may be in the minority. But now if you hear your pastor base a sermon around, say, the de-dragoning of Eustace, there's some reason to wonder if it's merely a product placement, like Sears appearances in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The official marketing for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe apparently includes a sermon contest, wherein the winner gets a free trip to London and $1,000 in spending money."


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Great Resource...

Want to learn to understand the Bible - in the privacy of your own home - for free?

Check out the possibilities here.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A bit of humor...

...from my good friend Andrew Lakin.

As a young minister, I was asked by a funeral director to hold a grave side service for a derelict man who had died while traveling through the area with no family or friends. The funeral was held way back in the country. This man would be the first to be laid to rest at this cemetery. As I was not familiar with the backwoods area, I became lost. Being the typical man I didn't stop for directions. But I finally arrived an hour late, I saw the crew and backhoe, but the hearse was nowhere in sight.

The workmen were eating lunch. I apologized to the workers (who looked puzzled) for my tardiness, and stepped to the side of the open grave, to find the vault lid already in place. I assured the workers I would not hold them long, but this was the proper thing to do. As the workers gathered around, still eating their lunch. I poured out my heart and soul. As I preached the workers began to say "Amen," "Praise the Lord," and "Glory" (they must have all been Baptist). I preached and I preached, like I'd never preached before.

I began from Genesis all the way to Revelation. I preached for two hours and 45 minutes. It was a long and lengthy service. I closed in prayer and it was finished. As I was walking to my car, I felt that I had done my duty and all would leave with a renewed sense of purpose and dedication, in spite of my tardiness. As I was opening the door and taking off my coat. I overheard one of the workers saying to another, "I've been putting in septic tanks for 20 years, and I ain't never seen anything like this before."

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas...

Okay, I understand the outrage. We've all read (or heard) the stories of retailers who are telling their employees to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" (See here, here, or here). It saddens me that it's even an issue. But the reality is that it is. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised. For years Christmas has become more about materialism than the celebration of God coming to earth. Since the dollar is the focus, no wonder decisions are made based on the bottom line.

But my question is this - shouldn't our focus be on living out the true meaning of Christmas instead of campaigning to force people to use the right terminology? What good is it to force compliance in the words people say? Saying "Merry Christmas" is easy. It's living like Jesus that's the greater challenge in this season of materialistic consumerism. I like the words of Bob Robinson from Vanguard Church. (Caution - If you read the whole blog Bob may be a little overly critical of James Dobson, but he makes a very valid point) He writes...

"Having cashiers say 'Merry Christmas' at retail stores will not make Christmas any more Christian. In my opinion, perhaps cashiers should be saying 'Happy Holidays,' because very little about consumerism has to do with the meaning of Christmas.
In fact, I contend that consumerism is one of the top cancers for evangelical Christianity in today's America. American Christians have participated in and are equally to blame for how consumerism has taken over the celebration of the birth of Christ.

Instead of spending so much time, energy and money on fighting against retailers saying 'Happy Holidays,' maybe we should spend it more on creating a body of believers who would be so Kingdom-minded and so counter-cultural that they would recognize how their voracious appetites for consumer goods are corroding their spiritual lives.

And, maybe, instead of being a bunch of angry Christians demanding that people say 'Merry Christmas,' we should joyfully proclaim the Good News that God came in the flesh in order to free us from such truly insidious powers such as consumerism and materialism."

It's food for thought. Maybe if we had lived out the teachings of that baby in the manger then the world wouldn't be so quick to throw away the phrase "Merry Christmas". My deepest belief is that speaking out against a problem is often easier than confronting what is within us that contributes to the problem in the first place. May we be a people who seek to live what we long to speak - and may our living give substance to our words.

Vanguard Church Blog

Friday, December 02, 2005

We need each other...

Just received an email from a friend that relates to the last post I wrote, There's no perfect church. He writes...

I just read the following, and immediately thought of you:

“Jesus makes it very clear that when we "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness" (all the things we've talked about in this series), He promises to take care of our earthly needs. One of the ways He makes provision for us is through our relationships with each other. I was reminded of this fact in an e-mail I received this week. It was entitled, "Horse Sense."

Just up the road from my home is a field with two horses in it. From a distance, each looks like every other horse. But if one stops the car, or is walking by, one will notice something quite amazing.

Looking into the eyes of one horse will disclose that he is blind. His owner has chosen not to have him put down, but has made a good home for him. This alone is amazing.
Listening, one will hear the sound of a bell. Looking around for the source of the sound, one will see that it comes from the smaller horse in the field. Attached
to her bridle is a small bell. It lets her blind friend know where she is, so he can follow her.

As one stands and watches these two friends, one sees how she is always checking on him, and that he will listen for her bell and then slowly walk to where she is, trusting that she will not lead him astray.

Like the owners of these two horses, God does not throw us away just because we are not perfect or because we have problems or challenges.

He watches over us and even brings others into our lives to help us when we are in need.

Sometimes we are the blind horse being guided by God and those whom he places in our lives. Other times we are the guide horse, helping others to see God.

The story of the horses reminded me of how much we need each other.”

Good thoughts.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

There's no perfect church...

My generation hungers for "real" church. (See what my sister-in-law writes about that here.) We are frustrated with church as we see it, often admitting that we go more out of habit than conviction. Just last Sunday I had a friend tell me that he feels more like he is at church when he's playing in his band (a group of believers) at a bar in Vancouver than he does when he sits in church on Sunday morning. I understand where he is coming from. We want to "be" the church instead of just "going to" the church. It's easy to go without being.

The temptation, however, is to throw away the "going". To make bold statements about "being the church" and to lower the importance of coming together as a community. I realize that 11:00 am Sunday morning often leaves a lot to be desired. But realize for a moment what is happening. A group of extremely diverse people (different histories, different income levels, different spiritual heritages, different relational baggage) all come together to formally "be" the body of Christ. And it's not always a thing of beauty. We often see more of the sludge of our own selfishness than of the beauty of Jesus. But we need to be together. It forces us into relationships that we would not choose to enter otherwise. If we run off on our own to "be" the church we miss all the things that we need to learn about ourselves that come from living as a "body" - as a community of faith.

Just one example. One of my daughters suffers from an anxiety disorder. She can dream up more things to worry about and be afraid of than any person I've ever known. This has been a tremendous struggle for our family at times. All our decisions are to some degree shaped by how this daughter will respond.

In the past few weeks we have seen some progress in this area, especially in regards to her own spiritual development. And let me tell you why. People in our church are praying for her. People very different from myself, who have different thoughts and ideas than I have, who hold to different theological positions than I do, and who, if they read this blog, would wonder why I spend so much time writing about things that they would see as unimportant. But because we are a body - they pray for my daughter. And God hears.

Yes, there are times that I am frustrated with church. But there are also times that I know that without it I'm dead in the water. If you want to "be" the church then I encourage you to do that. Feed the hungry, give to the poor, share the truth with those who will never enter the doors, but don't neglect to "be the church" with your brothers and sisters in Christ. It is often there that "being the church" can be the most challenging. Let "church" force you into relationships and situations that, if left to your own devices, you would choose to avoid. We need each other. Let's not forget that.

"Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body...If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it." (I Corinthians 12:14-20,27)

" he knew something wonderful..."

There's a great post today at Paradoxology about the reputation that goes (or that should go) with being a Christian. It's definitely worth reading and thinking about.
"He's probably one of the best guys I've ever known. He always had a smile on his face, like he knew something wonderful."

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