Thursday, September 27, 2012

When the Rubber Meets the Road

Our church staff team has been reading The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson. I’ve have read this book at least twice before, and it still challenges me in deep, deep ways. Over and over the mantra of Peterson is a pastor prays, a pastor does the deep work of seeking God, a pastor shepherds and points people to God. The pastor does not busy himself with so many tasks that the work of hearing God, attending to His Word, and praying (and teaching others to do the same) gets crowded out by the busyness and business of church.

My life is marked by busyness, crowdedness, always another task to do or another person to help. American culture teaches us that is what a pastor is – a pastor is what he does. But I want to be an unbusy pastor, one who prays, one who has time and space for God and people.

Today I decided to put that into practice in the last half hour I was at the office. I went to the sanctuary, and unwisely took my cell phone. Ten minutes into prayer time, my phone rang and, unwisely, I answered. It was a friend who had just lost their housing (I’d spent the afternoon with a guy from my small group moving my friend’s things into our garage), and they were working to get their next place. They had left some papers at their old house and wanted me to go and get those papers for them. What should I do?

Clearly it’s important that they get those papers. They don’t have a car, but they do have a bus pass. I could get the papers for them in 20 minutes, but by then my day would be done. Prayer time would be over. I could pray tomorrow, but would I? When do you draw a line in the sand and say that the work of prayer, though it can be done anywhere and any time, is not to be put aside?

Perhaps you would have chosen differently from me, but I chose to remain in prayer. My life seems to be a series of crisis calls, people needing help RIGHT NOW and everything else quickly gets put on hold, most especially the work of prayer. Choosing to stay and pray was painful. I felt guilty, ashamed, and I was unable to focus for a  while. But that guilt and shame were from my own sense of importance, my own unbelief that God could provide for my friend in other ways than me.

It sounds nice to be an unbusy praying pastor, but I am learning that there will be a cost and that ideal will be challenged. I hope that I am up to the challenge of living by the Spirit and discerning when to stay and do the work of prayer that I am called to. I’m sure there will be other days when I am called to “go” but I didn’t think that today was that day.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How to live a faith-filled life

What does it mean to live by faith? The idea of having faith can be so nebulous, can't it? That's why Sunday's definition of faith was so helpful to me. Bill said that faith is confidence in God's presence and God's provision no matter the outcome. But I also found myself wondering what would it look like to practically weave that into my every day life? How can I live out Hebrews 11:1-6 in a meaningful way? I think God gave me some help in the Psalms.

First in Psalm 86:11, the TNIV says, "Teach me your way, that I might rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name." As I prayed and thought about that, I realized that relying on God's faithfulness meant trusting in His provision, and fearing His name meant trusting in His presence. Every moment of my life is to be lived in the reality of God's faithfulness and the reality of His presence, which makes every moment holy. God has to teach me how to do that (teach me your way) and He has to shape my heart to get to the place where my will is to do His will (give me an undivided heart).

But what practices could help me move in that direction? That led me to Psalm 92:2, a verse that has been working on me for some time now. It says, "[It is good to] proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night." To proclaim God's love in the morning is setting my heart and mind on the fact that no matter what I face in the coming day, He is present and He is going to provide. To proclaim His faithfulness at night is looking back on my day with eyes of faith, looking for God's presence and provision in all things. Putting these two simple practices into place can help me live by faith, not afraid of the unseen challenges ahead and thankful for all the ways God moves in and through me each day.

This week, let's put faith into practice, growing in our awareness of God's presence and provision, proclaiming His love each morning and His faithfulness each night.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Story to be Lived

The summer blockbuster season is here, yet I rarely get to see movies in the theater unless they are of the cartoon variety. So getting to see Spiderman this week was a real treat. And as the previews rolled before the main feature, I wanted to see every movie that was coming out, because I love to get lost in these big stories. The best stories to me are ones that not only show the shadow side of life and sin (though they might not label it as such) but also offer the hope of something better. A mix of warning and encouragement and hope all in one is the recipe for a great story.

We see this in Hebrews 10:26-39, where the author of the letter not only warns his congregation against the danger of rejecting Christ and embracing sin, but also offers them the memory of God's faithfulness in the past and offers the promise of God's ultimate deliverance in the future.

The reality is that sin will destroy us if we allow it to take root and if we reject the work of Christ on our behalf. But it does not have to be the end of the story. Sin reduces us as humans, enslaves us in a small story, the story of "me." The bigger story that we are invited into is the story of God's redemptive work through Christ on the cross. It's the story of here and now, the Holy Spirit indwelling and empowering all who would say, "Yes" to God's offer of life and freedom. And it's the story of tomorrow where we dwell in peace in God's Kingdom.

This week pay attention to the cautionary tales around you, let them warn you, and embrace the faithfulness and promises of God. That's a story not just to be seen but to be lived.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Allen Iverson and Galatians 6: More In Common Than You’d Think

In 2006, Phildephia 76-ers guard Allen Iverson went on a now-famous rant when he was questioned by the media for missing practice (“Practice? I’m supposed to be the franchise player and we’re talking about practice?”). The clip closes with him asking, “How am I going to make my teammates better by practicing?” He just wanted to play the game.

Sadly, when it comes to church, Christians often live this same attitude in the way that we treat one another.

Galatians 5 is a beloved chapter for many Christians, because it contains the “fruit of the Spirit” verses and amazing reminders of the freedom that we have in Christ. And it’s tempting to stop reading the letter there, because Paul goes on in Galatians 6 to talk about boring stuff like humility, helping others overcome their struggles, and sowing good seed in order to reap a good harvest. Who wants to hear about that when we can talk about victory over sin and how to be Spirit-led?

It struck me as I studied these chapters recently that they are meant to be linked together. Now, if we are reading the Bible faithfully, that’s a no-duh statement, that they were meant to be linked. Who gets a letter from a friend and reads it a section at a time over the course of several days, or reads the middle without the beginning, or skips the last paragraph? No one does, yet we do that with letters in the Bible all the time, because they’ve now got those chapter and verse numbers in it. (Those weren’t in the original letters, by the way, and neither were the bold-printed subject headings inserted before new sections).

Galatians 6 rightly follows chapter five, because one of the primary arenas that we learn to walk in the Spirit and bear Spirit fruit is in the Church. Church is where we come to practice humility, speaking the truth in love, bearing one another’s burdens so that when we have chances to do that outside the church walls, we are ready.

What happens instead is that we often come to church expecting those around us to be perfect, to have their lives together, and so we are not ready to practice this life in the Spirit because we sort of think we shouldn’t have to do that at church. We tend to act like the fruit of the Spirit is only for when we need it in regular life. And that can lead us to impatient or less-than-gracious with fellow Christians.

The community of Believers is the place where we practice humility, practice hospitality, practice forgiveness and repentance and prayer, because we should all know that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. It’s a place to grow in deeper communion with Christ, to acknowledge our failings, and to grow as disciples together.

Galatians 6 is how we practice the good news of Galatians 5, and we need to notice that Paul is addressing Christians and how they treat fellow Christians. Sunday is not just about hearing a message and singing songs, and it’s not about serving in a Sunday school class. It’s a place where the Body of Christ learns to live from Christ’s life in us, that we might go out and do that in the world.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

“It’s not you, it’s me?” A question about prayer

“Marshall, it says in James 5:16 that the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective. But what do you do if you know that you are not a righteous man but you are trying very hard to do righteous things? Does that mean there is no power in my prayers?”

My friend who wrote this is going through major trials in his life, some of them self-inflicted and some not. And my heart broke as  I read his question because he doesn’t see God at work. The problem with his question is that he is starting at the wrong point. His view is that in order to be righteous, I do righteous things, then God is pleased with me. Action determines identity. However, for the Christian, we are righteous because of what God has done, therefore we do righteous things. Identity determines action.

And so what about this question of the prayers of a righteous person?

1) How do we become righteous? The Bible is clear that there is no one who is righteous (Romans 3:10), and that if you want to try and use your righteousness to earn favor with God, the bar is set impossibly high (Matthew 3:20).

Righteousness is a free gift, given in and through Christ. Paul says in Philippians 3:9 that he has a righteousness not of his own but that comes from God on the basis of faith. Christians are righteous because Jesus is righteous and He gives His right standing with God to us.

2) Righteousness and prayer: So when Christians pray, we pray as righteous men and women based on Christ’s work.

3) The mystery of waiting: When God doesn’t answer how we hope or tarries in answering, it’s not because we aren’t doing enough righteous things. We’d sort of prefer it to be that way in a sense because then we might be able to control our own destiny. But prayer doesn’t work that way – it’s more mysterious and dependent on God to answer in His way and His timing.

It’s hard and uncomfortable to wonder why God doesn’t answer our prayers, and it’s natural to think that we are doing something wrong, that God is mad with us and holding back His blessings. But prayer is an act of faith, putting our concerns into bigger hands and offering the outcome to God, trusting His love for us even when it seems hard to see.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Top Five Albums

For some reason I began thinking about which albums would I choose if I could have only five. I have a ridiculous amount of music, but it was surprisingly easy to whittle it down once my criteria was set. I had to use the whole album, not a mix of songs and no cheating by using a “Greatest Hits” compilation or a live CD where they sing all their hits. Some artists were easily on the list, but choosing which album to take was hard. Others were on the periphery but couldn’t quite make it. So, here they are, my top five:

#1 Graceland by Paul Simon – Paul Simon may be my favorite artist, and choosing one album was hard, especially when it came to excluding Garfunkel albums and The Rhythm of the Saints. But when it comes down to it, I don’t know of any album that I love more than Graceland, both musically and lyrically. It never seems old or dated, and I won’t forget Paul and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Saturday Night Live together all those years ago. I was 12 when Graceland came out, and I doubt I appreciated it until I was un college. Easiest #1 ever.

#2 Love and Thunder by Andrew Peterson – Andrew Peterson is neck and neck with Paul Simon as my favorite, and it was very hard to choose between this album and Behold the Lamb of God, which is a Christmas album in name and general theme but is so good that it crosses all holiday boundaries. But when it came down to it, this 2003 album by Andrew has haunting lyrics, beautiful harmonies, and songs that really stir my soul. “After the Last Tear Falls” perfectly captures the pain of this world and the hope of heaven, and “Family Man” inspires me as a dad.

#3 Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons – Again, musically and lyrically this album is a homerun. Banjo is always a way to my heart (especially when it’s used in a way that I’d never heard before), as are lyrics that are deep, spiritual, and full of mystery. I could almost include “The Cave” on a worship mix list, because it’s story of hope and identity as so powerful. This album received round the clock play for quite some time after I first bought it, and I don’t get tired of it now.

#4 Lonely Runs Both Ways by Alison Krauss and Union Station – Bluegrass is my favorite genre, and Alison Krauss has a voice like an angel.  I chose this album because it has both the bluegrass elements that I love (like banjo and a twangy tenor) and some songs that are just hauntingly beautiful when Alison sings.

And here’s where it got hard. One to go, what to choose? It came down to Song in Her Head by Sarah Jarosz and This Side by Nickel Creek. This Side has been with me, getting regular play, for almost ten years and has two of my favorite Nickel Creek songs, “This Side” and “Green and Gray.” If I were on a desert island, I would hate to be without those songs.

On the other hand, I remember buying Sarah Jarosz’s debut album on a whim after seeing a Facebook ad for it as the Amazon deal of the day. It was only $2, and my jaw hit the floor from the opening notes. I couldn’t believe someone that young could be that talented. And in the end, she incorporates banjo, which Nickel Creek doesn’t, and so:

#5 Song Up in Her Head by Sarah Jarosz – some great bluegrass, some newgrass, and just excellent pickin’, playin’, and singin’. Many of the songs have a somber, haunting quality that is really wonderful.

Albums on the outside looking in:

#6 This Side by Nickel Creek

#7 Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson

#8 Jars of Clay by Jars of Clay

#9 Purpose by Design by Fred Hammond

#10 The Nu Nation Project by Kirk Franklin

#11 Live by Harrod and Funk

#12 My Calm, Your Storm by Caedmon’s Call

#13 Tigerlilly by Natalie Merchant

#14 Paul Simon’s Concert in Central Park (I know, it’ a live greatest hits deal)

#15 Songs by Rich Mullins (I know, it’s a compilation)

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Couldn’t have drawn it up any better

The last few weeks have been overwhelming to say the least, so it has seemed like a minor miracle that my family and I are in a stretch of three straight evenings with nothing to do but be home and be together. Today (Saturday) is probably the best Saturday we’ve had as a family in a long time.

We made our usual Krispy Kreme run but this time got them to go, as we were headed to Levering Orchard in Ararat, VA to pick cherries with another family from Grace  that we really love. The drive was amazing, the “are we there yets” were minimal, and when we arrived, the temperature was mid-60’s, sunny, and breezy. It was so quiet and peaceful (except for making sure our kids didn’t fall off any ladders while they picked cherries). We came in $2 under budget for what we picked, saw some other friends from Greensboro who were there, too, and had a great lunch on the way back with our friends from Grace.

When we got home, we plugged the kids into the Wii and computer games for an hour, and Diane gardened, and I got to vacuum the cars out (which actually is a treat for me) and to shovel about 200 pounds of gravel and dirt out of our curbside.

Then Jacob and Psalter and I played whiffle ball until dinner, which was finished off with cherry chocolate chip milkshakes, and then we all watched Tin Tin, which ended up being an amazing movie.

What was great about today was that I was with my family for almost the entirety and we had so much fun – we laughed, played, and enjoyed being together. We were able to watch an adventure movie without any of the kids getting scared. We had some great time with friends. AND I even feel like I got a couple of things done around the house that were just sitting there waiting on me. This is a day that I will always be thankful for because it was restful, joyful, and it was a reminder of how God has filled my life with good things.

Not a profound post, but definitely a thankful one.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not my most encouraging post

After 10 years of living here, you would think that Diane and I would have a better handle on how to respond to crazy situations in Glenwood. But today was another test, and we left feeling helpless and confused.

Our neighbors (boyfriend and girlfriend) have been estranged for weeks, and last week we were awakened by a fight in their front yard. We had not seen the woman in weeks aside from that night, and then today she showed up on our porch wanting some water to take her medicine. For the next two hours, Diane and I fed her and listened to her cry, shout, curse, and pray. We watched her emotions go up and down and back and forth, and we heard things from her life story (past and present) that we had no way of knowing were true. Her side of the story with the man across the street is (of course) much different from his.

She has no income, no job, and her daughter (one of Psalter’s best friends) is now living with her godmother. All she wants, she said, is a place to stay for her and her daughter and the chance to get her GED. But how do you get a place to stay with no income? And how do you get people to take you in when you seem mentally unstable and tell violent stories of what you’ve done in recent weeks?

As the conversation continued, she said she felt like she was going to pass out but didn’t want to go to the doctor, and she stumbled across the street to her boyfriend’s house to break in (seriously – since she is a legal resident of the house, she could break in through a window and not be charge with B&E). She eventually stumbled back across to our house and lay her head down on our front porch table.

During much of this conversation, our kids were getting ready for a Memorial Day pool party, excited to go swimming for the first time this year, excited to go somewhere with us. And that’s where ministry got even more confusing. Would God have us cancel our plans and try to care for this woman (and we have no clue on how to help her)? What does it communicate to our kids if we drop this time with them in order to help our neighbor? When do they need to know that they are a priority over neighborhood ministry, and when do they need to know that sometimes plans get canceled to help someone?

We made the decision to let her sleep on our porch (she would not wake up when Diane tried to talk to her and neither of us felt comfortable being at the house alone with her), and to go on with what we had planned. I couldn’t help but feel guilty as we left, wondering if we were not loving her like Christ would, wondering how to balance family and ministry, especially a ministry opportunity that seemed so hopeless.

There is often no formula for how to love your neighbor, especially in this context. No easy answers. And I couldn’t help be jarred by the promises that our kids’ VBS CD sang to us about being able to trust God, all the while knowing the wreckage of lives within 50 yards of our house. It’s hard to reconcile the truths of my faith with the destruction left by sin in this world; hard to believe that God is indeed at work when I see so little change in those that we love; hard to see the limits on my own ability (and limits on my willingness) to love others .

As I said in the title, this is not the most encouraging post.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

If you made $100,000 per year….

And you gave 30% away, you would still have $67,000 to live on. That could fund:

$1000/month mortgage

$400/month utilities

$100/month cell phone

$700/month groceries

$400/month for two car payments

$500/month for gasoline and insurance

$500/month retirement

$200/month “fun money”

$200/month college savings

$100/month clothes

And STILL have $1400 left per month to determine where to spend. You could theoretically have all of the above and give over 40% of your money away.

If you made $50,000 and drove cars that were paid for, cut your mortgage, retirement, fun money, clothes money, and grocery bill by $1200/month total, you could still give 30% away and have all you need (and more).

And yet Americans struggle to give even 10% away. Lord have mercy on us for dreaming the wrong dreams.

(And I know I’m not taking into account taxes and health insurance and stuff like that. I’m just saying we could be way more generous).

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Power of Staying Put…. Again

I know I posted about this in recent months, but I wanted to celebrate again the power of staying put.

Last week an InterVarsity student that I had discipled all through college and had moved to Texas showed up with her husband. She said she had wanted him to see UNCG and they were driving around Glenwood looking at the new constructions and she thought, “I wonder if Marshal and Diane are still in the same house.” Lo and behold we were.

Yesterday a Glenwood youth that we have known since he was seven years old was walking by our corner, and we were able to call out to him and speak for a  few minutes. It was so good, yet so sad, to see him because we really miss him and his life had taken a turn for the worse. But maybe seeing us yesterday reminded him that we are still here, still able to be found, still excited to see him.

I’m reading The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and it’s impressing on me again the good of not moving up and moving on, the good of just being in one place and having deep roots. It’s a good thing and it seems to be more and more rare in our increasingly mobile culture.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What Jesus prays for us

When Eliza won’t share her bike with her sister, I pray. I don’t pray that Psalter will get a newer bike or that Eliza will be nice. I pray that Eliza will have a heart that is generous.

When Jacob cries because he’s losing at Madden on the Wii, I don’t pray that he would become good at video games. I pray that he would not find his identity in wins or losses.

When Psalter is a tornado in our home, leaving messes everywhere, I don’t pray that she will be neater. I pray that we will help learn to be responsible and to care for others by picking up her things.

It is easy for me as a father to pray for the underlying heart behind my children’s problems or behaviors. They would probably like to see the problem fixed or for it just to go away, but that’s not what they really need. There is a deeper work that needs to happen in order to shape them for a lifetime.

This week in church, one of the verses we looked at was Hebrews 7:25, which says, “Therefore [Jesus] is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” And I began to wonder, “What is Jesus praying for me? What does it mean that He is praying for me?”

I think that His prayers for me (and for you) are much like mine for my children – I think I know what I need, I think I know what my problem is, but He sees the deeper need. He addresses the root that drives the behavior that I might be changed for life.

It would be amazing to hear those prayers sometime.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Poem on a spring day

The greens of spring are exploding in St. Francis’s woods, bright and vibrant, shouting, “Life!”

The day is cool, but not cold. Warm, but not hot. I f I could bottle it and save it, I would.

Thank You for a gentle creek, for birds and bugs and bees             and squirrels. I sit and know that You are near. Tears of joy and worship. Grateful.

W0rds are not enough, only incomplete phrases that are the hallmark of poetry, thoughts and impressions and colors and feelings. Rest and joy flood out order and structure.

Birds bring me to tears – their song didn’t have to be pleasant to our ears, yet their voice brings glory to God and joy to us. Call after different call, different tones and timbres, unconcerned about their future, simply living as they were created to live. Their being brings glory to God.

You can taste the goodness of God, feel it all around. Pure blues, daring greens, life springing up all around. Bless the Lord, o my soul. Drink in His beauty and rejoice in the Love that would give us a day like this.

These are days where I want to roll around in the ferns an in the creek, to absorb these woods. What more can Heaven have in store? What beauties are there beyond my imagination, colors I’ve never seen, perfect rest, uninterrupted presence of God? These woods are just a glimpse.

God’s faithfulness is not up for grabs

Psalm 89 speaks of God’s faithfulness over and over – 9 times to be exact – in the midst of tremendous struggles. And it struck me that God’s faithfulness should not, cannot, be up for grabs for me. I can’t praise God for His faithfulness only when He comes through in the way that I want Him to. For example, we are raising over $500,000 for Hope Academy, a private Christian school for at risk kids. We believe that we will open in the fall of this year, but if the money doesn’t come by then, is God not faithful? Of course He is. “God is faithful” must be my posture no matter the circumstances or the context.

It can be really hard to see God’s faithfulness when I look at the brokenness of the world. But eyes of faith trust in God’s character in the midst of confusing and heartbreaking events.

In addition to speaking of God’s faithfulness, Psalm 89 really wrestles with wondering if God’s faithfulness was a mirage. All of God’s promises seem to be broken, and then you get to the last line. “Praise be to the Lord forever. Amen and Amen!” If you read the whole Psalm, it seems like an unlikely ending.

I loved what the New Bible Commentary had to say about this. “When God’s promises seem to have failed (Psalm 89:3-45), then affirm them in joyful song (Psalm 89:1-2) and bring all the grief of unfulfilled promises to God in prayer (Psalm 89:46-50).”

God’s faithfulness must be my starting place, even as I pour our my heart to Him.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Am I Harrison Barnes or Just an Impatient Gardener? (2)

Another analogy has been coming to mind as I’ve thought about my fears and inadequacies at work. It’s garden time, and this year I’ve undertaken planting a garden again. The reason that I have a garden is to get vegetables; its not to have the experience of gardening. I don’t enjoy tilling, weeding, planting, watering, learning about which plants to rotate in, which plants to plant near each other, soil pH, etc. It’s not the process of getting my hands dirty that I love – it’s getting to eat fruit that grew in my own yard.

As I’ve been doing all of these things that I don’t enjoy (planting, tilling, etc.), I have realized that I garden in a hurry. I just want to be done with the boring prep work and get to the fruit.

Well,  as I sat in my garden this weekend, I realized that when it comes to ministry, I am often the same way. What I really want is to see fruit in people’s lives, that their hearts are changed, that their actions line up with the Kingdom, that they begin to run after Jesus full throttle. So I’m just gunning for fruit without wanting to wade through the hard work of weeds and rocks and digging and waiting and watering and waiting. Fruit is the goal, but there are things that might need to be done along the way to get us there, and there can be joy in the process.

I think that a lack of fruit (that I can see) makes me fear that I am Harrison Barnes. But I believe that it’s closer to the truth that I am simply an impatient gardener who has forgotten the freedom of Mark 4:26-27. These verses tell the story of a gardener who planted a seed and whether he watched it all day or goes to sleep, it grew in its own time, though he didn’t understand how.

There is freedom in knowing that the results aren’t mine, only the planting. Only God makes a seed grow, and we don’t know how, and that’s good news. And my best cooperation with Him is to follow His directions in preparing the soil, caring for the planting area, and then simply waiting for the Spirit to work.

I believe God has gifted me with skills to be an effective pastor. The trick is putting those skills into His hands, trusting Him to do the work, and not measuring my success by numbers or the speed with which fruit comes. The trick is applying the right answer from yesterday’s blog post, letting the truth of the Gospel infuse and lead my skills. I cannot make anything grow, I cannot make anyone care, and the Kingdom of God is not resting on my shoulders. It’s His to grow, His to build, and I am called to simply offer my all to His use.

I hope that Harrison recovers the belief that he seems to have lost.

I hope that I will believe in the right One and learn how to be a gardener that embraces the process, not just the fruit.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Am I Harrison Barnes or Just an Impatient Gardener? (1)

In recent weeks I’ve had a crisis of faith. Not faith in God or what I believe about Him, but more faith in myself and what I am capable of doing in my work at the church. As I have wrestled with this, I sometimes worry that I am a pastoral Harrison Barnes. Let me explain.

Harrison Barnes came in as one of the most hyped high school players in history, a pre-season All-American before he’d set foot on campus. He had the physical skills, the work ethic, and the demeanor to be a star. But it took over 2/3 of the season (and the promotion of Kendall Marshall to starting point guard) for him to blossom as a freshman. So naturally, expectations were sky high for his sophomore year at UNC.

It’s hard to call someone who averaged over 17 points per game and was a second-team All-American a disappointment, but in some senses, this season Barnes was just that. In big moments, when his team needed him, he disappeared, either by not stepping up or by overstepping up. He would either not take a shot, or he would overshoot and try to do more than he needed to. And as I watched him play, I couldn’t help but notice a guy who had physical skills but something seemed to be “off” in his heart. It was like he was trying to believe that he could be the big time player everyone said he was, but deep down, he just didn’t have it. And when Kendall Marshall got hurt, it exposed Barnes’ weaknesses.

So where does this tie in with me? I have a very good friend who is my champion, my Barnabas, in my work at church. He believes that I have skills to lead, that I am a gifted leader and equipper, that I invest in people and see change in their lives. I have had excellent training by InterVarsity and by my church and by my college degree.

Yet as I look at my life and ministry in certain areas, doubt has crept in because I don’t see people’s lives being changed. I wonder if I am really as effective as I might appear to be on the outside, and I wonder if a closer look might reveal way more weaknesses than were thought to be there. My fear is that, like Harrison when Kendall went down, I will be exposed and I will not live up to the expectations that I have for myself and that others have for me.

* Note: I know the right answers here. I know that nothing I do is up to me, that anything good that I do is by Christ in and through me, that it’s not up to me to produce results. For me, that is not the question I am wrestling with in this post… or is it? Stay tuned.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Live with the Freedom of a Millionaire on Thousands Less

So if someone wants to be radically generous, to give more and more of their finances away for God’s purposes, what things have to happen? You have to have freedom and wiggle room in your budget; you have to have discretionary, unspoken-for income that you can give away. I asked my friend from yesterday’s post how he and his wife have positioned themselves to be generous; what choices had they made? Here’s what he said:

1) Housing: Thinking in terms of how much space, etc. you need to meet your day-to-day needs rather than focusing on how much the bank says you can afford.

2) Cars: Buying reliable used cars that will last years and years and paying for them in cash (or with a big down payment and quickly paying off any loan)

3) Motive test: Trying to filter decisions through the lens of what a given purchase would provide.  There are a lot of things we buy that we don't absolutely need but that make our often super-busy lifestyles more manageable -- for instance, we buy baby food instead of making our own, we recently bought a new computer, we hire people to mow our lawn during particularly busy times, etc.  We try to challenge each other, however, if we think that a purchase might be driven in part by a desire to impress others. 

4) Keeping a goal in sight: Saving money just for the sake of saving money doesn't work well (for me, at least).  Knowing that managing our expenses specifically provides freedom to follow God's leading in our career path provides a much more meaningful incentive.

5) The last one's not anything we intentionally set out to do -- but at least half of our close friends happen to be pastors or teachers or work at nonprofits, so instead of feeling pressure to keep up with our friends' spending we often find ourselves trying to be sensitive to others who are living on tighter budgets as we make plans.

Positioning ourselves to live generously takes intentionality, making choices that are Kingdom driven, not desire-driven. It takes clear vision. It is helped by a community of like-minded friends. And the Bible teaches us in 2 Corinthians 8:7 that giving is empowered by God’s Spirit – it is a grace given to us by God, if we would simply receive it.

My friend put into words what Diane and I have been practicing for most of our marriage, and I can agree with him that these things work.

So what if you’re in over your heard right now? Start thinking of ways to downsize. Can you sell your car and buy one with cash or one that you can pay off quickly? Can you tear up your credit cards and attack your debt so that it’s gone, freeing up money to be given? Can you downsize your home, reducing your mortgage and energy consumption? Can you choose to eat out two or three times less per month in order to give more away? Can you commit to waiting 24 hrs before making an “impulse” buy when the Groupon hits your inbox?

There is so much joy in living generously for the Kingdom, in getting free from the hold of “stuff.” May Christ’s followers lead in this new way and trust God to bring joy as we do!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Mega Millions Not Needed for Mega Generosity

Over and over when people talk about winning the lottery, they insist that they will give a lot of it to  charity. But I think that how we deal with the smaller amounts of money that God gives us is a great indicator of what we would do with lots of it. If we’re not being generous now, what makes us think that when we hit the jackpot, our hearts would immediately change? Jesus said that our faithfulness with small things has an impact on whether we will be trusted with bigger things.

It seems that many of us think that generosity is something that  can happen only once we have enough, that generosity comes out of excess.

Sadly most Americans are too in debt to have any excess once the bills are paid. The statistics on charitable giving by Americans are appalling when you consider our wealth as a nation, especially when you look at giving by Christians, which doesn’t exceed 3% on average.

As I look at missionaries waiting for funds to go on the field or non-profits struggling for funds to do good work or churches that are behind budget, I wonder, “Where are the people who are willing to be radically generous? Why are God’s people not giving more and more away?” Thankfully God showed me two this week who are doing just that.

A couple came to us this week and pledged the largest single gift to our new school, Hope Academy, that we have yet received. And what was amazing about their gift is that, while they most certainly earn more than me and Diane, they are not what our culture would consider “rich.” Yet they have strategically lived their lives in such a way as to have as much of their income free to be used by God for the Kingdom.

The husband said to me, “When I am sitting at my desk in the office, I want to know that my work matters. I want to know that even as I work for this company, I am working for the Kingdom of God. Giving generously enables me to have that perspective.”

Oh that more and more of us would have that heart! That we would see our talents and occupations and incomes as being means by which the Kingdom can grow and be furthered rather than means to satisfy our hearts’ desires. That Christians would choose smaller houses, older cars, later-model TV’s, simpler vacations in order that our abundant resources would be freed up for God’s work. Many Christians long to give more but their financial obligations (debt) prohibit them from doing so.

We need a revolution, a breaking free from our culture of consuming, and the only thing powerful enough to break that hold is a fresh vision of the Kingdom of God, a vision that is worth any and every sacrifice we can make.

How can we begin to reorder our lives practically to be radically generous? Stay tuned for the next post.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom, 2

Some people hear that and they think that God wants us to always be afraid that He's going to get us if we don't do right. We hear that and see God standing up in heaven with lightening bolts in His hand and He's going to strike down the evil doer. And so many people avoid God because they are afraid of His judgment and punishment. They fear God like a whipped dog might fear its cruel owner, cowering, fearful to mess up, hoping to not be noticed.

But the fear of God in the Biblical sense is to have a reverential respect for God. It's a respect for God that leads to obedience.

If you've ever had a coach who gave you extra drills to do and you do them because you knew he had a plan to make you a better player, you have an idea of what it is to fear God.

If you've ever had a teacher who demanded your best work and you stayed up a little later to make sure it was right, just because you wanted to please them, you have an idea of what it is to fear God.

If you've ever stopped short of doing something you know was wrong because you heard your grandmother's voice saying, "I taught you better than that," you have an idea of what it is to fear God.

It's a respect that leads to a change of action, of obedience, of following instruction.

But here's the deal: If you say that you fear God but you don’t obey Him, or don’t strive to obey Him more each day, you don't really fear God. You might fear the consequences of getting caught. You might fear a loss of reputation. But you don't fear God.

There are people in my neighborhood who will tell their friends to stop cussing when I come by, or they'll kind of slide their beer behind their back, because the pastor is around. And they might say that they do that because they fear God. But to fear God is to know that He is always around and our lives are to honor Him at all times, not just when the pastor is on the scene. The fear of God shows up when nobody is looking, when you are faced with the choice to obey or to not. If you fear God, you will choose to obey and THEN the wisdom of God will show up in your life. When you and I settle in our hearts and minds to obey God, then the Word of God, the wisdom of Proverbs, can show us what the godly course or path will look like.

Now you and I both know that we are going to sin; I've yet to make it through a day where I haven't sinned. So when we sin, which we will do, to fear God is to repent, to ask forgiveness of God, and to apologize to whoever we sinned against. It's not to hide from God or wallow in guilt or avoid church until we 've done better. To respect God is to face our sin, say we are sorry, and ask God to help us choose Him the next time.

What am I saying to you tonight? I'm saying that if you want to have a life of wisdom, a life built on Godly principles, the first place to start is with the fear of the Lord. And to fear God is to respect God by obeying Him. Not just respecting Him in theory but to show that respect by obeying Him and obeying His word, not just the parts of His word that we find particularly convenient.

The fear of the Lord, the respect or reverence for the Lord shown by obedience, is the beginning of wisdom. Fear God and obey Him, and wisdom will lead you on good paths.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom, 1

    (the following posts are from a message I preached at our Wednesday night Bible dinner for the homeless)

    So a few weeks back, I had the chance to preach about the author of Proverbs, King Solomon, who was the wisest person who ever lived. He was the wisest person who ever lived because God gave him the gift of wisdom. If you remember, God told Solomon to ask Him for anything in the whole world, and Solomon asked for wisdom in order to be the best king possible for God's people.

    And we talked about the difference between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge, an accumulation of facts or experiences, is not wisdom. There are plenty of old people who have seen a lot, done a lot, and learned a lot, and are still tremendously foolish. Wisdom is knowledge applied.

    If you put your hand on a hot pot of mac and cheese on the stove and you get burnt, you have learned that pots on the stove can be hot - you now have knowledge about hot things. But you have not gained wisdom until the next time you see a pot on the stove and you choose to not touch it or use a pot holder first. If you keep touching that hot pot with your bare hand, burning yourself, you have knowledge but not wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge put into action.

    But even better than learning from experience about that hot pot, what if you had a way of knowing without touching it that the pot was hot, if you had the chance to be warned before you experienced it yourself? Then you could apply that knowledge as wisdom and avoid having to ice down your fingers.

    Reading the Bible, and even more specifically the Book of Proverbs, gives us the chance to have knowledge that we can apply as wisdom without having to make the mistake ourselves. If I can read the warnings about adultery in the book of Proverbs and take them to heart, then I can apply that knowledge as wisdom when temptation comes calling and I can avoid the destruction and heartache that comes from cheating on my wife.

    So tonight we are going to look at the first seven verses of Proverbs and at one of those seven in even closer detail.

    Proverbs 1:1-7

    The first six verses of Proverbs tell us some important things. They tell us that this book is helpful for:

    1. Gaining wisdom and instruction (verse 2)
    1. Receiving instruction in prudent behavior - wise with an eye to the future, doing what is right and just and fair (verse 3)
    1. Giving prudence to those who are simple - simple means gullible without moral direction and inclined to evil (verse 4)

    These verses tell us that this book is for all people, young and old; it's for those who will listen, not matter their age. (verses 4-5)

    And its true, there's a lot of practical advice in Proverbs, things that apply to us right here and now no matter our age or life stage. Whether it's money or relationships or how you work or how you speak, Proverbs has a lot to teach us. And I think that we would all say that if we could have help in finances, in relationships, in parenting, in having a good life, we'd take it.

    But there is one thing we have to know in order to make all these other things work. There's one key from Proverbs, one key to wisdom, that makes every other bit of wisdom in every other area fit together. And we find it in Proverbs 1:7

    "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline."

    If you want to have a life built on God, if you want to have a life of wisdom, if you want direction and help on how to live a Godly life, you have to start with the fear of the Lord. If you do not fear God, you cannot live a Godly life. The reason for this is that you and I will always want to live life our own way, by our own terms. You and I will always want to be our own authority, and if we're being honest, all of our ways are not godly. All of our ideas are not sin-free. And so we have to fear God and His ways and words, in order to put them to work in our lives.

    So if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, we have to ask the question, "What does it mean to fear God?"

Monday, January 30, 2012

Seeing Toys for What They Are

Eliza received an Amazon gift card for Christmas and still has not spent it. She’s also been saving her allowance for some time, and a few weeks ago, I mentioned that she could keep saving and then combine her allowance with her gift card and get something nice, like an American Girl Doll, in a few months.

Last night she asked if she could use her gift card to buy some books for her Kindle or mp3’s, and I told her she ought to save that money for something bigger. But thinking better of it this morning, I told her that she was free to spend that card on whatever she wanted.

She said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about the American Girl doll, and I already have one that I don’t play with that much. And I think that I would get that new doll and it would be really exciting for a little bit and then I’d just end up laying it down with my other one and not using it. So I’m not sure I want to save up and get that.”

There are grownups who haven’t realized what Eliza has learned, that most of the time the toys we buy never satisfy or entertain us for very long. Many have not realized that “the wanting” and “the buying” are 90% of the fun, and the 10% left of “the having” wears off really quickly.  And she realizes that while she has really enjoyed her American Girl doll, and still plays with it fairly often, one is enough and two would be too much.

When I grow up, I want to be wise like her.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Oh Me of Little Faith

I was exhausted this morning at church (and after) and was looking forward to lunch with Diane and two friends. As I was walking Psalter’s friend Aleyah home before we left for lunch, a man on the street called out, “Pastor! I need to speak with you.” He occasionally comes  to the Wednesday night dinners at our church, and he had a rent situation – $55 due by tomorrow and no steady work. I knew that our church could not pay the $55, and I didn’t have work around my house for him to earn it. So I told him that “all I could do” was pray with him, and he and his girlfriend and I prayed there in the street. Yeah, that’s all I can do. I can’t fix it but I can go to the God of the universe and ask Him to do something. All I can do.

In my heart it was sort of like a Hail Mary, the type you throw in football not the Catholic prayer. I just tossed that prayer up, hoped it would be caught, and went on my way to lunch.

Three hours later I was in the yard playing with the kids and the man walked by and said, “You’ll never guess what happened. A woman called me this afternoon and has work for me tomorrow night!”

And honestly, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I did believe it, but I was amazed that God had heard my prayer, as feeble as it was.

The only remaining catch was that his landlord wasn’t  going to give him until Tuesday morning (when he would get paid) to get the money. So we clasped hands again on the sidewalk and asked God to move in his landlord’s heart. Sadly, I’m not sure that my faith was much more confident this time than in our first prayer time, but I knew that God can do a lot with a little from me. I’m not downplaying the role of faith in our prayers, but I think that the power of our prayers has way more to do with the One that we pray to than whether our faith is up to snuff that day. My confidence isn’t in the answer, it’s in the fact that He hears and He knows.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Reassured by Faithfulness

This has been a "wedding weekend" for me and Diane. Friday evening I officiated the marriage of two young leaders in our church that we have grown to love. Saturday we attended the wedding of a wonderful friend, and then Saturday night we went to a wedding shower.

As an introvert, I was absolutely wiped out after the two weddings (and Thursday night rehearsal), and when I saw the line of cars outside the wedding shower, I wanted to turn around and go home. Crowds of people, even people that I love, are not the easiest for me. I don't really know where to go, who to talk to, and if my tank isn't full, small talk is not easy.

I'm so glad that I stayed.

What I hadn't realized was that while weddings are a wonderful thing to be a part of, two in a row had me a little overwhelmed. The promises and vows were beautiful, personally written. Promises to always love, always cherish, always pray for one another. Promises that I longed to live up to in my marriage, but also knew how frail my will could be when it came to the lofty call of marriage. I was feeling that frailty.

But at the shower, Diane and I were one of two married couples there under the age of 50, and the men and women at that house loved the Lord and had been married for years and years.

As each gift was opened, the couple giving it could share a word of advice or blessing. While they each shared wonderful things, both wise and funny (the best being "don't fry bacon naked"), it was their presence that most affected me. It was refreshing to be surrounded by godly men and women who had been through the good and hard times of marriage and had emerged with laughter, love, and wisdom.

I felt surrounded by faithfulness, reassured and lifted by faithfulness. Surrounded by love. The new commitments of Friday and Saturday inspired me; the lasting commitments of Saturday night reassured and anchored me.