Friday, March 30, 2012

Fix It on the Go

I love late winter because baseball comes back to life. Now it's spring and the MLB season is just days away. Actually, two teams went to Japan this week to start the season. Everyone else starts next week.

Riley's team has been practicing for about six weeks. We (I can say "we" because I'm the assistant coach!) are in a pre-season tournament this weekend. The Rockets won the game last night. The boys hit pretty good, ran bases pretty good, fielded really well, and pitched great. Still room for improvements and we'll work on that.

The next game is tonight then a full day tomorrow if we keep winning.

The tweaks we need to do will have to happen on the fly - no much time for practices once the season starts. It's like working on the car engine while driving 50 mph down the road.

My spiritual life is like that, too. You don't many days off spiritually. It's a battle every day for every believer. It's good to go on retreats or to conferences but those are special occasions, not everyday events.

My advice: take advantage of the special occasions but don't count only on them. You'll have to work on your spiritual walk daily. And get some help. Your pastor will help. Your Christians friends can be a great resource.

The two indispensable keys to a healthy spiritual life are prayer and Bible study. You need to experience these two things privately and corporately. So start the discipline of a daily quiet time where you can spend a few minutes in prayer and Bible study, preferably before your daily schedule takes off. Then gather with other believers frequently to do the same.

Speaking of gather with other believers, did you know that most church-goers consider themselves "regular attenders" if they attend once a month. Let me suggest that that's not enough. Actually, once a week is weak. If your pastor is like me, he has a teaching plan that intentionally moves toward a discipleship goal. For example, I'm preaching through the book of Mark on Sunday mornings leading up to Easter to show how Jesus is active in our lives especially to the point of salvation. And on Wednesday nights I'm teaching on prayer using passages throughout the Bible to bring out principles for daily living. If you only come once a week you will miss some important teaching. If you only come once a month you won't get much at all.

Then think about the value of being in a Sunday Morning Bible Study each week where another series of lessons are designed to help you grow spiritually. But most church-goers miss most of that.

One more thing, being in the building does not quality as going to church and gathering with believers for prayer and Bible study. Everybody needs to sit under the teaching of the pastor regularly.

So, pull into the garage when you can but realize that most of your spiritual growth will happen as you are racing through life - when you can immediately apply what you are learning.

Go Rockets!

Weekly Devotion - March 30, 2012

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance."
James 1:2-3 NIV

How's today going for you? When I left the house this morning the sky was half clear and half stormy clouds. Not partly cloudy. A front was passing through and literally half the sky was light and half dark. My first thought was, "Which is it going to be today?"

Does it matter? The weather might affect whether you work outside or indoors, or whether you go fishing or not. But the weather shouldn't affect whether or not you have joy today.

Circumstances are not always pleasant. Life's hard and sometimes it hurts. What you anchor your life too makes a difference in how you react and respond to those changing circumstances.

If you anchor your life to the weather forecast you'll have bright days but you'll also have rainouts.

If you anchor your life to a prognosis you'll have days of optimism but you will also have days of hopelessness.

If you anchor your life to a job interview you will have days filled with opportunity and days filled with disappointment.

Your days are sure to be either up or down, good or bad, bright or rainy. That's life. But your joy isn't tied to that. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit - a character quality that grows in your life as you cultivate your relationship with Jesus. And that can be a constant in your life even when everything else is uncontrollably fluid.

Even the many kinds of trials you face are the seedbed for joy because they give you opportunity to lean on Jesus and learn more about him as you persevere. Pray that God will help you grow joy among the ups and downs of life.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Keeping People

I just got off an 18 minute phone call with Robert from my internet service provider. We've used this service since moving here over five years ago. Until a couple of months ago, satellite service was all that was available for high speed internet. Since that is no longer the case, I called to cancel the service from Robert's company. By the way, we like the new service from the phone company.

Robert spent most of the 18 minutes trying to get me to stay with him. I said the price was too high so he offered a twelve-month discount. I said the price would just go back up in twelve months so he said another discount would probably be available then. I said the discounted price is still twice the price of my new service so he offered his minimum plan for me to use as a backup.

After going through all this, he asked if there was anything he could do to keep me as a customer.

The churches I have pastored and attended for the forty-something years I can remember have all had the same challenge: keeping people who want to leave. Some you really don't want to see go and others you wonder why they hadn't left sooner! But in both cases, not much has been done to keep them. Robert spent more effort trying to keep me as his customer than churches spend (on average, I guess) trying to keep members from leaving.

And once they are gone, not much is done to get them back. I predict that my mailbox and email inbox will be filled with advertisements attempting to court me back to the company I just left.

Churches should realize the value of having a particular family, couple, or individual in their congregation. We should think it is worth the effort - some effort - to gain, keep, or regain them.

I'm OK when someone tells me that they feel God calling them somewhere else. If they are telling the truth, I won't argue with God. It would be wrong for them to stay if God wants them to go. But I really wonder how often God has anything to do with a person leaving a church. He rarely gets the credit he deserves and often gets the blame he does not deserve.

Outside of God moving a person to a new fellowship, we - my church and your church - should invest in keeping them. We need them in so many ways that when they are gone a dozen holes appear overnight. Maybe a hole just big enough that only light can pass through it. Maybe a hole big enough to drive a truck through. When they are gone your church will miss them.

My experience tells me this is true. One internet service provider just lost a customer. Just one but that is revenue lost. A church loses much more than revenue when one of its members is allowed to walk away. At least try to keep them!

Take a look at 15 Reasons I Stayed in Church for some fodder for thought.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Weekly Devotion - March 23, 2012

"And the scripture was fulfilled that says,
'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,'
and he was called a friend of God."
Psalm 105:42 NIV
Who's your best friend? I think of people like Mark, Greg, Joel, Steve, Rhonda, Kim, and Donnie. I think of Deana, Larry, Danny, and Joe. Who do you think about when you think about the close friendships you've had?

Fill in the blank: I'd love to be friends with ____________. I was interviewed on camera for a family get-together a few years ago. One question was, "Who - living or dead - would you like to have dinner with?" The first answer came quickly! I would love to meet the Big Red Machine - the Cincinnati Reds baseball team from the early- and mid-70s. That's when I learned to love baseball and that is my favorite team of all time from any sport.

To be a friend of the Big Red Machine would be pretty cool. I follow Johnny Bench on Twitter. Does that count?

To be a friend of God would be even better. What does it take to be God's friend? Abraham was called a friend of God because he believed God. Lots of folks believe IN God but Abraham's belief was more than that. Even demons know God exists and it makes them tremble. But they are not God's friends.

Believing God is more than just accepting the fact that he exists. That's a starting point. Unfortunately, many people never make it to the starting line so there is no way they can be God's friend. But once you believe in God you must believe God. Believe who he is, believe what he says. And to believe to is accept as truth so that it guides your life.

Abraham believed God and was counted righteous, or right with God. And he was God's friend. I want to be God's friend, do you? Here's what it takes: believe God, not just IN God. Pray that God will help you embrace who he is and apply what he says as the guide for your life.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rain, Prayers, and Facebook

A few days ago we were complaining about the yellow powder covering our cars. "A little rain will clear the pollen from the air and rinse off our cars," we thought.

Now it's been raining for almost 24 hours - raining hard. My Facebook status feed is filled with people lamenting the overabundance of rain. Seems like we are never satisfied.

I wonder if God would answer a prayer like this: "Lord, we need a little rain. Just enough to clear the air and rinse off the cars. Not too much, though. And can you make it happen while we are sleeping so we don't lose any of our time and plans? Oh, and no storms. No storms!"

Yes, God will answer that prayer. Probably with this: "Hey, let me guide the weather! I know much more about this than you do. And my plans are better than your plans."

Or he might answer like this: "Yes, I'll give you exactly what you want to teach you that your prayers are sometimes - often - selfish. You don't really know what the plant life needs. You don't really know what the water table needs. You don't really know all that a heavy rain will accomplish."

Have you ever heard this answer from God? "No!" Nothing more. No explanation.

I'm not much different than my friends on Facebook. I prayed that the rain wouldn't start until my early morning walk was completed yesterday. And I'm hoping it quits in time for my walk tomorrow morning.

I guess there's no harm in asking but I must be flexible to adapt to God's will. Too often my will is rigid and that's when it's hard to get to know God better. At the top of my "To Do" list is getting to know my Lord and Savior better and better each day. So I must learn to put aside my desires and take up his. Then when I pray I'll be asking him to do what he wants to do. Then we are both satisfied.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Make Preparation Today!

As I read the Bible this morning, this passage jumped off the page for me. It speaks of faith, hope, obedience, and optimism.

Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.” (Joshua 3:5)

So I asked myself, "Do I prepare today for God's blessings tomorrow?" my honest answer is, "Not always."

God is always up to something. His plans for tomorrow must be amazing. Will you be ready? Or will your lack of preparation today impact the reality of tomorrow?

I wonder how my lack of consecration yesterday will impact today. Think about what amazing act of God you could be missing right now because you didn't focus on the Lord yesterday.

That thought makes me want to consecrate myself to the Lord today in preparation for amazing things tomorrow.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Weekly Devotion - March 16, 2012

"For he remembered his holy promise
given to his servant Abraham."
Psalm 105:42 NIV
All God's promises are true! That would be the testimony of Joshua. He led God's people into Canaan where they took over and settled. It was the land promised to Abraham hundreds of years earlier. Sometimes it takes a while before you realize the promise, but God's promise is a promise.
All God's promises are true! Joseph would testify to that. As a teenager he had a dream that showed him ruling over his brothers. After being sold into slavery by his brothers, he ascended to the second highest position in Egypt. During a time of famine, his brothers came to him - not recognizing him - and bowed down asking for food. You may not understand how God is working out his promise, but God's promise is a promise.
All God's promises are true! Another Joseph would also arise to give testimony to this fact. This man was engaged to Mary. Then he found out she was pregnant. To avoid a scandal, he wanted to end the engagement quietly. But an angel told him to stay with Mary because the child would save the people from their sins. That child was Jesus - the son of God. That child is the savior of the world. God's promises don't always make sense, but God's promise is a promise.
All God's promises are true! Saul of Tarsus violently opposed Christianity. Until he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. He was so completely changed that he even changed his name to Paul. Just after his conversion, the Lord said this about Paul, "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." Paul later wrote that he considered his sufferings "light and momentary" compared to the blessings of knowing Christ. The promise may include both blessings and hardship, but God's promise is a promise.
All God's promises are true! Even for you. Even today. Pray that God will help you live in the blessing of his promises.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Do Christians in America Suffer Persecution?

So I was talking about persecution recently and related a personal story about getting called out for my conservative Christian beliefs. Others talked about the changes that have taken place in the United States over the last few decades and projected into the future a few more decades arriving at the conclusion that physical persecution may not be far away.

Then someone down-played the persecution we experience by comparing it to what believers around the world are facing. True, persons who convert from Islam to Christianity face death. True, missionaries serving around the planet face arrest. I've never come close to being killed or arrested for my Christian faith.

But is it right to dismiss one form of persecution because it's not severe? In the early 90s I drove a Ford Festiva. One of my friends called it a hightop tennis shoe. Not much to look at but I drove that car til it was almost dead. We went to the Atlantic coast. We went to the Rocky Mountains. We went from Russellville, AR to Bentonville, AR twice every other weekend for several years. It was a 4-cylinder with 12" tires. Did the fact that it did not have 8 cylinders and 16" tires keep it from being a car? My son loves to play baseball. His team plays on a field with bases set 70' apart. Isn't it still baseball even though the bases are 20' shy of the MLB standard?

Christians in America have been blessed that we do not face the severity of persecution faced by Christians in other places in the world. I just don't think you can say that we don't face persecution at all because our lives are not threatened.

If we stood up for Christ the way believers do elsewhere, we might just experience the more severe persecution they do. I won't be surprised if that happens in America in my lifetime.

The real issue is not whether what you experience is persecution or not. The question we should ask ourselves as Christians in America is, "Are you standing up for Christ even if that might mean you will face persecution?"

The Christians in the earliest days counted it a privilege to suffer for the sake of the gospel. The persecution amped them up! Let's not let persecution shut us down.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Weekly Devotion - March 9, 2012

"You are good, and what you do is good;
teach me your decrees."
Psalm 119:68 NIV
Which is the greater testimony - what you say or what you do? Perhaps this quip attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson will help you understand my point: "What you do speaks so loud I cannot hear what you say." Clearly, our actions speak louder than our words. Yet our words are also important. The two - actions and words - should reflect in harmony the reality of your heart.
Jesus taught that the outward things are not really what are impure; what comes from the heart is either pure or impure. Your words and deeds stream from your heart. So if it appears that you talk and act in impure ways, the real issue is an impure heart.
What's the solution? How can you clean up? Some folks just try to change the outward stuff. They promise not to say one thing and do another. They say they will not use the colorful language that once filled their speech. They commit to treating people better. But if they don't address the heart, real change is not possible and the superficial change is not sustainable.
May I tweak Emerson's words? "What you do and say speak so loud that I cannot hear your heart." Who would say that to you? Your family might be thinking that today. Your boss could be thinking that right now. Do you friends really know you - the inner you?
Let me tweak again. "What you do and say speak so loud that I guess that is your heart." It is fraudulent to try to separate the inward and the outward. People will call us hypocrites. Especially if we claim to be Christian and act like the world.
So let your actions match your words and let both match your heart. Pray asking God to teach you his decrees so that your heart may be like his and your actions and deeds honor him.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Connecting Passages of Scripture

One reason an on-going Bible reading plan is important is to help those who have read it before get a deeper meaning from scripture. Today I came across an excellent example of this.

I've read the Bible completely in a year. I've read the New Testament several times in a year. I read some portion of the Bible almost every day. I have my favorite passage. I have my "Go To" verses that pop into my teaching and preaching.

One of my "Go To" verses is Psalm 139:23-24.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; 
test me and know my anxious thoughts. 
See if there is any offensive way in me, 

and lead me in the way everlasting. 

I call the people at Cross Road to confession using this passage. I've written a little chorus that keeps the passage in the front of my mind. I think the psalmist is showing us the importance of allowing God to call to our minds what our sins are. When we start off to confess our sins we are likely to confess only what we think are our sins and only sins we are aware that we committed. That makes sense - How could we confess something we don't think is a sin or a sin that we committed?

But rather than using your list of sins, ask God to give you his list of your sins. That's probably much different. Sometimes you may try to justify your actions when really it's just sin. Sometimes you may compare yourself to others when they aren't the standard, God is. God's list is comprehensive, exhaustive, painfully personal. Your list - and mine - is not so bad.

So I'm reading in Deuteronomy today and come to chapter 8. Read verse 2 carefully.

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.

Now go back and read Psalm 139:23-24 again. Did you pick up on the connecting phrases? The psalmist David asked God to "know my heart" and "test me." Moses, in Deuteronomy, reminded the Israelites that God tested them in order to "know what was in your heart." I don't know about you, but Moses' words help me see David's words differently - more deeply.

In order to know their hearts, God tested the Israelites. And God's people are supposed to ask God to search their hearts and know them, too. I've always thought of this test in Psalm 139 to be God's thorough review where he compares what is in my heart to his purpose and standard of holiness. But in light of Deuteronomy 8, that test is more like how Boeing tests jet engines before putting them into use.

When you ask God to test you and know your heart, get ready for trials. Think about what the Israelites endured for forty years! It was all to prepare them to enter the Promised Land. An earlier generation had not passed the test and didn't enter Canaan. The test may be hard but the reward for passing the test is great.

What is God preparing you for? He must refine you by removing impurities of sin. That's no quick and easy task. It takes time. It takes your commitment to stay in the test. It takes a humble spirit that will allow God to test you and know your heart.

Are you willing to go through the test? The best things God has for you are waiting for you on the other side of the test.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Weekly Devotion - March 2, 2012

"Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments,
because you know they produce quarrels."
2 Timothy 2:23 NIV

A few years ago I was the training manager for a customer service call center. My job involved directing the training process of agents who would receive calls from mortgage customers. As you might imagine, the calls we handled were almost always about a problem the customer experienced. The mortgage company may have misapplied a payment or failed to pay property taxes. The customer sometimes just did not understand the terms of their mortgage. We were there to help explain and fix and soothe.

An important thing to remember when taking calls from customers was to remain calm even if they weren't. And never use a tone of voice or choice of words that were bound to create or fan a flame of anger in the customer. I called doing such things "picking a fight." It's not good customer service.

And it's no way to treat your family or friends or church family. It's no way to treat anybody! Yet families are divided over foolish and stupid arguments. Churches split over some pretty silly issues. Friends are lost because of words spoken without much thought.

That's not what God intends for us in the area of relationships. Relationships are meant to be beneficial in some way to all parties. Upset that intention and the equilibrium is turned upside down. Arguments begin and years later you still argue but don't know how the argument got started. You may be more impassioned against the person than by the issue. Think "Hatfields and McCoys."

Think about your relationships. Begin with family, then close friends, casual friends, acquaintances, and finally strangers. Are you close? Are the relations strained? What are you doing to improve them? Are you intentionally trying to be a blessing to others? Pray that God will help you establish healthy relationships with the people around you, mend broken relationships, and bless others.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Balaam Follow-Up

Here's another thought from the biblical account of a man named Balaam.

After Balaam had the conversation with the donkey, he went on to meet with Balak, king of Moab. Balak was a little put out that Balaam had taken so long to come to him. He scolded Balaam for the delay and said, "Did I not send you an urgent summons? Why didn't you come to me? Am I really not able to reward you?" (Numbers 22:37 NIV)

Balaam's response to Balak was better than his response to his donkey and the Lord. Essentially, Balaam said, "I'm not for hire." God told Balaam to only speak the words he gave him. No matter the reward or threats, Balaam could only speak God's words.

I can't speak for all preachers, only for this one. Unless I stay focused on the Lord and his word, I can be tempted to say what others want to hear. Paul warned Timothy of preachers who would say anything to please itching ears.

Today we have men and women proclaiming the word of God but with tactical omissions and twists so as not to offend anyone. Whether they are trying to build a religious empire or just stay in the good graces of their listeners, they preach something that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are telling Balak what he wants to hear.

For all the ridicule Balaam gets for missing the Lord when the Lord was standing right in front of him waving a sword, Balaam gets kudos for this. He would go on to speak four oracles to Balak on behalf of the Lord that clearly were not what the king wanted to hear.

Every Christian - not just the preachers and ministers - is called by God to speak his word into this world.

Don't get distracted.

Don't water down the message.

Don't change the gospel.

A Man, a Donkey, and the Lord

Are you familiar with the biblical story of Balaam's donkey? The king of Moab was a guy named Balak. He had watched the Hebrew people rout his neighbors and was afraid they might do the same to his and his people. So Balak called for Balaam because he knew that a curse upon the Hebrews from Balaam would end the uprising. God spoke to Balaam during the night telling him to speak only God's words to Balak.

When Balaam went with Balak's messengers the next morning, the angel of the Lord appeared in the middle of the road to block his path. Only Balaam's donkey saw the Lord - Balaam and the messengers did not. The donkey turned off the road into a field.

After Balaam got the donkey back on track they continued on. The Lord again appeared along a narrow path between rock walls. The donkey crushed Balaam's foot against the wall. Balaam beat the donkey.

Once more headed down the path, the Lord appears a third time and the donkey laid down in the road. Balaam was angry and began to beat the donkey. Then something amazing happened. God opened the mouth of the donkey, it turned its head, and spoke to Balaam: "Why are you beating me?"

Then something REALLY amazing happened: Balaam spoke back to the donkey! The Bible records no reaction of surprise or fear. He just talked back. They had a conversation just like two people who had a dispute. But this was a man and a donkey!

Do you sometimes let your emotions get in the way of seeing what God is doing?