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Romans 8 is arguably the grandest chapter in the Bible. It begins by reminding us that there is no more condemnation for those in Christ and it ends by assuring us that nothing can separate us from God’s love. It’s kind of hard to improve on that. But Romans 8 doesn’t just begin and end with a bang. It has fireworks throughout. Virtually every verse is a goldmine of spiritual truth.

There are two times in Romans 8 when Paul uses the phrase “we know.” That phrase is used about 13 times in the whole book, and two of those are in the 8th chapter. That phrase translated “we know”, which is used 13 times in the book of Romans does not mean “we hope” or “we wish” or “we want” or “we guess” or “we desire” or “most likely”. No. It means “we know”. It’s a settled assurance. It’s a solid confidence. Paul speaks with conviction and unshakeable certainty.

But what are the two things that Paul is absolutely sure about? Consider these two verses:

Romans 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

It seems to me that Paul asserts two things in this chapter that he has a settled confidence about: Life is hard and God is good.

Numerous people have asked me, “Pastor, what do you think the New Year will hold for us? Are times going to get a lot tougher for believers? Are we in the last of the last of the last days? Is the cosmic battle going to heat up big time in 2010?

Listen, I don’t know much about what’s coming, but I’m very confident of this: the people who will represent Jesus the best in 2010 are the people who have a solid, settled conviction about two things: Life is hard and God is good.

Do you know that? Do you have that solid conviction?

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Christmas Eve… I love this time of year. The nostalgia of Christmas is a precious feeling, as memories of Christmases long ago flood through my mind and stir the emotions. The fun of being with my own family reminds me of how incredibly blessed I am.

Being a preacher, however, my mind seems to always go quickly to the real meaning of this season. It is, after all, the traditional time for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. All Christians cherish that. It is, like Easter, a holiday that is uniquely ours as Christ-followers.

One of my favorite Christmas stories appeared in Time magazine in 2008. During the presidential election, John McCain was asked by Time Magazine to share his “personal journey of faith.” McCain said: “When I was a prisoner of war in Vietnam…my captors would tie my arms behind my back and then loop the rope around my neck and ankles so that my head was pulled down between my knees. I was often left like that throughout the night. One night a guard came into my cell. He put his finger to his lips signaling for me to be quiet and then loosened my ropes to relieve my pain. The next morning, when his shift (was about to end), the guard returned and retightened the ropes, never saying a word to me.”

“A month or so later, on Christmas Day, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when, I saw that same guard approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me, not looking or smiling at me. Then he used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas, even in the darkness of a Vietnamese prison camp” (Time Magazine 8/18/08; “A Light Amid the Darkness”).

Only Christ could turn enemies into friends and fear into peace. He is the light in the darkness. He is the reason we celebrate.

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Are you a leaner or a lifter?

Has God given you the chance to touch somebody’s life this season? Can you spend some time with them mentoring and helping coach them through challenging situations? Can you use your talents to help encourage and lift someone today? It may be your family. It may be a friend or even a stranger. But our attitude must be: such as I have …I give to you. That kind of person is a “lifter.”

“Leaners” on the other hand are always taking. They tend to ask, “What’s in this for me?” If there is nothing for them, they don’t get involved.

But lifters are always looking for a way to make to make a difference. They will find some way to care, some way to share: write a note, call you on the phone, encourage you, say a kind word. This kind of person will always find a way to boost the people who are around.

Ella Wilcox said it better than I ever could. She said,
“There are two kinds of people on earth today,
Just two kinds of people, no more, I say.
Not the good and the bad, for ‘tis well understood
That the good are half-bad and the bad half-good.
No! The two kinds of people on earth I mean
Are the people who lift and the people who lean.”

Christmas is about a God who is a “lifter.” He entered this world to lift us out of our pit of sin and plant our feet on a rock. He came to give something you could never buy with a Macy’s charge card. In fact, His Salvation can’t be bought. But it can be received. And when you receive Christ He begins to change you from the inside out. And that’s when you know you’re truly changing!

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OF LIFE AND LEGACY

I’m part of a pastors’ group of six that meets monthly. Recently a dear friend and fellow pastor who has been in our group for eleven years shared that he has accepted another pastoral assignment in Connecticut. Chad’s new responsibilities begin with the New Year. Each of us wished him well, prayed for him and his family, and shared a few words about what his friendship has meant to us through the years. It was a moving moment.

As Chad goes, he is leaving a legacy at Mountainview Evangelical Free Church. He is also leaving a legacy with us.

The whole thing caused me to think: what legacy am I leaving? Unlike Chad, I’m not going to another church or moving out of state. I hope to spend a life-time at Grace Fellowship. But whenever and however my “leaving” occurs, what impact or legacy will be left behind?

Frankly, that question has pursued, indeed hounded, me for years. If a life leaves no footprint… was it really worth living? If the world has not been made a better place for someone… was my presence really needed? Why did I bother to take up space for those years and breathe the air?

The problem with an inordinate fixation on legacy is that I don’t have control of it. Frankly, I’ve come to believe that I’m not responsible for the legacy I leave behind. Really. What I am responsible for is my faithfulness to my calling.

If, as I faithfully steward my life, a deep and profound legacy is created, wonderful!

If, as I faithfully steward my life, a paltry and almost imperceptible legacy is created, that’s okay, too.

I can only be responsible for my part of the equation, faithfulness. The sum product (ie. legacy) lies in God’s hands.

Bottom line: I’ve stopped worrying so much about legacy. It doesn’t dominate my thoughts as it once did. Now, I simply seek to be as faithful to God’s will and calling each day as I can possibly be. The results I leave with God.

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EMBRACING YOUR ASSIGNMENT

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my assignment in life. By “assignment” I mean one’s general situation in life, the thing to which God has called you. The assignment you have right now is God ordained! It includes the family you have. It includes your socioeconomic status. It includes your work place or the school you attend. It includes the neighborhood where you live and even the tough things that are happening to you. All of that is a part of your “assignment” from God. And we are to represent Jesus joyfully where we are, in the midst of our assignment.

Now let’s be honest… that’s easier said than done, right? Why? Because some assignments feel pretty rotten. Let’s say you are in a prison, either figuratively or literally. Listen, if you turn that self-induced mess over to God, he will take it and begin to use it. Now, you are still stuck in prison, figuratively or literally, but now that God has been given control again of your life he can begin to use this whole situation for your good and his glory. Why? Because there are people in prison who need to be reconciled to God, right? And they need to see modeled before them how a Christian would live in that situation. They need to see a real Christian in action.

So if you are struggling with economic failures, emotional failures, a broken marriage or your kids are rebelling and breaking your heart, or you have parents that frustrate the daylights out of you, God is saying “Look, just give me control. There are others in this situation who need to see how a real Christian lives in the midst of this. I’ve put you there to represent me well. This is your special assignment right now.” Joyfully embrace your assignment even if you don’t like it. If you have a chip on your shoulder you’re not representing Jesus well.

Frankly, it’s easy to get a chip on our shoulder. I mean, given the choice between being ambassador to Paris, France or Kabul, Afghanistan is it really that hard to choose? Most of us are going for Paris. Yet some of you feel like you are in Kabul. We say, “But Lord, I don’t like my assignment! I want to be in Paris. Paris has all that great artwork and fine architecture and food. Kabul has sand and rocks! Where are all the museums and fun things to do?”

Listen, as an ambassador you are pretty worthless when you have a chip on your shoulder. The same thing is true spiritually. We must joyfully embrace our assignment.

Let me share with you one of the most powerful principles I’ve learned about living for God. God is generally into this thing called “blooming where you’re planted.” In 1 Corinthians 7:17 and 1 Corinthians 7:20-22 he says essentially this: “Hey, are you single, are you in a job you really don’t like, are you married, don’t fight it. Be the best you can be in that role. Embrace your assignment. Don’t be spending too much energy trying to change assignments. Spend most of your energy on blooming where you are. Even though this season of life is tough, God is using you there for a specific purpose.”

You may ask, “But what if I really don’t like my current assignment?” If you want to go from Kabul to Paris the best way for the Lord to say “Okay, we are going to Paris” is to succeed in Kabul. But to be bitter and fail in Kabul is not going to open the door for Paris. It will likely mean you’ll be called back home. A promotion to Paris doesn’t come after a failure in Kabul. Jesus said if you are faithful with a few things I’ll put you in charge of many. If you are faithful with little I’ll put you in charge of much. You may desire change but in the meantime embrace your assignment. Bloom where you are.

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Integrity is doing the right thing, especially when it costs us. Our lives speak powerfully for Christ when we live that way.

Now the only way you can really measure integrity is when a person is under pressure. When things are going well you can’t really measure integrity. The only way to measure it is to see them under stress, to see them in a situation where it’s going to cost them to tell the truth or do the right thing. Then you can tell.

In a story called “Catch of a Lifetime”, James Lenfestey tells the story of a life-changing experience an 11 year old boy had with his father. Every year his family would go up to their cabin which was on an island in New Hampshire. The cabin was out in the middle of a gorgeous lake. He loved to fish off of the fishing dock. One day he’s on the fishing dock, it’s the day before bass season opens. Now, as an 11 year old kid he’s not fishing for bass. He’s using worms and he’s fishing for sun fish and perch, things like that. He’s been fishing all day long, it’s almost sunset, and his dad comes out to join him. And they are fishing together off the dock. What a beautiful scene!

Pretty soon the sun is going down, the moon is coming out, it’s a beautiful New Hampshire evening. The moon is glistening off the lake. It’s a special time with a father and son in the quiet of the evening. Pretty soon the son gets bored. He decides he wants to practice his casting. Reaching into the tackle box, he takes out a silver lure, ties it on and begins to cast into the lake just for practice. And this goes on for a while in the quiet of the night… and all of a sudden, his fishing rod doubles over. He doesn’t know what he has but it is huge! And his dad has taught him how to work a fish slowly and skillfully to bring it in until the fish kind of wears himself out. And so he is practicing this, bringing the fish in. His Dad is so proud as he watches his son practice what he has taught him. As he raises the fish out of the water, it’s the most magnificent and the largest fish this boy has ever seen. It’s an enormous bass. And he says there in the moon light I looked at my dad, and my dad looked at me and without saying a word, dad reached into his pants pocket, pulled out some matches and he lit a match and checked his watch. It was ten o’clock. Two hours before bass season started.

The dad said “Son, we are going to have to put this fish back. The boy protested, “but dad”, the dad said “No son, there will be other fish.” “But dad, there won’t be other fish like this fish.” 

And the boy looked around, they were there all alone, nobody in sight on a deserted dock at ten o’clock at night. No other boats on the lake. And he thought, “No one will ever know when I caught this fish.” But as he caught his dad’s eye, he realized this was a non-negotiable. He took the fish and lowered him back in the water and with one swish of his powerful tail this enormous bass was gone forever back in the lake.

The eleven year old boy is now a successful architect in New York City. His dad has since died, but he still owns that cabin in New Hampshire. Every year he takes his son and two daughters there and he has taught them how to fish off that same dock. And he says, “I have never, ever caught a fish that magnificent again. But I still see that fish over and over again when as an architect I come up against a tough issue of integrity. Every time I’m under a deadline and I’m tempted to cut corners on drawings. Every time I come up with insight or insider information and I can make a lot of money in the stock market. Every time when it’s ten o’clock on the dock of my life and no one else is around” he said “I see that fish and I remember the lesson my father taught me that integrity is about doing the right thing especially when it costs you.”

Wow! I like that. And it’s true.

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Perhaps the greatest character quality for an effective Christian life is integrity. Integrity means that there is a wholeness about our lives, a thorough integration of our beliefs and behavior. We are consistent.

Paul uses a special word picture in 2 Corinthians 1:12 that has always meant a lot to me. He says, “Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God’s grace.”

Paul says look, “I know there are these critics that are attacking my integrity but I have a clear conscience and I’m telling you we have been on the up and up, we have been sincere, our motives have been holy and I’m promising you that I’m the real deal.”

The word translated “sincerity” in that verse comes from a compound Greek word that literally means “sunshine judged.” The ancients made fine porcelain vases that were very expensive. Sometimes when a vase was heated in the kiln, it would crack. Dishonest merchants would pour pearly white wax over the cracks which would hide the flaws unless the vases were taken outside of the dark shops and held up in the bright sunlight. It was only then, in the revealing light of the sun that the cracks would be obvious. So, honest merchants would advertise their porcelain “heilikrinos” — sunshine judged. In other words, without wax, no cracks, no covering of the flaws. That’s the kind of integrity God wants in us. When sincerity flow from our lives, there’s no deception or embellishing the truth for personal advantage. Paul says, “My life is sunshine-judged.” Can we say that of ourselves?

There’s a great book from 2001 called Lessons from the Top: The 50 Most Successful Business Leaders in America—and What You can Learn from Them by Thomas Neff and James Citrin. Through the guidance of Gallup Poll surveys and other sources, the authors studied who they felt were the top fifty business leaders in the US. Some of them are household names like Bill Gates. Some of the names you would not recognize. But based on the finest research available, these were deemed the top business leaders in the United States. The authors went to each leader, interviewed them and asked “What took you to the top? What has made you so successful?” And the fifty chapters in the book reflect those responses.

At the end of the book the authors collate everything they’ve learned from these fifty people, and they ask “What are the top lessons we can learn about being a successful leader? And they reduced it to six principles that all of these leaders had in common. Do you know what number one was?

The number one principle of becoming a great leader:
“To live with integrity and lead by example.”

Those are their words, not mine. Wow, think about that. The number one quality: to live with integrity and lead by example.

When disciples of Jesus live that way, we are letting our lives be our ministry.

Who do you want to influence? If you want to impact people for Christ, it is imperative that they believe in you and your integrity first. People usually buy into you before they buy into Christ. Your message will always be heard in context with your character.

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Many people feel a sense of futility about letting their life be their ministry in the workplace. They may say, “My work is a place where I can’t really make a difference. I really don’t have much influence.” But God wants to use you whatever you’re doing, wherever you’re at, to be a light.

Back on June 24 of this year we got a message from a couple that used to attend Grace but have moved out of state because of work. Their names are Jim & Denis Sherman. This illustrates what awesome things can happen when we let our light shine in the workplace. I asked their permission to share this story. It is written in their own words.

Hello there! My wife & I use to attend Grace before we came to Virginia. We live at Fort Belvior now, and still have our house in Round Lake for us when we return someday. Ok let me just say years ago a contractor named Bill Benson, who I did business with through a building supply company I work through, came up to me & said “Do you believe in Jesus?”. It made me feel weird to be questioned like that, you see I just met Bill that day & was trying to sell him siding, not bibles, so I was lost for words but said “yes I do.”

Well that answer was half hearted and Bill probably saw through it. He said “what are you doing this week after work?” Well my wife was in Iraq & I really didn’t have much going on so I said “nothing”. He said there was a “MALE BIBLE STUDY” and I should come as his guest. I was scared at this male bible study-thing, mainly because I had no clue what it was & really didn’t believe in having faith or God in my life, or at least I thought.

I went, it was different to me seeing guys coming together over studying the Bible and not a football game or something else that guys circle around like crazy fans hanging on each play or word. I sat & listened. Then, Sunday came around & I went to Sunday’s service & saw Rex & the band & many different people around me worshipping. That was different in a good way because I was feeling at ease and enjoying it all. That was really great news to my wife in Iraq when I told her over the phone. She always had faith and God in her life. She always prayed that I would give faith & God a chance. I never thought that way & wasn’t looking for it. But I found Grace Fellowship & kept going until my wife came home from Iraq. Then for the first time in our relationship we went to a Sunday service together. She loved the place, the band, the people, Rex, and the message. We kept going & during this time God blessed us with a beautiful baby boy named Devin. The first time we took him there he was only a few weeks old, we sat towards the back in the dark singing the songs with everyone, and it felt great.

Well shortly after this my wife was offered a position at headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. That was a blessing. We have been here one year and we often talk about home. But what has surprised me is really how much I miss Grace Fellowship and the message I got from you all. That there is a place for me, that worshipping God isn’t always what you think or heard about from others, and that if you just come has you are & let go of the “whatevers” that is holding you back from true happiness and let God into your life, then you will understand “TRUE HAPPINESS”. We miss Grace Fellowship a lot! That’s true! But we didn’t miss the message you sent us while we were there. We have faith & God in our family because of your message. I just wanted to say thank you to Bill Benson, Rex, Grace Fellowship, and God for giving us that. God Bless you all. Jim & Denis Sherman

Well, Bill, we call him “wild Bill”, wasn’t real subtle about his faith. He just kind of went for the jugular: “Do you know Jesus?”  And God honored that. Bill Benson, in his own way, was representing Jesus Christ in the work place. He was letting his life be his ministry.

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Patrick thought he was going to a mere garage sale. God had a larger purpose in mind.

The elderly couple who lived there were at odds. Although married for decades they hardly spoke. The wounds and neglect of years had calcified into a cold war. Even the yard sale bore signs of division: his items in this pile, hers in that.

Patrick asked questions. He got to know them a bit. This stranger dared to care for an elderly couple who were obviously living in pain.

Patrick was building a bridge of love that Jesus could walk across.

He was able to go back, and then back again.

The end of the story is not yet written, but Patrick is letting his life be his ministry. He needed no church program to schedule it, no pastor to tell him to reach out. All he needed was a heart of love open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

When we see our life as our ministry, life becomes a great adventure. Every day brings new possibilities. The mission stays as fresh as each new day, dripping with transformative possibilities.

That’s the kind of life God wants for us.

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