7.29.2014

A Step Ladder and the Great Commission

Last night our church kicked off our first night of VBS and it was great night of ministry. However something funny happened during the evening that after thinking about it became instructional for us as followers of Christ and as a church.  There was a light bulb that needed to be changed in the stairwell leading up to the fellowship hall.  I was asked if we had a step ladder or stool somewhere so that we could get the bulb changed. I thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t think we have one anywhere.” However in the back of my mind I could have sworn there was one somewhere.  Later that evening I was talking with my wife, Holly, about needing to get a step ladder or stool so we could get that bulb changed before then next night of VBS.  Much to my surprise she said, “You have one in your office.” At first I thought she was mistaken but then she said, “It has a bunch of papers and stuff on it, but there’s a step ladder in your office.”  And she was right. Just to the left of my desk is a small step ladder and it did have stacks of papers on it.

Now why is that instructional for us as followers of Christ and as a local church?  For three years that step ladder had been in my office and for three years I had used it as a makeshift shelf to hold papers and other stuff.  I had gotten so use to using it for that purpose that I had completely forgotten what it actually was and how it was supposed to be used!   So much so that I didn't even realize I had a step ladder in my office!  Our lives as followers of Christ and our life as a local church can be like that step ladder sometimes.  For years we go on living our lives or operating as a “church” in ways that God never intended our lives to be used for or in ways for the church to operate.  That doesn't necessarily mean we are using our lives or living as a church in bad ways or not doing good things.  There was nothing inherently wicked about papers sitting on the step ladder in my office.  However it wasn't being used how it was designed to be used and therefore things, like replacing the bulb, were left undone, the very things that a step ladder is designed to help fix. 


If we were to take an honest look at our lives individually as followers of Christ and collectively as a local church, how much would  they resemble that step ladder in my office? Are we living our lives and living as a church for the purpose for which God designed us to be used or are we doing a lot of good things, but not the best thing, the very thing God has purposed our lives individually and collectively to accomplish?  God has designed us and His Church to live lives as followers of Jesus Christ making disciples of our neighbors and the nations for His glory. 

The light bulb is now changed because the ladder was used how it was designed to be used.  The question is, "Will our neighborhoods and the nations be changed because our lives and our church is used by God the way it was designed to be used?"

6.02.2014

A Rare Moment On the Soapbox



             I rarely do this, but let me vent about something I recently witnessed on television. I’m not just venting. I have a point to make so bear with me. A few weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon, I sat down to watch some T.V. as I usually do after the Sunday morning service.  This is usually a time where I will watch some sports and doze in and out of sleep from time to time.  Well, on this particular Sunday afternoon, it was sort of a dead time in the sports world.  Nothing was coming on that interested me until later in the afternoon. Therefore, I hunted something to watch. I stumbled upon a well-known preacher and his Sunday morning service and figured I’d listen to his sermon.  I’ve listened to this preacher before and typically enjoyed his sermons though it had been a long time since I had listened to him. And he is a man who has an exceptional ministry and who by and large is a much better preacher than I am.  However, I must have just caught the program on the wrong day because what I watched/listened to for the next thirty minutes was not what I had tuned in to see.

              I had chosen to watch/listen to channel because I knew this man to be a man of the Word and so I wanted to hear a good message from God ‘s Word, something that preachers rarely get to do or make themselves to do.  However, what I got for the next thirty minutes was a talk on the current state of our economic status as a country and basically a political diatribe against our current administration’s economic policy with a story or two from the Bible thrown in for good measure.   I concluded after listening to the sermon that I could have received the same message by watching the Fox News Channel.   At least there, I would have not been disappointed with what I heard because that’s what you go to Fox News to hear. 

             And that’s my point. You don’t come to church or listen to a preacher to hear a political diatribe or to hear what you could hear at someplace else in the culture whether it’s from the entertainment industry or political pundits. You come to church and you listen to a preacher to hear something or someone different. You come expecting to hear a word from God through the Bible. You come expecting to hear a message that you cannot hear anywhere else because the only place God has entrusted that message to is His Church and the men He has given as undershepherds  to proclaim that message.   And that message is the Gospel of Jesus Christ found in the story of the Bible, God’s Word.  

             I hope and pray that is what you come to hear each week at wherever you attend church. And I hope and pray that if that’s what you desire to hear week in and week out, that you will never leave disappointed.  However, if you do, and I was the pastor who disappointed you in that way, let me know so I can kick my own self in the rear end.  

Ok, I have descended from the soapbox. 

4.17.2014

Heave IS for Real, But The Book Is Not

Keep this in mind as the movie Heaven Is For Real is released this week.



1.04.2014

A New "Normal?"



Hopefully by now we’ve all recovered from all of the eating we’ve done over the past few weeks between Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  Usually a few days after eating “holiday food” during Thanksgiving and Christmas I am just ready to go and get some fast food from somewhere. Give me a cheeseburger!    This time of the year is unique in that we eat certain foods and amounts of certain foods only at this time of the year.  But after a while, we get tired of it and just want a sense of normalcy.  We want to just eat the kinds and amounts of food we are used to eating. We want the living room back to how it usually is decorated and all the furniture in the right place. And if we’re honest, we want it just to be our family again. We have people overload and just want it quiet and calm and normal. 
 
Likewise, from a ministry perspective this time of year gives a local church unique once in a year opportunities to reach out to our community with the Good News of the Gospel.  Both the kinds of outreaches we do and the “amount” of outreaches we do intensify during this season of the year.  


However, there’s a difference in the feasting on ministry and outreach that we do that is unique to this time of year as opposed to the feasting we do on food and other unique aspects of the Holiday Season.  The Thanksgiving and Christmas food along with the decorations, presents, as well as the family and friends we spend time with are all not the norm. We only do this once a year. And then we return to normalcy.  And when it comes to the ministry opportunities we engage in over these months, there is sometimes a sense when January 1st rolls around of, “Glad that’s behind us, now things can get back to normal.”   But what if that is the “normal” for the local church and Christians.  Is it possible that what’s abnormal are the other eleven months of the year where we don’t put in the same intentional effort in prayer, giving, sharing, planning, sacrificing to reach our community and the world with the Gospel?

Maybe as we approach a new year and make new resolutions that one of the ones we need to make, maybe the most important one as a local church, is a commitment to a “new normal” when it comes to ministry and outreach to lost people.  Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:15, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” Christmas is about Jesus coming to save sinners, but He didn’t just come to save sinners for the month of December.  Therefore, throughout the entire year, every month and every day of our lives,  let us live and love, give and go like Jesus came to save sinners  and intentionally pray and work to join Jesus in pursuing sinners in need of a Savior.

11.19.2013

Identifying Sick Churches & Moving Towards Healing



Thom Rainer, President and CEO of LifeWay Christian resources has recently written a series of helpful posts on how to identify whether or not a local church is sick (here)and then what it will take to see her become healthy once again (here).

Thom estimates that about 40% of churches in America are in the very sick stage, which is one stage away from dying.

The following are the indicators to tell if a church is very sick:
 
  • Significant numerical decline over the past ten to twenty years. Most of the time we measure worship attendance for this metric.
  • Prolonged times of apathy. Occasional times of intense conflict. The church seems more apathetic than anything else, but conflict can arise with surprising intensity.
  • The church is not known in the community. Ask a clerk at a store in the community. You may be surprised how few even know the church exists.
  • New members are rare. The exodus clearly exceeds the inflow.
  • Revolving door of pastors. Frustration and conflict limit the years of pastoral tenure.
  • The “good old days” are typically twenty or more years in the past. There has been a long season since anyone felt really good about the church.
In the follow up post, Thom lists four steps forward for very sick churches. They include:

  1. The church must admit and confess its dire need. Most churches move toward death because they refuse to acknowledge their condition. Sometimes a single leader will be used of God to move the church in this positive direction.
  2. The church must pray for wisdom and strength to do whatever is necessary. The change will not be easy. Many will resist it.
  3. The church must be willing to change radically. Frankly, this point is usually the point of greatest resistance. The church has to change decades of cumulative problem behaviors in a very short time.
  4. That change must lead to action and an outward focus. When a church begins to act positively with this radical change, it has essentially become a new church. It is not the church of old that refused to change and move forward.
The task of seeing a sick church become healthy once again is a large one, but Jesus said, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26)


10.21.2013

A Present Lesson From a Past Pain



We are currently holding a series of meetings entitled, “Revival & Revitalization: Whatever You Ask.”  Our focus is to seek the Lord for revival in our lives individually and revitalization as a church collectively, to be willing to do whatever the Lord asks of us related to both of these areas.  What is “Church Revitalization?”  Church revitalization is simply being used of the Lord to take a dying, struggling or plateaued church and see it infused with new life and new effectiveness in reaching its community and world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

In thinking recently about Church Revitalization and what it takes to turn a church around and see new life breathed into it, I was reminded of a very personal story that I think sheds light on two specific essential components to any attempt at Church Revitalization.  I want to share that personal story and then point out these two necessary components from that story that relate to Church Revitalization. 
 
I have Crohn’s Disease.  If you don’t have any idea what that is, then you can find out here. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was in middle school. I’m approaching 40 so I can’t remember the exact age. I fought off and on battles with the disease throughout middle school with many different medication treatments etc., with not so nice side effects. In High School I was fairly fortunate because the disease went into remission and I was able to enjoy most of my High School years free from any major flare ups.  
 


However, that all ended shortly after I graduated from High School. The disease began slowly coming out of remission and before long I was in a full blown flare up and things began to escalate rather quickly and severely. To make a very long story short I began living in very intense pain most days. I got to the point where eating was no longer just not fun, but in some cases just not worth it. I began losing weight at a quick rate, to the tune of between 60-70 pounds over a six to eight month period.  I was malnourished and in pain most of the time.

Things were not good and getting worse. And my mother knew it better than anyone. She’s the one who took care of me.   And you can imagine what that would be like as a mother to be watching your only son wasting away from a disease that was attempting to take his life. The doctor that I had at that time was not a very aggressive doctor when it came to treating Crohn’s Disease.  He was fairly adamant about sticking to a philosophy of treatment that centered around medication. The only problem was that I had tried about every medication there was and nothing was working.  As a matter of fact my health got to the point that unbeknownst to me my mother went out and purchased a burial plot for me in the event she lost the battle of fighting for my life. 

But even though things were horrible and getting worse, thankfully I had a mother who would not give up on her son.  She took me back to the doctor who had originally diagnosed me with Crohn’s Disease some six or seven years prior.  He examined me. My mom explained to him how things had progressed and the frustration we had with our current doctor.  And she explained to him that she couldn’t just watch her son die. There had to be something else that could be done. 

Thankfully there was.  The doctor explained to her that it was possible that we could go in and remove all of my large intestine along with anything else that was contaminated with the disease (and there were other things). My way of living would be altered for the rest of my life due to having to remove multiple digestive organs. But, he felt like if we did this then I could start anew and have a real chance to survive and live.  And so that’s what we did. In October of 1996, seventeen years ago (Praise the Lord!) I went into a 8+ hour surgery that did in fact alter my life permanently but spared my life. Now, I’ve had surgeries since then and probably will have surgeries at some point in the future. But the point is that I’ve lived for seventeen years. And in that seventeen years, God has saved me through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve gotten married to the most amazing woman in the world. God has given me three beautiful children. God has allowed me to be a pastor for the past twelve years and make such amazing friends in so many places and see lives changed.  And my mom has been able to watch and enjoy all of it and never used that burial plot she purchased for me seventeen years ago.

There’s one point of the story I left out, which I’ll share now and then I’ll point out the two necessary components of Church Revitalization that are connected with this personal story.  What I left out was that when we had that conversation with the doctor who originally diagnosed me with Crohns and he told us of the one option that was available to us, my mom asked him this question, “Why didn’t you tell us about this before?”  And I don’t remember the exact words of his answer (remember, I’m close to 40), but it went something along these lines, “Because Philip and you had to be ready for something so drastic. The more dire the circumstance, the more open Philip would be to do what was needed to live and that would make the entire process easier and successful.”  You see in my story in order for me to live there were two things that were needed. First, I had to have a mom who would not give up on me and who refused to sit around and watch me die. And thank the Lord, I did.  Secondly, I had to come to the point where the pain of change was actually less than the pain associated with staying the same, which in my case was dying.
 
What does this have to do with Church Revitalization?  Statistics tell us that as many as 80% of churches in North America are plateaued or declining, which is just a nice word for dying.   What will it take for those churches to live and not die?  It will not happen unless, by God’s grace, there are those two same needed components.   First, there must be leadership that refuses to sit around and watch the church die.  And that leadership starts, I believe, with your pastors and staff.  They must resist the temptation to just throw up their hands and say, “There’s no hope” and watch the church shut its doors.  Secondly, the church must come to the realization that the pain of change and what it will cost to see revitalization take place is actually much less painful than the pain associated with watching and experiencing the slow death of the church body.   Ed Stetzer, local church pastor and President of LifeWay Research says it this way, “People never change until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change.  And it’s the same with churches. Churches never change until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change.


And so if you are a pastor of a church that needs revitalization, don’t quit. Keep fighting for the life of Christ’s church because He is. And if you are a member of a church that needs revitalization, which pain is better? The pain of staying the same or the pain of change?  



8.12.2013

"Lord, Why Was I a Guest?"

There will be no patting ourselves on the back for our faith in heaven.


4.12.2013

Don't Waste Your Aneurysm






I know that’s not very creative. If it sounds familiar it should. I’ve borrowed it from John Piper’s little booklet, Don’t Waste Your Cancer which he wrote during his battle with prostate cancer. It’s a great little booklet that looks at ways you will waste your battle with cancer if you don’t look at it through the lens of Scripture.   Well, I don’t think I could improve upon that title so forgive me for borrowing it for my purposes here. 

Last September we found out that I had an enlarged aortic root or an aortic root aneurysm.  My cardiologist referred me to a cardiothoracic surgeon for what I thought was just to jump through some hoops for life insurance companies and I left the appointment having just heard that more than likely I would have to have open heart surgery sometime in the near or distant future.  I was floored and I don’t get floored easily.  I had not brought Holly along with me because I thought the appointment was just a formality. I was wrong. That day was a day of numbness to the news. That night was a night of panic. No literally, I thought I was going to have a panic attack. I laid my head down that night to fall asleep and it literally felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I’m sure it was mostly psychosomatic, but still it wasn’t a fun night.  The next morning was one of fear and tears.  I finally “lost it” while taking a shower. I composed my tears by the time I made my way into the kitchen to fix my breakfast, but once I sat down, the fear and emotions began to well up once again. Holly noticed and asked me what was wrong. And I said something to her that I’ve maybe said once or twice to her before in our twelve years of marriage—or maybe never. I said, “I’m scared.”  I wasn’t scared of the possibility of surgery. I’ve been through multiple major surgeries before. Though as I learned more about what all was involved in open heart surgery, I became a little fearful at that as well. No, that morning my fear was not for me. My fear was for my family.  What would happen to them if I fell in the 5% category of people where something goes wrong during or after the surgery? I was terrified for them and thought of leaving my wife and three children  without a husband and father.  I hope I am no longer “fearful” of that because we are not supposed to be afraid. One of the most common refrains from God is, “Fear not.”  However, while it may not be “fear” any longer, it will never be less than shear brokenness at the thought of my family—wife, children, mom, etc., having to deal with that kind of loss. 

In a month we would do a repeat CT scan to see how much the aneurysm had grown over the past year. (Random thought: six months ago I would have mistyped “aneurysm” nine times out of ten, but now it’s as memorized as “Philip”) The scan showed that it had grown from 4.3/4.4cm to 4.6/4.7cm. Five centimeters is the cutoff mark for surgery—the point at which the risks of letting it stay there are greater than the risk associated with surgery.  The plan of action was to wait six months and repeat the scan, see how much it had grown and go from there.

The next six months got easier—especially the first five. We went on with our lives though never a day would go by that I didn’t think about it. Still doesn’t.  But it got easier to deal with and “put on the back burner.”  Then March rolled around and the anxiety and curiosity and all sorts of other emotions crept back in.   We waited for what seemed like forever for a “date”—the next CT Scan date. Finally, April 10th was the day.  My mom and her husband, as well as my grandmother came into town to be with us for whatever news we received.   Our church family now and those from every other church family we have ever been a part of waited anxiously, as well as our biological families.  On April 10th we would have the CT scan and then immediately go over to the doctor’s office to get the results and go from there. The day before the surgeon’s office called and said that my surgeon would be in surgery that morning and so he would have to call us with the results. I know that’s a small thing, but it seemed like just one more thing that was making us wait.

Finally around 9:50am on April 10th I had the CT scan. CT scans are a breeze, minus the fact that you feel like you are peeing on yourself.  Thankfully, you are not. We left and headed back home and waited. And waited. I called the surgeon’s office around 12:30 to see if he had read the results and thankfully, he had. Now, here’s how we had been praying. “Lord, our first choice is that you will just take this aneurysm away. Let the CT scan show that it’s gone, vanished. That would be really nice. Lord, our second choice is that you would stop it from growing, forever.  And lastly, Lord if it’s your will that it has progressed to the point of needing surgery, may the surgery go well, during and after, and give us grace to sustain us whatever may happen.” We were trusting in His power to heal me, but resting in His wisdom should He choose not to do so.

Back to the results.   The surgeon said that there had been no change in the size of the aneurysm. As a matter of fact the scan actually read that it might be a little smaller, though he didn’t believe it was getting smaller. It definitely wasn’t any larger and so we would wait a full year, repeat the scan and go from there.  Now, I like to believe that the Lord made it smaller. Maybe He didn’t, but He could have.  Another explanation for the potential “decrease” is that there is some human error involved in this in terms of reading the scans and one radiologist may look at it one way and another one a different way and get a slightly different measurement.

I had taken this phone call in the bedroom and so I went into the living room where my mom, step-dad, grandmother, and Holly were waiting.  I told them the good news and we were all very relieved and thankful.  However, there was another emotion I felt, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time.  The next morning I figured it out.  And I hope you won’t think I’m crazy when you read what I’m going to share next.   I came to realize that for some reason the other emotion that I felt was disappointment. WHAT?  Now I wasn’t disappointed in the fact that my chest would not have to be cracked open, at least for another year. No, it wasn’t that.  But what was it? I definitely wouldn’t want to think that the disappointment was due to the loss of attention and concern from others over my condition. That can happen. I made sure that wasn’t it and it wasn’t’. 

So, what was the cause of this disappointment?  Now we get back to the title of this already way too long post, “Don’t Waste Your Aneurysm.”  What the Lord had done over the past six months was given me this aneurysm to make me utterly dependent on Him.  At the time I was writing a sermon from Genesis on the passage of Jacob wrestling with God. It’s better to label that passage, “God Wrestles with Jacob” because it’s God who picks the fight with Jacob, not the other way around. And in picking that fight  with Jacob, God was beating something out of Jacob—Jacob’s independence and self-sufficiency and lack of faith in God and too much faith in himself.  With this aneurysm, God was/is doing a thousand different things in my life and the lives of others. I don’t think anything we go through in life that passes from the hand of God or through the hand of God is ever given to us just to accomplish one thing.  But one of the things was definitely using the aneurysm to beat self-sufficiency and independence out of me. Unfortunately it’s not the first time God’s picked this fight with me. Evidently I’m a slow learner. I hope that is changing. 

But that was definitely the product of these past six months. Utter helplessness, and complete dependency on God to help us either by healing me or sustaining us through the worst possible outcomes.  And a part of that dependency on Him was expressed through dependency upon His people, the Church. We did not share everything right away with everyone. However, around February we decided it was time to let everyone else know—church family, other church families, extended families, Facebook friends, everyone. Why? It was getting closer to the next scan and people deserved to know. But personally, selfishly, I was tired of bearing the burden without the full support and prayers of God’s people. And so we shared it far and wide because we wanted people to pray with and for us. And they/you did. And it was a very tangible expression of the dependency upon God that God was gifting us with over the past six months. 

And that kind of dependency is a sweet, sweet thing.  I probably would have said early on that this aneurysm was a bitter providence of the Lord. And in many ways it still is. But I can also say now that it is a sweet providence of the Lord because of the dependency it was instilling in me and the self-sufficiency it was beating out of me.  And that’s just what God brings afflictions in our lives to accomplish. I hate the phrase, “God never puts on us more than we can carry.” Why do I hate it? Because it’s a lie! It’s taken from a misunderstanding of a passage from 1 Corinthians about temptation to sin, not suffering.  Here is what is a much more biblical thing to say: God delights in giving us more than we can bear. Why? Listen to how Paul in 2 Corinthians 1 answers that question:


 “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11 ESV) 

Paul says they were burdened beyond their strength. They had more on them than they could carry.  And what was the purpose of that: to make them rely not on themselves but on God who raises the dead.  Satan doesn’t want us to rely less on ourselves and more on the God who raises the dead. That’s a desire that God has for us. And so the afflictions that Paul refers to here were afflictions given to him from the hand of God in order to beat self-reliance out of Paul and instill in Him a more sure God-dependency. 

Charles Spurgeon who dealt with much physical and emotional affliction said this,
 

“I dare say the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness. . . . Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister's library.” 

Why? Because sickness ,or any other kind of affliction, teaches us to be less independent and more God-dependent.  And that’s just what the Lord had been doing with me for the past six months.  And as much as I didn’t want my chest to be opened up and go through the physical pain of the surgery along with the recovery, still I knew that as difficult as it might be it would mean more of God’s purpose in this aneurysm of teaching me to rely less on myself and more on the Lord.

That was the reason of the disappointment that I felt.  I was happy that I was not going to go through surgery. But I was disappointed because it felt like this bitterly sweet providence of God was being removed. And if open heart surgery is what it takes to make me more dependent on God and less on myself, then open heart surgery is a blessing not a curse.  I know that sounds crazy, but I hope it doesn’t. Because I don’t feel crazy.

And so now we wait another year and do this all over again, with all the accompanying emotions.  And life will go on and we will think less about it but never a day will go by that I don’t think about it.  I will know every day that I am never more than 3/10ths of a centimeter from having open heart surgery.  So, in a sense it is still a bitterly sweet providence of God that I hope will continue to beat the self-sufficiency out of me and instill greater trust in my Savior, my Lord, and my God.  And when April 2014 rolls around, we will still be praying the same thing: God we trust in your power to heal me but we rest in your wisdom should you choose otherwise. And if He chooses otherwise, I pray that I will welcome the painful journey of open heart surgery as a welcomed friend and blessing from the Lord.  For in fact, as Paul says, “On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.”  Whether that’s in this life or the next is not up to us. 

And so I want to close with two thoughts. First, from Paul in that same passage in 2 Corinthians 1: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many." (2 Corinthians 1:11 ESV)

Secondly, Don’t waste YOUR aneurysm.