Prayer

Back to Seminary after the first of the year, here’s one way you can help!

I will be headed back to seminary again after the first of the year, and as always funds are a concern. This might be a reach, but if you guys have any Amazon gift cards, or are planning on doing any shopping on Amazon it’d really help me out if you’d use this link. You can simply click on it and bookmark it, then use it for all of your Amazon shopping. I’m an Amazon affiliate, which basically means if you buy something through one of my links, I’ll get a few pennies for every dollar you spend. So, if you plan on using Amazon anyway, I’d appreciate you using this link. It won’t cost you anything extra, and It would really help me out.

Thanks for your help, and especially your prayers!

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Don’t Waste Your Sleeplessness

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Last night was my wife’s first night back to work after being out of work for maternity leave. We now have six kids, so I have to confess that I was rather nervous. One would think that after doing this several times it would get easier, but actually it gets more difficult each time. Taking care of an almost 3 month old in addition to 5 other kids is no easy task, so I think my anxiety was somewhat justified.One of the things I was worried about was the thought that the baby probably wouldn’t sleep so well with mama not being around. Our last kid had this very issue up until she was over a year old. I spent many nights up with her while sending my wife not so nice text messages throughout the night. Being tired and needing sleep through the night is one thing, its a whole different animal the next day when you have other little ones needing to be fed, diapered, chased, and loved. Tired daddies are usually grumpy daddies, and unfortunately I am often a good example of this.

Last night though, the baby slept quite well. I on the other hand did not. I’m not quite sure, but perhaps it had to do with that anxiety I just mentioned. I kept listening for every little peep, hoping I wouldn’t hear anything, yet getting nervous when I didn’t. It was a no win for me and sleep last night.

Finally, about 3:30 AM the baby decided to give me something to do and woke up to be fed. As I was sitting there feeding him and wondering if I would be able to make myself sleepy it hit me…”Tonight would’ve been a really good night to spend the night in prayer.”

Usually when I have these sleepless nights I just spend the night doing everything I can think of to make myself sleepy. I suppose there are times where this might be the best course of action. But maybe those sleepless nights, for whatever reason they are sleepless, might be great nights to spend some extra quiet time with God. In our hectic and busy world quiet time isn’t that easy to come by…Maybe those long nights as opposed to being annoyances are actually God’s gracious provision and an invitation into his presence. The Apostle Paul urges us to “pray without ceasing”…I have to confess, I’ve never been very good at this. As one who enjoys and feels called to tell others and preach about Jesus, I’d like to say that my prayer life is an example to others. The fact is, I can’t say that. I sometimes struggle in prayer. Sure I go through seasons of intense prayer…but I also go through times when I get so bogged down in life that prayer gets neglected. I think many of us go through similar periods. Prayer must be a priority in the life of the Christian. A healthy prayer life is a necessity for a healthy Christian. I think this explains my periodic spiritual anemia.

Early this AM however I was given a divine appointment with the Great Physician. I had sweet fellowship with the Lord as I meditated on Psalm 32. As opposed to dragging first thing this morning, being tired and grumpy…My heart is full. It appears my sleepless night was just what my soul needed. I think Jesus knew what He was doing when he himself spent many nights and early mornings alone in prayer while others were sleeping.

Perhaps the next time something is keeping you up, instead of begrudging the sleeplessness, you should see it as an invitation to the throne of grace. Yes, in Christ we have an open invitation…but every now and again, I think we need a reminder. Perhaps that’s what these nights are for. Just a thought.

Now I need a nap.

How to have a successful church…

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Yesterday a friend sent me a link to a video of a performance by a particular well known mega church’s worship band. I am far from a prude, and I have zero issue with modernizing a worship service and playing contemporary music, but this video seriously disturbed me. The video I saw was more akin to a scene from a Broadway show as opposed to worship in a church. The song was a popular song from pop radio, and the stage was filled with dancers jumping around on stage. As far as I could tell, the entire thing had absolutely nothing to do with God, or praising the name of Jesus.

It may sound as if I’m angry. I suppose there is a bit of that going on…but even more than that I was sad. Here was this church that has thousands of attendees. Not only that, even more people tune into this “worship” service online. On top of that the “pastor” of this congregation sells tons of books all over the country. Other churches and pastors look to this church and pastor as models of what they ought to be doing. Even in my own city there are churches and pastors modeling themselves in the mold of this “church”. The entire thing is very sad to me.

Some would look to this church as a success. But is it really?

Certainly it is a great thing to have thousands of people in a church. But what if this church fails to preach Christ? Sure it can be a great thing to have a popular pastor with a lot of visibility. But what happens if he fails to instruct his people in the Word of God? It is a great thing for the church to get excited about worship. But what if this worship has absolutely nothing to do with God?

Coincidentally, as my friend sent me this video I happened to be reading in 1 Timothy. In 1 Timothy the Apostle Paul is writing to a young pastor named Timothy whom he had mentored and instructed in the faith. Timothy was sent to Ephesus in order to lead the church there. Ephesus at one time was a very successful and faithful church. It was started by Apollos who was a brilliant preacher/teacher. (Acts 18:24) This was a church in which the knowledge of God, and the Word of God was being taught and was flourishing. (Acts 19:20) Yet, as is so often the case, problems started to arise in the church. We aren’t sure exactly what was going on, though we do get clues from the text both 1 and 2 Timothy…but it is evident that Ephesus as a whole had gotten off track and the culture around the church had started to creep in. Worldly religion was invading the church and was threatening to destroy it. The church had begun to stray from the Gospel.

So what was Paul’s advice to this young pastor? Did he cleverly devise church growth strategies? Did he tell Timothy to implement certain programs that were guaranteed to turn things around? Did he tell him to revamp his children’s ministry? Did he tell him he needed to modernize worship or be more culturally relevant? Absolutely not, in fact, you could almost argue the opposite, especially on this last point. It doesn’t seem the problem with the church in Ephesus was that it wasn’t culturally relevant, but in fact it was too much like the culture around it.

**Side note** I have to be careful here, because I’m not saying that the church needs to be stuck in the 1950’s. What I am saying though is that the church must be distinct from the world. If you can’t tell the difference between a church, and a social club or a bar…I think it’s a problem. But, back to my original point.

Paul didn’t have a bunch of clever schemes and strategies for Timothy. As you read Paul’s advice to the young pastor he lays out three things for Timothy to do. I think all pastors and church leaders in our own time would be wise to follow this advice. So what did Paul tell Timothy he needed to turn this church around?

-Prayer

-Right Living (Practice what you preach)

-Sound Teaching

So, if you are a pastor and wondering  how to build a successful church or how to turn around your struggling church. I believe this is where we have to start. Take a look at your church, and take a look at your own ministry.

Are you a man of prayer? Are you on your knees daily seeking the Lord for direction and asking him to bless your people? If your work as a pastor isn’t drenched in prayer, it simply won’t work. God is the one who must bring about the growth. Sure, you can get more people in the church by following an x, y, and z formula…But are your people growing spiritually? Are they seeing Jesus in your church? We must be in prayer asking God to reveal himself amongst our congregations and we must plead for him to lead us where he would have us go.

Are you living what you’re preaching? Do people both inside and outside the church see you as one who is walking with Jesus? Now none of us are perfect…But do you honestly seek to honor God with all that you are? How are you loving your wife and kids? How do you spend your money? Where are your priorities? Again, you won’t be perfect, but do you seek to honor God with your life? Are you focused on God, or are you focused on you?

What is the focus of your teaching? Do you preach Christ? Are you faithfully teaching the Bible? Will people walking into you church be able to tell this is a Christian worship service as opposed to a self-help motivational speech or quasi-spiritual pep rally? Are you faithfully teaching the full counsel of God? Are you accurately teaching the truths that have been passed down for centuries within the Church?

This post ended up being much longer than I planned, but my point is this. As a pastor or leader in the church, if you want a successful church, and a God honoring ministry…there is no grand secret. You don’t need the next “big thing” in ministry. You need Jesus. You need to be seeking him in prayer, you need to be walking with him in your life, and you need to be faithfully preaching him from the Scriptures.

It really is that simple.

 

Dear Pastor: What is Ministry to You?

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Dear Pastor,

What is ministry to you? Is it a a job, a hobby, or a calling?

Is ministry something that you do for a paycheck? Is it something that helps you provide for your family and pay your bills? Is that all it is? Do you enjoy the perks of the job, the access to books, and freebies that might come along with being a minister? Do you find yourself wanting to climb the ladder of success? Are you unhappy with your congregation of 12, 30, 75, 1,000 people? Would you like to find another church where more people could hear you preach, where more people would give more money? Maybe you would like to earn the respect that a large church would give you? Maybe you could write a book, maybe even a best-seller. Is ministry a job? Is that all it is?

Is ministry a hobby for you? Is it something you really enjoy doing? That’s okay. You should enjoy serving the Lord and His people. The great thing about a hobby is that you really enjoy it, and you spend a lot of time doing it, probably even more than you spend at your job, and with your family. But the big problem with a hobby is that you only do it when it is convenient, and until it stops being fun. When ministry stops being fun, do you or will you stop doing it? Do you let silly unimportant things get in the way? Would you rather watch your favorite t.v. show than read God’s word, or pray for His blessings on yourself and others, or making that phone call of encouragement, or even making a visit to someone in need? Is ministry a cool thing to do? What happens when it isn’t cool? What happens when it isn’t fun?

Is ministry your calling? Has God called you to minister to His people, to love them, and show them His love for them? Do you understand you are accountable to God for everything you do, especially those things you do in His name? Are you burdened by the fact that precious souls weigh in the balance as you go about serving the Lord in your ministry. Do you understand it is really God’s ministry? Do you feel totally unworthy, yet amazed that God has called you to such an amazing privilege to serve Him as a Minister of His Gospel. Do you spend hours studying His word so that you can rightly divide it, and show yourself approved? Do you spend time on your knees praying for those precious souls that God might use you to reach? Would you still minister to God’s people if there would never be a paycheck? Would you still minister to God’s people if it was no fun? Is ministry your calling? Why don’t we start acting like it?

*This is a slightly edited version of a blog I posted a few years ago. I’ve recently been reflecting on these questions myself as I examine my own calling. The tone can come off a bit harsh, that is intentional. I believe for anyone in the ministry, or anyone even considering the ministry in any capacity, would be wise to do a bit of self reflection and ask themselves these questions. Ministry is not something that is to be taken lightly, as all of us who choose to enter into this sacred calling on any level have much to give an account for.

Praying Through the Desert – Jana Greene

I’m so excited to have one of my favorite writers guest blogging for me today. Her name is Jana Greene and she blogs over at The Beggars Bakery. Jana is also the author of Edgewise: plunging off of the brink of drink and into the love of God. Be sure to check out both her blog and book. You won’t be sorry!

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How do you get out of the spiritual desert? You build a huge, blinking distraction to it.

Or, you can just walk through it, and fully expect God to bring you to the other side.

About eight years ago, I went to Las Vegas on a business trip. The long and short of it was that I had a mini-nervous breakdown.

My colleagues and I stayed in the Luxor – a magnificent pyramid structure on the Vegas strip, smack dab (as we say in the South) in the heart of Sin City. Although there were seminars by day, there were too many hours of free time after the nine-to-five activities.

I don’t always do that well with too much free time.

Vegas is not so much fun for a person in alcohol – or any other, so far as I can tell – recovery. Moment after moment, fleshly appetizers are placed before you. In-your-face, 24/7 sex, drugs, drink, gambling, smoking. Even things that had never tempted me before – such as the gambling – became this enormous tease.

I knew that Vegas was not for me before the plane even touched down. If you’ve ever flown over Las Vegas, you will know what I mean. Here is a visual synopsis of the view from the plane.

Hours of flight over sandy canyons, gorges, and deserts. Everything is some shade of brown– nothing, nothing, nothing, hours of nothing– barren brown, tan and beige. Nothing.

BAM! Super incredibly bright neon, see-it-from-outer space, larger-than life and twice as gaudy, Technicolor VEGAS, Baby! The strip is, quite literally, just a strip that – from the air – looks as though the heavens barfed forth a city-sized strip of neon, glitter, and a strange, Disney-like conglomeration of architectural/cultural mess. Pastel medieval castles, next door to Greco-Roman-columned casinos, next door to the great pyramids, next door to a shrunken New York City entwined by a roller coaster, punctuated by liquor and nudie bars.

It is the anti-nature, if you will.

Before even the first rah-rah corporate event, I was burned out. Too much to see. Everything in sight vying for my attention – and so, none of it really getting my attention. The first night, I stayed in the hotel room and cried while everyone else went out and had Vegas adventures. And I couldn’t stop crying.

Every morning, for privacy, I wandered down to a café in the Luxor, and call my (then) fiancé, a grown woman crying in an enormous, cartoonish pyramid, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people and utterly alone.

“I can’t be here,” I told him. “It’s too noisy. Too much temptation. Too many drunk and high people…so much gambling, porn everywhere…. too much empty, scattered, shallow glitz. I have to come home.”

It didn’t upset me because I believed I would never do such things, but because I know good and damn well that I could – given the right circumstances and a weak moment – and, in fact, have. I try to respect the parameters – the slippery slopes. And Vegas is a very slippery slope.

Each day, I became more and more depressed, the thin veneer of sanity cracking under the weight of trying to appear all the things I was not: Professional, immune to the temptations, and able to cope.

Where I live at home, the Ocean is a scant 10 minutes away, and the Cape Fear River 10 minutes in the other direction. Water, water everywhere. And people I love.

Of course, I survived it – and as a bonus, with my sobriety intact. When I finally, got home, it didn’t seem like such an ordeal. But during the experience, I was miserable.

For the last month or so, I have really been struggling with prayer. Not just having a desert-like prayer life, but a Vegas-like prayer life. Unwittingly, I’ve filled up a dry-spell with diversions to distract my spirit. Sensory overload is not the same as spirit satiation. What happens in my prayer life lately…..it goes nowhere. Or so it seems.

Praying…. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

BAM! Diversion!

But anything but Holy Spirit in a hurting soul is not an oasis….only a mirage.

Sometimes, my spiritual walk becomes about too much empty, scattered, shallow glitz. A grown woman crying in church, surrounded by dozens of happy worshippers. Everyone else seemingly bloated with happiness. Don’t they see the barren dryness?

Aridness…brown, tan and beige. So I build great, giant cities – big, awkward pastel and neon structures of distraction, instead of just walking through the desert – exhausted from trying to pretend to be what I am not: A “professional Christian.” Immune to the temptations. Able to cope.

I don’t always do that well when I have too much time, but I know the God of the Universe always makes time for me. I have to come home, and the only route is through the desert.

It’s hard to encounter God, what with the gaudy, neon monuments to my worries and anxieties blinking. Why don’t I remember that in the “uninhabitable” – He inhabits? He dwells in me always, vying for my attention.

And if I am simply willing to just walk through the desert?

BAM! God. Living water, water everywhere. Deserts can’t go on forever.

But the love of my Father does.

 

In Prayer

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O LORD,

In prayer I launch far out into the eternal world, and on that broad ocean my soul triumphs over all evils on the shores of mortality. Time with its gay amusements and cruel disappointments, never appears so inconsiderate as then.

In prayer I see myself as nothing; I find my heart going after thee with intensity, and long with vehement thirst to live to thee. Blessed be the strong gales of the Spirit that speed me on my way to the New Jerusalem.

In prayer all things here below vanish, and nothing seems important but holiness of heart and the salvation of others.

In prayer all my worldly cares, fears, anxieties disappear, and are of as little significance as a puff of wind.

In prayer my soul inwardly exults with lively thoughts at what thou art doing for thy church, and I long that thou shouldest get thyself a great name from sinners returning to Zion.

In prayer I am lifted above the frowns and flatteries of life, and taste heavenly joys; entering into the eternal world I can give myself to thee with all my heart, to be thine forever.

In prayer I can place all my concerns in thy hands, to be entirely at thy disposal, having no will or interest of my own.

In prayer I can intercede for my friends, ministers, sinners, the church, thy kingdom to come, with greatest freedom, ardent hopes, as a son to his father, as a lover to the beloved.

Help me to be all prayer and never to cease praying.

Quoted From: Valley of Vision : A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions

Anxious For Nothing

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Anxiety. Worry. Stress.

There are several words to describe these feelings that so many of us are so accustomed to. Life is hard. We all face circumstances in which we are uncertain. Our troubles in this world are not few. Worry is only natural, right?

Well, Scripture doesn’t seem to think so. Paul says in Philippians 4:6,“…do not be anxious for anything.” Jesus too, in Matthew 6:25 says, “…do not be anxious about your life.” Then again in verse 34 he says, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself, sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” I’m not sure about you, but at first glance verse 34 isn’t all that comforting. Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, things are fine. Trouble is a thing of the past…Life is smooth sailing from now on guys.” No, Jesus doesn’t deny the reality of trouble and suffering, yet he still tells us not to be anxious.

So, how can he say this?

As I’ve been mulling this question over in my mind the past few days, my mind goes back to the beginning of Matthew 6. I think prayer is the key. As Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, the first two verses of the Lord’s prayer goes like this:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I believe our peace of mind is rooted in these two verses. We have a sovereign God who rules the universe. Nothing happens to us that doesn’t pass through his almighty fingers. I used to read these two verses as if they were simply a petition, “Our Father, may your name be hallowed…may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But the more I think about it, I believe these verses are more a statement of fact. The only reason we can finish out the Lord’s prayer, the only reason we can pray at all is because the will of God is indeed done on earth, as it is in heaven.

Sometimes it’s hard to see this. Sometimes we can’t figure out what God is doing. Still, the Bible assures us that God always has our best interests at heart. (Romans 8:28) When we see things from this perspective, we can indeed rest in the promises of God…We can cease our worries and put away our anxiousness.

I suppose though, the question becomes, how can we keep this perspective? How can we keep our mind focused firmly on these promises? I believe the key is prayer. Like I said, Matthew 6:34 is only possible in light of Matthew 6:9-10. In much the same way, in Philippians 4:6, when Paul says,“…do not be anxious about anything…” he follows up that statement by telling us to pray, “...but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Our peace of mind comes from our knowledge that we have a good God who is sovereign over all. Many times in life we loose this perspective, this is why prayer is so key. If we continually are seeking God in prayer, we will be continually reminded of who God is. As we pray the words of Jesus from the Lord’s prayer, we remember that indeed our God is sovereign, and in total control. Therefore his name is worthy to be praised.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation…” Psalm 42:5

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30