Encouragement

The Early Heroes

indexThis is part of a series, celebrating those who have cheered me on in the race…

What motivates someone to invest in the life of a teenager? It certainly can’t be a paycheck, as teachers and youth pastors are some of the most underpaid workers in the marketplace. There has to be something of greater significance and purpose for these unsung heroes who give sacrificially to make an investment in the life of a teenager.

For those early “heroes” in my journey of faith, I believe it was their love for God and love for others that motivated them to make an investment in me. Now, at the time, I had no realization what they were doing, but through their investment of time and friendship, they served to lay a solid foundation of faith on which I was able to build upon in my life.

As a teenager, I was incredibly blessed to be part of one of the largest youth programs of its day, Campus After Dark. It had an incredible presence on the local high school campuses and an incredible bunch of youth interns and workers. The youth staff was fun, well liked and cool! We played wacky games, learned about God and served our community. And in my humble opinion, we had one of the best youth pastors in the nation, Mike Maples.

Through Campus After Dark, I learned about character, leadership and life. But it was the relationships that I formed that helped those spiritual truths become reality, as they lived the Christian life in front of me. Two of those stand outs were, Dennis Bennett and Dan McElroy. While I can’t pinpoint the first time I met these guys, they shaped my view of God and their encouragement helped me through the difficult teen years. They took a genuine interest in me. One that went beyond the confines of our youth program. They shared their struggles, their ambitions and what they were learning as a follower of Jesus. They also took me to ballgames, concerts and bought me pizza!

I remember one night when Dennis and I went to a San Francisco Giants game at Candlestick Park. It went extra innings and we got the “Croix de Candlestick” button at the conclusion of the game. As a teenager, that was pretty cool, especially given that it was a school night. Dennis and I also played racquetball together. Those moments of fun, allowed me to hear truth from Dennis, because I knew he wanted the best for me. So when the hard conversations came, I listened, especially when he spoke from his own experience.

It was Dan’s eclectic taste in music that connected us together. But his influence went far beyond music and I will never forget a talk we had right before I headed off to college. His “make it or break it” talk motivated me to go the distance in my Christian faith. In fact, since that talk, the number one hope for my life has been to “finish well” the race that God has called me to. But the immediate application of that talk, was to plug into a church and a Christian group at UC Santa Barbara as soon as I got there. That advice served me well in college, but Dan also made sure I stayed the course in college, often checking in with me, sending me money for pizza and praying for me behind the scenes.

So what’s the purpose in all this? First, it’s an expression of gratitude from a grateful heart and a way to say thanks to God and to those he put in my life. Secondly, it’s a reminder that the Christian life is one that is given away. It is meant to be shared with others. This was Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 28:18-20 when he told us to “go and make disciples of all men” and Paul’s expression in 2 Timothy 2:2, when he told Timothy, “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Finally, it’s my way of recalling God’s faithfulness in my life, as I recall His goodness in the land of the living.

So, Dan and Dennis, thank you for making a difference in my life! I am grateful for your influence and for being among the “cloud of witnesses” in my life.

Cloud of Witnesses

cloud of witnessesHebrews 12:1-2, is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. On the heals of what is known as the Hall of Faith, which records a long list of men and women who were “commended for their faith,”the writer exhorts the reader with these words…”Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” The “cloud of witnesses” in this verse, refers back to the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. The imagery I get from this verse is one of a sports event. As believers, we are in a great stadium, surrounded by these men and women who have gone before us and they are the ones in the stands, cheering us on in the race of faith.

As I look back on the last 34 years of my life as a Christian, not only do I have this “cloud of witnesses” surrounding me in the race, but I have also have been blessed to have a physical “cloud of witnesses” who have cheered me on as well. These men and women, who I have known, served with, been blessed by, have greatly encouraged me in the journey. They have prayed for me, equipped me, spoken truth to me, demonstrated God’s love to me and generally lived out the one another commands of Scripture.

So over the coming days, I would like to introduce some of these “cloud of witnesses” to you. These are my heroes of the faith. And I am what I am in large part because of what they did to invest in me.

34 Years with Jesus

971432_10151584246129397_1426969184_nAugust 14th will mark my 34th year as a follower of Jesus! I remember that night well. It was a summer night in mid-August at Camp Sugar Pine, just outside of Yosemite National Park.

I was going into high school that fall and had never attended a camp in my life. I couldn’t afford to go to camp, so I didn’t even consider it, when it was mentioned at the youth group. However, someone at the church, decided to make an investment in me and made a way for me to attend high school camp on scholarship! I didn’t quite know what to expect, but God had something great in store for me that week.

It was a great week! One in which I made new friends, had a ton of fun and as a “city boy” enjoyed God’s creation. That week, I also heard of a God who loved me, made a way for me to know him personally, and who had great plans for me. And although I had attended church as a kid, that Thursday night of camp, it all made sense to me and I invited Jesus to come into my life, trusted him to forgive my sins and asked him to take control of my life. I remember that night laying on the roof of the church bus gazing into the sky. I had never seen so many stars in my life and I remember being overwhelmed by the way God was revealing himself to me that night. The message I took away from that camp, was one of hope. I left with a sense that God had great plans for me. And while I didn’t quite understand it at the time, I recall, being overwhelmed by this message of hope and in the reality that I was a new creation in Christ.

As I approach my 34th birthday as a new creation in Christ, I am overwhelmed by the faithfulness of my God. These last 34 years have been an amazing journey. Filled with amazing people who have helped me know God better and serve him well.

In Lamentations 3:21, it is written, “This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope.” So in following the wisdom of this verse, I am going to spend the next few weeks recalling. Recalling the faithfulness of God in my life by recalling the people, the places and the things God used to shape me into the man that I am today. I think it’s going to be a great journey. One that I believe will build my faith, develop a greater capacity for gratitude in my heart and enlarge my hope for the future. Yes, this I recall and therefore I have hope. I invite you to follow along on the journey.

How to Stay Anchored

anchoredKnowing that life is full of up and downs as the waves of life pound our way, here’s three things we need to do in order to stay anchored in Christ…

  1. Know Your Captain – One of the things that causes us to drift from God, is our own worry/fear or indifference. We have a hard time trusting God, so we take things into our own hands or say that we really don’t care. However, it’s our level of faith and understanding of who God is, that will determine how far we’ll drift or the degree to which our faith will be shaken. As it states in Hebrews 6:19, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” Therefore, if you want to stay anchored in the midst of life’s storms, you need to get to know the Lord, understand his character and remember his promises.
  2. Know Your Commission – When a yacht or vessel is commissioned, it means it has received and passed a sea trial, whereby a complete and through inspection of the vessel has taken place and determined that it is seaworthy. So a commissioning is the act or ceremony of placing a ship in active service! The same is true in Christ. Once we come into relationship with God…we are commissioned into service (Matthew 28:18-20). Part of knowing our commission, is living out our identify in Christ. Remember, Jesus doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. And because he has called you, he will equip you. As it says in Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” You have been commissioned and knowing that commission will help you not to drift.
  3. Know Your Course – Hebrews 12:1 states, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” What is the course that God has marked out for you? Well the course is part of God’s plan for you. These are the “good works” that Ephesians 2:10 refers to. But if you don’t know the course, you’ll end up never knowing where to go, or how to get there! You’ll drift. In the book, Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby discusses that if you want to know God’s will, you must respond to His invitation to love Him wholeheartedly. That goes back to knowing your captain! As you get to know your captain and your commission, I believe you’ll discover your game plan. But beware, if you don’t have one, then you will drift!

Anyway

line-1Back in 1968, Kent M. Keith wrote the Paradoxical Commandments as part of a booklet for student leaders. These commandments, as penned by Keith, were rumored to have once hung on the wall of Mother Theresa and inspired a blockbuster song for Martina McBride.

I love the wisdom in these words! For in this life people are going to hurt us, disappoint us, and even betray us. But in those moments of pain or anger, we can rise above the circumstances and choose to love, forgive and extend grace, even if its undeserved. That’s a tough assignment at times, but with God’s help, it is possible. Because, instead of being consumed or paralyzed by what someone thinks or their selfishness behavior, we choose instead to live in the flow of the Spirit, and in doing so, experience love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-23). So consider these words and don’t let your disappointment in others lock you into an unhappy past, when God has a joyful future for you.

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

Attitude is Everything

attitude_is_everythingAs John Maxwell once said, “Your attitude determines your altitude.” In other words, attitude is everything. In fact, our attitude can be the most important thing in determining our future. The good thing about an attitude, is that it is your choice how you wish to look at life. It is within your control at any moment in your life. So, here’s why a proper attitude matters…

  1. Attitudes Are Contagious – In 1 Cor. 15:33, Paul points out, our attitudes can either have a negative or positive impact on other people. A negative attitude only poisons the well and distracts, derails and depletes others on the team or within the organization. If you’re constantly mixing with people who talk about how lousy life is; you’ll be unconsciously thinking the same because these people form your reality. So be careful about what you allow in your head; these things unconsciously shape your worldview and eventually your attitudes toward life.
  2. You Become What You Think – Believe it or not, your tomorrow is determined by what you are thinking today. Whatever thoughts consume you about your life, will eventually be seen next week or next month or next year. Our emotions are rooted in our thinking, not the other way around. Do you really want to be a bitter, jealous and angry person six months from now? If not, start thinking differently today! I’ve never met a bitter person who was thankful. Or a thankful person who was bitter.
  3. Attitude Is Connected To Productivity – Dr. Jan Stringer from the National Business Research Institute says, “An employee with a positive attitude usually enjoys the work that they do and feels empowered and recognized for their contributions…An employee that is complacent and does not really enjoy their work, but is simply there for a paycheck usually does not produce at a high level, develops a bad attitude and generally drags a team down.”
  4. Attitude Impacts Your Physical Health – Proverbs 14:30 states, “A peaceful heart leads to a healthy body, jealousy is like cancer in the bones.” And science supports what the Bible states. In fact, ABC News reported, “Researchers found that having a positive attitude and a sense of humor could play a role in living a longer, healthier life.”
  5. Attitude Helps You Succeed – The reality is we all face challenges in life, be it a strain in working relationships, or an external challenge that is testing the survivability of your organization. But a positive attitude is always hopeful about solving problems and it allows you to persevere longer than your contemporaries. When others give up, the person with a positive attitude is forced  to be creative in order to achieve their goal. Lots of people can tell me why something isn’t working, but few can tell me how to fix it. People with a winning attitude make themselves part of the solution, instead being part of the problem. As Nick Vujucic has said, “Defeat happens only to those who refuse to try again.”

Ministry is Messy

oxenWithout oxen a stable stays clean, but you need a strong ox for a large harvest. – Proverbs 14:4, NLT

Ministry is messy! I’ll never forget where I was when I heard this ministry axiom for the first time. I was a brand new intern at Lakeside Church, attending a leaders event at the Lake Natoma Inn in Folsom, when our Senior Pastor Brad Franklin shared these wise words from the wisest man in the world, King Soloman. Even though I was new to the staff of Lakeside Church, I wasn’t new to ministry and I remember wanting to shout, “Amen!”.

You see, there is often a collision that happens in ministry between those that want everything neat, orderly and predictable and the oxen who make messes. In the church world, these collisions usually occur between administrators and leaders, but these collisions can also be the result of different personalities as well. However, as the proverb implies, much is accomplished by the strength of the ox. And when you have oxen in the stable, it’s not as clean as you want it to be. That’s because, ministry–real person-to-person, life-to-life, broken vessel-to-broken vessel ministry–is messy!

In my years in ministry, I have worked with a lot of oxen. Truth be told, I prefer working with oxen. They accomplish things. Even back in in my days as the Executive Pastor at Lakeside Church, I often felt as if I was the “pooper scooper dude” at the zoo! But, like the optimistic kid in a room full of manure, I knew that that there had to be a horse (or in this case an oxen) in the room! In fact, the more productive the leader, the messier things sometimes got. These are God’s words and should remind us to give the oxen the benefit of the doubt when much is being accomplished. The mess is usually not intentional, it’s usually a by product of their strength.

In looking at the Scriptures, it was the messy people who Jesus preferred to work with. He loved the unlovely. He touched the untouchables. He blessed the broken. But remember, it was the religious people that wanted things orderly, that Jesus had issue with.

Jesus certainly knew that ministry could get messy. He performed amazing miracles, like healing the sick, and got criticized for it by the religious leaders. But what was Jesus’ response? He had compassion. He took abuse and mockery from the Roman soldiers and willingly let himself be nailed to the cross. All because he understood his purpose and knew that ministry was messy, but also so worth it.

I guess the question for us all is…will  we welcome and serve the ones whom God loves, even when the work is messy? Even when it means our plans might not go as planned? Or something didn’t happen exactly as we had hoped? May we never forget that we, too, stumbled into his courts naked and blind, wretched and poor. And may we never forget that God takes the messes of our lives each day and makes something beautiful.

Heaven is For Real Movie Review

MV5BNjc3MzYzMTUzNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTYzNzI2MDE@._V1_SX214_I just returned from having the opportunity to see an advance screening of the movie, Heaven is for Real, which releases nationally on Wednesday, April 16. In case you missed the book’s national prominence, Heaven is for Real, is the true story of a four-year old boy named Colton, who experiences heaven during an emergency surgery. After his near death experience, Colton talks about looking down to see the doctor operating on him and his dad praying in the waiting room. The family doesn’t know what to believe about Colton’s experience, so they doubt, but soon the evidence is clear.

Having not read the book, I didn’t know what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised. Overall, I felt that the film delivered an entertaining, moving and inspirational perspective on the topic of heaven. In fact, I would say it was probably one of the most professionally done “faith-based” movies I have ever seen. The cast is solid, the acting stellar, and Connor Corum, the 4-year-old boy who plays Colton, is simply adorable. In addition, Greg Kinnear turns in a very emotional performance as Todd Burpo, the father/pastor who is faced with whether or not to believe his son’s account of “Heaven.”

While I appreciated the authentic portrayal of a pastor who struggled with doubts, how to pay the bills, and his own sense of pride, I did feel that the producers muddled the message about heaven, most likely to make it easier for the non-Christian community to swallow. However I will say this, there was no compromising of the message that heaven is the place where Jesus resides!

Although I did have some issues with the film, I believe that the film will serve as a great conversation starter to get people talking about God, heaven and the afterlife. And that’s what director Randall Wallace and the producers likely had in mind. I also believe that the movie can prove to be very healing and hopeful for those who’ve experienced loss and need to be reminded of the fact that heaven IS for real! Therefore, I would encourage you to go and see it.

The Easy Yoke

My-yokeCome to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:28-30, NIV

Lately, I have been contemplating these words of Jesus! What a wonderful invitation He gives to those who were burdened by the religious practices of His day! It’s an invitation to rest, to cease striving, to trust in Him. To the weary and burdened, Jesus states that the easy yoke begins with Him. It begins with a right understanding of spirituality. For as Dallas Willard states, “Spirituality wrongly understood is a major source of human misery and rebellion towards God.”

In Jesus’ day if we measured spiritual maturity based on spiritual activity, then the Pharisees would have won every time. Yet, it was the Pharisees boundary markers that were tiresome, for the Pharisees had a burdensome yoke of self-righteousness and legalistic law-keeping.

So what does it mean to go through life and not be burdened? To fully experience what Jesus talks about in this verse. Well here are a few thoughts…

  1. The easy yoke involves a life of training, not trying! Paul spoke of this in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 when he states, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” Training is simply the means by which I live by grace. Wesley spoke of “means of grace.” If we are going to be experience the easy yoke, we need to arrange our lives around the person of Jesus, reflecting His character and commitments. We enter into training to win an imperishable wreath. Luke 6:40 says, “no disciple is above the master, but every disciple, when fully trained, will be like his master.” Train yourself into godliness. The easy yoke is a life of training (not just trying) to be like Jesus.
  2. The easy yoke begins with joy! One must arrange their day, so that they experience contentment and joy. But what if you have a problem with joylessness? How do we do that? Do you just try harder to be joyful? Does that work? How do you train for joy? One thought…have you ever noticed how many ‘holidays’ there are in the Old Testament? There were countless feasts! All which caused the people to pause, remember and celebrate God’s goodness. These trained people for joy. So go eat great food! Arrange your life to remember God’s faithfulness and goodness in the land of the living. As Dallas Willard puts it, “You must arrange your life so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy and confidence in your own everyday life with God.”
  3. The easy yoke is finding my worth and identification in who I am and not what I am doing! If this is true, than we don’t have to carry upon ourselves the burden of outcomes! Let’s face it, we are “human beings” not “human doings”. Our worth is based on God’s love and what He says is true of us. It’s not based on what we do. As believers in Christ, we are deeply loved. We are totally forgiven. We are absolutely complete in Christ. Therefore, I don’t have to do anything to make God love me more. He loves me completely, for His love isn’t based on what I do, but whose I am!

To experience the easy yoke, we must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our life. Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. Therefore, we must train ourselves to be spiritual, not out of a sense of obligation, but in realizing that this training is the means, and not the end, to truly living the life God intended. 

A New Tradition…Remembering

P1000083My wife Jennifer recently wrote this article and I thought it was a wonderful read worth repeating on my blog…

You thrill me, Lord, with all you have done for me! I sing for joy because of what you have done.  – Psalm 92:4 (NLT)

Well, whether we’re ready or not, 2014 is here! It’s hard to believe that 2013 is over! Time goes by so quickly and the blessings of the year are often so easily forgotten. The arrival of the new year is a great time to start tracking God’s faithfulness and a fun and simple way to capture God’s blessing throughout the year is to create a memory jar. To start the fun, take a large jar (or other container) and place it somewhere your family can easily access. Whenever you have a blessing you want to remember, a prayer that is answered or an event you want to capture, simply jot it down on a small slip of paper and add it to the jar. Encourage every family member to participate and contribute. At the end of 2014, on New Years Eve perhaps, gather the family together and read those slips of paper. Not only will this be a great walk down memory lane, but it will give you the opportunity to focus on God’s faithfulness and unfailing love.

Memory Jars, and memorials in general, are not new concepts. In fact, memorials are God’s idea. Over and over again in Scripture, God instructs his people to remember His goodness, power and provisions. Start a new tradition this year and thrill in the Lord as you remember what He has done.

Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “In the future your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over. He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the Lord your God forever. – Joshua 4:21-24 (NLT)

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