Thursday, September 24, 2015

What A Difference A Year Makes

The ancient prophet Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations 3 that the mercies of God are new every morning. The darkness may seem to linger. Emotions that come dangerously close to clinical depression may fill our existence. The heaviness of defeat may linger. The mercies of God are unchanging. 

If you have read any of the recent posts, you know that the past two weeks have been an awakening of sorts. During this time last year, our family prayed that a group of men would take a stand for the bride of Christ and for biblical authority. We prayed for wisdom as to how to proceed no matter which direction they chose. They chose poorly, and our family had to decide whether we could continue to be part of a body of Christ whose leaders rejected the Great Commission, belittled the truth of God's word, and sat silently while the enemy tore the body of Christ to pieces. 

The irony of contrast opened the opportunity for us to be part of a revival in another local congregation the same week. This church, though small in number, was large in the Spirit. This body represented everything that the other did not. They loved each other, valued God's word, and looked for ways to spread the gospel with the resources God provided. Being with this congregation while watching to see what another group of leaders would do cemented the truth that some bodies are so unhealthy that only a miracle can revive them. Some congregational research even says that the only solution for some unhealthy churches is for them to die. Perhaps someone can come along and replant in the area. Perhaps the remnant who still longed for a deeper walk with Christ can begin again. Some congregations, though, are so damaged and are causing so much damage to the name of Christ that closing and perhaps starting over are the best options.

Families may find themselves in the middle of these situations. The struggle is that families can't physically close and replant. Spiritually, though, the story becomes more interesting. We have learned from experience over the last year what we have known cognitively for years. "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning" (Psalm 30:5). As a family, we sensed God's strong inclination that we needed to separate from one particular body of Christ so as to avoid the spread of spiritual disease any further into our family. As we made steps to that end, the evidence of contamination began to surface very quickly. We received counsel from friends, called on the Lord through prayer, sought answers in God's word, had many "intense" family discussions, and cried a lot (mostly in private where no one would know). Two of our children had seen the body of Christ at its worst and questioned the validity of those who claimed to be followers of Christ while perpetuating an institution that was opposed to the cause of the one they claimed to follow. Our youngest had one concern (oh the beauty of childhood innocence). He loved his Sunday School teacher, and his teacher loved him. They joked together, laughed together, and learned together. This man taught our youngest to enjoy Jesus. David's main concern was that he wanted to get his pictures from his Sunday School classroom. We went to get them, and he looked around without saying much. It wasn't until a few months later when we saw this man and his wife at a football game that we realized what David really missed was the relationship God had formed with this man. One of a few rare gems in a hurting body of Christ.

The winter in West Tennessee was the worst winter we had ever experienced. The weather was bad, too. We connected with a church about 30 minutes away from our hometown, and gradually our two older kids bonded with others in the youth group. The light began to shine ever so slightly. Conversations revealed that they could now see the difference that making wise, Godly choices will make in our lives. Relationships began to form that let us know they were beginning to understand that a person can be "unequally yoked" in many different ways. We praised God as we proceeded with caution in what seemed like His direction. 

This past Saturday was a monumental day for us. We celebrated two birthdays by going to a Mississippi State game in Starkville. Each kid could invite a friend. We travelled as a family and spent the day together. No conflict. No stress. We looked to the future as our oldest considers college. We just enjoyed each other for a whole day with no dark cloud or weary emotions. It was one of the best birthdays I have ever had. It was in the top of great days in my life. Joy has come in the morning.

A year has past. I would be misleading if I didn't say that many parts of the past year have been filled with light, namely our kids connection with the youth group, continued friendships we have with a few who remain faithful, renewed friendships with those who had been missed, lessons about the importance of fighting spiritual battles on the spiritual battlefield. I would also be misleading if I didn't say that we still have moments of struggle and spiritual attack. The difference the year makes is not as much in our circumstances as in our learning to be strong in our circumstances. Granted, some of the circumstances are more difficult to find strength in than others, yet the Lord is growing us one ray of light at a time. His word reminds us that the key to this strength is that "this book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have good success" (Josh. 1:8).

Maybe you are in a season of darkness. Could I encourage you to hang on to the Lord as tightly as you can? He loves you, and He wants the best for you. He will deliver you through the struggle. Maybe you are in a season of light. Could I encourage you to praise God for His blessing and to establish reminders of these times so you will have some anchors when the storms do come your way? You know that one day the storms will come. Find a group of Christ followers who are alive. Connect with them to draw from what God is doing in their lives. Alive looks different to different people, but we all know what alive means. Don't settle for the darkness when the the mercies of God are on the horizon. 

What a difference a year makes. Who knows what these next few months will hold? None of us really know what tomorrow may bring. The best we can do is press in hard to know the One who will surely bring tomorrow. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In Search of Church

Anytime you read a book, review an article, hear a sermon, or participate in a Bible study about the church, the author or teacher will most certainly make a distinction between what they will call the universal church and the local church. Jesus spoke to his disciples about the foundation of the church, declaring that the gates of hell could not prevail against it. Paul wrote about the spiritual connection among all believers from time to time as he addressed Christ followers as part of the larger church body. Mostly, his writings are to smaller groups of connected disciples gathered together in homes throughout the regions he had visited or that he anticipated visiting. 

As history has unfolded, the church has changed and developed. Local churches have been born, lived a life cycle that many would call vibrant, and then have died. Other congregations struggle along with a limp while trying to redefine who they are and why they exist. Still others are shells of their former existence and are content to exist in the faithless, sin-induced coma that has encapsulated them for some time now. 

With so many different groups wearing the same label, many Christ followers find it difficult to find a biblical community of devoted disciples on mission for Christ. Many have discovered that the best we can do in our culture is to recognize that there are actually three different groups of people that we could call church. First, Jesus' words about the Church can never be ignored. There is a fellowship of called out ones who are part of the Kingdom of God, and the gates of hell can never prevail against them. Then, there are the Christian based organizations that form, split, reestablish, and meander on through life sporting the latest terminology for the church of America. Third, there is the local expression of the greater Church. This local expression is often found somewhere deeper within the Christian based organizations. These devoted Christ followers serve and worship alongside others who may be there for other reasons. They often work on projects and committees, teach in classes, participate in discussions, and go on trips with the expanded group of census recorded Christians. For some, the distinction is difficult to identify, and for others the difference is clear. 

As a child, we had a small group of people who gathered together after worship on Sunday nights. Sometimes we ended up at my dad's restaurant, Don's Drive In. (His name was Don in case you have somehow become distracted in the reading). Other times we ended up at the home of James and Patsy Sugg. Either way, the result was the same. A small group of Christ followers fellowshipping around a meal and sharing life together. Our families were friends who supported, cared for and encouraged one another.

Karen and I had the same experience in Panama City. After church on Sunday nights, several folks would gather at the local Mexican restaurant for a meal and fellowship. We laughed together and talked about life. The experience was a time of bonding. Other times we gathered at the lake for special occasions or maybe at someone's house for a youth ministry Christmas party. Sometimes the meal was just a casual encounter in someone's den with plates of burgers or pizza on our laps as we got to know one another better.

We had a similar group in the local church I served in Wauchula. By this time, everyone's family was growing and going out to eat became a little costly. From time to time, we would just gather together at someone's house after Sunday night worship (I detect a common theme here) to relax and enjoy one another's company. We tried as best we could to avoid "church" discussions because they always seemed to disrupt the laughter and the peace that came from just being together. 

I suppose that this type of group is what meant the most to us in Ocala. Church life in Ocala was tough (and that is putting it nicely). One church painfully birthed several others over the years as "good Baptists" fought and decided that it must be God's will to plant a new church a few blocks away. Eventually all of our friends ended up in different churches, but we all stayed connected spiritually. In a strange way, God started something in October 1999 that has remained throughout the years. After attending one of the Christian organizations that didn't seem real keen on new faces, we visited another congregation hoping to find a place to connect. We walked in the door and saw another couple we had seen the week before. We talked and realized that we were all visiting that morning. Later we connected over lunch, and the Lord formed a friendship between two families that still exists today. The truth is that our kids have more lasting friendships from this community of believers than from anywhere else we have lived. Soon after this first encounter, the Lord put together a small group of several couples. Here was the local expression of the body of Christ within a larger Christian organization. As we gathered together, we studied what God's word teaches about marriage, parenting, and spiritual growth. We laughed together, cried together, and cemented relationships that would stand the test of time.

This smaller expression of the body of Christ was not just limited to adults. Our kids formed these relationships too. Oddly enough, within this group two of the couples we have remained close to have 6 girls between them and no boys. One of the families has twins and the other one has children who span the ages of our three kids. What a blessing it is to watch kids of the opposite sex interact together in friendly, brother/sister kinds of ways with no insecurities getting in the way. Early on, our oldest son found a friend at school that he connected with. Only God could introduce two boys and two sets of parents at different times, only later revealing that the kids and parents had been drawn to the same families in Christ. Last week that young man turned 18, and in a few months our oldest will turn 18 as well. Both young men have navigated the journey with grace. Another boy soon appeared on the scene, and as faith would have it (notice I said faith, not fate), this boy's parents were also Christ followers who became very significant in our lives. As time went on, we connected with a family of four boys whose parents loved the Lord boldly. Then, the Lord brought a couple together - one person from our past and another from our present - both now part of our present and our future. The couple married and continue to challenge us in our journey of grace. 

What sets these smaller groups apart, and how can people be so connected when they don't travel to the same building at the same time every Sunday morning? Paul tells us that the Spirit of God connects us in a way that is a mystery. Christ followers are unified beyond walls and city limits. Many gather together weekly, yet fewer are connected in the biblical expression of the church. Luke's writing in Acts describes for us what the true church looks like. Followers of Christ living life on mission and glorifying Christ by the fruit of their lives. The bride of Christ.

Maybe I'm the only one, but perhaps I am part of a much larger group of folks who need more than a large group gathering of disconnected people. Who is your church? It's not simply about where you attend or where your "membership" lies. Certainly local connections are important, yet maybe it is more about who the Lord has connected you with to spur you on toward love and good deeds. Be thankful if God has provided you with people who are close in proximity who make up your church. Be mindful of the truth that sometimes the church develops over years and miles. Find a way to keep those connections for the glory of Christ, for upon that foundation we stand. God's people joined together by the Spirit of God covered by the blood of Christ - upon that foundation He promised to build His church and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

In His Presence There Is Fullness of Joy

A classic line from the movie "Chariots of Fire" has Eric Liddell sharing "when I run I feel God's pleasure." God's pleasure moves us all toward reality. The reality of knowing God's pleasure or longing for God's pleasure accompanies us on our journey through life. This reality commands the attention of every human being, whether or not said human being acknowledges that Jesus is Lord. Romans 1 tells us that all of creation points to the Creator. All humans have a sense that God is real, and our pursuits while breathing the air He created are an effort to fill the emptiness that sin created with the very first act of disobedience so long ago. Many have found the source of joy in a relationship with Jesus Christ, having repented of our sin, having believed in the resurrection, and having confessed Him as Lord. Others still search, needing someone to bring them into a conversation of introduction to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 

My experience with Jesus began as a child when I confessed my sin and invited Jesus into my life. I didn't know all that I know now, nor did I remain as close to Him as my initial commitment promised I would remain. I did love Jesus, though, and I knew that I needed Him as much as I needed the aforementioned oxygen so often taken for granted. One anchor for my life was hiding God's word in my heart. Psalm 119:11 promises protection for those who treasure God's word. I didn't know that my mother and other parents were making eternal investments. Nevertheless, the simple Southern Baptist program known as Bible Drills built a fortress within me and around me that continually drew me back to Christ as I strolled somewhat unaware along paths that often did not honor Christ. I'm not a big fan of programs, yet the baby shouldn't be thrown out with the bathwater (I heard someone say that once). The Spirit of God continues to use the Word of God as a "lamp to my feet and a light to my path." These parents worked in cooperation with the church to make sure that a small group of kids in a small town church grew to be devoted followers of Christ.

Our first church assignment completely out of seminary was at St. Andrew Baptist Church in Panama City, Florida. My first meeting with the search committee came after a conversation with the pastor, who later became a friend. He told me that the search committee had a variety of personalities representing different congregational desires. Some wanted a Christian social group for their children to be involved in. Others wanted someone who would keep their kids away from drugs, sex, and alcohol. Others wanted strong theological teaching and a firm grasp on the rapture and tribulation. Each committee member was a great choice for the church because ultimately they all wanted what they believed to be best for their kids. Each committee member became a friend over the course of time. One committee member, however, stood out above the rest. I remember asking what they wanted for the youth ministry. Her answer landed deep within me as she said, "I want my girls to love Jesus more than anything else in their lives. I want them to have a relationship with Him that will change their lives forever." That statement pretty much did it for me, and I prayed from that point on that if God allowed me to serve this congregation as student pastor, He would also fill the hearts and lives of students who loved Him more than anything else. 

After the church graciously called me to minister to some of the most amazing students that have ever lived, I realized that this young mother was not the only one who felt the way she did. She had a sister and an extended family that wanted the same things. Grandparents came alongside parents and grandchildren to build a faith that would overcome illness, death, disease, and other evidences that in this world we will have trouble. Friends and acquaintances began to surface pointing to the truth of Christ when he proclaimed, "And if I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me." For about four years, the Lord allowed us to minister in Panama City. During that time, I had the privilege of leading a small group of young men as they navigated their faith journey. I was young and impatient, and didn't do as good a job as I could have, yet even today God reminds me that some plant, others water, but God brings the growth. Through small groups like this one, we did see tremendous growth in the lives of students. Many of them are still connected with their small group leaders today, looking to that significant adult as a primary spiritual catalyst in their lives. We engaged adults from all walks of life to pray for students, to teach students, to lead students, to listen to students, and to cry with students. These adults poured their lives into seeing God's glory shine in the lives of students. Our goal was for everyone to have someone to help each one love Jesus more than anything else in their lives and to have a relationship with Christ that would change their lives forever. We have tremendous memories from our time there. We have relationships that will last forever, and children who bear the names of those we loved there. We learned from experience watching parents connect with and partner with the church that it takes a family and a church working together for kids to embrace Christ fully and to grow into adults who make wise choices as they transfer their dependence from parents onto Jesus. Karen and I, along with our three children, continue to develop as relationships from this early ministry position live on in the fabric of our lives today. 

We moved from Panama City in 1997. We had children we have tried to raise according to biblical principles and following the examples we saw in the families we served in Panama City. One other family from a church in North Carolina was also inspiring. As we raised our children in central Florida we met other parents who also wanted to raise their children to love the Lord with all of the hearts and to embrace Him fully. The difficulty was that finding a church in that town was no easy task, and many of our friends attended different congregations.

In 2009, an opportunity presented itself for me to return to full time ministry as the Minister to Families in a Baptist church in a small Florida town. This time in ministry was a highlight for our family, and I pray for many others, as we saw firsthand what happens when faith and family collide for life-changing results. The ministry started small but seemed to gain some momentum when Karen and I attended a family ministry conference with another couple from the church. We shared together, dreamed together, laughed together, and committed together to do all we could do in God's power to see families flourish for Christ in our small town. The ministry expanded as other couples came on board. One particular inspiration was a grandfather who completely immersed himself in the ministry because he desperately desired - and still desires - to pass on a legacy of faith throughout his family. A father took some steps of obedience in his life, and the Lord blessed him and his family through significant struggles, ultimately allowing he and his wife to adopt a beautiful baby girl into their family. Another couple took the Lord at face value when He promised that He would cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I learned how to live in Jesus through the storm from them, and they also were blessed through the gift of adoption as God expanded their influence in the lives of children. One couple, with children in high school and beyond, sought out ways to support and encourage others, with their own children serving as a model that Christlikeness was possible. Another couple came on board and eventually one of them joined us on staff to be part of a team focused on growing a healthy church. God brought our church a youth minister and his precious bride with a heart for Kingdom expansion in the lives of students and families. Still another family engaged from grandparents to grandchildren and worked tirelessly in the church and in the community to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to serve the Lord and make a difference on the baseball field, in athletic associations, and even in government positions. They continue to strive to be light and go against the grain of business as usual and the confusion between politics and the church.

Today the family ministry continues in new and exciting ways as one young lady, her husband, and others she has recruited live out what it means to fight the good fight. She really believes that God loves families and that He wants all families to experience the fullness of life in Christ. This young lady joined us early on, volunteering to help in any way possible. She was new to the ministry scene, and in a small town, newness can be tough to overcome - except for those who press on for the higher calling that is theirs in Christ Jesus. Family ministry in this body of believers continues to expand as a remnant of people continue moving forward in spite of obstacles that would stand in their way.

We have moved from Chariots of Fire to Trials by Fire (another name for church work - just kidding). Where is the common thread? The thread begins with the quote. He said, "when I run I feel God's pleasure." Many of us wonder why we don't have the joy we once had in Christ or the enthusiasm that makes serving Jesus so captivating. Psalm 16 reminds me that "in His presence there is fullness of joy." Only in His presence. Not around His presence or in efforts to fabricate His presence. Only in His presence can we find the pleasure of God. 

My merciful Jesus has reminded me that there is a time when I most feel the pleasure of God. When I am part of equipping families (mine and others) to love Jesus more than anything and to have a relationship with Him that changes their lives forever, I feel God's pleasure. Maybe this equipping is in teaching or developing materials. Maybe it is in struggling together with other parents. Maybe even it is in engaging the enemy on spiritual battlegrounds that he has no hold over. Maybe it is in seeing families come together, in parents embracing adoption, in grandparents playing a role in a Family Experience, in moms and dads taking small, obedient steps, in young men and women marrying and trying to live out the principles of faith they have learned from faithful mentors and parents, in a young man and his wife willing to move a new place to help others dream the dream, in a young lady who gives her very existence to seeing kids and families know Jesus more, in walking alongside families as they grieve or as they celebrate. Whatever shape the equipping takes and in whatever role the equipping comes, I feel God's pleasure when I am about the work He has set before me to do. 

I started kind of a series with my last post about the 17 churches I have been connected with in 47 years. Remember, the negative experiences were heavy, but they are not all consuming. Being able to be part of the church and family colliding for supernatural growth certainly makes me smile as I consider the mercy, the grace, and the glory of God.

Where do you feel God's pleasure? The enemy loves to distract us into seeking pleasure around God's presence, outside of God's presence, and even in made up play scenes of God's presence. Only in His presence will we find the pleasure He wants us to have. Seek Him, embrace Him, serve Him, enjoy Him. He loves you and wants to be glorified in you!!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

More Than A Name

Calvary. Trinity. First Starkville. First Booneville. First Calhoun City. Valence Street. First Franklinton. St. Andrew. First Hattiesburg. Highlands. Church at the Springs. First Ocala. New Testament. Highlands (a different one from before). First Wauchula. First Trenton. West Jackson.

That's a pretty long list. I'm almost 47 years old, and I've been in church since before I was born. Over the last 47 years, then, I've been connected to 17 churches. That averages out to a different church every 2.76470588 years. You don't need a seminary degree, a MBA, or even a high school education to conclude along with me that my church experience has been unhealthy - or irregular - at best. From childhood, I learned that to be part of a church means to be part of a conflict. The first conflict I was exposed to as a child was between the preacher and the minister of music, along with those who felt the need to "join a camp." The enemy hasn't come up with any new tricks, it seems, because in every church I've ever been a part of (with only a few exceptions) a battle has raged in some form between a "music camp" and a "preaching/teaching camp." Some of the churches have split over the issues. Others have remained intact but divided. At least one has ceased to exist.

Looking back over the list of churches, I remember conflicts over speaking in tongues, morality, power, liberalism, racism, ego, staff, teaching, style, deacons, personnel issues, false theology, and more. I cannot remember any brokenness over the lost in our society, the struggle in families, the hopelessness of people wandering around like sheep without a Shepherd. I'm not saying that the brokenness didn't exist. It's just that the conflicts were so strong that they overshadow the work that God might have been trying to accomplish. I also don't remember any attacks on the church from outside of the church. They all came from those within the body.

Don't stop reading yet. There are some notable exceptions, and over the next few posts, I hope to do justice to many beautiful portraits of the body of Christ that I have experienced. For tonight, though, let's just consider that of the 17 organizations that I have been connected with bearing the label of a "fellowship of called out ones," the actual number of biblical churches seems small. Again, that is not to say that within the organizations there are not remnants of people who make up a "fellowship of called out ones." Actually, in every church I have been a part of I can highlight those who made up a biblical church.

This time of year takes me back to a time twice in my life when the Lord has called me away from a full time ministry within the institutional church to living a life on mission as what those within the church call a lay person. I looked the word up, and it simply means someone who is involved but not part of a specific profession. People asked me on both occasions if I was "quitting the ministry." My answer has been the same, and it sounds something like "God's calling on my life isn't tied to getting my paycheck from the church. If the Lord wants to finance His mission through me by using a secular organization, who am I to question Him?" The answer is true and biblical. It just may not be complete. I never quit the ministry. I believe instead that God has so much more work to do in me to make me a true Kingdom expander. A lot of my past still has to find it's rightful place. Skepticism needs to be repackaged. Walls still need some doors and windows for people to access.

I love the body of Christ. Being part of a group of people who love the Lord ignites something in me that I cannot explain. More than anything, experiencing the mending and molding of families into Christlikeness takes me deep into the heart of God for His people. Seeing the body of Christ abused and mistreated makes me angry. Jesus died for His bride, and what we as His people have done to her is inexcusable. I pray for God's mercy, knowing that along with others, I have too often been involved in discussions and activities that did more to diminish God's glory that radiate God's glory.

Tomorrow morning, many who wear the label "Christian" will wake up, get dressed up, and "attend church." For many, the experience is simply an attendance. For others, the experience is an opportunity to engage with other Christ followers. We will all pass by many buildings of various names that have one word in common on their sign. CHURCH. As I read the words of Christ to the churches of Revelation along with God's word to Ezekiel in the Old Testament, I am reminded that the name on the sign is not always reflective of what is happening inside the building. God will not share His glory with anyone or any institution. May we all find the opportunity to be part of a "fellowship of called out ones" that is a foreshadowing of Revelation 19:6-9. John writes,

"Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure for the fine linien is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, 'Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb."

I pray along with Jesus, "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Thursday, September 10, 2015


Today I noticed a broken flower pot outside our front door. I'm not sure why I noticed it particularly today since I have been noticing it generally for weeks. The wind knocked it over sometime this summer. I remember walking outside and seeing it wounded on the sidewalk with the contents spilled out for the elements to destroy. With the rain still beating heavily into the earth and the wind blowing dramatically against the house, I decided that picking the mangled pieces up could wait. A few days later, I did move the pieces of the pot into an old red wagon that sits strategically in the flowerbed for such a time as this one. The pieces are still in the wagon.

Why do people keep broken things? Broken bicycles, broken watches, broken telephones. The junk drawer is filled with little broken items that we keep for no real reason whatsoever. Do you remember Fred Sanford? He made a living out of collecting broken things. His junk yard delighted many a person in search of something broken. Actually I don't remember anyone ever coming to buy anything from Fred's junkyard, but lack of customer support didn't squelch LaMonte's enthusiasm as he drove around in that pink truck looking for treasure. Go to any yard sale, and you'll find that in the middle of lots of items that you might possibly decide you want to buy, there will certainly also be something broken with a price tag on it.

The broken pot draws my attention to the truth that broken things aren't the only things we hold onto unnecessarily. We also hold onto broken hearts, broken relationships, and broken dreams. Poor choices, life circumstances and misspoken words all threaten to crush the deep parts of our lives that we hold onto with delicate care. Shelves are lined with books that give us answers crafted by people who do not know our situation or our need. The books create more frustration, or at best, they provide a temporary salve that in its pretense to be a glue can cause more crushing of the broken pieces.

For now, I am leaving the broken pot right where it sits. The pieces are a reminder that life doesn't always work out the way we planned and that God doesn't always put the pieces back together as quickly as we might like. The broken pieces reinforce that cracked pots need something to become useful. Cracked pots need Someone to become useful. What if God's purpose for the season is not for us to know what we will become but instead is for us to know the One who has that answer? What if the brokenness is really God's way to teach us to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10) or to cast all of our cares on Him since He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7)?

Paul wrote, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7). If you have a few broken moments, take time to read the next few verses. Paul reminds us that when we are broken and crushed, the Lord is glorified in us. His beauty through our brokenness. What if we never know the purpose of the brokenness? What if the pieces remain as continual reminders of our shattered dreams, damaged relationships, and broken hearts? By faith, we have to trust that in our weakness, He is strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

"For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory behond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things are unseen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:17-18, ESV).

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Stink on the Train

Surely you've heard the country song, "Getting Drunk on a Plane." Well, in my travels, I've seen quite a bit of that song become reality as I sit across from folks drowning their sorrows, their business, their stuff in whatever is available from the service cart. I am waiting for the next country song, and since it hasn't come out yet, I'm thinking about writing it. I already have a working title. Wait for it ...... "There Is Some Stink On This Train."

Imagine the experience. You've been working in the heat of Florida all day, and finally you get to the nice, cool terminal in the airport. You board a plane that is way too small for the passengers who are boarding - especially for that lady who is bringing all of her personal items in overstuffed specialty shop bags. Somehow the carryon rules must not apply to paper bags. Anyway, you find your seat and soon realize that someone is aggressively squeezing in next to you. The flight soars into the clouds, and the trip is underway. You get a nice cup of orange juice - no ice please - and a bag of pretzels. The plane lands just as the nice man sitting beside you starts to lean over into your seat, and the cabin door opens to freedom. You manage to get up the jetway, find your connecting gate on the board, and head to the underground transportation system that the airport has so graciously provided for your convenience. You wait as the digital display tells you that the train is arriving in a matter of seconds. The door opens, and you find a spot. Then it happens. The all too familiar aroma wafts its way into the personal space you call nostrils. You try to hold your breath, but the trip is just seconds too long. You look for another spot, but the smell has permeated the entire train.

What would you expect actually? All of the safety straps/handrails are located conveniently on the ceiling from the train, hanging there ever so nicely for everyone to reach up and expose what should be kept close to the vest. What ever happened to 24 hour deodorant? The Old Spice has gotten old, and the Axe has lost its edge. I should set up a shop near the train to sell fresh antiperspirant, baking soda, coffee grounds, candles - anything to bring solace to the obnoxious attack on the senses.

There is another option. You can actually walk between terminals. It's a little bit longer, and it's hard on the knees, but the tradeoff would be worth it. What's worse is that the stink is no respecter of persons. Young, old, male, female - you never know who the culprit will be until you find yourself standing next to them for the longest 90 seconds you've ever experienced.

The train reminds me of life in a way. People have lots of stink. I suppose we all do. Stuff builds up inside of us, and eventually it just begins to smell. Bitterness, anger, pain, and a host of other emotions threaten to fumigate the air around us. Second Corinthians tells us that "we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). The aroma of Christ. That's a good word from a man who spent a lot of time in prisons and locked up in the bottom of boats, in addition to an extensive travel itinerary that took him across land and sea. I wonder if he would have walked from terminal to terminal or taken the train? Hmmmm.

What is the lesson for me to learn from this life experience and the truth of God's word? Scripture reminds me that the only way people will see Jesus is if they see Him in me and hear of His good news from my mouth. The stuff that I keep buried down has got to go before it begins to seep from my pores in ways that actually push people away from Christ. The best way I know to get rid of a smell is to wash the source. Jesus told his followers in John 15:3 that they were already clean because of the word He had spoken to them. Paul went on to say in Ephesians that "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word ..." (Ephesians 5:25-26).

O King Jesus, wash me through and through with the word of Truth. With the psalmist, I pray, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit with me" (Psalm 51:10).

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Time To Wiggle

Monday I heard something that made me realize part of what I have lost. We have a beautiful pond outside of our house, and our youngest son was outside fishing. Our daughter, Caroline, and I went outside to be with him, and when we reached the edge of the pond, Caroline asked for a chance. David handed her the pole (which could have also been influenced by the chocolate milkshake she traded with him), and she cast the line. As the sun spread across the pond and the water moved ever so slightly, I heard Caroline say to David, "If you move the line a little it makes the bait look more real. Uncle Chip taught me that." The Spirit of God moved inside my heart like He has done several times over the last few weeks and prompted me to remember where we have been and to ponder where the Lord has us today.

First, you need to know Uncle Chip. If only you could meet him, you would be so blessed. If you don't know him, but know Jesus, you can meet him one day. Several years ago, he made a move that none of us expected. The Lord, in His sovereign authority, took Chip to heaven, leaving a longing and a legacy. Of all of the weddings he ever photographed and all of the bridal portraits he has ever taken, I know that if he visited us today he would tell us of the brilliance of the Bridegroom who is awaiting His bride's entrance into eternity. Oh to worship around the throne of God. 

From Caroline's comments, you can see that Chip made a difference in the lives of our children in many ways. Some big and some small. He also made a difference in mine and Karen's life too. Of all of the things that come to my remembrance when I think of Chip, the one impression that seems to be the most significant for today is that Chip enjoyed life in the moment. It's not that he didn't ever plan or that he ignored lessons from the past. It's just that he let today filter the portrait of everything else. The blessings of today were the result of struggles from the past and the landscape for the portraits of tomorrow. The hardships of today were yesterday's reminders that we should seize every opportunity we have before us and tomorrow's cry that blessings sometimes come in the rain. 

As I heard Caroline reveal one of Chip's many fishing tricks to David, I realized that the Lord was revealing one of his fishing tricks to me. If I am to be part of Kingdom expansion, then I have to be cast into the middle of the pond and moved around a bit. Life happens when we wiggle a bit, and it would seem that instead of wiggling I've been allowing some weight to let me just plop. I hope you are not letting your imagination run wild with you. I'm not talking about me getting up and wiggling some of this middle-aged weight around - too many people are doing that already. Have you been to a county fair lately?? I'm talking about being shaken, broken, and poured out for His glory. Simmered, percolated, hot brewed, if you will.

By the grace of God, Chip's words rang out loud and clear yesterday, and today is a bit of a declaration day for me. Mamaw used to say, "I declare, that James Stenbeck is alive again ...." Another blog another day. I think the "I declare" was a way to express shock and determination all at once. Well, I am shocked at where I've let myself end up, and I am determined - by the grace of God - to be less the way I am and more like Chip - ultimately because Chip reminds me more of Jesus.

So here goes .....

1. I declare that the enemy has no more hold over my insecurities. In every church I have ever served, the enemy has used one or two people to tap into my insecurities and steal my joy. No more, big guy. These insecurities have led me to stop many things that God has designed for me. This blog for instance. One of the last times I wrote was over a year ago. I made a joking reference that is common in Baptist circles. An instrument of Satan from central Florida sent an "anonymous" comment accusing me of all kinds of things, and in particular of being a secret agent of darkness. Now any reasonable human being would not give any weight to an "anonymous" comment accusing him of acting in secret. HELLO POT; MEET THE KETTLE. Obviously I'm not a reasonable human being because that comment triggered an insecurity and doubt in me that this same person had been actively part of stoking during my time in ministry in central Florida. I suppose that my knowing who the comment came from (because the person used the same "anonymous" words that had previously been spoken) didn't help the situation. But you know what the Lord said as I rethought it all? "To serve Me, you've got to be cast into the midst of the pond and wiggle a little bit." Wiggle, not drop dead!!! And on top of that, no one is ANONYMOUS to God. ANONYMOUS always get's theirs in the end - literally and figuratively because God always balances His books.

2. I declare that the enemy has no more hold over my daily living. This one is tied closely to my insecurities. Most days, I am traveling to places that are far from home. While I am away, I miss my family dearly. I miss the closeness, the conversation, the opportunity to be together. I feel left out and alone much of the time. The cloud that hovers over me doesn't affect my work, but it does affect my downtime. The time that I am traveling could be used for loads of prayer and fasting and Bible study. Instead, I find it difficult to engage for very long. The enemy is defeating me - or at least he has been. The days I am home have been toys in his hand, as well. Don't let anyone tell you that God doesn't have a sense of humor. God moved us two years ago from a frying pan where ministry was flourishing and the Kingdom was expanding into the fire where ministry was dying and darkness was expanding. Small towns can have enough evil to fill the largest cities, and much of that evil resides in the leadership of local churches. Well, as the story goes, a small power cartel took issue with the biblical truth that all followers of Christ have a voice in the church. They made statements that revealed a deep false theology, taking the position that the Bible was not really relevant if it contradicted the kingdom they were building. Leaders would come to make decisions but would literally run from the opportunity to study the Bible. The Lord graciously removed our family from what has become one hot mess. Here is where His humor comes in. He removed us from the evil in that body and the discipline He is enacting on the local body, but He left us in the town to live. Our kids are in school. My wife works in the school. My family is very well liked and respected within the school system. This little group in the church though? They are probably praying harder than we are that our house sells soon. So when I am away, the enemy has been having a hold over my daily living. Then, when I am home, the enemy has a hold over our daily living because every street I drive down, every game I attend, every gas pump I pull up to reminds me of a few people who claim to be followers of Christ and the enemy uses them to steal my joy. It's not their fault he uses them. They are just pawns in his hand. It's actually my fault that he uses them because I'm the one that is keeping the doggone screen door propped open. Well, no more. Thanks Chip. I'll use today's blessing to remind me that yesterday's pain doesn't last forever and tomorrow is better because of the faith God has built in me. The truth is that we have many blessings in our town. I just listed 33 names of blessings in our community in West Tennessee. I could go to dear friends from Wauchula, Florida, to Ocala, Florida, Commerce, Georgia, to Franklinton, Louisiana, to Panama City, Florida, to Georgia, to South Carolina, to Canada, to Asia and beyond. Actually, the enemy is far outnumbered because the army of God is strong in our lives. But even if they were not, we have JESUS, and HE IS ALL WE NEED. I don't know if the enemy can read, so I'm just going to say it outloud. Say it with me so he can hear real good. THE ENEMY IS FAR OUTNUMBERED BECAUSE THE ARMY OF GOD IS STRONG IN OUR LIVES. BUT EVEN IF THEY WERE NOT, WE HAVE JESUS, AND HE IS ALL WE NEED.

So today is a reclamation day. Today, by the grace, mercy, and power of the Spirit of God who lives in me, I am reclaiming the territory that I have lost for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear His voice. I've been thrown into the pond. Let's wiggle.