Saturday

You Can Begin Again!

     I have never heard anyone say, “I hate springtime.” Well…okay, maybe allergy sufferers whine this complaint—but even they just dislike the pollen, not the season. Flowers bloom, trees bud, grass starts growing, birds begin singing. All of creation announces, “We’re alive again!”

      For a lot of people this year was a long, cold winter. Winter always seems long to me—too long, sometimes. But winter is necessary. In the economy of the climate, winter kills then makes way for something new.

      During winter creation loses its sparkle. A once luscious, green forest turns dismal gray. Most flowers die while others crawl back under the soil to hide from the wintry elements. Color, for a season, vanishes, and it seems so does all of life.

      To add to the drab surroundings, the song of nature is stilled as birds take their melody to a warmer environment. Is it any wonder that a greater percentage of people suffer from depression during winter?

      Like all creation, we too experience seasons in our life. Without exception, no one can live without going through personal winters. In keeping with the season, most are cold and drab. Personal winters can be dead, gray, and colorless.

      It’s easy to lose your song during these days. Like the Israelites referred to in Scripture, we incline to weep a lot during personal winters and set beside “the rivers of Babylon” thinking of the good ole days. The Psalmist says they put away their musical instruments, “hanging them upon the branches of the willow trees” (chapter 137:1-2).

      The recession, job losses, depression, home foreclosures, rejection, death of loved ones, abuse, sickness, marriage problems, divorce, addictions, loneliness, failures—just a few of the grim circumstances of personal winters. During winter “something dies” so to speak.

      I don’t like winter. However, it’s necessary. Winter precedes spring and every living thing must pass through an icy winter to enter a sunnier spring. This is a spiritual principle that applies to every form of life.

      The cross is the Lord’s symbol that reminds us that Jesus experienced a personal winter, too. Like all winters, dying was part of it. First, his winter was for his Father, and then for us.

      The cross was ugly. The Lord’s death on the cross was even more repulsive. The only color that splashed across the backdrop of Jesus’ crucifixion was red—his blood. Other than that, like all winters it was gray, bleak, and dreary. But it was necessary for what was to come.

      One would hardly recognize Jesus during his winter. Bruised, beaten, and bloody, only the inward charm remained. His outer shell was not recognizable. Finally, winter took its toll and he died. I’m not surprised. Winter was only doing its job.

      The story goes that winter passed and springtime came. Like a tulip lying dormant under the soil, the earth gave way to a greater power and promise. What everyone thought to be gone forever burst forth from a wintry grave. Flowers bloomed (lilies, I suppose), skies turned blue, warm days emerged, and birds sang again. This time they sang a new song—“He has risen!”

      In Jesus’ resurrection God declares that our personal winters are only for a season. In the Bible a man named Paul wrote to a group of people faced with winter. “I want you to know,” he writes,  “about the great and mighty power that God has for us followers. It is the same wonderful power he used when he raised Christ from death.” (Ephesians 1:19-20). Now that’s some more serious power we have been given!

      Easter is not only an event in Christian history—Easter is a person. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection” (John 11:25).

      Though we celebrate Jesus’ birth in December, isn’t it strange that historians cannot pinpoint when he was born? However, we’re certain about the time of his resurrection—springtime, right after the Jewish Passover.

      Springtime and resurrection go together, as Forrest Gump says, “Like peas and carrots.” When Jesus resurrected from his grave God was declaring, “Your winters are limited!” Your personal winter may be long and hard but it will come to an end. This is the message of the season.

      Jesus never understood his future by the dismal winter of his cross. Neither should you. Like daffodils that suddenly appear after a long cold season, the resurrection declares that your winter season is not the end of your story.

      I love springtime don’t you? It’s bursting with the resurrection of Jesus! And the resurrection is not just a good story—it’s a life principle that God infused in the season itself.

      Now, as I see the flowers bloom, trees blossom, and birds sing, I’m reminded that winters, like the cross, do not last forever.

      Jesus has risen!

      Springtime is here.

      And you can begin again!



Tuesday

The Sun will Rise









“As surely as the sun rises, he will appear...”    Hosea 6:3






Lately I’ve received quite a few calls from people who, in one way or another, need God to intervene in the difficult circumstances of their lives. They pray. And wait. And wait. And wait. For hours, days, some for months, have waited. There’s a cry for relief from personal trials. One laments the struggle over a troubled teenager, while another just needs God’s guidance. All are walking through a season of darkness that hovers over them like a cloud.  

Early this morning I sat on our deck reading the Bible and caught myself trying to read as an intruder, bit by bit, crept upon me. Finishing a chapter in Proverbs, I looked up to find the sun looking straight at me. Mr. Sun was full faced and happy, not caring at all that his rays of light infringed upon my space. A lot more light than I needed, I found myself peeping as I read, adjusting to its big arms reaching into my eyes.

Desperate prayers are answered much the same way. Slowly. You hardly notice God has shown up on the scene until you’re squinting from the brightness of his presence! The Lord coming in answered prayer is like a sunrise. We would rather have our prayers answered in soft drink machine fashion; drop in the currency (prayer) and out pops your order. God, however, is unhurried. And yet, He shows up and almost leisurely sheds light upon the dark paths we’re trudging through.

The sunrise this morning was awesome, but so was the sunrise yesterday and tomorrow’s will be just as glorious. Count on it.

Likewise, as surely as the sun will rise, “he will appear” upon the dark circumstance you’ve been praying over and telling him about. It may be slow, but it WILL be. Most likely, you’ll not even notice the hour he comes to your rescue. Suddenly, you will find yourself squinting as his Light progressively strikes a blow to the darkness you’ve fought against for so long. The darkness backs off at the same rate that you allow God to slip in. Darkness always gives way to the Dawn. Every time!

God’s presence is as faithful and sure as tomorrow’s sunrise. It’s a promise. Claim it! Hold on to it! Embrace it, because he WILL appear!

Sunday



This article remains my favorite. Each Easter this receives more response that anything I've published. As you read, I pray that the power of Jesus' resurrection collides with the dead places in your life and you discover God's grace to help you live again.


“Is there life after death?” It’s been asked by every society and culture since humankind’s existence. Does life exist on the other side of a grave?

Job, a patriarch with a book in the Bible bearing his name, asked, “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14). People like Job walk through life inspired by their goals and dreams. Job lived with purpose and great faith. With the limited information we’re afforded, Job appears to be a conscientious husband and father, and a prosperous businessman with spiritual values who “fears God and shuns evil.” Undoubtedly, Job was a leader in the city of Uz, his family the pride of the neighborhood.

Out of nowhere, Job faced trials and fell upon hard times that cost him everything and nearly everyone precious to him. Job’s children, wealth, and health vanished, seemingly, overnight. His spirituality was the only thing left intact, and that too was challenged. His situation was so bad that even his wife and friends counseled him to, “Curse God and die.”

It was in this context that Job asked the age old question, “If a man dies, will he live again?” As noble as it may be, Job’s question was not “Is heaven real?” He wanted to know if resurrection existed this side of the grave. Is a “come back” possible for the person who loses everything on earth that is good and valuable? Can dead dreams, lost destinies, and misplaced relationships have life breathed back into them?

After “the crisis” Job no longer considered himself alive. He only existed now. Sick though he was, it was the death inside him that hurt most. He longed for another shot at life. Job wanted—needed—a resurrection.

After having my own “Job experience”, I asked the same question. Prior to my crisis, I was known in my community as a leader of leaders. Leading one of the fasting growing organizations in my city, my reputation was respected. Making wrong choices, however, sent my character and professional standing into a tail spin. Consequently, I lost every “thing” and most relationships to boot. Financial security, my job, credit, friends, and a good name…gone. The dreams I so treasured vanished. Worse still, like Job, I died inside.

One morning as I walked out with the children to drive them to school, a tow truck slowly slipped into our driveway. I knew what he had come for. I was not able to make the car payment and he had come to repossess my vehicle. This was but one of the many incidents I experienced that reminded me that life as I knew it was dying one piece at a time.

“Pop, why is that man taking our car?” my son asked, as I tried to shuffle him and his little sister back into the house.

Pushing back anger, pain, and regret, I swallowed hard. “Go on back inside, kids. The car is broke. He’s taking it to fix it.” Embarrassed, I lied to cover up another mess. Truthfully, I was the one who was “broke.” In the days ahead I would also come to the conclusion that I was the one who needed to be “fixed.”

The man driving the truck was as nice as he could be. I removed my personal belongings and watched another part of yesterday’s prosperity disappear over the hill. As the days unfolded I died a little at a time as my failure gnawed away at chunks of my life. Job’s question surfaced in my mind, time and again. My hopes and dreams died as I asked myself, “Will I ever live again?”

Some of you ask the same question. Divorce, failures, loss of employment, scandal, moral collapse, addictions, spiritual decline, abuse; you face your own deaths.

One day, two sisters sent word to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, was dying. They needed Jesus to come quickly and heal him before he passed. Jesus delayed the trip and Lazarus died before he could arrive.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, “it’s too late.” Now, even you can’t help him.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Like Job’s wife and friends, Martha’s faith only made room for better days in the next life.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Martha was thinking “heaven.” Jesus was talking “today.” In time, Jesus would explain that a resurrection can also be experienced before and instead of a funeral!

You can rise again—live again! Not later, not in the sweet by ‘n by, but in the here ‘n now! Jesus is not the I was, or the I will be, He is the “I AM!” When Jesus Christ arrived on the planet he invaded earth with the resurrection factor. This answers the question that haunts every person who has died inside, suffered loss or failure, and dreads waking up to another day. After experiencing personal devastation, is it possible to fulfill my destiny and realize my dreams again? Will I ever live again, love again, trust again? Are second chances realistic this side of the grave? The answer to these apparent impossibilities is a resounding “YES!”

Standing toe to toe with the dead man’s tomb, Jesus lifted his voice and shouted into the burial chamber, “Lazarus, come out!” Resurrection prayers always look foolish to those comfortable with the status quo. To them, resurrection is irrational, crazy faith. To the crowd’s astonishment, the “dead man” waddles out of his grave, alive again!

Years ago, I hobbled out of my grave too. People were no less astounded with my resurrection than the mob was with Lazarus in Jesus’ day. Today, I write overlooking the sunroom of our beautiful home, my wife reading at my side, and I lead an amazing group of people who comprise a growing congregation. Together, we’re impacting our city, the same city where I died years ago. No one expected my return because people who die my kind of death usually don’t return. But “I’m back,” more alive than ever, a product of God’s grace, and a testimony that he still raises the dead!

“If a man dies, will he live again?” Lazarus and I agree that it’s entirely possible. And Job’s outcome? The book that carries his name documents his finale. “The Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house” (Job 42:10-11).

The resurrection is not just a historical event that Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday. The resurrection is a Person, a faith, and a possibility for anyone who has experienced death in any form.

If you listen closely, you’ll hear your name being called. It’s “I AM,” the Resurrection himself, calling you. Today it’s your turn to walk out of the grave that you’ve been buried in for so long.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas



Philippians 2:7 “He became like one of us.” (Contemporary English Version)

Hudson Taylor, the famous missionary to China, left England on September 19, 1853 and arrived in Shanghai, China on March 1, 1954. Do the math. It took five months to make the trip. Today, we can get to the moon faster than that. Taylor’s passion to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the little known Chinese people drove him to go where others had never gone and do what others had never done. 

When Taylor died 51 years later, he had brought into China over 800 missionaries, established 20 mission stations, trained over 700 Chinese leaders, raised more than four million dollars, raised up a church of 125,000, and personally baptized at least 50,000. This happened in 19th century conditions when things moved at a turtle’s pace. 

What was Hudson Taylor’s secret? 

He became like them. 

Taylor didn’t love or establish or preach the gospel to the Chinese as a wise Westerner. He did something unheard of in his time. He clothed himself in Chinese dress, wore his hair like a national, and, for all practical purposes, became Chinese. He became one of them. 

And they believed. By the thousands, they believed. 

Today, Christians in China are forced to worship underground, yet they’re the largest church on the planet! Some estimate there could be 200 million Christians there. Two hundred million! The Christian population in China could equal two-thirds of the total population of the United States!


Hudson Taylor discovered a secret. He became Chinese so they could comprehend Jesus. Taylor didn’t come up with the ingenious plan. It was God’s idea in the first place. God became like one of us and today we call that occasion Christmas.

Every now and then I have a hard time wrapping my mind around God’s bigness. Sometimes I’m too zapped from the battle of life to grasp how enormous He is. When I’m worn out, it’s tough to be a God-thinker. I know, God’s sheer size should comfort me, but sometimes it simply overwhelms me. Kind of like Bill Gates trying to explain his net worth to me. I don’t get.

To help wimpy people like me God did the unheard of. He became like me. 

Think of it. Like me. Like you. Us! 

Animals. Mangers. A starry night. Sheep. Farmers (“Shepherds”). A baby. A pregnant woman. Guests showing up to see the newest addition to the family. These I understand. 


He became like one of us. 

God knew we could never comprehend His vastness, so He showed us how much he loved us and wanted to be near us by coming to us in our littleness. Even when I’m weary, I understand. I get it. 

Some say they’ll only believe when they see how big God is. God’s plan, however, was to save us by becoming like us, yet without sin. The Savior of the world, God, became little on purpose because even I can understand a baby’s love.

When Hudson Taylor became Chinese, the Chinese believed. 


When God became a baby, I believed. 

And of all the truths in Scripture, this one, for me, is a really BIG deal.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday

He Deserves All

Some things can only be expressed as a song. I think my son, Josh, does it as good as anyone I know.

In a world when things change over night and uncertainty is certain, don't you need something, Someone, who is constant?

Really, He deserves it ALL.

Another Presence will come as you listen.

Enjoy my son.

But especially, enjoy the One who deserves it all.



Thirsty Souls

Psalm 42: 1-3  As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, "Where is your God?"


Sometimes I read the heart breathings of another and wish it was me. This is case with this Psalm. Here is a person whose circumstance of life has driven him to the only true source of life itself…The Presence of God.

As he writes we discover that he's crying out from the taunting of an enemy and crushing circumstances that overwhelm him. Depression threatens to drape blackness over him like a cloudy night. Worse, there’s no evidence of his God anywhere to be found. People around him who appear prosperous from serving other gods mock him asking “Where is YOUR God?”  From this place of despair he gets a revelation of the parched condition of his own soul. Then, and only then, does he cry “My soul pants for YOU, O God!”

A thirsty soul is a precious possession. However, the same soul is so easily deceived in finding refreshment from the stagnant waters of another well. The soul that finds its appetite satisfied with everything but the presence of God eventually becomes a decrepit thing. Our most cherished moments are when we discover that after drinking the dregs of this world’s joys, we are still empty, so we determine to once again set our quest to meet with God.

Recently I visited the modern mansion of a wealthy entrepreneur. The finely laid brick driveway circled by the front door of the huge house. I’d never seen doors eight feet tall until now. “Imagine,” I thought, “doors as tall as the ceilings of most homes.” As I walked through the magnanimous house I sensed an eerie barrenness. Hollow echoes followed my footsteps down mahogany hallways between rooms. Big lavish furniture looked like show pieces, while large pictures reminded me of visits to the museum. I felt like I was standing among millions of dollars worth of emptiness.

This is why the Psalmist was not interested in just any water to quench his thirst. It had to be flowing streams. Recognizing there were other sources from which to drink he determined that this time nothing less than the living God could gratify these deep desires. Some people would be satisfied to commune with God among nature, and indeed you can sense his majesty in his creation. But this man wanted more. The enchanting beauty of God’s creation could not quench the thirst of his crusty soul. His quest was to appear before God, himself!

To the average person these words are just “words”—proper religious jargon. But to those who know; to those who have lived in the precious state of thirst for heavenly realms, this is the most valued place this side of eternity.

Oh, to be thirsty! Even desperate!

Oh, to be at a place that transcends religious routine!

Indeed, the quest for his presence is almost as satisfying as the Presence himself!

Make us thirsty, O God!

We Broke the Huddle: New Church Plant


Wednesday

Break The Huddle

At the beginning of the year I started thinking about how the first church did church, and how differently I and most other American Christians do church. So, in January I asked the Holy Spirit to take away the grid I unconsciously use when reading the Bible and I began re-reading the New Testament Gospels. I discovered two specifics about the early church.

First, Jesus never told his disciples to gather in a building and wait for people to come to their doorsteps. Sure, it can be assumed that they came together, sang hymns and listened to teaching, but that was a prelude for what was to come. It seems that the next thing Jesus taught them to do was the real purpose of their existence on the planet.

Today, the western church reasons that if we have great worship music, exceptional preaching, the latest techno-gadgets and a cool venue, people who don’t know the Lord will just mysteriously show up. While these may or may not draw a large crowd, most of the people who turn up at our church already know Christ. Most times they keep coming because they think the way we do church is cooler and better than the way the last church they attended does church. Therefore, churches trade Christians and the church that’s having the biggest draw at the time fools itself into thinking that the Kingdom is advancing when in fact we’re just swapping people. It’s not that this is wrong, and it’s certainly not sinful, but it’s not what the Bible reflects. At least, not the way I read it.

The second thing that struck me was Jesus’ calculated command to “Go.”

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Gathering together with other believers is important. Meeting together is the means by which we stir up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25). But meeting together is no more the grand purpose of the church than a football team’s huddle is to the game. Like the football team, the purpose is to eventually break the huddle and move forward into enemy territory!

God’s church will never be complete, and dare I say we may have even become a bit dysfunctional, because all we’ve majored on is to try to make our huddle the best huddle in town. For the most part, this is a description of the American church—and it’s wrong—it’s dead wrong!

Jesus last words on earth before he ascended were, “Go…make disciples of all nations…be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." The word that pierces my heart is “Go.” Jesus was deliberate and intentional. Convenience was not a consideration. “Go” challenges my personality, my schedule and my comfort. And for me it’s very uncomfortable.

There are people in my town who know nothing of the love of God. Why? Because I, like many others, have stayed in my huddle. Now, you must know that I love my huddle! My huddle has wonderful people, great worship music and some of the best leaders in the region. I think we have one of the most unique huddles in our city. You can’t come into my huddle without being blessed! However, the blessing and problem are juxtaposed against one another, and herein lies the issue. While the huddle is necessary, it’s incomplete if we don’t break out of it. People don’t pay thirty-five dollars a ticket to see a pro football team huddle. A football team will get penalized if it stays in the huddle too long! If all they do is huddle the game’s not being played. The fans come to see their team move the ball into the opposing team’s territory and score!

A few months ago it dawned on me that I had barely spoken to my next door neighbor who now lives alone since his mother died. Never married, he stays home alone all day. The only regular visit he ever received was the ambulance driver that came regularly to pick up his mother and take her to the hospital. He had had no visitors since she died. Is he aware of how much God loves him? Does he ever talk to God? Had he ever attended a church service? I didn’t know.

Imagine, a church has paid airfare for me to fly to their city to speak, but I wouldn’t cross the street and go to my neighbor. I didn’t even know his name, much less his relationship with the Lord! After re-reading Jesus’ words in the Bible I was convicted that we have to find ways to serve people outside our circle with a heavenly purpose in mind. The only thing it will cost is personal convenience and obedience, and maybe a walk across the street, which, by the way, I did and continue to do.

I suppose that most churches, including mine, has worked to become the best and biggest huddle in town, while Jesus awaits us breaking our huddle (in whatever state we find it) to go to people who need to know that there is a God Who loves them unconditionally. Jesus added, “Start in Jerusalem” [your hometown].

So what did I learn from re-reading the Gospels? When the Lord looks at my city I don’t think He sees the size or technology or style of our individual huddles. He sees His Church, His Kingdom people, and He’s waiting for us to break from our routine, walk across the street and serve someone who has yet to hear the Gospel, that God loves them…just like they are.

Friday

It Is Time


“At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord”    Genesis 4:26



Years ago in an unfinished musty room in the basement of our home, I created a place where I could get away and study. One Saturday evening, overcome with a burden to pray, I pulled away to my moldy retreat. The church I led faced overwhelming circumstances. We desperately needed God’s intervention. I could not produce what they needed, but I knew Who could. Good sermons just weren't getting it. We needed more. So I prostrated myself on the cold, damp concrete floor and called on the name of the Lord.

What drives people to pray? Usually when things spiral out of control, we can’t manage our circumstances and life becomes filled with more battle than beauty, we seek the aid of God.  The need at hand is bigger than our ability to meet it. Someone has correctly asserted, “There are no atheists on the battlefield.” So true!

The Genesis 4 account marks the first time people began to pray and seek the God of heaven. The question on the table is, What drove them there? What marked that time as opposed to other times when they didn't feel the need to call on God? 

Genesis 4 recounts the rise of jealousy, hatred and bitterness taking over the human race. Adam and Eve’s sin is evident as men took justice into their own hands, murdering their fellow man. There was a flood of anger among men. Sin was introduced in Genesis 3 and the results came to bear in Genesis 4. Reaping the fruit of their own sin, men were pressed to call on the name of the Lord. That time was a hard time.

“What,” I ask, “will provoke Christians to call on the name of the Lord today? When will the prayer meeting (which sounds so archaic because it rarely exists in the American church today) be filled with people passionately seeking God’s heart? When will calling on the name of the Lord be as important as listening to the sermons of men?” 

History records how fervent prayer always preceded a fervent church. Today the church knows little to nothing of this precedent, and the lack of prayer reveals it. Likewise, the straying condition of America, I believe, is the fruit of a prayerless church.

However, a world out of control can serve to propel people to call on the name of the Lord. At that time, to date the most difficult time known to humanity as recorded in Genesis, men called on God. In difficulty, prayer becomes the norm and intercession is no longer limited to people we consider weird, deep, or serious. It's the response of desperate people.

Yesterday, I received an email from a Ugandan pastor and he reflected on the prayer life of his congregation. As I read his words I was convicted to my bones! He writes:
We fast and pray as many times as we need to. We have a prayer group that has prayer and fasting three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This is routine for us. Sometimes we do more, like this week, the whole church will fast and pray from Wednesday to Saturday, except for the ministers who will have a dry fast * for three days. So the ministers will fast for five days. For us prayer and fasting is as real as eating food.
*Note: A dry fast means no water or food for three days!

America is ripe for ruin. This is no longer the message of angry Bible thumping preachers, it's common journalism reported from governmental agencies. While attendance at mega churches rival the population of small cities, the collective righteousness in the church-at-large is not potent enough to transform the culture of a single city in our nation. There are a few, albeit very few, exceptions. On our watch the nation perishes.

I realize it’s an acidic message that sets one's teeth on edge. With rolled eyes I hear someone declare, “Another Doomsday-er!” But not so fast! Allow me to offer an additional note that will hopefully bring some harmony to an otherwise sour sound. We’re also poised for revival. 

History records that the most spectacular life is birthed from a grave rather than a nursery. There are numerous Biblical and modern examples, Jesus Christ himself standing as the perfect model.


And so it can be at this time, if--and this is the condition--people begin to call upon the name of the Lord. God breathing life into His church or a nation was always preceded, and this without variance, by a praying people.