I’m a pastor and sometimes I don’t know what to pray

scaffolding home .jpg

I’m going to confess something.  Sometimes I don’t know what to pray.  Sometimes it’s because I am facing a new, difficult situation, sometimes I’m looking in the face of someone hurting so deeply that my words don’t seem big enough, and sometimes I’m just distracted.

This isn't a new thing for me.  I’ve always had this problem.  I remember being in a prayer meeting as a teenager at youth camp sitting on a screened in porch in a metal folding chair. I was in awe of everyone else in the group.  Without any time to think of what they wanted to say, they would go on and on pouring their hearts out to God.  It was beautiful, but when It came my turn to say something, I stumbled over a couple sentences that sounded as confused as I felt.  

It was the same when I was by myself.  Often I would feel a deep hunger to pray, but when I tried, the words came out all wrong.  So, I asked a couple different mentors in my life what I should do.  The first told me I should keep a list of prayer requests.  My list quickly grew to a couple pages in my notebook, but I always felt weird just rattling off requests like God was some genie in a bottle.  

The other mentor said I should begin by naming things I liked about God, then thanking God for what God did in my life.  After that they said I should ask God anything I needed help with or wanted done, and then I could close the prayer by sitting in silence.  Though I got better the more I tried, I never felt fulfilled in that area of my spiritual life.

It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I discovered that all of this was really one type of prayer: spontaneous prayer. And for many people, spontaneous prayer is not the best option in every (or even most) situations.  

That’s why for millennia, people have been writing prayers and compiling those prayers into prayer books. They offered those works as tools so that people who wanted to spend time communing and conversing with God had a sort of scaffolding on which to stand as they built their house of prayer.

Beyond that there were many spiritual leaders who pioneered more contemplative approaches to prayer that helped people clear the clogged stream of their mind and rest in the presence of God.

As soon as I discovered these beautiful prayer books and ancient, mystical prayer practices I couldn’t get enough.  I kept digging and reading and learning until what once was the most difficult aspect of my spiritual life was the most rewarding.

Several months ago I began working on my own version of that scaffolding in the form of a new prayer book.  I began gathering old Christian Poetry, powerful Bible verses, and ancient prayer methods and putting them together into something new.  I created several prayer services for each day of the week that were written with a different time of day in mind (dawn, morning, afternoon, end of day and midnight).  I wanted people to be able to pick up the book at any moment of the week and have words to express their hearts to God.

Then I sat down with a group of young adults and asked them to help me come up with a list of of the moments in life where they came up empty when trying to express their hearts to God.  Over many late nights I crafted words to do just that.

After thousands of words, it became clear that there was one thing missing.  Sometimes we need less words.  Sometimes less words=more prayer.   The final movement of the book is a brief introduction to the mystical prayer practices that have lasted for many centuries and helped many spiritual pilgrims connect with their creator.

The book is called The Book of Everyday Prayer, and it’s for everyone who, like me, needs more than what comes off the top of their head.  It's for the teen, young adult and adult who are ready to claim old hymns, beautiful Bible verses and a new word or two as their own prayers.  It’s for all of us who need something to help us focus on God in those stolen moments in the parking lot or when we wake up earlier than we planned.

It’s The Book of Everyday Prayer, and I hope it helps.  You can order it now here.

How can I connect with God if I can’t feel him?

Youth retreats can completely ruin your spiritual life.  Don’t get me wrong, I love youth retreats, and have seen many people make important decisions for their life there.  However, much of what people talk about in regards to those youth retreats is an emotional sense of the presence of God.  Worse, many people end up making the two things mean the same making statements like “God was so present that I couldn't stop crying.”

But, what happens when you don’t feel it, or cant feel it, or stop feeling it?  Does it mean that God has left you or you have left God?  

I want to answer that with a clear and passionate NO.

God is not a feeling, and God’s presence is not somehow tied to our emotions like some sort of God gauge with the more emotional we feel indicating the power of God in any given situation.

The reality is that there are many people who rarely if ever experience God emotionally, but who live devoted lives to Jesus and have a close, intimate relationship with him.  

I think that most people have a favorite or common way that they experience God.  For some people it’s through their emotions, for some it is more mental, while for others it is in their relationships with other people.  All of those ways are good and can lead you further along the path.

Now, what about the question?  I think that when we don’t feel God we need to take stock of who we are.  If you are a very emotional person in your relationship with God, it could mean that you have drifted away and need to reflect and confess.

However if that’s not you, if you aren’t an overly emotional person, then look at who you are.  Maybe you love reading.  If that’s you then pick up a good book or open the Bible.  If you are a person who is always around people, call up some friends and go to church.  If you are an artist, spend some time googling different stories in the Bible and looking at the art that has been made and create art yourself.

At the end of the day, whether you feel God or not, God is present.  Always.  Right there with you.  All you have to do is find a way to open up and pay attention to that presence, and you do that by using who you are to be aware of the presence of God wherever you are.

How do I talk about my faith with my Atheist friend/coworker/family member?

This isn't as hard as you might think.  Over the years for whatever reason, God has given me the gift of being the person that people send their friends and family members who do not believe in Jesus.  If I’m completely honest, some of my favorite people to interact with are atheists, but that is another story. 

This question is usually motivated by a genuine concern for people loved dearly by Christians and a confusion of where to start. 

Well, where do you start? How do you talk about your faith without pushing the person away, fighting with them, or making your faith seem shallow?

Don’t Argue

This is key. I don’t know any atheist that has ever been convinced to be a Christian through a theological or philosophical argument with a friend, family member or coworker.  The whole argument approach is fraught with all sorts of difficult issues.  

First among them is that atheists don’t believe in the sources of authority Christians take for granted like the Bible.  You can quote as many Bible verses as you want and even explain the historical reliability of the ancient text, but it will not matter because they don’t believe in God.  For them, the words in the Bible are interesting philosophy, but unable to be inspired by God because God doesn’t exist.  

Atheists are also intensely skeptical which is something for which I personally have a deep respect.  However, unless you have the same level of skepticism, you will likely be caught off guard by the fundamental truths/realities that they question, and will be at a loss for how to respond.

Then there is the problem of logical argument.  There has never been a logical proof for God that has not been able to be dismissed by a group of freshman philosophy students (trust me, I’ve seen it).  That is because one of the most troubling aspects of religion to atheists is that God exists in some part beyond logic.  That is not to say that faith is illogical, but that it talks about ultimate things and spiritual realities that extend beyond our rational existence.  Because of that our logic and language does not have all the tools needed to fully convey that reality.

Finally, there are often deep non-propositional issues that undergird their viewpoint.  Like every human ever, Atheists have experienced deep pain and loss. Some have been torn apart by Christians in their school, some have been shamed by Christian parents, some have watched as their children died, some have been alienated by pastors, and some have suffered even more horrific things.  These sorts of trials would shake the faith of even the most devout Christian, but in the life of a person who was not 100% sure about God they represent proof that this world lacks the presence of a loving God.  

Though there are philosophical and theological answers to all those problems, those answers provide little comfort to the deep emotional pain and unsettling loss that is wrapped up in those stories. And no one, NO ONE, has ever found healing from abuse or loss through a theological argument with a person of faith.

Your story

When it comes down to it, all you have is your own story.  When you are interacting with a person whose beliefs are in direct contradiction with the most fundamental elements of your own, all the elements of your theology have no validity from their perspective. When the Bible is irrelevant in the discussion along with all the theological stances of your particular denomination, all you have left is your own story.

But, that is a lot!  Your story contains the same truth of God that exists in the Bible, but in a narrative, personal form.  There is real power in our stories because though others may not share your theological beliefs, they do share the human experience.  You have both loved and lost and been hurt and experienced beauty. 

In sharing how you have experienced God you are sharing the Gospel.  In revealing how you deal with doubts, you are giving voice to the Holy Spirit, and when you talk about experiencing the transcendent presence of God in nature you are speaking the words of God that have been written into sunsets and fields of flowers.  

1,000 interactions

All of this leads me to what is possibly the most important piece.  The way you talk to your atheist friends is to have a thousand interactions about faith not just one.  The goal is not to convert them in a single moment of Billy Graham-fueled glory, its to share the story of God unfolding in your life as often as possible.  

The standard posture towards this relationship for most believers is to avoid talking about faith because you don’t want to make the person uncomfortable, but its only uncomfortable when it only comes up as part of a concerted effort to change their mind.

Instead, we need to live our faith openly and publicly so that they can see the work of God in our lives.  It is about mentioning that you spent time in prayer before you got ready for the day or how much it meant to you that your small group leader came by the hospital and prayed with you before your surgery.  It is about sharing a scripture that helped you out or talking about how the evil in the world frustrates you.

And it is also about letting them see you question and doubt and find an answer or live with the unknown.  It is about expressing when you are angry at God for allowing humans to have free will and do evil things, and offering to pray for them when things are less than good in their own life.

It is about allowing the Holy Sprit to speak a thousand tiny messages of hope through your words and actions.

Trust the Holy Spirit

When it all comes down to it, there is very little we can do on our own to convert anyone to Christianity.  If your friend decides to follow Jesus it will not be because of something you said, it will be because of the Holy Spirit working in their heart.  That means that in this situation you are a tool for the Holy Spirit to use.

This is a stretching moment for most people.  The question is whether or not you trust the Holy Spirit.  The answer may be “no” in which case you should study all kinds of arguments against atheism and make sure to have a lot of fights with them.  But if you truly want them to experience the love and power of being filled by the Spirit as they follow Jesus you are going to have to grow in your own faith to the point that you can trust the Holy Spirit with the soul of your friend.

Which should lead you to your knees because when faced with the fact that we are going to be the vessel for the Holy Spirit we are always confronted with our own brokenness and the need to be healed.  So, pray.  Pray for your friend, pray for yourself, pray for the Holy Spirit to use your story and the thousands of interactions you have. Then, trust because at the end of the day it is not up to you.

>>> Read More: 5 Ways to Keep Skeptics Out of the Church

The Holiness Lies that are Killing the Church

The church was dying.  Every Sunday all over the country you could walk into mostly-empty sanctuaries that were built to hold hundreds of souls crying out to God.  The worst part was, the death was happening at the hands of the church itself.  It had no evangelism to speak of and no deep expression of community within its walls.  Most churches’ outreach amounted to feeding a couple hungry people out of what was left over after paying the bills.  

Its leadership was full of highly educated clergy who were highly lacking in passion.  This lack of passion and vision had become institutionalized to the point that passionate preaching, real outreach that brought in the wrong kind of people, and true evangelism that focused on turning hearts to Jesus was marginalized and even discouraged.

This was Wesley’s England.  This was where the Methodist movement began, and I wish it was further from our current situation. It was into that moment that Wesley spoke a scandalous message: scriptural holiness.  With passion and determination he crisscrossed England with his clear goal to “spread scriptural holiness across the land.”  

He was met with opposition.  When he used emotion in his sermons from the pulpit, he was shown the door.  When he was seen developing relationships with the people on the wrong side of the tracks, he was persona non grata in the elite religious circles, and when he began engaging in evangelism he was gossiped about in all the nearby sanctuaries.

As radical messages often do, his message sparked an awakening.  His message brought to life a movement of people committed to what he called “going on to perfection.”  Though they resisted it at every turn, this movement woke up the church all over eventually spreading across the ocean to America and ultimately all over the world.  His message was at the core of what God used to free people from the sin that held them hostage for years and restored people to their family, faith, and community.

We have lost that message. Travel across the country via a quick sampling of podcasts and you will find very few that speak of anything close to Wesley’s message of holiness.  Why is that?  Why has the church allowed its zeal to cool?  I believe we have bought into a couple of half-truths that have taken us out at the knees and helped us develop a tolerance against the call of the spirit to go on to holiness.

“I would be a hypocrite because I am not holy.” I think that if most church leaders were honest, deep within them they are afraid of being found wanting.  We are afraid that if we begin to take up the revolutionary message of Wesley that we would be exposed as hypocrites.  Wrong!  That assumes a very erroneous understanding of holiness.

The Bible is clear “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:9) holiness is not some sort of advanced self-help program where we work harder and harder at fixing ourselves until we have become perfect.  That is not possible.  Holiness begins with a clear sense of our ultimate powerlessness against sin.  Holiness begins with us saying “I can not do this on my own and I need help.”  A church leader who is afraid of being exposed as a hypocrite is a leader who is thinking far too much of themselves and far to little of God.

Scriptural holiness is recognizing the life-corrupting power of sin and our need for the grace of God to restore our life to what God desires most for us.  That is a life of holiness.

“But Scriptural Holiness excludes people, and might even hurt some”  That is absolutely right.  Study the Bible and you will see the fact that at the same time Jesus is opening his arms to embrace the whole world he is asking them to change.  Jesus doesn’t just say to the woman caught in adultery “It’s all good.  I’ve taken care of it.”  No!  He protects her, then restores her to the community and finally says “Go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11) The grace of God in the life of the believer calls them to holiness and empowers them to live those lives. When our church leaves behind that call we leave behind the second half of the Gospel message.

What about it hurting people?  Again, we find the truth.  It hurts when someone has the audacity to tell you you are wrong when you are.  It hurts when you discover you have made a mistake, and it especially hurts when you realize that mistake has caused others to follow down the same road.  Holiness hurts because it refuses to ignore our sin.  

But that is the kind of pain that brings healing.  The error in this concern is that hurting people is always bad.  Now, we don’t have to be mean to people, but sometimes God needs to say something that is going to hurt, and that’s ok.

What I love about Wesley’s message of scriptural holiness is that it defies any sort of modern marketing wisdom.  It is not cool.  It is not trendy.  It makes people mad, yet when we honestly offer people the fullness of the message that scriptural holiness contains, we offer them a changed life.  And changed lives change lives.  If we want to grow the church and recover from our downward spiral.  If we want to have a rebirth in this dying organization, I believe we must recover our message.  

That may mean struggling with our own sin.  It may mean being the vessel God uses to heal-hurt some people.  It may mean leaving the empty church buildings and heading out to the coal mines with Wesley.  However it happens, it is my prayer that we take up the charge once again and use our lives to spread scriptural holiness across the land.

Real Hope for the United Methodist Church

I have a great hope for the United Methodist Church which, I am told, is an odd sentiment to have at this moment.  As this General Conference came to a somewhat tentative conclusion, I found myself in a unique position. I am on the eve of my ordination as a full elder in the denomination after 18 years of lay ministry and 12 years in the ordination process.  

Many of my older colleagues in ministry look on me with pity seeing a tumultuous season ahead for our church, but I have been surprised by my sense of hope as I look forward into the several decades ahead of me.  It has taken a while to understand, but over the past several days I have begun to figure it out.

My hope for the future of the UMC comes, in part, because I believe in the Holy Spirit.  The real one.  The one I find in the Bible not the magic show version peddled on television.  The Holy Spirit I find in the Scripture is focused on transformation.  The Spirit takes grief and transforms it to comfort.  It takes war and transforms it into peace.  It makes the seemingly impossible possible.

But what I love most about the Holy Spirit is that it is personal. For any who surrender to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, they find their hearts and lives made new.  I believe this because I have seen it with my own eyes in my own life and the lives of countless others. 

This morning I walked into my 2-year-old daughter’s room to find her in pieces on the floor screaming (again).  Neither of us could locate the precise cause of her crisis (you rarely can with a hysterical 2-year old).  Knowing I could not fix it I did the only thing I knew, I asked if I could hold her.

She screamed “NO” while reaching out for me with pleading arms.  So, I gathered up the pieces of my daughter and held her together while she healed from whatever was causing her so much pain.

She couldn’t do it herself. She needed someone to hold her together which brings me, of course, to catholicism. (That’s catholicism with a little “c” not a big one.) Its the word that describes the church Jesus created: one body in one ministry to one the world.  

There’s power in that word.  That word describes the opposite of the brokenness that prevails throughout our hurting world.  That word is the hope of unity that connects every Christian who has ever lived to every other Christian through the body and blood of Jesus.  

That word describes what happens in the second chapter of Acts when the Holy Spirit takes 12 men and unites them into a supernatural whole that is empowered to proclaim the hope of the Gospel to the entire world.  It is more than the tongues of fire over their heads, it is the Gospel being spoken in the myriad native languages of everyone listening.  It is supernatural unity flowing forth in the mission of God.

That is why I have such great hope for the UMC.  I have hope that voices of all shapes and sizes and colors and ages would join together in this commission.

I have hope that even as entrenched voices scream no, they would reach their arms out to the Holy Spirit who longs to hold them together.

I have hope that God will not remove God’s hand of blessing but will empower a new catholicism within the UMC: one that flows into the mission of God in the world.

I have hope that a new great awakening will happen as the people called Methodist show a broken world the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to bring unity out of brokenness.

Why?  

Because: 

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

 

>>>More: A Prayer for the Methodist Church (and Annual Conference)

And I Never Saw It Coming

“This guy is a complete Jerk!”  I had just finished getting breakfast for my kids when I got sucked into Facebook far too early. Those words hovered at the top of my feed posted (along with more of the all-to-common venom) by someone I respect.  But that’s not what bothered me most… that came later.  I read his little hate-rant and then mindlessly scrolled through my feed for another 30 seconds before one of the tiny humans in the other room asked for seconds on Cheerios.

Luckily, that was enough to break me out of Facebook’s hypnotic state so that I wasn't sucked back in when the bowl had been refilled.  I finished getting ready and was on my way to work when the real problem occurred to me: I hadn’t been effected by that post.

I realized that over the past several years I had been administering little doses of hate every day so that little-by-little I had built up an immunity to this poisonous emotion.  The kinds of things my friend said should have made me recoil and be disgusted, but I read them and continued on as if he had merely mentioned what he had for lunch.

And, he was a Christian.  In fact, many of the people who have helped me develop my immunity to hate have been Christians.  Whether they couched it in a political statement, or worse, a prayer request, their tiny doses of hate have worn away at the lining of my heart until I didn’t even notice the ulcer that had appeared.

There is only one cure for what we have done to ourselves.  There is only one thing that can repair the damage to our hearts:  Love.

Please hear me out.  When I say love, I don’t mean the sappy thing that is written about on flower-covered cards this time of year or the emotional high championed by basically every hallmark movie.  That’s love… I’m talking about Love. 

I’m talking about the deepest power in the universe.  I’m talking about the Love that causes mothers to jump in front of cars to protect their children.  I’m talking about the Love that causes young adults to leave careers to alleviate poverty.  I’m talking about the Love that binds two souls together for 50 years until they are parted only by death. 

I’m talking about the Love that sent a only-child to live amongst foreigners to show them a new way. I’m talking about the Love that died on a cross to heal the brokenness created by hate.  I’m talking about the one thing that can bring true hope and healing.  I’m talking about God.  Right?  

Because the Bible says crazy things like “whoever does not love does not know God.”  The Bible says that “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  Why is that?  It’s simple, because “God is Love.”1

Listen! It’s time for us to talk about love, to offer it to a world so sick with hate that they don’t even know it.  It’s time for us to let go of the hate we have incorporated into our own lives and allow God to transform us, to overwhelm the hate with Love.  It’s time for the church to become an uprising of Love so that the world may truly know God.  

Let us tweet Love instead of hate.  Let our words be so filled with God that they could only be described by the hashtag #godislove.  Let us speak it to our friends and act it out to our neighbors.  Let us believe it so deeply in our hearts that the Love overflows wherever we go.  

And when we are offered another little hit of hate?  Let us refuse it.  Let us teach our children to Say No To Hate the same way we teach them to say no to drugs.  Let us reach out across our boarders to share love with every kind of person so that the world may know that God SO LOVES THEM that he sent his sons and daughters to love them right where they are to lead them forward into a bright new future.  

May it be so.

---

1 All verses from 1 John 4

Spiritual Christmas Gift Ideas for Every Budget

We give gifts at Christmas because thousands of years ago, God gave us the greatest gift in Jesus!  That is why each year I try to help you put some gifts under your tree that will help the people you love grow closer to (or discover) God.

$5-$10

Starbucks ($5-$10) Before I go into the “real” gifts.  There are a lot of people in your world who would grow closer to God if someone in their world (cough) would just take them to coffee, listen, and pray for them.  Why not start with relationship this season?  Don’t get me wrong, everything else here is good too, but people need the presence of the Body of Christ (that’s us!) more than they need anything else on this list.

Interior Castle by St Teresa of Avila ($4-$20) This is not some sort of Christian fiction.  Rather this is one of the core texts of Christian mysticism.  Saint Teresa instructs readers through a structure of prayer that seeks a mystical union with God.  For those who love prayer or for those who have longed for the mystical side of the faith, this is a great book!

 

Veggie Tales on Amazon Prime (Free Trial then $99) - As I was adding a tried and true favorite of my kids (Esther, the Girl who Became Queen) I realized that I have unlimited access to every Veggie Tale through my Amazon Prime subscription!  And the app allows me to DOWNLOAD the videos before a trip so I don’t have to use a cell connection!  If you don’t already have it, check it out or give it to your grandkids for the huge selection of great Spiritual Children’s videos!

Jesus Storybook Bible ($9.98) If you have any child in your family between three and eight, they need this one!  It has, hands down, the most beautiful illustrations of any children’s Bible, and each story is long enough to not be childish and short enough to not be distracting.  Just right.  It’s why we mail these to kids in our church!

 

$10-$30

Organic Wesley by William Guerrant Jr. ($11-$19) What we believe has a lot to do with the choices we make when we eat and purchase our food.  For those who are considering the moral, ethical, and theological implications of their interactions with their food, this is a must-read.  As it turns out John Wesley has a lot to offer the modern thinking on this ancient issue.  Simply Brilliant.  Also available from Seedbed directly.

 

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer ($17-$21) Want a fantastic, spiritual gift for a teacher?  Look no further.  Parker Palmer takes teacher through a journey that helps them connect with this sacred vocation.  It is built on a simple premise:  good teaching is more than technique, it is is rooted in the identity and integrity of the teacher.  This looks great on a desk with a $5 Starbucks gift card attached :)

Dateable: Are You?  Are they? ($12.20)  If you could lock teens away for several years it might be easier… might, but that is against the law.  The reality is, in our culture, Teens are going to date.  That’s how our culture (good or bad) helps people select mates.  This book exists in the real world where Christian teens date, and gives them real-world tools and advice to help them come out of those relationships healthy and with their morality and faith in-tact.  Also, every teen I have given it to (well over a hundred now) loved it… and read it.  Buy 2. 

The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth Bailey ($17.23) Kenneth Bailey is one of the leading scholars who specializes in cultural background to the Bible.  In each of nine passages, Kenneth Bailey unearths the power of the good shepherd metaphor through middle eastern culture and shepherding customs.  This is not light reading, but it is powerful.

 

$30-$80

Glo Bible (Reg. $89 on sale for $35!) This Bible software is some of the best for almost everyone.  Unless you are a greek scholar or looking for the highest level critical commentary, this will help the Bible come to life! 140+ Maps 450+ virtual tours, 3.5 hours of HD video, 650+ works of art.  And, it’s on crazy sale at Amazon! Mac or PC.

NIV Study Bible ($49.98+) I get asked two questions more than any other about product recommendations, and this is the answer to the number 1.  What Study Bible should I buy?  This one.  It has serious scholarship, no super crazy slant one way or the other, and it is attached to a rock-solid translation.  The second question is what Bible I like to read.  For that, I like a single column without notes  that looks like any other book.  This is a good one of those.

Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived it DVD by Adam Hamilton ($37.51) Ever wanted to explore the history of Wesley in England?  This will allow you to do it from your couch.  Adam Hamilton takes you to six of the most important places.  This is the DVD of the larger study. 

 

Genesis Word Biblical Commentary Volumes 1 & 2 (74.31)  At just under 1,000 pages of commentary on Genesis (968 to be precise), this is by far my favorite place to start a study of Genesis (though Bruggemann is brilliant as well).  This will take you as far into the deep end of scholarship as you want to go.  The reason I love this series as a starting point is because it gives you a sense of the conversation between different schools of thought and offers a wealth of references to read more.

 

$80 and up!

The Contemplative Journey Volumes 1 & 2 ($132.76)  Contemplative prayer is one of the most ancient prayer practices in Christianity and is taught here by one of the spiritual greats of our time: Thomas Keating.  Over these 20 Hours he teaches step-by-step through his technique for practicing this profound method for connecting with God.  This is not a novice course, but is something you may end up listening to back to back.

Interpretation Commentary Set ($701 total for Old Testament and New Testament) Now, I am obviously being a bit ridiculous here.  However, if you teach the Bible and have some significant change to spend, this will give you the most bang for the buck.  I have a handful of these myself because this commentary series is built with the preacher/teacher in mind while not holding back on the scholarship. If you are wanting to get some great resources or give an overwhelmingly generous gift to a pastor or church library, this is great.  

Honorable Mentions: 

The Class meeting by Kevin Watson: Take your small group to a whole other level as you explore one of the best models for living life together.

Wesley and the People Called Methodist by Richard P. Heitzenrater: If you read one history of the Wesleyan movement, this should be it.

In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen This is the only book on leadership I have ever enjoyed or recommended someone else read.  Brilliant.  Powerful.  

Basically Everything Henri Nouwen: Really, scrap everything I said above and only ready his stuff.

>>>Read More: God Focused Gift Ideas of Children

The Gift of Anger and Outrage

This average day in church was about to be turned upside down by a visiting pastor.  The scene was normal.  People milling about, prayer requests being shared between friends, and most everyone slowly making their way from the entrance to the sanctuary. 

There were a lot of people there, so the volume of conversation had risen well above the contemplative level, which wasn’t going to happen anyway because of the smell from all the animals present.  That’s probably why the money changers had to yell their prices as loud as they did, and why the faithful were acting like this was just another public gathering space.

That’s not how the foreigners felt.  Though they were welcome in this chaotic area of this first century temple, they dared not venture past the wall.  It was more of a large step than a wall because no one would want to actually have such an in-your-face separation between God and the average person. But, the wall was there none the less.  It was more of a sign holder, really.  

Though everyone ignored the sign and pretended that the faith of these people proclaimed a God who loved everyone, the sign was there nonetheless proclaiming a very different message.  Inset into the wall close to every opening was a copy of the sign that read “No foreigner is to enter this forecourt and the guardrail around the sanctuary.  Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”  In other words, welcome.

No one is quite sure what it was that set Jesus off as he entered the temple that day.  Whether it was the lack of decorum, the theft in the name of commerce, or the threat of death to the outsiders seeking God, Jesus was angry.  He was outraged, and rightfully so!  

He yelled, turned over tables, and drove people out with a whip because they had completely lost the point of the temple (often referred to as “the light of the world” in those days).  God’s people had lost their way, and something had to be done!

That story has particular power for today because we can be confident that anger and outrage are as much gifts from God as are love and hope.  God gave us all our emotions for specific purposes.  Love binds us together. Hope helps us envision a future, and anger and outrage allow us to get off our backsides and do something about things that matter.  They helps us effect positive change in the most important issues.

However, far too often we squander the gift of anger and outrage. We spend this precious gift on things that are far from worthy.  Whether it be a sports team or a cultural non-issue, we get up in arms as if those things were worthy of one of the most powerful gifts we have.  

Slums in Chennai

Meanwhile, people are dying, ACTUALLY dying and no one is fighting for them.  Children are getting sick from the water their parents give them and no one is creating a viral video on their behalf.  Families are being forced from their homes and moving into the most horrific conditions in urban slums and no one is making a hashtag in their name.  Christians are being executed and worse without a single segment on your favorite taking head news station.

That is why I am refusing to squander this gift of God this holiday season on things that do not rise to the level of holy crisis.  I will not be a social media foot soldier in the war on something unimportant.  I want to follow Jesus.  That means getting angry and outraged about the right things, and allowing it to move me to action.  Will you join me?  Will you use your #holyanger for something big?

 

Unlocking the Bible Code

The words in your Bible may be different than you thought.  Let’s look at a good example.  The Bible says(ish) in Deuteronomy 5:2 that “The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb.” (NIV)  

That is a good translation that gets the main thrust of the Hebrew across in English.  However, when you look at the original text that’s not exactly what it says.  In fact, no one ever really “makes” a covenant in the Old Testament.  That’s not the word they used.  Instead, the verb for “covenanting” is “to cut.”  That is because every covenant was sealed with the blood of an animal.  Instead of signing on a line at the bottom of a piece of paper, you cut an animal and performed a ceremony involving its blood.

Why not say “cut a covenant” instead?  If we did this with every Biblical word, you would have to have a Master’s degree to understand what on earth the Bible was saying.  Therefore, Translators try and get the MAIN idea across so that the average person can understand what on earth the Bible is saying.

The Bible is full of words and imagery like this! Since we read it in our language, we often bring with us the cultural values we have attached to whatever word or concept that translators have used to convey the truth of the original Hebrew.  This can, of course, cause a good bit of confusion because those values are not always the same.  For example, What does marriage mean when it is not tied to monogamy? What does family mean before the rise of the American obsession with the “nuclear family?”

It’s kind of like the Bible has been written with layers and layers of code.  The basic meaning is there for anyone to pick up and read, but for those ready to go deeper, there is unfathomable depth available.  Each concept can be lifted out, given new life and new beauty through careful examination.  

That is where my thoughts are heading in a new series of teaching that is focused on unlocking this “code” and mining its beautiful depths. For those nearby, I am teaching on Sunday nights at 5pm in the evening worship service at Christ UMC in Mobile, AL.  For everyone else, check back here for audio versions and even a bit more text!

A Gateway for Grace

I am not God.  Though in times of extreme anger I may wish to have the almighty's smiting power, and in my moments of megalomania I might imagine myself to be divinely enlightened. In my brief fits of complete sanity, I know at the deepest level that I am not God, none of us are.

I am a Christian. I am instructed by my faith to follow the example of Jesus' life-giving love. I am offered the opportunity to enact his grace-filled teachings. I am forgiven despite the fact that I am constantly failing to either enact or follow the footsteps of Jesus.

My faith offers incredible paths of healing for mind, body, and soul. Though I have experienced that healing and long to offer it to the world, I am not the healer.  

The words of Jesus reveal roads of reconciliation. They have quelled wars. They have united tribes, and they have restored shattered families. Though I have walked these well-worn ways of reconciliation in my own life, I am not the reconciler.  

At the heart of my faith is full, vibrant life. It is the fullness that comes from whole relationships and access to deep spiritual wells. It is the brilliance that powers the sunsets and the lightning. Though I experience this full life more and more, I am not the giver of life.

The true mystery of Christianity "is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God." (Henri Nouwen In the Name of Jesus)

That is what I do. No, that is what I strive to do. No, that is what WE strive to do as Christians. We strive to prop open our own little gateways so that the love,healing, reconciliation, and full life can flow though them into the world.

Though we strive, it doesn't always work. Please excuse us when the little wood wedge slips and the gates close. Forgive us when we forget our place and try to hoard that which we are to give away. 

Please don't attribute our faults to our God. Know that when we offer sickness instead of healing, brokenness instead of reconciliation, death instead of life, it is not coming from God, it's just a broken gate.

From AL.com  

>>> Read More: Sorry for the Bullhorns

A Prayer for the Methodist Church (and Annual Conference)

God of all grace, creator of the universe, Father, Son, and Holy spirit, I pray for our Methodist church.  I pray for each annual conference gathering that is taking place and the one I will attend in the Alabama West-Florida Conference. 

I pray that these days ahead where we come together to engage in what Wesley called “Christian Conferencing” will be a time where we stretch beyond what we can accomplish by ourselves and reach what is only possible when we practice true social holiness.  Not merely polite debate, not merely respectful difference, but that brand of spiritual gathering that enables us to surrender more of our hearts to your transforming love.

I pray that where differences are discovered that you would bring unity and resolution not just through a divided vote that ensures people stay on the opposite side of an issue; rather, I pray that you would pour out your Spirit on all those gathered in every annual conference and make them one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world.  

Empower those who disagree put down their dividing rhetoric and pick up the words of peace and reconciliation.  Enable those who approach life from different points of view to receive a holy vision of what the world looks like through the eyes of the other.

But more than all of that, I pray that you would awaken the Methodist church from its slumber.  I pray that these annual conferences would be the moment where the statistical decline of the United Methodist church in America ends. I pray that you would use these gatherings do do far more than decide on minimum salaries and direct billing.  I pray that you would begin something new, that you would spark the next great awakening.  I pray that you would call your people to prayer and fasting and that our world would be set on fire by a passion for scriptural holiness.  

May these annual conferences be a profound means of grace in the lives of thousands across our connection.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit I pray.  Amen.

Sorry for the Bullhorns

There I was, minding my own business downtown in a big city when a guy walks up across the street, pulls out his bullhorn and starts yelling all sorts of horrible, hate-filled, hell-fueled words at everyone who was walking by.

I cringed, sunk down in my chair, and hoped no one recognized me as a minister of the religion the bullhorn guy was claiming to represent. 

I wanted to walk across the street and debunk every misquote.  I wanted to yell over him the loving words of Jesus “Come to me all who are tired and overburdened and I will give you rest.”  I didn’t because I didn’t want to start a public fight as an opening act to his concert of hate.

But, he was quoting the Bible right?

Well, yes. There are a handful of random verses that you can pluck out of their context and use  to slice and dice people as they walk by on a street corner, but when you take the whole of Christian scripture the vast majority Christians discover a God of love not hate, a God of healing not sickness, a God of acceptance not rejection, a God of hope not despair, a God of forgiveness not condemnation.  

That is the God that the Christian next door or in the cubicle across from you serves. That is the reason they wake up early on Sunday and spend some of their vacation days serving at the soup kitchen downtown.

That is why they keep going when they mess up and ask forgiveness when they hurt you.  

So, I’m sorry if you have been hurt by one of these rogue Christian knock-offs.  I want to apologize for all the times you may have been yelled at by the bullhorn guy, accosted by the hellfire pamphlet person or disgusted by a tear-filled preacher asking for money on TV.  

Know that we are as irritated as you are by all those twisted versions of our love and grace-filled faith.  And, if you are willing, we’d love a second chance.  We’d love to have the opportunity to introduce you to the faith that billions of people find transforming and empowering.  

We’d be honored to let you see the supporting community inside our churches and let you experience our love. Because it’s love that Jesus told us should be our hallmark.  It is love that best expresses the truth of our faith.

That’s why Jesus said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:35)  So please, seek that out. Judge us by love. When you find it, you will know you have found true disciples of Jesus Christ.

From Al.com

A Plea to Every UMC Leader: Elect the Next Generation

The statistics are in and they are as disappointing as they are predictable: the people most likely to be making decisions for the United Methodist Church are those who will spend the least amount of time living with the consequences.

According to data from the GCFA, the delegates to the last General conference were overwhelmingly older in age.  The largest single decade of delegates were those in their 50s who composed 36% of all the delegates present.  If you take all those who have more of their life (on average) behind them than ahead of them (those 40+), you reach an astonishing 85%.  When it comes to the youngest group (those under twenty) you get 4.  Not 4%, but 4 total delegates (or 0.6%).  This is a problem.

Wikimedia: Richard Cooper

Wikimedia: Richard Cooper

Disclaimer:  Because of my status as a provisional elder, I am not electable as a delegate. This means that what I am about to say is in no way in service of my election.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore the older generations in my life.  They provide me and all the younger generations with perspective and grounding.  They have modeled for me a brilliant work ethic and amazing loyalty.  I am in no way suggesting we need to flip the statistic to be as unrealistically weighted towards younger delegates, but I believe that if the Church is going to survive and thrive in the future, we MUST promote and empower the younger voices among us.

I have found an inverse relationship between my age and optimism about the future of the UMC.  The more I speak with leaders, I find the same to be true anecdotally among those in my social network.

When any organization loses an optimistic vision of the future, it loses the ability to harness present problems for future success.  Instead of seeing any of the myriad of current issues as containing the potential for the expansion of the Kingdom of God, we see them as one more reason that the church cannot survive as it is much longer.

The problem is that the younger a leader is, the less likely they are to have powerful connections and the less likely they are to know how to campaign successfully for office.  IN fact, many of the young leaders I know are turned off by the political side of the church and would feel disgusted with themselves for mixing politics and religion so thoroughly.  They need your help.

That is why I am asking, no begging, the UMC leadership in every annual conference to let go of half of their votes that would normally be spent on the standard guard of skilled church politicians and spend them on the future.  Rather than voting for all the top contenders from last General conference, vote for the young leaders who will spend the majority of their lives living with the decisions made at the next General Conference.

For those who have developed the skill of church politics and have been to General Conference before, I ask you to let go of your seat and use your considerable political capital to get a next generation leader elected who would have never been able to do it themselves.  What if you told everyone who asked if you were “running” that you would like them to vote for the young clergy in the smaller church down the street?

But how do you know which one to choose?  Without a track record and years of conversations in the hallway between annual conference sessions, how do you find a young leader worthy of your vote?  I’d like to suggest a couple qualifications, and none of them have anything to do with how they feel about your pet church issue (I know you will handle that yourself).

1. They Are in Love with the Theology and Practice of Ministry of John Wesley:  Seminary (or church history for those not ordained) can do one of the two things for people.  It can make them bored with their heritage, or fall deeply in love with it.  It is my opinion that the only way that we will make a difference in the future is if we recover the Wesleyan theological vision and reclaim the movement that John Wesley and Francis Asbury helmed.  We need people who long for a truly Wesleyan movement.

2. They Aren’t Begging for Bureaucratic Power:  We have plenty of church bureaucrats.  Most people I know either come into church leadership because they are passionate about Jesus or because they are passionate about power.  We need far less of the latter.  I know that we can find leaders who love Jesus and see the burden of bureaucracy.  When they are empowered, they are not in awe of the bureaucrats and are not afraid of making sure we have less of them.

3. They Are Optimistic About Our Future:  If we want to find new solutions to problems, we have to have people involved who believe those solutions exist.  When we find people optimistic about our future, they do not enter a discussion presuming only one of the existing options will work.  If we want to have a viable movement in the future, we have to give the reigns to leaders who are ready to chart new ground in old discussions because they know there is a solution that hasn’t been discovered.

That’s it.  Find those people.  Elect them, and pray that God would continue to use our church to spread scriptural holiness across the land.

From: United Methodist Reporter

Life’s Best Answer: I Don’t Know

I’m not sure where the turning point was, but at some point during my teens I started to feel bad about saying “I don’t know.”  

It may have been a mix of being a leader among my peers and having a deep, inescapable hunger for knowledge.  It may have been the fact that so much of my life was wrapped around learning and testing in school where your worth is directly tied to “knowing,” or it may have been some deep repressed trauma in another dimension… I’m not really sure.

What I do know is that along the way I discovered the difficult inner life of a person who always had an answer.  I remember arguing with people about small things so that I could develop my bigger argument at the same time.  I remember completely fabricating facts to support my ideas.

But there was something that really began to eat away at the part of me behind the “knowing” mask.  In order to have a defendable belief about something, I would say I believed things that I knew I did not believe.  In order to appear that I “knew” something, I would become an intellectual (and sometimes practicing) hypocrite.

Then I walked into a training seminar being led a man named Michael Yacconelli at a youth ministry conference.  It was there that I came face to face with the mess I had made.  Mike was the head of the biggest deal in youth ministry.  He was a published author.  He was a pastor.  He was a smart, successful, and influential person.

You can imagine my surprise when he started talking about his major questions about Christianity.  He talked about life-shaking doubt, not believing that his prayers had any effect, and how he struggled with feeling worthy.  The whole time I couldn’t take my eyes off him because it was as if he had been living inside my head for the past ten years.

Then, the bomb dropped.  During the question and answer time, someone got up and asked him a question I remember thinking I already knew the answer to.  After the questioner finished, Mike was silent.  He just sat there for a bit… THINKING!  I was just about ready to step up to the mic and answer it myself when he said a phrase that had been conspicuously absent from my vocabulary: I don’t know.

After he said that, he explained why he doubted all the popular stock answers (including mine) laying bare all their philosophical vulnerabilities.  After he was done, he taught one of the most powerful lessons I have ever learned.

Mike said “And another thing, you youth leaders need to get way more comfortable with that phrase, ‘I don’t know’ because, let’s face it… most of the time, you don’t.”  I didn’t.  He was right. “When you don’t know something and act like you do, your kids learn that it’s not okay to say ‘I don’t know’  they learn one of the most tragic Christian values: to pretend you are someone you are not.”  

I was undone.  I was raw.  Then, he landed hard.  “When you say, ‘I don’t know’  you let them know that it is normal and ok to question.  You let them know that it is ok to learn, and you let them know that the point of Christianity is not having all the right answers for the test.”

After that, I begin to work on letting go of my need to be the one with the perfect Theology.  I let go of pretending and tried my best to let others see my faults so that the bubble of the perfect Christian life was burst and we could deal with our brokenness.

When I did I experienced the joy of freedom.  The pressure for answers and perfection was gone and I could relish finding answers when I discovered another “I don’t know” area.  I could share in the joy with the people to whom I could offer the answers I did have.  

Somehow I thought all of the best answers were the ones that actually answered the questions, but I had discovered that life’s best answer is, “I Don’t Know.”

Why Church Hopping Isn't Evil

Church hopping! Oh, for fear!  Oh for shame!  How can an individual ever recover from such a backslidden, deranged, un-holy practice as this?!  At least that’s what you’d think by reading some of my favorite Christian blogs over the last couple months.  I don’t agree.

Image: Getty Images

Image: Getty Images

Besides the fact that I think the church needs a LOT less guilt and a LOT more love, I think this act can be quite healthy even if it can make pastors pull their hair out from time to time.

It can be difficult to talk clearly about “church hopping” because it seems every blog entry assumes a vastly different definition as universal.  I am going to address each definition I’ve found in turn and explain just why I think you might need to do a little church hopping yourself.  We’ll go in order from the least to most depraved.

1. The Occasional Hopper:

Every once in a while a friend’s church is having a special service or program or a guest speaker on Sunday morning.  Responding to the universal plea of every pastor ever, they “invite a friend.”  Since so many Christians are friends with other Christians (can you imagine!) you are the friend who gets an invitation.  

After posting a mention of a possible illness on Facebook, you wear a wig as you get in their car when they come to pick you up, and you enjoy an unusual spiritual treat at another church.  

I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would have a problem with this, but they do.  (I also don’t understand how anyone could have a problem with real butter, but that’s another subject altogether).  

If you attend another church regularly, please, please, please visit other churches with your friends occasionally.  Enjoy the special treats, and bring a fresh perspective back to your own church!

2. The Dual Resident:

I have a friend who alternates church attendance between a more traditional congregation and a more Charismatic one.  I know this because she flaunts this heathen practice all over Facebook posting pictures from both places on consecutive Sundays.  Can. You. Believe. That.

Ok, It’s not that hard to believe.  As strange as it may sound to the Christian blogosphere, it is a very healthy thing for her. It works because of the weird way the church has developed over the past several centuries.  Instead of going into every Christian church and experiencing the beautiful diversity of the ways people worship God, you get one narrow expression.  

Maybe it’s 1950s style (often called traditional) or maybe it’s the 1990s version with fake ficus trees and “Light the Fire Again,” or maybe it is a more beautiful, more ancient ritual that connects you to the earliest roots of the faith. 

Whatever the case, to walk into almost any Christian worship service is to experience the ghettoization of Christian worship.  As it turns out, God moves in beautiful ways through ALL of those types of worship, and you may be the type of person who loves more than one.  

If that’s you, go for it!  Be a dual citizen.  Live in two congregations and don’t look back, you are much closer to seeing what would be an accurate view of Christian worship than someone who experiences one style every week for the rest of their life.

3. The Mad Hopper:

Can you believe they would change the carpet that your great grandmother donated in 1902!  The nerve!  I don’t know how you could ever set foot in such a disrespectful church again! 

Look, we all get mad.  We all have issues with worship, and personality conflicts with leaders.  Sometimes we get hurt.  Sometimes our relationships become so broken and painful we need to move on.  Is it the ideal?  No.  Would it be better to live in a world where there is no death, or mourning or crying or pain?  Yes.  

We don’t live in that world. If you need to leave a church because of broken relationships, it’s ok.  I would encourage you to do it with a lot of care and grace, and after seeking to make peace and reconcile with those who you hurt and have hurt you. But, if leaving means you can be free to worship, do it.

I can tell you as a pastor, that most of the people I have seen come because they were mad at another church end up spending time at our church resting and healing and then go back home after a while.

And, let’s be completely honest, people don’t leave church over changing carpet.  There is always something way deeper than great grandmother’s carpet.  If you are leaving, deal with the real issue, and if you are talking about someone who has left, don’t make them out to be so shallow.

4. The Free Spirit:

I was in high school the first time I met a truly “free spirit” in the church hopping sense.  A friend of mine had attended the youth group I had attended on Wednesday nights (that’s right you caught me… I was a dual resident in my teens) and just dropped out.  

A couple weeks later I saw him at a revival service at another church and asked him where he’d been.  “Man, I’m just following the move of the Spirit, and it is moving strong here like it was at your place a couple months ago.”  I wasn’t sure what to say, and I was relieved when the band took away the awkward silence.

This is the one I have most trouble with because it is so far from my personality.  I like to get to know people, I like to have roots, and I think for me (and for most people) this is the most healthy way to journey through faith.  But as soon as I say that a couple faces pop up in my mind of dear friends who are not like me.  They don’t stay in one place for long.  They don’t spend their whole lives in one career, and the only people bothered by it are others.  They like their nomadic life.

To those people I would say you still need community, you cannot practice Christianity in isolation, but that community can be in your home on Tuesday nights or over Skype a couple times a month.  You can make roots that are a bit more flexible than most everyone else’s, but you probably already know that.

Be free!

I say all of this to say, let go of any guilt or shame you have if you are a church hopper.  It doesn’t make you a second class Christian.  It doesn’t make you a horrible person.  The body of Christ extends beyond any denominational boundary and definitely beyond any church property line. 

When we hold membership in a single congregation or denomination up too high we start to miss the central call of Jesus on our lives.  Jesus didn’t say to follow Grace United Baptist Reformation Community Church, and as much as I love the man, Jesus didn’t say to follow John Wesley either.  His call was simple:  Follow Me.  So, do that.  Follow Jesus.

Behind the Scenes with Old Saint Nick

Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas

The person known as Santa to us has developed over many years, coming through a merger/acquisition between Sinterklass and Father Christmas inc. in western Europe after Sinterklass’ fame surged as a result of a book highlighting his exploits in the 19th century.  

There was of course the dark period when Sinterklaas was outlawed in the 16th and 17th century mainly because Martin Luther didn’t like his Catholic heritage. Luther encouraged people to celebrate ChristKindle (the Christ Child) instead, but his new term ironically morphed over time into Chris Kringle.  

It all started with a holiday named Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) that celebrated a pretty cool guy named Saint Nicholas. Before Nicholas was “saint,” he was born to a wealthy family on the coast of what is modern day turkey.  He spent his early life in school and church waking up to celebrate communion before dawn with his family each Sunday.  

Unfortunately, his life was not to be all candy canes and wrapping paper.  When Nicholas was only eighteen years old his mother and father passed away.  Though the young Nicholas took it well, he wanted to spend some time contemplating the direction of his life.  He now had a huge inheritance and total independence.  After much prayer, he decided to spend his life and money in the same way: however God wanted.  

It was at that point that the young man Nicholas began to work in the church.  As he was preparing for the ministry, he became aware of a family in his town that was in a precarious position.  There was a father who had three daughters who was desperately poor and was not going to be able to provide a dowry for the daughters when they came of age.

This may not seem like the end of the world to us, but in the world of Nicholas in the late 200s this meant a life of prostitution for the man’s daughters.  Nicholas would not allow that to happen.  So, on the eve of the eldest daughter’s coming of age, Nicholas went out in the middle of the night and tossed a bag filled with a portion of his inheritance through the window to save the life of the eldest daughter.  The next morning the family awoke to salvation in the form of a small purse filled with money.  

Nicholas repeated the act of kindness with the second daughter.  When it came time for the third daughter to receive this extravagant gift, the father decided he would wait up all night to see if he could catch a glimpse of this generous saint.  Like clockwork Saint Nicholas walked up to the house and tossed the purse through the window.  The father leapt to his feet and ran outside thanking Nicholas profusely.  Nicholas gave a simple response.  He asked that the man not tell anyone that the gifts came from him.

The rest of his life was a roller coaster that saw him ordained bishop around 35 years of age, imprisoned for being a church leader shortly thereafter, released by Constantine and being one of the bishops in attendance at the Council of Nicea.  In spite of his success and eventual fame, he followed the same pattern of generosity throughout his life.  

In that area, people would often leave their shoes outside at night.  When Saint Nicholas heard of a need in a community he was serving, he would go out under the cover of darkness, take a portion of his own funds, and leave it in the shoes of the family in need.  

No wonder within a short amount of time after his death Nicholas was one of the most popular names in the region. No wonder he was one of the most painted saints (second only to the Virgin Mary). No wonder his powerful memory has pushed through the centuries making it all the way to today.

It’s funny though that we have taken this model of selfless, anonymous giving and made him the justification for a particular sort of selfishness that surfaces this time of year.  I am hoping to be different this year.  I am going to try my best to honor the memory of Saint Nicholas and make this Christmas about reaching out to those in need and helping them without any credit.  Imagine the power of Christmas if we all followed Nicholas’ example.  Here’s hoping for a happier holiday!

If you are interested in more Saint Nicholas Background, you can get a full chapter of it in Investigating Christmas!


What if I'm not 100% Sure I Believe?

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

Every once in a while, in a moment of complete honesty, someone sitting in my office whispers a confession: “But, I’m just not 100% sure.  I mean, I think I believe, but what if I’m wrong?  What does that mean?  What do I do with that?”

Often, the person sitting in my office is looking around to see if agents of Spanish inquisition are going to burst through the door and cart them off for their heretical confession.  For many this is the first time they have ever mentioned this to anyone. They have lived alone with this doubt for far too long.

The reality is that most of the world lives well below the 100% mark, even ministers and priests and monks, even major players in the Bible.

That’s right, even the “big names” of faith in the Bible question.  In fact, I find that every time I think I have come up with a new way to question my faith, I find someone in the Bible having the exact same struggles, and these aren’t the minor characters either.

Ever had the whole, “It would be a whole lot easier to believe in God if you could see God” question?  Moses was right there.  After following pillars of cloud and fire right through a parted red sea and receiving the ten commandments, Moses pressed God for visible confirmation in Exodus 33:18.  

Have you ever felt like God had completely forgotten about you?  Felt that God wasn’t keeping up God’s end of the bargain?  David knows exactly what you are going through.  The Psalms are FULL of verses like Psalm 13:1 that say things like “How long will you forget me?”

Don’t even get me started on the number of people in the Bible who asked for (ok, a bunch of them were skating pretty close to demanding) proof from God.  Even one of Jesus’ disciples, who had spent three years watching Him raise the dead, heal sick people and talk to strangers like he’d been reading their mail, wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead until he put his hand in the holes in Jesus’ body (I know, gross).

That’s just the people in the Bible!  If you thumb through the writings of almost any major church leader or saint, you will find lives lived in pursuit God in the face of doubt and question.  They all doubted.  They all questioned.  None of them had 100% belief 100% of the time.

I say all of that to say that if you aren’t 100% sure you believe, you’re in good company!  As it turns out, 100% belief is far from a pre-requisite for a life of faith.  As far as this pastor is concerned, having doubts and questions is a sign of spiritual health.  It means that you are seriously engaging with faith in a God that is not bound by human ability and cannot be completely understood by even our best minds.

Let yourself off the hook of being 100% sure. Grab a friend; hang out with the pastor in your life and question together! 

This article first appeared on AL.com

>>Read More: The Church Could Use a Few More Skeptics

The Real Problem with Our Kids and Social Media

Many of the problems online stem from the same root cause and if we don’t find a work around, we will endanger the long-term welfare of our children.  I know that statement sounds extreme, but I believe that the root problem at the center of all the social media woes people like to blog about (cyber-bullying and the like) is one that is inhibiting our kids'  basic psychosocial development in the years from 10-18.  

At these stages, children/teens are developing many fundamental skills that allow them to understand and relate with their world.  They are learning how to interpret social cues, how to offer accurate snapshot impressions of themselves, how to deal with interpersonal conflict/pain, and through all of this they are developing an understanding of who they are in the world.

Those tasks are not completed by reading a book or even by spending time in a therapist’s office.  They are learned by interacting with people in the real world.  

Kids go to school and make an offhand comment about a friend’s clothes. When they see their friend’s face fall, they realize that people can be hurt by offhand remarks about their appearance.

At another time while meeting someone new, they begin sharing about something too personal for a new acquaintance only to see the person squirm and walk away.  They realize that it is important to begin getting to know people with less intense subjects.

Later, they are sitting with a group of friends and make a sexual comment only to see how uncomfortable most people are at that age with the subject, and they learn that sexuality is something more private and intimate.

These all happen best when they happen through non-mediated communication.  Let me explain what I mean by that term.  Every way that we engage with others that is not full-on face-to-face interaction is a mediated form of communication.  If we are talking on skype, there is a screen and a lack of personal presence, if we are talking on the phone, we loose the visual cues.  If we text, we loose the intonation cues.  On and on. 

With each successive level of mediation, we loose a lot of information.  After all, who hasn’t had a friend read a text the wrong way and get offended?

In the world of social media, we generally loose another level of interaction: immediacy.  This means that a person can log on to a social media platform, make a post, and hours later have a friend read it, get hurt by it, and go to sleep upset. By the time the friend got hurt, our original poster was watching an episode of their favorite show on Netflix.  

The original poster has no idea that they hurt their friend, they did not get the immediate feedback so they could learn how those words affect people. In fact, by the time they receive any of that, they may have lost all memory of what was going on in their head when they made the post. 

That is a problem because the more mediated the communication is during this crucial season of development, the less our kids are able to grow and learn how to live and be in this world.

So, we all throw our computers and iPhones away and ban our kids from engaging in social media, right?  Nope, that could be as dangerous to our kids’ future as the opposite.  Our world is moving more and more into making online a primary mode of communication, and in order to succeed in the future our kids need to be fluent in this language.  

I think they're are a couple of first steps.  I am sure there will be many more.  

First, our kids need community of people monitoring their online interactions and helping them understand what is happening on the other side of the screen.  They need parents and teachers and ministers who are engaging with them online AND in person to help them develop while engaging in this medium. 

Second, we need to make sure we discuss social media implications when we are processing big ideas.  At church we might say “How do you love your neighbor when you are on snapchat?”  It needs to be part of how we process all our life so that we help plant those initial concepts in the minds of our kids.

Last, we need more personal interaction.  That means when we see kids studying over Skype with a friend, we offer to get the friend and bring them over.  It also means encouraging our kids to put their phones down when they are with friends, or if they have to have it out, to share the experience with the person sitting next to them.

It is a problem, but it is not an impossible problem.  If we take time to think about what is going on and take some simple steps we might be able to succeed at only damaging our kids as much as our parent’s generation damaged us!

Am I a Hypocrite?

Hypocrisy points to one of the deepest truths in the universe that seems to be written into the core of our existence.  We know at the deepest level that it is wrong for us to say/believe one thing and do the opposite. This principle is the everyday expression of a profound truth: knowledge has claims on action.

Whenever we come to know that something is true it cannot merely become a bit of information stored in our brain.  We must live in accordance with this newfound truth.  When a child discovers that touching a hot car in the parking lot causes pain, they must stop touching hot cars.  When we discover that betraying a friend hurts us and them we must stop betraying people.  When we learn that 5+5=10, we must give at least ten dollars when we buy two five dollar items.

I know that seems elementary, but this reality has serious implications when it comes to how we live in the world as Christians and do ministry as the church.  If we, for example, believe that Jesus offers us an example of how to live AND that Jesus loves us exactly as we are and calls us to be more, that has very practical claims on how we live our lives.

We simply cannot live a life of constant condemnation and rejection.  We cannot separate ourselves from the “sinners” in our world.  We have to accept them.  We have to love all the best parts of who they are just as they are.  

At the same time, we cannot be passive people.  With anyone who will allow us, we have to be about helping people grow, and we have to be about striving to be who God wants us to be.  

It is the same for the church.  There is no place for judgmental exclusivism.  There is no place for passive acceptance.  If we are to live out our beliefs our churches have to be a place where people are loved, accepted, and challenged to grow.

That is just two beliefs!  Just imagine if we sought to express all of our beliefs about God in our lives and ministry!  It's time to discover if we are hypocrites. It's time to take a moment to look at your beliefs about God and ask a simple question:  How does this belief tell me to live?

As for the church, I think it’s time for us to take a break from whatever the latest ministry fad we are following and figure out how beliefs tell us we should be doing ministry.  In fact, that is the main premise of my book Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry, If you want a field guide for working this out, you can get it from Seedbed or Amazon.  Let me know how it helps!

>>> Read More: The Church is Full of Hypocrites

The Secret Behind Questions about Faith

“What if I’m not 100% sure if I believe?”  There are ton of questions like these.  You know the ones.  They are the questions we never say because we think (for a reason totally unclear to this pastor) that we should know the answer already.  How many times have you wondered, “How do I know the sound of God’s voice?” or “Is there truth in other religions?”  I bet more than people think.

I’m going to let you in on a secret, everyone (even pastors… even me) have these sorts of fundamental questions about the faith.  Having those questions doesn’t mean you are less spiritual than you should be, and it doesn’t mean you are in some sort of state of spiritual babyhood that should embarrass you. 

In fact, having those sorts of questions indicates a level of spiritual health.  It is not that a lack of knowledge indicates spiritual health; rather, the what is showing spiritual health is the ability to know what you don’t know and have questions.   Assuming you have all the answers you need generally means you have stalled in your spiritual growth and its time to give yourself a little push.

What’s the solution?  There’s two.  For those of you who have questions, ask them.  In your Sunday school class, with your christian friends, ask the question!  You will not only discover that others have wondered these things as well, but will have given yourself fellow investigators to help discover the answer you need.  

For those of us who haven’t really given time to thinking about these sorts of root-level questions, it’s time to take a look.  That’s the second solution.  It may have been a long time since you spent time considering how it is that someone knows something is a sin, or whether or not church attendance is central to faith, but it’s time to step back and look for where your questions are located.  It’s time to give yourself an opportunity to sure up the weak areas of your faith understanding.

This sort of probing and questioning is nothing to be afraid of and definitely nothing to be embarrassed about.  That is why we are going to be exploring all of those and several other questions this fall.  We’d love to see you at five at our church (they'll also be on my podcast), but if not, ask those questions anyway!  Check out this lineup of great questions:

9/7 What if I’m not 100% sure I believe?
9/14 Why does the church ignore greed and gluttony?
9/21 Who is right about the Bible?
9/28 How do I know the sound of God’s voice?
10/5 How can you tell if it’s a sin? 
10/12 Is there truth in other religions?
10/19 Do I really have to go to church?
10/26 Should I feel guilty about enjoying earthly pleasures?