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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Creative Activity to Engage Kids in Prayer

Over at the Verge Network, Karen Hardin has relayed to us a fantastic, creative, and get-off-your-behind way to engage your child(ren) in prayer. Namely, as she puts it, you can use your child's tendency to see differences to foster gratitude and a habit of prayer. Who doesn't want to do that and who doesn't have a child who has complained "Brother, sister, Bobby, Sally has more/better ______ than me" ?!

Read here: "Turning Your Child's Focus Inside Out."

I will be trying to implement with our boys this week and can let you know how it goes. I can imagine this becoming a weekly prayer activity or maybe doing 1 or 2 of the ten "stations" per night along with regular worship & Bible Reading. Even though they are now getting a bit older, there are some nights my kids just have a hard time sitting - thus, this station-to-station idea may on such nice prove a nice alternative to exasperating "Ah, forget it, just go brush your teeth and get ready for bed."

May God use this wisdom to help your child engage with the God who can empower all of us to cease looking outward to compare but rather look outward to behold the goodness and glory of Jesus who can transform us toward love (II Corinthians 3:18).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Church-Branding Overwhelms the Cross

Jesus' object lesson in Mark 11:15-19 about the ineffectiveness of religious ritual continues to stir in me because I recognize that church attendance, just like temple worship in Jesus' day, can provide "a den" (a refuge, a hideout) for people to take cover under the banner of: "Me & God are good...because I'm a pretty good person who goes to church." Worse yet, those of us who are pastors, elders, or lay leaders are prone to propagate this twisted idea - even if unconsciously. Thus, the irony: We hurt the church we love by spending ourselves to promote the church we love. We ought not be about "our church" preservation and "our church" promotion - but Jesus-preservation (preserving his teaching) and Jesus-promotion (promoting His name).

JR Kerr provides a "gut-check" to every church, including ours, in this little article: "Church-Branding Overwhelms the Cross." (A side note: I met JR Kerr at a Chicago Cubs baseball game - in the bleachers of Wrigley field. I kept in touch with him for a while and he helped me during a pivotal time in my ministry. A gracious and godly dude). His question toward the end is particularly challenging: "When people think of your church, what do you think they more readily think of, the cross or your brand?" Recently, a new Christian who attends our church turned to me and a friend and asked: "After all these years walking with God, how do you guys keep the fire going?" Let's just say neither of us respond firstly with: "A firm Commitment to our local church." Rather we replied similarly with: "A daily, return trip to the cross of Jesus Christ" (see Luke 7:47; II Corinthians 4:11; Galatians 2:20). Let's point people toward the fuel that will sustain the fire!

Why do people get so "my-church-promoty"? Various reasons I'm sure but one comes readily to mind: The Fear of getting left behind. Here are some fears that go to work on us who rightly love (but perhaps over-love) our church: "Is God moving in our church? If not, will others leave us for a newer and more exciting work? If He is working, I'm pretty weak and inadequate: Won't He choose to use others and leave me and my puppet ministry in the dust?" However, God promises a couple things concerning the local expression of His universal church - (1) He has every desire and motivation to advance and build His church (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:22; 1 Peter 2:5) (2) He wants to use your God-given gifts to do so (Ephesians 4:7, 4:12-14). 

I pray God uses your holding on with confidence to these two promises to free you and your church to be all about speaking and living the message of "Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2) while letting Him take care of the advancing and the using. He says He will. He can be trusted to do so.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kids & you Fathers that help raise them

I was just reading through an old journal earlier this morning and came across some thoughts in response to the Apostle John's poetic pronouncement of truth (it's not quite hymn/poem nor quite benediction/blessing) in 1 John 2:12-14. Here are the first two poetic pronouncements of truth:
I am writing to you, little children,                                                                    because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake,                                                      I am writing to you, fathers,                                                                             because you have known him from the beginning. 
Fathers, consistently confront your children with the life-altering forgiveness of Jesus - because children have a unique ability to utterly self-forget and focus outward when first awestruck. What happens then at being awestruck? They are able to learn about Jesus without the jaded cynicism, without the colored past that colors our view of Jesus and what we like best about him, without the pressures of adult life that aims to get what we wish to get out of Jesus. When they discern and acknowledge the "Big No" in their own hearts called sin and make the connection to Jesus the Rescuer - they camp out on that bridge! It becomes all about "his name's sake" and there is no other season like this in their lives. 

Earlier this week, we had a night of hockey practice (yes, in the Cayman Islands...lots of wonderful Canadians live here and have brought their beloved hockey!!) and two different elementary school open houses to attend. Juggling the boys on my own at the hockey rink, I came across a decision Katie had made that didn't immediately "sit well" with me. I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve and, while I didn't say anything, the boys detected that I was visibly upset. In between a little chaos here and there, Katie engaged in her own talk with God in the car and humbly apologized to me, which she didn't need to but her example deeply softened my heart. She proceeded to join her own open house where she is an Art Teacher while I set out on my own to engage our boys with our nightly family worship. We talked about the difference Jesus' forgiveness makes. I asked if they recognized Dad's anger earlier in the day: "Uh, yeah, your face told the story" said Mason. I had opportunity to share with them how their Mom responded: Humbly having already sought out and experienced God's forgiveness - and how her example impacted Dad. They both responded with smiles and snuggles (10 & 7 year old boys - getting increasingly rare) and with awe: "Man, Jesus can really do that, can't he?!" The forgiveness of Jesus breaking into real life absolutely captivated them such that we then had opportunity to talk more about instances in the gospels where Jesus humbly extends forgiveness and its softening impact on those who experienced it.

Fathers, remember you can know the One who has been a Father from the beginning. You feel the pressures of caring for a family. Thinking about what you are imparting to them, how to say it/impart it, their education now, their education years from now, balancing time in the office and your travel schedule with time at home. Furthermore, your responsibility for others, as a kind of father-figure, may extend outward over those in a small business, or providing direction for those who care for others. There is One who has been a Father from the beginning, who has cared for every need and been faithful to every promise for generations.  He's had to stomach hard decisions: Kicking Adam & Eve out of the Garden; starting over through Noah; keeping Moses from the promised land, withholding the temple building project from David who dreamed it, and not taking from Jesus the bitterest cup of just wrath -- and all the ones in between both in the Bible and since. All along He's watched each decision profit the person, His people, and His name. He knows. Learn from Him, stay near to Him.

I love you, fathers. God is using you! Keep fighting the good fight as you hold out to your kids the forgiveness of Jesus and hold fast to the faithful Father of every generation. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Effective name-calling: The Power of Imputation

My ultimate goal in this post is to empower you to participate with God in fruitful change in those whom you care about. You watch them flail, flounder, fret, and frustrate themselves. But your attempts to be of any help to them have proved in vain and, in addition, have left you feeling equally stuck and equally frustrated. God has been nudging me personally towards a different tack through something known as imputation. 

This past Sunday AM I had the privilege of preaching on Jesus' interactions with fig trees, temple turnover, and mountain-moving. He curses a fig tree, turns-over temple worship, and then the next Peter points out (in front of the the whole class) that the fig tree is fully withered (Mark 11:11-25). Jesus' point is that: Mere religious ritual neither effective to please a perfect God nor effective for personal change. Like the charlatan fig tree: In-and-of-itself religious ritual is fruitless and its end is death-to-the-roots. Yet how many times have we urged those in a rut: "Come to church with me" or "start giving/being useful to others." Churchgoing and charity-giving seem good enough for God but it's impotent and, should any person continue to take refuge in such close counterfeits, the end is nothing short of death.

Before imputation: Necessity of real and complete change. We need to trust Jesus so we might become an entirely "new creation" (II Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). In becoming "a new creation", a.k.a. "born again" (John 3:3, 7), a.k.a. trading in the a hard heart for a new and softer one (Ezekiel 11:19-20), we get right with God, obtain ability do the Law God talks about and "be the change" that everyone talks about but no one can ever do on their own. As human beings we prefer renovations like a little more church and a little more charity because we wish to believe we are basically good and have a lot to offer - but God says: Put down your pride and accept the offer of a total rebuild

Christians: You are a new creation, You are born again, Your heart is tender and empowered to do good. Do you see what just happened there? Something called "imputation." You may feel less than 'new' - I understand, believe me. You may feel like the only thing 'born again' in you is a re-birth of spite towards your boss who robs you of both credit and, thus, career progress. "Tender heart?!" Your heart feels primarily hard (or at least numb) toward God, toward your spouse, or anyone else for that matter. But that is not you.

What is imputation? To impute is to ascribe qualities to someone that are intrinsically absent. Imputation calls bad things by a good name. In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he recounts quite the rigorous and righteous life he tried to lead and does so for God!! (Philippians 3:4-6). But even his best work falls short (Phil. 3:7-8) and so instead of relying on his own right-living he relies on Christ's right-living imputed upon him by faith (Phil. 3:9). Like Paul, you who have trusted Jesus have been ascribed his rights and titles that are absent otherwise. You weren't born with them, they are not intrinsic: Son, child, heir, beloved.

How can God use the name-calling of imputation to empower & change you? A friend of mine was recently recounting a story of when he was in middle school and, whilst staring at the exam in front of him, he felt he had misunderstood a question. Jittery, tearing at his hair, waving pencil, gnawing at his fingernails. When the teacher approached this juggernaut of nerves, he calmly put his hand on his shoulder, answered his question and purposefully added with a look in the eye: "I know you are going to do just fine." My friend recalled: "Immediately a rush of calm confidence surged through me." Treating him other than he was. Such is the force of imputation.

That name-calling has some level of an effective, imputative force, has not been lost on the world-at-large. In fact, it has been assigned the title nominative determinism ("name-driven outcome"). 20th century's most renown psychologist Carl Jung recognized something to this in his own colleagues: "Herr Freud (whose name means 'joy' in German) practices the pleasure principle. Herr Adler (whose name means 'eagle'), the will to power, Herr Jung (Young) the idea of rebirth." In an April 2013 post to the Blog Science Friday, Adam Alter further chronicles some pretty astounding examples where name-calling shaped one's future:
The current Lord chief justice of England and Wales is Justice Igor Judge; his colleague, Lord Justice Laws, is a judge in the Court of Appeals. In the realm of athletic pursuits, Anna Smashnova is a professional Israeli tennis player, Layne Beachley is a seven-time world champion surfer, Derek Kickett was an Australian Rules footballer, Stephen Rowbotham was an Olympic rower for Britain, and Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world...Some names come before less auspicious destinies: Christopher Coke is a notorious Jamaican drug dealer.
Anna Smashnova
What else could I grow up to do?
The Bible is full of these. The most notorious, perhaps: Nabal, who foolishly puts to shame the fighting men of David with very little to no thought (1 Samuel 25:10-12). Nabal's wife, Abigail, pleads with David for mercy and while doing so says of Nabal: "Let not my Lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so also is he. Nabal is his name, and folly is with him" (1 Samuel 25:25). Who names their kid: "Fool"?! I guess parents who are ready to see their kid's destiny shaped by the imputation of such a name.

There is a danger here in how one presses this forward. Often what makes for bad theology is how an otherwise true concept is adopted, used or even over-emphasized. I'm not talking about the power of positive-thinking made famous by Robert Schuller nor am I speaking of a kind of mechanistic magic often called "positive confession" ("if you speak a certain truth, especially about health or wealth, so it shall be" - see channel 24 on WestStar TV for some good examples). 

The difference between such human effort toward positive-thinking or leveraging Scripture for what's tantamount to magic and what the Bible teaches: God Himself. His effort, His leveraging this lump of flesh for nobler purposes by the quickening of His Holy Spirit. He has wrought a real change which brings about new names (imputation), which, in turn, frees us toward further change. Here's how Paul puts it in Titus 3:3-7:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
On the one hand, God wrought real change with new names, On the other hand, each individual never denies that he/she is included in the "former we" of verse 3. Each of us intrinsically is foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved, full of malice and envy. As we, like Paul, keep one hand on what we would still be on our own while the other hand is set to the plough - moving forward as we look through the lens of real change with new names, we are freed to live other than what we sometimes feel we are. For God now sees us other than what we feel we are. New, re-born, tender-hearted, able, child, heir, beloved, gifted. 

Attempts to Empower Others but Beating a Dead Horse. I'm not sure if the idiom "beating a dead horse" is familiar to you. It originated in British parliament but was inspired by the Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. In his play Antigone, the blind seer Tiresias is led onstage to says: "Don't stab the slain who have already been stabbed" (my paraphrase). His advice: "All men are liable to err; but when an error hath been made, that man is no longer witless or unblest who heals the ill into which he hath fallen, and remains not stubborn." In other words, if you've been stabbing at that which has already been stabbed or you're beating a dead horse, don't be stubborn - try something different! The subject is gruesome (so much stabbing!), but it is otherwise really old and really good advice. I have a desire, which perhaps you share, to see people change and become more like Jesus. For my church family, my spouse, my children, my friends, my neighbors. I feel what Paul says in Galatians 4:19: "I am in anguish until Christ is formed in you!" Some people are just harder to exhort and spur on than others (and believe me, I'm sure I am one of those people for some of my brothers and sisters in Christ). I've tried to exhort through cheerleading ("you can do this"), through instruction ("here's what God says about"), through suggestion ("have you tried ____"), through warning ("if you keep on this route, it won't bring the satisfaction for which you're looking but only pain"), and through the classic oughta's and shoulda's that usually can't spur on more than one or two steps forward (see Col. 2:20-23). Yet they remain in that still-same rut. Lately, I've tried to heed Tiresias' advice: Don't be stubborn, try something different!

God can use your name-calling to empower others to His glory and for their good.
Instead of "beating the dead horse" through other strategies for change, consider supplementing prayer (1 John 5:16) with treating your fellow Christian as he or she is, according to God's Word. 

  • "You are gifted" (I Corinthians 7:7; Ephesians 4:7)
  • "You will overcome" (1 John 5:4).
  • "I'm so glad you are not who you used to be" (II Cor. 5:17; 1 Cor. 2:16).
  • "I can't wait to see how God will use your patience, endurance, hard obedience" (Romans 8:18).
  • "You are salt and light to your co-workers, neighbors, family, spouse" (Matthew 5:13-14).
  • "God has put a calling on your life" (Romans 1:6).
  • "You belong to something bigger than yourself/your circumstance" (Romans 1:6).
  • "You are a pillar amongst God's people here" (Revelation 3:12).
  • "You are perfect in God's sight" (1 John 1:9).
There's a dear gentlemen in our church who likes to address me sometimes as: "The Pastor whom Jesus loves" (based off what the Apostle John self-reference in his own gospel - 'the disciple whom Jesus loved). I appreciate this for two reasons. One, I don't always feel very pastoral. I do not love and care for God's flock as I ought, I fail often to follow-up and check-in, I'm prone to seek first for others to understand me before I seek to understand them. Even still, this man's name-calling serves as a reminder that God has called me, by his grace, to be His under-shepherd to a people He loves. Imputation - he has called me to that which I am not on my own. My friend reinforces this. Two, I don't always feel very lovable - and for many of the same reasons I mentioned above. Yet, Jesus loves me stubbornly. He puts upon me what is not intrinsically there. Again, imputation. When my friend calls me this, I'm reminded of the reality of how God truly views me - which is other than how I may be feeling or thinking. At his words, I can sometimes sense this twinge of confident love which I then want to spread to others. One way of thinking of it: God wishes to use your subjective, name-calling act of imputation to re-activate His objective imputation - what He has already and objectively both done in them and called them. Your name-calling act of imputation can serve as the spark to ignite what's already been imputed by God Himself.

This doesn't mean you never talk with them about the reality of something hard. Faithful still are the wounds of a friend when absolutely necessary (Proverbs 27:6). Though I would suggest this approach be used selectively and as the exception (see Ephesians 4:29). Nor ought you fear that they will only see the good, causing ego inflation, and thus become blind to the need for real change. God changes people through primarily through grace not by law and condemnation expressed through "my role is to keep them humble/grounded."

I've spoken about beating horses so it seems appropriate I end with a horse story that I pray leaves a lasting imputing impression.* Our family tries to record and re-watch the Kentucky Derby Horse Race every year (it's brutal to watch live as the lead-up to the race is 2 hours while the race is approximately 2 minutes - Bob Costas can produce some inspiring journalism, but come on!). The 2009 Derby, however, stands out to me. That year a smaller horse named Mine That Bird entered the race at 50-1 odds and had fared poorly in its previous two races. The owner and trainer both visibly displayed utter shock after the race. The horse's owner: "[Winning] wasn't something that was on our was a shocker." 

At the first quarter-mile stage, Mine That Bird was not only running dead last but, at that point, NBC's announcer initially missed even seeing him only to then mention him as a mere footnote. Not only did Mine That Bird go on to win that Kentucky Derby, he did so by 6 and 3/4 lengths!! What happened?! What precipitated such an impossible shift after the first quarter-mile?

The only person in Churchill Downs who appeared unshocked by the results was the horse's jockey, Calvin Borel. When asked in the immediate post-race interview what changed during the race to empower the horse to emerge victorious, Borel said simply: "I rode him like a good horse."

You love a fellow Christian who likely feels the weight of the 50-1 odds just as much as you see it in them. As you pray for them, try also a season of imputing upon them the reality God which has already wrought in them & a name which He has already called them. Encourage them like he or she is. 

*For the record, I am not pro-horsebeating - whether dead or alive.