It is amazing how strong the influence of social media has become in society today. The fact that people contemplate (and carry out) suicide based on their social media status is almost beyond belief, but it is all too true.

We must let the word of God dictate our self-assessment–starting with the FACT that we are God’s friends and his beloved kids.

Romans 5:10-11 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.

1 John 3:1 See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!

And let us keep the megaphone of social media and the authority it wants to exercise over us in proper perspective–and a very small one at that!

Bishop Emeritus Matthew Thomas writes,
“We are living in unusual times where authority is far less objective and precariously far more subjective. Many read the Bible for inspiration and comfort only. Far fewer are reading it for wisdom and direction as we “follow after” Jesus. In the Bible’s place are the larger community’s opinions that are easily accessed through social media and the 24-hour information cycle where authority is constantly challenged and defined — every voice seeking our agreement. For others, personal relationships seem to hold unquestioned final authority on most matters…What are we to do about this and how are we to respond as believers?”

He offers three observations regarding social authority today.

“First, the authority of self and culture and opinion usurp biblical authority…in contemporary society, truth-telling is often subordinate to subjective ideals (my truth) and self-advancement that would help us achieve personal goals rather than kingdom fruit.”

“Second, if a truth is hard to observe or seems odious to others, it must be ignored or altered to remove difficulty or offense. A simple reading of the Gospels in the Bible would leave any attentive reader to the conclusion that Jesus said many hard things requiring discipline and commitment leading to obedience of His followers. This is often off-putting to those who prefer to hide their sin and shield themselves from criticism. Evidence of this is that church attendees are often better disciples of the culture than Jesus. They follow that which is easiest, offends the least, and is doable with or without faith.”

“Third, it is all too common to confuse pleasing or mollifying people with loving them…People change their theology not on the basis of the authority of Scripture, but on a more fluid and seductive authority — the crowd or ‘herd’ as it is called in psychological terms. I have seen it often. People form views and opinions about human sexuality and change their theology, not on the basis of new revelation from the Bible, but on the implication for their loved ones. I hear mostly something like this: “Yes, I know what the Bible says, but I love my son and so …” In other words, the timeless truths of Scripture are less formational than my loved one’s current decisions. Whole denominations have changed their position on Scriptural authority simply because of their deference to social authority…The same can be said of indefensible positions on racism, sexism, justice, human trafficking/slavery, immigration and how we treat the foreigner. When emotions and social connections reign supreme and hold the greatest weight of authority over our lives, we sadly ignore or distort that which should be our first line of reason and theological sanity. This can lead to becoming followers of no one or everyone rather than The One. If we are going to be disciples of Jesus, then we must be aware of the pull of cultural influences as we hold them against the authority of Scripture. The Bible must hold authority and our attention. It must inform our beliefs and practices. Then we will rise above the shifting tides.”

May we be one in our adherence to the Bible, rather than social and subjective influences that seek to hold authority over our lives.

Priority and Perspective

January 16, 2021

These are pictures on the Trespass Trail to Gaviota Peak, a favorite hike in the Santa Barbara area. In the morning the smaller mountain that looms over the Gaviota tunnel blocks out the sun from anyone hiking the trail. It appears ginormous.

And it is ginormous.

But as a hiker continues to climb, that particular mountain doesn’t loom so large. Here it is as one climbs to its equivalent height.

Here is one about 500 feet higher.

Here is one about 1500 feet higher.  It is in the lower left corner, hardly noticeable at all.

As a metaphor for the different perspective faith can provide, this one works pretty well.  Things that appear huge—enough so to block our ability to see the “Son”—get smaller as we gain a “higher” perspective.

But the climb doesn’t begin on the mountain top.  It begins in the valley with a clear resolve to go up.

Christian discipleship is largely a matter of priority and perspective.  Luke 14:25-27 reads, “25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Does Jesus really want us to “hate” our family?  Of course not.  He is talking about priorities, with prioritizing God as the first order of business

The life of discipleship beings with a re-ordering of our lives.  Followers of Jesus put Jesus first and keep Him first.  The first of the ten commandments reads, ““You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)  The second also reiterates this idea.  In the New Testament, Jesus teaches his followers to “seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33)

By putting away rivals to our devotion we draw closer to God and He draws closer to us (James 4:8).  Then we find ourselves participating more and more with His thoughts, virtues, and perspective.  That big mountain in front of us obscuring the “Son” can be just about anything.  Mine is often a concern for our kids—their health, safety, success, relationships, etc.  But when I draw close to God and He draws near to me, I hear Him say, “fear not.  I’ve got this.”  That mountain in front of me is no longer so intimidating.

So prioritize God.  Let your devotion be the top priority of your life.  As you do this, you will gain His perspective.  Then you will be reminded once again…God’s got this.

The Guidance Counselor

December 5, 2020

I had a back-to-school dream last night that was memorable and symbolic, enough so for me to give credit to the Lord as its creator. When I remember the dream clearly after waking up and can sense that the metaphors and symbols are applicable to the Christian journey, I take note. This is typically how I filter my dreams nowadays.

In the dream I was a student at SBCC. Classes were taking place but I was in a state of disarray. I could not find my way around campus to the correct classroom and I also did not have a complete class schedule. I was stressing out. I wanted to know where I was supposed to go and when I was supposed to be there. I wanted to have an understanding of my surroundings and to be able to navigate my life as a student. I was sweating and nervous.

At one point I walked up a ramp that I thought led to my next class and it was a complete dead end. It was a ramp to nowhere, and the class had already started.

So I went to see the guidance counselor with my questions. He was warm and kind. I asked him if I was supposed to be at such-and-such place for my first class, and told him it the only class that was written on my course schedule. He responded with,

“Hmmm. That’s an interesting course for you. That is typically not the first course you would take, but I don’t see why you couldn’t take that one first and then get your level 100 class later. That’s not usually how it’s done, but we can make an exception.”

Then he walked me to my class. As we walked along I was eager to ask about the rest of my classes, but I never bothered. I had an overriding sense that if the guidance counselor was walking with me, it would all work out.

Then we arrived at the class which had already begun. The guidance counselor spoke with the teacher and I was allowed to jump right in. The class was in the midst of sketching a picture from different perspectives. I drew my picture of a high-rise office building at night with lights illuminating the top stories, from the perspective of a child sitting in the front passenger seat of a car. The child could not see over the dashboard, but could see the top 5 floors of the office building. The teacher approved of the drawing.

I gave the drawing to a friend.

And then I woke up.

My biggest takeaway from the dream was, as you might expect, the presence of the guidance counselor (aka the Holy Spirit) who guides and counsels and comforts on the journey. In my anxiety, I often want to understand everything in advance to assuage my fears, but God continues to show me that is not His Way. His Presence is sufficient enough.

I also loved the imagery of the guidance counselor’s fluid relationship with the course schedule. The approach was not rigid but flexible. I imagine the Holy Spirit delights in creative and winding pathways to gain spiritual maturity. In the dream, it actually seemed fun for the guidance counselor.

Finally, the drawing of the high-rise office building where the lights were on in the rooms of the top floors. From the perspective of the child in the passenger seat in the car, everything below those top few stories was obscured. The child wasn’t able to see any of it, and it was dark. But that was ok. It was enough that the lights were on in the “executive suites”.

You may be going through a time of uncertainty where you cannot see far ahead. It may be stressful and driving your own fears and anxiety. So I pray that this imagery can be a comfort and strength to you. The Holy Spirit is with you! He will guide, counsel, comfort and strengthen you in the journey. It may appear dark from where you are sitting (as a passenger, by the way. Jesus has the wheel). But the lights are on for God and His executive team.

And that’s enough.

This last week I applied for a job, as the extra money would be nice. It could take pressure off of our church as we don’t have a lot of either people nor money. Over the years, I have worked part-time as a coach and done other moonlighting to bring in additional income. I get fearful when the church coffers get low and I might not get paid. These days the coffers are pretty low.

But it doesn’t look like I will even get a second look for this position. While I was encouraged when I dropped off my application, resume and cover letter that I would likely get a call that afternoon, I haven’t been responded to with an email, call or text since.

I have stewed in frustration and pride. Thoughts in my head bounce around like, “Don’t they know who I am?!?!” I tell myself, “I guarantee I am the most qualified person for this job they could find!” Then I sulk and feel sorry for myself.

The most convicting part of the last week is the realization that my pride so readily rises up with its ambitions for money, positions, and promotions, as my faith retreats to the backseat.

But these hobbits keep calling my name.

One of the great tethers of my spiritual journey has been 1 Thessalonians 4:10-11. It reads, “And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you”.

This verse keeps in my mind that money, positions, and promotions may not be the path that Jesus calls most of us to.

I think that 1 Timothy 6:6-10 offers a great reason for this… “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Certainly, money is one of the traps that draws us in. The enemy has many traps that are terrifically effective, especially when we/I am so prone to ambition and pride.

Yet I am grateful that these Hobbits keep calling my name.

Consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien. In the stories, the ONLY effective ring bearers are the diminutive, simple-minded, easily-overlooked, humble Hobbits. Hobbits personify the pursuit of the quiet life.

In stark contrast, the great warrior, Boromir, from the powerful city of Minas Tirith, succumbs to the power of the Ring. Boromir personifies the reach for greatness. His pride, strength and ambition are his downfall.

Another one who succumbed to the power of the ring was Gollum. He was once a man, but his obsession with “the Precious” transforms him into a half man/half animal—a sniveling, grasping, enslaved wretch. His willingness to do anything to have “My Precious,” causes repulsion, but it can even strike a chord of recognition. At least a little bit of Gollum is in each of us, as Jonathan Benz writes.

Benz relates how this humility and self-awareness can transform Christians as they relate to people controlled by addictions. He writes, “If we are preparing to help an addict into recovery and find ourselves dealing with intense feelings of revulsion and disgust toward his or her compulsive behaviors, we have not done the the hard work of looking at our inner Gollum and sizing it up for what it is: a dehumanizing compulsion to choose our own enslavement (to desire, ambition, and lust) over the Spirit’s life-giving freedom. Chances are, too, that the greater the repulsion, the greater the externalizing of our inner Gollum.”

See that? Benz believes that when we recoil from the obvious sins of others, we probably have not done the work of examining the sin within our own hearts.

Humility is our constant companion and friend in the spiritual journey…a veritable Samwise Gamgee of quiet fortitude against temptation and help in keeping the proper perspective. Humble self-awareness is also the key to becoming a faith community that welcomes and receives the prodigals with the love of the Father. Nothing, as I see it, could be more important for churches.

The apostle Paul, the greatest of all church-planters, had this humble self-awareness. He wrote,

“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 4:12-16)

My soul has required a bit of housecleaning work this week. I have issues of pride that need to be checked. So glad these hobbits keep calling my name.

I once heard a sermon by Father Raniero Cantalamessa at Asbury Seminary chapel. He had a very unique and interesting position in the Catholic church. He was the “Preacher to the Papal Household”. It was his primary job to preach to the Pope!

When I heard the man preach it was clear that he knew Jesus and that he was no ordinary Catholic priest. In fact, I imagined that he was more like a prophet than a priest; and the Catholic hierarchy probably understood early on that he wasn’t going to play the game of climbing the church leadership ladder. The Pope himself probably understood that Father Raniero was going to preach the truth to him and not waste his time with kowtowing, flattery and fluff.

When people try to please other people rather than God, they will fall into a ditch. I have noticed that often you can smell such people out if they are generous with flattery.

My friend, Denny Wayman, gave me a heads up when he said that those people most generous with flattery on a Sunday are the people most likely to facilitate your removal when you preach something offensive to them. Take all flattery with a grain of salt!

1 Thessalonians 2:4-6  says, “For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else.”

The Apostle Paul (the author of 1 Thessalonians) was a person who knew God and knew who he was trying to please. If such a person gets promoted or demoted really doesn’t matter—just if she or he pleases God!

So if you have a chronic case of people-pleasing, here is the prescription…receive a healthy dose of God’s grace as you consciously reject undue satisfaction from the praises of people. A little praise from people is fine. A little is appropriate. We all want to hear a “good job” when we have worked hard at something, but that is not where your worth comes from! Your worth is derived as a beloved child of the King! Your “atta-boy” or “atta-girl” comes from believing and obeying God—the things that truly please God.

Your Redemption Resume

October 23, 2020

As part of my Doctoral work at Fuller Seminary I have been invited to webinars and classes and have gained access to some great resources. This week I enjoyed a webinar by the Slingshot Group called “Building a Resume That Works”. The Slingshot Group consults churches and helps place people into various positions—specifically in churches and Christian non-profit organizations.

Those graduating from seminary want to get a job. I am fortunate to have one that I love and am not looking for a different one. However, I know that some of the readers of this blog post are indeed looking for a job. Perhaps this will stimulate your appetite for more training and resources.

The first point the Slingshot Groups makes is in preparing a resume and in a job interview is to reflect a knowledge of oneself. They have seen the primary importance of a person being vulnerable, transparent, authentic, and self-aware as they present themselves to potential employers.

How do we become more “self-aware”? One way they suggest is to get a mentor or life coach. This person, it is presumed, will come to know you well. In fact, it is good to have had several mentors or coaches. Can you think of the people who have influenced you the most? In what constructive ways have they influenced you?

One good and constructive way is in the creation of your redemption resume.

To have a mentor or life coach in the best scenarios is to have a trusted person with whom you can relate your whole story to—warts and all. Their job is to assist you in seeing God’s redemptive purposes at work in your life. Maybe your story involved some very negative chapters. Can you see how God has turned those into positives? What have you learned from those experiences? How have you become wiser, stronger, and more qualified because of your experiences—good and bad?

In finding a mentor or life coach, we take steps in making peace with our past. One of the facilitators of the webinar said, ‘God won’t cover what you won’t uncover.” I like that. Outright deception and lies will always come back to bite us—especially when God is in charge of our lives. Take the steps to share your story with a trusted mentor or life coach. It can be the start of a wonderful journey of healing, gaining perspective and inner confidence.

Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purposes.”

Without a doubt God authors the best redemption stories of them all! How is yours coming along?

Hovering Over the Chaos

October 7, 2020

One of the ways my wife and I have been encouraging ourselves through the turbulence of 2020 is by asking one another, “Do you know who will be sitting on the throne of the Universe on November 4? and January 20? and next year at this time?”

YES! Jesus will be!

God is not threatened or worried or anxious about chaos. He doesn’t run from situations of craziness and conflict as many of us are apt to. He doesn’t turn up his nose and leave when people get boisterous, rowdy, or rude.

In fact, God’s Spirit hovers OVER the chaos.

Genesis 1:1-2 in the NLT reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” (One translation reads, “The earth was chaos and waste”)

The word for “formless” or “chaos” in the Hebrew is tohuw and it means “to lie waste; a desolation (of surface), i.e. desert; figuratively, a worthless thing; adverbially, in vain:—confusion, empty place, without form, nothing, (thing of) nought, vain, vanity, waste, wilderness.”

I confess that at times recently I have felt our civilization has drifted into a wilderness place. But could it be that God is about to break in to our chaos and confusion like He did long ago when He declared “Let there be light!”?!

Author Bob Ekblad recognizes that God’s presence is with us through all the difficult circumstances of life. Our job is to RECOGNIZE His Presence with us. We need reminding to open the eyes of our heart and stir our faith when things look hopelessly chaotic.

He writes, “Knowing that God is creating at the beginning in a place of chaos and emptiness encourages an attitude of watchfulness for this creative presence. Learning of the Spirit’s respectful hovering over the waters before God’s pronouncing light from darkness helps me watch and wait with more hope.”

I choose to believe by faith that God is up to wonderful things in 2020. I choose to believe that new, vibrant life in the church and in the world is about to appear. Let us encourage our own recognition of God’s presence over the chaos and our own discipline of watchfulness.

According to St. Hesychios (who wrote the following over 1000 years ago), “Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart.”

Before anything chaotic without the Spirit of God enters your mind or heart, remember God hovers over the chaos and He is about to break through!

The Serpent’s Deceptions

September 29, 2020

In the Garden of Eden, the serpent pulls quite a number on Adam and Eve. Author and pastor Bob Ekblad points out that the serpent’s deception was rooted in a negative depiction of God. He writes, “According to the serpent God is not only miserly, God is a controlling power-monger, who lies to protect his supremacy.”

That is intense! And it is successful! The serpent succeeds in getting the woman to ponder and meditate and envision God as detestable.

The reality is so much different. Our God, YHWH, is loving in all His ways. The freedom and dominion He gave the man and woman were virtually limitless. What happens instead is actually a form of idolatry. The image of the true, loving God is replaced by a false image of God. The woman takes her gaze off the true God and onto something different.

In our study of Mansions of the Heart we are being reminded to gaze upon the God of love and meditate on His ways throughout our day. Drawing near to the God of love is the primary objective of the Christian life and the strongest defense against the Father of Lies—Satan.

Pastor Ekblad believes that negative images of God are what most separate people from God, and when we are distanced from God’s love we are vulnerable to seduction. In his work with inmates, Pastor Ekblad has found that the image of God and the Bible as harsh judge and strict, impossible rules (respectively) keeps many people at arms’ length from God and stuck in perpetual cycles of self-defeating behaviors.

As the people of God, let’s ALWAYS gaze upon the God of LOVE and thus fortify ourselves against Satan’s deceptions to distract, divide, and defeat us.

As many of you know, I am now in the third year of my doctoral program at Fuller Seminary in “Recovery Ministry”.  When I saw this degree program being offered I jumped at the opportunity to apply for it because I saw the relevance to our own church’s ministry (the context of who and where we serve).  The program has been awesome and the books, classes, and interaction with fellow students and professors very informative.

Here at the start of year three I find myself with the task of completing another 4500 pages of reading by January 6.  It would be quite intimidating and a little bit depressing if the books weren’t so darn good!!! 

This week I started reading a book titled Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.  In this book I am learning that people who have suffered abuse at the hands of family members or trusted authority figures (coaches, pastors, teachers, doctors, etc.) lose the concepts needed to understand the Gospel—things like love, trust, and sacrifice.  Rachael Denhollander describes how those concepts have often been redefined by the abusers as weapons for great evil.  It is important that we who would present the Gospel (meaning ALL OF US) understand how to apply the Gospel to this damage in a way that makes it truly “good news”.

Co-author Darby Strickland writes, “We need to remember that God delivers HIs people not just from their own sin but also from injustices.  When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, He says “I am the God of your fathers, I have observed the misery of my people, I have heard their cry on account of their oppressors.  I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.’ God introduces Himself to His people as their deliverer and protector.  God asks His people repeatedly in Scripture to work for justice and righteousness.  This is who we, as worshippers of God, are told to be—people who do justice.  God calls us to confront oppression but also to provide protection and care for the vulnerable.  We see Jesus doing these things.  He identifies with the powerless, takes up their cause, and stands against those who do harm to the vulnerable.  This is who we are to be, deliverers and protectors.”

May we be a church for all people, but especially for the hurting, lonely, and abused.  Amen.

We Lead Together

August 28, 2020

For years I have had an inkling that the burden/calling/mantle of Christian leadership was not intended to fall upon the shoulders of the “chosen few”.  Especially me!  Here’s a little background…

When I was in the process of discerning the call to pastoral leadership around 15-18 years ago, I would pore through books on Christian leadership and, in particular, church planting.  The message was clear—charismatic and gifted leaders would discern the leading of the Holy Spirit and rally others to his (it was always a “him” back then) side to build a large and “successful” ministry.

Here was my problem…I was never fully convinced that I was discerning the leading of Holy Spirit for the direction and shape of the church plant.  I wanted others to help me to pray and discern the direction and shape of the church plant.  I knew deep down that I, by myself, was not up to the task.  Did that make me doubt my calling and my leadership gifts?  You bet it did!

But through the years I have never lost that inkling.  In fact, with an increase in experience, I have become more convinced that I was correct.  The New Testament model of leadership is for the corporate guidance of a church through a group of spiritually mature “elders” who pray and seek the Lord together.  Why?  For the simple fact that we ALL have the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us distributing to us a variety of gifts that complement one another’s.  

1 Corinthians 12:12-22 says, “12 The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. 13 Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.

14 Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. 15 If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

18 But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. 19 How strange a body would be if it had only one part! 20 Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. 21 The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”

22 In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. 

Acts 13 gives an example of the early church’s leadership model.  Corporately, the voice of the Holy Spirit was discerned for “setting apart Paul and Barnabbas for the work to which I have called them”.  In Acts 15, the most explosive issue facing the church (regarding the observance of Jewish traditions among the Gentile converts) was resolved corporately.

Richard Foster writes about Jesus teaching leadership to his disciples.  He says, “With quiet persistence Jesus showed them what it meant to live in response to the voice of the Father.  He taught them that they, too, could hear the heaven-sent voice and most clearly when together.  ‘If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matt. 18:19-20).  

In those words Jesus gave his disciples both assurance and authority.  There was the assurance that when a people genuinely gathered in His name His will could be discerned.  The superintending Spirit would utilize the checks and balances of the different believers to ensure that when their hearts were in unity they were in rhythm with the heartbeat of the Father.  Assured that they had heard the voice of the true Shepherd, they were able to pray and act with authority.  His will plus their unity equaled authority.”

There is already a charismatic and gifted leader in God’s church and His Name is Jesus!  His subordinates are called to seek, hear, and obey his voice together.