Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Shepherds' Merry Christmas

As I wrote on Christmas in the first of a series of Christmas posts, the question facing every one of us is "How will you respond to the Savior?" Today we look at the shepherds' response to the Christ child as recorded in Luke 2:8-20.

The announcement came to the shepherds while they were at work in the fields.
... there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, (Luke 2:8)

Their initial response to the glory of the Lord was fear. A right relationship with God starts here. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

Wait, why should I fear a loving God? Because He is God and I am not. He is the Creator. I am the created. He is righteous, holy (i.e., set apart) and just and cannot and will not overlook sin. If you remember from Romans 3:23 and 6:23 from my previous post, as sinners, we all have plenty to fear in the presence of the Almighty.

When the angels explain that they come bearing good news and tell the shepherds how to find Jesus and the shepherds see and hear a multitude of angels praising God, they realize this is supernatural. It is from God (which the Lord has made known to us -- Luke 2:15a). In response, the shepherds do the following:
  1. Go - They immediately go to Bethlehem to see Jesus. And they go quickly.
    • When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. (Luke 2:15-16)
  2. Observe - The shepherds weren't satisfied to have the angels tell them. They had to see it for themselves. 
    • And when they saw it ... (Luke 2:17a)
  3. Tell others - The shepherds had to tell others what they had heard and seen. They had a personal, intimate, incredible interaction with Emmanuel (i.e., God with us) and had to share it. Think of how you tell others about a good deal or a good meal or good service somewhere. The shepherds experienced that but on a supernatural scale.
    • ... they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. (Luke 2:17b)
  4. Glorify God - The shepherds worshiped all the way back to the fields. Their response to their real, in-person encounter with the living God was praise and worship (i.e., ascribing worth) to God who allowed them to hear the good news from the angels, to get a glimpse of heavenly worship, to be led to the newborn King in the manger, to tell others of the Christ child.
    • And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen, as it had been told to them. (Luke 2:18)
The shepherds responded by going, seeing, sharing and worshiping. While you weren't in the field that night with the night-shift shepherds when the angels came to proclaim this good news of great joy, you do have God's word with the account of what happened that first Christmas and so much more. And you no doubt have heard about Christmas from others. So, again I close by asking you "How will you respond to the Savior this Christmas?"

Next, the wise men.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas? It Depends

On Christmas Eve and Christmas this year, I studied the responses of the shepherds, the wise men, Simeon and Anna the prophetess to the birth of Jesus recorded in Luke 2 and Matthew 2. Over the next few days, we will look at their responses to Jesus and, more importantly now, your response to the Savior. We start with the announcement of Jesus' birth.

The proclamation of the birth of God Himself as a baby come to save earth from our sins is recorded for us by Luke in 2:10-11:

And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Note several things. First, it is good news. Jesus coming for us is indeed good news. God left His heavenly throne to come to us. That should blow us away.

Second, this good news should be met with great joy. Whether you meet the coming of Jesus to earth that first Christmas with great joy depends on how clearly you understand your standing with God apart from Jesus. As we see later in this proclamation, we need a Savior, you need a Savior.

Third, this news, this coming of a Savior is for all the people. As I have heard often, all are welcome at the cross. However, don't confuse Jesus' birth, life, suffering, death and resurrection being for all the people with everyone being automatically saved. Again, that is dependent on your response to Jesus.

Fourth, this baby born in Bethlehem -- fulfilling the prophecy of Micah 5:2 -- was a Savior. Who needs saving? Only people in danger. Whether you know it or not, that applies to every one of us, including you. As written in Paul's letter to the Romans:

... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)
... the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23a)

That does sound bad.

Finally, this baby Savior was none other than Christ the Lord. It was God. Jesus, born that first Christmas in the most humble circumstances, is the Messiah, the Promised One, the Savior. Jesus left His throne to come to earth as a baby, live a sinless, perfect life of 33 years, suffer unjustly and die the most humiliating painful death known to man then rise from the dead victoriously.

Pretty amazing, huh? What dramatic steps by God Almighty to come to us and go through all of that for us. My question to you this Christmas is:

How will you respond to the Savior?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Huffing and Puffing at Parker Ridge

On an August vacation to the Canadian Rockies, my wife and I hiked Parker Ridge in the northern part of Banff National Park. It is advertised as a don't miss 2-hour roundtrip hike with breathtaking views. But with a 250 meter elevation gain (i.e., ~820 feet for those Americans who don't have the conversion thing down), it comes at a price to your lungs and legs. The huffing and puffing on what turned out to be a 40-minute hike up for us was so worth it when we got up to the ridge and saw the huge Saskatchewan Glacier. I could only say, "Wow, Lord!" as I was again stunned by His creation. As we explored the ridge and walked further we took in more of the glacier, the hard-to-describe ice blue lake at the bottom of the glacier and eventually an emerald pool hundreds of feet below. My sense of worship for Creator God grew and grew.

While the hike up took away my breath physically, the magnificence of this bit of His creation took away my breath spiritually. For me, it was a reminder of what Romans 1:20 says:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

On the way down the trail, I thought about how the steep ascent of the Parker Ridge hike and that burn in my lungs and my legs was no-questions-asked worth it when we got to the ridge. And I asked myself why I don't put in this type of stretching, huffing, puffing, working hard, effort toward sanctification in my daily walk with the Lord. Every time I have actively participated and God has made major changes in my life, it has been worth it. I have never once wanted it the way it used to be.

As I look at the pictures we took from the top of Parker Ridge -- and as Pastor James really hits it this weekend with the "Lord Change Me" series -- I am committed to the work to gain elevation in my walk with the Lord, to work hard to attain the change God has for me. How about you? Will you be on the easy trail? Or will you be on the steep climb to the next ridge the Lord has for you?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Ultimate Pop Quiz

Remember the oft-dreaded pop quiz in school? It was telling to watch and listen to your fellow students' responses to that "Put away your books" declaration of the pop quiz. Did they immediately show signs of nervousness? Or did they fairly calmly put everything away as the quiz made its way down the row to them? Which were you -- the "Oh, no, I knew I should have studied" student or the "All that studying and staying caught up pays off now" student?

While those questions might make for either a pleasant walk down memory lane or bring back a twinge of that sense of panic, that is not the point of this. I want to turn our attention, our minds and our actions to the ultimate pop quiz - the return of the King.

I read about Jesus' return in Matthew 24 in my quiet time one day last week. In verse 44, Jesus tells us that His return will come at an hour you do not expect. (I recommend this passage to those out there making predictions about the date for the end of the world.) If we don't know when Jesus, the King of kings, will return, how should we handle it? Be ready. Always! But what are we to be doing? What will our Master expect to find His bondservants doing when He returns. On to Matthew 24:45-46 where Jesus addresses just that.

"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes."

To be found as a faithful bondservant when Jesus returns, we must be found feeding the sheep. This is especially true for those of us He has entrusted with leadership. This is the same command Jesus gave Peter three times in John 21 (feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep). And you know there is only one food for Jesus' flock -- the Word of God.

If the King returns tomorrow -- or yet today -- what will He find you doing? Are you ready for the ultimate pop quiz?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Old Snow

As a humid, 95-degree July day comes to a close, I am reminded of something I saw after the biggest snowstorm of last winter in Chicago. New-fallen snow is beautiful and bright white. When it's untouched, it looks so white, so pure. Then we start walking on it, driving on it, pushing it around with shovels, snow blowers and plows. Whatever that mixture is they put on the roads to melt the ice gets mixed in. That once pure snow becomes dingy, dirty, hard, crusty and anything but clean.

When Snowpocalypse 2011 hit, all of the Chicago area was covered in a foot or two of new-fallen snow. Many weeks after Snowpocalypse 2011, I still saw a giant pile of snow in one spot on my train ride home every day. But what used to be pure white, fresh and almost breath-taking was now black, gray, crystalized, hard and ugly. What happened? Human intervention. Time. And no more new-fallen snow.

The same thing happens in our lives. A fresh touch from God after a time of confession in our quiet time, a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit has us walking in the Spirit. Then life happens in this fallen world. And I start adding some sinful, fleshly decisions, words, attitudes and that fresh, white landscape starts looking less and less like new. If I am truthful, it goes from fresh, white and clean to ugly, dirty and sinful.

What should we do? How do we get back to that pure, white landscape? Go back to God again. Recognize, acknowledge and confess your sin to the Lord. Repent and be washed clean by a holy God.

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

Hallelujah for the cross!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Slippery When Wet

On a recent vacation to the Big Island of Hawai'i, I noticed an abundance of "Slippery When Wet" signs to apparently help stop vacationers from slipping or falling. As I saw more of these in the first few days of our vacation on the island, it got me thinking two things:

  1. Do we need all these signs? After all, aren't most things slippery when wet? And do items that don't get slippery when wet -- and I am having trouble thinking of any such items right now -- pose a problem for us? Couldn't we just assume surfaces are slippery when wet?

  2. Since there are so many of these warning signs, does anyone pay attention to them?

That last question plus the presence of cairns ( my wife and I followed to stay on the Kilauea Iki Crater Trail in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on a hike later in our trip got me thinking about the spiritual equivalents of those "Slippery When Wet" signs that I think most of us are ignoring and of the spiritual equivalents of the cairns that are placed along the trail to let us know we are still on the right path. Scripture hits this issue head on in 1 Corinthians 10:11-13:

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

While reading the Bible in your daily quiet time -- you do have a daily quiet time with God, right? -- have you ever caught yourself thinking how dumb or foolish or sinful those people were? As our pastor says, honesty in church. Of course you have thought that. Hopefully you have caught yourself. It happens to me. We have to ask ourselves if there is a sin to confess, if there is a lesson to be learned, a change that God wants in our life based on what we are reading in His word.

We also need to watch for the cairns that show us we are still on the right path even if the hiking is hard right now and we cannot see our destination and are questioning whether it will be worth it. Remember you are walking with Almighty God, your loving Father. He is good. He loves you. It will be worth it.

As you set back out on your daily walk, pay attention to the warning signs along the trail. Have others help point them out to you. Keep way back from the guard rails and from the unstable cliffs (check out the picture above from the cliff at the end of the Chain of Craters Road in the same national park). And don't hike alone. Walk with brothers or sisters to help you stay on the trail. They can help you see the cairns along the way. In fact, the Holy Spirit often uses them to setup those cairns.

Now if we can just do something about those "Click it or ticket" and "Buckle your seat belt. It's the law" signs.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

When a Small Group isn't a Small Group

That seems like a crazy title. It doesn't sit well with my math-leaning mind. How can a small group not be a small group? Let's focus on purpose. Small groups are about sanctification (i.e., the process of Jesus' disciples being conformed into His image as Paul wrote about in Romans 8:29, the often left-off completion to the often quoted Romans 8:28). In the Harvest Bible Chapel ( paradigm, small groups are about walking in Christ in community.

With the purpose defined, I contend there are groups meeting in your church carrying the small group label that aren't really small groups. So when is a small group not a small group?

  • When it is a Bible study
    Wait a minute. I cannot possibly be dissing Bible studies, can I? Clearly Jesus' disciples should study His word. But small groups are to be more than a "What do you think?" discussion of our favorite book of the Bible. Small group has to be a vehicle to push to application of God's word. Application of the truth, application of knowledge is biblical wisdom. In a section on pressing to application in Why Small Groups chapter 4, "What Makes a Great Leader?" Mark Mullery writes, "The most challenging aspect of leading a discussion is trying to press the point home to application. The leader who fails to bring application leads his group down a merry path to deception!

  • When there is no transparency

    Without transparency and without confession of sin, there is no mercy. Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)
    There should be regular confession of sin one to another in small group. Therefore, confess your sins one to another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)

  • When there is no real accountability
    As John the Baptist told the Pharisees, who were just watching baptisms from a safe distance and not the least bit interested in following Jesus, real followers of Christ are to "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:8). Asking for and accepting genuine, in-your-face-when-it-needs-to-be accountability is a fruit of repentance. If there isn't real, uncomfortable accountability in your small group, you aren't helping each other toward repentance (i.e., a turning from our wicked ways and turning or returning to God).

I am sure you could add to this list. But the goal isn't to have an exhaustive list. Rather I want you to look at your current small group or other groups in your ministry area that carry the "small group" label. Is the group focused on sanctification? Is the group focused on walking with Christ? Is the "small group" really a small group?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Visiting the No-Fly Zone

As I got on the elevator to head out to a lunch appointment, I quickly glanced at the headline on that little screen that is so ubiquitous in the Loop that I wonder what elevators were like without them. (Oh, wait, I remember. We stared forward looking at nothing instead of staring at the screen.) I thought the "French shoot down Libyan war plane visiting no-fly zone" headline was strangely worded. That was until I re-read it and realized it said the Libyan plane "violated the no-fly zone." That little mix-up had me thinking about the absurdity of the idea of "visiting" a no-fly zone and expecting to get out safely.

There are definitely no-fly zones for the follower of Jesus Christ. Some should pretty much be no-fly for all believers. Others may be more individualized based on areas where you have fallen previously or where you know there is great temptation. I hope you are thinking of those no-fly zones in your life right now. Regardless of what the no-fly zones are for you, the reality is there is no "visiting the no-fly zone." Entering the no-fly zone is a violation. The enemy has an established presence in the no-fly zone and will shoot you down. Don't assume you will get out safely. Scripture warns of this in so many places. For example:
  • Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? (Proverbs 6:27)
  • Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 6:10)
  • And she said, "The Philistines are upon you, Samson!" And he awoke from his sleep and said, "I will go out as at other times and shake myself free." But he did not know that the LORD had left him. (Judges 16:20)
  • ... and be sure your sin will find you out. (Numbers 16:20)

What are the no-fly zones in your life? Are there other areas that should be a no-fly zone for you? Do your brothers in small group and your accountability partner know your no-fly zones? Update the list today. Communicate it. And stay away. There is no visiting the no-fly zone!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thoughts and Prayers

We have all heard it. Perhaps we have said it to a friend, family member or colleague faced with a loss or a trial. Perhaps we have posted it as a Facebook comment recently in response to a tragedy or trial. "You are in our thoughts and prayer." Here is the thing. There are at least two problems with that statement.
  1. There is no power in our thoughts. When have you ever thought something into being better or fixed or different at all?
  2. There is no immediacy in that statement. Truth told, you are doing nothing for them in that moment.

So let's fix those problems. First, drop the thoughts part. It isn't helpful. It isn't powerful. Quite frankly, it's lame. When I hear that from someone, I think sarcastically, "Gee, thanks."

Second, bring immediacy to the prayer part. What sounds more active -- "I will keep you in my prayers" or "Let's pray now?" Pray for that person right now, in the moment. If you are with them, put your arm around them and go to God in prayer. If you are on the phone with them, stop the conversation and pray for them.

One final yet critical point. We must pray in Jesus' name. Jesus Christ is the only mediator between man and God the Father (1 Timothy 2:5). Jesus gives us access to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). We have no power apart from Jesus and, for those of use who know Jesus, the indwelling Holy Spirit.

If you want to help and love that friend struggling through a trial, that family member in need of wisdom, that colleague dealing with a loss, pray. Pray for and with them now. Pray in the name of our Redeemer, Jesus. Don't worry about whether that friend, that family member, that colleague knows Jesus yet. Introduce them to your Savior in prayer. Leave "You are in our thoughts and prayers" to the greeting card crowd.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Lava Trail

My wife and I set out for a hike this morning on the Big Island of Hawaii. We read up on where we were going -- from Highway 19 down to the ocean along the Kohala coast to the Golden Pools of Ke-awa-Iki -- and how to get there (using our standard Hawaii guide book, this time Hawaii the Big Island Revealed). We took the description of the hike and a map with us. And still we managed to make the hike longer and harder than it should have been. Instead of following what the book laid out, I got us off track after rushing down to the black sand beach and starting to explore. Then we didn't stop and look back at the instructions or the map when we had a question about where to go next. (I won't be quitting my day job to become a guide anytime soon.) Never fear, we didn't really get lost. And no one was in any danger. We got to see everything we set out to see, including those golden pools. And all it cost us was a little more time and a little more exercise as we backtracked to find the lava trail we had passed as I was drawn in by the black sand beach.

But the timing of that little lesson on our hike this morning coupled with listening to Pastor James preach on the discipline of personal Bible study online tonight -- as we stay caught up on the current "Authentic: Developing the Disciplines of an Authentic Faith" sermon series while vacationing -- caught me. How often do I set out along the path of life and fail to go to God and His word for direction? Maybe I even started off the right way. I read God's word, prayed and got direction from God. But I forget -- wait, it's more like neglect -- to let His word continue to be that lamp unto my feet and that light on to my path (Psalm 119:105). While failing to look back at the readily available and understandable description and map of our hike didn't really cost us anything other than time, failing to trust and rely on God's word to guide me step by step can be far more painful and impacting. And it's sinful!

When we didn't refer to the map mid-hike this morning, I had us climbing up and down big, loose lava rocks for a while. It wasn't clear where we were going. And it was very hard hiking. The whole time there was the lava trail we had skipped right past a while before. And we found out later by watching a fisherman who knew the area well that there was another short lava trail right along the ocean that was much easier, shorter and safer than the way I improvised. The key was to go back to the guide book and to follow its instructions.

For us followers of Jesus to be faithful and fruitful in this earthly sojourn we need to move from leaning on our own understanding (e.g., "I have this figured out" or "This isn't too hard, God; I'll take this one") to trusting God and acknowledging Him and our dependence on Him in everything. When we do so, He makes straight paths for us (Proverbs 3:5-6). That means solid terrain to walk on instead of hiking on uneven terrain made up of loose rocks and not knowing where you are going.

This earthly walk isn't easy. It isn't always a straight sidewalk free of ice, snow or dirt. It might be a lava trail. (If you haven't hiked lava trails, they seem otherwordly.) But God's word lights the way for us. It shows us where to step next and lights the path He has us on. The key is we have to read the guide book. We have to refer to the Bible and follow its instruction again and again. And there will be times -- maybe today for some of us -- where we need to go back (e.g., confession, repentance, asking for direction) and get on the lava trail God has set out for us.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Get Out of the Way

"Get out of the way" is not something you normally associate with strong leaders. But stick with me here. There are certain things a leader has to give up as he or she moves up in leadership. I want to concentrate on one of those areas for flock leaders.

The typical path to the flock leader role is to promote a current small group leader or couple. That means there is a decision to be made about the future leadership of that small group. Let me make this easy for you. When promoted to flock leader, the soon-to-be former -- that should give away what is coming next -- small group leader(s) needs to give up leadership and ownership of that small group. I say this for a couple reasons.

First, as a flock leader, you are now a leader of leaders. Your responsibilities have changed. You are now expected to identify, shepherd, train, equip and release new leaders. That should start with what until yesterday was your small group. (By the way, it was never your small group. Rather the Lord and church leaders entrusted you with the leadership of that small group for a period.) You have been leading this group for a while. That means you should have a well-trained apprentice in place. Your first place of identifying and developing leaders is right there. Start at home. In what will hopefully soon be your former small group.

Second, if you cannot give up leadership of the small group, how will the other small group leaders in your flock have the freedom to really function as leaders? The move up to flock leader takes you perhaps for the first time into an Ephesians 4:12 role. Your job is now "to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ."

Remember what it was like to learn to drive or to teach your children to drive? As a parent, you don't teach your son to drive by having him sit in the back seat or maybe move up to the passenger seat while you continue to drive and perhaps talk to him about how to drive. Eventually you have to give up the driver's seat, move over to the passenger seat and let him have the keys. You do that at first in a safe environment, like the local community college parking lot on a weekend. (That worked well with my sons.) But eventually they get their license and you have to let them drive the car on their own -- without you in it. Otherwise you will never develop another driver.

Leadership is similar. Leaders develop leaders. When a higher level of leadership is entrusted to you, entrust your old position of leadership to the next leader and get out of the way.