How To Be a Miserable Christian

Blinded by the lightIt might seem like a strange “how to” guide, but if you want to be a miserable Christian there is a simple formula: Go Half-Way

Jesus and all of his students have said many times that the Christian life is joy and peace and rest. It is full of suffering and difficulty, but because of the clear vision of what we will become and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit, following Christ is joy even in the worst suffering.  Jesus did not want to die on a cross. He did not enjoy the experience itself.  But he did it out of pure joy.  Joy over what would happen through his suffering.

But…Jesus and his students were able to find joy and peace in suffering because they went all the way.  They made it the great object of their lives to keep the truth strongly before their minds and to become constantly more like God, their Father.  They made a leap. They gave up their own lives, every day, in favor of the life of Christ.  The experience of being a Christian is quite different if we go halfway.

Consider some of the analogies the Bible uses.  Becoming a Christian is called a movement from darkness to light.  If you grew up in the dark it would be painful to come into the light.  After a while you would get used to the light and it would be infinitely better than living in the dark.  But what if you only came a little bit into the light and then retreated from the pain?  It would be painful over and over again. You would never reach the joy of being in the light.

The Bible calls becoming a Christian the creation of a new person in you. It says the new person being created is at war with your old self.  The new person is true life and peace. But what if you only go partway and then stop?  Part of you will love the light and part the dark. You will be literally at war with yourself. What will your life be like then?

Or again the Bible calls becoming a Christian a new birth. Babies are safe in the womb for a time, as long as they don’t stay too long. They are safe once they are fully born.  But can you be halfway born?  A baby halfway born will suffer and die quickly if the situation is not corrected.

It is just like this with the Christian life.  We must go all the way or we will never know the joy it brings. God will allow suffering to come into our lives. These ‘bad things’ are allowed to help make us into new people like Christ on the inside.  But if we do not see that strongly enough and why it is very much worth the cost, we will think God has abandoned us or hates us.

Lay down your self and push through to the joy of Christ.

You Need A New Carburetor

isaac working on chevelle editedThis is a picture of me at the age of 17.  I am putting the last wing-nut on a beautiful engine I spent six months rebuilding in my parents garage.  The car is a 1969 Chevelle Malibu.  Just underneath the air filter, that big shiny thing on top, is the carburetor.  It is a Holly 4150.  I rebuilt it six times before I got it just right.

Cars don’t have carburetors anymore, but lets imagine you own a car that is in need of a new one.  I go for a ride with you one day and your car sounds terrible. It is hard to start, when the push the gas pedal nothing happens for a few seconds, every time you are stopped and idling it sounds like the car is going to die.  “Why is my car so awful?!”  you ask.  “Well, you need a new carburetor.” I say.

Then you immediately get mad at me. “Don’t tell me I need a new carb.  I have heard that a million times before.  I bought so many new carburetors and it NEVER WORKS!”

Really?  You bought a new carburetor and your car still sounds like this?  What is going on?

So, I ask you to show me this new carb you bought.  You promptly get out of the car and pop open the trunk.  There, beautifully displayed in their original packaging, are five brand new carburetors!

What is the lesson?   It does you no good to buy new parts for your car if you don’t install them. In this case, you don’t need more new parts.  You need to install the ones you already have.

This is exactly how many people treat their life and the Bible. Their life, their soul, is not functioning properly. Someone tells them they need the teaching of Jesus or Psalm 23.  So they go read it or listen to a sermon. Maybe they go to church every week for years and years expecting something to get better.  But they don’t do what they hear.  They hear Jesus say they should commit their whole life and energy to seeking after God and becoming a better person.  And their response is to try and pray a little bit or volunteer at church. They hear Jesus say God will not listen to them unless they forgive people they are angry at from the bottom of their heart.  But they have a really good reason they are angry at those people, and they can’t figure out why God never seems to answer their prayers.

It is not new information we need. We have the teaching of Jesus in our heads. We have the new parts.  We need to install them.  We need these teachings to become part of our actual life. We need simply to do what He says.

That will mean more than a little prayer here or there. It may mean a complete overhaul, six months off the road while you and God rebuild your inner life.  Wouldn’t it be worth it?

Take My To Do List Upon You

To do listAt the end of Matthew 11 Jesus has been working so hard it is almost unbelievable. Teaching, healing and listening to people all day. Staying up many times all night in prayer. Often he didn’t even stop to eat. After months of this and hundreds of astonishing miracles he finds that the vast majority simply don’t believe his message.

You might think that Jesus would be discouraged. Is he about to break under the stress and obvious failure of all his hard work? Then at verse 25 he stops,  looks up to heaven and begins to praise God in sheer joy. How is this possible?

Next he gives us one of the most profound teachings in all of the Bible. He does it by using imagery from everyday life: oxen and yokes. The huge problem for us is that we no longer have any experience of these things. They remove us from Jesus’ point, exactly the opposite of what they did for his first students.

The ox and yoke were both symbols of work. This is because most people’s everyday work involved oxen and yokes. A yoke is just the thing you put on the ox’s shoulders so it can pull a plow or a cart.

What image represents everyday work for us now? My answer is: a To Do List. This is the symbol of the burdens and tasks we have before us each day. Almost everyone uses one at least some of the time.

So, here is a modern reworking of what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples all those years ago. When almost anyone would have been broken from overwork and apparent failure, Jesus stood up and worshiped, spontaneously full of joy. Then he said,

My Father has given me everything! He truly knows me and I know him. In fact, it is obvious I am the only one who actually knows Him. But my one desire is to teach you what He is like so you can know Him too.

Come to me all of you who are worn out with too much to do. I will set you at rest. Take my To Do List upon you. We will do it together and you will learn to work like me. I am gentle and humble in my heart and you will find rest down to the depths of your soul. Because my work is easy and my list is so light. “

Can this really be true? I am stunned by his words just reading them again. But yes. It is true.

Jesus has a list of stuff to do?  Yes.

How can adding His list to my already way-too-busy life possibly result in me finding rest?!

Because He will be right there next to you doing it all with you! Imagine going through a to do list with Jesus, literally working on the same things together, having Him show you how it is done. What could you accomplish if His kind of power were available?

This is what he is saying. This is the secret of His life. He didn’t go around doing hard stuff he hated because he knew he was supposed to. No. He actually knew God. He joined into the work God was doing and because of their deep working relationship together he was given everything, All Power. The most difficult work imaginable was then joy and rest to him.

His great desire is to teach you and me this secret, to train us to work with Him and share His power, joy and rest.

How To Be Happy in Church

exciting or boring

Even though I am a pastor I love going to church. I loved it before I was a pastor and I love it just as much now whether I am leading or not.

Every time I am on vacation I have this problem.  I want to go to church and everyone thinks I am crazy.  You are on vacation.  Why would you want to go to church?!  Well… because I love it.

What makes church boring for some people and incredibly exciting for others?  

Some people have learned how to be happy in church.

Of Course, I’ve Heard All That Before

Almost every time I preach I get the same comment from someone.  “Yeah, that’s good, but I’ve heard it before.  It is nothing new. I already knew that.”  I am sorry to say it but this comment and the feelings behind it are a sign that a person is spiritually unhealthy and possibly dying. 

Jesus knew that the Word of God is like food for us.  A human being cannot live only on food, but must consume every Word that God speaks. (Matt 3:4 paraphrase)

Imagine a similar comment about food.  A person who has not eaten all day walks into a restaurant. The waiter brings a piping hot plate of something really good. The starving person looks at the food and says, “Eh, that’s okay, but I’ve already eaten that before.

What do we immediately know about this person?  If it is really true they haven’t eaten all day then something is wrong with their body. They are sick, possibly dying.

How do we fix this condition?

1) Assume God Will Speak

The most important thing is not whether the preacher is good.  What matters most is whether the Word of God is preached. If it is then we can be confident God is speaking. Even if the Bible is misunderstood or wrongly applied God will still speak through it to those who are listening.

It is nice to eat really tasty food, but what it tastes like is not the most important thing.

2) Takes Notes

God is speaking, so pay attention!  Can you hear Him?  You don’t have to take notes, but you need to do whatever helps you really listen, not just to the speaker but to God. Taking notes helps me.  Do whatever it takes to pay attention and hear what God is saying to you. 

3) Do Something Immediately!

This step is very important. Once you have heard something from God you must put it into practice immediately. Hearing the Word of God is like smelling good food.  Doing it is like eating. If you hear that anger is bad or God answers prayer, do not say ‘Oh yeah, I already knew that.’  Search your life and find something you can do to become more like this right away, even before you leave church.  When you do you will see God act and your spirit will come alive.

Doing these three steps consistently will revolutionize your life and experience of church.  Most of the people around you will be half asleep while your sit on the edge of your seat eagerly listening for God to speak through the most boring preacher in the world. 

by Isaac Whiting

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Lessons Learned From Christmas Visits with the Elderly

Elderly ManEvery year at Advent I visit some of the ‘shut-ins’ of our church.  That is, members who are now physically unable to attend.  I bring them poinsettias and do my best to listen.  Here are four lessons I learned from the experience this year.

1) Life Is Short

You hear this all the time, but it really sinks in when you hear it again and again from people closer to the end. Almost everyone I visited this year expressed it. Time seems to speed up as you get older. It continues to speed up in old age.

2)  Some People Are Given Time To Reflect At The End Of Life

Many people are given a space at the end of their life where they have nothing to do.  They are no longer working, cooking or cleaning.  Their spouse has passed away along with many friends and relatives. The structures that gave shape to their life are gone.

There are two reactions to this empty time. Some people do nothing, give great importance to things that are trivial and often become depressed or at least bored.  Others seek God and truth in the stillness. They pray, drink in information about God, listen, watch and serve in all kinds of creative ways. These people experience spiritual growth even as their bodies fade.

I met a man who entered into a real, vital relationship with God at the age of 84, after a lifetime attending church. When the busyness of life faded he found God waiting for him in the quiet.

3) No One Cares About Their Job Or Their Money At The End

I can imagine there are cases where people do care about these things at the end, but I didn’t find any.  The elderly still have physical needs of course and that can be expensive, but no one talked to me about money or plans to get more. No one talked about the stock market or investments.  Even more striking, no one told me about their former job. The thing they spent most of their time doing in their life was not even mentioned.

What do they care about?  Four things: God, Family, Trivial Details or Nothing. Some talk about nothing but God and Family, others only talk about the minute details of their schedule.

4) Every Life Is Both Worse And Better Than It Appears

Many of the people I visited opened up to me. Some feel the need to share things with a pastor they have never told anyone before.

Every life is worse than it appears. Beneath the surface are deep wounds, anger, disappointment, depression and struggle. And yet, if you listen long enough you can get beyond this. At the deepest level and everywhere you find a God who is constantly watching, leading, calling and restoring. Take a ‘normal’, decent life.  Look deep enough and you will find vast evil.  But do not stop there.  Look even deeper and you will find God Himself doing amazing things that mostly go unnoticed.

Staring at Your Hands – What We Can Learn from Babies this Christmas

Hand zeigt StopRecently while driving on a family trip I was telling my wife about my new habit of staring at my hands. She gave me a strange look and seemed a little embarrassed. But this new habit has had amazing benefits in my life.  Here is how it started and why I do it.

First, I have been reading the book ‘Kept For the Master’s Use’ by Frances Ridley Havergal.  Frances is the woman who wrote the hymn Take My Life and Let It Be. The book was written near the end of her life in 1895.  It goes through the different parts of a human being and imagines how these can be given entirely to God. It includes parts such as our will and mind, as well as our hands and feet. The book is not easy to read unless you are used to old churchy language, but it is well worth reading if you are up to the challenge.

In her chapter on hands Frances notes how amazing and miraculous our hands actually are. And it’s true!  We take so much for granted.  What would my life be like if I were often amazed, full of thanksgiving and joy over my hands? I am full of excitement over a new phone I get, but it is nothing compared to the fantastic miracle of the hands that hold it. So, I spent some time staring at and thinking deeply about my hands, trying to wake myself up to how great they are.

Second, I have been thinking deeply and reading about habits. I want to grow in Christ.  But how do I do it?  When I am full of thoughts of God and truth I have no problem doing many of the things Christ teaches.  When I forget and am distracted by other things then I fail and my life spirals down away from God. Habits must be a huge part of the solution to this problem. If what I automatically do leads my heart and mind toward God then it will be so much easier to imitate Him.

So, I thought, what habit could I build around my hands? They are always with meI decided that every time I washed my hands I would hold them up in front of me, flex them and stare at them like a little baby.   I spend about five or ten seconds doing this, remind myself how much I have been given and how well I am loved by God.  I do this EVERY time I wash my hands so that it has become automatic.

The results have been excellent. God is automatically in my mind more often and I am in a better mood every time I wash my hands. 

The one drawback is that my wife thinks I am weird. But as long as I don’t talk about it too much or tell the whole internet what I am doing I think she will be okay.

How to Worship With Little Kids

andrew and joy 2We have four boys, ages 11, 7, 2 and 3 months. Our two year old is loud. In church he dances all over the place and yells things during prayer. Even when he whispers you can hear it four pews away.  Yes, our church has pews. At our church the kids stay in the main service during worship.

So how do you worship when you have little kids?  Here are a few things God has shown me over the years.

Don’t Model Embarrassment

Your kids are going to become like you.  They learn from your actions more than your words. What do you want to model for them in worship?  Are you going to sit in the back because they are so loud and you are embarrassed?  What does that teach them? We need to hide our messiness from the church and from God?  Sit in the front.

What are the little things you do during church teaching your children?

Talk to Them in Worship

You have your mind focused on God.  You are thinking about all the amazing things He has done for you.  You can feel the Holy Spirit.  Does that mean you can’t talk to your kids?  No, it means you have to talk to them from the heart.

Lets suppose you are in worship and your kids start fighting.  Separate them.  Then use your prepared heart to try and draw them in.  I will take one of my fighting children, put an arm around them and talk to them about God.  I usually start by asking them if they understand the song, or what we are doing.  Or I ask about a symbol in the church. What does that dove mean son?  As soon as I find something they are interested in I answer their questions from a place of worship.

Discipline is Part of Worship

Kids need discipline.  Adults need discipline from God. We need it to make us better people. We need it to be happy. Why would this not be part of worship?

Christians claim to be a family of God.  We claim to be a community of deep love.  And in this family of love am I afraid to discipline my child the way I would at home?  Why?  I am not saying you should spank your toddler in front of the whole church. But I have heard the excuse many times that parents can’t make their kids listen in church because they can’t discipline them there.  I do it all the time.

Time out. Take away a toy. For older kids taking away a privilege later. All these are effective means that can be done right in your seat.  What if they still don’t listen.  Then you pull them out of the middle of the service and deal with it thoroughly. Last month I made our two year old take a nap in another room for half the service. He screamed bloody murder. Some people heard it. I missed part of the service, but the last few weeks have been much better.

Use Their Presence to Make Your Worship More Authentic

Our kids aren’t going to be perfect.  We often put up such a perfect image in worship.  We are clean and nicely dressed and happy and singing with our hands lifted up.  Our kids bring a dose of real life into worship. Use it.  Your kids are part of you and you of them. The things they do right or wrong are also in you. Take everything you are, kids included, and place it before God.

What Does Mike Frost Have to Say?

mike-frostMike Frost is a writer, speaker and generally cool guy you would want to have a beer with.  He talks about something called Missional Church.  If you are part of certain church circles you feel like everyone is talking about Missional Church and you either hate it or love it.  If you aren’t then you have no idea what it is. Mike was in Vancouver last week and so a bunch of pastors and church leaders got together to listen to him. Here’s what he said.

He gave a very clear definition of Mission Church.  he drew a diagram like this.

Image

Pretty cool eh?  W = Worship  D = Discipleship  C = Community and M = Mission  The diagram represents the functions of a church.  If you do these things then you are a church.

Missional Church, according to Mike Frost, is a church in which all these functions are shaped and catalyzed by Mission.

This is different than most churches, where Mike says all these functions are shaped and catalyzed by Worship. What does he mean?

Imagine you go to a typical church every Sunday.  You feel part of the community. What is it that makes you part of the community?  It’s the fact that you show up for worship on Sunday morning.  If you stopped showing up people would think something was wrong and (hopefully) call you.  If you continued not showing up soon you would not be part of the community.  Simple. So community is shaped and catalyzed by Worship.

This is the same for discipleship and mission.  Discipleship is the process of bringing people closer to God and deepening their faith.  A typical church does this through the Sunday morning worship service.  People come, pray, sing and listen to a sermon.  The idea is that this will help them grow in faith.   Many churches have small groups and bible studies, but these are often secondary.  We put far more energy into Sunday morning.  If you had to quit bible study or Sunday morning which would you quit first?

And how do we do Mission?  We send money to foreign missionaries, run church programs and sometimes talk to our friends. We collect the money to send during our worship services.  The programs that we run and even talking to friends about Jesus are often intended to bring people into church on Sunday.  Imagine your Vacation Bible School or youth outreach program went exactly the way you would want it to. What would that look like?  People would become Christians and then they would come to church on Sunday morning.  If a friend is interested in Jesus we invite them to church. So mission is shaped by worship.

Mike suggests that instead of Worship, Mission should be the shaping and catalyzing force in the church.  Mission should be the goal that everything else is structured around.

Can you see what a dramatic change Mike and all these Missional Church guys are really pushing for.  A church where the members no longer see attending Sunday morning worship as the center? To make this kind of change would feel like your church, as an organization, was dying and starting all over.  How many churches will realistically be able to do this?  Is it even right?

by Isaac Whiting

If you have heard anything about the Missional Church, or even if you just go to church please comment and tell me what you think.

Church Experiments: The Awakening Part 2

alarm clock…this is part two in a series.  Click here for part 1.

Staff Awakening

December, 2008. There were seven adults and six children involved.  All seven committed to the practices in Part 1 and the kids participated in limited ways.  Each person also gave up something they enjoy for the entire 29 days.

During this time we became like a family. Particularly important were the daily phone calls and the shared meals. Conflicts arose after a couple of weeks between people who had never been in conflict before. This was good. In every case it led to deeper relationship. Almost every member of the group commented on personal problems they usually had that were not present during the Awakening. The experience was a mountaintop and spiritual high point.

At the end most of the group was excited to continue in some way. We decided to have meals together once a month and to call each other occasionally. We all agreed to this, but it never happened. Our relationships went back from being like family to friends and co-workers. Once the required discipline and commitment was taken away, all the shared practices and the community that was formed by them evaporated.

Youth Awakening

February, 2009. Seven youth and five leaders committed to do the awakening.

As with the staff the experience created a sense of unity, purpose and seeking after God together. It took longer for this to happen, but by the third week and especially after the retreat everyone in the group felt a real sense of belonging.

This Awakening was much more work for the leaders than the first had been. By the end almost everyone was excited and positive about the experience, including parents. However, before it began there was resistance both from parents and youth over the idea. This was overcome through prayer, listening and explanation.

During the awakening there were amazing changes in many of the youth. Some who had discipline problems and trouble paying attention became helpful and engaged. Some who were shy became excited and involved. Some who prayed only when I made them began to pray on their own. Some read more Bible than required. The three who were baptized were very excited.

Overall, it was a difficult but hugely rewarding experience. I felt as if I had entered the battle instead of sitting on the sidelines. The fight was hard, but things happened. The changes that occurred in this one month were greater than the changes I had seen in three years prior.

Final Thoughts

Our hope was that the Awakening would create a core membership of the youth group that would be united, seek God together and that this core would then draw in others. Over time it succeeded. This group became the core around which a whole new youth group was formed. The new group is larger and much more focused on Christ. Amazingly, Jesus’ strategy of starting with a deep, committed core of people actually works.

However, the Awakening did not work for everyone. Some people who were very committed during the experience could not maintain their commitment to Christ without that community and slowly drifted away.