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.

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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.

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.

Book Review: Company of the Committed – Elton Trueblood

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This is an amazing book published in 1961 that predicted what has happen to the church. Trueblood calls for things that many Christians and churches today are just waking up to.

Summary:  The Church is a company of soldiers, metaphorically speaking, who live with Jesus and go forward on his mission in the world. The Church is loving communities established not for themselves, but in order to help and bless everyone else.

Good Stuff:  

Preaching may not in some instances be helpful to those who listen, but it is almost always helpful to those who speak.

“I just let my life speak.”  What one of among us is so good that he can let his life speak and leave it at that?

Sometimes the best witness if that of the church as a whole.

The vital idea is that the pastor is the helper of the ordinary lay members in the performance of their daily ministry in the midst of secular life.

The concept of a churchgoer is inept. Christians may indeed come in but they do so only that they may go out.

In many churches the entire church operation points to a climax on Sunday morning.

The church building [should be like] a drill hall for the Christian task force

Great discipline in regard to style as well as content must be learned if we really seek to reach contemporary minds.

We ask what Presbyterians believe but we seldom ask how Presbyterians love.

In all periods of great vitality the church has been deeply concerned for the welfare of those who are not adherents at all.

If God, as we believe, is truly revealed in the life of Christ the most important thing to Him is the creation of centers of loving fellowship which in turn infect the world.

Complaints:  ??  None really. I love this book.

Also, this book is available for FREE online!

What’s Your Story? Here’s Mine.

Corridor SkyEaster is a time to remind each other of what Jesus did.  What he did then and what he’s done now.  Here’s my story.  What’s yours?

I didn’t grow up in the church. I was given a lot of freedom when I was young and as a fairly shy person didn’t know what to do with it. I experienced serious depression as a teenager. I was always good in school and used success to build up my ego. I decided I was “the smartest person who has ever lived”. In college I devoted myself to philosophy. I thought if anyone could figure out the meaning of life just by thinking about it surely that person was me. The more I studied the less I knew and the more depressed I became.

        One sunny day while walking under my dark cloud I realized that there was one thing I had never truly doubted. I had pretended to doubt it, but deep down I had always known that everything we see around us came from somewhere. I had always known there was some kind of God. Not a weird spirit-being out there, but something that created all this. That day began my search into what people thought about God and why. I studied Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Hinduism. I took classes, read books and talked with people. I also began reading a bible someone gave me in grade one.

        I used to be a very ‘logical’ person. I always had to ‘prove’ everything. By the summer of 2000 my bible reading had brought me to the gospel of Luke, which my ‘logical’ mind could not comprehend. Jesus simply commands and tells. He rarely explains and never proves anything. As I read, however, I experienced something entirely new. Something entered my mind that was not me. In fact, it was very different from me. It was a voice, it was very loud and this is what it said, “THESE ARE THE WORDS OF MY SON. LISTEN TO HIM!” You may think that I am lying or crazy, but I am neither. This happened and I can remember it as well as I remember eating breakfast this morning. I stood up and it stopped. It returned every time I sat down to read for about five minutes.

        That experience became my proof. I became more certain that Jesus Christ is the Son of God than I have ever been of anything else. I was and am willing to bet my life on it.

Book Review: Crazy Love by Francis Chan

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I am disappointed by this book and confused by its popularity.

The book boils down to “love God with your whole life”. But it is delivered in a boring, frustrating way.

Good Stuff:  This book is clearly popular and lots of people online say it changed their life or their thinking.

Complaints: I agree with all of Chan’s main points. It is the message of the New Testament and the most important message in the world. But hundreds of others have written on the same subject and done a better job.

Much of the book is Chan quoting the bible and saying, “I know you’ve heard this before, but have you really THOUGHT about it. Stop reading right now and think about it.” Come on.

A book on the primary message of the bible should do the work of bringing this message to life for me in a new way. This book did NOT do that.

Bottom Line:

I have heard a lot about Francis Chan and was excited to read his most popular book. I can’t think of when I have been so disappointed. I cannot understand why so many people have reviewed it so positively. Are we all just writing nice Christian reviews?

Book Review – Everyday Church

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 by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis

Summary:  The church is at the edge of society. We need to accept it and redefine church as small groups of people living life deeply together with a purpose to spread the gospel.  Our main thing needs to be small groups sharing life and mission together instead of Sunday morning.

Good Stuff:

“We have a loose connection with Christians on Sunday but then largely we go back to living our everyday lives on our own.”

True Biblical rebuke and correction can only happen when people share everyday life together.

“The church leader is someone who is sacrificed from the front life to equip everyone else for the front line. “

Law says “You Should…”  Gospel says “You need not…”

“We need truths we already know pushed down into the everyday realities of our lives.”

“Many Christians function as if the church is a meeting…an entity with structures such as constitutions, ministers, elders, committees and so on.”

Ministry is something done by ordinary Christians with the support of pastors.

An interesting section on how to speak gospel ideas into everyday conversations.

“A good church is a church in which the believers share their lives together as an alternative and authentic society.”

“This is what we are all about: just hanging out, doing nothing spectacular, but with gospel intentionality.”

“If the bulk of a church’s time and energy goes into the Sunday meeting, then everyday church will not happen.”

Complaints:

Some of their suggestions for how to do everyday mission sound like it is only for super social outgoing people. They say you should eat meals with other people as much as possible, walk places and be a regular at certain stores so you can strike up conversations with strangers and you should be exciting not boring.  “You will never attract people to Jesus if you are not excited about Jesus.”  “Our job is to have fun to the glory of God!”

In their conclusion they say groups of believers living together on mission must be more important than Sunday mornings for it to work.  But then they suggest you could keep the current model of church and just add some small gospel community groups to it. Which one is it?

Conclusion:

Overall a good book. They ran out of steam a couple of places, but most of it is useful.  It goes over the standard missional church story but doesn’t spend too long on it. There is lots of practical advice and examples.  If you have no idea what missional church is or are confused by it like most people, this is a good book to read.

The Baptist is Coming to Wreck Your Party

ImageChristmas was great. We watched the kids dress up like sheep and tell us about the baby Jesus. We opened presents and drove a long way. Things aren’t perfect but they are pretty good. Time for a New Years party!

So what happens next?

What comes after the baby Jesus?  The answer is John the Baptist.  He lives in the wilderness. He eats bugs. He wears clothes that rub his skin raw and he breaks into beehives with his bare hands. His hair is all matted and he has a crazed look in his eyes. Run!  The Baptist is coming to wreck your party.

Here is the deal.  John the Baptist lived a life that should scare us sober.  He was Jesus’ cousin. An angel told his parents that he should follow certain rules for his entire life, the rules of a Nazirite.  You can find these in Numbers chapter 6.  He couldn’t eat or drink anything made from grapes.  But people drank wine at every meal and ate a lot of raisins.  No parties for John. He could never be near a dead body.  If his mom died he couldn’t go to the funeral.  And he could NEVER cut his hair. Just like Samson.  Samson had long braids.  In John’s case think dreadlocks.

At about 13 he left home and lived in the wilderness.  Hot, desert-ish scrubland. He was alone there for 15 years!  What did he do?  He prayed, listened and looked for God.

Around the age of 30 he began yelling a message from God.  Word spread and thousands of people went to hear him.  He yelled at them and then he baptized them. Jesus came. John screamed something about this guy being a lamb and saving the world.  About four people paid attention.

After that he called the king a godless sinner.  They arrested him and chopped off his head.

What kind of life is this?  No friends. No family.  Virtually no childhood. No job, no parties, basically no food, no stuff, no nothing. An entire life devoted to just one word:  REPENT.

And what does that mean?  It means recognize that something is wrong. The world is not just okay. Your life is not just okay.

We are so used to the things being wrong that we put on a smile and ignore them.  The people John spoke to lived in a world filled with evil, corruption and oppression.  But that is how its always been right?  Can’t do anything about that. Just do your best and enjoy what you can.  John said NO.

It’s the same for us. We are blind to the things we do wrong. We shake our heads at the news every day, but do nothing. And just think of all those family issues you ignored last week. John says NO.

The baby Jesus came to bring peace.  But no one can receive Jesus unless they accept what the Baptist has to say.

 

 

Stop Putting Dresses on the Heavenly Host

no angels

Most modern translations of the New Testament are excellent.  There are however a few places where you are completely surprised if you read the text in the original Greek.  Several of those places have to do with the Christmas story.  The verses that tell this story are so well known that many translations have chosen to keep old words that most people don’t understand, even if they think they doThe worst offender of all is the first half of Luke chapter two, the story of the Shepherds and the Angels.

The New International Version reads in verses 13 -14: Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

A “heavenly host” appears and they say something that looks like a poem or song lyrics. Notice it doesn’t actually say they sing.

Christmas cards, songs, movies and virtually everyone imagines in this verse a magnificent heavenly choir, arrayed in their glowing robes and singing four part harmony while floating in the sky. That is ABSOLUTELY NOT what Luke is describing.   

The Shepherds are Terrified

The first clue is the reaction of the shepherds to the angel that appears in verse nine. The NIV says ‘they were terrified’.  The old King James calls them ‘sore afraid’.  The Greek literally says, ‘they were terrified with a great terror’.  They aren’t just surprised.  They are scared out of their minds. This is always the reaction when people in the Bible see an angel. Maybe they aren’t so friendly looking?

What exactly is a ‘host’?

Many people would say a host is a large number of people, or angels. But in that case Luke would be repeating himself when he says there was a ‘great company’ of the heavenly host. In fact, the word host has a very specific meaning.

The Greek word translated host is the word stratia. It is where we get our word strategy. It has only one basic meaning in New Testament Greek.  It means AN ARMY. Not a choir. It means soldiers in full battle gear formed up for war.

Battle Cry

If this is an army then why are they singing a song?  The answer is they aren’t. Luke doesn’t say they are singing.  They recite a kind of poem together. Did armies do that?  Yes and they still do. ‘One, Two, Three, Four, I love the Marine Corps!  The angel army is chanting a battle cry.  The battle cry is simple. We can paraphrase it like this, “Glory to God in Heaven.  Peace here on the earth to those who are His friends.  The war is about to end. The Enemy is going to die.”

Why is the war over?  Because a baby is born.  The army marches behind its most powerful weapon, its First Soldier, the death blow to Satan and the enemies of God, the baby of Bethlehem.

Isaac Whiting

Leave me a comment and tell me what you think.