Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Faith or Failure

The bottom line. An “A” means passing, while “F” is failing. First place is winning, last place is losing. The number of people means more effective. In our culture today, we have unlimited numbers of ways to measure success and failure. The longevity of something prides itself as success, while the brevity of something immediately points to failure. What is concerning is when these same thought processes, these same ways of measuring success and failure, are applied to our faith. But so often, they are.

I am not the pastor of a megachurch. I am the pastor of a medium-sized congregation in rural North Carolina. I serve a group of people who have the heart of God, the faith of mountain-movers, the love that is rarely seen in a world self-absorbed, and the work ethic of world-changers. It is indeed a blessing. I serve as their enigmatic leader, who is constantly one misstep away from a nervous breakdown. Yet, they love me anyways.

Today, I kept thinking about different things in ministry over the years and measuring them according to the standards that I mentioned to open this blog. This program gets an “A” because it has lasted for five years. The attempt at that ministry was a failure because it didn’t do what I thought it would do and was shut down. Even more dangerous than that assessment came when I started to do the same with the ministry I have had over nearly two decades and started assessing myself in the same manner.

On my way home tonight, the idea of failure overly fresh in the mind, the Lord reminded me of the cross. On crucifixion day, the cross seemed to be the sign of failure. Jesus, the leader of the group of disciples now fearing an equal fate, was dead. Jesus, the opposition as the Pharisees saw Him, had been overcome. Jesus, the very One Satan wanted to see gone, was gone. To have looked at the cross at that moment would have been to see something the world regarded as a failure. Here, the Rebel who had come had taken His rebellion too far and paid the ultimate price. The cross – the place that appeared to be a great “failure” but was anything but. You see, you can’t have an empty tomb without a cross before it.

You are wondering where this is going. When it comes to faith, we cannot measure things by results, for in the workings of faith, there are results that are unseen. We cannot simply assess things by numbers, by giving it a grade on appearance, by judging it through the worldly lens of winning and losing. There is no failure in faith when faithfulness has been taken to its extreme. When we are working out things in faith, rather than asking if we failed, we are presented with this question from the Lord – “Were you faithful?” Faithfulness to God is never a failure, even if the results appear to be a failure in our eyes. Our goal is to be faithful to God and allow Him to work about the results.

Philippians 2:8 tells us “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death – even to death on a cross.” He was faithful. What could have been seen as failure to the world, was seen as faithfulness in the eyes of God.

This is a reminder to you, and myself, to avoid seeing yourself, or your efforts for the Lord, as a failure. God can see what we cannot see and God can do what we cannot do. Satan is the one who likes to label us as failures and longs for us to give up because we have appeared to fail. God tells us just to remain faithful to Him and watch Him work through that faith. Whether it is a ministry you are involved in, or a work you are writing, or an idea God has planted in your mind, remain faithful and it will never be a failure. What may seem like a cross today might just lead to an empty tomb a few days from now.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

You are Enough

This week, I learned a valuable lesson, taught to me by a five-year-old little girl who possesses a heart of pure gold. Yes, I am biased. She's one of my little princesses. But this week, that little angel made her daddy stop and realize what is really important in life.

I am a pastor. I am an author. I am pursuing my Master's Degree to make me a better pastor and working hard to become a better writer. I am a husband and father, a son and a brother. In the course of a week, I switch gears constantly, trying to achieve the next thing set before me and set an example for the ones who look to me. As Sunday night wound down, fighting the mental exhaustion of another week, I sat at the computer trying to write a paper for class. That's when it happened.

My daughter asked me, "Daddy, what happens if you don't finish your paper tonight?". I said that I would get a failing grade, but she didn't understand what that meant. So, I thought for a minute about how to explain it to where she would understand the importance of me finishing my assignment. I told her, "You know how you get a sticker when you do good on your schoolwork? Well, if Daddy doesn't get this turned in on time, he won't get his sticker."

She was behind me, so I could not see her face when I said those words. I focused on the papers in front of me, ensuring I would fulfill the requirements of the professor and in turn, keep a GPA that was without blemish. For some reason, in each stage of life, I find myself trying to prove to the world and to other people that I am indeed enough. A minute or two later, a little hand appeared and a heart-shaped sticker had been applied to my shirt from a 5-year-old, her way of telling me that I am enough for her.

I nearly cried. The rigors of life are tough for all of us. We strive to be something in this world and do all that we can to make a difference in the life of someone else. We long to hear the words, "You are enough" but are often faced with little acknowledgement of what has been done and an immediate response of the next thing we must accomplish. Before long, we are overwhelmed as the requests just keep coming, the demands just keep mounting. Then, in a moment of utter exhaustion and weakness, someone says, "You are enough for me".

As Christians, the Bible is such a sticker sent to us by the Lord, the very One who created us. It is the reminder that we were important enough to God that He would send His Son to die for us. You want a verse that tells you such a fact? Here goes - "But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8 HCSB) As mentioned in the verse - we were broken, separated and decimated by sin, yet God said we were enough to send His Son to the cross to die for us. His love is proven by the cross. As we look at the cross, it screams out to us that God loves us so much. The world may tell you that you are not enough, but the cross says that you are.

I keep that sticker in my wallet now to remind me that, though I may not be what everyone else in the world wants me to be, to my little girl I am enough. I keep my Bible with me as a constant reminder that the Lord says I am enough. I keep a tiny wooden cross in my pocket to remind me that the love of God is more than enough for me.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Overlooking the Valley

Every time I go there, I get a lump in my throat. The place reminds me of how I failed. The town's welcome sign is a reminder that it was here that everything fell apart. Today, I had to go back, but this time was different.
Often, we are told that pastors need to be careful of being too transparent. Perhaps that is true. Maybe we should keep up a cloak of perfection to keep the respect of the people we are guiding. Not me, though. I'm not built that way. If anything, I feel that the more transparent I am, the more real I am. I long for people to listen to me, not because I am the "perfect" Christian, but because I follow a perfect Savior.
Today, I went back. Normally, I'd pull my hat low and hope to avoid anyone who may remember me, but let's be honest, after nearly fifteen years, few would even know it was me anymore. Is it to avoid a chance run-in or is it more about the shame? Definitely the shame. I have carried it for a decade and a half. Today, I never pulled the hat down low. I refused to hurry away to avoid some awkward interaction that may/may not happen. Instead, I went to the mountain, overlooking the valley where I fled when my world collapsed.
I thought about Peter. As he denied Christ three times, he had failed. He was forgiven and restored by Jesus, but I always wonder how often he thought about the courtyard where he denied knowing Jesus. When he walked by the courtyard, did he feel the pain that came the night he refused to acknowledge his allegiance to Jesus? Did the shame hit again that the One who was being beaten and would be nailed to a cross was dying for him? Could he hear his own words from that night repeatedly in his ears, ever the reminder of the day he failed?
I drove to the top of the mountain today, but today was different. As I drove, I kept thinking about how far my life has come since that time. Not because I am any good, understand that. My life has progressed because of the mercies of God and the power of the Lord. Period. He could have left me in the valley but today, He led me to the mountaintop. From the time of my life's collapse to today, one verse continued to minister to me and push me forward - "Though a righteous man falls seven times, he will get up, but the wicked will stumble into ruin." Proverbs 24:16. I had fallen. God had picked me up. He dusted me off, redeemed me, and restored me just as He restored Peter after the courtyard.
Did I know that I had been forgiven? Yes. Scripture is clear on the forgiveness of sin. However, I continued all these years to carry the shame. Not today. The cross held more than just the sin on the day that Jesus died for us. The shame was nailed there as well, the shame that I do not have to carry anymore. In Christ, I am a new creation. Today, His mercies are new. And I am no longer in that valley - I am on the mountaintop.
Before I left today, it began to snow lightly. Ever the excited snow-lover, I stood and watched as the flakes descended from heaven to the earth below. And then He taught me more about His grace. Psalm 51:7 says, "Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." Isaiah 1:18 says, "Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow." The Lord knows I can be a slow learner, but those snowflakes assured that I would get the message today, a message He sent on a mountaintop that overlooked a once overwhelming valley.
Why does this matter to you? Because the same God who restored my life to something greater than it ever would have been, the same Lord who is the defining force of my life, is the same one who will do the same for you. You may be in the valley, but if the Lord is allowed to take over, He can take you to the mountaintop as well and when you arrive at the pinnacle, you will know that it was the work of His hands that lifted you to such a height. And at that place, you will truthfully sing, "It is well with my soul."

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Shrugging or Sobbing?

Paul's desire to reach the lost has never been in question. He planted churches, completed missionary journeys that baffle our minds today, leaving a footprint of faith that exists until today. He wrote to the Philippians a letter that gives great verses that empower believers. Yet, when he reaches what we know as the end of the third chapter, he writes a phrase that has spoken to my heart so deeply that I have written a book based on the verse. He wrote, "For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ." (Philippians 3:18 NKJV)
Tears flowed as the words were written. Tears came as the realization set in even more, without the cross those souls were doomed. For Paul, it was personal. For Paul, it wasn't simply that they were of a different mindset. To him, the gut-wrenching truth said that those people were a breath away from a Christ-less eternity and it brought tears to his eyes.
Jesus had a similar experience. As the time came for Christ to go to the cross, to die for the sins of humanity, He came to Jerusalem and wept for a city and a people that were misguided and lost. Luke records it this way: "Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying "If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes." (Luke 19:41-42 NKJV)
David Jeremiah said that Jesus wept for three reasons: "1) the great privileges that were being abused; 2) the great possibilities that had been rejected; and 3)the great punishment He knew was coming on the city and its people." The state of their soul distressed the Savior in such a way that it brought tears to His eyes. What they had needed stood in front of them yet they could not see. 
So, looking at these Scriptures, we ask ourselves, "What is our reaction to the lost nature of the souls around us?" Are we truly moved by the reality of that which awaits those who reject Christ or is it not that big of a deal to us? Those who shrug their shoulders in response to someone's dive towards hell never understood how Jesus viewed those souls. One who can shrug their shoulders fail to understand that the Great Commission is more than a good suggestion. Are we moved to tears as we watch Satan shackle the lives of others and if so, what will we do about it? The ones whose souls are moved in such a way by the lost nature of another are the ones who will not stop in their quest to take the gospel to those who need it the most. Those who are untouched by the lost nature of others are content in religious activities without committal to the cross. Now that leads to the ultimate question - "Am I moved to tears or can I shrug it off as not my problem?" The answer to that tells the depth of our understanding of Jesus.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Transformation

Most of our lives, we simply try to fit in. Look at our clothes. We try to keep up with a style that is ever-changing. Look at our pursuit of possession. We sell our souls to have what everyone else has only to find that it requires twice the effort to obtain it and maintain it. We are so fearful of being left behind, of being behind the times, that we forget all the while that we are not called to look like the world nor pursue the quests of the world.

Growing up, my mother would buy me shirts with various Christian symbols and verses on them. Rarely did I even pay attention to what was on the shirt. I wore it because it was clean. However, one day, I took note of the shirt I had chosen to wear. The slogan of the shirt was "Dare To Be Different" and underneath that logo was printed Romans 12:2. I had never read the verse before, but curiosity led me to open a Bible and see what I was promoting that day.

The words were a call from God for me to change. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2 ESV) I was wearing something that said I was called out, something that said I was different, while I was seeking to fit in with the world around me.

Conforming. We see it all around us today. We see it in the choices we make, the words that we speak, the schedules we set, and the company we keep. Living like Christ often means little more to us than going to church and not doing the "BIG" sins, rather than looking like the biblical call to die to ourselves and live for Him. Have we experienced a transformation? Are there signs of change within our lives?

Today, I helped to deliver the message at the funeral of a young lady who passed away at the age of twenty-four. So young. So full of life. Yet, she is no longer on this earth. Her life had been touched by the Lord and now, I sit here tonight and look for the evidence that my life has experienced a transformation by the hands of the Lord. Is my faith something of words, like a T-shirt I put on and take off, or is my faith the condition of my heart, the very fabric of who I am?

Be not conformed to this world. Those words force us to examine our lives and ask are we living more for the world or for Christ. Be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Have our minds experienced a transformation away from the mind of the flesh to a place where we approach life with the mind of Christ?

By God's grace, we have this moment. We have a chance to change. The Lord listens for the prayer that comes from the depths of the heart that cries out, "Change my heart, Lord." For when that prayer is prayed, the transformation begins!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Using Your Platform

As writers and leaders, we are constantly challenged to increase our platform, to reach others with the message that we have been given. As an author, I have spent the previous month truly focusing on expanding my platform, hoping the Lord would open new doors, assist in making new connections, giving an opening for the message to reach more people. He did. Now, what do we do with such a platform?

Each day, we come into contact with a variety of people. Co-workers, fellow church members, friends, family members, social media friends/followers, acquaintances at our favorite restaurants and those we have come to know at the local gas station, and even strangers on the street are all placed in our lives and in our paths by the directive hand of God. There are no coincidences and as these interactions take place on a daily and weekly basis, what message are they receiving from our lives?

Having a platform, which we all have been blessed with whether it be fifteen people or thousands of individuals, means that we are responsible/accountable for the message that comes from our lives. What do they see in us? What do they hear from us? The message which our lives tell will live on long after these lives have ended on earth.

Joshua was in a place of leadership. He had a platform. As a leader, he ensured that those following, those who saw him as a leader, knew the direction of his life and the message was clear. In Joshua 24, we read, "Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:14-15 NKJV)

His message was clear. He was going to serve the Lord, and his house would do the same. The people had a choice, but regardless of the choice they made, Joshua would proclaim that there was only one God and that was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He used his platform to proclaim truth and in that truth, to point the people to where they needed to be. He challenged those who listened, he gave them a message that said they could not serve the gods in Egypt, nor the gods of the Amorites, and simultaneously serve the Lord. So, they had to choose. No matter what choice they made, he was not going to change his allegiance, which belonged to the Lord.

Our message must be clear. Our message must point people in an eternal direction. Our message must also be backed by a life of consistency. When we use our platform for such a purpose, when we use our influence for the Lord, then we see the Lord increase that influence, opening new doors and new opportunities for His message to be shared. As we have been given these opportunities, let's be sure to use them for His glory, that others may come to know Him and walk more closely with Him.

Monday, January 1, 2018

A New Beginning

Morning broke on a New Year, and with the rising of the sun were the hatchlings of the mind as to what could be in this year. For most, we are planning what vacations we will take, putting financial goals for the year on paper, while setting reminders of important dates. Yes, a new beginning is here and as we gaze upon the possibilities, we hope to squeeze every ounce of life we can out of this year.

As we prepare for what will be, we must also ask ourselves the question, "What are my faith goals this year?" To fail to set goals for our faith is to set aside God as we pursue all that which the world has dangled in front of our eyes. Yes, it is important to get physically healthier this year, but becoming spiritually healthier is just as important. It is important to invest our finances for the future but an investment in the kingdom of God is of far greater value. The time spent relaxing, away from the cares of life is necessary, as is time alone with God that is consistent and valued.

Proverbs 29:18 reads, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." (Proverbs 29:18 KJV) Without a vision for our faith for this year, we will suffer and those around us will suffer. You may wonder how others will suffer. Think about this for a moment. We are not our best when we neglect to connect with the Lord. What results is that we are not the reflection of God that we need to be to a world that is lost and we are less likely to lead our families and impact our friends as we should. When our relationship with God is not priority, all of our other relationships suffer in some manner.

So, how do we set a vision for this year for our faith? Here are a few suggestions. Making the growth of our spiritual life a priority is a wise decision, so let's look at a few areas that can help us grow in 2018.

1 - Personal Quiet Time - To get alone with God is important. To plan it is even more important. Whatever we do not set aside time for, we will neglect to find time for. Even if it is ten minutes in the morning, any additional time spent with God will lead us to grow in Him.

2 - Family Faith Activities - Immediately, we think of church events. What are we doing the rest of the week? Is there a night each month when we can watch a faith-based movie? Scheduling a time of devotion will also help the family grow in faith. Finding a family ministry activity is also something that will glorify the Lord and help our family's spiritual growth during the year. Some ideas to consider:
  • Visiting widows in your area
  • Family outings to shop for Operation Christmas Child
  • Randomly making dinners for others and delivering them
  • Leading a coat drive/canned food drive
3 - Cultivate the environment - Controlling the environment which we exist in can drastically affect our lives. Our choice in music can lead us closer to God, refocusing our minds on Him, or it can be the noise of the world that fails to lead us to growth in the Lord. What we watch on television, what books we read, and the choice of movies we watch are all things that we can control and if our desire is to grow closer to God, we have to change the environment around us as much as possible.

I pray that this year is a year where we will have a vision for growing in the Lord and make Him our priority. We have to remember that if there is no vision, we will fail to grow and all will suffer. Happy 2018! May God bless you as you grow in Him.