I Couldn’t Think of a Title, So Just Read This!

Have you filled out your March Madness, college hoops, NCAA tourney brackets?  If you are into that sort of thing, I think you better hurry up, because its getting started.  Crazy thing that whole March Madness.  I was reading an article recently by a sportswriter who believes that in order to make people like me, football guy, pro-basketball (THUNDER UP) watcher, tune into the Madness in March the NCAA needed something.  They did not need to add more teams, they just needed one team.  It is the team that comes from nowhere to win in all.  That’s what they need.  They call this a Cinderella team.  The concept is that if they could get Cinderella to go dancing in a place she does not belong, then fans who do not care would tune in.  The problem was, can a team do it?

Wow.  Let’s celebrate Cinderella.   Average team.  Average win-loss.  Average players.  They have them.  But, they need to just win one game.  Just one.

I am glad our discipleship is intended to be different.

“As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:36-37 ESV)
Here’s the problem.  You are not supposed to be winning one game, or be an average player.  Since when is discipleship, and especially the grace of God equal in measure to life you choose?  What I mean by that is where did we get the idea or sin, our poor decisions, or even or stress greater than the power of God?  It is not supposed to be like this.  You are not supposed to be average.  I know many of you may feel that way today.  You feel average because of your job, family, income, lack of prayer life, stress, workload, or sin.  Some of you feel that way because of ALL of that stuff (and if you do, that’s a lot of stuff). Conquering, hardly.

I am not talking about suffering.  Notice I do not talk about heart disease, cancer, persecution, etc.  All of the things mentioned previously are issues because they are a direct result of our inability to grant God control over our lives and our subsequent decisions, after living wrongly, to be miserable people.  And, do not email me and tell me this is not you.  I know your spouses.  They disagree.  (Okay, maybe I am only slightly kidding there. Most of you pray for Dana everyday and she really appreciates that.)

The issue at hand is that we need to stop thinking about life in Christ as a normal thing.  It is not.  It is so much more than that.  Paul wrote that verse while sitting in prison.  He did not care about his surroundings because they are not important compared to God’s grace.  All of us would agree Paul is not average.  Most of us have never spent a minute in a jail cell.  Yet, so many people walk around being average and the only thing they do more than average is be miserable and make others feel the same way.  Thus, our issues are not because of our surroundings, its because of what’s going on in us.  IT IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE THAT WAY!

God’s grace in power of the Holy Spirit is intended to be EMPOWERING.  The problem is not whether or not GOD can do this; the question is not whether or not YOU can do it; the issue is whether or not you WANT to.  Someone might say, “Of course I want to. I just don’t know how.”  How?  Easy, grind.  Yep.  Grind.  That’s your word for today.  Grind. Informally it means, “to work or study laboriously.” Read the text below.  Process it slowly.  Think about how Jesus had to do something, wanted to do something, but its was hard.  He did it anyway.  Grind.

“And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.’ And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow.”  (Luke 22:39-45 ESV)

You read that right.  Jesus prayed, an angel came, strengthened Jesus, and was even more earnest.  Grind.  Just when you thought your life was at the bottom of some barrel lousy and you have way too much on your platter think about the Son of God being more earnest in prayer AFTER an angel comes to strengthen him.  He did not go to a cross on a fleeting moment.  Jesus knew what he was doing, knew where he was going, and it was not easy. He did it anyway.  WHY?

We do it because we love.  Love is not supposed to be lived today and then maybe sometime in the future.  That would be an average Cinderella-like discipleship.  Love is every day grinding it out because you are sometimes unlovable, I am most of the time unlovable, and the people not reading this are all the time unlovable.  You love today but not tomorrow, you miss Jesus on the deck, sweating blood, emptied out, and facing death.  He did it because of love.  He ground through all your mess with a sacrifice that is new every day.  A sacrifice that conquers every day with a love which makes you more than you have ever been.  Today, tomorrow, forever.


Leap Day!!

Today, I was on my way into the office when a train had me stopped.  As I looked to my left I saw the birds (picture below) enjoying a mid-morning snack.  I have no idea what they are eating.  The ground does not look ready to be planted as it has not been prepared.   Maybe someone out there can tell me what they are chowing down on because they look like they are having a good time.  I am not even sure the person who owns this land wants these birds doing this to the ground, but there they are, having their fun.  Of course I immediately thought of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13:

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.’”

Not a real stretch, because this is such a familiar parable.  The awesome part of familiarity is when we are reminded of words we have heard for ages, new meaning can come to us.  Scripture is an amazing thing that comes alive with your day today.  And, since no day is the same as another, make this passage new for your life today.

Jesus is announcing growth in the Kingdom.  How will you grow today?  Sure, troubles and hardship may abound in your life, but that does not mean you cannot grow.  One of the major emphases of the parable is that the ground is ready to take in the seed and produce the crop.  That is called good soil.  That good soil is and can be, even should be, YOU.  I mean that, so let me write that again.  That good soil is YOU!!  There are several ways you can be this. For example, today, take a “leap” of faith and allow the Holy Spirit to dig down into your soul and produce in you the life of Jesus Christ, through grace, love, and holiness.  You can get that going through praying to God for forgiveness, asking someone to hold you accountable for habitual sin, reading your Bible, being with other Christians, opening your home and being hospitable, doing something kind for someone who is just mean, loving the poor/homeless/downtrodden, visiting the sick, or sending a card encouraging a person to have stronger faith.

Any of these and about 1,000 other things can help you be plowed under by God’s Spirit to make you into what God would have you be in Jesus Christ.  However, this is NOT magic.  It takes a little effort on our part to want to do this.  At Agape, we want to encourage that growth, and let you know you do not have to do it alone.  If you need us, call, write, or come by.  We can help.  We want to.  God wants you to.  I hope you are blessed.  Richard

New Year, Same Theme

The new year always starts with us making some fairly silly resolutions. There are the typical ones that almost anyone can guess.  Of course we have the kind like weight loss, spend less, quit drinking Diet Coke, or finally fix that leaky toilet sort of resolutions.  Most of the time, we never fulfill those.  The problem with holidays is that they end and jobs, school, kids, and life in general goes back the way it was previous to the holiday. There’s probably about as much a chance of change as there is the Dallas Cowboys winning a Super Bowl. (Did you just resolve to stop watching them?)

Then, there are the resolutions that matter.  This year we are going to read the Bible through.  Or, we are going to pray more, give more, spend more time with God.  Then, as if these were resolutions that don’t matter, we get to Leviticus and get bored, we can’t seem to pray for that person who just gripes all the time, and work is still work, God.

Does this make you wonder why we bother?  For some they don’t.  Some people, having learned from their past missteps in making resolutions, refuse, because they know they won’t fulfill it anyway.  They just keep going and going and going  like that bunny that won’t quit hitting that drum.

Its funny isn’t it?  We know exactly how to become habitual about everything, except how to get out of our habits.  Smokers can’t quit, eaters won’t stop eating, workaholics, well, they aren’t reading this anyway.  Churches are full of habitual liars.  One guy told me he was going to stop losing his temper.  Five minutes later we got into an argument over college football and he got up and walked out of my office mad.  New year, same theme. We pronounce change and then fail.

I have no illusions to the fault of the church at this juncture.  Oh, the church has one great habit no matter what sign is out front. We spend too much time worrying about changing worship styles to bother with your small failures.  Just make sure you show up at 10 am on Sunday and put your money in the plate. Pathetic. Absolutely.

One of Satan’s greatest tools against disciples of Jesus is shame.  In the eyes of Satan, that’s how he get to you.  Shame.  You do the sin, you do it a lot, but he can help wallow in it.  What happens is that shame becomes as equally powerful as grace when we allow ourselves to feel bad about our failures and not keep moving forward.

Problem is, shame isn’t close to powerful when compared to grace.  It’s not even the same universe.  It just is in our heads and in our hearts. Shame is what causes us to not be able to change.  The second we are down, we stay there.

How can we stop it? Truthfully, we can’t.  No, I am not trying to be difficult, but you can’t do anything to stop it.  Even the smallest of habits are lost on us the minute we try to stop.  It takes a power to change us that is other-worldly.  Why not try say, the HOLY SPIRIT?  Why not?  We’ve tried everything else.  Why not allow the power of God to do something we haven’t been able to do at any point on our own.

Here’s the catch.  Yes, there is always a catch.  You have to do something.  Sounds nuts right?  I just wrote you can’t do anything, now I am telling you, you have to do something.  In any case, its simple.  Just one thing.  Here goes:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:5-8 NIV)

Thanksgiving, Part 3

Today, I want to be thankful for the Word of God.  While there are many ideas of what the Bible means, or if its accurate, or if it is meaningful in today’s world, I want to simply be thankful.  God’s Word has never failed me, its always helped, it is a delight to my life, and its teaching show me the Jesus I need to be in someone’s life.

With all the blustering that occurs about the Bible, few could argue that it contains at minimum its good lessons, words, and thoughts to enrich your life.  For those of us who believe this is the Word of God, its words teach us all there is to know about who God is and what he wants for our lives.

In worship a couple of days ago, we sang the words “thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”  Those are great words that inspire us to know, read, and think that we can know God through one of his mighty tools, the Bible.

Today, we can learn from the Bible how to really be thankful.  In this season where we celebrate our lives, past, present, and future, we can certainly take a moment to be thankful to God for all that we have.  I hope you hear this word from the Bible as understanding that in Christ, you have all that you could ever want or need.  Even if you feel doubt or despair, trust he has given you what you need in all of your life.

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (2 Peter 1:3-8 ESV)


Thanksgiving, Part 2

Just a little while ago, I headed home for lunch.  Normally, when I get in around 12:30 both my younger two children are in the midst of their afternoon naps so I don’t get to see them.  Today, as I walked in I could see my youngest son Elijah sitting in his chair at the table.  In less than 5 seconds, he spotted me and the grin on his face took my heart!

For a lot of people, having five children is a lot.  We are often subjected to jokes or rude comments.  Most people don’t think about what they say before they say it.  We would never call a person fat or ugly, but for some reason some people can’t seem to stop those words like, “Are you crazy?” or “Don’t you know what causes that?”

Thanksgiving in the midst of ridicule is hard.  It is probably easier to make a joke when someone is rude, than it is to blow them off.  What has to happen in the midst of life’s challenges is constant perspective on the things that truly matter.  This is where thanksgiving resides.  It permeates itself into our lives when we stop bearing pains, sorrows, and even ridicule, and focus on the one who has given all things that are joyful.

One great way to keep the focus is to keep ascribing to God all that he is and what he has done.  Repitition is a great thing.  Over and over again, even if you are shedding tears, repeat something like Psalm 136:

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
        for his steadfast love endures forever.
    Give thanks to the God of gods,
        for his steadfast love endures forever.
    Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
        for his steadfast love endures forever.”

If all else fails, you can return to this post and be reminded that there are things which people can say and do that are hurtful, but God’s blessings always trump people.  If you don’t believe me, check out the picture below and then you can tell me if I am crazy for believing God has blessed me more than I could imagine.

Thanksgiving, Part 1

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday.  And, the “by far” part really isn’t an exaggeration, I really like Thanksgiving that much more than all the rest.  It has everything you should want or need in a holiday.

There are a couple of holidays that we as a society cherish more than others.  We still like Columbus Day, or Memorial Day, but these not on par with the big ones.  I guess I see them from their expenditure (or overexpenditure) value.  For instance, Christmas is by far the most valued holiday, raking in billions.  Halloween has to be the next.  But, coming in third is Thanksgiving (last place going to the 4th of July).

While not the most expensive holiday, Thanksgiving makes itself valued in different ways.  In these times when so many are struggling with money and jobs, politics and current events, there’s something to be said about serving up one day out of the year where we say “thanks” for all we have and all we are.

Most importantly, thanksgiving is something rooted in God.  Even if you aren’t a regular church going person, you can still look around and realize you are really blessed.  When you take into account how blessed you really are, you come to realize hard work and luck don’t have anything to do with your blessings.  There’s obviously something more going on here.  It is precisely at that realization you can start thanking God for your blessings.

“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5b-7 ESV).


Ring the Doorbell, Please!

Today, one of our dear, sweet friends decided to watch our younger two children while Dana and I went on a lunch date.  When Dana asked me where we were going, I mentioned a place I had heard people talking about and one guy had even gone to yesterday.  It sounded like fun and so we decided we would meet there for lunch.

I was a little bit later than Dana, but when I got to the door, confusion set in.  The door was locked!  There was another door immediately to the left, so I opened it to discover what was clearly the service entrance.  I closed that door and was about to walk away and call Dana when I saw a peculiar sign.

This sign simply said that while inside the restaurant all gentlemen were to watch their language as women and children would be inside enjoying themselves.  I thought that was a neat sign, and worthy of attention, but I was outside and couldn’t get in.

Then I saw it.  There was a doorbell.  I rang it, they let me in.  I thought it was weird, but when I walked in I saw a very nicely decorated, old style steak restaurant tucked into the backside of a dilapidated shopping center.  It was a neat place and we really enjoyed ourselves (BTW, it’s called the Rusty Barrel), but it got me thinking about this passage:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV)

More often than not, I have heard people refer this passage to the Christian church.  Some have seen worship services, Bible classes, and ministry programs as defining a path which leads to this “narrow gate.”  Unfortunately, they are not wrong, nor are they completely right.

In our world the concept of the church in relationship to grace is difficult because of the difficulty of coming into it.  Most people who live outside the boundaries of church see how we have adopted principles of American consumerist culture and want nothing to do with this.  They constantly feel like there is a door to the club, but if you don’t know the way in, you can’t appreciate the opulence inside.

I cannot in good conscience disagree with those so-called “outsiders.”  The mere thought of Christ’s Church existing to be a self-service of consumed religion reeks of a bankrupt faith and a legalism which is in dire need of God’s judgment.  In the end it won’t matter how fancy the building is or isn’t, it won’t matter how much you enjoyed the sermon or not.

What will matter is the leading of people to the narrow gate, who is Jesus.  The easy way for church is to exhibit qualities of church that cheapen grace by fancying the gospel.  Here’s the real truth, the true path to the narrow gate is not only hard, but it’s also worth it.

(Now before I go any further, a message to all of you who think just because a church is big and has a lot of money they aren’t living the gospel.  That is not what I said.  I always chuckle when ministers preach or rail against large churches with big budgets when the truth is, they are merely envious and if they could do the same, they would.)

No, here, this narrow gate, which Jesus says is hard and few find it belongs to people whose sole dedication is seeking authentic discipleship.  How a church lives out this declaration is by functioning as a path from life to this narrow gate.  As the church is the bride of Christ, it is our dedication to shower grace into the lives of people.

Here are some suggestions how you can help someone find the narrow path:

1.  Pray.  Today ask that God will demonstrate his clear and precious love to a lost soul.  If they don’t see it today, then you have to pray again tomorrow and the next and the next.  Then, live in a prayerful hope your person will see God clearly.

2.  Confess.  It’s funny how people think church is a bunch of two-faced Christians.  The thing is, they aren’t wrong.  The best way to defeat this argument is to confess.  When a church confesses its sin openly, you can’t hardly say they’re two-faced. Besides, confession is what the church needs to do because it generates grace, forgiveness, and much-needed healing.

3.  Patience.  Sometimes it takes a really long time for someone to find grace.  They have to look in every door, around every corner.  Yes, it will hurt them, they will sometimes look silly, but the path from lost to saved is paved with patience from Christians.  If your friend or family persists in living a life of pain and suffering, be patient, they may yet come around to and will need a non-judgmental heart to help them see grace.

4.  Boldness.  Right now, the concept of church is generating some hard feelings.  I would say we deserve some of the disappointment people have.  That doesn’t mean we quit.  As a matter of fact, disciples should work hard to live the message of grace in every breath, much less every ministry program.  That requires boldness.

Let me give an example of this from the Bible.  In the Apostle Paul’s day, the world saw the Jews as problematic.  They had hardly tried to show God’s love.  However, the boldest speaker of grace was Paul of Tarsus, who was a Jew.  He spoke boldly to Gentiles wherever he went.

If you are a Christian who sees the point of those who view the church from an angle of consumerism or legalism, my advice is to be more bold, not less.  Speak love and grace passionately, without timidity.

5.  Worship.  The church is worship.  Wherever we go, we are worship.  So worship.  When the church is together, worship.  When you are away from the church, worship.  At work, worship.  At home, worship.  This isn’t haughty or arrogance.  This is done in church buildings, homes, at flagpoles, and even with people from different church fellowships.

6.  Trust.  Simple.  Blind.  Whole.  When the church relies on God and not on self, the narrow path journey for the lost lights up.  Along this journey one person walk hand in hand with those who have been there before, ready to help, love, and forgive.  It comes when the church trusts.