Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Books I Read in 2014

Today is the last day of 2014. It is also the final day of my sabbatical which began after Labor Day. It has been a gift in more ways than I can count and will fuel some of my future posts. One benefit was the ability to read more books this year than I have in recent memory. I also tried to read books of different types including more fiction and biographies. Below are the best 25 books I read this year. They are listed in the order of personal benefit. Or you could say that they are ordered based on how much I liked them.  What were the best books you read in 2014?

  1. The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community - Sparks, Paul, Soerens, Tim and Friesen, Dwight J. Friesen
  2. Embracing Soul Care - Stephen W. Smith
  3. Lindbergh - By A. Scott Berg
  4. Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Jamie Ford
  5. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
  6. Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating & Practicing Missional Community - Jon Huckins, Rob Yackley
  7. Reason for God – Tim Keller
  8. Undaunted Courage - Stephen Ambrose
  9. A Praying Life by Paul Miller
  10. The River of Doubt - Candace Millard
  11. Win Forever - Pete Carroll
  12. The Least of These: Lessons Learned from Kids on the Street by Ron Ruthruff
  13. Boundaries For Leaders - Henry Cloud
  14. The Skin You Live In - David Ireland
  15. Invitation to a Journey - M. Robert Mulholland
  16. Fully Alive - Ken Davis
  17. The Hidden Face of God by Richard Elliott Friedman 
  18. Primal Fire - Neil Cole
  19. True community. Jerry Bridges. 
  20. Songs of Willow Frost - Jamie Ford
  21. Many Colors - Soog-Chan Rah
  22. The Greatest Generation - Tom Brokaw
  23. Sycamore Row by John Grisham
  24. Gifted Hands - Ben Carson & Cecil Murphey
  25. Revise Us Again - Frank Viola

Monday, August 11, 2014

Slowing Down with Jesus

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and overburdened, and I will cause you to rest. [I will ease and relieve and refresh your souls.] Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle (meek) and humble (lowly) in heart, and you will find rest (relief and ease and refreshment and recreation and blessed quiet) for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28–29 AMP)

I am quickly approaching the end of my current role as Army Branch Director for the Navs Military. Serving these past three years has been a tremendously rewarding and precious gift from God. It has also been exhausting. According to Traxo, in the past three years, I have made 68 trips totaling 218,000 miles to eighteen states and four countries. Now it’s time to slow down for a season.
We’ve spent countless hours in the living rooms and at the kitchen tables of some of the most committed Christ-followers in the world: those who minister in and to the U.S. military. Now it’s the season to spend time in our own living room and eating at our own kitchen table. In short it is time to rest, reflect, and refocus.

Our organization gives us the privilege of a sabbatical. They recommend that our staff take a sabbatical every seven years, but this will be my first supervised sabbatical in more than twenty-eight years on staff. Our sabbatical begins after Labor Day and will continue through the end of this year.
How will we spend that time? First, we will slow the pace of life down and greatly reduce our travel. Then we will spend time reflecting on this past season of leadership and asking God to teach us the lessons He wants us to learn. Finally, we will be focusing on the Lord; seeking to step more fully into the promise that Jesus makes to His followers in Matthew 11:28-29.

We recognize that not everyone can take a sabbatical, but everyone can find the rhythms of life that are appropriate for them and for taking on the easy yoke of Jesus. Our organization offers us this guided process that enables us to disengage from normal ministry activity and leadership involvement for a period of time to allow for serious evaluation of life and ministry. And we intend to take full advantage of it.

As a direct application to this guided process, I will be taking a hiatus from this blog for the rest of the year. Please pray for Iris and me as we enter this time. Pray that we would rest, pray that we would reflect and pray that we would hear from the Master. See you next year!

Monday, July 7, 2014

When Production Goes Wrong

Is the Christian life really about production? If you read my last post, I hope you agree that the answer is a resounding "yes".  Jesus said that producing fruit brings glory to the Father and proves the reality of discipleship (see John 15:7-8). He also taught that we would know the quality of people by the fruit of their lives. Fruit is the metric by which a follower of Christ can differentiate a good leader from a bad one (Matthew 7:16-20).

If producing is Jesus’ idea, why are we so afraid of it? I think instinctively we are afraid of the unhealthy counterfeits of the production mindset. Production can turn toxic when either one of two attitudes is present. When that happens we end up far from the production that Jesus was looking for.

First comes when we see the production of fruit as a means to earn favor with God or with man. When that attitude exists it undermines the very nature of grace. Dallas Willard once said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone”. God loves us as much as he ever will. Our production does not impact his love for us in any way. Production may earn greater favor with man, but if that is your motivating factor, you may want to ask yourself how much you are in touch with God’s love for you.

The second problem comes when we attempt to produce fruit by our own effort. In the great passage about bearing fruit, Jesus says, “apart from me, you can do nothing”. (See John 15:5). Self-effort to produce fruit often leads to a lack of transparency. It is like buying plastic fruit and taping them to a tree in order to make it look good. According to Jesus, our self-effort ought to be in our focus to abide in Him as a branch abides in the vine. Fruit comes as a result of a dynamic, abiding relationship with Jesus. I’ll write more about that next time.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Consumerism and the Kingdom

About seven years ago, we moved into a new neighborhood. One of the important things we wanted to do right a way was find a grocery store. After visiting each of the candidates in our area, we settled on a Safeway about two miles from our house. For the past seven years, we’ve driven past another store and done our shopping at that Safeway. Why? We like this Safeway better than the QFC. It meets our needs and satisfies some of our wants. Similarly, I’m a Mac guy. I own a MacBook Pro, an iPhone and an iPad. I love the Apple Store and probably always will. Apple meets my needs as a consumer. Yes, I’m a consumer. In our society it’s pretty tough not to be.

I really don’t think that being a consumer is bad when it is confined to such choices as where to purchase groceries or what type of computer to buy. The problem comes when we apply the principles of consumerism to those areas of life that require a completely different approach.
One such area is marriage. Once I am married, I’m off the market. I no longer need look for a better spouse or compare my spouse to others. I’m done looking. I’m committed to my spouse for life. Unfortunately a cursory look at our society will show us that consumerism has deeply entered and impacted how we view and approach marriage and the results are catastrophic.
Likewise, there is no place for consumerism in the Kingdom of God. Not many things make Jesus angry, but the leaders in His time had made the Temple of God into a “marketplace”, bringing on Jesus denunciation and fury. (See John 2:16). Jesus’ Kingdom does not call for consumers, but just the opposite. He calls for “producers”

In Matthew 21:33-43 Jesus tells a story of tenants working in a vineyard. Each time the owner of the vineyard sent representatives to collect his share of the crop; the tenants mistreated them and gave no fruit. Finally the owner sent his son whom the tenants murdered. At the end of the parable, Jesus draws this lesson, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21:43 NIV). Jesus was looking for producers, not consumers.

It’s interesting to me that few people even notice the rampant consumerism in the body of Christ today, yet they are so quick to criticize anyone who talks about production. Granted, there are abuses of the concept of producing in the Kingdom and I will talk about them in my next post, but let’s be clear on what Jesus is looking for: “My true disciples produce much fruit. This brings great glory to my Father.” (John 15:7–8 NLT)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Key Word is Surrender

In his book, "The Incredible Power of Kingdom Authority", Adrian Rogers tells this story: 
As Josef and I rode in his car, I said, “Josef, tell me about American Christianity.” He said, “Adrian, I had rather not.”
I said, “No, I want to know.”
“Well, Adrian, since you have asked me, I’ll tell you. The key word in American Christianity is commitment.”
I said, “That’s good, isn’t it, Josef?”
“No, it is not. As a matter of fact, the word commitment did not come into great usage in the English language until about the 1960s. In Romania, we do not even have a word to translate the English word ‘commitment.’ If you were to use commitment in your message tonight, I would not have a proper word to translate it with.”
Josef continued, “When a new word comes into usage, it generally pushes an old word out. I began to study and found the old word that commitment replaced. Adrian, the old word that is no longer in vogue in America is the word surrender.”
“Josef,” I asked, “what is the difference between commitment and surrender?”
He said, “When you make a commitment, you are still in control, no matter how noble the thing you commit to. One can commit to pray, to study the Bible, to give money, or to commit to automobile payments, or to lose weight. Whatever he chooses to do, he commits to it. But surrender is different. If someone holds a gun and asks you to lift your hands in the air as a token of surrender, you don’t tell that person what you are committed to. You simply surrender and do as you are told.
“Americans love commitment, because they are still in control. But the key word is surrender. We are to be slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true.” And then the angel left.” (Luke 1:38 NLT)
Mary responds to the declaration of the angel with words of surrender. These are not words of commitment to do anything, they are words with which she receives what the Lord indicates that He wants to do. I believe that I have often given the Lord commitment when He was asking for surrender. Commitment is better than lack of commitment and it can take a person a distance, but only complete surrender to the will of God takes me to all of the places that God wants to take me. Mary surrendered. This is an example for me to follow. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dealing with Hard Soil

“For thus says the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.” (Jeremiah 4:3 ESV)

“The seed that fell on the hard path represents those who hear the message, but then the Devil comes and steals it away and prevents them from believing and being saved.” (Luke 8:12 NLT)

“The thorny ground represents those who hear and accept the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity.” (Luke 8:14 NLT)

Jesus tells the parable of the sower from the perspective of the soils. It goes to the response of each individual heart to the word of God when it is sown. Jeremiah speaks more to the preparation of the soil so that the word can be sown. In Jeremiah, God commands that the hard soil (fallow ground) be plowed and broken up so that seed can be received. It also gives a warning against sowing where there are already thorns. Applying that second part to Jesus' parable might mean to not continue to sow seeds in a person struggling with the cares and pleasures of this life. Better to challenge that person on the areas that are choking the life out of the already sown seed than to continue to sow more seed.

The comparison of Jeremiah with the parable of the soils, helps me to see that I do not need to accept the state of soil in a persons heart as permanent. Things can change and as I bear faithful witness to Christ and sow His word, I can also work to plow up the hard soil and help remove the thorn bushes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Jesus Still Surprises

“And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.””(Luke 5:5 ESV)

How quickly Peter and the other fishermen obey Jesus, even though what He said surprised them. They were the experts in this. Fishing was their livelihood; Jesus would make fishing for men their life. They "knew" that letting down their nets again should not give them a different result from the one they had experienced all night, but Jesus surprised (maybe shocked is the better word) them with the abundant catch.

Jesus is surprising.

“And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”” (Mark 7:37 ESV)

When was the last time you were astonished beyond measure by the works of Jesus? Does He continue to surprise you or has your walk with Him become just a little bit too predictable? Many years ago God prompted me to write this prayer in my Bible: "Lord, please always keep me in the deep water, over my head." I could fill volumes with the ways He has answered this prayer in my own life.

Two weeks ago, I walked into a series of meetings thinking that I would be chosen for a new leadership role. I was surprised (but surprisingly not disappointed) when another was chosen. I was astonished when I was invited to consider another, better fitting role - one that I had not even considered. I was astonished. I was surprised. I let down the net and pulled up the unexpected, because that's just what life is like in the deep water.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why Jesus Chose Simple Men (Training of the Twelve, Chapter 4, part 3)

Jesus started with fishermen, tax collectors, and former revolutionaries. They were the best people He found to work with. Others were too proud to become disciples and because of that, they excluded themselves from the high honor of apostleship. The civil and religious leaders boasted in their unbelief. The citizens of Jerusalem were interested for a moment in the zealous young man who purged the temple with a whip, but their faith was superficial. Therefore Jesus would not entrust Himself to them; He knew what was in them.  There were a few sincere sympathizers with high positions, but they did not have the level of commitment needed to become apostles. Nicodemus was barely able to speak a timid word on Christ’s behalf and Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple because of his fear of the Jewish leaders. These were sharp people who did not have the stuff that was needed from missionaries of the cross. People so fettered by social ties and political connections and so enslaved by fear would not become the people to take the gospel to the world.

So Jesus had to fall back on the rustic, but simple, sincere and energetic men of Galilee. And He was quite content with His choice and sincerely thanked His Father for giving Him these men. He would have gladly taken men of learning, rank, wealth, and refinement if they would lay those things down for His service, but since none seemed to be available, He too these humble men. He preferred devoted men with no advantage to undevoted men with every advantage. Their station in life really did not matter as long as they were spiritually qualified for the work to which they were called. The most telling thing about a man is not what is on the outside, but what is within. John Bunyan was a man of low birth, low occupation, and up until His conversion, low habits. But by nature, he was a genius and by grace a man of God.

The gospels are not autobiographical and the apostles were not the central characters in the story. Christ was their hero; and their sole desire was to tell what they knew about Him. They looked at the Sun of Righteousness and in His radiance, they lost sight of everything and everyone else.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Insights from Some of the Lesser Known Apostles (Training of the 12, chapter 4, Part 2)

What kind of people made up the newly chosen apostolic band? What we know about these men varies greatly, but it can be helpful to place them in three groups based on the amount of data we have.

The first group is most familiar to us and has the greatest prominence in the biblical narrative:
Simon Peter: The man of rock.
Andrew: Peter's brother.
James and John: Sons of Zebedee, and sons of thunder.

The second group:
Philip The earnest inquirer. 
Bartholomew or Nathanael: The Israelite of integrity.
Thomas: The Twin.
Matthew: The Tax Collector

The third group:
James (the son) of Alphaeus
Judas son of James (also called Thaddaeus)
Simon The Zealot.
Judas, the man of Kerioth: The Traitor.

We will become very well acquainted with the first group of these men as we read through the gospels. And there are a few disciples that we know almost nothing about, but here are few observations about some of the lesser known disciples:

Thomas, called “The Twin” is a warm hearted person with a melancholy temperament. He is ready to die with his Lord, but slow to believe in His resurrection. 

Judas Iscariot is the man who betrayed Jesus.  The presence of a man capable of treachery among the elect disciples is a mystery that we will not go into now. We just point out that he seems to have been the only one among the twelve who was not a Galilean.

Simon the Zealot was part the group that rose in rebellion under Judas some twenty years before Christ's ministry began, when Judea and Samaria were brought under the direct government of Rome, and the census of the population was taken with a view to subsequent taxation. What an amazing phenomenon to see this ex-zealot among the disciples of Jesus!  No two men could differ more widely in their spirit, ends, and means, than Judas of Galilee and Jesus of Nazareth. The one was a political malcontent; the other would have the conquered submit to the yoke of oppression, and give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar. Simon aimed at restoring the kingdom to Israel, adopting for his watchword, "We have no Lord or Master but God." Jesus aimed at founding a kingdom not national, but universal, not "of this world," but spiritual. The means employed by them were as diverse as their results. The Zealots had used the carnal weapons of war, the sword and the dagger; while Jesus relied solely on the gentle but omnipotent force of truth.  An ex-zealot was not a safe man to make an apostle because he might bring Jesus and His followers under political suspicion. But the Author of our faith was willing to take that risk. He expected to gain many disciples from the dangerous classes as well as from the despised. So He wanted have them to represented among the twelve.

Matthew was a tax collector, working for the Roman oppressors. Such people were considered traitors to the nation of Israel. It gives one a pleasant surprise to think of Simon the zealot and Matthew the tax collector, men coming from so opposite ends of the political spectrum, meeting together in close fellowship in the little band of twelve. The extremes meet in these two disciples  -- the tax-gatherer and the tax-hater: the unpatriotic Jew, who degraded himself by becoming a   servant of the alien ruler; and the Jewish patriot, who chafed under the foreign yoke, and longed   for emancipation. This union of opposites was not accidental, but was designed by Jesus as a prophecy of the future. He wanted the twelve to be the church in miniature form; and therefore He chose them so as to intimate that, as among them distinctions of tax collector and zealot were unknown, so in the church of the future there should be neither Greek nor Jew, bond nor free, but only Christ.