Your Very Life

Living where Life is

Month: August 2015

Would you start going to your church?

imagesTwenty years ago when my friend was moving to a new city, he was given a piece of advice on what to look for when finding a new church.

This is one of the biggest decisions you can make, and it will affect your life as a follower of Christ. There’s no getting around that: get into a great church, and you have a social-network-morph-into-family in the new city, and one that helps you grow in your faith and become more like Christ. Get into a so-so church and you can end up just coasting. Get into a church with unseen power dynamics or a bunch of skeletons, and you can be hurt and possibly grow cold in your faith.

My friend was counseled to watch for 3 things as he visited the church. Obviously, this is not “do you agree with the doctrine or philosophy of ministry?”… you just wouldn’t visit a church you had fundamental difficulties with on those levels. But of all the churches that you could go to, how do you know if you should?

First, how alive is their singing? Does the congregation want to worship, get into it, seem to put themselves into the music? It has nothing to do with the style—I’ve been part of solemn high eucharist services with some awesome worship, and I’ve been part of campfires with horrible atmosphere. Has nothing to do with how “polished / professional” is the worship team. It has to do with the gang filling the sanctuary: do they seem like they want to be there approaching God? Are they singing, or attending a concert? Are they interacting or just receiving? As you sing God’s praise, see if you (the visitor) are more into it than the regulars! If so, might be a bad sign.

Second, how long do they stay after the service is over? A church that empties out in 10 minutes is a congregation that doesn’t necessarily love being together. If it’s crickets 20 minutes after the benediction, those folks aren’t family to each other. You don’t have to have a pot-luck every week, but is there laughter, and people crossing the sanctuary to see others, and do you overhear folks making plans to have lunch together? Basically, do they seem like they want to hang out with each other? This is a good sign that they are family to each other.

Third, how do they treat their pastor? Is it stiff and formal? Is it condescending and “why don’t you talk to those people over there”? Is it heartfelt? Does he seem like a friend? A shepherd? A fellow-journeyman through life? Or does he seem like the guru, holy one, the spiritual-expert-that-we-could-never-attain-to-because-we-aren’t-clergy? Might be hard to tell how folks really treat him… or it may be all to easy to tell. Do they relate to him in affected tones, with feigned interest? Does he share their stories or take over their conversations. Watch for all of this.

These are three simple observations you can make as you visit with a new church body. They are, actually, what we all should take with us to church this Sunday and see how our church stacks up: would I start coming to my church?


America is the hardest place in the world to pray

imgres“I’m convinced that America is the hardest place in the world to pray,” says Paul Miller, author of The Praying Life. “Because if you are praying, you aren’t doing anything”.

Our culture values and rewards activity, productivity, perpetual motion, achieving, and accomplishing. For example, think of The New York Times article on Amazon’s workplace practices last weekend.

Praying, on the other hand, is slowing down, withdrawing, setting our minds on things above, and being still to acknowledge that God alone is God. (Col 3:1, Ps 46:10)

And so, if I’m praying, I’m not accomplishing. Or so our culture would have us believe.

And yes, all of us shoot up prayers in times of need, right? “Sure I pray…when I get a flat, when I’m not sure what decision to make, when I sit down to eat a meal… I pray.”

Yes. We do all pray like this. And that’s good. Keep on.

But, do we ever purposefully step out of the busyness of life and stop everything else so that we can talk to God, listen to him, and have him minister to our soul? Isa 26:3 says, “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you.” God’s presence and peace is ours, if we’ll focus on him.

Imagine you live in prison, and there’s one window that you can look out of to see the freedom and beauty outside of the walls. Imagine that each day you have a chance to step up to the window, to breathe in the fresh air, soak in the warm sun, and be renewed by the view. Would you take it?

For a quarter hour each day, you are raised out of the drudgery of daily existence in prison, to get a respite and enjoy freedom of mind and heart as you stand for 15 minutes at the window each day.

Don’t you think that would be utterly life-giving to you as a prisoner?

Prayer is that window into the world we can only long for. Prayer takes us right to the throne of heaven, where life, joy and meaning originate and culminate. And, while our lives on this earth are most definitely NOT prison to be escaped, the illustration of the window works: prayer is breathing in the fresh air of heaven, soaking in the rays of the SON, and being renewed by the view of God himself!

What’s your set time of prayer each day to gaze on the awesomeness of God? For some, set your alarm 10 minutes earlier tomorrow. For others, it will be a walk on your lunch hour each day. Perhaps, you’ll turn off the TV each night at 10pm, and spend “look through the window then.”

Open the Psalms, and take one each day, simply to speak it to God. He gave us 150 Psalms to help us look through the window. And, then start talking to him about the worries and needs you have or know of. He loves to hear that from us, and meets us in them.

America might be the hardest place to pray, because praying is so “unproductive”. But when we realize that meeting God each day is THE window into our freedom, that changes everything, doesn’t it?

The Road to Leadership

images-1Looking forward to the Leadership Lab tomorrow night at Grace.  To prime the pump for it, read what friend and mentor Leighton Ford wrote in the Charlotte Observer today.

The Road to Leadership

So now, the first debates are upon us, and the road to White House is crowded with presidential hopefuls. It’s a road that will be long, tenuous, and likely at times vicious.

With so many candidates, facing such huge challenges, and with such partisan rivalry, who will be chosen? Who is truly qualified to lead us in times like these?

This search for leadership draws my mind back to the biblical story of Joseph in Egypt around 2000 B.C. Egypt was a world power, but Pharoah, the ruler,  was troubled by dreams of cows rising out of the Nile River, some fat, some scrawny. None of his wise men could tell him what these dreams meant.

Then he heard about a young Jew, held in prison, accused (falsely) of attempted rape, who could interpret dreams. Pharaoh called for him, and Joseph told him that he could not explain the dreams, but God could. Then he told Pharaoh that the dreams forecast seven years of bumper crops, followed by seven years of famine.

“God will bring this about,” Joseph told the king, and advised him to appoint a wise man, a kind of economic czar, to build reserves against the famine to come.

Pharaoh asked his advisors, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then turning to Joseph told him, “You shall be in charge of Egypt, second only to me.”

Imagine! An ex-prisoner, only thirty years old, Joseph was able to change the direction of the nation, to bring about the restraint and self-sacrifice needed to save Egypt and the world of that time.

He came from a dysfunctional family. His father had in his own youth been a scoundrel and liar. His older brothers had turned on him and sold him to slave traders. They in turn sold him to Potiphar, captain of the royal guard who put Joseph in charge of his household. Potiphar’s wife was besotted with the handsome young Jew and asked him to lie with her. When he refused she accused him of rape and he was tossed into prison. There he interpreted the dreams of the fellow prisoner who told Pharaoh about him.

Can you imagine how his story would go viral today: Accused Sex Offender Becomes Second Most Powerful Man in the World!

And this man was the answer to Pharaoh’s question: “Where can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the Spirit of God?”

I wish every presidential candidate would read NewYorkTimes columnist David Brooks’ The Road to Character. Brooks profiles leaders, all flawed, yet who through struggle and adversity built strong inner character, and deepened their souls. “These,” he suggests, “are the people we are looking for.”

And that makes me think of Joseph. What set him apart were the qualities of character – a sense of destiny, an unshakeable integrity, a resilience that kept him going through adversity.

During the predicted great famine the brothers who sold him down the river came to Egypt desperate for food. When they found their “lost” brother was in charge they panicked. But Joseph told them “It was not you who sent me here, but God … You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

Where did this conviction come from, if not the sense that God was with him through the hard times?  As David Brooks writes, “Suffering simultaneously reminds us of our finitude and pushes us to see life in the wider possible connections, which is where holiness dwells.”

I know we can’t peer into the souls of the presidential candidates. But I want to sense that they have peered into their own souls, have learned to know their limitations through their mistakes, have found resilience in their own hard times, and that they give God life-service, not lip-service.

Joseph’s story is not just about a remarkable young man. It tells us that God can prepare and raise up leaders in the most unexpected ways.

God may have another surprise for us. Let’s pray so!

Leighton Ford – Charlotte Observer – August 15, 2015

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