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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The presence of company is an interesting thing. Have you ever thought about it? Being with people changes our demeanor, sometimes changing the very essence of who we are. The presence of some may intimidate us; others will scare us completely. There are others who give us courage.

I was kind of thinking about my first day of school. All dressed up in these stiff clothes with the new smell, I walked hesitantly towards the classroom door. Who knew what waited on the other side? I'd heard rumors--some good, some bad--but none that made me sure of where I was headed. In my hand I carried this cool lunch box my parents had bought me. I clutched it tighter as if it would somehow give me strength I never knew. But I made the journey nonetheless. Why? Because my dad was with me. That's it. Just his presence. He didn't say much. Didn't carry me in. Didn't have a talk with all the other kindergartners to let them know who I was. He just stood. And everything was alright until...that moment where I turned, he waved goodbye and my world crumbled. (the good news is I survived Kindergarten and lived to tell about it. The bad news is, my dad had to go with me every day for a week. Thanks, Dad).

Many times the Bible mentioned that God was "with" different individuals. It uses that terminology on many occasions. It says that God was with Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Abraham and Jacob. It even goes so far as to say that God was with the entire nation of Israel during the Exodus. Continuing that thought, Jesus closed his days here on earth by saying, "Remember, I am with you always."

I know what you must be thinking. God? On my side? You must be kidding! Right here, right now? Hanging out with me? Yes, a thousand times yes. Not because He feels obligated. Not because it's part of the job description as the King of All. No. Simply because He chooses to be. Let's face it. God's got a million things to do. Good news? None are more important than being with you. Hope you draw strength from His presence today. Lay down your lunch box. Stop clinging to whatever gives you false hope. And trust in the one constant reassurance...God is with you!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

We've wrapped up the summer at Ridgeview with a brief series on Truth. The worship gatherings and the message preparation have had me thinking about truth a great deal. Something "interesting" struck me this morning as I was meditating on this verse: Sanctify them by the truth... John 17:17 NIV

What did Jesus mean when he prayed that prayer on our behalf? What does it mean for you and I to be the recipients of that kind of "truth?"

Consider your relationships. Some are superficial. They are relationships of convenience (your barber or grocer). Some are relationships based on proximity (your neighbor or the worker who shares the next cubicle). Some are based on shared experiences (parents from your kids' schools or the teammate on your softball team from work). Then there are the deeper relationships. They may start out in one of the other categories above and "mature" into something more. Bottom line is, these are the life-altering relationships. These people, whoever they are, take you deeper, make you stronger, teach you about yourself and have a mostly positive impact on you. Why is that? Well, there's a lot of reasons but one of the biggest is this...truth. In relationships that are of the greatest significance, there is room for the giving and receiving of truth.

"Honey, how do you feel about this?"
"Listen man, I need your honest opinion..."
"Buddy, I've been thinking a long time about your situation and the truth is..."

Truth hurts. Truth hurts because truth changes. And truth spoken in love makes us better. The friend who is willing to look you in the eye and tell you the whole truth changes you. The spouse who refuses to keep silent when words should be spoken in your best interest is the kind of relationship you and I both need whether we like it or not. Here's where the verse comes in.

You and I are made better--more specifically we are made to be more like Christ (sanctified)--because of God's willingness to be honest with us. Unlike a husband afraid to tell the truth about his wife's weight or an employee afraid to share his honest opinion about his boss' work, God speaks complete truth to us. He shows us our sin. He acknowledges our faults. He tells of our desperate need for Him and His undying love for us. Why? Because God knows something critically important about truth. His truth changes us in ways we never knew we needed, ways we couldn't comprehend on our own. Truth saves...always. And God's truth is the best kind. The only question that remains: will we seek it? Or will you and I prefer to hear the voices of "reason" in our culture that say "ignore the truth, I've got something more pleasant for you to hear." It's wonderful, it's amazing, it's comforting. Only problem is...it's a lie and it leaves us just like we were. And that's the truth.

Friday, August 24, 2007

About a year ago, I found myself in a hotel room in Jamaica, NY. It was not much bigger than a cracker box with one tiny window that peered out into the darkness. Our flight from NY back to Nashville had been cancelled and, instead of going home, I was required to catch another flight to Montana to meet my staff early the next morning. For reasons that are yet to be revealed to me, Jamaica appears to be a very popular place. Maybe confused travelers believe it to be the other Jamaica. Maybe some travelers desire to sleep in a place where the hotel clerk says, "Don't leave the hotel after dark." Whatever the case, we paid almost $200 for that cheap little room that night.

I got up early the next morning to be at the airport by six. Because the airline had managed to get my luggage to where I was supposed to be, I slept in my clothes and woke with my contacts sticking to my eyes. I stumbled from the cot and made my way to the lobby to meet our shuttle van. As I stood in the predawn setting of that parking lot, I was struck by the quiet and stillness of even that very large city. I've always been a morning person. I love watching the world come to life. And the New York metro area can be very entertaining. There was a "purity" about that sleeping giant as I watched taxis, garbage trucks, delivery vehicles and store owners moving about their various morning duties. I thought back to the safety warning of the night before. "You don't want to walk anywhere around here, mister. It's not safe."

As we continued to move rapidly (have you ever known a taxi driver to do otherwise?) towards JFK airport, my mind began to race with thoughts. I wonder if this is God's viewpoint of us? I wonder if, that very first morning after he created Adam, He sat back and watched His new creation with fascination? I wonder if He pondered the "purity" of that whole scene--one man, one garden, one God in intimate relationship? And I wonder if He, being the all-knowing One, looked ahead to what this world would become? Did He weep? Did He, before that first sin was ever committed, long for things the way they used to be? I wonder if, in His heart, He wanted to scream out to Adam and Eve, "Don't touch the fruit. Don't ruin this. Don't let this desire consume you. Things will never be the same if you do."

I remember thinking that morning how I wished the city could stay in its semi-conscious state. Maybe the Big Apple's call to become human and secular and self-centered and materialistic could be postponed for a day or even a few hours. It was so serene, so peaceful. Seems like the "apple" has been calling us ever since--to choose ourselves over others...over the Creator who desires relationship with us.

As I watched the sun peak its head between the buildings of the distant skyline, a siren broke the silence--a reminder that the "apple" had won...for now. But some day, according to what we read, the peace will return and the garden will be once more. More importantly, the intimacy we have never known with God but have desired with all our hearts will be ours. Till then, there are planes to catch, conversations to have, lives to live and moments to embrace. Welcome to Jamaica. Have a nice day!

Monday, August 20, 2007

It's a Monday, no doubt about it. Mondays are the hardest for me. Coming into the office after a day of worship and fellowship...it's really quite a downer. I love worship with my people and the worship at our church is just so awesome and real! It's one of the things that I look forward to the most each week. It's an encouragement, a boost, an attitude changer and a difference maker all rolled into one. Then comes Monday!

Usually, because I'm a pastor, Mondays begin with a lot of concerns on my mind. There are prayer requests and personal requests. They begin for our staff almost from the time we arrive there on Sunday. They serve as reminders that we live in a fallen world and that we battle a real enemy who doesn't want to give us up. I see the hurt in people's hearts and feel the sadness in their voices. I hurt for these people and long to "fix" their problems. Of course, there are all the practical concerns as well--did the worship flow well, did we accomplish our goal, who were the new faces and all the logistics of a "portable" church. It's a lot to consider from week-to-week. Honestly, on some days, I just want permission from God to not to care and not to think about it. But I can't. I love my people. I love the "Ridgies"--those people who have pledged themselves and committed themselves to God's glory in our fellowship.

I love the smiles on their faces. I love their precious attitudes. I love the love they have for each other and the new faces that God brings our way. I love their occasional "complaints" because I know their desire to see Ridgeview be better and grow deeper. I love the young families that literally dance through our door on some mornings (other mornings it can be a little less than a waltz). I love the men and ladies who arrive early to set up and stay late to tear down. I love the ones who pray with me on Sunday before we begin, the volunteers who lead us in our worship, the ladies who "dress" up our set up each week, and the many hands that bless our children while we worship. I love so much about what God is doing in our church...

...so it's no wonder that the enemy hates us. It's no wonder that he would do anything he could to take our focus off of God and put it back on ourselves. That's why he makes us so tired and sleepy and lazy on Sunday. He knows we need the worship and fellowship. That's why he loves it when our sentences start to begin with "But my family needs..." He knows that focusing on ourselves insures we will never focus on those who need Christ. That's why he talks us out of giving our time and resources and makes us think that we are too busy (busier than everybody else in Franklin). Overwhelmed believers are easy to keep defeated. So, we all must move through our Mondays. I don't have permission to quit; neither do you. I don't have permission to withdraw; neither do you. I don't have permission to stop caring about hurting lives, lost hearts and frustrated people; neither do you. So, let the Mondays come. Two things I know: God will always be God and, till He comes again, there will always come another Sunday with my RCC family.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I wish I had super, amazing, unwavering faith. I don't. I have really good faith. And really good faith is okay. But I wish I could be like some of the incredible guys I read about throughout history who seemed to never have one doubt about their lives in relationship to God. It makes me think of breakfast...

You see, growing up, my morning ritual was always the same. My dad would come into my room, pull back the covers on my bed (which were usually wrapped around my head), and begin to sing "morning songs" to me as he gently scratched my back. Talk about a great start to your morning. Only problem was, it made me want to stay in bed longer. It was just TOO good. But I would get up every single morning because of the faith I had in my mom. You see, it didn't make any difference what day of the week it was or what time of the year, I knew my mom was going to have breakfast. (being a rapidly growing boy, these matters are of critical concern). In fact, on some mornings, I would smell whatever it was as soon as dad opened the door.

The meals weren't necessarily extravagant--some mornings it was just a bowl of Frosted Flakes or Alpha-bits (okay, if you remember what Alpha-bits are, don't tell anyone. I was told it was a sign of your age last week). But some mornings it was hot oatmeal or home-made cheese toast and scrambled eggs. It wasn't the size or the scope of the meal, it was just the fact that it was always there. Even on days when mom didn't feel her best, it got done.

I think that's the approach of some of these heroes of the faith I'm talking about. It seems they had such an intimate relationship with God, His voice was as regular as my breakfast. They didn't offer up prayers hoping that God would hear. They didn't pray "if it's your will". No, they prayed believing that God was in the kitchen; they knew their meal was as good as done. They faced every dilemma knowing that God had gone before them and nothing they faced was a surprise to Him. Why can't I be like that? I look back at my life and guess what I see? The same steadfast presence those guys knew all about. There's never been a moment where God wasn't there. Never. My quiet time reminded me about that fact this morning. Jesus was talking to his disciples in the book of Mark and He says, "Why worry? Worrying doesn't add one second to your life so why do it?" Good question. His answer points to the fact that God provides food for the birds, clothes for the flowers and He's going to do the same for you and me. Just know that He is there and He is up to something in the kitchen. And, when the time comes, your meal will be ready.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Frederick Robertson writes, "The best things in life are the result of being wounded." Bread comes from wheat kernels that are crushed. A sweet fragrance can only come from the incense as it is burned. For a plant to grow, a seed must die. And before that seed's death can do any good, the ground must be scarred by the plow to prepare it. Even hearts that are wounded can serve as the most fruitful place for God's hand to work.

Paul challenged many of the new believers in the early church with this teaching:
We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. Acts 14:22 NIV

Who knows how the scars of our life prepare us for the lessons of a loving God? And can I really know what my life would have been like without the hardships that have dotted the landscape of my life? I can only pray that each of those trials, each of those burdens will prepare my heart for the seeds that God longs to plant.

I'm not crazy. I know there are lessons that I would have never learned had it not been for some test that God used to make me ready. Some of the lowest points of my life have been the greatest classrooms for learning. And that reality brings a necessary change in how we view the trials that people go through. Just like you can't take my 9 year old and rush her through to 10th grade, rushing people through their trials may "short-circuit" some of the lessons God has in store. I don't mean to say that we shouldn't try to ease their pain or give them guidance. I simply see that guiding someone through trial is far different from pulling them through it. Every brush with hardship must be accompanied by the sincere prayer, "God, what would you have me (them) to learn as you guide me (them) through this?" The greater tragedy would not be the hardship but to miss all that God would choose to show you in the midst of your difficulty.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

No matter how you slice it, love and obedience go hand-in-hand. That's true wherever you go. Take my kids for instance. I have been blessed to have four beautiful kids now--two of my own and two through the blessing of my new wife in July. Four amazing kids, one amazing problem. Inside each of them are the same selfish desires that have existed in mankind since the day Eve prompted Adam and they indulged. What does this mean? Every single day for each of them (and for me and you) is a battle to die to self. That in itself is a problem but there is more.

We all want to love and to be loved. Hey, it's what the world needs, right? So, you and I spend our entire lives looking to be in loving relationships with parents, siblings, friends, spouses and children. You and I both know that love is more than words. How many times over the course of my life have I heard someone say "I love you" only to find out that they were a friend of convenience?

Jesus says that won't do. In John 14:15, He burns away all the excessive talk about love and boils it down to this reality--without obedience there is no love. Don't believe me? Here it is for you to read, "If you love me, you will obey what I command."

For some of us, a light bulb just went on. Love and obedience; obedience and love. They go hand in hand to the point that you and I cannot tell God we love Him until we are willing to show Him. That means a radical change in behavior, a major shift in perspective, and a call for re-evaluation ever time we prepare to utter those words "I love you." The options are not many--love me and obey or just don't tell me you love me.

Hope you find yourself obeying Him through each step today and more in love with Him today than ever before.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Can I just tell you how amazing God is? You remember our little proposition last week? (For those who don't remember, go back and read last Monday's entry). Just ask. Take God at His word and ask Him for the desires He has placed on your heart. Last week, I invited you to pray with me for our churches. We were going to pray that God would restore power to them and change us and turn the church into a powerful force for His glory. I specifically mentioned the passage in Acts where it says that these disciples got together and prayed and the place where they were was shaken.

Well, all week long I prayed for just that. I prayed that Ridgeview would have a powerful worship, that we would have new faces, that people's lives would be changed. God is good! He followed through in amazing ways. I'm already praying for next Sunday. Now, was the ground shaking. No, but I believe with all my heart the enemy was. Because he saw the power of what 3 or 4 of you uniting with me in prayer could do. Now, my question is, what would happen if others of you would join us? Let me know this week if you want to join in with our prayers for God's power, for real change, for a powerful church. It can and will happen if we just believe.

One word of encouragement for you today. When Jesus was asked what the most important thing of all was in regards to religion and faith and law and our relationship to the Father, he boiled it down to one thing...love. Love for the Father; love for others. Love makes a difference in lives when nothing else can. God's love for us can change our lives and I promise you it can do the same for anyone you know. The interesting thing is this: God chooses to love the world through you and me. He invites us to be His hands and feet today as we go to work and school and through our neighborhoods and into our houses this evening. Everywhere we go, we must be "oozing" with love. Not easy on Monday mornings or the day that the fridge dies or you and your kids have a fight or your boss gets all over your back. But it's our "call" nonetheless. To love. And the world becomes a radically different place when it's bathed in the love that comes from God. Singers sing about it; writers write about it. Moms and dads have taught about it for centuries. Now, let's do our best to live it for the whole world to see.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Part of my love for history is reading the stories of great leaders--men and women who were bold enough to take hold of a dream and move to the front of the crowd while leading others to follow that dream. Usually this falls under the category of military leaders for me. From early military geniuses like Joshua (yes, the Biblical dude who conquered Jericho was a military genius. How many guys you know who ever conquered a more powerful foe without firing a shot?) to later greats like Ethan Allen (the American Revolution leader, not the furniture guy); from Stonewall Jackson to Douglas MacArthur. I am fascinated by their ability to assess a situation, to inventory their resources, to garner support and push toward a goal. These guys were charismatic leaders who led their followers to many victories...and a few defeats.

And that's the part that we cannot forget. Greatness is not measured by your ability to avoid failure. It's measured by your ability to overcome it, learn from it and move past it to the next victory that waits. Joshua had Ai. Jackson had the Seven Days campaign. MacArthur labored through Korea. But greatness demanded that these leaders move on.

It does the same for you and me. Whether we are leaders or followers, God's promise to all of us is that defeat does not have to be final. Setbacks are just that...set backs. But they do not have to bring an end to your journey. You cannot allow them to determine your future. God can take any failure in your life, real or perceived, and use it as a stepping stone to the next great event for you. You must never give in to the lie of mediocrity (that's for my friend who is reading). Never. Failure does not define you, it simply detains you.

On another note, day two of the "prayer experiment" (check yesterday's blog for more information). Thanks for the responses and the encouraging posts. I am fired up as God continues to listen to our cries. I can tell the beginning of this "journey" has angered the enemy and it will not be easy. Isn't that cool?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. Acts 4:31 NIV

Can you imagine this scene? I have many times. I've wondered what it must have been like that day as those first disciples gathered to pray. It started innocently enough. You see, Peter and John had just been questioned and released by the Sanhedrin (for those of you who don't know the story as well, these are the "bad guys"). The bad guys had threatened them and commanded them not to talk about Jesus or anything that He had taught them. So, Peter and John, being the rebellious types that they were (remember they were Christ's followers and He was the ultimate rebel when it came to status quo), went to the house of one of their friends and began to talk. They didn't whine. They didn't complain. They didn't say, "Hey, let's try another religion. This one isn't working for me. The A/C never works at the temple and they are always asking me to work in the nursery with the little 'disciples.'" No, you never heard either one of these guys go, "I've got to make a change. I'm just not getting enough out of it."

Instead, they began to pray. Not silent, passive prayers. The Bible says they raised their voices to God and began to recount His accomplishments. In other words, they praised Him for His greatness. Then, there's this really cool part. You see, I've always wanted to be at a "ground-shaking" worship. I've always wanted to see God move in such an incredible way. I just knew there was some secret to this. Something I was missing was keeping it from happening to me and my people at RCC. Well, I found out the secret as I was reading this story again this morning. Now I know what it's going to take for my church to be that kind of church and for my people (beginning with me) to be the kind that shake the earth with the story of Christ. And the cool part is that it will work in your church too--guaranteed!! In fact, maybe you'll want to e-mail or call your friends and say, "This really, really cool pastor (that part is optional) has discovered the secret to making your church more powerful, more dynamic, more life-changing." Get out your journals and your pens and prepare to take notes. Here's how the first church turned life upside down for everyone in Jerusalem...


...they asked.

That's it. They asked. The verse right before the one that we just read says that those people were praying and thanking God for the past and giving Him their present concerns and they closed that prayer by saying, "By the way, will you do it again...right now...for us...in this place...for your glory?"

The Bible says, "You don't have because you don't ask." So, I have an idea. Feel free to ignore it and go back to your muffin and your coffee. But here's my thought. How about if you and I start asking God for something different in our churches? (This goes especially for you Ridgeview readers). How about we humble ourselves, break outside our little box and say this little prayer, "God, will you, because you are capable, blow away the ordinary and show us your power this week in our church? (that's church as in the people, not the building). Will you take all my pre-conceived ideas of what You should do and what You are like, wad them up into a giant, Holy spitball and fling them across the universe so that I can see what You are really like?"

Now, here's the catch. That first church made sure we got to hear the cool story they were a part of by writing it down for us. I want you, praying with me, to do two things: first, write me and tell me you are praying with me. You can do that through a comment on the blog or through e-mail. I think it's really encouraging when people see and hear other people praying with them about the same things. So, I don't care who you are or if you know me, just put a comment saying, "Hey, my name is Joe and I'm praying with you." I'll update you over the next few days as to how this goes.

Secondly, share your story with us. Once again, you can do it through comment or e-mail. But once God starts to answer our prayers for new power and new stuff happening in our lives and in our churches, I think we have to share it as encouragement for others. So, once again, let me hear it, so I can share it with others. I'm not talking about little stuff here. I'm glad your cat no longer has cancer and that your Uncle Joe has given up smoking. But I want to hear about how lives are changed and how churches are turned upside down by the power of Christ. Sound good? It excites me. I've got to get off of here so I can starting prayer for the Church (that's capital "U" as in the universal church all over the world) and for my church. I believe God's ready to start shaking. He's just been waiting for us to ask.

Friday, August 03, 2007

For those of you who have not figured it out yet, I'm still figuring out this thing called life, especially as it pertains to following Christ. It seems like, just when I'm getting a handle on it, something I read in the Bible or hear from a friend challenges some other part of my thinking. Some times that's a frustrating thing. You look back at your life and you think, "Haven't I already been over this spot before?" It can get downright disheartening.

Then there are those times where you stop and look back and go, "Wow! Look at the ground that God has brought me through. Look at the stuff He has shown me."

Today, I am learning to be grateful for both. Thanking God for trials? Yes, because they shape me and deepen my faith and dependence on Him. The wreck that took my wife and son's lives caused me to search the mind of Christ in ways I had not ever done.
Thanking God for correction? Yes, because He took the time to send that friend or to show me that word so that my path could be adjusted.
Thanking God for distractions? Yes, they show me how good life can be when it's lived with Christ as the center of my focus. I think you get the picture. In all things, I have to learn to live with an attitude of gratefulness.

The harder challenge for most believers is thanking God for the good. On the surface, we think it's easy to be thankful for all the good things you see in your life. The blessings He brings. The friendships you have. The material stuff that He has chosen to give you. Your good health. The truth is, one of the greatest problems we Christ followers have with gratefulness is believing that God owes us this--that somehow our "good behavior" entitles us to the good things of life. We ask questions like "How could this happen?" and "Why would God do this to me?" when tragedy hits us. But what would happen if we started to ask those questions in all things.?

You just got the promotion and raise that you had been praying for? How could this happen? What would lead God to bless me in this way?
Your report comes back clean from the doctor? Your spouse is repentant for their poor choices? You've got more income than outflow at the end of the month in your checking account? How about asking yourself then, "Why would God do this to me?" Out of all the billions of people in the world and the millions who choose to follow Him and obey Him, why did He choose to bless me in this way?

Perhaps that would change our perspective. Maybe it would remind you and I that absolutely nothing we have comes from our hands or our labor--but from the hand of God. And perhaps, if we realized that, we would be more wiling to let it go. To share our blessings of time, energy or resources with some civic group, some mission, some church that desperately needs it. Here's a radical thought. How about trading 30 minutes of your good health for a conversation with a lost friend? How about taking 10% of that new salary from that new job that God blessed you with and giving it to his Bride (that's the church for those of you who don't recognize that terminology) so she can, in turn, bless a family in need or an individual at the end of their rope. Life is all about perspective--and you will make of your life what you will based on your perspective. Just keep in mind, that even your perspective can be a gift from God to be used for His glory. Thanks for reading, in good times and bad.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Next week, my son begins middle school--a rising 7th grader. This morning, I dropped him off at school for one of those orientation things they do these days. It's designed to help them learn their way around the building, meet teachers and friends and get adjusted before school actually starts next week.

As we wound our way through the neighborhood headed towards the school, I noticed he was a little quiet so I asked him the obvious question, "Are you nervous?" "A little," he said. So I shifted into the mode of encourager and told him that he would be fine. "I understand you are a little nervous. Most people are at times like these. I wouldn't expect anything different from you. Just keep in mind, when you walk through those doors, everyone else there is in the same position you are--new, finding there way, a little nervous and a little excited."

He turned and gave me one of his classic grins and then we spent a few seconds praying for him in the car as we rode.

I was reflecting on that conversation as I sat in my office this morning. It caused me to think of our church, any church for that matter. Don't you imagine that's what people feel when they enter a church for the first time or the first time in a long time...nervous or apprehensive. If only we could put an "encourager" in the parking lot (or in their den or in their driveway or wherever the thought first hits) for everyone of them. Just some voice to say, "We understand that you are nervous. We all were at some point. Just keep this in mind, when you walk through those doors, everyone else is in the same position you are--finding their way, a little nervous and a little excited."

I pray that, if you're new to this whole idea of faith and a relationship with God and you are reading this blog, you will hear those words. For every single person who ever invited God into their life, there was fear and nerves and sweat and doubt and worry. None of us knew what to expect when we "walked" into the faith experience for the first time. We just walked. And I invite you to do the same thing. Just walk. Know that you are not alone. Millions have been in your shoes; millions more will follow. But you do not have to have all the answers to take that first step. It's a step we have all taken at some point and the sheer joy of what followed has caused us to take many more. Remember, whoever you are, you are not alone...