Remember the methodists

The call to pastoral ministry is often depicted with the metaphor of “Shepherd and Sheep.” The shepherd is one who leads, serves, and protects the flock. In every church I’ve pastored I have taken that call very seriously. I stress the word “protect” as it relates to the shepherd’s staff. The staff was used to ward off predators and get the sheep out of precarious situations.

Since coming into the role of District Pastor (Superintendent) there have been times when I’ve been very vocal about what I perceive as “dangers” lurking in the shadows. No differently than I would have confronted those dangers in the local church, I’ve confronted them as they’ve influenced the network of churches that I’ve been called to serve. I suppose it’s my shepherd’s reflex responding to what I identify as threats.

My concerns have largely been informed by recent developments in the United Methodist Church. Many people are heartbroken over the harm caused by the lack of accountability among their clergy. The unfaithfulness of some UMC pastors and bishops has caused damage that will be difficult to ever repair, which is why groups like the Wesleyan Covenant Association have been established. I am encouraged by such alliances. Revival is breaking out in many pockets of the UMC because of the faithfulness of a few. All it takes is a remnant.

In the midst of my efforts to “protect the flock,” God recently reminded me that He doesn’t need me to defend Him. He’s shown me that making a statement and arguing a point are two very different things. So, while I’m not going to stop speaking (I’m a preacher for goodness sake), I am going to stop debating as if there’s a fight to win. This battle isn’t against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of this dark world and the forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6).

I’ve been very loud at times over these issues. Not debating is difficult for some of us; it’s how we process and learn. However, in the age of social media we lack the relational equity to have difficult conversations without constant offence. Sometimes volume isn’t nearly as effective as simply handling matters in a way that isn’t seen or heard beyond the boundaries of the people we’ve been called to serve. Nonetheless, in my opinion, a higher level of accountability is needed across the board.

Accountability for ordained ministers has been a topic frequently discussed as it relates to these issues. Ordination has traditionally been understood as a sacrament (i.e. “Holy Orders”). That means the covenants taken by ordained and licensed members of clergy matter greatly. Remaining faithful and striving for unity is a big part of the job for those who’ve been entrusted to serve the church.

When I think of ordained ministry, and especially the call to preach, I’m reminded of the sacred charge that many of us carry. Think about it, preaching is a form of public speaking unlike any other. The preacher is one who has answered a divine call to proclaim eternal truths from God’s Word to a gathered group of listeners. There are serious implications involved with preaching; we are liable for shaping people’s lives with our words. The words we speak foster an ongoing Christian worldview among those we shepherd. This is an amazing honor, but an even greater responsibility.

With unorthodox teachings increasing in popularity they’re becoming more commonplace among pastors and leaders in every denomination. These issues are infiltrating our university classrooms, making their way into our pulpits, and taking center stage in many forums (remember the Methodists). Personally, I think we should put a stop to it. Every member of clergy should be accountable to the covenants they’ve made a promise to support. If they can’t they should surrender their credentials; it’s not difficult.

Some people believe I’m overreacting. Again I say, “Remember the Methodists.” We’d be naïve to think it couldn’t happen to us. Of course I realize that nothing will ever destroy the Church; the gates of hell won’t prevail against Her (Matt 16:18). However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a great price to pay if we’re not faithful with what we’ve been entrusted to steward.

Most of the conversations that I’ve engaged pertaining to biblical unorthodoxy are with faithful pastors who feel extremely misrepresented. These pastors aren’t looking for a fight; they’re just serving faithfully and bearing fruit. Yet many are struggling with spending the rest of their life at odds with the people they’re supposed to be partnering with to advance the cause of Christ. I’ve spent hours explaining “why” the unfaithful among us aren’t held to a higher level of accountability.

The mission of Jesus is something we should be willing to die for; it’s the difference between life and death. Getting sidetracked with negotiating biblical truths in light of cultural shifts does nothing more than taint the mission of making disciples. Maybe I’m too extreme. One thing I’m certain of, however, the Kingdom means too much to forfeit a single minute debating with unfaithful co-laborers.

Bottom-line: we need a higher level of accountability. Actually, I believe it would lead to greater unity, church growth, and denominational revitalization. Yet, I concede from responding out of “protection mode.” While there are many who share my concerns, I also understand the wisdom of not speaking so loudly.

With all due respect, at times it seems like pastoring has become synonymous with “being a nice person” and “not offending anyone.” Interestingly, that’s not the model of Jesus, the disciples, or the prophets. Pastors are called to represent a Kingdom that’s not of this world, not get in bed with the world. It may be more important that we start taking a stand instead of going with the flow. Remember the Methodists.

 

Repentance & Holiness

Becoming vulnerable is the first step toward freedom. Vulnerability exposes our weakness and enables God to break down strongholds. We cannot function in freedom until we become brave enough to confront the strongholds that hinder the advancement of the Kingdom in our lives.

God is so much better than we give Him credit for. I confess that I’ve done a poor job representing His goodness at times. The older I get the more inadequate I realize I am. The Lord has revealed Himself to me in new ways in recent days. I often find myself laughing and crying at the same as He makes His Presence known. These fresh encounters with God have left me more humble, grateful, and free than I can ever remember. There is so much to discover about following Jesus; it’s a never ending journey. I’ve asked God to help me become a better example of His goodness along the way.

I’m currently living in a place of great paradox. On the one hand, I’ve never felt closer to Jesus and I’ve never been more aware of the Presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet on the other hand, I’ve never felt more burdened; I live with a constant sense of heaviness for the state of the Bride. In the midst of my burdens I’ve discovered the power of weakness and the freedom that exists when we come to the end of ourselves.

At the heart of repentance lies vulnerability. True freedom in Christ requires that I constantly confess my faults, that I lay my inadequacies on the altar. Building an altar in our lives is so important. I’m not saying that we sin everyday as in “willfully transgressing against God.” However, I firmly believe that when we fail to love well that we sin against God and others. That means my attitudes, actions, words, and thoughts matter deeply. It means the things that I should be doing that I neglect to do matter in my relationship with Jesus.

I’m convinced that a lifestyle of repentance is the foundation of holiness. The minute I don’t think I have anything wrong in my life is the moment I set myself up as God. I have so many things to constantly repent of; at the top of the list is busyness and distraction. Beyond that, I often repent for not praying enough. I repent of being impatient. I repent for not always responding to my family the way I should. I repent for making decisions, even small decisions, without adequately seeking Jesus. I repent of developing preconceived notions about other people. These are all things that I need to continually lay on the altar. Again, the altar is so important.

True repentance is the only way to break down strongholds. Being in a relationship with God is important, but being in a right relationship with God is essential, especially if we’re going to live the life He’s called us to live. Indeed, repentance and holiness go hand in hand.

Dying to self and taking up the cross daily is about killing the little hedonist that’s kicking and screaming inside of us all. The flesh is one of our biggest foes; it’s always seeking pleasure that lasts for a season. We’re called to kill the flesh every time it raises its ugly head by nailing it to the cross. And when it reappears, we have to do it again. For holiness to become a lifestyle repentance must become a regular practice.

Have you ever considered the corporate hedonist that often appears among the Body of Christ? When the church begins warring against itself Satan takes the throne. When we refuse to corporately take up our cross we take up our quarrels. The Apostle James tells us that this infighting comes from the desire to please self over the desire to please God (James 4). It’s always rooted in our inability to believe that God can give us everything we need.

Many of you know that I’ve given my life to the Church, and in particular, the Church of the Nazarene. My heritage is grounded in the Church of the Nazarene. I love the people called “Nazarenes” very much. However, at times I’ve loved her too much. I repent of ever making my denomination an idol. I repent for allowing the boundaries of the Church of the Nazarene to limit my perspective of the Kingdom. I repent for the times I’ve allowed my identity to become more wrapped up in the Church of the Nazarene than the Kingdom of Jesus. We’d all do well to remember that God is a lot bigger than our little tribe.

With that said, I am burdened for the church. I’m troubled over the lack of passion for revival and what seems to be protest against it by some. I’m burdened over the unfaithfulness and pettiness. I’m burdened over the toxic environment that exists in some places. I’m burdened over the manifestation of pride. I am praying that God break down these strongholds; and when I say break down, I mean crush.

I’m praying for people to be delivered from rigid fundamentalism because none of us are the judge. I’m praying for people to be delivered from dead religious formalism because God is alive and He needs room to move among His people. I’m praying for people to be delivered from progressive intellectual elitism because it’s opposite of the posture of humility. It saddens me to see so many places negatively affected by legalism, liberalism, antagonism, and a host of other “isms” that no doubt breaks the heart of God.

We need to become a “movement” again: one that’s led by the manifest Presence of the Holy Spirit. God forgive us for allowing the church to become a religious enterprise. Forgive us for turning the church into a business instead of a house of prayer. Forgive us for trying to climb the latter of success. Forgive us for being more concerned about what people think than we are what God thinks. Forgive us for trying to be something we’re not. Forgive us for not living by the principles of corporate prayer and repentance that You’ve prescribed in Scripture:

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

It’s time to cry out to God corporately. For the anointing of the Holy Spirit to fall on us again we must repent of our failed business strategies, hollow philosophies, lack of accountability, and broken theological constructs. The Father won’t settle for being an afterthought. He desires to be intimately involved in everything we do.

I hope you hear my heart. In the midst of my brokenness, my longing to be a better follower of Jesus is increasing. Brokenness is a good place to be. There’s a lot of freedom when we learn to live like there’s nothing to lose. Vulnerability that leads to repentance is the only thing that’ll break down the strongholds preventing us from experiencing the intimate Presence of the Holy Spirit.

God is so good. He’s better than I’ve ever imagined He could be. There are parts of His goodness that’s easily noticeable, yet often overlooked. I want to spend the rest of my life paying closer attention to who He really is and what He’s really like. For that to happen, vulnerability and repentance must become a common way of life.

holy-spirit

In the late 90s on our way home from visiting Washington DC in mid-July, Heather, Jake, and myself were traveling I-95 southbound headed back to North Carolina. Lunchtime had passed and we were all hungry. Jake was around seven years old and he wanted to eat at McDonald’s. However, for some reason I was set on eating at Denny’s. I’m not sure why, maybe it was the “Grand Slam.”

When traveling our nation’s highways one doesn’t have to look far to find a Denny’s; sure enough, a few miles down I-95 and we spotted the big yellow sign. We exited the highway, parked the car, and went inside. When they brought our beverages to the table the first thing I noticed was a long, black, crusty hair hanging out of my drink and flowing down the side of the glass. Then we noticed what appeared to be a couple of eyelashes (we hoped they weren’t nose hairs) floating with the ice cubes in Heather’s beverage. We decided to pay for our drinks and leave. Jake said, “Dad, can we just go to McDonald’s?” “No,” I said, “We will find another Denny’s.”

A few exits down, and sure enough there was another Denny’s. No sooner than we had walked through the door a very loud, brassy, gruff voice yelled out, “We’re short-staffed and out of ice. So, if you want a cold drink you’d better go somewhere else!” Without a word, we walked back to the car. Jake again asked, “Dad, can we please go to McDonald’s?” Most people would’ve given up on Denny’s at this point, however we’re pretty resilient. “No Jake,” I said, “We will find another Denny’s.”

Another ten miles or so and what do you know, there was another Denny’s. The sign in the lobby said “Seat Yourself.” This Denny’s appeared to be abandoned; we didn’t see anyone. We sat at the first booth we came to and within a few minutes I noticed someone walking toward us with a slow swagger and a long, blonde, badly styled wig that was so bright that it glowed in the dimly lit room. It was our waiter.

His fingernails were so long that they curled under a few times; he was actually having trouble holding the pen to write down our order. Finally, we noticed the massive amounts of cat hair matted to his apron, which made me wonder what they were cooking in the back. Beyond that, he smelled and sounded like he’d been chain-smoking stale cigars. I ask him to give us a minute. As soon as he walked away I looked at Jake and said, “Let’s go to McDonald’s.”

I’ve never been to Denny’s again. Whatever it was I was craving, I’ve since forgotten. It was so bad that the memories of this incident will forever be branded in my mind. It wasn’t a food issue; we never made it that far. So what was it? Our problem with Denny’s had everything to do with hospitality. Plain and simple, Denny’s was a bad host. This occasion has caused me to think a lot about the importance of being a “good host.”

Have you ever been to a gathering that wasn’t hosted very well? Ever been in someone’s home who wasn’t very welcoming? Maybe they were rude, or messy, or obnoxious, or a bad cook? One thing is certain: hospitality plays a significant role in our relationship with others.

No doubt, there are many churches that need a lesson in hospitality. Beyond that, as Christians, we should strive to be good hosts in every situation. And while all of that is important I think the most important thing for us to realize is that, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be “hosts” of the Holy Spirit. Think about it: the Sovereign Lord, the Most-High King, the Creator and Sustainer of all things dwells in you. Walking in the fullness of God requires living with a sacred awareness that He’s always present.

Inattention to the Holy Spirit is a sure sign of misplaced affection. Without realizing it we tend to compartmentalize our lives. In doing so, we put God in a box and only take Him out when we need Him. Far too many people’s relationship with Jesus remains out of sight and out of mind. They go about their lives never giving a second thought to the fact that God is with them, every second of every day, He is present.

We like our faith to be categorized instead of personalized. We enjoy buying stuff, taking it out of the box, plugging it in, and using it. We like three-point outlines, PowerPoint presentations, and systematic theology. While these things may inform our faith, they lack the power to transform us into His image. Transformation comes in the form of continually encountering a Person.

While Scripture offers a standard for practicing faith, and Christian tradition certainly informs our faith, and reason helps us make sense of our faith, experiencing the Person of the Holy Spirit offers something the above mentioned do not: an intimate encounter with a Person. We would all agree that nothing impacts our lives like our experiences. My experience at Denny’s has forever altered my perspective.

Experiential faith worries some people because of its expressive nature. While I share their concern for the televangelist types that manipulate the masses and stir up emotional frenzies, we must not write off experience as an important part of our spiritual journey. We need to look no further than the Book of Acts to identify how the Holy Spirit came upon people and radically transformed their lives. This happened before the New Testament was complete, before the traditions of the Church had been established, and couldn’t be reasonably explained by those caught up in the movement.

If one examines what’s happening in the southern hemisphere today he or she will identify people encountering God in supernatural ways. There are reports of supernatural healing, intercessory prayer that’s changing entire cities, and revival that’s stirring the hearts of multitudes of people. Beyond the southern hemisphere, there is also a growing unrest among congregations in the United States that are experiencing authentic glimpses of revival. In fact, there is a grassroots remnant that believes the church needs revival more than anything else.

We are a church that believes in the infilling, overflowing, sanctifying power of God at work in and through us for the benefit of the world. He dwells in us for our sake, but He flows through us for the sake of others. When the Holy Spirit rests upon a person, a congregation, or an entire denomination, it’s because He’s been made welcome.

Sadly, it seems fewer and fewer people live consciously aware of their responsibility to be a good host. In fact, today the Holy Spirit seems largely forgotten, which grieves the heart of God and quenches His ability to flow through our lives. I believe the church’s greatest days will come when she rediscovers the power of hosting His Presence. We must realize that there is an experience that goes beyond emotions. It’s the atmosphere that is created by the manifest Presence of God. When He shows up it changes everything.

stench

Well, it’s that time of year again. I’ll never forget my first February in Kentucky; then last February I noticed the same thing, and now this year. Let’s just say some things never change. What am I talking about you ask? The early spring invasion of SKUNKS!

In their efforts to cross the road these poor animals get hit by passing cars and inevitably leave a smell that, as the old southern expression goes, would knock a buzzard off a gut wagon. I actually have a skunk living in my backyard. When I take the trash out at night I’m always fearful that she’s going to be standing by the garbage can cocked and loaded.

The potency of skunk stench travels a great distance. When I ride over their carcasses on the highway the odor oozes into my car and remains for several miles. The power of a skunk’s particular smell has the capacity to linger in your nostrils for an uncanny amount of time.

My friend, Eddie, once had a pet skunk named, “Pierre” (although it was a girl). He tells me that Pierre was one of the best pets he ever owned. He found her when she was 6-8 weeks old and had the scent glands removed. Pierre was housebroken and trained to walk on a leash. He kept her for two years before getting married. However, his wife-to-be put great pressure on him to find Pierre a new home. Pierre spent the rest of her days entertaining children at elementary schools as part of a traveling zoo.

If you’ve ever viewed a skunk up close (preferably in pictures), you’ll likely agree that they’re adorable little animals. I’ve pondered recently why God would create something that appears so sweet yet give it a scent that will scar you for life. A few days ago that familiar smell seeped into my car once again; as the odor lingered God reminded me of a few things.

Scripture speaks a lot about “smells” and “aromas.” When dealing with unfaithfulness among His people God says, “These people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away” (Isaiah 65:5, NLT). The Bible suggests a similar idea in 2 Peter chapter two when the Apostle writes about Believers who turn back to sin as “A dog that returns to his own vomit, and a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”

All of us are wonderfully made in the likeness of a loving Creator. Every one of us is a much-loved child of the most caring Father in the entire universe. Yet many of us are like the prodigal son before he realizes his need to return home: We smell like a pigsty. We are beautiful in God’s eyes, yet all of us have the capacity to stink. When we willfully choose to live in sin we produce an aroma that reeks in the nostrils of God.

For many, the smelly aroma comes from their efforts of self-preservation. We’ve learned to function in ongoing protection mode. Like a skunk, we let off an odor when we try to defend ourselves against what we perceive as a threat. Something presses in on our lives and we lash out, lie, cheat, attack another person, think we deserve something we actually don’t, justify our bad behaviors and habits, and the list goes on. In these moments we produce a scent that not only distances us from the Father, it also separates us from the people we love.

My friends, sin is a serious problem. When it goes unchecked it has the capacity to derail our lives in a way that leaves us dead on the inside. Without God, the aroma of death lingers. We’ve all been affected, which means we’ve all smelled like a dead skunk in God’s nostrils at one time or another.

Like Isaiah, our very best efforts are like filthy rags compared to the righteousness of God. In other words, we don’t deserve the goodness and mercy of God because of our stench. We often live in denial of the fact that we have the potential to smell like a skunk carcass lying on the side of the road. Denying the potential to smell like sin means one likely thinks more highly of themselves than they should. This is a dangerous way to live.

At the end of the day we all smell like road kill without Jesus. Paul says in 2 Cor. 2:14-16, “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life…”

Wow! In Christ, we are called to manifest His sweet fragrance everywhere we go. That means the Kingdom of God is touching down everywhere we stand. Now, when I smell a dead skunk I think about the fact that I’m dead to myself, yet alive in Christ. Without Jesus we stink in the nostrils of God, but IN HIM we’re a sweet savor unto the Lord. Let people smell the aroma of Christ being manifested through your life everyday.


(Sources: Eddie Estep)

gotcha-day

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

“Gotcha Day” is a term used in the adoption community. It refers to the day when adoptive parents finally get their child. It’s the climax of months of praying, waiting, and preparing to bring a child into their life, of which they’ve usually never met. Imagine deciding to adopt a new son or daughter and working for many months toward bringing him or her home. Finally, the day arrives when you wrap your arms around that child. That’s Gotcha Day!

September 15, 2014 was “Gotcha Day” for Kacey. We committed to adopt her eight months prior. We spent thirty-five weeks praying, reading about her, looking at pictures, preparing her room, and filling out paperwork, and more paperwork, and more paperwork. But mostly we anxiously awaited the day we were going to fly halfway around the world and bring her home. We did all of this because we felt like God said, “rescue her.”

We flew out of Chicago in the early morning hours on Saturday September 13, 2014. Once in Guangzhou we spent a day adjusting to the time difference, then another day receiving final instructions for what the process would entail. On Monday morning we boarded a bus with eight other couples and headed to the civil affairs office to meet our daughter.

There were over fifty couples picking up their children from all over the Guangdong Province that day. We walked in with the group from our agency. Once inside, everyone found a seat, and family-by-family they called people forward alphabetically by last name. When your name was called you proceeded to the center of the room and your child came from another room. In those few seconds families were united with their children.

It seemed like forever before they got to the “P’s.” Finally, they called our name. From behind another door Kacey emerged. There she was, scared to death, yet trying to smile. The picture at the top of the blog post captures this moment. Most families were adopting younger children who really didn’t know what was going on. However, Kacey was thirteen years old, and although she wasn’t that old emotionally or physically because of her blood disorder, she was old enough to know that her life was about to change forever.

She came out of the door with her orphanage director and one of her caregivers. None of them spoke any English; we knew minimal Mandarin. She was being very polite, but it was obvious that she was afraid. Who wouldn’t be? She’s lived her entire life in an orphanage. She’s been told that she wants to be adopted, but she really doesn’t know what it means to be adopted. She has no context for understanding what a “family” really is. She’s heard the words “mother” and “father,” but doesn’t understand what it means to have parents.

As the room started clearing out, Kacey became more apprehensive. Finally, her caregivers told her goodbye for the last time. Remember, these are the only people she’s ever known and they’re leaving her with two Americans with whom she can’t even communicate (other than with the iTranslate app on our phone).

A few minutes after they said their final goodbyes tears started streaming down her little face. She was trying so hard to hold them back. Her effort to smile was causing Heather and I to cry. After a few more minutes Kacey was sobbing. Then she walked away from us and began roaming the hallways yelling out for her orphanage director.

Eventually she found him. As they spoke in Mandarin we had no idea what they were saying. Our director told us that he was explaining to her that she had to go with us for at least one night. The law in China says an orphan over ten years old has to ‘agree’ to be adopted. That means they have to sign their name in front of an attorney stating that they willfully choose to become the child of their adoptive family. However, even though they get that choice, the law also requires that they stay at least one night with the family seeking to adopt them. Kacey was fighting even going with us for one night.

The director of our adoption cohort, who also translated for us, took Kacey by the arm and gently tried to explain the rules. However, she wasn’t having it. Eventually, they begin forcing her to walk out of the building with us. They literally pulled her down the hall, onto an elevator, and out into the parking lot kicking and screaming. Along the way our director kept trying to explain to her that she had to go with us for one night.

In the parking lot Kacey spotted her orphanage director’s car. She ran toward it, but the leader of our group wouldn’t let go of her arm. Kacey is relatively strong and extremely strong-willed. She was hard to manage and would’ve been very difficult to drag for two city blocks. The fatherly instinct rose up inside me. I looked at our director and said, “Can I pick her up and carry her?” She said, “That would be the best solution.” So, I swooped her up and carried her kicking and screaming, against her will, for two city blocks.

All the people in our group were crying for us, we were crying, and Kacey was squalling and fighting simultaneously. It was quite the scene. As the others in our adoption cohort carried their toddlers and infants to the bus with no problem, I was literally forcing our little teenager to go. It felt strange. People on the busy sidewalks looked on with concern as this white man carried a little China-girl down the street against her will.

In all of the confusion, Kacey didn’t realize that something very important was actually taking place. In the midst of the struggle we were literally trying to save her life; this was a rescue mission. You see, at fourteen she would have aged-out of the adoption program. The China government doesn’t care if you show up at midnight on a child’s fourteenth birthday; they will not let you take them when they reach that age.

She was aging out of the adoption program soon. Beyond that, she was very sick and needed a lot of medical attention. I wanted to give her a life she’d never experienced. I wanted to take her from the orphanage to the castle, so to say. I wanted to treat her as a good father would treat a much-loved child, but fear was standing in the way.

When we finally got to the bus, I carried her straight on, down the isle, to the very back seat, and sat her in the corner. I blocked the isle so there was no chance of her getting up and running. She crossed her arms, looked up at me, and if looks could kill, let’s just say I’d be a dead man. I felt terrible, however, I did what needed to be done.

The ride from the civil affairs office to the Garden Hotel was over an hour long. On the way Kacey saw things she had never seen before; her countenance began to change. Once we arrived at the hotel she was astonished. The Garden is a five-star hotel that provides special deals for adoption agencies. Many adoptive parents stay in the Garden while they’re in China. As Kacey walked through the doors of the Garden she was amazed. She kept saying, “woooow.” It was literally a rags-to-riches story coming to life.

When we got to the room on the 15th floor she looked out over the city in amazement. Then she discovered a jetted bathtub; she had never had a bathtub. She wanted to know if she could take a bubble bath (she ended up taking one every night of our stay). I had brought some beef jerky on the trip; she loved it. In fact, she ate the entire bag. We took her to eat at a fancy restaurant. She wanted to know what she could order. I told her “anything you want.” Soon the table looked like a banquet fit for a queen. She had never eaten that good before.

That night, Kacey Xing-Yu Powell fell asleep on a king size bed between a mom and dad on the 15th floor of the five-star Garden Hotel after taking a bubble bath and eating a fine meal. She feel asleep lavished with the love that only a mother and father could give. In one day her entire world literally changed. What a difference a day can make.

We got up early the next morning. After breakfast our adoption cohort loaded the bus to return to the civil affairs office to sign the legal documents for the adoption. Once we arrived everyone was again sitting in the same room as the day before. We were apprehensive that once she got back in that element she would become anxious again.

The process included going to two different offices, sitting before attorneys, signing documents, and promising to take care of the child for the rest of her life. Again, once a child is over ten years old they have to agree to go with their adoptive parents. Therefore, she also had papers to sign.

While in the attorney’s office Kacey began to have a conversation with the official. It was in Mandarin; we had no idea what she was saying, but it was obviously serious. Our director came over and joined the discussion. The attorney sent us out of his office to work out whatever it was Kacey was talking about. After about five minutes of conversing with Kacey, our director filled us in.

“She’s negotiating,” our guide told us. I smiled and ask, “What’s her terms?” The guide smiled back and said, “Kacey says you have to promise to take her back to visit the orphanage before you leave China or she will not sign the papers.” I almost laughed. “Deal,” I said, then Kacey signed the documents knowing there was no turning back.

We made plans to visit the orphanage the next week. I paid a driver to take us back to the little village where the orphanage was located, which was a couple of hours from Guangzhou. In the days leading up to the visit Kacey kept asking to buy small items, mostly snacks. When the day came to visit the orphanage she had filled two large bags with all kinds of food, snacks, and toys. We quickly realized what she was doing. She wanted to give these gifts to her friends before leaving them forever.

When we arrived at the orphanage, I followed her with the bags. She walked into the main office, gave specific instructions as to who got what, and left the bags with the workers. Then we followed her up the stairs and through the halls of this building where she had lived. We passed so many children on that short walk, many crying and reaching up to us. Heather and I were again in tears.

We arrived at Kacey’s room. Her friend that she shared the room with was there; she had aged out of the adoption process and was now looking for a job. Kacey started collecting items that were stashed in various places. Once she gathered all the things that were important to her, she placed them in the luggage bag we had bought her, then she looked up at me and in plain English said, “Let’s go!”

I can hardly type this without tears. The rest is history. Kacey now has a family and a future, but most importantly, she has a Savior. You see, a few months after she arrived back in the United States she watched the “Jesus Film” in Mandarin. In our driveway, using the iTranslate app on my phone, I led Kacey to Jesus with tears streaming down her little face.

Fourteen years before, Kacey Xing-Yu Powell had been left on the steps of a hospital at eleven months old. She’d lived her entire life with a life-threatening blood disorder that had never been properly treated. She resided in a poor orphanage in an obscure village in southern China. She would have aged out of the adoption process five weeks after we arrived. However, that didn’t happen.

Everything changed because eight months earlier God said to two strangers on the other side of the world, “rescue her.” Kacey was an orphan for over a decade, but now she’s a princess for life, and will forever be a daughter of the King!

holier-than-thou

“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…” (Mark 8:15). Jesus is harsh in confronting the Pharisees of his day pointing out that they polluted the Body. It is interesting to consider the role of fermentation in the making of bread. It starts small, but it contaminates the entire loaf. In fact, one of the definitions of the word ‘ferment’ is to incite or stir up trouble and disorder. Synonyms of the word include, uproar, confusion, and turmoil. That’s what leaven does: contaminates the whole.

A friend of mine recently tweeted, “You know what’s just as bad as holier-than-thou academic types? Holier-than-thou anti-intellectuals. The holier-than-thou part is the issue” (Brannon Hancock). I agree. His statement got me to thinking about the behavior of the holier-than-thou pharisaical types that distract, pollute, and weaken the mission of the church.

Interestingly, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were highly educated, yet the Pharisees of the last century have been largely uneducated. Both groups are notoriously recognized as spiritual elitists. They epitomize a sanctimonious attitude. They want their opinions to be accepted by the masses and they work hard to discredit opposing voices. Undeniably, the holier-than-thou mindset raises its head among the educated and the non-educated alike.

Look close and you’ll notice that there is a new breed of Pharisees ‘leavening’ the church today. It’s not the theologically uneducated form of legalism that’s dominated church boardrooms for the past 50 years. In fact, this new breed seems to be a resurrection of the Pharisees of old: the educated elitists.

Before I go any further let me clarify a few things…

Categories related to how people understand and practice faith are not always neatly packaged. What I’m addressing here are voices existing on the far ends of the theological spectrum: rigid legalists and religious liberals. Both are detractors. It doesn’t take long to identify these extreme personalities in church committee meetings, Sunday School classrooms, social media groups, and hallway conversations.

Let me also say, academic training is essential for those preparing for ministry. There should be rigorous academic requirements for anyone preparing for ordination. I was enrolled in school for 15 consecutive years, earning four degrees along the way. In fact, since completing my doctoral studies I’ve felt a bit lost. ‘Studying to show oneself approved’ is a biblical mandate that I take seriously. Many Christian universities are going to great lengths to ensure balanced biblical teaching.

With those disclaimers, let’s move ahead.

A professor at a prominent seminary (non-Nazarene) recently said, “You can’t be an intellectual and be a conservative.” This person indicated that in the world of academia it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be theologically conservative and/or moderate. In other words, there is tremendous pressure to ‘lean left,’ otherwise one isn’t seen as thinking deeply and critically about important issues.

Often when we think of Pharisees and fundamentalists we think of legalistic uneducated troublemakers who reject anyone that doesn’t measure up to their spiritual standards, not intellectuals (remember my friend’s tweet). But what if the ‘spirit of pharisee’ was alive and well in the realm of academia? Does it surprise you to learn that rejection of those who don’t ‘lean left’ is commonplace in academic circles?

Let me be clear: the academy itself is not the problem. It’s the spirit of elitism infiltrating segments of the academy that’s the problem. It has a leavening effect. When being theologically liberal is equated with academic success a certain way of thinking begins to ferment the whole.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not the uneducated fundamentalists we think of today. Just the opposite, they were highly educated. In fact, they were so knowledgeable that they took it upon themselves to reinterpret large portions of scripture. When you arrive at a place where you feel the need to deconstruct sound biblical doctrine in light of cultural shifts or personal interests that might be a sign that you’re on the road toward spiritual elitism.

Elitism has always been a sign of pharisaical behavior. It’s always been indicative of those who create controversy among the faithful with an attitude of superiority. Of course, we realize that Jesus caused unrest. However, he certainly didn’t challenge the authority of scripture, particularly in a way that would alter the call to a holy life. The unrest Jesus created wasn’t among the faithful; it was among those who were corrupting the body.

A tree is always known by its fruit. We can discern whether unrest is harmful by analyzing the fruit. Fundamentalism, regardless of what side of the spectrum it’s found, is driven by a belief that one is right. This is a good place to insert the Apostle Paul, “Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ” (Col. 2:8, NLT). Without a doubt, the unholy leavening of those who are faithful to the cause of Christ is the fruit spiritual elitism.

It’s in this new context that the ‘spirit of pharisee’ is being resurrected. Like Pharisees of old, this new breed of Pharisee is easily offended and quick to dismiss those without certain letters behind their name. They love to correct people they deem as not measuring up to their level of intellectual superiority. They deconstruct biblical orthodoxy, influence with alluring ideas, and intimidate with overpowering rhetoric.

Traditional fundamentalists have filled church pews for years. They’ve been described as legalistic, harsh, and judgmental, and rightfully so. However, don’t be fooled by the trendy new left push. Today’s fundamentalism is regularly found among those who seem to be the most educated and progressive. They enjoy force-feeding perspectives and diverting conversations away from those that hold a more centered biblical worldview.

Again, fundamentalism has always been found on the far ends of the theological continuum. It’s marked by rigidity and arrogance. When the pendulum swings, it never stops in the middle. Overcorrection leads to faulty perspectives. The centrist way is the way of Jesus: humble enough to learn yet brave enough to stand.

Historically, the Wesleyan-Holiness movement has been balanced in its approach to faith and practice. It’s a road less traveled: a lifestyle marked with love and compassion for people, yet also courage and resolution to speak truth. It’s a call to build bridges, not walls. The road we’re called to travel is an ancient path evident by holiness of heart and life. So, don’t get lured to the sidelines by the loud voices demanding your attention. Instead, be faithful to walk the via media.

It doesn’t matter what end of the theological spectrum we examine, we will always find holier-than-thou-pharisaical-fundamentalist types. Some will likely be offended to have the term ‘fundamentalist’ attached to their name. However, if their attitude reflects that of their legalistic predecessors, then it deserves the same description. This new breed of Pharisee is hardened toward others because they are confident that the bread of life needs a new additive: their leaven. Sorry to wound their highbrow ego, but God’s already provided all the ingredients we need.


(Sources: Janet Dean Blevins, Doug Hopkins, Jared Henry, Brannon Hancock)

My Cup Overflows

This morning I woke up with a song by Robin Mark on my mind. The joy of the Lord filled my heart and tears welled up in my eyes before my feet hit the ground. There’s no better way to start the day than in the presence of Jesus. Those mornings when you get up and you’re immediately overwhelmed by his goodness. It’s in those moments that I’m reminded of the extent of God’s love for us.

Back in 2003 someone gave me Robin Mark’s CD, Revival in Belfast. I’ll never forget the first time I played it in my car. I was captivated by the sound of the bagpipes, chimes, and wind instruments that opened the first song, “Garments of Praise.” Halfway through the first verse the Lord came. He ministered to me in a special way as I drove that day. Actually, I had to pull the car over to the side of the road as tears streamed down my face and joy filled my heart. I sat there for 30 minutes and just praised him.

I call those moments being in the overflow of God’s presence. The Greek word περισσεία (perisseia) means: “superabundance; out of measure; exceeding normal expectations.” It’s related to the Hebrew idea the psalmist uses in Psalm 23 when he writes of his ‘cup running over.’ It’s the same word used to describe the leftovers after Jesus fed the multitudes in Mark 8.

A good English interpretation of the word perisseia is “overflow.” To live in the overflow means that there’s more than enough. It means that there’s so much more than I need that I have the responsibility to share. I like to say that living in God’s overflow means I have more than I need, more than I can use, and there’s more to come.

Throughout the Bible we are promised that God will supply us with an overflow of some amazing stuff. He promises an overflow of love, grace, joy, provision, gratitude, and so much more. You know, things money can’t buy. However, from my experience it seems that many people don’t really know what to do with the overflow. They fail to see it, much less live in it. We’re all guilty at times. We’re so busy trying to make our mark in the world, so busy trying to make a living that we fail to experience the overflowing presence of God.

There’s great peace in knowing that we’ll never run out of something. We experience that peace when we realize that we can’t do anything to exhaust God’s grace. That means you don’t have to store up anything for later; there’s always a fresh supply. The overflow means God’s love is fixed toward us. There’s nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can do to make God love us less. His goodness never ceases to flow into the lives of his children.

When you learn to live in God’s overflow it becomes your overflow. When God’s overflow becomes your overflow it starts spilling out into the lives of everyone around you. As my friend Michael Perkins would say, you begin to drip Jesus.

Since that morning in 2003 there have been many days where God has visited me in a special way. When he shows up it’s obvious: no one shows up like God shows up. Often it happens when I’m driving. However, the overflowing presence of the Holy Spirit never stays in the car.

The song I woke up to this morning is a song that has become the theme of my life. This song will be played at my funeral. It’s called, “When It’s All Been Said And Done.” I’d like to share the lyrics with you today:

When it’s all been said and done

There is just one thing that matters

Did I do my best to live for truth?

Did I live my life for you?


When it’s all been said and done

All my treasures will mean nothing

Only what I have done for love’s reward

Will stand the test of time


Lord, your mercy is so great

That you look beyond our weakness

And find purest gold in miry clay

Turning sinners into saints


I will always sing your praise

Here on earth and ever after

For you’ve shown me heaven’s my true home

When it’s all been said and done

You’re my life when life is gone


(Sources: “When It’s All Been Said And Done” by Robin Mark; Michael Perkins)

Generosity_Header

When people realize that they get to live a life they don’t deserve, when their life has been invaded by grace and they’re filled with gratitude, you know what happens? It begins to show. It begins to show in their faces because they smile more. It begins to show in their words because they’re kinder in what they say. It begins to show in their actions because now they become more loving and generous people.

In Luke 7 Jesus is having dinner with Simon who was a Pharisee. It’s kind of an exclusive dinner party. On this particular night the Bible says that in walked a woman who was uninvited. The Bible doesn’t really tell us a lot about her. Only that she had lived a sinful life. She walks in uninvited and stands by Jesus. She is so overcome with emotion that she begins to weep. As tears roll down her cheeks they begin to drip down on the feet of Jesus. The Bible says that she gently kneels down, takes her hair, and begins to wipe the tears off of his feet. In that moment so overcome with gratitude, she actually kisses the feet of Jesus and begins to pour perfume on them.

Simon the Pharisee becomes enraged at what is happening. He’s upset not only about what she’s doing, but he’s upset that Jesus isn’t upset. Jesus knows what this guy’s thinking. So he tells a little story about two guys who were in debt and how grateful they were after they had been forgiven of their debt. Then Jesus says about this woman, “Her sins which were many have all been forgiven. So she has shown me much love.”

I don’t want you to miss this. If you don’t remember anything else in the last three blog posts, I hope you’ll remember this. I think this is a fundamental point. Here’s what Jesus is trying to say: (1) There is a direct link between my ability to love and the depth of my gratitude; (2) There’s a direct link between the depth of my gratitude and my understanding of grace.

When your heart has been transformed by the grace of God you can’t help but be filled with gratitude. And when your heart is filled with gratitude, you can’t help but begin to express it in generous deeds.

This woman, on this day, could walk into a room where Jesus sat physically and openly express her love to him. Now, it’s not possible for you and me to do that in the same way today. So how do we do it? We express love to the people he loves, to the people who were created in his image. People who he cares about. Those are the people that we express love to today.

Grace flows in, gratitude fills up, and generosity flows out.

It all starts with grace. When you realize how much you’ve been forgiven, how much you’re loved, how much God has graced you with a life you don’t deserve, it fills up your soul with gratitude. When your heart gets full of gratitude it can’t stay put. It works its way out in generosity. You become a more loving person. You become a kinder person. When grace flows in, gratitude fills up, and generosity flows out. Let the good things of God flow freely!


(Sources: Max Lucado; NIV Application Commentary; Max Kennedy of Innovative Word; Holman NT Commentary)

 

Gratitude

Gratitude is the natural by-product of grace. Yet, I know from experience how quickly I can forget God’s grace and start complaining. How easily my focus shifts from what I should be grateful for, to what I don’t have. Do you ever have to remind your kids about this? Have you ever had this conversation? “That room you live in is in a house that I own. You live here for free. It’s all grace. See that bed? Grace. Those clothes in your closet? Grace. That TV in your room? Grace. How about a little gratitude?” I wonder sometimes if God doesn’t look at us and say, “You know that job you have? That’s grace. Your health and all the years I’ve given you? It’s my gift to you. The house you live in? It’s all grace. So how about a little gratitude?”

Gratitude is so much more than just being polite. I think about the forced gratitude that we impose on our children at Christmas when they get a lousy present from Aunt Claire. We give that look that says, “You’d better say thank you even if you don’t know what it is!” Genuine gratitude isn’t forced; it’s the kind of gratitude that resides voluntarily deep within your soul. It’s gratitude that creates contentment and makes you less petty and critical.

Perspective is everything. True gratitude has nothing to do with what you have or don’t have. It has nothing to do with having a job or not having a job. It has nothing to do with having your health or not. It’s not dependent on circumstances. Listen to Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “No matter what happens, always be thankful for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”

Back in 2003 a young 13 year old girl named Bethany Hamilton was laying on her surfboard off the coast of Hawaii when she was attacked by a tiger shark. She lost her arm and for the next several hours there was fear that she would actually bleed to death. She was a young surfer on her way to becoming pro, but that day her life was interrupted. Stories about her ran all over the news. Listen to her words just a few days after this attack that would forever change her life: “There’s no time machine. I can’t change what happened. This is God’s plan and I’m going to go with it.” She goes on to say, “I might not even be here if I hadn’t asked for God’s help. Who knows maybe it’s all so that I can tell others about God and help them get to heaven.” Remarkable… thirteen years old! Not focused on what she didn’t have (her arm), but grateful for what she did have (her life). It’s all about perspective.

Guarding your heart with gratitude is essential. In the Christian life there are many things which are like spiritual diseases. No matter what the symptoms are, I believe the prescription for healing is found in a large dose of gratitude.

Let’s say for example that you struggle with a critical spirit. That is symptomatic of an ungrateful heart. My advice to you would be, work on gratitude. Begin to look for those things which you appreciate. Maybe you struggle with bitterness in your marriage. When you and your spouse disagree you feel the resentment welling up inside of you. Stop, change your thinking. Look for ways to be grateful. Begin to express your appreciation and see what God does in your heart. Maybe the issue is one of pride. You find yourself thinking it’s all about you. Focus on gratitude; it helps you realize it’s not about you at all.

Gratitude leads to contentment… every time.

Practice staying in the moment. One of the lessons that I’m continuing to learn is that my gratitude is linked to my ability to stay in the moment. Life in our culture moves very fast. If I’m not careful I’ll blow right by all the opportunities that God wants to inject gratitude into my heart. We need to learn to linger long enough to be grateful.

Let’s practice this right now. Hold up your left hand, wiggle your fingers. If you have a left hand that works and moves, it’s something to be grateful for. In fact, your hand is a medical marvel. Some of you have a watch on your left arm. Every time that second hand ticks, it’s a gift. Not one of us ever created one minute of life. It’s a gift. On my left hand is a ring which symbolizes a gift of a relationship. It represents somebody who has shared their life with me for more than 25 years now. It’s a gift for which I am grateful. God gave you that left hand so that you could touch and be touched. Sometimes just the touch of a person’s hand communicates, “I’m grateful.” In fact, if you’re sitting by someone you might just reach over and pat them on the shoulder, put your arm around them, grab their hand. If you’re sitting next to a stranger, don’t do it… or at least ask them first.

The idea: Stay in the moment. Practice saying thanks for the little things. When we express gratitude, God changes the way we think. When we start thinking differently the way we perceive everything is filtered through the lens of gratitude.

Psalm 118:24 says, “This is the day the Lord has made. We’ll rejoice and be glad in it.” This is the day. He doesn’t say “yesterday,” because you can’t change that. He doesn’t talk about “tomorrow,” because we don’t know what tomorrow holds. But the one thing we own is what we do with this day, today, right now. When grace flows in, gratitude fills up.


(Sources: Max Lucado; NIV Application Commentary; Max Kennedy of Innovative Word; Holman NT Commentary)

grace

Grace… in Christian circles we throw around that word quite frequently. However, I’m not convinced that we really understand the magnitude of these five letters. There is so much in that one little word. We often take it for granted and we drastically understate it. It’s like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground or Lake Michigan a pond. Grace is so big; there’s so much to it.

If someone were to ask you to give a one sentence definition of ‘grace’ what would it be? In simple terms, most of us would probably say that grace is a gift. It’s getting what you haven’t earned. It’s living a life that you don’t deserve. It’s being ‘graced’ with something. While I love concise definitions, I don’t always think they do the word justice, especially in this case. Sometimes grace is better understood with a story.

In 1995 there was a strike in major league baseball. Contracted players were holding out for more money and better benefits. There was a lot of resistance from the owners. In the spring of that year the owners came together and decided that whether they had contracted players or not they were going to open the season. They opened their teams to virtually anybody who could field a ground ball and swing a baseball bat. Some guys who were coaching Little League one week were playing in the Major Leagues the next. It was remarkable to watch.

Max Lucado writes about this experience: The games weren’t fancy… One manager said his pitcher threw the ball so slowly the radar gun couldn’t clock them. But oh, did these guys have fun. They arrived before the park was open, oiling their glove, cleaning their cleats, they thanked the attendants for washing their uniforms. They thanked the caterers for food. They thanked the fans for paying a dollar to come and watch them. These guys didn’t see themselves as a blessing to baseball but baseball was a blessing to them. In that short season the Phillies gave away free hot dogs and in the trade of the year the Cleveland Indians gave five players to the Cincinnati Reds absolutely free.

So what made this season so intriguing? Quite simple. These were all guys who were living a life they didn’t deserve. They were chosen not because they were good but just because they were willing. And they knew it. There was no jockeying for position. There was no second guessing the management. No strikes, no walkouts, no lockouts. These guys didn’t even have names on the back of their jerseys. They were thrilled just to be on the team.

That’s grace. That’s how we should be. Thrilled that God would allow us to be part of the team, not because we deserve it, not because we’re good, not because we’ve earned it, but just because that’s how God is. God’s grace simply means that God is for you, that he loves you and wants what’s best for your life.

Until you understand how big and majestic God is and how undeserving you are, you’ll never understand God’s grace. Until you realize that the darkness of your own soul separates you from a holy God, and that there’s nothing in you to merit a relationship with a God, then you’ll never fully appreciate grace.

Here’s the good news. In spite of how dark my own soul can be, and in spite of how big and majestic he is… He chooses to love me. That, my friend, is grace. My prayer for you today is that you will never get over what it means that God has invaded your life with grace. Not because you deserve it, but just because that’s who he is. When grace flows in it changes everything.


(Sources: Max Lucado; NIV Application Commentary; Max Kennedy of Innovative Word; Holman NT Commentary)