12/4/12

Christmas and Evil


God says, "For my people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me - the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!" Jeremiah 2:13

Can we just cut through the lies? We have lied to ourselves about our God. We have believed that God is loving, while disbelieving that God judges and punishes. This picture of God allows us to sin, and find joy in sinning. Do you think I'm too harsh? Have you read the lyrics of the most popular songs our students sing while riding down the road? Have you listened to the unholy things adults and students say? Have you noticed the cravings for sex and drunkenness and money at Christmas time, and how intently we seem to chase those cravings? This world is in worse trouble than some fiscal cliff might bring. Jeremiah points out two sins: turning our back on God and filling our lives with unfulfilling things. Both of these things leave us guilty. God is our only solution to the problems in our life. All other solutions (just a little more money, more fun, more things from Wal-Mart) are only band-aids, when we need a full-on heart transplant.

Stellar Kart has a song called "Shine Like The Stars" that includes the following lines:
I hear you say
You know the way
Still you live like you do
But compromise
Only satisfies
The dying part of you
I look around and see people who have checked off "Christian" under the Religion section of some survey, while not truly having decided to follow God with their lives. I see the seeds of such a lack of devotion in my own soul, too, and I cringe. And I will never truly find satisfaction in compromise. I need a Savior to rescue my dying soul.

If we understand the world around us from God's perspective, then we can see even more beauty in Christmas. The world is desparate for help, even while pushing away God's help (at least, on the surface). And God, in His infinite wisdom and His penchant for second chances, sends us a solution. He shows us what Perfection looks like in human form, and we see how far we have to go. We see at long last the Help we so desparately require, wrapped in blankets and lying in a feed trough, heralded from the sky by angelic beings. He can repair our cisterns (and change our perspective). He can flood our lives (and fulfill all our longings to overflowing, that we may spill to other broken cisterns around us). Thank you, God, for your gift of a fountain of living water, our Messiah. Thank you for a King to rule our hearts and repair our cisterns. 

10/3/12

Look Up!

My brother in Christ Daniel Howard preached for us recently, and God challenged me in several ways. I wanted to share about this. The main points are from Daniel. The discussion that follows is my interactions with it.

Colossians 3:1-4
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
This quote begins with "If." There are some who are Christian, and some who are not. These words are for the Christian.

Christians then are encouraged to look up, to make our life about God's things, not the things of this world. We need such constant reminders to make our lives about the life of Christ. We often become too bogged down in earthly things to remember the Christ who now owns our life.

How are we to remain focused on Christ? It would seem a frustrating and seemingly impossible command to focus on things that cannot even seem to fully see this side of heaven. The key is in verse 3, "your life is hidden with Christ in God." When you die to your old way of living, you cling to Christ, who now owns all of you, for you have surrendered to him. (Remember, your way of living was what resulted in your sin and pain to begin with!) After your death to sin, and your being raised to new life in Christ, your life becomes fully about Christ. You now pay taxes because Christ instructed you to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's." Parents, you now raise your children not for their success but for Christ's purposes. Students, you now do your homework so that Christ will stretch your train your growing mind. Couples, you now honor your spouse according to Christ's design, remembering that your marriage reflects Christ's relationship to His bride, the church. Workers, you now work for Christ, even while an earthly supervisor signs your paycheck. "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). The identity you formerly had ("What do you do for a living?") now has new meaning, because you are following Christ wherever He takes you, in your "normal" life.

I am convinced that more Christians would say yes to Christ if they saw more of what saying yes could mean for the glory of God. Daniel Howard spoke of a specific example of setting our minds on the things of Christ. Churches in Birmingham responded very specifically to Christ's call to care for orphans ("Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world," James 1:27). So after hearing from God, they said yes, and began to adopt and to foster children. The response was staggering, numerically. See the 2011 article here. I would like to find a more updated response to what Christ is up to in the Birmingham foster care system today.

As Daniel came to a close, he asked an important question of us. Why should we be concerned with this? What is our motivation? What is the end result? Colossians 3:4 answers this succinctly. "When Christ... appears, then you will also appear with him... ." This is not our home. We are aliens and foreigners. This present suffering will one day be completely gone. When our lives are completely wrapped up in the glory of Christ, then we will not find our ultimate purpose as long as we are still alive. Only on that day when Christ returns will our life's purpose reach its climax.

Do not forget. The purpose of all life is to bring God glory. Like some beautiful song being sung by the instruments of God -- his stars, his animals, his ocean waves, his mountains, his seasons, and his children -- we are all declaring the glory of Yahweh. This will culminate in a rousing chorus of the glory of Christ when "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (see Isaiah 45:23 and Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:10).

So, Christian, live your everyday life for your Christ, your Savior. And find satisfaction in Him as He shows you purpose in your new normal, as He leads you to keep serving Him.

9/20/12

It will get worse


"I'm Good" by @TripLee116

I am not a prophet. I do not know the future. But I am passionately convinced of something. The students we lead will need spiritual tools in the near future that we have rarely used up to this point in our American cultural Christianity.
But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come. “Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. - Jesus (Matthew 24:8-13, emphasis mine)
A President has mentioned that the United States of America is not a Christian nation. Anti-American riots are happening all over the world. Christians in the USA have been arrested, even in the good ol' Southern Bible belt. In a small community college in Mississippi, two Christians were told they could not bow their heads and silently pray over their lunch in the cafeteria. Groups are vigorously seeking lawsuits to attack the practice of public prayer at public schools.

The USA will be no longer be known for its Christianity very, very soon. But that does not keep me up at night, because Christ is Lord of godless nations, just as He is of semi-Christian ones. (Just ask the ancient pharaoh of Moses' Egypt whether who was god after the ten plagues were over.)

What does keep me up at night is something else entirely. In ten very short years, my oldest child will be a senior in high school. She will need spiritual tools that I have never really needed. She, and the teenagers I lead every week, will need to be able to see persecution as a blessing within the next ten years, if not before. They will need to be ready to be arrested if need be. They will need to see Jesus as the only thing their life really needs, and be eager to grow closer to Him as a result of suffering, remembering that He, too, suffered. And HE suffered for THEM, so what a blessing that THEY could suffer for HIM!

"Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing." - James, the brother of Jesus (James 1:2-4), emphasis mine

But how do I effectively teach that which I only marginally understand? We lead from our own hearts, and while I think that my faith is strong enough to find joy in being arrested for Christ, I am praying that my faith and joy would be as faithful and joyful as Paul and Silas.

So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks. Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. (Acts 16:24-25, emphasis mine)

But if I am not yet that faithful and joyful, then may I show the next generation of Jesus freaks that their faith and joy can be, and should be.

We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.
 After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin. (Hebrews 12:2-4)

My country will probably not be know by its passion for Jesus. But I will declare this. My life will be filled with a passion for Jesus. I pray others will see it. I pray I will faithfully pass it on to my daughters. I also pray that the students I hang out with will catch a little of that passion, and that they will be ready for what is coming. Because it most certainly is coming. But we can be ready. Let us all keep our eyes on only one thing - Jesus.

9/11/12

Awaken


As I write this, I think back to September 11, 2001. I remember exactly where I was that day, and what I was doing on the campus of Mississippi College. I witnessed that morning on TV such evil as I had never before seen in my young life.
9-11-11 WTC Tribute In Light from Jersey City, NJ

Today, our world is not less evil. And the evil in our world is more insidiously imbedded into our American culture than we realize. The enemy is not Islam. The enemy is sin, and this enemy is thriving in our local schools. But I have hope. I am awakened to the knowledge that Jesus has not left our schools, no matter what school administrators can or cannot do. I know this, because I talk to students who are bringing Christ and His love with them to class every day. They are frustrated by the sin they see in their schools, and they are passionate about seeing Christ change their entire school. And I, too, believe that He can do just that!

Paul, who was given a special task to deliver Christ's good news to all non-Jews, wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus, declaring to them that he was praying that God would help them see that His love was broader and longer and higher and deeper than what was first believed, and it included not merely the Jews but also the entire world. This God-breathed passion of Paul's sent him to his knees. We, too, can find ourselves on our knees, begging God to change our schools through an upcoming event called See You At The Pole. Their theme for this year is "Awaken," and they emphasize the passage I just described, Ephesians 3:14-21.


Paul tells the Ephesians he is praying for them, and finishes with the following words:

These words are why I believe that Christ can change our schools and our world. (1)He can do more than our dreams can imagine. In fact, he has done just that time and again! (2)He deserves glory for making available forgiveness and love to every single student, every single day. (3)Also, Christ deserves glory year after year for moving in his people. I attended See You At The Pole as a high school student. Years later, I am encouraging our high school students to do the same!

But for change to occur, a first step is necessary, which is prayer. And See You At The Pole could provide that step. However, it is possible for SYATP to be done in a way that does not take that first step at all.

Last year, I and other youth workers were not satisfied that our students cried out to God for Him to change them and change their schools. I thought instead that most of the schools in our town staged an event with songs and a verse or two and a prayer. But the purpose of this event when it began two decades ago was not to produce an event. It was to PRAY! To cry out that God would save them, and would save their school! I am urging that students not organize a shortened worship service at their flagpoles, but to organize a time to truly pray.

Adults, please pray for the students all over this big, sin-filled world who will be praying at the flagpole of their respective school on Wednesday, September 26, 2012. Pray that God will prick hearts about the enemy of sin, and that His glory will shine in the cries of His people that day!

Thank you for your hopeful prayers.

5/31/12

Gaming, Internet, Pornography, and Youth Ministry: The Need for the New

Parents: Do you monitor every single moment of your student's internet activity? If you're like most parents, you probably monitor some, but not all. Also, how much time do your students spend playing games?

Students: Would you show your mom (or even your grandma) every single website you visited this last week? Have you ever played video games or played on your phone or surfed Facebook/Twitter until you felt Dorito'ed out (you know, like you've eaten a whole bag of Dorito's just because you were bored but you're still a little hungry but you're tired of Dorito's)?

Youth Workers: If you had to pick out names of people in youth group, which ones would you guess have viewed pornography in the previous week? Statistically, somebody (probably several somebodies) has viewed it, and the numbers of girls who have viewed it are climbing. Have you ever felt like your youth ministry cannot be the least bit boring, because you might lose too many youth? Ever started drooling as you dreamed of a huge setup of video games over in the corner of the youth room?

Doug Fields, a youth ministry veteran, interviewed last year Craig Gross, who founded x3church.com, a website dedicated to ministering to the spiritual needs of those who produce porn, those who star in porn, and those who consume (and are consumed by) porn. Read the interview here.

Click here for free x3church accountability software.
Craig commented on how much devastation porn brings to families and individuals -- their jobs, their marriages, their relationships, and their emotional and spiritual well-being. I applaud their ministry's efforts to reach out to help, and their free software program that tracks a user's internet activity and sends accountability report emails to their accountability partners is one of Christendom's best tools by far. I personally use it to stay pure in my internet activity.

But Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, in a TED talk, suggests that the current "demise of guys" (scoring lower than girls in many ways, especially in education) is linked to what he calls "arousal addiction": that is, an addiction to the new, not merely an addiction to more. He points to the excessive internet usage and excessive gaming and consumption of pornography among guys as a large part of the issue.

Zimbardo offers alarm without solutions, and is not interested in these implications for the church. But what an intriguing concept, and one that makes sense! This need for new (conquering new levels in games, consuming new levels of pornography) leads to difficulty with the normal.

Our young men need the skills to live in the routine and the normal. The speed of the world around them will not develop in them the skills necessary to find contentment and fulfillment in long-term relationships, in excelling in the same job for years, and in a long-term commitment to Christ.

God advises us through Paul's letter to Thessalonica that the "boring" and "routine" are in fact a goal as believers:
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat." For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. (2 Thessalonians 3:7-13)
In the world of youth ministry, the new is exciting and the old (even a few short months old) is boring. But our students NEED "boring" skills. We need to "not grow weary in doing good." Now I'm not necessarily against gaming and the internet. But too much of any good thing is a bad thing. I am against ALL pornography for its sinfulness and for its devastation on lives and on our society. But all of these things collectively will also will lead to a continuing need for the new. This need can easily and subtly become an addiction.

Questions for further reflection:

Parents / Students / Youth Workers:
How many hours a week does a student spend on a game (Xbox, PS3, Nintendo DS, PSP, Wii, or their favorite iPhone/iPad app)? Is it too much?

Does a student have chores and/or routines in their house?

How many students' internet activity is monitored? How many hours per week are they on the internet (iPad, computer, phone)? Is it too much?

In youth ministry, how can we balance the "boring" with the exciting, in such a way as to encourage a "long obedience in the same direction" (Eugene Peterson)?

Are students growing in the "boring" task of slowly following Christ day after day after day?