Reflections From the World of Christian Retail

Last week I attended the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta, Georgia. This was my 18th such event, put on by the Christian Booksellers Association. This is an annual gathering of the creators, publishers, suppliers, and retailers of almost all the product you could find in your Christian bookstore, as well as several products that don’t make their way onto the shelves of your local stores.

Over the years, my involvement in the show has changed, moving from a retailer to my current role as a marketing specialist for The Parable Group. The show itself, has changed, with the decline in sales being felt by all involved in the industry. (Or any industry with annual trade shows, for that matter). But as my role has changed, and with nearly two decades of experience in this industry, I am more and more impressed with what hasn’t changed.

  1. What speaks/ministers to one person will not speak/minister to another. It never fails, year after year… Let me get this one out of the way first. The cynical observation. There are products at the show, and in your local Christian store that are cheezy. They take Scripture out of context. They reduce theology to a bumper-sticker. They are trite and they are inferior duplications of what is offered by mainstream counterparts. You have seen these, and you have likely been to the websites and blogs that find their purpose in collecting such items for public ridicule and judgment. But with each one of these products that I find ridiculous (and no, I will not name them), I know there are people who will find them to be just the thing they need to be given hope. Why we think every Christian product has to be about us individually is a mystery to me. You see, we are all at different stages of our walk with God, every single step important. What used to speak to me no longer gets my attention; and what I find to be profound others may see as arcane or boorish. Different strokes for different folks. Which means there is validity for much of the products you see, even if you’d never ever partake in them yourself.
  2. There are real people behind these products. These things didn’t just mutate onto the shelves we peruse, they were created. By creative people, too. They invested a lot of time and effort and money to get their idea to market. When I read a life-changing book, there is a person on the other side whose ideas met my heart. That painting or photograph took real live work. That song or movie took an investment. The more I am involved in the Christian bookstore industry, the more opportunity I have had to meet and know the people behind these products. They get hurt when criticized, they are elated when their work connects with someone, and very few of them are getting rich in the process. They do it because they have something to tell the world, and they use the medium that they are best versed in.
  3. Overall, the heart passion behind the product is commendable. A comedian I like once made fun of Testamints, those little breath-candies with a cross on them. He said they didn’t work, because he still swore. I kinda thought they were silly, too. Until I met the people who make them. To hear this man talk about Scripture Candy was inspiring. He wasn’t trying to make a mint off of his mints, he was just trying to get people to think about Jesus more. And he’s not a rich man. The folks at the publishing companies are likely not making as money as you are. And the guy who owns the Christian store in your town isn’t making a fortune, barely scraping by on a second mortgage on his home so the store stays open. I look at these guys as missionaries more than anything.
  4. This truly is a business world. Just because someone is doing something for a good reason doesn’t mean they don’t have bills, though. They still pay rent and have electric and water bills and all the overhead any business does. So they have to build a margin into what they sell. Unfortunately, that margin has only gotten smaller as online businesses have become the go-to. Businesses who can survive with lower margins because of lower overhead and no passion other than the almighty dollar. Regardless of what the growing public may thing, music and movies are not made for free, and writers and artists still need to be paid for their words and pictures. What they do is a ministry of sorts, with the sale of books and Bibles and music and films and framed art similar to a missionary raising meager support. The marriage of ministry and business is a delicate thing. I think it was Eddie DeGarmo who I heard tell a fitting story. A fan at a DeGarmo and Key concert was enraged that they were charging money for a gospel CD, because, the fan asserted, “The Gospel is free. Eddie answered perfectly, saying, “The Gospel is free, but the CD is gonna cost you fifteen bucks.”
  5. Not every product idea needs to be available at a Christian bookstore. With all the passion and business savvy, all the reality behind different products having their place, not everything needs to be at Christian retail stores. I have seen items the last few years that would surely get attention in playful ways, allowing people to talk seriously about Jesus. But the products would offend more than they would attract. And keeping a business mind, you gotta dance with your date. Taking care of the people who are responding to your efforts is a whole lot better investment than hoping the bolder products would bring in someone new. That coupled with the expanding product offering in a shrinking retail environment simply means that not all products need to be readily available.
  6. We need Christian retail. With all the available product to a Christian consumer, it’s important that we have gatekeepers who can find what is likely going to be the most appealing. Sure, my taste in music may not always be reflected in the CDs they stock, and I still can’t find a Christian version of my favorite authors, but I can usually trust what they have on their shelves. As more and more clamoring takes place for shelf space, there will likely be mistakes made in the product selection. But the Christian bookstore is still the best place to find the right Bible for your thirty-something cousin, or the appropriate novel for your teen niece. It’s the only place you can find a sales associate who not only helps you find the right book addressing your struggles, but also prays with you about that issue, too. Amazon will never do that, and I’ll choose a prayer over a price any day.
  7. The message will long outlive the industry. The way I make my living is going through a lot of changes, as evidenced by the stores I serve and by the industry that serves us all. Times are tough for everyone involved, and as in other industries we are expected to do more with less. But I still believe that the quickest route from the heart of God to the heart of any of us is with a good song or a good story. And at the end of the day, I work not to keep my business of my industry alive, but to deliver products that are created to tell the age old story of a God who is madly in love with people like you and me. People like the homeless guy a few feet from my office door and the lady at the grocery store.
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I’ll Do the Work Each Day

I love my kids. If you don’t know this about me it’s because: a) we’ve never met, b) you’ve never read anything I have written, or c) you are hopelessly clueless. All three of my kids (15 year-old, 3 year-old, and 19 months) fill my days with laughter and joy. I never tire of their hugs and laughter, I am amazed watching them learn things on their own, and I am proud when they excel at the things they attempt.

At the same time, I have never been a fan of dirty diapers or the phrase “wipe me.” Too much whining and crying are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. I have no tolerance for disobedience. And I get tired of always having to pick up after them. Yes, all of these things are part of parenting and part of each of them learning to grow up. But when it comes to children, frustration is the flipside of elation.

Case in point, for the last little while I have I been on my fifteen year-old to take care of a few things she is responsible for. Or she is supposed to be responsible for them anyway. She began a yard project two months ago, some work that she asked to do so she could have some money to go out with her friends. I spotted her the money, with the expectation that she’d put in the work. That job, and some of the tools, have been ignored in my back yard for over eight weeks.

Even though she knows to keep her room clean, that is ignored worse than the yard work! It’s been way more than two months, more like about fifteen years! I don’t ask that she keep her room spotless and perfect, I just ask that she keep it picked up enough so people can walk into her room to get to the printer or to sit and talk with her while she does her homework. Every day, I ask her to clean her room. Every day. And every day when I leave for work or when I walk by her room a dozen times a day I see what looks like a rummage sale after gale force winds, clothes, books, garbage, and other things strewn across her floor. Every day.

Or her laundry. When she does actually do her laundry, it sits on top of the dryer for days. Even weeks. Now, she accesses the clean clothes regularly, pulling an item or two out of the basket, but then leaves the basket on the floor with clean clothes falling out of it. To get to the dog, the ironing board, or to the garbage cans, someone has to pick up her basket of clean clothes and set it atop the dryer again. Only for the whole process to be repeated at least once the next day. The most recent accumulation of clean, unfolded laundry was an eighteen-day collection, the genesis of clean clothes beginning a few days before she left town for a school trip a few weekends ago.

Now she is a great kid. She’s doing all right. Getting good grades. She is a good example to her friends, and she is a lot of fun to be with. She was chosen for the school trip to attend a statewide student leadership conference. So really, I have very little to complain about with her. All in all, I am very proud to have her for a daughter. But these three things are a source of frustration to me like nothing else.

When I have asked her to take care of these three things, I am told, “I will.” But history has proven to me that she won’t.  She has time to watch movies, hang out with friends, and spend endless hours staring at her iPhone looking at Pintrest, but not for what I have asked. Or I am told, “I’ve been at cheer all night. I am too tired.” But not too tired to go to a friend’s house. Or I hear, “Can I do it tomorrow morning when I wake up.” Great…if she ever would follow-through.

Admittedly, when I would see these three things every day, day after day, it created a distance between me and my daughter. Daily reminders of how she was choosing to do other things, or nothing, rather than obeying what I had asked her to do. Disobeying. Lying. She was telling me that her room, laundry, and job were not as important as what she wanted to do. Or that she was too lazy to do what I had asked. And if not too lazy, she was too busy doing what she would rather do. Or that if it was really that important, someone else would do it for her. Infuriating. After all of this, I really didn’t want to go out of my way to give her the things she asked me for. Things that would make her life better, more enjoyable, and maybe even easier. Things I really want to give her.

So when I woke up today, I took matters into my own hands. I folded the nearly three weeks of clean laundry that was in baskets in the laundry room. Before I put the clean clothes away for her, I cleaned her room, picking up her shoes and dresses that were being vomited out of her closet, gathering another load of laundry to do, putting her books and schoolwork back on her bookshelves, and picking up the garbage that was thrown around her room. After that, I did the work that I had already paid her to do. In all, it took an hour and a half. That’s it. Ninety minutes had kept us from having a better relationship. She chose a strained relationship with her dad over less than fifteen minutes of responsibility each day.

I didn’t do her work today because she deserved it. I didn’t give up my morning because I wanted to make her feel bad. It wasn’t because I think she is incapable. And I didn’t fold a fifteen year-olds laundry and clean her room and do her yard work just because I was sick and tired of seeing the messes. My motivation was simply that I love her and I want her to see how much.

You see, I too have a messy life, with things not put away properly, making it hard for others to navigate. I too have piles of things I do not manage and value enough. And I also have things growing in my life that are out of control and need to be pulled out. I played super-dad today because Yahweh is a super Heavenly Father who does the same thing for me each day.

Every day, He sees my mess of a life. Every day He has to move things He gave me so other things can be done. Every day he sees a weed infestation choking out what He has planted in me. Every day is filled with constant reminders of what keeps us from having the relationship He wants us to have. Every day.

Why would I do this to God so often? Well, just like my fifteen year-old daughter, I am too busy, too tired, and too interested in other things to care. So today I imitated God. Because everyday, He comes into my room and cleans it up for me. Every day He moves heaven and earth so the abundance of what He’s blessed me with doesn’t get in people’s way. Every day He pulls weeds in the Garden of Eden He planted in me.

In Jesus, we see God doing the very thing I did for my daughter today. He steps into our mess, doing the work we can’t or won’t do, simply so we can have the relationship we both want to have. We don’t deserve it. He doesn’t do in an effort to make us feel bad or to prove a point. He just loves us enough to do the work for us.

This afternoon I told my daughter that I’d clean her room each morning for her if it was dirty. And that I’d fold her clothes each night if they were still in the laundry room. And that I was happy to give her money so she could go out with her friends. I love my kids.

Now the big question is, what’s the response going to be? Will she continue to let me clean everything up while we continue to pollute it?  Will she keep on being too busy and too tired and too engage with the things I’ve blessed her with? Or will she step up and take responsibility?

My work for my fifteen year-old took ninety minutes. That’s less than fifteen minutes a day for a week. Not much effort and commitment is needed to pull that off. Or to maintain it. And it changed how I look at my daughter. I don’t see the mess, just the open path to live each day with her, no garbage and baggage clouding our relationship. How would fifteen minutes each day this week change your relationship with your Heavenly Father?

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What Keeps Me From Blogging

Wow. Look at the date of that last post. Nearly a year and a half!

I pay my hosting and domain fees, so I can’t blame my lack of blogging on not having an outlet.

I speak to a small group of people a couple times a month, sharing a devotional thought. I read nearly 75 books since my last posting, and many of those books impacted me in both entertaining and insightful ways. I’ve listened to thousands of records in that time, with opinions about what I heard. And I have had some live changing events happen in my life. So I can’t blame my lack of blogging on not having anything to say.

I wrote a book for my wife in just two months, and am working on another special project, too. So I can’t blame my lack of blogging on not actually writing.

So what has kept me from writing a blog post for nearly a year and a half?

Fear.

What if I say something stupid? I was  a youth pastor for twelve years. I recently came across some of the notes from the talks with Jr. and Sr. Highers and I can’t believe I actually said some of those things! Not because they were not delivered well, but because they were so dorky. What if I say something wrong? There are much more learned people than I to listen to. I may misinterpret something or not have all my facts straight. I definitely would change some of the things I told the kids in my youth group if I had it to do all over again. What if I am not consistent in what I blog about? In one post I try to open up a passage of scripture or inspire, and the next post I write about what was missing from a new indie-rock record. Or about a book I recently read. One day it’s about my work week and the next I write about what I miss about the Midwest. A week later I write about my children or my marriage and what I am learning about life. And then there’s the post about why I am not writing blogs as I think should.  What if what I write isn’t that good? Churches have taught from my first book many times. Pastors have said it’s the most accessible book about sharing your faith that they’ve ever read. Then I see that it’s not selling like it needs to for the publisher to recoup. A friend tells me that “it really wasn’t that good, you  know.” Maybe I should just give up.

Pride.

Because I want what I write to be good! I wasn’t an English major. I didn’t take a lot of classes on the art of writing. I’ve read a few books since my first book, but I still pretty much just write the way I talk. But I am not a pro, and others are. We all want to be liked, but maybe even more we want our kids to be liked. And when time is invested in creating something that is criticized, it hurts. And that’s only if anyone pays attention to what was written!  Do you know how many people mentioned that I hadn’t written on my blog for a year and a half? Two. My publisher and an old friend. That’s it. So maybe I shouldn’t waste my time by taking risks that are ripped apart and largely ignored.

Fear and Pride. Those two things are what have kept me from writing on this blog. An idea would come to me, and I’d grab my laptop. Then I’d pick up a book or watch a film instead. The monsters of fear and pride invited complacency to a party in my head that has left this place empty. But maybe that party is over now. Maybe instead of fear, I invite the thrill of risk to the party. Maybe instead of pride, hope is invited to sit with me on the couch. Maybe instead of complacency, adventure or ambition is welcomed.

Enough. That’s enough. This page has been silent too long. So if you read this, feel free to bug me about sharing my thoughts, regardless of how stupid, wrong, inconsistent or armature they may be.

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Dealing with Stress

It’s been one of those stressful seasons at work. Budgets, deadlines, and meetings are filling my days. My hours. I know, stress is a part of everyone’s work. That’s just one of the reasons it’s called “work” and not “recess.” I am not complaining, just honestly assessing a reality. As much as I like to get a paycheck every other week, work sucks. It sucks the energy out of me! I am grateful I have a job that takes it out of me. But it is stressful. Come to think of it, life is stressful. I have budgets and deadlines and meetings outside of work, too. Maybe more than I have at work! Kids are stressful. Spouses cause stress. Family causes stress. Household maintenance causes stress. I trust I am not alone in this, and that you face stress, too.

So stress happens. Got it. Agreed. Scientists will tell us there are different levels of stress. There’s acute stress, manifested in headaches and upset stomachs and wild emotions. There is episodic stress, leading to migraines, depression, and even stroke. Chronic stress just grinds away at us from the inside, breaking down all resistance. Then there is traumatic stress, a full-on medical disorder. That doctors have even identified four levels of stress speaks volumes into the commonality of stress.

That we have stress is one thing. More importantly, how do I get rid of it?! Psychiatrists will tell you to identify your triggers and attempt to remove them or come to terms with ways to minimize their influence in our emotional wellness. Others will tell you to get a massage or to practice breathing exercises. Aerobic exercise and yoga may be recommended. And a sociologist will emphasize the importance of a network of support that you should surround yourself with, sharing the burdens you face. All of that is fine and dandy, but what does the Bible have to say about stress?

If there is a Bible character who knew stress, I think it would be David. His stress came at him in droves. Vocational stress, emotional stress, relational stress, psychological stress, and spiritual stress: David knew stress. Every night, I assume he had a war waging in his head. I think that was evident in Psalm 4. He also offers a sort of biblical prescription for stress here.

The first thing David did to deal with stress was pray. “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness. You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.” The first thing David does here is praise God for who He is. Some would say he gains perspective, realizing that even in stressful times, “it’s not about me.” David continues with appreciation, recognizing that even though he is stressed out, God has a history of doing great things. Then he makes a request of God. He asks for grace and mercy. To alleviate stress, prayer is always a good starting point.

The next thing to do when dealing with stress is to just chill out. The spiritual term for this is “stillness.” David writes, “…Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” There are many scriptures that talk about “waiting.” Calm down, be strong, and give God some time. David encourages meditation. You should pray, go ahead and ask, but don’t forget to wait for God. This is not an instant gratification relationship with God. My workweek is run by my calendar. With a Jr. Higher in the house, my evenings and weekends are pretty calendar driven these days! But where is my God time? As I write this, I am by myself in a small town 40 minutes from my home sitting a café. This is my time with God. This is my opportunity to chill out and be still.

The last thing David does in Psalm 4 is give. He makes a sacrifice. I know, generosity is likely the last thing to think about when you are stressed. But it’s what David gives that is of importance here. He gives his trust. “Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.” Another wise man said not to casually trust God, giving an obligatory surrender to Him, but rather to trust in the Lord with all of your might. He went on to say that you can’t trust your understanding because you don’t see the whole picture. One thing I have learned is that the more I learn to wait on God in stillness, the more I have to learn to trust Him. Experience tells us that problems are not fixed immediately. God unveils our steps one at a time, not all at once. You have to trust Him.

So with all the stress relief techniques and tools, God gives us a pretty simple three step plan. (Probably because when I am overwhelmed, I need things to remain simple!) God asks us to bring our worries and woes and fears to Him. And leave them there. How many times to we “bring something to God in prayer,” only to take it with us when we say amen! God asks us to be still and meditate on His greatness. To wait on Him patiently and restfully. And God tells us to trust and obey Him. As an old song says, “There’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.

Because of all these sure things we can depend on in the midst of our stress, David closes his Psalm by saying “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” That’s one of my grandma’s favorite verses. And the older I get, the more it resonates with me. But I cannot just jump to the lie down in peace until I am willing to surrender my stress through prayer, stillness, and sacrifice.

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Cake and Sunsets

I recently read a new memoir by Tony Kriz that I thought was pretty cool. Tony is also known as “Tony the Beat Poet” from Donald Miller’s very popular book Blue Like Jazz. Tony’s book, Neighbors and Wisemen, takes a look at how people outside of the Christian faith have positively contributed to Tony’s relationship with Jesus. The people in Tony’s life are rather eclectic, from Muslim families to bartenders, atheistic academics to chastised Christians. It’s a good read, and I think it’s a fine use of $15 if you are into memoirs.

Tony reminded me that God can, and will, work through any person to make Himself known. Since that is one of the things written on the back of the book, I am glad it actually panned out that way! Early on in Neighbors and Wisemen, Tony recites an ancient prayer that I’m attempting to fuse into my days as well. “Be in the heart of each to whom I speak, and be in the mouth of each who speaks to me.” This thought is a great guide to keep aware of what I say and of what I hear, giving God room to infuse both with His power, creativity, and purpose.

There is one section of the book I really wish I had read before I wrote my book, Glow.* If I’d read this part of Tony’s book, I would have incorporated it into Glow somehow. I really appreciate what Tony wrote, and I hope you do to…

“Sharing my faith.” Is it like sharing a cake – where I have a cake and another doesn’t? I want them to have some cake, so I “share it” with them. Now both of us have cake! Or is “sharing my faith” more like sharing a sunset where neither of us possesses the she sunset but we both experience it. And as my friend and I talk about the sunset, we are both exposed to a new appreciation of the sunset. When we look at that sunset next time, we both take on new aspects of it, sharing something exponentially bigger as we continue to “share.” “Sharing my faith.”

I love it. No steps. No rules. No real plan. Just an organic appreciation and conversation of something we may never be able to fully articulate. A work in progress, where subtle nuances are brought to light the more it is discussed. I don’t know how you approach sharing your faith, but Tony and I agree that it is not the production that many make it out to be.

Does the cake or sunset analogy resonate with you in any way?

What can you do today to “Share your faith” the way Tony suggests?

*If you have not read my book, please do. I need to make sure the publisher makes a return on their investment. Many people have told me that my book takes the fear and apprehension out of sharing their faith. Others have said that it is the most natural look at evangelism that they have ever heard. And a few have said that it’s like sitting down to chat with me over a cup of coffee. I’ll never know what you say unless you give it a read. Glow is available in paperback here, or as an ebook here.

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Covenant Relationships

Promises. We’ve all made them. And, we’ve like all broken a few, too. In our early childhood, we learned how important it is to keep a promise. “Do you promise?” Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. That’s a serious commitment there! Cross my heart makes since, but hope to die? Wow. And it would make sense for the whole needle thing to precede the death part. But anyway, we are taught the importance of promises early on.

As we grow older, the promises we make get pretty varied. We make promises about silly things, like “I’ll be there at 7:30. I promise.” We make business promises, signing contracts and leases. And we make relational promises, like “For better for worse until death do we part.” Silly promises. Serious promises.

In the Bible, the most formal of promises was “the covenant.” A covenant is a binding, formal agreement between two people to do (or not to do) something. This type of promise is modeled by God’s commitment to us. His word is His bond. That is a promise that will NOT be broken, and that is how God expects us to commit to Him. Foxes Book of Martyrs is filled with examples of Christians who made this kind of covenantal promise to God.

And yet the frequency of promises made is getting closer to the frequency of promises broken. People just don’t take their promises as seriously as they once did. Have you ever been betrayed? Did your spouse bail on you? Ever been screwed over in a business transaction? We live in a world of broken promises!

I recently read an awesome book about spiritual journeys called The Road Trip That Changed the World. The book isn’t really about promises or covenants, it’s more about how people are looking for ways to “find themselves” or even to “find their way” in a spiritual sense. It’s about how so many try to chase God and their vices simultaneously. But in this new book by Mark Sayer, he writes, “The surest way to revolutionize our world is to practice coventality in our own lives.” Think about. Keeping your promises will totally change the way things are seen by your family and neighbors and friends and coworkers and church.

This made me think: who do I have covenants with? I am committed to my wife and daughters and my unborn son. I have a covenant with The Parable Group. I work for them. I am a part of New Hope church in Arroyo Grande California. I have friends and family stretched all across the nation. Some around the world. I have made a commitment to God. I want the best for these people. I want them all to succeed. And if I really think about it, I want the best from each of them. These are covenant relationships.

But sometimes these relationships are weakened. I have “bad history” with some of these people. I can never rely on some of my favorite people. With some people, I am always giving and never receiving. Some of these relationships haven’t changes in decades, creating serious ruts. Others have had drastic changes because of betrayal and lies. With some, there is a connection, but no growth.

I donlt think it’s a far stretch to say that God expects us to honor the covenants to make, to keep our promises. I mean, “Thou shalt not lie” is pretty to the point isn’t it?! So how do I practice coventantilty, as suggested by Mark Sayer? I think it boils down to one thing: be a man or woman of your word. If you say you’ll do something, then do it.

I used to be a traveling musician. I have 500-600 solo concerts under my belt as a jazz musician. I remember booking a concert in Minneapolis one winter. I’d booked the show months in advance, but a blizzard was expected the Friday night before the Sunday concert. It would have been totally understandable to cancel the show. The drive to Minneapolis was going to be dangerous, and who knew how many people would even turn out if the snow storm lasted longer than forecasted. I kept my word. I left a day earlier than I planned, arriving in Minneapolis right at the beginning of the storm. I needed to find my own housing for the estra night, but that expense and the total inconvenience of it all was more important than backing out of of my commitment. And it was a wonderful concert. I kept my promise to play for them.

What would motivate me to do this? My commitment to God. I already pointed out the whole “Don’t lie” thing from the original Top Ten List. But during His only sermon, Jesus commanded us to “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” And in James 5:12, it says, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” The Scriptures that I promised would guide my life demand that I keep the promises I make. I try. I have failed on numerous occasions, but I try to keep the promises I make.

The bottom line is that God wants more from our covenantal relationships. He expects us to be people of our word. He expects us to not have to “prove” that we are serious by making frivolous promises. He expects us to model Him, honoring the people we are committed to… even if they are not always committed to us.

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True Belief

There are certain Scriptures I read that really make it evident that the Bible was not inspired by humans. Sometimes I read things that I would have taken out so I wouldn’t have to deal with them. “Love your enemies?” I’d rather not. “Die to myself?” I think I am much more important than that, thank you. All that talk about surrender and sacrifice and submit? Nope; I’d rather my faith be comfy than challenging. But I don’t get to give input. I’m asked to obey.

Other times I see things Jesus said that are just hard to understand. You don’t hear a lot of sermons on Jesus command to be as shrewd as serpents. Not many small group exercises involve an examination of God telling Abraham to circumcise himself. As an adult. Or to sacrifice his son. Sometimes the Bible is just hard to hear. I don’t always like what I read in there! I was recently reading through the gospel of John and came across a passage I don’t really like.

“Because of the miraculous signs Jesus did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many began to trust in Him. But Jesus didn’t trust them, because He knew human nature. No one needed to tell Him what mankind was really like.” – John 2:23-25

What?! I don’t like hearing that Jesus didn’t trust people! Or that He didn’t have faith in the faith they said they had in Him. But reading that challenged me: could you and I be an exception to this? Does Jesus trust us? What makes true belief something that Jesus would recognize? How do I develop “true belief” in Jesus? As I chewed on this for a while, I came to the conclusion that true belief is based on four things.

First, true belief is about the experience. It’s not about the signs. The popular rationale driving many who were following Jesus around was that the more miracles Jesus performed, the more people would follow Him. But when the show stopped, and the hard teaching started, people bailed. I think this is evidenced in the entertainment based ministries in churches these days. I was once asked to speak about spiritual disciplines at a youth retreat. I had 6 sessions across three days. Each session was an hour long: 30 minutes for games, 10 minutes for worship, 15 minutes for teaching, and 5 minutes for announcements about the next fun activity. So across 72 hours of a youth retreat, 90 minutes was really looking at the Word. The rest was all signs and wonders! Jesus did many great things for people. I believe that He did more miracles than the gospels record. And I believe that He continues to do miraculous works in the lives of people today. But He doesn’t exist for my entertainment. He cannot be both Lord and jester. If I follow Him motivated by “What trick can Jesus do for me today,” I am no better off than the ones Jesus didn’t trust.

Next, true belief is about the fellowship. It’s not about building a Team-Jesus. The passage in John tells us that a lot of people believed in Jesus, He just didn’t believe in them. He wasn’t looking for fans. Kyle Idleman has a wonderful book called Not A Fan. It’s all about defining our relationship with Jesus. I am a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, but I am not committed to them. I don’t follow their personal lives, and I likely cannot recite their current roster at all. But I root for them. I want them to win. I am a fan, but not a disciple. Jesus didn’t invest in fans, only disciples. He wasn’t into drawing crowds, rather drawing people to God the Father. Jesus wasn’t into people merely liking Him; he wanted a deeper relationship and fellowship with them.

And true belief was never about meeting Jesus’ needs, although embracing His service to me is the mark of a true believer. Here’s a hard fact to face: Jesus doesn’t need you. He is not better off with you. His work won’t fail if you are a failure for Him. He doesn’t depend on you. But, He created you and died for you because He knows how much you need Him. LeAnn Rimes sang a song called “I Need You.” It was written for a mini-series about Jesus that ABC aired a decade ago. I loved this song. “I need You like water, like breath like rain. I need you like mercy from Heaven’s gate. There’s a freedom in Your arms that carries me through. I need You.” Jesus would never sing that song to me. But He invites me to Himself because He knows my life is pointless unless I sing that song to Him! Jesus doesn’t need me, but He certainly loves me.

Finally, true belief is about the person of Jesus; it’s seeing Jesus for who He truly is. So who is that? He’s the only one that saves. He’s my only hope. True belief is trusting that He transforms. He changes water into wine. He transforms the dead things into living things. And most importantly, He is transforming the sinner into a saint.

“Many trusted in Him, but Jesus didn’t trust them.” Ouch. May we all grow in our faith to be disciples of Jesus that He can trust in…

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The Opportunity of Communion

The church my family worships with celebrates communion this weekend. Like many Protestant congregations, we celebrate The Lord’s Table on the first Sunday of each month. I’ve been at churches that share the bread and wine weekly, others once every 12 weeks. Some approach it with rituals rooted deep in traditions, others are more casual self-serve celebrations. I’ve been served flat bread and I’ve been served Hawaiian bread. I’ve had real wine, Welch’s, and crappy homemade grape juice. I’ve dipped bread in a common cup, sipped from a common cup, and been offered my own personal plastic cup. How or when Communion is celebrated really doesn’t matter that much to me, what matters is that we obey the command Jesus gave to “do this in remembrance of Me.”

The first Last Supper was part of a Passover meal, celebrated once a year in the Jewish tradition. Perhaps after the resurrection of Jesus, the early Christians decided to commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice more regularly. They may even have done it once a month like my church. Their devotion would lead me to believe that they remembered Jesus sacrifice with every meal. Anytime I eat, a veggie or animal had to die so I could gather nutrition from it. What better way to regularly remember what Jesus did?

So every so often, I get a little more devout in preparing for the monthly sacrament of Communion. This month was one of those occasions. So I took a look at each gospel account of the Last Supper. After 44 years, these scriptures have become familiar, routine, and easy to breeze through. But this time, something interesting stood out in the account written by Luke. Take a minute to read Luke 22:1-23. There are two men talked about in this passage. In the day that followed, both men would be dead. One would be known for eternity as a Savior, the other as a betrayer. The death of one will forever be a symbol of victory, the other a symbol of tragedy. Jesus and Judas were at the same table, but what different stories.

When I read this story this week, I was amazed at the love Jesus showed. When they sat down for the Passover meal, both Jesus and Judas knew what was going to happen. I’m sure Judas attempted to disguise the fact that he was gonna sell Jesus out. Jesus knew this was gonna happen, too. But He didn’t disguise it, He simply chose to not draw attention to it. Had it been me, I would have likely called Judas out and make him look bad and feel bad. I’d have wanted Judas to squirm. I’d have wanted to see the embarrassment on his face and listen to him attempt to cover his tracks. Jesus I am not.

Jesus, on the other hand, invited Judas to the celebration. He seats Judas close enough to share dipping bowls. When Jesus broke the bread and shared the wine, Judas was within arm’s reach. Perhaps all throughout the Passover meal, Jesus was offering Judas an opportunity to back out. Maybe being in that close of proximity to Jesus would change the betrayers mind. There’s a chance that if Judas sees my sacrificial love demonstrated, if he hears the words of my heart one more time, maybe then he’ll not take this curse upon himself. In the Old Testament, God made a donkey talk to accomplish His plan. Judas didn’t need to be the one to do this. I am sure Jerusalem was filled with people who could/would make an ass of themselves. So Judas, back off. All through the meal, Jesus was telling him, “Judas, I still love you.”

But Judas declines the love. Judas had his plans. The motivation for those plans is purely speculative, but his plans were set. He was gonna turn Jesus over. But he still ate the bread and drank the wine. It’s right there in Luke. Years later, Paul would warn the early Christians to not approach the Lord’s Table unworthily. As if any of us are worthy. But if there is one who ever was unworthy of the sacrament, it was Judas. And yet Jesus invited him to the table as an expression of love. He was invited to face another opportunity to make good on his commitment to Jesus, to truly be the friend that Jesus called him as. Judas faces the opportunity, but he watches it pass him by.

When I am served the elements tomorrow, when you are served the bread and wine, too, I think an opportunity is there as well. I think Communion is always full of opportunity. We are given the opportunity to remember the sacrifice Jesus made. That was His command: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” We are given an opportunity to recall where we came from. I am so thankful I am not the man I used to be. And I am thankful I am not yet the man I will become. We are given the opportunity to revisit the day Jesus became more than a name or a historical figure or a great storyteller. He became our Savior, saving us from sin and from ourselves. We are given an opportunity to reconnect with our Jesus, who sits just on the other side of that wine and bread (or within the wine and bread) waiting for us to receive the abundance of His love.

These are the opportunities we have in celebrating The Lord’s Table. They are opportunities, not coups. They are opportunities, not mandates. They are opportunities, not rights. We choose to take advantage of these opportunities. Or, like Judas, we refuse them and the love that sacrament of Communion commemorates.

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Of Transplants And New Life

So there’s this guy in Missouri who was born blind. To be fair, there are people in many other states and countries who are visually impaired. But this guy in Missouri has something special. Like most people without the gift of sight, he wanted to see. He’d hear stories and wonder what a tree really looked like. Or what a dog really looked like. Or a car. Or a building. Or his family. He tried to see. “Maybe if I squint a bit more. Perhaps if I open my eyes quickly.” But for this man, seeing was completely out of his control.

But a little over thirteen years ago, this guy in Missouri got what he had waited for. A series of reconstructive surgeries and therapy, and he was now qualified to be an eye recipient. That’s what it would take for him to see. An eye transplant. And on Good Friday, 1999, the call came. A pair of eyes were available. I do not know this guy in Missouri’s name. I can only imagine that his life has been enhanced with the gift of sight. And I can only pray he sees the world the same as the original owner of his eyes. You see, the eyes he now sees through were my dad’s.

I was thinking about this a couple months ago, and it reminded me of Ezekiel 36:26.

“I will plant anew heart and new spirit inside of you. I will take out your stubborn, stony heart and give you a willing, tender heart of flesh.” – The Voice

I was born a screw-up. No one had to teach me to do wrong. To fail. To lie. To cheat. To steal. To envy. To sin. No these things come pretty natural to all of us. I didn’t originally sin by choice, but by nature. As I grew older, I wanted to be good. I tried a lot of things that I thought would help. I prayed. I went to church. I read my Bible. You know what I tried because you’ve probably tried the same things to free yourself of sin. I found being what I was not was out of my control. No effort on my part could change the fact that I was a screw-up. My heart was full of sin, and nothing I could do was going to change that.

A few decades ago I received a new heart. At that moment, holiness was achievable. Not by my own doing, mind you. But by the work of Jesus. He took my old dirty heart and gave me a new one. That’s what it took for me to be made both whole and holy. I am a heart transplant recipient.

That guy in Missouri received new eyes. My dad’s eyes. I assume that wasn’t the end of his story, but the beginning of a new one. I’m sure he had to rebuild a life with sight. A life he had only heard about. My daughter is a year and a half old. She is learning her colors and her shapes. She is learning the alphabet in preparation for learning to read. I wonder if this guy in Missouri had to go through all of that, too. I am sure he had regular check-ups to assure that the eyes were functioning properly. I am sure that he has had eye care routines to keep any infections and irritations at bay.

My getting a new heart through Christ isn’t the end of the story either. I am continually being rebuilt in this God-life I am trying to live in. I now read my Bible and pray and hang out with other Jesus followers not to try to overcome my sin, I have learned that these efforts will not defeat my sinful nature. But these efforts do indeed keep my sin at bay. The Scriptures make it harder for sin to infect me. Some time in prayer makes many irritations less inflammatory. And hanging out with Christians in worship greatly contributes to making sure my new life in Christ is functioning properly.

As much as I hope this guy in Missouri can see things the way my dad saw them, I hope and pray that I can see the world around me with the same heart that Jesus sees and feels and reacts with. He has transplanted my stubborn heart, and replaced it with a tender one. What do people around me see beating more often: my original heart, or the new one from Jesus?

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The Power Behind Praying

I serve on the Board of Directors for a local Christian radio station. My background in radio makes this a no-brainer way for me to give of my time and talents to a local ministry. We have quarterly meetings to discuss a variety of agenda items. At a recent meeting, agenda item number two was “Prayer.” It’s always good for a Christian organization to pray. I think it’s a good idea to begin any important discussion/meeting in prayer. So scheduling time to pray isn’t a big deal to me.

Before we got to agenda item number one, though, a member of our team opened in prayer. I assumed the agenda order was reversed, and we were beginning with the prayer item. This assumption was easy to make when the prayer was encompassing our time together, the decisions we were making that day, and was inclusive of all aspects of previous conversations as we entered the meeting. So when we got to agenda item number two, with questions about anything we could pray about, I was a bit confused. “Didn’t we just do this?” I thought. “Let’s move on to number three, and not repeat ourselves here. Seriously? We’re praying again? We just prayed like three minutes ago!”

So maybe I am not a “prayer warrior.” Maybe when I pray I get to the point and I am done. Or maybe I forget to realize Whose ear I have whenever I pray. Even if I think I am merely rehashing what others have said, reciting what God said, or repeating what I have said.

Part way through that prayer and my less-than-prayerful thoughts that were more about “moving on” than a “move of God,” I had a sudden realization. Perhaps God’s Holy Spirit spoke in a still mall voice, but I plainly heard “Don’t you realize Who you are talking to? Is God merely an agenda item to you today?” I was stunned at my callousness. I immediately recalled what I was feeling just a few days earlier as I read about a friend of mine…

Kevin is the “new guy” where I work. During our company prayer time towards the end of his first week, Kevin shared with tear-filled eyes that his dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was broken. In these situations, some people pray for “God’s will “to be done. That God’s peace would be with the family during this difficult time. I guess I’m different.

You see, I don’t think cancer is God’s will. Ever. Now I do think that God uses crappy things like cancer to do some pretty amazing things, but I wasn’t concerned about whether prostate cancer was God’s will or not, and I wasn’t  going to ask for God’s peace when God’s healing-hand could deliver much more! So I assured Kevin that I’d pray for his dad’s healing every time he came to mind. And when you work with a guy, he comes to mind every time you see him. So I prayed for this a lot over the following weeks.

The week of this board meeting, Kevin sent an email to the staff updating us on his dad’s situation. He’d gone back to the doctor to see how things were progressing, and guess what? The doctor’s found no cancer at all! It was gone! Prostate cancer? We don’t need no stinking prostate cancer!

So as I am sitting in this board meeting, I was immediately reminded that I wasn’t just killing time on an agenda item, but I had the ear of a God with power. The same God who healed my friend’s dad was listening to us talk about the finances of a radio station, the needs of a ministry, the lives of a family who moved across the US, the wellness of an overworked engineer.

It’s funny what a realization like this does to your prayer life. Since then, I have prayed with passion. I have taken the words I speak to God seriously. I have been uninhibited to bring things great and small to God, and leave them in His hands that are more than capable of moving mountains. I’m probably still not a “prayer warrior,” whatever that definition may be. I may not spend hours in prayer or call down fire from heaven. But I am praying with the realization that my puny faith has a part in moving mountains when I talk to God about things that matter to me.

What motivates your prayer life?

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