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Solving The Puzzle

In July 2018, I flew to Los Angeles to tape my episode of Wheel of Fortune. The episode aired October 5. The entire experience was more than I could have imagined.

My flight arrived in late afternoon. I spent the night in Culver City, a few miles from Sony Pictures studios. In the morning, I dressed and made my way to the studio lot. I was nervously excited.

At 7:45 AM, I met the other contestants in the parking garage ground floor. We were escorted through security and into the studio building. For the next four hours, we were trained and coached in everything related to spinning the wheel. We were sequestered in a room separate from the rest of the studio. Legal contracts were explained and signed. The contestant coordinators took us out to the main studio so we could get comfortable with the surroundings. We were taught how to spin the wheel, and we each took turns practicing. We practiced our introductions. We filmed a short promo for our local TV station. The experience was surreal.

Late in the morning, my team assembled at the wheel to do a practice game before recording our episode for TV. There were stand-ins for Pat Sajak and Vanna White. We played a condensed version of the game including introductions, toss-up rounds, and regular rounds. As the practice round progressed, a contestant coordinator came to me to coach me in the game. “Tim,” she said, “don’t look at the wheel or the other players. It can be mesmerizing but don’t do it. Just focus on solving the puzzle. Don’t think about anything else. Just solve that puzzle.” It would be the best advice I received.

The wheel hypnotizes, and there are many distractions in the studio. Off camera, in front of the wheel, is a TV monitor showing how much money you have on the board, what you have already won, and any prizes you have won. The audience cheers you on. Large cameras shift positions. Between rounds, contestant coordinators encourage. Make-up artists touch up your make-up. Distractions abound.

Finally, the time came to record our episode. I stood at the wheel as the announcer Jim Thornton announced, “Please welcome the hosts of our show, Pat Sajak and Vanna White.” The game was on!

Everything went quiet. Adrenaline surged into my veins. Time slowed down. And one simple thought locked into my brain: “Solve the puzzle.” Nothing else mattered. I did not look at the monitor to see what I had on the board. I didn’t look at the wheel. I didn’t look at the other players. I didn’t even pay attention to Pat. Everything in me was focused on solving the puzzle.

In the end, I ended up solving most of the puzzles. I think back to that moment when the contestant coordinator told me to focus on solving the puzzle. That made all the difference. I share this because I think there is an interesting correlation between my experience on Wheel of Fortune and the Church in North America. Let me explain.

The decline of the Church in North America is a puzzle to me. As an itinerant minister, for the past thirty years I’ve ministered in churches across the denominational spectrum. Across denominations, it is increasingly difficult to find a healthy church. Most are in steep decline. This should alarm us. We must solve this puzzle. This is the one thing on which we must focus. We have to come to the place where nothing matters but solving this puzzle.

Unfortunately, often we are mesmerized by lesser things. We are easily distracted by things that do not matter. And we must change.

On Wheel of Fortune, when I landed on bankrupt, I lost everything I had accumulated in that round. It didn’t faze me in the least. I didn’t care. Honestly, I didn’t even know what I had lost. All I cared about was solving the puzzle. With the church, all I care about is solving the puzzle of why we are in decline. I don’t care if I lose everything in the bank. I don’t care if I lose my retirement account. I don’t care about anything but solving this puzzle. It may cost me everything. I don’t care. I have to solve the puzzle.

On the set of Wheel of Fortune, there’s a used-letter board. It hangs from the ceiling just off camera to the left of the puzzle board. It shows all the letters that have been called and any letters that have not been called. When a contestant guesses a letter that is not in the puzzle, a loud buzzer sounds, and they lose their turn. The letter is marked off on the used-letter board. You don’t want to call the same letter again. That would be foolish. In the church, we’ve tried to solve the puzzle of our decline with programs, better music, and more interesting messages. But those things haven’t solved the puzzle. We’re no closer to solving the puzzle than when we started. Sadly, we keep calling the same letter. At some point, we have to call a new letter. To continue to try the same things and to expect a different result is foolishness on a Biblical scale. We’ve already proved that those letters are not in the puzzle solution.

For the church, let’s consider using some of the letters that have not been called. How about prayer? How about fasting and prayer? How about an utter dependence on the work of the Holy Spirit? How about an expectation of sacrifice, of putting it all on the line for the cause of Christ? How about discipling one another? How about confessing sin to one another? Perhaps we might solve the puzzle by trying some of these things.

What if we stopped calling the same letters and tried one of these options? For example, what would happen in our churches if for forty days we stopped all of our programming, our worship music, and preaching, and simply fasted and prayed over the state of the church? What would happen? It’s a letter worth calling. Perhaps it would help us to solve the puzzle.

These things might not draw a crowd, but they may solve the puzzle of why we are in decline. Personally, I’m willing to try. I’m not going to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them and expecting a different outcome. Something has to change.

It’s more than just a game. In the end, the only thing that matters is solving the puzzle.

 

The importance of humility

Sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks so clearly and directly that it is shocking. I’m not referring to an audible voice, but a word to the soul that is precise and irrefutable. Such was the case on day two of my time in San Francisco.

Our group and a couple of leaders from Church Intensive met in the living room. We had finished an extended prayer session and had returned from a break. I settled in with a fresh cup of coffee as we continued our discussion on the importance of humility. I listened as individuals shared, but something was bothering me. I felt frustrated. I wanted to share my experiences over the past thirty years of ministry, but the conversation was dominated by others in the group. I was slowly growing annoyed. This was the moment when the Holy Spirit spoke to me.

“Tim,” he said, “You know why you are frustrated? It’s because anytime someone else is speaking, no one is paying attention to you.”

Ouch. The irony was rich. I was in a discussion on humility, and I was frustrated because no one was paying attention to me. That’s pretty rough.

As God would have it, we took a break for 20 minutes to spend time in personal prayer. No one else was aware of what the Holy Spirit had just spoken to me. I retreated to the back bedroom, closed the door, and got down on my knees beside the bed. I was appalled. Shocked. Silenced. Stunned. I hardly spoke to God, but when I did it was in profound recognition of my sin. I repented. Most of the time I just knelt there in silence. I saw my sin as sin – horrible, terrible sin.

After a time, we returned to the group meeting. We continued our discussion. I sat there silently, still groping with the reality of my sin. Finally, there was a pause, and I shared with the group how dismayed I was by what the Holy Spirit had just revealed to me. As I shared, the Holy Spirit completely broke me. I covered my face with my hands and wept.

An awkward silence settled on the group. I didn’t care. I saw my sin as God sees it. I repented. I was broken. I couldn’t look up. I was ashamed, but it was a deeply cleansing moment for me. At that moment, the Holy Spirit showed me what humility looks like: deep, profound, repentant humility.

Strangely, it was a highlight of the trip for me. It was a revival in my heart. Afterward, I felt renewed and refreshed. My heart was aligned with God’s heart. In the sessions that followed, God deeply ministered to me.

I share this story as a reminder of the importance of humility. Humility and godliness are essential attributes of a follower of Jesus. They are essential for a leader in the Church. They are also essential within the congregation. When humility and godliness are present, we can work through any differences in theology or preference in application. When these attributes are present, there is unity. When these attributes are missing, we have chaos, strife, and division.

I share my story with you because I suspect this is a larger issue within our churches than just myself. It affects leadership. It affects those who are not in leadership but wish they were. It affects us all. Think about some of the conflicts we’ve witnessed in our churches. How were they resolved? Did we witness lives characterized by humility and godliness? Sadly, this is the exception rather than the rule. Usually, we try to fix the problem by debating theology or our preferences. Instead, we need to address the heart problem of a lack of humility and godliness.

Humility is a key component of following Jesus. Consider these passages:

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3, ESV).

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3, ESV).

“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5, ESV).

It saddens me when I see individuals in an online debate over non-essential theological positions. Most are deeply knowledgeable but evidently lacking in humility. It fosters division. It cannot be of God.

Paul addressed this in his letter to the Corinthians. This is what he wrote:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, ESV

Sometimes we forget the body of Christ in North America is made up of millions of people. People like you and me who read the word of God and sometimes draw different conclusions. Good men believe differently. When there are differences, humility saves the day. When there are differences without humility, there is strife and division. The problem is not our differences in theology or application. The problem is a lack of humility.

In thirty years of ministry, I’ve made many friends across denominational lines. The one thing we have in common is a deep love for God and gratefulness for the forgiveness for sins we receive through his son Jesus’ death on the cross. Beyond that, differences abound. When we live together in humility and godliness, there is unity in the body of Christ. It is beautiful to witness. But when humility is lacking, there is strife.

Looking back, I see times when I was not humble in my relationship with others in the body. I’ve sought forgiveness when possible. I also imagine I will address this issue in my life in the future. I continue to grow in my relationship with God, and I have many lessons to learn. But I experience the refreshing work of the Holy Spirit when I acknowledge my sin and repent, and that has made all the difference.

I always enjoy reading your comments. Feel free to post your thoughts below.

Teach Us to Pray

Recently I spent fifteen days in San Francisco with Church Intensive, a training and equipping ministry of We Are Church, the house church movement in San Francisco. My goal was to learn more about the house church movement there. Seven participants, including myself, met with elders, pastors, and other leaders from the house churches. The experience profoundly affected me.

I was expecting to meet like-minded people. I did. I was expecting to get a better understanding of the structure of their organization. I did. I was expecting to learn about their values and practices. I did. But I was not expecting a move of the Holy Spirit in my own life that continues within me today. And it all began with prayer.

Every morning we met together for prayer. But it was not like any prayer meeting I have ever attended. I struggle to describe it.

Our group sat in the living room of the building where we were staying. Usually, I cradled a cup of coffee in my hands. We sat in silence until someone in the group prayed. When someone prayed, the rest listened carefully, praying silently with them. When someone finished praying, we sat silently waiting for the Spirit to move someone else to pray. We became comfortable with long moments of silence. There was no prayer list. We prayed as the Holy Spirit led. Sometimes the Holy Spirit would bring to mind a passage of Scripture to someone, and they would read the passage to the group. Other times the Holy Spirit would bring to mind a worship song, and someone would play it on their cell phone. We sang along or sat and listened to what the Holy Spirit was saying through the song. The cadence of prayer moved back and forth from heaven to earth and back again. We prayed as the Holy Spirit led. The Holy Spirit spoke through the prayers, Scripture, and song. We responded in prayer. On it went. Over time the Holy Spirit wove a theme of what he was saying to us. Sometimes the prayer time lasted almost two hours. No one wanted to quit. We soaked in the presence of God during those moments. For fifteen days we met like this. On the last day, when the final amen was spoken, I was profoundly saddened to know this experience was ending. In my short fifty-three years, I’ve never experienced the Holy Spirit moving in prayer as I did in these gatherings. I will never be content to just go through the motions again.

These prayer times are the one thing I intend to replicate here at home. I believe it is the key to my life and ministry. It is the key to the renewal of the Church in North America. Prayer. Simple, Holy Spirit led prayer.

Over the past several months, I’ve blogged about prayer. God has taken me on a personal journey in this area. But this time I saw prayer in the context of the Church. Now I am beginning to understand what prayer could look like in our gatherings. Imagine what would happen if our churches prayed like this.

I long to see churches pray with passion. Not just going through a list, but humbly pleading with God to revive their church, their families, and their homes. I long to hear reports of people confessing their sins to one another and praying for one another. I long to hear of marriages restored because someone begged God to intercede. I long to see the fullness of the Holy Spirit poured out in my generation, for my country, because people prayed. I long to hear of buildings shaking because the Holy Spirit moved as people prayed. It has happened before. Why should I be content with less?

Please hear my heart. I love the Church. I hurt for the Church in North America.  A few of our churches are healthy. Perhaps your church is one of the healthy ones. I celebrate with you. But in North America, most of our churches are unhealthy. Most are slowly dying. Instead of injecting the renewing work of the Holy Spirit into our dying churches, we’ve caked layers of makeup on the dying bodies. We repaint the sanctuary. We install chairs instead of pews. We change the music. We try the latest program. We try anything but prayer. Frankly, I am broken over this. Meanwhile, God is calling us to the simplicity of prayer. Will we heed the call?

Consider these passages:

“It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46, ESV).

“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another…” (James 5:16, ESV).

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7, ESV).

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, ESV).

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12, ESV).

“…praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18, ESV).

“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…” (Acts 1:14, ESV).

“And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31, ESV).

Throughout history, every move of God has started with prayer. In the generations before us, revivals swept continents because someone prayed. Think about that.

I returned home from San Francisco. I unpacked my suitcase. I made a cup of coffee and made my way over to my favorite chair. I sat for a moment in silence. I bowed my head, and a simple prayer pursed my lips.

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

The Purpose of Prayer

Last month I wrote about making prayer a priority in our lives. I continue to explore the mystery of prayer. I wonder why God created prayer in the first place. Why did he make a way for us to communicate with him? Why does God want us to pray? It is hard to comprehend.

A few nights ago I was settling in for the evening and reached for the remote to the TV. I was tired from the day and looking forward to a relaxing evening catching up on my favorite shows. I was about to press the power button when I sensed God speaking to me, calling me to spend some time with him in prayer. I paused and set down the remote. It was odd. I had no needs. There was nothing pressing in my life. I wasn’t stressing over anything. But I clearly felt God’s pulling me aside to connect with him. Why was God calling me aside to pray when there was nothing I needed to pray about? This was the moment I realized I was looking at prayer from my own perspective. What if I were to look at prayer from God’s perspective?

We tend to think of prayer as our way of communicating with God. We know God wants us to bring our requests to him. Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6, ESV). John further encourages us to bring our requests to God when he wrote, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15, ESV). So, yes, we should bring our requests to God.

But what if we were to look at prayer from God’s perspective? Why did God create prayer? Is it merely for us to bring our requests to him? Is it only for our benefit? What if God created prayer for his benefit? What if he wanted to reconnect with the creation he loves?

It is helpful to consider the idea of prayer in the context of our relationship with God. God loves us. He loves us even when we are separated from him by our sin. Because he loves us so much, he sent his own son to pay the penalty for our sin through his death on the cross. When we accept this gift of forgiveness for our sins, we begin a relationship with God. Yes, God does this for our benefit. We benefit greatly! But what if we were to view salvation from God’s perspective? A relationship benefits both parties. What if God does this for his benefit as well? What if God created a way to forgive us for our sins because he longed to reconnect with us?

How does this relate to prayer? Again, our natural tendency is to think prayer is all about us. It is our way of bringing our requests to God. But what if we were to look at it from God’s perspective. What if prayer were also for God’s benefit? What if God created prayer so he could commune with his creation until we were finally together face to face? What if God calls us aside to pray not because we have something we need, but because he wants to spend some quality time with us?

When we view prayer only from our own perspective, it reveals a flaw in our understanding of our relationship with God. Imagine a husband and wife settling in for the evening. The wife leans over to her husband and says, “Can we leave the TV off? I want to talk.” The husband pauses and says, “Why do you want to talk to me when I don’t need anything?” Ouch. I do not recommend this! Clearly, this relationship is in trouble! But when we consider our relationship with God in this context, then we understand how silly it is if the only time we speak to him is when we need something.

In this situation, we pray because God enjoys the time with us. We commune with him. We sit with him as lovers sit together and enjoy a sunset. We enjoy his presence and relish his love for us. We tell him how much we love him. We sit in silence and listen for his still small voice in our spirit telling us how much he loves us. We have no needs because of his kindness. We thank him for his faithfulness and kindness to us. And on and on.

That evening, when God called me aside to pray, it was a precious time with him. I relished his presence. I loved on him for his kindness to me. I enjoyed the time with him immensely. I suspect he enjoyed it as well.

I challenge you to carve out some time when you can spend time with God without asking him for anything. Use this time to tell him why you love him. Yes, God wants us to bring our needs to him. Do so. But sometimes God just wants to spend time with the ones he loves. Spend time with him today.

I always enjoy reading your comments. Feel free to post your thoughts below.

The Priority of Prayer

It is an interesting season in my life. I am transitioning from a focus on full-time ministry to splitting my focus between responsibilities with the rental house, sailboat, managing another property, and the ministry. The greatest challenge I have is finding time for creative work like writing this featured blog. I started this article weeks ago. Now June is past, and I finally have a moment to complete the work and get it sent to you. I am so far behind, but I am content knowing God is completely in control. How freeing that is!

If you read my last few blogs, you know I am asking a lot of questions about the way we do church in North America. I’m seeking God and searching his Word for answers to what it means to follow Jesus. In a previous blog, I wrote about how he has led me to pray daily for opportunities to share Jesus with those who do not know him and for opportunities to disciple others. I continue to do this. It is interesting to see how the mundane moments of life are transformed into opportunities for ministry.

Working outside of the ministry is a blessing. I enjoy living out my relationship with God in the everyday moments of life. In many regards, now my life is a better example of what it means to follow Jesus than when I was full-time in ministry. God has taken my focus from operating a ministry to ministering to others on a daily basis. I enjoy it. Most of us have jobs outside of ministry. We have family responsibilities. We may have kids in sports. We may have grandchildren. We may have responsibilities with school. Our lives are jammed with activity. Every day, in the midst of my packed schedule, I look for opportunities to share Jesus or to disciple someone. And the opportunities are all around me.

I continue to pray. Recently God impressed on me to pray for him to do something supernatural in North America. So now I daily spend time pleading with God to do something here. I pray for revival. I pray for repentance. I pray for God to move with power and authority. Again, I find it interesting he is not yet leading me to do anything except to pray. In my mind I know prayer is important, but God is reminding me to make prayer the priority above all else.

It occurred to me that God does not need me to start anything. I don’t need to start a new program. I don’t need to start a new model of ministry. I don’t need to start a church. He doesn’t need me to start anything. I only need to join him in what he is already doing with his Church. He started the Church thousands of years ago. Sometimes we make a mess of it. Through the years it often strays from what God intended, but it is still alive. He still draws people into relationship with himself. He still longs for a relationship with his creation. He still forgives sins. He is still calling us back to himself. We do not need to come up with a new program to make it happen. He will make it happen. We join him.

God led me to pray. That means, at this time, my job is to pray. So I take time out of my day to pray for God to do something in North America. That is my job description until he changes it. As I pray, I find my heart longing deeper and deeper for the church in North America.

The challenge is to be content with prayer alone until God says it’s time to move. We live in a results-oriented culture. We work hard. We get a paycheck at the end of the week. We strive for goals and celebrate the moments when those goals are met. In the physical realm, when we make something with our hands, we get to see the results of our labor. But when we pray, we don’t always get to see a result. Usually, there is no obvious physical connection between our prayer and an outcome. Because of this, we may minimize the importance of prayer. Our natural tendency is to let prayer slide so we can get back to work doing something for God. We unconsciously think, “I could get so much more done for God if I weren’t spending all this time in prayer!” How silly we are.

If and when God says, “Move,” I will gladly move. Until then, I will pray. I am convinced that prayer is the most important thing. It is more important than anything I could do. It is not an abstract theory. It is the truth. I am attempting to live this out. The question is, “What would God do if I would pray?” That, my friends, is a question all of us need to ask.

How about you? Is prayer an important part of your life? Do you believe when you speak to God, he listens? What would God do if you prayed?

I always enjoy reading your comments.  Feel free to post your thoughts below.

Be The Boy

I want to share with you my testimony of what God has done in my life over the past few weeks. My heart is full of joy over all I see God doing. But it was a difficult journey getting to this place. The route through which God brought me was completely unexpected, and is somewhat uncomfortable to share. But I feel it is important to share anyway. Allow me to explain.

In early April, I attended the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference in California. I was excited to meet with industry professionals and to learn more about the craft of writing. I brought with me a couple of book proposals and an expectation of an opportunity to take my writing to the next level. God has blessed me with a growing audience for ministry, and I see God blessing the writing aspect as the ministry grows. I figured my chances were good.

Arriving at the conference, I got the sinking feeling I was wrong. It was a bit overwhelming. I found I had a lot to learn about the writing and publishing process. I met other writers more gifted and farther along the journey than I, who were themselves still looking for a publisher, still waiting for the opportunity to see their work in print.

Quietly in my spirit God spoke to me. He used the speaker on Sunday morning during the Palm Sunday service to do this. In the message he shared the story of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the story, allow me to share John’s version of it. This is what he wrote:

After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.
Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.”

Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” (John 6:1-12, ESV)

This story is repeated in all four of the gospels, but only John includes the detail about the boy. Somehow the boy has five loaves of barley bread and two fish. This was far more than a mere sack lunch, but far less than what was needed to feed everyone. He had a generous supply, but it still required a miracle of God to satisfy the hunger of the massive crowd. Jesus takes the bread and fish and miraculously multiplies it to feed thousands until they are full! Herein lies the message the Holy Spirit spoke to me.

No matter what I do for God, it still requires a move of God to meet the needs of others. I bring him what I have, but it requires a miracle from God to multiply it. It was as if God said to me, “Tim, just be the boy and let me be God.” Be the boy. Be the one who gives to Jesus what little you have. Don’t try to scheme and figure out how to broaden your platform. Just give what you have to God. Expect God to multiply it in ways you cannot even imagine.

No one sitting in the grass that day anticipated the miracle Jesus was about to perform. But God knew! Don’t try to understand God’s ways. Just be the boy. Seek humility. Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Don’t give room for spiritual pride. Miracles don’t happen through lives comingled with pride.

I sat in the conference center hall and pondered this word from God to me. Sunday night a different speaker referenced the same story. In fact, over the next few weeks, the story of the feeding of the five thousand was repeated by countless speakers. It was almost laughable. Each time it was as if the Holy Spirit nudged me with his elbow and with a wink said, “Be the boy!” Each time it was a confirmation to me as God reinforced this truth in my life.

Now this all reads well, and I am tempted to stop writing here. But as the Holy Spirit confirmed this idea of giving what I have to Jesus and allowing him to do with it as he pleases, he was also peeling away layer upon layer of spiritual pride from my heart. It was a difficult, humbling time.

Each layer of pride was so subtle that at first it was tough to notice it had wrapped its tendrils around my heart. Layer after layer of pride had built up, but not so much that it was easy to see. Pride sneaks in slowly making it difficult to detect. It is a cancer, and it takes a spiritual CAT scan to reveal the cavities where it lies hidden. Somewhere in my journey with Christ I had crossed a line from being amazed by all God is doing, to thinking I was going to do something amazing for God. But God doesn’t share his glory. He is quite capable of doing amazing things all by himself. He just wants me to be the boy.

I was saddened when I realized pride had taken root within me. Broken is a good way to describe it. Solemn. Still. Listening. For weeks this lingered.

At the end of the month, I attended the Exponential Conference in Orlando. Several speakers referenced the feeding of the five thousand, and each time I nodded in agreement with the Holy Spirit. By this point, I had already done business with God. With a new awareness of the work of God in my life, I returned home with a desire to go deeper in my relationship with God. I thought back to a time twenty years ago when God radically moved in my life.

It was January of 1997. The previous December I had finished the Bible Study “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby. The Holy Spirit initiated a profound work in my life, and I was consumed with a desire to know him more. I read through the entire Bible three times in the next year. I couldn’t put it down. It was the most astounding book I had ever read. If he could do a miracle in the Old Testament, then he could do the same for me. I didn’t care about watching TV. I didn’t care about anything but reading the Word. It was a profound season in my life.

My prayer now is for God to take me back to that place in my relationship with him, back to where I hungered to know him more. I have become complacent. I have become comfortable. Yes, I love him dearly. But what if the Holy Spirit stirred up a fresh, new hunger inside me? What would God do in and through my life if I had a growing passion burning within me? It is a question I expect God to answer in the coming days.

I’ve taken steps toward that place by turning off the TV. I’m not anti-TV. I’m just taking a break for a time to spend focused time in prayer and in the Word. It is a season of fasting and prayer for me. Already I am encouraged by a renewed sense of his presence and purpose. Where there was sorrow over my pride, I found joy in his presence. Thankfully, when we confess our sins, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, ESV).

I share this and hope it will encourage you. I also covet your prayers during this season. For all of us, remember: Just be the boy. Guard against pride. Pray for God to take you to a new place in your relationship with him.

But by all means, just be the boy.

A Wake-Up Call To Pray

This morning I woke up at 5:30. I had gotten about seven hours of sleep, and my body was ready to plow into the day. A stack of work in the office was gently calling my name. I planned an early morning bike ride, shower, and then a full day in the office.

But an odd thing happened that completely redirected my day. As I lay in bed enjoying the warmth of the covers, I thought about a church I attended when I lived in Tennessee. Frequently, during the midst of a service the pastor would call us to pray. If you were physically able, you would kneel in front of your chair in the auditorium and silently pray for a few minutes. A stillness would settle over the room. Finally my pastor would close in prayer. I remember those moments. There was no agenda. It wasn’t prayer for a specific item. It was merely a time to humble ourselves and pray.

I crawled out of bed and made a cup of coffee. The memory of those moments in Tennessee was still heavy on my mind. It occurred to me that I have drifted away from prioritizing this vital focus on prayer. The Holy Spirit was quietly calling me back to conversation with him. I realized that at some point I had become comfortable with the ministry I am guiding. I was comfortable in my life in general. I was comfortable. As a result, I was careless in prioritizing prayer.

It was still dark in the house. A single lamp cast a glow near my favorite chair. I sat with my cup of coffee and talked with the maker of the universe. I prayed for our country. I prayed about the direction we are heading. I prayed for my home church and for our leadership team. I prayed for my own life and ministry. I just sat and talked with God. As I talked with him, I thought about the time Jesus was coming down from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem.

It was his moment of exaltation. The crowds surged forward. Many threw their cloaks on the road, creating a carpet for the donkey he was riding. His disciples were overjoyed. They shouted “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” It was a celebration like the coronation of a king.

Suddenly, Jesus halted the donkey, and for a moment the procession came to a standstill. An uncomfortable stillness settled over the crowd. Jesus gazed toward the city of Jerusalem as if lost in another place and time. The disciples looked at one another, confused. Slowly Jesus closed his eyes, and a cry rose from somewhere deep within. Finally he could hold it no longer, and like a torrent breaching a dam, the tears overflowed and streamed down his cheeks. His body trembled as he wept.

Because he was seated on the donkey, he was head and shoulders above the crowd. Everyone saw the emotion. No one moved. No one shouted, “Hosanna in the highest!” No one said a word. Most looked away. The sight of a man weeping in public made them extremely uncomfortable. Finally through the tears, Jesus spoke.

“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jesus paused, gaining his composure, and brushed his tear-streaked face with his hand. “For the days will come upon you,” he continued, “when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

At last the silent procession moved on into the city. But the celebration was crippled by the tears of the king.

(Adapted from Luke 19:36-44, ESV).

It is a haunting image: Jesus is weeping while others are celebrating. But Jesus saw something they didn’t. He was broken by the knowledge that the people did not understand the perilous state they were in. He predicts great devastation in the days to come. And he closes his statement with an unusual phrase. He says these trials are coming, “because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Now when he says, “the time of your visitation,” he is not referring to a time when they will have a visitor. The word used for visitation has the idea of a time of inspection. It is a time of investigation. It is as if he is saying that because they did not understand that God was searching out and inspecting their lives, calamity was coming as a result. The time for repentance had passed. Mercy was giving way to judgment. All these trials were coming because they did not understand that God was watching.

Which brings me to you and me. I wonder if we truly understand the days in which we live. We are comfortable. In North America we enjoy a standard of living that is exceptional in all the world. Within our church culture, we enjoy a sense of peace. But is reality hidden from our eyes?

Our country doesn’t seem to understand how desperate we are for God. Our churches in North America do not seem to understand how desperate they are for God. But what about me personally? Do I understand how desperate I am for God? If I did, wouldn’t that lead me to pray? If my eyes were opened to my condition, and I fully understood the consequences of that, wouldn’t that lead me to pray? Would it lead you to pray?

If we understood that God is watching us and testing us to see where our hearts really are, then we would also understand the importance of prayer. But because we do not understand our desperate condition, we also do not understand the value of prayer. Are the things that make for peace hidden from our eyes? Do we not know the time of our visitation?

Our churches are closing at an alarming rate, and still we do not pray. Our marriages are being decimated in record numbers, and still we do not pray. Our children are being lured away by the culture, and still we do not pray. Rightly did Jesus say, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

My friends, our comfort has blinded us to our need. I include myself as well. But something happened to me this morning. I saw more clearly the days in which I live. I saw more clearly my own life. And it led me to pray.

My wake-up call came at 5:30 in the morning. When will yours come?

This article was originally published in the April 2017 Newsletter.

Waiting For A Change

What do you do when you are waiting for God to do a work in someone else’s life? Perhaps someone you love is making poor decisions. Maybe they have turned away from God, and the consequences are piling up. Possibly it is a wayward child or a wandering spouse. It may be a friend for whom you care deeply. You’ve offered counsel, but it was thrown back in your face. Even with the offense, you are still clinging to hope that they will change. But hope is fading. It is daunting to wait while you watch them struggle.

Wait anyway.

Tucked away in the Old Testament is a short little book called Lamentations. It is only four chapters long. You can read it in one setting. Most scholars believe the prophet Jeremiah is the writer of this text. He writes of Jerusalem, his beloved home. His brokenness over the state of the city bleeds throughout the book. The imagery is haunting. The city is in utter ruins. Piles of stone mark the spot where proud buildings once stood. There is no food. The people are starving. Children beg for crumbs. The children that perish are eaten by their own mothers. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

It is in this context that Jeremiah walks us through his beloved home, street by street, alley by alley. He describes in brutal detail the rubble that once was a beautiful, thriving city. Think of it as his version of Aleppo, the city currently destroyed in the civil war in Syria. Verse by verse he describes the devastation. Then, in the midst of his lament, a strange thing happens. He pauses, and we wait to hear what he will say. He gathers himself as if looking back to a familiar truth. A small glimmer of hope appears. A single shaft of light pierces the gloom. This is what he says:

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him” (Lamentations 3:21-25, ESV).

Jeremiah loved Jerusalem. Surely he had cried out in prayer to God. Surely he had interceded for the people he loved. He had pleaded for them to repent, to turn back to God. But in their stubbornness, they had refused to change.

How Jeremiah must have hurt to stand by and watch, knowing that if there were no change judgment would be swift and thorough. Can you imagine how deeply he must have felt this? I can, and I think many of you reading this know this feeling as well. We cry out to God on behalf of those we love. We beg God to intercede. We speak loving truth to the wayward. We know that if there is no change, judgement will follow.

In my own life there are times when a situation I am facing seems to drag on and on with little change. I pray, “God, what do you want me to do?” He replies, “Wait.” To which I answer, “Really, God? Anything but that.” I imagine God chuckles. Frankly, I laugh at myself as well. For in that moment I see God at work in my life. And if the only work I see God doing is the work he is doing in me, then I am okay with that. I will wait on God. I will put my hope in him. Because he is good, and he is kind.

In the midst of the waiting, God is loving. God is merciful. Day after day he refreshes me with mercy equal to my need. I continue to hope in him. He is enough for me. He is good to those who wait for him to move, to those who seek him with abandon. I am reminded that I am not God. I am not, nor will I ever be, in control. I cannot fix others. Fixing others is the sole domain of the Holy Spirit. I cannot transform anyone. Unfortunately, I am action oriented. I want to get in there and fix it. I’m a guy. That’s what guys do. We fix things. It is part of who I am, and it can frustrate me when I am faced with the fact that I am helpless to change the ones I love.

What I can do is to bring that person to God. I remind myself that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end. Morning by morning I bring that one to the feet of Jesus and cry out for him to do a work in their life. Even after Jerusalem had experienced the judgment of God, Jeremiah still held onto hope that there would be change. The same should be said for you and me.

As I wait on God, continuing to pray, I put my hope in him. That makes all the difference. I put my confidence in knowing that the words Jeremiah wrote still ring true today. Jeremiah’s hope came from reminding himself of the character of God. He washes himself with thoughts of God’s love. God’s love is steadfast and never ceases. He is always merciful. Every morning God gives me enough mercy and love for the day ahead. He is faithful. He is my portion. He is good to all who wait for him. Therefore I will hope in him.

My friend, what is the situation in your life that is weighing you down? Who is the one for whom you are praying? You’re exhausted from carrying this burden. You’ve come to the place where you realize there is nothing else you can do except to wait. Wait anyway. Don’t give up or give in. Pray. Have hope in God.

When someone you love is struggling, and there’s nothing left to do, try waiting for a change.

This article was originally published in the February 2017 Newsletter.

Pray and do not lose heart

This morning I was reading through Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. As I was reading, my attention was drawn to a simple statement that was repeated a couple of times. It was this: “Do not lose heart.”

It was one of those moments when I felt the Holy Spirit was reaching out through the pages of his Word with a message specifically for me. Lately I’ve seen God at work in powerful ways. At the same time, I have had moments when the pressures of ministry have gotten me down. I have had times when the work of ministry as an Elder in my home church has left me discouraged. Privately, I carry a heavy heart for the state of the Church in North America. I long to see revival. I long to see churches functioning in a Biblical fashion. Sometimes I reach the point where I begin to doubt if we will ever see change, and I begin to question if it is really worth fighting for. I’ve prayed about it at length. It consumes the vast majority of my thoughts throughout the day, and sometimes I have found it difficult to go to sleep at night because my mind is occupied with thoughts in this regard.

In that context, when the Holy Spirit directed me to his Word with a simple message to not lose heart, I listened! Then I looked for other places in Scripture where that same message was repeated. What I found was very interesting.

One day Jesus was teaching the people gathered around him. As he spoke, he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man,” he said. “And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while the judge refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”

And the Lord said, “Take note what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.”

The men gathered around looked at one another as Jesus paused. The parable was finished, but Jesus was not finished speaking. He had one final question to ask the audience, a single question that cut to the heart of the parable he was sharing. At last, he spoke.

“Nevertheless,” he asked, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Adapted from Luke 18:1-8, ESV).

This singular thought is the same question God asks of you and me today. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? After all is said and done, do you have faith in God? Do you have faith that he is in control? Do you trust him?”

Please note that the focus of this parable is not the widow lady. The parable is not teaching that we need to keep pestering God to get what we want! Instead, the parable shows the difference between the unrighteous judge and the righteous judge. The contrast is in how each judge responds. Jesus is using the parable to teach us about the character of God, the righteous judge. He is trustworthy, and we need to trust that when we pray, he hears us. Even when the answer to our prayers seems to be delayed, he is in fact working speedily on our behalf. He doesn’t put us off. He doesn’t require us to pester him into submission. Our responsibility is to pray with confidence that God has heard us and not to lose heart in the waiting. That is the point of this parable, that we should pray and not lose heart.

In the end, the question God asks all of us is this: Do you trust me? Do you have faith in me? Are you willing to pray, to wait, to believe – even against all odds, confident that I am in control?

Consider also these verses:

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV).

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9, ESV).

“As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13, ESV).

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1-2, ESV).

I’m confident the circumstances I am dealing with are part of the overall work that God is doing in my life and ministry. You are likely in circumstances far different from mine, but the tendency to lose heart is the same. I offer this encouragement to you. Whatever you are facing, pray and do not lose heart! Have faith in God! Chose to have confidence in the character of God. He is good. He is kind. He is in control. Even as we wait for the Son of God to return, we will have faith in God!

In the end, God is the one who is responsible to bring about the changes we long for. I am responsible to pray and not lose heart.

This article was originally published in the October 2014 Newsletter.

What if we were honest?

Many years ago, I lived in southern Michigan. One weekend I had a couple of events in Ohio, and since it was close enough to home, I decided to drive back late Sunday night after the evening service. It was after 11:00 PM as I drove down an isolated stretch of road in northern Ohio, working my way home.

The road was under construction and the prospect of driving 45 mph for miles on end did not appeal to me. It was late, and there were no other drivers on the divided highway. I decided it was no big deal if I didn’t slow down. I set the cruise control to 65 and kept plowing ahead.

I drove along for quite a while, listening to the radio in the darkness. At some point a car drifted up behind me in the left hand lane. I noticed it in my side mirror as it cruised along with me. I really didn’t give much thought to it until it pulled in behind me and turned on the blue flashing lights.

It was a police car.

I pulled off the road and shut off the engine. The police car pulled in behind me, and a bright searchlight pierced through my rear window as the blue lights continued to flash. I rolled down the window and looked up at the officer as he approached the car. At this point, I knew I was in big trouble. I was out of state. I was in a construction zone. The fine would be doubled. I was 20 miles over the speed limit. I was going to get the ticket. Normally, I would try to present myself in the best possible way, hoping to get out of a ticket. But there was no point in trying to get out of this one. I reasoned I might as well be honest with the officer. This was the moment of truth.

“Good evening, sir,” the officer said sternly. “Do you know how fast you were going?”

I looked at him square in the eye and with confidence said, “Well, I believe I was doing 65.” I knew there was no point in trying to talk my way out of it.

The officer looked back at me and said, “Well, this is actually a 55 mph zone.”

I thought it was a 45 mph construction zone, so I was very surprised to hear him say that. I looked at the officer and blurted, “Oh!”

At this point, much to my astonishment, the officer replied, “Well, I am just going to give you a warning this time. But the speed limit is 55, so please slow down and drive safely.” And with that, he turned and walked back to his car.

I was shocked. I sat there stunned. I was not getting a ticket! I could not believe it! I’m guessing that because I answered with such confidence, it made it seem that I thought I was driving the speed limit. In reality, I thought I was 20 miles over instead of just 10! Wow, this honesty thing really works!

I laugh when I share this story, but it is a serious illustration of how I tend to relate to God. Somewhere in my mind, I think that when I talk with God I can gloss over stuff. I come into his presence to speak with him but try to present myself in the best possible light. The irony is that God is already aware of the things I am doing wrong. He is cruising along right there beside me. He is completely aware of how I am violating his laws. He knows exactly what is going on in my life at this very moment. But somehow I hesitate to be completely open and honest with him.

When was the last time you had an honest conversation with God? I’m talking about the kind of prayer you would only dare to speak out loud if you knew no one else could hear you. God already knows what is really going on in your life. He knows the challenges you are dealing with that perhaps no one else is aware of. He knows the thoughts you have in the darkest corner of your mind. But he waits for you to talk honestly with him about these things. For some reason we think we can gloss over the difficult issues. We keep our prayers limited to praying for other people, praying for the food, or praying for a safe trip. But God wants more. He wants us to be real with him. He wants us to be willing to talk with him about the challenges we struggle with. He wants us to talk with him about the issues that are shameful and ugly, issues he is already aware of.

Here are some examples of what I am talking about when I speak of being honest with God. Your prayer might sound something like this:

“Lord, I don’t really love you with all of my heart. It’s not that I don’t like you. But I can’t honestly say that I really love you. I pray that you would help me to love you more.”

“Lord, I really do not like this person. He drives me crazy. So I pray that you would help me to love him the way you love me, with all of my faults and failings.”

“Lord, I really don’t think my sin is a big deal to you. Holiness never really enters my mind. I am sorry for that. Change my heart I pray.”

“Lord, I really don’t want to have accountability for the stuff I am looking at online. If I were honest with you, I do not want to give it up. So I pray that you would give me a heart to do what is right and to get some help.”

“Lord, I am really struggling to trust you for __________.” (Fill in the blank.)

“Lord, I am struggling with ___________.” (Insert your particular issue here.)

“Lord, I have a problem.”

In Psalm 51, after being confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan, David gets real with God. He doesn’t gloss over his sin. He brings it out in the open for God to deal with it. He calls out to God in repentance and asks for His mercy. It is a brutal, open, honest conversation with God. I want to encourage you to take the time to read this Psalm in the next few days. For this moment, let me just share with you a little of what he writes.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:1-4, ESV).

This is a man who is being honest with God. He is conscious that God is aware of his sin. Are you aware that God already knows what is going on in your life? Can you understand how silly it is not to talk with him about it, when he already knows what is there?

Today, I want to encourage you to take a few moments and just talk with God about the things that are on your mind right now. Don’t even think of it as prayer. Just find a place where you can be alone with him and talk with him like you would talk with a friend. He already knows the full extent of what is going on. He’s waiting for you to bring it to him. He’s ready for you to be honest and real in your relationship with him.

But here’s the best part. God is not only all-knowing, but he is also all-powerful. Imagine what he would do to meet us right where we are, if we were simply honest with him.

What if we were honest?

This article was originally published in 2009 and reprinted in the February 2014 Newsletter.