Monday, November 27, 2006

Act or React?

In every circumstance today you will get a choice: will you act or react? Most people never give it any thought. They go through life as if they were a ball in a pinball machine, reacting to this and that all day, every day, never in control of their path. Others make a decision about who they are, what they will do, what they will not do, and how they will honor their belief system regardless of any "action" in their way. They are faith heroes. And you can be one.

Look at Hebrews chapter 11. It is considered the faith chapter, the honor roll of faith. You might know the chapter very well but I would like for you to check something out: look for the verbs. When you do, you discover that the chapter is a primer on HOW to live by faith. Real faith has a verb attached to it; a purposeful, decisive action.

11:4 -- by faith Abel offered...
11:5 -- by faith Enoch pleased God...
11:7 -- by faith Noah prepared...
11:8 -- by faith Abraham obeyed...
11:9 -- by faith he dwelt...
11:11 - by faith Sara conceived...
11:17 - by faith Abraham offered...
11:20 - by faith Isaac blessed...
11:21 - by faith Jacob blessed...
11:24 - by faith Moses chose to be known as a son of Israel... forsook Egypt... kept Passover...
11:29 - by faith the Israelites passed through the sea...
11:30 - by faith the walls of Jericho fell...
11:31 - by faith Rahab received the spies...
11:33 - subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped mouths of
lions, quenched violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, went from the
weakness to strength, became valiant in battle, drove away the invaders, the dead
walked again...

These people did not merely believe (as some weak form of intellectual assent), but they matched that faith to a verb and so became great heroes. The scripture tells us that God honored their choice to act by:

1. God Himself witnessing that they were righteous.
2. They became heirs of righteousness.
3. They did not see death.
4. They received the inheritance.

You have a choice today and every day. You can either act or you can waste your life in reacting. Once I was partnered with three non-believers during a golf match. My opponent took every opportunity to curse, make noise while I putted or teed off, and never gave me a putt regardless of how close it was to the hole. In response, I helped him look for his errant tee shots, gave him putts well outside the normal range, and gave him every compliment on his good shots. The other two players in our foursome watched this almost the whole match before finally coming over to me. "Why are you still giving him putts and treating him so nice? He's cheating! He's rude!" and so on. I responded, "I decided before I left my house this morning what kind of person I was going to be. He doesn't get to change that decision."

I learned that from Hebrews 11. Faith means nothing without a verb. Choose your verb. Don't let the world choose it for you.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Spirit At Work

Last Sunday I celebrated my fifth anniversary as the preaching minister for the Rochester Church. I am supremely thankful that the Lord allowed me this opportunity. This is a remarkable congregation full of people with a real heart for the Lord. That was evidenced by last weekend's flurry of service and sacrifice.

On Saturday, over a hundred volunteers staffed our warehouse of clothes, food, toys, and household items called God's Helping Hands. GHH has garnered national attention with an interview on NPR last year. This year, on this one day, over 330 families were fed, clothed, and supplied with gifts for Christmas. Volunteers were on site before 8AM and didn't leave until the last person was served at 10:45PM.

While this was going on, we also had a funeral and a wedding, two social events at Rochester College... and a concert by Bar12 of Soul Space, our ministry to the corners and shadows of our culture. The tattoo shop will open at the end of this month, Lord willing, but a cash infusion was desperately needed so the boys -- Josh Turner and Lance Handyside -- did a concert at the church building. We heard tunes from Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Ben Harper, and Stevie Ray Vaughn all done in Bar 12's unique and powerful style. Our crowd was tiny due to all the other events going on (including the biggest religious event in the area -- the Michigan/Ohio State football game) but so far nearly $4000 has been raised. Praise God!

This was our Harvest Sunday. We have been falling behind on our budget and found ourselves in a deep hole. Some of this is because of the economic climate of Michigan (49th in the nation and falling), some because our people are mainly new and not quite into the giving habits of older Christians, and, to be honest, because we lost some good givers when we decided to be more free and aggressive in reaching the lost. The elders asked the people to double their normal giving on this day. That would have given us around $42,000 but they gave just under $55,000! Wow.

Plus... we have a Family Fund that helps our members in case of emergency (job loss, burial expenses, etc.) that we like to keep at around $5000. It was completely empty so we placed giving baskets on the stage and in the foyer and asked people to also consider giving to that fund. They gave an additional $16,290 on top of the Harvest giving.

These are new Christians, by and large. Many were unchurched before they came to us. A great number are young couples, some with children, who live paycheck to paycheck. The elders and staff were stunned at their faith and committment to Harvest Sunday... but that wasn't the end of it.

We asked people to bring non-perishable food items and coats, hats, scarves and gloves in very good condition so that they could be distributed in downtown Detroit that very day. They filled the stage with them! Cars and vans were crammed full of goods and, on a snowy day in Detroit, our people pulled up outside the worst homeless shelter in the area and spent the afternoon feeding and clothing all there. They also listened to them and learned from them. Take time to visit Josh Graves and Kara Graves' blogs (links on this page) as well as Courtney's blog at to hear some incredible, heart warming and heart breaking stories that took place on last Sunday afternoon.

What a wonderful congregation, full of the Spirit, dedicated to Christ and willing to lay everything down for Him. It has been an honor to be with them for five years. When people (who know me and know I hate cold, wet weather) ask me why I moved to Rochester when I could have gone anywhere, I admit that the weather is awful (sometimes) and that there isn't much scenery... but everytime I walk into the doors of this building and see what is going on I remember why I am here and why nowhere else looks nearly as warm and sunny as Rochester Church.

Thank you, Jesus. I didn't deserve the gift of coming to this place, but your grace made it happen. THAT'S what I'm thankful for this year.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Faith Insurance

I want you to meet Tim and Nancy Milligan. We fell in love with them five years ago when we moved to Rochester. Nancy was a nurse, Tim a real estate agent. They obviously loved each other and their four children. Years of friendship followed. Nancy shared our love for birds and would often birdsit for us when we were out of the country. Their sons are strong, handsome, faithful young men of great character. Their daughters are young, sweet, and kind.

Almost exactly a year ago Nancy was found wandering around the halls of the hospital where she worked. She was confused. Something was wrong. To make a sad story short, tests revealed a brain tumor. The cancer was malignant and very aggressive. The doctors told her that with surgery and chemo she might live a few months. Stunned, thrown into emotional turmoil, fearful of how her family -- especially her little girls -- would survive her loss, Nancy looked about for a way to deal with this monster that had moved into her head.

Surgery was done. The doctors told her to go home and die; it was that bad. The church gathered outside her home in early December and sang hymns in the dark, each of us holding candles, struggling to keep them lit in the harsh winter wind. She came out, held up by her husband, wrapped in blankets, eyes closed, and soaked up the songs and love in her front yard. We sang carols, too, since she'd been told she wouldn't hear them again; wouldn't see Christmas lights again.

Nancy is still with us. She attends most worship services. She has hard days, but has proven her doctors wrong by staying fairly sharp, keeping her personality. Her husband has been a rock by her side. Even as the real estate market tanked in Michigan (we are 49th among 50 states) and their financial situation became desperate, the family stayed together.

I called Tim and Nancy up in front of the congregation on Wednesday as we did one of our "no catch and release prayer nights." [see last post] Tim is a very quiet man, but I convinced him to take the microphone and talk to us. He told us that there were lots of times that their faith broke. They cursed God, were angry with life and religion and everything. They would have fallen, too, had it not been for something Tim called faith insurance.

Faith Insurance was all the time they had put into their walk with God and all the people they knew at Rochester. The people at Rochester never gave up on them. They stayed right there with them, helping them with money, meals, prayers, friendship, and faithfulness. Even on their worst days, Tim and Nancy said they could draw on the Faith Insurance accounts of the members of this congregation.

Wow. Could this be what Jesus meant when he said, "lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth... but place them in heaven"? Could it be that our faithfulness, our active participation in the spiritual life of a community of faith is a way we make deposits into a Faith Insurance account? I know that, personally, the faith of others around me is a HUGE help on my dark days [if you never have dark days, why are you reading this blog??? Go read one about kittens and rainbows or something. You've wandered out of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood].

Tim and Nancy have given me the determination to be a source of Faith Insurance for those around me so that, when it is my turn to need a withdrawl, it is there for me. Tim and Nancy are sources of strength for us even as we serve as a source of strength for them.

Faith Insurance. It's time to make some more deposits. I'd better get busy and do it. See you.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Psalms Kind of Life

I turn on TV and there is a gaudily decorated set populated by gaudily decorated people (think -- hair that should never get near an open flame, eyelashes that could grate cheese) backed by a band and choir that looks like Lawrence Welk found a stash of crack and I wonder, is this what following God looks like? I change to another religious program and it tells me that I should be afraid; it is my Christian duty, a sign of my faith, to be afraid. I should be afraid of the moral collapse of the nation, abortion, what they are doing with the Ten Commandments in some school system, the end of the world, being left behind, the Democrats, the Council on Foreign Relations... Is that what following God is supposed to be like? I go to the bookstore and there is a book telling me that there is a verse that, if I pray it, God will have to bless me. It's a rule, a binding contract. Is that what following God is? Years ago when my pain was overwhelming me a man told me that it was because I didn't have enough faith. He told me that if I went to his church they could fix that. Is that what following Jesus is like?

When I go to the Psalms, I approach it in a deeply personal way. It isn't a cosmic medicine cabinet to me (Sick? Read this one. Happy? Read this one) but the story of what it is like to follow God. Unlike other books which are delivered from God to man, this book was delivered from man to God. They are our deepest personal journals, our prayers and fears and praise. They are as schizophrenic as we are.

I am a man who has had several serious complaints against God. I have complained that He stood too close to me and wouldn't let me move or live freely. He trapped me into this path or into that relationship and wouldn't step back far enough to let me breathe. I have also complained that He was standing too far away. I accused Him of not caring that my life was collapsing around me, that my house wasn't selling, that my personal relationships -- those people I counted on to make my life matter -- had failed.

I saw good people being blessed and I complained that it wasn't always that way. I got blessings from His hands and yet I didn't trust Him to keep the taps open. I saw failed missions, failed missionaries, failed marriages and failed churches and asked, "God, how could you?" I saw nation groups that had never heard the gospel and asked "God, where are you? Don't you care?" I sang the old song "Carest thou not that we perish? How canst thou lie asleep?" with gusto!

I knew and believed that God was good, yet I was angry because He refused to explain Himself to me, to reveal Himself the way I wanted Him to, and He wouldn't move at the speed I had declared to be right. I knew and believed that God was good, but I wasn't convinced He loved us. Or me. I was pretty sure He liked His other kids best.

And then I come to the Psalms. They aren't like TV. They're real. They are full of anger, joy, pain, and praise. They can say "surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life" and "I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" all in the same breath. The Psalms remind me of Isaiah and Jeremiah and their prophecies that the people of Israel would suffer, their land would fall, and horrible things would happen to them, their children, and their grandchildren... but that a Messiah would come after all that and make it better. That was supposed to make the people feel better and the strange thing is... it did. They had a long view of history. The story didn't end with them, and they knew it. The world wasn't about them, and they got that.

Jesus dying on the cross should have been a clue, but He supplied us with other clues as well. In Matthew 5:11,12 he told us that when we are mistreated we will receive our reward in heaven. Hebrews 11:13-16 speaks of the great heroes of the faith who died and didn't receive what they had been promised! They saw it from a distance and believed it would come to them later, after they died. For that, they were honored by God.

When I read a Psalm I remember a time when I felt the way the Psalmist felt -- up, down, or schizo. There were days where my heart was light and all was right in the world. There were days, months, and years where I bruised the shins of my soul in the dark, wondering where God was. The memories of those good and bad times help me through today and prepare me for tomorrow. For this is what following God is like. When I move my stiff hands or when my heart sags under the weight of life and the burdens of ministry, I remember that it won't always be this way. God will give me wonderful blessings -- probably now, but certainly later. My day may be like Psalm 22 where I am up, down, up, down.... but there will be dancing, there will be joy, there will be heaven. I have to keep the long view, gird my loins, and keep moving forward regardless of whether or not I can see God. That is what following God is like.