Are We Missing Out on this Incredible Resource?

Are We Missing Out on this Incredible Resource?

comfortWhen was the last time you stopped and really thanked God for your church family?

A few weeks ago, Leslee, our children and I joined my extended and previous church family to celebrate the baptism and fifth birthday of my nephew, Luca.  As some of you know, Luca is dying of brain cancer (please pray for him!)  The time featured a conflicting blend of emotions: sadness, brotherly love, concern, and even joy.

One of the pastors, retired, sat down next to Luca and tenderly shared about God’s love by weaving together two similar but different threads; my sister’s preparation of a special breakfast just the day before and then the pastor’s own story of his wife’s care when he himself suffered from five strokes that he described as “boo-boos in his head” (which is the way little Luca describes the wrenching pain in his head).

What a blessing it was to be with people with whom I had known for over 40 years.  Some, I had served with in the trenches.  While I have not been at that church for 13 years, the mettle of their love has been demonstrated in so many ways to my extended family… always bringing a meal, a gift, providing care, praying, and showing up in hospitals at all hours.

On the lighter side, I reminisced with a couple who helped me grill about 100 pounds of steak and chicken one blazing hot summer day as part of an annual thank you party for our ministry volunteers.  I think we each sweated off 15 pounds that day.

  • My brother-in-law’s sister, a Disney employee, who flew up from Florida just for this event, shared some tricks for doing Disney more affordably.
  • Three of Luca’s grandparents were there. Just the presence of grandparents in distressing times imbues one with confidence, doesn’t it? When all we see is darkness, they remind us, “You will make it through”.
  • A loud mix of teenagers on the porch all so close that you just think of them as family whether they really are or not. Just weeks ago, three of those teens visited my house to watch the Super Bowl with us.
  • This is a group I have seen over and over at birthday celebrations, Fourth of July, Easter, Thanksgiving, at the hospitals, it is a group that ministers faithfully and powerfully. I think it is probably unusual. I know people who attend church but do not have these kinds of enduring relationships.

I stop to think, how would any of us get through this life without the love and support of church family—like this?

And then there’s the pained smile of little Luca, clinging tightly to his mother and who would trade being the center of attention to simply be able to walk to his toy box.  All of these people –I imagine around 75 in total—all there for him but we all benefitted in simple yet profound ways from the bond that is.

As we made the two-hour drive home, Leslee and the kids shared their little conversations, moments, and experiences, and it struck me again how much of a privilege it is to live in the body of Christ.  How often do we take our relationships at church for granted?

Empty Prayers

Empty Prayers

empty prayers“Asking someone, ‘How Can I Pray for You’ is Bull *&%^ !”

These words were spoken to me with blunt frustration by a man after I had just taught a class on being intentional in relationships. Praying for one another was one of several practical exhortations I had made in the class. (There was more to what I said on prayer which I will get to later.) This brother in Christ had been wounded by some bad experiences.

As we talked, I was struck by what I suspect is probably the ugly and embarrassing truth about our prayer lives as Christians: we often take it for granted and become careless and lazy in our prayer habits.

Prayer for one another is an essential habit in our Christian walk. Yet, we can all relate to saying, “I will pray for you”—only to forget. Sometimes we ask for prayer without really thinking about it. It’s an easy (and expected) part of our Christian talk.

How seriously do we really take prayer? Following are three practical ideas to help us be more intentional in our prayer life.

  1. Write Down Prayer Requests

Studies show that we remember 90% of what we write down. Why not write down what people ask us to pray for? It forces clarity and helps us remember to pray. Along this line, one of the ideas I gave my Sunday school class that morning involved writing prayer requests on 3×5 index cards. Index cards are a cheap and wonderful tool. You can keep them in your pocket or tuck them in your Bible.

Make a card for each person we pray for. Put the person’s name on the top line. Beneath their name, write the date and then the request next to it. When the prayer is no longer needed, write down the date and the answer or resolution. Keep the card to add future prayer requests for that person. As you add cards for each person, you develop a powerful story; a tool for recounting God’s work through your prayers in other’s lives.

  1. Ask People to Pray For You Rather Than Telling Them to Pray For You

Have you ever had someone just say, “Pray for me” or “You can pray for me about …“. We’ve probably all done it at some point, however, without a “will you please” in front, it can come across a bit presumptuous or even demanding.  This is not so much an issue of manners as it is not taking prayer for granted. We all should remember to be mindful of the privilege prayer is. It is a gift to be able to minister to each other through prayer. It is also a comfort to know that we can ask our brothers and sisters to pray for us in times of need which in effect allows them to help us carry our burdens.

Consider that if we ask and the person says, “yes” then there is a greater possibility of them following-through which also means their prayers will likely be more intentional and effective.

Following is not so much a literal suggestion as it is a way to expose our own attitudes and expectations about asking others to pray for us. Would it ever be right to say, “No, I’m sorry but I cannot/will not be able pray for you”? The thought of that seems almost unconscionable. But consider: can we realistically pray for every request that comes our way either directly or indirectly? How many more can we add to a long and probably dusty list? At what point are we just being disingenuous?

Here’s an idea. If we’re having trouble being faithful with our current list, maybe a good alternative when asked to pray is to just stop and pray with the person for the need at that moment rather than to say we will pray later –and never do it.

  1. Report Back to People Who Have Agreed to Pray for You

For the person who is being intentional about following through on praying for our request it can be disheartening to pray especially over a long period of time and never get an update on what is going on in that situation. When no report is given, it can convey little regard for the time others invest in praying for us. Write down the names of those we ask to pray for us so that we remember to report back.

A simple report is very encouraging to see how God is working through our prayers. It builds our faith. We keep praying for the specific need. It encourages us to pray for others. It builds our unity in Christ. Frankly, it also helps us to be more serious about asking others to pray for us. We realize there is a cost to them: their time that we should seek to honor.

Evaluate Our Prayer Habits

Prayer is a powerful and effective weapon. God instructs us to pray. He promises to hear our prayers and to answer them. It is good therefore to evaluate our prayer habits and to try to correct areas where we have waxed lazy and unintentional.

Whether we’re asking for prayer or agreeing to pray—it is a sacred privilege; a treasured part of our identity as members of God’s family that helps to build our oneness in Christ.

 

Ministry in the Storm

Ministry in the Storm

As I pressed my face against the cold glass, I looked out at the half-melted snow in the back yard.  My eyes fell on the dry dead grass peeking through the snowy patches.  Tears were streaming, sobs were billowing out from deep inside.  I felt like that dry dead grass.

The day started with a young child answering my call to start school with “I hate school, it isn’t fun and I don’t want to do it”. That was followed with an older child telling me about a great awakening they had had in their view of things. It was a good thing, but I guess I was a little distracted helping another child find their book which led to frustration for the older child and an abrupt ending to the conversation.

Just when I was trying to settle down to do grammar with my son, the yell came, “Taylor is having a seizure”. What? My head was spinning, it was only two months since the last one. What is going on? After rushing upstairs, we helped her through. There is always a time of confusion and unrest following a seizure for Taylor. She needs reassurance and answers to the same question multiple times as her mind gets back to normal. She usually feels defeated and wants to hold my hand and ask me to pray for her. It is a sweet request made by a tender heart. The challenge this morning was that I felt like I was in her same place. How could I encourage her when I myself needed encouragement? She tearfully said at times like this she wondered if God even loved her. I wanted her to be assured of His love because I know he loves her. But in the very same thought, I felt exactly as she did! If he loves me, why is this so hard? I was pouring from an empty vessel just like the widow did back with Isaiah.

As I leaned on that glass, looking out at the dead grass, feeling as worn and broken as ever, I thought to myself. “I need to text some friends to pray for me.” Quickly, I banished the thought. “No, I can’t do that, they are all under pressure, just like me… They can’t be troubled.” I waited for my next call from Taylor to ask me again, “what happened?” and could I pray for her?

She did call me in, but only to tell me that there was yet another piece to this challenging situation… something a sibling said to her preceded this seizure and when she told me, it only sent me more into a tail-spin. Now, I needed to confront other people and work through more mud and yuck.

I knew I had to do what I didn’t want to do. I texted three dear friends and asked them to please pray. It was hard, not what I wanted to do, but I knew I had no other options.

The day went on, I noticed that our health insurance had the wrong doctor listed as our PCP which led to a mess of phone calls. I received an email that had news and requests that I didn’t want to hear. It felt like bricks were falling down not only around me, but on me.

I checked my phone and found the sweet message of a faithful friend feeding me with the only bread worth eating: The Word. Psalm 91 to be exact. Words of prayer and love, followed by the others.  In the midst of the storm I had an anchor. I stopped floundering and scurrying, scraping to gain my footing and rested in the words of the Psalm. I took a minute, poured a mug of cold coffee and warmed it in the microwave… moved the dirty dishes and books from the bar in our kitchen and found a place to open my Bible.  I was reminded that all is not lost. God is still on his throne. He has good for us and I have hope and confidence.

We are ministers and we need to be ministered to. We need each other and we need to be willing to be used by God even when we may feel incompetent or unqualified. My sisters were there for me and I hope I can someday be there for them, too. We need each other when we can’t see because the battlefield we are in is too thick with smoke.

Simple action plan:

  • Remember, you are ministers and other powerful truths. If you haven’t already, sign up for our email and receive 12 of these identity statements.
  • Reach out when you need help. Text, email or call a friend.
  • Answer the call when a friend reaches out to you. You don’t have to be a professional, just a fellow beggar who found bread.
One Simple Way to Jumpstart a Relationship

One Simple Way to Jumpstart a Relationship

neighborWho are the people you see all the time, but have struggled to connect with? Perhaps your spouse, child, friend at church, or a neighbor? May I suggest that asking the simple question, “How Can I pray for you?”  is a simple, easy way to start or jumpstart a relationship.

Consider the myriads of benefits of such a simple question.

First, it shows genuine concern. How many people come up to you and ask how they can pray for you? When someone does, that communicates a level of concern that makes an impression.

Second, it allows you to get to the deeper issues. Sometimes people will throw a softball answer such as, “Well, I’m having trouble in my job?” (If someone answers this way, respond, “Thanks. Do you mind if I ask what kind of trouble you’re having?” and go from there as you feel led. In my own experience, I often find that they will share something with surprising transparency.

Third, it gives you a very quick avenue to discern (at least in a general sense) where they are spiritually. If the person is not a Christian, you can quickly learn whether or not there is openness to the Gospel.

Fourth, it gives the person someone they know they can come to for spiritual help. Most people do not have quality relationships, to say nothing of relationships where spiritual issues can be discussed. Being willing to pray for others introduces them to the prospect of a real friendship that can provide real meaning and support.

Fifth, it doesn’t take any preparation to ask such a simple question and it does not take a lot of time to ask it.

Sixth, you now have a reason to build the relationship. Go back to the person in a week or two and let them know that you have been praying and that you are wondering how the issue is going. You may even invite them over for dinner.

Who are the people you see all the time, but have struggled to connect with? The simple question, “How can I pray for you?” can help.

Five Relationship-Building Questions

Five Relationship-Building Questions

Ok, Eric. I’ve said, “No”. Now what?

In an article I wrote earlier this year, I exhorted everyone to say NO to some good activities in order to make time to say YES to more intentional spiritual investment and relationship-building.

Listed below are five relationship-building questions that I put together and gave to each of my three oldest children age 13-16 right after Christmas. I gave them a week to consider the questions and then I took each one over to Panera to discuss their answers over a cup of Dark Roast. These conversations were satisfying and insightful for each of us.

I want to share these questions with you not as a model but as a super simple example. My hope is that this will get your own juices flowing as to how you might do something similar.

 

Note: Although I used these with some of my kids, they can be easily modified and used with a spouse!

1. What is a spiritual goal that you would like to set for yourself this year?

2. What is a life goal that you would like to pursue this year?

3. What is an idol in your life that you would like to have greater victory over?

4. How can Mom and I pray for you?

5. What is something I can do better as a father?

This last question is one I ask regularly of my wife and my children. I love my family and there are many things I know I can do better. Of particular concern to me is correcting the things that I do wrong that might exasperate my children and that I might also be unaware.

Ephesians 6:4 warns fathers not to exasperate their children. The best way to know if we’re doing that is to humble ourselves and just ask. I am grateful that my kids have been truthful and gracious in answering this question when I’ve asked it. Over time, areas have been identified that I have overcome or am still working on. What a blessing it is for me to be able to change rather than to blindly continue on and risk the growth of bitterness toward me and God.

Increasingly, I view my older children as spiritual brothers and sisters who along with many others, I depend upon to speak the truth to me. While I still maintain a proper father-role, asking them this question (and the previous ones) has deepened our relationship in a unique way and is preparing them for more meaningful participation in church community.

Be Ordinary

Be Ordinary

 

ORDINARY - metal finish text on black studio - 3D rendered stock photoThe hotel ballroom was packed. I was one of three plenary speakers at a conference for youth and children’s ministry leaders. In commenting on the alarming trend of churches hemorrhaging youth, one of the speakers said, “Kids who grew up in Christian homes feet like second class citizens in the church.”

He went on to explain the basis of his claim. The church, he said, finds the testimony of people who were radically saved out of a life of deep sin (drug addiction for example) much more exciting than the testimonies of Christian children who grew up in faithful Christians homes and avoided those sins. What does this say about how we define what is really important? Michael Horton, in his book, Ordinary, has an answer.

The tendency of the evangelical movement has always been to prioritize extraordinary methods and demands over the ordinary means that Christ instituted for sustainable mission… I am convinced that we have drifted from the true focus of God’s activity in this world. It is not to be found in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary, the everyday… We have grown accustomed to running sprints instead of training for the long-distance marathon.

You may have heard and prayed the Scriptures with your family each day, perhaps even learning the great truths of Scripture with your family each day, perhaps even learning the great truths of Scripture through a catechism at home and at church. Yet in the evangelical culture of the new and novel, none of this really counts. What really matters is the extraordinary spiritual event, that life-changing experience. In fact, your testimony is likely to be regarded as greater—more genuine—to the extent that the experience happened apart from any connection with the ordinary life of the church, like baptism, profession, the Supper, and the communal prayers, praise, laments, and fellowship of Christ’s body.

Real Growth Occurs in the Ordinary

Scripture contains many incidents of people being extraordinarily converted or benefitting from a life transforming moment. Enoch, Elijah, Naaman, the woman with a hemorrhage, Lazarus, and Paul the Apostle immediately come to mind. But the normative plan that God has given for transformation is, well, quite ordinary.

The Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20) is itself a call to the ordinary. When it says, “Go and make disciples” we can read “Go” and wrongly think only of extraordinary events such as short term mission trips or a missions emphasis week. But what is meant is more like, “As you go”. Making disciples is an ordinary process that occurs in the ordinariness of everyday life.

As parents, does it get any more ordinary than Deuteronomy 6:4-9? “Teach your children as you rise up, as you lie down, and as you walk by the way.” Jesus’ approach to discipleship was equally ordinary. His disciples just walked with him. The events in the gospels are mainly ordinary. Even the miracles grew more out of the mundane, ordinary path of life. Extraordinary blessings can be—and usually are—reaped from within the ordinary.

Examples of “ordinary” include:

  • Reading Scripture together, daily, as a family.
  • Calling the kids together for a family meeting and starting off with prayer.
  • Working through a conflict about which lights (white or multi-colored) we are going to put on the Christmas tree this year.
  • Conversations where hopes and dreams, fears and failures are shared with one another.
  • Discussing the devastating impact that a neighbor’s job loss has had on his outlook in life.
  • Taking time to stop what you’re doing to discipline a child.
  • Listening to the word being taught in a small group, Sunday school or sermon.
  • Giving attention to The Lord’s Supper.
  • Being intentional about having a child baptized and/or examined for church membership.
  • Visiting a sick or discouraged neighbor or church member.
  • Writing your spouse an encouraging note.
  • Helping a teenager through friendship struggles and decision
  • Inviting a neighbor over for a meal.
  • Praying with and for one another.

The significance of each of these opportunities is not always found in the moment itself, but in each one’s place as a link to others. There is a dynamic interrelationship that is usually indiscernible but absolutely essential. Collectively they weave together to form a tapestry that is actually rich and full. While we can miss opportunities, the problem comes when missing them becomes a pattern.

We really do need more strength to attend to these ordinary things than we need to do something much more “extraordinary”… and fun. Tish Harrison Warren captures this sentiment well, “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.”

Why God Chooses Ordinary

God is glorified when we pursue the ordinary because it requires that we first be satisfied in God. Until we find our rest in God, our hearts will always be restless. Our attentions will be blinded by our own fleshly ambitions. We demonstrate ultimate satisfaction in God when we set aside our agenda in order to take these ordinary opportunities. God is also glorified when we wait in dependence upon him to do the transforming that he has already said HE will do (Phil. 1:6). This is an active–and expectant–waiting on our part. While we wait, we joyfully pursue the mundane knowing that God is using our efforts.

Two Promises For Ordinary People

Two passages immediately come to mind that provide hope for those who cultivate an extraordinary thirst for the ordinary.

Matthew 28:20. “I am with you always”. God’s Holy Spirit is with us always. He is our Helper in faithfulness. What a wonderful promise that we don’t have to muster the strength on our own because very often, we don’t have the strength for ordinary duties.

Galatians 6:9. “And let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we will reap if we do not give up.” That is a powerful promise that God will work. We will reap. God will accomplish his redemptive plan although that plan is almost never achieved quickly or easily in our lives. This is hard to remember in those situations where we’re in deep with other people.

Growth is really a process. When you think about it, the fact that growth is a process actually a good thing. We can fail. We can get up again, confess our sin, ask forgiveness, and work again toward Christ-likeness. Imagine how hard it would be if our growth and the growth of others was dependent upon us getting it right at pre-selected extraordinary moments? As it is, the ordinariness of life is a great blessing. Let us seek to be more faithful in the ordinary pursuits of the Christian life in the church and in the home.

If you’re up to it, consider taking this simple self-assessment to see how “ordinary” you really are!