Your Part in the Story

There’s something going on in the heart of every person. It’s universal. It escorts us nightly through vivid three-dimensional dreams. It draws into dark rooms to observe the flickering lights of a movie. We turn pages filled with words that transport us to undiscovered experiences. This is the power of story. God created us for story. That’s why He gave us a Book. It’s filled with a cast of characters that inform us of the nature of life in all its aspects. Heroes, villains, guides, and dramatic arcs… They’re all there. Consider the incredible story of the orphan queen Esther.

The Role of the Villain: Haman

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Esther 3:5

Haman is the classic villain. He lusts for power and payback. Cursed with a sort of familiar narcissism, he longs to be the leading character. He plots with stealth, abhorring correction or criticism. Just like Haman, the narcissist in your life wants the glory. He saturates his conversations with talk of his importance. He relies heavily on alternative facts that are shallow, baseless and usually pointless. He’s ruthlessly at work creating allies and desires to control both the people and the narrative. We can all related to a villain like this and most people have a few of them in their personal world. Villains in your story will always challenge your loyalty.

The Role of the Guide:  Mordecai

When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, 13 he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. 14 For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:12

Like the wise Obi-Wan Kenobi, Mordecai sees the big picture and challenges Esther to rise beyond her own insecurities, fears and apprehensions. He calls her to adventure. We all need someone to call us out of our normal world into a divine saga. Everyone needs that voice in their lives to challenge us to be more than we thought we could be. When villains are pulling strings we all need a faithful Mordecai. Everyone needs wise counsel. 

His words to Esther were engraved in immortality. “For such a time as this…” Grand moments are rare and often come unexpectedly. And when they come, the hero seizes them. A hero must nurture an expectant heart willing to strike at the right time. Sometimes destinies are lost because we’d rather watch television.

The Role of Prayer

15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”17 So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions.
Esther 4:15-17

Prayer comes before action. Divine intervention triggers divine action. The gods of Rome and Greece were fickle aberrations. King, queens and pawns were subject to the whims of the lusts and moods of their gods. Our faith is in the God who calls us into the adventure. But not as a lone warrior. He bids us into partnership. Prayer becomes our connecting point.

*One other interesting fact: The rabbis of the Talmud suggest that during this time of fasting and prayer, Esther’s recurring context and motif as she prayed was this: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me.” Also the length of the fast- three days- further links the plight of salvation from Haman to the plight of our own salvation accomplished through Jesus.

The Mystery of Divine Intervention

That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him.Esther 6:1

There is an unseen hand that sculpts the story. He wakes people up in the middle of the night to do his work. The people prayed and a king had insomnia. So what does a king do when he’s awake in the middle of the night? He wants to read about himself. Because of this biographical work, the king discovers that the outsider, the rebel who refused to follow the party line, Mordecai, is actually a hero.

The Unexpected Twist

When Haman entered, the king asked him, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?”Now Haman thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?”Esther 6:6-7

Every great story has a hairpin turn where black is suddenly white and white is suddenly black. The dialogue is filled with humor and ironic consequence. Haman assumes all the wrong things, as villains usually do in great stories. All the accolades Haman suggests to the king end up in the lap of Mordecai. And all the plans Haman had for Mordecai end up on the head of himself.

The Triumphant End

15 When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of of Susa held a joyous celebration.

The day of gallows and glory is coming. Those who have suffered unjustly will be vindicated. And those who prefer the role of villain will receive the fruit of their foiled mission. We all have a choice as to which role we will play.

It’s not fair to the larger story for you to wait in the wings by putting down the sword, remaining stuck, fearful and distracted, when there is a world of adventure right outside the door of your iron and moated castle. The adventure is yours. Go get some!

The Dynamics of Transition

We are all in transition. But the transitions that mark our destiny and create our story are the ones that are thrust upon us by the Creator of a greater narrative we call redemption. These transitions whisper to us when we feel the malaise of discontent and stagnation. They seek us out in the wilderness and transcend us into a different level of purpose. We see this early on in the story of Moses. Here are five traits we discover on the road to transformation and destiny.

Patience

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. Exodus 3:1

Success doesn’t happen overnight. Most of the overnight successes include 10-year-long nights. Moses’ night lasted 40 years in the dumpy fixer-upper known as the backside of the desert. I’ve been in these well-worn dogleg paths of the human experience but never for forty years. Patience will ultimately sustain you during transitions. We see Moses and his subordinates (dust-beat, bleating monotones called sheep.) There’s nothing like working for your father in law to level out any narcism loitering in the corridors of your soul. Ask Moses when you see him. Patience will win out if you give it time., And patience always requires time.

Perception

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”  Exodus 3:2

It’s interesting to note that Moses got a call from the Lord because he was curious enough to check out was going on around him. God looks for those who are curious. He wants investigators who are willing to forget their sheep and focus in on the anomalies they encounter.

Purpose

10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Exodus 3:10

Every leader has a Pharaoh in their future. We all have obstacles and ogres that God wants us to conquer. It’s your purpose and when you are called to fight, you’d better grab your moment, because it’s why you were created. 

Promise

And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.” Exodus 3:17

Every transition has a purpose and every purpose has a prize. Also note that the prize includes a handful of enemies to overcome. I don’t know. Your Hittites may be an emotional disorder. Your Perizzites may be your chronic illness. Your Amorites might be your addictions. You have been created to overcome those squatters living in the land of your future victories.  Just trust that the Milk and Honey of the Kingdom will be worth the fight. Take the fight to the enemy. In the end, you are destined to overcome. 

Power

 Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?”
Exodus 4:2

God takes the things you have and makes them holy and powerful. Trust whatever is in your hand. A pen, a hammer, a stethoscope, a paint brush… They are  tools that can transcend into the implements of the Divine. 

So now… It’s a long journey. Get some rest. Take your vitamins and when the sun rises, get after it. It’ll be well worth the trouble. 

14 Questions You Should Ask Before Opening Your Church Doors

I absolutely believe that most churches long to be welcoming to first-time guests and new attendees. But there is a gaping chasm between having a desire to reach people and doing the things that must be done to reach people. Here is a dare, if you will: Ask yourself these 14 questions. Some of them are hard to answer, especially for a longtime member. When you’re are a part of one church culture for years, blind spots happen. These questions are laser surgery for culture cataracts. 

  • How cluttered is your space?

It’s easy to overlook the useless items laying around your church. Whether it is a Christmas tree in late February unsuccessfully hidden behind a fundraising display that ended two weeks ago or a number of bulletins from past Sundays on your pews ready and willing to confuse the members and visitors alike, take a look around and cut out the clutter. 

  • Who’s the first person they will encounter?

You can’t overestimate first impressions. So, be purposeful about your greeting strategy. Make sure that you train your greeters. They must be focused on spotting new people and making them feel at home. By the way, if the first person who speaks to them is the pastor in his sermon, that first-time guest will not be back. 

  • What will you give them?

Your first-time guests should never leave the building empty handed. Find something with value to give them. Ideas might include, a jar of jam, a coffee cup or anything else that works in the context of your culture. 

  • How does your church smell (really)?

I remember a line from a movie a few years back where a teenager commented on a friend’s house: “Her whole house smells like soup.” This was nota compliment. Did you know that the sense of smell has a longer brain shelf-life that any other of the five senses? Think about the smells you remember from your childhood. So, if your church smells musty, funky, or like your grandmother’s mothball clothes closet, you might want to have a meeting about it. 

  • Do you have a plan to get their information in a noninvasive way?

Find a way to connect through an information card that you invite them to turn in at the welcome center or in the offering plate. Ask what kind of information they want to receive and how they want to receive it. Insure them that you’ll protect their privacy with the information they give you. But don’task for information if you are unwilling to follow-up with them. 

  • Does your church know the drill?

Welcoming is an everybodything. Find opportunities other than a worship service to inform people the welcoming plan and invite them to join you in the strategy. 

  • Must they meet your expectations?

Are there some unwritten rules in your church such as dress, ethnicity, tattoos, hairstyle, car model and year? If these rules exist, growth for your church will not only be difficult but heretical. Don’t expect people to fit your cookie cutter. Jesus never did and to do so would place you in contradiction to the Great Commission. Here’s our rule for clothes: wear them. 

  • Can they understand you?

Every church has a lexicon of religious terms or phrases. Mae sure you speak clearly and stay away from useless religiosity. In other words, be real.

  • What’s the follow-up plan?

If you don’t know it, you don’t have one. There are plenty to choose from and there are lots of resources to use for training, but you must have a plan that works for your church.

  • Have you prayed for connections?

Chance encounters don’t just happen at church. We pray them into existence. As leaders, pray for opportune times to connect and get beyond the, “Glad to see ya!” level of interaction. 

  • Will they know what you’re about?

At the very minimum someone should say something about the church’s vision, value, or mission during worship. It doesn’t have to be a powerpoint-driven, visioneering keynote, just a simple statement that reflects why your church exist. Example: “If you are visiting with us, we are honored that you are here. We love God and we love people. So you make today awesome.”

  • Does your church have a plan for kids?

There has never been a generation that values childcare more than this one. Parents value safety and great experiences for their children. By great experiences I don’t mean meeting a life-sized VeggieTales character and having a super-slide. I mean two leaders in every room that love kids and want to be there. If you don’t have that, the visiting family will be one and doneat your church. 

  • Are there needless cringe factors?

I went in the Sunday School class and it mainly sounded like a gossip group. (Cringe!) You can think of a bunch of other cringe-worthy moments. Intentional churches and leaders are standard bearers and protectors from cringe. 

  • Do your people love people?

You know it’s true. Some churches don’t want to grow because, frankly, they don’t love people. Churches that want to grow have this crazy love for people. And it’s not even like they have taste. They love everybody! And isn’t that the kind of church that could reach anybody? Isn’t that a family worth joining?

Jesus, The Early Riser

We see Jesus rising up early:

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
Mark 1:35-37

Jesus leaves the house before the crow of the rooster. He retreats into the morning air.

There’s something about waking up alone and experiencing the first stirrings of morning. The air seems pure. The sounds of night in glorious stillness. The whole countryside waits in longing anticipation for the light of morning. This is the dawn-treading Messiah sleuthing for the stillness of the dawn’s advent.

Before any healing, deliverance, miracle or story, Jesus’ days begin with the power of stillness, intimacy and prayer. It is the key to true mindfulness.

He wakes to pray…

He prays to wake…

Lord. of the Dawn…

King of Creation…

Teach me your abiding peace that seeks the Father before any other relational transaction.

When everyone is looking for me, may I, first, begin to look for You.

 

Jesus, the Increasing One

They came to John the Baptist with a report of Jesus baptizing. “All are going to Him,” they observed. This itinerate preacher who made his home among reeds and wild goats listened and then replied. “You heard me saying from the start that I am not the One. Don’t expect me to be anything other than elated by His renown, All must go!

John’s was the first all-in believer who gleefully tossed his ambition into the fire of His coming.

“He must increase and I must decrease.”

This is the disciple’s passage into the Kingdom: “It’s not about me. It’s never been about me.” 

Once a disciple of Jesus understands the grand, expansive nature of Christ, everything else falls away. The things that were once important and needful are now flimsy and unsatisfying. The things we chase after aren’t worth the wind. It’s not a sudden change. At least it hasn’t been for me. We often give in to the instinct to build our own castles and place His name on the threshold. As we grow closer to Him, we begin tearing down these false edifices for something more beautiful: the presence of Christ… in every inch of our souls. Piece by piece we dismantle the personal idols and achievements to make more room for His presence. We learn that the works of our hands are best used as kindling for the fire of our own sanctification. No relationship, account, possession or achievement can touch the joy of falling headlong into His grace. And so we toss it all in with little thought of their merit. As we do this, Christ’s presence expands and overtakes our territory. He increases and we decrease.

Like Enoch, if we walk with him long enough we will be no more.

I often lust for definition
affirming nods
Self-decision
Protection for extreme derision
Better plans
And high ambition

Then…

I come to see 
And come to say 
that what I need
in close of day 
 is more of you and less of me
More of you and less of me

The world doesn’t need more of me
My brains, my skill, my vanity
I wish to take a solemn vow
To say to heaven here and now
That what I have is travesty
With less of You and more of me.
Life is filthy rags times three
When there’s less of Him 
and more of me.

So drown the egocentric urge
Begin the Romans 12:1 purge
My ever foolish bent to judge
To trust myself
To hold a grudge
Let truth be told
And words be few

Less of me 
And more of you.
Less of me 
and more of You.

Jesus, The Subversive Figure

The second chapter of the Gospel of John contains two very different stories about the early years of Jesus ministry:

A wedding feast where earthen vessels used for bath water became scared decanters of divine creation.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, the narrative shifts to a sudden altercation in the bustling market of temple courts during the most sacred season of the Jewish calendar: Passover. Christ disrupts the religious flea market. He experienced this year after year but now it was different.

Throughout history, people have assumed that Jesus somehow just flipped into a rage, but this subversive act was planned. He didn’t just grab a whip. He made the whip (John 2:15). With the might of a hundred soldiers, Jesus moved into a forward area of battle. His enemies weren’t the tax collectors, the Roman outposts of occupation or the idolators of false gods. He brought the fight to the religious apparatus that strangled the Jews, choking under the grip of legalism, filthy money and pseudo-holiness.

His angry declaration echoes into our souls even today. “Stop making my house a marketplace!”

It’s haunting to think of all the regulations we add to the cross in modern Christianity.  It’s crushing when we consider all the false precepts and useless items we purchase as a flimsy substitute for true spiritual intimacy with Him. This was the first cleansing of the temple. Another would follow at the advent of the week of His sacrifice. But Jesus is constantly cleansing my own temple of false religion. His whip is not a punishment for sins but a driving away of every false assumption I have of religious dignity. He hasn’t come to drive me away. He has come to scatter to the four winds of creation everything that separates me from his furious, relentless love.

Sometimes He comes as a shepherd gently guiding me to safety. Other times, He attacks the wolves of my own destitution and destruction.

Jesus remains a subversive figure. We are his temple and He has come to clean house.

Jesus, The Overcomer

On the Day of Atonement, a priest would lay his hands on a goat and place the sins of the entire nation. After this solemn act the scapegoat, would be led into the wilderness.

Jesus, the one who would bear the sins of the world, was also led into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.

The tempter approached with a proposal, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”

Jesus rejected this proposal because He knew that there would be a night when He would gather around a table with His beloved brothers. He would, Himself, be turned into bread. “This bread is my body, broken for you.”

The tempter led him to the pinnacle of the temple. He spoke again, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will give his angels orders concerning you, and they will support you with their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

No doubt, Jesus knew there would be a day when he would be thrown down under the weight of a Roman cross. There would be no angelic rescue. An Ethiopian man would come to His aid and lift the burden off His wounded back as He made his way to a hill outside the holy city.

The devil took Him to a high place where He could scan the all the kingdoms of the world. He uttered a final proposal to Jesus: “I will give you all these things if you will fall down and worship me.”

But Jesus foreknew the glorious day, the day not yet realized when every knee would bow and every tongue would confess…

Every kingdom and crown,

Every power and principality,

Every race and ruler,

All would confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

 

Jesus, the Beloved Son

There was John and then there was Jesus.

John couldn’t be categorized as anything but completely, radically, undeniably committed. His calling and mission propelled him into the vortex of the Jesus story.  What do you call a man who wears camel’s skin and a belt? How do you explain a consistent diet of wild honey and extra crispy locust?

He improvised His way through all the things we call “necessities.” Maslow’s hierarchy of needs turned itself upside-down for Johnmaslow-5.jpg

Basic needs? Food, water, rest- To John? Not that important…
Safety? To John? Not on the radar.
Belonging? No, not really a mission statement of John the Baptist.
Esteem? He gave that up a long time ago.

At the very foundation of John’s life was the realization, the actualization of his mission and purpose in the story.  This man was all-in on the one thing that would matter.

No reputation
No retirement plan
No family
No boat
No Sunday clothes (or Saturday for that matter)
No 20 year plan
No one to impress

This was John the Baptist.

I wonder what would happen if I laid everything on the table like that? It’s a “betting the farm” faith. It’s a faith that is well-aware that the mission is more vast than the person. 

John was the prophet.

Jesus was the Savior.

Luke writes, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.”

At that moment Jesus enters the pilgrimage and path of every seeker- man, woman and child.

Jesus was baptized too.

Jesus was buried the currents of the water and surfaced to the sound of the Heavens parting and the proud Papa: “This is my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”

We believe that every person who claims Jesus as Lord, becomes a part of this story.  When someone enters the waters of baptism we can be sure that this same gracious Father is saying, “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

We are baptized and Jesus was baptized too.

It’s so easy for me to forget amidst the deep flaws of my life, that there is a Father who loves me because Jesus was baptized too.

When the pain is too great to bear, we remember Jesus suffered too.

When rejection hovers over us like a cloud, we remember that Jesus was rejected too. 

Life, in all aspects, is made beautiful because Jesus lived too. He is the Savior who came among the devils and dust of fallen humanity so He could lead us to heights unseen, 

Jesus was baptized too. The Father blesses. The waters part. The Holy Spirit comes down. And the Father smiles. And life becomes a moveable feast. 

 

 

 

 

Jesus, the Hidden Savior

They up and left for Egypt and parts unknown. Jesus disappears from the pages of scripture. We do have one curious story. Maybe Mary and Jospeh forgot him or they just didn’t notice that he wasn’t with him until they reached the ancient exit ramp outside the walls of the Holy City. Even that story underscores his elusive nature. I can’t fault the parents. I often forget to take take Jesus home from church. When I cry out, “God, where are you?,” it comforts me to know that Mary and Joseph asked that question, too. 

Other than that story, He was missing, hidden… a mystery. There’s no record of anything He said, but He was there. The people of Nazareth knew him as the carpenter’s son and as far as anything else, scripture leaves us guessing. Why don’t we get to peek into the scriptural home movies of Sabbath school adventures featuring the 8-year-old Jesus. Why no literary snapshots of the 15, 18 or even 28 year old rabbi?  Perhaps even in His silence there was a message. Jesus, the Word made flesh, simply needed to dwell among us. He observed before he spoke. He witnessed before he acted. He experienced first-hand the iron fist of the Roman Empire. He saw the cultural and religious injustice in plain sight. Jesus became a witness of the mess of it all for 30 years. He developed a personal history of his own humanity before one divine word or supernatural deed. Again, He became flesh and dwelt among us. Before the battle of the ages, He had sandals on the ground for years so that he could weep, celebrate, observe, and be God with us. 

I don’t know your story, but I’ve waited years for a divine act or word in certain unrealized aspects of my life.  I remember the hidden years and I wait for the voice crying in the wilderness who will (I must not doubt…) cry out, “Behold the Lamb!Jesus is our example and archetype of God as listener. Jesus reminds me that I can’t act or speak and truly listen. Perhaps stopping, listening, observing and showing up before  we speak or act is the key to living in step with Jesus. And though cloaked in veil of silence and mystery, Jesus is still God with us all.

The Spirit of Herod

As a stealth and sinister conspirator, he sent his henchman into the city of promise. He orchestrated the visceral wails of young mothers.
The horsemen of the holocaust…
Their hooves crushing the hearts of the mothers.
Cruelty felt palpable that horrid night.

I’d rather skip this story. There’s nothing good in all the unspeakable, gratuitous violence other than a reminder that the enemy of Christ is real. And the enemy of the innocent remains on this Earth. It is the spirit of Herod that stands opposing the Spirit of God.

The spirit of Herod seeks to destroy anyone it feels threatened by.
The spirit of Herod gladly murders children for personal gain.
The spirit of Herod believes he is not culpable as long as the sword is not actually in his hand.
The spirit of Herod, tells lies to unsuspecting bystanders in the hopes they will do his work.
The spirit of Herod will never be satisfied, because his stomach is never too full for violence.

And to be sure, the spirit of Herod is among us today. Even though we can’t hear the wailing mothers or the rattling swords. The spirit of Herod thrives. Just because you don’t hear, see, smell or touch this reality, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s in the abortion mills, the bidding rooms, the brothels of the third world, and the halls of governing bodies.

The slaughter of the innocents may seem like such an ancient holocaust but just because it’s digitized, jet-lagged, and modernized doesn’t discount the genocide. Just because you don’t hear the Syrian orphans or the mourning mothers of Darfur, doesn’t mean in the least that they don’t exist. We don’t intimately acquaint ourselves with these horrors, but they are there. Today. Right now. The suffering is sure as sand.

The spirit of Herod remains.

The target of the suffering is the sacrifice delayed. Delayed but sure for 33 years…

Delayed suffering would give birth to redemption for every broken heart of Bethlehem.