Sunday, January 28, 2007


When I first saw the visual – the look – for our current series “Generosity,” I thought, “That’s a cool concept.” God lavishly pours His grace into us and we overflow lavishly to others. But what began as a hip marketing piece has for me become deeply convicting and challenging.

Over the last three weeks, this image has brought to my mind some words from Jesus.

If you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of My followers, you will surely be rewarded.
Matthew 10:42 (NLT)

Most of the time most of us take that figuratively. Giving a cup of cold water can be a symbol for any act of generosity. But God isn’t allowing me to look at “the cup of cold water” as a symbol.

This week, I was listening to a message from a pastor in Michigan, Rob Bell. He was quoting some statistics and said, “12% of the world’s population uses 85% of the world’s clean water. Worldwide, more than a billion people do not have access to a safe supply of drinking water.”

I went online and did a little more research. “Every 15 seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease. That adds up to 6,000 deaths – equivalent to 20 jumbo jets crashing every single day.”

It’s easy for us to take for granted our access to a safe supply of drinking water. But the lack of safe water affects one-sixth of the world’s population. Lee Jong-wook, Director of the World Health Organization said, “Once we can secure access to clean water for all people, a huge battle against all kinds of diseases will be won.”

Here’s what’s happening inside me. God is saying, “Rick, you can get a drink of safe water anytime you want. And you really have more money than you need. You have extra. What are you doing to help bring about the day when everyone in the world can take a safe drink of water?”

Then, I talked with Maryanne about what I’ve been thinking. She said, “Wow. I jsut saw a show on TV about the need for clean water and I’ve been wondering what we could do, too.”

A picture, a message, a talk with Maryanne, and dealing with the truths of this series have made us take a harder look at what we're doing with the extra that God has given the Duncans. God is moving in our hearts.

Perhaps the clincher for us was reading what Jesus said in Matthew 25.

31 “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For… I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. [You had extra – more than you needed and you helped me when I was in need.]’ 37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you… thirsty and give you something to drink? 40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ 41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. 42 For…I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. [You had extra – more than you needed but you didn’t help me when I was in need.]’ 44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you… [or in need] and not help you?’ 45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’ 46 “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”
Matthew 25: 31-46 (NLT)

There you have it. One sign of a true lamb – a true follower of Christ, a truly eternally saved person – is generosity with the extra. You get extra and then you give it. Because when you give your extra, Jesus says that you’re giving it to Him.

Maryanne and I give to the general fund of our church. “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse,” the scriptures say. And the largest budget in our church budget is our missions budget. As a church, we give our extra as a group to help meet needs of people all around the world. So,we could say, "Since we give to the general fund and since some of that goes to missions, we're covered. Plus, we give "over and above" gifts to our building fund. And we give to various other ministries as well.

But this week, I believe that the Lord was asking for something more. "Will you somehow get involved in giving a cup of cold water to people who don't have it?" So, we checked out an organization called Water Ministries International. They not only want to get clean water into people’s bodies, but they want to get the Living Water – Jesus – into people’s hearts. And this past week, we shared some of our extra with an organization committed to get clean water to people who need it.

When you think about it, it's worship because Jesus says, "When you give to the least of these, you're giving the cup of cold water to Me." I like that... and I think He does, too.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Preaching...

I love to pray about, think about, talk about, read about, and, even argue about preaching. One of our staff members just returned from Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta. Andy Stanley is pastor there. Our staff member passed on some fresh ideas from Northpoint about preaching.

He wrote, "As you develop the messages, [you might want to think about] billboard preaching. They said that the natural tendency if the church bought a billboard would be to put all the info they could on it. The problem with that is that when a car drives by at 60 mph, they may glance at it for a couple of seconds [and miss most of the message].

"They applied this [concept] to the [weekend] messages. It is similar to the big idea concept. They want people to leave with a brief thought instead of a lot of info that thwy won’t remember. They gave examples from the busy world like Nike ('Just do it') or Chick-fil-A ('Eat Mor Chikin'). For the message from Andy I heard, the big idea when it comes to missions was 'Go or Give.' It was brief and easy to remember. They said to repeat it several times during the message."

I responded, "Thanks. Good stuff. Question: Do you think we usually make one point (with other sub-points as applications helping to make the one point) or are we making multiple points?"

He replied, "I have given some thought to your question. I think you are usually making one point with sub-points. And of course there is nothing wrong with the sub-points.

"Here is the difference. He makes sure that they leave with the main point in their head, recognizing that they are not going to remember the sub-points. We try our best to make the subpoints brief and memorable, using short phrases. However, we are kidding ourselves if we think that three days later that they will remember them. At one of the sessions on narrowing the focus, the speaker asked, 'Do you remember point three of the five points in your pastor’s message last week?' It was a rhetorical question.

"Instead, what Andy does is drive home the main point, recognizing that they will probably forget the sub-points. When he came out during the greeting he made it clear that in his message today he wanted them to 'go or give.' At the beginning of his message he said it again. During the message he drove it home again. At the end of the message he said, 'Before you fill out the card and put down how much you will give, go home and pray for a few days about going. If God says no, then give.' The message was 'Go or give.' It is implanted in me. On the other hand, if I try hard I can remember some things he said during the message: I remember the video drama at the beginning and end, I remember the picture of his family on the screen and him talking about their family mission trip. But, I have no idea what his points were. But I do remember, 'Go or give.'

"So, I think he would say, 'Continue making your reinforcing sub-points, but drive home the main point, the billboard statement. If you do it will continue to be with them and haunt them all week long.' The guy at the seminar said that repetition was the key. Say it, say it again in different ways, until they’ve got it."

I responded, "Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve read Andy’s comments on this topic before and I have heard him talk about this in the past. And although I have a great deal of respect for him and what he’s done (he’s preaching to 15,000 every week and I’m not!), I feel compelled to seek to exposit the scripture more than he does and to use more scripture than he seems to want to use. The 'less is more' idea really comes through in his messages when it comes to his desire not to use too much scripture.

"Personally, I can’t get away from Isaiah 55. It’s God’s word that won’t return void. So, I want to have anywhere from 10-20 verses in each message. As my former pastor, Adrian Rogers, said, 'I preach the Bible for two reasons. 1. I’m not smart enough to preach anything else. People don’t know what I have to say. They want to know what God has to say. 2. I’m too smart to preach anything else. God has promised to bless His word.'

"I think I disagree to a degree with the statement that people don’t remember messages. I agree that they cannot articulate the points – that they can’t remember particulars and specifics. Sometimes, I can’t remember the specifics of my own sermons! But I think that the word preached gets into the gut, the soul, the core of a person and that the Holy Spirit can bring a truth to mind when it is needed.

"So, for me, I think paying close attention to the big idea and saying it multiple times is a good word that I need to hear and heed.

"When I was in my 30s, I listened to and tried to learn a lot from John MacArthur and Chuck Swindoll and R.C. Sproul. In my 40’s I listened to and tried to learn a lot from John Piper, Rick Warren and Bill Hybels. Now, in my 50s, I’m listening to and hopefully learning from people like Ed Young, Jr., Andy Stanley, Rob Bell, and (still) John Piper. I’m adding Tim Keller to the list.

"I do like Andy Stanley's preaching a lot. I do work hard at having one big idea for the message. But, as you know, I more often than not have several applications as points. I try to make the points into applications ala Rick Warren. So, as far as the structure of the message goes, I feel most comfortable using a combo Warren/Stanley approach. As I said, I usually use more scripture than Andy does. I try to exposit the text in a fresh, relevant, user-friendly way.

"But, as you know, Andy Stanley is preaching to 15,000 plus people every weekend. I am preaching to about 1,500. So, if I were you, I'd listen more to Stanley on preaching than to me!

"Right now, I’m reading Andy Stanley’s 'Communicating for a Change' and Martin Lloyd-Jones’ 'Preachers and Preaching.'

Please pray for me as a communicator of God’s word. I need it! I know I need more brokenness as a preacher and more power from the Lord. I want people to connect with Jesus through my preaching. It’s only going to happen when the Holy Sprit shows up with power.

"I remember reading that in the summer of 1871 two women of Dwight L. Moody's congregation felt an unusual burden to pray for Moody "that the Lord would give him the baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire." Moody would see them praying in the front row of his church and he was irritated. But soon he gave in and in September began to pray with them every Friday afternoon. He felt like his ministry was becoming a sounding brass with little power. On November 24th, 1871 Moody's church building was destroyed in the great Chicago fire. He went to New York to seek financial help. Day and night he would walk the streets desperate for the touch of God's power in his life. Then suddenly…

'One day, in the city of New York -- oh, what a day! -- I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience to name . . . I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that I had to ask him to stay his hand. I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world -- it would be small dust in the balance.' (W. R. Moody, The Life of D. L. Moody, New York: 1900, p. 149).

"I want that. Please pray for me that, by God’s grace and for God’s glory, I will be blessed with more power in my preaching than ever before."

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Filling of the Spirit...

Today, someone asked me a question about what our church believes about the Holy Spirit. It seems that some people think we dishonor the Holy Spirit because some gifts of the Spirit aren't expressed publicly in our worship services. Frankly, because of stories I hear about marital stress and abuse in the families here in NE Ohio, I think we should spend more energy seeking to bear the fruit of the Spirit than arguing about the gifts of the Spirit.

How can I tell if I’m filled with the Spirit? Well, in Acts 1 and 2, there’s a power for ministry (particularly in missions and evangelism) that is experienced. But there also should be a fruitfulness in daily living that is experienced.

Pastor Joe Propri has been at our church to train some of our leaders. Here’s one thing Joe shared that’s been helpful to many of us.

Let’s say that a container – a jar – represents you and what’s in you. We pretty much can handle life well when things are going the way we want them to go. But life isn’t always like that. Life is a series of problems one after another. Things come at us. Things go wrong. There is stress. And pressure. The pressures might be financial. The stress might be a relational struggle with a child or a parent or a friend. The problems might be physical.

Now, the things that go “wrong” tip us over. And what’s in us comes out.

Let’s be honest here. What comes out when your child has a nasty attitude toward you? Or your boss says, “We may have to downsize and your job may disappear.” Or when your mom isn’t happy with whom you choose for your friends. When things do wrong, what comes out? Often it’s anger. Anxiety. Bitterness. Addictions. Depression. Abuse. And more.

Strange, isn’t it, that those kinds of things come out of us when heaven’s Helper is living in us? Consider what the Bible says that He actually desires to produce within us.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Galatians 5:22, 23

Are these the things that are coming out of you? Whether or not we bear the fruit of the Spirit doesn’t depend on what is going on outside. “But you don’t know my kids, my spouse, my boss, my trouble.” Listen, things will go wrong… for everyone! What I must accept and remember is this: My peace and joy have nothing to do with what’s going on outside me! My peace and joy have everything thing to do with who’s filling me!

The Holy Spirit is in me. Pressure and stress and trouble come. I’m tipped over. What comes out when I’m filled with the Spirit? The fruit of the Spirit! Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control come out! We simply have to begin taking responsibility for reactions and responses to the stresses of life.

We need supernatural power to live this Christian life. Try to live this Christian life in your own strength and you’ll fail – miserably. You’ll be miserable and so will everyone else around you. Every day, several times a day, ask for the filling of the Spirit in order to walk by and live according to that filling. Over the years, we’ve many times taught CVCers to develop a habit of praying three things:

Father, search me. (That's seeing our sin.)
Jesus, wash me. (That's forsaking our sin.)
Spirit, fill me. (That's seeking freedom from sin.)

Will you pray those prayers today?

Monday, January 22, 2007

This past Sunday, I encouraged CVcers to start a chain reaction of generosity. We passed out some “It’s your turn” cards. We believe that the little cards have the potential to create a sequence of generous acts, in sort of a chain-letter fashion.

On one side, they say “Generosity: It’s your turn.” And on the other side, they say, “This random act of generosity started at CVC. Jesus has given to us and we desire to share. Through this small act, may you wonder at how God has touched your life today. Now go do something nice for someone else, include this card, and continue the generosity. It’s your turn.”

For example, you could pay the toll of the car behind you at a tollbooth. Or you could go to a bakery and buy a treat for the next person who walks in the door after you leave. And you give the card to the attendant or cashier and ask them to pass on one of these cards to the person on the receiving end of your good deed. The card passes itself on! Someone receives your good deed (and a card). And they go and do something for someone else and pass on the card. And on and on.

We think this should be a lot of fun! We are hoping and praying that CVcers might just make someone's day. And we might even point somebody to Jesus.

Randy Chestnut heard the message and put it to practice. Here's his story.

* * *

On Tuesday night, I was on my way home from work when I called my wife, Denise. She said, "You're going to be happy. There is a very nice young man here who has shoveled our driveway (for a very reasonable price)." Denise went on to ask if I had any extra gloves to give him, because he had none. I told her no. After I hung up, the Lord impressed on me to stop at K-Mart on the way home and buy this young man some gloves. I called Denise back to ask her what size gloves he needed. She said, "We were thinking the same thing. I had my coat on to go buy some myself."

I stopped at K-Mart and found a nice pair of gloves in this young man's size. I took them to the register and when the cashier rang them up they were half the price on the tag. I asked the lady to check the price and she said, "Oh, the gloves are on sale, half off!" She went on to say, "These gloves look very thick. They will keep your hands good and warm." I went on to explain they weren't for me, but my wife and I were buying them for a young man who was shoveling our driveway and had no gloves.

The lady stopped and looked at me and said, "That is so nice!" I went on to say that our pastor had preached on giving and challenged us to start a chain reaction of generosity. I took one of the "Generosity" cards out of my wallet and gave it to her. She was smiling and shaking her head as she laid the card on her register. She looked back at me and said, "Listen, would you and your church pray for me and my husband?" I said, "Yes, can I pray for you now." She said, "O, yes!", and held out both hands so I could hold them as I prayed for her (as people waited in the line behind me, probably trying to figure out waht was going on). When I left, she was smiling ear to ear!

By the time I got home, Denise and been witnessing to the young man that had shoveled our driveway. We were able to give him a card and the gloves and encourage him that it was now "his turn"!

* * *

I like that! My prayer: "Lord, by Your grace and for Your glory and because You've been so very, very generous to us, let us start a chain reaction of generosity here in NE Ohio that will result in the expansion of Your Kingdom through the salvation of many people! Point people to Jesus through our generosity that has been inspired by Him!"
A generous staff...

We've been dealing with the whole issue of generosity/stewardship/giving at CVC the last few weeks. I ran across a series of questions from an organization called Generous Giving. Last week, I sent these questions to our staff. Christian leaders should lead the way in every area. That's also true when it comes to generosity.

So, below is what I sent to our staff. I'm proud to be serving in a church where the staff desires to lead the way.

* * *

Are we leading our people by example when it comes to generosity?

One biblical truth about giving is that people generally give at the level at which they observe their leaders giving (e.g., 1 Chronicles 29). Generosity begets generosity when people see generous models in the context of community. So the most critical question you need to address before approaching others about giving within your church is: Do I really believe and practice that it is more blessed to give than to receive?

When it comes to giving, it is easy to measure belief with practice. Simply ask yourself the following diagnostic questions:

1. Do I do myself what we encourage the congregation to do (1 Timothy 4:12)? Do I make
regular financial contributions to the Lord’s work?

2. Do I experience joy when I give to the church and other worthy ministries (2 Corinthians 8:1-2)?

3. Do I
give out of an overflowing love for Jesus and gratefulness for His great sacrifice for me (2 Corinthians 8:9)?

4. Do I believe that giving to advance the cause of Christ stores up
eternal treasures for me in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21)?

5. Do I believe that giving is an antidote to
materialism and breaks money’s hold on my heart? Am I serving God or money (Matthew 6:24)?

6. What percentage of my current income do I give to the work of the kingdom? How does this compare with the average born-again believer’s giving of 3.5 percent? How does this compare with the Old Testament standard of the
tithe?

7. Do I believe that the Bible is not just about “spiritual” matters but all of life,
including money (Colossians 1:20)?

8. Do I believe that even
“full-time Christian workers” like me are called to give generously to the Lord (Numbers 18:26-28)?

9. Do I do myself what we are asking my congregation to do (1 Timothy 4:12)?

10. Do I give to please the Lord or to
receive acclaim from my parishioners (Matthew 6:1-4)?

11. Is
my standard of living modest? Do I purposefully live at a level below that of our parishioners? Do I cheerfully give up my “right” to live comfortably (1 Corinthians 9:12)?

12. If the people in my church emulated my giving level and stewardship of God’s resources, would that be a good thing?

These can be tough questions to answer, but they are critical. If we don’t understand the joy of giving and practice it in our own lives, then our chances of having a meaningful impact in the giving lives of our people are slim. We can’t take people where we haven’t been ourselves.

It is critical to start down the pathway of generosity in our own walks before we begin leading others. We encourage you to spend time alone with God and honestly pray about your own attitudes toward wealth and giving. Be encouraged. Generosity is a lifelong process of growth and learning.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Overcoming temptation...

Yesterday, I blogged about "Why trying hard won't work." To be honest, I thought it was some pretty good stuff. Then I read an email from a friend today. My blog is definitely "minor league class A" compared to his "big league" stuff. It's deep. And very Christ-centered. I was moved.

My friend's name is Al Baker. He went to the University of Alabama where he played baseball. Al played on a missionary baseball team in Central America with me in 1974. When we came back to the states, he and his wife, Wini, introduced me to my wife, Maryanne. So I owe him, big time!

Al went to Reformed Seminary in Jackson, MS and has pastored several PCA churches in Georgia. He has a passion for missions, both national and international. So, when his 3 sons moved out of the nest a few years ago, he and Wini moved to Hartford, Connecticut to plant a new PCA church. It's doing well.

Al is a deep thinker as well as a missionary pastor. His words amplify and clarify very powerfully what I was trying to communicate yesterday on my blog. Check it out. I think you'll see even more clearly why "trying hard" won't work. We must abide in Christ.

* * *

. . .far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come.
Ephesians 1:21

You Are No Match For Your Enemies

There is no doubt that seen and unseen, natural and supernatural, material and immaterial forces of both good and evil are in this world, constantly vying for the eternal souls of men, women, and children. You are no match for these enemies.

Perhaps even this past week you found yourself facing a very strong temptation to do evil, something so wicked and bizarre that after the initial delight in considering it, you were then repulsed by the thought. This, however, brought a sense of guilt and shame, perhaps even frustration to your heart. "How could I possibly consider such evil?"

We typically try to fight these enemies by reminding ourselves how much we will lose if we go there, how much shame this will bring to our spouse and children, how this will shame our Lord Jesus, how this will bring financial ruin to us.

Consider this, dear Christian- if this is your method of fighting your enemies then you will eventually fall. These are not God’s appointed way to fight sin. Eventually even these ideas and thoughts cannot stand up against the enemy and temptation. A woman will come along, for example, so attractive, so winsome that for a disastrous moment you will say, "I don’t care what this will look like. I want her."

Pretty frightening stuff, isn’t it? But I have good news for you. God has not left us without a means to fight our enemies. We have an exalted Christ who has dominion, due to His resurrection and session at the Father’s right hand (Psalm 110:1, Hebrews 1:3, I Peter 3:22), over every created thing. No thing and no person, whether material or immaterial, visible or invisible, natural or supernatural can rival the dominion of Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

What are those enemies you face and how do they work on you? I will briefly mention six of them.

The first is Satan who, as a roaring lion, is always seeking those whom he may devour. He seeks to delude you, to make you think that repentance for sin is easy, always failing to tell you how enslaving sin will be. He brings confusion to you and your spouse, your children, your church. Sometimes in the midst of argument or strife you cannot even remember how it started. Then he loves to bring accusation, reminding you of what a loser and failure you are, how Christianity is not working for you, how you are unworthy of Christ’s shed blood. Of course all these things are true about you but the devil certainly does nothing to remind you of the remedy in Jesus.

Two, guilt and shame, like that of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, cause you to seek peace in creation rather than the Creator, usually in the form of money, shopping, hobbies, or any other quest to build your self-esteem.

Three, inward corruption constantly plagues you. You wonder sometimes how you can feel so close to God and then five minutes later be given to lustful, wicked, hateful thoughts and speech. Your inward corruption is terribly frustrating and disconcerting. Indeed the very thing you wish to do you do not do.

Four, ungodly influences and people abound to draw you away from Jesus. Proverbs warns constantly of bad friends, not to run with them.

Five, trials and afflictions come and we wrongly interpret them, believing them to be payback time for previous sin, not realizing they are meant to sanctify us so that we may glorify God.

And six, death, or at least the process of dying, frightens us, robbing us of the joyful expectancy of seeing Jesus face to face. Hebrews 2:15.

But Jesus has dominion over all created things. How did He gain the victory? Consider these five actions- His incarnation, Colossians 1:15, His humiliation, Isaiah 53:10, 11, His exaltation, Psalm 68:18-20, His work of regeneration, sanctification, and glorification in His people, and His providence where He directs and disposes all things for His own glory, Psalm 115:3.

This sounds like nice theology, but allow me to be much more practical. To overcome your enemies, you must put on Christ Jesus our Lord. You must regularly and consistently be meditating upon, thinking about the Lord Jesus, allowing the Holy Spirit to put within you a growing, experiential love for Him.

I suggest you regularly go to the gospels and read the stories of Jesus’ mighty works of healing and compassion. Read the stories existentially, as though you were there, as though you have never read them before. See what Jesus has done and then present arguments to yourself. You should argue from the greater to the lesser. For example, the healing by Jesus of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5 could bring you to say, "If Jesus could save and heal such a hopeless man, then surely He can help me." Or you may argue the lesser to the greater, "If God provides for the lilies of the field and for the birds, then surely He will provide for me, One for whom Jesus died."

Moralistic, self-improvement, self-discipline programs to defeat Satan, guilt and shame, inward corruption, ungodly influences from which you can never fully hide yourself, the consequences of afflictions and trials, and the fear of death will not work long term. You need Jesus. Take Him daily by faith. Believe in what He says, who He is, and what He did, is doing, and will do. You have a Savior who knows no rival.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

“Trying hard ” to change won’t work...

Most of us have good intentions to grow as believers, but we often find ourselves unable to turn our intentions into actions. Many Christians try really hard to practice the disciplines of the Christian life. But trying hard will cause us to end up in two God-dishonoring places. 1) Those who are “successful” in living disciplined lives through self-effort will often become like the Pharisees in the Bible - looking “holy” on the outside, but having hearts that are filled with spiritual pride. The disciplines can become duty and drudgery. 2) Those who are “unsuccessful” in living out the spiritual disciplines will often become discouraged and want to either give up the faith or just go through the motions, settling for a sub-par spirituality. Either way, we don’t end up becoming more like Jesus.

So, we must approach the spiritual disciplines in a way that treats them not as more “laws” to obey, but as a means to grace.

Growth for the Christian is like boarding a boat to go from point A (where we’re not very much like Christ) to point B (where we’re conformed to the image of Jesus). We can take one of three approaches.

Growth could be like being on a rowboat. You leave the dock with high hopes and lots of energy. You make some good progress for awhile. But before too long, you run out of energy. And you start to drift - a long way from point B.

Or growth could be like being on a speedboat. (That’s for the type As among us.) You fill the gas tank and leave the dock with the pedal to the metal. You’re moving pretty fast. But it’s a lot further from point A to point B than you thought. You get further than the guy in the rowboat, but you end up in the same predicament - out of gas, drifting.

God’s kind of growth is like being on a sailboat. Oh, you are responsible to hoist the sails. But you’re not depending on your own energy to make progress. Instead, you catch the wind. God moves you. Sometimes, the wind doesn’t blow as hard as you’d like. But when you keep the sails up and the rudder right, eventually, you’ll come to point B.

Practicing the spiritual disciplines is hoisting the sails. That’s our part. Philippians 2:12, 13 reminds us of our responsibility while demonstrating that it is God who really produces our growth: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

Nobody on earth can direct the wind. It acts with complete independence. No one can make God blow His winds of growth across our lives. It’s His sovereign decision. That’s why we must cry out to God for His mercy and grace, “Please, God, blow Your winds of growth across my life. In faith, I am hoisting the sails. Now, please, in Your time and in Your way, move me.” This is a great lesson for people who have been brought up to believe that they can change themselves by self-effort, by keeping the rules of religion.

Every true Christian has realized that we must trust Jesus, not our own efforts, for our salvation. We are trusting Christ alone to save us from the penalty of sin when we die. But too many believers fail to trust Christ alone to save us from the power of sin while we live. We try to live the Christian life in our own effort. We try hard to be more loving, more joyful, more at peace, and more obedient. But we fail. The reason is because God never designed us to change ourselves from the “outside in.” He longs for us to live in a dependency on Him so He can change us from the “inside out.”

We are not only justified by faith. We are also sanctified by faith. Colossians 2:6 says, “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” We received Christ by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8, 9). Now, we must continue to grow in our Christian life by grace through faith. It’s not self-effort. It’s not trying really hard. It’s not “turning over a new leaf.”

A key verse for us to remember is John 15:5. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” We grow not by “trying” but by abiding, remaining in contact with the One who causes our growth. We must trust Him to fulfill Philippians 1:6 for us, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

While “formula” prayers can never be a substitute for prayers from the heart, sometimes a written prayer is helpful to teach us truths. The following is an example of the kind of prayer that people who want to grow could offer to the Lord:

Dear Lord Jesus,

I am tired of my lack of growth. I do not have it in me, that is, in my flesh, to grow. I am helpless. Without You, I wouldn’t even want to grow. I wouldn’t even desire to use my gifts, be in relationships, reach out to others, or worship You.

I desire something better. I believe that You will set me free from the things that keep me from real growth. Right now, I surrender myself to You. I’m Yours today. I’m trusting You to live through me so I will go where You want me to go, do what You want me to do, be what You want me to be, say what You want me to say, serve where You want me to serve, give what You want me to give, and act how You want me to act.

Jesus, You have given to me a new heart - a heart that wants to grow. I have a new identity because of my union with Jesus. I am trusting You to not only save me when I die but also to save me while I live. You are my life. I am complete in Christ. I have everything I need for life and godliness. You will give me victory and growth by Your Spirit’s power. I’m counting on You, not me for my victory. I believe that you will fulfill all your promises and will work in me.

So here I go, Lord, to live this day moment by moment in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Your spiritual growth...

Today, I spoke at church to encourage CVCers to develop a personal plan for their spiritual growth. It occured to me that putting together a tool to help people evaluate their spiritual condition might help.

At CVC, we talk a lot about 4 practices. Generosity. Relationships. Outreach. Worship. So, this tool is organized around those practices.

Why not use the following tool to evaluate your own spiritual health? Simply grade yourself in light of the following statements on a scale of 1-10 (10 being highest). Maybe God will give you some insights into areas of growth to help you develop your own spiritual growth plan.

Generosity
Talent
I am volunteering in a ministry of the church
I am volunteering in a community organization outside my local church
Treasure
I am giving a tithe to my local church
I am giving over and above a tithe to support Kingdom causes

Relationships
Love
I am building a spiritual friendship with an accountability partner
I am bearing the fruit of the Spirit in my personal relationships
Learn
I am actively involved in a Community Group
I have become an active and accountable member of a local church

Outreach
Invest
I am building relationships with people who do not yet know Christ
I serve in local and/or international mission projects
Invite
I regularly invite unchurched friends to church services and events
I invite people to put their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior

Worship
Private
I spend time following an organized Bible reading plan
I spend time in regular, ongoing, unhurried prayer
Public
I attend church services regularly and expectantly
I truly seek to experience intimacy with God during both the music and the message

Now tally your score. And use the lowest marks to help you develop some strategies to grow.

130-160 Move over Billy Graham and Mother Theresa.
100-129 Wow. You're an example to many, but what's your next move?
70-99 It's really time for you to get to the next level. You can do it!
40-69 Christ is coming back and it looks like you're really not ready.
0-39 Are you sure you are saved? Remember: no fruit; no root.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Tombstone Test...

What would you like to have written on your tombstone?

Today, I watched a portion of the funeral of President Gerald Ford and then went to the graveside service of Tom Zarlinga, the dad of one of the members of our community group. Lots of great things were said about both men.

Now, even though I'm "just" 53, I'm thinking today about my death-day and wondering how I will be remembered. Sound morbid? Depressing? Well, according to the Bible, it's a good idea to think about such things. Check out Ecclesiastes 7:1-4:

1 A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born. 2 Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies — so the living should take this to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. 4 A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. (NLT)

So, what would you like to have written on your tombstone? I'm pretty sure it would be impossible to get all the following words on a tombstone, but here's how I pray I will be described someday:

Rick loved me, encouraged me, taught me, served me, gave me a thirst to know and love Jesus, equipped me to have an impact for Christ's kingdom, helped me be all I could be, and enabled me to enjoy life along the way. It was fun and fulfilling being around Rick. I am a better person because the Lord put him in my life.

I need to pray to this end because I have a long way to go before I'm there. And I need to make sure that I have practices and relationships and experiences that will point me in that direction. I think these are good things to be thinking about here at the beginning of 2007.

What about you? Take the Tombstone Test. And pray!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Difficult marriages...

Today, I received a call from a man in our church who is in a difficult relationship. It was a wake-up call for me on this first day of 2007 that all is not well in many homes at CVC. We spent about 45 miniutes on the phone. And I sent him an email with some ideas about how he might grow by focusing on asking God to change him rather than asking God to change his wife. So, we have another couple to pray for - that their relationship ends in 2007 better than it began.

Marriage troubles and divorce get to me, personally, probably more than any other issue I deal with as a pastor. I cry out to God and long to see Him move in the lives of couples. My heart breaks when I hear the stories of what two people who used to be in love have done to each other.

I regularly talk to husbands and wives who are on the verge of making the biggest mistake of their lives in walking out on their marriages. I wish I could convince them that it’s not necessary that they leave.

Many who are married need to realize that pain in marriage is inevitable. Some of us will know more pain than others. For some, the pain in marriage will be intense and chronic. But that doesn’t mean divorce is their destiny. There’s grace for difficult marriages.

Here’s a passage of scripture that at first glance may seem not to have anything to do with marriage. But it has broad application for many difficult trials that God's poeple may face in life, including marriage.

There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
II Corinthians 12:7b-10 (NASB)


Could it be that some marriages are “thorns” for some people? Could it be that some unchangeable things in some marriages are kinds of "weaknesses"? If so, the passage might well read this way…

There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, a difficult marriage to beat on me, to pound on me – to keep me humble. Concerning my challenging marriage, I begged the Lord time after time after time that it might change for me.

This is right where many people are living. Some stop right there in applying the passage to marriage. Or they continue it this way:

Concerning my challenging marriage, I begged the Lord time after time after time that it might change for me. And I have said to Him, since it hasn’t changed, I’m leaving…

But that’s not the way the passage ends. Instead, it ends this way:

Concerning my challenging marriage, I begged the Lord time after time after time that it might change for me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you…”

When we spend all our time whining and complaining about our spouses, we forfeit God's strength. But when we purpose to obey God, He gives us a divine energy to follow His commands. We get supernatural strength to live with that difficult man or woman. We can say, “I can’t do this! But my God is sufficient for me!”

To help you know how to connect with His power, I’ve composed a prayer that might help…

A PRAYER FOR PEOPLE IN DIFFICULT MARRIAGES

Lord, in my marriage,
I cannot do what I ought to do
I cannot do what I want to do
I cannot do what I used to do
I cannot do what other people do
I cannot do what You call me to do;
and over this weakness I mourn.

Lord, I long to live for You in my marriage, yet I cannot do it.

Unless You help me I can do nothing right. There will be...
… no love in my actions,
… no patience in my words,
… no tenderness in my feelings,
… no good in my desires
toward my spouse unless You continue to fill me with Your own holy energy.

Lord, help me!
Help me keep my promises and have staying power.
Help me go against the flow and seek holiness more than happiness.
Help me fight the world, the flesh, and the devil - enemies out to destroy my marriage.
Help me deny myself so that I can love my spouse even when I am not loved in return.
Help me to have a testimony that will honor You as I draw on Your strength in my difficult marriage.

Lord, I cling to You for when I am weak, then I am strong.

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