Gear for the Journey: Submission

This coming Sunday will be about Submission and Fasting – recognizing that our own control is an illusion, realizing what else has power over us, and submitting ourselves to God and each other.  When I began sermon preparation, I figured that fasting would be the more difficult discipline to preach since I’ve rarely had a successful fast and hunger really doesn’t make me want to pray or make me better at it.

Fasting is hard, but submission is a killer topic.  The discipline of submission goes against the American dream where we are “masters of our own destiny.”  Submission, though, is a discipline, like the others, that leads to greater freedom.  Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline) points out that submission has the reward of freeing ourselves from needing to be right, needing to have our own way, or needing to maintain the illusion of control in our own lives.

I grew up knowing submission.  I was subject to the will and rules of my parents.  I bucked them from time to time, but they had control and I had to acknowledge it at the end of the day.  After going off to school, I lost sight of some of this discipline and did what I wanted, went where I wanted, and thought what I wanted.  I had to learn submission again when Erin and I said our “I do’s”.

We, as human beings and particularly, Americans, suck at being submissive.  As a result, we waste our time on the illusion of control and sometimes do things that aren’t congruent with the will of God.

I met with a group of other pastors yesterday, as I do regularly.  One of those pastors leads a two-point charge.  That means that she’s got two churches that she leads – she preaches in two locations on Sunday mornings.  It’s a beast of a different nature than what I’m facing.  The curious question I always have  is why, in this day and age, do we still have two- and three-point charges that consist of churches that are within walking distance of each other when it makes sense to combine them and their resources?  Instead, the pastor, and leadership, double their efforts to have worship, Bible study, and other functions in multiple locations.

A few years ago, a pastor at Mt. Bethel and the District Superintendent at the time entertained the idea of combining Mt. Bethel with two or three other churches in the area.  These churches actually used to be on a circuit together, as recent as 1993.  Needless to say, the idea never got off the ground and four churches are still spending ministry money on four different facilities, four different pastors and staffs, and multiplying their efforts to do the regular, everyday tasks of ministry.  The idea went over like a lead balloon.

The same idea was broached with my friend’s two churches several years ago.  The result was the same.


The idea died when people from both congregations insisted that the combined church had to be at THEIR address, with THEIR leadership in place, and they would just absorb the other church.  In retrospect, it seems a little humorous that the smaller, more dependent church of the two is the one that made these demands the loudest.

Submission is the issue here.

If we’re disciplined at submission, we drop our power struggles and listen together for the will of God.  We stop being concerned about fencing off our kingdoms and start working together to expand the Kingdom of God.

Church fights and splits over time (and failure to reunite) occur because people lack the freedom to give in to each other or compromise.  Maintaining the illusion of our control or power becomes a form of bondage when we cannot walk away from it – when we begin to say and do some un-Christian things in the name of this need.

Richard Foster talks about seven things that we need to be submissive to: God, Scripture, our families, our neighbors, the Body of Christ/the Church, the broken and despised, and the world as a whole.  When we submit ourselves, we recognize our place in the world and we FREELY follow after God’s will.

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” –Jesus (Mark 8:34)

Gear for the Journey: Prayer

When I think of spiritual disciplines, do you know which ones first come to mind?  Which ones come to mind for you?  Prayer is probably somewhere at the top of the list.

So why are we so bad at it?

When people meet with me, whether over church business or for personal reasons, I sometimes ask, “How is you prayer life?”  Sometimes I get a truly honest answer indicating that it sucks.  Most of the time I get a tentative answer that, combined with body language, says that the person is disappointed in their prayer life, but too ashamed maybe to admit it.

I find it ironic sometimes that even in groups of pastors, the opportunity to pray aloud gets passed around until someone is willing to take it.  When holding a church committee meeting, I’ve got a handful of people that I can ask, off the cuff to pray for the group, but most people I have to ask ahead of time (though they can give their opinion on the smallest of details without hesitation).

Sunday was Prayer Sunday for my sermon series.  We talked about how we complicate something that is meant to be basic and simple, though probably the most mysterious of the disciplines.

Ask someone how willing they’d be to offer the “big prayer” in church on Sunday – most would be reluctant at best.  Being the person I am, I always ask why – and the reasons have to do with perceived insufficiency of words or methods.  “I won’t have the right words to say…I might not do it right…”

The good news about prayer is that it’s not about words or method.  Sure, if the Lord’s Prayer or the Rosary is a good method for you to go by, then by all means. 

Prayer is about the condition of your heart though.  Pray with openness, trust, and honesty.  Don’t lie to God or yourself and try to be someone you’re not.  If you swear in every sentence you speak, maybe some swearing would be more appropriate in your prayer than faking a different kind of speech.  We don’t have to be holy to pray – prayer makes us holy.

Second, you have to come unburdened.  Are you angry with someone?  Do you need to forgive someone or do you need to make something right?  Do that before you ever say “Dear God…”  In Mark 11, Jesus says this explicitly to his disciples in teaching them about prayer.  We have to forgive others, so that God can forgive us, otherwise we’re wasting our time.  Don’t be like the first servant in Jesus’ Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (read it here).

Third, we have to be willing to change if our prayers are to be significant.  Prayer is THE main way that God changes the condition of our hearts.  If we pray all day for God’s will to be done and his Kingdom to be on earth in the here and now, but are unwilling to change to become a part of that plan, we have missed the point.  Sometimes when you pray for the hungry to be fed, God will tell you to do the feeding!  If you pray and are unwilling to change, you’ll abandon the practice.

As a pastor, I’m discouraged by the amount of energy that’s NOT poured into prayer.  I’ve sat in important meetings and wondered if anyone there was praying for the committee, the church, or for me.  If we fail at this discipline, we are assisting in our own demise.  I truly believe that!


Gear for the Journey: Meditation + Study

"This is my rifle.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.  My rifle is my best friend.  It is my life.  I must master it as I master my life.  My rifle without me is useless.  Without my rifle, I am useless..."

Those are the first sentences of the Rifleman's Creed, also known as the U.S. Marine Corps Creed.  My brother-in-law, Bryan, knows those words and the ones that follow just like every other Marine.  Later this week, Bryan will deploy to Afghanistan for yet another tour of duty.  He's been to Iraq three times since 2003 and was planning to go back before the emphasis swung from one country to another.

Bryan's been well-trained.  He's spent weeks in the field running simulations.  He's spent hours on the range, honing his rifle skills.  He's checked and prepared his gear.  He's as ready as he's going to be.

Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen all understand the importance of training and gear.  They prepare for all possible eventualities and train themselves to improvise in the midst of new situations.

What if Christians prepared this way?  What if we took the USMC Creed as our own and changed the word "rifle" to "Bible."  This is my Bible, there are many like it, but this one it mine...

Unfortunately, many Christians couldn't tell you the last time they picked up their Bible, other than to carry it to church as a sort of status symbol.  Many only open it when a pastor or speaker tells them what specifically to read.  Some use theirs as a good luck charm.  I laugh when I see a car on the interstate that has a Bible on the rear dash.  You just know that if you were to move it, a permanent rectangle would be revealed that had been preserved from the bleaching of the sun.  Those Bibles are there to "prevent" the driver from getting into an accident and perhaps deter a law officer from writing a speeding ticket.

The living word of God contained in Scripture is one of God's greatest gifts to us.  It tells us centuries of stories about God and his people, reveals God's character to us, and instructs us in living the abundant life Jesus came to give.  "My Bible without me is useless.  Without my Bible, I am useless..."

We have to learn to use our Bibles like a Marine uses his or her rifle.  That brings us to the first two disciplines I want to share with you:  meditation and study.

Meditation is the rumination, or reflection, on God's word, God's works, and God's world.  Our meditation isn't like that of Hinduism or Buddhism where the goal is to empty the mind.  Christian meditation is an exercise in filling the mind.  We meditate on scripture and soak up its apparent meanings and it's implications for our lives.  We meditate by centering down - pausing to let go of the things that have us stressed out and to recieve peace and insight from God.  We meditate by observing nature, not to find God in the trees or animals (he's not in them), but to see how God created things to be.  When we do this, we refocus our hearts and minds on God's intentions.  Lastly, we meditate on current events by searching for spiritual significance in the news or the local happenings.  When we take the time to apply God to the six o'clock news, we find sometimes that we've become Pharoah or Caesar and need to repent or that there is someone out there that we can be the Good Samaritan for.

Study is the second use we have for God's word.  Meditation is for soaking up God - study is for learning and understanding God's word.  Study is when we pull out the big Bible with the footnotes and the commentaries that explain what we've just read.  It's the regular, intentional practice of reading God's word for comprehension and reflection.  It's also what provides the concrete framework within which we appropriately meditate.  It sets up the boundaries for who God is and gives us a basis for reflecting on God's word, works, and world.

Study and meditation are contemplative practices that change the heart and the mind of a person.  With Christ, we no longer need a priest or a go-between to encounter God for us - we all have equal access to God.  That's threatening to some of us, simply because if we don't have a first-hand relationship with Christ then we don't have to work at our faith or change our ways.  Someone else does it for us. 

When we study and meditate on God's word, works, and world, we find that the other disciplines of prayer, fasting, service, and so on have deeper meaning and significance for our own lives.

Prayer and Fig Trees

I'm in the midst of preparation for Sunday's sermon.  This week, we'll be talking about the spiritual discipline of prayer.  Last week was about study and meditation and there will be a post coming today or tomorrow, as promised about those disciplines.  For now, I'm focused on prayer.

I'm preaching a text that isn't included in the lectionary and you may not hear in many churches because of its complexity, unfortunately.  Mark and Matthew tell a story of a hungry Jesus who finds no figs on the fig tree, gets mad, and causes its demise.  The tree wilts on the spot.  You can find Mark's version of the story at Mark 11:20-26

In studying this passage, some things began to resound with me having to do with the survival of the church.  I think its speaking to me this way because I've been in the presence of some conversations lately about the survival of the local church and how things are changing in today's climate.

Just this week, a church member recited some statistics during a church council meeting.  Studies show that all mainline denominations are shrinking at a staggering rate.  Older generations are dying off and younger generations simply aren't finding what they're looking for in many of our traditional churches (no, this isn't going to be a knock on traditional worship or traditional ways of doing things).  Meanwhile, I've recently read an article by the Alban Institute on what might be an underlying cause of these symptoms.  The article reminded me that when we consume ourselves with these depressing statistics, we have the tendency to retreat into a survival mode.

We begin asking questions like: "How will we secure our financial future?"  "How do we show people that what we're doing has some great meaning?"  "How do we assimilate more people into what we're already doing?"

That's not going to work.

Those were some of the problems that the Pharisees and the temple leaders were trying to address in Jesus' time.  You see, just before Jesus cursed the fig tree, he spent some time in the temple confonting some of the deficiencies of the leadership.  The fig tree became a symbol of what would happen to the temple if it was found fruitless.

God has plans for his temple to become not just a Jewish place of prayer, but a house of prayer for all nations.  Note that I said nations and not faiths.  Part of the problem with the temple is that you had to become Jewish to pray there - contradictory to God's plans.  The Jewish temple must become a place for all people to pray, to encounter God, and to nourish their faith.  If the temple and it's leaders couldn't bear that fruit, or wouldn't bear that fruit, it would, like the fig tree, experience destruction.

I would encourage us, as Christians and church leaders, to learn a lesson from the fig tree.  In the face of decline, we should ask how we can preserve what we have, but how we fall in line with God's will.  Instead of trying to hold all things in, we should reach out with reckless abandon.  We should be inviting in all people of all nations by loving them and caring for them wherever they are.  Forget about numbers.  What are we doing to make a difference to the 60+% out there who don't know Jesus?

It was Jesus who said, "Those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life will keep it for eternity."  The same can be said for the church.  Kudos to the churches and church leaders out there who have figured this out and are witnessing others' lives changed by Christ through the devotion of other Christians.


More on Spiritual Disciplines

I probably should have included this in my last post, but if you're interested in learning more about Spiritual Disciplines, here are two good resources to read together:


And an encouragement for you: Jeremiah 6:16 reads, "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."

These disciplines/exercises/practices are ancient paths that have been walked by many godly men and women for centuries. They are tried and true and work for anyone who applies them diligently.


What are you giving up for Lent this year? I've been asked that question a few hundred times, read about the topic on blogs, and heard about it on television and radio. I'm intrigued this time of year by the things that people sacrifice for 40 days. I'm even more interested in why they do it.

Popular this year, just like others, are sacrifices of chocolate, coffee, soda, television, and other guilty pleasures. Everybody has the opportunity to set their own rules for Lent. Some choose to go from February 25th to April 11th without any indulgence whatsoever - others choose to take off Sundays and celebrate them as "little Easters." A funny post on just these kinds of rules can be found here. Jon Acuff's got a great blog that pokes fun at the shallowness/wierdness/quirkiness of American Christians and he even makes fun of his own faith practice from time to time.

I wonder sometimes if we look at Lent more like a competition than a spiritual journey though. Often times we give up something so that we can say we gave up something. We challenge ourselves to give up something just so we can say that we conquered it. Isn't Lent more than that though?

Last Sunday, I preached about this topic and how Lent is a spiritual pilgrimage. We may never leave our homes or our communities, but we journey from the altar on Ash Wednesday to Jerusalem with each other and with Jesus. If we treat this season as a quest or journey, when we get to Palm Sunday, we'll raise our palm branches with great acclamation. On Maundy Thursday, we'll recieve the gifts of bread and wine with humble gratitude. On Good Friday, we'll stand, sit, or kneel at the foot of the cross - seeing just how much God loves us and realizing the sacrifice of Jesus in horrible suffering and painful death.

Easter will be different. We won't wake up thinking about that long-awaited candy bar, soda, cup of coffee, or episode of LOST. We'll stumble though the twilight hours of Sunday morning to find an empty tomb and, having been transformed by our pilgrimage, our hearts will swell with joy and excitement.

Giving up things for Lent is a great practice. It's not scriptural and I would insist that if you're going to do something special for this season, make sure it fits you. I've taken the route of many others - I habitually rearrange my priorities so that I can better discipline myself spiritually. What do I mean? I carve out more time for prayer, study, meditation, fasting, worship, solitude, etc.

If you're giving something up, great. Don't leave a void in your schedule or your wallet though - turn that sacrifice into something spiritually meaningful. Don't get caught up in the rules or the competition of your sacrifice either. I think sometimes we "swallow the camel but strain the gnat" when we worry about the wrong things.

How are you making this Lent a spiritually meaningful pilgrimage that will lead you to Jerusalem, the cross, and the empty tomb? What are you giving up? What are you taking on?

If you're in the area, come worship with us at Mt. Bethel. My sermon series for Lent is on spiritual practices, or disciplines, and we'll be examining some of them each week with the challenge of either refining our own practice of them or trying them out for the first time.

If you're not in the area, keep following here on the Yawp. I'm planning to post each week about these practices and how I'm using them and progressing with them.

Want more information on Lent? Here's a good post by a good friend of mine, Matt Parker.


Show Some Respect

I know I haven't posted in a couple of weeks and I've got some good reasons for that.  In addition to the extra planning to include an Ash Wednesday service, I've had an unusually high number of church members with surgeries and hospitalizations as well as two funerals to conduct.  One of those funerals was for my wife's grandmother, which was especially difficult and officially the last family funeral I perform EVER. 

I think it's safe to say I'm feeling a little burned out.  But that's not the point of this post...

In two weeks I've performed two funerals.  Between the two, I processed in three motorcades.  The first was from the funeral home chapel to the graveside and the other two were from the funeral home to the church and then to the graveside.  From time to time I see other processions of this type and I always try to stop and show my respect for the family that is mourning the loss of a loved one.  These three times, I was appalled at what I saw.

Most of the cars we encountered stopped and payed the proper respect.  Occasionally though, a car going the opposite direction would continue to roll and I feel that even at the slowest roll, you are being disrespectful.  As we followed the hearse to the church for Erin's grandmother's service, one car actually passed us on the road!  I couldn't believe it!

I was mad.  You can ask Erin - I actually came over on the guy and blew my horn to show my displeasure.  One of our police escorts gave me an approving nod later on too.

About 3 years ago, my senior pastor, a fellow associate pastor, and myself conducted a funeral service for a church member in Elijay, Georgia.  We led the service in the local funeral home chapel and then rode in the lead car with the director up the mountain to the interment.  I'll never forget the experience.  One of the escorting cops actually pulled someone over and wrote them a citation for not stopping.  When the other escort hadn't made it back in front of the lead car with the funeral home director, the director began crossing into oncoming traffic to force them to pull over.  It was amazing and hilarious!  It was also the right thing to do.

What do you do when you see a funeral motorcade coming down the road?  I hope you stop.  I hope you show some respect.  If you don't, then shame on you!  They should strap you to the top of the hearse when you die and drive you 60 miles per hour to the graveside.

I've begun stopping in the middle of my lane of traffic when I see this coming.  I do that so the people behind me are forced to stop completely, whether they want to or not.  I don't think life should ever be in such a rush that we can't afford to pause for 30 seconds out of love and concern for those who have suffered loss.  "Love your neighbor as yourself."