Help When We Need It

My son Caleb and I recently traveled to Europe to minister at a conference for missionaries. We arrived a day early so we could hang out in Venice. (Check out the view from the Rialto Bridge.)Image

We had a great time….once we actually got to the city. It was a bit of a challenge, however, getting there from the Venice airport. I had the phone number of the hotel we were staying at, so I called when we arrived to get a shuttle to pick us up. The guy who answered seemed a bit irritated and wasn’t very helpful. In broken English, he told me to go outside and the shuttle would come pick us up. Then he hung up. As soon as we walked outside with our luggage, I realized I didn’t know when the shuttle would come, what shuttle I was looking for nor where we were supposed to stand and wait.

After 20 minutes of waiting, I was incredibly frustrated and feeling very helpless. I could call again but didn’t think I would understand the person any better than the first time. In desperation, I walked over to a uniformed person who was an employee for some bus transportation company. I told him my situation and asked if he could help. He was obviously busy but he stopped, listened and offered to call the hotel on his cell phone. Needless to say, I took him up on his offer. After 45 seconds of rapid Italian, he put his phone away and let me know that our shuttle was waiting upstairs on the departures level (go figure).

Pointing us in the right direction, he helped us immediately find our shuttle. Within minutes, we were on our way. Frustration, stress, panic—all completely removed the moment we found someone who was willing and able to help us.

That experience was a refreshing reminder of how powerful help is when we find ourselves at the end of our resources. In light of this, isn’t it remarkable that the Spirit of God is referred to as our “helper”? Of all the things God might be interested in doing with His time, it is amazing that He would choose this—helping us. Check out Paul’s words in Philippians 1:19: “Yes and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance

Or how about Romans 8:26 where Paul acknowledges, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans”.  Help in weakness. This sounds like what a close personal friend would do—offer tangible help in a time of need. This is what the Holy Spirit longs to do in our lives. He wants to help us.

Is there a situation in your life right now in which you are needing help—maybe with a relationship, a financial need, a difficult decision. Why not take some time and ask the Spirit of God to help you? He really wants to do just that.

A Powerful Apology

In my last post, I made some comments regarding how I believe Jesus would respond to the recent DOMA decision by the Supreme Court. The challenge for Christians is how to uphold the two things Jesus’ ministry was characterized by: grace and truth. We need to realize that there is something just as important as being right–and that is being loving. Given the fact that this balance is a difficult one to find–especially as it relates to the issue of homosexuality–I was especially moved by and encouraged by Alan Chambers recent apology to the Gay and Lesbian community. Alan was President of Exodus International, which was a Christian ministry to those struggling with same sex attraction.

While bits and pieces of this got reported by the media (and at times got slanted a bit), I found it helpful to read the entire apology. It is a wonderful demonstration of humility, grace and truth. You can read it here:

I love how he sincerely apologizes for the hurt his organization has caused, and yet how he also gently affirms his convictions regarding marriage and sexuality, as reflected in the Bible. A good dose of humility on this issue would go a long way in us as Christ followers being a light to the world. 

Jesus and the Defense of Marriage Act

As I have been reading various reactions to the Supreme Court ruling yesterday on the Defense of Marriage Act, I began to think about how Jesus might respond to this ruling. In other words, WWJD to DOMA? Given the evidence we have in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life, I think we can be fairly certain of three things:

1. Jesus didn’t really care much about decisions the government was making.

It is fascinating and I think instructive to realize how little time Jesus spent discussing any Roman government policies or actions—many of which were quite immoral. He never addressed legislation, policies, or corruption in the government under which He lived.  What this tells us is that Jesus didn’t consider government a vehicle through which His mission would be accomplished. We would be wise to remember this as well. Government certainly fulfills a purpose of protecting and establishing a just society—but it is not the vehicle through which God intends to accomplish His mission.

2. At the heart of Jesus’ ministry was the establishing of a new kingdom—one that was not political in nature but radically impacted the hearts of men and women.

The focus of Jesus’ time and attention was on spreading this gospel or “good news” of the kingdom. The essence of this message is clear and applies to all of humanity, regardless of sexual orientation. “Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” Mark 1:14-15.

When you read the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life, you realize that He never wavered from that mission. His healings, His teachings, His demonstrations of compassion and ultimately His sacrificial death on the cross, were all focused on this one thing—helping a lost and broken humanity find forgiveness and new life in Him.

The consistent response Jesus asks for regarding entrance into this new life in the kingdom is always the same—repent (ie admit your need) and believe (ie place your trust in Him.) That’s His focus. That’s His mission. No Supreme Court decision (or anything else for that matter) would alter that.  

3. Jesus would continue to articulate  His perspective on marriage, which is rooted in creation itself.

In Matthew 19, Jesus is asked a question by the religious leaders who were hoping He would agree to their redefining of the marital commitment. His response is instructive: “Haven’t you read,” Jesus replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Jesus refused to redefine or weaken this unique marital commitment that God had ordained from the beginning–male and female leaving home and being united as husband and wife in a permanent, legally binding relationship known as marriage.

He was no less loving in doing this. In fact, genuine love is evidenced by a willingness to speak the truth, even when it’s hard to hear or doesn’t fit the shifting perspective of culture. The apostle John tells us that Jesus was full of grace and truth. Both are a critical part of who Jesus is and both are a critical part of why I am a follower of Jesus.

I realize that in the past, we as Christians have at times treated the gay community in an unloving manner. I am deeply sorry that that has been the case. It is certainly not a reflection of the heart of Christ toward all people. If you have been mistreated or wounded by Christians because of your sexual orientation, I pray that you can find it in your heart to forgive us.

As a follower of Jesus, I have joyfully given my life to Him and have  wholeheartedly embraced this new kingdom that He establishes in our hearts. My commitment to Him involves an embracing of all of His teaching, including His perspective on marriage. I am committed to love those with whom I disagree, but I cannot reject the teaching of my Savior, simply because it may not fit with the cultural opinion of the day.

So what would Jesus do the day after any significant Supreme Court decision? The same thing He had been doing before. Urging everyone to open their heart to His new kingdom, experiencing His forgiveness and life.


Marriage: Commitment or Friendship?

Today is Raylene and my 24th anniversary. How thankful I am for her presence in my life. Years ago, we were given a Christmas ornament with this inscription: Happiness is being married to your best friend. That’s absolutely right. While there are many ways of describing the nature and purpose of marriage, I wonder if the most simple is to describe marriage as a divine friendship.

In Proverbs 2:17, there is a very unique Hebrew word used to describe marriage. It is placed in the context of a warning against adultery. “Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before the Lord.” This passage talks about a person who, through sexual immorality, has left the “partner” of her youth. This Hebrew word “partner” can also be translated “your special confidant” or “your best friend”.

What’s so amazing about this description is that it was written in the midst of culture where women were little more than property, and yet God viewed marriage as an opportunity for a deep, abiding friendship. When in Genesis 2, Adam looked upon Eve for the first time, he rejoiced in the companionship that was now his–not property but a person who was made from the same stuff he was. From the beginning, marriage was designed as a context to enjoy true friendship.

Now it’s significant to note in the Proverbs 2 passage that another word is also used to describe marriage, and that’s the word “covenant”. We don’t use the word “covenant” very often today to describe relationships, because most often our relationships are consumer based. A consumer based relationship is dependent upon whether or not this person meets my needs. Just as I may switch grocery stores if I don’t feel satisfied with the service, so too we may leave relationships if we are not satisfied with it. But a covenant based relationship is a relationship of permanent, absolute commitment, no matter what. Marriage is to be a covenant based relationship, which is why a man and woman express vows to each other on their wedding day, and why marriage is a legally binding relationship. It’s designed to be permanent.

What’s fascinating is how these two words–covenant and friendship– are used together in vs 17 to describe marriage. Marriage is a “covenant based friendship”–meaning it is rooted in a permanent commitment and within that commitment is to be a life-giving friendship. To only emphasize the covenant aspect may make marriage feel like a ball and chain. To only emphasize the friendship aspect may make marriage sound feel like a fickle, chemistry based relationship–between two people who happen to hit it off. But when both terms are joined together, we see this beautiful picture of marriage: the ideal context in which a real friendship can develop because there is an absolute, unending commitment to the other person.

In every marriage, there are days when we don’t feel like being married to this person. In those seasons, we lean heavily upon the covenant made before God. But in the midst of that decision to love, God can deepen our friendship to be a picture of His friendship with us in Christ. And then of course there are days when  we love being married to this person–which is awesome. We rejoice in the joy they bring to our lives.

Honestly, this past week Raylene and I had to lean on the covenant side as we had to work through some relational challenges…but as those things were talked through, my heart was once again stirred with delight in this wonderful, best friend that God has given me. Happy anniversary, Raylene!


Lonely Places

In my devotional time with the Lord I have been slowly reading through certain sections of the book of Luke. I totally love this book. I love Luke’s emphasis on the Spirit and prayer, and also on issues of justice and the poor. A few days ago a particular verse caught my attention and I spent some time hanging out there. The verse before it sets the context: “Yet the news about Him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses.” Luke 5:15

Jesus was busy. News about Him was spreading. More and more people in need were coming to hear Him speak and to be healed. He was doing the very thing He had been called to do—proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of God. Things were happening.

Immediately after this description, Luke adds the following critical piece of information: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Luke 5:16  There are three words in particular that have stood out to me as I have been thinking about this passage.

“Often”—Jesus often withdrew. This wasn’t a one-time thing that only occurred in the midst of crisis—when things are going poorly. Jesus often prayed to His Father. Here we see this prayer time mentioned in a season when things were going well. But Jesus knew that His relationship with the Father was the most important thing in His life and His ministry so He made it a regular priority.

How about you and me? Do we “often” get alone with our Father to pray or is our prayer life directly connected with difficulty—when things are bad, we pray. Otherwise, we just keep busy? In other words, is our prayer life relationally driven—we pray because of our relationship with the Father—or is it crisis driven?

“Withdrew”—Jesus often withdrew. He got away from the crowds, away from the busyness, away from the need. He withdrew so that He could be completely focused on and attentive to His Father. No agenda other than relationship with His Heavenly Dad.

How about you and me? Does our prayer life involve an intentionally withdrawing? What I find is that for a lot of people, much of our prayer life occurs while we are doing something else—while we are exercising, while we are driving from here to there, while we are waiting to pick up our child from school. Now I love the fact that prayer can happen anywhere—after all, we are encouraged to pray without ceasing. But if our prayer life never involves an intentional withdrawing to be alone with Jesus, we are potentially missing the heart of prayer: Intimacy with God.

How intimate can I be with my wife if we are both focused on doing other things while we are with each other? Not going to work. Deep relationship require focused attention, a withdrawing for the purpose of engagement. Prayer is no different.

“Lonely Places”—Jesus often withdrew to lonely places. Sometimes prayer can be a lonely experience, because in prayer all the scaffolding of our life is stripped away. Our addiction to productivity, looking good, achieving etc. is suddenly exposed. This time alone with God can feel so wasteful and unproductive. In addition, the quietness can be unnerving because we are not used to that. The absence of productivity and noise can be very unsettling for our soul—a bit lonely even.

But that of course is the power of prayer. It can be a much needed reminder of what it is that truly matters in life, what truly has weight and substance. It is not the rat race of things we spend our lives pursuing so earnestly. Rather it is in relationship with the God of glory. The word glory literally means “weight, substance”. He is the One who truly matters. In the midst of the busyness and noisiness of our lives, we need that reminder.

No wonder Jesus often withdrew to a lonely place and prayed. What would this look like in your life and mine?

Is Suicide an Unforgivable Sin?

I was so saddened to hear of the suicide of Rick Warren’s son a few weeks ago. What an excruciatingly difficult thing for a family to have to face. As I read several of the comments on the story made at the LA Times web site, I was deeply troubled by the hateful comments some were making toward Rick and his family. Unbelievable.

I was also reminded again of the fact that many people assume that suicide is somehow an unforgivable sin. There were a number of comments made or allusions to this very issue. So what does the Bible say about this? Is suicide a sin that God cannot or will not forgive?

In order to answer this, we must understand two very important concepts. First is the concept of sin. To sin is to do or say anything that is not in perfect alignment with the holiness and love of God. We sin anytime we choose to not live according to God’s perfect will. Is suicide included in this? Certainly. But so too is lying, lusting, greed, pride, impatience, rage, self centeredness, hatred, racism. Sin includes any way in which we violate God’s standard. From a Biblical perspective, sin is sin. There is no hierarchy (or lowerarchy!) when it comes to sin. All of it disqualifies us from a relationship with God and the promise of heaven.

The second concept that is essential for us to understand is the nature of Christ’s work on the cross. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for ALL of our sin—past, present and future. He didn’t die for a selective portion of sins. He died for all of them.

What this means is that when a person places their trust in Jesus alone for their salvation, at that moment all of their sin is forgiven. The Biblical word for this is “justified”. To be justified is to be declared completely righteous in God’s eyes. It is “just as if I’d” never sinned.

This is a legal transaction. Jesus paid for all of our sin so that we can be declared righteous before God…permanently. If you have placed your trust in Jesus, all of your sin is forgiven—even the sins you haven’t committed yet. This is the good news of the gospel. Our standing before God is completely dependent upon Christ’s work. As Paul says in Romans 8, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The word “Nothing” literally means….Nothing!

If a justified believer in Jesus robs a bank and as they are running from the building are run over by a truck, do they still go to heaven? Of course, because Jesus’ blood paid for all of their sin. Any other view of sin minimizes the work of Jesus.

Some people assert, “Well what if they don’t have a chance to confess their sin?” That would describe all of us, wouldn’t it? Who among us on a given day is living a life that is completely without sin? To think that  a death bed confession of sin is needed in order to go to heaven completely misses the point of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Jesus paid for all of our sin—not just some of it.

Let me be clear. While not an unforgivable sin, suicide is still a sin. It is to reject God’s plan and purpose for you and it leaves in its wake untold trauma for the loved ones who are left. If you are considering suicide, please, please, please get help. Call your local suicide hotline. Talk to someone. Suicide is never an answer. God has a plan and purpose for your life.

What Do You Do When You Lack Direction?

          Anytime we experience a season in which we lack direction in our lives, it is helpful to remember two critical truths. One, you are created by God with a purpose. Paul says something absolutely amazing in Ephesians 2:10 “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  You are the very handiwork of God. He created you with a purpose, and He actually has things prepared for you to do with your life. What this tells us is that finding direction begins by tuning into how God has made you. What abilities or spiritual gifts has God given you? What are some things that you are passionate about? Tuning in to these things can help you begin to discern what good things God has prepared for you to pursue.

          The second truth to keep in mind is that God is a good shepherd. He loves you and longs to guide you. He has not simply given us as map. He has given us Himself! I think of David in the midst of all of his life challenges, often needing direction. He wrote this of God:

“The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely Your goodness and Your love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Psalm 23

This was David’s everyday reality—resting in the truth that God loved him and was guiding him. Even in times of great difficulty, he knew God was with him. What’s so cool is that in the New Testament, Jesus calls Himself our good shepherd (John 10:14-18, 25). He lives within us through His Spirit, and this Spirit longs to lead us. (Check out Acts 16:6-10 and Romans 8:14). Ask the Spirit to give you direction, to show you the next step, and then listen for His still small voice.

          Always remember that God has made you for a purpose and that He longs to lead you by His Spirit.

[This blog post is a response to the “Ask a Pastor” section at]

How Do I Open My Heart To Christ Again?

Question: How do I open my heart to Christ again? I lost my way a long time ago and I want to find it again. I’m just not sure how.

When we lose our way and make choices we know are not pleasing to God, we instinctively conclude that God must be a million miles away, especially if we have continued in this path for a long time. It feels perfectly logical to assume that the path back to God must involve lots of hoops to jump through. But the gospel offers us a radically different perspective. Jesus once said “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink….” John 7:37. Notice the only prerequisite Jesus requires: being thirsty. In other words, the way back to God is to simply admit to Jesus how spiritually thirsty you are. That’s it. He continually extends to us this invitation: In your thirst, come to Me.

The fact of the matter is, you are actually much closer to Jesus than you think you are. In the ministry of Jesus, there was one group of people He continually rebuked for being so far removed from his heart. It wasn’t the sinners who had lost their way. Rather, it was the religious leaders. The Pharisees. The good guys who were diligently trying to keep God’s law. They were convinced God was pleased with them because of their hard work and effort, because of how well they obeyed God’s law. But Jesus rebuked them for being truly lost. Their problem? They weren’t thirsty. They weren’t aware of how desperately they needed a Savior. They were trusting in their own goodness and as a result, they completely missed Jesus in the process. (See Luke 18:1-9 for an example)

Jesus died on the cross for sinners, for people who disobey and lose their way….which actually describes all of us at various points in our lives. We often choose self over God. The glorious news of the gospel is that our Savior is always available and is always inviting us to come to Him just as we are–failures, sins and all. He has not left us. He is waiting with open arms, longing to pour out His love and grace.

So my encouragement to you is quite simple: In your thirst, open your heart afresh to Jesus. Rest in His unconditional love for you. Let His Spirit fill you with His Presence and His peace. Realize that His purposes for your life are not thwarted. You are right on schedule. Jesus is with you…always. What an amazing Savior we have.

 [This post is a response to a question asked at in their Ask a Pastor section. I was asked to offer a response]


How Do We Deal With Grief?

Whenever we experience grief—whether it’s the loss of a loved or the loss of a job or the loss of a friend who moves away—our natural instinct is to try and avoid the feeling all together. We don’t want to be in this place feeling what we feel. Grief is painful. It is lonely. It is sad. We wish we could be any place but here. So we often respond by trying to keep busy or by trying to numb the pain with alcohol or various forms of entertainment. The goal is avoidance. This avoidance even drifts into our relationship with God. After all, He let this happen. How can we trust Him when He allows this sort of thing to happen in our lives? We feel like running away from Him.

            While both of these responses of avoidance are understandable, they are not what our soul ultimately needs. The Bible offers us a healthy and yet counterintuitive alternative. Run to God with your grief. Don’t deny it or stuff it or avoid it. Instead feel it—the anger, the confusion, the sadness, the emptiness. As you feel those things, run to God with them. Experience them in His Presence. This is what makes the Psalms such a powerful picture of how we are to deal with our grief. Throughout the psalms, we see the psalmist being brutally honest with God, articulating to God his frustration, disappointment, sadness and anger. (Check out Psalm 88:6-18)

In John 11, when Jesus finally arrives after Lazarus has died, Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Can you hear her disappointment with Jesus? He wasn’t there when she needed Him, and she told Him that….to His face. Jesus wasn’t offended in the least.

            Perhaps you have believed that in your relationship with God, you always have to always say “nice” things to Him, even if you don’t feel them. Just pretend that you are okay. But that’s the problem. We’re pretending…when He already knows what we are feeling. Did you know that God is big enough to handle your anger and disappointment and sadness expressed to Him? Jesus has actually felt those things as well. He longs for you to come to Him with those things. Why? Because when we come to Him with our pain, He can actually be with us in our pain.

            I know it’s counterintuitive. When we experience loss, everything within us wants to avoid our grief and even avoid our God. But Jesus welcomes us to come to Him with our confusion, our anger, our sadness, our pain. “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28

 [I was recently asked by web site to participate in their “Ask a Pastor” section. This is my answer to someone’s specific question about grief.]

Healing Stories

Since the last two blog posts have been about healing, I thought it might be fun to share some recent stories of God’s activity in the lives of people I know.

Here’s a portion of an email I received a few weeks ago after we had spent time in our services praying for those needing healing:

“When you asked if anyone was in need of prayer for healing, I sat down and had hands laid on me.  I am 48 years old and in very good health, but in the last few months I have been dealing with pain and weakness in my shoulders, neck and arms.  It had gotten to the point that lifting anything was painful.  I kept thinking that I needed to see a doctor, but put it off because I don’t have insurance.  Your sermon reminded me that I hadn’t even thought to pray about it, which is ridiculous. Why would I automatically rely on medicine without even consulting the ultimate healer?

As hands were laid on my shoulders and arm, I felt warmth traveling through them.  I can move them without pain or weakness now, as if they were never sore.  To God be the glory for his healing power!  And thank you for the critical reminder to ask my God for healing, and to rely on Him above all else.  Miracles happen every day, by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

I just checked in with this woman a few days ago and she said she is still pain free. Very cool.

Here’s another story I just received via email from a person in our church who attended a healing conference this past weekend at First Presbyterian Church.

“My husband and I wanted to tell you about some of the awesome results we are experiencing since attending the conference and healing service Saturday night.

John has been dealing with a smashed up lower body since his motorcycle accident in 1998. His right leg took the worst of it. He’s had many surgeries, much therapy, and works hard to maintain mobility. In spite of all this, he has chronic pain in his low back, hips and leg. He was unable to stand or walk very far. We’ve just always felt thankful that he was able to keep his leg and had as much mobility as he did, until Saturday night! After praying with Derek, he has had less pain in his back and hips, and has been able to walk more. (We walked 1.5 miles on Sunday!) John is aware that something has changed in his body, and we hope this is just the beginning!

I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis 6 months after John’s accident. I had to retire from teaching early, and have constant pain, stiffness, fevers, and extreme fatigue. My life had become pretty miserable. I also work at eating healthy and exercising as much as I can, but the disease had beaten me down. I’ve been unable to volunteer and serve the Lord as I would like, and some days spend most of the day in bed.  Honestly, I had given up. But John insisted I go for prayer Saturday night, so I first spoke with two lovely women, Karen and Lisa, who bathed me in healing prayer. John then insisted I talk to Mike and David, and they really dug deep into my feelings, mostly anger, about my illness. I needed to confess my anger to God and ask for forgiveness, which I did. I know that chains have been broken as a result! I have asthma also, and have had pneumonia for 5 weeks with difficult breathing. After Saturday night, I can BREATHE! I can EXERCISE! I will be having a chest X-ray next week, which I’m sure will confirm that the pneumonia is gone. I have very little joint pain, tons of energy, and best of all….. I have HOPE!! For the first time in years I am hopeful that God is doing a good work in me and that things will get better.”

What an awesome testimony! And what a great reminder how sometimes physical healing can be related to emotional healing. Our physical aches and pains can sometimes be rooted in bitterness or anger we are harboring in our heart. When we allow God to heal those heartaches and bitterness through the power of the cross, often our bodies experience healing as well.

One more: My wife has been battling with a cold for 3 weeks—drainage, trouble sleeping, etc. Not fun. The other night she was also getting a migraine. When she mentioned this to my son Joel, he asked if he could pray for her. He had just been to the healing conference as well, so he used the prayer model shared at the conference (I’ll put that model in my next blog post). After he finished praying, my wife felt immediately better. Her headache was gone. As she went to bed, she was able to breathe freely for the first time in weeks. the next morning she looked at me and said, I feel great for the first time in weeks.

Three very real stories of God’s healing activity in our lives. Does God always answer affirmatively our prayers for healing? No. But He does sometimes, and when He does, it’s an incredible reminder of His power and His love. So why not ask?