What about Bob? But what about the Lord’s prayer too?

Yesterday we had our community group lunch followed by our “prayer and study time.” Nothing too abnormal about that. But this time we spent some time going through the Lord’s Prayer. In my sermon, “Living on a Prayer,” I pointed out that the early church was committed to “the prayers,” which indicates some sort of recorded prayers that were already in use. One such prayer is the Lord’s prayer, which apparently spread fairly quickly since archaeologists discovered inscriptions as far back as Pompeii (79 AD). So Jesus seemed to like it, the early church used it, I learned how to use it as a prayer guide in seminary with Steve Childers, Harbor’s core group used it as a pattern prayer when we started Harbor. It was time to bring it back.

You can pray in all kinds of ways. The Praying Life by Paul Miller was helpful in me really understanding that. But life, along with reading the bible and seeing prayers of praise, lament, confession, thanksgiving kind of makes me want to pray in all kinds of ways. My normal default mode is what I call “What About Bob” prayers. I’ve taken that from the Bill Murray’s movie What about Bob? where the ever frightful and paranoid Bob begs his psychiatrist who is on vacation to see him: “Gimme, gimme, gimme…I need, I need, I need….” Again, nothing wrong with “What about Bob” prayers. Jesus thinks they are beautiful. Think of the persistent widow parable (Luke 18). But if that’s the only way I pray, then I’m only reacting. And Rich Mullins reminds us that it is good to sing (or pray) one more halleluia, “that you never know much good its gonna do ya.”

Plus I get bored. Easily. I guess I need to stop getting mad at my kids when they complain of being bored, eh? I like to have some variety. Well, praying the Lord’s prayer, as a guide, gives me that variety in my prayer life. And when I don’t want to use it, because I want more variety, I don’t have to. I can use a prayer schedule. Or write down requests from others. Or “What About Bob prayers”-which are important for all of us (I’ve been praying those more since we started this church plant).

So here’s what we did as a community group. We just went through the Lord’s prayer and filled in the blanks. When everyone was finished, we shared. We only had 6 of us, but it took the better part of 45 minutes. And it was worth every minute, particularly because my 6 year old joined us! So cool to hear how he wants to see his neighbors come to faith and to Harbor. I learned so much by listening to the others and how they filled in their blanks. Very edifying. Here’s my “fill in the blanks” Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name…..

Lord we praise you for your justice and wrath

Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven

We pray for your will be done in Pine Lakes subdivision, that community would continue to develop, that we would see more neighbhors kids coming over to play, and more eventually come to Christ and to Harbor

Give us this day our daily bread

Grant me energy, patience, and peace. Allow our community group to grow, and our church as well, deeper and wider.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

Forgive me for my jealousy and for jumping to conclusions. I’m jealous of other pastors, and I assume that I know what’s going on in other people without asking them. Help me to forgive those who have not lived up to their word.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

Help me to pray for other pastors who may “look” more successful. Protect me and my kids from harm, and thwart the hand of the enemy wherever he may seek to deceive us to believe his lies

For thine is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jesus, you win. I’m on your team. Let me remember that! Its your world, your kingdom, your church, your family.

Each week you’ll be able to fill in the blanks differently. But sometimes you’ll see a pattern develop. And perhaps the Lord will use that pattern to direct you to meet the need or bring His heavenly will down to Earth in a way you wouldn’t have thought had you not regularly prayed in this way.

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The relational pre-requisite to deeper understanding of gospel

At our last YMCA preview service I preached on one of our core values: gospel-centered. We looked at this passage from Colossians 2:1-5

I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.”

Because I only have a limited amount of time, and I try to have one major point for each sermon, I wasn’t able to discuss the relational component of the passage. Instead I’ll be highlighting that core value this Sunday when I preach on Ecclesiastes 4. But one aspect of this passage that struck me was the relational prerequisite if folks want to get to a deeper understanding of the gospel.  For instance, Paul’s goal that the recipients of his letter “be encouraged in heart and united in love” was “so that they may have full riches of complete understanding.”

You cannot get very far in understanding the gospel without healthy Christian community. In fact, what this verse tells us is that a Christian community who doesn’t love each other well, will miss out on understanding the riches of the gospel. If they are not united in love, they will miss out on experiencing love from each other and experiencing the love of Christ. Divisive folk get a little relationship and consequently only experience a little of Christ. Not that He loves less, but we may experience His love less.

The final goal of Christian community is not Christian community but Christ. It’s not less than a community united by love, but a community that is growing in love of its Savior. You can have a community that loves each other and yet does not grow in love of Christ. Relationships are not a gospel substitute but should point you to the gospel. If you demand relationships to be the bottomless treasure that only the gospel is, you will be extremely disappointed. You’ll think something is wrong with the relationship. Yet the problem is that you have made the relationship the main thing. You will become frustrated and angry. Relationships should point us to Jesus, who is the “lovely source of true delight.” If your relationships point you to Jesus, you’ll find satisfaction in both relationships and in Christ. If you use Jesus as a means to get relationships, you’ll find satisfaction in neither. If you value church community more than Christ, you’ve reversed the order. Many people taste and experience the community of Christ before they experience Christ. That is beautiful and we should expect any missional oriented community to expect this. But it is never loving to leave people in such a place.

Personal gospel study and prayer is required but is not sufficient in itself to fathom depths of gospel. In other words, you can’t simply go off and study the bible and other helpful books by yourself, and expect to go all that deep into the gospel message. It’s like having one hand tied behind your back. If you’ve ever been in a good community group, you know that others bring out riches that you had forgotten or didn’t know existed. More often than not I walk away from teaching and leading a group with greater knowledge simply because I’ve listened to people give different answers to my questions than I had anticipated.

 

Brady Quinn, Real Relationships, and Aunt Bessy’s Hemarrhoids

I have to say I never was much of a Brady Quinn fan. First of all he came from Notre Dame, and then there was some weirdness with he and Tebow in Denver. But after yesterday, count me among the converted.

In case you didn’t hear, Kansas City Chief’s linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then committed suicide at the Chief’s complex this past Saturday. The Chief’s then turned around and played the next day without their starting linebacker and beat the Carolina Panthers.

What “converted” me was not his ability to help lead his team to only their 2nd victory but what he said in the post game comments. Comments that had nothing to do with football but instead everything to do with relationships.

“The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people,” Quinn told reporters after the game.  “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently.  When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?  When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?


“We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.  Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”

Here are some of my thoughts on his comments.

1.) First of all, I love how he is willing to try and learn anything from this malfeasance without assuming blame. Several folks noted that they deemed nothing wrong with Belcher or his relationship with his girlfriend. But obviously there was something wrong with Belcher, if not with Belcher and his girlfriend. And it is clear that someone knew about these problems and was seeking to do something about it. Apparently…….

That detail was among the troubling revelations about a relationship that had more problems than previously realized. According to Kansas City Police Sgt. Richard Sharp, the team knew about their issues and was “bending over backward” to help.

And so it cannot be construed in any way to be the fault of Brady nor any of his teammates, nor anyone else that Belcher followed through on such machinations. In my mind he avoids the “We can’t learn anything from this” and the  “It was our fault and his blood is on our hands,” response that comes with situations such as this. Yet why not try to learn from the situation?

2.) In regards to “what we can learn,” his wisdom exceeds his age (and career touchdowns) by a wide margin. More specifically as how it relates to truth in relationships.

When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?  When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?

A. Do you mean it? I appreciate his challenge to ask and answer questions with a deeper concern for the truth. We could all do a better job at that. As Christians who live in the time after Jesus’ first coming and before His Second Coming, we experience both the joys of redemption accomplished and applied to us now, and but still groan and long for the final redemption of our bodies in new world then (Rom 8:18-27). So we can say, “Yes I’m doing well,” or “No life is rough right now.” Both are consistent of our Christian experience now

B.Truth WILL ONLY be divulged in safe relationships. The deeper and more personal truths will only be revealed in really safe relationships.  Surface relationships will lead to shallow truth about someone. What you will/can tell about yourself and what they will/can tell you about themselves is probably only going to happen, at least on a regular basis, if you and they engage in deep and safe community. And deep and safe community only results when folks make time and commitment to be in such a deep and safe community.

C. Deep relationships don’t necessarily lead folks to know you. 

I’ve been in community groups where I’ve come to know stuff about people. Sometimes more than I wanted to know (though I’m glad I did). I’ve been in community groups, as well, where I’ve known next-to-nothing about others. In such cases if they were to divorce or murder or commit suicide, or become depressed, I would have no idea. And that is sad but true. Deep relationships and community may be available and offered but just the presence of such a community does not mean folks will automatically take advantage of it. You and I may be in place to share our lives but stay silent or on the surface.

On the flip side you or I can be a part of a deep and safe community, but others may not divulge any poverty of spirit, material, joy, etc….Some folks, even despite deep and safe community, will divulge nothing. And it will be to their great loss.


D. Deep relationships and community always involve you taking the lead.

If you want to take seriously Brady Quinn’s concerns, and he’s only reiterating what it means to love your neighbor (you probably have heard that one before), then there is something you can do which may foster others being honest about their struggles. Someone has to take the lead. Such deep and safe communities/relationships don’t automatically spring up. People will only go so far as you lead them. Yes there are exceptions for the guys/gals who wear hearts on their sleeves (or jackets for this time of year), but as a rule, people have to be led to share truth. And often they will only share something that is on the same level as that which has already been shared. For instance if you share, “I need prayer for Aunt Bessy, because she has hemarrhoid surgery,” then don’t expect to get back an, “I’m struggling with my child right now, as he is in a very difficult phase in my life, and I need prayer to love him through this, because right now I don’t.” Aunt Bessy’s hemarrhoids will be covered in prayer, but the struggle of a parent to love his/her child will not. You won’t even know that problem exists until you take the lead in sharing your personal struggles first. And this is hard. Very hard.

Deep relationships and community take time of course. But time alone is not enough. No one makes the “jump” unless you first lead them.

E. Technology and actual relationships don’t naturally coexist. They don’t appear to fight like cats and dogs, but the latter slowly loses that fight unless we intentionally value and prioritize real relationships. Emails and facebook can be very helpful, but they are at best only supplemental. You don’t know someone, nor are you known by status updates. You know and are known by spending time together. The question is, “Is it worth it?” Brady says yes, and I think the “one another” passages in scripture suggest he didn’t say it first. Again this is hard, and we have to get creative amidst certain seasons of life (and no matter how creative we get, some seasons don’t afford much community/relationship development), but well worth it in the end.

We could all benefit from Brady’s advice to intentionally put ourselves in the path of potentially deeper relationships not only to know but also to be known. Who knows what good could come? I would say a lot.

Consider me a Chief’s fan for the rest of the season.

Risk, failure, and the gospel

This Fall at Redeemer, we are planning on launching 4 new CD (community/discipleship) groups, plus a morning bible study for ladies and a Reformed theology class on Monday evenings. We have plenty of folks not involved in anything outside of corporate worship. And the Lord has blessed us with a healthy visitor stream since the gift of our building. So we really do need more places for discipleship, community, fellowship, and service to happen. 

We could play it safe, and just add one group at a time. But as my life begins to enter into a busy season (only one in Tee ball now, but it won’t be long for another…), I’m more sympathetic to how busy folks with families are. Therefore it is essential-if you can-to offer a plethora of opportunities that fit within schedules and rhythms of life.

The “danger” in offering so many opportunities is that it could be harder for one particular group to launch. One group could fail to get the necessary number to really sustain itself because another time slot works better (or only works) for more folks. And you really don’t know which will work until a leader commits. So one group could “fail.” Is it worth it?

I think the deeper question is, “Is it worth risking something so big that unless God is in it, will fail?” To that I give an unequivocal yes. Here’s why.

1.) Risking is always better than not risking and remaining comfortable. Most people did not want to enter into the Promised Land because it was too big of a risk. God is always calling His people to risk and trust Him. If you’re not risking, it could mean you’re not following Jesus very closely.

2.) To risk is to put yourself in a position where you could fail. What happens in situations where you could fail? You pray more. You have to really trust God in the midst of uncertainty. Your faith grows in such situations. I think those three things are probably pretty good. While it may feel more comfortable to remain safe, your prayer life and faith will not grow without risking failure.  

3.) Risking failure gives you a chance to believe the gospel. The gospel tells us that there is no condemnation in Christ (Romans 8:1). None. Nada. When are we tempted to feel shame or condemnation? When we fail. Yet for the Christian, failure gives you an opportunity to say, “My worth before God and others is completely dependent upon Jesus’ work and not on my ability to gather folks (although it is possible there aren’t enough folks able/willing to come-which has nothing to do with you). Regardless, Jesus loves you just as much in your “failure.” Do you believe that? You have that opportunity when you fail.

4.) Taking risks demonstrates you are currently believing the gospel. Faith is not merely an intellectual exercise. We demonstrate to others, and even the spiritual realm, that we believe the gospel when we step out in faith and risk failure. The one who knows he is free to fail will not be afraid to fail. But if we have a shallow grasp of the gospel, we will always stay put.

5.) Even though we are more than conquerors, I think God does really want us to fail some times. I’m not talking major stuff here, but if you believe you’re God’s gift to humanity, He will see that you fail. For your own good. When you become a self-reliant parent, pastor, friend, co-worker, Sunday School teacher-I can say with confidence-God does want you to fail! When we fail, we run to Him and find comfort not in anything that we have done or failed to do, but only in what He has done for us in the gospel. Sometimes failure is God’s gift to us.

Of course risk for the sake of risk is ridiculous. It can be foolish without prayer, counsel, discernment, and encouragement. But risk, regardless of the outcome, doesn’t simply demonstrate your devotion to Christ, it recalls His faithful devotion to you.

Ultimately, I use the world “fail” tongue in cheek because we can’t fail when we’re stepping out in faith. And since Jesus stepped out in faith for us, he now works that same faith in us. I’m thankful for leaders who will step out in faith with me this Fall. Regardless of outcome, I think God is honored.

This material is not very Christ-centered…Now what?

It is a good to thing to stumble upon material that is gospel centered. What I mean by that is that Jesus’ finished work (Life, Death, Resurrection) is our means and motivation to follow Him. Instead of what I call a “Nike message” (just do it), good material will point to the truth that Jesus has already done it FOR us and now is going to start doing it IN and THROUGH us. That’s much different than a “Nike message.” Such messages lead to pride (I did it) or despair (I can’t do it). Well trained teachers saturated with the gospel thinking will tend to pick up on “Nike” material as they can smell moralism and legalism a mile away. 
However what should a teacher do when he/she comes upon such material or a small section in your teaching materials that doesn’t appear to be gospel centered?
1.) First of all, we need to realize that NO material comes to us from Mt Sinai, with the exception of the Torah (first five books of bible) literally speaking and the rest of the scriptures spiritually speaking (the rest is also inspired by God). As a result this is the only material where the problem is never with the material but with the teacher. But when you teach the books of the bible, you still have to interpret and apply the passage within the overall story of the bible. For instance, the bible clearly gives commands. But we interpret those commands with an understanding that Jesus has fulfilled those on our behalf. Now he empowers us to live those commands out. You can’t skip the first part. Sally Lloyd-Jones does this so well in her Jesus Story Book bible. She writes more about it here, explaining why children need to understand the bible is not ABOUT them, but Jesus.
2.) When you look for Christ-centered application within the passage, you can usually find it implicitly if you look at the larger context. When Paul writes “practice these things,” he also says the “God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:9).” Jesus has established that peace and we need to realize this, particularly when we fail to “practice these things.” That’s very clear gospel centered application. Other times, you’ll just have to look at the overall book, or overall story of the bible to help frame your application. 
3.) When you come upon material that is in general very Christ-centered, don’t hold it to a standard higher than you hold the bible. What I mean is that not every command in the bible reads, “Because Christ has done this, then….” (though many in essence do say something like that). And the bible doesn’t have to say that for EVERY command. We know the story of the bible and why Jesus had to come and die; if we could do the commands without his power, motivation, forgiveness, He wouldn’t have needed to die! So it’s important to not over-scrutinize generally Christ-centered material. We shouldn’t put on it an expectation that even the bible does not meet.
4.) The bible does instruct us to DO. It really does (James 1:22). Of course the way to change what we do is change what we believe-go back to the gospel and really start believing more than we have. But if we do believe, we will DO. The goal of bible study is not simply to learn what Jesus did, but how He’s working that out in you today. Sometimes we (I don’t think it’s just me!) who love gospel centered teaching can forget to tell others the implications of our belief. For instance if our conversation is to be seasoned with salt, full of grace-and I trust that I’m now only judged by Jesus’ speech (which was perfect)-I need to recognize the implications of that truth when I hang out with my friends, classmates, neighbors, etc….
5.) Sometimes specific lessons within generally gospel centered material will seem a bit more legalistic (making God like you more by what you do) or Pharisaical (making up stuff to do to make God like you more). In this case you the teacher can decide how much of the material that you need to use. I always say, unless its the bible, you can Take it, Toss it, or Tweak it. More often than not, the teacher can simply use statements like the following:
  • How has Jesus fulfilled this perfectly? Consider what Jesus did and how we are now declared righteous for His work.
  •  If this we believe this is true, how WILL our lives really look? What is the implication of our gospel rooted belief?
  • Because Jesus has given his life for us, how can we follow Him more in this area?
  • Because we have been set free from sin’s enslaving power by Jesus, how will we pursue and follow Him as a result of believing the truth in this passage?
  •  We don’t need to fear failure anymore. We will and that’s OK, and Jesus loves us just as much when we do. But let’s figure out how he can imperfectly reflect Him in this area.
You don’t have to use these or similar expressions every time, and shouldn’t demand them from your material. However, if you rarely couch your applications with the underlying gospel truth (what Jesus has done), then folks will begin to hear “just do it.” So keep a few in the back pocket.

Since I have teachers that are gospel centered, I don’t fear material that may have some legalistically formulated applications. When you cherish the gospel truth, you can tweak any material to point them to Jesus work and His work in and through us.

Application questions: the solution to teaching familiar passages/material

The other day I found myself teaching material that was somewhat familiar to my “pupils.” I had been prepared from previous teaching opportunities on the same material, but had forgotten my “lead sheet” where I had stuff underlined and several prepared questions. 
On a previous occasion, I went through the same material with another individual and simply thought of questions on the fly. These were primarily observation questions (what is there in the passage or material) and some interpretation questions (what is the meaning of the passage or question). It went well and we had some nice discussion.
But on this particular occasion, observation and interpretation questions didn’t seem to stimulate the same kind of conversation. Perhaps they were simply having one of those days where people will just not talk. That happens sometimes no matter how prepared you are. However, I think I know what was going on. The material was familiar with them and so my questions were not as engaging.
What then is a possible solution? Application questions.
No matter how familiar material or a passage is to someone, application questions can really make the difference in not just good discussion, but the ultimate goal in discipleship=application/life change. For instance someone can know that the gospel saves us from sin AND from sin’s enslaving power. I can know that by asking questions that reveal a grasp of the content. However, the goal is to see how well we are REALLY believing that, and what that really looks like when we believe or disbelieve that in our lives. The gospel has to go from our head to our heart to our hands.
Some teaching materials come with great application questions. Some don’t. However, asking these questions prevents or crushes the whole “familiarity breeds contempt” mentality. It keeps familiar material and familiar passages from becoming stale because you are asking questions that no longer stay on the static conceptual level but come down to the dynamic practical level of everyday life. I can lead someone through a passage or book he/she may have studied last year, but life may have completely changed. Life is dynamic and changing. The gospel is not, and so it takes regular thought and discussion to apply that which is constantly true to life which is constantly changing (and to make sure our belief in the gospel isn’t!). As a result, application questions foster discussion that delves deeper into the heart, and opens the door to real life change.
If your teaching material doesn’t have good application questions (and if you know the group well, yours will probably be better), here are some generic application questions I keep in the back pocket and should have broken out during my last meeting time.
1.) If this is true, what will that look like for YOU when YOU’RE  in __________ (school, relationship) family, church, neighborhood, sports) situation?
2.) When do you feel the most struggle to believe this?
3.) What do you believe instead of the gospel when YOU are in ______ situation? What do you believe instead of the gospel when you struggle with ____________ sin (any particular sin)
Hope these help. Remember, material that is familiar does not have to breed contempt. Some things need to be taught and re-taught. And these types of questions will work well for those in a group who may not find the material very familiar. Application questions help “level the playing field” and put everyone on the same plane: broken folks who need Jesus to live out what they know to be true.

And if we’re honest, the gospel is never familiar enough as we need it to be. It is something that must saturate every fiber of our being or else another false gospel (prosperity, works-salvation, suburban/American dream) will begin taking its place and keep us from honoring Jesus in all the particulars of life.

Why have small groups in the homes?

Several people have asked me, “Since we have a new building, will we move our CD groups into it?” My answer is an unequivocal “no.” Let me explain. First of all, there is no command in scripture on where to have a CD/community/fellowship group or bible study. So they could gather in the new church building, and there may be some which eventually take place in the church. But here’s why I think its best to have CD groups in homes.
1.) Homey. There is a much more, well, “homey” feel to a home. That’s obviously impossible to argue. People tend to feel more comfortable in homes. You can get to know someone at church for a bit, but there is a difference when you get to know someone in a home. It just goes deeper. To me its the difference between knowing someone at work and doing something with that co-worker outside of work. It’s just a different environment and that makes for a more personal relationship. I was also asked once,”We’ll keep the groups in the homes when we get the building, right?” Those who meet in homes usually don’t want to stop. Even one youth was sad to hear that we wouldn’t keep having youth group in homes. I assured her that we would have youth group in the youth house. I guess that sufficed….But it just showed me that even some youth like that “homey” feel.
2.) Where do pastors want folks to live out their faith? We want people to live out their faith where they work, play, live. Everyone’s home should be a place of discipleship. Parents are the primary instructors of their children. Parents read their bibles in their homes. Most of life happens outside the church building, and that is good. So this is but another opportunity to apply the gospel IN a place where life happens. What better way to expound and apply the gospel truth than by literally bringing fellowship, prayer, study of God’s Word INTO the home?
3.) Mature disciple. The mature disciple is not someone who spends 7 nights a week at the church building. That is not maturity-that is a flight from loving your family, neighbors, non-believers. The benefit of not having a church building is that people can’t be “at church” 24/7.  As a result, it is sometimes necessary to make sure folks aren’t at the church building 24/7. A mature disciple cares for his/her family, cares for his/her neighbors, shows mercy, reaches out to lost, and makes other disciples, etc…These things just simply can’t be done if one is at the church building all the time  (though I’m incredibly thankful for those who’ve spent almost whole days here getting the building ready for worship!). Having CD groups in church building doesn’t mean this will happen, but simply can open the door for that mentality.
4.) Invitation A home makes it easier to invite people, particularly those who may be hesitant to come to your church. 
5.) Limitation. Having a group study in your home limits the size. CD groups really operate best when they have 8-14 people. When they get too big, it’s best to multiply them. A large building offers the opportunity for a large crowd. But again, having 25 in a bible study is not the same as a well functioning small group that can seriously share prayer requests, give ALL people a chance to answer and participate in discussion. Many folks clam up when the number gets too big.

These are just some reasons why I think its best to have CD groups in homes as opposed to a church building. Some large bible study groups, lectures, seminars, training times might best occur in the church building. But I think the home is the best (I don’t say only) place, in general, for a small group to thrive and eventually multiply.