Monday, June 3, 2013

My Blog is Changing Its Address

As of June 3, 2013 I'm changing my blog's address to:

This old site will remain up but to read my new posts, you'll need to go to the new address. Thanks for following my blog, and I'll look forward to seeing you at the new location.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Six Steps to Improving Your Prayer Life Right Away

As a pastor I know first-hand how people talk more about prayer than actually praying. The act of praying takes energy and intentionality. It’s hard and you have to learn how to do it. Many of us prefer instead to discuss it--prayer's importance, the way we should pray, how people don’t pray enough, how prayer works, the consequences of not praying… the list goes on and on. And all the while we’re simply not praying.

The irony in all this is that we really do need to pray. We long for a meaningful prayer life. Something inside us yearns for it. Especially when our lives jump off the rails, we try to turn to God only to discover we don’t really know how to pray. Someone came to see me recently who was struggling with a major family issue and the first thing they said was, “I want to pray but don’t know the right words.”

The Bible is relentless in portraying the importance of prayer. In only one of literally hundreds of similar passages, Philippians 4:6-7 combines an exhortation to prayer, a promise about prayer and the consequences of praying: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Who wouldn’t want some of that?

So after years of pastoring God’s people, and a lifetime of trying to serve Jesus I’ve come to understand there are several simple steps all of us can take to improve our prayer lives right away. Seriously, you can put some or all of these into action today, and you’ll see a difference in your prayers.

1. Get out of your head and into your heart. Prayer isn’t a head game, where we analyze problems and come up with rational solutions. It’s a matter of the heart and the first order of prayer is to get outside of all the thinking/worrying/problem-solving that so dominates our everyday life and connect with God in the quiet place inside. God speaks to us in our hearts.

2. Don’t be too spiritual. Prayer is about all of you—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. Modern American Christianity has become Gnostic in many ways, adopting the belief that what we do with our spirits doesn’t really affect our bodies, and vice versa. That’s not true. We’re all of a single piece. So when you pray, bring your body and your emotions in on the experience: raise your hands, kneel, walk, move, cover your face, take your shoes off, run, jump, sing, cry, laugh, and do whatever else is congruent with what you’re dealing with at the moment. By the way, all those physical expressions are spoken of in the Bible as parts of prayer.

3. Start where you are. Quit feeling guilty about what you’re not doing or what you think you ought to be doing and instead simply begin where you are. If you have only five minutes in your day to pray, then take the five minutes. There’s no official template to prayer: pray as you pray. The important thing is that whatever you do needs to be sustainable. Those who find a way to regular, persistent praying will experience a radical difference in their lives.

4.  Aim for honesty more than religiosity. God wants you to be honest. He doesn’t need for you to use fancy, theological language or hear you remind him how religious you are. What he’s looking for is a transparent heart.

5. Remember that prayer is more about God than about you. Despite what the celebrity pastors tell you, God doesn’t exist to serve your needs. Instead, you exist to bring glory to God. Real prayer always re-calibrates your concerns to God's will.

6. Make use of the Psalms, the greatest treasury for praying. The Psalms have always served as the basic resource for praying, at least until the last hundred years. A few minutes focused on a single psalm, or even a single verse from a Psalm, can do wonders for your prayer life. Almost everyone I’ve ever known, for instance, returns time and again to Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Learn to pray the Psalms. You’ll be glad you did.

Try one or two of these simple steps, and see if they don’t help you in your praying.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why the Internal Reveue Service Can't Tolerate Christians

I’m as shocked and confused about the congressional hearings on IRS persecution of Christians as everyone else in the country is. Who would have ever thought—even in our era of political polarization—that there were governmental employees and whole agencies in our own nation that would single out followers of Jesus for harassment and, yes, persecution?

If we’re learning anything from the hearings, it’s that such persecution is indeed happening. I know that “persecution” is a strong word. And by using it, I’m not suggesting that the persecution Christians are facing in our nation is the same as that of those heroic martyrs of the faith dying even today in Muslim nations. We’re not at that point…yet.

But let’s not fool ourselves, what the hearings clearly reveal—despite the squirming and whining from the various witnesses—is that the IRS in an official capacity singled out conservative organizations in general and Christian ones in particular for harassment as they applied for tax-exempt status.

The poster child for all this is Lois Lerner, director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division. Her acknowledgement that IRS personnel intimidated the groups were a key piece in the on-going congressional nquiry. In Wednesday’s telling development, Lerner herself took the Fifth Amendment and refused to give testimony that could be used against her if the matter winds up in criminal court.

During her tenure, hundreds of conservative, Christian applications were targeted for harassment. One in particular stands out. In 2009 the Iowa Coalition for Life, a Christian pro-life organization, applied for tax-exempt status. Among the many documents required by the federal agency there was an additional one that was, well, peculiar to say the least. The IRS wanted to know about their prayer meetings.

That’s right, the IRS demanded to know what the group was praying for.

Here’s an excerpt of the letter the group received on June 22, 2009:

Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3). Organizations exempt under 501(c)(3) may present opinions with scientific or medical facts. Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your organizations spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.

I guess the IRS’s Exempt Organization Division under Ms. Lerner’s able leadership is unfamiliar with the First Amendment, political sensitivity, standards of common decency, rational thought and good sense—in that order.

Turns out, though, that this isn’t Lerner’s first excursion into harassment of Christians. Before she arrived at the IRS, Lerner served as head of the Enforcement division of the Federal Election Commission from 1986-2001. During her tenure it came to her attention that Lt. Col. Oliver North and Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson had engaged in what she apparently perceived as unauthorized prayer so she ordered an investigation of the Christian Coalition, an organization they were both active in. The inquiry was even more onerous than that experienced by the Iowa Coalition for Life. You can read the entire account at

The following deposition between Lt. Col. North and the FEC lawyer acting on Lerner’s orders took place in the late 1990’s. It  could be used in a comedy show if not so deadly earnest. In the transcript “Q” is the government lawyer. “A” is North. “O” is North’s attorney.

Q: (reading from a letter from Oliver North to Pat Robertson) “‘Betsy and I thank you for your kind regards and prayers.’ The next paragraph is, ‘Please give our love to Dede and I hope to see you in the near future.’ Who is Dede?”

A: “That is Mrs. Robertson.”

Q: “What did you mean in paragraph 2, about thanking -you and your wife thanking Pat Robertson for kind regards?”

A: “Last time I checked in America, prayers were still legal. I am sure that Pat had said he was praying for my family and me in some correspondence or phone call.”

Q: “Would that be something that Pat Robertson was doing for you?”

A: “I hope a lot of people were praying for me, Holly.”

Q: “But you knew that Pat Robertson was?”

A: “Well, apparently at that time I was reflecting something that Pat had either, as I said, had told me or conveyed to me in some fashion, and it is my habit to thank people for things like that.”

Q: “During the time that you knew Pat Robertson, was it your impression that he had – he was praying for you?”

O: “I object. There is no allegation that praying creates a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act and there is no such allegation in the complaint. This is completely irrelevant and intrusive on the religious beliefs of this witness.”

O: “It is a very strange line of questioning. You have got to be kidding, really. What are you thinking of, to ask questions like that? I mean, really. I have been to some strange depositions, but I don’t think I have ever had anybody inquire into somebody’s prayers. I think that is really just outrageous. And if you want to ask some questions regarding political activities, please do and then we can get over this very quickly. But if you want to ask about somebody’s religious activities, that is outrageous.”

Q: “I am allowed to make-’’

O: “We are allowed not to answer and if you think the Commission is going to permit you to go forward with a question about somebody’s prayers, I just don’t believe that. I just don’t for a moment believe that. I find that the most outrageous line of questioning. I am going to instruct my witness not to answer.”

Q: “On what grounds?”

O: “We are not going to let you inquire about people’s religious beliefs or activities, period. If you want to ask about someone’s prayers-Jeez, I don’t know what we are thinking of. But the answer is, no, people are not going to respond to questions about people’s prayers, no.”

Q: “Will you take that, at the first break, take it up- we will do whatever we have to do.”

O: “You do whatever you think you have to do to get them to answer questions about what people are praying about.”

Q: “I did not ask Mr. North what people were praying about I am allowed to inquire about the relationship between-’’

O: “Absolutely, but you have asked the question repeatedly. If you move on to a question other than about prayer, be my guest.

But this isn’t really about Lois Lerner. I don’t think for one minute that she’s unique in government service or that she’s acting on her own. People like her are legion in today’s public service. True Believers acting for the good of the whole while attacking those whose beliefs formed the nation to begin with.

In modern America, this is what persecution looks like. It’s not rogue, illegal or unmannerly. It occurs in clean, well-lit offices and is carried out by dutiful public servants following accepted policies, advised by articulate lawyers, convinced they’re doing the right thing. Persecution is becoming institutionalized. And that’s what should concern us.

All this begs the question that we really should be asking: What are they scared of? What is it about Christians that motivated Lerner’s office to single us out? While there are many questions about all the whole affair we can’t answer yet, this one we can. We were singled out for the same reason that Christians of every era—some more so than others—are singled out. We’re singled out because we believe.

And for those who don't believe in anything beyond the tyrannical power of the state, the mere presence of those who have a higher vision is unacceptable.

The Apostle’s Creed (which Baptists don't use as much as we should) says: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…I believe in the Holy Spirit…” Christians have looked to this creed since the earliest days of the church as the expression of our deepest loyalties.

In other words we believe the state along with its apparatchiks doesn't have the final say, in this life or the next. There's a higher source of authority that one day will hold them as well as us to account. And it's that belief that makes us intolerable to those who fancy themselves as sovereign.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Five Ways to Help Your Adult Children Stay Faithful to Jesus

One of the most common spiritual conditions I encounter is older parents whose adult children have abandoned their childhood faith. All of us as Christian parents want more than anything else to see our children grow up and live out the faith they were taught in our homes. Tragically, that’s often not the case.

Many children go off to college or otherwise move out on their own and abandon their Christian convictions. Maybe it’s their first taste of freedom. Maybe it’s the secularized environment of higher education, where anything having to do with religious faith is scoffed at. Maybe it’s a new group of friends who don’t share our child’s values.

Whatever you point to as the culprit, the fact is that the college years—as well as the years immediately after—are dangerous to our children’s faith. In fact, the statistics of adult children abandoning the faith of their parents are startling. A recent study by the Barna Group found that 75% of Christian young adults leave the church after high school.

So what are we as believing parents to do? Now that our children have left our immediate care and are out on their own. Now that our children are adults and we can no longer make them do what they should do.  How can we help them stay faithful to Jesus? Here are five things to keep in mind as we deal with the spiritual well-being of our adult children.

1. Never stop praying for them. I’ve known some adult children who wandered so far from the faith that they were living like the original Prodigal Son. Few things are so heart-breaking for a parent. But their moms and dads never gave up—on them or on God—and prayed them back into the Kingdom. For some it took years but they never gave up.

2. Be consistent in your own faith. One of the strange things I’ve noticed down through the years (and recent research bears this out) is how many Christian parents lose their passion for God and the church once their children grow up and leave home. The impression some adult children must have is that Mom and Dad were in church only for the sake of their young children. If you want your adult children to take God seriously, guess what? They’re still looking to you as a model. I’m not saying you should put on some kind of religious act for their sake. I am saying it’s unrealistic for you to expect them to follow Jesus as adults if you’re not following Jesus as an older adult.

3. Give your adult children plenty of spiritual space. My children are grown, and each has a vital relationship with Jesus. But many of the nuances of their faith are different from mine. They may well not end up in a church like mine—and that’s fine by me. Just as long as they follow God’s will for them. Parents who insist their adult children have a copycat faith like theirs are almost sure to be disappointed.

4. Don’t hesitate to give spiritual support to your adult children—they’ll appreciate it more than you may realize. My daughter, married and living in Japan, loves it when I send her a daily Bible verse. Almost every evening I select a single verse (dealing with strength, peace, comfort or some similar topic) and email it to her. Since she’s thirteen hours ahead of me, she wakes up to it the next morning. She calls these verses “Pop’s Peace Passages.” I do the same with my son, although I have to do that via hard mail. I’ve asked both of them if I should stop, since they’re adults and (theoretically) reading the Bible on their own. They both insist that I continue. The adult child of a friend regularly asks her mom to pray for her, even though she’s not exactly following Jesus herself. In fact, she grows irate when her mom doesn’t volunteer to pray without being asked. Your adult child will respond to subtle, unobtrusive reminders of faith and spiritual encouragement.

5. Don’t nag your adult children. If they’re not attending church like you think they should; behaving like you think they ought; or hanging out with people you they shouldn’t, one sure fire way to ensure that they won’t come back to their senses is to nag them. Even the biblical father of the Prodigal Son was wise enough to follow this principle. A teacher I once had noted that when we nag our children of any age, all we succeed in doing is to “awaken their demons of resistance.”

Helping your adult children stay in the faith they were raised in is a special challenge today. But faithful parents aren’t without resources. These five steps—and you’ll think of many others—can help keep your adult child in a vibrant spiritual position.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An End to the Worship Wars

“Worship Wars” is an awful term—but an accurate one. On the one hand, it’s painful to describe anything that goes on in a congregation as war. Church is, after all, a place where there should be peace. On the other hand, congregational conflict erupting over musical styles has been so intense in  some places that “war” is the only word that fits.

I’ve heard about the worship wars for years. Most often the war breaks out between those who prefer what they call “traditional” music and those who prefer what they call “contemporary” music. Many a pastor and worship leader knows first-hand how painful the conflict can be. Inevitably, each group feels its musical style is spiritually superior to the other. Those who lean toward traditional music are convinced that the drum beat and guitars of contemporary music are demonic. The contemporary folk just as firmly believe that the old hymnbook is filled with music so antiquated and irrelevant that it kills the spirit of worship. It's not at all unusual for ministers to lose their positions by getting caught in the no-man’s land between traditional worshipers and contemporary worshipers. Worse, numerous churches have actually split over it. That’s such a tragedy when it happens! How God’s people can’t find a way to get along with each other regarding musical styles is beyond me.

The truth is that the old categories of worship music aren’t what they used to be. Today, church choirs sing the same anthems you hear on Christian radio stations. At the same time contemporary Christian musicians are more and more incorporating traditional hymns into their concerts. David Crowder’s re-arranging of “Amazing Grace” is just one example of what is a far-ranging trend. Funny story: at a recent Passion conference, America’s largest gathering of younger believers each year, one of the most popular choruses was “Because He Lives,” the old hymn by Bill and Gloria Gaither. The younger people there had never heard it before.

I heard of a church recently whose worship leader is a young woman classically trained as a harpist. She sits in front of the congregation in cowboy boots and leads praise and worship with—you guessed it—her harp. Who would have thought it?

Maybe this whole thing about worship music isn’t what we thought. While many congregations have been locked into battles over musical preferences, the whole landscape has been changing. Today, the worship wars are giving way to a new integration of musical styles into a single heart for worship. It’s no longer about “traditional” or “contemporary” or “modern” or “classical” or any other of those words we throw around that try to put worship into a box. Instead, it’s just worship. Plain and simple.
Our church has four morning worship services—two lean traditional and two lean contemporary. We’re blessed because our people embrace both styles. They have the flexibility (and spiritual maturity!) to realize there’s a place for all kinds of music in worship. Still, I’d been feeling for some time that we needed to find a way to worship together in a single service.

So last Sunday night we brought everyone into a single service. We called it A Night of Praise and Worship. It wasn’t “traditional” or “contemporary” or something in between. It was simply worship, utilizing a wide variety of styles carefully integrated with each other. And the people loved it.

The pictures you're looking at were taken at the service.

I can’t describe to you how I felt as I saw the people flooding into our worship center. The place was packed out. And when the great worship song, “We Worship You With Praise” broke over the congregation like a wave, I wept. The presence of the Lord was so obvious. The service included Scripture, hymns and praise choruses. Our huge choir was awesome and included many from our Student ministry, singing alongside senior adults. Our Praise Team was fully integrated with our orchestra. Both were amazing. Trumpets playing alongside electric guitars. The lead worshipers in front included people from all ages. 

And the congregation? Wow! I’ve never seen so many hands lifted up in a Baptist service. They were so fully engaged that at the end of the 80-mimute service nobody wanted to leave. They stood around in small groups, talking about what they’d just experienced.

The thing I realized that night was that the “Worship Wars” really don’t exist. We manufacture conflict over worship when we lack the imagination to bring together the riches of musical styles in ways that unite people. I’m so grateful to our music leadership that was able to do that. Much more importantly, I’m grateful to the Holy Spirit, who responded to the prayers of many people in giving us that night a worship service that we’ll remember for a long time.