Monday, March 30, 2015

Multiple choice Christianity - avoiding the wrong answer

In a properly written multiple choice test question, the question must have one choice that is completely correct, and three choices that are completely incorrect, but plausible with a common mistake or misconception in thought.  You can't have choices that contradict the question asked, so if you describe a situation and ask what the effect is, a choice cannot state "no effect" unless in the question you use the following phrase, "What is the effect (if any)..."  If this is properly done, the "no effect" choice is plausible if the student wrongly assesses key information and decides that nothing needs to be done.  Did you get that?  The student WRONGLY ASSESSES readily available information and decides that the best course of action is to DO NOTHING.  Now in my world, that's OK, because there's more than just one question on an examination. In fact, on examinations written at the end of a course, sometimes there's a hundred questions, and wrong thinking on one alone will not damage the test-taker.

In the Christian life, this problem is removed.  Know why?  Because I can say that the best course of action is NEVER to do nothing.  There's always something to do, unfortunately, our choices of what to do with our free time frequently lead us to the place of no impact, of impotence in the faith.  Let me explain.

In the lives of most everyone I know, there is dreadful busyness.  There's 168 hours in a week, of which most of us sleep 50.  With the 118 hours that are left, we work 50, leaving 68.  Out of those remaining hours, we brush our teeth (at least I hope we do ), take showers, use the bathroom, eat, watch television, use social media, shop, talk, drive to restaurants, eat meals out, attend movies and concerts, cut grass, wash cars, and who knows what else?  For the religious sort, we can throw in church attendance, bible studies, potlucks, and a few other activities.

There is a problem here, and it's the priorities that we make.  If I read my New Testament correctly, the life of the Christ-follower involves the study of scripture, prayer as modeled by Christ and his disciples, fellowship with other believers, and love and care for our families.  There's others.  With the knowledge and wisdom we have gained, we then are commanded to love, serve, feed, clothe, visit, those who are "the least of these."  We are trusted to tell others about the free and life-changing love of Jesus Christ.  We show Christ's love to others in all these ways, and as a result, we change lives through His power little by little, one at a time.

That's the model we're supposed to follow.  But we don't.  We choose the "if any" option, or worse yet, we are passionate about things of far less importance.  Let me give you a few examples.

Many worry incessantly about the direction of our nation, while neglecting the power within us to help hearts change one at a time.

Many identify with a cause, a political party, or a ideology, much more frequently than they identify with Christ.

Many would rather engage a person in an argument over rights, politics, or laws than have a conversation about the One who saved their soul.

Many would clamor about the potential for their rights being violated rather than stand up and defend someone whose rights who are actually being violated.

Many try to change the moral values of those far from Christ, without taking the time to become a friend who can introduce them to Christ.

You see, these behaviors are the results of misplaced priorities, a lack of time, and a skewed direction.  No one in their right mind would claim that Jesus Christ fought for His personal rights, battled for the direction of a nation, joined forces with a political party, or eloquently debated laws with others.  No one would claim that Jesus told people to clean up their lives before they spoke with Him.  Yet, as Christ-followers, some unfortunately spend much of their time doing this. It is fruitless nonsense.

What little time we have in our weeks can be better spent.  Let me give you a few things to try.  You won't believe how much your life will change if you start serving others.

1.  Find a single mom  or a family suffering hard times and ask them how you can help this week.  Do Do they need their car washed or grass cut?

2.  Go to a store, a fast food restaurant, or a mall and find a person who is completely different from you to talk to.  Find out five things about them, then ask them if you can pray for them.  This may take all of fifteen minutes.

3.  Contact someone in your community who runs a food pantry, a shelter for abused women, or a crisis pregnancy center.  Take the necessary steps to become a volunteer.

4.  With your family, do a bible study on the actual activities that Christ and the disciples spent their time doing.  Pick one or two of these and actually do them.  WARNING:  They never watched MSNBC or Fox News and griped about politics.  SECOND WARNING:  You probably don't have the power to heal with a touch or make food magically appear.  You may want to start out with feeding the hungry.

5.  Have a conversation about the weather with someone and see if you can change the direction of the conversation to how you came to know Christ.

You see, my Christian friends, you only have a short time each day and only a few years on this earth to make a difference for Jesus Christ.  Please start today.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Tragedy of Indifference or the Beauty of Love - Your Choice

In the 1993 film, "Groundhog Day," Bill Murray is cast as Phil, an obnoxious, self-absorbed weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the iconic groundhog and his special day. Unbeknownst to him, he and his crew are caught in an endless loop of Groundhog Day, driving him to bizarre acts and even suicide...none of which have any effect on his stay in this town.  Eventually, Phil begins to make changes to his life and to consider the well-being of others, and at the end of the film, the time-loop is broken and life resumes.

Groundhog Day is a beautifully written and directed film that has had vast audiences and remains popular even today.  It reflects a sad life, missed opportunities, shattered dreams, and redemption. Unfortunately, many Christ-followers are stuck in an endless Groundhog Day loop, rendering them ineffective for ministry and for loving others in the world around them.

The principle is this.  The bible says that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  I like to say it like this...Acquiring knowledge without applying its principles results in arrogance.  Arrogance for those in your church, those who differ in opinion, and most importantly, those who need Christ so badly.  Many who sit in church on Sundays do little more, uninspired by clergy who value fellowship, peace, and consistency in their parish.

On this topic, two statistics are repeated in Groundhog Day-like fashion in American churches today.  I guess they are spoken to kindle guilt, but that guilt and conviction do not last outside the doors of the building.  How can I say this with such certainty?  Because the same statistic has been read to me for 25 years.  Nothing has changed because we still, as a church, do not have a passion for the lost.

The first is this.  95% of Christians have never shared their faith with anyone.  Second, if invited, 75% of those asked would attend church with a friend.  So what do pastors expect when they read us these statistics?  Do they expect us to bolt from the building and head to the mosque to chat up the adherents?  Do they expect us to dress like Jehovah's Witnesses and knock doors?  Better yet, should we invite a co-worker we barely know or a neighbor whose house we've driven by for thirty years but never met?  A better question of pastors is this.  Do they make it a priority to get out of the building and into the prisons, the shelters, and the streets?  Do they plead, beg, and cajole their members to invite somebody every Sunday?  Do they fear the response of those who have soaked in God's word for decades with hardly a breath of life outside the building?

The truth is...I don't know.  All I can say is, I used to soak it in without much effect on how I lived.  A few years ago, thanks to Five Oaks Church, Woodbury, Minnesota, I was challenged to get my hands dirty for Christ.  My family and I took the challenge on and blessings have flowed like muddy water down the Brazos ever since.

Look, there's no need to remind you, but I'm not particularly handsome, smart, or talented.  I can list 100 friends all over America who far exceed me in all these categories, and that's just scratching the surface.  But the Lord reminded me one day that I'm exactly who He's looking for.  There's only one quality required for a soul winner these days.  Show up.

Here's what I would encourage you to do.  Get out of your church building and live a life that gives you stories to tell.  Great stories aren't made at a potluck, Disney World, or a mall.  Stories that give people pause are the ones told about heartbreak and suffering that ends in triumph, prisoners set free, violence ending in peace and a new life begun.  You can only participate in these stories if you leave your church building, your home, and probably your neighborhood.  Contentment rarely leads to conversion.

When I recently served at two units in the Texas prison system, I met men hungry for a new beginning.  I could talk to them about anything, ask them any question, tell them anything about myself, because they were without judgment.  They had sunk to the lowest point in life and were crawling out little by little.  They didn't judge me because I didn't judge them.  The same thing happens when we volunteer at the soup kitchen, with refugees, or in other countries.  There's a reason that Christ tells us to whom we are to go.  These are the ones who will listen and respond.  The ones wearing rags who need clothing, the hungry who need food, the tired who need rest, the imprisoned who need freedom, the thirsty who need a drink.  Nowhere in my Bible does it urge us to spend time on those content and set in their lives.  Now I'm not saying ignore your neighbors and your co-workers, but sometimes you need to cut your losses.  The ones Christ mentioned are the ones who will respond to what you have to offer, which is a changed life.

I urge you, not as a leader, a scholar, or a director, but as a friend and fellow servant, to find someone outside of your own circle to love.  You will gain a friend and just as important, you will have a story to tell.  A story of God's great love that will inspire and impassion others to make a difference.

Don't wait another minute, people are searching for someone to love them right now.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

This used to be where Satan lives. He's moved out.

Brazoria County, Texas, subtly expands from the barrier islands on the Gulf of Mexico to gently kiss Pearland, TX, which was recently defined in the news as "the most boring city in America."  The citizens of the county include bikers and bosses, refinery workers and the refined elite.  Pickups pass Porsches as often as Buc-ee's makes a buck.  The proud Texans that call Brazoria County home would tell you they do indeed lead a boring life.  And boring is good.  It's a good life.  If you've seen a BMW 750Li blow past a combine, you know you're home.  I've spent the better part of three decades in and around this iconic county, which includes the birthplace of Texas and the ruins of a couple of dozen sugar cane and cotton plantations.  If you drive Farm-to-Market Road 521 north, you'll cross Highway 288 and then settle into a pleasant drive through ranches and subdivisions, dusty cantinas and convenience stores, flea markets and farmer's markets.  Trouble meets boredom soon enough, however, as this road is dotted with several prisons, the most well-known being the Darrington Unit.

One man, after spending several years in and around Darrington remarked, "This is where Satan lives."  At Darrington in years past, contraband flowed like cheap booze in a juke joint.  Gangs dominated the landscape, separated by ethnicity, united by violence, death, and sexual assault.  God was pushed to the side like an unwelcome bystander, observing chaos and hate and rape and murder with hardly an objection.  Drugs and booze were available...but only for a price.  A steep price.  I can't say that everything has changed, but I know change has come.  From within.

I've known men and women who've volunteered at Darrington over the years with different organizations. Upon their return, they gave reports of salvations and commitments to Christ, but all-in-all, darkness prevailed.

What's changed?  The men of Darrington have taken the reins from the volunteers, and rightfully so. In 2011, a theological seminary took roots at Darrington thanks to a local foundation and a Baptist Seminary up the road in Ft. Worth.   A couple of hundred men from the unit attend daily classes, study diligently, write papers, take tests, and most importantly...begin to change the culture and the lives of the men they're around. Upon completion, they minister at Darrington, or accept assignments

Seminary students at the Darrington Unit, Texas Department of Corrections
at other prisons around the state of Texas.  Once there, they walk through solitary confinement (administrative segregation, in prison-speak), through the cell blocks where prisoners rarely leave their cells, and breathe the words of life into the dank quarters these men call home.

Darrington is where I went today. I've never spent a day in a prison, other than through volunteer efforts, but when I enter the cold, steel gates I am eager with the anticipation of hearing the stories of these men.  Because they are true stories of redemption.  Let me share just a couple with you.

Chavez (I never caught his first name), is a former Hispanic gang member with nineteen of his thirty-six years spent in the Texas prison system.  He's smoother than a river rock, and his many talents made him a leader in contraband distribution.  A businessman of circumstance, he bought and sold drugs, booze, cell phones, weapons, and whatever else was smuggled into the unit on a given day.  A gifted artist, he provided tattoos for all his fellow gang members. I got the feeling he could call a Chevy Citation a Rolls Royce and sell it to me for the price of the latter.  The crafty con courted a local girl on a contraband cell phone, got married, and looked forward to the day he would be out of prison and into wedded bliss.  Christ interrupted his plans four years ago.  The man of many talents began to use them all for Christ.  He told his wife on the outside about his change on the inside, and she trusted Christ too. "I can't wait to get out and see my family.  They'll all come to Christ before I'm done," he told me.  I have no doubts he'll be successful.  In the meantime, Chavez is sharing Christ left and right, his magnetic personality attracting all races to the Lord.  

Stanley is a man with a conviction also.  Not only the criminal type, but one for the Lord as well. Quiet and almost bashful, he loves people not so much with eloquence but persistence.  He's not scheduled to be released for a decade, so he's walking the passages at Darrington, quoting scriptures, praying, and holding hands with the men without hope.  We were born in the same year and share a military background.  "I shoulda stayed in the Army," he told me.  "I got into trouble when I got out, and here I am today.  I'm a product of my own choices."  Stanley is a man without hope, who then gained hope, and now gives hope in Jesus Christ.  It was a privilege to meet him as well.

I volunteered at Darrington with CHARM ministries, which is an acronym for Christ's Hope and Reconciliation Ministries. It was founded by Dave Trickett, a human dynamo, who will not rest until every prisoner in Texas has the hope of Christ in his heart.  Our role is a little basketball, eat a meal, and worship with prisoners.  I can't do much more than encourage.  I don't know their pain, I haven't lived their life.  But I do know this...Christ set me free from a life of sin and death in exactly the same way he's freed many men inside Darrington.  Although we're different in background, lifestyle, and appearance, we're the same to Christ.  He loves us with an everlasting love.

I'm proud to join a bunch of suburban guys going in to prison to love a bunch of inner city guys who made mistakes but who now understand redemption as only Christ can explain.  I love these guys.  I can't explain it, which means that it must be Christ within me.  I can't wait to go back to see the work they've done to bring the love of Christ to the lost and the hopeless.  Which reminds me once again...I'm wrong.  There is always hope, and no one is permanently lost.  Jesus saves.