Monthly Archives: June 2013

When Your Plans “Go South”

In September 1992, I was headed to Russia to participate in my first ever ministry trip, an evangelistic outreach with Walk Thru the Bible Ministries and the JESUS Film Project. I was scheduled to fly from Seattle to New York where I would meet up with the rest of the team. From there we would fly to London and on to Moscow. After arriving there, we would fly south to the Black Sea.

On the day I was to leave, my flight was canceled. By the time they rebooked all the passengers, I had missed out on all the connecting flights to New York. I could wait a day and travel by myself to the Black Sea or I could buy a new ticket with my own money and fly to Moscow via Vancouver and Frankfort.

As all of this was unfolding, I thought of Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” I distinctly remember standing by the SeaTac ticket counter praying, “God, I love you. God, I believe you have called me for a purpose. But God, what are you doing?”

To make matters worse, when I finally reached Moscow, I arrived without my luggage because it had gone to Lisbon. It would be four days before my clothes arrived at the Black Sea. Here I was trying to be faithful to God’s calling. Yet I was getting hammered over and over again!

In Genesis 12:1-9, God came to an idol worshipper named Abram. We know him today as Abraham, the name that God gave him later. He lived in the city of Ur, a busy commercial center located near the Persian Gulf in modern day Iraq, near the border of Kuwait.

Abraham friend of God - dry brushGod told Abraham to leave his home and family and set out on a journey to a new land. When he arrived in the land of Canaan, he was 75 years old and his wife, Sarai, or Sarah as she is known later, was 65 years old. God gave Abraham some incredible promises. God would give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendents. God would give Abraham a family. In addition, God would bless the entire world through Abraham. God also commanded Abraham to be a blessing to those around him.

Abraham responded to God’s promises with worship. He built two altars in two different locations. He called on the name of the Lord. Everywhere he journeyed in this new land, he left behind a witness to God’s grace.

God promised to give the land to Abraham’s descendents. But before the ink is even wet on the deed, Abraham discovers that the land isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. Abraham’s faith is rewarded with famine (Genesis 12:10).

“If this is how God treats his friends, then I’m better off on my own,” Abraham must have thought. He takes off and heads south to Egypt without consulting God (Genesis 12:11-16). Instead of trusting God, Abraham takes matters into his own hands. Instead of maintaining integrity in the trial, he compromises his faith.

Rather than solve the problem, one compromise soon leads to another (Genesis 12:17-20). Abraham leaves the land God promised to give him. He loses his wife and puts his future descendents in peril. Instead of being a blessing to the world, Abraham is a source of plagues. As a result, he receives a rebuke from a pagan king. Instead of being a witness to God’s glory, he gets kicked out of Egypt and labeled as persona non grata. Chastised, he limps back to the land and to his relationship with God (Genesis 13:1-5).

King Charles told Oliver Cromwell on one occasion to pose for a portrait. Cromwell didn’t want to because he thought it vain. But because the king commanded, he obeyed. The artist was a rather diplomatic man. He noticed that Cromwell had a rather sizable wartlike growth on the side of his nose, near his cheek. He carefully suggested that Cromwell turn his face to the other side so that there might be a little better pose. Cromwell responded, “Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything you see; otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”

When God paints his servants, he portrays them honestly, warts and all. In spite of his failures, there are five lessons we can learn from this scene in Abraham’s life.

When Your Plans Go South - title slideThe first lesson we can learn is the teach-test principle. God will instruct his children, and then follow those lessons with a test to see if we have learned. He will not move us on until we learn the lessons he has for us today. In Genesis 12:1-9, God taught Abraham about his power and his character. He followed that with a test—a famine (12:10).

The second lesson is to remember God’s promises when our plans “go south.” Rather than trust God to care for him, Abraham took matters into his own hands. He failed God’s test.

The third lesson is that when our plans “go south,” we need to live with integrity. As Abraham learned the hard way, one compromise leads to another. Abraham asks his wife to lie about their relationship and say she was his sister. He was worried the Egyptians might kill him if they knew the truth. On the one hand, it was true, since they had the same father. On the other hand, it was a lie because they were married.

Abraham’s worst fear is realized when Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, decides to add Sarah to his harem. If Abraham refused Pharaoh’s gifts, he has to admit his lies. But if he accepts the gifts, he compounds his guilt.

The fourth lesson we can learn is that when our plans “go south,” we need to remain true to our calling. Instead of being a source of blessing, Abraham is a source of judgment. Instead of being a light to the nations, he is rebuked by a pagan king.

The fifth lesson we can learn is that when we fail, we should return home to God. After being kicked out of Egypt, Abraham goes back to the Promised Land, rebuilds his altar, and once again calls on the name of the Lord.

Vance Havner was a preacher in North Carolina. He told a story about an elderly lady who was greatly disturbed by her many troubles—both real and imaginary. Finally, someone in her family tactfully told her, “Grandma, we’ve done all we can for you. You’ll just have to trust God for the rest.” A look of absolute despair spread over her face as she replied, “Oh dear, has it come to that?” Havner commented, “It always comes to that, so we might as well begin with that!”

Life does not always turn out as we hoped. Sometimes our plans go south. When they do, we need to remember God’s promises, live with integrity, and stay true to our calling.

This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on June 30, 2013. It is part of a series on the life of Abraham. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.


Almost home

DSC_0272Yesterday we signed papers to purchase the church owned parsonage we’ve been living in for the past ten months. We also applied for a mortgage to finance said purchase. In 6-8 weeks (“the longest 68 weeks of my life”), we will be the proud owners of a new home. (Technically speaking, the bank will own the home and graciously let us live there, provided we keep up the monthly payments.)

As it turns out, each one of the homes we’ve owned has been a gift from God. In his grace, we’ve fallen into each one and never had to truly look for a house.

Our first home in Wheaton, IL, was the result of a casual conversation. One member of the church owned a one and a half story, two-bedroom Cape Cod home. Since he was being transferred south to Joliet, we jokingly said, “Why don’t you sell us your home?” He thought it over and said, “Yes.” We assumed his loan and we were homeowners.

Our home in Sammamish, WA, was a similar gift from God’s hand. We had rented it for two and a half years. Since the landlord was moving out of state and considered us good tenants, he offered to sell us the house for below market value. After owning it for 17 years, we sold it to move east.

When we arrived in Chicopee, MA, last August, the church let us stay in the parsonage. As we began the process of looking for a house to buy, several people asked if we were interested in buying the parsonage. We asked the trustees if it was a possibility. The board said yes and the congregation concurred.

Thank you Lord for your gracious gifts. Thanks for leading us to a place we can use as a base for ministry in New England.

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Posted by on June 29, 2013 in Chicopee, Photos


A splash of color

The backyard is showing off the many colors of summer.

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Posted by on June 28, 2013 in Chicopee, Flowers, Photos


The shifting winds of culture

Now that the US Supreme Court has ruled on DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), how should Christians respond? That is the question asked by Ed Stetzer in a blog post on Christianity Today entitled, “Prop 8, DOMA, and the Christian response: What should we do now?” The author provides a reasoned and gracious discussion of the issues. His main point is that while we may be losing the culture war, we need to stay faithful to our mission, namely, we need to love people, serve the hurting, and share the good news of Jesus with them.

Despite today’s ruling, Stetzer says that Christians should not panic.

It does not help to speak in ways that do not honor Christ. The sky is not falling. Jesus is still King and God is still sovereign.

We cling to the cross, stand on the rock, and remain steadfast in the hope found only in Christ. For we alone have that hope. And it is that hope which we are commanded to share with the world, whether Christianity is the cultural norm or not.

It is a helpful and yet challenging article.

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Posted by on June 26, 2013 in Culture, News stories


Avoid summer reruns

I don’t watch much TV during the summer. There are shows like NCIS that I follow during the year. But once they show the season ending cliffhanger, I tune out until the new season begins in the fall.

I think some people approach church in the same manner. They may be regular attenders during the school year, but once Memorial Day shows up on the calendar, they check out until Labor Day.

In some respects, churches contribute to the “summer vacation from church” approach. Some churches shutter their Sunday School programs and small group Bible studies during the summer months. Others close down their mid-week children’s programs and youth programs. If people don’t come, they reason, why offer the program?

On the one hand, I agree that people need a break during the summer. Yes, we should pause some of our programs in order to let our faithful workers catch their breath. On the other hand, we should gear up and offer more creative programs because children and youth are more available during the summer months.

While our church takes a hiatus from Awana during the summer, we offer an Awana camp and a VBS—Vacation Bible School program. We do some of our most creative and intentional outreach to children during July and August. Our youth group heads out on a summer ministry trip in between these two events. One ministry may take a breather while another steps into the gap.

In terms of preaching, I try not to let the size of the audience determine the effort I put into my sermon. During the summer months, I want people to feel like they missed out on a great message or worship service, rather than tune out because “it’s only the summer reruns.” While it was purely coincidental that I began a new series on the life of Abraham this past Sunday, it’s probably not a bad idea for the future to offer a summer series that is new and different.


Another fine legal thriller from Randy Singer

Dead lawyers tell no talesBook Review: Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales, by Randy Singer

Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales is the latest offering by author, pastor, and lawyer Randy Singer. It is certainly not an overstatement to say it is every bit as good as the legal thrillers written by John Grisham and Michael Connelly.

Singer_Randy_02Singer weaves a tale about Landon Reed, a one-time college quarterback who was convicted of a point shaving scandal, spent two years in prison, and becomes a lawyer after his release. He is given a chance to practice law by a small firm. Shortly after his arrival, three of the lawyers are murdered. Landon must decide whether to run from the fight or dig in and try to help find the culprit.

The story is a taut, finely paced drama. The dialogue is believable and the characters realistic. The author draws the reader into the story and does not let go until the end. Along the way, he provides a few surprises and twists to keep the story interesting.

The novel highlights the quality of loyalty. Landon was guilty of disloyalty when he shaved points in college. Now, he must demonstrate his loyalty to the law firm that gave him a second chance and to the lawyer who mentored him.

The book also demonstrates the story of redemption. Landon seemingly threw his life and future away when he made the wrong choice to shave points. Now he is given a second chance by a lawyer who believes in him.

If you want to read the first chapter, click on the link. You can read a Q&A with the author at this link. There is also an author video and a book trailer. For more information, check out the author’s website.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the Tyndale Blog Network book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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Posted by on June 24, 2013 in Books


Step out of your comfort zone

How do you live by faith when you are unemployed? When the doctor tells you it’s cancer? When you struggle with infertility? When Mr./Mrs. Right is not to be found? When your promised internship falls through? When your grown children don’t call? When there is more month left than money? When God leads you to move cross country and leave family and friends behind? How do you live by faith in today’s world?

get-out-of-your-comfort-zone - PP posterizedLet’s face it. Living by faith means we have to step out of our comfort zone. Oftentimes, we would rather stay comfortable than grow. It’s named a comfort zone for a reason—it’s comfortable.

Abraham provides an example of a man who chose commitment over comfort. He chose to follow God rather than settle for a life of ease. Abraham demonstrates that the key to stepping out of our comfort zone and walking by faith is keeping our eyes on God.

Acts 7:1-4 explain that God appeared to Abraham (or Abram as he was known then) while he lived in the city of Ur in Mesopotamia. Ur was a sophisticated, well-designed, wealthy city, one that provided the best available comforts. Many of the inhabitants of Ur were proficient in mathematics, advanced in astronomy, and specialized in weaving, metal working, and engraving.

The people of Ur worshipped many gods, particularly nature gods. In the center of Ur was a large temple, called a ziggurat, where the people worshiped their chief deity, a moon god called Nanna. Joshua 24:2 indicates that Abraham and his father Terah served some of these gods. They were idol worshippers.

We don’t know if God spoke to Abraham in a burning bush, wrote a message on the wall, or sent an angel to speak with him directly. But whatever form the message took, it changed Abraham’s life. He packed up the caravan and headed out on a road trip. While Abraham did not know the destination, he knew for certain he could no longer stay in his comfort zone in Ur.

The first steps of faith are often baby steps. Abraham was to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household. Reasoning that one out of three wasn’t a bad start, Abraham left home, but brought his nephew and his father along with him. They got part way, but stopped for a time in the city of Haran. While God does not chastise Abraham for partial obedience, neither does he give him any further revelation until he arrives in Canaan.

Following his father’s death at Haran, God appears a second time to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-5). He gives him two commands, and each one came with three corresponding promises. If Abraham left home, God would make him a great nation, bless him, and give him a great name. If Abraham was a blessing, God would bless those who blessed him, cursed those who cursed him, and bless the entire world through Abraham.

Apparently Abraham did not get the message about partial obedience. When he leaves Haran, his nephew Lot is still tagging along. God will not reveal the extent of his promised blessings nor confirm his covenant with Abraham until Lot is gone.

you-are-now-leaving-the-comfort-zone1As you think about your own life, is there anything holding you back from obeying God fully? Are you missing out on God’s blessings because you won’t let go of an old habit or past relationship?

All along the way, God gives Abraham instructions and backs them up with promises. What God leaves out, however, is his reasons. He wants Abraham to learn to trust his promises even when he doesn’t know the reasons or all the details.

When Abraham arrives in the Promised Land (Genesis 12:6-9), he discovers the Canaanites are present. They were an exceedingly wicked people. Since the best grazing spots were already taken, Abraham keeps heading south until he reaches the Negev region.

altarA popular philosophy among outdoor enthusiasts is “leave no trace.” Enjoy the outdoors, but don’t leave behind a record of your presence. Abraham did not subscribe to the philosophy because he left an altar of worship to Yahweh wherever he went. Rather than be influenced towards evil, he tried to influence others towards almighty God.

Abraham demonstrates that the key to leaving our comfort zone is keeping our eyes on God. When we step outside our comfort zone, we should trust God’s promises and anchor our lives in worship.

This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on Sunday, June 23, 2013. It is the first message in a series on the life of Abraham. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.


I’m not the Mark you’re look for

Yesterday a gentleman from the community called the church and wanted to talk to a pastor. He said he wanted to share Christ but didn’t have much money. What would I suggest? he wanted to know. I responded that he should try personal evangelism. Scripture says we are to be witnesses, and the best way is always one-on-one.

He called back today and asked to speak to “Father Mark,” our church administrative assistant told me. I answered the phone and asked how I could help him. He thanked me for my advice and commented he was out doing one-on-one today.

He then said he was impressed by 2 Timothy 4:11.

Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.

He said he figured that Luke was his doctor who gave him pain meds so he could function normally. Since I answered the phone yesterday, “Pastor Mark,” he wanted to know if I was the Mark who was going to help him in his ministry.

I chuckled and said my plate was full and I could not add anything else to my schedule. He responded that sometimes Scripture just spoke to him. I agreed that sometimes it does, and sometimes it’s pure coincidence. With apologies to Obi-Wan Kenobi, I explained, “I’m not the Mark you’re looking for.”

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Posted by on June 21, 2013 in Church, Scripture


Half empty or Half full?

I have gone through a pastoral search process on a few occasions. When interviewed by a church, I often asked the search committee this question: “If your church was a woman, how would you describe her?” The most profound answer I received was from a church in AZ that said, “We would be a single parent who was abandoned by her first husband. She wants to be loved and cared for, but is afraid to trust again. She feels unlovely and is twice shy.” The church felt like they were damaged goods, and wondered if they would ever be whole again.

Churches that have undergone a difficult transition period between pastors often share this sentiment, especially if it involved a difficult parting with the previous pastor. It is sometimes expressed by the thoughts, “Back in the day . . . we were bigger . . . our budget was stronger . . . we had better ministries . . . we had more workers . . . our preaching was better . . . we had better music and multiple choirs and ensembles . . . but now . . . our attendance is declining . . . people are leaving . . . the best people have left . . . we’re behind budget . . . no one is committed . . . we can’t staff our ministries . . . Woe is me!”

The sentiment sounds like a variation of the Elijah syndrome in 1 Kings 19:10 (The Message).

“I’ve been working my heart out for the GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies,” said Elijah. “The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.”

Those with this outlook tend to see the glass as half empty. Based on the 6 “B’s” of church life—buildings, bucks, bodies, baptisms, books, and broadcasts—they think their church is in serious decline. “Our best days as a church are behind us. Heavy SIGH!”

When it comes to the church, I believe the glass is half full. While demographics are helpful, I prefer to focus on how Scripture describes the church.

Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The church is made up of people who were redeemed through the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 1:7) and sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:2). The church is made up of people who are filled with the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9). God is at work bringing each individual to maturity as Paul said in Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.”

Lest we conclude our best days are behind us, Paul encouraged Christ followers to press forward to what God has in store for each one (Philippians 3:12-14). In addition, Scripture is filled with numerous broken people—Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David, Peter, Paul—that God used in mighty ways because of their brokenness rather than in spite of. He often had to take them down to go farther up and beyond their wildest dreams.

In my present church, I am also encouraged because our demographics are improving. Our attendance is up compared to this time last year. Yes, some have left, but others have come, and the net result is an increase. Our giving is up by 5% over last year. Yes, we are slightly behind budget, but it is because we adopted a budget that called for a 12% increase. We have a renewed sense of purpose and direction. We have good, faithful people who are giving and serving.

The promises of God give me a sense of optimism about the future of the church. The responses of people encourage me we are starting to gain traction in moving forward. Together, they cause me to feel hopeful. We still have a ways to go, but I think the glass is half full and filling up.

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Posted by on June 20, 2013 in Church, Personal growth, Scripture


Put on the bifocals of faith

Peter Marshall was one of the most beloved Senate chaplains in American history. Shortly before he died, he offered one of the greatest public prayers heard in this country. It is referred to as “The Bifocals of Faith Prayer” and was delivered before the Senate on November 24, 1947. It is one that can and should continue to be prayed today.

God of our fathers and our God, give us the faith to believe in the ultimate triumph of righteousness, no matter how dark and uncertain are the skies of today.

We pray for the bifocals of faith–that see the despair and the need of the hour but also see, further on, the patience of our God working out his plan in the world he has made.

So help Your servants to interpret for our time the meaning of the motto inscribed on our coins. Make our faith honest by helping us this day to do one thing because Thou hast said, “Do it,” or to abstain because Thou hast said, “Thou shalt not.”

How can we say we believe in Thee, or even want to believe in Thee, when we do not anything Thou doest tell us? May our faith be seen in our works, Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Cited in Holman Old Testament Commentary: Genesis, by Kenneth O. Gangel and Stephen J. Bramer

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Posted by on June 18, 2013 in Books, Prayer, Quotes