Thursday, March 23, 2017

What Makes Us Different?


There have been a LOT of preparations going on at the office this week as we get ready for the celebration of Christian Challenge's 41st anniversary! We call it Jubilee! (I know Jubilee normally means “50 years” but we like it so much we have one every year!)  I'm excited to celebrate CCI's anniversary. It always reminds me of what I like to call our "uniquenesses" - the things that make Christian Challenge different as a church. But as believers, we should also have some "uniquenesses" - things that set us apart from those who don’t believe.

What makes a Christian different from everyone else? Is it our choice of clothing? The music we listen to? Liking and sharing that post on Facebook?

What sets believers apart has to be deeper than that. Someone who has truly made Jesus Christ their Lord might dress different - they might listen to different music - and they might even share faith-related posts on Facebook. But they will also BE fundamentally different, because they’ve been transformed on the inside. There are many traits that should characterize the life of a believers, but I’d like to highlight three in particular.

FAITH IN A FAITHLESS WORLD

We live in a world of doubt and unbelief. And this is nothing new! Here are just a few humorous historical examples, taken from widely read publications of their day:

1840 - "Anyone traveling at the speed of thirty miles per hour would surely suffocate."
1878 - "Electric lights are unworthy of serious attention."
1901 - "No possible combination can be united into a practical machine by which men shall fly."
1926 - (scientist) "This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is basically impossible."
1930 - (scientist) "To harness the energy locked up in matter is impossible."

We also live in a world that likes to mock faith in God. All you have to do is look at the headlines or comments from the entertainment elite to know that they look at people of faith as “different.” It almost seems as if mocking Christianity is the latest American sport. But at the same time, even the world recognizes that our faith sets us apart!

For the believer, this is a life filled with wonder at all God has in store for those that love Him and are called according to His purpose! It is a life filled with adventure in Christ! Hebrews 11 is known as the faith chapter of the Bible. Heb 11:6 says that “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” You cannot come to God without faith, because you wouldn’t come unless you believed that He existed and believed that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him! The carnal man misses it because he won't come to God - he doesn't believe He exists and so obviously there’s no reason to come to a God that doesn’t exist. So believers have faith in a faithless world.

HOPE IN A HOPELESS WORLD

If you look at the world around you through human eyes, you don’t see a lot of hope. You see a lot of fear… and a lot of hopelessness. We see that reflected in the suicide rate. We live in a broken world. People feel hopeless when they’re isolated, when they’re powerless to change their own lives, and they don’t see a future worth hoping for. Even those who are admired by others, who have accomplished great things - successful people by the world’s standards - can be hiding a sense of hopelessness inside.

As believers, we have a hope that defies our circumstances. Our hope is tied to our salvation and the work of Jesus Christ.

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:1-6, NASB)

“If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.” (1 Cor 15:19-20, NASB)

If there is no resurrection, then we are without hope. Our hope is not in this life only, so we can look past the circumstances that lead others to hopelessness and put our trust in the One who has overcome this world! Believers have hope in a hopeless world!

LOVE IN A LOVELESS WORLD

When you look at the headlines, you can't help but notice that we live in a loveless world. This world seems to love to hate! (Just visit the comments section on just about any newspaper article!) Our culture is dangerously defensive. Some of our leaders, both in politics and in the business world, can’t seem to disagree without being disagreeable. It’s a fractured world, and sometimes people try to put the pieces back together in their own way, with disastrous results. We have children getting involved in gangs, premarital sex and other troubles because they think they'll find love and acceptance.

The kingdom of God is built on love. Napoleon thought he could be great because he founded a kingdom on force.  Perhaps it's worth listening to his words of warning at the end of his life.  Napoleon said, "Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love. And at this hour millions of men would die for him."

“Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13 NLT)

This is what distinguishes a True Christian from the rest, the love of God. As believers, our lives should be marked by love toward God and by the love of God flowing through us toward others. We're able to love others because we were loved first. Paul reminds us in the 1 Corinthians 13 (which is known as the love chapter) that it isn't the greatness of our spiritual gifts but the love of God in our hearts that makes us useful to God. So love is the difference-maker. And believers love in a loveless world.

When it’s all said and done, it's hard to fake being a True Christian. There are aspects of the Christian life that can be imitated, but a deep, personal relationship with God cannot be mimicked - it must be experienced. That’s why ultimately only the true believer will have faith, hope and love in a faithless, hopeless, loveless world.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Be Thankful for the Church


We’re just about a week away from celebrating the 41st anniversary of Christian Challenge, a special weekend we call Jubilee. It’s no secret that I love and am very grateful for my church. I love the things that make Christian Challenge unique, but I also love the things that we share in common with other local churches throughout the world and throughout the ages!

In the book of I Thessalonians, Paul is writing to a local church he started. The establishment of the church is recorded in Acts 17:1-9. On his second missionary journey, Paul and his companions (Silas and Timothy) had just left Philippi and passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia to arrive at Thessalonica. As was his custom, Paul immediately located the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews for three Sabbaths concerning Jesus Christ. While some of them were persuaded, including a great number of devout Greeks and leading women, the unbelieving Jews became jealous and created an uproar in the city. That gives you some background for Paul’s letter to his friends in Thessalonica. Let me share a few things I’ve learned from Paul’s letter and attitude.

Give Thanks for the Peace of the Church

The letter opens with the words, “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church...grace to you and peace." (1 Thes 1:1a NASB) Did you notice that Paul just uses his name, and doesn’t include any title or explanation of his position as an Apostle? Some say that this was because there was no major criticism of Paul or his authority in the Thessalonian church. In most of the other churches Paul wrote to, there was dissention and criticism of his authority, so he often had to spend some time reminding readers of his unique calling. Sadly, criticism seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Jesus experienced it. Paul the other Apostles and church leaders experienced it. And modern day church leaders have to deal with it as well.

It’s become almost trendy to criticize believers these days. That doesn’t mean that sometimes we don’t deserve some criticism (in my Facebook Bible Reading group, we’ve been talking about the importance of genuinely mourning for our sins). But often, people criticize not to bring about repentance and change, but to justify their own decisions and bad attitudes. Flawed as it was (and still is!), Paul believed in the local church. Even the churches that criticized him and gave him a hard time. Those who say they are believers yet don’t fellowship in the local church, are not following Paul’s instruction, teaching or example.

The Church ought to be a place of peace, but it’s important to remember that this peace does not come from the Church. It comes from “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (vs 1b). That’s why Paul could open all of his letters, and sometimes close them, with a prayer for “grace and peace” for the readers, regardless of the circumstances.

Phil 4:7 says, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Thank God for the supernatural peace that belongs only to the Church!

Give Thanks for the Projects of the Church

In his opening prayer, Paul says that he is “constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father” (1 Thes 1:3 NASB).

Paul mentions their work of faith. The word used for “work” there is ergon, which means “to work or accomplish; toil (as an effort or occupation); by implication, an act or deed.” This is something they did, not just as lip service, not as passive recipients, but something that required some effort. The Church was active in their faith.

Paul also calls it a labor of love. A labor is difficult. It implies pain, toil, difficulty, and weariness. It’s easy to love others when it doesn’t hurt us. But Paul is grateful for the Thessalonians’ labor of love. Their love was accompanied by action, even when it would have been more comfortable for them love from a distance. They were living out what the Apostle John wrote: “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18 NASB)

He also praises their steadfastness of hope. Steadfastness is patience and endurance. Biblical hope is a confident expectation. This isn’t a casual kind of hope, like when say, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” This is a deeply anchored confidence in our faith.

And what are the results? The gospel is advanced! “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.” (1 Thes 1:8 NASB)

Thank God for the supernatural projects that He accomplishes through the Church!

Give Thanks for the Power of the Church

The Thessalonians were no strangers to God’s power. Paul says, “for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thes 1:5a NASB). God is at work in the church at Thessalonica, and it didn’t depend on Paul’s eloquence or the Thessalonians’ goodness. In verse 7 we learn that through God’s power they became an example to all the believers in their region.

People heard about the power of God at work in the Thessalonians. Paul writes, “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thes 1:9-10 NASB).

The testimony of one person who has turned from a life of sin to follow God is certainly powerful. But the testimony of an entire congregation walking out their faith in the midst of opposition and adversity can’t help but have far-reaching effects!

Thank God for the supernatural power that He demonstrates through the Church!

I am thankful for each of these things in the life of my church, Christian Challenge, and I hope you can say the same for your home church, wherever that may be! In fact, I’d love to hear what you’re thankful about concerning your church! Why not brag a little and share why you love your church? And I’ll be thankful right along with you!

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Happy Birthday, Christian Challenge!


Forty-one years ago today, Christian Challenge began. I was only 10 years old (about to turn 11), a little too young to fully appreciate the risk my parents were taking by starting a ministry on their own. But over the years, I’ve had the privilege of watching as they’ve walked out their faith in front of me, putting into practice the same principles they’ve taught along the way.

I thought it would be appropriate, especially today, to take some time to talk about a few of those foundational principles that shaped their ministry, and impacted my life.

LEARN TO HEAR THE VOICE OF THE SHEPHERD FOR YOURSELF


I put this one first because it is the most important… because it is the heartbeat of Christian Challenge… and because without it, CCI wouldn’t exist.

My parents began this ministry because they listened to the voice of the Shepherd. There were certainly plenty of other voices in their lives telling them that this wasn’t a good idea. There were practical, financial concerns about raising a family with an uncertain income. There were the objections of those who considered my family to be “backsliders.” But my parents held fast to what they knew God had told them.

Every believer should know and be able to distinguish the voice the the Shepherd. (If that didn’t sink in, or if you just glossed over it, please go back and rea it again. I put it in BOLD so it would stand out. Because it’s important!) John 10:27 says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” (NASB - emphasis mine) It’s not enough to know about the Shepherd, you have to truly know Him! To hear His voice means that you can distinguish it from other voices in order to obey it. This is vitally important for the disciple because there are many voices in the world.

“Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world.” (1 John 4:1 NLT)

When we talk about hearing the voice of the Shepherd or testing the spirits, it’s not some mysterious super-spiritual thing. In fact, it’s a very practical thing.

I know my dad pretty well now. Not that he can’t still surprise me sometimes, but generally speaking, I know his heart and how he would respond. So if someone came to me and said that Bro. Buddy wanted me to start offering night-time culinary classes at church, I’d know right away that it wasn’t true. I wouldn’t have to ponder it or pray about it. And it’s not that culinary classes are bad. I’d just know that wasn’t my dad, it wasn’t Bro. Buddy.

That’s the way it should be with us as we follow Jesus. Others may tell us that God wants us to do something - but if what they’re saying isn’t in line with what the Bible teaches, and doesn’t line up with what we already know and have experienced of God’s heart and character, we can safely discard it. It wasn’t the voice of the Shepherd.

That’s why it’s so important that each one of us learn to feed from God’s Word for ourselves on a regular basis. As my dad has often said, “The Bible is God’s speaking place.” That’s where He meets with us and speaks to us. And that’s where we learn to recognize His voice. If you’re only hearing from God’s Word on Sunday, and haven’t become a self-feeder, you won’t know His voice. Maybe that’s why the apostle Peter encouraged us to “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation,” (1 Pet 2:2 NASB - emphasis mine).

DO THE BEST YOU CAN WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT


This has long been one of Dad’s catch phrases, especially in the early days of Christian Challenge. The original building in Boyce was held together “with bailing wire and bubble gum!” At times it wasn’t pretty… but we made it work. Christian Challenge is only here today because my parents were willing to start with very little.

“Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.” (Eccl 11:4 NLT)

Some people won’t start out unless the conditions are perfect. They won’t try unless they are guaranteed success. The best day to start serving God is today - not when you’ve solved all your problems or when you have more money in the bank. “Those days” never seem to get here. And while we wait for just a few more things to fall into place, we’re missing out on opportunities to serve God today.

Bro. Buddy could have waited until he had an opportunity to get more formal training in ministry for himself before starting the School for Christian Workers. He could have waited until he had enough financial backing to build his own facility before starting services at Christian Challenge. But thank God he didn’t!

Our unquenchable search for perfection often fuels our procrastination. And that keeps us from pursuing our purpose. If you wait for perfect conditions to follow your calling, you’ll never get started. If you wait until it’s easy, you’ll find it easier to wait. There’s no better time than NOW to step out in faith! Maybe that’s why Hebrews 11:1 says “NOW faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (KJV - emphasis mine).

When the disciples wanted to send the crowd away to get food, Jesus told the disciples to feed them. The disciples protested that it would be too expensive and it would take a LOT of bread. Jesus asked a simple question, “How many loaves do you have?” They scrounged around and came up with five loaves and two fish, and asked how could that feed the thousands. But Jesus told them to start with what they had. And when He prayed, what they had was more than enough! Do the best you can with what you have. That’s good advice!

GO BACK TO YOUR LAST INSTRUCTIONS


When you don't know what to do, go back to the last thing you know God told you to do, and do that until He tells you something different! Bro. Buddy and Sis. Betty have modeled this in the life of Christian Challenge as well. Once you hear the voice of the Shepherd and you commit to doing the best you can with what you have, the next part is the most difficult. It’s having the longevity. It’s maintaining the focus.

This piece of wisdom had a profound impact on my life. When I graduated from King’s Way Missionary Institute in McAllen, TX, it seemed that all of my classmates knew where they were supposed to go, except for me. I remember crying out to God for direction and the response I got was silence. I remembered what my dad had said, and the last thing I knew God had told me to do was to go to McAllen. So I stayed there for another 7 months, teaching conversational Spanish to the new students at the school, serving the small house church Russell Cobb and I had pastored together in Reynosa, and working for the Christian Book Shop. Which was owned by Dale Chapman. Who’s daughter, Lori, returned from Austin occasionally to visit. Who I wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t continued doing what God had previously told me to do. In December of that year the Lord released me to return to Louisiana, but not before planting the seeds that would result in Lori and me getting miraculously married 2 years later!

Now can I confess something? (Or is it really a confession if it’s obvious to everyone?) I can be easily distracted sometimes. I have a lot of “ooh, shiny!” moments. Like when I’m preparing for a sermon and get sidetracked because I find an app I want to install, or see an unrelated article that I want to read. Before I know it, an hour or more has passed and I’m no closer to finishing the message!

Sometimes we can be lured off of the course that God set for us because we see something else, something good, and we think we should be doing that too. There have been times in Christian Challenge’s history where we’ve had to take a step back and ask, does this fit into the vision and DNA of CCI? What were our original instructions - and are we still following them?

“Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes.” (Matt 24:45-56 NASB)

I don’t know about you, but I want to be found faithful when the master comes!

Are you confused about something? Does your life feel off-track? The best thing you can do is go back to the last thing you know God told you to do, and do that until He gives you new instructions! If you’ve gotten off-track, it may be that you stopped doing what God told you to do! Start back there and you’ll be amazed at what God can do!

One definition of discipleship is “a long obedience in the same direction.” As I look back over 41 years at Christian Challenge, I can say, without any reservation, that I can’t imagine any better model of that kind of discipleship than Bro. Buddy and Sis. Betty. Happy birthday, Christian Challenge! And thank you, mom and dad, for demonstrating your faith in such a tangible way, and leaving us a trail of wisdom to follow.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Words


In our Facebook Bible Reading group, we just finished doing a plan called the 10 Day Word Fast. It’s been challenging! The idea was that for 10 days, we would identify and seek to eliminate certain kinds of negative talk from our lives. Specifically, the author identified five often overlapping areas of negative words and attitudes to rid ourselves of: Complaining, Criticizing, Judging, Sarcasm, and Gossip.

As we worked through these devotions, many of us - myself included - shared that they were a bit surprised at how often this kind of negative talk cropped up in our daily lives. More than once during this past week I’ve had people tell me, “I blew it today, I knew it as soon as I said it.” And my response has been, “Well, that’s good!” No, it’s not good that we said something we shouldn’t have, but it IS good that we’re becoming more aware of it.

Our culture has become so negative that I don’t think we realize how much of this way of thinking permeates our lives. Our entertainment is full of it. Our news is full of it. And even worse, our culture isn’t just tolerant of negativity - it glorifies it! But negativity has a way of dulling us to the presence of God. Complaining, criticizing, judging, being sarcastic and gossiping can desensitize us to the preciousness of His presence.

Now I know that theologically God is "omnipresent" which is a fancy word that means "always present" or everywhere. But God's presence is sometimes extra special. We've experienced that in worship, which makes sense because the Bible says that God inhabits the praises of His people. But that makes me wonder who - or what - inhabits our criticism?

Could this be why we feel spiritually dull and dry? Could this be the source of our spiritual malaise? If complaining is a lack of faith in God's goodness and sovereignty, and without faith it is impossible to please God, then complaining is not pleasing to God. And isn't it our desire to be pleasing to God?

And if we want to please God… how did we wind up in such a negative place? I've become increasingly convinced that the key to so many of our problems is deep-seated insecurity. No matter the root cause, insecurity manifests itself through over-compensation, judgmental attitude, haughtiness, and, yes, criticism. All of these are an attempt to mask the sense of inadequacy we feel, to try to make ourselves feel “bigger” and “better” by cutting down others.

We might even try to convince ourselves that our negativity isn’t sin at all, but based on “righteous indignation” or “discernment.” And while there are certainly times when we are called to make judgments and discern things, we need to watch our hearts. We need to be honest about our motivations.

If we’re complaining or criticizing, is it just to find fault, or are we genuinely trying to make things better? When we make a judgement about someone, is it so we can dismiss them, or are we trying to understand them? Is our sarcasm just an attempt to hurt others under the guise of humor? When we share something we know about someone else, is it out of genuine desire to help - or to put them down?

In everything we do, it wouldn’t hurt to ask ourselves, are we serving God… or playing God? I don't know about you, but I know my rear doesn’t fit well on God's throne! And I don't think He takes kindly to me trying to take His seat! How deceived must I be to think that I know better than God and can adequately assess someone else’s heart or worth!

We need to be more aware of our words and thought patterns. But there’s also a danger in focusing too much on what NOT to say: it can get discouraging. Because we WILL blow it. Because focusing on our negativity can drag us down into even MORE negativity. Because our human nature will just find ways to get around the legalistic boundaries that we set for ourselves. We need so much more than a behavioral adjustment. We need healing for our hearts.

The good news is that there's no medicine like the cross! When we fully surrender everything to Jesus, warts and all, confessing even our insecurities (and our attempts to compensate for them), we can find healing and wholeness. Then we won't be looking for things to criticize to make ourselves feel better. Our observations will be helpful and constructive, full of the same grace we've received. Our speech will be "seasoned with grace."

The way we communicate reveals a lot about us. As the devo writer said, "When you listen to a person speak, you almost immediately know their country of origin. Our words reveal which kingdom we live in – the world or Christ’s kingdom."

My prayer is that my speech will demonstrate I'm a citizen of heaven. The things I try NOT to say are a part of that demonstration - but even moreso, the things that I DO say let people know who I am and WHOSE I am. So I want to leave you with some of the positive things that should be characteristic of our speech as Christians. Negative words are not profitable. But positive words are! These are things we should be looking for opportunities to say.

The Apostle Paul spoke words that were for the benefit of the hearer. In I Corinthians 7:35 he writes, “I am saying this for your benefit, not to place restrictions on you. I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible.“ Paul wasn’t puffing them up or trying to smooth talk them. But he was looking out for their welfare.

What kinds of words are profitable words? Sharing the gospel is profitable for saving the lost. This includes but isn’t limited to evangelism. When we talk about God and what He’s done for us, we’re encouraging and building up one another - but you also never know who else is listening. Our coworkers, friends, and family members are watching us. Profitable words bring glory to God.

Profitable words also strengthen the weak. We don’t know what other people are going through. Negative words assume the worst about others. Positive words assume the best. And profitable words will never break a bruised reed.

In Luke 6:45 Jesus tells us that the mouth speaks from that which fills the heart. My prayer is that my speech will demonstrate I'm a citizen of heaven. So I pray with the sweet psalmist of Israel: "Set a guard, O Lord , over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips." (Psalms 141:3 NASB) Will you pray that prayer with me?