Holy Ground at 14,000 Feet

I was blessed this summer to successfully summit four 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado.  Not a bad effort for having had a full knee replacement in March.  I’ve been chasing the goal of climbing all 58 Colorado 14ers since 2005, and I got my 50th this summer.  I hope to finish in the next two years.

I reached my last summit of the summer in late August.  I was outside of Telluride on a mountain called Sneffels. Mt. Sneffels is a wonderful mountain that’s part of the gorgeous San Juan range.  Its short hiking distance and proximity to Telluride make it a popular trek for climbers of all skill levels.  Sneffels packs just enough punch to make it interesting, but not so much as to chase off first-timers.

I camped alone just below timberline and was planning to start at 4 A.M.  Around 3 A.M. a thunderstorm rolled through which delayed my start.  It also left a thick layer of clouds on the mountain.

I got going about 4:30 A.M. and I could immediately tell it was going to be an interesting day.  I’m used to hiking under a starlit sky, but not today.  All I had was a gusty cold wind and a dark, thick cloud cover.  As dawn approached I could tell that the cathedral of towering peaks above me were all shrouded in clouds.  The higher I got, the thicker the clouds became.

When I reached the summit, I couldn’t see anything below me.  While my summit perch was clear, a thick layer of clouds below and around me blocked any potential view of the valley below and the other surrounding peaks.

I was surveying my surroundings and the disappointing lack of view when I saw it: below me on a cloud was the shadow of the mountain I was on.  There, just a few hundred feet or so below me, was the imposing black shadow of Mt. Sneffels, not on the ground, but on a cloud.

The sun was above and behind me and was projecting the mountain’s shadow onto the clouds below.

Mt. Sneffels’ summit is very pointy, and thus I could see on the cloudy shadow below exactly where I was standing on the summit.  I waved my arms and sure enough, I could see my own shadow on the tip-top of the mountain’s shadow below me.

That was a weird moment.  When was the last time you saw your shadow on a cloud?  Crazy, right?

But here’s the clincher: My reflection on the cloud below me was surrounded by a rainbow.  It was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever had on a mountain summit.  There I was, all alone on a cold and windswept mountain summit, staring at my rainbow-protected shadow on the clouds below me.

That’s not something you see every day!

I quickly grabbed my phone and snapped the picture below.  You can clearly see the dark, pointy shadow of Mt. Sneffels in the lower part of the pic.  The bright spot on the top is the reflection of where I was standing.  There is nothing solid or material in the photo at all.  It’s just all clouds, shadow and light.

I’ve shared this story and the photo multiple times with friends and fellow climbers.  All agree that what I saw and experienced was highly unusual and very, very cool.  Others take a more spiritual tone.  I’ve heard many comments like:

  • Wow, what a gift God gave you
  • You clearly weren’t alone up there
  • You were obviously standing on holy ground
  • And…It’s proof God is always looking out for your sorry @$$

My takeaway? God is totally, bad-to-the-bone awesome.

I welcome your insights.

How You Can KNOW You’re Going to Heaven

Susie and I had dinner with some long-time friends last week. As we neared the end of the evening one of them commented, “This is so good. Just think how great Heaven will be (If I get there).”

We all quickly countered our friend’s comment by assuring her she’d be in Heaven. She wrote off her comment to her “Catholic guilt.”

Guilt notwithstanding, I found her comment a little troubling. I wasn’t troubled so much for my friend, as she is a godly woman and a decades-long follower of Jesus. She knows her eternity is secure. But it troubled me for many other Christ-followers who still struggle with the question of their eternal destiny.

The Bible pulls no punches on this topic. As God’s children, we are supposed to rest assured in the fact that Heaven is our home and that Jesus is coming to get us. 1 John 5:13 says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”

So, let’s talk about it. Let me list ten things (I could list dozens more) that are true about you if you’re a Christian:

  • You’ve been born again (or born from above). Jesus also called this second birth being “born of the Spirit,” John 3:1-8. It’s a gift of God, and it’s irreversible.
  • You’ve been sealed or marked by the Holy Spirit, Eph 1:13-14. He basically seals you as his property, his prized possession.
  • You’ve been adopted as God’s son or daughter, Rom 8:15. Paul based his theology of adoption on Roman culture. It was a permanent act that gave full benefits and rights of the family to the adoptee.
  • Your spirit has been made eternally alive, Eph 2:1-5. Your eternal life begins the moment the eternal Holy Spirit takes possession of you.
  • You’ve been saved by God’s grace, which means you didn’t earn it. It’s a free gift, Eph 2:8-9. Do the math, if you can’t earn it you can’t lose it.
  • You’re seated with Jesus in the heavenly realms, Eph 2:6. You’ve got a seat at his table, and he won’t give it away.
  • You’ve been forgiven of all your sins, Col 2:13. God’s forgiveness makes you holy, and thus qualified for Heaven.
  • You’ve been washed and made holy by Jesus’ blood, 1 Cor 6:11. What God declares holy, no man can make unholy.
  • Jesus is preparing a place (house) for you in Heaven, John 14:1-3. And, he’ll come and get you when it’s ready.
  • You’re a completely new creation, 2 Cor 5:17. A new creation with a new identity and a citizenship in Heaven.

With all of this going for us, how can we ever doubt that our eternity is secure?

Friend, get used to the biblical truth that your salvation is based on the eternal love and work of Jesus and not on any merits of your own. Once you cross the line of feeling like you need to earn God’s love and favor, accepting it for free (and the Heaven that comes with it) will be much easier for you.

Does that help? I’ll say more about this in future entries.

Living in the Land of Ambiguity

There stood Abram. He was established, rich, settled and very comfortable in his homeland of Ur. God stepped into all that comfort and wealth and basically said, “Let’s go.”

More specifically, he said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” (Gen 12:1).

That’s not really a lot to go on. Imagine Abram trying to sell that to Sarah:

Abe: Honey, how do you feel about us moving?

Sarah: I’m not sure. To where?

Abe: I’m not sure, but God promised it’ll be really good.

Sarah: Wait. What?

Welcome to the adventure of following God. 

God’s interaction with Abraham isn’t unusual. The Bible has multiple accounts of God’s people being invited to follow him without having all the information. Think about the countless times in forty years the cloud over the Tabernacle moved and the Israelites picked up and followed it. Not once did God say where they were going, when they would arrive or how long they would be there.

When God called Susie and me to return to our hometown of Austin and start ACF, we didn’t get a lot of details. We felt the divine call of God, we sensed God’s promise of provision, but that was about it. We made a major life-altering and career-changing decision based on the little information we had from God.

It was a complete step of faith, and that’s exactly how God wanted it. 

If you’re walking with Jesus, you have to be prepared to live in the land of ambiguity. There’s no getting around it. Walking by faith, by its very nature, involves living with the vague.

God isn’t being mean or mischievous by withholding some of the details. Rather, there are Kingdom purposes in his methods. Here are just a few things God uses ambiguity to accomplish:

  1. It makes faith relational. God leads us through relationship. When you’re seeking your next steps in something, you have to press into him. You have to seek him. God told Israel to march around a city only one time–at Jericho. Every other city they took required a different strategy. And that required relationship.
  2. It keeps us from running ahead. Were God to give us the full download up front, we’d be tempted to skip some steps and run to the end. But in following Jesus, how you get somewhere is as important as getting there. The methods matter. God allows the ambiguous sometimes, so we don’t get ahead of ourselves, or him.
  3. It allows for God’s power. When we have to wait on God, we’re much more positioned to receive his miraculous provision. God waited to give Abraham and Sarah the son he had promised until it was humanly possible for them. That way his power would be obvious and he would get all the credit. Don’t fear when God’s plan appears to be ambiguous. Ambiguity is the breeding ground for the miraculous.

Sometimes following the Lord is like ordering from a restaurant menu that simply says “Food”. You know you’re getting something, you’re just not sure what. Don’t fret in the process and don’t panic when you don’t have all the details and can’t answer all the questions.

You don’t have to know everything.  Just trust that the one who does is good.

The Role of Faith in Knowing God

If you struggle with faith, this may encourage you.

People having to walk by faith was not part of God’s original plan. Adam and Eve, the original humans, had full access to God. They could see him, talk to him, walk with him. Their relationship was based on loving obedience to him.

Because they could see him, they didn’t need faith. The very nature of faith is believing in what you cannot see, in what you cannot prove. The original humans didn’t need a belief system–they had sight instead.

Genesis 3 changed all that. When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost that wonderful and innocent access to God they had so taken for granted. Because they became sin-stained, they couldn’t be in God’s unfiltered presence.

Compare the scene in Exodus 19, when the Israelites were terrified of God’s flaming and thundering presence on the mountain, to the “walking with God in the cool of the day” access that Adam and Eve had known. The difference? Sin.

In a sight-based environment, faith isn’t required. Just obedience. That’s how God’s followers who could see and know him demonstrated their love–they did what he said.

But in a sin-based environment, one where God cannot be seen and access to him has been lost, faith is the most critical ingredient. Faith even precedes obedience in importance, because we don’t even know that we need to obey God until we believe in him.

Thus, in the Genesis 3 world, the world where everything is contaminated by sin, faith is the most powerful tool a person can have. Faith bridges the gap between the perfect worlds of Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22. Faith wasn’t necessary in the pre-sin world and it won’t be necessary in the post-sin world either. We won’t need faith in Heaven. Yea God.

But today, in the sin-filled world where access to God is by grace only, faith is everything. That’s why the writer of Hebrews told us that without faith it’s impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). We may not be able to see or prove God, but he still expects us to believe.

Pray for your faith level. Pray for God to deepen your understanding of him and his holy, mysterious ways. Pray for the courage to walk by faith. Read God’s Word so you can learn more about him.

And then, do whatever God tells you to do. Obedience is still the best way to grow your faith and to show your love for God.

 

 

Living in Exile

Recently, an ACF staff member wrote me asking how to deal with a situation. She was ministering to a young woman who was wrestling with the new cultural norms of same sex relationships, transgender kids and adults, and gender-neutral individuals.

Her wrestling wasn’t with the morality of it, but rather why the Bible and many Christians don’t support it. This young woman’s viewpoint is quite representative of many Christian’s these days. She just didn’t see how the Church wouldn’t fully support someone as they tried their best to work out their gender or sexual identity.

(For the sake of clarity, the Bible doesn’t condemn anyone–and I mean anyone–for their behavior, no matter how extreme. The only condemnation of people in Scripture is the result of their open and overt rejection of God and/or Jesus. Said differently, God doesn’t condemn people because of their sexual choices. He does, however, judge those who refuse to humble themselves before him in faith.)

I wrote a brief reply to the staff member that stimulated some discussion among our staff. I thought I’d share it with you.

“Your email is troubling on so many levels. I think the crux is in this statement you made– The question I have is how to best equip these older women as they disciple these younger women who have great passion for Jesus, but don’t know what the Word says (or, if they do, don’t understand how what it says is what’s best for us re: sexuality).

 I have found that many people we’re trying to disciple–or even those themselves charged with making others into disciples—do not know the Word. Thus, we have to teach them what the scriptures say. But even then, we still have work to do, as many no longer see the scriptures as the sole authority—or as any authority—for their lives.

I find the same issue when I talk to believers about baptism or giving or sexual behavior before marriage. I used to say, “The Bible says . . .” and that was the end of it. That doesn’t work anymore, at least not as much.

I am finding that prayer, patience and MUCH relational investment does work. We are doing ministry against a cultural backdrop that has greatly changed. We can no longer assume the home field advantage. We have to think, lead and pray from the standpoint of a church in exile, not a church in the promised land.

I am ministering to a friend who has a really tough story. But she does believe in Jesus and is slowly falling for him. That’s both my strategy and my hope. As she falls for him, he is changing her. And he gets to decide what changes she needs to make and when.

But it’s SLOW. We must give the prayers and the relational process TIME.

So, my answer: we’re going to have to spend lots of time in 1×1 and 1×2 conversations with this generation. We can’t simply throw the scriptures at them anymore. I would tell your friend to see how many of these women she can invite into relationship for the long haul (it sounds like she is doing that already). Then I’d counsel her to teach them the Word, pray like crazy for them, and to be very patient. The road back seems to be longer than it used to be.”

So, did I advise her correctly? Comments welcome.

Finding God in the Crisis

Recently my good friends Mary Anne and Trey Kent shared a significant piece of their marriage story at our church. The occasion was the 33rd anniversary of a fatal car wreck that forever changed their lives.

On August 5, 1985, just two weeks after they were married, the Kents were hit head on by a young woman who crossed over into their lane going 70 mph. She never braked.

The accident tragically killed her, left Trey pinned in the car with severe injuries and seriously injured Mary Anne. You can see the severity of the wreck in this picture of the Kent’s car.

But Trey and Mary Anne’s story wasn’t one of loss, but rather one of great victory. They actually shared that if they had the choice to do it all over again, they would. That’s how much God has redeemed, or over-redeemed, the accident.

In their message, which you can watch below, Trey and Mary Anne shared many of their learnings from walking out life after the wreck. Here’s some of what I wrote down in my journal during their talk:

  • God wants to turn your greatest tragedy into your greatest testimony
  • God’s strength is best perfected in our weaknesses (2 Cor 12:9)
  • Nothing is ever impossible with God (Luke 1:37)
  • Life’s difficulties teach you that Jesus is enough
  • We meet God best in our pain
  • You don’t overcome by being strong; you overcome by being loved
  • And, when you wake up in the middle of a crisis, Jesus is right there with you

Those are just a few of the amazing lessons Trey and Mary Anne shared. They also shared many miracles that God worked in and through the wreck. I’m so grateful for their story. It greatly encouraged me.

So have you been in a life-wreck recently? Is there debris scattered all about? Or, are you a wreck? Either way, God wants to meet you and love you in it.

Why don’t you go ahead and watch my friends’ message. I know it will greatly encourage you too.

Tragedy into Testimony from Austin Christian Fellowship on Vimeo.

My Interview with Bishop L.A. Wilkerson on Racism

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing my friend and fellow pastor, Bishop Lawrence Wilkerson, as part of a message series I was doing on Racism. The interview has become the most viewed ACF message this year.

Given its relevance and popularity, I thought I’d share it with you.

To learn more about Bishop Wilkerson and his church, click here.

 

PrayeRadiation

Yes, I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. Candidly, I haven’t felt like I had much new to say.

Until yesterday.

God hit me hard with a concept that I want to share briefly with you. It’s called Prayeradiation. Or said differently, Prayer Radiation.

As I’m sure you know, radiation treatments are extremely effective in battling cancer. Doctors are able to blast cancerous growths with deadly pinpoint accuracy. The radiation changes the DNA of the cancer cells and keeps them from reproducing. And this treatment can be done, usually, without too much damage to the surrounding, healthy cells.

I believe that is a perfect picture for how God wants us to respond to spiritual battles and other “cancers” in our lives. When devastation strikes, we need to respond with the powerful pinpoint accuracy of prayer.

I have several friends and co-workers for whom we’re seeking physical healing. One is partially deaf, one has cerebral palsy, and one has a brutal and rare autoimmune disorder. We’re using prayeradiation to treat them and to solicit their healing.

We use the same prayeradiation strategy to treat failing marriages, drug, alcohol and other addictions, and to go after the spiritual blindness that afflicts so many of our loved ones. It’s a great strategy, and one that is way under-used.

What issues in your life do you need to assault with prayeradiation? It’s easy to do:

  1. Determine the area you want to attack
  2. Find a verse or verses that describe what you want God to do in the infected area
  3. Assault the need daily with the prayer promise, and make sure you have others agreeing with you in prayer
  4. Don’t stop the prayeradiation treatments until God has either fully answered the prayer or told you to pray differently.

And now, I’m off to a prayer meeting. There’s Kingdom work to be done.

*If you want to learn more about pinpoint praying, feel free to check out my book Pray Big.

 

You’ll Never Guess What Happened When I Stopped Preparing My Sermons

I’m going to keep this brief, as I honestly could go on and on about it.

I’ve grown increasingly concerned of late that my preaching and the response of my congregation has become a bit rote. Perhaps a better word would be “predictable.” This was confirmed for me back in February when I felt the Lord ask me to not plan or prepare for any of my messages from Ash Wednesday through this past Sunday (Palm Sunday). It was basically a fast from preparation.

After a bit of wrestling on my part, I yielded to the Lord and walked into my church on Saturday, March 11th for my first “unprepared” service at ACF. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.

My strategy was simple: I’d hang out in the back of our auditorium during the worship time. I’d pray, listen, and then go with whatever God gave me in the moment.

I participated in fourteen different services during the last forty days, and I preached fourteen different “spontaneous” messages.

It was one of the most terrifying and yet exhilarating faith walks I’ve ever experienced.

Now don’t think that I just winged it, as I didn’t. That would have been both presumptuous and irresponsible.  I spent the hours I would have used for message prep just reading and studying the Bible, and praying. I prepared me, not the messages. I didn’t end up teaching on any of the passages I had studied, but I did feel very full and very personally prepared.

Yesterday as Susie and I shared some time together on our front porch, we talked about my experience these last forty days. I told her what I want to tell you now: this has dramatically changed me. And, it has totally changed the way I view preaching and teaching.

rsz_1img_2504 text

Here’s a list of some the things I and ACF experienced during my fast from sermon prep:

1. I prayed more. There’s nothing like not preparing for a message to drive you to your knees.

2. I was more desperate. I had to listen for God’s voice and wait for his word to me. It kept me very dependent and greatly honed my listening skills.

3. Our congregations had higher expectations. I told our congregations what I was doing, and it greatly affected how they approached our weekend services. They came with curiosity and expectations, and many told me that they prayed for me during the week.

4. My messages were more Word-centered. When I plan my sermons, I typically build series out of topics that I feel the need to address. I then build individual messages from texts on those topics. But during this season of waiting for God, I didn’t feel led to a single topic. I would literally hear only a Scripture in my brain–Colossians 1, Romans 8, Psalm 22. That’s all God would give me. I typically knew almost immediately what verse or verses in the chapters God wanted me to cover. But I found it surprising how God only gave me scripture. Think there’s a lesson there?  Hmmm…

5. I was bolder. There’s something about getting a word directly from God for a specific service that makes you very confident and bold. I felt great authority as I spoke knowing that I was delivering exactly what God had given me only moments before.

6. We saw more fruit. I prayed before every message that we would see demonstrations of God’s power in each service (1 Cor 2:1-5). When it came time to call for a response, there was clear evidence of the Spirit’s increased work in our congregation. Some of the huge breakthroughs I’ve been praying for among ACFers happened in the last few weeks.

7. I felt less pressure. It’s impossible to be impressive or “preach well” when you haven’t written a message. There are no three points and a poem, no breathtaking illustrations and no tweetable comments. It’s just you, God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. As a result, I felt less pressure going in. (That is, AFTER God give me the text in each service. I felt plenty of pressure BEFORE I knew what I was speaking on.) I felt free to just deliver what God had given me, and then walk away. The rest was up to God.

8. I was more productive. I preached fourteen different messages in the last five weeks. There’s no way that I could have written and delivered that number of messages during that same time period. That type of writing and teaching load would have wiped me out. But here at the end of it, I feel refreshed and invigorated.

Lessons? I want to save those for another day. Suffice it to say that this has caused me to greatly rethink the way I approach preaching. And, it’s caused many in my congregation to rethink how they listen to a sermon. And that, on any weekend, is a win.

If you want to listen to any of the messages I shared the last few weeks, you can find them here. They begin on March 11 and end on April 9.