Saturday, December 22, 2007


December 21, 2007

It was one of those times in the life of a pastor when the lesson you prepare manages to edify yourself as much or more than those to whom it was aimed. In this case it involved the youth group at a church where I had just been called to take on the responsibility as senior pastor. Since there was no one to minister to the youth at the time I found myself back in the familiar role of youth pastor along with all my other duties. No problem, I thought as the time approached for the youth group meeting, we’ll just play some games and then I’ll pull a devotional out of the files and reuse it.
After many years of experience in ministering to young people I was far more comfortable around them than being in the presence of adults. Since this was my first taste of being a senior pastor I was filled with apprehension and self doubts. To make matters worse, after accepting the position with the church I learned there were some deeply rooted problems involving the lay leadership and past conflicts. I was beginning to realize I was in for a rough road in trying to bring about any change in this congregation. Suddenly the future looked threatening, filled with severe trials and uncertainties. I worried if I had made a grave mistake in uprooting my family and moving them to this community.
Following an hour of physical activity I led the youth into the church fellowship hall for some refreshments and a lesson from the Bible. While they were gobbling up some cookies and quenching their thirst on soda I began stacking piles of Styrofoam cups, upside down, in various arrangements on the floor. The piles of cups were of varying heights and spread out enough to allow a person to carefully squeeze between them without knocking them over. After dividing the group into two teams I described the exercise we were about to do.
“One by one,” I explained, “altering from one team to another, we will blindfold one person and they will have to walk through the obstacle course listening to the directions from their teammates. The team with the fewest cups knocked over, after each person has had a chance to go through the course, will win the game.”
It wasn’t long before the youth had entered into the fun of the exercise. The ones who were blindfolded had to discern which voices were those of their teammates and which ones were coming from the other side. Listening to the wrong voice would be disastrous. The teams eventually caught on to the strategy of having one spokesperson to avoid any confusion. The competition was intense and the cheering and groaning were deafening. Soon we were down to the last participant. Since the outcome of the game had already been determined and we knew the identity of the winning team, I decided to have some fun with the final contestant.
In a stroke of Spirit-inspired genius, after blindfolding the unsuspecting youth, I announced that I was going to reposition the piles of cups. Because the last young person to walk through the obstacle course would be my own son, Travis, I felt secure enough to have some fun at his expense. Instead of just repositioning the cups I totally removed them from the course.
“The piles of cups are much higher and closer together than before,” I announced while silently indicating to the rest of the group not to give away the secret. “Let’s see how well you can do with this new obstacle course.”
Howls of laughter arose while his team leader led Travis through the imaginary obstacles. At times he had the poor guy tied in knots trying to avoid knocking down any invisible cups.
“Wow, that was a close one!” shouted his team leader. "Now don’t move for a minute while I figure out how to get you out of this predicament.”
A loud gasp rose from the onlookers with each step Travis took. Everyone entered into the fun of watching Travis negotiate his way through the nonexistent hindrances. Finally, after miraculously finishing the course without knocking over a single cup, Travis removed his blindfold and realized he had been duped.
“What have we learned here?” I asked after the group quieted down.
“I think the lesson is about needing a team to help us get through life,” replied one teenage girl. “We need someone we can trust who can see things we can’t and help us avoid the dangers.”
“Very good,” I responded. “You have just discovered one of the main reasons for being a part of this youth group or, for that matter, a part of the body of Christ. Christianity is a team sport; it’s far too risky to attempt by ourselves. We definitely need some faithful companions to help us through the tough times. The Bible says, ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ – Hebrews 10:24-25. Now, what else have we learned from this game?”
“We learned that it’s important to listen to the right voices,” offered one of the boys who had served as a spokesperson for his team. “If we listen to the wrong voice we can be led to make some bad choices and stray from the best path.”
“Excellent,” I proclaimed. “There will be many voices vying for your attention. The voices you listen to will determine how well you make it through the obstacles of life, and where you will spend eternity. Jesus says, ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.’ – John 10:27. But what did we learn when the obstacles were removed?”
After a long pause Travis spoke up. “I think there are times when we worry about something that shouldn’t bother us at all because it doesn’t exist,” he said thoughtfully. “We convince ourselves there is a problem when in reality there isn’t any; so we get all bent out of shape for no reason.”
“Well said, Travis,” I replied with a hint of pride over my son having come up with the right answer. “The greatest obstacles you will face in this life are those which exist only in your minds. An unreasonable fear based upon imaginary obstacles will keep most of us from achieving the greatness God has ordained for us.”
Suddenly I became speechless. In the midst of sharing a lesson that was supposed to be on team-building, God had just nailed me about my own lack of faith. Like Travis, I was imagining the worst obstacles that could possibly be waiting for me to stumble over in my ministry. In reality, the largest obstacle of all was my own fear. Was I not convinced that God had called me to this particular church? If so, then whatever hindrances lay in my pathway the Lord would either remove or guide me safely past. If I concentrated on listening for the voice of my Shepherd rather than the voice of the sheep, if I strove to follow the Spirit’s leading rather than my own blind instincts, if I put my trust in the true Leader of my team rather than seeking to please the directions being hurled at me from other sources, I would end up reaching the destination God had intended for me.
I was reading the first chapter of Luke the other day when the subject of faith was brought to my attention. When God spoke to Mary through the angel Gabriel and told her she would soon give birth to Messiah her first reaction was predictable. Imagining all the supposed obstacles which she perceived were standing in the way of fulfilling her calling she responded by saying, “How will this be…?” – Luke 1:34.
I can imagine some of the obstacles which must have flashed through her mind. She was terribly young for such a critically important assignment, probably in her early teens. How would someone so inexperienced, so immature, be able to raise the Son of God? Then there was the problem of her lack of wealth and her family’s low social standing. How could she provide a suitable home for the Christ child? Where would they live? How could she explain the boy’s existence to her friends and family? How could she bear the shame and reproach which would surely come upon her for being an unwed mother? Out of the myriad of obstacles which she could have pictured in her mind, she chose to ask only about one. How could she, a virgin, give birth to anyone?
The angel’s response ends with this declaration, “For nothing is impossible with God.” – Luke 1:37. It is at this point where I most marvel at Mary’s faith. She likely had many more questions rolling around in her mind and certainly more obstacles about which to be anxious. Yet she chose to ignore the deafening voices of her own doubts and fears opting instead to listen only to the voice of God. Somehow she was able to remove the blindfold of her earthly perspective and focus on the future through the eyes of her Lord. Her simple response of ultimate trust and submission has intrigued admirers for centuries and still serves today as a shining example of what it means to have faith in God.
“I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said.” – Luke 1:38.
I have been thinking about the coming New Year and all the trials and opportunities which lay ahead for us. Through our earthly perspective we will likely see before us a pathway littered with dangerous pitfalls and huge obstacles. But is that the reality of the course marked out for us or do those obstacles exist only in our minds? Are we attempting to negotiate the future while wearing an earthly blindfold or are we seeing through the eyes of faith? Are we listening to the voices of doubt and fear or striving to hear the voice of our Shepherd? Are we going to tiptoe through the obstacle course of the coming year allowing the world to twist and contort us to fit the image of supposed hindrances or will we, like Mary, respond with a simple message of ultimate trust in our true Guide?
The truth is there are many ministries which God desires to bring forth from our spiritual wombs. There are souls to win, children to mentor, disciples to train, churches to plant, books to write, songs to compose, prayers to utter, and even miracles to facilitate. Will we respond to God’s calling by asking “How can this be”? Or will we answer in humble faith like Mary and say, “May it be to me as you have said”? In addition to Gabriel’s declaration that “nothing is impossible with God,” Scripture abounds with admonitions to ignore perceived obstacles and move forward in faith.
“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” — 1John 4:4. “…If God is for us, who can be against us?” – Romans 8:31. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” – Philippians 4:13.
The coming year will undoubtedly hold many surprising twists and turns which may shake our faith to its core. But I can absolutely guarantee that nothing which is about to occur will be a surprise to God. Therefore, allow me to encourage you to remove your earthly blindfolds, listen to the voice of our Shepherd, and move forward in faith.

Bill, a child of God, blindfold removed

Saturday, December 15, 2007


December 14, 2007

With his broad-brimmed rain hat tied under his chin and the collar of his rain coat turned up, the lonely figure clutches the railing, leans into the wind and struggles through the darkness. Step by step, hand over hand, through hurricane force winds and stinging rain, he descends into the night. Where could he be headed at this hour, in this weather? He is making his way toward a lighthouse, 302 steps below his meager, yet comfortable dwelling. On either side of the crude stairway, carved out of the rocks of the seaside cliff, a perilous, 200 foot drop into almost certain death awaits any misstep. Why take such a threatening journey in the middle of the night, in the midst of the storm? He does it simply because he is the keeper of the light.
Like most 19th century lighthouses the mechanical rotation of the light is achieved through a system of clocklike gears kept in motion by a weight. Similar to a grandfather clock, when the weight reaches the bottom of the chain it has to be wound up again, in this case every two hours. So with precise regularity, every two hours, all night long, no matter what the weather, no matter how he feels, the light keeper emerges from his comfortable cabin atop the cliff and descends the 302 steps through the darkness to wind up the clock and make sure the light is shining.
For decades these faithful servants endured the loneliness, the isolation, the lousy pay, the extreme dangers, one of the harshest environments on the planet, and the ingratitude from a public who took them for granted. You can learn about these heroic light keepers by visiting the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse on the northern California coast. Point Reyes is a jagged promontory which juts far out into the Pacific Ocean and has proven to be an extreme hazard to ships that would veer too close to land as they searched for the safe, calm waters of the San Francisco Bay. Today a powerful, electric rotating lamp and a haunting, repetitive foghorn warn ships to stay away. But the old lighthouse still stands, ready to come to life in the event of a power failure.
If your legs are still young and your nerves are steady, weather permitting, you can trace the amazing pathway these brave souls traveled and descend the same 302 steps they journeyed several times each night (of course, you also eventually have to ascend the same stairs). Walking in their footsteps will make you marvel at their courage. If you are fortunate enough to time your visit while the lighthouse is open for viewing, you will be in for a special treat. In the lower floor of the cylindrical chamber you can read about its history from excerpts of journals and letters written by the light keepers. They tell of the loneliness and isolation, being so far removed from civilization. They complain about the monotonous drudgery of their duties. But mostly they curse the wind, the cold, and the incessant fog.
On a recent visit as I read their accounts of life at the lighthouse, I couldn't help but wonder; if the conditions were so bad, why did they bother? It's not like this was a major shipping lane. In years past, several days could go by without a single ship passing this way. Who would know if they let the light die out one night during a particularly violent storm?
The only answer I could come up with was their dedication to faithfully carry out the responsibility given to them. Lives depended on their light even though they didn't know who, if anyone, was watching for it. And when the storm was the most fierce, the fog the most dense, and the night the most dark, their light was the most needed.
What a great testimony this is to us, for we, too, are keepers of the light, called to faithfully carry out the responsibilities given to us. "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." – Matthew 5: 14-16.
How tempting it is to let our lights grow dim, to allow the weight to reach the bottom of the chain and then fail to rewind the gears. There is a weariness that can overtake us in any ministry (including church planting), a repetitive drudgery that can make the comfort and warmth inside our homes and churches wondrously tempting and truly difficult to leave. Why not just gather with those who dearly love our Lord and bask in the warmth of their fellowship? Together we can read inspirational stories of light keepers from the past and discuss how to emulate their lives. Together we can pray against the darkness asking God to raise up courageous light keepers who will venture out into the night. Together we can help keep each other safe and warm and protected from the evil world which surrounds us. After all, who knows if there are any lost souls nearby foundering in troubled waters? If there are any, can’t they see the light filtering through our windows? Can’t they look up our address in the phone book, or give us a call, or visit our web-site? Why should we be the ones to lay our lives on the line for those who may be perishing? Who knows if our small light will even make a difference in such oppressive darkness?
Why should we take such a perilous journey into the surrounding darkness in the midst of the storm? We do so simply because we are the keepers of the light. We do so because we serve a God who first invaded the darkness with His light at the dawn of creation. Then His light pierced the darkness once again embodied by His Son, Emmanuel, the Lamb of God. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” – John 1:4. We do so because we worship a Savior who said of Himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12. “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” – John 12:46. And we do so because we follow a Lord who commissioned us by saying, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” – John 20:21. Then we have the Apostle Paul urging us with these words. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” – 2Corinthians 4:6.
As keepers of the light, we have been given an enormous responsibility. Don’t expect any bountiful paychecks, accolades from fellow believers, or warm, comfortable nights in which to shine. When the darkness of this evil world grows even more intense, when the fog of doubt clouds our vision, when the storms of adversity howl around us, it takes a tremendous amount of faith and courage to step outside. But we are told not to hide our lights under a bowl (or inside our churches). This means we are called to step out into the midst of the storm (no matter how many steps it takes) and "wind up our lights," even though we don't know who, if anyone, is watching. Souls are depending on our light; the “Father of lights” is counting on us to shine. And when the storm is the most fierce, the fog the most dense, the darkness the most intense, our light is the most needed.
Excuse me, but I think it's time to rewind my light!

Bill, a child of God and keeper of the light

Friday, December 07, 2007


December 7th, 2007

"The time has come!" The news spread like lightning throughout heaven. Within moments the heavenly host was assembled bursting with excitement. They had been rehearsing for this very day for years...centuries...millennia. Every note must be perfect, every voice exactly in tune. The curtain was about to rise on their greatest performance since, well, since the creation of the world when "the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy." – Job 38:7. This performance would be even more impressive because they would sing of an even greater miracle, and this time human ears would hear their music. "Messiah has come!" "Christ is born!" "God has become man!" The host could hardly contain their joy.
But what would be the scene of this grand concert? Speculation had run wild as the day drew near. “A palace with gathered royalty for an audience,” some had suggested. Others envisioned a great concert hall filled with dignitaries and patrons of the arts. Still others had their hopes set on a majestic outdoor amphitheater packed with thousands of appreciative fans. When at last the location was announced an unbelieving gasp echoed across heaven. The greatest concert ever heard on earth would be performed in a lonely pasture outside a tiny village called Bethlehem to an audience of a small handful of shepherds and a bunch of bleating sheep.
"You've got to be kidding!" shouted the angelic conductor. "You're sending heaven's finest to sing for a grubby crew of unsophisticated, artistically ignorant, night watchmen in one of the most desolate, out of the way, wrong-side-of-the-tracks outpost in the universe?"
The heavenly host began to wail in protest. But one glance toward the throne told them there was no mistake. There was nothing to do but obey. With practiced precision the conductor raised his baton and the host snapped to attention. In a flash heaven was emptied of their presence and the power of God carried them to their unlikely stage. Meanwhile, a group of very ordinary shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks one night, lost in the darkness of their monotonous existence, were suddenly overwhelmed by God's glory and found themselves in the front row seats at the downbeat of the most spectacularly beautiful concert ever heard by human ears.
Are you as amazed as I am over this part of the Christmas story? Why would He do it? Why would God send such an incredible display of heaven's glory to such an unlikely audience? Yes, I'm aware these fields were in the same vicinity where Boaz met Ruth centuries earlier and the earthly family line of Christ was begun. Yes, I understand these shepherds were possibly watching over the flocks which were reserved for the temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem. Why not send these shepherds to watch over another sacrificial Lamb, one who would take away the sins of the world?
But I believe there is more to this amazing performance than just clever staging or some deeply hidden Christological meaning. God may very well have chosen to lavish His glory on these individuals not so much because of their occupation or where they happened to be, but precisely because of who they were—nothing but ordinary, run-of-the-mill, dirty, smelly, lonely, futureless, sin-plagued, hopeless inhabitants of a lost world—exactly like you and I would be were it not for the coming of a Savior!
The angel proclaimed, "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." – Luke 2:10. And, as if to emphasize "for all the people," the news was given to ordinary shepherds, perhaps the most common of all the people. The heavenly host sang, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." – Luke 2:14. Their unsophisticated, work-weary, impoverished audience reveals that God's peace and favor are available to those who have the greatest need for such. This is indeed "good news" for we are included in "all the people." And, as members of the body of Christ, we of all people should realize how much we need God's peace and favor.
Be encouraged my friends because God has His eye on us ordinary folk, even if we happen to be an unsophisticated, grubby crew of night watchmen in one of the most desolate, out-of-the-way, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, outpost in the universe. We would do well to cease being concerned only with watching over our personal “sheep pen” and start looking upward. The good news wasn’t all exhausted that glorious evening long ago. Indeed, the Lord who was born that night is due to return and when He does, we might expect to witness an even more stunning accompaniment. Even now the heavenly host is rehearsing. The nearness of their performance is raising the level of their excitement to the point of bursting. The celestial symphony will be joining the choir for this concert and I have it on the best of authority that the trumpet section will be featured.
“They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” – Matthew 24:30-31. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God…” – 1Thessalonians 4:16.
So do not be envious of those lowly shepherds on the glorious night of our Savior’s birth. There are more angelic pronouncements to come and a grand finale concert that will shake the foundations of the universe and bring the curtain down on human history. Whether we are alive or long since departed at the giving of the downbeat, those of us who belong to Christ, no matter how unsophisticated, no matter where we reside, will have a front row seat for this incredible performance. After all, God has a history of lavishing heaven's finest on earth's most ordinary of audiences. So be alert, keep an eye on the heavens, and don't be too overwhelmed if someday, lost in the darkness of your own monotonous existence, you too are surprised by His glory.

Bill, a child of God looking upward