10 Years at New Life

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:3

 

Ten years ago, Pam and I loaded up a car with our two kids and a few pieces of luggage, and left our families and close friends for a two-day drive to Colorado and New Life Church. Three weeks later, we were chosen through a vote to be the new pastors of a church that needed healing.

This week, two close friends jokingly questioned my mental aptitude when I chose to leave a great church in Dallas/Fort Worth for a messy one on the Front Range. I told them the biggest miscalculation in the move was the loneliness. My first Sunday, I stood in front of thousands of strangers, preaching a message to a people that wanted to trust me, but in time. Pam and I were alone in a sea of people we were called to lead, wondering if we would ever feel at home. The risk was not failing in front of everyone, but succeeding while all alone.

The two friends who were needling me this week have stood alongside me this entire time, encouraging me when I wanted to quit, and helping me when the way forward was not certain. As I’ve reflected on the past decade, I could talk about the churches we have helped plant, the Dream Centers we’ve opened in our city, and the new congregations that have flourished in the past few years. But all this happened because of the miracle of relationships.

Unity is the unicorn of our culture – often discussed, but never seen. People divide so easily, so it’s an enigma for the world to see the people of God form into a tribe, church and a family. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit these past 10 years that has allowed New Life to thrive.

It was not a tricky leadership model, a charismatic personality on stage, or strictly following a systemic church growth model. New Life is making disciples today because a group of people made a decision to stay steady, to love one another, forgive one another, overlook one another’s faults, and encourage one another.

For the past 520 Sundays, we have met to pray, to worship, and to hear the Scriptures. We have chosen simplicity over gimmicks and relationships over personal preferences. Along the way, we have fallen more in love with Jesus and his sometimes flawed church. We have chosen the path of sincere relationships over the quick fix, a long obedience in the same direction. Now, we are ten years into the journey, alone no more.

 

 

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Three Reasons I Still Take Notes in Church

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

Luke 8:15

For as long as I can remember, I’ve taken notes when someone is teaching me. It started in high school, was sharpened in the college classrooms at Louisiana Tech and continued when I was learning to be a journalist, where my first beat was the local commissioner’s meetings. I would sit in hours of parliamentary discussions, looking for one 30-second sound bite to be used on the evening news. Taking notes and paying attention was not optional.

When I became serious about learning the Scriptures, a pen, paper and my Bible were always with me in church, because I knew I would forget most of what I heard by Wednesday morning. If Sundays were going to be valuable, I had to write things down to really grow up. So, no matter who was teaching me, I took notes of all that was said. I wrote down every Scripture passage and tried to go back and read those Scriptures again the following week.

In Luke’s gospel, mentioned above, Jesus described the four types of soil that represent the common conditions of the human heart.  The path, the rock, the thorns and the good soil are all mentioned. The seeds that fell on the good soil are the only ones that produced a good crop.

Verse 14 describes us if we do not take notes – The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.”

The Message Bible says “who seize the word and hold on no matter what.” I confess that I’ve heard some amazing insight that I’ve not written down and I’m certain I’ve forgotten most of it. Good seed had been sown, but I didn’t seize it and hold on, no matter what.

Today, I still take notes for three very good reasons:

1. Taking notes helps me have conversations with others about the sermon. This is the essence of discipleship – the speaking words of Scripture have to become embedded in our listening ears and spill out of us in unhurried conversations with others. In these Spirit-formed conversations, we challenge, encourage and shape one another. Discipleship is a lifelong pursuit of wisdom.

2. Taking notes helps me focus. There’s so much competing for my internal space during sermons and writing notes disciplines me to pay attention to what’s most important. This is why I usually do not take notes on my smartphone. It’s too easy to get distracted.

3. Taking notes shows respect for the teacher. I know how hard it is to preach and I respect anyone who has prepared and prayed so they can teach me. Taking notes shows my teacher that I’m ready to learn. I promise, teachers teach better when people are leaning in with pen and paper in hand.

Let’s not sit in the crowd with our arms folded, assuming that we’ll remember everything that’s being said. Let’s hear the word, retain the word and by persevering produce a good crop. Let’s grow up together by paying attention to what’s being said, right in front of us.

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The Blessings of a Long Life Dad

Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers …

1 Corinthians 4:15

 

This morning I sat in a local cafe, eating breakfast with my son, who has just finished high school. We talked of future college plans, the challenges of his first job and pancake choices. Over his shoulder, in a private room, was a group of elderly veterans chatting loudly, laughing at familiar jokes.

There was an American flag in the middle of two round tables that had been pulled together.  Most of the men wore black baseball hats with military insignias. The youngest was a man in his late 50’s, I suppose. He seemed like the guardian/leader of the group, interrupting the chatter only once to read some minutes of last month’s meeting. What else he said, I do not know.

Watching them, I was reminded that long life is a real blessing. I hope their families cherish them and not take them for granted.

This afternoon, I attended a funeral for a very good man in our church. He died at 51, leaving behind a wife and two teenagers the same age as my own. Cancer came early to his body and robbed him of his old man years. His wife is strong and brave, and their two teens are sturdy, steadfast. They will miss their dad and husband.

Long life is not a guarantee. As we walk into another Father’s Day weekend, let’s be thankful for aging fathers. Let’s remember to call them and linger in unhurried conversations. The Scriptures tell us that old men dream dreams. Let’s listen to them as a gift.

Sitting in the cafe this morning and in a funeral this afternoon reminds me of the important role of honorable dads in our lives. Every minute is a treasure and every moment is an inheritance. God bless dads!

 

 

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The Full Armor of God – Ephesians 6:10-17

This is a portion of my sermon notes from a recent message at New Life. Many asked for the list of confessions and prayers I gave in the message.

To listen to the entire message or any in the series, go here.

Ephesians 6:10-17 NIV

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

 

 

This is not a laundry list of things to do, but truths to declare!!

 

Belt of Truth

 

I believe God will lead me into all truth with the ever-present help of the Holy Spirit.

 

Breastplate of Righteousness

 

I believe God is setting things right in the world because He’s setting things right in my heart.

 

Feet fitted with Peace

 

I believe God has given me peace and I want to tell others about this peace.

 

Shield of Faith

 

I believe that no weapon formed against me will prosper. (Isaiah 54)

 

“God never said the weapons would not form; He said they would not prosper.”

 

Helmet of Salvation

 

I believe I’ve been saved by grace and I’ll be kept by grace.

 

Sword of the Spirit

 

I believe praying the Scriptures is powerful because it’s the very breath of God.

 

2 Timothy 3:16 – “All Scripture is God-breathed …”

 

 

It is not about what we can do, but what Jesus has already done!! What we believe is always more powerful than what we do.

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A Peculiar People

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, 

a peculiar people … 

It is for you now to demonstrate the goodness of him who has called 

you out of darkness into his amazing light. 

1 PETER 2:9, 10

Christ followers today are in a quandary. We have allowed ourselves to be caught up in a me-too tailspin in which we devote our attention, our energies, our money, our very lives to fitting in with the world around us, even as we are left unfulfilled by the pursuit time and again. There in the tailspin, we fall prey to the beliefs that if we can just get that role at work, that leg up on the competition, that admission of wrongdoing from the person who harmed us, that coveted car or primo-neighborhood house, that “in” with a certain influencer, that thing—whatever it is—then (and only then) will our search be concluded. Then, we will be satisfied.

At last, we will be fulfilled.

In our quiet moments of solitude, rare though they are, we suspect there might just be another path to the deep-seated satisfaction we seek. But it’s only a suspicion … we’re not entirely sure the alternate path will pan out … and so we plow ahead, heads down, hearts racing, hair pretty much on fire, climbing and clawing, declaring and demanding, refinancing and remodeling, determined to get there—wherever “there” happens to be this time.

Soon enough, we’re exhausted … again.

Soon enough, we’re frustrated … again.

Soon enough, we’re contorting ourselves once again in a futile attempt to scratch the soulish itch that still we cannot reach.

WE’RE HARDLY THE first culture to wallow in this wearisome, demoralizing mess. Down through the ages, in every culture and era the world has ever known, our temptation in this life has been to see how much we can get, and also how much we can get away with. This two-pronged pull is what motivated the world’s most powerful governments to fight for more power still. It is what spurred on the slave trade—in ancient Egypt, in the Roman Empire, and in North America alike. It is what has been behind every war that’s ever been waged around the globe. It should come as no surprise that when the human heart is itchy, entire people groups live itchy too. Is there any relief to be found?

Long before this predicament presented itself, this issue of our chasing something that could never be caught, God had in mind a solution—a way that would lead us to long-sought satisfaction, a way that would get that annoying itch scratched. He would rally a people to himself and ask them to live “set-apart” lives. He would declare them beloved sons and daughters—whole, holy, handpicked. He would empower them with his Spirit, equipping them to live lives of impact and patience and grace. He would plant a craving for divine light in their hearts, which defeats darkness in all its forms. He would give them a mission to change the world with these traits and would accompany them each step of the way, along the path he himself said he’d make straight. A “peculiar people”—that’s what he’d call them.

Strange. 

Odd. 

Unusual. 

Belonging exclusively to Jesus Christ. 

Stand-outs. 

Revolutionaries. 

Deniers of self. 

By definition, ones who don’t fit in.

 

These are my shaping thoughts for a new book I’m planning to write soon. The working title is Peculiar, Embracing the Oddities of a Christ-Oriented Life. 

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas. 

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What Is Encouragement, Anyway?

He wore his shame like a weighty overcoat—understandable, given all he’d been through. A “moral failure”—that’s what it’s called in church circles, which essentially means you’ve been unfaithful to your marriage vows, and also to the rules that church staff are supposed to uphold. He’d been let go from his ministry position but still kept coming around, Sunday after Sunday, eager to engage in worship, desperate for the heaviness to lift. The weekend I last saw him, he looked overtired—dark circles underneath his eyes, shoulders slumped a little, a distinct lack of spring in his step. As soon as the service ended, I made a beeline for the guy, sticking out my right hand as I approached. “I’m glad to see you,” I said, meaning it. “Listen, it’s tough right now, but it won’t always be this hard. I believe in you. I care about you. You are going to get through this … you will.”

He met my gaze in hopes of responding, but before he could choke out a word, he broke down. My best guess was that in light of the long road toward healing and restoration this man faced, he was under the attack of some pretty disparaging self-talk: “Give up. It’s not worth the work you’re going to have to put in. Nobody is going to trust you again, anyway—at least, not your family … and that’s who really counts.” His tears held a question: Should I give up?

I stood there silently for what felt like forever, my hand on his shoulder, and then I repeated my earlier remark: “It won’t always be this hard.”

 

What is Encouragement, Anyway?

To “encourage” someone is to momentarily replace thoughts of despair and pain with thoughts of courage and strength. It is to equip them with useful weapons for taking down the fear and frustration that is presently running their mind. It is to remind them that their efforts toward wholeness and holiness are worth it, regardless of what has them questioning the effort in the first place. If you were to net out the apostle Paul’s letters—and his contribution represents nearly half of the New Testament—you would find this central theme: Don’t quit! Don’t give up! Keep going. Keep trying. Keep giving the effort. You have everything you need, in order to overcome this difficult thing. In short: encouragement. Paul knew the value of an encouraging word. The question for us is: Do we?

A handful of weekends ago, a mounting frustration regarding our nation’s ever-shifting immigration policies bubbled up inside of me, culminating with what I thought was a pretty measured comment during my Sunday-morning talk. The subject that day was compassion, and at one point, I looked upon the congregation before me and said, “If our priority is that of becoming more like Jesus, and one of the hallmarks of Jesus’s treatment of people was a thoroughly compassionate bent, then we may need to rethink our country’s laws regarding how we welcome strangers to our land.”

During the week leading up to that talk, I had posted to my social-media sites several comments I felt were worthy of propagating, especially for those who also follow Christ. Nothing venomous or angry. Just a few things to consider. And both there on social media and also to my face that Sunday morning, I was lambasted as a result. People questioned my salvation. People questioned my patriotism. People questioned my leadership, my wisdom, and my rights. I was shell-shocked as I absorbed all the vitriol: have we entered an era in which we can’t even promote food for thought?

At the close of the service, as is customary for our church, the thousands of people who had gathered for worship filed by one of several communion stations, where they could gather the bread and the cup before heading back to their seats. I was sitting with my own thoughts when I caught sight of an old friend there in line, one of the first people I had met ten years ago, when I became the pastor of this church. She is in her eighties and is one of the sharpest, classiest, wisest people I know. What did she think of these divisive issues? What did she think of what I had said?

As if reading my mind, once she had the communion elements in hand, and in one of the greatest demonstrations of the incarnation I have ever seen, she turned and walked right toward me. She bent over so that her mouth was near my ear and whispered, “Pastor Brady, you’re doing good.” She then kissed my cheek, straightened her posture, grinned at me, and strode back to her row.

That’s encouragement.

Now, listen: I may be completely off-base in my immigration concerns. (I don’t think I am, but perhaps I am.) But in that moment, my friend’s support of me was more about her desire to strengthen me than it was a play for nitpicking political ideals. Here’s what her comment did for me: it took a downward-moving spiral of self-doubt, self-recrimination, irritation, frustration, and pain, and it totally reversed it. It halted the downward momentum and actually made the thing start climbing up.

Just before I took the stage again, in order to lead our congregation in receiving the communion elements together, I thought, “Hey, if she thinks I’m doing good, then all is right in my world.” I’d been encouraged. I’d been refilled with optimism and strength.

 

No Better Way to Use Words

To be alive in this day and age is to be keenly aware that things aren’t as they should be. I’m not sure our world is in worse shape than it was, say, ten or fifteen years ago, but we sure are more aware of the issues now than we were then, given the explosion of social media. If a political decision is being weighed in Washington, D.C., we know about it. If an Amber Alert has been issued on behalf of an abducted child in Oregon, we know about it. If two Hollywood A-listers file for a divorce, we know about it. If a police officer oversteps his authority in Mississippi, we know about it. If we wish to know it, we can know it these days, and we can know it—snap!Just like that. But if we’re not mindful, all this knowledge will bring us down. We’ll start meditating on discouraging things. We’ll start talking with others about discouraging things. We’ll start focusing only on discouraging things, to the point where we’re cynical about all of life. We’ll grumble, we’ll grips, we’ll rant, we’ll rave, and at the end, what will we have accomplished, apart from further stirring the pot?

Certainly, I’m not advocating for sticking our heads in the sand and pretending all is well in the world. I’m not suggesting that we eschew information in favor of believing that ignorance really is bliss. It’s important for us—especially those who follow Christ—to be present with those who are suffering, to include those who are marginalized, to seek understanding where there is division, and to provide resources for those who are in need, and how else will we know of all these travails unless we’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world? No, what I’m pushing for here is simply a resurgence of encouragement, wherein we choose to use our words to focus on the positive instead of the negative, to accentuate the timeless instead of the fleeting, to build up instead of tear down.

 

Three Encouraging Things to Say

Over the years, I have worked to keep three important truths in mind. I tell myself these things over and over again, and I speak them out to others who may be feeling deflated, demoralized, and weak. If you are in need of a little encouragement yourself, latch onto one of these phrases. If those around you are in need of the encouragement, now you can be the one to provide it.

 

Truth #1: This pain will not last.

The first encouraging truth we can convey—to others and ourselves—is the reminder that whatever pain we’re suffering in this moment will not be with us forever. The pains of this world will pass. Just like I told my friend in ministry: “It won’t always be this hard.”

Eugene Peterson rendered a powerful section of Romans 8 this way: “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’ God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him! That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times” (vv. 15-18, MSG).

We could stack up all the pain we know today on one side of the scales, and regardless how weighty it is, weightier still is the stack of goodness that’s coming our way. We just can’t outweigh God’s good plans, which brings me to point 2.

 

Truth #2: God’s promises will come to pass.

Throughout Scripture, God promises his children that we can know comfort during our trials, that he has a plan for our life that is good, that we can be transformed into his likeness, that we can have every spiritual blessing through Christ, that he will finish the work he began in us, that we will know peace whenever we pray, that our needs will be met in him, that when we come to him we will find rest, that we can live a life that is marked by abundance, that we can never be snatched out of God’s protective hand, that from our ashes beauty will rise, that he will return for us one day, and dozens and dozens more. In fact, somebody sat down one day to count all of God’s promises and logged more than five thousand entries on his list. But better than the fact that God made these promises is the fact that he will keep them. God cannot not keep his word.

When you encounter someone who is feeling down, (even if that someone is you), remind them that the good stuff God has set in motion will one day come to pass. We may not see it yet. We may not feel it yet. We may not fully believe it is near. Which is precisely when our faith takes its cue, bridging the chasm left by our doubts. It was by faith that every spiritual giant overcame, and it is by faith that we overcome too.

Truth #3: Encouragement resides inside of you.

A third truth to remember: if you are a follower of Christ, then there is an Encourager available to you, every moment of every hour. When Jesus left the earth after his days of incarnational ministry were done, he promised his disciples that he would not leave them alone, that he would leave a Comforter with them who would operate like a friend. It’s “so that you will always have someone with you,” Jesus said, a friend named “the Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16, MSG). The implications of this indwelling are mind-boggling. Because of this Friend—the Holy Spirit—we never have to walk alone. We never have to live discouraged. We never have to cave to fear, doubt, or despair. No, because of this Friend, whenever we are feeling hopeless, helpless, or weak, we can simply turn to the Spirit and ask for assistance—in effect “building ourselves up,” as Jude 1:20 tells us to do. “Carefully build yourselves up in this most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit,” that verse begins, “staying right at the center of God’s love, keeping your arms open and outstretched, ready for the mercy of our Master, Jesus Christ” (vv. 20-21, MSG).

When we are feeling discouraged, we can encourage ourselves there on the spot, which means that no person, predicament, or situation can leave us discouraged, unless we invite in that discouragement ourselves. This is a game-changer, I hope you’ll agree. It is worth noting that in the ancient world, when Roman officials first persecuted Christians—this would have been sixty or so years after Jesus ascended back into heaven—they could sic rabid dogs on those Christians, allowing them to tear the believers apart; they could light Christians as human torches, letting them burn for all to see; and they could murder them en masse, in wild displays of ungoverned power. But there was one thing the Romans could not do, and that was take away the Christians’ joy. That one fact drove the Roman guard nuts. “How can these people remain so happy,” they must have said to themselves, “when we’re ripping them to shreds?”

It was actually this posture of constant courage and strength that caused those inside Rome to begin investigating “Jehovah God.” If this God could spawn such steadfastly joyous followers, the thinking went, then they wanted to know more about this God. And here’s a truly encouraging fact: we have the same opportunity still today. You and I can stay apprised of the world’s goings-on without letting ourselves lose heart. We can face financial downturns and housing crises and job lay-offs without letting ourselves lose heart. We can absorb buckets of vitriol for holding fast to our beliefs without letting ourselves lose heart. And we can help others learn to do the same. We can use our words to build people up, encouraging them as best we can. What’s more: each time we make the choice to refresh another, Proverbs 11:25 says, we ourselves will be refreshed.

 

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Forgiving Difficult People

The chasm that separates “us” from “them” yawns wider day by day,

even as the bridge that longs to connect the two looms tall, largely unwalked. 

 

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young man new to the workforce, my sole desire was to be just like the senior leader at the place where I worked. I idolized the guy, and for good reason. He was a powerful speaker, he had a magnetic personality, and it seemed no problem was too big for him to solve. He represented everything I hoped I would grow into: competence, confidence, success. But at the time, I wasn’t quite those things. My skills were untested. I was incredibly insecure. And on many occasions, despite my best intentions, my efforts just fell short.

On the heels of one such misfire, my boss—the senior leader I revered—came up to me and with cheeks flush with rage said, “Brady, you are such an idiot! What a stupid thing to do! You idiot.”

He said his piece and then stormed off, satisfied that he had set me straight. Except that his words didn’t set me straight at all. Instead, they made my path crooked—crooked for years to come.

 

Learning to Let It Go

For way too long following that encounter with my boss, I allowed bitterness a seat at the table of my life, feeling completely justified in my hatred toward that … difficult … man. Yes, I had indeed made a big mistake. But to be shouted at, verbally abused, named an idiot? I hardly deserved all of that. And so I fumed. Every time I saw the man, I scowled. Every time I heard his name, I cringed. Every time I thought back on what he had said to me, I dug my heels further into my position: I was right, he was wrong, and I would not rest until he paid for what he had done.

The one problem with my thinking, of course, was that the man had no intention of “paying” for anything. While I stewed over the situation, he simply moved on. I was the only one I was punishing. Something had to give.

Years went by, and then one evening, when I should have been enjoying the beauty of the sunset I was staring at, I found myself having yet another shouting match with this man in my head. I imagined in my mind’s eye him standing toe to toe with me telling me I was an idiot, and then I imagined me firing back with a few choice words of my own. I had engaged in these futile conversations a thousand times before, each one satisfying something deep within me—the quest for justice, maybe, or else just a nod to my petty pride. But for some reason, on this night, during this mental shouting match, I saw things clearly for once. “Brady, what are you doing?” I asked myself. “This is insane. The encounter happened forever ago, the guy lives thousands of miles away now, you’re mature enough to know better than to let him live rent-free in your head. And yet look at you! You’re letting someone you don’t even like control your every thought.”

I felt … idiotic. All over again.

I exhaled my frustration, let my head fall into my hands, and made a straightforward request of God. “Father, you say to bless those who curse me, but honestly, I don’t know where to start. Help me learn how to bless this guy instead of wishing for his demise.”

I started praying that prayer from time to time, and across a period of months, an interesting thing began to unfold, which is that God actually did what I asked. He helped me look past the pain and see the person—my former boss—with fresh perspective. To be sure, I could have done without that amperage and name-calling, but did the man’s behavior that day really warrant my sustained outrage?

Around the same time that I was softening toward the ways of God, the pastor of the church where I now worked was teaching on the subject of forgiveness. He stood there at the end of his talk and said, “If you have ever been hurt by someone’s words or actions, and for whatever reason that person never sought you out to make things right, then please look up here at me. Look at my eyes, and listen to my words. On that person’s behalf, I want to tell you I am sorry. I am so sorry for the wrongs that were done, for the pain they caused, for the wounds you have borne. Please, forgive me. Please, forgive them. Forgive the one who wronged you.”

I sat in my seat during that church service, my eyes trained on that pastor, my heart at last set free. “You have been forgiven so that you can forgive, Brady,” I sensed God whispering to me. “What this pastor is saying is true. You can choose to let this thing go.”

 

The Person, Not the Problem

That church service happened many years ago, but still today I can see the experience for the revelation that it was. Something important clicked into place for me when I was reminded that because God looked at my sinfulness, my self-centeredness, my rebellion, my pride, and offered me forgiveness and grace anyway, I could do the same for every person he put in my path. I could look past the situation at hand—the disagreement, the out-of-line comment, the outright disparagement, the vomiting out of rage—and see a beating heart there, in need of understanding, of tenderness, of love. I could focus on the person, not the problem, and in so doing help usher in peace.

Let me give you another scenario that shows what I mean. The story centers on a dad I met a few months ago, who told me of his struggling daughter, a “prodigal,” he said of her. This young woman had defied her father’s authority, she had caused her parents to suffer both emotionally and financially in some pretty significant ways, she had failed chronically to keep her commitments, and she had disregarded her dad’s input and care. “It hurts, Brady,” he said to me, “but I am choosing the path of love. When I think about her, I bless her. I affirm her. I actually wish her well.” The dad went on to tell me how he wished his daughter would answer his calls or texts so that he “could ask for her forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness for what?” I asked him, thinking that it was the daughter, not him, who should be making such a request. The dad had thought this through.

“I’ve always talked with my kids about the importance of walking by faith,” he said, “and yet I let this whole deal suffocate me with fear. I want my daughter to forgive me for that. That’s not who I want to be.”

This was a man who grasped what it was to look beyond the problem to see a real, living person standing there. Yes, he was probably due an apology. But instead of fixating on that “someday” turn of events, he took control over what was his to own.

Jesus, of course, was the master of this approach, as evidenced by his treatment of those he met. Think about his encounter with the woman caught in the act of adultery, for example. By all accounts, the woman really was engaged in adulterous behavior, a crime that in those days was punishable by death. It wasn’t just hearsay; she actually was at fault. And yet instead of homing in on that issue, picking up a few stones, and helping the naysayers bring about the woman’s sudden death, Jesus focused on her heart. Focus on the person, not the problem, remember? Yes, Jesus held strong opinions about broken sexuality, about marital impropriety, about sin. But when it came time to confront this woman, his big “gotcha” line was simply, “Go. Go, and sin and no more.” Jesus sought redemption instead of seeking retribution. He looked past the hard issue to the humanity. He kept the main thing the only thing.

The world is watching for a new way and most often, we resort to the familiar way, of condescension, shame, accusations and anger. Truly, the way of Jesus is the only way our gaps will get bridged.

 

The Case for Going High

The way I see it, we have two options before us, as it relates to dealing with the difficult people we keep encountering in this life. We can either continue harboring hatred for “them,” the ones who refuse to agree with our version of reality and thus make our lives a miserable mess. Or we can take a different route, the path marked by hard-won peace.

“When they go low, we go high,” has been a phrase used by many leaders and pastors, which in my view is a brilliant summary of this approach. We don’t have to give bitterness a seat at our table. We can let Jesus sit down instead.

We can ask forgiveness for holding onto bitterness. We can ask forgiveness for disparaging the one who harmed us. We can ask forgiveness for refusing to extend grace. We can ask forgiveness for engaging in those mental conversations in which we wage—and win—outright war.

We can ask forgiveness for being petty, for being sensitive, for being small. We can say the words that need to be said, owning our part, at least, of the wrong. “I am sorry. I know better. I failed to prioritize peace.”

We can do this again and again and again, just as Matthew 18 suggests that we should. “Seventy times seven,” Jesus offers by way of a starting point—in other words, “Quit focusing on a numeric goal. Make forgiveness the prevailing posture of your heart.”

What a goal, right? I know it sounds lofty—I do. I know you feel totally justified in nottaking this path of forgiveness and peace. “You don’t know what they’ve done, Brady!” I can imagine you shouting. “The things they’ve said! The destruction that’s been done! The pain they’ve caused!”

I get it. I really do. More importantly, God gets it. He really does. And based on how I read the Scriptures, his advice remains unchanged: Forgive. Let go of the bitterness. Drop the fuming rage. Stop with those mental conversations. For your part, choose to forgive.”

Even if the other person is more at fault than I am? Yes.

Even if the other person hasn’t even asked to be forgiven? Yes.

Even if I did nothing wrong? Yes. (And by the way, if you clung to those curses for even a moment, your claim is half-baked at best.)

Even if, even if, even if … ?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Forgive.

Come before God with words of forgiveness on your lips. Release the other person from your rage. Repent of your own wrongdoing. And ask God to help you bless the one who has hurt you, as you live out the days ahead. No matter the weight of the issue, God whispers the same thing to you that I once heard: “You can let this thing go—you can. You can choose to let it go.”

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Taking a Stand Without Picking a Fight

Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.

Titus 3:10

Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Psalm 82:3-4

It seems many of us find ourselves caught between two tensions. As Christ followers, we do not want to be divisive or pick unnecessary fights. We also do not want to stay on the sidelines of important discussions and allow our voices to be muted by threats or intimidation. Wisdom says to choose your battles carefully. Zeal says to win every debate, regardless of the relational costs.

My entire adult life, I’ve seen myself as a defender of the poor, the widow, and the marginalized. Thirty years ago, I was leading teams into violent neighborhoods, making friends with people who mistrusted me, and helping widows find friendship and comfort on streets that were no longer safe for their grandchildren to play. Today, I enjoy leading tense discussions on the plight of the immigrant and helping bridge the divide between those with much and the forgotten. Justice and fairness are non-negotiables for me.

I’m also a pastor, so I have little interest in constant or unwarranted friction with people. I’ve learned the value of peace and I truly desire unity and abhor divisiveness, especially in my own soul. I take the above passage from Titus literally and seriously. The more I’m led by the Holy Spirit, the more He leads me to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4).

We all must learn to live in between these worlds. We should never, ever stay silent when any form of power uses that power to oppress or suffocate those who cannot help themselves. Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. We cannot allow our comfort to become an idol that tames us and leads us away from the cries of the needy.

At the same time, it’s possible to pursue justice and stop being Jesus followers. He taught us how to be angry without sinning. When oppressive powers threatened him, he did not take up the sword, but chose a cross. He was not being passive or indifferent to the suffering of his people. He was showing them a radical new way of bringing change. He protested by giving up his rights and his life.

2000 years later, the Roman Empire is a dusty relic of long ago, and Jesus has caused the greatest social changes in history. Women have been set free from misogyny because of Jesus. Slave empires have crumbled because Jesus went to that cross. Generosity has erupted, schools have been opened, orphanages have been built and hospitals have been filled. All because Jesus was not silent, but chose a better way.

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What does the Bible say about vetting?

What do the Scriptures tell us about vetting? Is it ok to require people to pass some sort of character test in order to gain the privileges of leadership or citizenship? Should there be a thorough investigation into someone’s qualifications? This issue has been at the center of the immigration debate for the past few days and I’ve been asked if I believe in vetting.

Yes, I do.

At New Life, we have a thorough vetting process for every level of leadership, the most stringent test being the one for eldership.

An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. Titus 1:6-9

This is quite the list of requirements and should be taken seriously. Paul wrote this as a way of protecting the church from charlatans, immature believers and heretics. It was meant as a screening process to protect the fragile church from people who could harm them.

We also vet volunteers at New Life, especially those wanting to serve in our children’s ministry or with our students. The church should always be wise in who they allow to serve the most vulnerable.

Our government’s primary role, according to Romans 13, is to also make sure people who mean to harm others are stopped before harm can happen. It is both wise and prudent, therefore, to screen immigrants who wish to live in our country. This should be done thoughtfully, humanely and justly. We should hold everyone to the same standards and not discriminate. When the church sees injustice or policies that are not compassionate, we should speak up and defend those who are helpless.

Remember, many of these refugees have lost everything. They have no influence, no community connections, no money and sometimes are suffering from poor health. It’s not as simple as many have described and more  difficult than most of us have imagined.

We can be both safe and compassionate at the same time. As a pastor, I understand how difficult this task can seem. I want everyone to serve at our church, but not everyone is ready to serve. As the shepherd of the flock, I must stand watch against wolves. Our government should also stand watch, while not compromising our promise inscribed on the inside pedestal of Lady Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

 

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“Pastor, please preach on this …”

Each week, a congregation expects its pastor to preach the Scriptures, call people to prayer and salvation, administer the sacraments, pray for the sick, comfort those who mourn and encourage the saints. That’s a full and joyful weekend that every pastor enjoys. However, our vocation invites some unwanted pressures as well.

Because our culture is so divided and full of vitriol, a pastor is expected to speak out on a host of social concerns while also proclaiming the Good News. Pastors often feel like a referee in the pulpit, trying to calm fears, fire up the team and squelch tantrums, sometimes all at once. In the past year, I’ve had conversations, read social media posts or received emails asking me to:

“Preach more salvation messages”

“Preach more about politics”

“Preach less about politics”

“Preach more often about racial reconciliation”

“Don’t preach about immigration, unless you agree with my politics”

“Preach more about healing and miracles”

“Tell people who to vote for this year”

“Thanks for not telling us how to vote”

“You never preach on the end times. What about the blood moon and the earthquakes in Oklahoma?”

“You should honor grandparents more often”

I could continue. Seriously, there are more. What is a pastor to do? There are really two reasons we became a pastor – we love Jesus and we love people. Certainly, we want to be liked and respected, but our allegiance and alignment is to Jesus and even he rarely pleased everyone, nor did he try.

After almost two decades of preaching and teaching, I’ve stumbled upon some wisdom that’s kept my heart pure and my mind clear. These seven ideas have kept me focused and away from my need to please or my desire to perform for approval.

1. Preach the entire counsel of the Scriptures. Do not skip over the difficult texts or focus only on your favorite topics. With this as your guide, the Holy Spirit will help you cover all the significant issues in due time.

2. Love your people, but do not fear them. Criticism is part of the job, but so are the miracle stories of lives changed. Learn what you can from the critics, but celebrate the wins of ministry often.

3. Hang around smart, mature and positive people. We always need the encouragement and the wisdom.

4. Listen intently to opposing views, because that’s how we learn empathy.

5. Preach with boldness but not with anger. God is not mad at us, even when we’re wrong. We should not be mad, either.

6. Do not neglect the marginalized.  The widow, the unborn, the orphan and the stranger often cannot help or speak for themselves.

7. Preach Jesus. A lot. We need his words, his way, and his life in the church, more than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

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