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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.


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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Loving People Not Like Us

If you’ve ever jumped from the high dive at a public pool, then you probably remember the courage you had to muster, to take that very first plunge. You remember splashing around in the shallow end, laughing with friends and family and relishing the comfort of that pool floor under your feet. You remember eyeing the diving board each time another brave soul leaped from its heights, curious about whether you could be that brave too. You remember making the decision—“Enough already. I’m going to do it.”

You remember climbing the ladder that felt like it stretched to heaven, it was so tall, and taking those six or seven steps all the way to the end of the board, the swimming pool now seeming much smaller than it had when you were down below. And then there was the leap—the brief, uncontrollable sensation of flying; the crashing through the water’s surface; the reemergence to breathable air; the wild awareness that nothing was under your feet, reassuring you, holding you up. You remember the exhilaration of having taken the risk and enjoyed it. Who knew the deep end was so exciting and fun?

Same sunny day. Same pool. Same water. And yet upon choosing that deep-end experience, everything was different now.


The Opportunity that Awaits Us

When it comes to our relational world, a similar dynamic shows up. Sure, we can stay in the shallow end with “our people”—those who know us, love us, support us, forgive us, and extend quick grace toward us whenever we screw up. But there’s a deep-end encounter awaiting us, if we’ll have the guts to just dive in.

If there are two groups of people today who are hopeful that you and I will take that plunge, they are the undocumented members of the Hispanic population who now make their home in the United States, and anyone who has immigrated here from the Middle East. By and large, we are told to fear and/or despise these people—What if they’re terrorists? What if they’re criminals? What if they take all of our jobs?

Having no real answers to these questions and more, we cave to the suggested suspicions and move through daily life casting an uneasy eye toward anyone cleaning a hotel room or wearing a hijab. What a tragic choice this is.

For the vast majority of the Central or South American and Middle Eastern immigrants who have shown up on U.S. soil, the sole reason they have come here is to escape violence and pain. Life in their homeland had deteriorated to the point that the only way to remain a resident there was to sell one’s children into slavery, participate in the trafficking of illicit drugs, and to pledge allegiance to rampant corruption—options they were unwilling to entertain.

And so they showed up here, in the U.S., products of terror and abuse. They didn’t come in order to harm anyone, which would simply be furthering the thing they escaped. They came to rebuild their lives. To find safety and a way to thrive.


Practicing Then, Now

“But what about the law?” you might say. “I get why they want to be here, but shouldn’t they have to follow the rules?”

The political issues surrounding this country’s ability to “welcome the stranger” effectively are myriad, multifaceted, and momentous, insofar as our choices today will affect how truly “melted” our melting-pot land will continue to be, for generations to come. But two realities seem clear: First, immigrants would not be able to hold down jobs in this country if this country weren’t offering them jobs. In other words: perhaps our Chambers of Commerce are just as flawed and broken as our border-protection system has proven to be. Our business leaders have grown accustomed to hiring immigrant labor, and so those laborers are lining up in droves. The jobs that our own citizens in many cases don’t wish to do are an absolute lifeline to the women and men settling here.

Second, if our primary residence is in God’s kingdom, meaning that our citizenship in heaven ultimately will eclipse our citizenship here on earth, then we ought to count it our absolute joy to practice heavenly principles here and now, even before we inhabit that future domain.

In heaven, there will be no borders. In heaven, there will be no segregation. In heaven, there will be no lines of division, no disparity, no left-out ones. Why on earth would we prize such things, when their tenure is so short-lived? Yes, there is wisdom in valuing borders in our present reality, insomuch as a country that allows anyone entrance anytime, under any circumstances, without properly vetting those newcomers opens itself up to senseless security risks that do nobody any good. But for the people who are already here, working hard, learning the language, supporting our Constitution, and obeying the law, our posture ought to be one marked by grace.

The vast majority of Hispanic workers living here illegally are not an issue, a problem, a drain—not spiritually speaking, anyway. They are invaluable souls created in the image of God, and as such deserve our love. Most refugees fleeing Middle East trauma and taking up shelter here are not a headline, a crisis, a threat. They are men, women, and children who’ve been indwelt with the very stuff of God. And as such, they warrant our compassion, our kindness, and our respect. God says, “To them, and to everyone, I’m asking you to show love.”

As followers of Jesus, we are called to invest in the hearts and lives of all people, including our world’s most marginalized. And today, there are no more marginalized groups than undocumented workers and immigrants. But how do we make that investment? What is the most natural way to begin?


A Simple Starting Point

Isaiah 35 offers some help here. “Strengthen the feeble hands,” verse 3 begins, “steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you” (vv. 3-4).

From there, a whole series of cascading benefits unfolds in the hearers of those words: The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will hear, those who could not walk will leap like a deer, those who could not speak will shout for joy (see vv. 5-6). Help will come to the helpless. Hope will come to the hopeless. Light will shine in the darkness. A path will make itself known, where there have existed only dead ends. “Gladness and joy will overtake them,” the end of the chapter declares, “and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (v. 10).

But none of these things will occur unless we who say we love Jesus have the courage to first speak up. “Say to those with fearful hearts,” the passage leads off, which seems to indicate that the first act in loving anyone is simply to open our mouth and speak.

Instead of fearing, judging, disparaging, ostracizing, or condemning those who are different from us, we can approach them. Welcome them. Engage them in conversation, if they’re open to that. We can say, “I love to travel, and I love languages, but I can’t place your accent. Can you tell me about where you grew up?”

Eyeing the name on their name badge, if they’re wearing one, we can say, “What an interesting name. Is there a story behind it?”

Noticing a Muslim woman’s hijab, we can ask about the significance the practice of wearing a headscarf carries for her. Noticing an Hispanic man doing his job with diligence, we can ask how he came by a work ethic that’s so strong. We can comment on a cheerful countenance. We can acknowledge a sparkle in someone’s eyes. We can offer up a simple, “Hello,” and then linger in their presence for a few beats. We can start with whatever’s before us, commenting on anything we happen to observe, and then see where God happens to lead us, once we’ve leaped off that high-dive board.

When we as Christ followers set aside stereotypes in favor of collecting as many stories as we can … preferably from those wholly unlike us as well, we begin to realize that we have much in common with those with whom we’re splashing around in this pool called life. We all crave security. We all long for love. We all want to protect our children. We all want to live a life that’s truly life. Each time we focus on the soulish things that unite us instead of on the superficialities that keep us apart, we see with increased clarity that the deep dive we’ve chosen to take wasn’t so risky after all.

If you want to read more about the power of our words, check out my latest book, Speak Life.

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The New Life I Love

New Life Church has been my church family for over nine years and together, we have weathered many storms, climbed many spiritual mountaintops, planted churches, served the poor in our city, sent thousands on mission’s trips, equipped scores of students, written songs sung around the world and baptized hundreds of new believers.

New Life was birthed by God, filled with the Holy Spirit and centered on Jesus in the beginning and we still carry the fire that was stoked in us 32 years ago. Like every congregation, we have changed our methods to reach people in the 21st century, but we still have our core values, the non-negotiables of our sacred Scriptures, and the steadfast belief that if Jesus is with us, that is enough.

This week, as I celebrated my 50th birthday, I began to reflect on why New Life is so special to me and so many others. It’s easy to find fault with any group of people, but instead, I am filled with gratitude for several reasons.

1. I love how we abandon ourselves to worship, with hands lifted high and our voices singing the anthems.

2. I love how we love each other in our section communities, our groups and in the informal conversations in the lobby.

3. I love how we take risks and are not content to just play it safe.

4. I love how generously we give, especially when we see urgent needs in our city and world.

5. I love how we pray in private and how we cry out together in prayer meetings.

6. I love how we go to all our city and not just the comfortable places that are familiar to us.

7. I love how we rally around the hurting and the sick, caring for each other when all seems dark.

8. I love how every generation sees the value of worshipping and serving alongside one another.

9. I love how resilient we are when we make mistakes, choosing to learn, forgive and go on rather than cast blame.

10. I love how our past has shaped our present while not preventing us from dreaming and imagining a hopeful future.

What do you love about your church? What is the clear mission for you and the congregation God has called you to serve and support? Use the hashtag #ILoveMyChurch and share your thoughts on social media this week. Let’s look for the good that is happening all around us, especially in the church that Jesus left us to care for and build.

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Discipleship and the Weekend Gatherings

It’s true that even the most committed believers are attending church less, but it’s also true that people are surrendering their lives to Christ at most churches where the Good News is proclaimed. The 21st century dilemma for the American church is discovering how to make disciples of people who are so easily distracted from attending the very gatherings that can help them grow.

I’m writing this on a Sunday evening after six weekend services that were all full, so this is not a rant from a discouraged pastor, but from one who wants to shepherd the growing flock entrusted to my care. Cultural norms are making us busier than we want to be and busier than we need to be. In my book Addicted to Busy, I explain how the chaos of our culture is making us less connected and of our need to slow down.

What does this mean for spiritual nourishment, biblical soul care, and making disciples? It means the weekend gatherings are more important than ever. The songs, sermons and sacraments that make up our weekly liturgies have to be more intentional toward new and emerging believers. We have to give attention to the basics of our faith and make sure we do not hurry past the simple tenets, under the assumption that everyone is up to speed.

Right now, we are in the playoff season for the NFL and the teams that are still competing for the Lombardi Trophy are the ones who emphasized the basics over and over and over and over. They can all block and tackle well. Their coaches did not assume anything in the preseason. When the players were complaining for something more complex, the coaches ran them through one more set of drills. Blocking and tackling led to more blocking and tackling.

For centuries, most church traditions have recited the Nicene Creed as a way of reminding the faithful of our basic beliefs formed around the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and church. It is not religious rote, it is a recitation rich in prayer and Scripture.

One more thing, I do think we must honor people’s time and there is certainly appropriate attention spans, but people are ok with services that last 80-90 minutes, especially if the service is compelling, thoughtful and full of the Holy Spirit. Looking at the average movie length of the ten highest-grossing movies of each year for the past decade, Hollywood blockbuster’s have gone from just under two hours to more than 130 minutes in length. Going back another decade, movies today are 1.2 times longer than they were in 1992.

The amount of time we spend is not as important as the content of our gatherings. People are coming to church to grow and to connect. Make the services rich with spiritual nourishment. Encourage the saints, compel the cynics and welcome home the prodigals. Awaken people’s spiritual appetites on the weekend and then work hard at providing classes and small groups. Discipleship is a long process and we must not be discouraged. It is a journey worth finishing well.

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Celebrate, Tolerate, Obliterate

Values – Important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable.

When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.
Roy E. Disney


Every team has values, shared beliefs and convictions that guide its decisions and ultimately determine success or failure. There may be nothing more important than a team’s values because they help define the wins, develop strategies and steer us from distractions. Values are the non-negotiable creeds of our organizations, the unchanging True North.

Big Idea If our values are unclear or ignored, our teams will be ineffective or toxic. Great teams have shared values that are celebrated.

Most people on our teams celebrate the shared values. They will strive for unity and are not content with mediocre. They cheer for others who hit the mark and there’s a sense of shared responsibility for the group’s well-being. They’re honest with their struggles, true with their friendship and gracious when sincere efforts fail. Values are discussed, debated and agreed upon regularly. They really admire the team and what the team produces. Promote these people.

Some on our team are just tolerating the values. They’re not rebels, but they’re certainly not disciples. They seem like devotees in meetings, but they rarely champion the team in private. They’re generally peaceful, but seldom passionate which means innovation and proactive problem-solving are both rare. To be fair, this may be the fault of leadership. Maybe, the values have never been explained or consistently modeled. Spend more time with these people.

The third group obliterates the values. They do not admire the other teammates and do not love what the team is doing. They’re always the center of some drama and strife and they’re indifferent about budgets and missed deadlines. They’ve been taught, and taught, and taught, but they do not agree with the values and never will. They do not need to be on the team. Help these people transition.

Most teams can agree on values if we will slow down and ask more questions. Give your team room to debate and adopt the values. Make them clear and easy to understand. Allow the introverts to process and the extroverts to argue out loud.  Create a culture of honest debate and allow everyone to participate. Coach those who want to grow, and don’t feel awful when disagreeable people choose to go elsewhere. Great teams get great results because of great values that are celebrated.

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Living At Midnight With No Stars in the Sky – A Christmas Message

On the night Jesus was born, the world was living at midnight with no stars in the sky. It certainly did not seem holy to most of the people in Bethlehem, but hope has a way of springing up in the most unusual places and amongst the most unlikely people.  Some of the prophets of old had spoken of a baby coming that would change the world and of a people who were walking in darkness needing a great light.

Most bible scholars believe Jesus was born at night, possibly in a dark cave or grotto. Darkness certainly was the prevailing theme of the birth story.  There were shepherds guarding their flocks at night when suddenly the glory of the Lord appeared, and they were terrified. It seems they were more comfortable living at night, alone in the shadows, than being surprised by angels and bright lights.

Most of our world is living right now at midnight with no stars in the sky; certainly there is very little reason for many people to have hope. Syrian refugees are fleeing the rubble of their neighborhoods hoping to find safety. Many of the people right here in our community are struggling to get through the holidays despite deafening depression or addictions. Maybe you are walking in darkness, hoping to find your way through life. You are living at midnight, with no stars in the sky. It always seems to be winter, but never Christmas.

Jesus came into the world as a light to all humanity, proclaiming freedom from oppression to anyone who would believe and follow him. His message of peace was and is the most radical proclamation in human history.

Jesus came as a baby, vulnerable, small, placing his life into the hands of two people who were not ready to be parents.  Very few of us seem ready for Jesus when he arrives. He comes to us anyway, asking if we will receive him. Joseph and Mary both had a choice. They could have rejected the angels and lived their lives safely in Nazareth. Instead, they believed!

Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let Earth receive her king. Let every heart, prepare him room.

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