The Holy Spirit is Not Your Weird Uncle

Recently, my friend Matt Reynolds invited me to write an article for Spirit & Truth Ministries, which describes it’s mission as, “a movement of Wesleyan-minded Christians seeking to awaken and equip the 21st-century church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to share the Gospel and make disciples of Jesus Christ. We long to see a new movement of Christians who are empowered by the Spirit, rooted in the truth, and mobilized for the mission.”

I believe in what they are doing, and I appreciate them publishing the following article. 

How many of you have that one family member? Most families have a strange aunt, uncle, or cousin that they don’t really talk about. If you live in a small town, you might even wish they had a different last name because in a small town there are always people who will ask, “are you related to so-and-so?” If you don’t have one, you just might be the one!

Unfortunately for far too many Christians, that’s how we treat the Holy Spirit. We are fine with God the Father. We are great with Jesus. But we aren’t quite sure what to do with the Holy Spirit. As a result, we think the Holy Spirit is just for “those Christians.” You know, the Christians who are a little different or unique or even maybe extreme or weird.

Perhaps you grew up in a church that emphasized the Holy Spirit in an unbalanced and unbiblical way. When that happens, the Holy Spirit can become associated with extremes and abuses.  This should not be a surprise. If there is one thing I have learned over the last fourteen years of full-time ministry, it is this: without the Holy Spirit, we are lost. Therefore, the Holy Spirit’s value to Christians is inestimable, and anything of value will be counterfeited. There is a reason we don’t have fake pennies. We have fake hundreds and twenties because they have value. If you’ve experienced extremes and abuses of the Holy Spirit, I hear your concern, but I’ve never met anyone who says, “I once got a counterfeit $100, so I don’t want anything to do with the real thing.” The Holy Spirit is not the “weird uncle” of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is as essential to our understanding of God and our life of faith as the Father and the Son.

How then, do we cultivate openness to God’s Holy Spirit in our congregations?  

1. Personal Surrender

Until we are willing to go all in with God’s Spirit, we aren’t able to lead others to do the same. B.T. Roberts once wrote, “We cannot impart to others what we do not ourselves possess.” In my own life, I had to surrender and obey before I could lead with greater dependence on the Holy Spirit.

I often find that the key issue preventing followers of Christ from a more radical pursuit of the Holy Spirit is not a lack of belief, it is fear of obedience. We inherently know that when God communicates with us, there is a good chance He’ll ask us to do difficult things and possibly even things we don’t want to do. We tell ourselves that it is far easier to keep God at arm’s length than it is to say, “I’m all yours. Show me what you would have me do.”

The problem with that is, it is a lie. One of the biggest lies the enemy of our souls whispers is that God is not for us. We hear the subtle whisper: If we listen to God and humbly and faithfully obey, it will only lead to humiliation or shame. The truth is God loves us deeply and invites us into obedience to lead us to greater wholeness in our spiritual life and greater intimacy with Him. Believe it or not, God can even use the embarrassing moments of our lives to point people to the life-changing love of His Son, Jesus!

2. Start Praying

Every significant move of God and every move of the Holy Spirit is grounded in prayer. Early on, I had a sense we would eventually begin to have special services like nights of praise and worship including times of prayer ministry and healing. It was essential for us to first develop a team of prayer warriors. I began teaching and preaching on prayer. I taught on hearing the voice of God and discerning God’s will. We spent time walking through the Lord’s Prayer. We spent time in special studies exploring the practice of prayer together. Our existing leaders in prayer thrived and grew even as God developed others in this ministry.

One Sunday morning, after teaching on the life of a prayer warrior, I felt led to do an altar call for people who sensed God’s call to prayer ministry. Over twenty people responded, and as they were standing at the front of our worship space, I prepared to pray a blessing over them. However, I paused as I sensed the Lord wanted to do something else. There is a 99-year-old prayer warrior in our congregation who worked with E. Stanley Jones in the Ashram movement. I invited her to pray a blessing over these men and women as we closed the service. She prayed a simple, bold prayer which was incredibly powerful.

Our church purchased The Beginner’s Guide to Intercessory Prayer by Dutch Sheets for every member of the team. After giving them enough time to read the book, we came together for a training and vision casting event. Following that, we had another specific training and prepped for a Night of Prayer and Worship. You simply cannot pray too much if you are seeking to cultivate an openness to God’s Holy Spirit in your church.

The fruit of this has been powerful. During worship nights these prayer warriors have both prayed as we’ve prepared and prayed with others during ministry time.

3. Ask God to Send Like-minded People

Many congregations have a remnant of people who are devoted to God and who experienced a touch by God’s Spirit. It is important to build a critical mass, whether on your staff or in your congregation, of those who are open to the fullness of God’s Spirit. Keep praying. In our congregation, we have seen people who have come to our congregation and said things like, “I don’t know why I’m here. I’m not from this church’s background, but God led me here and I sense there’s something incredible going on.” That’s the kind of thing that only happens in answer to prayer. God’s resources and connections are not limited. He will give you the people you need as you begin to seek greater openness to the Holy Spirit.

4. Learn from Mature Leaders

I am blessed to serve under regional leadership that is focused on the power and presence of God through the Holy Spirit. As a result, we invited Pete Bellini from United Seminary to come and teach and minister to pastors in this region of our denomination. Mark Barrow from Aldersgate Ministries came and led worship. Later on, we hosted a Holy Spirit event for laity and pastors with Luther Oconer. It is essential to seek mature, balanced leaders who can teach and lead the congregation to a greater openness to the Holy Spirit.

These events fulfilled two purposes. They were learning opportunities for our laity, pastors, and staff, and they created the opportunity to see how the Holy Spirit leads in teaching, worship, and ministry time. I also believe these are the kind of events that help shift the spiritual atmosphere and raise expectations for those who participate. Mature leaders provide models for balanced Spirt-led leadership.

5. Do the Stuff

There’s a great story about John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard Movement. John and his wife Carol had visited a church early on after he had spent time reading the gospel accounts of Jesus. One day after worship, John approached his pastor and asked, “So, when do we do the stuff?” “The ‘stuff’,” said the pastor. “What’s the ‘stuff’?” “You know,” John replied, “the stuff in the Bible, like healing the sick and casting out demons. The stuff!” “Oh,” replied the pastor. “We don’t do the stuff. We believe they did it back in biblical days, but we don’t do it today.” With a rather confused look on his face, John could only say: “And I gave up drugs for this?” Throughout his  ministry, Wimber continued to talk about and to actually “do the stuff.” At some point, as you are open to God’s Holy Spirit, you’ll see amazing things begin to happen. For instance, you’ll pray for the sick and they’ll experience healing.

A few weeks ago we had a night of prayer, worship, and healing. We were filled with confidence and expectation. Our praise team was prepared and focused on the Holy Spirit. We had invited our church to fast for 24 hours in the days leading to the event. We had a trained prayer team.

On the evening of the event, we had people from across our community, including those who aren’t part of our congregation attend. While we planned for the service to last an hour, I had to take a brief break during our time of prayer for the sick and hurting and tell people they needed to go get their kids from the nursery, but that the praise team would keep leading worship and we would keep praying until we were done. Nearly thirty minutes after we were finished, people were still sitting in the presence of God, experiencing His goodness, praying and tearfully reflecting on their faith. Why is this? Because God was present. God was moving. And “stuff” happened.

One testimony shared with me after the event demonstrates the kind of things that happened that evening, “I have to tell you where I am health wise after last Wednesday’s Prayer, Worship and Healing service. I have had very little pain from the cancer on the spine and have cut way back on the hydrocodone I had been taking. I don’t feel at this point I need the drugs for the pain, as I have not experienced any of the debilitating pain I had been having when I didn’t take the pills.I thank God for laying this Healing Service on your heart and I give our Lord and Savior all the glory. I am so blessed to be a part of this church family.” 

6. Patience

As you read this, it would be easy to think this happened overnight, but this has all been the result of a pursuit of God and a walk with the congregation that has taken nearly six years. For me personally, it’s taken a little over 40 years! You may also be tempted to think that everything we’ve seen has fallen into place with very few hiccups, but that has not been the case at all. Some are scared of the “weird uncle stuff” or who have had bad experiences in the past, with those claiming to represent the Holy Spirit. There are always ups and downs and twists and turns. We must continue to pursue God and trust that he will bring us through to the place He wants us to be. Be faithful. Surrender to Christ and repent of your sins. Patiently wait on the Holy Spirit. Pray deeply. God will provide.

7. Have Faith

When I first came to this congregation, I was coming off of one of the most exhausting and challenging seasons of my life. My health was in a bad place, and there were many days in that busy season of adjusting to a new congregation that I had to use my lunch break to take a nap to build up the energy for the ongoing meetings and events. But, I knew at the core of my being I was where I was supposed to be. In my weakness, God simply kept showing up in incredible ways. People were joining the congregation and we were growing like we had not in years before.

In situations where I didn’t know what to do, the Holy Spirit has given me insight beyond my own understanding. I am walking in greater obedience and faith than I have at any other time in my life, I am continually seeking fruit. I want evidence that what we are doing and how we are seeking the Spirit leads to the fruit of changed lives and mature followers of Christ.

There are doubts and fears that I continue to take to the Lord. There are days I ask God why we aren’t seeing more men and women coming to Christ, and I wonder what to do; I am often examining fruit.Walking with the Holy Spirit does not relieve us from having to walk in faith. As Hebrews 11:1 reminds us, “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t do ministry any other way. It’s worth the risk. It’s worth the hard questions. It’s worth it all because partnering with the Father, Son, AND Holy Spirit is what ministry is all about.  I’ve never experienced more life-giving work than “doing the stuff” in partnership with our glorious Triune God.

How to Worship at Home

We all have memories that continue to shape us throughout our lives. For me, many of these memories took place on the small farm located between Lorie Lane and Jackson Creek in Falfa, Oklahoma. I have so many memories of wandering the woods and Potato Hills located near our property. I’d trek across the pasture fighting imaginary invaders for hours. I’d huddle in the barn surrounded by enemy soldiers looking out for my family. I’d crawl up and down the wooden corral by our barn and pretend I had to scale across this makeshift cliffside without touching the ground below. I always give thanks for having this kind of childhood.

One memory, however, stands out above all the rest. In fact, I often revisit it in my mind. Just northeast of the pasture in front of our barn was a little grove of trees surrounding a low marshy plot of ground. On one side was a small hillside and on the other was a thicket of trees and brush. It was always a little wet and well shaded, so moss grew heavily in that area. On one side, there was a large tree that had fallen, so you could easily sit and enjoy this little sanctuary. One particular day, for reasons I don’t remember, I spent time there in worship. I prayed to God. I sang a hymn or two out loud from our old church hymnal that I had memorized from years of worshipping consistently with our church. I don’t know the exact songs after all these years, but they were probably some of the hymns I knew best: The Old Rugged Cross, How Great Thou Art, or Victory in Jesus.

Over the years, I’ve been to retreats and at gatherings where speakers have said, “close your eyes and go to a special place where you encountered the presence of Jesus.” Many times, when I close my eyes, that’s where I go. In my mind, it was a place of pure worship. I didn’t do it because anyone but God was listening. I didn’t do it because I “had to.” As I reflect back, I think my motivation was simply that I felt the presence of God, and I knew the only adequate response was to enter into worship.

Scripture emphasizes that worship is primarily with others. Hebrews 10:25 (NLT) reminds us, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” Jesus himself told his followers, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:20 NIV. However, in seasons where we are prevented from those corporate gatherings, we are still able to worship.

The poetic worship of the Old Testament, exemplified in the Psalms, provides us with many examples. David cried out to God, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” Psalm 42:1 (NIV). He continues, “By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.” Psalm 42:8. David wasn’t with others at night, but the songs of faith and prayer were still available to him!

So how do we worship during this season of separation, whether we are gathered with two or three or if we are living alone? Here are a few things I have learned over the years.

1.) Spend time in God’s word. 

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul writes, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Spend time reading a chapter or two of scripture, which is the inspired word of God full of powerful promises and truth. If you’re gathering as a family, you can invite your children to do this out loud. If you’re living alone, read a chapter or two, perhaps even out loud. Reading aloud slows us down and engages the brain to create a memorable experience. It may be why I still remember that moment of worship when I was a child. I sang the songs of faith out loud!

2.) Listen to or sing songs of faith. 

I have noticed that my faith is always stronger when I saturate it with the things of God. How many of you have had a song stuck in your head? I would guess everyone reading this post has had that experience. With that in mind, is it more valuable to have Hey Macarena! stuck in your head or Be Thou My Vision? Since the lyrics of the former are in Spanish, I’ll just include the latter and let you decide!

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light
You can find a number of worship songs on YouTube or your favorite streaming service. For example, The Blessing by Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes is one that many Christians have on repeat during this time of social distancing.

Another type of worship is simply “being still” in obedience to this command from the Lord, “He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations,I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10.

Awhile back, I came across an artist named William Augusto.  He has hours of music designed to soak in the presence of God. Here is one called Soaking in His Presence: The HealerI have used this music to sit before God without saying a word, just to be in His presence. Sometimes I will even turn this on in my truck to pray along. At times, I even find myself praying as though I’m singing those prayers to the music. It is anointed instrumental worship.

3.) Pray

Prayer is an essential part of worship. After all, scripture reminds us, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)

If you are worshipping at home, spend time in God’s word, listen to a worship song or two, and then pray. It’s more simple than you might realize, and you can do it whether you’re alone or with a family and children. Just talk to God. Share your heart, your fears, your concerns, and your hopes. A simple model for beginning in prayer is the ACTS model, which you can learn about ACTS Prayer Model.

4.) Listen to a biblical message. 

Many of us are part of a church, and most of those churches are putting content up on Facebook or YouTube during this season. If not, there are other great resources out there. When my family and I are on vacation and we find ourselves driving on Sundays, I try to find a good sermon for us to listen to together. It’s amazing to me how often these messages spur great conversations.

If you need a recommendation, one preacher I find highly interesting, funny, and engaging for most ages is someone I hadn’t heard of until recent years. His name is Mike Pilivachi, and he has preached to youth and adults for many years. Plus he has an English accent, so that’s a bonus! Here’s one of my favorites you can check out: Do Whatever he Tells You.

You might also really enjoy The Alpha Course videos that creatively share the basics of the Christian faith.

Conclusion

If you’re like me, you may feel a little guilty that you haven’t been consistent in worshipping the Lord. If you have children, you may feel like you aren’t worthy to lead them in worship habits, because you haven’t been consistent in them yourself.

Let me encourage you. Scripture tells us, “For God says, “At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you.” Indeed, the “right time” is now. Today is the day of salvation.” 2 Corinthians 6:2 (NLT)

Whatever you’ve been doing up to this point, this time of quarantine provides us with a chance to start over. This is the right time. Today is the day of salvation. Develop new habits. Turn your heart back to the Lord. Instill worship habits in yourself and in your family that will last long after we’ve entered back into our normal routines.

If we do, we’ll create disciplines and routines that connect us deeply with God. If you have a family,  your children just might develop spiritual memories of this season that keep and sustain them for the rest of their lives! What better way could there be to spend this “pause” in our lives?

In closing, I pray that this ancient prayer from the Old Testament will sink deep into every fiber of your being and resonate in your heart and life. Seek the Lord today and be blessed by His face!

“‘The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.”

Numbers 6:24-26

The Power of Prophetic Words

The Gospel of John begins with these powerful words,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” John 1:1-3

These magisterial words refer to Jesus, the Word made flesh. They also remind me of the power of God’s word. First and foremost, God’s word is revealed in the Bible. No other word carries the weight and final authority of Scripture. However, God’s word continues to be living and active, as we read in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” 

God’s word is living and active in the world today. We must always be mindful that we will never receive a word from the Lord that will contradict anything contained in the Bible, but the Lord continues to offer his life-giving word to shape and mold our lives.

Paul writes, “To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit,  to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.”

While some believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased with the first apostles, Scripture doesn’t share that view. God’s word is still expressed through revelatory gifts such as words of knowledge, words of wisdom, and prophetic words. While I have always trusted the words of scripture, it wasn’t until adulthood that I was able to look back and see just how impactful prophetic words have been in my own life.

The first prophetic word I remember being spoken over my life came when I was around nine years old. My mom and I were standing in front of my house near some of her beautiful irises. As we were standing there, she said, “For the longest time, I’ve always had the feeling that one of my sons would be a teacher and the other would be a preacher.” My older brother had recently started college and was studying to be a high school science teacher. My first thought was, “poor Philip, when is God going to get him on the right path?!” Because in my nine-year-old mind, there was zero chance I was going to be a preacher. Most of the preachers I knew in my little church were either elderly, sick, strange, scary, or some combination of the above! And yet that word both planted a seed and revealed a picture of who I was created to be.

I can remember many Sundays during the altar calls that were part of our church’s tradition holding tight to the pew in front of me, hoping and praying the Lord wouldn’t call me to be a pastor. Little did I know this wasn’t the common experience of most people! I assumed lots of people had that inkling of a call and resisted it until it went away. Years later, I knelt in the back of a church at a spiritual retreat where I had experienced God’s love in a profound way. There I prayed these words, “God, whatever it is you want me to do, all I ever want to be is your man.” In that prayer, I already knew I was saying yes to a lifetime of serving God in the local church.

As I approached seminary, I had doubts. What if I had misunderstood God? What if I was just trying to find a way to earn God’s love? On a day when I was wrestling with these questions, I received a letter in the mail from the wife of one of my former pastors.

During high school, we had a pastor who was a former butcher. Brother Simon, as we called him, was not the most dynamic pastor, but he simply and faithfully preached the gospel each week. While I would attend worship almost every week with my family, I was not “into it,” and I often just went through the motions. Our little church had a song leader who would stand and call out the hymn numbers before the congregation would sing. When he was absent, he tabbed me as the assistant song leader. I did NOT enjoy it. Not only could I not sing very well, but I also didn’t like being at the front. Each time I was tapped to lead, I would secretly hope no one from my school would show up and see me up there.

As I opened this letter, I was shocked by what I read. Brother Simon had died many years before, and I had not thought of him since he was my pastor. But after finding out that we were now Methodists and that I was heading off to seminary, Simon’s wife Elizabeth sent me this letter.

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After reading this, I immediately felt the confirming weight of this word from the past. “They don’t know it yet, but that boy is going into the ministry” was a prophetic word spoken over my life, without me even realizing it. To this day, when I begin to feel the temptation to turn away from the plow and find an easier field in which to make a living, I am reminded that my call is bigger than me and supernatural in its origin.

Every now and then, when facing difficult decisions or situations, I will pull this letter out to read through it again. Just today, I was thinking about what we are facing in the life of the church. We are walking into a season, however long, of having our doors closed because of coronavirus. We have had to make difficult decisions and uncertainty is in the air. When I opened up the letter today, I immediately noticed the bookmarks Elizabeth included for me and my wife. Listed on the back of my bookmark is Psalm 91:1, “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” KJV, which is the very passage our church staff has been reading and meditating on this entire week.

Then, I noticed something I’d somehow missed for the last 19 years. Her address is on the exact same street as the church I serve and less than a mile away from where I sit as I type this post. What an amazing confirmation that I am right where God wants me to be for such a time as this!

Friends, we are who God says we are. Nothing more, nothing less. When God speaks a word of promise over your life and mine, our world shifts and new possibilities open up. In the middle of a world that is shifting faster than we could ever have anticipated, I pray that today, you will hear the most basic word that God speaks over you. You are loved. God gave his only Son so that you would have the opportunity to receive eternal life (John 3:15). He will never leave you, nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5), and we can be sure of this: God is with us forever, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)! 

Wal-Mart & the Good Shepherd

Growing up, my family lived about 30 minutes from a city large enough to have a Wal-Mart. We’d often make the drive over the mountain to a small town called Poteau, and these trips would almost always include a visit to Wal-mart. I may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, because after I was old enough to hear that I was born in Poteau, I asked my mom if I was born at Wal-Mart!

More often than not, when we’d go shopping, I’d get bored and go to the toy section while my mom finished up. After I got bored with that, I’d walk up and down the aisles of the store looking back and forth, trying to find her. My brother and I even had a pattern for finding her more quickly. Start with the craft section, go through women’s clothes, and then work your way back through the aisles.

We were fortunate. My mom never met a stranger, so we could often overhear her talking to someone long before we ever saw her. No matter how young or old you are, you can pick out your mother’s voice in a crowd. It was the same way in the days before caller ID on our phones. If you knew someone really well, you would recognize their voice without them ever saying their name.

Scripture talks about the exact same sort of thing in a phenomenon that would’ve been as familiar to the first people to hear these words as the “Wal-Mart phenomenon” was for me as a child. In Jesus’ time, a shepherd would walk into a crowded sheepfold and call out his own sheep. They would recognize his voice and come to him. Much of this comes because of the familiarity of the sheep with the shepherd. They spend time together. They know each other’s mannerisms. The sheep listen for the one voice they trust.

In John 10:1-5, Jesus shares the following parable, “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

In this short parable, Jesus demonstrates that he is the way through which we enter into a relationship with God as well as the good shepherd whose voice we must listen to. He knows us by name. He leads us into good pastures. At the same time, Jesus’ voice isn’t the only voice out there.  He makes that perfectly clear.  There are other voices that offer us life and freedom. However, they are only interested in death and destruction. These are the thieves and bandits that Jesus talks about in this passage.  Anything or anyone other than Jesus who promises a life that is true and fulfilling is being deceitful.  There’s a reason that in scripture the devil is called the “deceiver.” The devil is ultimately opposed to the kind of life and security that the true shepherd offers his sheep. 

We experience a world full of things that offer us security and happiness.  Sometimes we feel that if we just had more money we’d be secure and happy.  Sometimes we believe that if we just had more power or control over our lives, we’d have true security and happiness. There are a number of things that promise us a full life.  But that’s the promise that only Jesus can fulfill.  Years ago, when my daughter was just a little girl, my family and I were watching TV. After a commercial, she looked skeptically at the TV and said, “Yeah right…you’re just trying to make that toy look good to sell us stuff!”

The enemy does the same thing. He makes that which is destructive look good because he is trying to sell us on listening to and responding to another voice than that of our Good Shepherd.

The primary way we learn to hear from God is to familiarize ourselves with Scripture. The Bible is the definitive word of God and gives us something like a rosetta stone to learn the ways God speaks and the things He would never say. For instance, it is very much like God to say, “love your enemies.” It is nothing like God to say, “check out that other person’s spouse. I bet they would be a better partner for you than your own.” The more time we spend with God, reading God’s word, reading and drinking deep of the truth of Scripture, and simply listening, the easier it will be to discern the voice of our Shepherd.

Over time, you’ll notice God communicates with you in familiar patterns as well. For instance, in my life, when the Lord speaks, it often happens that he will answer my questions even as I’m asking and before I finish the question. For instance, one day I was talking to one of my friends who is a pastor. He had just learned of an elderly man in his church who had fallen and needed to be taken to the hospital. The problem was that this man and his wife didn’t have cellphones, and my friend didn’t have any contact information for them. He was worried that he couldn’t be there to support them because there are so many hospitals in Oklahoma City. I prayed and simply asked God, “what hospital is this family in?”  Even before I could finish speaking the words in my mind, the word “Mercy” came to mind. My friend was able to call, and sure enough, this family was checked in at Mercy Hospital. The greater blessing came as he was able to pray with them and share that God cared enough about them to give him guidance to find them through a conversation with a friend. At the end of the day, hearing from the Lord is never about elevating or drawing attention to ourselves. Hearing from God is always about communicating the life-changing love of the Lord to those who hear His voice, and to those who are impacted through the hearing of that word.

Jesus is our Good Shepherd! He came to offer us life in abundance. As the sheep of His pasture, we are not called to be desperate, boring, or isolated people!  We’re called to have a full and meaningful life, and this is the kind of life we can only receive by following the One who gave his life for us, only to be raised to eternal life! 

The Cheetahs and the Holy Spirit

soccer pic

When my daughter was four years old, I was sitting in our kitchen as Nanci got off the phone with the soccer coordinator for a local kid’s league. As she hung up the phone she looked at me with a big smile and said, “Guess what honey!? You’re going to be Emma’s soccer coach!”  In a matter of seconds, I became the coach of The Cheetahs, five girls ranging in age from four to six who had never played soccer in their life. They were soon to be coached by a man who had never played soccer in his life! Our season started off with a bang. The girls were so excited to be playing their first game, even if it was against a bunch of boys with a few seasons of experience under their belt. Our girls ran up and down the field, but didn’t score a single goal. That was fine because we knew what we needed to work on…everything! 

A few weeks later, we were still desperate to score a goal. A few games later, in the last half of a game, one little girl broke free from the pack and began moving toward the goal. As she closed in, all of our Soccer-moms had to restrain themselves from running out and kicking the goal for her! By the time she neared the goal, most of our parents were three steps over the foul line screaming, “KICK IT ANNIE! KICK IT!” In a moment of sheer exhilaration, we scored our first goal of the year. Excitement filled the air. We knew this was the first of many more to come. 

Instead, our schedule got more and more difficult, and it seemed that the boys got taller, faster, and stronger…three more games, four more games, five more games…zero goals. I tried my best to keep the girls motivated. Its OK girls, you really improved your kicking this week! But the frustration was mounting. Weeks passed with zero goals. The drought was almost unbearable. One girl decided she wouldn’t play against boys and sat out a few games.  Another showed up with her head hanging low.

As we entered our last week, I gave it everything I had as a coach. We were about to play one of the other all-girls teams, and I hyped it as if it were the NBA Finals, World Series, and Super Bowl all wrapped into one. We practiced like crazy the final week of the season. The morning of the big game, our girls marched in like little 5 & 6-year-old soldiers. Even our little soccer girl who had been sitting out told me, “I’ll play this game coach.” We were facing the “Little Divas,” but they looked huge! They were beaming with confidence. They were taller and bigger than any of our little Cheetahs. After seven games and only one goal, I held my breath and waited for the whistle to blow. Our girls held hands as they stood in a line for the coin-flip.  Immediately after the whistle, their biggest girl took the ball down and kicked it toward the goal like a rocket. Our entire sideline winced as the ball bounced out of bounds off the goal.  All of a sudden, the girl who had sat out the last three games took the ball and got a look of determination on her face. She weaved and kicked it down the field like a professional before kicking a goal with authority! 

Our side erupted and jumped up and down in excitement! But our girls didn’t stop there. They looked like Real Madrid. They were blocking goals, stealing the ball, and eventually scored eight goals! I almost felt sorry for the Little Divas. What happened? Our girls played with passion and determination. They were on fire. There is only one way to describe the way they went out and played. They were inspired, and as everyone who has ever watched a sporting event knows: there is a huge difference between “just playing” and “playing inspired.”

As followers of Christ, sometimes it feels easy when you first start out on the journey of following Jesus. We start off in our faith just like our girls began the season. We’re excited; we’re resolved to put on a fresh uniform and try to do things the right way.  We share our faith, we bring friends to church. We’re different. But oftentimes, it only takes one stumble before the wind goes out of our sails. There have been times in my own life when I’ve felt so spiritually dry that I’ve wanted to go to God and say, “God, the game is too hard. I’ll just be here on the sideline.”

To be inspired is to be filled with the urge or ability to do or feel something. It is to be animated with a motivating force beyond yourself. For Christians, true inspiration comes from being filled with the Holy Spirit, which we see described in Acts 2:1-4.

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

This is a different way to live. This is the way of being filled with the Holy Spirit. This is the way of inspiration.

On Pentecost, God poured out the Holy Spirit on the Church and filling normal men and women just like us. The disciples were waiting in an upper room after Jesus’ Ascension. All of a sudden, the room was filled with God’s presence – the event was so indescribable that we read is that the sound was like a rushing wind and there was something like tongues of fire that deeply touched everyone who was there. As soon as these disciples were touched and filled by God’s Spirit, they began to witness in an inspired way. The fire of the Holy Spirit lit the fuses of the disciples and the Christian Church spread like wildfire from a tiny upper room in Jerusalem to eventually reach the entire world.

And just as there is a difference between “just playing” and playing inspired, by the power of God’s Spirit, there is a world of difference between just living and “living inspired.” God’s Holy Spirit can and will inspire you and give you the ability to be the person God created you to be. We simply have to receive the infilling by God’s mighty personal presence. When you are filled and inspired by the Spirit of God you can do things beyond your own power and ability, things that are spiritually heroic. Sometimes we miss it because the heroism happens in ordinary settings and extraordinarily ordinary ways.

Years ago, I was working in a job and I had some difficult experiences with my boss. There was one person I worked with who often did things that were blamed on other people at work. One day, during a meeting, I was accused of leaving several things unfinished and several mistakes that were actually the fault of this other person. Every fiber of my being wanted to stand up and let everyone have it with both barrels. At the very least, I was ready to walk out. However, for several months, three of us who were Christians had been meeting for prayer and bible study before we started work. Everyone else knew we did this and watched us very carefully to see how we lived. As badly as I wanted to react, I heard a whisper in my heart saying, “Don’t say anything. Just sit there.” Against my own inclinations, that’s what I did. As I was walking out to my truck that day, one of my co-workers who knew I hadn’t done what I was accused of said, “I don’t know how you did that. You know you weren’t responsible for what they blamed you for.” 

By the power of God’s Spirit, I was able to say, “You’re right. I wanted to let them have it and tell them whose fault it was. The only reason I didn’t is because I’m a Christian, and I felt as though God didn’t want me to react.” By the power of the Spirit, I was able to understand in a very minor way how Jesus endured so much and suffered for things he never did. I would have missed that blessing if I had reacted under my own power. Instead, I was able to respond calmly because of the grace-filled inspiration of God’s Spirit.

Perhaps you aren’t living with this inspiration. Perhaps you’re a follower of Christ, but the Spirit feels as foreign to you as anything you’ve ever heard of. If so, here is a prayer that goes back hundreds of years that has been incredibly important in my spiritual life.

“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.  O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy Your consolations. Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

You can even shorten this prayer and pray simply, “Come, Holy Spirit.” In 1980, on Mother’s Day, Pastor John Wimber prayed this simple prayer, “Come Holy Spirit,” and an incredible movement began that would later be called the Vineyard. Since then, that movement has impacted the world with a radical commitment to taking risks in obedience to Christ and in submission to the Holy Spirit. 2000 years ago, God poured out his Holy Spirit on a group of Christ-followers to fill and inspire them with His divine presence and the world has never been the same. What would it mean for you to open yourself and receive the same Holy Spirit today? I’m convinced it would result in a new level of life, adventure, and love. You’d stop “just living” and begin living inspired.

Faith that Won’t Quit

We often walk through moments and seasons of disappointment in life. Even though we have a tendency to glamorize the lives of our spiritual mothers and fathers, they experienced the same. John Wesley responded to God’s call to inspire and challenge the Church of England. Eventually, the Methodist Church grew out of his passion for seeking a deep relationship with the Lord and ushering in revival. Over the years, Wesley preached all over England and kept a meticulous journal of his activities which we still have today.  Some of the entries might surprise you. 

For instance, here are a few entries from his journal that were written in the early years of the Methodist movement: 

Sunday, May 7th: I preached at St. Lawrence’s in the morning, and afterward at St. Katherine Cree’s Church. I was enabled to speak strong words at both; and was therefore the less surprised at being informed that I was not to preach any more in either of those churches. 

Sunday, May 14th: I preached in the morning at St. Ann’s, Aldersgate; and in the afternoon at the Savoy Chapel, free salvation by faith in the blood of Christ. I was quickly apprised that at St. Ann’s, likewise, I am to preach no more. 

Friday, May 19th: I preached at St. John’s, Wapping at three and at St. Bennett’s, Paul’s Wharf, in the evening.  At these churches, likewise, I am to preach no more. 

Sunday, 5, in the morning, at St. Botolph’s, Bishopsgate; in the afternoon, at Islington; and in the evening, to such a congregation as I never saw before, at St. Clement’s, in the Strand. As this was the first time of my preaching here, I suppose it is to be the last. 

Many people would have likely quit after they were kicked out of the second or third church, if not sooner! John Wesley faced overwhelming challenges, and I have no doubt that it would have been easy for him to give up and quit.

The earliest Christians were in the same boat. They faced threats on every side because of their newfound commitment to Jesus.  On one hand, they faced threats from the Imperial Government in Rome.  When fires swept across Rome in 64 AD, Emperor Nero blamed Christians for setting the blaze and ordered their mass arrest and execution across the city. On the other hand, they faced persecution from local authorities and peers that shared their religious traditions.

Throughout the first three hundred years of the Church, many people felt that Christians were pagans because they only worshiped one God. In fact, early Christians were often called atheists because they refused to worship the numerous gods worshiped in surrounding cultures. Many people even believed having Christians in their towns would upset their gods!  Tertullian, one of early Christians who observed these persecutions wrote, “if the Tiber rises to the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields; if the sky stands still, if the earth moves, if there is famine, if there is pestilence, the cry goes up, ‘Christians to the lion.’” There are countless stories of Christians appearing before their accusers, who asked them to deny and renounce their faith in Jesus Christ!

That’s the kind of environment in which the letter of Hebrews was written. The early Christians who first read Hebrews were sorely tempted to turn their back on the faith to escape the torture, imprisonment, and execution they could easily be facing. They needed encouragement to persevere, and they needed resources that would allow them to be faithful even in the face of incredible odds. The book of Hebrews gives one of the clearest descriptions of the kind of perseverance and endurance we’re called to have as Christians, even in the face of insurmountable challenges. 

In Hebrews 11:1, we read, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for – the conviction of things not seen.”  Abraham is then offered as a living embodiment of this incredible definition of faith. God called Abraham and his family to leave their home to cross the desert to a land they had never seen.  Even though he’d never seen this land, he trusted God in faith. It was Abraham’s faith that convinced him to move his family somewhere he couldn’t even picture in his mind. Later on, God promised he would create a great nation of people out of Abraham’s descendants, even though he and Sarah were too old for children. It was Abraham’s faith that convinced him of what seemed impossible. It was his faith that continually assured him of things he couldn’t see. Over and over again, Abraham’s faith gave him confidence and assurance to press on in faithful obedience. Even though he couldn’t see the outcome, Abraham knew that God’s promises are more real than anything else in this world. His faith in God was what gave him the strength to press on, to keep the faith, and to persevere.

When I was little, there were times that I would get sick and tired of something I started.  I remember one summer I got tired of Little League Baseball and I was ready to quit.  My dad wouldn’t have it!  He wouldn’t let me quit, and he let me know in no uncertain terms that our family simply didn’t quit. This was a man who worked for over forty years at the same job with only one or two promotions, so I knew better than to argue!

Little did I know that dad was trying to instill in me a lesson that can be one of the greatest resources we have in our faith. Often times things don’t go the way we expect in our lives, and we think it would be easier to give up. Sometimes, we’re tossed by storms in our lives and we think it might just be easier to quit. The message of Hebrews reminds us that faith means never giving up. Faith is what allows us to hold tightly to the goodness of God even when our circumstances whisper lies that nothing will ever be OK again. Faith is trusting God who enables us to keep pressing on in faith even when things feel overwhelming! Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. 

John Wesley was kicked out of almost as many churches as those where he was invited back to preach. Yet, he had faith in an invisible God. He trusted in God’s promises because he trusted in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. As a result, the things that happened at the beginning of his life did not end up being the final word.  As he neared his 85th birthday, on Saturday, August 22nd, Wesley wrote in his journal as he had continued doing throughout his life:

I crossed over to Redruth and at six preached to a huge multitude, as usual, from the steps of the market house. The Word seemed to sink deep into every heart. I know not that ever I spent such a week in Cornwall before. 

Sunday, August 23. I preached there again in the morning and in the evening at the amphitheater, I suppose, for the last time. My voice cannot now command the still increasing multitude. It was supposed they were now more than [five and?] twenty thousand.

Because of the power of the Holy Spirit, the promises of God in Jesus Christ, and the reality of the resurrection (the ultimate promise of faith), Wesley was able to press on in his faith, preaching a bold message about the reality of God and God’s power to transform lives. He persevered like the great saints of old. He pressed on in faith like Abraham and Sarah. Because of his faith, Wesley never allowed opposition to keep him from proclaiming the good news.  And so we find him, in the 85th year of his life, sharing the message of faith with more than 20,000 people. 

That is what faith is all about – it’s the reminder that God’s promises and God’s power are more real than anything else in this world.  When we feel like we can’t go on, when life seems so rough, we need to persevere and continue trusting in the one whose promises never fail and never end – no matter what.

Catfish and God’s Mercy

In the first church I served, I attended a local ministerial alliance meeting at a local church’s monthly men’s breakfast.  It was at a small country church sitting next to an old cemetery. The biscuits and gravy were delicious, the coffee was stout, and the bacon was cooked crispy, which is the only good way to cook bacon. After breakfast, the preachers who were there broke off into another room to carry on the business of the day. There were only eight of us there that day. Southern Baptist, Freewill Baptist, Church of God, and a couple community churches that weren’t affiliated with a denomination. We took care of the business of planning our upcoming Thanksgiving service with the usual conversation.

After a few of us left, the real conversation began. Several of the men took turns sharing how God was working in their lives, oftentimes sharing how they had led someone to the Lord. Finally, one of the men who I had come to know and respect started to share. This preacher was an old-fashioned “whoopin’ and hollerin’” sort of preacher. He came from a mostly-baptist background but didn’t really belong to a denomination. He didn’t have any kind of degree and he couldn’t quote a theologian to save his life, but he proceeded to share a remarkable story that I will never forget.  

He began to share about a man named “Catfish.” Catfish was a friend of his, but he was not someone who ever darkened the doors of the church. His wife had gone to my preacher friend’s church for many years, but Catfish wouldn’t come with her. Catfish got cancer. Each time my friend would visit him in the hospital, he would ask Catfish if he was right with God before he left. To this, Catfish always replied, “The Lord’s Spirit don’t strive with me anymore, because I denied him and missed my chance.” This happened a couple times before my friend returned to find Catfish in terrible shape, on the verge of death. They began the same conversation they always had about various things from the weather to fishing to how the doctors thought he was doing.

Before leaving, my preacher friend reached out to hold Catfish’s hand. He said, “You know what I’m going to ask. I want to know if you’ve made your peace with God.” Again, Catfish said, “The Spirit don’t strive with me anymore. I’ve missed my chance.” My friend’s voice slowed and became more intense as he continued the story, “Right then, I tightened my grip on his hand just a bit…and I looked him in the eye.” In a quiet trembling voice, he shared with us the words he spoke to Catfish, “I said, my God is more merciful than that.” At this, he said, Catfish broke into tears. At that moment, he entered into relationship a merciful, forgiving, and loving God – a God who doesn’t give up. Catfish made a commitment to Christ right then and there, with his wife and my preacher friend weeping tears of joy by his bed.

Over the years, I’ve heard educated preachers flippantly talk about rural uneducated ministers, dismissing the possibility that someone without a seminary education could possibly be effective in a modern world. Hearing that sentiment makes me sick and reminds me of Paul’s words to the church at Corinth,

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”

God doesn’t need someone with a degree or a pedigree to carry out His work in the world. God works with those who are willing to be obedient. Granted, God can just as easily call someone with a doctorate or a GED, but the only absolute requirement is to receive him as Lord and walk in obedience to His Holy Spirit.

John Wesley, in his advice to preachers, reminded them, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most.” While education has value, there is nothing more important than spending and being spent in the work of inviting the lost into a saving relationship with Christ, which is made possible by the amazing mercy and love of God.