I have recently taken up running.  I hate running.  I have never enjoyed it.  While I understand the need for the skill if you are a professional athlete, being chased by a rabid wolverine, or trying to catch the ice cream truck, I have never been able to force myself to do it.

Lately, however, I have found a trick that helps.  By listening to music when I run, it somehow becomes slightly more tolerable.  If I can focus on the music, I forget about the pain and boredom that comes with running. 

Yet, I am finding out that I am not a huge fan of having my ears plugged-up.  I like to be aware of my surroundings.  I like to be alert and conscious of what is going on.  I somehow feel vulnerable when my headphones are on (or ear buds are in, depending on your particular ear preferences).

That’s why I don’t understand why every student I run into around my office has something plugging-up their ears.  It seems like they are all listening to that new-fangled rap music or using a hands-free talking device so that their walk to class will never approach the boredom that comes with just going for a walk.  But I am starting to catch on.  I believe I have figured out the real reason that they put on headphones as soon as each class has ended.

They don’t want to talk to anybody.

I could go on and on about why that is, about how technologies have made face-to-face conversations archaic and uncomfortable.  However, I would feel like a hypocrite.  No, I don’t walk around with my Beats by Dre headset on.  But there are times when I put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign.  And while it is healthy for me to have time to myself, that’s probably not a sign I should ever put between me and God.

That seems to be what many of us do, though.  We put on proverbial “headphones” to send the message that we don’t want to talk to God.  We would never say it like that, of course.  We say that we are busy, or that it's a bad time, or that something came up, or that we are focusing on other areas of ministry.  While we don’t always do it on purpose (sometimes, we do), Christians have gotten pretty good at keeping God at a distance.

How do we communicate with God? 

We read the Bible.  But many of us do not spend time in it every day, and sometimes not even every week.  We get busy or behind at work and convince ourselves that it can wait.  We essentially put God on hold.  Not cool.

We pray.  This may be the easiest way to communicate with Him, but many of us still don’t do it regularly.  And when we do, we go through the motions, cover our bases, and get back to the things that we think are important enough to focus on.  And the vast majority of us are quick to forget that listening is often the most important part of prayer.  We say our part and move on to the next task.  That's not a conversation.  It is a monologue. 

We worship.  Like prayer, going through the motions is a big problem for worship.  We also tend to put worship in a box and assume it can only take place during the music portion of our church services.  Worship can and does happen anywhere and everywhere in a very genuine way.  We just need to get out of our own way.

We serve.  What?  You don’t communicate with God through service?  I beg to differ.  When we serve as we are called, God not only speaks to us but through us to others.  It is an amazing way to experience Him.  However, we often use service as an excuse not to communicate with God.  We bury ourselves in ministry in such a way that we never take the time to experience God for ourselves.  And accountability is difficult in these settings because, since you are serving with great dedication, it seems as though everything is okay.  That’s why we need to get back to ripping our robes

Fellowship.  One of the most powerful ways to experience God and communicate with Him is through our Christian brothers and sisters.  We learn about God, we see God work, and we experience His love.  We are created to spend time with one another, and when we choose to exclude ourselves we end up growing further away from God because we are unable to feel His love through that part of His purpose for creation.

There are so many ways that we rebel against or completely ignore these methods for communicating with God.  By not fully engaging in these practices, we are essentially putting up a “Do Not Disturb” sign between us and God.  Please, take down that sign and have a conversation with God.  And for goodness sake, take off those headphones and have a conversation with another human being.

I really like the show How I Met Your Mother.  The storyline is pretty obvious, right?  A father is telling his children the story of how he met their mother.  The writing is genius, the acting is hilarious, and there is an element of mystery that keeps you coming back for more.  If I was one of those kids, though, I’d probably be getting pretty frustrated as this story has been rambling on for seven years.

Actually, even as a fan, I am getting a bit frustrated.  There have been hints here and there and small teases about who the mother will be and how the father will meet her.  But at this point, we really know very little about her and even less about how this might play out.  At times, it feels as though we are being strung along and there will never be a payoff to the story.  The mother represents a hollow promise that I don’t know if we will ever see fulfilled.

Luckily, that is not the case for my faith.  I know how this story ends.  I know that I am going to spend eternity worshiping my Creator, fulfilling the purpose for which I was created.  I am going to be in the presence of the Almighty God.  And it is going to be awesome.

It has been about 2,000 years since Jesus ascended back into heaven.  Many people at that time expected Him to come back momentarily.  As the years went on, followers of Christ got more and more anxious about when He would fulfill His promise and come to take them home. 

In the 21st century, it can be easy for us to assume that our spiritual journeys here on earth are uncertain.  It is impossible for us to see what our lives will be like down the line.  We may not even be able to see the next few steps in our spiritual walks.  And that can be scary, overwhelming, and sometimes very frustrating.

However, even if we don’t know the particular route we will take, we know the destination.  We know how our story ends.  (Note:  It never really ends since eternity is forever…just to clarify.)  So how should we proceed in this mysterious voyage called life? 

That’s pretty simple.  It is similar to the way I continue to watch How I Met Your Mother.  I try not to think about the ending.  I enjoy the humor, I admire the character development, and I take it one episode at a time.

As Christians, we should put our focus on the here and now.  Since we know the last chapter of the book, we should not spend any time worrying about the road to get there.  We should take life a day at a time, loving others and producing fruit along the way.  That is the kind of freedom that comes from knowing how the story ends.  Praise God for spoilers!

I recently wrote that, as Christians, we have it backward.  While we are supposed to be loving non-believers to introduce them to Christ and holding other Christians accountable to Biblical standards, we often get mad at non-Christians for not acting like Jesus and we ignore each others’ struggles so our pride won’t take a hit.  It is pretty much the exact opposite of what Jesus and early Christians did and taught others to do.

Recently, one of my friends shared a video on Facebook that gave me even more perspective as to why we need to rectify our backward practices.  After we enter into a relationship with Christ, it can be very difficult for us to understand where non-believers are coming from.  Believing makes so much sense to us that we quickly forget what it is like not to believe.  Please take a moment and watch this video and think about how our ministry can be more focused on helping people reverse their thinking.

What is your immediate reaction to this video?  As the text is read the first time through, it was painful for me to hear how the narrator felt about God.  I was shocked at some of the conclusions he had come to.  However, the reality is that the majority of non-Christians feel exactly the same way. 

So what can we do about it?  How can we minister to these people in a way that would be genuine and effective?  How can we love them enough to change their minds?  How can we show them Christ in such a real way that they will reverse their way of thinking?

Back before I actually started writing, I used to come up with these book ideas and get really excited about writing them.  I would show the outlines to my wife, get her nod of approval, and then get distracted by another project.

One of my favorite book ideas was based on using fishing metaphors to talk about ministry.  Yes, I realize that it is not a completely original idea.  But I had planned to expound on Jesus’ creativity to use the details of modern fishing to illustrate strategies for bringing people to Christ.  I was going to talk about bait and lures, weather, fish depth, debris, and many other things to consider when fishing.

Fishing is an amazing metaphor for so many things.  There are so many small, intricate details that can have a huge impact on production.  And I used to fully believe the old adage:  “Give a man to fish and feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.”  However, I never could figure out how to apply it to ministry and put it in my book.  And then I met Ron Swanson, and he showed me how faulty this logic was.

First of all, I’m not talking about the selfish part of feeding yourself.  I am really only referring to the last line:  “And fishing’s not that hard.”  When I first heard this, I laughed a lot.  And then I started thinking about it in regards to ministry. 

We build ministry up to include foreign missions, teaching deep spiritual truths, and sacrificing all of our time and sometimes our livelihoods.  We make it sound as though we can only serve God in big, courageous ways.  When we talk about ministry, we make it sound as overwhelming and intimidating as possible. 

The truth is, though, that it’s not that hard.  Love people, make just decisions, seek to grow closer to God, and you will produce fruit.  That is ministry.  Yes, it can take the form of something big, powerful, and intimidating.  It can also be something small, subtle, and understated. 

We should absolutely be willing to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit anywhere.  We should be willing to risk our lives for the cause of Christ.  However, we should also make it a priority to turn our every day interactions into ministry opportunities. 

Don’t over-think your commitment to ministry.  Just like fishing, sometimes it’s just a matter of being present and ready to react.  Don’t be intimidated by all of the other strategies and adventurous opportunities out there.  There are fish right where you are, and they need Jesus just as much as the fish on the other side of the world.  Serve them with love, kindness, and humility, and your net will be full in no time.

Yeah, I think I got my metaphor crossed somewhere in there.  I hate it when that happens.  But you get the point. It’s not that hard. Love God and love other people.  That is ministry.

Remember that time Jesus turned over all those tables?  That’s a pretty cool story.  He rolled up to the temple, saw the money changers cheating people, and immediately went on a rampage quoting scripture and wrecking stuff.  It seems like a pretty cool scene.  But did it really go down that way?

In the book of John, we read that Jesus made a whip before confronting those desecrating the temple.  He didn’t grab a whip out of his fanny pack.  He didn't borrow one from a friend or pick one up at the local Jerusalem 7-Eleven.  He took the time to fashion a whip out of ropes.

So what?  How does that change the story?  In my opinion, that changes the story completely.  When you read the versions without the whip, it looks like Jesus acted on an impulse and lost His temper.  It looks like He did not have control. 

However, if you consider the fact that He left the scene that frustrated Him to craft the whip, it is more obvious that He was very intentional in the way that He displayed His righteous anger.  He planned out what He was going to do and what He was going to say down to the letter. 

Yes, He was aggressive.  He was direct in making His point.  However, it was all on purpose.  He had complete self-control.  Every detail of this event was completely intentional.

It is okay to get angry, especially when someone else is being treated badly.  It is appropriate, and even encouraged, to speak out against injustice.  However, it is very important to use your righteous anger appropriately. 

How do you react when you get angry?  Do you act on impulse and make rash decisions?  Do you snap and lose your temper?  Or do you take the time to process the situation and respond in an appropriate, intentional way?

The only way to get better at exercising your righteous anger is through prayer and practice.  Remove yourself from the situation before reacting and pray about how to proceed.  Never act on impulse, but do everything on purpose.  That is what Jesus did in the temple, and it is exactly what we should strive to do in every frustrating situation.   

I am not a very political person.  I just really can’t make myself get into it.  Are politics an important part of society?  Absolutely.  Our political leaders dictate the rules and regulations for how we live our lives.  It is obviously very important. You should educate yourself. You should vote. However, it seems that our current system of political support and endorsement does nothing more than lead people into sin.

If you have Facebook, Twitter, the internet, or even a good set of eyes, you have seen political advertisements really start to take over lately.  They are everywhere.  Even beyond the official endorsements, it seems that everybody has an opinion and they are more than willing to share it…over and over again…on their choice of social media. 

During the recent national conventions, I ended up blocking some of my Facebook friends that I usually enjoy hearing from.  Even now I often become frustrated, annoyed, and sometimes even angry at the posts I read on both sides of the political spectrum.  But why does it bother me so much?  Why do I let it get under my skin?

As I started processing these questions, I came to some very obvious conclusions.  It doesn’t bother me that people have personal beliefs that may or may not be different from mine.  It doesn’t bother me that people are passionate about politics.  My concern all boils down to the sinful intent of most of the statements I read.

The vast majority of the political things I read fall into one of two categories.  The first category is one of slander.  Of course almost every political television commercial is based on dragging “the other guy’s” name through the mud.  But when individuals talk about opposing candidates, it seems that they get even more personal.

There is so much anger, judgment, and hatred displayed toward politicians and anybody that may be registered with a different party.  People make assumptions and put people in boxes based on information they overhead somebody else saying they read about on a blog that quoted from a friend of a friend of the author on Twitter.   And it seems like everyone is in full support of everyone else’s right to their own beliefs until somebody disagrees with them. 

Don't get me wrong. I am in full support of respectful disagreement. But it seems like mean, hateful, and hurtful intentions have become the foundation for so many political discussions.  Things are often said to purposefully hurt people and to directly insult their intelligence, morality, or even their spiritual understanding. So what does the Bible say about this?

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior.  Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.  (Ephesians 4:31-21 NLT)

The other category of political statements is even more disturbing as it often borders on idolatry.  While people are quick to be hateful about “the other guy,” they never hesitate to support anything and everything that their candidate says.  Many people pledge full, unwavering support no matter what and are never willing to admit that the person they support is, in fact, human and flawed.

People are always willing to make statements about how wonderful their candidate is and how much smarter, caring, and morally upright he or she is.  They are willing to put in hours and hours making sure everybody knows how perfect this person is.  Many of these comments, especially when they are consistently coming from the same person, look an awful lot like worship. 

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there.  When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and all their plans die with them.  (Psalm 146: 3-4 NLT)

If you love politics, great.  If you really believe one of these candidates is that much better than the other, feel free to support that person.  But please remember that, above being a democrat or republican or whatever, you are a Christian.  Even when debating political platforms, you can still choose to love people as we are called to and remember to keep Christ first.  Don’t abandon your faith to jump on a political bandwagon.  Unfortunately, that seems like a pretty difficult thing to do these days.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6:33 NLT)

Last night, we talked to our youth group about planning for the future.  Of course, the problem with looking to the future is that there are so many uncertainties.  In fact, the next day or even the next hour is not guaranteed.  Only God knows what is going to happen next, and that it is important for us to remember as we look to our own futures. 

That also got me thinking about prophecy.  If we have prophecies about our future, then don’t we know at least a little bit about the future?  Aren’t some things guaranteed?  For example, the movie Back to the Future 2 tells us that there will be flying cars and hover boards available in 2015 in addition to the fact that the Chicago Cubs will be a World Series contender.  That’s all starting to take shape, right?

And what about Biblical prophecies?  First, let’s talk about the ones in the Old Testament.  There are so many that we are able to see come true throughout those passages.  There are also many prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.  But if you pay close attention to the stories about Jesus, it does not seem like many people were expecting the Christ to act as He did. 

It seems like they expected a warrior on a white horse coming to rescue them from the Romans.  They were not looking for a Savior that spent most of His time with sinners, teaching and loving on people.  They did not expect to see the Messiah die on a cross.  However, in retrospect, He was the perfect representation of what we all needed (and still need) and He satisfied every last one of the prophecies.

We also have prophecies in the New Testament.  Jesus talked about the coming of the Holy Spirit, which we were able to see come to fruition in the book of Acts.  We are also told that He is coming back.  And in the book of Revelation, we get many stories and details about how creation will transition from its current state to the new heaven and the new earth.

To us, these images often seem far-fetched and are hard for us to grasp.  Some of them, in fact, are fairly terrifying.  There are many, many interpretations of what these prophecies actually mean and how they will play out.  There are novels, movies, and various other representations of what we believe this transition will look like.

However, I can’t help but to think that we are all off-base.  If our first century religious scholars were so far off in what to look for in a Messiah, what makes us think we are any better at figuring out how to predict how the end of times will play out?  I have a feeling that, one day, we will all look around and say, “Oh…wait.  That is what John meant when he wrote the book of Revelation.  It all makes so much sense now.”

So how about this?  Let’s stop trying to decipher code and figure out these metaphorical puzzles.  It will do none of us any good.  After all, Jesus tells us not to worry about these things.

So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.  (Matthew 6:34 NLT)

So let's all focus on today.  Get out there and love somebody.  I guarantee that it will be the best thing you can do with your time.

For the last nine months or so, my quiet time has been spent in the Old Testament.  In addition to learning a great deal about the character of God, I have also found myself to be fascinated by the quirks of the culture at that time.  One in particular that keeps coming up is when people tear their robes.
Even though it only happens in dire situations, I find myself laughing out loud every time I read that someone tears their clothes.  I mean, seriously, how ridiculous would it look if I dropped to my knees and ripped my shirt every time the Cincinnati Reds lost a game?  Wouldn’t you laugh if you saw me stroll into Wal-Mart with a torn hoodie after my wife makes me watch the next Twilight movie?

So entertained by this notion, I had to look it up.  Was this a metaphor for something?  Were there specific guidelines for doing this?  Did people have “tearing clothes” available for such these times so their Sunday best wouldn't be ruined?

As it turns out, it is just as it appears.  In that time, it was common for people to tear a piece off of their clothes or tear a slit in an item of clothing or even rip something off on some occasions to display that they were in mourning, deeply upset about something, righteously angry, in great sorrow, or as an outward display that something terrible has happened.

To be honest, when I finally got into what this was really about, I realized how much closer Christians could bond together if this was still a common practice.  Think about it.  What do most people do when they are hurting or sad or ashamed?  They hide it.  We hide our sins, we hide our pain, we hide our sorrows, and we hide our failures.

When we hide these things, we make it impossible for others to help us, hurt with us, and love on us.  We build up walls that keep others out and prevent the Christian fellowship that is vital for the health and growth of the Church.  We pretend that everything is perfect, and that almost always makes things worse.

But of course, there is the fact that God does not want us to tear our clothes anymore.  Instead, He wants us to let our hearts be torn and to turn toward Him.

That is why the Lord says, “Turn to me now, while there is time.  Give me your hearts.  Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.  Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.”  Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.  He is eager to relent and not punish. (Joel 2:12-13 NLT)

Returning to the Lord includes repenting of your sins, sharing your sorrows, and allowing your Christian brothers and sisters to help you through your pain.  No, you should not tear your clothes.  But you also should not hide your mourning, grief, or anger.

We need to be more open about our burdens so that it will be easier for us to give them to God.  We need to let others in on our problems so they can be part of the solution.  Unless we share our troubles with one another, we will not be able to function as the body of Christ as it is intended. 

While there is no longer a need to tear our clothes, we have to let others help us mend our torn hearts so we may all return to God together.
How do you view your relationship with Christ?  Do you see it as a one on one relationship?  Do you buy into the “all I need is Jesus” philosophy?  Of course everyone has the right to their own opinion, but I would like to contest that in order to thrive in your personal relationship with Jesus Christ, you need to be supported by a strong group of believers. 

Think about it.  Even Jesus surrounded himself with 12 individuals He knew He could count on.  If Jesus needed friends to help His ministry succeed, do you really think you can do it alone?

Of course, church is a fantastic place to get support, advice, encouragement, and help with many issues that you face.  It is vital that you are plugged-in to a church family to help you in your walk with Christ. However, that may not be enough.  Most of us are only at church 2-3 days per week, max. 

Who is there to support you the rest of the time?  Who is there for you at school, at work, or even at home?  You need a group of friends around you that love God and want to not only see you happy, but to see you growing closer to your Savior. 

Your friends can be there any time you need them.  They will be there to hold you accountable during tempting situations.  They will be able to tell when you need support or encouragement.  They should be continually praying for you.  And you should be doing all of these things for them. 

Being encouraged, supported, remembered in prayer, and held accountable are essential to your growth as a Christian.  Yet, Jesus tells us that we should take our friendships even further. 

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13 NLT)

It is obvious that God wants us to be involved in very close and personal friendships that can help us come closer to Him.  Do you have friends that would give their lives for you? Jesus obviously thinks you should.  After all, He set the ultimate example of this by dying on the cross for us…for you. 

Are you that kind of friend? 

In our society, we often define people by what they believe.  Followers of Judaism believe that there is only one God.  Muslims also believe there is only one god (Allah) and that Muhammad was his messenger.  Christians believe in the same God as Judaism, but acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.  Athiests believe there is no god or higher power.  Agnostics believe there is a higher power, but they do not acknowledge any one in particular.  There are also many religions that believe in multiple gods (polytheism). 

However, if you are a Christian, do you think that is an accurate definition of who you are?  Do you think that knowing God exists and that Jesus is the Christ is what puts you in a relationship with God?  Does professing this truth do the trick?  Or is there something more to it?  According the book of James, what you believe does not define your relationship with God.

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?  Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing,  and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.  How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? (James 2:14-20 NLT)

Believe what you want.  But unless you live out your faith, it means nothing.  I can say that I believe in God or that I love Jesus all day, but if my actions and attitude don’t reflect that, then am I actually any better than a demon?

How about you?  Do you consider yourself a Christian because of what you believe?  Or do your actions reflect those of someone trying their best to imitate Christ?  Do you often wish people well and hope their needs are met?  Or are you producing quality fruit that comes from the Spirit?  Does your relationship with Christ mostly consist of what you know about Him?  Or has that relationship completely changed the way you live your life?

Considering James’ commentary on faith and good deeds, where do you stand?  Despite what you have always believed or been taught, are you indeed a Christian?  Or is your faith dead and useless?