Here we are, December 31st.  This is my 261st post of the year.  Averaging more than 400 words per post, I’ve written and posted somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 words this year.  I feel like that puts a little bit of pressure on these last few.  But hey, I’m clutch.  They don't call me the Knowledge Dropper for nothing.

First, I want to offer a bit of thanks.  I made it my goal to post a spiritual message each weekday of this year, and thanks to your support I have pushed through to reach that goal.  Many of the messages were things that I was personally interested in.  Others were put on my heart by the Holy Spirit.  A few were suggested by friends. And some…were just for fun.

Since I will be moving to a weekly post format in 2013, I feel like this is the end of an era.  So I want to leave you with one final message that I hope sums up my work this year.

Friends, we are way off from the work of the early churches.  Their passion in their pursuit of spreading the gospel is unidentifiable in the vast majority of churches today.  We focus way too much on meeting our own needs, fitting in with popular culture, and trying to satisfy the “tradition” of what has come before us.  We seek to please ourselves and keep our church members content before we think about pleasing God and meeting the needs in our communities.

I really think that we all see this problem.  We notice the missed opportunities and the ministry needs that are not being met.  We identify the church practices that are self-serving and do nothing to advance the Kingdom of God.  We are convicted when we realize that we are living with Christ in our lives, and not living our lives for Christ.

The issue is that we believe that it is bigger than us.  And I agree with that.  Our culture of complacency and selfishness is far bigger than you or me.  Yet, our lack of faith keeps us from realizing that it IS NOT bigger than God.  We say all the time that all things are possible with God.  But we do nothing to show that we believe it.

If you see the mess that I see in the modern church, then the change starts with you and me.  To cause change, we must change.  If we want to see a different brand of Christianity, then we ourselves must be different. 

It is going to be awkward.  It is going to be uncomfortable.  It is going to be painful.  But it must be done.  Join me, will you?

It’s odd to feel speechless with so many thoughts running through your head.  Please keep in mind that this was written on Friday, the day of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  I admit that I have become unfortunately numb to these kinds of things.  They are always painful, always tragic.  But the frequency of these events have somehow taken a bit of the sting away.

It may be the fact that my son will be in an elementary school next year, but this one stings a lot.  I cannot even look at the pictures of the families of the victims.  I feel sorrow.  I feel grief.  But most of all, I feel angry.

I feel anger on behalf of the victims.  I feel anger for their families.  Yet, as I look for a place to direct my anger, I keep coming back to…me.

No, I am not blaming myself for this event.  I am not saying that I have helped shift our culture to a place where these things happen.  But what have I done to change it?  What have I done to influence the culture in another direction?

I spend about 1/4 of my time at work.  I spend about 1/3 on sleep.  That’s about 7/12 of my week.  That leaves almost half of my time that I should be using to change the world by introducing people to my God.  It is my job to show people who Jesus is. 

But if I really spent half of my time doing that, don’t you think I might even make a small impact on the world?  Perhaps I could love somebody enough to influence them to raise their children in church, and twenty years down the road a situation like this may be adverted.  That 30 hours of adoption training standing between me and taking in an orphan may not look so bad when I think about how it may impact his/her future actions.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:27 NLT)

Maybe I am just rambling or maybe there is a point here, I honestly don’t know.  I do know that I should be doing more.  More to love strangers.  More to take care of God’s people.  More to spread the gospel.  More to be like Christ.

In the meantime, though, I am going to go and hug my children.  I am going to pray for everyone involved and affected by the situation in Connecticut.  And I am going to invite God to yell at me for not doing more.  Feel free to join me in all of these efforts.

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14 NIV)

I love cold weather.  Well, it’s not the cold that I like, it is the ability to wear sweaters and hoodies at all times.  They are by-far the most comfortable pieces of clothing you can wear.  It’s like wearing a hug.

Recently, a friend that I work with wore an interesting sweater to work.  What made it interesting is that it had short sleeves.  That’s right.  It was a sweater, made out of sweater material with a fancy sweater collar, that did not cover her arms.  When I asked her why she would buy such a thing, she said, “Because it’s cute.”

That got me thinking about other things in life that we do that don’t really make sense.  For my friend, it is pretty much everything she does.  But for the rest of us, there are just some quirky habits that actually make our lives more difficult.  For example, some people are unorganized and often lose things.  Other people are superstitious and engage in ridiculous rituals to avoid bad luck. 

What about our churches?  Are there things that we do that could be altered or eliminated in the spirit of efficiency?  Do we have any habits that are outdated?  Here are a few that I thought of, and I am anxious to hear what you come up with.

1.  Offering – Is it really necessary to buy fancy offering plates and take ten minutes out of each service to pass them around?  Could there not be a special box for offerings?  Could it not be collected on the way into the sanctuary or on the way out?  And to be really crazy, wouldn’t it be possible for more churches to take online donations or automatic deposits?

While it would be super awkward to adjust to a service without an offering, think about what we could do with that extra ten minutes, and how much easier it would be for folks to give and to remember to give if they could do it electronically.  Church offering time is not a huge waste of anything, but it has unfortunately become somewhat outdated.

2.  Invitation – Why is there only a 5-10 minute window in each service when a person can be prayed with or talk to somebody about accepting Christ?  Shouldn’t there always be folks available for prayer time and to talk with people about salvation?  I understand the importance of publicly professing your faith, but I think more people may be open to discussing their relationship with Christ if they weren’t in front of a congregation that they are preventing from going to Cracker Barrel for lunch.  So perhaps, in addition to the formal invitation (which I do think is necessary and a great end to the service), there should be an extended invitation for anybody that may not feel comfortable being the center of attention.

3.  Communion – Observing The Lord’s Supper is a very important ordinance within the church that should be done regularly.  However, in the Bible they took time to commune over actual meals.  They ate and drank in remembrance of Christ and spent time getting to know one another.  They got to know each others’ interests, their needs, and their experiences with God.  This seemed to play a vital role in why they were so effective as the body of Christ.  Almost every reference to Christian gatherings in the book of Acts talks about eating together.  I believe we should use this time of observance as a time to actually grow together in Christ instead of a time to formally partake in a ritual.

So what do you think?  Am I way off base here?  Did I cross any lines?  Are there any other "sleeveless sweaters" that you believe could be adjusted to be a better use of our time?

Remember the story of Cain and Able?  They were the first two sons of Adam and Eve.  Cain was a farmer, and Able had his flock.  One year at harvest time, God accepted Able’s offering of the best of his lambs, and denied the crops that Cain offered.  Then Cain killed Able and got sent away from God’s presence.

We are taught that Cain was angry because his brother showed him up, he was jealous because God found favor with Able and not himself.  But have you ever stopped to ask yourself how much sense that makes?  What in the world did Able do wrong?  Or what did he do that even had an impact on Cain?  The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing.

Able’s sacrifice had nothing to do with Cain.  His sacrifice was between him, his sheep, and God.  Cain was not even in the equation.  Similarly, Cain’s offering had nothing to do with Able.

While the Bible does not tell us exactly why Cain’s offering was not accepted, it is obvious that the problem only lies with Cain.  He was not being compared to his brother, he was being judged solely on his offering.

Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected?  You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”  (Genesis 4:6-7 NLT)

How often do we give into sin instead of subduing it?  Why do we allow ourselves to blame or become jealous of others with the problem lies within ourselves?

God does not compare us to one another.  God loves us each equally and individually.  A close friend of yours living a sinful life does not make God love you more.  And thankfully, having somebody out there dedicating everything to ministry and winning thousands of souls for the Lord does not make Him love you any less.

Do not let other people become your measuring stick.  Your relationship with God, and how He responds and relates to you, is strictly between you and God.  And since He is always the same, you are the only variable in the equation.  You can be as close to God as you want to be.  But when you get caught up comparing yourself to other Christians, you are giving a foothold to the sin that is crouching at your door.

Keep your focus on God, and only compare yourself to the example set by Christ.  That is the only measuring stick that is appropriate when evaluating our dedication to God.

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.

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? 

Do you remember when you first asked Jesus to take over your life?  That’s such an amazing feeling.  It’s like you immediately want to change everything and put every ounce of energy into serving Him.  You are looking for any and every way to possibly get involved in church and ministry opportunities.  I believe that is what they call being “on fire” for God.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when the flame dies down a bit.  Sure, it flares back up every now and then.  But most of us end up spending most of our time at a level a little lower than “on fire.”  We get busy with responsibilities.  We have obstacles and problems that get in the way.  And, before we know it, we end up having less and less time to give to service.

I often hear Christians say that they wish they could be more involved.  For many, they struggle to find ministries that fit into their busy schedules.  For others, they claim they don’t know how to get started or they are not sure what they are interested in.  And there are still some that continue to find excuses.

I am here to tell you that there is NO reason that anybody should not get plugged-in to a ministry.  Are you busy?  There are needs that can be met a little bit at a time or projects that can be worked on in your own time.  (Note:  No matter how busy you are, ministry should be on the top of your priority list.)  Not know where to get started?  I guarantee that if you walk into your church office and offer to help with a ministry, you will quickly be met with a buffet of service options.  Would you like to find out how you can best be utilized?  First of all, pray about it.  Let the Holy Spirit lead you to a specific area of service.  You can also complete a spiritual gifts inventory that may tell you or allow others to advise you on how you can be most effective in ministry.

If you keep coming up with excuses, then that is on you.  However, you should know that there is no shortage of need out there.  God has called us to serve, and this messed up world has provided us with unlimited opportunities.  There should never be a reason for anybody to “wish” they were more involved.  If you are not plugged-in, it is your fault.

Now get yourself plugged-in and get to work.  I’ll see you there.

I really enjoy magic tricks.  I am always fascinated how somebody could create an illusion that looks so real.  I love trying to figure out how they are done.  The prospect of solving such a puzzle is fascinating, although I’m not sure that I have ever completely figured one out.

However, I have watched a few of those behind the scenes shows where a rogue magician wears a masks and reveals the secrets behind several popular illusions.  And while I had always thought this would be exciting and exhilarating, it was actually pretty disappointing and ruined the illusions for me.  Knowing the trick took away the excitement.  Understanding the process ruined the magic.  I mean, that’s why I refused to see Magic Mike.  It is about magicians, right?

Anyway, I have recently had a similar experience at my church.  One way that I serve my church family is to help prepare for our observances of the Lord’s Supper.  I set up the table, fill the cups, and help to serve the elements to the congregation.  I have been doing this for almost two years.  Yet, during our most recent observance, I had a realization. 

For the last 24 months or so, I have been so busy in the hustle and bustle of getting things ready that I have not been able to focus on the meaning of communion.  Now that I have seen what goes on behind the scenes, it seems like the magic is gone. 

Yes, I enter into the observance with a prayerful heart and try to prepare myself to do these things as we have been commanded.  But in the back of my mind, I am running down the list of things that should have been done and hoping upon hope that nothing goes wrong with the execution of the ordinance.  I am trying to make sure that there is no reason for anybody else to be distracted from this sacred time, and that ultimately distracts me the entire time.

As I continue to process and pray about this, I am getting the feeling that there is nothing wrong with this scenario.  While the magic may be ruined in that I know the sacramental wine comes from a Great Value grape juice bottle, I can still observe the Lord’s Supper “in remembrance of [Jesus].”  And even if I am putting all of my energy into making sure I don’t drop the trays, I can still prayerfully prepare my heart to focus on the sacrifice of Christ.

No matter what distracts us or tries to draw our attention away from Jesus, we can choose to focus on Him.  No matter what we expect our experiences to be like, God will guide us to a place where He wants us to be We just have to be willing to ignore our comfort zones and follow Him.

And don't see Magic Mike.  Apparently, it's about strippers.

I visited a public restroom recently that I had never been in before.  It was very clean and welcoming.  It was the kind of public restroom that didn’t make you feel like you needed a shower after left. 

After washing my hands, I reached over and waved my hand under the paper towel dispenser.  It didn’t turn on so I did it again.  And again.  I probably waved by hand back and forth three or four times before I realized that it was not an automatic dispenser.

As I reached up to manually grab my brown paper towel, I became very frustrated at the fact that I had to exert the energy to do so.  My magnificent public restroom experience had been ruined in an instant when I had to go out of my way to do something for myself.  And that, my friends, is when I realized that there is no hope for this world.

With automated sinks and hand dryers, Hot-N-Ready pizzas, GPS navigation, and an app for everything, we are so spoiled.  It is like we have completely forgotten how to do anything for ourselves.  Compared to even 10-15 years ago, the amount of effort required for us to get what we want has basically bottomed out.

Even more unfortunately, we are letting this automated attitude bleed over into our spiritual lives.  We’ve stopped taking our Bibles to church because the words are on the projector screen.  Some people don’t tithe regularly because their church does not accept debit cards.  Others refuse to attend or decide to leave a church if they are not made the center of attention on their own terms. 

It’s like we want to get the benefit of being a part of a church family without having to invest ourselves in the community of the church.  We want people to reach out and make things easier for us when we aren’t willing to do the same for others.  We want to automatically be blessed without putting forth the effort to produce fruit of our own.

Let’s do each other a favor.  What do you say we all spend a day away from our gadgets that make life so convenient?  What if we took some time to take the manual route to remember what it feels like to actually invest in something?  Perhaps if we do this more in the monotony of our day-to-day lives then it will come more natural when we fill our roles in the body of Christ.

Let’s all invest ourselves in something this week.  I will start by getting my own paper towel.  Join me, will you?

I often hear people say that we try to put God in a box.  That is, of course, what smart folks call a metaphor.  By putting God in a box, they mean that we try to fully define God in a few simple ways that make His character easy to understand.  Sometimes, people even put God in a box so that they can justify their own sinful behavior.  Either way, doing so limits His power, His love, and ultimately creates a barrier in our relationships with Him.

So that’s definitely a bad thing, right?  Yeah?  Good, we are on the same page.

Recently I heard the concept of putting God in a box in a different context, one that is more about containing God.  Many Christians try to keep God, and even their own Christianity, at church.  They don’t take God to work.  They don’t take God to the movies.  And even more unfortunately, some of them don’t take God home.

Yeah, we know God is everywhere.  But do we always act like it?  I always get frustrated when people say, “Oh, you can’t say that at church” or “I wouldn’t do that at church.”  If you are truly being the same person all of the time, then you should include church in that.  Does that mean you should take all of your bad habits to church?  No, that means you should take God home with you and let Him help you get rid of those habits.

Another element of leaving God at church is that we do not treat others as He has commanded us.  We don’t love them as if Jesus is watching, we don’t meet their needs like we are supposed to, and we don’t even tell them about our relationship with God which is the last thing Jesus told us to do.  Nah, that’s for church and church-sponsored ministry activities.

I also hear people containing God by directly underestimating His power.  We refrain from stepping out in faith because we don’t have a plan.  We avoid moving forward with projects because we believe we don’t have the resources.  We have even coined the phrase, “all we can do now is pray” because we are to untrusting to let prayer be our first option.

I realize that we do not have the ability to contain God.  However, we do have enough free will to keep ourselves from being used by Him.  We need to get out of the way and let God do His work.  But in order to be a part of that, we have to be all-in and let God direct who we are all of the time, not just at church. 

Come on, what do you say we let God out of the box?  I’d be willing to bet that something amazing would happen.