Thursday, November 27, 2008

By George: A Great Thanksgiving Story!

I just received a surprising Thanksgiving call ... one which really demonstrates what God can do even with the most inexperienced, unlikely, imperfect people.

Throughout my three years in the Philippines, several members of my Navigators singles group were involved with a neighborhood orphanage. When this orphanage went through hard times, our rag-tag collection of American and Filipino Christians (not one of us over 30 years old) got together and started a new orphanage. We prayed, appointed officers, filed the appropriate paperwork, hired one of our own as the Director, and took in the kids who had fled the old orphanage. The Christian Home of Joy for Children took form.

CHJC had a short and tumultuous lifespan. The Americans all left suddenly in 1991 following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. We argued far too much, planned far too little, missed many opportunities, and failed to follow through with what we'd started. Eventually, most of the kids melted away. Still, God worked through the faith and the faithfulness of those who remained behind, and of some of those who left.

And this brings me to George, who called me this morning.

As the other kids found other places to go and CHJC slowly evaporated, George remained with the Director's family. Under Helen's care he came to know an American missionary, who helped him track down his American father. His father sponsored him into the US, and today he is involved with a ministry in Savannah, Georgia, where he plays in the band and helps the pastor.

Forming CHJC was an impulsive decision by a young, inexperienced small group under extraordinary circumstances. Its brief existence revealed both our faith over the short term, and our immaturity over time. Yet even our weakness served to demonstrate God's strength, as George can testify today.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. (Psalm 100:4)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thankful ... Here in America

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:3-8)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Heart of an Encourager

A small-group leader is part teacher, part facilitator, part cat-herder ... but a very large part encourager. Among the most startling books I've read on the topic of encouragement is Larry Crabb and Dan Allender's, "Encouragement: The Key to Caring." What separates this book from the pack is that Crabb and Allender go to the heart of what keeps us from being truly good encouragers--our failure to understand the deepest needs and sinful patterns of both ourselves and those we seek to encourage.

Let's begin with one simple passage out of Genesis. After disobeying God by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam is hiding from God. When God seeks him out, Adam explains his actions: I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself. This simple statement reveals much about Adam's condition, and ours as well. The authors explain:
  1. I was afraid: Adam's core emotion
  2. because I was naked: his core motivation
  3. so I hid myself: his core strategy
We can draw much from this, because Adam is our father--when he fell, we fell with him. Adam's fear is ultimately our own. We fear that we are dying; that we are less than we pretend; that we will fail; that if people really knew us they would reject us; that ultimately, God will reject us because we are not worthy of acceptance. Down deep, fear permeates our inner core. We are afraid, because we are naked.

Adam's nakedness was not a problem until he sinned. God's response is telling: Who told you that you were naked? Adam had no reason for fear until he rebelled. Now suddenly, his nakedness was evident because he stood before God covered in sin. In the same way, we fear to really confront what is deep within us, because to do so would force us to confess our fundamental flaws: What a wretched man I am! And then what if others really knew us? We dare not find out, and so we hide ourselves.

Each of us hides behind different cloaks (or "layers", as the authors say)--the man who is the life of the party is not necessarily hiding less than he who is quiet and reserved. We all find strategies that work for us, so that we find some comfort zone in which we can operate. The problem is, these strategies only mask our core fear of being discovered for being less than we pretend.

The solution is the perfect love that drives out fear. God's unconditional love frees us from the bondage of our fear and gives us the confidence to reach out to encourage others. To the extent that we are open before Him (a lifelong process), and to the extent that He is our true hope and confidence--our streams of living water--we find ourselves able to encourage others. To the extent that we seek to satisfy our deepest needs for love, acceptance and significance in broken cisterns such as man's respect, career success, financial freedom, human intimacy, etc., we deal with our core problem with foolish, sinful, idolotrous strategies.

Encouragement involves a heart of love speaking directly to another's heart of fear. This involves time, patience, commitment, caring ... but before any of this it requires the encourager to have confidence before God. To the extent that I remain fearful, hiding behind self-protective layers, I cannot possibly encourage other fearful, self-protective souls in any deeply meaningful way.

Read the whole book!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Joy of Small Groups

Fort Leavenworth Addendum

With respect to my previous post, I should note that the Fort Leavenworth ministry is one of many military ministries that have been singled out for legal action and public outcry by extreme church-state separationists. While I favor a healthy degree of separation--history teaches us that holding temporal power has a corrupting influence on the church--the efforts of these well-funded and influential groups to completely stamp out any vestige of religion from the public square are clearly unhinged from reality and way over the top.

Please pray for Fort Leavenworth and for all Christians in the military, as this issue has been brewing for some time and has the potential to effectively eviscerate the military chaplaincy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pushing the Limits at Fort Leavenworth

The small groups at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, are the stuff of legend. Every year, Tom Schmidt stands at the "Chapel" table in the processing lines to greet every new student at Command and General Staff College. He offers every one of these 1,000+ mid-career officers the opportunity to host a small-group Bible study as they enter their 10-month courses. Yes, every one. This leads to a lot of rejections, but enough of them say "yes" so that there are 40-50 small groups formed every year.

Tom has learned that you can do a lot with a little willingness to try. All he asks is that each one get a little bit of training and show a little initiative, and then let the Holy Spirit take over from there. Many (if not most) of his volunteers have virtually no experience leading small groups. Some aren't even Christians! But every year they see people come to Christ, deepen their commitments, refresh their marriages, and blossom into their God-given potential. Just by saying "yes" to Tom, and to God.

Because this is staff college, each year these officers graduate and go on to new assignments--many into combat zones. Tom holds "commissioning" ceremonies each year, where these officers are sent out, accepting the challenge to put what they learned at Fort Leavenworth into practice out in the "field", starting and leading new small groups all over the world.

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wolves Among the Sheep

During my time in the Philippines, the Navigators military singles' ministry I was involved with suffered through a very tough period. A new church sprang up in the area, with a very aggressive pastor who preached a highly legalistic message. Several of our singles were soon hooked by his charasmatic style and firey sermons. Excited to be part of exciting, and eager to spread the new "knowledge" they were picking up, they soon became a real problem for our ministry team. We recognized this church's teachings as being false, divisive and destructive to the cause of the gospel.

I vividly remember a conversation with Sandy, one of our flock, who extolled her new pastor's virtues: "He quotes Scripture and speaks with authority!"

Most small-group leaders who've been at it for any length of time have experiences like this, where members of the group come in contact with false or controversial doctrine. During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned of false prophets, whom he characterized as "ferocious wolves" who will come in "sheep's clothing." Defending the sheep under your care against the wolves takes wisdom, watchfulness, and some patience.

1. Watch and pray. An important part of your job as leader is to keep your eyes open for false doctrine and heresy, and to bathe your group in prayer at all times.

2. Grow in grace and knowlege. Only by understanding true doctrine can you hope to recongnize what is heresy, what is controversial, and what is merely a difference of opinion about a debatable matter. Spend time in the Word and put yourself under good, challenging teaching, and learn where you can turn when you're faced with a stumper.

3. Don't shoot the sheep! Sandy wasn't a wolf herself--she was the wolf's prey. She followed him out of ignorance, not malice, and eventually escaped and made her way back to the flock. How would it have served her (or the gospel) to have made her out to be the enemy? Instead, "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak ..."

4. Embrace diversity. Face it, some matters are disputable. Casting yourself as the group's only and final authority on all doctrine is tedious, even dangerous. You'll stifle conversation, start unnecessary arguments, and lose track of what's really important. Oh, and sometimes you might even be wrong! Often the best course is to let the conversation flow and provide gentle nudges by introducing Scriputure that better informs the discussion.

5. Some infections have to be cut out. When truly heretical doctrine comes up that undermines the central doctrines of the faith, you'll need to correct it gently but directly. Moreover, there will occasionally be wolves among the sheep, or sheep who appear to grow fangs. In those cases, you may need to ask certain people not to discuss certain matters, or in extreme cases to stop coming altogether.

Sandy's church ran wild in our community for a time, but soon its zeal for converts, hostility toward any "competing" church, and general obnoxiousness began to wear thin. The church began to lose members almost as fast as it had grown, and the pastor was soon embroiled in scandals of various kinds. Some of our group's former members, including Sandy, made their way back to us, and we received them back with tears of joy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Post-Election Special - Psalm 146

I have facilitated small group studies of many different cultural makeups, and in many different political environments. Some of the most memorable were in 1998 during the Clinton impeachment, when sympathies in my workplace study ran about 50-50 for and against. Political issues can be an ugly place to go, but there is a way to hold a productive and uplifting small group discussion, as long as the leader comes prepared to keep the group focused on the big picture (gird up thy loins, thou small group leader!). For this week, I recommend Psalm 146:

Praise the LORD. Praise the LORD, O my soul.
I will praise the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—the LORD, who remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free,
the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The LORD reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD.

Regardless whether your group members are elated or depressed over this year's election results, the theme of this study is that we must resist the temptation to either idolotry or despair. Instead, we trust and rejoice in our God who reigns.