3 Lessons from Lunch with an Atheist

The atheist invited me to lunch. He wanted to ask about Jesus.

I played it cool.

Externally: “Sure, man. Let’s roll.”

Internally: Fist pumps. Shouts of, “Yes!!!”

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photo credit: Split Pea and Ham Soup via photopin (license)

This is what followers of Jesus in the secular marketplace long for, right? A chance to be salt and light to a co-worker who is suddenly eager to hear about God’s redeeming love.

So we went to lunch, me and the atheist.

He shared some of his the troubles. He asked why believing in God would make any difference in his life. And he asked why I “bought into Jesus.”

I listened. I asked questions. I made observations. I shared from my personal experiences as an agnostic-turned-believer. I gave him blunt answers to his blunt questions. I drew stuff on a napkin.

He listened. He asked more questions. He made more observations. He looked at the stuff I drew on the napkin.

We spent more than an hour talking about life, death, and God. And guess what happened?

Well, that was more than 10 years ago and, as far as I know, he’s still an atheist.

On the one hand, he left with a clear understanding of mankind’s sinfulness and the solution Jesus provides for anyone who seeks forgiveness, grace and redemption. On the other hand, I felt like a failure. Intellectually, I knew better. But I had invested emotionally into this friendship—and others in our office. Why wasn’t I seeing fruit? Surely it was my fault.

There are times when I still experience this type of frustration. But a few decades in the marketplace mission field has driven home an important theological point: It’s not about me, it’s about God.

That’s easy to forget in a culture results-oriented culture, especially when the challenges of life are beating on us like the winds of a hurricane – when Satan whispers (or shouts): “You’re not good enough!” So when the storms begin to form, here are a few things that help calm my waters:

  1. Remember the seed-planters. When I feel like I’m not making a difference in the world, I make a mental list of all the people who invested in my journey who have no idea I’m no longer the same misguided agnostic they once tried to help.
  2. Disrobe and un-gavel. One of my sisters is a federal judge. She gets paid to judge others and interpret the law. Not me. So why should I judge myself (and others) when it’s so clearly not my job?
  3. Take my medicine. Sometimes I enter into a conversation believing God is using me to teach the other person something. That might be true, but too often I arrogantly miss something God is trying to teach me. God is sometimes working through me, but He’s always work in me and on me.

In our work, we set goals and we’re held accountable for the results. In the Kingdom of God, we act in obedience and leave the results to Him. We can get uptight when the results aren’t what we expected or wanted, or we can remember that God is far more qualified than we are to spin this world forward as He sees fit.

Three Ways Jesus Displayed Grit

Few qualities of success are more vital than grit. Some social scientist, in fact, consider it the essential quality.  So it comes as no surprise that Jesus had grit. And never was the grit of Jesus more evident than during the final week of his life.

How so? Well, to answer that question, let’s start with a definition.

In Forging Grit, co-author Mike Thompson and I define grit as the passion for getting something done and the fortitude to see it through even when obstacles seem overwhelming. That book is written to a business audience, but the definition applies in all areas of life. With that in mind, here are some ways Jesus modeled grit, especially during the week that ended with His death and resurrection:

Jesus knew His core. The wisdom of Jesus was grounded in His understanding of the scriptures and in His relationship with God the Father. He wasn’t guided by self-principles, but by God-principles. He knew who He was and whose He was. (See Luke 24:27, John 8:55, John 17:25, among others.)

Jesus knew His mission. God the Father sent Jesus to earth with a purpose, and Jesus never allowed Satan to distract Him from that purpose. He knew He would have to suffer to accomplish that purpose;  but He also knew that doing so would bring glory to God. (See John 8:14 and Luke 18:31-33, among others.)

Jesus embraced His passion. Passion literally means “suffering” and “enduring.” And Jesus displayed the ultimate passion in dying on the cross for the sins of the world. The obstacles can’t get more overwhelming than that. (See Mark 8:31 and Luke 22:42, among others.)

We read and hear plenty about Jesus around Easter, of course, and it’s worth remembering that His sacrifice for you and for me came with real pain and intense suffering. We can thank God that Jesus had the grit to endure it. Otherwise, all hope would be lost. And we can model what He lived by knowing our core, knowing our mission, and embracing our passion.

Lessons from a Baptismal God Moment

Did you hate going to church as a kid? Not me. I hung out with friends in Sunday School, played hang man or connect the dots on the bulletin during “big church,” and then my family went home and ate Mom’s awesome pot roast for lunch. What wasn’t to like?

I later spent more than a decade as an agnostic, not because I didn’t like going to church but because I was avoiding God. Thankfully, God is persistent in His pursuit of His lost sheep.

My wife and I are blessed to regularly attend an amazing local church, but it’s very different from when I was a kid. We now have small groups instead of Sunday School, I actually take notes (usually on the “communication card”), and we eat out for lunch. But I love going to church more than ever, and here’s why: I love the God moments.

I’ve experienced these throughout my spiritual journey and at four great local churches. The most recent was on a recent Sunday when a family member waded into the warm hot tub waters next to the stage and a pastor dunked him in front of everyone who was attending the 11:30 service.

The baptism itself was a God moment. Jeremy, my step-son-in-law, is nearly 40 years old, comes from what anyone would describe as a dysfunctional family, and spent much of his life trapped in the addictive pleasures of the world. To watch God work in his life and create transformation that seemed so impossible has been awe-inspiring, to say the least.JeremyBaptism

This was the second family baptism for us in less than a year. One of our granddaughters, at the age of 8, gave her life to Jesus and was baptized in the swimming pool of the Boys and Girls Club that’s converted into a church each Sunday. Clearly God can reach us at any age and under any circumstances!

Jeremy’s baptism wasn’t the only God-moment of that particular service, however. Jeremy had been talking about baptism for several months, but one thing or another seemed to delay it. Was it Satan? Or was it God’s timing? I don’t know, but I know God allowed Jeremy to experience baptism on a day when much of the message was about sanctification.

Jeff Crawford did a magnificent job unpacking Philippians 2:12-18. There’s not room here to share all the lessons, but three things stood out as great messages for a new believer like Jeremy and as wonderful reminders for all of us who want to grow like Jesus.

Salvation is a journey. In Grow Like Jesus, I write that “Faith in Christ is a one-time decision that leads to a lifetime of growth.” Or, as Jeff pointed out, there’s an ongoing aspect of salvation. It happens in the past (the moment when we are saved), present (our sanctification), and future (our eventual glorification when Jesus returns). So when Paul says to “work out your salvation” (verse 12), he’s not talking about “earning” it. He’s talking about living it—growing to be more like Jesus.

Salvation is eternal. One of Jeremy’s battles centered on assurance of salvation. He was confident he would stumble. His “fear and trembling” (verse 12) was of his own abilities, but God showed him he couldn’t lose his salvation. At the same time, we should live it out with paramount respect and awe for the God of the universe.

Salvation is “work-out-able.” How do we work out our salvation? Verses 14-18 offer some tips. Don’t complain (verse 14), let God’s light shine in you and through you (verse 15), study the Bible (verse 16), serve others as an expression of your faith (verse 17), and be glad and joyful in how God works in you and others (verse 18).

I left church that Sunday thankful for the lessons I learned and in awe of a God whose timing is perfect, who, indeed, works all things for His good, and who allows us to regularly experience God moments. Take a moment and thank Him for all the God moments you’ve experienced.

 

Beyond the Obvious: 3 Tips on Finding Rest

Every now and then I notice a wave of articles about research that has proven something we’ve always known. This week contribution? Drumroll, please … Rest matters.

Human beings need sleep. Our bodies need to recharge. We need a good eight hours of sleep, we’re told. And while people who get by on six often think they’re getting enough, research proves their performance suffers.

Followers of Jesus (and others who are scholars of the Old and New Testaments) are usually aware that rest is Biblical. God rested after creating the universe (Genesis 2:2-3), not because He was tired but to set an example (Mark 2:27). Jesus rested (Mark 4:38, 6:31) and promised we can find the ultimate rest in Him (Matthew 11:28-30).

In short, rest helps us stay fit mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, which are all important when it comes to our spiritual growth.

So we should rest. Got it. But how?

If you’re like me, knowing what’s good for you and doing what’s good for you often are two different things. Forcing sleep is particularly challenging. Thankfully, I’m married to a wonderful woman who values rest and has taught me some tricks for sleeping more soundly.

  1. Change your diet. My wife and I generally eat a healthy diet based on The Daniel Plan. I’ve not only lost weight with this approach, but I sleep much better. Research tells us (the obvious) that there’s a high correlation between sleep apnea and obesity, so dieting and exercising to promote physical health also ends up promoting better rest.
  2. Fix your routine. Left to my own desires, I’d stay up late watching television or working or playing games on the computer or ipad. But because I’m married to someone smarter than me, I go to bed relatively early and around the same time each night. I try not to drink anything within a few hours of bedtime. And we turn off all electronics at least 30 minutes before we get ready for bed. We pray together during this time. And if it’s nice enough, we walk out on our deck and stargaze for several minutes. (Note: We don’t have a television in our bedroom, something I highly recommend for anyone who wants a healthy marriage.)
  3. Talk to Jesus. Inevitably, we all have those nights when we struggle to fall asleep or when we wake up and can’t go back to sleep. Our thoughts race around from stressful topic to stressful topic. We problem solve. We pre-schedule work. Or we slip into negative scenario building where we waste time imaging the worst things that can happen. A friend of mine taught me that these are perfect opportunities to talk to Jesus. “If I’m having a hard time going to sleep,” he told me, “I figure Jesus must want to tell me something.” Tell Jesus what’s on your mind. Ask Him what He wants to tell you. Have a conversation with the Word. And you’ll be amazed at how often you soon will find rest in His peace.

Note: Here’s a link to 68 verses that touch on rest.

 

7 Habits of Financial (and Spiritual) Success

Not long ago I came across a blog about the seven habits of self-made millionaires. And it occurred to me that most of the habits that help someone grow rich financially are the same habits that help us grow rich spiritually. We just apply the habits differently.

The blog was based on an interview with a Tom Corley, a researcher who has spent a dozen or so years studying wealthy people and writing about what he’s learned (e.g., Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals). Corley points out that “Your habits are the reason why you’re rich or poor. In fact, it’s often two or three habits that separate the wealthy from those who are financially challenged.”

That makes sense (and cents). Then I began to wonder if the seven habits Corley shared for financial success translate into habits that help us achieve something far more meaningful—spiritual success.

Let’s compare.

  1. Read, read, read. Corley says this is the number one habit. His study found that 85 percent of millionaires read two or more books a month. Not only that, they choose books that help them grow. As the author of a book titled Grow Like Jesus, I love this one. It reinforces the idea that we need to study and learn how to grow if we want to improve our lives. Start, of course, with the Bible. Read it every day. Study it. Learn from it. Grow from it.
  2. Pursue your passions. Corley points out that, “When you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you work harder.” Are you passionate about Jesus? If you are His disciple, then you probably were on fire for God the day you gave Him your life and in the weeks and months that followed. Rediscover that passion, because nothing else on this planet is more worthy of our enthusiasm.
  3. Find mentors. Corley’s study found that 93 percent of self-made millionaires credit mentors for aiding in their financial success. Mentoring and discipleship, of course, are two sides of the same coin. If you want to grow spiritually, find someone (or a small group) who will challenge you, stretch you, teach you, and otherwise help you along the path. And, by the way, you’ll find that mentoring others is one of the greatest approaches to growth for yourself.
  4. Use dreams to set goals. Self-made millionaires apparently dream up what they want their ideal life to look like and then set specific goals to achieve each dream. They evaluate their dream and take action. When we grow our faith, we need to abide in Christ so we can discern our calling. Then we need to make specific plans to carry out whatever God is calling us to accomplish.
  5. Create a process. I see this as an extension of the previous habits. “When you create processes,” Corley says, “you don’t have to think, which takes energy and contributes to decision fatigue. Habits are valuable because they brain fuel that can be used doing something else.” To grow our faith, we need to have good habits. We need a process. Set aside specific times in the day for reading God’s word, for specific types of prayer, for reading other books, for meeting with mentors or protégés.
  6. Find multiple streams of income. Self-made millionaires typically have at least three sources of income. They diversify. For followers of Jesus, we need three in one: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. If we rely on those three sources of spiritual income, our output will be phenomenal. We can support them with things like mentors and books, the teaching of great pastors, the community and fellowship of a vibrant church, but the ultimate source is God.
  7. Invest in time. It’s probably not surprising that self-made millionaires don’t waste time. They don’t watch much television, and they don’t spend much time on Facebook or watching videos on the Internet. I believe growing our faith requires a sense of urgency because we don’t know how much time we have on this earth. We should long to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23) Not, “Well, you were awesome at video games!”

So what’s missing from Corley’s list? Well, lots of things.

The one that jumped out at me first was “generosity.” I know this to be important to our walk with Christ, and, from all I’ve read, I believe it to be important to financial success. So I went to Corley’s website and here’s something I found that he said: “One of the hallmarks of the self-made millionaires in my Rich Habits Study was their generosity.” In other words, they gave their time and money.

I also wondered about faith. This isn’t spelled out as directly in what I found in Corley’s research, but I did see plenty of evidence that financially successful people tend to get that way in part because they have faith. They believe. In God? Not so sure. Certainly in something bigger than themselves.

Trusting God for the results, in my view, is essential to our spiritual growth, because it keeps us from adopting a works mentality. We can do His will and leave the results to someone more qualified than us – the God of the universe. That’s how we find joy and peace and true success regardless of our financial condition or any other circumstance. Because it’s never about how much we have, but what we do with what we’re given.

 

What if Jesus wrote you a Letter?

Here’s the question that kept me up one night: What if Jesus wrote me a letter?

Seems simple. Not scary. Sort of cool, right? Who wouldn’t want a letter from the Son of God?

Without question, I’d love to get such a letter. But I can’t say for sure that I’d like everything it might say. In fact, it could be especially difficult to take, and that’s why the question was keeping me up that night.

Audrey and I had been reading the letters to the churches in the book of Revelation, so naturally we noticed that a few of them easily could be letters to the church in America. That’s when it hit me: What if Jesus wrote a letter like this to me? I am the church in America, or at least part of it. Would he find something good in me? Would he call me lukewarm? How would he challenge me to live differently?

With that in mind, I recalled a little writing exercise I learned several years ago during a parent’s weekend at Rollins College. A professor found himself in a room of assembled ne’er-do-wells—dads, moms, and other interested parties. The prof either wanted to give us a taste of what his students typically experienced, or he just needed a way to kill some time before lunch. Regardless, he gave us an assignment: Write a letter to yourself from someone you love but who is no longer living. If you can do this, he explained, you can write fiction, because fiction is something we make up based on what our experiences tell us might happen.

I wrote a letter from my dad to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the exercise.

So as I considered the letters Jesus wrote to the churches, I mentally wrote a letter from Jesus to me. Was it fiction? I don’t know. I asked the Holy Spirit for some help, so I believe there was some inspiration and, well, revelation, involved.

Here’s what I learned: There’s room for improvement.

Well, duh!

I felt affirmation about some areas of my life, but I also felt the pangs of conviction. I felt like God wanted me to experience Him more in two or three specific areas. I shared this with Audrey and asked her to pray with me, asking God to show us what “change” would look like and provide opportunities to pursue it. Frankly, I’m still not so sure how well I’m living it out, but I’m doing my best to trust God to show me the way each day.

So if Jesus wrote you a letter, what would it say? And how will you respond?

The Role of Trust in Discipleship

One of the first lessons I learned as a new follower of Jesus was that we’re all called to discipleship. And this weekend, while sitting with my beautiful wife in the Chapel by the Sea, I was reminded of the role “trust” plays in that process.

Discipleship, of course, is something we “do” and something that’s “done” for us. We’re called to go and make disciples, which means we’re supposed to help others grow in their faith. And we’re supposed to grow in our faith, as well.

It all sounds very active. Read a book. Spend time with a mentor. Spend time with a protégé. Practice some spiritual disciplines. Go to a Bible study. Attend a conference.

So where does trust come into the equation?

Well, trust is the foundation for life as a follower of Christ. It all begins when we put our trust in Jesus. But too often we forget to keep trusting because we’re so busy doing.SouthPadre

Audrey and I just took an extended weekend vacation, and that’s how we ended up listening to Chaplain Sam Steele teach on this topic Sunday at the Chapel by the Sea. Perhaps you’ve been to the Chapel by the Sea. There’s one in Alaska. Several in Florida and California, not to mention in a dozen or so other seaside communities. We were visiting the one on South Padre Island, Texas.

The Rev. Steele was teaching from 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul was addressing some in-fighting in the church over who was better – those who followed Paul or those who followed Apollos. He reminded them that we all have different roles to play as “co-workers in God’s service.” Some plant and some water, he tells them, but God makes it grow.

And so it is with discipleship. Whether we are teaching others or learning something from those who teach us, there are things we can and should do. We plant. We water. We do the things we’re called to do so that we can help ourselves and those around us grow like Jesus. But that growth only happens by the grace of God. So as we go about the doing, we have to remember to let go and trust God for the results.

I struggle putting this idea into practice because I like to see results from my doing, and I like to see them quickly. Trust requires patience. It requires faith that God’s timing is what matters. It requires letting go of the human desire control things or to feed our ego with our good works.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to this quote from Oswald Chambers: “Trust God and do the next thing.” I’ve found it comes in pretty handy whenever I don’t know what else to tell myself or anyone else about how to deal with life’s challenges. Or blessings. In good times or bad, there’s always something we can do to grow more like Jesus. And it begins and ends with trusting God.

What you’ve stumbled upon…

Several years ago I was inspired to write a book about Luke 2:52. Eventually, I actually did it. Then I started the journey of trying to get it published. By God’s grace, it appears it will be available in April through Elevate Publishing. This blog serves as a way for me to share some thoughts with readers and potential readers of that book. It’s a baby blog today, so check back often. It will grow.