Let the children come

10422566_10152298380233246_6144976007977306568_n“But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God’” (Luke 18:16 ESV).

We met this past Tuesday to debrief our KidzFest event. The results were amazing. God is really blessing our church. He is trusting us with young families and their children. And when we see God blessing something, we want to make sure that we join Him. And when God sends us children, we want to make sure that we do nothing to hinder them from coming to Jesus.

During our five-night KidzFest event last week, we had 210 children attend. Not every child came every night, but we still averaged around 180 children. We promoted this event as an outreach to families who don’t attend our church. We extended invitations to the local day care facilities and the Wilson youth center called “The Spot.” As a result of our prayers and promotion, over 63% of the children that attended our event were not WCC attenders. This is a huge result because we want to be a blessing to our city, not just to our members. And God allowed us to see this happen!

Another amazing statistic was the number of WCC volunteers that showed up every night to serve. We counted around 103 volunteers that worked every night. Especially impressive was how many youth and men showed up to help. We’re not diminishing our women’s contribution; they are always the most faithful in working with children. But it was awesome to see our WCC men working with the kids. Many of the children were especially attracted to the men because they have no fathers in their homes. This was a powerful learning. We need more men in the children’s ministry, especially to make sure that little boys are not “hindered” from coming to Jesus.

Perhaps the most profound outcome of last week’s KidFest was the number of families that visited our church on Sunday for the first time. We invited them to come and watch their children perform the song that we taught them during the week. We gave out invite cards to everyone on the last two nights of the event. So when Sunday came, we were blown away by the number of first-time guests. We had the largest Sunday children’s ministry attendance in our church’s history. It was awesome. Both Sunday services were packed, especially the 11:00 AM service.

When we looked at the connection cards for all of these first-timers, we noticed a trend. Nearly all of them were in the 23-30 year old age group with at least two young children. No wonder our 3-4 year old class was packed!

As your pastor, I want to give praise and thanks to God for trusting us with these young families and their children. What a blessing! I am also thankful to God for our WCC members who really showed up during this event to serve. It is so awesome to be your pastor knowing that you really get the vision of reaching our community for Jesus. I love being your pastor!

But there is one problem. We need to do something about making room for all of these kids and young families! We’re out of room! Will you join me in prayer about this? We don’t want the size of our facility or our number of services to “hinder” the children that God is sending our way.

We want to be a church that always makes room to “Let the children come.”

Raising better than good kids

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Chief Mugatu (Eddie Gonzalez) and me.

Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring.” (Malachi 2:15 ESV).

We have been working hard every night this week on WCC’s outreach event called “KidzFest 2014: Fire Island.” We decorated the whole church in an island theme. We wrote songs and Bible studies. We came up with activities and games to deepen the children’s understanding of the Bible stories we taught. Our adults and youth have dressed in islander themed outfits and labored every evening from 4:30 to 8:30 PM to inspire and teach the children about God and the Bible.

Why are we working so hard to reach out to the children of our city?

Kingdom KidsIt’s because we feel specifically called and gifted to make reaching children with the gospel a priority at our church. We also feel called to partner with parents to help them raise their children to be like Jesus. We recognize that God has called parents to be the primary ones responsible for this, so we offered KidzFest to help the parents train their kids. And now, starting this coming Sunday, we’re launching a 4-week sermon series entitled “Kingdom Kids: Raising Kids to Be Better Than Just Good” to train the parents at parenting God’s way.

We’re thankful to God for giving us this vision for reaching the next generation with the gospel. He has trusted us with 205 children in attendance through the first four nights of KidzFest. Now, we’re praying for a large turnout for our Sunday services, with many new guests coming to hear their children sing the KidzFest theme song, “God of Fire,” written by Stephen Combs and led by our WCC worship team, StedFast.

We’re especially thankful that God would trust us with helping parents raise their children to be better than just good, but to be godly, children who grow to maturity in Christlikeness.

Thankful for gospel partnerships

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3-6 ESV).

Like Paul, I am thankful for our gospel partners too. It took many of them to send our team to Uganda. Partners that prayed, gave financially and commissioned us to go. Without them, we would not have been able to answer God’s call to go to Uganda.

I am also thankful for the growing partnership that we see developing between our church and the churches in Kisoro, Uganda that Pastor George Mbonye has planted. Of course, this partnership would not be possible without partnering with Donnas and Johnny Kinton of Amazing Grace Adoptions and Orphan Care. The Kintons and Steve “Woody” Woodard of AGA really did all of the heavy-lifting to make this trip possible.

It is with thanksgiving in my heart that I offer this video to report on our Uganda mission trip to our church and to our many partners. As Paul did, I pray with joy and thanksgiving as I consider what God has done and will do through our gospel partnership.

Please join me in joyful thanksgiving and praise as you watch this video report!

Surrendering to Yesu

Pastor George Mbonye and Gary preaching at Kisoro, Uganda

Pastor George Mbonye and Gary preaching at Kisoro, Uganda

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV).

Today began with dark rooms and cold showers as the electricity was knocked out yesterday by a storm that left our hotel without power for nearly a day. It also began with much activity because many of us had to surrender our rooms in the new part of the hotel, pack our things and move to the old section, so that the hotel could accommodate visiting dignitaries. We could have refused, but we are working to build a relationship with the hotel manager that allows us to further share the gospel with him and his staff. The manager was in a bind. He had overbooked the hotel, so we offered to help. We are learning that surrendering to Jesus, or as the Ugandans say, “Yesu,” sometimes means surrendering your new room for an old one.

At breakfast we laughed about the cold showers and using flashlights to find our things. I heard no grumbling, just the flexible adjustment to changing circumstances that we are learning together here. We did discover that two of our team members weren’t feeling well, so we prayed for them and encouraged them to stay at the hotel and rest, while the other members went out for another day of training and teaching. They would rather have been teaching with us, but sometimes surrender means we have to rest when we’d rather be working.

After breakfast, we loaded up the vehicles and traveled to Kashinge Baptist Church and Child Development Center. It was a short, but bumpy ride as the road is barely passable. As we arrived on the Kashinge campus, and the children gathered on the lawn to greet us. They brought out plastic chairs for our team to sit while facing the children who sat on the ground. The children welcomed us with poems and songs. One poem was about the terrible scourge of AIDS, while the songs were songs of welcome.

They sang, “We welcome you visitor. We are so very happy you are here. Thank you for coming. We love you very much.”

After introductions were made, we gathered in the church for hymns and instruction from Pastor George Mbonye for the day. The team scattered to teach the children, while Monte and I taught the adults in the church. Monte preached from Luke 19 on Zacchaeus and the importance of a life transformed by salvation. I preached from Exodus on Moses and how God overcame his five excuses.  Monte had 7 people raise their hands indicating that they had prayed with him to surrender their lives to Jesus.

In my sermon on Moses I used five words from their own language that all started with the letter “K.” I had taught the pastors the previous week at the Pastor’s Conference that their sermon points should be accurate, simple and memorable, so I didn’t want them to think I didn’t practice what I had taught them. I had bought a English-Rufumbira Dictionary here, so I wanted to surprise them by using their language in my sermon.

When I began using their language for my sermon points, they laughed at my feeble efforts to pronounce their tribal tongue. But it was good natured laughter. I think they really appreciated my attempt.

Their favorite sermon point was number five, “kurekura,” which means “surrender” in Rufumbira. After my closing prayer, Pastor George further explained the time of decision to them. Pastor George has been my interpreter at every session. When he was finished talking, I was surprised and overwhelmed to see everyone in the room raise both hands in surrender and shout “kurekura!” and “Yesu!” which meant that they were surrendering their whole lives to Jesus.

After this, George had the men go to another room for prayer and the women stayed in the church to pray together. Robin and Pastor George’s wife, Robinah, prayed for the women. I went with our team of men to pray for the Ugandan men. We had each man sit in a chair in the center of the room as our team prayed for each of them individually.  This was a powerful time.

Afterwards the church served us a hardy lunch of rice, beans, goat and matoke (made from plantain). During lunch, Pastor Joseph (George’s brother, who pastors this church) was very gracious. He wanted all our emails and promised to keep in contact with us and pray for us.

We returned to the hotel and headed to the local Kisoro coffee shop called “The Coffee Pot.” I ordered a cappuccino and internet. Of course, the internet was down again.

Apparently, surrendering to Jesus sometimes means unpredictable internet service too.

Written from Kisoro, Uganda on June 19, 2014

Come over to Uganda

A Ugandan pastor and his family head to church on his "bota-bota."

A Ugandan pastor and his family head to church on his “bota-bota.”

“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” (Acts 16:9 ESV).

We’re leaving for Uganda tomorrow. Robin and I are joining several WCCers and members from other churches to respond to Ugandan Pastor George Mbonye’s call to “Come over and help us.” We’re doing this in partnership with Amazing Grace Adoptions and Orphan Care, a non profit based out of Raleigh, North Carolina that has been working with Pastor George for several years.

We’ve had our shots, taken our malaria meds, sprayed our clothes with insect repellent and packed our bags. We’ve prayed and prepared our Bible lessons and prayed some more. Now it’s time to go.

So, please keep us in your prayers as we promise to pray for you too. Pray for the 50 African pastors that I’ve been asked to train in leadership and preaching. Pray for the pastor’s wives that Robin has been asked to teach. Pray for the teachers and students that our team will be teaching. Pray for our health and effectiveness.

We’re thankful to our church and to our many partners who have made it possible for us to answer Pastor George’s call for help. And we’re especially thankful to God who has made it possible for us to obey Christ’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

One other thing, I hear that Pastor George has a “bota-bota” (motorcycle) too. Maybe he’ll let me take it for a spin.

Have you learned the secret of contentment?

IMG_7345I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NIV).

Webster defines contentment as “the state of being happy and satisfied.” Everyone wants to live in this state. But unfortunately, this kind of contentment is based on favorable circumstances. Happiness is based on something good “happening.” And as we all know, sometimes bad stuff happens. But what if there were a higher level of contentment? One that wasn’t based on happenings?

The apostle Paul spoke of such a higher level of contentment. In his letter to the Philippians he wrote of having “learned the secret of being content” no matter the circumstance. This contentment that Paul had learned was not dependent on the external world of constantly changing circumstances, but on an inner spiritual relationship and dependence on the eternal One, Jesus Christ.

So, how do we learn Paul’s “secret,” especially in this crazy and chaotic world today that constantly seeks to steal our joy and peace? In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he offered…

… three keys to unlocking the secret to true contentment.

  1. Learn to turn your worries into prayers. Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). Worry is self-talk. Prayer is talking to God. Why not take the same energy you’re using to worry and turn it into prayer?
  2. Learn to refocus your thinking from stressings to blessings. Paul said, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). This is more than positive thinking. This is moving your state of mind from the temporal things of this world to the eternal things of God. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Set your minds on things above” (Col.3:2). Decide to rejoice in the Lord. Say, “I’m too blessed to be stressed!” Focus on your blessings in Christ and set your mind on them.
  3. Learn the practice of depending on God’s power and provision. Paul wrote, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). Paul had learned to depend on Christ for strength. In Christ, he learned that he could “accept all things” (Phil. 4:11), “do all things” (Phil. 4:13), and “have all things” (Phil. 4:18). Therefore, everything he needed, he found in Christ.

Christ was the secret of Paul’s contentment.

Christ was the one who lay sleeping in the bow of the boat while the storm on the Sea of Galilee threatened to sink the disciples. He was the one whom the “winds and the waves” obeyed. Paul learned that when you have Christ in your life, no matter the storms, you can find rest and contentment in him.

Have you yet learned the secret of contentment?

 

The sincere faith of my mother and grandmother

Wilda and Ettie. My mother and grandmother.

Wilda and Ettie. My mother and grandmother.

“I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Timothy 1:5 NIV).

The church of my youth had annual revival services. We would often have an evangelist come and share how God had miraculously saved him from a life of sin. He would preach with fiery enthusiasm and through tears about how God had taken a former drunkard, (or addict, thief, murderer, etc.) and saved him.

These “Damascus Road” testimonies were amazing to me. I was envious of their certainty and passion. As a boy, I often doubted my salvation because I hadn’t had such an awesome conversion. I had no flash of light, no voice of God. At age eight, I had just decided to give my life to Jesus the way my mother and grandmother had taught me.

As I grew in my faith, I no longer doubted my salvation, but I still sometimes wished that my testimony was more exciting. Why couldn’t I have a testimony more like the apostle Paul’s?

Maybe that’s what Timothy was feeling when Paul wrote him that second letter. Paul was so fearless and certain when he testified of his faith, but Timothy was a little timid. When he compared himself to his mentor he just didn’t feel like he measured up.

Paul would have none of that. He reminded Timothy of the spiritual legacy that his mother and grandmother had given him. Timothy had been spared the suffering and sorrow of Paul’s many mistakes before coming to Christ. Paul reminded Timothy that the “sincere faith” which had “lived” in his mother and grandmother, now “lived” in him.

As a grown man, I’m glad that I have a “Timothy testimony.” The two most influential people in my spiritual development were women. They were my grandmother Ettie and my mother Wilda. They didn’t have the same names as “Eunice and Lois”, but they did have the same “sincere faith” living in them.

Sincere faith. The kind that is more than religion, more than rules and ritual. These women loved and lived for their Lord in such a sincere way that what they passed on to me was more caught than taught.

My mother and her mother are with Jesus now, but their sincere faith still lives here in me.

Happy Mother’s Day.

(This is a reprint of my blog from May 2010.)

Lectio Divina

lectiodivina“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV).

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 ESV).

As a pastor, I spend many hours each week studying God’s Word in preparation for the task of preaching. Yet, this practice of regular study doesn’t always meet my own spiritual needs. Being so focused on the preaching task sometimes causes me to read the Bible looking for information over inspiration. I see sermon points to preach rather than spiritual food to eat.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not diminishing the importance of exegesis. The Bible is a written text, inspired by God and written in human language. It deserves close literary study. Words need to be defined, sentences diagrammed, parts of speech identified, context and setting in life determined. Careful study leads to better understanding. And as my preaching professor at seminary used to say, “Fuzzy thinking leads to fuzzy preaching.” You’re not ready to preach until you understand the text.

But the Bible is more than a book to study, it’s spiritual food to eat. As Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Reading the Bible just for information is akin to dissecting your dinner meal just to determine its recipe. You might better understand how your quiche was cooked, but your stomach will still be left growling.

In my early years as a pastor I began to recognize this deficiency in my spiritual diet. I was growing in knowledge of the Bible, but I was feeling more and more dry in my spirit. So I turned to some old classical devotional authors to try and find some help. It was in these readings that I came across the Latin phrase lectio divina, which means “divine reading.” I was a little put off by its origin among the Benedictine monks in the 6th century. I wasn’t interested in shaving a circle in the top of my head and wearing sackcloth with a rope belt. But after examining the four step practice I was intrigued and decided to try it.

And the practice has changed my devotional life.

Here are the four movements of Lectio Divina (as I practice it):

  1. Lectio. Read the Scripture aloud and slowly. The idea of silent reading was unheard (no pun intended) of in the 1st Century. Reading it aloud means you get it twice, once through the eyes and again through the ears. If this practice is likened to “Feasting on the Word,” then lectio is like “taking a bite.”
  2. Meditatio. Meditate on the words by repeating them over and over. Pause on those words that seem to stir your soul. If lectio is “taking a bite,” then meditatio is “chewing on it.”
  3. Oratio. Begin to turn the reading into prayer. For instance the reading and meditation of Psalm 23 might become, “Oh Lord, You are my shepherd. I am learning not to want for anything but You…” Praying the Word back to God you are “savoring the essence of it” as you would a tasty feast.
  4. Contemplatio. Finally, you contemplate how the Word is doing, or wants to do, its work in you. Not just understanding that the Lord was David’s shepherd, but that you are receiving Him as your Shepherd. Not just thinking about the “still waters,” but drinking from them. Feasting on the Word, contemplatio is “digesting the food” of God’s Word and making it part of your life.

Lectio Divina is a helpful practice for approaching God’s Word. It recognizes the living aspect of the Word and seeks to hear God speak afresh. It isn’t the only way to handle the Word. Intense study, memorization, hearing the teaching and preaching of the Word, and other approaches are all important. The Word should affect our whole selves, the mind, the soul and the heart. Perhaps adding this practice to your Bible reading will help balance your spiritual diet as it has mine.

My hope is built on nothing less

0278=278“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3 ESV).

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ Name” (Edward Mote).

In the dictionary’s definition of the word “hope,” it describes three aspects (I have put this into my own words):

  1. Its basis. That which makes up the foundation for our expectation that our great desire will be satisfied.
  2. Its nature. That which describes the quality and strength of our future longing and its affect on us in the present.
  3. Its object. That which is the focus of our expectation. This is the future something or someone that we focus our desire upon obtaining.

I think Edward Mote (1797-1874), the founding pastor of Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, West Sussex, England must have been contemplating these three aspects of hope when he penned the words to that great hymn, “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less.” Published in 1837, this hymn became an instant classic.

Mote declared, “My hope is built” on Christ! Mote sees Christ’s work on the cross, his “blood and righteousness” as the foundation, the basis of our hope.  I agree. But I would further add that which the apostle Peter proclaimed, that our hope is built on Christ’s resurrection. In other words, the basis for Christian hope is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our hope is built on the historical reality of Christ’s work.

Mote says that this hope is not mere “trust” in a sweet “frame” of mind. No, it is based on the firm foundation of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. This also speaks to its nature. Christian hope is a “living hope” as Peter described it. Its quality lies in its connection to the living Lord Jesus, who abides in those who believe on him. This hope is not merely an optimistic or positive “frame” of mind, but a strong conviction that all is well and that all will be well because of the living Christ. As Mote wrote in verse three of his hymn, “When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my Hope and Stay.”

Christ’s resurrection is the basis of our hope. Christ’s abiding Spirit within us is the nature of our hope. And Christ’s return is the object of our hope. As Mote wrote in his final verse and chorus:

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh may I then in Him be found.
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

Christ is our living hope!

Reading through Passion Week

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The traditional burial slab of Jesus located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

“And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’” (Luke 22:15 ESV).

This coming Sunday begins what many Christians call Holy Week or Passion Week. It is called “Passion” week because of its connection to the Greek word πάσχω (pas’-kho) which is usually translated to “suffer” in the New Testament. This is the word that Jesus used to describe His crucifixion.

I’ve found that reading the Scriptures that describe the Lord’s final week leading up to the Cross, the Tomb and the Resurrection to be very moving and beneficial to my spiritual life. With this in mind, I offer this daily reading plan for Passion Week for your edification.

  • Palm Sunday – The Triumphal Entry. Read Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, or John 12:12-19.
  • Monday – Clearing the Temple. Read Matthew 21:10-17; Mark 11:15-18, or Luke 19:45-48.
  • Tuesday – Teaching in the Temple. Read Matthew 21:23-24:51; Mark 11:27-13:37, or Luke 20:1-21:36.
  • Wednesday – Anointed in Bethany. Read Mark 14:1-11.
  • Maundy Thursday – Last Supper & Garden of Gethsemane. Read Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-23, or John 13:1-30.
  • Good Friday – Crucifixion and Death. Matthew 27:1-56; Mark 15:1-41, Luke 22:66-23:50, or John 18:28-19:37.
  • Saturday – In the Tomb. Read Matthew 27:57-66; Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, or John 19:38-42.
  • Easter Sunday – The Resurrection. Read Matthew 28:1-13; Mark 16:1-20, Luke 24:1-49, or John 20:1-31.

There are two weeks in the Bible that the Lord inspired its writers to make daily diary entries. They are the seven days of creation and Passion Week. In the first week, He made the world and in the second, He began its redemption. God must have thought these two weeks important enough to keep a journal…

… And one worth reading and meditation.