Eight things to remember when attending church

“Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3 (NLT)

During this Christmas season when we are seeing even more guests attending our services, it seems good to remind our own church members of a few important items. All of these reminders have the idea of “thinking of others” as you go to church.

1. Be on time. Our guests come early. As members, we should already be there to greet them.

2. Save the best parking for our guests. Many of our committed members choose to park in the side parking lot to leave the better spots for others. Besides, the exercise is good for you!

3. Take a seat near the front. It encourages the worship team. It makes it easier for late arrivals to find a seat.

4. Take crying infants to the nursery. We love babies, but we also love to hear the Word of God. Don’t let your child be a distraction. That’s why we offer childcare.

5. Take notes during the sermon. It encourages the pastor and the visitor. Plus, it will increase your own learning.

6. Write on and turn in your Connection Card. When others see you completing it, they will feel more comfortable doing it too. Use it for prayer requests and other needs. Use it to encourage the worship team.

7. Don’t leave the worship service early. We’ve noticed several members leaving during the time of response. Please stay until the end of the worship service unless you serve on the greeter team. Leaving early is a distraction.

8. Talk to someone you don’t know. Get outside you comfort zone. Follow the “3-minute rule.” Take the first three minutes after the service to meet someone you don’t know before you get with your usual group of friends. We have guests every Sunday that are looking for connection.

As church members, we want to follow Christ who considered the needs of others before their own. You’ll be amazed how living for Christ and others will actually help meet your own needs too.

The only thing that counts is…

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” – Galatians 5:6 (ESV).

“Neither moral exertion nor moral failure counts. Period.” – Tim Keller, Galatians For You

The apostle Paul wrote that the only thing that counts is “faith working through love.” Neither circumcision [representing legalism, which is a reliance on good works for salvation], nor uncircumcision [representing licentiousness, which is unrestrained immorality] count. Both legalism and license are equally bankrupt approaches to life. They are like two ditches that humanity falls into, rather than walking by faith in Christ on the road called LOVE.

Why is this the only “road” that counts? There are at least three reasons that faith in Christ, which energizes perfect love in us, is the only thing that truly counts.

Three reasons only faith in Christ counts:

First, only faith in Christ brings us into a right relationship with God. Neither legalism nor license count toward making us right with the Father. Neither our best performance, nor our worst performance counts for anything.  Why? Because it isn’t about our performance at all. It’s about Christ’s. Our best work will bring us no closer to God, nor will our worst drive us any further from Him. We are already so separated from God that the only way to be made right with Him is through faith in Christ’s perfect work. Receiving Christ through faith, we need no longer struggle in our own self-effort. God accepts us as His own children because we have believed in Christ. We can rest in this new relationship with the Father.

Second, only faith in Christ gives us a new identity in God. Neither legalism nor license make for worthy identities. As Paul wrote earlier in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Old identities are superseded by the new identity “in Christ Jesus.” This does not remove our former distinctiveness of culture, class and gender, but it does give a new and unifying identity of being “one” in Christ.

The believer who struggles with legalism must beware that it is not their identity of being a good Baptist or Catholic, Presbyterian or Pentecostal that counts. It is only being “in Christ” that counts.

And those who would misuse the liberty they have in Christ as a license for the flesh, must also beware (see Gal. 5:13). For identifying according to fleshly desires will lead to a selfishness that consumes both them and those around them. They must put off old identities and put on Christ.

Third, only faith in Christ energizes a new character in us from God. Neither legalism nor license are able to change our inner character. In fact, they both work to bring out the worst in us. For they are both based on self-effort and they are energized by the flesh, which is the old sinful nature.

The legalist cannot walk on the road of perfect love because legalism reveals a character of pride, judging others, and guilt at their own continual failure at law-keeping. Trying to follow the law only energizes their flesh to rebel further. Try telling a toddler “No.” You will quickly discover how the law triggers the rebellion of the flesh.

The licentious have given up on trying to follow the law. They may even deceive themselves into celebrating this as freedom. But what they are really doing is giving themselves over fully to their lusts, which enslaves them to the very sin they practice. If they continue in their sin, they will experience a hardening of the heart that is no longer receptive to the Spirit of God.

But the one who has placed their faith in Christ will receive the Holy Spirit, who will empower and direct the believer to “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16) and bear the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22), which is primarily LOVE, along with the other eight godly character traits as well.

Faith in Christ, which works itself out in love, is the only thing that counts. It is the only thing that makes us right with the Father, gives us a new identity as children of God, and conforms us to the character of Christ. Legalism and license count for nothing. Christ’s love is the only thing that counts.

 

 

Bible studies in the breakfast nook

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” – 3 John 4 (ESV)

This past Wednesday as I was studying the Bible with both my sons in our breakfast nook, I experienced a very thankful moment as I considered the work that had been done at that table through the years. For a moment, I saw them as they once were, when we first started studying in the breakfast nook together.

The breakfast nook in our home has really been the place where we have eaten family meals and done Bible study since we first moved to Wilson in 1987. Our children were ages five (Stephen), two (Jonathan) and one (Erin) when we first arrived. We wanted to establish a regular time to teach them the Bible, so we decided to make it part of our dinners together every evening.

Yet, because our children were so young and at various stages of development, we came up with a game we called the “Bible Quiz” to keep their interest. The game went like this. I would tell a short Bible story in my own words, then I would ask questions from the story to each child. I was careful to match the difficulty of the questions to the child’s age. If they got the question correct, I gave them a penny. The first child to receive five pennies won that evening’s Bible Quiz. We even made Bible Quiz Jars for each child to store their pennies and kept them prominently on the kitchen counter as a daily reminder.

If I told the story of creation, I would ask little Erin, “Baby girl, who created us?” “God?” She would answer with an uncertain face. She was always a little shy in her answers at that age. Plus, I’d have to “shush” her older brothers who always wanted to answer for her. Then, I’d give her a penny, noting that she was now in first place. To which both boys would shout about how easy her question was and how it wasn’t fair because she had gotten to go first.

Then, I’d get more specific, “Fini (Jonathan), what was the name of the man and woman that God created?” He’d answer confidently in his little scratchy voice (he sounded like an old man at that age), “Adam and Eve!” “Right!” I’d say. “Here’s your penny. Now, you’re tied with Erin.”

Finally, I’d get to five year old Stephen. “Phanos, yours is a three-parter. Are you ready for it?” “Yessir.” He’d respond (If he didn’t, I wouldn’t ask the question until he did). “OK. Who was the first son of Adam and Eve, who was his younger brother, and what did he do to his younger brother?” Looking up thoughtfully at the ceiling for a moment, he would then look at me and answer, “Cain was the older brother. Abel was the younger one. And Cain murdered Abel.” “Right!” I would exclaim, tossing a penny his way for him to catch. “Hey, I only get one penny? That doesn’t seem fair” (He was always concerned about fairness). I’d respond, “Yeah, life isn’t always fair son. Get used to it.”

We played the Bible Quiz game after supper every evening for years. If we forgot, one of the kids would complain. They loved it. But it got more complex…

Because we had taught them so many stories, certain questions became standard  features of our nightly repertoire. As Erin got older, she started getting more questions like, “Who were the three Hebrew children who got thrown into the fiery furnace?” Or “Name the four gospels.”

By the time Jonathan was eight years old, he and Stephen were starting to get questions on the same level. For instance, I’d ask, “Once their was a Babylonian king who trembled in fear when a disembodied finger wrote on his palace wall… What was the king’s name, what was written on the wall, who interpreted the writing, and what did the writing mean?” Both boys would start jumping up from their chairs, waving their hands, saying “I know! I know!” before I even started asking the question part. “OK, Fini, what’s the answer?” He was starting to outgrow the old man voice now, he’d  confidently respond, “The king was Belshazzar. The writing on the wall was ‘Mene, mene, tekel, parsin.’ Daniel said what it meant. And it meant that you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting and your kingdom will be divided between the Medes and the Persians.”

“Come on, Dad.” Stephen would complain. “You know that we already know that one.” As I tossed a penny Jonathan’s way. “Give us something harder next time.”

And the questions have gotten harder. . .

Fast-forward to this past Wednesday, I was sitting at the breakfast nook with my sons again. I study with my teaching team here every Wednesday to prepare sermons for our church’s two locations. This coming Sunday, Jonathan, who is our Rocky Mount pastor and a chaplain in the NC National Guard, has his monthly weekend of service. So, we needed to cover his pulpit this weekend and Stephen, our pastor of worship and youth, volunteered.

There we all sat, studying the same Bible in the same breakfast nook. Jonathan was busily looking up the verbs in the Greek. “Dad, take a look at this word “adoption” in Galatians 4:5. It has the same root as the Greek word for “son.” Did you know that?”

“Hmm…” I started to respond.

Then Stephen interrupted before I could answer with, “Dad, I’m not sure you saw how the phrase ‘put on’ Christ in Galatians 3:27 implies clothing. It’s like Paul is saying we are ‘clothed in Christ.’ I think we really need to work this out in our application. Don’t you?”

“Hmm…” I began.

Then, it happened. In my mind’s eye, these two grown men sitting in my breakfast nook studying the Bible with me, appeared as two little boys, just as they had looked so long ago.

“Well Dad, are you still with us?” Both their faces seemed to say, as they looked my way, wondering why I was taking so long to respond to their questions.

“Yeah. I’m here. What was your question again?” I finally replied.

Now today, I’m sitting here at the same breakfast nook thinking about all the great meals and Bible studies we’ve had here together. I can imagine no greater joy than to live to see my children “walking in the truth” of God’s Word!

How would it look to be part of a church-planting movement?

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” — Jesus Christ, Acts 1:8 (ESV)

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else.” — The Apostle Paul, Romans 15:20 (NLT)

“The continual planting of new congregations is the most crucial strategy for the growth of the body of Christ.” — Tim Keller

“It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people.” — Rick Warren

 

What is a “church planting movement,” or as missiologists abbreviate it, a “CPM?” According to David Garrison, it is “a rapid and multiplicative increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment” (David Garrison, Church Planting Movements). I would add to Garrison’s definition that a CPM is motivated by an Acts 1:8 vision and marked by a growing obedience to follow the outward movement of the Holy Spirit. A church planting movement is first of all a Holy Spirit movement.

When I first heard the acronym, “CPM,” it was in context to international churches where missionaries were working. From that time, I started praying that God would let us be part of a church planting movement.

At first, God began to open doors for us to join other church planters in North Carolina in mutual encouragement and fellowship in a group that we helped start called the Innovative Church Community. I became a church planter coach with this group and experienced the joy of helping new church planters across the state. My wife and I had planted our church, so I already had the church-planter “bug.” But now, I was personally “infected” with the CPM bug! I wanted to see and be part of a church planting movement!

Then, around five years ago, God opened doors for us to work with church planters in Guatemala and Uganda. Now, not only was I going to help church planters, but we were sending our own church members on these short term trips. These members came home from these mission trips with the same CPM bug that had bitten me. I began to notice a stirring in our congregation at large as we sent more teams out each year.

Adam and Mandi, members in our church, became so moved by being part of our short term trips to Uganda, that they felt called to go for a longer stay. So, they raised support and we commissioned them to go and help with the churches in Kisoro, Uganda. They lived there with their young daughter for nearly a year working alongside Pastor George Mbonye, who has helped plant 18 churches there.

In the Summer of 2013, my son, Jonathan Combs, having finished seminary and working on staff at another church plant, came wanting us to help him plant a church in Eastern NC. I told him that learning to be a church planter with us would be more readily “caught,” than taught, so he agreed to be an unpaid church planter intern with us for a year. On October 1, 2014, we “hired” Jonathan to plant a church in Rocky Mount, NC. I say “hired” in parentheses because he had to raise his own  financial support during his internship.

Jonathan, his wife Nicole, their three kids (number three arrived while there), and a number of members from our Wilson location started working together to plant a new church in Rocky Mount. They started meeting in homes, forming new small groups that we call, “Community Groups.” They had three “preview” services in the Summer months of 2015 to help them build momentum and fine tune. Then, on Sunday, September 27, 2015, Eastgate Community Church was launched, meeting in Rocky Mount Academy with 78 people in attendance. A new church was born!

Since then, we’ve seen a steady, but gradually increasing, movement of people wanting to be involved in church planting. For instance, a nurse named Mary, after coming home from a mission trip with us to Indonesia, had a conversation with the Lord where she sensed Him asking her,  “So, you’ll go to Indonesia for Me, but not Rocky Mount?” Ultimately, she said, “Yes. I’ll go.” Packing her stuff, members of our church helped her move to a rental house in Rocky Mount. This past week, she quit her job at the Wilson hospital, having accepted a nursing position in Rocky Mount.

Another couple in our Wilson church, named Joseph and Amber, have recently caught the CPM bug too. Amber had gone on a recent mission trip with us to London to share Christ with the Muslim population there. She came home on fire. Joseph had ramped up his service at our Wilson campus, joining our lay staff, where he ultimately felt called to go and help with our Rocky Mount campus. Now they are considering selling their house and moving with their two children to Rocky Mount.

Recently, another couple in our church asked to talk with me. They are feeling called to move their family to work with one of our international church planter partners. I can’t name them now, but I’m sure you’ll hear about them someday soon.

Now, this coming Sunday, September 24, 2017, exactly 2 years from our Eastgate launch, we are having a Grand Opening service at our new location at 1113 S. Wesleyan Boulevard, Rocky Mount in a small store front that we are renting. Our members at both locations have been working hard over the last few weeks getting the place ready for worship. And it looks awesome! We just got the new sign installed today. so people driving by on highway 301 will know that we are there!

How would it look to be part of a church planting movement? Look around. We may be seeing the beginnings of one now.

Moving from selfie to healthy

“Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3 (NLT)

Welcome to the “Selfie” Generation! We live in a culture that encourages us to focus on self-worth, self-improvement, and self-esteem. Our self-image seems to be more important to us than a true sense of health and happiness. We don’t even need someone else to take our photo. We’ve invented the selfie stick!

Some would point back to the 60s and 70s to identify the beginnings of this generational shift towards self. The generation that came of age during that time has been called the Baby Boomers. In 1973, author Thomas Wolfe gave the Boomers another name due to their focus on self. He called them the “Me Generation.” I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that the focus on self has only increased, so that a recent cover story in Time Magazine called the current generation of Millennials, the “Me, Me, Me Generation.”

However, I’m not sure that this generation is any more selfish than the previous ones. The truth is that all of humanity has been born with a selfish gene ever since the Fall. We all are born with a desire to do things our way, rather than God’s way. The Bible calls this attitude, sin. And it’s this sin, this selfish attitude that separates us from God and from one another.

What can we do? How can we change from “me” thinking to “we” thinking. How can we move from a “selfie” attitude to a “healthy” one?

First, we can recognize that God made us to be in fellowship with Him and with one another. After God made Adam, He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). As author and pastor, Randy Frazee, has written, “God  has built us with a connection requirement!” (Randy Frazee, Making Room for Life).

Recognizing the link between social ties and health, Dr. Shelley Taylor, research professor at UCLA, says, “Friendships play a far more important role in maintaining good health and having a long life than most people realize.  Social ties are the cheapest medicine we’ve got.”

Dr. Taylor  goes on to document that people with strong social networks are shown to:

  • Boost their chances of surviving life-threatening illnesses.
  • Have stronger, more resilient immune systems.
  • Improve their mental health.
  • Live longer than people without social support.

In other words, selfie living does not result in healthy living. We need one another. Not only do we need one another for physical and psychological health. We also need one another for spiritual health.

As the apostle Paul wrote, “I ask you not to think of yourselves more highly than you should. Instead, your thoughts should lead you to use good judgment based on what God has given each of you as believers. Our bodies have many parts, but these parts don’t all do the same thing. In the same way, even though we are many individuals, Christ makes us one body and individuals who are connected to each other” (Romans 12:3-5 GW).

When you make the decision to take “self” off the throne of your life and to give Christ control, it results in a new spiritual life. It is this new life in Christ that connects us to God and to other believers, so that we begin to stop thinking of ourselves “more highly” than we should.  We begin to love God with all of our being, and to love our neighbor, as ourselves. 

The selfie photo might be a fun innovation, but selfie living is contrary to healthy living. Selfishness is killing us and it’s killing our world. We were created to be in communion with God and with one another. Only by turning from self to Christ, can we experience the oneness with God and with one another that will bring us true wholeness.

Learning about racial healing and forgiveness from a Rwandan genocide survivor

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45 NLT).

We just returned from a two week mission trip to Uganda. One of the highlights was being able to meet and work with five pastors from one of the United Nations refugee camps located there. A little known fact is that Uganda has the most compassionate refugee policy in the world, welcoming refugees from surrounding African countries like Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, and Burundi. The five pastors that attended our pastor’s training conference have all planted churches in one of these refugee camps. Being refugees themselves, they have now become the ideal pastors to help other refugees in Uganda.

One of the refugee pastors was Byamungu Emmanuel. He was a refugee from the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. Nearly his entire family was murdered when the Hutu majority systematically killed over 800,000 Rwandans from the Tutsi and Pygmy Batwa people groups. Over a 100-day period in 1994, it is estimated that 70% of the Tutsi population and 30% of the Batwa were killed. Many of the survivors fled to Uganda. Emmanuel was among them.

When I heard Emmanuel explaining his reason for being a refugee, I asked him to give me his testimony. I asked, “How did you go from having your family murdered to becoming a Christian pastor?”

After hearing his amazing testimony, I asked him to please write it down for me in his own words. The following is what he wrote:

“I am called Pastor Byamungu Emmanuel and this is my testimony before I got saved. I was born on March 8, 1988 and I grew up in the family of non believers but I grew up in that situation knowing nothing about salvation and how a person can get eternal life.

This is what happened to me in 1994 during genocide that took place in Rwanda. My family was completely destroyed from my grandfather and many of my relatives and I remained with only my mother and my sister who is now staying in Kigali. My mother was shocked and  she remained with mental problem after the murders. I grew up with a spirit of revenging to those who had killed my family and relatives. I joined primary school and then after I joined  secondary school but my plan was to join the army so that I can revenge to those who had killed my relatives. I couldn’t study well because my heart was broken. My mission of joining the army failed because after I received the call from someone whom I didn’t know before, telling me to go to Kampala to look for a good school (University). I had sponsorship when I was in senior six but I didn’t think that I have to study even University because what was in mind was only revenging.

I obeyed the call and to went to Kampala to look for the good school. When I reached in Kampala, my plan was to study the law but I didn’t realize that I had joined Bible school. I found my self studying God’s word which was not even in my thoughts.

Day by day transformation took place in my life. No one preached to me the Gospel. What I know and what I believe is that the Holy Spirit touched me in the way I didn’t expect but I allowed Him to take control in my life. After reading Romans 3:23, I was convicted that not only those who killed my relatives are sinners but even me too am a terrible sinner and again the Bible tells us even to love our enemies. To understand this was very had to me but slowly by slowly, God changed me in His own way.

I spent there 3 years in the Bible school and before my graduation I went back to Rwanda. I called my mother and sister and I began to teach and tell them how God had transformed my life. They were amazed because they saw me with a heart of forgiving others. I preached to them and told them how Jesus took away our sins and put them on the cross so that we can get eternal life. They received the message and believed what the Bible says but when I told them to forgive those who killed our relatives, to understand what I was telling them became hard for them. So I kept on praying so that God can change their hearts.

Later, they came to believe what I told them, so I called those who had killed our family to our home so that we could forgive them. Even though it was not their request of forgiveness but I called them and cooked for them and we shared food and drinks with them and I opened Romans 3:23, we all started crying and we forgave them and we also asked them forgiveness because we were in the process of revenging to them and on their children.

We embraced each other and I prayed for them and after 2 weeks, I went to attend my graduation. From 2010 to date, my Mum has been sharing with the so-called enemies what ever they have and  I am going on preaching the Gospel to those who are suffering in sinful life.

I thank the  almighty God who sent Jesus Christ to save me. By now I am a child of God, a new creation, no judgement is on me and I believe that Jesus Christ will not leave me. Glory be to Jesus who saved me and He has given me a beautiful wife and one daughter.

My hope is that Jesus Christ who saved me while I was a terrible sinner will not fail to save others through his powerful blood.”

– Pastor Byamungu Emmanuel, August 2, 2017 at Rutare, Uganda

 

On our return trip home from Uganda we started catching up on the news from home. After two weeks of working together with Ugandan believers and refugee pastors like Emmanuel, I was broken hearted to hear the tragic news about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Oh how I pray that the people of our country would learn of the racial healing and forgiveness that Pastor Emmanuel has experienced. The kind of healing and forgiveness that can only be found in Jesus Christ.

5 reasons our church will look like the bat cave this week…

“Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.” – Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:22b-23 (NLT)

‘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.”‘ – Jesus, Luke 18:16 (ESV)

If you come to our church this week, or for that matter, you just drive by the building, you’ll see some pretty unusual features added to the architecture. It looks kind of like a superhero hideout. Even more, as you come inside, it looks like the bat cave.

What?

Yep. We’ve made some temporary modifications to make our building look like Batman’s secret base. Not only that, but we’re dressing like superheroes, and we’ve even written songs and lessons and designed crafts and activities around the superhero theme.

Why?

Let me give you five reasons:

  1. Because kids everywhere today are into superheroes and we thought it might be a good way to get kids who don’t normally go to church, to come to ours. We’re calling our four-night event: “KidzFest 2017: SIDEKICKS.”  We know that our members will bring their kids to any kind of  VBS type event  just because we offer it. But we wanted to do something that would cause kids in the city, that don’t normally go to church, to beg their parents to bring them. As the apostle Paul taught, we are trying to find “common ground” with unreached families in our city in order to share the gospel with them.
  2. Because kids are the most open to the gospel. That’s why Jesus instructed His disciples not to do anything to “hinder” kids from coming to Him. We’re making our church kid-friendly because we want to give them the gospel in a way that they can understand.
  3. Because when we reach kids, we also reach their parents. One of the main reasons that people begin attending church is because one of their children starts asking “God-questions.” You know, stuff like: “Who made the world? What happens when you die? Who is Jesus?” Parents often need help with these kinds of questions. We want to be there to help.
  4. Because the “growth engine” of our church is our children and family ministries. God has trusted us with young families with lots of kids. We want to be good stewards of that trust. So, our annual KidzFest outreach is one way that we “lean in” to this trust that God has given us.
  5. Because we want to teach kids about the only true Superhero, namely, Jesus Christ! During our KidzFest, even Batman and Superman will have to admit that the only true hero is Jesus. And Jesus wants every kid to be His “sidekick!” In other words, Jesus wants kids to follow Him.

So, there’s five reasons that we’re looking and dressing like superheroes this week. It’s why over 100 adult volunteers are singing, teaching, playing and serving. It’s why we’ve planned and worked for months to prepare. We want kids to come to Jesus.

Every year this outreach has grown. For the last two years we have creatively thought of ways to expand in spite of severe space limitations. But in order to continue to grow, we will need to enlarge our facilities, and increase our efforts to reach kids and families in our city.

So, put your cape on and join us this coming week for KidzFest 2017! And be in prayer for how we can continue to grow in our ministry to kids in years to come!

From now on, call me Moses.

“You shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord will name.” – Isaiah 62:2 NKJV

We just returned from a ten-day tour of Israel yesterday. I’m still pretty jet-lagged, but I had to tell you one of the wonderful God-stories that we experienced while there.

The week before we left on the tour, I received a phone call from the tour company to go over last minute details with me. They also gave me an updated listing of everyone that was going on the tour. I knew the names of the 20 people that I had booked from our church and from other friends. But I didn’t know the names of those the tour company had booked. One of the people they had booked was named “Mohammed.”

“Mohammed?” I asked. “Where is he from and how old is he?”

“He’s from Maryland. He is sixty-six years old.” They answered.

“Is he Muslim?” I asked.

“We don’t know. He was a last minute booking.” They replied.

“OK. That’s cool. I look forward to hearing his story.” I answered.

So, when we arrived in Israel, I was looking for Mohammed. At our first lunch stop I asked him to sit beside me.

“What’s your story, Mohammed?” I asked between bites of falafel. “Why would a Muslim want to go on a Christian tour of Israel?”

“I’m not Muslim anymore.” He answered, while dipping his bread in hummus. “I was a Muslim for sixty-five years, but last year I had several visions of Jesus. He appeared to me. I know it was Him because I saw the scars in His hands as He beckoned to me. So, I decided to become His follower before I die.”

“That’s amazing!” I replied. “So, you’ve been a Christian for one year?”

“Yes, one year. And since then I’ve become obsessed with Jesus. That’s why I decided to come to Israel to see the land where He walked for myself.”

“That’s wonderful! I’ve read well documented reports that Muslims around the world are coming to Jesus because of such visions. It’s become quite a well known phenomenon. Jesus must really love you to appear to you in such a way.” I told him while shaking his hand.

“Hey everyone!” I shouted to those sitting at our table. “You have got to ask Mohammed to tell you his story. It’s amazing!”

“Should I change my name?” Mohammed suddenly asked me. “It seems you assumed I was Muslim because of my name. So, I think I must change it. I want a Christian name.” He passionately explained.

“Well, I’ll be offering to baptize people in the Jordan river in a couple of days. People have been taking a Christian name at baptism for centuries. So that might be a perfect time to consider changing your name.” I answered. “Would you like for me to baptize you?”

“Yes, absolutely. I was hoping for such a possibility. I was baptized by the Catholic church that my wife attends, but I was hoping to be baptized by immersion. So, you would be willing to do that for me?” He asked.

“Have you believed that Jesus died for your sins, was buried and rose again? Have you confessed Him as your Lord and Savior?” I answered.

“I have.” He responded simply.

“Then, on that basis, I will baptize you.” I agreed.

“Great. I’m so happy. Now, I have to think of a new name.” He said with a huge smile on his face.

Following that conversation, I heard Mohammed telling his story to everyone on the tour. He always finished by asking their opinion on what new name they thought he should take. He wanted to have a name from the Bible, but one that still started with an “M” as the first letter. The name that nearly everyone mentioned to him was “Moses.”

But he still wasn’t sure on the morning of baptism. So, I baptized him in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit as commanded by Jesus, and told him that he could take a new Christian name whenever he wanted.

A couple of days later, when I gave out baptism certificates to all that were baptized, he came back to me with a troubled look on his face.

“Can you make me a new baptism certificate with the name ‘Moses” on it? I’m going to change my name legally too. So, I want to start with my baptism certificate. ” He asked confidently.

“Yes, as it turns out, I have one blank certificate left. Are you sure you want to change your name to Moses?”

“I’m positively sure. Moses saw the burning bush when he was old and I saw a vision of Jesus when I was old. I am like Moses.” He said.

“Yes, you do look like a Moses to me.” I replied smiling.

On the last day of the tour, we had a worship service at the Garden Tomb. We concluded the service by remembering the Lord’s Supper. At that service, I asked Moses to come forward and there I presented him with his new baptism certificate. On it was his new name, “Moses.”

As he stood next to me smiling, he said to everyone gathered there, “Don’t call me Mohammed anymore. From now on, call me Moses!”

Developing a five year strategic ministry plan

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)

“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.” – Habakkuk 2:2 (ESV)

We’re beginning a six-month season of focused prayer and reflection on where God wants our church to be in the next five years. We’ve partnered with Brad Oaster with Oaster Development to help us in this process. Brad has years of experience coaching churches on planning for next steps in their ministry.

We’re appointing several teams to focus on various aspects of the ministry,  to pray, research, and offer strategic steps for how we might move forward into the future that we see God leading us. At the end of this six-month period, we prayerfully plan to have a God-sized vision for our church, including next steps that we must take to get there.

So, if you hear a “buzz” around the church over the next six months about how we’re dreaming together to grow and to reach our city for Christ, now you’re in the know.

Also, if you have an interest in helping on one of these strategic planning teams, please contact us. We want all our members to have a part in this process.

 

 

Humbled to celebrate 38 happy years together!

“Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” – Ephesians 5:21 (ESV)

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? …But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God.” – James 4:1, 6-7 (ESV)

Robin and I are celebrating our anniversary today! We were wed in a little country church up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia thirty-eight years ago. Many considered us too young at the time, but here we are now, thirty-eight years later, with three married children and eight grandchildren. We two, have become a tribe!

Yet, we are humbled by this journey. For the secret to our marital bliss has always been the Lord Jesus, and the grace that He gives us. It is His grace that has made us reconciled to the Father and continues to reconcile us to one another. God’s grace is like love and forgiveness all mixed together and lavishly poured out on us through Christ. When things get difficult in our marriage, God’s grace is kind of like the oil in a combustion engine, it keeps the relational gears and pistons lubricated when friction and heat would otherwise cause them to break down.

And yes, we’ve had our own relational “friction and heat” in 38 years together! There’s no such thing as a conflict-free marriage and we’re certainly no exception. We’re all sinners, and sinners are selfish and want their own way. We may want to blame our disagreements and strife on someone else, but the truth is we’re usually the ones to blame.

The apostle James wrote that our quarrels actually begin inside of us. He said it’s because our own “passions are at war” within us. Marriage merely exposes the conflict that is already raging inside our own hearts.

Can you imagine going to “Dr. James” for marriage counseling today? Couples that might come looking for some communication tips or conflict resolution tweaks, would be quite surprised to have Dr. James focusing his attention on their individual relationships with God…

Dr. James – “So, John and Sally, how can I help you today?”

Sally – “Dr. James, can you please help us with our communication? John doesn’t talk to me like he used to, and when I complain, he gets angry with me.

Dr. James – “Sally, are you at peace with God? Have you humbled yourself before God and submitted to His will for your life? Are you seeking to please the Lord Jesus in all things?”

Sally – “What? We came here for marriage counseling. Not spiritual counseling!”

John – “Ha! Now you see what I’m up against Doc. She can be a real nag!”

Dr. James – “No John. Sally is not the problem. You are. Have you humbled yourself before God and submitted to His will for your life?  If you will submit your role as a husband to Christ, He will give you the grace to be the husband that Sally truly needs.”

Sally – “Yes, yes! See John? You need God’s help to be a better husband to me. That’s what I’ve been praying for you.”

Dr. James – “No Sally. You misunderstand. John is the problem, but so are you. If each of you will focus on humbly submitting to God, He will give you the grace for living in harmony as husband and wife. Stop focusing on the faults you see in one another and start focusing on your own need for God’s grace in your life.”

I’m not sure if “Dr. James” would have a successful counseling practice today because people like to have their ears tickled. But I guarantee you that those who would follow his advice would see the grace of God bring peace and harmony to their lives.

That’s what Robin and I have experienced in our marriage. Sure, we could give you a list of tips and tweaks, like “don’t go to bed mad,” and always be ready to say, “I’m sorry,” and of course the very important, “the last one up makes the bed!” But none of that advice will help with the war that rages inside us. We need someone to rescue us from our own selves.

That “someone” is Jesus. When we humbly submit to Him, he “gives more grace.” Then, when we have submitted to receive His peace with God, we learn to submit to “one another out of reverence for Christ” and discover that we have found peace with one another too.

So, we are humbled to celebrate our thirty-eight years of marriage together. For it was in humbling our individual selves “before the Lord” that resulted in His “raising us up,” so that Christ gets the glory!

 

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY TO MY SWEET ROBIN!