Hey, aren’t you his father?

Jams“To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Timothy 1:2 NIV).

This past Sunday Robin and I had the privilege of ministering at Awaken Church in Greensboro.

Before the service began I was getting to know some of the people that are helping Chris and Molly Shelton plant this wonderful church that currently meets in a deli. A young man named “Jack” helps out every week by opening the store so that they can have church. I stopped by the counter to thank Jack for his help.

“It’s no big deal.” he said. “I don’t mind. Hey, aren’t you his father?” he asked, while pointing at Chris.

“Well, no I’m not.” I answered. “His dad is over there.” I continued, while pointing out the elder Mr. Shelton.

Then I thought for a moment and said, “But I don’t mind being confused as Chris and Molly’s dad. I am certainly as proud of them as a father would be.”

Later in the morning when Chris introduced me as the speaker at the worship service he said that the DNA for Awaken Church was largely a product of his being a part of WCC. He said that WCC had been the place where he had caught a vision for reaching people for Christ in an authentic and relational way. He introduced me as his pastor, mentor and friend.

I felt greatly honored to speak at Awaken Church. Seeing what God is doing there through Chris and Molly and little Julia made me well up with pride. Not pride in myself, but in being part of the family of God…

Jams2_3 … a family that makes us fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters because of Christ.

WCC is proud of its daughter Awaken.

May the Lord Himself increase the light of influence that Awaken Church has in Greensboro! May the members of Awaken know what it means to have spiritual children!

It’s good to have a “true son” in the faith!

Traveling to see “uncle” Jesus

100_0755A couple of weekends ago my brother Barry, his wife Sabra, and their middle son, Jeremiah came to Wilson to visit us. They attended church with us and Barry sang at both services. Several of our WCCers wondered aloud on how much my brother looked like Jesus.

This was no accident. Barry has been playing the role of Jesus in the Roanoke Christmas Pageant since the late 80s. For years the members of the First Baptist Church of Roanoke have performed one of the most amazing musical productions of the birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus for their community. They describe it as their “Christmas gift to the Roanoke Valley.” Some years they have had as many as 20,000 people attend their production.

About three years ago after offering this “gift” every Christmas, they decided to take a break. It was unbelievably taxing to pull off such a huge production every year. Some members would work all year to prepare for the next season. Barry had been so committed that he would start growing his hair and beard in the Spring to be ready for the role by December.

This year they decided to bring the pageant back. It took a while for them to shake off the cobwebs. The people who used to build their elaborate set no longer attended FBC. Many of the actors and musicians had moved on too. They had to recruit new people for many of the roles.

Thank goodness my brother Barry was still available. With him they have a proven actor and vocalist who in my unbiased opinion could perform on any stage on Broadway. His speaking voice is clear and powerful. His singing range and tone are worldclass. His stage presence is profound and authentic.  Even though he is my little brother, he becomes Jesus to me within moments of the first scene.

I’ve seen Barry perform this role for many years. Traveling to Roanoke to see the pageant has been an annual tradition for us. Our kids have grown up seeing “Uncle Barry” play Jesus.

I’m glad that we got to see him play the role of Jesus again this past weekend. It was well worth the drive. And we got to introduce the tradition to our new daughter-in-laws, Caroline and Nicole.

Now they understand why our kids sometimes call him “Uncle Jesus.” It’s more than a play for my brother.

It’s a life’s calling.

Contemplation of Christ satisfies


“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:15-20 NIV).

A strange wonder came over me while singing the decision song after last Sunday’s message.  We sang, “Hallelujah! He has found me, the One my soul so long has craved. Jesus satisfies all my longings, through His blood I now am saved.”

I experienced a fresh awareness of how deeply I believed what I was singing. These were not mere words to me. I actually felt myself singing/saying to Jesus, “You made me for Yourself and I am completely satisfied in you. You are the supreme satisfaction to my soul’s longing!”

These past few months I’ve been compelled to preach Jesus as never before. We spent several weeks earlier this year looking at the seven miraculous signs of Jesus in the gospel according to John. Most recently we studied the seven letters that Jesus dictated to the seven churches of Asia Minor. As I’ve studied and preached on the person of Jesus I’ve become especially struck by a new thought, at least it’s new to me.

The contemplation of Christ is the satisfaction to my deepest longing!

What’s new about this you ask? We all see Jesus as the answer. We all call on him to meet our needs. Jesus is the heavenly banker that sends us money. He’s the faithful grocer that delivers fresh bread. He’s the immediate care doc that heals our sickness. Jesus is our need supplier.

But that’s not the Jesus I’m learning to contemplate. It may seem a nuanced difference, but to me this has been a huge revelation. Jesus is more than a supplier. He himself is the satisfaction for all of our need.

That’s what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples through all of those sign miracles. That’s why he would say things like, “I am the bread of life.” Yes, he fed them real bread, but it only satisfied until the next meal. He was teaching them about something better.

That’s what the book of Revelation is really about. It’s the revelation of Jesus. To each of the seven churches he offered a unique revelation of himself. Why? Because that’s what they needed most. They needed to contemplate and receive the revelation of Jesus. It would be that understanding/reception of Jesus that would satisfy them in their unique time and place.

Certainly self knowledge can be profitable. As Socrates said, “Know thyself.” But introspection without contemplating the revealed/revealing Christ inevitably leads to a faulty prayer life. As we consider our own lives and our own needs we tend to pray, “Lord, please meet this desire in my life or else take it away from me.”

This kind of prayer sounds very spiritual, but upon closer inspection we see that it is solely focused on the desire. “Lord give me this desire or take this desire away.”

Contemplating the Christ by whom and for whom I was created leads me to pray, “Lord, reveal to me that knowledge of You that will satisfy me today.”

Whatever longing you feel today can be met in knowing Jesus more fully. That which you need is not out there somewhere. It is in Christ.

On handling snakes and grumbling

Snake“Then the people of Israel set out from Mount Hor, taking the road to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient along the way, and they began to murmur against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this wretched manna!” So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them, and many of them were bitten and died. Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people. Then the Lord told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to the top of a pole. Those who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to the top of a pole. Whenever those who were bitten looked at the bronze snake, they recovered (Numbers 21:4-7 NLT)!

Last night at our MidWeek service we did some snake handling. Well, sort of… it was a rubber snake and I was using it as an object lesson for the children.

Many of us are born with an inate fear of snakes. We know to be careful around them because many of them are venomous. And snake venom can be deadly. There are three distinct types of snake venom that act on the body differently. One, is a hemotoxic venom that acts on the heart and cardiovascular system. Another, is neurotoxic venom that acts on the nervous system and the brain. A third, is cytotoxic venom that has a localized action on the cells at the site of the snake bite. Some snakes have a combination of these venoms. All of these venoms are harmful to the human body.

There is another kind of venom that acts on the spirit. It’s the venom of grumbling and complaining. And it is perhaps more dangerous than we realize. It’s venom is especially destructive to the body of Christ. In fact, grumbling is destructive to any family or fellowship. It’s destructive to a nation. It’s venom breaks down a people.

It’s also destructive to our relationship with God. Grumbling is the opposite of worship and being thankful. Grumbling is the opposite of faith and trust. It is “murmuring against God” himself.

So, how do we “handle” the venomous snake of grumbling? What is the antidote for a complaining spirit?

Gratitude. Be thankful at all times and in all circumstances. Ask Christ to give you a blood transfusion of his antibody against grumbling.

The antidote to snake venom is developed by injecting small amounts of venom into a horse until it develops antibodies against the venom. These antibodies are then purified into a serum for humans.

Jesus has taken all our sins upon His body. Just as the symbol of the Israelite’s suffering was lifted up in the wilderness, so Jesus has been lifted up for us to see and believe. When we place our trust in Christ we can be thankful in all things.

“No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1Thessalonians 5:18 NLT).

The “Roady Church” goes downtown

2007_whirligig_festival_008 “Jesus replied, “We must go to the nearby towns, so that I can tell the good news to those people. This is why I have come.” (Mark 1:38 CEV)

“Therefore go” (Matthew 28:19).

This past Sunday we had to tear down our equipment immediately after the second service ended and load it up to carry it downtown for the Whirlygig Festival. That was a tight time crunch. Tear down after 12:15 and be on the blue stage on Nash Street playing at 1:15. Not many churches could do that.

Without bragging too much, we are the kind of church that can. We’re the “Roady Church!” We’ve been setting up and tearing down for over 15 years every Sunday. Sometimes being portable has its advantages. When we say the church is not the steeple, it’s the people… our people get it! They understand that the church is them. They also understand that the church is on mission. We’re not a location to visit, we’re a people on the move!

This past Sunday we took the worship downtown and it was wonderful.

Can you think of more ways to take the church into the streets?

Lingering for discipleship

Gary_with_dallas_willard_110207 "I have been given say over everything in heaven and earth, so go make apprentices to me among people of every kind, submerge them in the reality of the Trinitarian God, and lead them into doing everything I have told you to do. Now look! I am with you every minute, until the job is completely done!" (Dallas Willard’s paraphrase of Matthew 28:18-20).

I’ve had an amazing week! I’ve been discipled/mentored by two great and godly men this week. It started on Monday when I had the privilege of driving Gordon MacDonald for the day and it finished Friday night when I found myself sitting across the dinner table from Dallas Willard.

Dallas Williard is a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy. He is best known in Christian circles as an author of books on discipleship. His groundbreaking books The Divine Conspiracy and the The Spirit of the Disciplines have enriched the understanding of the Christian faith for thousands of believers.

I just got a copy of his recent book The Great Omission– Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings On Discipleship.  Even better, I got to spend the day hearing him speak on the same topic. I’ve been so blessed to be part of a learning community that invites important speakers like Dr. Willard to spend the day with us.  Being part of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence experience at Hollifield Leadership Center in Hickory, NC has really been a wonderful journey.

At the age of 71, Dallas Willard is a joyful and vibrant man. His teaching method was less about the content and more about the questions he asked. He asked penetrating questions that caused us to think about the gospel we preach and the disciples that we are commissioned to make. Hearing him teach was like drinking from a fire hydrant. It was an intellectual joy and a spiritual challenge to hear him.

After the conference I had made plans to spend another night at Hickory so I could do some writing and thinking. Imagine my surprise when I was invited to join a few of the leaders who were taking Dr. Willard to dinner. Sometimes lingering around afterwards is rewarding!

I guess that’s the new thing in my life these days. I’m willing to linger more. When I was younger I was always asking, "What’s next?" Now, I want to savor the moment more. I want to be quiet and listen to the older men and women more.

Dallas Willard said, "Most people have never been offered a meaningful opportunity to become a disciple."

I want to offer that meaningful opportunity to people. Of course it means I’ll have to linger with people more and they’ll have to linger too.

It’s worth it though. After a day of great learning, I got to have cheesecake with Dallas Willard. As we ate, I commented on needing some more discipleship on reeling in my appetite.

Dr. Willard, a twinkle in his eye, said, "Gary, have I told you about the discipline of celebration?"

"Sometimes," he continued, "you have to learn to enjoy the blessings of God!" He said, while eating another bite of double chocolate cheesecake.

Driving GMAC

Gmac“You experienced it all firsthand. With each of you we were like a father with his child” (1 Thessalonians 2:11 Msg).

No, I didn’t get a GMC truck. I spent the day driving GMAC (Gordon MacDonald) from the Raleigh airport to a pastor’s conference in Winston Salem and then back to his hotel in Raleigh.

Gordon is a much sought after speaker and author. But more importantly he is a father. When we first planted WCC God gave us a young couple named Tom and Kristy McLaughlin to encourage and help us. They are the ones who introduced me to GMAC. Gordon is Kristy’s dad.

I was in my 30s back then. I suppose I was full of vim and vigor. I really felt too busy as a church planter to even go to conferences, much less to discover or listen to a mentor. I don’t recall feeling like an expert. It was more like I felt a crazy desperation to just hang on and not be a failure. I was so full of my own inner voice of critique that I was sure I didn’t need another set of eyes looking at the life I was living. I wasn’t living up to my own expectations. I certainly didn’t want to know another’s expectations of me. I guess that’s what I thought a mentor, a father-figure would offer… more and higher expectations.

Can you imagine my surprise that in my late 40s I would start wanting a father’s voice speaking into my life, a father’s eyes looking at my stuff? Go figure.

Gordon, in his late 60s, seems to qualify. More than age though, he is open to sharing his life with younger men (with him I get to be the younger man). His voice and his eyes don’t judge and crush like I feared. Instead, he offers an authentic and revealing look at his own life story and then asks penetrating questions about mine.

Gordon says, “A father no longer feels the urge to compete with those younger. He offers grace and encouragement. He gently urges them to grow in self discipline and commitment. He offers a larger perspective and challenges them to remember what is most important.”

Spending the day with Gordon caused me to write the following questions down for my serious consideration:

·       Who are my really good friends?

·       What does my devotional life look like now?

·       Will the second half of my life be the “best” half or the “bad half?”

·       Have I lost my enthusiasm?

·       What is my sense of call today?

·       What’s in my past that remains unsettled? How does my past drive or limit my future?

·       Where in my life am I making room for laughing and playing?

·       Am I praying with my wife as I should?

·       Am I seeing my children’s spouses as my own children? How can I be a father to them too?

·       Am I keeping a Sabbath day of rest?  (What refreshes me? Don’t use this day for draining tasks.)

Some would say that I spent the whole day as a chaffeur. However, I see my day as one spent with a father. Those who see the value in this will do anything just to be in the car with one who is willing to invest in them.

Who is your mentor? Are you willing to take a day just driving someone in the hopes that they will help “drive” something in you? Are you willing to serve an older man (or woman) just to be near them in the desire that they would share their wisdom with you?

Towards the end of the day, Gordon turns to me while pointing out the window and says, “Look, there’s a pickup truck like mine!”

“I never figured you for a pickup man.” I say.

“Well, I am,” he says. What did you figure me for?”

“I don’t know, but spending the day with you has been quite a pleasant surprise.” I answered.

To kill a Mockingbird

Mocking_bird“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up” (Luke 8:5 NIV).

Some Sundays are more challenging than others. This past Sunday was like that. I should have been prepared for it, but I wasn’t. Anytime I speak on something like suffering, it seems that we experience a little more difficulty that day.

I think perhaps it makes the evil one nervous when we get really honest about life and how we’re facing it. He seems to work extra hard to distract and divert our attention when we come together to be sharpened in our faith, especially when some are on the fence of decision.

So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that when I first arrived on campus Sunday morning, one of the tech guys meets me at the door with, “Hey pastor, we’re having trouble with the powerpoint this morning, we might be going really low tech today.”

I wonder if Jesus ever had trouble with his visual aids? Can you see the disciple named Thaddaeus (unlike Peter, James, and John, he worked more behind the scenes, probably a tech guy) pulling Jesus off to the side and urgently whispering in his ear?

“Lord, I wouldn’t go for the multiplying the loaves and fishes thing today. We’re having trouble finding a boy with a sack lunch.”

I just don’t find that story anywhere in the gospels. Yet, Jesus does warn that when the “farmer” sows the seed of God’s Word that the “birds of the air” try to snatch it away before it can settle into the soil of the human heart. Jesus makes us aware that sowing the Word has its challenges.

At the first service on Sunday I’m standing there singing along with the praise songs (internally praying “God, please make the lyrics start appearing on the screen”), when I see something fluttering against the window. A mockingbird is fluttering and pecking against the window right beside the projection screen. And man, is he ever persistent!

I start praying, “Lord, make that bird go away!” (I know I look like I’m spiritually communing in the holy of holies during worship, but I may just be begging God to make the amp stop buzzing.) That mockingbird fluttered against the window through three worship songs. What a distraction!

When it was time for me to go up to preach, I wait for the video testimony about suffering to play, but the audio never comes on.  I walk up on the platform and try to shake it off. I start preaching what the Lord has placed upon my heart. At first all of the distractions seem to have knocked us all off course. The human heart is so easily distracted.

Finally, I sense the power of God’s Word prevail. There is so much beyond our control. But we can control whether we will sow the Word. And then, trust that His Word will not return void.

It turned out to be a great Sunday. Dozens lined up after both services to express how God’s Word had spoken to their specific situation.

God’s Word did its work. It always does.

But I must admit, I still have thoughts of going back over to CCS sometime during the night…

… to kill a mockingbird.

Choosing to be uncomfortable

"I have told you this, so that you might have peace in your hearts because of me. While you are in the world, you will have to suffer. But cheer up! I have defeated the world" (John 16:33 CEV).

"Americans don’t have a good theology of suffering" (Rick McKinley, Pastor at Imago Dei Church, Portland, Oregon).

I recently heard a story about an African pastor who had many of his family members and church members murdered by an angry, Islamic mob. Although he fled the country and spent a season in the States, he later returned to his native land. He went around forgiving everyone and has become a reconciling force in his nation.

While he was in the States he told an American pastor, "I feel sorry for American Christians. They are so rich in things, yet so poor in the things of God."

I think he is right in his appraisal. We are so concerned about our comfort and convenience. We spend enough on bottled water to give clean water to the nations of the world who have none. We spend enough on dandruff shampoo to give needed medicines to children dying from dysentery in third world countries. While Christians gather under trees in Africa and meet secretly in Chinese homes, we complain about the air conditioning in our million dollar sanctuaries.

But the truth is that God cares more for our character than our comfort. May we be challenged by our international brothers and sisters in Christ who are enduring persecution. May we be challenged by the suffering saints of old. May we be challenged by the Christ who left the riches of heaven and became our sin offering.

May we choose to be uncomfortable so that others may be comforted.

Ever lose that lovin feeling?

Righteous_brothersYet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. (Revelation 2:4)

“Woa…woa…woe.” (The Righteous Brothers)

Sometimes we forget what it was like when we first fell in love. The object of our affection consumes our every thought. Some describe it as being “love sick.”

But Jesus told the church in the city of Ephesus that their sickness was that they had stopped loving as they had at first. He told them that they were doing good work and hanging tough, but there was no love in it. He told them that he was going to remove their lamp of influence as a church if they didn’t return to their first love.

I must admit as a pastor that I sometimes do ministry out of a sense of duty or just being tough and keeping my word. During seasons like that I start feeling a sense of spiritual dryness. Outwardly, I’m doing the good work of pastoring and sharing the gospel. But on the inside a kind of bitterness can sometimes set in. I begin to forget why I’m serving in the Kingdom. I start feeling self righteous on one hand and self pity on the other.

Jesus calls us to love him with priority. He says return to your first love (Greek: protos agape)!

Kingdom work without loving the King is empty.

Long love the King!