Tuesday, January 28, 2014

If You Can't Say Something Nice . . .

Last year, while climbing one of Bulgaria’s many beautiful mountains, Sasha and I came across a man sunbathing next to a lake.  We asked him for directions and he kindly obliged.  After hearing my accent, he asked where I was from.  I told him I was from America, and he began a rant about how terrible America was.  We thanked him for the directions, and we continued along our way thinking he must be a little crazy.

Every day, I am surrounded by Bulgarians.  I live as a guest in Bulgaria.  Like everywhere in the world, Bulgaria has some good aspects and some bad ones.  When I am asked what I think about Bulgaria, I tell my Bulgarian friends the good things.  I would never go on an anti-Bulgaria rant about the things I dislike here because that would be unkind.  (Besides, Bulgaria has so much good in it that I can easily overlook the bad.)

When Sasha was in America, there were things she liked and things she disliked, yet she would never openly declare her dislikes before others because it is rude to insult someone’s culture.  This is common courtesy.  Only rude people would act in such a manner.  Like the man on the mountain, such people seem a little nuts.

What seems rude in face to face conversations, often becomes acceptable in the world of social media.  Far too often, I have seen comments by immigrants to other countries insulting their host country on Facebook.  If you have even one Facebook friend who is from the host culture, this is dangerous territory.  You are openly insulting their nation and culture.  How would you like it if they went on an anti-wherever-you- are-from rant?  It is one thing to criticize your own country and culture.  It is another thing to criticize someone else’s.

As a guest in Bulgaria, I try to stay positive in my posts about my current home.  This is a country of beauty, and the people here are generally kind and welcoming.  Do they have flaws?  Of course they do.  But it is not my job to point them out.

To all my expat friends, I make this request.  Keep it nice on social media.  By only sharing the good things you will keep more friends, and you may just find that the bad things are not so bad.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Why I'm Still a Christian

Years ago I was invited to speak at a church about our ministry in Europe.  Before the service began, the kindly and somewhat nervous middle-aged pastor took me aside and asked me what I was going to speak about.  After I briefly shared my key points with him, he told me that he approved my outline, but he would prefer that I not use the word Christian while speaking to congregation.  He explained to me that he used the phrase Christ follower so as to not offend anyone.  I complied with his desire, but I have long since thought about this conversation.

The term Christ follower is perhaps the most popular of several phrases that people use to replace the word Christian.  Though Christian is used in the Bible to describe followers of Jesus, it is not the only word that is used.  The early Church was also called The Way and The Sect of the Nazarene among other names.  There is nothing sacred about the word Christian, and there is nothing wrong with going by another name.  In fact, the word Christian actually means Christ follower.

Yet I have to wonder; why do Christ followers reject the nearly 2000 year old name Christian?  Though I cannot state the reasons for everyone who has switched terms, it seems to me that the overwhelming majority do so out of fear.

In the case of church leadership, the name is often changed out of fear of lowering attendance numbers.  A church with empty seats tends to close, and there is little that pastors fear more than seeing their specific church shut-down.  The name change is intended to give the impression that this particular church is different from the universal Church that others find so offensive.  It makes them appear relevant (unlike their brothers and sisters in other churches).  I have to wonder if such leaders honestly think, “People will come to our church because we are not Christians.”

How many times has anyone walked into a church and been surprised or offended to find Christians there?  Were they expecting Hindus?  In your fear of failure you have distanced yourself from your brothers and sisters in other congregations by proudly proclaiming that you are not like them.

Church leaders are not the only ones who have changed the term.  Individual believers do the same thing.  The belief is that people are more open and less offended by Christ followers than by Christians.

If using the term Christ follower opens the door to share the Gospel, then I’m all for it.  Yet, I would seriously question how often this happens.  More often, I have seen Christ follower used as a means to distance ourselves from our fellow believers and present ourselves in a good light to our non-Christian friends.

Coworker 1:  Bill in accounting is talking about Jesus again.  You aren’t one of those crazy Christians are you?

Coworker 2:  I prefer the term Christ follower.  I’m nothing like Bill.

Coworker 1:  What’s the difference?

Coworker 2:  We are not so extreme.

Coworker 1:  Oh that’s cool.  I like you then.

Coworker 2:  Great!

(Opportunity to share the Gospel missed.)

Non-Christians are not stupid.  They know what you are.  They also know that you are too afraid to talk about what you believe and you are ashamed of your fellow believers.  Is this really the message you what to convey.  Are you not just changing the name out of a fear of unpopularity?

The message of the Gospel is offensive to most who hear it.  Jesus predicted persecution to those who follow Him (John 15:20).  Paul implied that the Gospel will make you look like a fool (I Cor. 1:18).

If you are truly a Christ follower, persecution and dishonor await you regardless of what you call yourself.

If you are not, then perhaps you should change your name.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Importance of Breathing

If you have ever spent time in a weight room, you may have noticed that many novice weight lifters hold their breath as they strain against gravity.  It is a common practice that I have caught myself doing from time to time.  It is also a stupid practice.  Human muscles need oxygen.  Holding our breath deprives them of oxygen and makes them weaker.  We need to breathe.

A similar phenomenon can sometimes be noticed when watching someone jog.  It is not uncommon to see an unexperienced runner taking rapid shallow breaths while pressing forward on the trail.  This was a mistake I made when I first started jogging a few years ago.  I still find myself making this basic mistake from time to time.  It is an inefficient way to run.  My body is big.  It needs a lot of air.  My lungs are big too.  I am a fool if I do not use as much of them as possible.  Deep breaths make for a less painful run.

It seems strange that when our bodies strain we tend to deprive them of the thing they need most.  It does us no good to do so.  We need air.  We need lots of air.  Without it we get week and become unable to do anything.  Last year, when I was climbing a mountain, I pushed too hard for too long.  At the top of the mountain I could not stand because my body needed more air than it was taking in.  Without air, we put ourselves in danger.

When we need to breathe the most, we tend to not take the time to breathe.  This can be true in our physical lives, but it tends to be true more often in our spiritual lives.

When we are straining against the busyness of life we tend to not have time to pray.  When we are running hard trying to get everything done that we deem important, we forget to spend time in the Bible.  We are too busy to spend time in worship.  We are too busy to sit and listen to God.  We are too busy to just breathe.  We then wonder why we are so tired and week.  We wonder why our walk with God seems to tire us out.  It is because we are too busy to breathe.

Michael W. Smith wrote the lyrics, “This is the air I breathe, Your holy presence living in me.”  The Holy Spirit, who lives in all believers, is our breath.  The Greek word used in the Bible for “spirit” can also be translated as “breath.”

In our physical lives, we are always breathing.  Breath is always in us unless we consciously keep it out by holding our breath.  In the same way, the Holy Spirit is always in us as Christians.  Yet, our breathing can become shallow.  In the busyness of life, we can forget where the breath of life comes from.  The results are a spiritual life that is weak, painful, and not able to stand.

The good news is, we can train ourselves to breath better.  Weight lifters train themselves to breathe when they lift.  Runners train themselves to take deep breaths when they run.  Mountain climbers train themselves to walk strong in places where the air is thin.  Christians can train themselves to breathe better spiritually as well.

Here are some practical ways to train your spirit to take deep breaths.
1)      Spend time in the Bible every day.
2)      Spend time praying every day.
3)      Apply what you read to your life.
4)      Keep doing it.

Remember, like breathing, this is not meant to be hard.  Also, like breathing, you have to do it in a way that works best for you.  The important thing is to breathe on a regular basis.  Never be too busy that you forget to stop and take a breath.

Don’t forget to breathe.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book Premier

Last night, Sasha and I had the privilege of attending the premier of Sofia Papazova’s newest book Seven Olive Blossoms.  Sofia is the mother of one of Veronica’s classmates.  Their family has become friends with our family over the past two years.

Sasha read her first book and was impressed by her amazing use of descriptive language.  Last night at the premier, several excerpts from here newest book were read.  The one that impressed me the most was a section that described the making of a salad.  You would not think salad construction would make for good reading, but the way it was described was fascinating.  The book critic who spoke last night was very impressed with Sofia’s ability to describe in detail places in Italy that she has never been.  She certainly did her research, which, in my opinion, separates the good writers from the great ones.

At just 35 with two books already written, Mrs. Papazova has a promising career as a novelist ahead of her.  We appreciate being invited to her big night.

Sofia Papazova signing a book for one of her many fans.

Sofia's two books.  The newest one is on the right.

A discussion of the book with the author.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Consolidate or Risk?

Years ago I had a conversation with my brother about investments I had made in the stock market.  Over the course of several months I had lost a considerable amount of money.  He encouraged me by saying, “Don’t worry about it.  You are young.  Now is the time to take risks.”  This is common financial advice.  The early years are the years to invest boldly.  The later years are the times to consolidate your investments in more conservative options so that you do not lose what you gained.  This is good advice for finances.  This is bad advice for ministry.

Sadly, this wise financial pattern tends to be copied by churches in ministry.  In the early years, there is a passion for outreach.  There may even be a new church planted by the young church.  Risks are made and rewards are reaped.  Yet as years go on, the desire to invest wildly in the kingdom is replaced by a desire to consolidate based on a fear of losing what was gained.

After about 20 years, many churches tend to stop growing.  Often they start to decline and after about 20 more years they close their doors.  This statistic is not lost on pastors, and at about the 20 year point they begin to fear the decline.  The last thing any pastor wants is to see his church fold.  This fear often leads to one of two decisions.

1) Consolidate:  Pastors and church leaders hold on to what they have.  They do not encourage new church plants.  They may develop new ministry workers, but they seldom develop new leaders because new leaders could mean a loss of control.  They are quick to point out why new ministry investments will not work, and are slow to risk.  They keep ministry under tight control for fear that the church might die.  Such a ministry model can be recognized by leadership that demands to be in the driver’s seat and is afraid to start anything new.

2) Risk:  Pastors and church leaders try something that may seem bold or new.  They take a risk.  They might give up some of their best people to start a new church plant.  They might invest financially in short term ministries that eventually lead to some of their best and brightest leaving the church to go do ministry elsewhere.  They might rally behind a missionary who is opening a new field.  They send out rather than pull in.

I have seen both models.  Most churches are not strictly one or the other, but all churches have a tendency to lean one way.  Those who tend to consolidate actually end up losing what they fight so hard to maintain.  They focus on marketing not discipleship.  The passionate believers in the congregation tend to leave because they want to do ministry and cannot in such an environment.  Those who remain are weaker believers.  They are fed, but are not challenged to grow because the leaders do not want to give up the driver’s seat.  Eventually attrition takes its toll and the consolidated congregation folds.

Those who tend to risk will, in the short run, see a loss in membership.  Like the consolidated church, their best people will leave.  The difference is that they will leave because the leaders release them to do ministry elsewhere.  Those who remain see what it means to actually live what they believe, and some will be inspired to do the same.  New people will replace the empty seats on Sunday, and they will grow because they are viewed as brothers and sisters to be invested in not customers to hold on to.

I have seen both kinds of churches.  In Poland, one of the hardest places to plant a church, there was a Baptist church that had not grown in 100 years.  The pastor took a handful of  his best people and sent them across town to start a new church.  Today both churches are thriving and growing.  People are coming to Christ because of a pastor who was not afraid to give up control.

Sadly, I have seen far too many churches of the consolidation variety.  They exist in abundance here in Bulgaria, but you may not need me to give you an example.  You may be attending one in your home country.  You may even be leading one.

There is good news though.  First of all, there is little to fear from any individual church closing.  Individual churches are organizations.  They come and go.  The universal Church will go on with or without them.  Second, such churches are not beyond saving.  New life can be breathed into them though their membership.  You can be that new life because, as a child of God, you have the Holy Spirit in you.  Challenge your leaders to risk.  Do not settle for consolidation.

We are all still young.  We should all still be risking.