Archive for January, 2012


The Real Battle:: INDEPENDENCE

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The story of Joshua and the Israelite conquest of the land revealed two internal struggles that bear far greater concern to the emerging nation’s history than any fortified, armed foe. The first of which is rather understated, that being a spirit of independence that led to isolation.

Back in Numbers 22, the story unfolds as Reuben and Gad came to Moses requesting that their tribes be granted permission to not cross the Jordan River. They preferred to stay east of Jordan, citing suitable pasture lands for their developing flocks and herds. I don’t think one has to reason long to conclude that God’s plan was for the entirety of His people to “possess the land” together. Even today we can see how rivers, mountain ranges, and the interstate highway system has a way of creating societal boundaries.

Reuben, Gad, and later one half of the tribe of Manessah would eventually receive permission to settle in the land east of Jordan, under the condition that the warriors would help the other tribes with the conquest of Canaan before permanently settling their inheritance. On the surface this seemed harmless enough. Who was to say whether or not settling east of Jordan was a bad thing?

There are at least two concerns. First, the independence created immediate conflict. When the tribes were released from their military obligations to return home, the three tribes immediately constructed their own altar for worship. When the western tribes heard the news, they immediately took up arms to go to war against their own brothers and sisters. Joshua 22 reports that after a contentious conversation, the issue was resolved and written off as a simple misunderstanding. The reader should take special note, however, to the fact that this distance in proximity created immediate challenges to the unity of the nation.

This would not be an isolated incident, no pun intended. If you quickly flip through those neat, color maps in the back of your Bible you’ll see those maps detail not only the division of the eastern and western tribes, but later other divisions among the people. You have Israel distinguished from Judah. Then the northern kingdom divided from the southern kingdom. As time marched on, the people of Israel continued to have challenges maintaining a sense of unity. Such is the state of the 21st century church. Think of how the people of God in America and around the world have categorized themselves: Catholic and Protestant; Evangelical and Mainline; Liberal and Conservative; Charismatics and Calvinists; not to mention the scores of denominations that exist!

One can even narrow the focus to our individual churches, where many struggle to maintain a sense of unity and purpose. Isolation and independence plague the best of them as pastors and spiritual leaders struggle to fulfill Jesus’ request in his high priestly prayer that we simply “be one” as He and the Father are “one” (John 17:11).

We need to remember that the goal of the church is unity, not uniformity. The sanctuary that I lead worship in has block walls. Those blocks are uniform, being the same size, shape, color, and density. That’s an illustration of uniformity. The same sanctuary also has a beautiful stained glass window high up on the western wall. Those panes of glass are different sizes, colors, and shapes. They are bound together in a frame that allows their individuality to come together to create something greater. I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he called us to unity. We’re all different sizes, shapes, and colors, bringing our individual gifts and talents as offerings to God. The Holy Spirit is the frame that holds us together and allows us to participate in something greater than we could accomplish on our own. If we don’t have unity, we’ll live provincially in God’s kingdom, insisting on our own rights and our own interests while the greater need is left un-met.

The second concern that concerns me about isolation from this Old Testament story is fairly basic. Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Mannessah were the first tribes to lose their identity as they were absorbed into the culture of their surrounding neighboring nations. Unity is not just a matter of mission, it can also be a matter of sustainability.

Tomorrow I’ll post the second part of this week’s series and talk a bit about the second battle that Israel faced in Joshua. In the meantime, take a moment and meditate of the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Contemplate what He meant when we prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one, and what could happen in our world if that prayer were to be answered.

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The Real Battle:: 1

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If I were to make a motion picture based on the battle of Jericho, it would open with Joshua standing in a briefing room before his Israeli Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Men,” he would say, “I’ve just spoken with the commander of the Lord’s army, and here is the battle plan for our first objective, Jericho.”

Stepping up to the white board, Joshua would continue. “This is Jericho. It has fortified walls with gates located here, here, and here. We’re going to divide our forces, placing half in formation along this perimeter, then line up the priests who will blow trumpets behind them. Following the priests, we will place the ark of the covenant, then place the other half of our forces behind them. On day one, we will march around the city in total silence, and I mean complete quiet!”

“We’ll repeat the same pattern on day two, three, four, five, and six. Then on day seven, we’ll march around the city seven times. When the priests blow the long blast on their trumpets, we will shout in unison as loud as possible and the walls will fall down.”

“Any questions?”

One can’t help but imagine that one of the military leaders leaned over to his neighbor to whisper, “Are you kidding me?”

Joshua is a book that chronicles the battles the Israelites incurred as they possessed their possession. The most famous of those battles, obviously, was the battle of Jericho. But was Jericho and the battles that followed the real threat this emerging nation faced? This week I’m going to post what I believe were two greater threats to Israel than the enemies that stood before them. Those same threats linger today and threaten the 21st century church. I hope you’ll check back in from time to time this week and check it out.

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Meet the Real Hero:: 3

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If I’m going to pick a “don’t miss this” lesson from Joshua 5, it’s going to be that before we can lead we must be led. Christian leaders are followers first. So why is this so important? Am I just trying to pay lip service to God? Chapter 6 gives us the reason.

After his introduction to the commander of the Lord’s army, the commander gave Joshua the battle plan for Jericho. The people were to march around the walls once a day in silence for six days. On the seventh day they were to march around the walls seven times and then shout when the priests blew their trumpets. Then, the walls would fall down.

I don’t know how Joshua felt when he heard those instructions, but if it would have been me, I think my response would have been, “Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding!”

You see, the land would be conquered by faith, not by fighting. God never asked Joshua to assume responsibility for conquering the land for He had already given Joshua and the people the land. All they had to do was follow, even when following didn’t make sense or meet their standards of logic and reason.

Are you a leader? Is God calling you to lead? Before you dive into that opportunity of service, remember the most important lesson about leadership you’ll ever learn: leaders are followers first.

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Book Review: Sanctuary of the Soul

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I have a lot of books on prayer. Many of them are good, even inspirational (i.e. they move me to action). Most of these books have definitions of prayer, patterns that outline how to pray, and of course, the “end game” or expected outcome of prayer.

Without question, one of today’s clearest voices on the subject of spiritual formation is Richard Foster. There isn’t a book he’s written that I haven’t immediately purchased and read. Foster’s latest book is titled Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey Into Meditative Prayer. According to Foster, meditative prayer is the prayer that seeks first to listen and respond to God’s voice. It is different in that it is strictly God ward in its goal.

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of books on prayer, and the better ones do include a section on the importance of listening to God. After all, everyone knows that communication is a two way street. But Foster’s book strikes me in a different way, because it dispenses with the whole business of the human voice and how to talk to God. Yes, there is a time and place for believers to speak to God in prayer…where the believer can praise God, confess their sins, request their daily bread, and intercede for others. But meditative prayer is intentional to the degree that its sole purpose is to quiet the soul and hear from God.

Foster offers a lot of helpful direction as to what meditative prayer looks like, but two concepts rose to the top. The first is that meditative prayer is developed through practice. If you’re like me, you know what its like to try to quiet your soul before God and to feel immediately overwhelmed with distractions. The discipline of meditating before the Lord and listening to His voice is like a muscle that must be developed. Which leads me to the second concept, that of patience.

Foster freely admits that there are times when meditative prayer yields no epiphany. Those times are still valued moments of time with the Lord. But there are also times when God speaks, and His unmistakable voice brings about life transformation.

If you’re not committed to regular, private prayer, Sanctuary of the Soul is probably not the book for you. At least not now. But if you are committed to regularly spending time with God in prayer you may find Foster’s book a helpful aide to sharpening your ability to listen for and to the voice of God.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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Meet The Real Hero:: 2

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When Joshua was near the town of Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and demanded, “Are you friend or foe?” “Neither one,” he replied. “I am the commander of the LORD’s army.” At this, Joshua fell with his face to the ground in reverence. “I am at your command,” Joshua said. “What do you want your servant to do?” The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did as he was told. (Joshua 5:13-15, NLT)

Put yourself in Joshua’s shoes for a moment. What would you do if you came face to face with the commander of the Lord’s army? We can learn several things from Joshua’s experience. His first response was to fall prostrate before the figure in worship. The second thing he did was surrender to him, confessing his submission. Notice that Joshua did not bother to reference his own command and the resources he had at his disposal. When you come face to face with ultimate power, who you are and what you have is of little importance.

When he submitted himself to the divine authority, he was then ready for God’s self disclosure. God disclosed himself as holy. I think one of the mistakes we make in our theology is to try to define God by our own units of measure. In other words, we try to see ways in which God is like us. Here’s an important reminder we each need to hear: God is not like you and me. God is God and we are not, for He is holy.

Finally, we see Joshua’s obedience. Upon God’s self disclosure of himself as the holy one and the request for Joshua to remove his sandals, the text tells the reader that Joshua simply did what he was told. He obeyed.

The point of this important passage is that Joshua had to learn to follow before he could learn to lead. Great leaders are followers first. We see that principal on the battle field as well as the field of play. We also see it affirmed in the New Testament. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul encouraged those believers to “imitate” him in the same fashion he “imitated” Christ. We also see this principle occur during the ministry of Jesus in his conversation with the centurion. In Luke 7:8, the centurion told Jesus that “he too was a man UNDER authority.” At first glance you might suspect that the centurion misspoke, or perhaps your Bible has a typo. But the centurion did not make a mistake. He realized the truth that any authority we possess to lead is rooted in one’s ability to follow first.

I think a lot of people, even in Christian circles, misunderstand leadership at this point. The Bible is filled with men and women who expressed leadership and made invaluable contributions to the work of the Kingdom of God. But they did so as followers first. When leaders forget to follow first, trouble is not far.

Tomorrow I’ll conclude this week’s series from Joshua 5 by briefly describing the importance of following first.

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Those of you who know me are aware that I have recently made a transition in ministry. For the last six years I’ve served as Lead Pastor of Ashworth Road Baptist Church in West Des Moines, IA. That position ended for me in December following my call to serve as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Greater Des Moines, IA. This transition, as would be true for any vocation I suppose, was difficult. How should a person evaluate the options? How can one discern the leadership of the Holy Spirit? I used three questions to help me work through the decision I faced.

Question 1: Have I finished the work I was called to do in my present position?
Or to put it another way, have I accomplished what I was supposed to accomplish? Notice the question is not, “Have I done everything I can do?” There’s ALWAYS more that can be done! No, this question is more about gut than to do lists. There comes a point when you realize that you’ve accomplished the main objective that you were supposed to accomplish.

When that happens for me personally, I experience what mystics will call “a sense of release.” Being “released” is the awareness that the burden and calling that brought you to the present position has been removed by God. I don’t want to over simplify it, but it is the conscious recognition that you’re finished. This may even happen prior to an invitation to a new opportunity. When you sense that you’ve been “released,” your attention needs to heighten for the next thing that God is preparing for you. If you haven’t sensed God’s release from your position, it might be that you need to re-engage with what is before you. You may be closer to a break through than you think!

Question 2: Am I called to the new opportunity?
I don’t think its healthy to leave a position to escape problems or adversity. When you leave because of problems you usually just transfer the same issues to the new position. After all, when you run away you take you with you. When you have a sense of release from a position then you’re free to explore the new opportunity based on its own merit. You go forward to a position rather than go from a position. “To” and “from” are basic prepositions that we use multiple times every day. But when it comes to making a change, the difference is immeasurable.

Question 3: Is my family on board with the transition?
I grew up in a pastor’s home, so I know the implications of making transitions in ministry from a kid’s perspective. In my personal career, I’ve never made a change without the full support of my wife. I’ve also done my best to consider my children and to take into consideration their best. During the past year I’ve had several inquiries from churches, each which would have required an out of state move. After considering this third question, however, I recognize that each of those changes would have required some significant sacrifices by and potential risks to my family. It became, in effect, a “deal breaker.”

You may have your own set of questions that you consider as you evaluate a transition. These questions have helped me so I share them with you today. They aren’t limited to ministry changes. Anyone considering a potential career change or job transition can benefit from these diagnostic questions.


Meet The Real Hero

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My guess is that you had a hero when you were growing up. Maybe it was an athlete or a musician. Or an actor or some other entertainer. Perhaps it was a teacher or a coach. Your hero could have been a parent or an older sibling. I think those influences served us well, helping to shape us into the persons we are today.

Without question, Joshua was the recognized human leader of the Israelites. He was the person out in front, providing direction to the multitude. Even the book that contains his story bears his name as the title. So one could make the case that as the leader he was also the hero of the narrative. But is that really the case?

Up to this point in the story, we have read how the Israelites miraculously crossed the Jordan River. As they prepared for their first objective, the entire male population underwent the ceremony of circumcision. The nation then observed Passover for the first time since leaving the Egyptian border. One interesting side bar that should be noted is that the manna that had faithfully fallen from the skies for forty years unceremoniously stopped as the people began to eat freely of the produce in Canaan.

The next event is very interesting.

“When Joshua was near the town of Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and demanded, ‘Are you friend or foe?’ ‘Neither one,’ he replied. ‘I am the commander of the LORD’s army.’ At this, Joshua fell with his face to the ground in reverence. ‘I am at your command,’ Joshua said. ‘What do you want your servant to do?’ The commander of the LORD’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did as he was told” (Joshua 5:13-15, NLT).

The text pictures Joshua near objective one, Jericho, possibly surveying the fortified walls of the city and the surrounding terrain. His concentration was broken when he came face to face with a man with a drawn sword. Who was this person? Many Old Testament scholars suggest that this was a theophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. It would be hard to determine with any degree of certainty that that was the case here, although the text that follows supports the idea, given Joshua’s reverential response to him.

Joshua’s first concern with the person was where he stood in relationship to himself. “Are you friend or foe?” The response he received from the character is strong. He replied, “Neither.” In essence he said, “I’ve not come to take sides, I’ve come to take over.”

Now to my point. Yes, to a degree Joshua was the hero of the book. But the real hero of the story was God. The same is true today. God calls special people to specific places to accomplish His sovereign purposes. But no human character ever upstages God. Unfortunately, leaders can sometime assume the posture of the hero, insisting that God “join their team” and support their heroic behaviors. But Kingdom economics don’t work that way. God is the hero, and human leaders are always the supporting cast.

Tomorrow I’ll post a few more thoughts regarding the conversation between Joshua and the armed commander of the Lord’s army.


Make Your Mark:: 3

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As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to change the world. This is a sentiment that is shared by many people I know. There’s something compelling about leaving a legacy or making a mark, if you will. I think that many are deterred from such lofty aspirations because they automatically assume that changing the world involves something notable or publicly recognized. Aspirations to become a world changer gets overtaken by “visions of grandeur,” so the dream derails.

In heaven’s economy, little is much when God is in it. Take Jocabed, for example. When Pharaoh’s edict to have all male babies destroyed that were born to Hebrew families was handed down (cf. Exodus 2), Jocabed determined to make her mark. Through creative inspiration she “obeyed” Pharaoh’s order and put baby Moses in the Nile River. After all, Pharaoh never mentioned that the babies couldn’t be placed in baskets! Through the miraculous hand of God Moses was drawn out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter and Jocabed was solicited to nurse him through his formative preschool years. The impact she made on one person’s life bore fruit in his 40th year when he wandered down to the brick making factory to check on “his people.” Moses’ mark on the world is know world wide. Jocabed, not so much.

The point is that you can be a world changer without media attention and cable news interviews. You have the potential to change the world for God and for good. The world may never view your contributions with common knowledge, but God sees and knows what you’ve done and continue to do.

So how about it? Is there a commitment you need to make that will change the world? Is there an opportunity to use your gifts and talents you need to accept? Is there an offering you need to make? Is there a person you need to serve? Is there an organization that needs a volunteer? Make yourself available to God, and let Him determine the size and scope of the impact. Don’t let the small things deter you from making your mark and leaving a legacy. You never know the kind of difference you can make!

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The Value of Deborah

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One of the blogs I follow on a daily basis is Scot McKnight’s page at titled Jesus Creed. Today McKnight has offered an excellent post on Deborah and the value she brings to the ongoing conversation regarding women in leadership and women in ministry. You can find the post here.


Make Your Mark:: 2

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After the Israelites crossed the river, Joshua paused and did something important. He sent people back into the river bed to extract rocks that would be used to create a memorial on the western bank of the Jordan to commemorate the crossing. Not only did the people need their own miracles, they needed their own stories. Joshua 4:19-24 give the rationale behind the memorial stones.

“Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “In the future your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over. He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the LORD’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the LORD your God forever.” (NLT)

Joshua gave three reasons why this memorial was important. First, the memorial would become a talking point for future generations. When children would see the memorial and ask what it meant, the elders would be reminded to pass down the story of the miracle that occurred. Values in an organization are shaped by the stories that are told. So if you want to change the values in your organization, church, or family, all you have to do is change the stories you tell. What stories are you telling? Are you telling the stories of people from history? Or are you telling fresh stories of God’s faithfulness from your personal experience?

The second reason for the memorial was to serve as a testimony to the people of the earth. This reason reminds me that the faithful activity of God is not solely about “the insiders.” The faithfulness of God is also about the mission of the church. We exist for the people who are not here. We cannot forget that the people of God are a missional people, extending the kingdom of God to those beyond our building’s borders.

The final reason the memorial was significant was that it became a reminder to worship God. We tell stories to convey values to future generations and to share the love of God with those who do not know Him. But we also must be reminded to worship God. Worship is the ultimate priority of the church. Each day that we engage in private worship and each week we come together for corporate worship reorients our lives to the King and his kingdom. As we worship we recalibrate from the hustle and strain of every day living to the God who is God and we recall that life is not solely about ourselves, for we have been created for something bigger.

What memorials have you constructed to remind you of God’s activity in your life? What are the stories that you are telling to your children and grandchildren? What opportunities do you have to tell friends, neighbors, and co-workers about the faithfulness of God? How conscious are you to remember to give God the worship He deserves?

Tomorrow I’ll finish this week’s series and post about the value of creating lasting legacies.

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