Saturday, March 27, 2010

Week of Prayer and Fasting

Our elders are starting a week of prayer and fasting tomorrow in preparation for Easter and in preparation for some big decisions we are facing in the next month. I will be offline all week and not be updating my blog. Here are a few of my thoughts on fasting that I put together for our church leaders. I pray that they are helpful to you as you approach times of fasting in your own life:

A couple of thoughts on fasting:

1. Definition: Traditionally, the word has been used to talk about voluntarily abstaining from food and/or drink for a certain period of time. Throughout church history, people have fasted for certain days or they have fasted for a certain meal over a set of days. However, the concept of fasting can apply to anything that we want to voluntarily abstain from that will allow us more time and energy to focus on God. The idea is to set aside something that is morally neutral (like food) to remind us that we are dependent on God for everything in life.

2. Wrong Goals: The Bible speaks explicitly about the danger of thinking that fasting (and other forms of religious activity) will move God to do something we want Him to do on our behalf. I encourage you to read Isaiah 58:1-12 and Zechariah 7:1-14 for clear warnings about using fasting as a means to manipulate God. In both of those passages, God reminds His people that what He wants most in his people is a heart like His (godly character and compassion) rather than empty religious activity. This does not mean, however, that fasting is unimportant. Jesus assumes that his followers will fast (read Matthew 6:16-18), but again makes sure to warn us of the temptation of trying to show others how holy we are by fasting.

3. Right Goals: Jesus says that instead of fasting for others to be impressed by our display of devotion to God, we should use times of fasting to actually draw near to God. In my own life, I have found that fasting improves my ability to listen to what God is saying. As I set aside part of my regular routine in order to seek God, I find that God’s voice becomes clearer and easier to discern. With all that in mind, our motives in fasting should be to better connect with Jesus, better discern the voice and direction of the Holy Spirit, to remind ourselves that God alone is the One that we fear and follow, to check our own hearts for areas of un-confessed sin, and to spend more time in prayer.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Notes: Isaac Newton

Mitch Stokes new book on the life of Isaac Newton is part of a series by Thomas Nelson called Christian Encounters. Each volume is a short paperback introduction to the life of a famous Christian from history. Stokes’ book is about 160 pages of tightly written historical narrative, a great starting place to learn about the life and career of Isaac Newton.

Newton lived in the second half of the 17th century and the early parts of the 18th century. One of the greatest thinkers of modern history, Newton studied and wrote on such varied topics as mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, theology, optics, and inventions. Never married, Newton leveraged his amazing mental capacities to work on some of the most difficult problems in nature.

I had personally been introduced to Newton’s work during my education as an engineer. He was the inventor of calculus, which of course we still use today to describe natural phenomena like motion mathematically. He was also the inventor of modern physics, which we call today Newtonian physics (by which we distinguish his work from Einstein’s work in the early 20th All high school physics students learn Newton’s equations for understanding forces, motion, gravity, and acceleration. These are a product of his great work Principia, written late in his life in three volumes. My final encounter with Newton’s work was in college when I studied dynamics in my engineering training. Whereas Einstein’s work is necessary to work on very small scales, very large scales (planetary motion), or very fast scales (close to the speed of light), Newton’s equations are still extremely accurate in everyday engineering work. This explains why most engineering training today continues to use Newton’s calculus and mechanics formulas.

Because of my exposure to Newton’s work throughout my education, Stokes’ explanation of these discoveries was not new to me. However, I was most intrigued to learn in Stokes’ book about two features of Newton’s life: his theology rigor and his philosophical views about science. Newton was a committed Christian and saw his life’s work through the lens of honoring God as creator of an ordered natural world. He also was an amazing student of Scripture, giving his life to understanding God as revealer of all mysteries. Newton wrote more about God and theology than he did about any other topic. The second surprise to me was Newton’s focus on making sure that he distinguished between natural explanations of how the world worked and mystical reasons of why the world worked as it did. He focused his efforts in science to the first – showing how mathematics could explain the way the world operated, but he made sure to write in detail about his convictions that there were deeper mystical reasons for why the world works as it does. This view of science and the theological underpinnings of science seem to have been lost among the latest generation of well known scientists.

Overall, I would highly recommend Stokes’ book for those who are interested in learning about the amazing life of this man. He explains difficult issues in simple English and shares enough of the drama that surrounded Newton’s life to keep the non-academic interested throughout. I also appreciated Stokes’ fair assessment of Newton’s theology and religious convictions.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Parenting Resources

Last Sunday at church, we finished the 3-week parenting part of our family series from the book of Genesis at church. As I did with the marriage section, I thought it would be helpful to type out a list of resources that would guide parents who are seeking to grow and work through the challenges they are facing. I hope these various ideas and links will provide direction regardless of your circumstances.

1- Read a parenting book with a gospel-centered view of parenting. I would start with the two parenting books that have most influenced my view of the goal of parenting - Shepherding a Child's Heart and Instructing a Child's Heart by Tedd Tripp. The first book is more theological in nature and helps the parent build a philosophy of parenting built on the truths of the gospel. The second book if more practical in that Mr. Tripp works out what you need to teach your kids so that they view the Bible as part of their family history. The other book that has really shaped me as a parent is Grace-Based Parenting by Dr. Tim Kimmel. I highly encourage you to wrestle with his premise that we should learn how to parent by studying how God parents us (in grace), not necessarily by what produces the quickest results in behavior change.

2- Go to a Christian family-camp during the summer. I have never taken my family here, but everyone who has gone always raves about the amazing impact this camp has on families. The camp is Pine Cove Family Camp. The closest location to Austin is Pine Cove Crier Creek (in between Austin and Houston). The week-long camp has family-time, parent-time, kid-time, and free time. The camps are staffed by high-quality college students, and the camp brings in well-known Christian speakers in to speak on biblical and family issues. The camps are expensive, but everyone who goes says it is worth it.

3- Plan a weekend retreat with your kids.
My kids always respond to time away from the routine of life when I am completely focused on them. This could look like a weekend away camping together, a day-trip to the lake, or doing something creative with the kids that would give you time to spend focused energy on them (not the movies).

4- Have a plan for daily devotionals with your family. Whether you simply read through the Bible with your kids every night or you read a good devotional book that gets you into the Bible together, the important issue is that you have a plan. Nothing happens on the devotional side by accident. You can use the devotional guides that our church provides for your family (check out the philosophy and resources at or you can pick your own plan. The main goal is that you are getting in the Bible together as a family and that you are spending time worshiping God.

5- Meet with a mentor couple.
As a church, we are blessed with many spiritually-mature couples who are willing to sit down with you and share from their years of parenting experience. Barie and I have been blessed with great mentor-couples as a young couple in ministry. I would highly recommend that you email Nick Shock (our ministries pastor) if you think meeting with a mentor couple would be helpful to you.

6- Go to family counseling together.
I have referred families to many different Christian professional counselors over the years. If you need professional parenting help, please seek it. Don't buy into the lie that you should be ashamed of getting counseling. In Austin, I would recommend that you contact the Center for Relational Care which provides on-going professional counseling. As a second-choice, I would contact New Life Counseling Center in Round Rock.

7 - Check out additional resources and ministries online. There are so many great national ministries that focus their efforts on resourcing parents. One of my favorites is Family Life. You can check out a list of additional books, ministries, and resources on our church's website that our family ministry put together. These are all helpful in different ways.

My prayer for you is that you would not put your trust in these resources as a parent, but put your trust in God alone. We can always learn better parenting skills, but the key is to walk daily with God and stay on your knees interceding for your kids. Our kids belong to God, not to us, and our job is to daily point them back to Him as their Creator, Source, and Savior. May God richly bless you and sustain you in the journey of parenting!

Jeremiah 9:23-24

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Theology Matters, ctd.

I was blown away this afternoon by reading this article in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition. The article builds on an interview done by one of the WSJ's editorial staff with Mosab Hassan Yousef, who is the son of one of the founders of Hamas. Yousef converted to Christianity in the 1990s and served as a major source for the Israelite intelligence agency during much of the last decade. He has a new book that just came out called Son of Hamas that recounts his amazing life story and his conversion to Christ. Money quote from the article:

Do you consider your father a fanatic? "He's not a fanatic," says Mr. Yousef. "He's a very moderate, logical person. What matters is not whether my father is a fanatic or not, he's doing the will of a fanatic God. It doesn't matter if he's a terrorist or a traditional Muslim. At the end of the day a traditional Muslim is doing the will of a fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist God. I know this is harsh to say. Most governments avoid this subject. They don't want to admit this is an ideological war.

"The problem is not in Muslims," he continues. "The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to."

These are all dangerous words. Of the threats issued to his life by Islamists, he says, "That's not the worst thing that can happen to you. I'm OK with it, I'm not afraid. . . . Palestinians have reason to kill me. Some Israelis may want to kill me. My goal is not to defeat my enemy. It is to win over my enemy."

Please read the whole article.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Don't Assume The Gospel

With all the discussion about "missional engagement" inside the church today, I always fear that we begin to assume that we all mean the same thing when we talk about the gospel. From my experience in ministry and attending different churches, I think this is a bad assumption. When one generation assumes the gospel, the next generation forgets the gospel. I have been growing in the last few years in my own confidence level in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to really changes lives. Rather than focus most of my preaching on practical tips on how to live like Christ (though not bad) or on simply teaching information found in the Bible (not bad either), I have come to the passionate conviction that my role is to lift up Jesus, to exalt Him and the message of the gospel so that people are drawn to Him not as their example, but as their Savior. I believe that people act out of their core convictions and beliefs (rather than what they confess to believe) and that the only way to see lifelong transformation is to get our true beliefs in line with the gospel.

I always believed in the gospel, but now I'm beginning to see all of Scripture and all that Scripture teaches on morality through the lens of the gospel. When morality is taught from our pulpits apart from the grace of the gospel, we simply create Pharisees who are self-righteous and proud of their own moral achievement. If this conviction is true (that the gospel shapes everything we do and teach), then we need to spend time reflecting on the nature of the gospel and the implications of the gospel. Instead, it feels like many times we assume the truths of the gospel and hope that everyone who has been in church for any length of time will simply "get the gospel." I don't agree with this - we can't assume, but rather must be explicit in our teaching about the gospel. It sounds like Matt Chandler from the Village has been thinking some of the same things. I am so thankful for his ministry and his leadership. Check out his recent video:

Matt Chandler - 20/20 2010 Session 1 from Southeastern Seminary on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Evaluating Your Team Dynamics

We returned yesterday from our spring staff retreat out at Camp Tejas. We had a great time remembering all that God has done and looking forward to all that God will do in the coming months. Though we got a lot of work done, we also spent a considerable amount of time just laughing together as a team (which is always helpful). One of the first sessions we did was called building a culture of trust and we talked through the five dysfunctions of a team that Patrick Lencioni writes about in his leadership book on team. Lencioni does a great job of articulating what a team looks like when they are dysfunctional. His five elements are...

1) The absence of trust, which stems from a team's unwillingness to share honestly and openly with each other. Does your team get vulnerable with each other? We decided that our team shares honestly with each other and owns our own mistakes and feels a strong sense of trust.

2) Fear of conflict, which results in a team that is unable to have unfiltered and passionate debate. Does your team have healthy conflict, where debate is passionate without getting personal? Our team is really strong in this area, though some of our newer staff members said they were still getting used to the free-flow of ideas that happens in our meetings.

3) Lack of commitment, which means that team members rarely buy in and commit to the decisions of the team. We decided this shows up when "I" and "ya'll" language trumps "we" language among a team. Team members who are not bought in say "I told you so" when things go poorly instead of owning group decisions. Does your team have equal commitment from all the members? We are getting better in this area.

4) Avoidance of accountability, which produces a team that is afraid to hold members of the team accountable to their commitments. Does your team have a healthy level of accountability or do people fail to keep their word without fear of confrontation? Our team can struggle sometimes with over-committing out of a desire to be helpful only to realize later that we can't deliver. We are getting better at being accountable to each other and to the team.

5) Inattention to results, which is different from #4 because it means the team is not paying attention to the team performance, only personal performance. This is really deadly in church settings where one ministry feels like they are doing well and ignores the struggles of the rest of the church. Does your team put the results of the whole ahead of their own personal results? This is one of the hardest parts of a healthy team, but we are getting better in this area by clarifying what results we should all care about and looking at them together as a whole team.

Unhealthy leadership teams produce unhealthy organizations, so take time to make sure that your team is not dysfunctional!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Life & Death

Our church has been in operation for two and a half years and as of last month, I had yet to do a funeral for someone in our congregation. I had done other funerals for family and friends, but not for anyone in our church. And then in two months, two members of our church have gone to be with the Lord. One was Aaron Williams, a 29 year old who fought a 13 year battle with cancer. Aaron was a charter member of our church along with his wife Tara and was a faithful servant of God right up to the end. The other was a man named Jerry Burnaugh, a 73 year old who also fought a long battle with cancer. He passed away last Thursday and his funeral is tomorrow. Jerry had been disconnected from church before he started attending our services about 18 months ago. He was baptized in the swimming pool in Stone Oak in August of 2008 as a testimony to his faith in Jesus Christ. About a month ago, as he sensed that he was not feeling well, he approached me after church and told me that he wanted to let me know that his "faith was totally in Jesus."

Both of these experiences have just reminded me about the serious nature of the message we proclaim. As a young man myself, I can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that I will live forever and that death is something that is always "far away." When I was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes a few years ago, that view of the world took its first hit. But as we have said goodbye to two godly men in the last month, I have been challenged again to consider what is most important. We know in our minds that we are not guaranteed tomorrow, but rarely do we live with the urgency that this kind of worldview should produce. Maybe our hearts just don't want to deal with the reality of life and death. We would rather just think about life.

But as we meditate on the gospel of Jesus Christ, we can approach death with new hope and joy. I have always known that Jesus' death and resurrection gave us a new view of life and death, but only recently am I fully grasping the nature of what Jesus accomplished. Without His sacrifice, we would be utterly hopeless. And many people, rather than face the hopelessness of their own worldview, simply distract themselves from the reality of death. But time will not allow us that privilege forever. Death comes for us all. And yet Jesus has overcome the grave. I hope that you are prepared for that day. I hope that you are daily trusting in the only person who has ever defeated death. Then, and only then, can you saw with the apostle Paul:

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)