Monday, June 29, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Bringing the Word to Life

This morning I sat around a table with other believers. We read selections from the Psalms. Out loud. Together. My usual morning custom is to sit with the Holy Spirit, read silently, and pray silently. But while I am at a retreat this week the morning prayers and readings are shared in community.
As we read the passages together I heard the sound of my voice mix with the voices of others. Up from the wooden floor and off the brick walls the sounds blended into one reading. The “others” were people I has just met minutes before but we shared a common devotion to Jesus, and in this morning exercise we shared the experience of the scriptures together. As we fell into a common rhythm I had a curious sense that my voice was not only joined with the five others at the table but with all those who had read these verses in the past.
Whenever we come to the scripture, we partake of the word of God with others. Some passages from the Psalms are perhaps 3,000 years old, and since the Holy Spirit first inspired the words, believers have been sharing the same meal. Whether we sit alone and drink with our eyes or gather around a table and raise our voices, the community of the Kingdom is present.
The Bible is available to us on-line, in print, even on the screens of our cell phones! We scan the verses and speak them silently to ourselves. But the earliest experiences of the scripture were oral and aural. The Word of God was held captive in scrolls until someone took a scroll, unrolled the parchment and spoke the word. He still longs to spoken in community.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Meeting My Father

When Jesus says something once, you can be sure it’s important. If he repeats himself a second time, it’s critical. But what if Jesus says something eleven times? Many of us have read the “Sermon on the Mount” over and over. (If that’s not you, take a moment and check it out in Matthew) This teaching is unmatched in its beauty and clarity; many of the phrases have worked their way into the everyday speech of western society.

The other day, as I was reading this passage again, I tried to imagine that I was one of the people gathered on that hillside. In my imagination I could hear his voice, I felt a breeze soothe the perspiration on my forehead, and I began to hear these words with new ears. Jesus kept repeating two simple words over and over. When he talked about us as the light of the world, he used these words. When he talked about loving our enemies, he used these words. And again, as he moved on to generosity, prayer, and fasting, there were these same words. The words I heard over and over were simply, “Your Father.”

I began to sense that in addition to the substance of the message Jesus preached that day, he was also trying to plant something deep in my spirit, namely, the assurance that God Himself is my Father. “Of course,” you might think. “We are all God’s children.” Our idea of the Holy Trinity begins with ”God the Father.” It is one thing to recognize God’s title as Father, it is quite another to know him as such.

What happened to me as I read the passage and put myself among the listeners was something beyond an idea, beyond a theological construct. I heard Jesus remind me again and again that I have a Father, a Father in Heaven. I have a perfect Heavenly Father. What’s more, my Father is within my reach. He’s able to find me in the most hidden place. He is actively involved in my day, my actions, even my thoughts, and this is a good thing, because he’s my Father.

I went back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, this time with a pen in hand. I made a list of affirmations about my Father and me. After closing the book, I had a list I could read out loud. Alone in my office, I read each statement out loud. I heard the sound of my own voice speak the truth about God, who is also my Father. It was a list of things I could be sure of.

• My Father encourages me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me.
• My Father wants to perfect me.
• My Father does not reward “outward performance.”
• My Father sees what I do in secret and will reward me.
• My Father will meet me behind closed doors.
• My Father knows what I need before I ask Him.
• My Father forgives me when I forgive others.
• My Father feeds the birds; He will feed me.
• My Father knows what I need.
• My Father gives me good gifts from heaven when I ask Him.

I learned one final thing sitting on the hill with Jesus. There’s a phrase he uses only once, but once was enough for me: “Our Father.” At the very beginning of what we call the “Lord’s Prayer” Jesus doesn’t start with the words, “My Father,” he starts with “Our Father.”

This gave me one final picture in my mind. I saw Jesus as my brother, someone who is with me whenever I pray. In my imagination I had a picture of Jesus putting his arm around me, saying, “Whatever it is that’s troubling you, whatever it is you need, come on--let’s go to our Father together.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Failing Job's Second Test

I don’t like blogging about myself, but I found myself the object lesson of this week’s Monday Memo. I was sick most of last week. Nothing serious, long-lasting, or life threatening, but enough to force me to lay still for three days, and slow me up for three more.

Illness can be humbling because we discover again that we are frail—there’s no great revelation in that fact. What I did discover for the first time was how much I focused on myself. With each passing day of illness the only subject that interested me was, well, me. I only talked to my Heavenly Father about my discomfort. I ignored the welfare of those I loved, and although I would never have spoken the words out loud, I expected the world to revolve around me.

The truly humbling discovery after just one week of illness was how much I have allowed my body to rule over my soul and spirit. When the Accuser jousted with God in the book of Job, the second accusation centered on Job’s love for his own body, “stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 2:5) I’m happy to report that I didn’t curse God, but I certainly complained quite a bit!

The Father, in his patient and loving way, gently directed me toward Psalm 73:26:
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

Sickness does not come from God, but he can use our weakness to draw us after him. What is the strength of your life?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to feed 18,000 Kenyans

Sometimes a fish out of water brings the ocean with him. That’s the case with Steve Peifer, a former heavy-hitter with Oracle Corporation who left the corporate world for the other side of the globe and a new calling as a missionary. In less than 10 years Steve developed a ministry that feeds 18,000 Kenyan children and ushers them into the 21st-century via computer skills training—all in the name of Jesus. Even CNN recognized that this is no ordinary missionary activity. They featured Steve’s work during their 2007 CNN Heroes Award Presentation. Steve’s use of available media demonstrates what can happen when technology kneels in the service of the kingdom of God. This is his story.

The Medium
In the late 1990s, Steve, his wife Nancy, and their two children left the fast-paced Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex because for them that world had changed forever. Nancy had recently given birth to their third child, a little boy named Stephen Wrigley, who had a condition known as Trisomy 13--and as a result died eight days later. Suddenly, the corporate fast-track lost its appeal. When a missionary friend invited Steve and Nancy to Africa, they went.

From his first days in Africa, Steve used the only communications tool he knew—email—to distribute a newsletter about the work they were doing. The emails were simple and only featured text, but 10 years ago the use of email itself was light years ahead of the way most missionary newsletters were distributed. The emails were 300-400 words long, they were well written, and they were easily forwarded. Steve’s friends in the corporate world read them and forwarded them to their contacts—people who had never met Steve but were moved by the compelling stories in his newsletters.

The Peifer’s ability to stay in touch with personal and professional friends may serve as a new paradigm for ministries to communicate effectively with their supporters. In the long-lost land of 1999, most communication from missionaries to their support bases back home consisted of homespun paper newsletters sent by snail mail. The information was communicated in black-and-white, print-only, hard copy pages that only the most motivated reader made time to read.

The ease of email distribution allowed Steve’s support base to grow from the very beginning. Of course, it wasn’t just the choice of email as the primary communication medium that contributed to success. The newsletters were compelling and each one conveyed true stories about real people, rather than the standard project updates, financial need appeals, or ministry reports. Some recipients began to archive Steve’s stories because the email medium made them easy to store and retrieve. As digital photography and email bandwidth increased over the years, future newsletters blossomed with color pictures and links that allowed readers to explore the work going on in Kenya.

Eventually, Steve was contacted by the Solution Beacon Foundation (, the non-profit arm of a software specialty company, which offered to publish and distribute Steve’s stories in book form. The book, Your Pal, Steve (available on Amazon), introduced Steve’s email newsletter to a wider audience.

The Plan
Many parents in Kenya cannot feed their children even one meal a day, so when forced between sending their kids to school or sending them out to find food, school loses. Steve’s idea was to link a guaranteed lunch with education. If a Kenyan mother is certain her child will receive at least one excellent meal a day at school, then school becomes the right choice. Once the program was implemented, dropout rates fell to nearly zero, attendance soared, and children received an education.

The second step in Steve’s plan was to make sure that the education the kids received would equip them for the 21st-century. Steve developed computer centers that were housed in used international shipping containers and powered by solar panels. Each center contained 8-10 laptops that enabled children to learn basic word-processing and spreadsheet skills—the kind of education that is useful anywhere in the world.
Obviously, a plan that ambitious required a good deal of financial support. Thus, the Peifer’s wrote about their work as often as they felt they had something to share. As they wrote, they did so in a way that was personal, conversational, and inviting. Nancy Peifer wrapped up their approach to writing his way: “We hope to come across as your next door neighbor, except our house happens to be in Africa.”

The Response
The response to these mission work dispatches has been remarkable. First, out of about 1,400 recipients, each newsletter generates 80 or more responses. Because of the immediacy of Facebook, Twitter, and email, Steve’s base of supporters can respond with a simple comment or with real substance. One regular reader headed to Kenya on his own dime because he wanted to produce a video about the work the Peifers are doing. Others respond with financial support, but also with whatever imagination they can bring to the project. Solar-powered flashlights, laptops donated by corporations, and even bags of Cheetos have arrived unexpectedly at the Peifers’ doorstep.

Compelling stories, colorful graphics, and an email distribution list that bypassed standard church targets in favor of businessmen and women all led to the visibility that attracted CNN. In 2007 CNN sent a video crew to document Steve’s and Nancy’s work for the aforementioned Heroes Award Presentation. In addition to one video produced by an impassioned supporter, Steve’s ministry now gained a second video produced by one of the top TV networks in the world.

Steve and Nancy are reluctant to acknowledge how unique their approach to communications really is in the context of the missions world, but it’s clear that the business world, indeed the world apart from the church, embraces communications strategy at a different pace and with a different paradigm. Most ministries would do well to re-examine their communications choices with an eye toward business methodology. For ministries, any medium that allows the message to be transmitted quickly and without substantial cost is one worth pursuing. Many of the Peifers’ current supporters have never met the family or been to Kenya, but receiving a forwarded email that told a compelling story drew them into the circle of supporters.

These days, Steve’s newsletters are also distributed on Facebook—where most of the under-30 crowd hangs out—to a group called African Kids Need Food Too, and on the Peifers’ website ( in the form of blog posts. Again, he is reaching out to a non-traditional audience of potential supporters, many of whom would never sit still for a missionary presentation at their local church, if they even attend church at all.

To find out more about Steve’s work in Africa, you can visit the website or, if you’re so inclined, jump on the next plane to Kenya.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Everday Situations

Here’s a story of how one simple question changed thousands of lives. A young guy went into work one day. He’s just a guy: twenty-something, an accountant, married a few years. He went into work feeling like there was no future. He and his wife had been told they would never have children, and their dreams of life together were crushed. That day at work another guy in the office asked a straightforward question: “Hey, did you know God still does miracles?”
“I hope so,” came the reply, and then the changes came one after another. The young couple received prayer, not long afterward the wife conceived, they turned to Jesus, entered the ministry, had five children, and over the past 30-plus years have been used by God to touch thousands of people. It’s true. Just ask Happy and Dianne Lehman, pastors at the Vineyard in Champaign, Illinois. It all started when a co-worker encountered a fairly common situation and asked a simple question. It’s a parable for those who want to be disciples.
Jesus used everyday situations to shape his disciples: paying taxes, feeding the hungry, fishing, encountering a fever at home, settling disputes between people filled with pride and competition. He knew that commonplace situations contained eternal possibilities: a drink of water could change a town, coins could become cities, and palm leaves could threaten an empire. Moreover, Jesus expected to leave behind a group of followers who were capable of continuing his work in every respect. His solutions transformed the most unlikely cast of characters into world-changers who operated with his priorities, lived out his example, and operated with the same authority and power as their Master.
From their life-changing experience, Happy and Dianne learned how to invite the Kingdom of God into the everyday. As Dianne puts it, just seven words on the lips of a follower of Jesus can invite the in-breaking of the Kingdom at any moment: “Can I pray for you right now?” It’s another simple question that could change thousands of lives. Whose life can I change today?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hearing God's Word

For the longest time I have been intrigued by the question, what does it mean to hear from God? God willingly speaks to his children, yet there is no guarantee that I will hear him. If I do hear him, how can I be sure I will hear all he has in mind? How can I be sure I will understand Him? Hearing from God requires humility. When the unfathomable Creator of the universe speaks to a finite creature like me, I should approach his words with reverence.

Take the passage in Matthew 16: 13 – 28, for example. (Go ahead and take a moment to read it) Jesus had taken his disciples beyond the borders of Israel and asked them some penetrating questions. By the end of the conversation, God had spoken, but the effort to understand was just beginning. I’d like to suggest three key verses from this passage if we want to understand how God speaks.

Revelation: “Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” (v 17) Some kinds of knowledge come only through revelation. Peter had been on the road with Jesus for some time. He had seen Jesus do incredible things, heard Jesus teach with authority, and even participated with Jesus in miraculous events. Even though Peter had such a wealth of experience, his knowledge of Jesus’ identity was revealed by to him God. I wonder how often I lean on my own understanding: there’s no doubt I can learn from my experiences or grow from the times God has used me in ministry. Some things, however—some very important things—must come from God. Let’s not be tempted by thinking, “well we have the Bible now, that’s how God speaks today.” Be careful! The religious leaders of Jesus’ day thought the same thing. Jesus had strong words for them, and if we have ears to hear, strong words for us as well: “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you'll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!” (John 5:39 The Message) I’m grateful for the scripture but I need to keep in mind that the scripture points to God. It’s possible to read the Bible for an hour and never hear God’s voice.

Explanation: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (v 21) Revelation is not enough: we need help understanding what we have heard. Can you imagine the response of the disciples after Jesus confirmed he was the Messiah? Their excitement and anticipation must have filled them with expectation. The challenge before Jesus was directing their energy toward God’s intention instead of their own ideas about the coming of the Anointed One. In the century before Jesus several “Messiahs” had put themselves forward to the people of Israel. Even prominent rabbis had endorsed these Deliverers. Both Israel and Rome were on the watch for a new “King of the Jews.” The true King of Kings had a profoundly different sense of divine mission. How many times have I taken the revelation God has given me and run off with my own ideas about what comes next? And “what came next” was shocking to the disciples!

Decision: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” (v 24) Who knew that following the Christ would mean taking up the walk of a condemned man? The phrase “take up your cross” has been softened by the centuries. Many 21st century Christians consider any inconvenience to be “my cross to bear.” The men who heard Jesus that day in Caesarea Philippi knew exactly what “cross-talk” was all about. Our modern-day equivalent might be summed up in the phrase currently used on death row, “Dead man walking.” Jesus was trying to indicate not only the manner of his death, but their destiny as well. Having received revelation from God and explanation from Jesus, the disciples still had a decision to make. God had not spoken to them “FYI,” God had spoken in order to draw them into the action!

I have tried to imagine the roller coaster of emotions the disciples experienced in a matter of minutes: revelation concerning Jesus’ identity, explanation from Jesus himself regarding the true role of the Messiah, and chillingly, the realization that Jesus was calling them to follow him.

Whenever we hear the voice of God there is something more than revelation. He has a purpose when he speaks, and we must choose whether we will fill our ears or let his word fill our lives.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Monday's Meditation An Invitation to Experience

“Anything we read in the scripture is an invitation for us to experience.” ~Bill Johnson, Bethel Church
Now there’s something to think about on a Monday. How do we come to the Bible? Are we looking for information about God, or an encounter with God? When we say the book is inspired, do we mean that the Holy Spirit breathed upon those who wrote it, or do we mean that the Holy Spirit wants to breathe on those who read it now? Correct answer: “Both.”
I was sitting around the office Friday with a friend, talking about reading the Bible for the first time. Do you remember what that was like for you? Do you remember thinking, “Man, that’s crazy! I wonder if that stuff could happen to me?” As we talked about our first encounters with God’s word, my friend commented, “I think we have to be trained not to believe the stuff we read.”
This was John Wimber’s experience (Wimber was the founder of the Vineyard movement). In his testimony he describes how God delivered him from a self-centered life of drugs and alcohol. He describes how the Bible was fresh and alive. Then he tells the story of going to church and seeing the distance between Christianity described in the New Testament and Christianity in the modern church. So Wimber cornered the pastor one day and asked, “When do we get to do the stuff?”
“What stuff?” the pastor asked.
“You know, the stuff in the Bible. When do we get to heal the sick and all the other stuff I read about?" The pastor explained to John that “stuff” like that doesn’t happen any more—at least not to normal Christians.
And so began the process of training a new convert into not believing, or experiencing, the stuff in the Bible. So for a new Monday, consider: what have I read in the scripture that's an invitation for me to experience? How would that change my life?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

There was a man who had two sons

Jesus had a strange way of answering criticism. He told stories. In fact, he told stories in response to many situations. When a lawyer wanted to debate the meaning of a single word, “neighbor,” Jesus answered with a story (Luke 10: 25 – 37). When he wanted to open our minds toward God’s Kingdom, he told stories (Matthew 13). And when he faced criticism, he told the story we call “The Prodigal Son.”

He didn’t give the story that name. He just told it. What a strange way to answer criticism (Luke 15:2). He simply talked about lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children. Could you imagine a politician or a pastor faced with criticism today? “The charges against me have not been proven!” one might say. Another might respond, “I won’t dignify that accusation with a response.” But what modern figure, when faced with an attack, would respond: “The was a man who had two sons.” You can read it in Luke 15: 11 – 32.

I don’t particularly like the name, “The Prodigal Son.” The story could just as easily carry the father’s name. Or we could take our cue from Jesus’ first line: it’s the story of a father and two sons. I’ve been thinking lately about both sons. They had so much in common. Perhaps more than you think. Families are funny. Two boys can grow up in the same house, eat the same good, go to the same schools, have the same parents and still turn out so differently. And yet when others look at the family from the outside they will notice first the similarities. Take these two young men.

The “prodigal son” is infamous. He wished his father dead, and said so! The fool was soon parted from his money (was it ever really his money?). Finally, with his back to the pigpen, he devised a humble return to the family farm, even if it was only as a hired hand.

Of course, the father would have none of it. He was watching for his boy all along. He wouldn’t even listen to the elaborate “deal” the younger son proposed. The father celebrated his return and invited everyone to do the same. This much we know.

The older brother is not as famous, but he’s gotten his share of recognition over the centuries as well. He wasn’t happy about the return of his brother. He used the father’s extravagance as fuel for criticism of his Dad.

Like many families today, both boys would be surprised to hear what others saw they had in common. I’d like to point out some of the family resemblance if I may:

Both sons failed to grasp their identity: the younger son rejected his role as a son. He tried to “hire on” when he returned, which means he still didn’t see himself as the father’s son. But neither did the older brother. He said to his father “all these years I slaved for you.” (verse 29) Apparently he saw his role as a slave, not a son. Whether this slavery resulted from the expectations of his culture or a poor relationship with the father, we can only guess. Both sons had the unspeakable privilege a blood-bond, but neither could grasp their identity.

Both sons separated themselves from the father: the younger son famously flew the coup, but he older brother was left in the outer darkness beyond the house, hearing only the faint music of celebration in the father’s house. Both did so by their own choice, and both missed out on abundance, feasting, and joy.

Both sons experienced the father’s loving pursuit: while the younger brother was still a long way off the father dropped everything and ran to him. Never was a boy so willingly captured. The older brother saw the silhouette of someone coming out from the house. It was the father, looking for a missing son. He was the kind of father who never forgot either of his boys, even when the party was in full swing. The father would go to nearly any length to welcome them both.

Both sons got to hear the father’s view of their relationship: the younger son was not allowed to demote himself to hired hand. He was a son, and he would always remain so. The older brother got to hear these exquisite words, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” Apparently the father never thought in terms of “inheritance.” He had always viewed everything as belonging to his boys.

If I had the chance to change popular perception of the parable, I would rename it “The Father’s Love.” There is no identity apart from the Father. Separation from the Father means darkness for all who choose to distance themselves. The Father’s love breaks every barrier. And finally, the Father’s heart determines who we are even if we don’t have it quite right.

Jesus told the story to a critic. I wonder if the critic heard the invitation to join the party?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Monday's Meditation: Daydreaming on the Expressway

I have a recurrent daydream about the greatness of God. When I am driving on an expressway I watch the endless stream of cars going the other direction. They flash by in an instant. In each car is another person, perhaps two—perhaps an entire family.

I try to imagine who these people are. Each one has a life, just as I do. Each car contains someone going somewhere. Each person has a history, a story, and a destiny before them. In a moment, I am overwhelmed by the vast numbers of people in the city, and my mind cannot grasp the fullness of each life that flashes past me. But God can.

I am confident that God knows me and cares about me. He not only knows the circumstances of my life, he knows my thoughts and wants to dialogue with me every moment of my day. As I’m driving, I think, “How can God know each person? How can he keep track of it all?” In fact, he cares about each one, he loves them; he’s not just “keeping track of” them.

Sometimes we unconsciously think God is just like us, only bigger and better. As I watch the endless stream of cars going the other way and try to think of every person I realize that God isn’t just a bigger version of me, he is something—some One—completely other than me. The vast numbers of people in my city, my state, my country, worldwide only demonstrate his greatness. He knows and cares for every one of them.

Do you want to be overwhelmed by God’s greatness? Consider that God not only cares for you, but about every person alive or who has every lived. How much does he care? “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12: 7)