Thanksgiving, Earthquakes and Emotional Breakdowns

Yesterday I was reflecting about the meaning of being thankful. My mind went to the usual–and accurate–places; I am thankful to God, for my family, friends, etc.

However, the more deeply I thought about it, a vivid memory surfaced–one that I had not recalled for at least two years.

On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, Port Au Prince, Haiti was hit with a magnitude 7 earthquake, devastating the impoverished island nation. That day, over 300,000 people lost their lives, 300,000 more were injured and over 1,000,000 became homeless.

Through Divine providence, I found myself in Port Au Prince, Haiti just a few days after the quake. Working with our good friends, Kurt and Debbie Holthus of Hope International Ministries, I was a part of a group of surgeons, surgical nurses, logistics experts and ministers. Our job was to do whatever we could to help.

The first few days on the ground were a bit tumultuous. We were sleeping on the grounds of a walled, half-built elementary school in the city. There were guards standing at the locked gate, keeping watch over our truck and over a million dollars worth of medical supplies as well as our personnel. I was laying on a concrete floor in a sleeping bag and couldn’t seem to fall asleep; there were constant after-shocks and chronic Voodoo drums surrounding us.

As I lay there trying to sleep, I could faintly hear some singing coming from the street in front of our gate.  I nudged my buddy, Pastor Ken Cramer, who was in the next sleeping bag, and asked him if he wanted to join me in checking out the singing in the street. Within a couple of minutes, we were both standing just inside the gate, listening to a group of people sing songs in Haitian Creole on the other side of the wall. Suddenly, I recognized the tune they were singing: Fanny Crosby’s classic, “Blessed Assurance!” By this time, Kurt Hothus had joined us and we convinced the guard to let us out of the gate to see who was singing.

The three of us quickly sat down on the curb, against the compound gates and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. There were dirty mattresses neatly fit together in the center of the street, and upon them, were probably 30 or more people singing as their children were falling asleep on their laps. Their houses had been destroyed and they were afraid that further aftershocks would cause nearby buildings to topple down on them, so the middle of the street was the safest place to be.

As our eyes became familiar with the darkness, we could see the people’s condition.  There was a woman with a broken leg; her foot was twisted around and lying on the mattress in an unnatural position.  There were sleeping children with bandaged heads.  Most of the people lying on the mattress pallet were injured in some way.

The three of us found ourselves almost unconsciously singing along to the familiar tune of “Blessed Assurance,” though we were singing in English.  I looked over at Kurt and Ken and they, like me, had tears streaming down their cheeks as the language/culture barrier was collapsing.  Overcome with emotion, my heart felt like it was going to explode with a peculiar mixture of sorrow, pain, empathy, joy and belonging.

As the song came to an end, the lady with the twisted, broken leg began to lead the next song.  It was obvious that the song was particularly meaningful, because the whole group began to raise their hands and cry as they sang this song with more passion than we had yet heard.  I looked at my companions and asked them if they knew what song this was, but they, like me, recognized the familiar tune but couldn’t figure out the English lyrics.

All of the sudden, I was able to subconsciously attach English words to the familiar tune:

…and now, let the weak say, “I am strong,”

let the poor say, “I am rich because of what the Lord has done…”

These dear brothers and sisters were lying injured, on dirty mattresses, in the middle of an unsafe street, with no food, having lost everything singing, “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart.”

To say that I was overcome would be an understatement.  I don’t remember ever crying that deeply; it felt like the sobs came from my very soul.

Ken, Kurt and I quickly went and got these folks food and help.  Though we would move the next day–and not see them again, I relived this vivid, life changing memory again yesterday and yet another time in writing this.

Gratitude is not based on how much we have, our present condition or our sense of security.  We give thanks because of what the Lord Has done for us.

Have a blessed, authentic Thanksgiving.

Disengaged from Corporate Worship Experiences: A Study in Humility

Our experiences with the Holy Spirit generally happen in one of two venues: in a group setting or when we are alone.

While we value and appreciate all experiences with God, many times we neglect to see a major positive side effect of receiving in a group setting; namely, humbling ourselves before others.Experiencing God in a group setting has a different prerequisite than it’s more private counterpart; the group setting demands a different type of personal humility. In order to be a part of a community, you must lower your guard and humble yourself publicly on some level. Participating with others as you experience God demands that we lay down our pride–and hopefully its accompanying pretense.

If your spiritual life is only ever expressed in private, you are missing something wonderful! Even if you are wired in your personality to be very shy or reserved, there are ways you can open up and participate in a corporate setting. It doesn’t demand that you be the center of attention; conversely, it demands that you enter in and cooperate with what the others are doing. You actually stand out less!

I dare my shy friends to just take a small step out and participate a little more than you are currently allowing yourself. Even a small step is progress! Pray out loud during the corporate prayer times; sing along with the worship songs, raise your hands, allow yourself to enter in on a new level. Simply do more.

I frequently ask myself this question in worship, “Is my pride comfortable right now?”

Now, not everyone who avoids spiritual community does so out of timidity. Some disengage from corporate worship all together; they don’t merely attend as a disengaged spectator–they don’t attend anymore at all! I am deeply disturbed with a growing trend of people disconnecting from corporate church gatherings. I understand that they have possibly been hurt by some past church experience or leader. In listening to many of these folks, I have discovered that the premise for “de-churching” is ALWAYS based on negative experiences, NOT what the Bible says:

“ And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25 NLT

Do you see how this goes hand-in-hand with not wanting to humble yourself?

“I don’t want to ever go there again…”

“They don’t treat me with respect there…”

“They don’t recognize my gifts…”

“That church is full of hypocrites…” (Good! Then we can all fit in well!)

Do these sound familiar? The next step is stepping away. Then, exalting our negative experiences over Scripture, we feel justified by our excuse–surely we are the EXCEPTION to the Biblical mandate of corporate worship!

By that point, pride has a deep foothold. Maybe if we planted ourselves in the place we know we belong, we would reap the benefits that we really desire?

Perhaps it’s time to reassess our spiritual routine…AGAIN! It requires constant attention and calibration…for all of us.

What do you think?

Consecration and Anointing: an Old Testament Case Study

This is an excerpt from our current series of articles in The Enrichment Journal; the series runs for one year, starting with this quarter’s issue. For the full article, you can click here:

Zooming in on charismatically endowed individuals can be inspiring — but it can also get ugly. From Moses to Samson to David, bittersweet moments of personal victory and failure demonstrate this simple truth: Personal consecration can affect the duration of such an endowment.

Moses’ tantrum at Meribah-Kadesh reveals that the residue of his previous murderous anger and tablet-smashing outbursts still lingered. Striking the rock brought a premature and geographically limiting end to his leadership. Disobedience can be costly, decreasing the time span of Spirit-empowered effectiveness.

The Gideon narrative is an example of a Spirit-empowered leader missing God, therefore missing God’s best. This incident immediately followed a great victory. His penchant for Ishmaelite earrings snared him and all Israel into idolatrous worship (Judges 8:23–27). Gideon’s story had a great first half, but holiness issues changed his biography to have a flavorless — even sour — conclusion.

And then there’s Samson — half-Spirit empowered leader, half-unconsecrated pleasure addict. His story reminds us of God’s grace despite human weakness. Samson’s contradictory end of both victory and defeat leaves the reader wondering what could have been if only he had a deeper level of consecration.

God selected Saul as king at the insistence of Israel — even though a monarchy was apparently not yet the divine plan. Saul’s commissioning includes both astoundingly precise prophetic interaction with Samuel and unique personal interaction with the Spirit of prophecy. Shortly after his coronation, he blatantly disobeyed God by sparing the Amalekite king, Agag. This began a cycle of God mercifully reaching out to a disobedient Saul, who seems to become more and more bent on his own destruction. Once again, a lack of consecration lowers the ceiling of what could have been.

King David is the clearest Old Testament prototype for the Messiah — a soft heart — but a vulnerable Achilles tendon. Note his fear of the Holy Spirit’s possible departing following his sin against Uriah and Bathsheba: “Do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11, NASB). This man after God’s own heart knew there were consequences to sinful decisions.

At this point you may wonder, How can any of us make it? Certainly if Moses, who received both the original and duplicate copies of the Law — hand delivered on granite stationery — cannot finish the course, how can we? The new covenant demonstrates that Spirit-enabled moral change is more than possible; it is expected. Paul tells us, “If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Romans 8:13, NASB).

The new covenant provisions of the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration and sanctification make what was once impossible now possible — even for leaders. Comingle that with an unfolding level of New Testament grace and mercy, and suddenly we have an opportunity to break the cycle and experience the fullest duration of our individual anointing.

A Call for the End of "Perfect Church"

My last post generated quite a bit of discussion (at least on FaceBook); and the comments seemed to share a common desire to return to a more biblically authentic worship experience, along with a bit of frustration for the increasing theatrical production quality observed in many churches.

Today I would like to call for the end of “Perfect Church,” where every note has to be on tune and every announcement video is broadcast quality, where only auditioned singers can get on the “team” and where sermons come from the pastor being shut in with his/her creative team instead of simply being shut away with God.

I’m not advocating “Hokey Church” or “Wing-it Church,” but simply a re-assessment of why and how we do things. We should strive to do things well and to the best of our ability–but that’s just it; many are trying to do it to the best of Broadway’s ability. I feel like the sense of authentic community has been destroyed by the hiding of our human imperfections. Why would a person who is being convicted of sin ever walk the aisle of “Perfect Church” before the amassed group of “perfect members?” We need a restoration of the Acts church model!

Now I realize that the New Testament is full of human blunders–even church ones. How about the attempt at communal living that ended with dishonest offerings and dead people? But I’m afraid that our church marketing friends are trying to re-write early church history and sanitize its frailties with an unholy airbrush. How can we read Acts and then attend one of our modern 55 minute multimedia extravaganzas and think this is what Jesus and most of the Apostles were martyred for?

Here’s the bottom line question; how did we let things get this way? I’m afraid the answer won’t make us feel too good. Our western church culture has demanded that the wishes of the people are met or else we pull up our roots and move down the street to another church that will cater more to our self-indulgent and un-sanctified lives. Perfect Church has emerged–at least in part–as a church survival technique, feverishly trying to corral the unhappy and un-satisfiable masses. That does not, of course, excuse anyone–the church organization, or us–the real church–of our shared responsibility for this distortion.

Jesus speaks directly to us today through the words He originally spoke to the Church in Laodicea:

14 Write to Laodicea, to the Angel of the church. God’s Yes, the Faithful and Accurate Witness, the First of God’s creation, says:
15  “I know you inside and out, and find little to my liking. You’re not cold, you’re not hot—far better to be either cold or hot! 16 You’re stale. You’re stagnant. You make me want to vomit.
17 You brag, ‘I’m rich, I’ve got it made, I need nothing from anyone,’ oblivious that in fact you’re a pitiful, blind beggar, threadbare and homeless.
18   “Here’s what I want you to do: Buy your gold from me, gold that’s been through the refiner’s fire. Then you’ll be rich. Buy your clothes from me, clothes designed in Heaven. You’ve gone around half-naked long enough. And buy medicine for your eyes from me so you can see, really see.
19   “The people I love, I call to account—prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best. Up on your feet, then! About face! Run after God!
20   “Look at me. I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you.
21 Conquerors will sit alongside me at the head table, just as I, having conquered, took the place of honor at the side of my Father. That’s my gift to the conquerors!
22   “Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.”

–Rev. 3:14-22 the Message

“Father please heal our eyes to see that the ‘Perfect Church’ we desired and constructed is in reality ‘Wretched, Poor, Miserable, Blind and Naked Church.’ God help us to lay aside our appetite for “Perfect Church” and our passionless, commitment-less expressions of faith and re-discover what a true disciple of Jesus looks and acts like.”

I look forward to your comments.

What’s in the Original Pentecostal Secret Sauce and how did we lose the recipe?

Disclaimer: Please excuse the following rant.

So we’ve discussed some missing elements in previous “Secret Sauce” posts but what are the key elements of true corporate worship gatherings in Acts? The following is only a quick list and I need your input to make it more complete:

1. Corporate Prayer
2. Reading of the Scriptures
3. Teaching
4. Time for supernatural interaction
5. Worship (this is only mentioned twice that I have noticed: in the Phillippian jail and in in Antioch (and this is probably not 30 minutes of songs)

What am I missing?

Now, how did our worship services end up looking they way they do now?

Is anyone else getting tired of Broadway production church services or am I just getting old and grumpy? It seems like we are more concerned with “pulling off a successful show” than we are with having a biblically accurate expression of worship–no matter what public opinion says.

What ever happened to the audience of our services sitting on a throne instead of trendy matching chairs? Shouldn’t Jesus and His Word determine what our corporate worship services look like? Shouldn’t everything we do be directed towards pleasing Him?

What do you think? Is there any virtue to my questions or do I need a Prozac?

21st Century Pentecostalism: Bland Burgers with No Secret Sauce? PART TWO

Have you ever seen a devotional book that has only a snippet of scripture for each day along with several paragraphs (or pages) of the author’s thoughts and reflections?  Devotional books are a helpful, practical tool to consistently assimilate the Word of God into our lives—and for that I’m thankful—but could it be that having a partial verse excerpt along with greater amounts author’s content may not satisfy our RDA of scripture intake?  Perhaps we need some more Word in our diet.  Don’t throw out your new devotional, just make sure to also dig into the Word for yourself.

Here’s where I feel the Holy Spirit is applying this principle to the church:  our corporate practice of Pentecostal spirituality often overlooks the public reading of scripture.  It is very easy for leaders to take a “devotional book” approach to constructing a worship service, insomuch as the only scripture read in some church services is the preaching text.

Paul encouraged Timothy, “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (1 Tim 4:13).  I think we practice the exhortation and teaching part with passion and diligence, but do we truly value the public reading of scripture enough that we “give attention to it” as much as teaching? 

Rochelle and I were recently ministering at a church that valued publicly reading the Word so much that it was an essential part of each service—and not just an obligatory snippet.  The leadership would either begin each service with or after worship read a pertinent chunk of God’s Word.  They would typically read together out loud as a group off of the projection screen.  How refreshing!  The paragraph/s read were prayerfully selected, relevant to the direction of the services and had a noticeable effect on the spiritual climate in the room.

I would like to dare Pentecostal leaders to evaluate how much scripture is read in the worship contexts they lead.  I would even suggest the occasional cutting back of other non-essentials to make room for longer portions to read.

I vividly remember a leadership retreat while studying for the ministry at Central Bible College.  The speaker that night was Dr. Terry Bleek and his entire message was simply the reading of Psalm 119.  At first—I must confess—I looked at my watch in disbelief, but in a matter of minutes the room’s spiritual climate changed.  By the time Psalm 119 was read, the room was seized with a new passion for reading the Word.  Some students spent hours that night digesting large portions of the scriptures, as the Word had become its own appetizer.

As Pentecostals, we are people of the Word.  We believe in the inerrancy of scripture and in the transforming power of words inspired and preserved by the Holy Spirit.  I believe we need to rediscover this biblically essential part of our public worship times; perhaps this would stir up a greater hunger for the Word in all of our hearts?

21st Century Pentecostalism: Bland Burgers with No Secret Sauce? PART ONE

Even if you’re not a hamburger fan, the thought of eating a Big Mac without the culinary clown’s  “secret sauce” seems  sacrilegious.  I wonder just what is in Ronald’s top secret concoction?  Perhaps only Mayor McCheese knows for sure.

Recently I’ve been scouring the book of Acts to reverse engineer the Early Church’s “secret sauce” recipe.  What made their practice so dynamic, so demonstrative and so compelling?  
Over the next few posts, I’m going to look at the elements of true Christian practice–both corporate worship and private practice–that together season our Christianity with God’s secret sauce (I bet you’ve never heard that metaphor before!).
I want to begin this short series with the ingredient I am presently most concerned about.
Acts 4:24 recounts a practice that was common in the early church, extended seasons of corporate prayer: 
“…they raised their voice to God with one accord…”
This reference shows the automatic response of the church to challenging circumstances, but there are several other Acts references that demonstrate true corporate prayer was a staple of early Christian worship services (see Acts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, etc.).
Corporate prayer is when we together, in concert, call on the Lord.  It is a unifying, verbal confession of the existence of God (Heb 11:6) and a spiritual expression of humility and dependence.  This is a time for new believers to be mentored in their prayer lives, for mature believers to grow and for crusty ones to be de-barnacled; everyone–except the spectator–is involved and is practicing what they believe.
How does the Acts model superimpose over 21st century American Pentecostalism in general (please understand that this is a sweeping generalization)?  It seems that open-ended corporate prayer has become a thing of the past in many circles, having been substituted by a priestly (or pastoral) prayer time only.  Don’t misunderstand me; I believe that our shepherds should publicly (and privately) pray.  However, this priestly prayer time does not fulfill the need for a group of worshippers spending time “raising their voices to God in one accord.”  
A current trend is for churches to cancel their Sunday night services because of poor attendance.  I can understand renovating an obsolete schedule to become more effective; there’s nothing sacred about a time slot.  But what about the open-ended times of prayer that characterize a Sunday night service?  Do they get cancelled too?  We need to maintain the key element of corporate prayer consistently in our church services!  And don’t just move it to become an optional “only if you’re exceptionally needy” bonus feature after a service dismisses.  Corporate prayer is not an optional part of biblical worship; it’s an essential part.
Our modern consumer-driven church models tend to give people what they want rather than what they need.  How can we expect to transact Acts-style church services in one hour?  Thirty minutes of singing, ten minutes for announcements, pastoral prayer and offering then finally, twenty minutes of preaching.  Where’s the secret sauce?  That’s like saying, “I know I need to eat, but I only want to digest the bare minimum to keep my vital signs going.”
We must ask ourselves this question: Does our typical worship service place value upon the core Christian practices of prayer, public reading of scripture, teaching of the Word and worship?  If we cancel events that headline corporate prayer–such as Sunday nights, we MUST make sure that we include it elsewhere in the course of each Sunday morning service.  If there’s no time in our present schedule, modify it; dispense with another part of the service schedule that is not biblically mandated to make room for something that God will bless.
What do we value most?  What gets the most time in many Pentecostal worship services? Singing worship songs.  I love to worship by singing songs, but that is only one ingredient in the sauce.  Some churches have ten minutes of greeting time.  I have personally witnessed announcements lasting over twenty minutes!  That’s a lot of coercing for the bake sale!
The people we lead learn what we personally value by what we live out before them.  I learned to pray because my parents prayed with me and my childhood pastor, Rev. Phil Bongiorno, publicly modeled his dynamic prayer life before the church during seasons of corporate prayer.
Is it enough that we tell people they need to pray but don’t give them a consistent opportunity to practice it together?
Let’s discuss this some more.  I look forward to your input.

Waldorf, Statler and the Lakeland Healing Revival

In the last blog entry, “What Do YOU Think About the Lakeland Healing Revival,” I explained that I was withholding my opinions and judgment because of the infancy of the movement. This pause was in the presence of some disturbing doctrinal and practical issues that had been recognized by many, including several national, Spirit filled leaders. The gist of my rationale for suspending judgment was that despite both obvious and inferred problems, God was certainly working there. I wanted us to pray for the leadership, asking God to graciously help them—to receive grace and wisdom that we all could use more of.

Have you ever watched “The Muppet Show”? Part of the shtick is the sarcastic and merciless commentary of two balcony-dwelling know-it-all’s named Waldorf and Statler. They usually state the obvious, however, their role is simply to put others down who are at least trying to do something worthwhile. Now don’t think for a moment that I have gone off the deep end and begun to rant against the lack of virtue in modern puppetry characterizations—no matter how hard their foamy hearts may be. No, these distempered, stuffed geezers are a perfect metaphor for a common tendency we all have to quickly put down others who are trying something we are not willing to personally attempt ourselves.

My previous blog entry was a call to prayer, asking God to grant special grace and wisdom so that the leadership would enable the “God percentage” to increase and the “human percentage” to decrease. I didn’t want to be a trigger-happy critic viewing things from my own perfect balcony, nor did I want to miss something that God was doing.

For those of you who have been recently watching the revival or attending in person, it has become clear that the “God percentage” is indeed on the increase. Just last night (June 26), Todd Bentley announced several new safeguards against exaggerated reporting of miracles and greater levels of accountability. There has been a distinct trend away from the more disturbing doctrines and a greater focus on souls. These, along with other positive signs, are incredibly encouraging to me.

Don’t get me wrong, if I was in charge, the doctrines and practices would be up to my personal standard of absolute perfection (smile); but that’s the point: I’m NOT in charge. This fact does not excuse me from the restraint of my biblical understanding and convictions, but it does free me to benefit from the spiritual zeal and motivation that are so evidently a part of what God is stirring up.

The bottom line? Don’t eat the wrapper along with your Big Mac, just eat the burger.

Please join me in continuing to pray for the Lord to be ever-increasingly honored through the Lakeland Healing Revival.

What do YOU think about the Lakeland, Florida Healing Revival?

Now lasting over 50 consecutive days, Lakeland, Florida is once again the topic of both the revival hungry and the skeptic–and everyone in between.

With what began as a five day meeting with Canadian Evangelist, Todd Bentley, Auburn, FL’s Ignited Church has jumped into the international spotlight. Web-casting and live satellite coverage on GodTV have given immediate international attention to the mixture of traditional revivalism and unusual phenomena. If you’ve witnessed it you are either supportive, cautious, confused or in opposition.

I have studied revival movements closely and have noticed that there has never been a 100% God, 0% human revival. Gordon Anderson rightly noted that a “mighty rushing wind kicks up a lot of dust.” The Lakeland revival is no diferent. No one can deny that God is not at least 1% involved there, but deeply concerning doctrinal issues along with sensationalism have raised the eyebrows of many–myself included.

So at what “God” percentage do we condone or condemn a revival movement? I propose that God is certainly at work in Lakeland but the movement is too young to either totally endorse it OR to totally write it off.

My reason for keeping my opinions on hold is that God uses imperfect people. The only perfect person ever used of God is God Himself, Jesus. Even the “Super-Apostles”–Peter and Paul–both evidenced faults in their latter years: Peter with false doctrine (Gal 2:11-16) and Paul’s broken relationship with Barnabas and John Mark. The good news is that both issues were reconciled after some time and/or correction; the “God percentage” was in a state of increase. This principle does not, however, excuse long term resistance to correction and/or arrogance.

My present judgment of the Lakeland revival follows suit. Though I have distinct theological concerns over issues there, I feel my present responsiblity is to pray that Todd Bentley (and the leadership) grows and learns; that they would know God’s grace and correction so that they can continuously decrease, thus allowing God to increase. This, by the way, is my prayer for our own ministry as well.

In conclusion, I do not think there is any specific “God percentage” (i.e. God 50% and human 50%) upon which we can base our judgment at this infancy stage of a potential revival, but rather we look for growth, deveolpment and doctrinal improvement. Are things getting better or worse over a certain period of time?

I pray that Todd Bentley quickly distances himself from the more alarming doctrines (such as guidance by “Emma” and others) and transparently yields himself to some needed restraint in the promotion of extra-biblical experiences and sensationalism. These issues are critical, but none are too hard for our great and gracious God to handle.

Please join me in praying for Todd Bentley.

What do you think? Let me know.