Be Rich: In Good Living

The early Church had some things figured out.  For starters, they knew why they existed.  They had a deep understanding of the purpose and mission of the Church.  Today’s Church could stand to revisit that soon.

They also knew what it meant to be rich in good living…in a way that allowed those around them to be rich in good living too.  Check out my message from Sunday to discover how you can be rich in good living too.  (Check out other messages here).


Does Trump Have Moral Character?

At times I wonder if the GOP (and politics in general) is a secret subsidiary of the WCW.  As I watched the candidates and moderators engage in a battle to see who could be the biggest bully last night (I think the moderators won) I couldn’t help but hope that Hulk Hogan or Macho Man Randy Savage would bust onto the scene and engage in the macho soap opera.  I think I just showed my age and the fact that I don’t follow wrestling by using them as my examples.  Who are the big names now anyway?  Who am I kidding?  I don’t really care.

There was one question that stood out in my mind.  One of the moderators asked Mike Huckabee if Donald Trump had the moral character to be President of the United States.  Really?  This is the hard hitting question that needs to be answered?  A question that forces one person to judge the moral character of another person?  It shouldn’t surprise me…but it did.  If I were Mr. Huckabee, I would have said something like, “I have no concerns with the moral character of any candidate on this stage.  The moral character I question is the moral character of the one who would ask such a divisive, counter-productive, and offensive question.”  Then I would drop the mic and walk off stage (I have always wanted to do that.  Unfortunately, the Countryman mic I use to preach with would not be that impactful as it floated to the floor).

If you are reading this I am sure that you have your own thoughts about the moral character of each and every candidate that was on that stage.  While I think it was a horrendous question to ask one candidate to publicly address the moral character of another…it is a question that we each must ask ourselves as we discern the candidate we wish to support.  More importantly, however, it is important that we consider our own moral character and ask ourselves, “Do I have the moral character that is needed to lead in the area in which I lead?”

Is that a big question for you?  Something that is a bit daunting to tackle?  It should be…because it is.  It is a tough thing to dig into our own depths to seek out the truth of who we are.  It is easy to attack others, as evidenced in our political arenas.  What is difficult, yet necessary, is the self-exploration that will lead to more effective leadership and a healthier life.  As you engage in your own self-exploration, here are a few things to consider.

  • Your reputation is birthed by your character.  It seems as though we have this backwards most of the time.  We believe that if we create an image for ourselves, people will follow us.  The problem is if that image does not match who you are, people notice that.  Call it integrity.  If your behaviors don’t match your professed values…you are not trustworthy.  In politics, business, friendships, etc, most people spend too much time developing their image and too little time developing their character.  In the end…character shows.  Good or bad…character shows.

Character is the tree and reputation is its shadow – Abraham Lincoln

  • Some character is universal.  While not every case of morality is black and white, there are some instances when there is simply a right and wrong action.  Within one’s cultural moral opinion, there are some things that are simply the right thing do to.  Choosing not to do the right thing is a sign of poor moral character.  It is easy to say that.  However, many times the right thing to do is also the hardest thing to do.  A person with strong moral character will always do the right thing.  Why?  Because it is the right thing to do.  While the action may be difficult…the reason for the action is not.

Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things. – Peter Drucker

  • Good character entails truth and grace.  As I indicated earlier, integrity comes when your actions and your beliefs are in alignment.  Note that this does not indicate the level of goodness of your character.  You can act like a complete jerk but if those actions are rooted in jerk-like beliefs…then you have integrity.  Integrity means, very simply, that you have an internal truth that you are willing to live out.  But living with your truth alone does not create good character.  Good character comes when we can live that truth in a grace-filled way.  Scripture tells us that, while the law came through Moses, “grace and truth came through Jesus”.  As a leader, you will gain respect from those you lead when you are able to stand firm in your beliefs in a way that shows grace to those around you.  If you need evidence of this just look to the Scriptures.  Jesus continually lived out His Truth in all He did, never compromising.  Yet, He did so in a way that extended grace to all those who heard and witnessed His great work.  And hoards of people followed Him.

Truth without grace is judgment cloaked in religion.  Grace without truth is enablement.  – Scott Sauls

You have had good leaders in your life and you have had bad leaders in your life.  When you think about those leaders, my guess is the good leaders had good character and the bad leaders did not.  Over the course of the next year, we will be hearing politicians judge and ridicule the character of the other person.  Much of it will be propoganda…and some of it will be true.  But, in the end…their character will show.  And…so will yours.

Does Trump have moral character?  Well…I have my opinions but I won’t share those here because I have found a more important question that needs to be answered.  A question that if we all took the time to address…the world would be a better place.  That question:  Do I have moral character?

Maybe we should all ask ourselves that question.

A Habit That Will Change Your Life

Habits.  Those things that we do that make routine functions nearly automatic.  We have hundreds…if not thousands…of habits in our lives.  Many of them you are not even aware of because your brain has created these habits so you can effortlessly accomplish tasks without even thinking about it.

What if I told you there were habits that you could implement in your life that would enable you to experience God’s grace like never before?  What if there was a keystone habit that you could implement that would grow your relationship with God in powerful ways?  What if watching this message would let you know what that keystone habit is?

Messy family? Me too!

We start with a simple truth.  Family is messy.  You can try to hide that truth, but we all know that family is messy.  Unfortunately, we often believe the lie that our mess equates to our standing before God.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is not the mess that God judges…it is the heart.  What does that mean for you?  Watch my message on the subject and find out.

Homosexuality, RFRA, Religious Freedom…and a Christian Response

Unless you have been holding up in a bunker somewhere, you are aware that homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom have been in the news of late.  Especially if you live in Indiana where the latest RFRA law was signed by Gov. Mike Pence and was followed by a media storm that was experienced from coast to coast.

This is a debate/issue that will not cease to exist anytime soon.  In fact…I believe we are simply seeing the beginning of this tension.  As debates heat up, individuals voice their opinions, and the world delves into the ambiguity that is homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom, there is a great opportunity for the Church to truly be the Church.

At Newburgh UMC…we addressed the Christian response to everything that is going on around this issue.

You can check it out in the full version…or the 5-minute breakdown version below:

5 minute breakdown:

Full message:

3 Reasons You Should Tell More Stories

Every time I drive to Indianapolis, I first go to the public library and check out a book on CD.  I figure if I am going to spend that much time in the car…I should make the best use of that time.  Usually I get a leadership book or a book that delves into some interesting research.  Today, I grabbed The Hunger Games.  I love the movies and love the books.  I figured, “This has to be equally as awesome!”  I put the CD in my computer to check it out (I always do this for a couple minutes to make sure it is something I really want to listen to).  It took about 30 seconds for me to be completely disappointed.  It was the same story…so why wouldn’t I like it?  For starters, the woman’s voice reading it did not fit my mental picture of the main character.  I can get past that.  What I couldn’t get past was that this was a woman reading a story to me.  That is not good for me.  You see, I don’t want someone to read a story to me.  I want someone to tell me a story.  There is a big difference.  A difference I have been aware of for quite some time.  So…it got me thinking:

There once was a time when the vast majority of people could not read.  Educational institutions were not readily available for people to become literate…nor was it a priority at the time.  However, stories of the past continued on…without textbooks, various idiot’s guides, and the internet to provide a wealth of written words to pass along information.  Instead, the population relied on the telling of stories.  This oral tradition was critically important for so many areas of knowledge and wisdom…especially when it came to the transmission of the story of God.  Yes…for quite some time, the history of God’s redemptive work was an oral tradition.  Passed on from one generation to the next, people told stories to keep the grand story of God alive for years.

But, over time, more people were able to read, the Bible was written, and there became a false assumption that everyone can read (not to mention there is a general expectation that everyone DOES read…which is also false).  As preachers, teachers, parents, and simply people who are concerned that the upcoming generations are becoming more ignorant to the stories of God…we must rekindle the great art of storytelling.

Why?  Well…here are 3 reasons (whether a preacher leading a church, a parent raising kids, or someone trying to share Jesus with your neighbor) you should tell more stories.

  1. Not everyone is reading the Bible.  According to Wycliffe Bible Translators, the entire Bible has been translated into more than 500 languages and more than 1,300 languages have a portion of the Bible.  A lot of people have access to Scripture.  But, that does not mean they are reading it.  Nor does that mean they understand it.  According to Statistic Brain Research Institute, approximately 32 million adults in the United States cannot read and of those who can read, 43% of them are at a basic or below basic reading level.  Have you read the Bible?  Some parts are difficult to understand for an above average reader…let alone someone who struggles to read above a 5th grade reading level.  What does this tell you?  Maybe it is time to consider sharing the story of God through…well…stories.  The people sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings are probably not reading the Bible.  Rather than reading it to them and then explaining it…try telling them about it in the form of a story.  My son just told us about his favorite story in the Bible.  He is five.  He cannot read…but he remembers in detail a story he was told.  I am not talking about getting away from Scripture.  Rather, I am talking about sharing the story of God.  I mean really sharing the story.  You know…like they used to.  Tell the story in a way that grabs the listener’s interest.
  2. Stories are powerful.  I cannot tell you how many times people have told me how much they liked a part of my message on a given Sunday morning.  Rarely (if ever) is it because of my elegant way of wording theological concepts or philosophies.  Nor is it because of the way I read the Word of God to them.  It is almost always one of two things.  Either they connected with an illustration I used from my own life that told a Biblical Truth, or I told the story of God in a different way.  Storytelling is powerful and transforming.  According to Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., studies have shown that when a storyteller tells a story an amazing thing happens.  The listener’s brain actually begins to mirror that of the storyteller.  Through scans of the storyteller and listener’s brains, researchers were able to show that when the listeners heard the story in their own language (when compared to hearing the story in another language) their brains synchronized.  When the storyteller had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.  When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs.   By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.  There is amazing power in stories to transmit ideas, thoughts, and emotions.  Maybe this is why when the focus was on an oral tradition the stories actual transmitted from generation to generation.  Today, using the written word alone…we find generations of Biblically illiterate people longing to know the story of God.
  3. Stories are shareable.  “Better people make people better”.  That was the “catchphrase” of a message I delivered last year.  There was a story that went along with that and an explanation about why better people make people better.  About a week later, as the UMW was preparing for the annual craft auction, I discovered that someone had made a decorative plaque for the auction.  On the plaque were the words, “Better people make people better. – Rev. Tony Johnson”.  I thought that was pretty awesome.  Not because they quoted me (well…I thought that was awesome too.  I consider myself published now) but because someone heard a story that they wanted to share in a different way.  Rarely do I find people going to their family and friends to share the part of a message that that discussed the theological depth of a specific passage.  They go to their family and friends to share how a story I shared about my kids spoke, not only to the Biblical text, but also to them.  People are bombarded with information every single day.  As a preacher, what makes me think bombarding them with more information is going to get through?  However, if I am able to couple that information with stories that hold some entertainment value…then…just maybe…they will leave having experience Christ in a new way.  And, isn’t that our ultimate goal?

Stories can and will change lives.  Let’s be clear.  I am not saying that we have to water down, dumb down, or take away from the Biblical Truth that is the Word of God.  Rather, I am saying that we must, whether teachers, preachers, or parents, find new and creative ways to pass along that Truth.  Stories have done that for many years…and they will continue to do that.

I may not be sitting in your pew or your kitchen any time soon.  However, someone will.  And when they do…you have the opportunity to impact their life in amazingly powerful ways.  Don’t take that opportunity lightly.  Don’t just “read” them a story.  Tell them a story.  They will be better for it…and so will you.  Maybe that takes us back to, “better people make people better.”

How Did You See Jesus Today?

cropped-380278_4560414522010_431921390_n.jpgI decided recently that I would ask one question at the dinner table with my family.  I don’t ask about their baseball (although I want to) and I don’t ask about school (even though that is important).  Instead, I ask the same question I ask those in my small group: “How have you seen Jesus today.”

I remind you….I am asking a 7 year old and a 5 year old.  At first, they didn’t know what to do with the question.  Look at dad with a blank stare was the common response.  But, after a while, they started to realize that dad was going to ask this question every time we sit down to eat dinner…so they better be able to answer it.

When they began to respond, I received a lot of great answers over the first couple weeks but it was just the other day that I received an answer that warmed my heart and terrified me at the same time.

I saw Jesus today in your love daddy – Canaan

I was humbled.  Don’t get me wrong.  I do my best to show my love to the kids every single day and as a follower of Christ, it makes complete sense that my son would see Jesus in my love for him.  But, as a father, to hear those words…the reality that my son experiences Jesus through my love for him…well…that will warm your heart like no other.

Along with that warm fuzzy feeling, I became a little terrified.  The words of a great professor in seminary reverberated through my mind:

“As a father, you will be the primary experience of God for your kids.”  – Dr. Steve Seamands

I guess Canaan’s words reminded me of the significance of my role as a father.  Yes, it is my job to raise my kids.  It is my job to ensure that my kids have ethics, morals, and sound judgment.  More important than all of that, it is my role to be the spiritual leader of my family.  That is a big role…and a role that I cannot do on my own.  Thankfully, I am not asked to do this alone.  I have the power of Christ guiding me along the way.

Maybe this response from my son was something needed.  A kick in the butt kind of reminder that if I am going to be the spiritual leader for my family, I must first follow Christ.  The words of the Apostle Paul seem to be appropriate here:

Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ – 1 Corinthians 11:1

Maybe you are in the same boat.  Humbled and blessed with the honor of raising and caring for one (or more) of God’s children…all the while a little terrified at the huge responsibility.  If so, never forget, you are not alone.  Follow the example of Christ and they will see in you something amazing…Christ Himself.

Does Jesus Care About Our Worship?

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 4.23.31 PMEvery week, worship is designed in churches all across this land.  As worship is designed, there are some basic questions that are posed.  What is the Scripture passage for the weekend?  Which songs will we use to lead the congregation in worship?  Will we serve communion, baptize anyone, invite people to the altar, or have some other form of response during the service?  I could go on for quite some time about the various questions we ask about the weekend services because there are many.  However…there is one question that most churches are NOT asking that MUST be asked if we truly seek to be the Church.

The question that churches must be asking about their worship is…

Does Jesus care about our worship?

On the surface it is a simple question, but it really is not all that simple once we begin to ask it.  If we want to know whether or not Jesus cares about our worship, you must first understand what Jesus cares about.  And, while Jesus cares about many things, it is obvious that there is a clear frontrunner.  In fact, in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus bursts onto the scene and the first thing He does is boldly state what He cares about:

After John (the Baptist) was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” – Mark 1:14-15

Jesus cares about people changing their hearts and lives and trusting in the good news and He spent His earthly ministry making that happen.  Sure, He also spent time healing the sick, giving voice to the voiceless, giving hearing to the deaf, and even raised the dead but that is not why He came.  He came for the very simple purpose of helping us change our hearts and lives and trust in the good news.  This doesn’t happen through a long drawn-out academic endeavor.  Nor does it happen by memorizing all the right Scripture passages.  It happens by simply remaining in Him:

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. – John 15:4-8

I have looked through this passage.  I am not sure Jesus could have squeezed another “remain in me” in there!  It was clearly important that people remain in Him.  That may mean different things for different people depending upon how spiritually mature they are but, it is abundantly clear here that remaining in Christ (having a real relationship with Him) is something He cares about deeply.  Why does He care about it?  He cares about it because it is remaining in Him that enables us to have changed hearts and trust in the good news!

Because this was such an important mission, one that He cared so deeply for, after He rose from the dead, He gathered His disciples around Him and said:

“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” – Matthew 28:18-20

This was Jesus’ way of saying, “Guys, it is really important to me that everyone know the same love that you have received from Me.  Because it is so important to Me, I am sending you out to the world to share that love.  Disciple them as I have discipled you.  Love them as I have loved you.  Teach them to remain in me as I have taught you to.”  We call this the Great Commission and we call it that for a reason.  This is when Jesus passed the mantle, if you will, of His mission.  This is when Jesus told His followers that what He cared about MUST be what they cared about.

Matthew is not the only place we see Jesus do this with the disciples.  Shortly before the day of Pentecost, Jesus sat with His disciples and spoke these final words to them before He ascended into heaven:

“It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Acts 1:7-8

Much like the Great Commission in Matthew, Jesus sends out the disciples to tell the story so that people will come to faith in Christ and find forgiveness, salvation, and the love of God.  These are the final words that Jesus speaks to His disciples and with these words, Jesus starts the Church.  Understand this.  The Church was established with the call to action to be witnesses for Jesus Christ so that others would be saved through a relationship with Jesus Christ as they remain in Him. 

So, back to our secondary question.  What does Jesus care about?  Well, if you take Jesus’ words to heart, then we have to understand that Jesus cares about bringing people into a relationship with Him.  It is what He was about and it is what He told the Church to be about.

Now, back to our primary question.  Does Jesus care about our worship?

If we answered this theoretically, the answer would be yes.  If worship is our offering of reverence, adoration, and praise to God then worship would be pleasing to Jesus.  The problem is, often times our worship is not an offering of reverence, adoration, and praise to God.  Unfortunately, it is often a process of going through the motions of traditions with the occasional cool thing for the sake of doing a cool thing.

Traditions and cool things are not inherently bad.  But, if those traditions and cool things are not actually bringing people into an encounter with Christ in a way that establishes and/or builds a relationship with Him…are we doing what Christ called us to do?  And if we are not…does Jesus really care about our Worship?

Ask yourself these questions.  Are you doing that catchy new series because it is cool or because it will actually help people grow?  Are you scheduling the Bell Choir on Sunday because they are “due” to play or because their presence will propel the community of faith into a worshipful encounter with Christ?  Are you observing that “special Sunday” because you always have or because you know that people will encounter Christ in a fresh way as a result?  Are you keeping that one element of worship because, if you don’t, Betty, a 40 year member, will raise a fuss or because it actually enhances worship? 

Every church worships differently…but we all have a common goal.  Jesus laid it out pretty plainly. Be His witnesses, make disciples, remain in Him, share the good news.

Next time you sit down, whether by yourself, or with your team…ask this question:

Does Jesus care about our worship?

It is not always an easy question to ask…and it can be an even harder question to answer.  But, when we design our worship in a way that seeks to make every element something that fulfills the mission of the Church and tug on the heartstrings of Christ…our worship will exceed our wildest expectations.

Our worship is meant to connect people to Christ and enable them to remain in Christ.  That is the kind of worship that Jesus cares about.  Is that the kind of worship you care about?

When Jesus Meets Your Shame

ShameTwo people.  A seemingly perfect life.  They had everything they needed…yet they reached for what they could not (or should not) have…and it all fell apart.

Adam and Eve were deceived.  But they were not innocent.  Both of them…male and female…took fruit from the one tree that God commanded them to leave alone and in that simple act, sin entered the world.  But sin did not come alone.  Right on sin’s heels came the ever-powerful emotion of shame.

Shame works on many different levels.  On one hand…shame helps a culture or society maintain its norms.  Imagine yourself enjoying a night of intimate bliss with your spouse.  Everything is going great until your child walks into the room.  Suddenly, arms and legs are flying every which way in a desperate attempt to cover yourselves up.  You don’t do this because you are ashamed that you are engaging in sexual intercourse.  You cover up because there are simply some things that do not need to be seen by others.  That emotion that causes you to cover yourself is shame.  The origins of this word (shame) are linked to the idea of covering up.  Remember what Adam and Eve’s first move was once they ate the forbidden fruit?  That’s right.  They covered up.  They hid their nakedness.  They masked their shame.

My wife and I enjoy the show Impractical Jokers.  They do some hilarious things.  And, they do some things that inevitably make us say, “he has no shame” (for instance…when one man flings the bathroom door open in a coffee shop while sitting on the toilet to ask the crowded establishment for some toilet paper).  Shame, to a certain extent keeps some civility to our society.  It is, in a way, a control mechanism to maintain cultural standards and values.  The debate could be made as to how far the positive attributes of shame extend…but for our purposes, allow us to simply acknowledge that shame, to a certain extent, can work for good in our world.

The problem is, there is a huge downside to shame.  While shame can help maintain some sort of value-based foundation, it can also destroy a person’s self-image so much that they are unable to move forward in life.  Joyce Marter, a psychotherapist in Chicago once said:

Shame is self-sabotaging. It triggers feelings that we are unwell, unworthy, unlovable. Clients often identify with their shame and feel unworthy to welcome into their lives all the love, prosperity, abundance and happiness that is inherently theirs, simply for the asking.

Shame can be very dangerous when we allow it to define who we are.

Take Peter for example.  Peter was a fisherman who encountered Jesus Christ on his boat one day.  Jesus just made a miracle catch of fish take place and Peter, a seasoned fisherman, knew that this was not normal.  Upon his realization of whose presence he was blessed to experience, he responded out of shame:

Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinner. – Luke 5:8

He wasn’t wrong.  He was a sinner.  We all are.  Where he was wrong was in thinking that because he was a sinner, he was unworthy.  Our shame, which accompanies our sins and shortcomings, convinces us that we are unworthy, unlovable, and simply not good enough.  And sometimes, like Peter, it causes us to think that Jesus will see us the same way.

Jesus’ response, however, was very different from what Peter thought it was going to be.  His response was quite simple.  No condemnation, no judgment, no ridicule.  Jesus simply said:

Do not be afraid.  From now on you will be fishing for people. – Luke 5:10

It is as if Jesus does not even acknowledge Peter’s shame.  Maybe because shame is a construct of humanity.  God did not create shame and He certainly does not intend for you to be defined by shame.

Maybe Jesus’ words to Peter are the same words He desires to speak to you.  Maybe, rather than letting shame define who you are, it is time you let Jesus define who you are.  Maybe, what Jesus was communicating to Peter, He wishes to communicate to you right now:

Do not be afraid.  I know what is in your heart.  It’s okay.  Just walk with me.

For more on shame and how Jesus responds to your shame…check out my message from Sunday!