When Despair Strikes

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Do you feel like you are in despair? Ever find yourself in a situation where it feels like there is no hope – that you’ve come to the end of your rope and have no idea what to do next? When desperation strikes, where do you find your strength?

I had a chance to spend an extended time with the Lord after my recent surgery. I took a lot of time to read my Bible, good books, pray, and listen to some sermons. One of the themes that I continually heard over the course of that week was that

God uses our trials to draw us closer to him. Sometimes we need to come to a point of desperation before we will yield ourselves to God in expectation.

This morning, after another difficult night of sleep, my attention was turned towards the Psalms. In Psalm 119:81-82 we read

81 I am worn out waiting for your rescue,
    but I have put my hope in your word.
82 My eyes are straining to see your promises come true.
    When will you comfort me? (Psalm 119:81-82 NLT)

Ever feel worn out waiting for the rescue of the Lord? Ever cry out, like the contemporary worship song, “I need you Jesus to come to my rescue! Where else can I turn?”

It doesn’t have to be a huge problem to bring us to this point. Sometimes, it’s a series of small things that just add up, and when we reach the tipping point, we either turn to Christ, because we realize that He is our only hope; or we continue in a cycle of choices that will take us further away from the joy and the hope that can only be found in Christ.

When Psalm 119 ends, we are introduced to a new series of Psalms. Beginning in Psalm 120, we see the Psalms of Ascent; a mini-songbook that the worshipers of Jehovah were to sing on their way to the temple. It was a way for worshipers to prepare to meet God. Step by step, the people would sing. They wouldn’t climb one step, until they had finished singing the song of ascent on the previous step.

When our family was in Israel in 2010, we visited the stairs of ascent that led to the temple. Here is picture of that spot.

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Stairs of Ascent at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

As the people sang the songs, they reflected on God’s ability to manage our troubles. I would say that their troubles caused them to seek out the only One who could truly help.

Look at these words from Psalm 120.

I took my troubles to the Lord;
    I cried out to him, and he answered my prayer. (Psalm 120:1)

How about these words from Psalm 121?

I look up to the mountains—
    does my help come from there?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth! (Psalm 121:1-2)

Knowing that the temple was a place where the presence of the Lord was experienced in wonderful ways, the people shouted the following in Psalm 122:

I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1)

Guess where the people focused their eyes in Psalm 123?

I lift my eyes to you,
    O God, enthroned in heaven. (Psalm 123:1)

Who helped the people in Psalm 124?

Our help is from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 124:8)

Step by step, the people sang of God’s faithfulness. They sang of the fact that God was the One in Whom they placed their trust.

Another step another declaration:

Those who trust in the Lord are as secure as Mount Zion;
    they will not be defeated but will endure forever. (Psalm 125:1)

Another step, another memory of God’s past care:

Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us!
    What joy! (Psalm 126:3)

The worshiper climbs, and as he or she does, the yielding of oneself to the expectation that it is God who protects is once again demonstrated.

Unless the Lord builds a house,
    the work of the builders is wasted.
Unless the Lord protects a city,
    guarding it with sentries will do no good. (Psalm 127:1)

By the next step, the pilgrim is reminded of the joy that comes from following God’s path.

How joyful are those who fear the Lord
    all who follow his ways! (Psalm 128:1)

The memory of God’s work in freeing His children from the bondage of sin is on the next step.

But the Lord is good;
    he has cut me free from the ropes of the ungodly. (Psalm 129:4)

The Apostle Paul asked the rhetorical question in the New Testament:

24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? (Romans 7:24)

The answer of course, is the Lord. When sin so quickly entangles it is God who rescues us. When desperation strikes in any area of our lives we run to God.

The Jewish pilgrim, ascending those stairs continued to recognize that God was able in Psalm 130.

From the depths of despair, O Lord,
    I call for your help.
Hear my cry, O Lord.
    Pay attention to my prayer. (Psalm 130:1-2)

One of the shortest Psalms spoke also of God’s faithfulness. The entirety of Psalm 131 is a declaration of dependence to the Lord.

Lord, my heart is not proud;
    my eyes are not haughty.
I don’t concern myself with matters too great
    or too awesome for me to grasp.
Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself,
    like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk.
    Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    now and always. (Psalm 131)

Three more steps remain. The anticipation of meeting with the Lord continues to grow.

Let us go to the sanctuary of the Lord;
    let us worship at the footstool of his throne. (Psalm 132:7)

Just two more steps. As the worshiper nears the temple, his focus turns on his fellowman. There is joy that comes when the people of God are seeking Him together.

How wonderful and pleasant it is
    when brothers live together in harmony! (Psalm 133:1)

The problems seem a little smaller. Stress is replaced by satisfaction that God has things under control. Issues with brothers and sisters in Christ are minimized as life together, centered on the Lord is pursued.

The final step. One more song. Only this time, desperation has been replaced by hope. The Lord is praised, hands are lifted in worship, and God is remembered for Who He is, maker of heaven and earth. If God could do that, He can certainly handle our problems.

Oh, praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
    you who serve at night in the house of the Lord.
Lift your hands toward the sanctuary,
    and praise the Lord.

May the Lord, who made heaven and earth,
    bless you from Jerusalem. (Psalm 134)

Those were the passages that I read early this morning. In the stress of a sleepless night, God gave me peace.

Yesterday, as I was driving to work, I heard this song on the radio. It’s Big Daddy Weave’s version of Rich Mullins’ classic song, Hold Me Jesus. In a way, this song, has been a type of song of ascent for me, ever since college. I love the way Rich wrote the words of this song. Hundreds of times over the past 25 years I’ve sung these words.

Hold me Jesus ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t You be my Prince of Peace

When despair strikes, remember who Jesus is!

Enjoy this video:

Some Reads for the Weekend

Looking for something good to read this weekend?

Here are a few suggestions.

Randy-headshotFirst, take a few minutes to read this article about my friend, Randy Mortensen, who runs World Wide Village, the organization that I recently traveled to Haiti with. Randy was a corporate executive, whose search for meaning eventually led him to a relationship with Jesus Christ and a new calling in Haiti. This is a great story.

 

The 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards - ArrivalsLouie Giglio has had a busy couple of weeks. Just ten days or so ago he was leading 65,000 college students in a four day conference, in Atlanta, called Passion 2013. The Passion conference was a major success, where major strides were made to free people from modern day slavery. President Obama took notice and Giglio was asked to deliver the inaugural prayer. Giglio was dis-invited when his belief that homosexuality is a sin was discovered by a watchdog group that alerted the President’s inaugural committee. You can read a great piece about the entire debacle here. Giglio wrote an incredibly gracious reply to his church here.

i am notI’ve been blessed by Louie’s ministry for several years and found some of his writing to be some of the most encouraging in my Christian life. One of my all time favorite books is I am not but I know I AM. If you are looking for a quick read this weekend you can download it here. The book is a reminder that we are only here for a little while. History is God’s story. We need to live our lives for His glory and His renown. What part are you playing in God’s story?

Indescribable-Giglio-Louie-5099967949991

Another great Giglio book is Indescribable: Encountering the Beauty of God in the Beauty of the Universe. The book is the result of Louie’s famous sermon in which he encourages us to consider the vastness of outer space and the depth of the soul, and the God who created it all. Giglio’s sermon Indescribable was the inspiration behind the worship song Indescribable that he wrote with Matt Redman. You can download the book here.

You can download the song, as preformed by Chris Tomlin, here.

the-air-i-breatheOne final Giglio book that I highly recommend is The Air I Breathe: Worship as a Way of Life. Almost every worship pastor that I have met has used this book with a worship team at some point in time over the past three years. Giglio is passionate about worship. It’s one of the reasons that he founded the Passion Conferences. He writes as a man in love with Jesus, calling us to not miss out on living our lives as an act of worship to the God of the universe. You can download the book here.

IDENTITY_ebook_cover_MCLooking for something fiction? New York Times best-selling author, Ted Dekker has released the first three of four novellas in his new Eyes Wide Open series of books. The final novella will be release this coming Tuesday. You can download book one in the series, Identity, for free by clicking here.

Here is a brief description of the series from Amazon –

Who am I?
My name is Christy Snow. I’m seventeen and I’m about to die.I’m buried in a coffin under tons of concrete. No one knows where I am. My heart sounds like a monster with clobber feet, running straight toward me. I’m lying on my back, soaked with sweat from the hair on my head to the soles of my feet. My hands and feet won’t stop shaking.

Some will say that I m not really here. Some will say I’m delusional. Some will say that I don t even exist. But who are they? I’m the one buried in a grave.

My name is Christy Snow. I’m seventeen. I’m about to die.

So who are you? 

In a return to the kind of storytelling that made BlackShowdown and Three unforgettable, New York Times bestselling author Ted Dekker drags that question into the light with this modern day parable about how we see ourselves.

Humming with intensity and blindsided twists, Eyes Wide Open is raw adrenaline from the first page to the last pure escapism packed with inescapable truth. Not all is as it seems. Or is it? Strap yourself in for the ride of your life. Literally.

Books two and three are available for just $2.99 each.
dekker-mirrorsBook two is called Mirrors and can be downloaded here.
dekker-unseenBook three is called Unseen and can be downloaded here.
Happy Reading!
******* ADDITION
SeerBook four came out early! Here is the link to purchase Seer.

Promises Every Pastor Should Make

I-Promise (1)When a church calls a pastor, the expectations that are made upon that person can sometimes be unrealistic. In a few instances, the expectations of a pastor can border on abuse. When counseling pastors who are considering a call to a church, I often times tell the pastor to take a  long look at the job description. After looking at that, I tell the pastor to ask about any expectations that are not listed in the job description. Sometimes the assumed expectations that a congregation has about what a pastor will or will not do are even more important than the job description itself. In my years of ministry I have heard nightmare stories from pastors and churches about misunderstood expectations that have led to incredible pain on the part of the pastor or congregation.

So, what are some of the promises that every pastor should make to the Lord, their family, and to the church that they serve?

Here are some things that I think the Lord, my family, and my congregation should expect from me. These are areas that every pastor struggles with. Every pastor will fail on these from time to time. We are, after all, human. But, that should not stop us from striving to do our best to keep these promises. These promises should motivate us to get back up and try again whenever we fail.

In my relationship with God:

I promise to make Jesus Christ the greatest Love of my life. I will pursue a growing relationship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I will make God my top priority. I will seek the approval of the Lord over the approval any human being. I will strive to live my life in such a way that those around me will see Christ reflected in me; following in the servant way of Jesus. I will seek to make much of Jesus and little of me. I will strive to do the work of ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing that anything I accomplish of eternal significance will be because of His power at work within me. I will make my prayer life a priority, seeking God’s face continually throughout each day. I will seek to understand God’s preferred future for my life, my family and the church that He has called me to serve. Then, I will follow His path no matter the cost. I will recognize my spiritual poverty and need of God’s grace, and forgive as God has forgiven me. I will confess my sin, daily, to the Lord; and seek to join Him, daily, in His mission of making more disciples. .

In my relationship with my family:

I promise to love my family more than the church that I serve, the work that I do, and the personal dreams that I have. I will seek to be the shepherd of my family more than being the shepherd of the church God has called me to serve. My spouse will be my greatest love after the Lord. My spouse should know that she is more important to me than the church that I serve. I will model to my family that loving God and loving the church isn’t the same thing. I am called to love God first, my family second, and then others.

To my children, I will strive to love your Mom as Christ loved the Church; laying down my life and my dreams, for our life and our dreams. I will love you for all of my life. I will recognize that you are the greatest gift that God has ever given me, next to Himself and your Mom. I will not let the busyness of ministry crowd out the life that God has planned for our family. You are my greatest priority – after God and after your Mom. I will disciple you at home, and be a volunteer in some of the ministries that you are a part of. I will do my best to not embarrass you, and will ask your permission before using you as an illustration in a sermon I preach or a lesson that I teach. I will take an interest in the things that you are interested in; because if it is important to you, it is important to me too. I will not expect of you the perfection that belongs to God and God alone. I will love you when you make mistakes and not allow the unrealistic expectations of those in our church to be expectations that I place upon you. I will pray for your future spouse and when the time comes to let go, I will give you back to God, recognizing that you were never really mine to begin with.

In my relationship with my church family: 

I promise to remember that the church that I pastor is God’s church. It doesn’t belong to me. I will seek His direction, in tandem with the leaders that God has placed around me, for this church body. I promise to love you, with the hopes that the community around us will know that we are Christians because we love one another. I promise to work hard. I will study God’s Word and do my best to accurately teach what Scripture teaches. I won’t be perfect. When I make a mistake, and realize it, I will own up to it and do my best to correct the problem. I will be an advocate for the pastoral and support staff that you have entrusted me with. I will pursue integrity in all areas of my life, seeking to be someone that you can trust, surrounding myself with people who will hold me accountable to God’s standards. I will do my best to not embarrass you, or the cause of Christ, by bringing shame upon His name. I will do my best to treat each attender of our church with honor, respect, fairness and confidentiality. I will speak the truth in love, even when it may not be what you want to hear, and I will welcome the same from you. I will welcome all, but not affirm the sin in any – including myself. I will recognize that there will be some people at our church who will be difficult for me to love, and try to remember that I am many people’s  person who is difficult to love. I will recognize that I am not the Savior, and therefore won’t have the solution to every struggle that our church has. God does. I am not ultimate authority. God is. I am not going to be competent in every area that our church will face; so I will work together with the beautiful body that Christ has built here to accomplish His purposes. I will recognize that the church that I serve does not have the “corner on the market” on God. I will live a life of inter-dependency with other pastors and church leaders across denominational lines.

We will pray as a body. We will serve as a body. We will learn as a body. We will worship as a body. I will seek to make sure that the vision that we pursue as a body comes from Christ speaking to the church and not just to me. I will do my best to help you discover your gifts so that you can honor God in the unique way that He has made you. I will recognize you as a gift to the body of Christ. That said, I will not reward dysfunction or those whose motives prove to be detrimental to the overall body. I will hang out with people who don’t know Jesus so that you can see modeled in me someone who is actively living out the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

Okay, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these.

For further ideas, check out the National Association of Evangelical’s recent Code of Ethics for Pastors.

A Gift From My Grandpa Ray

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Grandpa Ray Schulenburg dressed in my Dad’s army uniform.

My son Jeremy had a school assignment that he was required to work on over Christmas vacation. His job was to write a paper about when his ancestors came to the United States. It was a joy to work with Jeremy and watch as he discovered his family history come alive.

By the time that Jeremy’s assignment was done, I found myself missing my Grandpa Schulenburg. Many of you know that my Grandpa was a pastor for many years, and one of my life’s heroes. Since it was New Year’s Day, I had some extra time on my hands. I remembered an interview that my Grandpa had done for Quad Cities Area Youth for Christ many years ago. I know I have that video somewhere, so I looked for it. I couldn’t find it. Instead I found a videotape that my mother gave me a year or so ago. It was in a box of items from my childhood and some things that she thought I might like to have. The videotape was a 50 year anniversary tape of Youth for Christ International. I watched the video, thinking maybe I’d see my Grandpa in the tape since he was one of the founders of Youth for Christ. He wasn’t on the tape. Until the 50th Anniversary video was over. I almost turned off the tape when I saw Grandpa’s face, bigger than life. There at the end of that YFC video was a 37 minute interview with Grandpa that one of our relatives conducted.

In the video Granada shares the history of Youth for Christ. He shares stories about Billy Graham, Torrey Johnson, George Beverly Shea, Paul Rader, and even the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow. He talks about what it was like to be a pastor during the Great Depression and World War II. And, he about his love for his sons and his grandchildren. He shares his passion for Jesus, prayer, and telling the story of Jesus to as many people as he could. He even talked about the state of the modern church and the importance of prayer in the life of the church.

I missed Grandpa yesterday. I haven’t heard his voice since his death in 2003. Yesterday, almost ten years since the time of his death, God allowed me to have a visit (albeit via video) with my Grandpa. He was always famous for his advice. I relished the advice that he gave to me as a pastor. I put his video on Vimeo today. Here it is. I hope it is a blessing to you too!

Interview with Rev. Ray Schulenburg, Youth for Christ Pioneer from Brian Schulenburg on Vimeo.

Thirteen Issues for Churches in 2013 Continued

13-issuesThom Ranier finished his blog postings entitled Thirteen Issues for Churches in 2013, with issues 7-13 today.

Here are the trends in churches that he is noticing.

  1. Innovative use of space. More and more churches are not letting the lack of space keep them from ministering to great numbers of people. It used to be that a church sitting on 3-5 acres could expect to grow to about 500 people maximum on that property. Ranier states that the younger leaders that he is working with say that they can see a church growing to 2,000 in such a space, because they are using the space creatively, offering services at multiple times and in multiple ways. Millennial pastors are not as tied to traditional service times and this opens up opportunities to use space in new and innovative ways.
  2. Heightened conflict. As younger leaders continue to assume leadership roles in more and more churches, the conflict between the needs of generations emerges. Ranier attributes this in part to those in the Millennial Generation asking tough questions that people in the the Boomer and Builder generations did not want to address. I am challenged and inspired by some of the difficult questions that folks coming into our church ask on a regular basis.
  3. Adversarial government. Ranier believes that churches will have less access to public schools and other public facilities. He has noticed that some local governments around the country are governments are “resisting approval of non-tax paying congregations expanding their facilities. New churches and existing churches that are expanding their venues will be forced to become more creative as they look for new locations.”
  4. Community focus. Ranier feels that one of the most positive changes in the younger generation of church leaders is a focus on community needs. Churches are increasingly getting away from programs tied to the church building to engage the community where they are at.
  5. Cultural discomfort. Ranier speaks of the growing divide between the value of culture and the traditional values of the church. This is a divide that will continue to grow in the 21st Century. I view this as a great opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ to shine bright in our day and age. The early church was radically counter-cultural. Somewhere along the line we became so culturally sensitive that we began to look a lot less like the “aliens and strangers” of Scripture and a lot more like the Joneses.
  6. Organizational distrust. Ranier speaks of the growing distrust in our culture towards the institution. We live in a day and age when distrust in government, business, and the church is very high. My prayer is that we as the church won’t give people a reason to distrust us. We ought to be the model for what it means to conduct ourselves with the utmost of ethics.
  7. Reductions in church staff. In a difficult economy, more and more churches are not hiring new staff when a position becomes vacant. On a positive note, Ranier writes of the fact that “in many congregations there is a greater emphasis on laypersons handling roles once led by paid staff.”  That sounds a whole lot like Ephesians 4:11-16 to me. In other words, “It sounds biblical, and that is good!”

    11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped,when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Ranier’s trends and see if you have any more that you would add.

You can read Ranier’s entire post here.

Thirteen Issues for Churches in 2013

13-issuesThom Ranier has a fascinating post at his blog today entitled Thirteen Issues For Churches in 2013. will face in 2013. He deals with issues 1-6 today and will post the next seven issues in two days.

In today’s post Ranier opines that in 2013 we will see:

1) The impact of the “nones” – The percentage of the U.S. population that claims no religious affiliation increased from 15 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2012.

2) Migration back to small groups – I’m thrilled when I read this. Ranier has some good thoughts about this. He writes, “There is an increasing awareness that those who are in groups have a higher level of commitment in almost all areas of church life.”

3) Accelerated closing of churches – Ranier predicts that 8,000-10,000 churches could close their doors for good in 2013.

4) More churches moving to multiple venues – Ranier writes, ” the number of congregations moving to multiple venues is staggering. Indeed that issue may be the single greatest distinguishing factor in growing churches.”

5) The growth of prayer emphasis in local congregations – This one thrills my soul as well. I believe that God loves when we move from being human-centered to God-dependent. It’s so easy to try to do things our way expecting things to happen on our timetables in church. When we sincerely seek God’s direction, His wisdom, and His timing, He has room to work.

6) Fickle commitment – Ranier has some interesting thoughts on the low commitment level of the American church.

These are interesting thoughts. I’m looking forward to reading his other seven issues for the church in 2013. Care to guess what some might be? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

No Words . . .

NewtownI first saw the news on an Internet web page.

A gunman had once again done the unthinkable. As I write this, 27 people are confirmed dead at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, including 20 children. It is the worst elementary or middle school shooting in the history of the United States.

Incidents like this should never happen. When they do, there are no words that are adequate to numb the pain. Like our President, I view incidents like this from the lens of a parent. When my sons came home from school today, I hugged each one of them. Families all over our nation are experiencing the same thing tonight.There will be those who over the next several days who will ask where God was during this tragedy. It’s a normal question, and a fair one.

I believe with all of my heart that God was right there, with the victims, in their final moments. He was there when teachers made brave choices. He was there as law enforcement officers came face-to-face with the gravity of the situation at Sandy Hook. He will be there tonight, when parents hold each other and cry over the child they will bury instead of give Christmas gifts to. He will be there in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

While never walking with a family who has lost someone in a school shooting, I’ve walked with far too many families who have lost children. Well-meaning folks will tell families to just trust God day-by-day for their strength. These folks need more than day-to-day strength. They will need second-by-second strength just to make it through.

Our English language has no words for a parent who loses a child. We call those who lose a spouse a widow or widower. We call those who lose parents an orphan. We don’t have a word for those who lose a child, because the pain is just too much. It is not supposed to happen.

24 hours ago was just another Thursday night in America. These precious children were dreaming about Christmas. Parents were sharing a last meal with their kids with no idea of what lie ahead. I’m praying for these families tonight. I’m lifting up those who are leading in Connecticut in the aftermath of a senseless act. And, I’m praying that we don’t have another of these tragedies.We will be praying for these families at Woodbury Community Church this Sunday.

My wonderful Aunt Marlene, a pastor’s wife for decades, put the following prayer on her Facebook page today. It is one she found from a pastor named Mark Jeske.

Dear heavenly Father, We lift up all those families involved in the elementary school shooting today. How monstrous that an armed man should have forced innocent people in an elementary school to be part of his anger drama. How crushed are the hearts of parents who lost their children today in what was supposed to be a safe place. How long their grief will be. Our hearts are with them today and will be tomorrow too. Your all-seeing eyes have witnessed much terrible human cruelty over the centuries, and today you and we had to witness all over again how deeply Satan has his hooks in the human race.

Lord Jesus, you came to this broken world to be broken yourself. You wept at the graves of people you loved. Your human heart resonates with human grief. You know our sadness because you too are sad today. What great hope your first coming and your physical resurrection give us. You came to bring forgiveness of sins and immortality to all, and all who believe it have it. For the Connecticut families, for all the responders, and for all people who are experiencing death right now, we pray that the hope of resurrection in Jesus brings comfort to broken hearts.

Holy Spirit, let your Word move at this time. Let Christians share hope and comfort, and may all those whose lives were invaded by death remember and believe the Scripture’s bold promises that our Redeemer lives. We eagerly look forward to the time when death itself will have to die and we will never be separated again. In the meantime, bring comfort and hope to sad families, and somehow use this dreadful disaster to work some good and advance your saving agenda.

It is only through Jesus’ name that we can bring such huge requests to your throne. Amen.