Prayer as a Smokescreen

Prayer is absolutely essential for any ministry longevity.I used to use the word “success” flippantly to describe what I one day realized was really longevity. What most of us are really aiming for is long-term fruitfulness — something that will endure for the long haul. All too often in modern Church history it is common for a flash in the pan of ministry momentum to appear. A decade later that “ministry” or “minister” is no where to be found. The unique idea the person was proclaiming is no longer spoken of.Indeed, what we are seeking after is longevity.Question 1: How do we gain longevity in life and ministry?Prayer is the beginning and the end of that which will last. It is in a life that trusts in our hearts at all times, relies upon and clings to God that is ultimately blessed. I am known by my friends as being an “idea person” or a “brainstormer” but I am quick to confess that my well of creativity, thoughts, the flow of originality would dry up in a New York minute without the stirring up of the Holy Spirit within and upon me. I lean into the Holy Spirit constantly to get ideas for outreach.

Hold that thought. Let’s switch gears for a moment.

Jesus calls us to step out of our safety zones and become extenders of his kingdom. Prayer is more often than not used as a cop out for obedience or an alternative to taking the obvious risk involved in these steps.

You do know that is what you are don’t you? You are more than anything a Kingdom Extender.

Jesus made clear it as can be in Matthew 28 on the Mount of Ascenscion when he called the original Apostles to go to the ends of the earth exporting this message — this life that he had shown them — the life he had lived before them. It was a simple enough matter. It was a matter of obedience.

Question 2: What is the greatest barrier to God’s invitation to us to export his kingdom across the span of Planet Earth?

From where I have been and what I have experienced in the last three decades of Church history it seems obvious that the greatest obstacle is “Fear of the future” or perhaps, “Fear of change.” In any case it is some form of fear. Fear stated simply is “loss of control.”

As a new believer and in a great Bible Institute in the Los Angeles area, one of the hallowed ministries that budding “spiritual giants” got involved with was the “Street Witnessing Team.” Being the incredibly shy person that I am, I felt immediately called to this outreach (that’s a joke about being shy). Long story short, a dozen of us met every single Friday evening for an entire school year from 7:00 to 10:00 PM and prayed in preparation for going out to do ministry. We prayed for everything imaginable and then some things not even a highly creative person could conceive of.

By about our Spring break it dawned on me — we were never going to actually go out to do anything. At the end of the year I was correct AND I was asked to pray and fast as to whether God might be leading me to take over as leader of this group for the upcoming school year. I told the leader, “Pray and fast about that? You may have several years on me as a believer but, pardon my French — you are a spiritual flake and are stuck in a place of fear. I love you bro, but please drop this prayer and fasting smokescreen stuff. You are confusing new believers and making outreach seem mysterious, complex and ultimately miscommunicating what Jesus clearly had in mind. I will lead the group but not because I have gone off on a prayer and fasting jag – –it is obvious I am the one to lead it. Enough said.” Of course he shook his head and said something about me learning my lesson one day…blah, blah.

The last I heard that super spiritual guy has had a string of jobs over the past 30 years from selling vacuum cleaners to used cars. I wonder if he prayed and fasted for days on end for each of those moves… He was so spiritual he was like Brer Rabbit in the midst of thorns. The only question at hand was, “How many pokes am I going to receive, hundreds or thousands?” He set himself up for punishment by his super-small confining life.

Coaching Tips:

  • Call to Action! Of course we pray our way through life, but we don’t ever use something as intimate, as powerful, as heartfelt as prayer as a synonym for human fear. It works like this, it’s really not complicated: Pray, Listen, Obey, Move Out in Boldness. The time frame for all of this happening tends to be rather fast more often than not. In some cases in my life there are issues that take weeks, some are months, and some are years. IMPORTANT: If you are surrounded by people where everything is measured at least in months if not years, reconsider your commitment to the relationship with that group. The call to live “decently and in order” is just one verse amongst 11,499 that model an activistic relationship with God.
  • Plan On The Way to Doing! Where is the balance? This may sound overboard but this is pretty much how I have operated in my day to day application of the living out of Servant Evangelism: If we have a group activity going on we get in the car or truck with serving implements and pray and plan as we drive. It’s that simple. Obviously if you have a large group of people you need to do more than that, but you get the idea. The simpler the better.
  • As you model to your people be careful how complicated you make things. Human nature is to over-prepare and over-complicate all things around us. At CoastlandTampa we will give out ziplock bags of 12 items to each person as they leave to give away to people they run into as they go their way each week. M&Ms, chewing gum, chapstick, most things run about 20 cents. Also each item has a super duper high quality connect card (four paneled) to pass along with each “seed” planted, with each invitation offered. This is done every single week, 52 weeks a year. Important: Many people will take 3 or 4 packs of these to give out during the week. It is very exciting. t is atmospheric. Just be mindful of this: Keep it super simple. Do this and you will stay on the tracks!

Valentine Lessons: Finally I’m Learning To Love People

Valentines Day – the universal celebration of love.

Anyone keen on walking in, learning about, and speaking the fluent language of love will be electrified this day.   Get excited – spread some around.   You aren’t the source of it so take a risk here and love like there’s no tomorrow!   (I can tell you from experience, you may be right in that guess).

Problem is – many if not most who are purveyors of love as part of their role sketch – turns out they / we aren’t so great at it.   Not so great until the yogurt hits the fan anyway.

Most pastors I know (myself included) deeply love people… in theory.   Hey, it’s in their job description.

“Humanity I love, its people I can’t stand…” – Charles Schultz

This line could well be the universal static cling window sticker of pastors.

Change usually happens in me when I get sick and tired of my own pathetic, lackluster, embarrassing ways. Strong change in me is almost always preceded by an emotional double slap to the face (after which the appropriate response is, “Thanks, I needed that.”)   Such encounters are usually delivered accidentally – in the category of ‘out of the mouth of babes’ communication. Nearly always the “Slap” that begins the needed change means nothing to the “slapper” but plenty to the “slapee” so long as they are paying just a bit of attention to life.

A mega domino toppling began some years ago when driving with my daughter Laura. She is the quietest and greatest people noticer of the three in my quiver. We were on a “Date” to see a film.  On our way we had seen several people holding the pervasive ‘Will Work For Food’ signs.  In the space of a fifteen-minute drive we passed by three sign holders on various corners. She asked the obvious – ‘Dad, you talk about showing love to people all the time. Why don’t you show love to those people too?’

I began to give her my standard ‘Well dear, it’s complicated… addicts… systemic behaviors… ‘ After a few syllables of that nonsense I literally grew nauseous at myself. This was one heck of a slappish moment for me. If I live to be one hundred that moment will stand out as one of the great slaps of a lifetime for me!

The notion of having a policy regarding how to respond to people in need, with signs, for example, seems absurd. ‘Policies’ about ‘love’ – someone please explain how those two words fit into the same sentence. I’m all ears on that one.   How about we join in what Jesus is up to in given situations. In short, ‘Go with God!’

A need is not an invitation to act upon. If that is confused we will need more therapy and an increase in our meds shortly.

Our invitation came that day.

Another sign holder crossed our path.  This time it was a couple.   They were low IQ people who had set up in front of a store in the downtown area. I had chatted with them previously … and walked past them. They sold chewing gum and mints to cover their expenses as they sat on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk.

Laura got it first. (Dang it, why are kids so intuitive?)

I asked Laura to pick out her favorite flavor of chewing gum.   Our payment was made with the cash we had in pocket to pay for the film we were going to see on our ‘date.’ Don’t recall how much it was but it was all we had.   It was the most expensive chewing gum I have ever purchased!

As we continued to walk, Laura asked, “How are we going to see the movie now? That was all we had to go to the movies with.” With that she smiled!
This was a rhetorical question from Laura. The look she gave me was in Lauraish style – it was a huge ‘Attaboy Dad!   You’re catching on now!’
Oh yeah, we did end up going to the movies – our ‘movie’ was a couple of episodes of Scooby Doo. Well worth the investment.

“Love one another deeply… for love covers a multitude of sins!” 
1 Peter 4:8

Scatter Your Seed Like Crazy!

 

“Say what?”

“What kind of drink do you want from the machine?”

“Uh, I guess I’ll take a Cherry Coke…”

As I reach the check out register, the cashier always has a quizzical look on his or her face. They always, naturally, ask me, “So you want what with what…” (it’s called, “Searching for words…”)

I tell them simply, “I am a Christ-follower. You know what a church person is, right?” At that they always get a smirk on their face, roll their eyes with the “Not at all interested in THAT” written all over their face. I even add to their description, “When I was a waiter no one wanted to work on Sundays when the church people came in. Mostly rude, demanding people who thought they were something special for whatever reason then they left little or no tip in the end. We coined a saying about them – ‘The longer they pray, the less they pay’ (in tipping that is).”

“Well, we believe what they believe, but we aspire to live out all of the stuff those guys believe – but our greatest desire is to be generous. Jesus was incredibly generous wherever he went, with everyone he was around.”

They smile. They experience it. They get it.

“Jesus walked in an attitude of natural generosity and kindness. If he were here at Best Buy (or Target or Wal-Mart …) I think he would not simply smile at you or tell you he loved you or liked you … he wouldn’t simply say something, he would do something practical to show you his concern or love. So here I am, too, giving you a cold drink to show you God’s love.”

Of course, as I am answering their question as briefly as possible (I answer them a bit differently each time – there is no magical way to respond to people – experiment and see what works for you in your city / locale) they are checking me out. Of course, they aren’t paid to gab! They usually ask the name of my church. I always laugh a bit and say, “Oh you think I was nice to you so you will come to my church – that’s not it at all. I’ll tell you the name of my church, but I serve people with no strings of any kind attached.” That statement really engages people. Often they say, “Now I’m really curious. A place with people like that is exactly what I’m looking for!”

I always carry with me what I call “connect cards” that do have a way for them to connect with us lest we end up being mere ships passing in the night, but this is not advertising to be clear about it. (I feel insulted when people tell me I am advertising by giving others a connect card. Please! If I / we were advertising I would do it very differently to be clear on things! I’m a better marketer than that!)

* Noticing Note 1: Live Like There’s No Tomorrow – Because There Isn’t!

This week I “celebrate” my return from the dead experience. My book The Day I Died captures the memoir of this sliver of my life. Several years agoyears ago, right about today in fact, I died, flat lined for almost eight minutes during a routine surgery that went completely south. Before I bled out following the piercing of my abdominal aorta with two half-inch cuts, I bled for 75 minutes with a blood pressure of 30 over 10. Normal blood pressure is 120 over 80. At 30 over 10, irreparable brain damage sets in after about 10 minutes. After 25 minutes the doctors working on me were aware that I was nothing but a human vegetable – an organ donor being kept alive with a ventilator. At 7:00 a.m. that December morning I was perhaps the most physically fit guy you could ever meet in his early 40s. Two hours later I was a vegetable with a dozen doctors hovering over me, two dozen nurses running about, I had died once, I had bled out my 13 units of natural blood, and 55 donor units had been pumped into me to control the extreme low pressure situation. *

Noticing Note 2: Sometimes It Happens On a Large Scale

Ponder: To quote Jesus as he referred to the man who was building larger barns, “Tonight you soul will be required of you…” “Night is coming when no man can work…” When the Middle East situation flares up the local news usually calls me and a couple of other local pastors for an interview to get perspectives on this. They ask, “Is this the end of all things?” I don’t know why they all keep asking me – I say the same thing each time! “I honestly don’t think this is the BIG ONE. What worries me – what keeps me up pacing at night is this: We are all going to face the same inevitable end at a personal level pretty soon anyway. Really, what’s the big deal about prophecies anyway? Jesus said no man knows these things, not even him. One thing is absolutely for sure though. Every person watching this is going to stand before God and give an account of how he / she lived life. Unless each of us has given our lives utterly to Jesus – to quote Desi Arnez – ‘Lucy, you have a lot of splaining to do…’ Let’s make peace with God – let’s respond to the invitation of Jesus now.” People around town stop me for the next few days and tell me they laughed at the Desi line, but then they all go “Uh, yeah, I get it.” Usually 500 or more new people show up at church the following weekend.

Who Answers God’s Mail?

On a typical hot, humid, summer day in Cincinnati, Joe Delaney and his eight-year-old son were int he backyard playing catch. As the two lobbed the ball back and forth, Joe could tell something was on Jared’s mind. At first they talked about Reds baseball, friends, and summer vationa. Then the conversation took a more serious turn, and Joe felt like a backyard ballplayer who suddenly found himself in the major leagues.

“Dad, is there a God?”

Joe had the same helpless feeling he expereinced on the high school baseball team when he lost sight of a fly ball in the blazing sun. He didn’t know wheter to move forward, backward, or just stay put. A string of trite answers raced thorugh his mind. In the end Joe opted for honesty. “I don’t know, Jared,” he replied as the ball landed solidly in his glove.

Joes’ agnosticisim failed to stifle his son’s curiosity. Jared dug a little deeper. “If there is a God, how would you know him?”

“I really have no idea, Jared. I only went to church a couple of times when I was a kid, so I don’t know a lot about these kinds of things.”

Jared seemed deep in thought for a few minutes as the game of catch continued. Suddenly, he headed for the house. “I’ll be right back,” he yelled over his shoulder. ” I have to get something.” Jared soon returned with a mylar helium balloon fresh from the circus along with a pen and an index card.

“Jared, what in the world are you doing?” Joe asked.

“I’m going to send a message to God—airmail,” the boy earnestly replied.

Before Joe could protest, his son had started writing. “Dear God,” Jared wrote on the index card, “if you are real and if you are there, send people who know you to Dad and me.”

Joe kept his mouth shut, not wanting to dampen his son’s enthusiasm. This is silly, he thought as helped Jared fasten the card to the balloon’s string. But God, I hope you’re watching, he added to his silent petition. After Jared let go of the balloon, father and son stood with their faces to the sky and watched it sail away.

Two days later I became part of the answer to this unusual inquiry. Joe and Jared pulled into the free car wash that our church was holding as part of our outreach into the community on this particular Saturday morning. “How much?” Joe asked as he neared the line of buckets, sponges, and hoses.

“It’s free,” I told him. “No strings attached.”

“Really!” Joe exclaimed. He seemed intrigued with the idea of getting something for nothing. “But why are you doing this?”

“We just want to show you God’s love in a practical way.”

It was as if that simple statement opened a hidden door to Joe’s heart. The look on his face was incredible. “Wait a minute!” he practically shouted, “Are you guys Christians?”

“Yeah, we’re Christians,” I replied.

“Are you the kind of Christians who believe in God?”

I couldn’t help but smile. “Yes we’re that kind of Christians.”

After directing a big grin at Jared, Joe proceeded to tell me the story of releasing the helium balloon with its message only days earlier. “I guess you’re the anwer to one of the strangest prayers God’s ever received,” Joe said.


Steve Sjogren’s classic book on Servant EvangelismConspiracy of Kindness, has sold over 250,000 copies. This article is an excerpt from Chapter 1. (published by author’s permission)

Why Serve? “It Flows From Me…”

Setting:  Ordering line at Starbucks.

“I’m paying for the person’s coffee behind me as well.”

Response of that person: Totally predictable.  “I could have sworn I just heard you say you were paying for my drink…”

“I did.  Please tell this barista what you want – and make sure it is a venti size (the large one) – nothing conservative please.”

“Oh, you don’t need to do that.  I can pay for my own coffee drink.”

“Well of course you can.  You wouldn’t be standing in line if you couldn’t unless you were expecting a miracle of some sort – were you expecting a miracle?” (I like to rib people – usually they start laughing at that point!)

“I can’t let you do that!”

“Oh yes you can.  I aspire to serve a number of people each day – every day – seven days a week.  It seems to be more fun to serve others than to be served.  If you don’t let me serve you I will have to do something really odd like help a little old lady cross the street – and the nearest crosswalk is like a mile away… just tell them what you want – the people in line here are getting testy.”

Predictable question after getting their drink: “Okay – so what’s the deal here?  What are you selling?  What’s this all about?”

When this particular exchange took place I lived in an area this is mostly inhabited by former New Jersey-New York and Philly people.  I love these folks!  They are my kind of people.  There is nothing passive about them.  They just say it like it is – no filters!

“Actually there is no deal at all.  No strings attached.  A few years ago, I was not searching, but something grabbed hold of my life.  Since then I have become kind of hooked on showing people:

  • generosity
  • kindness
  • respect… whenever I get the chance.

Now I’m kind of ‘eaten up’ as surfers say with all of this.  I don’t really keep a close track on it very closely – but I know I end up connecting with quite a few every day.”

“I honestly don’t try to be kind.  It is kind of natural now – it’s like a new normal that just flows from within me now.  Not that my life is together by any means, but there is something within myself that has changed.”

I can’t be kind.  Neither can you.  Kindness is an aspect of the presence of God’s Spirit within a believer.

The fastest way to get God’s kindness flowing through any of us is to try to be kind.

(Some reading this are wondering, “Don’t you give people a ‘Connect Card’?  Yes, but in a sensitive way.  This is all about serving others.  This is not a “I buy you a coffee, now you have to take my not-so-clever card about my goofy church…”  To do that is downright silly – verging on doing more harm than good sometimes.  We can easily come across as those who live in a culture of conditional love – “You are welcome as long as you buy into what we are about… as long as you come to our church…”  If you are still thinking in those terms you don’t yet get it.  If you are there, keep reading boys and girls…)

Notice God, Notice Others

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this about my life – I just met you a few minutes ago…”

I hear those words regularly from nearly complete strangers.  They don’t walk up to me out of a crowd and start talking to me out of the blue.

However, when I simply notice a little glimmer of a little need in their life… and then invest in that little need – amazing door open before me.

That noticing usually takes the form of one of two ways:

A.  I take the time to show someone a bit of time – AKA, respect, by paying a bit of attention to them.

B.  I buy them a little gift (rarely more than $1.00) that will show them in a practical way they are loved, they count, they matter.

For many around us, one of the primary love languages people hear either us or God say to them that they are loved or celebrated is through a physical gift.  Such ‘gifts’ don’t need to be expensive in the least.  As your mom told you in the first grade, “It’s the thought that counts…”  When we step out to lighten the load, the burden upon those around us, most people are touched in such a deep way, they are nearly speechless.  Some will now express the depth at which they are touched on the spot.

After doing this for a couple of decades I have seen that when we simply toss out a seed into a the soil of a person’s heart – and fling that seed with the love of God flowing through us – that seed is bound to bear fruit in time.

Amazingly, it is common after a mere initial touch such as one of the above, if time allows, people will sense I / we are safe.  They will open their hearts to us.  Sometimes we are able to pray together – IF that is appropriate (never do that if it is going to make the other person feel on the spot).  When this sort of dynamic happens know we are seeing something only God’s Spirit can bring about.  This is not the result of clever talking.

This week I went through the check out line at a Best Buy store.  I did as I always do there – I bought a water for the cashier – I told her this was to show her God’s love in a practical way and gave her an outeach connect card.  ‘Call us when we can meet a need…’  She was obviously touched.  Her only response, ‘You have made my day bearable… you have no idea how timely this is…’

Keep flinging!

Kindness is Eternal Since It is From God

For those who have participated in an act of kindness – who have experienced the existential kindness of God flowing through them, you have no doubt sensed something uncanny happen at that moment.

You were, are right in your sensing of something special in those times of giving, serving.  You are planting an everlasting seed that has virtually nothing to do with your skill as a “seed flinger” (cf. Matt. 13) – but has everything to do with the power of the seed of the kingdom you are flinging.

When people receive your gift of service, your tiny evidence of God’s love, whatever it may be, something eternal is being implanted in that person’s heart.  Much like a life changing message or a prayer someone once upon a time prayed for you that you remember for decades (can you relate?) this “seed” of the kingdom is something that will be kept in their heart for life.  You will forget about the flinging of it in minutes probably, but not them.

I have had people come up to me years, yes decades later, and tell me in tears, “You are the one who gave me a bottle of water on Saturday, the whatever of June, 19__ at the corner of ___ & ___ .”

Does this sound familiar to you?  It’s a preview of Matthew 25 for all of us.  “I was thirsty, I was lonely, I was hungry…”  “But I don’t remember you… for there were many…”  Jesus is clearly referring to us living a lifestyle of continually living a certain way – as flingers of the seed of the deeds of the kingdom – living as he did – not by our power in the least, but by his.

I received an email recently from someone who had been doing acts of kindness for some time but in his estimation, with little effect.  The problem wasn’t the lack of effect, but his expectations for what would be were unrealistic.

I don’t know what he thought would happen when he demonstrated kindness to people, but it didn’t happen, thus he concluded he was failing.  His description was, “Each time I serve people they just stare at me – it’s the deer in the headlights routine each time.”

I laughed as I read his email.  I thought, “And you think that is a failure?”  He either didn’t read Conspiracy, forgot what he read, or skipped over sections of the book, because I write many times about this exact predictable response.

Why do people respond as they do?  Think about it for a second.  In a day like ours when people are always in a rush… when all that is being encouraged by the culture is “Watch our for number one”… and “What’s in it for me?”…

… in such a day as this, when someone goes out of their way to serve another, chances are something is up!  I have been asked dozens of questions, many of which are pretty hilarious:

“Did you just get out of prison or something?”

(I guess ex-cons are especially friendly… wasn’t aware of that until that day…)

“Did you do something really bad and you are trying to work off bad karma?”  (That was asked in California of course!)

“Okay, you can tell me now, am I on Candid Camera?  Where’s the hidden camera?”

“Is there something wrong with this bottle of water?”  (as they sniff the sealed cap and shake it…)

Let’s create moments of eternity and see what God does that is surprising this week.