Pray against ISIS

Raised fists, raised eyebrows, and praying against ISIS

ISIS continues to make its way across the Middle East, threatening thousands of thousands of innocent people. This isn’t just another revolt; it’s a direct threat to any form of peace for anyone not drunk on the Islamic State’s evil-saturated radical practices.

Something stirred in my chest when I heard the reports of over 40,000 Yazidi Christians and other Iraqis surrounded on Mount Sinjar by ISIS terrorists. Come down the mountain, and suffer certain death by beheading from ISIS. Stay on the mountain and face the agony of starvation and eventual death. All because they wouldn’t cave to the pressure of a wicked ideology.

What many people don’t know is that Mount Sinjar has a history of God delivering His people. It’s the same Mount Sinjar, also known as Mount Ararat, where God landed Noah’s ark. Thank God that justice intervened in August of this year as well and the Yazidis were freed from their mountain crucifix.

Pray against ISIS

Now, the threat of ISIS is becoming even more real. Reports of Western sympathizers fleeing the U.S., Europe, and Asia to join ISIS’s forces continue to build. Increased reports of copycat sickos inside the United State posting on social media and even one in Oklahoma acting on ISIS-driven methodology is now making the local evening news.

As I heard someone say this weekend, many of us as western Christians have a hard enough time responding to the raised eyebrow of a co-worker, let alone the raised fist of ISIS. Many western believers, including myself, find the convenience of Christianity, rather than the conviction of the cross, more appealing to our souls. This is a natural drowsiness in our hearts, lulled into a comatose state of indifference and distraction.

We need to wake up, western Church! Wake up to the evil in our world. Like me, we need to set down our remotes and screens for even a moment to pray against the darkness of ISIS. My mind has been slowly coming more awake to the threat of ISIS and the soul-piercing question I hear God asking me is, “What took you so long, my child?”

By the grace of God, a vast majority of us don’t have to face the horrors of ISIS ourselves, but our lack of proximity to the situation gives us no grounds of ever diminishing its grave importance. We need to be praying for God to intervene against ISIS:

  • Pray for our hearts and prayers to come awake as western churches and followers of Christ.
  • Pray for ISIS to be stopped. At the heart of every member of ISIS is an innate, but suppressed ache for redemption through Jesus Christ. Whether it’s through a radical change of heart, or the outsourced judgment of God, ISIS needs to be stopped.
  • Pray for wisdom and the courage to act on principle by our U.S., Western, and Arab leaders surrounding ISIS.
  • Pray for the thousands of courageous pastors, missionaries, aid workers, refugee coordinators, and caretakers working in and among the millions of displaced and threatened Iraqis and Syrians.

Pray for the hearts of ISIS to be redeemed by our Savior. Pray for justice and mercy to be considered as equal options. Pray for resolution to break the evil of ISIS.

Identity as Ministry Staff - 01

Protecting Your Identity as Ministry Staff

For many people on ministry staff, it can be easy to lose sight of your identity. Whether it’s working for a church, faith-based nonprofit, Christian school, missions organization, or any number of places people serve in ministry, the pressure to let others define who we really are in Christ can be suffocating, toxic, and unbiblical.

Identity as Ministry Staff - 01

photo credit: madamepsychosis via photopin cc

A common problem for ministry staff is feeling inadequate or ineffective based not on Scripture, but on another staff member or congregation member’s opinion. Many other ministry staff members have shared with me their feeling of being marginalized for what they did instead of who they are.

I’ve served in places where it’s expected, no, demanded that you have all the answers as ministry staff. A congregation member asks a pastoral or ministry question and you didn’t have the luxury of saying, “I don’t know.” Where’s the humility in that? I’m all for searching Scripture and wrestling through tough questions about God, faith, and the Bible, but it starts to erode at our identity when we feel more accountable to some lead pastor or elder board’s demands to be Bible-answer gurus instead of being compassionate, growing followers of Christ ourselves.

On the other hand, I’ve also served with ministry staff who know who they are in Christ. Someone else’s opinion, even a powerful influencer in the church, doesn’t change their confidence in how God sees them. It’s freeing, very freeing, and it reinforces my own confidence in who I am in Christ.

This past year not serving on ministry staff has helped me remember my identity in Christ. I’m a child of God first and a servant in the Church as a response to my identity in Christ. My life is not defined by whether my service met someone else’s expectations; it’s enhanced because I get to serve.

If you’re on ministry staff today, this is for you: Stop trying to be Super Pastor or Super Missionary. Time to put away the cape and boots. That’s not your burden to carry. It’s okay to make mistakes, not have all the answers, and be okay with things being beyond your control at times. It’s not a badge of honor to pretend like you have all the answers; that’s called pride, and it will destroy your ministry.

Be okay with the process of learning without the pride or pressure of having all the answers. Your ministry will be stronger because of your humility. You have a sacred responsibility to push against identity-suffocating power trips around you, both inside and outside ministry staff. One of the greatest lies Satan wants us to believe is that corrupt and lukewarm churches are beyond redemption. God’s still in the redemption business and you can be a part of the redemption if you’ll have the courage to challenge sources of identity corruption.

If the place where you’re serving right now is unwilling to change the pressure it’s putting on your identity in Christ, it’s not the best place to serve on staff. Start talking with your spouse about an exit plan from church staff. Maybe you need to serve on another ministry staff somewhere else within a healthier context.

If you used to serve on ministry staff, this is for you: Whose are you? Whose child and treasure and prized possession are you? You belong to a loving Heavenly Father and a radical Savior who loved before you could ever bring anything to the table, including all the Scripture and ministry knowledge in the whole world.

The idea of being officially on church staff gaining a salary is a very Western mindset. If you’re called to lead the Church, you don’t need a paycheck to validate who God’s gifted and called you to be in Christ. Are you a teacher? Then, teach! If you’re a pastor, then shepherd other believers! Do what you were made to do, whether you’re paid for it or not.

Live within a healthy triangulation of Christ-honoring community, godly wisdom from mentors, and the lens of Scripture to help define and refine your identity, not someone else’s opinion.

College Map - 01

2014 College Football Picks – Week 5

College Map - 01Each week I’m picking the Top 25 college football games and an occasional non-Top 25 game worth picking (Exhibit A: Army-Navy).

Week 4 finally gave us some great games and a true upset.

  • Good pick: I called Auburn by a TD. Winning by six also counts.
  • Bad pick: I expected Morgantown to be a tough place for Oklahoma to play, but OU pulled out a tough victory. They’re in my top three teams right now.
  • Predictions record after Week 4: 65-11 (85.5%)

On to the Week 5 picks!

Thursday, Sept. 25th:

  • #11 U-C-L-A over #15 Arizona State. With Kelly out, ASU has lost a significant chance of upset.
  • #24 Okie State over T-Tech. This is gonna be a shootout, but Cowboys will win in the end.

Saturday, Sept. 27th:

  • #1 Florida State exposes a very suspect NC State team. Noles by 20+. It’s a good opportunity to see if Winston has actually turned a corner in the weeks to follow.
  • #5 Auburn over La. Tech by 20+.
  • #6 aTm over Arkansas. This will be a much better game in two years.
  • #7 Baylor over Iowa State. Baylor put up over 700 yards of offense on Iowa State last year. This year Baylor got an off week.
  • #8 Notre Dame over Syracuse.
  • #9 Michigan State over Wyoming.
  • #10 Ole Miss over Memphis.
  • #12 UGA over Tennessee. Upset alert here!
  • Mizzou over #13 South Carolina. I expect the Fighting Pinkels to come back with a good win this week.
  • #16 Stanford has an impressive win over Washington. Chris Peterson is caught making calls to realtors back in Boise.
  • #17 L$U over NMSU in this week’s version of the “Not even close game”.
  • #18 U$C over Oregon State.
  • #19 Wiscoffsin over South Florida.
  • #21 Nebraska over Illinois. Blackshirts get at least two picks off Wes Lunt.
  • Cincinnati over #22 Ohio. The Bearcats are the best football team in Ohio this year, after the Bengals.
  • #25 K-State over UTEP.
Pilgrim's Progress - 01

Both sides of the wall of faith

Pilgrim's Progress - 01I’m a big fan of John Bunyan’s classic work The Pilgrim’s Progress. The story of Christian on his journey to the Celestial City takes him to the House of the Interpreter. Christian is given a tour of the house by the Interpreter. They walk into a room and see a massive fire lighting up a wall on the far side of the room. Christian sees someone furiously working to throw water on the fire, but the fire keeps burning higher and hotter.

Christian jumps forward to help put out the fire, but the Interpreter snatches his hand and pulls Christian back.

“Don’t help him!”

At that moment the individual turns and the light catches his face. It’s the devil and he’s doing everything he can to put out the fire.

Christian jumps back and asks, “What’s going on?! What is this fire?”

The Interpreter says, “Come with me to the other side of the wall and you will understand.”

Christian and Interpreter walk around the other side of the wall where they see a man slowly and quietly pouring oil into the base of the fire. The Interpreter explains, “The man is Christ and the fire is the work of grace in our lives as believers. Christ pours the oil of His grace onto the fire of faith in our hearts. He continues pouring because His work is not yet complete in our hearts.”

Christian asks, “Why does He stand behind the wall?”

“This is to teach you that it’s hard for those tempted to see how this work of grace continues in our soul.”

When I re-read this section a few weeks ago, this scene struck a chord in my heart. It’s easy as a follower of Christ to feel my heart is being quenched by the pressures and temptations I face. How can God choose to extend grace to us, knowing how fickle our hearts can be?

It’s because He’s not done with us yet.

It’s often said that art is never finished, only abandoned. The sculpting of our hearts is a daily mixture of deconstruction, reclamation, and refinement. You may feel like your faith is “thisclose” to being snuffed out, but I promise you, God still has a plan to redeem every part of your life.

You may not see His plan just yet. You may see only temptation, Satan, and the pressures of life all around you. You may not even see God’s grace working behind the scenes of your life. I promise you, God’s still there, quietly giving grace and pouring His hope into each opportunity, whether you choose to accept His grace or ignore it altogether.

No matter the temptation, the struggle, or even the moment of despair, Jesus is still wanting to pour the oil of His grace onto the fire of faith in your heart. Our job is to not help the devil drench the fire. Choose grace today.

Dave Ramsey - 01

Thank you, Dave Ramsey. You changed our lives!

When I graduated from college in 2006, I got my first “real” job, so I decided to buy my first “real” car. I bought a 2002 Subaru Outback, $15,999, give or take a few. No negotiation, no credit history, no worries, if my Dad would just co-sign with me, a credit union was more than happy to finance it for me. Slightly more than $19,000 later and I was the proud (read: broke) owner of my new set of wheels.

To top it all off, my bank found out I got my first “real” job. Congratulations, Mr. Cook, we’ll set you up with your first credit card with a limit of $17,500… for a kid with no credit history, no first paycheck yet, and no discipline at all when it came to credit cards.

My monthly car payments were $385.32. I remember because I was ticked each month I wrote that dang check to the credit union. Finally, I’d had enough. In January 2009 I talked my bank into giving me 12 months of 0% financing on the zero balance credit card, eating the transfer fee for my car loan, and moved the entire car loan balance onto that same credit card. Thankfully, the elephant of a bad idea had slowly been reduced to $10,885.

Over the next 11 months, I met my goal of paying off my car before Christmas, but it was just the largest evidence of a completely broken personal system. Sure, I lived on a “budget,” in one of the loosest senses of the word…if you call spending $200/month on cable and entertainment on a $40,000 income a “budget”.

When Kara and I were engaged, we started talking about money. Money fights and money problems are the number one leading cause of divorce in America and we wanted to be proactive. Enter Dave Ramsey and Financial Peace University.

Dave Ramsey - 01

I’d heard horror stories about Dave Ramsey. “He doesn’t let you have any fun!” “You have to use cash only in an envelope system!” “You’re going to be broke, abandoned, bald, and probably homeless because you can’t go into any debt!” In fact, a former boss of mine even said, “We’re not going to promote Financial Peace University because people come out of there more messed-up than when they go in!”

Well, we’re completely debt-free except our house, have two months of savings in the bank, and less concerned with financial emergencies than ever. You’re right; we’re just straight messed-up.

Do I believe everything Dave says? Nope. There are still times where I hear Dave talk or read something he wrote and go, “Hmm… Dave, I don’t agree with that.” I’m sure there’s plenty I say where other people don’t agree with me, so that’s that.

What I do believe is in the power of financial stewardship, especially as a follower of Christ. I’m a Christ-follower first and a Dave-fan after that, which means my faith and the finances God’s given to Kara and me are ours to handle very carefully as gifts from God, not just a reward for doing my job.

Whether you’re a Dave Ramsey fan or not, it doesn’t matter to me. I know how much it’s changed my life. We regularly give “Total Money Makeover” to newlyweds we know because we know how much our marriage has changed because of FPU.

Thank you, Financial Peace University, for changing our financial future. We’re on a budget, we have a plan, and we’re never coming off it. Ever. I’ve seen life done without a plan or purpose, especially finances, and we’re never going back.

Thank you, Dave Ramsey. You’ve changed our lives. WE’RE DEBT FREEEEEEE!!!!

College Map - 01

2014 College Football Picks – Week 4

College Map - 01Each week I’m picking the Top 25 college football games and an occasional non-Top 25 game worth picking (Exhibit A: Army-Navy).

The B1G is still down and out, but a nice showing by Nebraska put a little more hope in HuskerNation. Bunch of shake-ups towards the bottom of the Top 25, which is to be expected most weeks.

  • Good pick: No really good picks. I went all-chalk last week and four upsets hurt.
  • Bad pick: I put UGA on upset alert and almost picked South Carolina. Don’t bet against the Ol’ Ball Coach.
  • Predictions record after Week 3: 54-8

On to the Week 4 picks!

Thursday, Sept. 18th:

  • #5 Auburn over #20 K-State in a close game. Tigers by a TD.

Saturday, Sept. 20th:

  • #1 Florida State over #22 Clemson. Seminoles by double-digits.
  • #2 Oregon over Washington State in a shootout.
  • #3 Alabama over Florida by at least 10 points.
  • West Virginia over #4 Oklahoma.
  • #6 aTm over SMU by 50+.
  • #8 L$U over Mississippi State in a very good game.
  • #11 Michigan State over E. Michigan.
  • #13 UGA over Troy. If Troy had Hercules on its side in a historic case of switching sides, this might be a ballgame…. but, no.
  • #14 South Carolina continues Vandy’s nightmare season.
  • #18 Mizzou over Indiana. Here’s hoping for a Hoosier upset.
  • #19 Wiscoffsin over Bowling Green.
  • #21 BYU over Virgina. BYU is positioned for a great run at a New Year’s Day bowl. Keep an eye on the cougars… which I never thought I’d ever say.
  • #24 Nebraska over Miami. Twelve years is long enough for payback. Huskers by a TD.
Profanity - 01

What the %*!# is Behind Profanity

I’ve struggled with profanity in my life and still struggle with it today. There’s no good excuse for a Christ-follower who chooses to adopt profanity as a part of their language. I’ve needed to repent plenty of times for what I’ve said. The numbing effect of profanity is that after a while, we just don’t notice it.

I’ve worked construction and landscaping, not exactly the best environment for maintaining a clean stream of language.  I also worked on church staff at three churches. In all of the places where I’ve worked, being on ministry staff is by far where I heard the most profanity. It’s also where I had the biggest struggles with profanity. The exposure to toxic words didn’t come from people I was serving and pastoring; it came from other ministry staff.

Profanity - 01I thought it was an anomaly, maybe just some of the places where I’ve served have a willing blindness towards profanity. So, I asked different ministry staff I know around the country what their experience was with profanity among ministry staff. Multiple youth pastors, senior pastors, children’s directors, faith-based nonprofit directors, and volunteers responded that they’ve had the same experience.

I’ve confronted other ministry staff about this issue and received a whole range of reaction. Some have admitted it’s a problem and that they need to clean up their language, just like I’ve needed to clean up my own.

The scary reactions came from even more church staff who got defensive and dismissed the issue. Some have even told me, “Jon, if you’re not comfortable with big-boy language, then this may not be the place for you.” Are you kidding me?! How messed up is that?!

Now, am I saying all ministry staff cuss and swear? No, I’m not saying that at all. I know plenty of ministry staff who refuse to use profanity. What I am saying is there is a very sick and disturbing trend among ministry staff who think it’s somehow acceptable to use profanity.

No matter who you are and where you work, there are three driving forces behind profanity:

  • Fear of lacking respect – Why do people rant and cuss and raise their voices? We believe the lie that our words don’t carry enough weight that we need the shock value of profanity to somehow pack a bigger verbal punch.
  • Fear of not being in control – For people who love being in control, the fear of losing control can create dramatic, even drastic reactions, like cussing someone out to shame them into staying back under our control.
  • Not knowing your identity in Christ – This was part of my struggle: not trusting my identity is secure in Christ fed me the lie that I had something to prove to others. Maybe if I cover up insecurities with the shock of profanity, I don’t have to face the fact I’m not secure in who I am as servant of Christ.

If you’ve made the decision to follow Christ, whether it was six months ago or sixty years ago, part of our faith is allowing the Gospel to transform every part of our lives, including our language. We’re called to have our words and conversation filled with grace (Col. 4.6), not the shock-and-awe factor of profanity.

The Apostle Paul’s encouragement to the church in Ephesus was to not let “any corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4.29) Later on in that same letter, Paul also said

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” (Eph. 5.3-4)

It doesn’t matter if you’re on ministry staff or in the business world, we are called to be different. Sound differently. Talk differently. Respond differently. Live differently. This is more than just not saying certain words; it’s about letting love and grace define how we respond to the world around us because Jesus calls us to Gospel transformation in every part of our lives.