John Maxwell said, “Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.” Daily I make decisions, but I don’t get to choose what happens after I make a choice. For instance, I choose to run a stop sign. I don’t get to choose if I get caught. I don’t get to choose my fine. I don’t get to choose how it impacts my insurance premium. I think you get the point.
The same holds true when I make a good decision. I choose to help my neighbor clean up storm debris in his yard. I don’t get to choose the way he shows gratitude. I don’t get to choose when and how he returns the favor. I don’t get to choose how he views me as his neighbor moving forward. Each decision sets in motion events I have no control over.
The decisions we make are like studs in a wall. We don’t see the studs. We only see the décor studs make possible. I don’t know anyone who wants to make bad decisions. However, a desire to make good choices in life is not enough. Humanity has too many limitations. Selfishness gets in the way. Pride trips us up. Anger is unreasonable. Our ability to see into the future is non-existent…and the list goes on and on. So how do we do it? How do we develop the craft of making good choices? Fortunately, the Bible can help us. Here are 4 things the Bible teaches to help us make good choices.
The choice of right over wrong should not need much explanation, but if it were easy to do everyone would be doing it. We live in a world that disagrees on what is morally right and morally wrong. The disagreement is intensifying and is enough to confuse even the most sincere person. Nailing down which attitudes and actions are right and wrong is truly an important decision. The Bible is my source for moral guidance. It states, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” (2 Timothy 3:16)
One of the most important choices we make in life is choosing if we are going to follow Biblical morality. If we do, it becomes our moral GPS. If we don’t, then something else becomes the voice that tells us right from wrong.
Making good choices is not just about choosing right over wrong or good over bad (although that is REALLY important). Good choices also require wisdom. Wisdom is needed for two reasons. First, sometimes a choice is not between good and bad. It is between two morally acceptable options, but only wisdom can help us make the best choice. The second reason we need wisdom is because our choices impact other people. Each choice we make will please some individuals and create chaos for others. Wisdom allows us to keep that in mind and view the impact of our choices on others. In the long run, that helps us make good choices.
Wisdom is not easy to find, but fortunately we have someone who will give it us. The Bible says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5) Whew! God will give us wisdom for all the choices, but that leads us to next step in making good choices.
Because God is GOD, He is going to see things differently than we see them. Therefore, the wisdom He provides will not be what we would think of on our own. Sometimes His wisdom will defy our logic. His wisdom may direct us to choose something we would not naturally choose. His wisdom may call us to do what is best for others even though in the moment it may not be best for us. His wisdom may point us to listen to someone who may not tell us what we want to hear, but it is the advice we need to follow. This should not surprise us. After all, He knows things we don’t know.
His all-knowing and our limitations do not always play well together. Therefore, we have a tendency to doubt the wisdom He gives. When we do this, we shoot ourselves in the foot. The Bible says it this way, “But when you ask [for wisdom], you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” (James 1:6-8)
If we start doubting the wisdom God gives, we are backed into a corner and forced to start leaning on our own wisdom. As I’ve already mentioned…if making good choices were easy everyone would be doing it. We have to many issues, weakness and faults to consistently make good choices. If you can’t admit this then another problem exists…and it’s called pride. Pride, the belief that we don’t need help and can do it on our own, is the downfall of many people. Fortunately, we don’t have to be arrogant. We can choose to be humble (another important choice). The Bible says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
God sets us up to succeed. He gives us everything we need to do what He created us to do, but He will not make us choose right over wrong. He will not force us to ask for His wisdom or to follow it. He certainly does not make us be humble. All of these things are choices we have to make…studs in the wall. No matter what choice we make with these options, once we decide; things are set in motion. We don’t get to choose what happens next.
But guess what? God in His mercy gives us second chances. He gives us the opportunity to make a new choice. If you are breathing, you have a choice. What will you do?
A couple of weeks ago I was asked, “Where do your sermons come from?” I was caught off guard because the person asking the question had just sat through a sermon. I couldn’t tell if it was a loaded question, a backhanded compliment or a sincere effort to understand the process. With a half-smile I responded, “From the Bible.” The lady smiled and said, “No, really. Where do your sermons come from? Do you write them yourself or do you have a resource you use?” I said, “Really. They come from the Bible.” By this time I could tell she was being sincere. She really wanted to know how I developed a sermon.
Writing sermons is a process and through the years my process has changed. Believe it or not…I used to wake up on Monday and pray Okay Lord, what’s next? That is tough way to develop sermons. I know there are people who might believe I just open the Bible and the Holy Spirit takes over; and even though the Spirit of God plays a significant role, I am not exempt from planning, preparation and study. Fortunately, God works through my personality, life experiences and study habits to empower me to preach/teach His Word. There is no standard formula for me (or other pastors) to follow. Here is how I develop sermons:
Each year I take a few days to plan a sermon schedule for the next 12 months. Several weeks prior to this personal retreat, I ask the elders to pray and give me their ideas for topics or passages they discern need to be covered. On the retreat, I pray and plan using my own ideas and their suggestions to come up with a 52-week schedule. I don’t write all 52 sermons on the retreat. I just brainstorm and come up with 52 passages that will be covered. Therefore, when you hear a sermon at Grace, the planning for it began months ago.
When people discover I create a 52-week schedule many times they want to know if I will deviate from it. The answer is “yes.” When following (or adjusting) the 52-week schedule I lean heavily on this promise: You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail. (Proverbs 19:21)
I take my schedule and divide it into sermon series. A sermon series can either be topical (like a series on forgiveness) or exegetical (like going through the book of Philippians verse by verse) and will have between 4-10 separate messages. I break the passages into manageable segments and share them with the creative team.
The Creative Team meeting is the most fun part of developing sermons. It is here that a group of people read God’s Word, brainstorm ideas and come up with relevant themes and titles for each sermon within a series. There is laughter, “Ah-ha” moments and even critical debate in these meetings. When the meeting is over, I know the theme for the series, the image that will used to promote it and the title of each sermon. The Creative Team usually meets 6-8 weeks before the sermon series goes public.
Up until this point, almost all of the sermon preparation has involved the ideas of others for creativity and implementation; but no one can study the passage for me. It is here that sermon development becomes personal and lonely. I say lonely, but I don’t mean alone. God’s Spirit is active when I’m studying a passage and writing a sermon. It is hard to explain, but it is like a conversation (although I don’t hear any voices…if I did that would be creepy and cause for concern).
I ask the Lord to show me what His Word means and how I should share it with His people. I desire to share it in relevant ways that are easy to understand, and therefore, I ask Him to show me how to do this. He answers with a combination of ideas that come from the inductive study of the passage, reading commentaries, watching world/social events and doing life with my family. The conversation with Him about a sermon is not confined to my desk. His ideas/promptings can come when I wake up, while I’m watching ESPN or at the football or soccer field watching one of the boys play. It can even happen while doing laundry (yes people…I do laundry). Really, His answers to my search in sermon development can take place at any moment because His Word is relevant to life in today’s world.
Using His Word, I will develop an outline incorporating what God has taught me personally (inductive study), what He has taught me through others (commentaries/resources), and what He has taught me from life. I strive to get the outline into manageable points that can be shared and explained in 30-40 minutes (I can see your smirk and hear you saying, “Yeah, sure.”) Once the sermon outline is complete, I must get it to proper office personnel one week prior to the scheduled time to share it. They take the outline and use it to prepare all paper and digital publications.
The process of sermon development starts with prayer (myself and elders praying for direction). It is bathed in prayer with the Creative Team. It ends with prayer before I go public with it. Every Sunday morning a group of people pray for the needs of our church. During that prayer time my name is called out. People pray for the Spirit of God to speak through me while I am sharing the sermon. I firmly believe the success of a sermon comes through the prayers of those individuals. Within minutes of their prayers, I am delivering the sermon.
That’s it. That is how I develop and deliver a sermon. Maybe the process surprises you? Did you know I’m not the only one who comes up with ideas for the sermons? Did you think all the creativity comes just from me? I am humbled each time I hear someone say, “God spoke to me through that sermon.” I’m humbled because I know I did not make that happen. I know I cannot make that happen. There really is no “I” in sermon.
Cherry and I recently got to spend a couple of days in Ohio’s famed Amish Country in Holmes County. It was great. While there, we discovered some interesting facts about Amish culture and people. Their habits, traditions and lifestyle choices may seem odd (even radical) to us, but one can only have respect for their commitment to not conform. Even though I have no desire to live as they live, I do think there are some things we can learn from the Amish.
I always thought Amish men grew their famous beard with no mustache when they got married. I was under the impression the beard meant they were no longer single. I was wrong. Amish men start growing their beards when they are baptized in Christ and join the Church. Their beards are a physical sign of their commitment to the Lord and the community of believers who make up their local church (the Amish are Anabaptists). You can find many articles that speak of ridiculous reasons Amish men grow beards, but you will find few that speak to reason they start growing their beards.
Obviously, I don’t think followers of Christ should be required to grow beards with no mustaches. But, when I discovered this bit of information, it made me think, “What sign do I give people that I am committed to Christ and His Church?” Hopefully my sign is my love for others, my generosity to the Gospel and those in need, and my personal efforts to share Christ with people. What is your sign?
Amish children are required to go to school until the 8th grade. Conventional wisdom says this is woefully inadequate and unfair. However, when looking at Amish education one must keep in mind their purpose for it. The Amish do not educate to promote individuality and critical thinking. Their goal is teach the next generation the values of hard work, ethical living and the importance of being a valuable member of the Amish community. By the time they graduate, they are expected to start contributing to needs of the family business not because their manual labor is needed, but because they have worth, skill and are part of a bigger picture.
I don’t think we should limit our children’s education to only 8 years, but I do think the next generation is missing out on being taught to contribute. It is not uncommon for mainstreamed, educated children to graduate from high school (and sometimes even college) clueless about their role in society. This does not seem to be a problem among the Amish.
Amish teens are given the opportunity to choose another lifestyle, a practice called Rumspringa, and leave the Amish way of life. Most choose to remain. Many high school graduates who attend church in mainstream society quit participating in faith activities once they leave for college or start their careers. Again, the Amish see a much less percentage of their teens walk away from their values. I don’t know why it is this way, but I do admire the Amish’s ability to train the next generation to hold onto their values.
What the Bible calls forgiveness, many times the world calls pacifism. It is true the Amish are political pacifists, and although I don’t agree with this political position, I deeply appreciate the value of forgiveness they practice.
The commitment of the Amish to practice forgiveness made national headlines on October 2, 2006 in Lancaster, PA. On that day a gunman went into a rural, one-house schoolroom and killed 5 Amish children and wounded 5 others before taking his own life. National news media flooded the low-key Amish community to report on the horrific crime, but instead they found a story of forgiveness. The way the Amish community responded to this event not only baffled the nation but also radically impacted the family of the shooter. If you want a great read about the power of forgiveness get a copy of One Light Still Shines by Marie Monville, the widowed wife of the shooter.
Today, when a life is lost to gun violence, domestic violence, acts of domestic terrorism or hate crimes, we see whole communities march holding signs plastered with hateful words. We see large rallies filled with people shaking their fists cheering to words of hate. We find individuals posting angry videos and writing rants on their social media outlets. We might even see individuals respond with their own acts of violence. When this takes place, hate ends up fighting against another form of hate; and when hate fights hate only hate wins. The Amish taught us on October 2, 2006, the only way to defeat hate is to fight it with forgiveness. Jesus was not making a suggestion when he said, “Love your enemies, pray for those who hurt you, do good to those who hate you.” (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27 and 35)
Every culture has pluses and minuses. The Amish culture is no different, but after spending some time in their world and reflecting on some of their values, I think there are some things we could learn.
I have been home for 8 days. The jet lag has subsided and I find myself falling back into my normal routine. Even though I’ve recovered my familiar schedule I do not feel I am the same person. I’ve changed.
Several days before leaving for Kenya I began to pray, Lord, change me. I did not have a specific change in mind. I just felt the need to express my willingness to receive whatever direction my Father wanted to give. Praying that prayer created excitement, and honestly, a little anxiety. I don’t really know why it made me anxious. My Father is good and has never harmed me. I guess it was the thought of being out of control. What, if anything, would He ask of me? Below are 3 things I learned in Kenya.
The first nudge for change came 6 days into my trip. It was when I met Danshire and Dorcas Njoroge. God used this beautiful couple to challenge me in a unique way. They shared story after story of God meeting their needs, blessing their ministry and giving success to their efforts of bringing hope and healing to wounded teenage girls. As I sat and listened to them, God challenged me with some simple words. Cary, you have skill. They have faith. I have reflected on these words seeking to understand more clearly what God was impressing upon me.
I have skill. As I have prayed and thought about these 3 words I must say I agree with Him. God has given me talent and skills. I recognize these blessings and continue to do my part in developing them. I know He uses me when I preach and teach His word, when I lead others, when I make disciples for Christ. I know if anything good comes from me, it is because of Him; but I think these words also speak to how safe I play it. I take calculated risks and move with measured outcomes in mind. I am more strategy than faith. The result, I have the rewards of skill. Things like an intentional calendar filled with meetings, manageable deadlines, and steady routine. People like me surround me; therefore, there is an element of comfortable predictability each day. My life oozes safe and stable…the rewards of skill. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want my life to be characterized by chaos or pushed around by fear and uncertainty, but if my goal is to have a safe and stable life it doesn’t leave much room for the adventures of faith God may call me to. I can’t be satisfied with the rewards of skill. Through Danshire and Dorcas God showed me the blessings of living by faith instead of just strategy. I can’t create faith moments. I can walk into them when God leads me there. I will trust instead of just strategizing. I will aim for blessings of faith instead of just the blessings of skill.
Another nudge I received from the Lord came in a most unusual way. For the two weeks I was in Kenya, I watched no TV. I couldn’t believe how that one circumstance removed a steady flow of clutter from my mind. Without the noise of television, temptations subsided, worry was starved, and distractions were removed. In the absence of news media and Hollywood’s entertainment, I read a book. It was not a faith-based book. It was the true story about a couple that risked everything to rescue Jews in Warsaw, Poland during the Nazi occupation of World War II. I was moved by their passion to help the most vulnerable of their time and God whispered, “What risk will you take to save the dying in your world?” Then it dawned on me. My desire for the lost can be maintained if I will strive to reduce the clutter in my mind. To me, this meant I needed to adopt the habit of watching less TV and free my mind from life-sucking noise of television.
No one can go to the continent of Africa and ignore all the needs of humanity one sees. Our most basic conveniences like food, safe shelter and clean water are their primary concerns. Put on top of that the worries of employment, healthcare, transportation and child-care and the average American is approaching a nervous breakdown. It is their normal. On top of those layers of human need is stacked the spiritual darkness that permeates much of their population. The spiritual and physical needs are just overwhelming. No amount of money could possibly meet all the demands, but it does not keep one from thinking What can I do to help?
One of the rewards of skill God has blessed my family with is that most months we have more money than we need. I know that is a strange thing to say, but I think it happens to many people. Each month we give to the Lord, live within our means, pay our bills and meet our needs. Often, after all that happens, we still have money left over. When this happens I save it. Then I begin to pray, “Lord what do you want me to do with this money?” When I leave my bubble and meet people who are serving the Lord, He directs me. Cherry and I are currently praying about how to financially help some of God’s servants in Kenya.
Lord willing, I will be returning to Kenya (or some place on the continent of Africa). God is opening doors for the Gospel and disciple making. You want to go?
The people I have had the privilege of meeting and serving are truly amazing individuals. One of the honors of getting to serve the Lord in Kenya is hearing the stories of His servants. I am going to attempt to share with you some of the stories told to me. I will tell you up front, I will not be able to communicate the pain, perseverance and joy I saw in the eyes of the people who shared these stories. These individuals were sharing their lives with me. I am sharing their stories with you so that we might be reminded of the power of God and be encouraged by the faithfulness of His people all over the world.
One of the pastors told me about witchcraft being used in his village. He shared about the shaman who sacrifices animals and cast spells on him, his family and the people who attend his church. One time the shaman publicly cast a spell on the pastor. That evening, the pastor was awakened in the middle of night by large dogs that were howling and circling his home. He immediately began calling upon the Lord and within moments the dogs were gone. This same pastor, who lives in Tanzania, also told me he had no money to get to the training in Nairobi. Some people heard him say he was going to Nairobi and they began to mock him saying, “Why are you committing to go to the Bible training? You have no money. They are going to believe you are a liar.” He responded by telling them God would provide a way. Sure enough, his father, who lives in Nairobi, called him the next day and provided him with a bus ticket to get to Nairobi because he wanted to see him to talk about family business. His father did not know about the Bible training.
Women are extremely vulnerable in Kenya especially in the villages and the less Westernized subcultures of this nation. One joyful, godly lady here at the training shared on her application that she grew up in a family that practiced polygamy. She shared how Jesus rescued her from that practice. Another woman shared how her husband physically and mentally abused her. To protect herself and her children, she left her husband and refused the peer pressure to marry another man for financial help. Instead she committed herself to the Lord’s care and provision. Her children are now grown and she has many stories of how God provided for her during those years.
One pastor here recently experienced great emotional and mental trauma when his wife was raped by one of the village elders. You must remember he is not in the States. In Kenya, it is assumed that if a woman is raped it is her fault and she is publicly shamed. If he publicly came forward, the villagers would shame his wife. He was stuck between the rage of physically hurting the man and protecting her reputation. Although emotions are still tense, he shared how after much prayer he confronted the village elder. He communicated his anger and shared how God would judge this man for what he did. The man was filled with fear and avoids being near the pastor, his wife or the church.
One spiritually sharp man, while listening to his pastor teach on a Sunday morning, was told by the Holy Spirit that the truth of the Bible was not being taught. He was greatly troubled and began to pray. He told the Lord he would not go to that church anymore. He also began praying for God to show him how to discover truth in the Bible. Through a series of events, he heard about the training opportunity Ancient Promise was providing. He applied for the class believing God was directing him to attend. With tears in his eyes and a huge smile on his face, he told me last night, “I can now read my Bible and know the truth.”
I realize many of these stories are challenging for us because we don’t experience the same types of trials in America. However, in America we do experience the pain of sin, the trauma of evil and deception cloaked in religion. The God who is powerful enough to overcome evil in the Kenyan culture is also powerful enough to overcome the evils we face in America. We just have to give ourselves completely to the Lord. In doing this, we will not be exempt from pain, disappointment or hardship; but we will guarantee our victory to overcome in this life and enter into eternity hearing the greeting, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
My time in Kenya is now half over. I am missing my family, my church, my normal routine, and my selfish comforts. The initial buzz of energy in getting here, greeting old friends and making new ones has passed. Mornings are quiet and the evenings, after the day’s work has been done, are even quieter.
Quiet time can be good. It allows me to reflect on what God is showing me and process what I am experiencing. But, quiet time also becomes an opportunity to think about the bigger picture of my time in this place. There is a huge cost to this trip, and I’m not just talking about dollars. My wife and family pay a price for me being here. The church staff takes on extra responsibilities in my absence. I’m sure there are other areas affected, but my mind is tired and recalling all the important people and activities escapes me right now.
I need to explain why I am here. I need to try to communicate why this mission trip is important and why the cost, although expensive, is necessary. With so many sacrificing so much for me to be here, you need to understand that I know this experience is about more than me just taking a trip to Kenya and fulfilling some of my adventurous desires. I believe God is doing something through all of this and it is not just for me. No…it is much bigger than me.
Ancient Promise, the ministry I am working with, is dedicated to teaching others how to study God’s Word. We are passing along methods that allow people to use the Bible correctly without needing commentaries, gifted authors or exceptional communicators. There is nothing wrong with these talented people. They are doing what God has called them to do, but in Africa, and almost the entire Muslim and Hindu world, these resources are either banned or not available. Along with that fact is the reality that many people in developing countries do not receive the same type of educational opportunities that exist in America and Europe.
Ancient Promise has taken the skill of inductive Bible study and broken it down to its basic form. Once this method is taught (and caught) by pastors who serve in poor villages or hiding in Muslim or Hindi communities, the Bible becomes alive and understandable. They can begin to discern through the power of God’s Spirit what God’s Word is saying to them and for the people in their churches.
I am teaching pastors who will preach God’s Word and teach this method of Bible study to people in places Christian Americans could never go. Literally, the people I am training will take God’s Word to the frontline of the Christian-Muslim divide. Some of you may have heard of the region of the world known as the 10/40 Window. In this region of the world Christ has not been preached. It is also the most hostile region in the world to share the Gospel of Jesus. Over 3 billion people live in the dark blue countries. There are only a couple of places in the world that serve as a door to walk into the 10/40 Window. One of them is Kenya. Generally, the only Christian Americans who can enter 10/40 Window are military personnel.
By being here, I am doing what I can to spread the Gospel of Christ in dark places. If you are praying for me, if you are giving to the Lord at Grace Bible Church or if you are stepping up to help in some way because I am here, you are helping take Christ to people who have never heard His Name. Thank you!
I met a couple today whose faith dwarf’s my own. Danshire and Dorcas Nigoroge manage a ministry called Wings of Compassion. The ministry is unique for many reasons, as I will try to explain, but from a 10,000-foot view it is different because it is the only one of its kind in Nairobi. Danshire and Dorcas opened up their home to orphaned girls who have been raped or molested by their caregivers after they were orphaned. All of the girls they receive are between the ages of 12 and 16. Here is what happens: a young girl loses both parents to disease or tragedy and is then re-homed with relatives. A male relative (uncle, nephew or cousin) then molests the young girl until she becomes pregnant. To avoid being caught and jailed, the male relative will abandon the pregnant girl to the streets claiming she has brought shame to the family by getting pregnant.
Danshire and Dorcas believed God was calling them to rescue these girls and give them the hope of Jesus which they knew would bring healing to their wounded hearts, abused bodies and emotional health. Another thing that makes this couple unique is that they house these girls in their home. Their home consists of a 4 room block house which is maybe 900 square feet. Outside in their little courtyard they have built two shacks and open-air kitchen. Seventeen girls and 17 babies, along with this beautiful couple, share this home.
Danshire and Dorcas teach and show the love of God to these girls and their babies, but they also include developing life skills. They require the girls to go to school and graduate. They help them find jobs and teach them good financial habits. They show them how to be moms and how to develop a healthy relationship with the opposite sex. On one of the walls in their small living room are pictures of 16 young ladies who once lived in Wings of Compassion. Danshire, with the joy of any father, proudly shows these women off explaining how they all have jobs and a place to live. He smiles even bigger when he explains the wedding they had last year for one his girls.
The truly unique thing about Wings of Compassion is the faith of Danshire and Dorcas. They are in their mid and early 60’s. Due to the needs of small children while the girls go to school, neither of them have a paying job. They told story after story of how God provides for their family. Several times they have run out of money or food only to have God provide in some miraculous way. They told of how God has provided free health care for the pre-natal, birth, and after birth health visits (that’s right…God has provided free health care to this ministry in a country that does not even have health insurance plans). To them miracles are normal. I have never met anyone like them. I have never seen anyone who had nothing and at the same time had everything. It is the first African ministry I have ever met that did not ask for any financial assistance. They asked me for NOTHING except that I pray for them and ask others to pray for them. Before I left they asked me to pray. I wept as I prayed. It was tears of amazement and conviction at the same time. I left their home humbled and awed.
I cannot and will not easily get over what I experienced today. I also cannot fully explain it to you. As I sat there I wished Cherry and the boys were with me. I wished church family could hear and see what I was hearing and seeing. I wished this kind of faith were not so uncommon. I wished it were in me. As I sat there I think I heard God say, “Cary, you have skill. They have faith.” I think faith is better. I am going to pursue the kind of faith I saw today. And honestly, I’m troubled I haven’t been doing that already.