I Have Clothes In My Prayer Closet

I have a confession to make.  I don’t think I’m all that great in the prayer department.  If you and I took an unannounced look at what’s in my prayer closet, we’d probably find some clothes, shoes, a golf ball or two, and a TV remote- stuff that probably shouldn’t be there.

Prayer has always been a source of background guilt for me.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I spend time in prayer- a fair amount of time.  But on occasion, in the back of my mind, I question my methods.  Am I doing it right?  Do I pray often enough?  Long enough?

In the back of my mind, I question my methods.  Am I doing it right?  Do I pray often enough?  Long enough?

On one hand, prayer is a multilayered, complex, mystical exercise.  Yet on the other, it can be the simplest of words.  It can be sacred and liturgical, or laid back and conversational.  It can be formal or informal, quiet or loud, long or short.

And to make matters worse, there are volumes of writing and teaching about every detail you can think of.  There are prayer methods, prayer books, and devotionals.  We learn about prayer warriors who spend hours praying, and monks and nuns who spend their lives praying.  We’re taught that if we don’t end our prayers with the words “In Jesus’ Name,” then maybe that prayer didn’t count or wasn’t heard.

  • Let me offer you some practical, down to earth, very simplistic guidelines on prayer.  Before I do, there are a couple of things you need to know.  First, I’m no expert.  My words are from my experiences and not from academia.  And second, please don’t interpret my simplistic approach as a lack of appreciation for the importance and sacredness of prayer.  Believe me, I get it.

OK, so if you’re struggling like me in the area of prayer, then here are some ideas.

    • Do what feels natural.  Praying is nothing more than expressing yourself and listening to God, and because we are all different, how you express yourself might be different for me.  Every time I’ve tried to copy someone else’s method, I’ve struggled.  Lots of people write that getting up early in the morning to pray is preferable.  But if your mornings are full, or if you aren’t a morning person, then pray at another time.
    • Use your own words.  God doesn’t want to hear empty words said out of obligation.  The essence of prayer is communication and spiritual communion between two people who love each other.  Imagine your spouse or child sitting down beside you, reciting a speech by rote, then getting up and leaving!  You might not feel eloquent, and you might not know exactly what to say.  God understands all this, and it’s OK.
    • Listen as much as you talk.  Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who constantly talks?  That isn’t a conversation, it’s a soliloquy.  I’m learning that the most important words spoken during prayer aren’t my words, but God’s words.  If you can find a quiet place and start listening, you will hear God’s voice loud and clear.  And that’s a cool thing.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.  In Part II, I’ll talk about what to do if you want to sit down and have a conversation with God.

In the meantime, I would be interested in hearing what works and what doesn’t work for you.  What personal obstacles to prayer do you face?  If you could give someone a single piece of information about praying, what would it be?

Watch me, Papa!

My granddaughter is taking swim lessons this week at the community pool.  Swimming is a big deal around here.  She’s almost 6, and there’s no way anybody can live in Florida and not be a swimmer.

Today was my day to take her.  I was informed that the swim teacher preferred the adults to sit in an area away from the action so that our presence wouldn’t distract from the teaching.  It was time for the lesson to begin, so she went to the pool and I went off to my appointed place.

It was horrible.  I couldn’t see a thing except the top of her head when she sat on the side of the pool.  She had learned so much- in fact she was swimming by herself in deep water- and I couldn’t see!

There were lots of other adults and kids around, and suddenly I heard her yell at the top of her lungs, “Papa, are you watching me?”  The entire place cracked up, except for me.  I calmly walked over to where I could see, and I watched my granddaughter swim.

The lesson is over, my granddaughter is in bed, but I’m still thinking about her words: Watch me, Papa.  It reminds me that in my relationship with God, I’m the child, and He’s my Papa.  And He watches me.

In my relationship with God, I’m the child, and He’s my Papa.  And He watches me.

My Papa watches me as I live my life, and according to the Bible, He delights in me.  He sees me as I go about my day.  He sees me when I struggle, when I fall, and when I achieve.  Because He watches me, I’m never alone, and what I do is never insignificant.

My Papa also watches over me.  Like a sentinel or a protective parent, His arms are around me to guard me and keep me safe.  It reminds me of David’s words in Psalm 23:  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because you are with me.”

Because my Papa watches over me, I can rest.  I can lay down at night, knowing that He will be awake when I sleep.  I can rest from the stress and the challenges of life, knowing that He is watching over my circumstances.  And when I don’t understand why things are like they are, I can rest, knowing that my Papa knows.

Before this week, my granddaughter was afraid to put her face in the water.  But tonight, as her Papa watched, she jumped into 10 feet of water and swam.  You have no idea how proud her Papa was.  And I suspect I have no idea how proud my Papa is of me.  That’s a really good feeling.

Jesus? Never Heard of Him…

Ask a follower of Jesus how a person gains admission to heaven, and the standard answer is something like this: “Put your faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and your Savior.”  I’m sure you could state it more eloquently, but you get my drift.  Heaven is gained through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

But that statement raises a thorny question.  What about all the people who lived and died before Jesus came to earth?  What about all the people who have never heard the name Jesus?  In the words of Rob Bell, “what if the missionary had a flat tire?”

What happens to people who live and die without ever hearing about Jesus?

I’d love to say that I have the definitive answer to this question, but I don’t.  However, in a serendipitous moment during my sermon preparation this week, I think I gained some insight into how God might deal with this kind of circumstance.  The sermon is from Genesis 20, which is the story of Abraham passing his wife Sarah off as his sister.  Without preaching the sermon to you, here are three insights I learned that could apply to this question.

1. Ignorance is not an excuse for sin.

King Abimelek had no idea Sarah was Abraham’s wife when he took her, yet God said, “You are a dead man because you took a married woman.”  The principle is that it doesn’t seem to matter whether sinful actions are intentional or not.  Sin is sin, and God will treat it as such.  Therefore, if this principle is universal, sin counts as sin, whether you have heard of Jesus or not.

2. You can know about God without hearing about Jesus. 

In Romans 1, Paul makes a startling statement about people who, because of a wicked lifestyle and mindset, want to suppress the truth about who and what God is.  Here are Paul’s word:

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)

If Paul is right, and the created world is a testimony of God’s nature and qualities, then it seems reasonable to think that though people have never heard of a man named Jesus, they can look at creation and understand the existence and qualities of a Supreme Being- to the extent that they will have no excuse for their unbelief.  But the problem is not yet solved, because knowing about God isn’t enough…

3. God gave Abimelek a chance to repent before he suffered judgment.

This fact snuck up on me.  King Abimelek was a pagan- he neither knew about nor served God.  Yet in spite of the fact that he didn’t know God and was guilty of a sinful action (which was about to cost him his life), God didn’t pronounce immediate judgment.  He gave Abimelek a chance to return Sarah to her husband (which Abimelek did).

So how does this impact the original question?  I don’t know for sure.  Nothing here addresses the issue head on.  But there are some principles that, at least for me, shed light on the question.  I believe that ignorance is not an excuse for sin, and God still holds violators accountable.  I believe that even though people might not ever hear the name Jesus in their lifetime, God has revealed Himself through creation and through life, and His presence is undeniable.  And I believe God is a God of justice, and in His own way, deals fairly with the sin problem of every man and every woman, whether they hear the name Jesus or not.  I don’t know for sure what His method might be, but whatever He chooses, it will be right.

This is a complex issue with many layers, and there are viewpoints different than my own that are persuasive.  How do you go about dealing with this issue?  What are your thoughts?  I’d be honored if you shared them.

God and Making Decisions

We’ve all been there before.  A job offer in another city comes along, but there are pros and cons.  We’ve fallen in love, and we wonder if this person is the one.  There’s an important decision to be made.  So we begin to pray and ask God to guide us toward the choice that is best for us and pleases Him.  But how does that work?  How can we tell which way He is leading us?  Allow me to offer some guidelines from my experiences of both getting it right and wrong.

The first step in sensing God’s leadership takes place within us.  If you truly want to hear from God and do what He wants you to do, then you must be willing to accept whatever God says.  In other words, either option must be equally OK.   So many people approach this process unwilling to hear anything except what they want to hear, and their prayers are prayed to obtain God’s stamp of approval on their desires.  If you’ve already made up your mind, then there’s little point in asking God to lead you.

“If you’ve already made up your mind, then there’s little point in asking God to lead you.”

Once you are willing to accept whatever God directs, you’re ready to begin asking and listening.  I like to be alone for this part of the process.  Get somewhere quiet and begin to lay out each option.  Make a list of the positive and negatives of each choice, carefully considering what life would look like if that were God’s choice for you.

Then begin to be quiet and listen.  What are you listening for?  You’re listening for peace.  An wise, elderly pastor gave me some advice I’ll never forget.  He said, “The way of God is the way of peace.”  If you lay out each option before God and don’t rush God’s answer, you will begin to feel a sense of peace in one direction or the other.  That will likely be God’s choice for you.  The other direction will give you sense of uneasiness and trepidation.

There are two dynamics in this process that will work against you.  The first is already having your mind made up before you begin.  The other is impatience.  Rarely have I prayed and received God’s answer before I said Amen.  Sometimes it’s taken a couple of days or more, and more than once the circumstance changed while I was waiting, and the answer became crystal clear.

Hearing God’s voice can be very difficult, and I don’t mean to imply that there is a simple formula that evokes a response from God whenever we desire one.  On the contrary, hearing from God happens strictly on His timetable and not ours.  But I also know that God delights in leading our lives and answering our prayers, and we approach Him with humility, no agenda, and patience, God will speak to us.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.  And if you have more to add to this process, I would invite your comments.

Writing Sunday’s Sermon

Some of the most frequent questions I am asked as a pastor are in regard to sermon writing.  “How do you write a sermon week after week?  How do you know what to say?”  Here’s how it works for me.

First, let me say this.  There are many ways to write sermons, and there is no single right or wrong way.  What works for me will not work for others, and vice versa.  My method is what works best for me, and what works for my church, Christ Community Church in central Florida.

Writing sermons is a major part of my job.  It takes up a big chunk of my time during the week.  The vast majority of my sermons are part of a series of messages that deal with a common topic.  In my opinion, linking several sermons to the same topic provides a flow of study from week to week, it allows me to develop and expound on common principles more than once, and it helps me plan several weeks ahead.  And speaking of planning ahead, there is no worse feeling than coming into the office at the start of the week unsure of what Sunday’s topic is going to be.  I try to plan at least a couple of months ahead.  That way, I can be on the lookout for illustrations and real life examples of the sermon principles.  Plus, my staff needs to know what’s coming up so worship services can be planned and graphics can be created.  And you never know when the phone is going to ring and take you away from the office…

There is (again, my opinion) a right and wrong way to approach the writing of a sermon.  A pastor can decide on a topic, anger for example, and she can find Bible verses to support the points that she wants to make.  This is an inferior way to write a sermon, because there is a danger than the sermon ends up being the pastor’s opinion, supported by Scriptures that can be unrelated to each other and used outside their proper context.  A better way to write a sermon is the other way around: find a specific section of Scripture where anger is addressed, study it to understand what the verses are saying, and then simply relay the message of the verses to the listeners.  That way, the truth of the Bible is maximized and the bias of the pastor is minimized.  The power of the message isn’t found in the delivery or the intelligence of the pastor.  It’s found in the truth of Scripture.

Once the topic and the accompanying Scripture have been selected, it’s time to write.  I use some excellent Bible software that resides on my computer.  This program makes available a ton of resources, commentaries, dictionaries, Bible versions, etc. that really help.  I make a rough outline and start putting words on the screen.  My worst enemy during the week is a blinking cursor.  You have no idea how many hours I’ve sat and stared at that stupid thing blinking.  It seems to be saying, “Ha…. ha…. you’re… stuck….”

But then slowly, sentence by sentence, an idea takes shape.  The goal is to get words down without worry about editing for now.  Because I’ve been doing this for a few years, I know how many words it takes to produce a 25 or so minute sermon (for me, about 2500 words).  There’s a saying about sermons that goes, “If you haven’t struck oil in 25 minutes, stop drilling.”  People have a hard time staying with a pastor that speaks longer than about 25 minutes.

Once the points of the sermon have been written, it’s time to edit.  I spend 25% of my time writing the sermon and 75% of my time editing what I’ve written.  I happen to believe that individual words and phrases are extremely important, and I spend a considerable amount of time finding just the right words to make a point.  Some pastors’ notes consist of nothing more than an outline of their message, and they fill in the details extemporaneously.  I don’t have that gift.  My notes are manuscripts- that is, a word for word document.  I don’t read word for word when I preach, but if a disaster happens and I lose my train of thought, I can find my place until I regain my senses.  And instead of speaking from printed notes, I use a tablet.  That way, I can continue to refine and make small changes all the way up until time to speak if I want.

Once the sermon is developed enough to suit me, I write sermon notes to go into our church bulletins and small group Bible study questions based on the message.  My deadline for publishing all this is Thursday around noon.  That way, the bulletins and inserts can be printed, the power point presentation that is used during the message can be written and loaded onto the computers.  Therefore, I have a deadline.  And I have to be honest: some weeks the deadline is hard to meet.

So that’s what happens when I write a sermon.  There’s a major element that I haven’t mentioned, and that is the spiritual dimension of sermon writing.  Without the involvement of the Holy Spirit in both the writing and delivering of the message, it’s a huge waste of time and effort.  Maybe that can be a future topic.

Does this post generate a question or comment about sermon writing (or sermon listening)?  I’d love to hear them and know what you’re thinking.

The Declaration of Independence

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Why I Love Florida

Like many people that live in Florida, I’m from somewhere else.  I’m a native Tar Heel from the Old North State.  I’ve been here for about 7 years, and I’m finally ready to say that I love my new home.  Florida can be tough on newbies- the summer heat and humidity can be oppressive, the crowded roads and restaurants due to the “snowbirds” can be maddening, and everywhere is a long way from here.  But there are some pretty sweet reasons why Florida is a great place to live.  Here are my favorite reasons:


Beautiful Skies

Towering clouds, long, flat horizons, and lots of sunshine add up to some of the most beautiful skies I’ve ever seen.  This is a picture I took while fishing one afternoon.  I watched this thunderstorm slowly develop and move toward me over time.  Simply spectacular.

Worn out Pastor

Lots of Big Fish

Fish are everywhere down here (in the water, of course).  Offshore fishing is superb, and fishing the flats in the bays is amazing.  This is a 120 lb. tarpon I caught at the Boca Grand Pass near Port Charlotte.  The county I live in has over 500 lakes, so you don’t have to go to the coast to catch a fish.


Abundant Wildlife

Wildlife is everywhere down here, and it is the most diverse I’ve ever seen.  There must be a million varieties of birds (slight exaggeration, but you get the point), big gators, armadillos, coyotes, and tons of wild pigs.  And that doesn’t include the reptiles and insects.  Lots of lizards, bugs, and snakes.



Florida is synonymous with Disney (Hollywood Studios decorated for Christmas, pictured above), Universal, Sea World, and the newest theme park in my hometown, Legoland.  Most parks offer Florida residents the chance to purchase annual passes, which give the hometown folks a price break to come more often.  Unfortunately, Disney has priced me out of the market.  In addition to theme parks, there are pro sports teams to follow (Tampa Bay Rays and Buccaneers, Orlando Magic, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and Marlins) as well as the Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles.  College sports fans down here are about as rabid as the UNC/Duke fans.  OK, more rabid.

And finally…


Year Round Golf

You have to be a little careful during the summer afternoons because of the heat, but Florida golf season goes on year round.  There are plenty of gorgeous courses to play, and after the snowbirds go home, there’s no problem getting a tee time.  Notice the gator sitting on the bank right behind me in the picture.

No, there aren’t four distinct seasons like there is up north, but Florida has some advantages of its own.  No state income tax. Sunshine practically every day.  Down to earth, friendly people.  I think I’ll stay awhile.