Hope for the Future – December 2013

Kristina and I were listening to the news and having one of those, “Can you believe how bad things are getting,” talks recently. Actually, evil has been in our society for a long time. We would be outraged if we lived in a society where people had slaves. Yet Americans, including many Christians, lived with slaves and justified their actions for two hundred years.

I get upset because many Christians do not read the Bible consistently. Because of biblical ignorance, they lack wisdom. They get manipulated by the media, and intimidated by prevailing cultural attitudes. In Germany in the 1930’s, the nominally Christian population was so swayed by anti-Semitism that they allowed the Nazis to persecute the Jews. If they had read and believed their Bibles, they would have realized that God chose the Jews, and he loves the Jews. Though the Jews were rejected and reviled in Europe, they were not forsaken by God. Out of the Holocaust, Israel was reborn. The Jews now have a homeland that will never again be taken away from them. The purpose of God can, and will, be fulfilled in spite of wickedness in men.

Many people are pessimist when it comes to our country. They’re alarmed by our national debt, the costs of our unfunded entitlement programs, and our new healthcare obligations. They believe our ship of state is heading for the rocks. Yet there are other realities besides the pessimistic ones which drive our news cycles. In the midst of recent recession, I have several friends who made bold investments. Some of them bought real estate when prices were way down. Others bought stocks when the stock market had sunk to the bottom. When others took their losses and pulled out, they doubled down and made investments in our comeback. Those who believed that our economy would recover have been rewarded.

I do not know the economic future of America, and I’m not much of a financial investor. However, I do have talents to invest, and I know God’s kingdom is the best investment we can make. God has given talents to each of us. We are commanded to invest those talents to bring a return for God’s kingdom. In the same way that an economic downturn can provide opportunities for wise investors to make quality purchases at bargain prices, a spiritually dark environment can enable our gifts and talents to shine brightly and multiply significantly.

In 60 AD, the Apostle Paul wrote to believers living in the darkness of the Roman culture. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 16:13)
God gives us joy and peace as we trust Him in all circumstances. I pray you will trust God this New Year. As you trust God, He will fill you with hope, so that you can shine like a light with your family, at work and among your friends. We can have hope because we know the word of God is true. We know that Jesus Christ is Lord, and God’s kingdom will always advance.

Jesus is the Word made flesh. He also has the last word. He has spoken about what is right and wrong, what is true and false. People cannot make up their own rules about who enters God’s kingdom and who does not. If you believe in Jesus, you have been chosen to make your light shine in this world. It is our privilege to serve the Lord and to love Him with all our hearts.

I’m heading to my 45th high school reunion in Marin County this month. The dinner will be expensive, and it won’t be served until hours past my usual dinnertime. I won’t be indulging in cocktails beforehand, or much of the dancing at the end. I attend our reunions because I value relationships. It takes effort to establish and maintain good relationships. It’s easy to let them die. I have often been surprised and blessed by relationships I didn’t expect to become special.

On a recent Sunday at Living Streams, I was greeted by Dave Raffi, a friend from high school, right before our service started. Dave was in Phoenix for a family funeral. The first time I saw Dave after high school was at our ten year reunion. He gave me his business card. Later that evening I was talking to some other friends. One of the guys asked, “Have you seen Raffi? Did you know he is a lawyer?”

One of the other guys said, “I thought Raffi was an engineer. He gave me this card.”
I pulled the card Dave gave me out of my wallet. It said David Raffi MD. We had a good laugh when we compared his cards. None of us had a clue what he was really doing. In those days Dave was a character. These days he is following Jesus.

I didn’t have good character in high school. By my senior year I had become an immoral, drug-dealing narcissist. I don’t go to reunions because I’m proud of my past. I go because I’m hoping I can share the goodness and grace of God with old friends who are open to receive it. Dave Raffi and I have been transformed by Jesus Christ. We want our friends to hear the good news about Jesus as well.

At a family reunion in 1980, I met my mother’s cousin, Alvar Platt. During World War II, Alvar was flying missions over Germany as a gunner on a B-17. On May 1, 1943 Alvar’s dad was driving to the church in Manteca, California, where he was the pastor. He suddenly had a burden to pray for Alvar. He pulled his car over to the side of the road and began to cry out to the Lord for his son. Two weeks later he received a notice from the Air Force that Alvar’s plane had been shot down. Alvar was missing in action.

While returning from a bombing run over Germany, Alvar’s plane was attacked by a squadron of German fighters. Alvar was reaching down to put on his parachute when machine gun bullets tore through the plane, hitting the seat he had been in moments earlier. Four bullets ripped through his legs. The gunner next to him was killed immediately. The plane crashed into the English Channel at 200 MPH. Alvar was badly wounded and trapped in the sinking plane. He was starting to drown when suddenly a large wave pushed the wing of the plane up. Alvar was propelled to the surface by the grace of God.

A life raft on the plane had inflated when they hit the water. Alvar was pulled onto the raft by four other survivors. The rest of his crew was killed. His leg wounds were agonizing and bleeding. The salt water kept infection at bay while they drifted for two days. As they drifted into the ocean the second night, they fired a flare. They were rescued by French fisherman who turned them over to the Germans.

If you meet Alvar, who is now ninety-four, he will tell you he spent time in Paris, and then studied music in Vienna during the war. What he means, is that he was in a hospital in Paris, then sent to a prisoner of war camp in Austria, where he learned to play the guitar. He will also tell you he loves the Lord. Jesus saved his soul in 1925, and saved his life in 1940. Alvar has blessed me and prayed for our ministry since 1980. I only met him because our family values relationships. God’s family is built on relationships. We have been told to love one another like Jesus loves us. Sharing Christ’s love is how God’s family grows, and how we bear good fruit.

Four years ago, the elders of Living Streams suggested to me that I take a sabbatical. The idea sounded interesting to me at the time, but I wasn’t sure how practical it would be for me to be away from our church for three months. I didn’t want Living Streams to lose people or momentum. I was basically too insecure to take our elders up on their gracious offer.

A year later an infection got into my heart, destroyed my mitral valve, and almost killed me. I had to take a couple of months off to recuperate. Our church did fine in my absence. We have a great group of pastors and leaders who all stepped up and covered my ministry responsibilities. Living Streams has been a great church when I have been in crisis over the years.

Our elders were persistent with their counsel. Once or twice a year one of them would ask me when I was going to take my sabbatical. In April I got a serious eye infection that grew worse, in spite of prayer and the best medical attention I could find. After my eye was lanced, and then medicated for a couple of weeks, it started to heal. Once it healed, I was ready to take the sabbatical.

At the end of May, I said good-bye to Living Streams for the summer. We stayed in Phoenix for a couple of weeks, and then Kristina and I headed for California. We took care of our son Phil’s three children for ten days while he and his wife Moriah went to Machu Picchu, Peru. We then stayed in Terra Linda with my mother who is eighty-eight and still going strong. In July we headed to McCloud, at the foot of Mt. Shasta, for two weeks of trout fishing, biking, kayaking and swimming.

We spent a few days in Bodega Bay with our family. Phil Zito took Kristina and me fishing one day. Phil and I were in kindergarten when we were sent to the principal’s office for getting into a fight with each other. While we waited in fear for the principal to show up, we prayed for an earthquake to come and save us from his wrath. Phil asked us to pray after dropping anchor on this trip, and two minutes later Kristina hooked an 18 pound salmon. It was five hours later before we prayed again. Then I caught a 20 pounder.

I visited lots of churches in Arizona and California this summer. Several of the churches had thousands of people; a couple of them had less than a hundred people. The most powerful time of corporate worship I experienced was in the smallest church of all. There were about forty people in a simple building in McCloud present. I got caught up in their worship. It felt like God was present in clouds of glory.

I also had some great times of personal worship and prayer sitting on grassy hillsides in Marin County. Under an oak tree, the Lord gave me clarity for my ministry for this next season of life. A condensed report is that I’m going to stay focused on the people and ministries we serve. We also had a lot of hikes, meals, and fellowship with long-time friends in California. Our lives are rich because of our friends.

Of everything I experienced during this sabbatical, one thing has been the most meaningful to me. I finally started writing a book that I have procrastinated over for a long time. I’ve had many people tell me that I should write a book over the years. I’ve started to write several times and never gotten past the first page. The book is a simple memoir about the blessings and battles I have experienced the last forty-four years. My working title is “Into the Desert.” I don’t know how the Lord will use this book of stories, but it’s been a relief for me to finally get them down on paper. I no longer feel burdened because of running away from the Lord’s assignment.

We had some trials on this sabbatical. Family life is messy, and we have a big family. Yet, I’m thankful to have the men in my life with the wisdom to insist I take this break. I’m also thankful for those of you who are part of this story of my life and ministry. Your love and friendship brings Kristina and me joy, and makes our lives a blessing.

Though most of his family died under the demonic persecution of the Nazis, Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust. Elie went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to turn the world from a place of hatred into a realm of righteousness. Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist before World War II, survived Auschwitz. Years later he wrote the book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In the concentration camp he discovered that the prisoners who often survived were not the ones who were strongest physically, but the ones who had hope. Hope is one of the most essential, but least valued attributes of a healthy person.

Jesus said in the last days wickedness would increase and the love of most people would grow cold. (Matt. 24:12) In our time bombers, murderers and deceivers have spread waves of despair throughout society. In the face of wickedness many people stop loving their neighbor. This creates a great opportunity for those who have been filled with the Spirit of Christ. Our love comes from God and does not diminish when people are suffering. His love gives us compassion and enables us to overcome evil with good.

Our hearts break when tragedies happen, or when someone we love dies, but our sadness does not last forever. We do not despair in the face of evil, because we have the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead living inside of us. Jesus defeated death itself. The Spirit of God does not leave us when bad things happen. He gives us hope that we can overcome evil, because “Greater is he who is within us than he who is in the world” (I John 4:4).

I was talking recently with Ray Johnson, the pastor of Bayside Church in Granite Bay, CA. Ray was a youth pastor in Marin County when I was leading the Novato Open Door Church. This Easter, Bayside had 31,000 people attending services in their campuses around Sacramento. As we talked, I could sense Ray’s great leadership gift. I asked him how he stays healthy with all the pressures he faces. Ray said that the key thing he wants to give people is hope. If people have hope they can overcome any challenge. The ability to inspire hope is a gift from God.

Napoleon said “Leaders are dealers in hope.” Those who inspire hope in others can lead them into war, like Napoleon and the Nazis, or into God’s Kingdom, like Jesus and the apostles. I do not have hope that I’m going to wake up one morning looking more handsome or being stronger. Our hope is not dependent on what some dictator, terrorist, or politician does. The Bible teaches that God’s Kingdom will continue to advance. We pray and believe His will is going to be done on earth as it is in heaven. This hope does not make us passive in the face of evil, but active in advancing God’s Kingdom every way we possibly can.

We all face heartache and pain in life. However, if we trust God and do his will, we will inherit the eternal glory He has prepared for us. One day we will move permanently into the Kingdom of heaven. God will then make everything we have suffered insignificant compared to the glory we will experience. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:13).

On a recent Monday morning, I walked the winding trail to the top of the small mountain in the preserve just south of our home. At the peak, I took off my iPod and turned off the podcast I was listening to. It was a clear day and the sun was starting to warm the morning air. I sat down on a flat rock and looked over Paradise Valley in north Phoenix. I like to sit on the mountain overlooking the city and pray.

We came to Phoenix in 1984 with four children and a truckload of furniture. At the time I didn’t know what the Lord was going to do in our lives. One day I read a promise in Deuteronomy 6:10-11 that gave me hope. “I will give you a splendid city, with houses you don’t have to build and wells you don’t have to dig.” We now have wonderful friends, a great church and a beautiful home in this splendid city.

As I began to give thanks on the mountaintop, I saw something scurry up the rock below me. A large lizard had come out of the cold shadows and stretched out on the warm surface of a rock. As the sun began to warm its body, the lizard began to shiver. It was adjusting itself to the warmth of the sunlight, like someone coming out of the ocean warming up on the sand of the beach.

Earlier that morning, I had stretched out on the carpet on the floor of our bedroom and shivered like that lizard. I wasn’t shivering from the cold, but from depletion. On Friday and Saturday, I had made several trips to Hospice in Scottsdale to be with Paul Pittendrigh and his family. Paul was in a coma dying from a stroke. Paul and his wife, Naomi, had been with us at Living Streams when the church was still in our living room in 1984. They left Phoenix to serve with YWAM for many years and returned to live out their retirement. Paul was ninety years old and a man who showed his love for the Lord by his acts of service. He drove tractors and heavy equipment helping YWAM develop their University in Kona, HI, as well as on the mission field. He went to be with the Lord on Sunday afternoon, just as our morning services were ending.

Loving people deeply takes all the strength I have on many days. It is not a chore for me to love God’s people, it is a privilege. Jesus commands us to love one another because he knows that it is the most enriching way for us to live. However, watching someone you love as they die, even when you know their life has been full, is very challenging. We can’t love deeply people without being vulnerable.

When I feel drained, it is easy for me to get agitated. That doesn’t go over too well at our house. Kristina has low tolerance for anyone who gets frustrated or angry and starts directing it towards her. She definitely expects the one who preaches about the Spirit-filled life on Sundays to live the Spirit-filled life on Mondays. Therefore, I have had to find a remedy for depletion, one that works quickly and surely, or else I have to find a remedy for an upset spouse, which can add layers of complication to a depleted soul.

So I often lay face down on our carpet, or on a towel in the backyard in the shade of our porch, calling on my Father in Jesus’ name. Just like a lizard shivering in the warm sun, my soul gets warmed as the Holy Spirit fills me up. There is no specific formula for prayer, any more than there is a formula for good communication with a friend or your spouse. I start with being honest about my need for God’s grace and I stay on my face until my heart warms up. I may need to confess something I did wrong, or I may need to simply confess that I am weak. I get strength, and sometimes good ideas, simply by waiting quietly in God’s presence. I pray for other people as they come to my mind, but my main goal is to connect with my Father. He knows me, loves me, and hears my prayers. Like the lizard receiving energy from the morning sun, I sometimes shiver when God warms my soul with grace.

Reflections ~ December 2012

December 30, 2012

Healthy Things Grow Naturally

Many people say “Healthy things grow. If something stops growing, it’s not healthy.” Some people apply that logic to churches and others apply it to businesses. I want to clarify that concept. No plants, animals or people keep growing indefinitely. All living things reach a maximum size determined by genetics and environment, otherwise they would become gigantic. When healthy things reach maturity, new growth comes through reproduction.
No business or church can grow indefinitely either. Healthy businesses stay focused on their customers and main products. If they get overextended they are vulnerable to all kinds of problems. Healthy churches grow to a size determined by the gifts, talents and opportunities given by God to the congregation and leaders. They reproduce by raising up mature disciples who establish new ministries and plant new churches. The apostles left Jerusalem to preach the gospel and establish new churches. Some of the new churches they established grew larger and lasted longer than the church in Jerusalem.
Jesus said, “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or toil.” (Mat. 6:28) Healthy things grow naturally. It is a flawed form of judgment to value people by the size of their ministry, business or bank account. That is like saying your mother was an incredible woman because she raised you in a big house. The impact of your mother, father, or friend is as great as the love they showed you and the wisdom they imparted to you. If Christ is in you, you may not be impressive to the world, but the faith and love you have can transform the life of anyone who believes your message.
One reason I enjoy the challenge of sports and games is the opportunity to make progress in ways that are measurable. A smoother golf swing improves my scores and helps me to feel like I’m learning and growing. We need to have a sense that we are growing in wisdom and understanding in life as well. After midlife, our bodies diminish in strength and energy. Life can be depressing if we focus on that decline. Fortunately, the Lord allows us to grow in grace and wisdom throughout our lives.
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (II Corinthians 4:16) Inward renewal comes as we draw near to the Lord in prayer and experience his grace. I’m learning to trust God in deeper ways, so my faith stays alive under stress and pressure. Spiritual growth can be measured by peace in our hearts and confidence in God when we face the pressures of life.
Our six year old grandson Matisse captured a scorpion and released it recently. The next day he asked his mother, “If I can catch a baby scorpion, how can we train it to hunt? Do they have books on that?”
Matisse will grow in size, wisdom and understanding in the years to come, but he is precious to us right now. You too will naturally grow in wisdom and understanding as you read the word of God and put it into practice. Yet I hope you realize that you are loved as much today as you will be on the day you meet the Lord and receive your reward.

Kristina and I spent the first seven years of our marriage running a discipleship house. Some of the young men and women we helped became pastors and leaders. Others left us and ended up going to jail. We helped people transform their lives through the grace of God, but we also learned our limitations. When we did for people what they should have been doing for themselves we didn’t help them at all.

A dysfunctional concept of love permeates our society. This was evident when Colorado and Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana and other states voted to legalize gay marriage. Giving people what they want rather than what is good for them is a flawed concept of love. The last thing we should be doing in a time of financial crisis is to make drugs that diminish mental capacity more widely available. Do we want our doctors, car repairmen, computer technicians and airline pilots to get stoned? We should also know that marriage was established by God for a man and a woman. Healthy marriages are the foundation of healthy families and a strong society.

While our government provides many vital services for those in need, it is also like a dysfunctional parent who provides benefits even to those who don’t want to work. If we do for others what they should do for themselves, we are hindering their development, not enhancing it.

America has over 16 trillion dollars in federal debt, and trillions more in unfunded entitlements (Google the national debt clock). It’s going to be a painful mess when interest rates start to rise, inflation increases and another economic down turn begins.

Our twelve year war in Afghanistan exemplifies dysfunction. Our soldiers are being shot by the very people we are trying to help. We cannot be a savior to the Afghans. We should have defeated the Taliban and left their country ten years ago. America needs to cut military spending, cut domestic spending and change our attitude about the responsibility of the government. It is not righteous to keep borrowing from the next generation to fund our current budget.

I had a heavy heart one day as I contemplated these realities. I laid down on a rug in our living room to pray. Within a few minutes the Holy Spirit began to refresh and encourage me. The storm clouds of spiritual warfare parted, and the light of God’s grace gave me a fresh perspective. The Holy Spirit comes to us because Jesus has risen from the dead. Every trial shrinks in the light of the glory that God reveals when we experience the reality that Jesus is alive.

Kristina and I prepared our children to face the trials of life, but each of them has to fight their own spiritual giants as they go through life. Likewise, every generation faces unique challenges which help people see their need to turn to God. The dysfunction in society gives us an opportunity to share God’s word and bring the gospel of Christ to those who are open. Some people look for scapegoats when their lives fall apart. Others look for solutions. The Word of God has wisdom for the problems people face.

I have been meeting with pastors from some of the largest churches in Arizona. We are working together in unity to glorify God. We want to mobilize the Church to help vulnerable children. Networks of pastors have formed all over the country to work in unity to serve our communities in Jesus name.

The Church of Jesus Christ is filled with people who love God and care for each other. We help each other triumph over the trials of life. We bring healing to the brokenhearted and hope to the discouraged. There is nothing better in life than the forgiveness of sins and the grace of God that Jesus gives to everyone who calls on his name. Living Streams has helped plant five churches in the last several years and all are thriving. Churches where the grace and power of God are present bear fruit regardless of political circumstances, because Jesus is the head of all authority, and Lord over all creation.