Monthly Archives: May 2011

Thriving in Desert Times

Have you ever endured dry times—times when nothing would come forth, when the ability to birth something, a new idea, thought or concept, seemed impossible – times where aimless wondering seemed to be the future destination for your movements, your mind, and your ministry—times when God seemed infinitely distant and the heavens seemed like brass? In your anguish you searched your heart and your soul to see if any kind of sin was present. You cried out for His forgiveness but deep in your spirit you knew sin was not the source of His silence.

The silence you were (or are) enduring was (or is) the deafening sound of desert time, a total silence in your spirit even though the noise of the world is earsplitting around you. In the silence you grope and stumble and grasp for the things which once appeared stable and life-giving but now, even these foundations give way and rapidly evaporate like the early morning mist as the sun reaches higher and higher in the sky. The well from which you have drawn life-giving water and have always depended has become dust and the choice before you, though simple, is scary: you can remain where you are and die or you can search for the Water of Life regardless of how deep into this desert it leads.

As the silence deepens and the heat increases faith and feelings begin to war against one another in a life-and-death struggle, while the memories of what once satisfied now seek to smother the steps of feet straining to walk in unfamiliar places. At times your vision is blurred with the images of deliverance but as you approach they disappear and all you are left with is more heat, more sand, and more silence. In essence you are cooking in the heat of His presence, the very presence which,, in the past brought joy, comfort, and satisfaction, but is now systematically killing you—bit by bit—piece by piece.

In the furnace of God you are being heated beyond the melting point, forged into something different – something new – something supernatural.  Despair, depression, and even death become your companions in this fiery place as those precious desires and dreams you’ve carried a lifetime in your heart and nurtured carefully with your hands vanish like ashes in the breeze. Swirling winds of hurricane force buffet and assail you as you are slowly stripped of anything and everything you would hold onto and take strength in. Crushed and carried along at the same time by the  same unseen hand, in faith you push toward the center of the roaring flame, that place where disaster seems imminent, where death would be welcomed, but where life will be born and purpose given. This is desert time.

Moses endured it and led a nation out of captivity. John the Baptist endured it and announced God’s Messiah. Jesus endured it and became the source of salvation. Desert time produces men and women who not only change history but ultimately author history. Deliverers, prophets, and sacrifices are all forged in the flame, created in the solitary heat of His presence. Will you endure it? Or like so many others, will you take the easy way out and drink from the devil’s shallow well and thus miss your day of anointing? Destiny or destruction – both are the result of desert time. Destiny is determined by passing through the flame and destruction is the destination of those who sidestep it.

If you find yourself here in the desert and unable to go on – “sing to God, sing praises to His name; lift up a song for Him who rides through the deserts, whose name is the LORD, and exult before Him.” In the hunger of your praise is found the habitation of His presence—even in the hottest part of the desert.

Deciphering Our Delusion—What Happened to the Church (Part 4 of 4)

Relevant does not mean watered or dumbed down to fit the culture. Sadly, that’s what many of the fire and brimstone self-appointed guardians of the faith have claimed and aimed their prohibitive preaching at over the last half-century. They’ve done such a good job that a majority of the church is at least 25 years behind the times in technology and methodology. No other section of society can afford to be so out of step and survive. Once an organism loses its ability to change or adapt or remain cutting edge—it ceases to exist. Sections of the church are dead and don’t even know it. They have become non-relevant or not applicable to the world we live in.

Before you get the wrong idea, I believe the message of the Gospel never changes. I am, as Jude so aptly put it, a contender for the faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints (v. 3). The Scriptures are God-breathed. Therefore, I believe they are 100% inspired, infallible, and inerrant. I just happen to believe God’s Word is also relevant at all times to all cultures in every generation. My task is to find ways to communicate its eternal truths so that anyone can respond.

The biggest culprit is preaching one thing and living another. That makes whatever we have to say unimportant. It’s like telling your children to do what you say, but not what you do. That never works and only creates rebels. If we can’t live what we preach then perhaps we need to be quiet until we get our own house in order. By the way, there is a biblical word for this particular behavior. It’s called hypocrisy and it is killing us.

A relevant church living out and preaching a relevant gospel means Christ’s message is pertinent for this moment in history and applicable to the person no matter the situation. That is the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus preached. He communicated the timeless message of God through germane stories and appropriate illustrations. He knew how to weave a tale that could cut the fluff out of the defenses of both the ultra and non-religious. He was a student of His culture, understanding the nuances of society, the details of current events, and the distinctions of religious practice. He knew His audience and spoke to their particular situations in a clear authoritative voice. He did not preach down to them but lifted them up with the tenor of His teaching. Oh, there were moments when His words cut like a scalpel or smashed like a hammer, but the richness of their depth brought healing and deliverance if heeded. He never destroyed a hungry heart that was willing to listen.

Our problem is we no longer listen to our culture, but expect them to listen to us. We cannot get what we are unwilling to give. Listening does not convey agreement, but it certainly communicates respect. When we listen to people’s needs, fears, dreams, and desires we are in a far better position to speak into their lives. But we must use methods and means that they will understand so the message of Christ can effect a life-altering change.

Jesus is relevant. His message is always cutting edge. It’s the church that has painted herself into the corner of irrelevancy. It’s not our message—it’s our obsolete methods that have to go. The problem is for many groups the methods have become the gospel rather than a vehicle to transport the message of the gospel. We must learn the language of our culture if we hope to reach it.  Otherwise, the message we have been given once and for all will be lost in the translation.

Deciphering Our Delusion—What Happened to the Church (Part 3 of 4)

Is your church connected to the community where it resides? Are you connected to that community or are you like most of us who press the garage door opener and speed frantically out of our little bastions of brick and mortar at sunrise and back again at sunset? If your life depended on it could you name the families who live in your cul-de-sac? If you are not connected to your street your church is not connected to its community. If there is no connection it is not relational. To believe otherwise is a wee bit delusional.

Jesus is eternally relational—that is, He is connected. The zeal for relationship is one of the chief characteristics and qualities of God and was present in the perfect bond of the Godhead prior to creation. This amazing passion was bequeathed to the first man and woman and was one of the original qualities that made them like God. As human beings we all hunger for relationship, and yet for some reason we think it will happen even if we are disconnected relationally from everyone around us.

We have become far too independent believing all we need is contained in our home, our job, and our family. That mindset has translated itself into the fabric of our churches and the mentality of the body of Christ has become one of self-service rather than selfless service. We approach church like we do the drive-thru at Mickey D’s, thinking we can take what we need, pay for what we want, and leave everything and everyone else behind as we dine on the deadly junk food of religion. I say this because you can have your religion without relationship, but if you do, you won’t have Jesus.

And that’s where we stand in many churches today. We have a form of godliness—a look, a sound, a smell, and a name, but we’re missing one thing—Jesus. He has left the building like the proverbial Elvis and is wandering about our communities looking for a person or two who will build a relationship with people like Bill who’s lost, lonely, and frantically trying to find an escape from the overwhelming grief of losing his wife of over 45 years, or with Mildred who has no social life because she works three jobs just to pay the bills her husband left her with when he walked out three years ago, or the Smith twins who have no daddy and whose mother can barely keep up with their baby sister, much less both of them, or a thousand other nameless faces we drive past on our way to and from church each Sunday. These are the people who need Jesus, but it’s unlikely they will meet Him. Why? We are not connected to them—there is no relationship from which to make that vital introduction.

As Jesus walked through the crowd He touched people. He touched the poor and the prosperous—the sick and the strong—the demonized and the debutantes. He touched them because real relationship is impossible without contact. He understood the necessity of meeting with them on their level and then walking with them to a new level. He knew that a change of heart would bring a change in their day-to-day scenery. But…it began with a first contact—the building blocks of relationship.

Delusions of grandeur are drowning the church if she thinks they (the nameless who watch as we drive by on Sunday morning) will come simply because we’ve opened our doors.  We must become intentionally relational. Why? Personal invitations are the ones people respond to most often. Don’t think so? Take a long hard look at the one Jesus sent you personally from the cross.

Deciphering Our Delusion—What Happened to the Church (Part 2 of 4)

Jesus is refreshing. No other word captures the majesty of His character. Whenever and wherever Jesus visits life springs up. That life is not a response to His presence but the result of His presence. He is life-giving—reviving—uplifting—invigorating—revitalizing—and energizing—that’s what I mean by refreshing.

The most important person on our guest list for a Sunday morning worship experience had better be Jesus. You would think for most church people this would be a given, but it’s not. Too often we assume He will just show up—heck, it’s His party anyway, isn’t it? But in most places little if anything is really done to prepare for His presence. Oh, we prepare the musicians, the singers, the ushers, worship team, and the preacher with his sermonic offering. But the most important aspect of the service is often taken for granted.  In all the fervor to prepare the perfect service Jesus is often left out. And… if He doesn’t show up, there’s no purpose in attending.

Preparation is vital. Excellence is essential. Both are necessary, but His presence is the defining imperative. It matters not how elaborate the can is to a hungry man if it contains no food. The food is the life, not the wrapper. We have become enamored with the wrapper and neglected the essence of the Life-giver. You either have Him or you have an empty container. We have become delusional over the finished product we are convinced we can produce with mood music, soft lighting, and homiletic finesse. The show is great, but…not refreshing—not life-giving.

In the hustle and the bustle of our planning, practice, preparation, and prayer times, we have forgotten the necessity of His presence. Nothing eternal or important really happens unless Jesus comes to visit. I’m not throwing rocks at a particular group or model, whether contemporary or traditional. A lack of invitation will insure His absence at both. I’m throwing rocks at all of us charged with making sure the Guest of honor is given first place at the party we say we are throwing for Him. That’s what worship really is anyway…isn’t it?

Some have done this through accident, some through ignorance, some through innovation, and some intentionally. The results, no matter the excuse or reason, are always the same—a lingering death. In fact, and this might make you mad, but when Jesus is uninvited and absent someone else fills His seat. The dark one loves to show up at empty worship services filled with personalities jockeying for the top positions—pushing and shoving for the limelight. Self may long to sit on the throne, but in this case Satan is hogging that seat.

Where has the church gone? Oh, she is staring at her pretty self in a delusional mirror humming “It’s All About Me…” Like the mythical Narcissus, she has fallen in love with her own image, not the image of the One she has been called to mirror.

The answer rests in that old picture that hangs in so many churches across this country. In it Jesus can be seen knocking on a door looking for an opportunity to enter. That door, according to Revelation 3:20, is not the one to your heart; it is the door to His church.

If we invite Him—He will come. When He comes He will bring His life with Him. So…what do you want—a well-crafted service devoid of Jesus or the Presence that refreshes? I don’t know about you, but those who are lost don’t need another jazzed up program; they need the presence of Jesus.

Deciphering Our Delusion—What Happened to the Church (Part 1 of 4)

I often wonder what Jesus really thinks about the state of the modern church. Disappointed—perhaps. Discouraged—not on your life. Dumbfounded—could be the exact word to describe what He must be thinking. Its present motivation and current condition are, for the most part, light years away from what He intended.

Boiled down to the basics the church was birthed to be an extension of Christ—to be His living, breathing body here on earth. It was formed to function as though Jesus Himself was here in person meeting, ministering, and building relationships with generations yet to know His unmatched love or unmerited grace. Every Christian (the word means “little Christ”) is equipped through the power of the Holy Spirit to flesh Jesus out in real shoe leather.

I think we have forgotten how the real Jesus acted or even what He looked like. In fact, based on much of what passes as “church,” it is obvious that His Bride is afflicted with a crippling amnesia that could become a deadly case of dementia. Her recollection of her Bridegroom seems to be slipping quickly away—soon to become ancient history.

The visible representation of Christ on this planet has now become known more for what it’s against than what it’s for—what He gave His life for. In case you’ve forgotten Jesus died for people— people like Joe and Edna living across the street, Billy down at the service station, Paul sitting in a cell at the county jail, and Cindy who navigates the shadows of the night selling her dignity to provide food during the day for her twin babies. His sacrifice never discriminates, but the 2011 edition of His body cannot say the same thing.

Much of His body has become exclusive rather than inclusive, begrudging instead of generous, hurtful instead of helpful, condemning rather than comforting, cold instead of compassionate, haughty rather than humble, and downright mean instead of merciful. Jesus is dumbfounded that the servant model of ministry He instituted has been conveniently replaced with a serve-me-model of ministry. He must be mystified at how easily those whose spiritual DNA is stitched together with the thread of His divine love could unravel and become so unloving.

Has the Bride of Christ gone stark raving mad? No, she has become delusional, wandering around in the past, wondering why more are not captivated by the illusion of her beauty or awed by the emptiness of her magnanimous actions. In the mind of most, everything is O.K. Therefore, reality must once again rule in the hearts of the redeemed. We, the church must once again take a hard long look at our Leader. If a change is to occur a righteous remnant must once again return to a simple, systematic replication of the biblical Jesus.

The Son of God was refreshing, relational, and relevant in every situation, with every person, and at all times. In other words, wherever Jesus went He attracted large crowds. Life sprang up and flourished abundantly. For His Body to recover His popularity it must recover His passion. To do this the Church must decipher the depths of His heart instead of the delusions of ours.

God Lessons Learned in the Storm (Part 3 of 3)

The degree of devastation in a disaster is usually determined in the days that follow it. Thursday, April 28 was such a day. As the sun began its westward climb this grim truth became apparent. The grizzly reminders of the past Wednesday were painfully etched in Thursday. No other day of weather has ever been so deadly in Alabama.

This day would forever change my life and ministry. Returning from an early morning walk Cathy showed me a check she had found in our driveway. This check belonged to a person with our same last name and the address was Tuscaloosa, almost 70 miles to the south. The same storm that had devastated that city rained its shreds of stolen booty across our property. But…the likelihood of a check belonging to a Hannah in Tuscaloosa landing in the driveway of another Hannah that far away was not coincidence; it was God, and He was about to use a prophetic picture to proclaim the necessity of a profound message.

Sensing God had something to say I followed His leading and began picking up what many might term debris, but for me these fragments were sacred. I was gathering the past and present of people whose future was uncertain and whom I would probably never meet. Nothing was complete, just bits and pieces, slivers and shreds of lives destroyed in a moment by a terrifying wind. I must have climbed down from my tractor over a hundred times as I mowed the five acre field near the road, each time retrieving a precious portion of another’s private possessions. Scraps of receipts, a merchant’s ledger page from 1942, addresses, bills, half a wedding invitation, a corner of a page out of someone’s school annual, magazines, newspapers, and textbooks were mixed with bits of sheetrock, tar paper, painted luan splinters, vinyl siding, and various shades of Styrofoam insulation.

It was a somber task, especially when I knelt in the weeds and picked up a green and white plastic ball that had been kicked about the day before by a little girl in her yard. The thoughts of what might have happened to her gripped my heart and the tears began to flow as I considered my own four-year-old granddaughter. God was systematically demolishing every hesitance lodged deep in my soul that would preclude me from hearing clearly what He wanted to say.

I sensed in my spirit that I was to take these fragments of my culture and put them in a collage and frame them. It was a both a sobering and sacred experience as I painstakingly assembled it much like a CSI technician would re-assemble a crime scene. Its terrifying message suddenly gripped my heart as God’s voice echoed in my spirit.

“I want you to put this prophetic reminder in a place where you can look at it every day for the rest of your life. These bits of personal property represent real people whose lives are devastated. But…it also represents all the people who do not know Me. It is a picture of their lives, their relationships, their hopes, and their dreams. Though they may smile as you meet them, their lives are just as shattered as the ones who have survived this storm. The invisible storms are just as destructive as visible ones. They too, feel isolated and hopeless. I want them to know I love them with an everlasting love.”

Things grew quiet again, and a new revelation dawned on me as I stared at the collage in my hands. “Lord,” I said, “there’s absolutely nothing that represents You in this picture.”

Then God whispered, “You do!”

God Lessons Learned in the Storm (Part 2 of 3)

Unique days are never forgotten. Those moments impact a person by marking them for life. Wednesday, April 27 was one such day in my life. It was a defining moment that will guide me for the rest of my life.

I awakened to the news that a tornado had struck downtown Cullman about 40 miles north of my home. My first thought was of two friends who are church planters and lead Desperation Church near the center of the downtown. I prayed, sent a text, and waited…and waited…and waited…but no reply. So I prayed harder.

The weather was deteriorating, moving quickly from bad to worse. The television meteorologists were tracking a huge storm that was bearing down on Tuscaloosa. They were using descriptions and scale numbers far above the levels they had been taught in school. I have family in Northport and two more friends who are church planters and lead Refuge Church in Tuscaloosa, so I prayed…hard.

I will never forget the next few minutes. One of the television crews had parked on a hillside east of Tuscaloosa and was filming the horizon when a gigantic black tornado over a mile wide at the ground appeared and began moving from left to right across the screen. Homes, businesses, trees, and people’s lives were sucked up in the churning vortex of this monster’s mouth and obliterated in its massive jaws. A numbing helplessness crept over me as the tears ran down my face.  Familiar places were disappearing before my very eyes—the Big Lots, the Chevron Station on the corner of 15th and McFarland, and the Full Moon Barbeque—all gone in a moment—in the blink of an eye. Places I had been just a week earlier. Homes, apartments, and businesses vanished. I prayed, sent a text, and waited…and waited….and waited…but no reply. So I prayed harder.

This particular storm stayed on the ground and headed north toward Birmingham—churning its way through Pleasant Grove, Pratt City, and eventually Fultondale, leaving a path of devastation, desolation, and death. We heard its roar as it passed seven to ten miles south of where we live. I prayed and prayed and prayed, and then I prayed some more.

Prayer is the equivalent of throwing your hands up in surrender without giving up hope.  Let me explain what I mean. There are moments (far many more than we are willing to admit) where we are helpless. In prayer we surrender the selfish independence that makes us think we can take care of our own selves. We can’t! In prayer, we cry out for provision or protection from One who is unlimited in power—omnipotent. We call for the Lord God to come—to help—to protect—to defend—to whatever it is we need in those moments. And…God always comes. He never leaves us, even in the midst of a killer mix of swirling wind, unrelenting hail, twisted metal, and the blackness of lost hope.

Twenty-three tornadoes bathed in countless prayers finally brought this horrendous day to an end. The day is past, but the physical and emotional cleanup will take months and years to complete—if ever. God is answering the prayers. Stories are surfacing of miraculous moments in the midst of those monsters’ grips. His faithfulness is being shown in a myriad of different ways.

And…during that day two welcomed texts—one from Cullman and one from Tuscaloosa appeared without warning on my cell phone. Thank you Lord for hearing my prayers!