War Room – The Review

war-roomI remember it like it happened last week. I was looking for a good movie to watch and decided to give this new movie about a football team a chance. My “cringe meter” was on high alert as this was a Christian movie and I was so used to being disappointed and even embarrassed by the quality of the production. To my great surprise, the movie, Facing the Giants, was excellent and just as good as many of the Hollywood produced movies that I had seen in the past. In a great irony, our ministry was the publisher for the pastor whose church made that movie and I didn’t even know it at the time. Not long after that we published a book called Prepare for Rain that told the story of Sherwood Baptist Church and why they had chosen to produce movies in the first place. In the years that followed, the Kendrick Brothers (both of whom were Associate Pastors at the church) went on to produce the highly acclaimed films, Fireproof and Courageous.

Today I had the joy of taking my parents to watch their latest project entitled War Room and once again I was not Prepare-for-Raindisappointed. In fact, it may be my favorite movie so far. For those who have not seen it (spoiler alert – I will be discussing some of the plot points), this movie is about the power of prayer and its ability to transform relationships. The lead actress (Priscilla Shirer – Tony Evan’s daughter) playing the role of Elizabeth Jordan did a great job portraying a successful real estate agent whose marriage is in trouble. In the movie she meets a woman named Clara who is a real prayer warrior and discovers that Clara’s favorite room in her house is her prayer closet. Without giving in to obvious formulaic choices, the movie demonstrates that prayer is a part of real spiritual warfare. God is at work throughout, but simply praying does not make everything perfect again. Bad choices have consequences and prayer is not a magic formula for winning in every circumstance.

For me the most powerful element in the movie was the emphasis on identifying our true enemy and understanding prayer as a key part of our spiritual battle plan. In a pivotal scene, Clara challenges Elizabeth not to see her husband as the enemy despite what he may have done to her and their marriage. In an extraordinary scene, Elizabeth speaks directly to Satan as she walks through her house reclaiming each room in the name of Jesus and making it clear that she is going on the offensive spiritually. She creates her own prayer closet and begins to take everything to the Lord in prayer. The movie also does a magnificent job of conveying the reality of grace and forgiveness as key components in God’s battle plan. I really enjoyed watching the portrayal of real repentance and accountability in the life of her husband and what true brokenness can look like.

At a time when we as evangelicals are so prone to fight each other and to see “ungodly” people around us as our enemies, this movie is a needed corrective. For far too long it has been out of vogue to talk about Satan for who he is – our very real, but also very defeated foe. Instead, we have bought into so many of his lies and deceptions and chosen to fight the wrong battles. Even as I write these words, I am convicted of my own complicity in creating the wrong battle plans for my family and ministry. Interestingly, many other people around the world understand the stakes all too clearly despite the darkness they embrace. Spirit houses, idols and temples for gods and goddesses are just window dressing for satanic worship and a vague attempt to ward off the evil effects of the spirit world that is a daily reality.

I highly recommend this movie and hope that millions of people will see it around the world. May it be the start of a new move of God in our generation?

 

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Chiang Mai – God’s Gateway to Asia

IMG_2056I knew something was different the moment that I opened the curtains in my hotel room. On my previous journey to Thailand, I had stayed in a guest house in Bangkok and did not see much out my window but other buildings close by in that crowded city. This time I was in Northern Thailand in the city of Chiang Mai and the difference could not have been more startling. Within easy view of my window was a breathtaking scene of beautiful mountains and a sprawling but modern city.

While both cities had tropical temperatures and lots of humidity, the contrasts continued for my entire trip. The biggest difference was the oppressive spiritual warfare and extreme sexual perversion on display everywhere I went in Bangkok. In Chiang Mai, there plenty of was evidence of the highly sexualized nature of Thai culture in many massage parlors and dance clubs with obligatory girls on stools out front, but it was far less “in your face” than in Bangkok. In addition, the transgender population was not nearly as obvious and certainly not as celebrated.

Chiang Mai is an old city (founded in 1296) that has been reborn. It is the largest and most culturally significant city in IMG_2062Northern Thailand and is now the gateway for gospel growth in all of Asia. Its name actually means “new city” and that is certainly true for those involved in Christian ministry in this part of the world. Following the inclusion of Hong Kong into mainland China in 1999, many Christian organizations moved their operations to Chiang Mia which is quite strategically located for travel to India, China and all other parts of the Far East. It is not hard to understand why this city has been such a magnet for growth and development in the great commission community. Over and over again, I experienced an amazing level of friendliness and superb service from the local people. They welcome foreigners from all over the world and have made their city a place worth visiting.

IMG_2148Nothing defines Chiang Mai quite like the Sunday Night Market that overtakes many of the streets in the old city every weekend. Vendors set up stall along both sides of the street and local musicians perform right in the middle of the road. As we walked down the street, it seemed like the mass of humanity and market stalls went on forever. Despite the crush of people, I never felt unsafe and enjoyed the incredible variety of items available for sale. The Thai are wonderfully creative and extremely hard working. The other night markets located all over the city have to be built up and torn down every single day. People travel from all parts of the world to experience this open air celebration of arts, crafts and food.

A network of supportive institutions have developed in Chiang Mai to enable the growth of the Christian ministries that call this city home. Its medical care and hospitals are so well respected that missionaries will travel from all parts of Asia for maternity care and the birth of their children. Two excellent Christian counselling ministries provide much needed help for people struggling with any number of issues from marriage problems to interpersonal conflict on small teams. Grace International School has over 500 children enrolled from a variety of missions’ organizations and provides an excellent education. Guest houses and high quality hotels abound for rest and relaxation for people coming in from closed access countries and some of the hardest places to live in the region.

As a result of this inviting and supportive atmosphere, several thousand expat missionaries and NGO workers have IMG_2143moved to Chiang Mai. In addition, it is the “go to” place for major organizational conferences. These conferences bring in thousands more kingdom workers who fill the hotels and meetings rooms. SAM (Southeast Asia Marketing) provides logistical and organizational support for these mega-events and hosts an average of two per month. Several large English language international churches provide a home base for missionaries in transition and Christian workers that are not working in the Thai language churches that abound.

CLC has a store located in a strategic part of this important city IMG_2170and is in its own process of rebirth. This summer, Don and Betsy Veldboom went to Chiang Mai for eight weeks to help supply books for two huge book tables for other missions’ organizations that were holding conferences. They are planning on moving to the city full time in January of 2016 to help re-invigorate CLC’s English language book department that has been languishing. During the last two weeks I was able to work with them and experience the demand for Christian books and particularly materials in English. It was a delight to meet our local team – Yongyut and Moham – who have done an excellent job of meeting the Thai language book needs and have an extremely positive reputation in the local community.

As we were getting ready to leave the Sunday Night Market and look for our Songthaew (the most prevalent means of IMG_2161local transportation for small groups), we came across something that I will never forget. In the midst of this throng of people, a group of Thai believers had set up on the sidewalk and were singing worship songs at the top of their voices. As we passed by, we noticed that it was primarily comprised of men who were singing their hearts out. We stopped to chat and discovered that they held this outreach event every Sunday night and were able to connect with hundreds of people each week. What a blessing to see the result of gospel advancement in this highly Buddhist nation as Thai nationals had taken up the baton and were doing great ministry of their own. Not surprisingly, they were delighted to learn that we had gospel tracts and booklets available for distribution at their local CLC store. God is on the move in Chiang Mai and it is our privilege to provide resources to enable this expansion to grow even further in the years to come.

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The Most Important Book Table – Ever

IMG_2067I don’t normally travel over 8000 miles and 28 hours in the air to help with a book table. But this was no ordinary book table. I found myself in Chiang Mai, Thailand this past week helping to staff a mega book table for an extraordinary organization. This organization is so unusual that I cannot even share the name, but suffice it to say that the people I met this week are some of God’s special people. The verses in Hebrews 11 came to mind several times where it says, “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment…of whom the world was not worthy…”

There are only a few times in my life when I have been in the presence of people that I consider to be true “saints” and this week I met hundreds of them. They would not want to be identified in this way, but there was no other way for me to view it. These people willingly left lives of comfort and security to move to the hardest places on earth to love and minister to the least reached. That may sound cliché or even hard to believe, but it was the truth for nearly everyone that I met who was working “on the field”. Before I came, I thought I had a good grasp on geography. This week, however, I learned the names and places of countries like Dagestan and Tajikistan and others that I could hardly pronounce.

Because of the security concerns surrounding this kind of ministry, most of these people will never be known for the work they have done. Most have creative access platforms that allow them to be in these closed countries and are doing some really innovative jobs. Despite this, they are a part of God’s most important work in our generation to draw people from all tongues, tribes and peoples to himself. I was astounded to discover the variety of methods that these humble servants are utilizing to accomplish this task. Day after day as I met new people, I hardly found two that were doing the same thing. Interestingly, many are business people and professionals who are completely sold out to God and taking incredible risks to see Jesus “high and lifted up” in every nation.

As we served daily, I was so humbled to be able to help people make book selections that would imIMG_2131pact their ministry, their personal spiritual growth and their family life for years to come. Person after person thanked us for bringing such an extensive and highly curated selection of books. One man mentioned that a book he purchased two years ago at the book table that CLC sponsored for the same organization in Germany “revolutionized” his ministry. I could only hope that something I would recommend might have a similar impact on someone else. Parents were choosing books for family devotions with their kids who were growing up as TCKs (third culture kids) and these might be the only books they would have access to for the next two years. What a responsibility. Couples whose marriages are under tremendous pressure in these challenging places had access to a large range of encouraging titles including the best-selling 5 Love Languages at a really great price.

I may never see these people again. It is possible that I will not be able to be at the future book tables that CLC will host in this part of the world and even more likely that some of these people will not be at future events. One of the most startling things I experienced was the matter of fact way that these folks celebrated the reality of martyrdom in their midst. This was not just a theoretical possibility, but a practical reality that all knew might be a part of their future. Already, in the few short decades that they been in existence, this group honors colleagues who have made the ultimate sacrifice for God’s kingdom expansion. As I reflected on Hebrews 11, I realized that it was I who was not worthy to be in this place, but I was greatly privileged to see my ministry make a small difference in the lives of people that are doing such gratifying work. It may have been my most important book table – ever.

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Time for a Wake Up Call

stuart and jillI don’t know how they do it. Stuart and Jill Briscoe have been ministering to God’s people all over the world for many years and they are still going strong with more energy than I have on many days. This week, I had the privilege of speaking with them via a Skype call despite Jill’s arm being in a sling. She had just fallen the previous weekend and injured her elbow and was about to have surgery the next day, but still wanted to chat. She was so fun and vivacious on the call, you would hardly have known that she was in any pain at all. We were planning the release of their next book, Improving with Age, and as we talked I could see why God had these precious senior saints write this important new title. It is a message desperately needed by many older Christians who feel useless and in some cases abandoned by the church.

This got me thinking about how God chooses to use us and why. Just today, I heard a sermon from Psalm 84 reminding me that “better is one day on God’s courts than a thousand elsewhere.” My grandmother used to say that we will only find true fulfillment and joy in the center of God’s will no matter where that might be in the world. She also used to caution that the most dangerous place we could be was anywhere outside of his will and desire for our lives. Jonah certainly found that out the hard way as he headed in the opposite direction from God’s will and ended up in the belly of a fish. Interestingly, even when he did follow God’s will he did so grudgingly and was not happy when God spared the Ninevites.

There are times when I get discouraged in the work that I do. Making evangelical Christian literature to people all over the world has been getting harder. Bookstores that used to be thriving hubs of activity are closing left and right in the western world. Major Christian publishers have been purchased by secular publishing houses and the number of high quality Christian books seems to be on the decline. At the very same time, young people are consuming content in entirely different ways. Some experts even wonder if reading will decline sharply as people communicate more and more in 144 character sound bites. There are days when it seems like the encroaching tide of sin and evil in our world make my work almost pointless – and yet…

God is still at work. People are hungry for answers to life’s most pressing problems and the truth of the gospel is the wake uponly answer that will make any lasting difference. As I wake up from my lethargy and fog of self-pity, I am reminded that I am part of a much bigger plan. Sure the world is a dark place and evil is often on the ascendancy, but this is just a skirmish in a battle that has already been won.

Interestingly books still play a major part in God’s plans too. Every day, He is using His written word to draw people to himself. Bible study resources are helping people all over the globe to understand what they are reading “for the first time” just like the Ethiopian eunuch. Daily devotionals are helping to inspire and encourage personal time in God’s very presence. Deeper life books like the ones that we publish are challenging believers not to settle for milk but to desire meat as they grow in their walk with God.

As I toil in the vineyard, I need to be reminded of this reality on a regular basis. This week, God used Stuart and Jill to wake me up once again. While they have spoken in hundreds of places around the world over the years, their books have touched thousands of lives – many of whom they never met. My job is to keep my hand to the plow regardless of how hard or challenging the task may seem. The great news is that I can leave the results up to Him too. May I not be like Jonah who took every opportunity to complain, but instead be like Joseph who so wisely said “You mean it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

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The Road to Character – Book Review

road to characterDavid Brooks has always been one of my favorite commentators on public life in America. After reading his new book, The Road to Character, he is now one of my favorite authors as well. His self-effacing style on TV sets him apart from the many loud voices that often sit on the same panels competing to see who can shout the loudest. Though he is a conservative voice, I have always appreciated his even- handed approach to hot topics and his willingness to criticize and complement politicians from both sides of the aisle. I first heard about this book on a podcast from the Gospel Coalition and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

Having read the book now, I think it may be my favorite book of the summer and one of the most important books published this year. While David Brooks is not an evangelical, he is clearly influenced by a number of key people like Tim Keller, James Davison Hunter and others. What is so striking about the book is his willingness to call a “spade a spade” and to discuss sin and repentance as words that need to be reclaimed in our culture. As a public intellectual in America, his willingness to “go there” had real potential for ridicule and scorn from his colleagues. His primary point in the book is that we as a nation have embraced moral romanticism over moral realism and as such are much more focused on what he calls resume virtues – achieving wealth, fame and status than our “eulogy virtues” – kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.

A surprising aspect of the book for me was his placing the timing of this shift in our culture to the late 1940’s after World War II rather than in the 1960’s when most evangelicals assumed it was taking place. He makes the case that “it was the Greatest Generation that abandoned moral realism”. He says, “By the fall of 1945, people around the world had endured sixteen years of deprivation – first during the depression, then during the war. They were ready to let loose, to relax, and to enjoy”. Brooks points out that there were several key books that reinforced this shift like Peace of Mind by Rabbi Joshua Leibman that urged people to “engrave a new morality on their hearts” and the work of Carl Rogers who said that the words that best describe human nature are “positive, forward moving, constructive, realistic and trustworthy.” It is amazing how far the pendulum had swung in a world that had just experienced some of the greatest atrocities that man can inflict on man.

Some of the best chapters in the book deal with the life of Augustine and later in the book when Brooks applies his thinking to the way that modern parenting has reinforced the cultural emphasis on “resume” virtues. That said, the final chapter in the book, entitled, The Big Me, is worth the price of the book. It defines his concept of what he calls The Humility Code and is his roadmap for The Road to Character. Here are his 15 principles that provide what he calls “a coherent image of what to live for and how to live”:

1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.
2. We are flawed creatures that have an innate tendency towards selfishness and overconfidence.
3. Even though we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed and “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
4. Humility is our greatest virtue.
5. Pride is the central vice.
6. The struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life.
7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation.
8. The things that lead us astray are short term – lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things that we call character endure over the long term – courage, honesty, humility.
9. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.
10. We are all ultimately saved by grace.
11. Defeating weakness often means quieting the soul.
12. Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty.
13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.
14. The best leader tries to lead along the grains of human nature rather than go against it.
15. The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature.

While Brooks does acknowledge God as one possibility for helping with the self-mastery concept mentioned in point number nine above, he places far too much confidence in traditions and institutions as the solution for all our moral problems. While most of his fifteen principles are Biblically rooted, he never mentions Jesus Christ in the book nor did I expect him to. As a Christian, it is deeply encouraging to know that I do not have to do all this hard work on my own. In reality, I can’t do any of it by myself. It is no wonder that most people have a morally nuanced view of life when they are rewarded for “the ends justify the means” behavior and tolerance is the highest cultural virtue in our world today. The only hope for our world remains the redemptive work that Jesus did on the cross over 2000 years ago and that will never change.

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Serving His Servants

bethel book tableIt was a warm Friday evening in Philadelphia and people were streaming into the building. There was an excitement in the air. Most were dressed in their “Sunday Best” and had come with a spirit of expectation. Men and women of God were gathering together to learn about preaching and teaching. Bethel Deliverance Church was holding its annual Pastor’s and Preacher’s Workshop Weekend and we were privileged to provide the resource table for the attendees. Bishop Eric Lambert was the host and his team had done a great job in promoting the event as several hundred people from all over Delaware Valley were registered and arriving.

Scott and I set up our table in a prominent spot in the narthex of the church and looked forward to serving God’s servants. Bishop Keith Reid from Sharon Baptist Church was the keynote speaker on Friday night and gave a powerful talk from II Timothy on the primary role of the pastor as a preacher. He exhorted his brothers and sisters to be ready to preach the word “in season and out” and spent a significant portion of his time describing the importance and value of including reproving, rebuking and exhorting during a typical sermon. It was encouraging to hear his emphasis on being both balanced and thorough. Much of what he had to share was very practical like his advice not to preach out of anger at a few people in the church. Far too many pastors are prepared to rebuke the entire congregation for the sins of a small group of people that are occupying his time and energy.

On Saturday, Bishop Lambert taught a powerful session on the importance of preparation for preaching. He stressed the value of creating structure for the sermon, spending significant time in God’s word and keeping the message clear and simple. He had invited Dr. R. Todd Mangum, a professor from Biblical Theological Seminary to speak about Christ in the Old Testament and how to preach Christ in every sermon no matter where the passage was in the Bible. Following these sessions, they opened the floor for questions and answers and spent significant time addressing the varied concerns of the attendees.

One participant wanted to know how much education a preacher or teacher needed to be successful in ministry. This question was directed to Dr. Mangum and seemed to be a “softball” designed to give him an opportunity to promote seminary education. While he certainly gave an obligatory plug for BTS (Biblical Theological Seminary), he also recognized that seminary training was not practical, possible or necessary for every person in the room. Instead, he stressed the importance of personal study, getting whatever theological training that was practically available, such as attending classes at Bible Institutes and Bible Colleges and then determining if seminary training made sense.

As we began to help people during the breaks to find books that might be helpful in their ministry, it became clear that many people were taking Dr. Mangum’s advice seriously. While some were interested in books on practical aspects of pastoral ministry, many more were looking for resources to study God’s word and to be able to teach it more effectively. Bishop Lambert had touched on a key issue when he was promoting the idea of creating structure for a sermon and many people were hungry for resources that would help with that process.

Several years ago, our ministry had produced a resource that was ideally suited to this kind of need called the CLC Bible clc bible companionCompanion. The book is a six-in-one reference guide to the Bible with particularly helpful concise outlines for every book of the Bible and great teaching on basic Bible doctrines. As I was describing the book to one person, it was not uncommon for several people to crowd around to hear what I was saying and discover the value of this book for themselves. While this book was designed with a third world pastor in mind who might have no access to Christian resources other than this book, it is also ideally suited to a bi-vocational pastor or teacher that is looking for one book to “jump start” their preaching. This book proved to be so popular that we had to get more stock from our nearby warehouse halfway through the day on Saturday to satisfy the demand.

At one point during the workshop, I was approached by a woman who I will call Mary. She confessed that she had not always been walking with the Lord, but had recently recommitted her life to Christ and just wanted to learn how to study God’s word once again before she ever considered teaching others. I was delighted to point out that we had included a free copy of our book, Blurry: Bringing Clarity to the Bible, in every attendee packet and that it was written for people just like herself. It was such a joy to see the hunger for learning and spiritual growth that was evident in the people with who we interacted. While it was clear that not every attendee would graduate from seminary one day, it was also clear why our ministry is so vital to those people in ministry who want to learn on their own and are prepared to “rightly divide the word of truth”.

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The Significance of Service

readysIt was loud as we walked in and it looked like nothing had changed since 1962 when the doors first opened. We were in Ocean City, NJ this past week and decided to have breakfast at Ready’s, a place recommended to us by our friends who lived nearby. As we sat down, I noticed that the patrons did not look like tourists and that most of them were smiling. If we were looking for an authentic “local joint” to have a great meal, it looked like we had found it.

Our waitress, who I will call Martha, came by quickly to see what we wanted to order and seemed friendlier than normal. We were eating breakfast with our youngest son and were sitting in a booth with an extra seat available on his side of the table. Just like that, Martha sat down and began to take our order. She did not even seem to notice that she was sitting in our booth or act like this was in any way unusual. Her smile and warm demeanor were so disarming that we hardly noticed what had happened ourselves until she got up to go back to the kitchen.

We began chatting about how beautiful the day was when our drinks and food began arriving. Martha had coffee for Deb and all kinds of other things in her hands. As she put them on the table she looked at Deb and called her “darling”. I have been in other restaurants where certain terms of endearment like this were used for the patrons, but that had been in the south, not Ocean City, NJ. As the food arrived, we were already in a good mood and the breakfast did not disappoint. Martha had been careful to point out that everything was made to order and nothing was prepackaged. I had one of the best omelets I have ever tasted and could have eaten more.

As we were eating our breakfast, I overheard a group of men in the booth behind us who were clearly Christians. They probably met at this same place every Friday morning to talk about the Bible, catch up on each other’s lives and to grow in their faith. On this particular day, I heard them mention that “she had stage 4 cancer” and was now in remission. At first I thought they were talking about someone they knew, but soon it became apparent that they were probably talking about Martha as the conversation died down every time she stopped at their table.

It was clear that something was different about Martha. She had an infectious personality and made an impact on everyone she talked to. I am sure that some of the regulars came just to chat with her and see how she was doing. She was not letting her disease get the best of her. In fact she was demonstrating the reality that serving others can transform our outlook on life. Her personal transformation was the highlight of my day and a reminder that while life may be shorter than we would like, we have a choice in how we will approach each day.

Jesus demonstrated this principle so many times in his ministry that it often baffled his disciples. Why did he spend so much time healing the sick, casting out demons and paying attention to children? When he should have been sleeping, he was often praying and constantly demonstrated that other people mattered most to Him. At the last supper, he set the ultimate example by getting on his knees and washing the feet of those that would betray and deny him in just a few short hours. On the very cross itself, as he was dying, he took time to pardon a man of his sins and to welcome him to join him in paradise that very day.

In the face of so many obstacles to the Christian faith in our society today, I am often tempted to withdraw and serve myself.no matter what If the people around me don’t want to know about Jesus, why should I care? As that self-centered thought crosses my mind, I am quickly reminded that I was once one of those people and he died for me anyway. As a wonderful CLC author, Marty Berglund says in his new book, No Matter What, we have been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking God why, we should be asking Him what. What can I do today to serve others and glorify Him? Only as we seek to serve will we ever hope to understand why? Even then, we may only get the answer in heaven and that’s OK.

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