What’s next

As many of you know, my wife of nearly 30 years passed away on November 5, 2015 after a long battle with cancer. Much of my ministry activity “paused” to support her and my family. Thanks so much for your understanding and many words of encouragement…I am grateful.

I am praying about what's next…if God leads, pray with me. I have no idea the next step for this site or my other sites but am ready and willing to move forward by His grace.

 

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Faith Under Fire At School

School…a place of learning (in more ways than one) and not always a comfortable environment for the believer. There are times at school when your faith is challenged, sometimes mocked and even threatened to some degree. How do you handle that? How do you respond as a small group? Paul, writing from a prison to a group of believers at Philippi, gave some very sound advice on this very issue.

Phil. 1:27-30 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents — which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

First, as much as is within your control, don't go it alone! Make sure you are in a small group of believers (doesn't matter if you guys go to the same church or not, get connected). Second, choose to behave and respond in a manner that is worthy of the good news of Jesus Christ…in other words, always respond and behave in love, not anger or retaliation. Third, stand together as a group “for the faith of the gospel”. At times you may be tempted to go with the popular crowd or simply ignore or avoid association with your group, especially if one or more of them are the target of ridicule or social isolation…stand firm by God's grace with your group and other believers, not necessarily with an “in your face” attitude but rather a simple attitude of love and acceptance. Finally, and this is the tough one, do not be afraid of those coming against you. Those coming against you may be bigger, faster, stronger and actually out number you BUT your God is bigger, faster, stronger surrounding you, your group and your school at every moment. We all can feel scared at times; you can feel fear yet demonstrate faith and resolve that will strike a cord of doubt in those who mean to bother you.

You may be reading this and thinking, “what are you talking about?” “Life is great at my school?” Well, that is fantastic, however, it's not the case for everyone, in fact, there maybe some in your school right now that are suffering and under constant “attack”…maybe not, I don't know. We should understand that God allows suffering…it is just a fact. At some point you will be faced with a choice to follow God and support your small group or other believers the consequences of which may be challenging or difficult. Do not fear…choose to place your reputation, friendships, and future hopes and dreams in the hands of almighty God as you respond in grace, love and with a unity of spirit with your group.

Phil. 2:12-13 ¶ So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

God truly is at work in and through you; in the midst of your fear, let His good work in you work out to others. Your loving response in a challenging environment could be the catalyst that sparks a radical change for your school, your group or your own personal journey with Christ. Don't miss it!

Note: if you ever feel threatened or bullied, don't hesitate to tell your school administration, your parents or small group leader. You are entitled to a safe environment for learning. No matter what, respond with grace, love and forgiveness.

 

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He will finish

Have you ever felt off-track spiritually and perhaps too far gone for God to use you? I know exactly where you are. Maybe you had a dream or goal and after a few months or years, it is no where in sight. A distant memory…a fairy tale invented so long ago that you thought was from God but, after so long, you just don't know anymore. Let me encourage you.

First, God is more interested in you, not what you can do for Him. His plan for you is good…He wants you to experience His life, power and love in everything you do. Is it possible you are right where He wants you? Could it be the destination is a secondary consideration to the main purpose of simply loving others and knowing Christ in His fullness? He is working in you according to His desire and plan…learn to go with it.

Phil. 1:6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

You may have made some bad decisions along the way, but don't you think God is big enough to work through all that, or do you believe your decisions can block your sovereign God? Of course there are human consequences to every decision, but isn't God big enough to work through all those for your good? And don't you think He knew every decision you could possibly make in every scenario possible, even allowing you to fail and wander around while still working His plan for your good? I am not saying thumb your nose at God and He will work it out…remember, your decisions have consequences and I for one prefer to limit those as much as possible. Understand that God IS FOR YOU…on your side, working for your best interest no matter what the circumstances.

God is working in you and through you for His glory…He will accomplish His work, just not always according to how you first envisioned it. So go with it…

Phil. 1:9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, Phil. 1:10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; Phil. 1:11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

God is looking to express His love through you…His desire is that your love will grow in truth and discernment so you can make good decisions with sincere motives that, in the end, do not cause you or others to stumble.

“blameless” – 677. ἀπρόσκοπος aproskopos; from 1 (as a neg. pref.) and 4350; not causing to stumble, not stumbling: —blameless(2), no offense(1).

So, don't fret about where you are, walk in His love and grace and let Him direct you path. Ask Him about your next steps, seek counsel from good friends, leaders and more and then move forward knowing He will finish His work in you. He is working in and through you right now as you are trying to figure stuff out, and that is very cool.

 

 

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What happens when you blow it…big?

IMG_1780.JPGOK. You’re doing just fine. You got this Christian thing down. Life is good. No major issues, a few bumps here and there but again, nothing major. Then it happens. You never really saw all this coming. Maybe it started small but now all “hell” is breaking loose in your life so to speak. You can’t believe where you are right now. How did you get so low so fast? What do you do now? What if my friends and family find out? Maybe some already know? What do I do?

Maybe you’ve been there…maybe you are there right now? It is not a good place. You know you are a Christian, maybe even someone that others look up to as a role model! How could I do this? Maybe you even doubt your own faith.

I do not want to downplay what happened nor imply there are no consequences. We live in a fallen world and yes, every action has consequences in this life. Having said that, as a believer in Jesus, you need to know something. It’s a big something. Very big. Huge in fact. Some of you may get defensive when I say it. Some may think, “oh, he is just soft on sin”. Those who are not Jesus followers may say, “what’s the big deal”? But again, I’m talking to those who made a decision to trust Jesus for their eternal life.

When you blow it. When you fail. When you can’t believe you did the thing you did. Take a deep breath, then another and maybe one more. Now, pray. But I feel so bad…so dirty…messed up…ashamed…guilty. I know…it’s the perfect time. And here’s what I want you to pray…”Thank-you Father”.

1Th. 5:18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Wait a second…you don’t know how bad I messed up? Well, I’m happy to talk about it any time! I want you, however, to pray and give thanks. But shouldn’t I be on the floor confessing my sin and crying out to God for His forgiveness? You certainly could do that if you really believe the cross was not sufficient to cover what you did or have been doing. Maybe Jesus death on the cross missed you? Perhaps God did not factor in your particular issue when “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son….” I guess if it makes YOU feel better, beg God for His forgiveness. He may actually say back, “what are you talking about?”

When Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world, that included your stuff as well. Yep, that stuff you’re dealing with right now. And although God really can never forget anything, He chooses not to remember your sin any more.

Heb. 10:17 “AND THEIR SINS AND THEIR LAWLESS DEEDS I WILL REMEMBER NO MORE.”

You are already forgiven.

Col. 2:13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,

I know, I know…some of you who know the Bible are saying, wait a second! The Bible tells us to confess our sin for forgiveness? Well, absolutely correct! OK, now I am confused. Don’t be! The question is, who is the “us”. In the New Testament you will find one passage, and one passage only from what I see, that tells you to confess for forgiveness; the question is, who is that verse referring to?

The passage in question is 1 John 1:9 (almost as popular as John 3:16 because believers in Jesus miss the point in my opinion).

1John 1:9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

There it is…I need to confess my sin (forget this giving thanks stuff at this point). Well, I’m not so sure about that. My question to you would be, “when were you cleansed from ALL unrighteousness”? That’s right, when you believed and accepted Christ. The Bible uses all kinds of words to guide people to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Faith, believe, call, repent, confess (and others I’m sure) all point us to the cross and a relationship with God through Christ. Let’s look at the context here.

In 1 John 1:2 the author wants to “testify and proclaim to you the eternal life” so you can have “fellowship” with all the others who are in Christ (1 John 1:3). And yes, the author is writing to a mixed audience of believers and unbelievers alike and using inclusive personal pronouns like “we”. He is urging those who have not yet made up their minds to trust Christ. This verse is NOT directed to the believer.

From this leader perspective, you are either forgiven or not forgiven; in Christ or not in Christ; in darkness or in the light, there’s not really a middle ground on this subject. If you think about it, all your bad “stuff” was in the future from a cross perspective 2000 years ago…God took care of it all. When He said “It is finished”, He meant it!

You might be thinking, “you are on dangerous ground here Vernon”. You are giving believers a free pass to do wrong. Well, yes it could be considered dangerous I suppose. Grace can sometimes feel that way. But really, nothing is further from the truth. Paul had to deal with that same argument in Romans 6:1-2 where he said “May it never be”. The problem is we don’t understand and believe the incredible work God did in YOU when you accepted Jesus (but more on that at another time).

So, back to the prayer. Yes, tell God “Thanks”. For what, you might ask? For the fact that you are already forgiven as a believer because of the cross. The fact that you are already a brand new creation in Him (even though you don’t always act or talk that way). The fact that He loves you with no strings attached. The fact that He took all your guilt and shame and you can walk free, as the righteous and holy new creation He made you to be in Christ. Yes, thank him. You can certainly acknowledge your failure just don’t wallow in your sorrow begging Him to do what He has already done for you at the cross. You are forgiven.

But wait, that’s too easy? I don’t think so…you might want to ask Jesus about that (didn’t look that easy from my perspective). Jesus took the punishment and judgement for all our sin…past, present and future. If that was easy I would hate to see difficult.

So, what next? What do I do? Well, nothing really. There is nothing you can add to to the finished work of the cross. Just get up, ask God for wisdom and grace to face any possible consequences that may result from your behavior (knowing that He loves you and is with you in the midst of those consequences), and walk free, as the holy and righteous person God made you to be.

I know these times of failure and defeat are very painful and I do not want to make light of it, but at the same time, I do not want to over emphasize it. When we focus so much on the failure perhaps we are depending too much on ourselves in the first place. I don’t know, maybe something to ponder.

Listen, you hear this all the time but it is really true…God does love you. Yes, I’m talking to you. He thinks you’re pretty cool. He took care of all that bad stuff on the cross and He really doesn’t need your help to deal with it. It’s already a done deal…forgiven, paid for and gone. I think believing and accepting that fact is one of the most challenging issue facing believers today. Our culture tells us to work hard and earn your keep…good advice, just not when it comes to the Christian experience. The question is not what must you do, but rather, will you receive what already has been done? Receive it right now and rest in His love and grace.

 

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Sorry for the gap!

Wow, what a crazy summer thus far! I’ve got some more thoughts on student questions coming your way in the next few days…hope they will be helpful! Also, can’t wait to be at summer camp (“The Walk”) with my small group, students going to Mexico with me on our July mission trip, and 1,000 plus more students…of course, having my daughter there is the best (and no, she will most likely NOT hang out with dad and I will do my best NOT to cramp her style)! More Leader Perspectives on the way. –Vernon

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College Tips by Daniel

ImageAfter high school, I went to Auburn University.  Though my track record at Auburn was not perfect, the majority of my experience was honoring to God and a ton of fun at the same time.  When I am giving advice to a graduating senior today, I only have a few suggestions for him or her as they depart for college.

Here’s the top 3:

 

#1 Two weeks for friends (The MOST IMPORTANT) 

That’s all you need.  What you do and who you spend time with for the first two weeks of college will set your life direction in motion, and after this happens it will be much harder to change your path for the better OR for the worse.  The people you spend time with have the most influence on the direction of your life.  For the first two weeks, your number ONE priority (yes more than school work) is to find friends that love Jesus and are serving him.   Campus ministries are easy to find – especially the first week, cause they will all be advertising their ministry.  You will find friends there that are seeking to please God.  Just go.  If you don’t like the campus ministry on Monday night, go to the one on Tuesday, etc till you find one that fits you.

 

#2 Serve somewhere

When I was at Auburn, I found a local church and volunteered as a high school small group leader.  As a college freshman, you can get a group of high school freshmen and go 4 years and graduate together. Show them how to follow Jesus in the next stage of their life.   If being a group leader is not your thing, volunteer somewhere else in your church. If you’re college is in a big city, there are homeless ministries and other places to volunteer.  Don’t spend a ton of time asking God, where do you want me to serve.  Just serve somewhere and God will direct you.

 

#3  Invest in other friendships (once you have #1 & #2 all set) 

Friendship is truly the sweetest influence.  My freshman year, I joined a fraternity.  It was NOT a Christian fraternity.  There were a lot of guys there that followed after Jesus, but there were also a ton of guys that would not be seen near a church.   I became the pledge trainer, then fraternity chaplain.  I made a very intentional effort to attend the band parties, brother retreats, and yes even keg parties.  I did NOT drink – even a social “one beer” at these settings.  Drinking in these settings sets you apart from a follower of Jesus and places you in a category of people who just do what they want.  By being there and not drinking, my Christian fraternity friends and I were able to gain a ton of respect among our non-Christian friends in the fraternity.  We partied hard though – dancing, yelling, and hanging out till 3:00am playing cards.   We loved them and saw some life change in some of them over time as they realized that we loved them for who they are.  Remember that God uses us to show HIS love to them.  Don’t mess that up!

 

That’s it for my advice. If you want advice on how to do well in school…you’ll figure it out.  If you did good in high school, do the same thing in college.  If you did bad in high school, study more in college. –Daniel Harper

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Gay?

Student question: If I have a tendency or desire toward the same sex, does that make me gay?

 

Leader Perspective: This is a big question and I can only give you one small perspective in this blog. Let me first ask, what do you mean by “make me gay”?

We try so hard to explain behavior, impulses, desires and the like.  There seems to be two major arguments raging around what determines “gay”…the genetic or hereditary argument “I was born that way” and the environmental argument whereby factors in our environment shape me that way. There is a third argument, often mixed in with the environmental argument, that says I choose to be gay (although some admittedly do, I think that response is way to simplistic and often a “pat” answer given by those who don’t want to have the discussion).

There was a brain study in the late 90s that a certain part of the hypothalamus was smaller in gay men then in heterosexual men “proving” a biological explanation for homosexuality; it was never determined, however, if that occurred at birth or over time. Other researches suggest that sexual orientation is at a very deep, automatic level that steers your sexual energy one way or the other. Some scientists in 2012 linked homosexuality to epi-marks — extra layers of information that control how certain genes are expressed. Many have used the nature argument that same sex behavior has been observed in black swans, penguins, sheep, and other animals and thus is not all that uncommon.  An evolutionist might come to a conclusion, however, that a pure genetic explanation should be ruled out since a homosexual person does not naturally reproduce and over time the population would die out. Perhaps it is a combination of many factors that produce those feelings, impulses or desires. My issue is not the feelings or tendency but rather defining yourself by those things. Is that REALLY who you are?

I have no desire to go down the “origin” debate trail, there are plenty of very smart people looking at that and I am not one of those people! I will simply accept the fact that you are dealing with feelings, impulses, tendencies, desires or whatever you want to call them towards the same sex. So the question is, does that make me a gay person?

Well, I’m still unsure by the real meaning of the question, “does that make me a gay person?” Let me clarify what I think your question may include.  Am I forever going to have these feelings, impulses, tendencies and drives? Do these define who I am? Do they determine how I must behave? Do they suggest an unchangeable “orientation” or way of life? By the way, you could ask these same clarifying questions regarding just about any kind of feeling, drive, tendency or impulse!

Labels, labels, labels…we love to label! Why do we label? Sometimes labels can help us categorize things, and that’s not necessarily bad, but when they pigeon-hole or box you in to a predefined mold, I question the label.  Although labels can help us understand, it seems like some are labeling various urges and desires to either justify behavior and/or find others “who feel the same way” so they feel ok about having those same desires. None the less, for good or bad, right or wrong, selfish or helpful motives, we label.

There are so many other tendencies, desires and urges that people may experience or perhaps are predisposed to in addition to sexual desires. There are those who, some might argue, have a predisposition to anger or aggression; others may have a “happy” predisposition. Some may have a confident predisposition while others have feelings of fear and doubt that seem to have been with them from birth. Let’s just call all of these, including the sexual ones, what they are, feelings, urges, desires, or tendencies no matter how, when or where they originated. I would submit, however, especially for a person who looks to Jesus as their life, they do not define you!

“But wait”, you may say, “sexual orientation is different”! I am a sexual being so understanding, embracing and accepting those sexual feelings or tendencies is simply being true to myself. Well…ok. Let me ask this question, and don’t get defensive on me, I’m just asking a question! What about those who have sexual desires and tendencies toward children, or animals, or dead people or even themselves? Should they understand, embrace and accept those feelings as a true picture of who they are? Of course not (if you disagree, I will commend you for being consistent)! You are SO much more than a sexual being, you are a human being with the incredible capacity to enjoy and experience sex and that is awesome! For those who believe in God and take Jesus at His word, you are a person created in God’s image yet live in a world that is broken and pretty messed up (just look at the wars, hate on all sides and so much other stuff). From this leader’s perspective, God designed sex and gave us a user’s manual that defines the parameters for sex…one man with one woman in the context of marriage (anything outside of that, whether heterosexual, homosexual or any other “sexual” is outside of God’s design). If you disagree with that statement, I understand.

Let’s be clear…you are not weird, unspiritual, unnatural, or anything other than normal for having all kinds of varying sexual and other desires, especially as a student! Don’t beat yourself up but don’t make the mistake of defining yourself by those feelings or desires either. Desires do not define you. Experiencing an act willingly or unwillingly (hopefully that will never happen to you) does not define you. Enjoying an act does not define you. As a believer in Jesus Christ, your identity is already a settled issue. Your behavior, heritage, culture, experience, thoughts, feelings, tendencies, desires, and more do not define who you are (although they most certainly have an impact)…you are a brand new creation in Christ, joined and in union with Him in love that nothing and no one can separate.

There is a great verse in the Bible that, unfortunately, some people misread and/or read but stop short…

 

1Cor. 6:9-10 ¶ Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

 

The verse is not saying that those who behave a certain way are going to hell, it says the “unrighteous” will not inherit the kingdom of God. The unrighteous are all those who are not “in Christ”, those who have rejected the free gift of His righteousness by faith. In fact, the words used in the above verse define the “identity” of a person (e.g. adulterer, idolater) in terms of bad behavior (and by the way, the Corinthian believers had their share of behavioral issues but Paul proceeds to tell them something very interesting in the next verse).

Now, let’s finish the thought with verse 11.

 

1Cor. 6:11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

 

In the midst of all the issues in Corinth (with even the believers in Christ), notice the past tense…”such were some of you“. It is normal for people to define themselves by their behavior, but not for the believer in Christ. You were a lot of things, but not any more. In Christ you are now brand new, sanctified (means holy) and justified (not guilty) and not defined by your behavior!

So, what do I do with all those feelings, urges, tendencies and desires? What if they do not go away (for clarification, assuming here that “desires” means wrongful desires as understood by a believer in Christ)?

 

  • Recognize desires for what they are, desires, and they may hang around for a long time, pop up when you least expect it and quite possibly never go away.
  • Understand that desires can be fueled by your own wrong thinking and believing; even places and situations can stir up those desires. Jesus said in John 8:32 “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Believing lies about yourself, life, others or God will put you in bondage; believing the truth will set you free to experience His victory.
  • Depending on rules to regulate your desires is a dead end and actually a trap. “Law” empowers “sin”. 1Cor. 15:56-57 says “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
  • Victory is a gift through Christ…it is already yours to experience. Why not rest in His victory (strategy 1) instead of trying to control your desires (strategy 2)? The first strategy focuses on Christ in you Who has already overcome for you and the second puts the burden on you trying to overcome in your own strength (it’s like His victory is not enough…definitely go with the first one)
  • Realize that having a desire does not define you nor is it required that you express all desires (now that would be interesting if we all felt it necessary to express all of our desires…wow!)

Look, if you call yourself gay as a believer or unbeliever, I am not out to change you…it’s not my job; I will honestly and sincerely accept you as a person. I’ve provided this post as a brief insight or perspective on the question at hand, certainly not the only one or even the best one. Take it, digest it, enjoy it or discard it but understand that no matter what you do with it, you are respected, loved and welcome here.

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