Before You Go on a Mission Trip, Consider This …

If you were to go on a mission trip … why?

Over the years I have done my share of mission trips. I led many of these. Yet in recent years I have become more discriminate on the type of short-term mission project that is actually fruitful and productive.

  • For several years, I had friends who took two-week trips to India. They were understandably exited to be personally leading over a hundred people to Christ every day. Over two weeks, their small team would lead five thousand to Christ.  I asked, “So in a Hindu culture where they will readily accept Jesus into their worldview of 330 million gods, what is being done to follow-up and disciple these five thousand people?” Crickets.
  • In recent days, I met someone preparing to go on a year-long mission trip.  I checked out the organization she would be working with, and while the group is evangelical, the emphasis is on the adventure of it all and not on the work itself.

The allure of travel and adventure has always carried some appeal in planning a mission trip. I’ll confess that in my student ministry days, that was a part of my reason for choosing some of our locales.

But if the allure of adventure is what it takes to get me to do missions and ministry, I have to ask myself the hard question of why I want to go at all.

Are you eager to do the same mission work in your own neighborhood that you’re eager to do overseas?

I am NOT nixing the prospect of a mission trip, but don’t travel a great distance to do something in an exotic location that you are not already doing at home.

Let’s come at this from another angle.  The best way to do missions is to begin at home. The world has come to your doorstep. Don’t go to the ones “out there” until you have reached out to the ones who have come to you.

One man was radically changed by his encounter with Jesus Christ. The man was so deep in sin and darkness that he was possessed.  People were afraid of him and he was isolated from family and friends, forced to live in the city cemetery.

But Jesus changed all that. It was so radical that the people were still afraid, but only because the man was now different from the man he was before. Understandably, the man wanted to go with Jesus when He was leaving the area. But Jesus told him, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

Want to do missions? Start here: ““Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

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This Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-1.41.38-PM (1)post supports the study “Right Here, Right Now” in Bible Studies for Life.




What Does Jesus Look Like?

Based on forensic anthropology, scientists have a reasonable idea of what Jesus may have looked like.

Well, apparently we now know what Jesus looks like—and it’s not Brad Pitt.

A fairly new field of science has emerged called forensic anthropology. Although we have no physical remains or DNA of Jesus to sample—and we won’t since Jesus is alive and currently sitting at the right hand of the Father—scientists use other evidence to give us an idea of what Jesus looked like.

British scientists teamed up with Israeli archaeologists. They started with first-century skulls found in the area around Jerusalem. Then they created a computer simulation of the full skull that even allowed for the addition of soft tissue and skin. (If you’ve ever had a MRI, this is a similar imaging process.)

Wait. How can they derive all that from a skull? They pulled from other nerdy areas of science: genetics, osteology (the study of bones), dentistry, and what we know about the nutrition and climate of the first century.

What about His eyes, skin, and hair color? The scientists studied drawings of people found in archaeological digs.  And based on other skeletal remains, the average man was 5’1″ tall and about 110 pounds. As a carpenter, Jesus would’ve been muscular. [Source]

Could all this be true of the Son of God? Yes, because Jesus was a typical Jew. He didn’t stand out in the crowd—and He certainly didn’t have a halo the size of a ’57 Buick hubcap that shouted, “Hey! I’m the Son of God!”

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2).

How ordinary was Jesus’ appearance? On the night He was arrested, Judas had to walk up and kiss Him so that the soldiers wouldn’t grab the wrong man. Jesus blended in with the others.

So there you have it—but I could’ve told you what Jesus looks like without computers, skulls, and modeling clay.

If you want to know what Jesus looks like, look in the mirror.

If you are a follower of Christ, you are the face of Jesus to those around you.

  • We are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Although we have marred that image through our sin, when we come to Christ, He begins His work in our lives “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). We are being renewed in the image of God (Col. 3:10).
  • We are the body of Christ (1 Cor,. 12:27).
  • We are the ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).  The president appoints an ambassador to represent the United States and its interests in another country. If the ambassador says something bone-headed, the other country is not mad at him; they are made at the United States. To that country, the ambassador is the face of the United States. In the same way, what we say and do reflects on Christ, the One we represent.

When people look at you, what does Jesus look like? Are people repelled by the Jesus they see in you—or are they attracted to Him? Personally, I want to be the spitting image of His love and grace.

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This Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-1.41.38-PM (1)post supports the study “A Passion to Share the Gospel” in Bible Studies for Life.



A Simple Conversation Could Make a Difference

The following post was written by my good friend (and my manager), Ken Braddy. Ken has a well-read blog for Bible study leaders: He recently posted this story on his own site, and he graciously allowed me to share it with you.

You probably don’t know the name Vincenzo “Vinnie” Ricardo—but few other people did either. That explains why, when he died, no one knew it for over a year.

Vininie was a resident of Hampton Bays, New York. He was 70 years old and blind. He died while watching television at his home. He remained there for one year before anyone discovered his body. He might have remained there even longer had pipes at his home not burst.

City workers discovered his mummified body sitting on the couch with the TV still on. He hadn’t paid his electrical bill in a year, but for some inexplicable reason, the electricity was never turned off. Because of cold temperatures and dry conditions in the home, Vinnie’s body was well-preserved, leaving his facial features and hair intact. Medical examiners said they had never seen anyone dead this long.

So why didn’t anyone know he was dead? Vinnie was estranged from his family. Because he was blind, one neighbor dropped in to read him his mail and pay his bills, but she quit coming when he kept demanding more of her time. Other neighbors never noticed that he had quit walking the streets with his cane. One neighbor said, “I didn’t really know him that well, but apparently nobody did.”

This is a morbid but sad story that reinforces the need we all have for relationships.

  • How well do we know our neighbors?
  • Even in church, how well do we know the people who sit near us week in and week out?
  • Remember that guy who used to come to your Bible study group? You can’t remember his name, but over time you realize he stopped coming. Hmm. Do you wonder whatever happened to him?

People may visit and attend your church for awhile because they like the music or the preacher, but they stay because of relationships. I’ve accepted the truth that adults don’t come to my Bible study group because I am a phenomenal Bible study leader. They come because of the relationships they’ve formed.

Let me ask you to do something—just one thing. This week—today—build a relationship with someone you don’t know. Maybe you only know a first name because she sometimes comes to church or your Bible study group. Go to lunch after church. Don’t know what to say? Try this:

“Tell me your story.”

And let them talk.

 That one neighbor’s comment about Vinnie could be said about a lot of people:  “I didn’t really know him that well, but apparently nobody did.” We are surrounded by Vinnie Ricardos. These are people who may need a hand from time to time, and they certainly need a listening ear. Your Vinnie Ricardo could be a blind neighbor on your street or she could be that quiet individual who slips in and out of church without much contact.

A simple conversation can make all the difference in that person’s life. And it will make a difference in yours.

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All the Grace You Need—for Today

I only spent one week sitting at the feet of Dr. Oscar Thompson, but it was a memorable week. Dr. Thompson was a seminary professor, but he was speaking for a week in Houston, where I was in my last year of college. Every night I went to hear him speak, and I even skipped classes on a few days to hear him in the morning.

Oscar Thompson was in his last year of life. He was dying from cancer. But he was not in town to talk about cancer; his focus was on preaching about Christ. Yet on one occasion, he talked about the grace God had given him for what he was undergoing—and his words have stayed with me for almost 40 years.

Oscar Thompson can tell you better than I can what he said. His most well-known book, Concentric Circles of Concern, was published after his death. The book is a classic and is still widely read. The book includes this epilogue which captures what I heard him say so many years ago.

“In 1976 … I experienced excruciating pain in my right hip. I was taken to the hospital, sedated, and later flown home and hospitalized with a preliminary diagnosis of a slipped disc.

“Weeks passed while I lingered in traction, alas, to no avail. In desperation, a spinal fusion was performed. Another two months passed with no relief. Two months later exploratory surgery was performed on the hip.

“After surgery I was advised that an inoperable malignant tumor had grown out of the bone. A bone scan later revealed that the malignancy had metastasized and spread to my foot, knee, hip, rib, shoulder, and cranium.

“After the doctor left my room that night, a deep, sweet peace from him who is our peace surged within me. It was simply inexplicable and ineffable. I reached for my New Testament on the nightstand and said, ‘Father, if I am not going to live, I want to count. I need a word from you.’ There surfaced in my mind a passage of Scripture that I had memorized years before. ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God’ (2 Cor. 1:3-4).

“‘Oh, Father, I understand. You are going to send me through the valley so that I can comfort others with your comfort when they walk there.’

“Then came that inner nudge that said, ‘Read on.’ Verses 8 through 11 revealed this promise to my heart: ‘We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, … you also joining in helping us through your prayers, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed upon us through the prayers of many.’ 

“I put down the Testament, rejoiced in the Lord, and later slipped into a peaceful, refreshing sleep. Was I rejoicing because I felt I would live? No! I was rejoicing because it really did not matter. My life was under his control. I rejoiced because of a wonderful awareness of his love. Verse after verse that I had memorized began to surface. First John 4:18 exploded in my consciousness: ‘There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.’

“I knew that nothing could come into my life without God’s permission. If it came with his permission, then I knew that it surely came with his grace to deal with it. …

“The joy of living is permitting God to do through us whatever he has in mind for each day. Most people’s lives are crucified between two thieves, yesterday and tomorrow. God can only give forgiving grace for yesterday. He stores no provision of grace for tomorrow. Tragically, most of us live in yesterday and tomorrow, in that devastating land of ‘What if?’ God has adequate grace to deal with yesterday if it is put in his hands. But his grace is poured out one day at a time. The person who has not learned this will never live victoriously. He will always be vulnerable to circumstances.

“In other words, I learned that God does not give dying grace on non­-dying days.”

There it is. God gives us the grace we need for today.


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When Optimism is Not Enough

I don’t recommend building your life on children’s books.

As a kid, I loved the book The Little Engine That Could. Hey, it’s a book about trains, so what’s not to like? I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of the little switch engine called upon to haul a long train over a high mountain. Switch engines aren’t designed for this work, but this little engine psyched himself up to do the impossible by chanting “I think I can. I think I can.” And he does … because he thought he could.

Aww,  the virtue of optimism. The power of positive thinking. There’s a place for that, I suppose, if you’re preparing for an athletic event, working up the nerve to ask a girl out, or walking into a job interview.

But if you’re the little engine that has tried to go up the mountain multiple times and failed repeatedly, any dose of optimistic self-confidence quickly dissipates like smoke.

Moses was an 80-year-old failed has-been when God spoke to him. Earlier in his life, Moses reeked of bravado and self-confidence. After all, he was raised like a son of the pharaoh with all the advantages and privileges that came with that. But when Moses tried to do the right thing and prevent the abuse of another Jew, he went about it wrong. He failed—and he failed miserably.

Moses fled with his tail between his legs and spent the next forty years hanging out in the back country with a bunch of sheep. He no longer reeked of self-confidence; he smelled more like wet wool.

So when God issued His call for Moses to go back to Egypt and lead His people out, Moses offered plenty of excuses. Can you imagine the scenario had God simply challenged Moses with the same philosophy between The Little Engine That Could?

Moses: Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?

God: Moses, you need to believe in yourself. Just repeat after me: “I think I can. I think I can.”

Moses: What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, “The Lord did not appear to you”?

God: Try it again, Moses: “I think I can. I think I can.”

Moses: I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.

God: You’ll speak well if you do it with confidence in yourself. “I think I can. I think I can.”

Moses didn’t need to psych himself up. He didn’t need to look in the mirror and give himself a pep talk. He needed what only God could give him.

And if you’re going to succeed in life—if you’re going to overcome your past and move forward—you’re going to need what only God can give you.

Every generation has its positive-thinking cheerleaders: the Napoleon Hills, Norman Vinent Peales, Zig Ziglars, Tony Robbins, and Joel Osteens.  But you don’t need pop psychology; you need a dose of the same truth God spoke to Moses thousands of years ago.

  1. When you live in obedience to Him, God is with you  (Ex. 3:11-12).
  2. God created you just as you are (4:10-12).
  3. God equips you with all you need (vv. 13-17).

You have failed. And you do have shortcomings. But Christ is greater than your past, and He overcomes every objection you can think of. The only barrier to moving forward with your life has nothing to do with pumping yourself up mentally or emotionally; it is whether or not you will surrender and be obedient to what Christ wants to do in you and through you. Since He’s with you, He will empower you.

I think I’ll trust. I’ll think I trust. 

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Restoration Work is Not for Amateurs

My wife said I could have another beagle if it didn’t shed. So I made one.

Woody stands guard on our back porch where I often read. I noticed a few weeks ago that, after two years in the sun, he needed a new paint job. He needed restoration.

It happens to all pieces of fine art—including wooden beagles. It even happens to the masters. Colors fade. Smoke and pollutants affect the quality. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa once had bright colors and a detailed background that has faded and taken on a more brownish hue.  Another example is da Vinci’s Last Supper.

The bottom image is a copy painted by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, a contemporary of da Vinci’s. The copy did not have the same exposure to the elements as the original, and it shows us how much da Vinci’s work has faded over time. (Not to mention a later decision to replace Jesus’ feet with a door!)

Woody the Beagle looks OK again. But not all restorations go as planned. Take Cecilia Giménez. In 2012, she took it upon herself to restore  the fresco Ecce Homo, a painting of Jesus crowned with thorns, in her local church in Borja, Spain. She was an amateur painting, and her work was … well, you be the judge.

Cecelia meant well, but as we say in the South, “Bless her heart.” Her well-meaning but botched attempt has drawn worldwide attention. The one good thing is that people come from all over the world to gawk at this fresco, and the little town is now thriving from tourism.

Art restoration should not be in the hands of amateurs.

We’re amateurs when it comes to restoring our lives.

We don’t simply fade over time. With the brush of our sin, we blur the vivid colors of God’s image in our lives. Even when we try to make things right, the brush of our good efforts and self-righteousness is still tainted with flecks of sin, and we just can’t restore ourselves. Try as we may, we fail—and we look pathetic.

Restoration of our lives only comes at the hands of the One who created us. Jesus removes the layers of sin with which we’ve coated our lives, washes us clean with the blood of His sacrifice, forgives, and restores us to the life and image He created us for.

We fail, but Jesus restores.

“We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).

Let Christ do His work of restoration. Be the masterpiece He created you to be—and people will marvel at the vibrant colors of love, grace, and forgiveness you display in Christ.

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Should Family Really Come Before Church?

Ever do one of those “make-a-list-of-priorities” exercises? In church settings, they always start out the same:

  1. God
  2. Family
  3. Church

The variation kicks in with #4 and beyond: some will list school, work, Alabama football, Fido the family dog, tacos, or who-knows-what.

Can we go back to the first three on our list?

The lordship of Christ demands that God be listed as our #1 priority. If anyone is tempted to list something else, then he is not living under the lordship of Christ. He has let the idolatry of something else take precedence.

But what should be #2 on the list? I don’t think family should come before church. (Did he really just say that??) I’m not proposing church take precedence over family; I’m arguing they should be side-by-side.

1. The greatest thing we can do for our families is to bring them to faith in Christ—and walk beside them in growth and discipleship.

“These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:6-7).

2. As Christians, we are not alone in our walk with Christ. In fact, we are commanded not to go it alone. We are to help and support each other.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).

3. You have a physical family, and in Christ, you have a spiritual family. The two go hand-in-hand.

I am not endorsing centering family life around church-related activities. Activities do not always equal discipleship. But our families need to be faithfully and consistently plugged in with other Christians in a way that fosters worship, spiritual growth, and positive connections with other Christians.

  1. What are we communicating to our kids when we let Sunday sports events and sports leagues take precedence over worship and Bible study?
  2. Vacations and time-away is valid, but what are we communicating to our kids when we make a Sunday morning spur-of-the-moment decision to stay home because we simply don’t feel like going?

Church and connections to the body of Christ are not optional for the family.

Please don’t read any legalism into my words, but I am concerned about an attitude that makes church a priority only when it fits our schedule.

Through the prophet Haggai, God rebuked the Jews because they had made the rebuilding of His temple a low priority. Yeah, but that means God was the low priority,  not the “church.” Nice try, but it’s more than that.

Failing to rebuild the temple reflected more than just their attitude toward God; it reflected their attitude toward the community of faith. The temple was the place of offerings, sacrifices, and worship—and these are things the community was to do together. 

Our attitude toward the community of faith—the body of Christ—directly mirrors our attitude toward God. So if we truly want our families to occupy the number #2 spot on our list of priorities, then we need to put the community of faith right next to it. Because if we are not working to integrate our families deeply into the community of believers—those who can support us in our walk and discipleship—we are not providing a critical component to our families’ development.

Value your family? Then value their connection to Christ and His body.

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This Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-1.41.38-PM (1)post supports the study “First Things First” in Bible Studies for Life.

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