We Need Christmas

I’m a sucker for good harmony. Even more so this time of year. I love the Christmas season. When I was leading worship, I was generally planning ahead by a few weeks, so it gave me an excuse to start Christmas music a little early than some would like. I love it. Each year, I dive into YouTube and Apple Music to see what new Christmas music is coming out. I’ve found several so far this year, I’ll probably post a couple more, but I want to start with this song by Maddie & Tae.

I really got hung up on the lyrics to this song. I found the video itself a little distracting actually, but I’ve probably listened to the song, 3 or 4 times since I found it. Songs like this one and Maren Morris’s “My Church” remind me how close the world can sometimes get and still be so absolutely far from the truth.

In a 2020 that has just been… fill in your own word… I’m going to use nuts! 2020 has been nuts! I was asked to come in view of a call at FBC Midland in March and #COVID happened. I ended up moving 3 months later than expected. I was trying to sell a house, buy a house, and kick off my ministry in a new church during COVID. Like I said… nuts.

Many have had a much worse 2020 than I have. Many have been unemployed. Many have been sick. Some have lost family. Almost everyone has lost their sense of “normal.” Probably more than any year I can remember, I am ready for Christmas. I need Christmas. We need Christmas.

However, Christmas for me and for all who believe (John 3:15) is not a just a season of family, friends, gifts, and hopefully cold weather. The Christmas season is a reminder of Jesus’ coming, his birth on earth. And that is what we really need. What the world really needs is Jesus. We do need Christmas because we need Jesus. There is a call to action in this song. The song says:

The Live Church Has Left the Building

We talk about what the church is a lot. We talk about the church being “believers” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). The church is made up of people who follow Christ. The local church is made up of people who follow Christ and come together to cooperate for ministry and growth.

Expressions of the local church have changed a lot since the days of Jesus. During various seasons of church history, house churches were the dominant model where there was no such thing as paid professional staff for the most part. At other points, massive churches where thousands of people gathered together have been popular particularly in history (megachurches are not a new concept).

Different expressions have lasted sometimes a few hundred years before undergoing a significant shift. We have lived in a time where a large shift has taken place. Churches that exist entirely online popped up a few years ago, I know of a church that exists on Twitch (if you don’t know what that is take a minute to look it up.) Other churches, though they maintained a predominantly physical existence, embraced cyberspace as a space in which the church could work.

Now, we are almost all entirely dependent on the internet, radio, and TV, especially for church services. And here lies the subject I want to discuss today. Most of my readers probably agree that the church is not a building but the people. Where we might have some debate is on what exactly we should “do” as the church. Too many people believe that the church service is “doing” church. I should say, too many people live like “doing” church is going to the church service.

The church service has continued fairly easily for us in our church online and on the radio. No, it’s not quite the same, but it can still happen. But that is not the extent of what the church should “do.” We’re at 3 weeks and counting, I know many of you are at 4 or 5 weeks, but my church is at 3. We’re going to hit at least 7 and likely more before we’re together again in the same room.

Next week, FBC Monahans is doing a drive up service, where you can at least see through your car windows the church service while you listen on the radio. But that still is the church service. And no matter the method (in person, in cars, or livestream) the church service is not the extent of what the church should be doing.

Find ways of keeping up with biblical community (Hebrews 3:13). Find ways of ministering to the least of these (Matthew 25:40). Find ways to bless your community (Jeremiah 29). Don’t just sit around and watch a worship service once a week. Find ways to continue the work of your local church.

If you’re tech savvy and you go to a smaller church, your pastor may need help livestreaming and setting up Zoom groups. If you’ve got older or high risk neighbors, they may need help with food and other essentials. Maybe you know of kids whose family is less than reliable, check on them. What can you do? We are still the church and the church is and always has been more than a worship service. We may not be in our building right now, but we are the church.

A Time to Seek

12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.1

I wrote the other day about Jeremiah 29. It is also the passage I taught our students on Wednesday. But two verses have really stuck with me and I want to look at them for just a minute today. Jeremiah 29:11 is easily one of the most famous verses from the Bible. But the two verses after it are necessary to understand verse 11 and today, they provide an amazing challenge for every believer in this time.

Most of us have had our “time” changed by this pandemic. Most people are working with considerably more free-time than normal. Netflix, Apple, Hulu, Amazon, and other streaming platforms are putting out tons of entertainment trying to help Americans and people around the world get through their social isolation. But what if Christians used some of this time on their personal walk with God.

Too many people who claim to be Christians have forgotten that being a Christian is not about going to church (though I maintain that is important) but it is about a personal walk with God. Going to church is ONE part of what it looks like to live as a Christian.

Verse 12 challenges us to “call” upon God. Use this time to spend real, significant time in prayer. Use this time to call out to God about the things that matter most to you and to listen to God’s voice. He promises that if you pray he will hear you.

Verse 13 challenge us to “seek” him. Use this time to spend substantial time in God’s word. Use some of the time we now find hanging around to read scripture. the Bible is the primary way that God speaks to his people. If you want to seek him, you have to seek him in his word. He promises that if you seek him, you will find him.

Use this time to seek God and call on him. Use this time to add depth to your faith. He promises that if you seek and call, you will find him and he will answer.

If you’re interested in challenging yourself, let me know. I would love to be a help for you. If you can get some friends together we can start some zoom groups to help challenge each other. You can email me (jd@fbcmonahans.com) or text me (432.940.7303).

1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Je 29:12–13.I wrote

An Effort in Futility

Sometimes life feels futile. There seems little point in continuing the slog of work, bills, meals, relationships, and more work. Today, things can feel even more futile than normal. For those out of work, getting up in the morning can be a challenge. For those stuck at home, waiting on this pandemic to pass can make daily life seem pointless. Suicide and abuse are both sharply on the rise. The economy has been flushed down the toilet. And netflix only has so much content that is actually watchable.

I don’t turn to the book of Ecclesiastes very often, but God turned my heart towards that book this morning sitting in the office while I was talking to one of our church members. They were talking about never having seen anything like this (the pandemic) before. But the truth is, this is not the first time. It is a first for most of us, but it is not a first.

The Byzantine Empire was slammed by major pandemics in the 6th and 8th centuries. Europe was devastated by several pandemics, most significantly in the 14th century when the Black Death killed million. Following a new age of globalization ushered in by World War 1, the Spanish flu infected an estimated 500 million people and kill an estimate 100 million. Remember, that was at a time where there were only 1.8 billion people on the planed. Greater than 25% of the population of the planet was infected and more than 5% of the population died.

The reality that this has happened before does not lessen the impact on our daily lives. Our lives have changed! Our lives have probably changed permanently to some degree. Don’t think that I don’t appreciate the impact this is having on many billions of people. And that impact is what I really want to talk about. But before we talk about the impact this is having on our daily lives, I really do want you to remember that this is not really new. God is still God. The earth still spins. Humans have endured pandemics before.

Below I’ve included the text (from the ESV) of Ecclesiastes 1:2-11. Read these words, listen to the author’s frustration. See his anxiety and apparent lostness.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, 
       vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 
3 What does man gain by all the toil 
       at which he toils under the sun? 
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, 
       but the earth remains forever. 
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, 
       and hastens to the place where it rises. 
6 The wind blows to the south 
       and goes around to the north; 
     around and around goes the wind, 
       and on its circuits the wind returns. 
7 All streams run to the sea, 
       but the sea is not full; 
     to the place where the streams flow, 
       there they flow again. 
8 All things are full of weariness; 
       a man cannot utter it; 
     the eye is not satisfied with seeing, 
       nor the ear filled with hearing. 
9 What has been is what will be, 
       and what has been done is what will be done, 
       and there is nothing new under the sun. 
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, 
       “See, this is new”? 
     It has been already 
       in the ages before us. 
11 There is no remembrance of former things, 
       nor will there be any remembrance 
     of later things yet to be 
       among those who come after.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ec. 1:2–11.

We’re roughly 3 weeks into this where I live. Most places are 4-5 weeks into it, but we’re a little behind. And we know that we have at least 4 weeks under social isolation advisories. At LEAST! We are all probably looking at 4-8 weeks of this level of social isolation and it will likely be June or July before things are closer to normal than to this crazy state in which we are currently living.

Things may very well appear futile or vain in the eyes of many of us during that time. Even getting out of bed may get difficult for some. We are all going to be tired of this…even more tired of this than we are already. There is a line in this passage that sticks out to me, probably because of I live in west Texas: “the wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north, around and around goes the wind.”

The wind blows and blows… Where I live, the dirt blows and blows. It just goes round and round. Our days may feel like that very quickly if they don’t already. Round and round, but nothing changes. Many are finding joy in family time. Others are finding joy in a slower pace of life. But none of that joy will hold if we don’t keep the right perspective and if we don’t remember from where our joy comes.

Ecclesiastes was written by a king. A man who by all appearances had everything. He had built and conquered, ruled and profited. He should have been happy by all earthly standards. And yet he felt the futility of daily life.

Ecclesiastes 2:24 says: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.” Notice, when the verse says, “this is from the hand of God,” it refers to the enjoyment found in the early part of the verse. The enjoyment (joy) of the daily things of life comes from God as do all good things (James 1:17). If we are going to have “joy” in this time, it is going to come from God.

When Normal Is Impossible

Every conversation seems to eventually turn to our present situation. FaceBook posts, news stories & papers, school, work… it all seems to revolve around the COVID-19 outbreak. People keep talking about the “new normal.” Whether this current crisis will cause a major permanent shift in our society remains to be seen, but it is certainly shaping our present reality. Social gatherings have all but ceased and even family gatherings are slowed and stopped in many places. So what do we do when normal is no longer possible?

Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most popular verses in the Bible. I went to a university (Dallas Baptist) that used it as its theme verse. It was our motto almost. It’s a great verse for today, but in order to understand the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, you need to understand the context of the verse and full promise God gives.

Jeremiah 29:1-23 is actually a letter. The chapter is similar to some of the New Testament epistles in that respect (i.e. Philippians, Titus, etc…). Jeremiah was tasked by God with communicating a message to his people. God was concerned with the welfare of his people and he used Jeremiah to communicate his will to the people in a very difficult time.

First, if you look at Jeremiah 29:1-2, you will quickly see that the people, including their leaders (both spiritual and government), have been exiled from Jerusalem and greater Judah. What exactly does this mean? When Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel) was conquered by the Babylonians, many of the people and almost all of the leaders were forcefully relocated. This was a practice common among conquerors, to move people around to make it harder for them to rebel once conquered. It helped integrate conquered peoples into the conquering society.

Second, if you look at Jeremiah 29:4-7, you will see God command the people to build a life for themselves in exile. There were false prophets claiming to the people that there was no need to settle down in exile, that it would be short lived. But God had told Jeremiah otherwise. He knew that for a generation, most of the people would have to live in exile and thus he gave very different instructions to the people. He tells them in these verses to build homes, to have families, to work… essentially, to build lives for themselves in exile.

He takes it one step further however, he tells the people to work for the good of the city in which they are living. He tells them to work for the good of their conquerors. He desires that they not only build a life, but that they become good neighbors. These people had lost…well everything mostly. They lost their homes, their cities, probably many of them family members. The wealth of their nation was taken, I’m sure most of their personal values were confiscated. Normal wasn’t really an option. They could not worship in the temple the way they had before. They couldn’t make a living in the way they had before. They lost their normal.

Finally, look at verses 11-13. Notice that yes, God promises to work for their good (our good), but he does so because he wants them and others to KNOW him. “You will seek me and you will find me” (Jer. 29:13). Seriously, how shallow is verse 11 when we don’t remember verse 13. God wants his people to prosper not for the sake of building wealth but so that they and others might know him.

Normal is probably impossible for you and your family right now. We are doing our best to work and do school and stay connected and keep food in the fridge, but normal is really difficult right now. So what do we do?

We build! Build your family. You definitely have more time together, don’t miss the opportunity to build your family. Build your community. I know its hard when social distancing to imagine ways of building your community, but it is possible. Check on neighbors, deliver food, call your friends, set up zoom groups… be creative. It’s not going to look normal, but that’s okay. Build!

We also have to remember what God’s promise in verse 11 is really saying. He wants us to know Him. He wants our communities to know him. Seek him and you will find him. Help your friends and neighbors seek him in this time as well. Let’s make great the name of God in a time when normal is not really possible.

Battling for the Next Gen – Faith

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 11:1.

“Faith is choosing to live as though the Bible were true regardless of circumstances, emotions, or cultural trends.”1 I use that faith definition with our students almost every week. It is a great way to help students understand what it means to live in faith. It helps them to take what we learn from the Bible and to ask the question: “What does this mean to my life?”

So, the big question for parents is, “How do you model and teach ‘choosing to live as though the Bible is true?’” You have to figure out what it looks like to be a faithful family, a family who lives out belief in faith in every circumstance. First, let’s consider this idea: faith is something you do. 

Faith is not the same thing as belief. You can believe something that makes no difference in your life. You can believe something that requires you to do nothing. I believe that the border between Canada and the Unites States is a thing, but it makes no difference to my daily life, I don’t have to do anything because of that border. UNTIL I go to cross it. Then suddenly I have to do something, I have to check-in with the Canadian authorities. Now, my belief in that line makes a difference to my life. 

You must have belief to have faith but having belief does not necessarily mean that you have faith. Belief is the 1st step, faith is every step thereafter. Taking your kids to church does not teach them faith. Taking them twice a week still won’t teach them faith. Someone has to model faith for them and talk to them about what it looks like to “live as if the Bible were true.”

You might believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that it is important to your daily life. I certainly believe this. However, it doesn’t become faith until I go home and open my Bible at home. It doesn’t become faith until I read scripture to find out what it says to me about who God is and what he wants from me.

If your kids are going to get this, you have to ask questions of them from scripture. If they learn about giving to the need in Matthew 6, ask the question, “Who does God want us/you to help?” If you’re in a church like FBC Monahans that has a clothes closet you can get some clothing together and take it to the clothes closet with you kids and explain why you’re doing it. You can also help them learn to give money. 

At that point, what you are teaching is faith. You cannot forget the belief part, don’t teach them a set of behaviors, start with who Jesus is, then what the Word of God teaches, then show them how to live that out in faith.

1 Ron & Della Proctor, Mentoring 101 (Orlando, FL: CCCI, 2009), p. 8. 

Battling for the Next Gen – Drama

Drama is every youth pastor and teacher’s least favorite word. Except for the actual drama teachers and even they don’t want that kind of drama. Every kid has drama, guys and girls, ALL OF THEM! Some much less than others, but everyone will get dragged in eventually. I would venture to say that 80% of the drama I deal with today is social media related, so refer back to that post for advice on dealing with social media. Snapchat and TikTok are the worst drama offenders, followed by FaceBook. 

Please, please, don’t get involved every time your kid has drama. Seriously. There are times to step in and it is a very fine line to walk, but your kid needs to learn to deal with social problems on their own. Including being picked on and bullied. I’m not saying that is acceptable, but they do need to learn to deal with it. Be there to talk, be there to encourage, make absolutely sure they know they are loved, but sometimes you need to let them deal with it on their own. Again, there is a time to step in and you just have to do the best you can to walk that line.

Don’t expect teachers, youth pastors, principals, or other parents to step in every time either. There was drama in school when I was in school. Fortunately, we couldn’t put it on Snapchat, but there was drama. Couples broke up, friends had fights… in fact, two of my friends got into a fight in my front yard. We worked it out. Sometimes teachers and principals, youth pastors and leaders, need to stay away and let them figure it out. It doesn’t always require a meeting.

Don’t take your kid’s drama to your social media. It NEVER HELPS!!! EVER! It teaches kids the exact opposite of what we need them to learn. It may make you feel better in the short-term, but it doesn’t solve problems, start healthy conversations, or teach kids how to deal with interpersonal conflict.

Looping back to an earlier post, keeping your kids phone out of their room can actually help with drama. Seriously. A lot of the drama I deal with in the youth ministry circulates over night. If kids can’t engage with it during the night, it will die down at least some by morning. They will also sleep better if they aren’t afraid of or worrying about some drama. And if they are well rested they will be less emotionally volatile. They are more capable of making good decisions if they are well rested.

The best things you can do when dealing with your kid’s drama is have healthy conversations with them. Be honest and confront them about their role in the problem, don’t let them blame others. Be encouraging and uplifting to your kid. But all of these things are between you and your kid, not the rest of the world.

Be radical if it is appropriate, especially for younger kids, create an 11 hour space, from 9pm-8am where they know they are not going to have to deal with drama. Kids phones can go off at 9pm and stay off until the next day, it is possible I promise. This isn’t teaching them to avoid problems, it is teaching them to develop healthy habbits. Even adults can shut down their social media and other stuff at 9pm. You can put your phone on “Do Not Desturb,” emergency calls and calls from your favorites will still get through. Teaching them good habbits now, can really help them deal with phones and technology in healthy ways as adults.

Battling for the Next Gen – Freedom

Freedom is important for kids. This next observation is going to seem to go against some of my previous posts, but stick with me. Give your kids freedom appropriate for their maturity and age. Many of the people reading this and I grew up pre-cell phone or at least pre-popularization of the cell phone. I remember taking a calling card to Space Camp. When you were away, you checked in like once or twice while you were gone, maybe. When you were sleeping at a friends house, you usually didn’t “check-in” at all. Parents only really expected to be contact if something was wrong.

You need to find ways of demonstrating the same trust to you kids today. Occasionally, particularly when your kid is with a trusted adult or group, give your kid the freedom to NOT check-in for a period of time and trust that if there is an emergency the adults will make sure you know. I deal with both sides of this coin, parents who expect to hear from their kids every hour almost and those who don’t know or care where their kids are or what they’re doing. If your reading this you probably don’t have the latter problem, you obviously care about your kids.

Make sure that the kids you love so much are learning to do things on their own and handle things without you problem solving for them. Kids need to experience friendship, camp, sleepovers, and other life events knowing that they have amazing parents who will be there to pick them up when its over and to handle any real emergency but who also teach them and let them do things themselves.

Freedom is important. They need to try things. They need to fail. They need to have teachers that they do not get along with. They need to walk with friends through conflict. And they need to do all of that with guidance. They do not need you to do it for them their entire lives. Because they will have to try new things as adults. They will fail. They will have a boss that they don’t get along with (probably). They will have friends who gossip and lie or hurt their feelings. These things will go on happening for the rest of their lives and they need to learn to deal with them.

Battling for the Next Gen – Social Media

 Train up a child in the way he should go;
      even when he is old he will not depart from it.

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Pr 22:6.

This is part two of my thoughts on Battling for the Next Gen. I would like to talk about a few things that I have learned about kids and social media over the last few years. I would like to give parents a few things to consider.

Social Media is awesome! I’m on several platforms myself and I enjoy using them. I am not opposed to kids having social media when their maturity and age is properly considered. Parents do need to be aware of a few things though. It is very common for kids to have two profiles on a social media platform. This is totally a guess, but I would say 50-60% of kids on social media have two accounts on at least one platform.

They will have one their parents know about and one they do not. The intent behind this is not always to hide what they are posting, sometimes it is to hide what their friends are posting and saying. Some kids reserve their second profile for other people’s phones. If their parents are tech savvy, they will only login to their “not for parents” profile on their friends’ phones.

Kids often let others sign on to their profiles using each others phones. It’s the easiest way a grounded kid can get around it. Girls tend to be a little worse about this than guys in my experience, but it is certainly not exclusive to the ladies. Some kids who do not even have a phone, have a Snapchat that they check daily on other people’s phones. It happens folks.

You cannot completely stop this, but there are some steps that you can take to make it clear that this is not okay and to slow it down. For younger kids (up to 15-17 depending on their responsibility and maturity) if they don’t know their own passwords, it makes it difficult to login on other people’s phones. It also makes it harder for them to let others use their phone. If they get logged out and don’t know their own password they wont be able to get back in even on their own phone.

This only helps though, if you make the password something your kids cannot guess and you don’t write down the password in a notebook with the word “passwords” written across the cover and placed next to the computer. Kids are not completely stupid. You also will need to make sure they cannot download an app without your authorization.

The most powerful control a parent can have is a real filter. Something like circle by Disney, where it controls the content before it gets on the phone at all. Even this is not perfect though, so you still have to pay attention.

Password advice: Here is a simple method you can use to pick a very difficult password for your kids and hackers to guess. Pick a year. For example, I’ll pick 1776. And pick a character you like from a book or movie: I’ll pick Harry Potter. For this example I’m only going to use the last name: Potter. Here is a password you can make and remember using those two things: 17P0tt3r76*. This is not my password FYI. All I did was split the year, change the vowels to numbers (the number “0” instead of the letter “o” and a “3” instead of an “e”), and finally add a symbol. And all I have to remember is 1776 and Potter.

Then if you need to change it, just change the word or the number. For example: 19P0tt3r45*. You get a new, secure password and all you have to remember is 1945 and Potter. Using secure passwords on FB and email will keep you from getting hacked nearly as often, fyi, and it keeps your kids from figuring out your password.

Battling for the Next Gen – Cell Phones

 Train up a child in the way he should go;
      even when he is old he will not depart from it.

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Pr 22:6.

I am about to cross the 10 year mark in student ministry. I will soon be heading to my 3rd church (though the move has been delayed by COVID-19). Over that time and in those churches, I have learned a lot. I have seen some really amazing parenting even in the midst of some really crazy struggles. My purpose in this post is to both encourage parents and to give some observations that may help as they go forward with their families. I started writing and realized this was going to be a really long post, so I’m actually going to break it into 4 or 5 posts. Today, I want to post on cellphones. Check back in to see the rest of the posts.

Cellphones, particularly smartphones are one of the greatest challenges parents face. There is not a one size fits all answer to this issue either, each family needs to take this issue with each kid and make the wisest decision they can. That said there are a few things I’ve learned that I hope parents can learn from as well.

There is no upside to kids having cellphones in their room, particularly at night. At best, kids having a phone in their room is neutral (meaning not good or bad), although I think most scientists studying adolescent sleep patterns would say that it is always negative. Most of the time, kids having a cellphone in their room at night is a negative. I’ve had parents tell me that their kid needs it to sleep for music or whatever, but for the last few thousand years kids slept without them, they can today as well.

I talk to kids every week who spent at least 1 night in the past 7 up until 2 or 3am on their phone. Some of these kids even have safeguards on their phones put on by their parents. There is no perfect safeguard. Cellphone manufacturers really seem to be trying to help parents out, but the reality is, no system is perfect. Start typing “ways around” into Google, it will auto suggest “screen time.” There are hundreds of videos on YouTube and other platforms that can teach your kids how to bypass the locks you put in place. But even if your kid isn’t using them, there still is not an upside to having a cellphone in their room.

The risks are just too high. Most early exposure to explicit content is accidental. Even doing research for homework. I know of one case where a kid was researching a character in Homer’s Odyssey and one of the search results on Google was explicit content. Innocent searches can easily find explicit content.

Social media like Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok all battle explicit content. They will take it down when it’s reported, but not before thousands of people, often kids, see it. Keeping cellphones in public spaces will at least allow you as a parent to know if they stumble on to something and to have a healthy conversation about it. This can be the difference between exploring explicit content and exposure to explicit content. It makes a difference.

Do what is right for your kids and your family, but please consider carefully before cellphones go into bedrooms or private spaces.