Friday, March 13, 2015

When Tragedy Hits

Recently, our city and community suffered a great tragedy when Erika Owen passed away as she was trying to rescue her dog.

Right away I felt this in a couple of different ways. First, she was from City Life Church.  I love this church, the leadership of the church and many who attend there. So instantly my heart was grieving and thinking of everyone I knew at City Life.

But then another connection came to me.  As I heard her age (28), and started to learn about her life, I instantly thought about my brother Phil who lost his life at age 29 in Indonesia in 2008.

I didn’t know Erika personally but I quickly heard stories and characteristics about her and I could tell she was truly a remarkable person. She was the children’s director at City Life.  She had an amazing capacity to love not only kids but everyone around her.  She had a unique ability to make people feel special. She served willingly and looked for ways to bless others. She had a willingness to give of herself completely. She truly loved Jesus with all of her heart, soul, mind, and strength.

As I heard these descriptions of her, I thought so much about my brother.  I thought about the amazing impact that Phil had on so many around him. 

Following Phil’s passing, our family was more sensitive to stories of other tragedies. My parents and I read biographies and stories of others who had gone through tragedies. The one common denominator through the stories is that you are never ready for something like this.  When death hits you, it comes suddenly and in one moment your whole world is changed forever. And then the grief comes in waves.  You then realize that nothing is guaranteed in this life.

One other thing happened as we read stories.  We started to notice the ages of some of the more common or well-told stories.   Many of these people died in their late twenties.  I certainly don’t know what that fully signifies but there were a number of people who left incredible legacies.

Here is just a brief description of who they are.

Keith Green – died in a plane crash at the age of 28. He was an amazing musician and had passion for Jesus. His music today is still powerful. He had a truly prophetic voice to inspire many to live a life completely sold out to Jesus. His book No Compromise has been read by many and impacted many people. 

Jim Elliot – Jim is the most famous of the missionaries who died on the riverbank in Ecuador, trying to evangelize the Waodani Indians at the age of 28. His life and story, along with others from their group has been used to call many to go into the mission field. Movies and books have been written about these stories. 
David Brainerd – died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis. He was a contemporary of Jonathan Edwards. His biography greatly impacted missionaries like Jim Elliot and continues to impact modern-day missionaries. He was as deep man of prayer and had a deep heart to see revival touch Native Americans.  

William Borden – He died of cerebral meningitis at the age of 25 in Egypt. He grew up in wealth. When he accepted the Lord and started to follow hard after the Lord. He wrote no reserve in his Bible. At the age of 16 he traveled the world and he saw poverty and got a call to missions.  After going to Yale and Princeton for his grad school he was preparing to be a missionary when he passed.  In the back of his Bible two more phrases were added along with no reserve. No retreat and no regrets. 

Our family also heard of another missionary who passed away two years after Phil, at the age of 28 or 29.  We knew their family distantly. But he as well left behind a legacy.

And then on March 1st, Erika Owen joined in a line of people who went to the Lord and left an amazing legacy behind.

As I have often thought of Phil’s story, and as well everyone listed here, I think “how did they get it so young.”  They certainly didn’t follow the normal path that many of us go on. Normally it takes years to figure out life. To grow in our walks and mature in our faith.  But every once in a while God raises up a burning one and seems to pour more into their lives.  Maybe it’s because the Lord knows there time will be short and He wants them to have a huge effect while they are alive.  Then knowing their story will impact many more in their death. We don’t know the ways of the Lord but these are merely my reflections as I try and make some sense of why Phil went so early.

At Phil’s funeral, another missionary from Indonesia who knew Phil, was from Kansas and had served many years there, gave us this phrase I love and have thought a lot about.  He said in the Indonesia Army they say that when one falls, 1000 will rise and take their place. He was praying that 1000 would rise up to take the place of Phil.

That’s my prayer for the legacy of Erika. That with the joy and life she lived, a thousand kids and adults will rise up to have joy and a true love for the Lord and people. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Man with Yellow Pants

Recently, as I was preparing for a teaching on how to hear from the Lord, He interrupted my time. I was preparing a talk on how to hear words of knowledge and minister to people. Suddenly, I felt the Lord impress upon me that I should go to the Wal-Mart down the street at 11:00am and pray for someone who would be wearing yellow as they walked in. It was 9:40am.

I sensed this was from the Lord, but still felt like it was crazy to hear this. I started to pray for this time and wondered what would really happen. I finished my outline and it was about 10:55am when I headed out the door.

I will be real honest. While I had a little faith that there would be someone there with yellow, I was also expecting that I would have to stand around and wait for a while. I was already planning my back-up plan for what I would do if I did not see someone with yellow. I was preparing the response in my mind - maybe God didn't really speak to me, maybe He was just testing me to be obedient even if the person in yellow does not show up.  

So I drove the short distance with all of those doubts in my mind. I pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot and I was shocked to see a man walking in with yellow pants. He walked into Wal-Mart quickly. It was exactly 11:00am like the Lord said.

Wow! I took a deep breath and couldn't believe it. I said to myself, “Really, Lord? Are you serious?”

I walked into Wal-Mart and looked for the young man.  At first I didn't see him but then he was suddenly walking towards me. I stopped him and explained what I felt the Lord had told me. I said to him, “I know this sounds crazy, but I feel like the Lord wants to say something to you.  He brought you to my attention because He cares for you.”  I asked him if he needed prayer for anything.

He told me that there is something big in his life that he does need prayer for.  He shared his situation with me and we talked through that. I asked him if he had ever given his life to the Lord. He responded by saying that he had but he wasn't fully surrendered right now and was living a double life. But he acknowledged that he has a godly mom and grandma.

I prayed for him and when we were finished, he looked at me and said, “You know Matt, I am not even here to buy anything. When I woke up, I just felt like I was supposed to come to Wal-Mart.”  

Clearly, the Lord had orchestrated this whole thing.  

I invited him to church and he said he would consider going with me sometime. It confirmed to me that the Lord does speak to us about people we might not otherwise notice. I learned that I always need to be in a position to hear His still, small voice and then to respond in obedience, even if I feel crazy and don't know what the outcome may be.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Silencing the Noise: Follow-up


As I continue to think about the voice of God, I have been thinking more about silence. As an urban missionary I recognize that noise is all around us in the city. While we can't eliminate all of that noise, we still want to be in a position to hear the Lord. The first step in order to hear the Lord is to reduce the distractions as I mentioned in my previous blog. Once we have taken steps to eliminate the exterior noise, we still must silence the interior noise. One of the major hurdles that I have to overcome is my inclination for hurriedness. I am always in a hurry: I drive fast, I eat fast, I talk fast. I want things to keep moving. I don't like to wait. Unfortunately, I am an impatient man. This has caused serious tensions in our marriage, as my wife is very relaxed and deliberate. But after 16 years, I am finally learning. (Trust me, when you are ready to walk out the door and your wife is still getting ready, it's probably not a good idea to stand and watch her while continually asking if she's ready to go!)

So I am attempting to slow myself down. I'm not even fully sure how to do this but there is one type of prayer I have been practicing for a while that has helped tremendously and one new practice I am going to do more.

First, the Jesus Prayer has been a tremendous tool to help my mind focus on the Lord. It is not practiced much in evangelical circles but has been a key prayer in the Orthodox Church. This little prayer is simple yet extremely profound. It is simply, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." The key is slowly repeating this prayer over and over. I may say it up to 50 or 100 times in one setting. What I find as I meditate on these words slowly is that it centers my mind on Jesus and on the fact that I am in need of great mercy. If I have a distracted thought, I quickly say the Jesus Prayer. If I face a temptation, I pray the Jesus Prayer. At times, I can be at a loss of words for a certain situation, so then I pray the Prayer. The Jesus Prayer has definitely helped in my attempts at quieting my mind.

The second practice is called Lectio Divina, Latin for "Divine Reading." I have read about this way of reading the Bible over the years and have practiced on occasion, but I haven't made it a part of my normal Scripture reading. I have sensed the Lord wants me to put that more into regular practice. It is an ancient way of reading the Scriptures. It is simply to slowly meditate on a short passage and to listen with your heart and focus on a key word or phrase the Holy Spirit is highlighting.  

Volumes have been written on these two disciplines, but I want to mention them to bring some very basic exposure. If you aren't familiar with them, I would encourage you to read more here on The Jesus Prayer and here on Lectio Divina.  Christians have practiced these disciplines for centuries, and we can trace their roots to the first centuries of our Christian faith.

These practices aren't easy for me. It's not my normal nature. I would just as well read the Bible for 15 minutes and then move on to the next thing. But I know that hearing the voice of God and spending time with him through the Word will require extended times of silence. Spending extended time with the Lord it is similar to a steak marinade. There is a 30-minute marinade you can buy in a store; it doesn't really soak into the meat, but it is good if you are in a hurry. Or you can take the time to let the meat soak in the marinade over night. This allows the juices to soak and absorb all throughout the meat, and when you slow cook that meat you are in for a real treat. In the same way, we need to marinade our souls in the presence of God through silence and through slowly reading the Word.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hearing the Voice of God

This is not a blog to provide great and practical insight into how to hear or discern the voice of God. Rather, these are some thoughts that I have been pondering this past month as I desire to draw closer to the Lord and hear His voice.

One of the most powerful longings of human beings is to be known by God and to hear His voice – to hear the voice of our Creator speak to us. Yet, it seems that this can be a great struggle for so many of us. At least it can be for me.

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God…” If we want to speak with our Father, Jesus gives us clear instructions that we must “pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6).

So how does that work in a world as noisy as ours? Can we just turn off our distractions – our smartphones, tablets, computers, etc. –  for 30 minutes a day, spend time with the Lord and hope to hear His voice and then go back to our daily living with a constant bombardment of messages via texting, Facebook, Twitter, and TV? To be honest, that has been my approach the past few years. There have been times when I have certainly cut back on my media. I hardly watch any TV now; I used to be consumed with watching sporting events. But my phone is constantly with me. At any break in my day, the urge to pull it out and check my feed on Facebook and Twitter often win out instead of focusing inward and directing my focus and attention to the presence of God.  

I tried to take intentional breaks in the day to pray and spend concentrated time with the Lord, but it seemed like my focus kept being drawn back to distractions.

For someone like me who has ADHD tendencies, I found that my smartphone is like a drug for my mind. It’s an easy fix and something to give attention to my many thoughts. What’s more, being an extremely social person, I love the networking on Facebook. I love seeing what my friends are doing and staying in touch that way. But I can’t deny the inner distractions I feel.

I always start the year with some extended fasting from food, but I also decided to do a month-long fast from media. For me, this meant no reading about sports and no checking my social media. I wondered how it would pan out and if I would miss it. After the first few days, I realized I didn’t miss it at all. In fact, I enjoyed the break. Did I hear the voice of God more? I don’t think so. Or at least, not in ways I hope to in the future. However, I did find that my mind was less distracted and consumed by countless trivial things. I found my desires for the Lord increasing.

As this month came to a close, I decided I wanted to continue this fast in some ways. It would be too easy for me to go back to how I was. So I am going to put some boundaries on myself. For now I am going to check sports once a week on Saturday nights. I haven’t decided how I will engage social media yet – perhaps just checking it once a week or once daily. I don’t feel like this is something I am to do forever, but something I desire to do in this season as I listen to the Lord and learn how to hear His voice in a deeper way.

I am starting to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus. This book was written for monks in in AD 600 and is a classic in Eastern Christianity on the ascetic life. St. Basil is quoted in the intro: “When the intellect is no longer dissipated among eternal things or dispersed across the world through the senses, it returns to itself, and by means of itself it ascents to the thought of God.”
I believe this thought applies to my life. My mind so easily wanders to the external things around me, but I need to be disciplined in those things so I can think more deeply of the Lord.

The intro also says, “It is a great thing says John, to achieve stillness in the isolation of a hermit’s cell; but ‘it is incomparably great to have no fear of turmoil, and to remain steadfast under its assault with a fearless heart, living outwardly with men but inwardly with God.’” 

So that’s my desire – to be clear in my inner man, to have my thoughts and affections constantly on the Lord Jesus, to live in a busy, loud, and distracted world, but live inwardly with God. Perhaps as I grow in this, I will be able in engage more in media, but for now I know that it limits my inward silence.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pray Big

A few years ago one of my co-laborers, Bob Stevenson, brought a block of wood with the words “Pray Big” on it to our staff gathering. It was the start of the year and he challenged us to write down big prayers, asking God for big things for the upcoming year.

Recently I was leading prayer at our staff gathering and I remembered the phrase “Pray Big” and shared it again with our staff. We talked about Paul’s words to the Ephesians, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.” (3:20-21). What a Scripture and great reason to pray big prayers! We serve a God who wants us to ask and is ready to answer and respond above anything we could ever imagine. 

In my experience, one thing that keeps us from praying big is our focus on our own limitations. We are so conditioned by living in the natural realm. Every prayer goes through a mental grid formed by our resources, our talents, or the limitations that we have. It’s so easy to be focused on the earthly realm and to be confined in our thinking. But as I look at the Scriptures, I am moved and challenged by the prayers of Jesus and great men and women of the Bible. They prayed and God responded to their requests. God moved on their behalf and answered their bold prayers of faith.

Can you imagine the boldness and faith of Elijah as he had the wicked King Ahab and Jezebel, 850 prophets all against him and a confused Israel? (1 Kings 18) They were all watching his showdown and he was able to call down the fire of God. He knew that the Lord would respond to his prayers. It’s easy to read those stories and think that was just in the Bible and that Elijah was some kind of super prophet. But we see in James 5 that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; Elijah was not altogether unlike us. He stood in the counsel of the Lord and was able to be God’s voice in that time.

We may not be in the exact same situation as Elijah, but we are in a time where we need the power of God to come down. The cities of America and in our world are desperate for God to reveal himself. The Lord needs us to stand up like Elijah and pray boldly.

With this in mind, I am stirred to pray big prayers in this new year. Two things help me as I think of praying big and overcoming my current limitations: 

First, I need to remind myself of the victory of God and what He has done and will accomplish.

“And what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.  And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Ephesians 1:19-23

Second, I need to know my position in Christ.

“And raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:6

Colossians 3 says we have to set our minds and heart on the things above. While we may currently live in the earthly realm, our true home is with Christ in eternity and we ultimately live in that kingdom as well. So it is by faith we need to imagine that we are seated in the heavenly places. This is the means by which we can pray big. We pray in faith and with authority from the heavenly places knowing that God has conquered every power that stands in opposition to him.

Is there something in your life where you need a major breakthrough? Meditate on these Scriptures and start praying and believing that God will provide in your situation. And please join us in praying for the cities. Pray that the power of God would come down and encounter the people that so desperately need him.

Pray BIG!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Eve Behind Bars: Follow Up

I want to thank you for praying for Angie and me on Christmas Eve as we ministered in Hutchinson Correctional Facility (HCF). Angie and I felt an army of prayers backing us. Here is what God did that night.

The days leading up to Christmas Eve were heavy as I experienced intense spiritual warfare. I woke up on Christmas Eve day and felt the attack in intense ways. I wasn’t sure how I was going to minister that night, but right before we headed to HCF, I went on a quick walk and prayed. I went to see my good friends Andy and Lisa Entz, they both felt like the accuser was attacking me—so they prayed for me and that night’s service. They prayed for victory and within 30 minutes there was a feeling of freedom! Praise the Lord.

We arrived at HCF early so that we could pray and dedicate the night to the Lord. The leaders of the church behind bars (the Protestant Call-Out), are mostly TUMI students, and they were able to come early and help us set up. We had a powerful prayer time with these leaders and felt fully prepared. There was a spirited atmosphere as the room filled with hugs, greetings of “Merry Christmas,” and sounds of Handel’s Messiah playing overhead. It was definitely surreal to hear Messiah being played inside the prison.

Angie opened with three songs. During the third song “Here I am to Worship,” the men just sang out with their hands raised in true worship. There was something powerful during the tag, “I'll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon the cross.” These guys were all in this place because of some deep sin, yet they sang of how the Lord has taken their place. What a joy to witness.

Following worship we did the Advent readings. In the prison we could not light candles, so instead we prepared overhead slides to represent the color of each candle. Two by two the guys would come up and explain the different candle, read a Scripture, and then pray. Hearing these TUMI students read the Scriptures was powerful. The words of the Scriptures were alive and going forth in the prison. The men were grasping and taking to heart the promises and prophecies of Isaiah.

Following the advent readings I gave the message from Ephesians 3:19. the summary of the message was; because Christ overcame the obstacles of becoming a human, He can overcome any obstacle that you find yourself in. The reason Christ did all of this was for love’s sake, and to fully understand this we need to encounter the love of God.

I closed with the story of Moses and two other friends I know that found themselves in serious trouble, and yet the Lord encountered them with His love and grace and turned their lives around and is now using them in dramatic ways.  After each story the guys would erupt with applause for what God had done. Hope filled the room.

Following the message, I closed with a time of prayer. I suggested the guys close their eyes and I led them through a series of prayers, inviting the Lord’s presence to be felt and His love to come near. I could tell the Lord was breaking in as several of the guys cried, it was tangible that the Lord was meeting them.

As I dismissed the men, about 20 of them flocked to the front to greet us. They thanked us for coming and wished us a Merry Christmas. But I was especially touched by a few testimonies, several of the guys shared with me how they felt the Lord’s presence and the love of God. One of the guys shared, “I am a former Satanist and I haven’t cried like this in a long time.” What an amazing memory I will carry, Christmas Eve with 120 inmates and a former Satanist telling me he cried and experienced the love of God in a new way.

Thanks again for standing with Angie and I in prayer.  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Unprepared Bunnies by Bree Penner

Bree wrote this composition recently at school, based on the story The Ant and the Grasshopper  Angie and I both enjoyed it and wanted to share.  It has a great moral.  I thought in light of advent, are we preparing ourselves for the return of Christ?

One glorious morning in fall, deer were gliding over the funny fields. They were preparing for winter.

In the storage there are scrumptious berries, tasty green grass, massive wells for water, huge hedge apples, and icy insects. 

Coldly, the following bossy bunnies booed at the deer’s work.

“You are so busy; you didn’t even accept our offer for Thanksgiving. I bet all your food will be rotten by the time winter will show up,” Boomed the bunnies.

Gently, the deer stepped up and informed the bunnies, “We will continue our work until we have enough food for winter.”

The bunnies jumped back in surprise. Then turned back and bounced home.

Soon winter came like a flash.  Wind and snow invaded the wood.  The deer ran into the storage room.

The bunnies hastily ran to the deer and begged, “Give us some food. We are desperate!”

“Sorry but no, we put a flavoring on our food that bunnies will die if they eat it.” Replied the deer.

“Give it to us even if it will kill us,” argued the bunnies. So the deer handed them some food and the bunnies died instantly.

The deer survived the winter.


Moral: Be prepared for what is ahead.