Finding a Quiet Place

Posted April 9, 2009 by johnpjohnston
Categories: Prayer, Solitude, Spiritual Growth

Solitude – it’s a rare commodity for most people these days. Busy lifestyles revolving around work, family, recreation – even church, can rob of us time we desperately need for quiet and connection with God.

Solitude is not the same is being alone. One can feel alone in a crowd, yet never experience solitude in a pristine wilderness. To be alone is to be isolated. Conversely, solitude can actually help us reconnect – with ourselves and with our God.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. – Mark 1:35 (NIV)

If you read the gospels, you will see that Jesus lived a very busy life. Crowds flocked to him, to hear him speak or to be healed of physical maladies. Even when he was not surrounded by throngs of people, the twelve disciples were with him 24/7. It’s quite telling that Jesus, the very Son of God, had need for solitude. But for Jesus, solitude was not simply a time for being alone – far from it. His solitude served a purpose – he prayed. In these quiet moments, he was able to connect with the Father – for strength, for comfort, for direction.

If Jesus needed times of solitude, how much more do we need it? A great deal more, I would think.

The two primary challenges of finding solitude are:
1. Establishing an appropriate time and place.
2. Learning what to do with solitude.

It can be  frustrating to simply find an appropriate time and place for solitude.  We’re surrounded by distractions and noise from every direction – TVs, computers, ipods, cell-phones, car radios, even other people – the list goes on and on. It takes a degree of discipline to set these things aside, even for a short time. Equally challenging is finding time for solitude. Most people I know suffer from schedule-itis: a sense that there are not enough hours in the day to do all that is needed. Still, most people seem to find the time to do those things they deem most important.

So, if you come to the conclusion that you need time during the day for quiet communion with God, you will need to find the time that best suits you. Some people are early risers while others are night owls – carve out a niche of time that suits you best.

A consistent place is helpful as well. If at all possible, try to avoid a place with too many distractions or temptations. If weather permits, going outside might help. Remember that Jesus had to leave where he was staying and walk a bit to find solitude.

Let’s assume you’ve established a time and an appropriate place of solitude. Now what? To be honest, the first time you really enter the quiet zone may seem strange. We’re so programmed to hearing back-ground noise that quiet may be disturbing. I would simply say, talk to God as you would talk to a friend – forget the flowery, churchy language. I would also say, spend more time listening than talking.

Be still, and know that I am God. – Psalm 46-10a

He said:  “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior—  from violent men you save me. – 2 Samuel 22:2-3 (NIV)

Solitude allows us to focus and hear from God – through our prayers, through reading and pondering upon scripture, and by simply listening and waiting upon Him. I’m not saying you will hear an audible voice, but you will likely receive very deep and clear impressions as the Holy Spirit does His work. I also believe you will find your quiet place to be a refuge – a place of peace where you can not only hear from God, but you will get to know Him better. The effort to find and maintain your quiet place is well worth the effort.

Essential Practices of the Small Group Leader #7: Be an Encourager

Posted March 16, 2009 by johnpjohnston
Categories: Encouragement, Fellowship, Ministry

“A pat on the back, though only a few vertebrae removed form a kick in the pants, is miles ahead in results.” – Howard Hendricks.

Have you ever been discouraged? I have. Most likely, you have too. Maybe you were doused by the “cold-water committee,” or received harsh criticism for something you did or did not do. Maybe life just came along and gave you a swift kick in the shins. Now, consider your small group – chances are, that some or all of them have faced something discouraging recently:

– job stress or job loss
– financial worries
– health concerns
– spiritual doubts
– struggles with relationships
– fear of the future
– guilt over poor decisions
insert source of discouragement

As small-group leaders / Sunday School teachers, we need to be encouragers to the people in our groups. Unfortunately, some of those same people fear that they will receive more discouragement by attending church or a small group. Hopefully, that’s a false impression but, as the saying goes, perception is 99% of reality. Our job is cut out for us to overcome that perception and become effective encouragers.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11

The Apostle Paul called on the Thessalonian church to be encouragers (and encouraged them for doing so). The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines encouragement as:to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope :hearten <she was encouraged to continue by her early success> b: to attempt to persuade : urge  <they encouraged him to go back to school>2: to spur on : stimulate <warm weather encourages plant growth>3: to give help or patronage to :foster.”

Did you catch those key words? inspire . . . courage . . . spirit . . . hope . . . persuade . . . urge . . . spur on . . . stimulate . . . give help . . . foster . . . Encouragement involves action on the part of the encourager. Encouragement may come through our words but often it will come through our deeds. It’s not enough to simply say, “I’ll pray for you,” though that is always a good thing to do. Sometimes encouragement comes through the time we spend with a friend, the sweat we break in helping with a task, or the tears we shed grieving with a friend. There is a sense where encouragement involves a divine stubborness – a willingness to stick with a friend when no one else will. That’s part of our job. In fact, it is one of the most important responsibilities of a small-group leader.

There’s a side benefit for the encourager. If you have been feeling discouraged yourself, you will find that encouraging others will lift your own spirit and give you a greater sense of perspective. As you help and encourage others, it takes your focus off of your own concerns.

Our groups give us a great vehicle for encouragement. Hopefully your small group is a place where people feel free to share their burdens and bear one another’s burdens. If people cannot find hope, help and encouragement within the family of faith, then where? As the leader, it is your job to set the tone and example.

Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25

Fading into the Twilight

Posted March 4, 2009 by johnpjohnston
Categories: Family, Sickness, Suffering

Tags: ,

(Note: I first posted this on another blog (now defunct) a little over three years ago. My mother passed away last summer, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. She would have been 83 this month. I’m re-posting this in her memory and, perhaps, to give some help to others who are dealing with Alzheimer’s. We love you, Mom, and we’re glad you are now well and whole in the presence of God.)

Originally posted January 2006 –

My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a puzzling and frustrating illness for her and for my Dad and for my family. It is unlike any other malady I know.

Three years ago we were all blisssfully unaware that Mom had a problem. Oh, sure, she was forgetful, but who isn’t when they are approaching their 80th year. Then, two and a half years ago, she disappeared after leaving her hairdresser on a sunny and warm October day. We found her 9 hours later, but a part of Mom was gone forever.

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that strikes people for no apparent reason and with no real warning. It can debilitate a person quickly or over the course of several years. So far, there is no cure, no prevention, no theraphy to stop its onslaught. It is a killer with no clear face. You can’t cut it out with surgery, bombard it with radiation, or poison it with drugs. No special diets or vitamins will cure it. To be sure, there are some helpful drugs like Aricept that can slow it, but it’s like a snowball rolling down a hill – starting small, but gathering size and momentum. The speed of demise varies, but it comes all the same.

Mom is in what is considered the “middle stage” of Alzheimers. She can still eat, dress herself, and take care of most personal needs without assistance. About 70% of the time she has “good days” where she knows her family and has a strong connection with reality. About 30% of the time, she does not believe that Dad is her husband. On those days, he is the “other” Herman, a friend who has come to help around the house. She does not fear him on those days, nor does she treat him badly. Yet it hurts Dad to be forgotten after 55 years of marriage. He knows she can’t help it, but it hurts, nonetheless. And it will get worse. I’ve noticed that she on occassion forgets me. She hides it well, but it comes through in conversations with her. Oddly enough, she has never forgotten my wife or three children, who she has not known as long (obviously) as my father or me.

We cherish the good days and hope the not-so-good days will not increase. But they will. Maybe not this week or this month, but ultimately Alzheimer’s will rob Mom of her memory, her personality, her ability to communicate or care for herself, and ultimately, it will rob her of her life. She is like the fading light of twilight. She is still there, but you know her time is limited.

So what do we do? We love her, we care for her, we help Dad as best as we can. She’s Mom and she’s still a person of worth, created in the image of God, though living in a fallen world. The Bible says we are to “honor our father and mother.” God is using this time to teach us something significant about honoring parents. The easy thing would be to give up. To institutionalize her. To euthanize her. At least that seems to be the trend in much of the world – and in the state of Oregon (another post, another time perhaps). God does not call us to easy things. He calls us to important things – things that are too big for us but not too big for Him. I get weary hearing the platitude that “God will never put anything on you that you can’t handle.” Rubbish! If we could handle it, we wouldn’t need God.

I don’t write this to sound noble or that God has made it easy. I’m not noble. There are days I feel sad, mad and frustrated – with Mom, with Dad, and yes, with God. But I know He knows what’s going on and that He truly cares. I know He loves Mom and has a wonderful provision for her, both in heaven and now. I and my family have an opportunity to be a blessing to her and to Dad a they have been to us for many years. I wish we could bless her some other way in other circumstances, but that is not to be. I am learning to appreciate how hard it is to be a caregiver. Yet I am also learning that it is a wonderful opportunity to serve, to love, to be family. God says he makes “all things work together for good to those that love Him, to those that are called according to His purpose.” Mom loves God. Even with Alzheimer’s she prays the most beautiful prayers you have ever heard. It’s humbling and awesome at the same time to hear her pray. God will work it all for good. I don’t understand how, nor do I have to understand exactly, but He will. It is a learning experience – a hard lesson – that God allows us to experience suffering (and most of it not physical) so that we may rely more fully on Him when our strength and emotions falter. And He is faithful. In the midst of the sadness, the grieving for the loss of one who is still here, there is peace. There is hope. There is love.

It is enough.

Essential Practices for the Small Group Leader #6: Be a Servant

Posted March 4, 2009 by johnpjohnston
Categories: Ministry, Servanthood

Tags: ,

Be a servant.

If you wish to make a significant contribution to the Kingdom of God, you will have to serve others. Unfortunately, in our consumer-driven society, that is often a difficult thing to ask of small-group leaders. We tend to be busy people – busy with jobs, busy with family activities, and busy with church stuff. Often, we think we’re just too busy to serve.

Be a servant.

Ministry can be messy. Being a servant is often awkward, difficult and frustrating. Not everyone appreciates acts of service or kindness. Your motives may be questioned. The people you wish to help may disappoint you. You may wonder if you are really doing any good.

Be a servant.

And ministry is often inconvenient. The immediate needs of another person can disrupt your schedule. Pain, hunger, misery and despair have a nasty habit of interrupting at the most inopportune times. It’s easy to be caught off-guard when someone unloads on us out of their fear and helplessness. You will feel inadequate.

Be a servant anyway.

Lest I make servanthood out to be some loathsome, terrible burden to be avoided at all costs, let me share the upside of ministry.

1. God made us to serve. Ephesians 2:10 states, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Serving is in our spiritual genes. Our Creator has made each of us uniquely useful. We have gifts, talents and abilities that can benefit other people that God places in our path. We don’t have to worry about our own adequacy – He has already given us what we need to serve.

2. God prepares us for service. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. Paul reminds us that our ability to minister to others comes primarily from the overflow of God’s ministry to us. As we consider God’s kindness, mercy and comfort, it gives us something worthwhile and tangible to share to others in their time of need. What God gives to us, He expects us to give away to others also.

3. God honors those who serve. In the gospels, we see that Jesus values servanthood over worldly status. Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Mark 9:35. The Lord clearly equated servanthood with greatness. Servanthood may never get you noticed in the eyes of the world, but it will please God. The honor and glory for our service ultimately belong to Him. After all, he’s the one who equipped us to serve. Jesus also said, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16.

4. Jesus showed us how to serve. Throughout the gospel accounts, we see Jesus healing the sick, mingling with children, and sharing meals with social outcasts. He did not shun the poor. He did not turn his back on those who were in bondage to addictions or sinful, destructive lifestyles.  He didn’t allow criticism from the religious elite to deter him. He showed us that anyone can serve, as long as we don’t allow our pride to get in the way: When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” John 13:12-17.

To sum it up, God expects for us to be proactive in our service to others. If you see a need, do your best to meet it. Don’t just sit around waiting for someone to show up with a need. If you do, you may find yourself ill-prepared to help. As you become intentional about serving others, you gain a greater sense of what to do and what to say in a variety of circumstances. But be careful to avoid the trap of seeing people as “projects.” Ministry is not about simply doing good –  it’s about showing the love of Christ to another soul who is likewise loved by the Creator. That’s what is meant by “giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.”

Get ready to get your hands dirty and make an impact for the Kingdom of God! Small group leaders and Sunday School teachers, here’s your chance to set a strong example for others in your group. You’ll be amazed at the joy that will be yours as you serve others.

Listen and Learn

Posted February 17, 2009 by johnpjohnston
Categories: Evangelism, Faith & Culture, Relationships

Tags: ,

Recently, I read an article about “reverse mentoring.” (Unfortunately, I cannot remember the author’s name, nor the magazine. If this should ring a bell with you, please send me an e-mail or leave a comment). The idea began to resonate with me, so I thought I’d put down my own thoughts regarding the concept.

In short, reverse mentoring involves the old listening to the young, the experienced listening to the inexperienced, and the insider listening to the outsider. It has the value of opening our eyes to different perspectives and, perhaps, clearing up misconceptions between generations or groups. I think it has particular value for those steeped in the culture of “church.”

Most of the evangelism training I’ve had over the years focused on sharing my personal Christian testimony and/or how to present the plan of salvation in x number of steps. These courses had value as they helped me articulate my faith in a clear and concise manner. Unfortunately, the majority of these courses left me ill-equipped to actually listen to those with whom I wished to share. Too often, I felt as if I were giving a sales presentation rather than building a bridge with a living soul. That has been a source of frustration with me for many years. However, when individuals have sensed that I was genuinely interested in them, they were more apt to listen to me.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned the value of listening – even to those with whom I may not agree. In the process of reverse mentoring, we allow someone to share their perspective on a variety of issues – from faith and culture to politics and the economy. It’s an eye-opening experience to hear from those with completely different perspectives, and it challenges us to be better equipped to defend our own positions. We can do this is a respectful, engaging manner (despite what we often see on the public stage, particularly in the area of political discourse.)

The apostle Paul encouraged his young protoge’, Timothy, in this regard. Timothy was a very young pastor, serving in a culture where age and experience was revered and the younger generation was generally tolerated but not taken seriously. In 1 Timothy 4:12, he tells Timothy: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” Obviously, Paul was speaking as a mentor himself. But he encouraged Timothy to exercise his faith as a young man – to be ready to mentor those older than him. In our modern context, all to often our various generations and groups speak past one another without really comprehending each other. That is a tragedy, particularly for the church as we seek to impact our broad culture for Christ.

If we simply view people as projects rather than individuals who are created in the image of God, we can fall into the trap of an “us” v. “them” mindset. The goal of reverse mentoring is not to compromise our beliefs. The goal is to build relationships between the younger and the older, between the follower of Christ and the agnostic or skeptic, and between the traditional and the fringe. Look to the gospels and see how Jesus accomplished that very thing. It may feel awkward and there will be  deep chasms to cross created by differing ideas, values, and world-views. Building bridges is hard work. But as we learn more about those we call “different” or those with whom we disagree, we become better equipped to engage them in serious conversation.

And isn’t that where the Great Commission begins?

If I Were Starting Again . . .

Posted February 9, 2009 by johnpjohnston
Categories: Ministry, Relationships, Servanthood

(Note: This came out of a conference I led for a group of Ministers of Education in Alabama. It’s not particularly profound, but maybe it will provide some food for thought.)

I enjoy serving as a Minister of Education in a local church. That’s probably a good thing, considering I’m probably not qualified to do much else. I enjoy my role as an equipper, encourager and minister, but sometimes I look back and “wish that I knew then what I know now.” No, I’m not speaking of regrets – think of this as a list of suggestions for anyone who is involved in Christian education – whether as a vocational minister, or Sunday School teacher, or small-group leader. Some of these, through God’s grace, I managed to get right the first time. Others, well, not so much.

As always, feel free to leave comments or add your ideas to the list.

If I were starting again as a minister of education, I would . . .

* Make my relationship with God my top priority and my family right behind that. No other relationships come close.
* Read – read – read
* Get to know others in my field – find a colleague that’s been doing this a while and pick his or her brain.
* Remember that people are more important than programs.
* Become my pastor’s friend and confidant. If I can’t be his friend, I’ll be loyal. If I can’t with integrity be loyal, I’ll find another place to serve.
* Network
* Be an encourager and equipper for my volunteer leaders
* Maintain my physical health through reasonable diet and exercise
* Develop interests outside of my “church job”: e.g. hunt, fish, collect stamps, play the bagpipes . . .
* Develop relationships outside the church
* Take all of my vacation time
* Write things down (journal, blog, list, etc.)
* Focus my best efforts on things that really matter
* Pray more. A LOT more
* Say “no” more
* Read – read – read . . . outside my areas of responsibility or expertise
* Sit in Bible study classes – not to teach, but to listen and learn
* Write more “thank you” notes to people who have encouraged me, helped me, prodded me
* Not take myself or my position so seriously
* Get out of the office more to serve in the community
* Take more pictures (You will REALLY be glad you did!)
* Spend more one-on-one time with leaders, less time in group meetings
* Think outside the box, once you’ve determined what’s IN the box
* Don’t fear failure – learn from mistakes
* Be a friend
* Continue to grow in faith
* Be transparent
* Be humble
* Be grateful
* Get over being a leader. Get into being a servant
* Have fun!

Godliness with Contentment

Posted February 3, 2009 by johnpjohnston
Categories: Faith & Culture, Servanthood

Tags: , , , ,

Unless you have been living on a remote desert island, you are aware of the world-wide economic meltdown that has been underway for the past few months. It seems that the primary focus of the new administration and congress is to address this problem. Politicians, pundits and every average Joe has an opinion on this financial crisis, but no one really seems sure how to “fix” it.

Christians are not exempt from the economic downturn. We all know people who have lost jobs, retirement accounts devalued and stores that have closed or are on the precipice. Perhaps you’ve been hit particularly hard yourself. It’s a trying time for everyone and we are left wondering, “What next?”

In the midst of the upheavel, we need to be reminded that our source of peace and security does not lie in the hands of the government or Wall Street. Our hope and security lies in Jesus Christ. Nothing can separate us from his love. Romans 8:35-37 reminds us: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long;  we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The implied answer to “who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” is – No-one and no-thing! Although we are not exempt from hardship or trying times, our circumstances cannot separate us from Him. We all need to cling to that promise.

So, how do we face such uncertain times? How do we live out our faith as followers of Christ when the world is in an uproar?

Consider the Apostle Paul’s words to his young protoge’, Timothy, who was facing similar trying times:

If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. – 1 Timothy 3:6-7

Godliness . . . with contentment. The two go hand in hand. And therein lies our security – the peace of Christ in our hearts – NOT financial gain (despite what the prosperity gospel advocates say). As we adhere to the teachings of Christ by living godly lives of obedience, we discover great contentment – in spite of the chaotic circumstances that surround us. Living godly lives does not exempt us from trials. Far from it. Paul shared his own experiences thusly . . .

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. – 2 Timothy 3:10-13

Did you catch that? Godliness does not exempt us from trials. In fact, it opens us up to persecution! Today, most of us are struggling over financial issues and the future as a result of the actions of such “evil men” who have done much damage to our financial system. But don’t miss what Paul also said in the middle of this passage – “Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.” Our Lord is in the rescuing business. We may face difficult times for the foreseeable future. Our savings may dwindle and our retirement accounts evaporate. And we may endure even further financial setbacks. Yet, in the midst of it all, the people of God are called to live godly lives with contentment. That contentment is a sense of peace and gratitude for how the Lord has blessed us and the provision for our needs – both now and in the future. It is confidence in the One who knows what tomorrow holds.

Followers of Jesus are not exempt from hard times. But neither are we exempt from remaining faithful to Him. In fact, in times of uncertainty we have a tremendous opportunity to be both encouragers and servants as people see foundations made of sand washed away. This is not a time for God’s people to point fingers of blame; it is a time for us to extend a cup of water in Jesus’ name and point toward Him as the way, the truth and the life.