Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Thanks for the tremendous reader responses so far...

It’s been amazing to see If God Disappears generating so much pass-along and word of mouth. I’m already hearing from people who say they’re the fifth or sixth person to read an individual copy of my book. If all I ever had were the phone calls, letters, e-mails, heartfelt blog postings, live radio call-in conversations, lengthy book signings and face-to-face conversations of the past few weeks, all the work I did writing If God Disappears would have been worth it.

 

Many people have told me they read my new book in one sitting. Of the scores of blog postings by readers, the one that touched me the most was from a guy my age. His marriage is ending in divorce after years serving the Lord. He heard about my book, read it, and wrote on his blog that my book “near saved” his faith. He went on to write: “At a time when everything and everyone I’ve loved is slipping away from me, to have this reminder that God is still there AND still loves me couldn’t have shown up at a better time. I cannot thank Mr. Sanford nearly enough for writing this.”

 

I’ve heard the same thing from people of all ages — a large number of students, of course, but also many people in their late twenties and thirties, and many more who are middle aged and older. Even retirees are struggling with faith issues to a surprising degree. Just as meaningful are all the people telling me how easy it has been to give my book to loved ones and friends who are struggling.

 

Even my atheistic dad, age 73, picked up a copy of the book and read it in a couple of sittings. It’s had a profound impact on him. I can’t wait to see him let go of the past and trust Jesus Christ after all of these years. He’s closer than ever. I’m almost in tears just writing those words.

 

What’s your story? I’d love to hear from you. You can post a comment below or write to me at IfGodDisappears[at]gmail[dot]com.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Which church?

When a newly married couple walks down the aisle and heads out of church for their honeymoon, one unresolved question often lingers: “Are we going back to the same church after the honeymoon?”

If he went to Church A and she went to Church B before the wedding, where do they go afterward?

Michael and Shari weren’t sure.

Michael grew up in the Catholic church. Shari attended a couple of different denominational churches over the years. After their wedding, Michael and Shari bounced back and forth between their two churches, couldn’t decide which one to call home, and eventually stopped going altogether.

Things changed after their first child was born.

“I can remember it to this day,” says Shari. “It was a Sunday morning. Our son was a baby and I just felt God calling me to go. So I told Mike, ‘We need to go to church,’ and he said okay.”

Many factors conspired against Mike and Shari finding a common church home, but “We prayed it out and worked on it…together,” she says. They’re now active members of a Free Methodist Church.

There’s no one right way to answer the “which church?” question.

For Jon and Linda, the answer has changed over the years. Right now, Jon and Linda and their three children attend her church on Sunday mornings. That way, the whole family can worship together. But on Saturday evenings, Jon often attends his church. It’s the best of both worlds, Jon says.


If you or your spouse have had a bad church experience in the past, you’re not alone.

Approximately 31 million Americans say they are Christians and have made a faith commitment to Jesus Christ, and say that commitment is still important to them, but they have struggled with faith or relational issues and quit going to church.

Typical reasons for a bad church experience:

A. Individuals feel like they didn’t “fit in” at the church they attended.
B. They felt confused or overwhelmed by church expectations.
C. They felt rejected, humiliated, or hurt by someone in church.

Don’t forget—the apostles of Jesus Christ had some bad church experiences, too. The apostle Paul was maligned by several imposters who infiltrated churches he had started. Even in his old age, the beloved apostle John reported that certain people were “gossiping maliciously about us” (3 John 10 NIV).

Thankfully, the U.S. is blessed with lots of churches—more than 315,000 at last count. If you have had a couple of bad church experiences, it’s not time to write off every church.


The bottom line: you and your family may want to explore several options until you find what seems best for you.

Friday, October 17, 2008

David and Rachel's Story

Can God really bring anything good out of crushing circumstances?

David Prince knows something about physical suffering. While he was still a young pastor, the health problems began for him and his wife, Judith. She had to have a brain operation; he later lost his eyesight. A few years later, David had to have a double transplant for a kidney and his pancreas.

Just months after his transplant, David was given three days to live because of multiple infections in his blood. He survived, but only two years after that, he and Judith were involved in a head-on collision. Ten days later, Judith died in intensive care.

By age thirty, David had lost his wife and his health. His kidney transplant was failing. He had to go back on dialysis three days a week. But once again, God provided a new kidney. Throughout the whole process, David continued to trust his Savior, and remained committed to his church ministry.

Eight years after Judith’s death, David met a wonderful Christian woman named Rachel, and two years later, they were married. They now live in South Yorkshire, where David is still involved in Church ministry and writing and composing songs. They travel the country, sharing David’s story and songs in concert.

Can God bring any good out of crushing circumstances? Both David and Rachel reply with an emphatic “yes!”

I invite you to visit David and Rachel’s website or write to them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Merissa's Story

If anyone has ever been become disillusioned by the church as a lay leader, it’s Merissa.

Several years ago, Merissa and her family were spending some time in the Caribbean, and Merissa was taking a break from some of her regular duties.

As she stood on a deck, looking out onto the great expanse of a calm sea and a cloudless sky, she was struck by how “crowded” she felt inside—crowded with fear, disappointment, and disillusionment. She cried out to God, aching for something she couldn’t articulate.

Suddenly Merissa realized that she had been hanging on to all the hurt in her life. She decided to let it go, there on the shores of the Caribbean. “In the days that followed I felt that God and I were in an empty room together,” she recalls. “The room was my heart and I could feel the emptiness echo off its walls. Slowly, over the length of our stay, my heart began to fill with good things.”

When she returned to her home in Alberta, Canada, Merissa took a position on their church board, full of hope and passion, eager to share the magic she was experiencing. Sadly, halfway into the three-year term she stepped down, completely expired, wounded, and disillusioned. The decision-making over finances, staffing, one case of moral failure, severe congregational discontent, and gut-wrenching relational issues had taken its toll.

During that time Merissa had seen two sides—she saw miracles happen as people cared for one another. But she also saw how mean and calloused Christians could be to each other.

The year following her resignation was difficult. She preferred not to go to church—where she had experienced so much pain—but her children loved going so much, and she didn’t want to squelch that desire in them.

Merissa’s heart went back to her time in the Caribbean, to that pivotal night when she let go of all her hurt. The process of relinquishing was more difficult this time, though. She says, “Truthfully, my faith in mankind took a harder hit than my faith in God. But largely (and strangely) thanks to the efforts of others, it is also being restored.

“There are many things I cannot explain or understand. The world is full of tragedy and triumph. So far, God has not asked me to endorse his actions. He seems quite able to stand on his own, full of mercy and mystery. But he has made clear a path for me, and I want to walk in it.”

Like Merissa, many of us have been disillusioned with the church. Have you let go of the hurt yet? What’s your story?

Monday, October 13, 2008

To me, religious labels are relative

What mantra have we heard more than almost any other the past generation?

“It’s all relative.”

Relativity started as a scientific theory, of course. The most immediate applications were new understandings of time. Not that any of this caught God by surprise.

Think about time from God’s point of view.

It’s rather startling to realize that every 60 minutes, 24 hours go by globally—somewhere on Earth, each minute of a day from 12:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. occurs within that single hour.

Even more mind-boggling is the realization that the nearly 6.75 billion people on this planet fast-forward through an entire millennium of time collectively in less than 4.7 seconds. Then again, Scripture has told us all along that to God one day is as a thousand years.

According to Albert Einstein, however, time isn’t the only thing that’s relative. And that’s where relativity goes from helping us understand God and Scripture better to tripping us up if we’re not careful.

Throughout his life, Einstein changed religious labels more than once. Two of the most prominent labels he wore were “atheist” and “deist.” Which is the better label depends on your point of view.

My friend Jim Hislop likes to remind me that labels aren’t always bad. They’re often good. They’re only bad if we don’t check what’s inside first—or if we willfully mislabel someone.

All of us have had the experience of being mislabeled, sometimes maliciously, by others. Just as sad, sometimes I’ve talked with people who have mislabeled themselves.

If someone tells me she is a “former Christian” and an “atheist,” that may mean that she no longer believe in God or His existence. Then again, it may mean that she feels God walked out of her life, let her get terribly hurt, and she’s so angry she’ll never forgive God. In any case, “former Christian” and “atheist” don’t tell me anything negative about her. It tells me only that I want to hear her story.

If you told your story to me, what labels would you use to describe your religious convictions or lack thereof?

What do those labels mean to you?

What should they mean to me?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I'll take a mocha...and a miracle please

The following story is from my friend Ann Dunagan, a missionary, homeschool mom, and author of several excellent books:


Last Friday morning, I woke up to an urgent phone call regarding a troubled teenage girl. She'd run away from home, been found wandering along the highway, barefoot, and she'd been "cutting" herself again.

Ugh.

God's "grace" for me to keep helping this girl was running thin . . . and wearing me out.

Earlier in the year, I had prayed with this 16-year-old to receive Christ, she'd been baptized, and our family had been attempting to bring her to church, whenever we could. I knew she'd had a problem before with "cutting" herself, and I knew I needed assistance with her situation, more desperately than ever.

More than anything, I knew this girl needed help at home, and so did her mother.

Quite a few times, I had attempted to talk with the girl's mom about God, but she was totally resistant. Our home group had been praying for her for about a year, with seemingly no headway. Any invitation to attend church was totally rejected. Besides working at Wal-Mart and buying necessities, this mom had kept herself practically locked-up alone in her trailerpark home for years, consumed with the idea that she couldn't go to a church because she couldn't be around people.

As I hung up up the phone and began praying, I felt very specifically that it was the day for this woman to return to the Lord. There was such an urgency in my heart, and it was amazing. I felt like God gave me a specific little mission. I called her up and invited her to coffee, so we could talk for a few minutes about her daughter.

Later that afternoon, we met at a little coffee shop a few minutes from this lady's home. With love and frankness, I shared, once again, about her need for God's help and salvation. But this time, her reaction was totally different. In less than ten minutes (and before she'd taken more than a sip or two from her mocha), this hardened woman was weeping and surrendering to the Lord. She began to reminisce about songs from her childhood days in Sunday school, and how she knew that I was right.

On Sunday morning, this woman did something she hadn't done for years. She brought her daughter to church, and at the end of the service, both mom and daugher came forward and were kneeling at the altar of our church, and hugging each other with tears streaming down their faces. Both wanted to come back to church, and the the mom even hung around afterward to talk and to meet people. I'm serious, this was totally a MIRACLE!!! God totally changed this woman's heart, and he set her free.

And God is going to help this woman with her daughter (and at last, I have just the right person to help bring this teenager to church!).

So, if the Lord prompts you to witness or to share with someone, step out and obey. You never know what awesome things God may do. This whole outing lasted only about 45 minutes, including the driving from my home and ordering at the counter . . . but it totally made my week!

Now that's a coffee break!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Eternity: Slow Train Comin’ -- Day 5

A few days ago I commented about how the evangelical church is once again beginning to understand its place within the broader Church, within the much larger family of God, and within the much, much larger kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom. God’s family. God’s Church.

They’re not the same, but how are they different?

The fact is, God not only can use anyone to advance His purposes, but God often uses them as a means of drawing them into His family and church today. Take the apostle Paul as a classic example. The fact is, the more opposed someone is when God starts using them, the more likely it is that God will draw them to faith in Jesus Christ. It sounds counterintuitive, but we see this over and over in Scripture, in Church history, in modern biography, and in contemporary experience.

Let’s make a distinction, however, between “servant” and “citizen.” Not all “servants” in God’s kingdom are “citizens” yet. Citizens are going to spend eternity with God. Servants may or may not. God’s desire, of course, is that none perish, but that all come to repentance.

Who is God using in your hometown, in national politics, on Wall Street, in the sports world, in the entertainment world? Who comes to mind? Have you ever thought of them as God’s servants? Have you ever prayed for God to use them? Have you ever wanted to see God transform their lives?

We need to pray for new eyes to see people as God sees them. How many of you have heard Bebo Norman’s haunting new song, “Britney”? Here’s the story behind that song in Bebo’s own words:

I was up late, couldn’t sleep, watching some news channel, when yet another story about Britney Spears came on. My first instinct was to scoff and write it off, but then there was this freeze-frame shot of a look on her face of utter and absolute despair and confusion and brokenness—a look that I recognized… I think that night I saw her through the eyes of Jesus for the first time. I imagined what Jesus would say to me in my darkest hour and realized that those are the words we should speak to this world, to this culture, and even to Britney Spears in their darkest hour. “I’m sorry. Hope is here.”

“I’m sorry. Hope is here.” Sometimes, those are the first words we need to say to someone God wants to save. Not, “I have the answers.” Not even, “I know God, He changed my life, and He can save you too.” Just “I’m sorry. Hope is here.”

Many in God’s kingdom are His, some are not and some are on the way:

Are you willing to memorize those words, take them to heart, and speak them to someone this week? “I’m sorry. Hope is here.” Hope because of who God is, because of what God is doing, and because of what God envisions and wants to be true for all eternity.

When Bob Dylan recorded his landmark album Slow Train Comin’ and first told the world that he was serving the Lord, many cheered, many others jeered, and still many others didn’t know what to think.

Based on what we’ve just considered, what do you think?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Eternity: Slow Train Comin’ -- Day 4

A few days ago I commented about how the evangelical church is once again beginning to understand its place within the broader Church, within the much larger family of God, and within the much, much larger kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom. God’s family. God’s Church.

They’re not the same, but how are they different?

Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. In addition, all of God’s people are part of His forever family. Beyond that, however, Jesus Christ is the rightful, exalted King of God’s kingdom.

God’s kingdom is the context through which He is advancing His purposes through humanity here on earth.

That context includes God’s work around the world and down of all ages through emperors, kings, prime ministers, presidents, governors, mayors, and other government officials, whether or not they believe in God yet.

You see, God can use anyone to advance His purposes here on earth. If God could use ancient Pharaohs, and kings Xerxes, Cyrus, and Nebuchadnezzar, and ancient Caesars from Julius to Augustus to Nero, God can use anyone.

We see this in Revelation 21:24, where the apostle John records that fact that “The nations will walk by [God’s] light, and the kings of earth will bring their splendor into it.” Then look down two verses to Revelation 21:26, where we read: “The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into” the eternal city of God. Then look down three more verses to Revelation 22, verses 2-3: “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations.”

So, in these last two chapters of the Bible, we see God’s Church, God’s Family, and God’s Kingdom clearly in focus.

So what’s the take-away value of looking at God’s Kingdom in light of eternity?

It puts a whole new perspective on everything in this life — as we look back through history, as we look at the first few years of the 21st century, and as we look ahead to what may be coming.

It doesn’t matter what happens in Russia, the Middle East, and America. It doesn’t matter how bad things get on Wall Street. It doesn’t matter who’s preparing to take over the White House. No matter what, God’s kingdom is advancing His purposes through humanity here on earth.

It grieves me when we look at someone who is different from us, who may be politically different than us, and assume that God can’t use that individual to advance His purposes on earth.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Eternity: Slow Train Comin’ -- Day 3

A few days ago I commented about how the evangelical church is once again beginning to understand its place within the broader Church, within the much larger family of God, and within the much, much larger kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom. God’s family. God’s Church.

They’re not the same, but how are they different?

God’s family stretches from Adam and Eve to today and beyond. God’s family includes all authentic followers of Jesus Christ who belong to the Church. It also includes many others who live outside the Church.
Among others, God’s family includes all authentic Jewish believers in Old Testament times.

We see this in Revelation chapter 21, verse 14, where we read that the eternal city of God has twelve gates. “On the gates where written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.”

God’s family includes even more ancient individuals like Noah, Job, and Abraham who believed in God long before the ancient Israelite nation, the Jewish faith, and the Hebrew Scriptures existed.

God’s family also includes Muslims today who come to faith after Jesus appears to them in visions and dreams. On Friday I spoke with two former Muslims who have become outstanding evangelists proclaiming the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They and other experts tell me that Muslims are coming to Jesus Christ by the tens of thousands around the world. One of the most amazing things is how many report that they first heard the Gospel from Jesus Christ Himself, who appears to them in dreams and visions.

I am so thankfully we can be sure that eternity will be enjoyed by all of God’s children down through the ages. Among other places, we see this in Revelation 22:16b, where Jesus says: “I am the Root and the Offspring of David and the bright Morning Star.” There He speaks both to the ancient Jewish people who believed in Him—and to others who, like the ancient Magi or the tribal chief, can see God’s reality, power, beauty, and might in creation and passionately long for that reality in their own lives.

Eternity will be enjoyed by all God’s children down through the ages….

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Eternity: Slow Train Comin’ -- Day 2

Yesterday I commented about how the evangelical church is once again beginning to understand its place within the broader Church, within the much larger family of God, and within the much, much larger kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom. God’s family. God’s Church.

They’re not the same, but how are they different?

The first and smallest sphere in our diagram, again, is God’s Church.

The New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus Christ is the Head of His Body, the Church.

The Church is made up of all true followers and disciples of Jesus Christ from A.D. 33 to 2008 and beyond. It’s amazing to realize that you and I belong to the same Church that Mary, Peter, James, John, Paul, and others belonged to 1,975 years ago.

Thankfully, the Church is front and center of God’s plans for eternity.

Look at what the apostle John wrote in the opening verses of the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. Revelation 21, verses 1 to 3:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God."


The exclamation point of heaven isn’t the pearly gates or streets of gold. Instead, the exclamation point of heaven is seen here in verse 3: God is living with men and women from every nation, culture, and people group.

So who do we find in heaven? Well, first, we find God’s Church. Revelation 21:14 says: “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” This speaks about how the Church was built on the faith on Jesus’ closest friends and followers, often called the twelve apostles.

We see the Church referred to again in the last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, verse 16, the last red letter verse in the Bible. There Jesus says: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches.”

Eternity will be enjoyed by all the authentic followers of Jesus Christ….

Friday, October 3, 2008

Eternity: Slow Train Comin’ -- Day 1

A few days ago I had the privilege of doing an interview with Alexandra Alter with the Wall Street Journal. Alexandra called me to ask for feature story ideas. I asked her what kind of story ideas? She said she was looking for ideas for feature stories at the intersection of Christian faith and other spheres of life (besides business). I was intrigued. What ideas would you have suggested to Alexandra? Actually, I still have a blank check from her to pitch new feature story ideas. What would you recommend?

One feature story idea Alexandra and I discussed, of course, were some of the key themes from my new book, If God Disappears. Why is it that so many Christians walk away from the faith before they go to heaven? One explanation, of course, is that we have overlaid the American dream on top of our Christian faith. As a result, we’re expecting too much from this brief life and are too little focused on eternity with God and His people forever.

Another feature story idea I could have mentioned to Alexandra is how the evangelical church is once again beginning to understand its place within the broader Church, within the much larger family of God, and within the much, much larger kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom. God’s family. God’s Church.

They’re not the same, but how are they different?

At the risk of oversimplifying what the Bible teaches, allow me to use the image of three concentric circles.


In the first and smallest sphere, we see God’s Church.

In the second sphere, which encompasses God’s Church, we see God’s even bigger Family.

In the third sphere, which encompasses both God’s Church and God’s Family, we see God’s much bigger Kingdom.

Thankfully, Scripture doesn’t blur the distinction between these three spheres. So, let’s look at them briefly one by one over the next few days.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Assumptions

My older son, Jonathan Sanford, is a junior at Cal Poly. He wrote a review of If God Disappears on his blog earlier this week. He had a great insight, which he has given me permission to share:

[My dad] outlines nine faith wreckers in his book, but I would assert that there is only one faith wrecker (from a purely human perspective); an unwillingness to reevaluate our assumptions. Any of the faith wreckers can be viewed as a variation on this theme. We had a bad church experience so we assume that our view of 'those christians' reflects the Christ they claim to worship. We have experienced horrible, traumatic events in our lives so we assume that God isn't there or doesn't love us. We get lost in ritualistic religion, bewildered at God's apparent departure and assume that it must be something wrong with Christianity itself not with our misconstrued perception of what God desires. These are just examples; in any crisis of faith it is essential to reevaluate our assumptions and reorient ourselves around what we know is true. When I have found myself wandering away from my Savior and Lord I remind myself of all the times God has worked in my life for good. I remind myself of what He declares in His Word. Aren't we all so forgetful, like the Israelites under Moses, and in constant need of a reminder of the presence of the great I AM. We get so caught up in our petty assumptions that we forget what we know is true.

Though there are many things that threaten to steal or erode our faith, Jonathan is right that the "one faith wrecker" is an unwillingness to evaluate or reevaluate our assumptions. I have to ask myself: what assumptions am I holding onto that are false or harmful? What about you?