Changing the Way You Pray

Prayer is a widely discussed topic among Christians. You can easily find a book on prayer in a bookstore or online. Almost every pastor who is well-known for writing has written a book on the subject. I am not posting this to tell you how to pray, but I do want to share with you how my prayer journey has changed.

I hate to admit that over my 3-decade Christian life that I have prayed in such a way as to ask God to bless my man made plans. These prayers would go something like this – “God, I have this awesome sermon I’m going to preach on Sunday. I pray that you will bless my delivery of this message and that people’s lives would be changed.” Sounds okay, right? In the preceding prayers, I rarely asked God what I should preach. So many times, I planned church events and never consulted God first to ask Him to lay out the church calendar and show me how He wants me to execute ministry. Needless to say, I had to repent of that.

Prayers today look and sound a lot different. As I prepare music for our church’s 9:00 service, I ask God which songs He wants for the service. I ask Him to reveal His vision and how to execute it. When I counsel pastors, I ask God beforehand what questions I need to be asking, what advice I need to be giving, etc. They don’t need my prepackaged experience from previous ministries. I’m not saying that God didn’t do some good things then, but people need a NOW word from God that aligns with Scripture.

You are faced with daily decisions – job offers, who to marry, where to go to school, parenting/marital situations, and the list goes on. God doesn’t want you coming to Him saying, “God, I’m going to move my family to this place because this job offers more money. So I ask that you would bless us, keep us safe, and give us a smooth transition.” That’s okay if you’ve already gotten direction from Him to actually move, but it’s not good if you assumed God was in it simply because the money is better.

We desperately need God’s leadership. Prayer is an ongoing conversation by which we receive that leadership. This post is by no means exhaustive on the subject of prayer. Prayer includes praise, confession, intercession, and so many more things. My prayers still include those things. But, I want to hear from God now more than ever about His will for my life and for everything touching my life. For that reason, I’m glad I pray differently.

A Pastor and An Oil Change: Preventive Maintenance

Imagine getting a new car. If you are like most people, you want to care for it the best way possible. Who wants it to fall apart soon after you buy it, right? You get scheduled oil changes and other suggested maintenance so, that when the day comes and you’re pushing 200,000 miles, you could potentially still have a pretty decent car.

Why is it that pastors will often care for their cars and do necessary preventive maintenance, but they ignore their emotional and mental health? Sadly, there is a stigma about mental health and ministry. If a pastor had a counselor or ministry coach, that would be an admission of weakness, right? And no one should dare think a pastor is not a superhero. So the pastor ignore the “warning lights” of his life and quickly spirals into burnout or, worst case, moral failure.

My heart has always been grieved by the stories of those men and women of God who were on the front lines for Christ who are now off the radar. Could something have been done early in the process to prevent this? I believe the answer is YES!

A little over a year ago, I got involved in a ministry that was designed to help pastors with preventive care before the crisis ever occurs. I have been meeting weekly with some pastors via FaceTime, while I connect with others on a monthly basis.

If you are a pastor, ministry leader, or one preparing for ministry, this preventive maintenance is for you.

If you would love to hear more about what God is doing through this, I would love to talk to you.

Maybe you’re not in ministry. I have a word for you – You still need preventive maintenance! Don’t wait until you’re stranded on a back road with no one around. Surround yourself with help in the journey NOW!

For Such a Time as THAT

Last week, I began watching and listening to sermons preached by Pastor Tony Evans. The one I have listened to for the last few days in segments (normally between visiting hospice patients and on the car ride home) is based on the story of Esther. If a believer can quote a verse from the book of Esther, it is typically this one (at least the last from in 4:14) – “If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”

As I listened to the last part of the sermon today, I began to reflect on how today is one of those days when I was mourning some of the past relationships I could not carry into this season of my life. Today, I had lunch with a dear friend of 11 years. While we have many great memories, I left thinking about how it just wasn’t the same. Our lives have gone different directions. Ministry paths are different. He was a wonderful encourager when his presence in my life was prominent. Because his presence is not so prominent in this season, his ability to encourage has changed. I don’t say this negatively. While I don’t appreciate him any less, his influence was stronger for such a time as THAT not THIS. That’s not say God won’t use him in my life now, but it’s different. There are people more present in my life because of life circumstances who are here for such a time as THIS.

You may be mourning losses of the past. Maybe, like me, you went through a divorce and lost some friends. Maybe you relocated to a new neighborhood, church, or job. Those from your old neighborhood, church, or job are no longer prominent in your life. It’s natural to miss them, but don’t miss out on the relationships you can build for such a time as THIS because you’re stuck in such a time as THAT. Many people stop thriving in life because they’re too busy looking in the rear view mirror. Don’t let that be you!

Unwavering to the Call

Who are some of the first Christian leaders you remember? Many of you who are at least my age would probably say Billy Graham. The one who sticks out in my mind is Charles Stanley, a man who has remained true to his calling.

Charles Stanley sticks out in my mind for many reasons. My grandparents LOVED to watch him on TV and encouraged me to do so, so I remember watching his sermons at the age of 9 every Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. Not long after that, I began reading his books. As a child, I didn’t fully grasp what he was preaching or mentioning in his books, but I was mesmerized by his photography. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to study the depth of who this pastor is.

Dr. Stanley was a kind but firm voice when the Southern Baptist Convention was leaning in a liberal direction. He is one of the past presidents who was known as a strong voice in what they call the “Conservative Resurgence”. While I am thankful for that, I am even more thankful that he stayed in the game when many said he shouldn’t. You may ask, “Why would many want Charles Stanley to step out of ministry?” The answer is simple – In 2000, Charles Stanley became a divorced man.

Many churches today still do not know how to handle the subject of divorce. First Baptist Church of Atlanta overwhelmingly supported the continuation of Dr. Stanley’s ministry. Imagine what could have happened had Charles Stanley agreed with the naysayers and said, “I’m divorced, I’m old, and I’m done. Now I’ll just sit over here and collect dust until I die or Christ returns.” An untold number of people may have never come to Christ or been helped in their Christian walk had he sat down and quit. Honestly, I may have been one of those who would have given up on ministry if not for the example of perseverance set forth by Charles Stanley.

When I knew I was going to be a divorced man in 2013, I was ready to throw in the towel and accept that I had done all I could for Jesus. I’m thankful that most everyone I knew, even the most conservative people, told me I wasn’t done. Furthermore, I’m thankful I didn’t listen to the devil and give up.

Today, Charles Stanley publicly announced that he is stepping down as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia. He made it clear he is not retiring. He will be 88 years old this month and plans to continue the ministry of In Touch. Thank you, Dr. Stanley for being unwavering in your commitment to the message and call of Christ!

My Natural Birthing Experience

On Sunday night, my wife gave birth to our newest addition in…our…home. That’s right! Inside our house. She did not want the hospital experience this time. I was torn up about the thought of it and was apprehensive until the baby came out. My wife had her crew present to soothe and coach. Worship music was playing in the background, and I was trying to keep my sanity.

As it drew closer, one of the ladies began singing along with the worship songs. By the time “It Is Well” and “Goodness of God” played back to back, I was bawling. I have been reading “Wounded by God’s People” by Anne Graham Lotz. In the book, she tells the story of Hagar, a woman who was wounded by God’s people, namely Abraham and Sarah. In Hagar’s attempt to run from her wounds, God revealed Himself to her. This story is a beautiful reminder that God pursues the wounded. Scripture says He is near to the broken-hearted. God pursued me in that moment. I was reminded that I allowed my wounds to keep me from experiencing God.

Obviously, this experience was not MY natural birthing experience. But God met me in the midst of it. And I pray I’m never the same!

My Disasters and God’s Plans

If you were to write a script for your life, what would it look like? Would it have conflict? Drama? Problems? Or would it be more like a fairy tale with the traditional “happily ever after” ending? To be completely honest with you, I would choose the fairy tale. If you know my story, you know it is not horrible but it is certainly not a fairy tale. My story is a mix of my disasters and God’s plans.

While I am being honest, I can’t always say I like God’s plans. Why is that? Part of me is selfish. Part of me wants the delusional over the realistic. Part of me still wants the prosperity gospel (as false as it is) over the real call of Christ to deny myself daily, take up the cross, and follow Him. This false gospel has given many believers a false sense of security and a really warped view of God. They can’t make sense of why they would suffer while the prosperity pimps/pastors are living it up. This unbiblical view has many believers grappling with the difficulties of life and preventing them from seeing life through a biblical lens.

This verse has stuck out to me for the last week and a half. It is Proverbs 16:9 (TPT) – “Within your heart you can make plans for your future, but the Lord chooses the steps you take to get there.” I was listening to Pastor Heath Lambert from First Baptist, Jacksonville, FL share this verse and how the church’s downsizing plan took a different turn than they planned. A church that has dwindled by 6,000 plus in attendance over the last two decades, they have had to come up with a plan to operate with their means and get refocused on the Great Commission. In this process, they were looking at renovating one part of their facility for worship while God was blocking that plan to redirect them to renovating a different part of the existing facility. The church is finally able to pay its bills and operate within its means, so they arrived to the desired destination but did so via a different path.

My story is probably similar to FBC Jacksonville. Life and ministry used to be on a much larger scale. Due to a few twists and turns, I found myself on a much different path. Here’s the awesome part – I’m still in the game! Another pastor who has been divorced told me that I would be like a bird with a broken wing. I wouldn’t fly with the big boys, but I would still fly.

Dear reader, you may have had some unexpected twists and turns in your life. You’ve faced some disappointments, and life didn’t happen the way you planned. God is not caught off guard. And He is not far away! Only eternity will reveal the true story of your life. You might think God is done with you, but He may be using you in greater ways on a smaller level. We will never understand God’s ways because our minds aren’t made to comprehend them. Scripture says His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. It might be time to do what the song says and let Jesus take the wheel and surrender our disasters to God’s plans.

The Month of August and God’s Grace in Transition

The month of August is historically a month of transition for me. My first August transition was bittersweet. It was in 2003 when I left Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hartsville, SC to step into the unknown, which would soon carry me to Southside Baptist Church in Hazlehurst, GA, where I would once again leave in the month of August, this time in 2009 to serve at Hepsibah Baptist Church in Seneca, SC. These three ministries were extremely key in shaping me. I saw both the blessing of God along with growing pains and am thankful for all the wonderful people I encountered during those years.

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Hartsville, SC (served 2001-2003)
Southside Baptist Church, Hazlehurst, GA (served 2003-2009)
Hepsibah Baptist Church, Seneca, SC (served 2009-2012)

The month of August looks a lot different these days. Since then, the month of August seems to be filled with births of babies. Charisabella, my first child with Jennifer, was born August 3. Now, we are awaiting the birth of a little boy whose due date was the 6th.

Charisabella (now age 4) with little brother whose name happens to be August (how fitting for this post😀)

Transition never ends, but I’m glad. If I never transitioned in my Christian growth, it would be a horrible thing. God never saved us just to sit around and wait for Heaven. Second Corinthians 3:18 says, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” As we grow, we are being transformed into the image of Christ by the Spirit of the Lord.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the same. As much as I enjoyed the victories I experienced at Emmanuel, Southside, and Hepsibah, I want new victories and blessings of God in ministry. I want new growth as an individual and minister of the gospel. If I haven’t grown, God help me. I also want to continue to grow as a husband and father. This may be my sixth biological child coming, but I know I have a lot of growth still as a parent. Blended families aren’t for sissies. (Stepmoms and stepdads should be shouting and waving a handkerchief right now.) I can’t be even halfway good at this without growth.

I have no idea what transitions face me in the future months of August. What I do know is that God will be there to help me face those transitions. I doubt there is a reader here who has not had your fair share of difficulties in life. I have. But I can testify that God is faithful.

I’ll close with these hymn lyrics as I reflect on God’s Grace during transition. I pray you will find them to be a blessing.

“He Giveth More Grace”

He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater.

He sendeth more strength when the labors increase

To added affliction He addeth His mercy

To multiplied trials His multiplied peace

When we have exhausted our store of endurance

When our strength has failed ere the day is half done

When we reach the end of our hoarded resources

Our Father’s full giving is only begun

His love has no limit, His grace has no measure

His pow’r has no boundary known unto men

For out of His infinite riches in Jesus

He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again

Did Jesus Have a Spine?

You may be thinking, “Matthew, the answer is obvious. Of course, Jesus had a spine. He had a human body.” Others get where I am going with this. Have you ever heard someone being referred to as “spineless”? This means that they lack courage to say what needs to be said and take necessary action. I know the popular trend is to portray Jesus as this weak guy that went easy on everybody, but that is not the Jesus of the Bible.

You may say, “Matthew, why would you say such a thing? Jesus is all about some love.” This is true, but John 1:14 says He is “full of grace AND truth”. If He is full of truth, what do you think will come out of His mouth? Flattery? Southern charm? A good old “bless your heart”? Let’s look first at how He responded in an intolerable situation.

“Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Matthew‬ ‭21:12-13‬ ‭NKJV). Did you notice what Jesus did? He turned over tables and told the money changers that they had turned His house into a den of thieves. Southerners in America might say that wasn’t good manners. Jesus had the authority, didn’t He?

Let’s look now at some things He called the scribes and Pharisees.

1. Ye blind guides (Matt. 23:16).

2. Ye fools (Matt. 23:17).

3. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees…for ye are like whited supulchres…full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness (Matt. 23:27).

4. Ye serpents (Matt. 23:33).

5. Ye generation of vipers (Matt. 23:33).

6. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! (Luke 11:44).

7. Ye are as graves which appear not (Luke 11:44).

He was dealing with religious people who did not want any part of Him. Once again, I can hear you say, “Jesus shouldn’t be name calling.” He is God. He knows the hearts of people, so what He says is truth.

While Jesus is a compassionate Savior, He has no tolerance for sin. People are quick to quote Jesus for saying that those who are without sin should cast the first stone, yet they skip the end when He told the adulterous woman to “go and SIN NO MORE”.

Jesus isn’t spineless. He is very much confrontational. I didn’t say He was hateful. I said that He speaks against what is wrong while meeting them where they are. May we not shy away from speaking the truth in love because we have a weak, unbiblical view of the real Jesus.

The Problem-Free Christian Life

Each of us wants an easy life, right? I know those with my personality type do. If you’re like me, you don’t like conflict. You will even go as far as to avoid it at all costs. If you are that kind of person, I have no doubt you would jump at any opportunity to be problem-free, especially if you knew you could also experience right standing with God. Many people come into the Christian life with an understanding that their problems will vanish, but this is not a biblical truth.

The Bible promises problems for the Christian. (I’m doing a great job selling the Christian life, huh?) In fact, the closer you walk with Jesus, the more likely you are to experience hardship. For example, most all the early disciples gave their life for the faith. When faced with the opportunity to live or die for believing in Christ, they chose to die pretty gruesome deaths. Jesus promised in John 16:33 that we WILL have tribulation in this world. He followed it with a word of hope, but that does not negate the reality of hardship. Paul told Timothy that “the godly in Christ Jesus SHALL suffer persecution”. So much for that prosperity package that many charlatans are promising! Nothing in the Christian life is gained without obedience, discipline, and even suffering.

We are definitely in perilous times. I don’t consider myself to be a doom and gloom preacher, but it is clear that Christian liberties are being attacked. Many of the rights and liberties our forefathers fought to protect are at risk. Other faith groups that don’t align with Christianity are included in that number. Many groups are under attack. Our forefathers fought against government control, yet we are seeing it come more and more to the forefront. Guidelines are one thing; control is another.

Many have asked me over the last few months if Jesus is coming back soon. Some think this might the Tribulation. I can’t give definitive answers to those questions, but I can say the stage is being set.

Jesus didn’t promise a problem-free life, but He did promise grace for the journey. When the Apostle Paul was faced with what he called a “thorn in the flesh”, he asked God three times to remove it. What was God’s response? “My Grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” That promise rings true today. Don’t run away because it’s not easy. Run to the Father and find the strength you need to face these difficult days.