A Family Advent Devotional

Today is December 1st, the launch of the Advent season at the Ferguson  home.  A few years ago, Barie and I wrote a family advent devotion called 25 Reasons We Believe.  Each day from December 1st to December 25th covers a different reason we believe in God and choose to follow Christ.  Each devotional includes a recommended Scripture to read, a short devotional, and suggested family activities.  Click on the image above to download the PDF file.

Tell the World Update

Last summer, the elders of Cityview Bible Church challenged our congregation to tell the world the good news that Jesus is alive.  In our current ministry year (2017-2018), our goal was to send 100 Cityview members on a short-term mission trip.  We knew that if we could get people to step out in faith and get involved in God’s work around the world, it would change their lives forever.

As the end of our ministry year approaches, where are we in hitting our goal?  We have three mission trips left to send out this summer (Haiti, Chicago, and New Mexico).  After those three teams complete their trips, we will have sent out 168 people from Cityview on a GO trip!  And here’s the amazing part: for 98 of them, it will have been their very first mission trip.  How cool is that?!  In addition, we have seen 2 more families commit to long-term missions.  Wow!

As men, women, students, and children from Cityview have participated in global outreach trips, what have we learned as a church?  A few key lessons stand out to me:

1- Anyone can go.  We have seen people of all ages and stages of life participate in missions this year.  God has used a variety of personalities and spiritual gifts on every single team.  Many that I have talked to about going this year have expressed insecurity about their ability to meaningfully contribute to a mission team.  What have seen over the last 12 months?  Anyone can go and make a significant contribution to their team.

2- Everyone deserves to hear.  On all of our trips, we have encountered people who have never heard the good news that God loves them and sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross and rise from the dead to forgive our sin and reconcile us to Himself forever.  Every team has returned asking the question, how can there still be people on this planet who have not heard what Jesus did for them?  But the truth is that many have not heard and will not hear unless we go to them and share the hope we have in Christ.

3- Prayer is powerful.  There is nothing like participating in global outreach to show you the limitations of your own abilities and the limitless power of God.  Every mission team comes back in AWE of God’s love and power.  Why?  Because they were forced to depend on God in prayer.  And God answered their prayers.  The Spirit of God moves in power when the people of God get involved in Jesus’ mission.  Again and again, we have seen God do the impossible in response to our desperate cries for help.

I know that my own involvement in missions over the years has radically changed my view of God and my perspective on the world.  The Lord has used His global work to give me a heart of compassion for all kinds of people from every kind of background.  If you have been involved in missions, how has the Lord used it to change your life?  I’d love to hear your perspective.

Book Notes: American Ulysses

Reading Ronald White’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant in the midst of our current political climate makes one long for men and women in American leadership with strong moral character and a humble disposition.  Over the years, I have read my share of Civil War histories and presidential biographies. Without question, White’s book ranks near the top of my list of favorite works.  Why did I enjoy it so much?

First, White’s writing style is powerful, active, and compact.  He covers the amazing sweep of Grant’s life with enough detail to place you in the story, yet keeps the narrative moving.  I could easily imagine how an author could get lost in the weeds after years of research and writing on such an amazing life.  White resists this temptation by using short sentences, active verbs, and concise analysis.  I haven’t read White’s material before.  After this book, I confess: I’m a fan.

Second, the arc of Grant’s life is simply amazing.  I knew the larger elements – Civil War general and US President.  But I didn’t know the rest of the story: Grant’s service in the Mexican War and time stationed out west, his loving relationship with his wife Julia, leaving the army to put his hand to business, his amazing climb in the army after re-entering the service during the war, his world tour after his presidency, and his herculean effort to publish his memoirs while fighting cancer.  Every part of this man’s life is fascinating and interesting.

Third, the character of Grant is personally challenging.  White comments throughout the biography on Grant’s plain style, his unassuming nature and gentle humility.  Grant was an introvert, uncomfortable with self-promotion, and always considerate of others.  He was an advocate for those facing injustice: American Indians and recently freed slaves.  He used his power to help those who had no voice.  How can a man with this kind of servant, humble leadership rise to the highest positions of power in 19th century America?  It’s a fascinating question and stands in polar opposition to today’s political culture.

I give this book my highest recommendation.  Read it to learn about one of America’s most significant figures, and read it because it is so much fun.

The Most Important Habit of 2017

The new year brings new opportunities for change.  Over the years of personally following Christ and helping others do the same, I have consistently found one habit produces more change than any other.  One habit that transforms marriages, helps parents, fuels evangelism, sparks prayer, and brings new life to a dry and weary soul.  If I could encourage you to start any new habit in 2017, it would be the habit of reading and responding to God’s Word every single day.

Our lives are full of noise.  So many voices compete for our daily attention.  Where do we prioritize the voice of God?  How do we listen first to what God wants us to do each day?  Jesus commands us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”  But how do we seek Jesus first?  How do we make our relationship with the Lord our highest priority?  The answer is simple and yet remarkably difficult to do: open your Bible and prayerfully read it every day.

Let’s get really practical: what’s required to start AND maintain this habit in 2017?

  1. A quiet place.  Jesus took the time in Luke 5:16 to get away from the crowds and the disciples to be alone with God.  He taught us in Matthew 6:6 to go into our room and close the door when we pray.  Why?  So that we could find a quiet place to be with the Lord.  Remove distractions.
  2. A good time.  Look at your calendar and find your best time of the day.  This is actually harder than you think to do.  Consider when you are most alert, have some free time, or can use existing time for connecting with God (lunch hour).  Whatever time your choose, mark it on your calendar and stick to it.
  3. The right tools.  Get a Bible translation that you can read and understand.  Don’t consume your time reading devotionals (other people’s words about the Bible).  Read the Bible itself.  Make sure you have a journal, a good study Bible, and an accessible commentary if you get stuck.  Come to the table ready to dig!
  4. A doable plan. Once you find a time and place and bring the right tools, the questions is then what to read. There are so many good Bible reading plans you can choose from.  Find one that works for your schedule and your daily routine.  Start small if you never done anything like this before.
  5. A soft heart.  When you read the Bible, don’t approach God with an arrogant heart, looking for problems and reasons not to obey.  Come with a soft heart that desires to submit to the Lord and follow His ways.  Be ready to apply what God says to you each day.  His Word is living and active and will change your forever.

My friend, 1 Timothy 4:7-8 teaches us to train ourselves for godliness.  Why?  Because training ourselves (having personal discipline) is essential to spiritual growth.  Is it hard work?  Yes – there is no doubt.  But everything of value in life requires discipline.  You want 2017 to be different?  Start the new habit of spending time every single day in God’s Word.

What I Learned in Athens

I just returned from 8 days in Athens, Greece with a team of 13 from Cityview.  We served the church in Greece and refugees from around the Arab world that have migrated to Athens.  In our 5 days of ministry, we talked to refugees from 10 different nations.  The Lord has truly brought people from all over the Muslim world to the west as their home countries are in turmoil.  I could write so many words about what we saw, heard, and felt, but I will limit myself to the top five lessons I learned.  Here we go:

1- God is sovereign over the movements of people and the boundaries of the nations.  He has determined where and when we are born, and He sets the course of our lives.  The apostle Paul actually made this point in Acts 17:26 when he preached in Athens 2000 years ago: “From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live.” The Scripture says that Paul was speaking to the local Greeks “and the foreigners that had gathered there.”  Not much has changed in 2000 years: God is still moving people around the world and determining the boundaries of where they live.  Why?  Paul tells us: “He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.”  God puts us where we are so that we might have a personal relationship with Him.  To say it another way: you are not where you are by accident, and neither is your neighbor.

2- God loves Muslim people and wants them to know Him through His Son Jesus Christ.  The God of Islam can be merciful and good and generous in his actions, but the God of the Bible is love in his essential nature.  The Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) has existed in eternal self-giving, loving relationship forever, and for this reason, the Bible can say with complete integrity: God is love. (1 John 4:8) . The One True God sent His Son to live and die and rise again so that Muslim people can know Him as Father.  The Bible says that Jesus died for the world.  (1 John 2:2) This means that God loves people from every tribe and tongue and nation.  God reminded me in the most powerful of ways last week that He loves people and desires all men, women, and children to know Him through His Son.  He is a good, good Father.

3- God hurts at seeing young refugees being taken advantage of by those with money and power.  The Bible says that God is a father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5).  I met the fatherless last week – those who fathers were killed or left behind in a distant land.  And they were vulnerable beyond comprehension.  CNN released this article while we were serving in Athens – it recounts what was happening to many of the young refugees we were ministering to.   My heart broke while I was praying over these young men one day.  I couldn’t process what I would if one of my sons found themselves in this helpless situation.  And the Lord spoke to me in the midst of my tears, “these are my kids.”  God was showing me His Father’s heart for those who are hurting and lost and brutalized by this world.  He truly is a father to the fatherless.  They are his kids.

4- God is mighty to save anyone who calls on His name.  The power to change the human heart and bring hope from hopelessness is only found in the cross of Jesus Christ.  1 Corinthians 2:1-5 was my personal battle cry all week: asking God to demonstrate His power so that the faith of those who believed in Jesus would rest not on our influence as Americans or our creative words, but on the power of God.  This was Paul’s testimony: he came to Athens and Corinth and Ephesus in weakness, not in strength.  He came in humility, not in power.  But God came in power!  In the same way, when we ministered in Athens, we saw the power of God on display.  He reveals Himself to people in dreams and visions, through miraculous circumstances, kind strangers, missionaries from other nations.  His gospel, revealed by the Spirit, is the only power that can break the human heart and change the soul.

5- God answers prayer.  I believe in prayer.  I have always believed in prayer. But there is something unique that happens when desperate prayer is combined with intentional evangelism.  The Lord moves. 17 years ago, when I did my first ministry assignment, I was scared to death.  I felt completely inadequate for the work and found myself daily on my knees in prayer.  I remember saying, “God, if you don’t move and show up in power, I’m sunk.  This isn’t going to work.”  And you know what?  The Lord moved.  In power.  He was faithful to answer prayer.  As we served in Athens last week, I again found myself in a place beyond my personal gifting, a place where I was desperate for God to move.  And I wasn’t alone.  Our whole team cried out to God to help us – how were the 13 of us going to connect in meaningful ways with refugees that we shared nothing in common with? The Lord heard our prayers, our countless prayers, and He answered them.  Because He hears those who cry out to Him and rely on His strength.

This only scratches the surface of what I learned in Athens, but I have to stop here.  As I conclude, let me leave you with this thought: God used this trip to change the lives of many people in Athens.  But He also used it to change the lives of 12 people from Round Rock, Texas.  Won’t you consider participating in what God is doing around the world?  He is moving in power and wants you to join Him.

We Need You Men

As a generation, we are staring daily into the void caused by the lack of strong, godly men in our culture and our homes.  Whether it is the recent news about rampant sexual assault on college campuses or violent, abusive young men who commit mass shootings, we are seeing the consequences of a generation of men who have not been taught to use their strength to live for the good of others, but instead have been trained to use other people for their own selfish gain.  How have we ended up with this sad state of affairs and more importantly, how do we turn the tide with the next generations of boys?

The truth is that one of the effects of sin in our world is the selfish passivity of men.  Without strong mentoring of the next generation of boys by the current generation of men, the default belief of young men is that they are supposed to be cared for by women.  So, instead of learning from an early age to use their masculine energy and strength to be servant leaders, boys learn to use women to get their own needs met.  This selfish passivity is destructive to the family, the church, and the culture at large.

What we desperately need today is a renewal of selfless servant leadership among men.  We need a generation of boys who learn (by watching and hearing) to use their masculine strength to lay down their lives for the good of the women around them.  We need a new generation of men who live to protect women, honor their bodies, and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve as daughters of God and sisters in Christ.  We need a generation of men who will reject the selfish consumer passivity encouraged by our culture and who reject the violent, abusive treatment of women displayed in pornography.  A generation of men who make the decision to be faithful, loving husbands and fathers, who work hard to provide for their families, and who commit themselves to a  life of character and honor.

One of the oft-repeated proverbs of pastoral leadership is that “everyone attends church on Mother’s Day and everyone goes fishing on Father’s Day.”  While its obviously an overstatement, it reveals the core issue I’m writing about today: that moms too often carry the heaviest load for spiritual leadership and direction in the family.  This should not be.  Dads, where are you?  Where are the fathers who don’t check out on Father’s Day, but instead tell their families, “what would honor your father the most this year would be for us all to be in church together worshiping God as a family”?

It is too easy for us as men to sit back and condemn the culture for its lack of moral compass and mistreatment of women and girls.  But here’s the truth: if we sit  back and do nothing, if we keep our mouths shut and say nothing, if we fail to train the next generation of boys to honor God above all and treat women with love and honor, then we are perpetuating the very problems we hate to see.  Men, we need your strong, servant leadership in the home, the church, and the culture.  We need you to tenderly love and serve your wives in front of your kids, to treat the women at your workplace with dignity and respect, to use your gifts to serve women in the church, and to use your strength to protect your daughters.

Men, our world is crying out for a vision of masculinity that is not selfish, passive, abusive, and consumed with lust and games.  Where are the men who will lay down their selfish desires, their sexual urges, and their violent anger at the altar before God and pick up the mantel of Christ-like love, service, and kindness toward others?  Give me a tribe of these kind of men, and by God’s grace, the next generation of boys will have a vision of manhood worth giving their lives for.

A New Prayer for A New Year


As we enter 2016, I cover this year with a prayer for help with the small things.  Not that I have stopped believing you for big miracles in this life, but that my evaluation of faithfulness in the daily grind has gone up exponentially over time.  For that reason, Almighty God, I’m asking for your hand to bless the quiet routines that no one will ever see but you.  I believe that those may be the most significant moments in the new year.  Father, I pray for…

  • the discipline to get up early every day and seek You first.  I understand that going to bed on time and getting up early is one of those small decision with huge ramifications.
  • the creativity to invest new ideas into my dates with Barie.  Don’t let me get stuck in a rut with our weekly date nights.  I ask for the energy and passion to invest in my wonderful marriage.
  • the compassion for those around me who are hurting.  Lord, help me to see what You see and feel what You feel, and to not miss people in my path because of tasks on my to-do list.
  • the honesty to recognize when my body needs rest.  2015 was a tough year of realizing the limitations of my body.  Diabetes has been my thorn in the flesh, literally.  Please help me to rest and exercise as needed so I can be around for my family in the years to come.
  • the patience to parent well.  God, I get angry too often when the kids are disobedient, when they are loud while I’m craving silence.  Help me to have more grace for them, to treat them like You treat me.
  • the wisdom to manage our family budget in a way that fulfills our giving commitments and regular responsibilities.  I need strength in this area.  It is just hard.

God, I want to see you move in big ways in 2016 – in our family, our neighborhood, our church, our nation, and the world.  But as I get older, I increasingly see my need for You in the daily moments of walking with Jesus.  Lord, show us Your powerful hand in the everyday routine of life, helping 2016 be a year of growth and health and peace.

For Your glory and fame.  Amen.

Five Tips for Studying the Bible

Open BibleAs we think about our goals for the new year, many of us want to become more regular in reading, studying, and applying God’s Word to our lives.  Here are five tips to help you become a better student of the Bible:

1- Have a plan!  After following Jesus for the last 20 years, I can confidently declare that your Bible reading will be better and more disciplined if you have a good plan to follow.  Without a plan, your reading will be sporadic and disconnected.  Reading the Bible faithfully is a lot like the discipline of exercise.  It requires you to do it when you feel like it and when you don’t feel like it.  The best way to push through the low times is to have a good reading plan that you can stick to.  There are a variety of great plans available online.  However, if you are looking for a great one to start with, sign up to journey with our congregation through the four NT gospels in 2016.  You can sign up at http://cityview.jointhejourney.com/.  You will receive a daily email with a passage to read and a short devotional with reflection questions.

2- Read prayerfully!  Make sure to remember that Bible study is not purely an academic exercise.  Our goal is not to master information or learn new facts but to walk under God’s authority.  We believe that the Bible is living and active and that the Holy Spirit uses the Scripture to speak to our hearts and change our lives.  For that reason, make sure you pray before you read and then meditate on what you have read.  Give the Spirit room (and time!) to speak into your life, comfort you, convict you, change you from the inside out.

3- Read in community!  One of the biggest mistakes that American believers make in 2016 is reading the Bible in isolation from other Christians.  We need to listen to the voices of other Christians (in history and our own times) who have wrestled with the meaning and application of the Bible.  When you find something new and powerful in the Bible, run it past a mature Christian who can help you process your insights.  By God’s grace, you have what you need to study and grow in the Scripture, but God never intended for you to do so in isolation.

4- Study the context!  Most errors in Bible interpretation and application flow from one source: reading Bible verses out of context.  We have all made this mistake, so I’m definitely not throwing stones.  But I do want to encourage you to study the words of the Bible in the context of the sentence, in the context of the paragraph, in the context of the chapter, in the context of the book, in the context of the whole Bible.  This process is so important to make sure you understand what the original author actually intended to say with what they wrote.  You wouldn’t want anyone to read one sentence of your email apart from the context of your whole message.  Don’t do that to the biblical authors either!

5- Read honestly.  The Lord of the Bible knows your heart and mind as you read the Bible.  There is no value in faking your response to the Scripture.  The psalmists model for us a brutal honesty with God as we process His promises in the midst of our own struggles and circumstances.  I think Bible-reading is so much more powerful and life-changing when we are honest with the text, when we argue with it and celebrate it and cry through it and get mad at it.  If you really study the Bible and seek to apply it to your life, you will experience the full range of human emotions.  Be honest about it, and ask the Lord to shape you according to His will as you read.

No other spiritual discipline has helped me grow as much as spending daily time in God’s Word.  I pray that you will experience God in fresh ways in the Bible in the new year!

“For the Word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart.”  Hebrews 4:12

Why I Love My Church

This Sunday morning I find myself reflecting on the joys and sorrows of doing life inside the local church.  Specifically my local church, Cityview Bible Church, over the last 8.5 years.  Being heavily involved in any kind community has its shares of ups and downs because we are most vulnerble to pain when we allow ourselves to care deeply about other people.  All the risks considered, I still believe that commitment to a local church is one of the most important contributors to long-term spiritual growth.  As I think about our church family this morning, here’s what I’m grateful for:

1- Their passion for God.  Our congregation loves to worship, loves to pray, and loves to serve God.  I am constantly challenged by their ongoing fire for God’s glory above all else.  When I lose my focus or my passion, the people of Cityview remind me what is really important: we are here for God.

2- Their service of one another motivated by love.  I often say that I’m not sure where people turn for support and help when they are not connected to a local church.  Because I have seen the people of Cityview serve one another through the most difficult of circumstances.  As Barie and I have been through deep waters this year, we have experieneced the love of the local church in a whole new way.

3- The spiritually mature leaders.  The strength of any church is not really built on the communication gift of the pastor or the musical ability of the worship leader.  It is built on the spiritual health of the lay leaders in the church – the elders, the small group leaders, the ministry leaders.  I am continually encouraged by the spiritual maturity of our leaders.  I love serving with our elders, and I love watching the ministry leaders at Cityview use their gifts in such amazing ways.

4- Their patience with me.  I was 28 when we planted our church and in hindsight, a very immature pastor.  But our association and our elders were willing to take a risk on my leadership and to help mentor me along the way.  Now, at 36, I am exceedingly grateful for the patience of our congregation as they have given me room to grow in the Lord and learn how to be a pastor.

5- Their generosity toward our mission.  I don’t even have words to describe how amazed I am that people invest the amount of time, money, and energy in our mission that they do.  When we say that we are committed to reaching every man, woman, and child in Greater Austin with the life-changing reality of Jesus Christ, we mean it.  And our people are so supportive in seeing that become a reality.

6- Their grace toward one another.  I think one of the true marks of the people of Jesus is their ability to forgive one another and extend grace to each other.  Our church is a grace-filled environment.  I am so thankful to lead a church that is willing to press into the hard conflicts of life together and at the same time extend grace and mercy to each other.

I love the people of Cityview Bible Church.  They are truly our extended family, and they have walked with us through so much over the last 8.5 years.  I’m excited to see what the Lord has in store for us in the years ahead.

4 Insights from Lloyd-Jones on Preaching

preachinglloydjonesIt took me a while to read because I read it in stages, but nonetheless today I finished Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic book on preaching.  Lloyd-Jones died in 1981 but continues to influence a new generation of preachers who are looking for wise counsel on how to handle the Bible in the pulpit and speak effectively to a new generation of listeners.  This book contains a series of lectures that Lloyd-Jones delivered in 1969 at Westminster Seminary toward the end of his career.  He doesn’t pull any punches in this work, telling you exactly what he things about every aspect of preaching ministry in the local church.  Some of his opinions are based on his strong personal preferences (as he readily admits) while others are based on a lifetime of local church ministry and biblical reflection.  Here are four insights that will stay with me from Lloyd-Jones:

1- Be honest with the biblical text in preparing to preach.  This resonates with me because I feel this tension every week that I preach.  Am I going to force the Scripture to support the point that I want to make OR am I going to allow the main thrust of the text I’m preaching to shape the sermon I’m going to preach?  Every preacher faces this fundamental decision every week – sometimes multiple times a week – will we deal honestly with the Bible?  I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have thought that I knew what I was going to preach from a text only to have the main idea change after a careful study of the Scripture.  I so appreciated Lloyd-Jones’ passionate defense of exegetical preaching and the importance of giving time to make sure we know what the Bible is saying before we stand in the pulpit to preach it.

2- Allow freedom for the Holy Spirit to move.  Tim Keller says the difference between a bad preacher and a good preacher is hard work, but that the difference between a good preacher and a greater preacher is the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  Lloyd-Jones would undoubtedly agree with this statement.  He goes to great lengths to emphasize the all-important role of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of preaching.  While some of his recommendations are strange, the heart behind all of them is the same: make sure you are filled with the Spirit, guided by the Spirit, and moved by the Spirit when you preach.  The last chapter of the book is his discussion on “unction,” an old word that means the anointing of the Spirit.  I think it is the best chapter of the whole book.  Lloyd-Jones believed that there was no substitute for the power of the Spirit in the life of the preacher.

3- Know and communicate with your audience.  Lloyd-Jones rightly critiques preachers who argue with commentators in the pulpit, saying that they don’t know their own audience.  I think his concern is that so much that passes as preaching is addressing the wrong audience.  Instead of preaching to the actual people in front of him, the pastor can preach to his peers or professors or authors he reads.  Lloyd-Jones says this may make him sound educated and well-read, but it doesn’t actually help the people he is ministering to.  This is one reason that pulpit ministry must be connected to the life of the congregation and the life of the community.  If we are disconnected from people, we will answer questions they aren’t asking and ignore issues that weigh them down.

4- Be yourself when you preach.  I’ve heard many other preachers make this point, but none as strongly or clearly as Lloyd-Jones.  He says that one of the greatest errors that young preachers make is trying to sound like, act like, move like, and preach like other preachers that they admire.   Throughout the book, he comes back to this theme again and again.  It impacts the way we study, the material we read, the style of our preaching, and the rhetoric we use.  His advise: know thyself and be honest with yourself about your own style, your own preparation rhythms, your own season of life.  I believe that every preacher needs to be reminded of this truth: God made you to be you, not someone else.

If you have read Lloyd-Jones on preaching, which of his words of advice most helped you?