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Unknown-1How long does it take for a local church to plan an annual Missions Conference?

Clear Lake Chinese Church of Webster, TX first reached out to me in July 2018. Their pastor told me that they had been planning their 2019 Annual Missions Conference for March, nine months away. I had to keep scrolling through my calendar to see if I was free to accept their invitation as their keynote speaker.

Before I accepted the invitation, I have several decided practices that must always precede my official answer. I don’t mean to sound super spiritual but I do pray about such invitations. Really.

My prayers for God’s guidance are not new. Regularly, I am praying about opportunities to serve the Lord who gave me a life-long calling for ministry. During these times of intercession I am asking for peace, enthusiasm, and guidance.

Then, I seek the counsel of my personal team. These are a collection of amazing and godly people who help me with varying perspectives. We discuss details. For example, where is the venue? How many times do they want you to speak? What is the purpose of the gatherings? Does the theme fit within your area of specialization? What is the demographics of the expected audience? Do the logistics lend themselves to your current obligations and commitments?

The final decision to accept or reject speaking invitations is ultimately left in my hands. However, I know that when I include these others in my decision, it automatically garners a huge amount of prayer support when I do accept these engagements. To end God’s sovereign administration never ceases to amaze me. He knows when my calendar if open. By far I accept more invitations than I send my regrets.

UnknownOver nine months I read with interest how the church was formulating their Missions Conference objectives. They wanted to have their church family challenged to “Reach the Nations in their City.”  Wow! That theme captured my heart.

Plotting out my study time in the course of fulfilling all of my current duties as the Dean of DTS-Houston, I made notes, studied exegetical issues, considered theological lessons, matched clarifying illustrations, and prayed for a powerful and clear presentation for this conference. During the course of our communications, I ascertained the receptivity of the audience, imagined definitive niches of people types, wondered at how the challenges of the Mission objectives could be presented to each season of life.

The time came. The introductions were given. I stepped up on to the platform and months of preparation unfolded. We connected. By God’s grace some amazing life-changes will be new habits of life for many.

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The birth of a new idea is like the spark that sits in a handful of some kind of fire starter. You see the possibility. You’re shivering in the cold. The temperatures are dropping and you crave the warmth that a fire promises.

Carefully, you cradle the ember and coax it with gentle steady blowing. Slowly tendrils of smoke rise. The spark grows brighter.

Hope for a real fire to warm chilling bones emerges. Your anxious body begins to relax. Small strokes of heat from the newly born fire lick your face. Eagerly, you place the crackling fire into the waiting pile of sticks and gathered wood.

Not long ago an idea for the church came to us at DTS-Houston like a spark that promised a fire. Concerned believers gathered to address a problem. Chinese churches in the USA are facing a major crisis. Up to half of the pastors of Chinese language churches in America have pastors closing in on retirement. Who will fill those pulpits?

But, it’s not just the coming hole of pastoral roles that is looming on the horizon. There is also a vast number of amazing church members with a deep hunger for the Word of God. Every pastor loves having a large portion of these spiritually mature and growing saints in their congregations.

Several conversations ensued about both of these streams of people. Beyond merely a cavalcade of words. real action resulted from these meetings. Most notably, money was donated and scholarships were funded. Parameters for qualifications were designed. It was time to get the word out.

Here at DTS-Houston, pastors from a number of Houston area Chinese churches came. From as far away as College Station and Austin they arrived. After a sumptuous meal we prayed, introduced ourselves, and listened to an amazing presentation of scholarship opportunities for new students.

Qualified students who are accepted at DTS-Houston could apply for several scholarships. If they are preparing for pastoral ministry or desiring to increase their knowledge of Bible and Theology then we have a path for them. As well, if someone knows that God has not called to professional ministry but they are eager to advance their knowledge and skills for lay ministry, then was also have a path for them.

Our prayer is that the pool of generous resources that has been given for DTS students can find a great match with eager students to impact the local church for God’s glory. The gathering of key pastors in the greater Houston area was wonderful.

IMG_1493Our move to Houston had a number of priorities on our relocation list.  The normal items of finding a home, establishing myself in my new job, finding a new job for my bride and of course, finding a new home church.  This last item was not the lowest on our priority even though it comes last on my list.

During our visits to Houston we not only shopped for a place to live and find a house to buy in the area that we chose to be our home, I asked a lot questions about church recommendations.  My list for churches that others were excited about was growing longer.  Now, it was time to systematically make our visits and trust God to lead us where He wanted us to serve.

Essentials on our list for a church to call home were simple.  There was doctrinal alignment.  Worship vibrancy was on our list.  Most importantly we wanted a church home where we would be able to love our pastor, support him and his family and be a couple that he could count on as the church moved forward.

We seemed to visit churches forever.  Each time we like so much of the many very good churches in Houston.  Yet, we just could not connect with our list of essentials.

Then, we met Pastor Gregg Matte of Houston’s First Baptist Church.  He was on Sabbatical the first time we visited HFBC.  In the meantime we roamed the city visiting all of the churches that people recommended to us.

When our list ran out we heard that Pastor Gregg was back from his sabbatical.  We chose to visit.  We were blown away!

It is like meeting an old friend and connecting right off the bat.  We met for a Dr. Pepper break, he invited us to their Christmas Celebrate and after a short decision discussion, my bride and I went forward in December 2012 and joined the church.

After years of serving as a pastor, cheering on other pastors, encouraging broken pastors, standing by the side of besieged pastors we are solidly in our Pastor’s corner and doing everything we can to honor his life and ministry.  Often our friends in far away states in California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Tennessee ask how we like living in Houston.  Our response always includes the great reality that we love our church and our pastor.  That’s the way it should always be.

photo credit: yvonne fong photography

 

IMG_4873Christmas is way too busy for us.  We are juggling work, travel, gifts, letters, projects, bills, parties and life so fast that jingling bells are hard to hear.  A lot more silent night and still the night would be welcome in our souls.

A balance is struck from a familiar favorite place.  For many Americans and world-wide Christians this is a shared respite during this hectic season.  This place is featured on Christmas cards, television shows, screen savers and ornaments.

Sometimes the scene is a snow shrouded clearing in the woods.  Horse drawn sleighs are parked in front.  Multi-colored lights transform a living tree just off to the side.IMG_4875

Often the Nativity scene is partnered with this place of comfort.  Joseph and Mary watch over the newborn baby Jesus while animals quietly look on to the miraculous scene.  Visitors flock to the sound of music coming from inside of this haven.

It is the picture of a church building.  Inside the alive church of followers of Jesus are celebrating this anniversary birth.  A Savior has been born.

IMG_4878Our busy lives pushed all of those demanding stress-causing matters out in our POV (personally owned vehicle).  I shut the doors and locked them in.  Then, my bride and I carried our Bibles and hand in hand we walked into church.

Gifted decorators decked out a tree that was gorgeous.  We did not rush by it.  Instead, captivated we stopped and admired it from several angles.IMG_4879

Once inside the auditorium the orchestra and choir and worship team blew us away.  Our spirits soared with the familiar Christmas carols.  Then stunning orchestral and choir supported anthems took our spirits and we worshipped together.  It was awesome!

A soloist made the rafters shake with her rendition of “Do You See What I See?”  We rose to our feet with great applause.  All of us could see!

IMG_4880Pastor Gregg Matte delivered an encouraging word from the Word.  He has a gift of making the truth practical.  The Spirit used it to touch so many lives.

In the end the choir and orchestra dismissed us with a majestic finale of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.  With a family like serendipitous moment the choir motioned for Pastor Gregg to join them in the loft for that final song.  All of us sounded not just “good” but “glorious” as we gave our Almighty God our collective gift of worship.  Merry Christmas!

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

 

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Every Thursday morning at 6:30AM I need to be at church for a gathering called Warrior’s Heart.  Several men volunteer to do the parking signs, breakfast food, coffee, table setup, name tags, registration and greeting.  My part is to teach the Bible lesson.

Since I live a good distance away, I have to leave for our gathering point by 5:25AM.  That means I need to wake up by 4:45AM.  If I do not go to bed early the night before I am going to suffer.

Many times I go to bed at the proper time but I experience a restless sleep.  My mind is going a mile a minute thinking about the lesson and making sure that I have all of my thoughts clearly sorted out.  Of course my computer for projecting the lesson on the two huge screens is essential.

When I choose to use my computer, I have to remember my power cord, my projection adapter, my remote control. Of course I need to bring my reading glasses along as well.  I wake up periodically in a fitful fog wondering if I have forgotten something or worse, if I have overslept.

Finally, I am wide awake at 4:40am waiting for my alarm clock to start its early morning chiming.  Impatient, I just reach over and shut it off.  The next thing that I realize is that I am in the shower and do not remember getting into it.

Glancing at the clock I smile.  At least my routine has me on schedule and ready to fend off the anxiety from running late.  My wonderful bride is ready to go.  We enjoy the commute together.

We carry on a great conversation on the way to work.  It is a 23 mile drive.  Neither of us remember what we talked about but it was fun while we drove into town.

I am the first to stumble walking across the street.  No, neither of us have ever been drunk but this is what it must feel like.  That is when I tell myself to pick up my feet, point my body in the direction of choice and then I can begin putting one foot in front of the other.

No one in my situation even bats an eye at this sleep walking.  We catch up on at least three extra winks before engaging people for the day. God helps me to forbid myself from signing any important papers until the weekend.  Are my eyes open or closed?

photo credit: brucefong photography

 

IMG_4620Pastor Gregg Matte sensed a deep-seated burden from the Lord.  He has been challenged by the Spirit to make prayer a reality in his personal daily practice for over the last year. In his intercession God impressed on his heart a rallying of the pastors of our city to gather and to pray.

He sent out an invitation for pastors to meet for prayer in his office on a Thursday in November.  The simple agenda was to prayer together for the city of Houston.  Remember this gathering for pastors and ministry leaders was planned a month and a half in advance.

The week of the pre-planned event, the city of Houston became world news.  Houston’s mayor had sent out a subpoena to five local pastors.  Each of these ministers were ordered to hand over all sermons that spoke on homosexuality or mentioned the mayor.

The Christian community was shocked.  But, they were not shocked into compliance or frightened into submission.  Instead, the pastors rose up and stood together.IMG_4619

Senator Ted Cruze joined the pastors who gathered in Pastor Gregg Matte’s office.  He never knew that this was part of God’s providential plan.  But, the time was perfect.

The media came to cover this galvanizing event, historic in American church history.  Pastors normally humbly compliant and supportive of our God-ordained governmental officials, drew a line in front of their pulpits.  No governmental intimidation or control over the message of God delivered in the name of His Son would be tolerated.

IMG_4621Over 50 pastors packed into Pastor Gregg’s office.  He directed the prayer session to pray for our mayor, protect the church and move on the local government to rescind their directive of control over the pulpits of the city.  We broke up into groups of 4-6 and prayed up a powerful time of intercession and supplication.

After an hour of prayer we moved downstairs to stand in solidarity before the news cameras as Senator Cruze addressed the media.  Clearly he spoke courageous words of freedom, liberty and religious autonomy. God’s servants had a right to speak the words of God without governmental oversight or control.

God’s calling was the sole directive in the words spoken in American pulpits.  Furthermore, it was a liberty written in our own Constitution.  The scene of pastors from different denominations, various ethnic backgrounds and multi-generational was powerful.

They stood together with the common bond of Christ among them.

photo credit: brucefong photography

IMG_4366Friday night was reserved on our calendar.  When we approached the weekend we talked over our plans, reviewed the events and talked about how meaningful these days would be.  Then the making of a wonderful blessing began.

Friday night was a highlight for us.  We headed out on time to beat the traffic.  Our destination was a simple eatery on the other side of the freeway from our church.

Tonight we were going to the celebration of the ten-year anniversary of our pastor and his family at our church.  It is amazing to consider an entire decade of service for our pastor and his family.  He even stuck around when he succeeded a three decade stint by his predecessor.

Thousands of cheerful supporters filled the church building.  The worship was powerful.  Love was all over the place.

When our pastor was invited up to the platform, the applause was enthusiastic and sustained.  His smile was broad.  His family was basking in a massive display and expression of love.

For a moment I felt for all the pastors who have never experienced that outpouring of devotion.  They have served faithfully only to be beaten down by those who criticize, hold secret gatherings, complain anonymously and mete out miserly compensation.  Do not be one of those.

Nevertheless, these shepherds tirelessly serve, constantly study and face heartbreaking moments where they were the sole source of encouragement.  Their faithfulness slipped by the notice of most and was remembered in detail only by God.  He knows all and never forgets.

There are always those who point to bad ministers.  However, those few are small in number compared to the neglected in ministry.  Encourage your pastor, give your heart to him.  Yes, discern wisely but embrace him with love and encouragement.

We had great conversations with people around us that evening when we honored our pastor.  His personality has been pervasive in our lives.  Warmth, welcome and cheer are ways that he addresses us and so we do the same with each other.

God is blessing our pastor with a powerful ministry in our city and beyond.  His teaching is Biblical, balanced and practical.  People take notes and live what they taught.

Gifts of affection were bestowed.  Flowers filled the arms of his wife.  Each of his children enjoyed holding on to a special memento.

Humility, humor and honesty marked his words.  We love our pastor and his family!  Encourage your pastor and watch what God will do.

photo credit: brucefong photography

IMG_4348There is a love affair that many have for the game of baseball.  The diamond, the pitch, the hit, the bunt, the double-play and the stats fuel the imagination.  It is a gathering time for family and friends as well.

This game was special for many.  The Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers were meeting for the second of a three game match-up. It is called the Texas Showdown.

Minute Maid Park was filling up with not just baseball fans but a large gathering of saints from Houston’s First Baptist Church.  Our pastor, Gregg Matte, was scheduled to throw in one of the ceremonial pitches to start the game.  When he was introduced, there was a roar from the crowd.  All of us wearing our blue Houston’s First T-shirts were enjoying our reason for coming to the ball game.

We set aside our popcorn and Cracker Jacks, stood to our feet and applauded our shepherd.  He strolled on to the field holding hands with his daughter, Valerie.  She nearly stole the show with her perfect grade school blond curls and delightful smile.

The national anthem was sung right after that ceremonial pitch.  Houston’s First Baptist Singers took the field and filled the stadium with perfect harmony and stirring words.   Our nation with its countless problems, despondent citizens, world crises needs a large dose of hope and these talented singers gave us a taste of a very good elixir.

Our Astros took to the field with all of the traditions of our national sport.  The Rangers were up to bat first as the visiting team.  They were smarting from the loss they were handed by the Astros the night before.

This night they would have their revenge. They trounced the Astros by a painful margin.  But, that is baseball.

No one wins them all.  When professionals who hit only 250 out of every 1000 pitches are doing well, then disappointments are not uncommon.  Pitchers who can throw a ball over 90 miles an hour and hit within a 12 inch diameter target every time stun the crowd with their talent.

God made everyone of us.  Some sing, some are athletes and other cheer on both while spilling soda and chomping down peanuts.  It is an amazing game for the widest possible audience.

In between innings we visit, laugh at the big screen and let cotton candy melt in our mouths.  Our great country is still pumping out goodness.  The good Lord Almighty is still blessing our Land.

photo credit: brucefong photography

IMG_3164Every parent of little ones knows the charm of the Church Christmas pageant.  With video camera and SLR in hand, eager parents stake out seats close to the front.  It really does not matter what part their child has in the annual thespian performance.  In their minds their offspring is the star.

Parents take turns popping up and capturing their legacy leaving an Oscar-deserving or Grammy-deserving presentation that left everyone speechless. Or at least the average person could relish the raw talent that was on display.  These images captured on digital cameras would be fodder for the grandparent machines or distant aunts and uncles.

Yet, there are additional roles filled by those who will still the show just because they are amazingly IMG_3167cute. Their personalities and soft pet-table demeanor give them the advantage to steal the show every time that they are folded into the Christmas extravaganza.  These supporting cast members are the livestock.  Yes, they are real live animals that make the Christmas story have a reach out and pet me warmth to it.

On my way out of the church from our morning men’s study, I saw the temporary corral in the courtyard.  Inside there were creatures stirring and moving about their grassy turf.  How can you not smile when you see these animals on display?

IMG_3166The donkey was the biggest of the four-legged stars.  He was being protective of the other critters in his enclosure.  With one wary eye on me, he walked a sentry line making sure that all of the resting animals were under his watchful eye.

Donkeys are legendary as protectors.  They and their half offspring, the mule, have long been added to herds of grazing cattle and horses to ward off coyotes, wolves, bear and other nuisance predators.  This totally cute brute was living up to his reputation as the protector of the beasts.

Nuzzling together while lounging on the grass was a ewe and its single lamb.  Their sides were IMG_3165rhythmically beating with their heavy breathing.  They must be high-strung.

In the center of the corral were the most adorable young goats.  Their small horns had pierced the tops of their heads and were minuscule compared to their heads. Yet, their faces were the perfection of young, new and full of life.

Each of these barnyard animals was docile.  They were calm and enjoying a good lounge on the lawn.  When the program kicks off, they will be hopefully just as serene when they walk into a building full of music, thousands of humans and followed closely by the pooper scoopers.

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

2 Thessalonians 1.1-4

Harvest is special.  There is nothing else like it.  After a season of hard work and caring for crops, this is time when the fruit gets picked or the plants get collected.  It is a grower’s delight.

There is a river of sweat and toil to get to this point.  When the Good LORD then gives great weather to bring in the harvest, farmers can celebrate with this special work.  Plants have grown tall, strong and healthy for months since planting.  Now, it is autumn and the crops can be brought in to market.

The first fruits are part of the evening meal.  Freshness is central on everyone’s palate.  Smiles and humor mark the meal.  Conversation, memories, retelling of key moments for this particular season meld everyone’s minds on the greatest part of this first meal of the harvest.  Everyone is grateful, thankful and satisfied with God’s bountiful harvest.

Three godly men penned the second letter to the Thessalonians.  They had every intention of encouraging the believers there in light of the coming prophetic hope centering on Christ’s return.  Authority for this anticipation was based upon uncompromised certainty in God’s relationship with all those who are His.  The Godhead here is acknowledged as the Father and the Son equally each divine.

Grace is worth a long and deep pause.  It is God’s incredibly generous favor given to all in the church and the resulting peace from the reception of that grace.  While the terms share so much in common, grace describes God’s favor and mercy is His application of grace into our lives

Once God gives us His amazing gift, we spend the rest of our lives not trying to re-experience that historic moment. Rather, we enjoy the satisfaction that comes from the result of grace applied into our lives.  That is the peace that these emissaries of God have delivered.

The spiritual growth of Christians elicits a very similar reaction.  Maturity is something to celebrate.  It is not only good for those who are growing but also fantastic for those who helped others nurture their spiritual development.

Thanksgiving is an integral part of being a follower of Christ.  This spiritual journey with Christ begins with celebration and continues with many other landmark moments of elation as well.  Gratitude is constant as God nurtures, protects and provides the energy and circumstances to advance our faith.

Testifying over the spiritual advancement of others is a part of our own Christian journey.  Selflessness is what spirituality is.  We serve others, help others and rejoice in the growth and advancement of others.

Faith and love are both dynamic realities.  Neither stays static.  They are not real if they do not change.  Both fuel our interest in others.  When they each continue to increase and grow, then there is good reason for gratitude to be energetically expressed.

There is a special feature among gathered Christians.  It is all about story.  Together we share what God is doing in the lives of other believers.  We detail the story of the growth and expression of their faith.  When God blesses their acts of trust and belief and favors their lives we find massive encouragement from testifying to His goodness to others in the body of Christ.  Functionally, when God blesses one part of the gathering of believers, we all are benefitting.

The local church is the central gathering of these followers of Jesus.  It is not exclusive, but it certainly central.  The heartbeat of the Lord Jesus Christ is personified in the local church.

Here is where Christians can experience a righteous pride.  It is not selfish.  There is nothing in it for personal gain.  Instead, it is totally directed toward God and for the benefit of others.  There is a special beauty in this feature of humanity, redeemed humanity.

Remarkably, this celebration is not playing out just in good times.  Rather, it is especially highlighted during difficult times.  The Thessalonian believers were suffering during times of persecution.  Trials were replete and painful.  Nevertheless, they endured not just with gritted teeth but with a faith that was growing and a love for each other that was increasing.

Essential to Christian living is our vested involvement in the lives of others.  This is far more than being friends with those whom we find are just like us.  Rather, it is all about helping others grow in their faith.

This relationship of discipleship is not difficult at least it does not have to be.  When we help another Christian grow in their faith and love during difficult times, we are immersed into the heart of discipleship.  Then, when we are intentional about it, we obeying the Lord’s Great Commission.

Church should be a place where this kind of thanksgiving celebration is common.  Believers gather for mutual encouragement.  This fellowship breeds perseverance.  Christians with a strong connection to other believers who encourage them this way can look back and see that they have endured well

LAPP (Life Application): Choose three lives and build a discipleship relationship with them.  Commit to them and invest into their spiritual growth in love, faith and perseverance.  When the tough times come and they will, stick with them and cheer on their spiritual vitality and you will both grow stronger.

Thanks for joining me on this journey through the Scriptures.

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