You Need to Know Jesus Better Than Taylor

Because knowing Christ at a distance won't do.

3 People That Keep Me Up At Night - #2 The Cynic

Just in case you didn't know it wouldn't work, he'll tell you. How to deal with a total downer.

3 People That Keep Me Up At Night - #1 The Critic

Because you must deal with people and you must get some sleep.

Are you being manipulated? See the strings. Cut the strings.

How do you recognize the signs of manipulation and end it? Manipulators turn people into puppets.

Let's Talk About Suicide

Suicide is more common than we think. No one is immune from these fatal thoughts. There is help, but we need to start talking about one of life's most tragic mistakes.

The art of excellence in preaching.

As preachers of the gospel we should be powerful and prepared.

March 18, 2015

You Need to Know Jesus Better Than You Know Taylor Swift

I am the father of two daughters.  I have survived Dora the Explorer, Selena Gomez, The Wiggles, Hannah Montana, Blue’s Clues, That’s So Raven, and High School Musical 1, 2, and 3.  I have been married since ’97.  A wonderful Chinese girl has just moved in with us.  We have a 6 month old Shih-Poo dog who was spayed this week; a dog who I am not sure feels the same way about me now as she did last week.  I am surrounded by women.  I understand a world that cries for no apparent reason. 
There are times I stop by a field to stare at a bull just to remind myself of who I am.  I am man.
As man as I am, there is one aspect of girl culture that has captured me.  I must confess, I really like Taylor Swift.  I would not consider myself a Swiftie by any stretch, but I own 1 song of hers on iTunes and when she comes on the radio - yes - I turn it up and sing.  Hey bro, don’t diss me - shake it off!
Taylor Swift is a culture study.  Her skill as a songwriter to stick a song in your head is unmatched.  Yet it is not her ability to tell a great story and put it to a catchy tune that I find most interesting.  My interest is in her ability to be a superstar who connects.
Taylor Swift has an ability to own the world and yet convince all of her fans to root for her as an underdog.  The music community is filled with people who capture our attention because they are raunchy, angry, and/or weird.  There is no lack of artists who look at us and say, “You want to be me.”  
Taylor has an impeccable ability to look at her fans and communicate, “I am you.”  I don’t dance well.  People criticize my love life.  People said mean things to me in high school.  I dated a guy with bad teeth.  I will put on an album what you wanted to say about a breakup and sell a billion copies FOR YOU - and we believe her.
On some level, we all get Taylor.  She has an impeccable ability to make everything about her personal to her fans.
As wonderful as Taylor seems to be at communicating herself, the truth of the matter is that most of us think we know all about her, but we will never know her.  As intimate as her Swifties think they are with Taylor, the reality is everything they have of her was bought at a souvenir stand.  Whether it was a download, a video, a T-shirt, a concert, a social media update - it is pure fandom, at a distance.
You need to know Jesus better than you know Taylor Swift.
In my observations of many who profess to be Christians, I am convinced many of us know Jesus like we know Taylor, from the souvenir stand.  It goes without saying; the stark reality is that many Christians probably do know Taylor better than they know Jesus.  They have invested far more time in her than in Him.  Either way, the point is, it won’t work.
Listen to what Jesus prayed for us, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”  (John 17:20-23 ESV)   
You need to know Jesus better than you know Taylor Swift because you CAN know Jesus better than you know Taylor Swift.  I cannot imagine what it must be like to be Taylor.  Ultimately, she is like the rest of us with a limited capacity for personal relationships.  Jesus is infinitely able to know His people intimately and to be intimately known by them.  He invites us into intimacy, not religion.  
You can’t spend time with Jesus like you spend time with Taylor.  We get to know Taylor as we listen to a song, or watch a video of her surprising select fans with gifts, or follow her on Instagram.  To know Jesus is not to hear a sermon, read a 3 paragraph devotion, to have a fish on your car, buy a Christian T-Shirt, or to love Lecrae.  You may be seriously INTO Taylor Swift, to know the Savior you must be redemptively IN Christ.  
What do I mean?
First of all, to know Christ is not to appreciate Him like you do a talented artist, it is to believe in Him as your only hope for salvation.  Taylor Swift may be therapeutic for your next breakup, but broken hearts are not our biggest problem.  The problem is that we are broken people.  
We stand guilty before a Holy God.  Christ did not die on the cross to help you have a better day.  Christ died on the cross to atone for your sin and to save you from the wrath of God against sin.  We are ruined. (Romans 1:18-32).  
To know Christ is not to read the Bible because it is good for you.  To know Christ is to read the Bible because it is God’s Word to you.  For the Christian the Bible is not a moral discipline, it is a conversation.  As fun as it is to hear from Taylor and vicariously live through her lyrics, how much more important is it for us to stay our minds on the Lord and to hear with holy reverence what God has said to us?
Taylor is so socially connected it is not hard to know where she is.  The opportunity for us in the knowledge of God is to know He is there.  I am not talking about “there” in the sense of, He exists.  I am talking about “there” in the sense that He is in you, you are in Him - ONE with Christ.  
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
Words fail to express what it means to be ONE with Him.  Volumes have been written about John 17, and like this post, they are an embarrassment to what the passage must fully mean.  However, I can with confidence say this, if you are to have any hope of eternal life, you must know Jesus better than you know Taylor Swift.
You CAN know Jesus better than you know Taylor Swift.
Salvation does not come from the souvenir stand.  Salvation comes through the intimate union of Christ with the sinner in mercy from God.  His death is our atonement.  His resurrection our victory.  What He has done says to us that appreciating Him from a distance will not do.  

You must know Jesus better than you know Taylor Swift.



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March 17, 2015

3 People That Keep Me Up at Night - #2 The Cynic

The critic is easy enough to recognize, but what about the cynic?  Who is he?
Put simply, the cynic believes he has a better grasp on reality than you.  He never gets it wrong, but you always do.  He will not help, but he is first in line to point out your mistakes.  He will vote “No” and tell everyone why, but he offers no alternatives.  Deep into the night, you see his face and you hear his voice rehearse his favorite lines, “I knew it.”  ”I told you so.”  
Cynics are chronic side-liners with a clever excuse.  He is justifiably jaded and you can’t possibly understand how he feels or comprehend what he knows. 
I think Chicago Journalist Syndey J. Harris’ description of a cynic states it best, “A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past; he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.” —Sydney J. Harris, On the Contrary
So how are we to deal with the cynic so we can get some sleep?
Don’t swallow the nocebo.  You’ve heard of a placebo, but have you ever heard of a nocebo?  Didn’t think so.
Lissa Rankin M.D., in an article published at phsychologytoday.com, reports that negative beliefs can harm your health.  As powerful as the positive suggestion of the placebo is the negative suggestion of the nocebo.
Patients given placebos, but believing they are taking the real medications, have actually seen ulcers heal, drops in blood pressure, and warts disappear.  Even men who “believe” they are taking Rogain, but are actually taking sugar pills, begin to regrow hair.  
Give me some of that! 
The cynic is the street dealer of the nocebo.  The nocebo is the negative side of the power of suggestion and can be as harmful as a placebo is helpful.  
The Bible is way ahead of the studies.  Over 3000 years ago, Solomon reported, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones (Prov. 17:22).” If the nocebo effect is real, all the more reason why you can’t allow the cynic to become the dominant voice in your head - or you will lay awake at night.  
Paul understood the power of positive belief, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8).”  
You will never sleep if the cynic’s voice becomes your bedtime song.  Test his lyrics - is it true?  Is it honorable?  Is it just?  Is it pure?  If not - take no thought of it.    
Consider what he says, not the way he says it.  For some reason the cynic’s spirit is crushed.  Try to dismiss the spirit of the cynic, but don’t be so prideful to think that nothing can be learned from him.  His information may be helpful.  It is his attitude that is not.  
Often cynics develop out of bitterness from the disappointment of a past mistake.  There may have been a time in which he was very eager, extremely hopeful - but failed to meet expectations.  Again, apply Paul’s series of questions from Phil. 4:8 - Is it true?  Is it honorable?  Is it . . . ?  I despise the cynic’s whine, but I may be able to learn from his experiences.   
Remember, it’s not about you.  The goal of the cynic is to do to your soul what has been done to his - crush it.  Again, discard his attitude.  His pessimistic sense of reality is a defense mechanism.  If the cynic can give you every reason “it won’t work” he doesn’t have to get involved and relive the hurt.  This being the case - try not to take his attitude personally.  His cynicism is not ultimately about you, it is something in him.    
The cynic points out every reason it won’t work.  It gets in your head.  Negativity doesn’t require a megaphone, your brain will provide the amplification.  The good news is, our faith requires us to be more hopeful than perfect.  Yet, when Eeyore begins to give counsel, you lay awake at night dejected that not everyone is as excited about the task as you seem to be.  Don’t back down from your assignment, vision, or involvement. 
The cynic is petrified by his realism.  Don’t be blinded by your idealism.  The cynic’s pessimistic realism is misguided in thinking that because the world is not right, he does not have to be involved.  You may be tempted to think that because not everyone is excited about the possibilities as you that the whole thing is doomed to fail.  Really?
So there’s someone out there who doesn’t think it will work.  If you’re totally deflated by that reality, the cynic is not your problem.  You’ve got self-righteous, idealism issues!
The cynic may be a well placed thorn of grace.  Your idea may be great, but if it is absent of humility and dependence, it needs deflating.  The cynic is a master of sucking the air out of a moment.  Your sleepless night may be a blessing in disguise, pray to God for help.
Every task we accomplish requires some degree of redemption.  So someone disagrees.  You don’t have all the answers.  It may not all go according to plan.  The cynic sings - so what.  Whatever we do, we don’t want to join the cynic’s “premature disappointment with the future.”  Press on.  See what happens and how God works. 
The lens of the gospel calls for us to understand that we live in a  world that is disappointing.  Not every idea will work, in every situation, at every time.  There have been times in my ministry when I felt like writing a book entitled 50 Great Ideas that Didn’t Work in My Church, But are Sure to Work Awesomely in Yours.
 The cynic allows his disappointment to embitter him.  The realism the gospel calls us to helps us to see that our set-backs can become set-ups.  
There is always something to be learned in Christ.  We guard ourselves from the cynical soul as we realize that ultimately everything comes back to Him - bitter disappointment, triumph, tragedy, victory.  Christ makes everything count.   
In speaking of his past accomplishments and his defeats, Paul realized that in all things there is ultimately only one goal - to know Christ and His resurrection.  Paul had enough intelligence mingled with enough disappointment that he could have easily embraced cynicism.  Yet he chose to remain hopeful by bringing all things to Christ.  He said:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Philippians 3:12-16 ESV)
The gospel informs us that to become as distrustful as the cynic is extremely distasteful.  It is also dishonest.  Yes, we may be disappointed.  We may fall flat on our face.  But it’s worth the risk.  Why?  Because Christ makes all things new.  We have reason for hope.  
Get some sleep.

March 10, 2015

3 People That Keep Me Up At Night - #1 The Critic

I am not a sound sleeper.  Maybe you, are like me in that when you wake up in the middle of the night it is often with a negative thought.  2:00 a.m., an idea that didn’t work.  2:45, an improvement in a process I can’t seem to make.  The 4:00 a.m. wake up call is from a comment that someone made weeks ago continuously reverberates in my brain.  
If we want to be effective in any venue of life, there are two things we must do: 1) deal with people, and 2) get some sleep.  
This week I want to write about three people who keep me up at night and how the Bible informs us to deal with them.  The three that interrupt my sleep most often are: 
1)The critic  
2) The cynic
3) The whiner
Let’s talk first about the critic.
Criticism is not necessarily a bad thing.  As a matter of fact, I would say that we need to invite some critics into our lives.  Proverbs 13:18 says, “Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored.”  Think about it, the Bible’s Book of Proverbs is regarded as inspired wisdom from God, and it is.  However, if you take time to read it, you will realize, it is a very critical observation of people and life.  
If you hear only praise, you have no friends.  We all need a few wise sages, invited critics, who are not there to tear us down, but to teach us truth, even when it hurts.  
Consider every critique.  Over the years there have been some people who have said some mean things to me and about me.  It is interesting how the human mind has the capacity to remember every one.  
What they said hurt, but it also helped!  Helped?  How can someone bent on tearing you down in criticism be a help?  As difficult as it may be, you must somehow set aside their attempt to damage you, discern it, and discard it.  But listen to what they say.  There is something in their criticism that presents an opportunity to learn.
You may find that you do not deserve their criticism, but you may have neglected to do something wise that invited it.  There is wisdom in learning how to navigate that path so you don’t repeat the same mistake.  Listening to the boo birds sing their song may not be pleasant, but it can be strategic.  I have found that even my critics that carry the most malice, to some degree, they also offer a degree of truth.  The malicious critic’s heart and tactics are all wrong, but their words may indeed expose that there is something in me that needs redeemed.  There may have been something I did to cause damage by going too fast, pushing too hard, or perhaps by neglecting the relational equity necessary for healthy leadership.  
I have learned some great lessons in leadership by taking notes from my critics and then taking them to the Lord.  Criticism is painfully humiliating.  The critics goal is to shamefully humble you before them.  But the demeanor of our soul is to be righteously humble before the Lord.  At the very least the critic reminds me, I need the Lord.  The Lord can work wonders with a damaged, criticized heart that is humble.
Paul says it like this in the opening verses of Philippians 2, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus . . .”  
Maturity demands that we apply the mind of Christ even to our criticism.  The phrase, “If there is any . . .” gives us hope that even in the most negative statements there may be something salvageable.  
Consider the critic.  Who are they?  What are they up to?  I said that you need invited critics in your life.  But how can you tell the difference between the critic who wants to help you and the one who wants to hurt you?  One word.  Look for LOVE.
I will have a hard time listening to you and you will have a hard time listening to me if there is a lack of love.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.”
Critics who lack love are clangers.  They are irritating noise.  
But be careful, all of us need to heed this.  Sometimes you are the critic.  You think you can speak truth into a situation.  You think you see danger lurking around the corner.  You believe you have a God inspired idea that could bring an amazing amount of efficiency to the process.  You think you have a better idea.  Maybe so, but if you don’t have love you are just a clanger.
People who lack love will criticize you for several reasons.  They may resent your success.  They may be insecure.  Sometimes your critics are trying to inflate themselves by deflating you.
Your critic may be deflecting a glaring lack in their own life by trying to turn all of the negative attention toward you.  Sadly, for some, negativity is their native tongue.  
Whatever the reason, ask God to help you discern the person.  We need the Spirit’s help to consider the source.  What they may be saying about you really says a lot about them.
When this is the case, I have to remind myself.  I don’t want to be where they are.  In this case it is not wise to fight fire with fire.  Rather, douse it with love.
Love causes us to seek a place of sympathy.  The Headmaster of Christian Heritage School in Dalton, GA, Gerald Porter, says, “Get behind their eyes.”  There is a great deal of wisdom in that statement. 
Getting behind their eyes will help you do what Proverbs 15:1-2 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.”  
Getting behind their eyes will also help you with Proverbs 26:20 which says, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
Responding to your critics with love will help remove a log from the fire.  Yet, one of the reasons we lay awake at night contemplating the statements of the critic is because we are looking to fire back a rebuttal.  Do we really need more fire?  The right response is one born out of love.    
Sometimes, you need to foster a tone of thanks, “Thank you for sharing your concerns with me.  I’ll think about it.”
Sometimes you need to use a word of sympathy, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Whatever you say, saying it with love will go a long way.
The Bible gives us great guidance to consider about the critic.  We may never quiet him or her, but we must somehow get some sleep.  Allow these parting thoughts gleaned from the counsel of Scripture to ease your mind.  When it comes to criticism:
It isn’t all true.
It isn’t all about you.
Consider the source.
Salvage what you can.
Learn something.
Leverage love.
Walk in wisdom.

Get some sleep!  

February 12, 2015

Manipulation, See the Strings, Cut the Strings (Video)

Is someone manipulating you?  Manipulators emotionally turn people into puppets.  How do you see the strings and cut the strings of manipulation?









Manipulation Man from Brian Branam on Vimeo.
If manipulation were a super power, could you identify the man behind its mask? Probably not. Manipulation is subtle, deceptive, and cunning. It turns people into puppets. The ultimate danger is when the people of God don't know the difference between being manipulated by man or being led by the Spirit of God.

Suicide - Thinking, Coping, Healing (Video)

In November I was privileged to lead an insightful discussion of suicide at my home church, Liberty Baptist Church in Dalton, GA.  The touch of suicide goes deeper into our lives and church congregations than we think.  I am thankful to have been a part of this conversation and count it as one of the most helpful and redemptive gatherings of the church of which I have ever been part.

Dealing with Suicide from Brian Branam on Vimeo.
It has always been God's plan to give you life, but it has always been Satan's plan to take it away. Who are you going to believe?

This sermon also includes an interview with a trained counselor and a pastor/father who lost his son to suicide.




February 3, 2015

Great, But Not Good


Great, But No Good from Brian Branam on Vimeo.
What if you, or even your church, did a lot of great things, but in the end, they did no good? Compromise and cowardice will not take you far. Yes, there may be a few shining moments of success, but they will eventually dull like old trophies in a case. The story of Gideon should challenge us to make our impact last. We must be responsive, courageous, and dedicated to the challenge God sets before us or else we may just be forgotten. What good is that?

January 8, 2015

Excellent Preaching - Prepared and Powerful

A few nights ago I watched the final half hour of the Kennedy Center Honors.  The Kennedy Center website states the following about how the honorees are chosen, “The primary criterion is excellence, and artistic achievement in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, and television is considered.”
Before I went to bed that night I spent some time reading the Bible and reflecting on the idea of excellence in my craft, preaching.  While preachers do not preach for the accolades of an arts guild, there should be no less concern for excellence.  As ambassadors of The Kingdom our aspirations for excellence in what we do should be exponentially more.
Excellence in preaching requires that we be prepared and powerful.
There should be a passion in our process from preparation to delivery, a thirst for excellence, an attention to detail.  Like a gifted songwriter who makes a deliberate choice with every word, our desire to communicate effectively should be not less, but again, exponentially more.  We have the greatest text of all to inspire us; a manuscript breathed by God from which every thought is gleaned.    
A boring sermon is a tragedy.  An unprepared man rambling in the pulpit, searching for a thought, is a criminal of the Kingdom, not its herald.  
I consider 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 to be one of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible when it comes to preaching.  
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.  (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV)    
The mistake made with this passage is in thinking that an unprepared message is a more powerful one.  That somehow it is more of a work of the Spirit if the rest of us are left to sit in the pew for a half hour while the preacher meanders from thought to thought, verse to verse, searching for something decently said that he can somehow attribute to God.  Such a show is not the Spirit working, but rather a testimony that you do not care to be prepared.  It does not mean you have made more of the Word of God, instead it means you have thought very little of it for days.
I have heard many singers stand up on Sunday morning to share a song and preempt their attempt with the words, “Y’all pray for me, I haven’t practiced much this week.”  Some sympathetic soul will say, “God bless”, but I say, “Then sit down!”  If you did not care to prepare then why should the rest of us care to listen?  Is this not for the sake of Christ that you sing, or preach, or teach, or do whatever you do?  If it is, then be excellent by being prepared.  Otherwise you are being careless.
But there is something important in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2 that we should not miss concerning power.  Preaching something well prepared, but lacking divine power is human persuasion in the pulpit, not gospel proclamation.  Preaching something not well prepared with passion is just yelling for the sake of distracting everyone from your bad preaching.  I can't remember the book in which it is contained or the exact quote, but Calvin Miller quipped something to the effect that a lot of bad preaching has been covered up by loud preaching.  Power is not a work of the diaphragm, it is result of a preacher well prepared in study and prayer.
Paul was not saying he lacked preparation.  He was not even saying that he regarded himself as a bad speaker.  What he was saying - he was saying to a hyper-sensitive, overly critical culture that was schooled in the art of rhetoric.  Paul was dealing with a group that was so attentive to form that they failed to recognize power.  They listened for logic, but had little skill to discern whether they were being moved by the Spirit or by clever persuasion.  As guilty as we are in some churches for preaching with power and no form, we are guilty in others of regarding form with no thirst for power.  We have heard many good sermons by gifted pulpiteers, but we are in a drought of God ordained power in the pulpit.    
Paul was not saying he lacked any form.  What he was saying was that he may not have met their preconceived ideas of the mannerisms and forms of the culture’s most gifted speakers.  I think Paul was actually saying that he was rebelling against their form (lofty speech, wisdom, or plausible words as they would judge it so) for the sake of one thing - power.  I would argue that such a feat in that culture would not have taken less preparation, but more.  To them it looked foolish, but it was powerful (2 Cor. 2:14ff).  Well done Paul!
We must be prepared, but we must also be powerful.  Not powerful in our own abilities or in cultural formalities, as Paul sought to purposefully avoid, but powerful in Spirit.  Personally, in my meditations of these things over the last week or so I am convicted not only to work more diligently to be a better communicator, but to work more deeply to be a more powerful one.  
As an athlete there were times that we worked on form and there were times that we worked on power.  Good form enhances power, it does not diminish it.  As a preacher I am often guilty of studying the form of preaching, working diligently to exegete the passage and massage the message, but failing to prepare myself for power.  Long hours of reading and writing must be done, but not to the neglect of prayer, meditation, fasting, and suffering.  These things are often formless, but they are powerful.  
As preachers, we will never be invited to the Kennedy Center to celebrate the excellent art of preaching, but we do stand in a more noble cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12).  The prophets, the apostles, the saints of God from every nation, the author and finisher of our faith all surround us to see what we do with the Word of God in preaching.  We should be excellent both in preparation and in power.

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