The State of Things

It’s been a few weeks since I feel like I’ve written anything significant or meaningful on here. It’s not that I’ve stopped thinking or writing since then, I just haven’t had the energy to put it up and on here.

Like many people, I’m tired. If I’m not careful, I could easily lose hope. I am doing my best to focus on the things that give me hope. My kids. My family. My work. My friends. My mission.

I told someone the other day that lately, it has felt as if the seeds that I have been planting for the past few years are finally beginning to sprout and grow. Appropriate considering that Fall is usually harvest season.

Anyone who knows me, knows that the Fall is NOT my favorite time of year. I’m convinced that God has tried to get me to rethink that as every other human in my household has a birthday within the next three weeks or so. It’s hard not to celebrate when some of your favorite people in the world are celebrating when they actually came into that world.

I have been trying my best to focus on the good, not ignoring what isn’t good, but trying to be a force for change against it through good things. I’ve been a proponent of StrengthsFinders for years because that’s the premise behind it, focus on what you do well rather than what you don’t. It’s been a gamechanger for me, so why not try it throughout life, focusing on what we can change and what we have capacity for within ourselves.

I’m in such a state right now that I feel like small things could easily set me off. My patience has run thin with so many things, and that turns into limited patience with people, which kind of sucks when you work with people all the time.

I’ve yelled at my kids for forgetting their masks when we go out, only to realize my own mask is sitting on the counter next to theirs. My oldest has recommended starting a podcast that’s just me in the car yelling at other drivers. His words to me, “I’d listen.” He’s not quite a little boy anymore, otherwise I might say, “Out of the mouths of babes.”

The glimmers are the places that catch my eye, and I’m trying not to bounce from them. They are the signs of life, the signs that things are still moving along, albeit slower than we might have wished or hoped, but they’re moving nonetheless.

A year ago, I started a new church. This year hasn’t gone anything like I had expected, wished, or even hoped. But God is still good, despite 2020. Somehow or another, because of God’s goodness and faithfulness, we continue to serve him and be on mission in our community. Some of the glimmers I see have been around that.

Before we launched this new church, a friend and colleague told me about a dream that he had about me. Without getting into all the details, the gist of it all was that I got stuck in the mud. Not the most encouraging dream to be handed to someone as they embark on a journey like this.

As is normally the case with me, I went into full engineering mode: discover the facts, find the problems, develop a solution. But there are things in life for which that just doesn’t work. As much as we’d like to avoid the pitfalls by watching out for the things that others have experienced, there are plenty of pitfalls of our own that we will inevitably fall into despite every effort on our part to avoid them. We can’t avoid what we can’t see.

As I survey the last few weeks, seeking answers as to why things have felt so hard, I am reminded that this time of year is always hard for me. The Fall has been traditionally busy in my house. School starts. Activities get underway. Temperatures change. Days grow shorter and nights seem longer.

But as I surveyed, I think I landed on two things that have made these weeks especially hard. The first is that we had been in a state of flux and isolation for nearly six months. Then, it was as if the world began to turn again. Although there was warning and notice of that, I’m just not sure that I was ready for the melee that would ensue with the restarting of so many things.

Sports for my children have been a source of joy and consistency. My wife and I have been grateful for them. Having the choice to do school face to face or virtual has also been a gift for our whole family. My children needed social interaction and we truly believed that it could be done safely.

The other thing that has been hard is that as your kids grow, so do the issues they take on. It is hard as a parent to see your children have to grow through the pain of getting older. It’s not that there are so many struggles, and the issues that they have faced have been minimal, but anytime you see your children hurting, your heart hurts too.

I have to compile my thoughts about all the good that I’ve seen lately. I want to do it justice, so I need to process through it. I am so grateful to God for the glimmers of hope I see. I am glad that I get to be a part of what he is doing. I don’t take that for granted….at all.

So, wherever you are, whatever is going on, do your best to focus on those glimmers. There are plenty of voices telling you to fear, worry, or hate, do your best to drown those out. Don’t ignore them, but don’t fixate on them either. Find the good that you see, make a big deal about it, celebrate it, testify about it. Not only will you feel better, but the people around you may thank you for helping them as well.

For My Brothers and Sisters

Years ago, when President Obama was head of the country, I made a comment on social media criticizing something he had done, a decision that he had made. My criticism was aimed solely at the decision and in no way was meant to disparage him as an individual or as a black man.

A black friend had made a comment on my post that caused me to take pause. Although I had thought I had carefully worded my post, it seemed that there was still a perception that my criticism was for the man rather than the decision.

Years earlier, I had been blessed with a black seminary professor who I had the privilege of having for most of my New Testament classes. I had formed enough of a connection with him that I felt comfortable reaching out to him and asking for some of his time. He was gracious enough to grant me that wish and to spend about an hour on the phone with me.

Over the course of that conversation, I had a startling realization as a white man: a black president was not an everyday occurrence and criticism was felt personally regardless of how it was intended.

Since that day, I have walked through life with eyes more widely opened. I have tried to be conscious of the things that I say, how I am perceived, and just what may be behind the reactions that some have that initially take me by surprise.

I say all that because, last week, when I saw in my news feed that Chadwick Boseman had died, I felt it deep inside. I knew that for my black brothers and sisters, this was more than just the death of a beloved actor. Just as the presidency of Barack Obama had been the fulfillment of a dream for so many black men and women, boys and girls, the depiction of a black superhero was also the fulfillment of dreams that had been dreamed by so many for years and years.

But Boseman didn’t simply play a make-believe superhero, he played multiple real-life superheroes in the movies. Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson. James Brown. For one so young to have conquered so many iconic roles is a feat that many actors would have coveted. And the fact that Boseman did this all while struggling with the deadly cancer that would eventually take his life shows the poise and dignity with which he carried himself.

2020 has not been a kind year. The loss, death, and destruction that have been seen and experienced have seemed unbearable. Losing an Avenger adds to that, and on the heels of that death, to have one more black name, Jacob Blake, to list out on an ever-growing list of names of black people whose lives have been lost or forever changed by the violent acts of police or others adds insult to injury.

For my black brothers and sisters, I see you. I am sorry. I think that I am beginning to understand that Chadwick Boseman was more than an actor, more than a superhero, but a symbol of hope, of dreams, of what could be. His loss feels like a significant gut shot.

Please don’t lose hope. Please continue to walk forward. I am with you. Others are with you. Please don’t let the senseless actions of some steal your joy nor let them cause you to believe that you are all alone.

Black Panther was on ABC the other night and I had to leave the room. I wanted to watch it, but I wanted to watch it in my own time. The loss felt too fresh for me and I didn’t think that I was ready. I need time, I need an afternoon to process.

As all this goes on, I continue to see ways for me to be different, to live differently. My church is starting a sermon series on the Kingdom of God this week. The picture that Jesus gives in the gospels of what is to come, the vision that he paints is a vision to pursue, that one day, members of every tribe, tongue, and nation will join together around the Throne of God.

That vision seems so far off, especially in times like this, but setbacks, discouragement, and frustration are not cause to continue to pursue that dream and vision. I believe that the Church needs to step up in the pursuit of this vision, not through political means, manipulation, or strong-arming, but through the way that Jesus taught us, through love of God and love of our neighbors.

There is a scene in “Black Panther” when T’Challa sees his dad in a vision. He tells his father that he is not ready to be without him. His father goes on to tell him that he will struggle but he must surround himself with good people. In some ways, I feel like it was a somewhat prophetic scene, speaking truth beyond that moment, into time and space.

Brothers and sisters, you are not alone. I pray that I might be among the good people that you can surround yourself with as your march forward seeking to not only fulfill the dreams and visions that you and others have had in the past, but also as we all seek to fulfill the vision that God gave John of what we will one day experience around the Throne of God.

Back to Normal

The last few weeks have been rough. To say that the impact of COVID-19 has been felt and experienced in a deep way would probably be the understatement of the century. Stress. Anxiety. Depression. Fear. I’ve felt like Indiana Jones in one of those incredibly shrinking rooms where all four sides plus the floor and ceiling are closing in on me.

Talking with my wife the other night, she told me that one of our kids had asked if she thought things would ever be back to normal again. I’ve always thought things were bad enough when I felt the anxiety and stress, I could always do my best to temper those things. But when our children are feeling the deep anxiety and stress over the current situation, it’s a different ballgame.

It seems that every generation has an event that changes them. World War II. The assassination of JFK, MLK, and RFK. The Vietnam War. The Challenger explosion. Desert Storm. 9/11. Hurricane Katrina. COVID-19. There are probably more, but I think you get the point.

In the middle of each of those events and the aftermath, I would imagine that everyone was asking themselves, “Can we ever go back to the way things were?” Even Barbra Streisand sang, “The Way We Were.”

But life rarely goes backwards, although it might feel as if it does. It might repeat itself but the names and characters change. We have a tendency to romanticize the past, forgetting all the bad things and accentuating the good ones.

It’s not really a new phenomenon. The Israelites found themselves wandering in the desert, hot, and hungry. They had forgotten how bad it was in Egypt, enslaved and overworked. When the desert got too hot, they wished for the three square meals that they had in Egypt, forgetting how much it sucked.

The disciples had followed Jesus for three years and then he was gone. They were reeling from the loss and then he rose again. After returning to them, he ascended into heaven and they had to be wondering, “Will it ever be the way that it was?” As they stood their staring into the sky, they may have secretly been wishing and wondering whether or not Jesus would just peak through the clouds again and take them with him.

I don’t think things will ever be “normal” again. Some would say that normal is overrated. Others would question whether we had actually experienced normal to begin with. Still others might say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I’m reminded of the conversation between Frodo and Gandalf as Frodo struggled with his quest. He had seen loss and pain and just wanted things back the way that they were. But there was no going back to how things were.

Frodo says to Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What will we do with the time that is given to us? We have seen the death toll from this virus escalate far beyond what we could have imagined. We are on the brink of another important election wondering whether our country will become more divided or whether it will somehow be united. Being black in America seems to come at a high cost despite the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and so many others. To say that things feel volatile may also be a bit of an understatement.

I can’t change anyone’s mind, but I can certainly hear them out. Maybe I need to stop wondering what I am going to do next and just live in this moment, the moment that God has given me. Maybe I need to begin to embrace the words of Jesus, the words that aren’t always easy to understand, believe, and follow. Maybe I need to learn to trust just a little bit more.

Things seem bleak and grim. The dark pall that hangs over us feels insurmountable, but if we lose hope, we will truly become cynical.

My prayer is that God can use me, the way that he has used so many others before me. That’s not going to happen if I while away the hours wishing for things to be back the way they were, but only if I press on, facing each moment as it comes and finding the hope that seems elusive.

Would it be nice to go back to normal? Maybe, but I think I agree with the statement, normal is overrated.

Disciples or Converts?

According to Ray Comfort, he has been saying the same thing to people since 1982. That’s almost forty years. He’s been using the same method of evangelism for four decades and based on what he shares in “Anyone But Me,” I think he may keep using those same methods for another four decades if he could.

My experience with evangelism has been that it’s best done in relationship. It isn’t done well in a cold call, first time meeting where you try to convince someone that they’re going to hell. While that may be part of the story, it’s not the whole story, and I don’t think it’s a good line to lead with.

Comfort seems content in using his Million Dollar Bill tracts, which frightens me. He speaks of how one of his life’s greatest joys is his friendship with Kirk Cameron. “Anyone But Me” is, according to Comfort, his effort to share ten ways to overcome your fear and be prepared to share the Gospel.

The thing is, Jesus didn’t tell us to make converts, he told us to make disciples. If we are going around making sure that we “seal the deal” with people, getting them to pray a prayer, there is no guarantee that we have really led them to become a disciple. Discipleship happens over time, there is follow-up, not just a prayer prayed and joyous celebration, but a process by which we show people Jesus, not just the consequences of people’s avoidance of him.

There are things on which I can agree with Comfort. He says a lot of good things in here, things with which we would probably see eye to eye. He writes, “If we don’t have love that weeps at the state and the fate of sinners, all of our giving, all of our theology, all of our professed worship isn’t worth a hill of dry pharisaic beans.” I agree with him, if love isn’t driving us, causing us to pray for those who have not yet met Jesus, then it really doesn’t matter. If we just want notches on our belt, counting our conversions like currency, then we need to readjust our motives and really ask ourselves why we do what we do when it comes to sharing Jesus with people.

Comfort says, “But Jesus didn’t say to go into all the world and intellectually convince the world that the Bible is the Word of God or that evolution isn’t true. He said to preach the gospel to every creature…” I agree, apologetics has its place, but I don’t think that’s how we lead. Jesus didn’t use intellectual arguments with people nor did he ask them where they would be spending eternity. If Jesus doesn’t make a difference to us now AND in eternity, then I think we need to ask ourselves if we have fully understood the breadth and depth of his message.

There are people who will love this book. This may be the approach to evangelism that they have embraced, maybe even for forty years. The Holy Spirit can do whatever he wants, using our best and worst efforts to lead people to Jesus. For me, I will stick with the approach of seeking to make disciples, people who are following Jesus to become more like Jesus every day.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge by Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Suffocating Fear

Look around you, what do you see? I see fear. I smell fear. Fear seems to be winning the day.

Reporting of the news has been replaced by a propagation perpetuation of fear. Advertising tells us less about products and plays more into our fear of what would happen should we not have the product advertised. Political candidates tell us less about how they can help to change the world but rather instill in us the vision and the fear of a world run by their opponents.

Is this the way that we should be living? Doesn’t this seem restricting and restraining?

Fear isn’t always a bad thing. There are times when it can save us, cause us to run the other way. The fight or flight instinct that lies within us is a mechanism of survival and self-preservation. A healthy ounce of fear in us can prevent us from doing stupid things, although some of us still take the risk anyway. But where is the line between that healthy dose of risk and an unhealthy and controlling poison that grips our minds, our lives, and our souls?

As I was reading Andy Crouch’s “Strong and Weak” for the second time, I was struck by the following quote:

“…the fear of death prevents real life. The fear of loss has robbed our world of more life and more flourishing than any actual loss we could ever suffer.”

The big idea of “Strong and Weak” is that we need to paradoxically embrace a life of both high authority and high vulnerability in order to experience what Crouch calls flourishing. There are times when we lower our authority in order that others might experience greater authority. There are times when we increase our vulnerability in order that others might experience less vulnerability. We see in Jesus the greatest picture of what it means to live a life that leads to flourishing, a life that is really life, as he lives into both authority and vulnerability together.

Back to fear, there are two parts to the quote above. The fear of death prevents real life. Can you relate? Have you ever felt so consumed by a fear of death that it began to grip you so tight you felt breathless and strangled?

When I lost my parents, that fear was a companion to me. It felt like it never left my side, that it was an unwanted partner in my day, reminding me of what would happen someday in the future.

But I have to let it go, I have to move past it. It still creeps up from time to time, reminding me of death’s inevitability, reminding me that detours from it do not mean an altogether avoidance of it. It still haunts me, plagues me, suffocates me. But I choose not to dwell on it for dwelling on it consumes me and takes me away from experiencing real life. What a loss that is to lose life while being consumed with thinking of death.

The second part of the quote speaks equally as loud to me. We fear loss and that fear has robbed our world of life, of flourishing. In fact, it has robbed us so much of flourishing, more so than we would actually suffer because the fear of loss that we can imagine is greater than the actual fear that we could experience. What we create in our minds, the worst case scenario, is usually so much worse than what plays out in reality.

Here’s the thing, fear is controlling, fear is a tether, holding us back. Fear is not meant to free us but enslave us. Fear does nothing to set us free and anyone who uses fear has no desire to see us flourish. All those who wield fear as a weapon desire is control.

1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Anyone who truly loves us will do their best to dispel the fear. Anyone who has our best interest in mind will seek our flourishing, not control. We do not have to be gripped with fear.

We live in a scary world. We’ve been living in the midst of a pandemic in the United States for five months. We’ve watched black men’s and women’s lives snuffed out by civilians and police officers alike. More recently, we’ve seen tropical storms and hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, and as I am reminded by so many friends on social media, there is still a third of 2020 left.

Earlier in 1 John 4, John writes that, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” Or, to quote FDR, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. FDR spoke those words in his inaugural speech when the United States was at the peak of the Great Depression.

We have seen dark days before and we will see dark days again. The darkness in which we currently find ourselves will not last forever, though it may feel as if it will. What’s that old saying about how it’s always darkest before the dawn? Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

I believe that it is only in God that we can vanquish fear because it is only in God that we can find complete victory from it. God is love and love drives out, casts out, defeats fear.

This doesn’t mean things aren’t hard. This doesn’t remove the challenge, but it should give us hope beyond the challenge, it should remind us that this too shall pass.

I recently watched “Amistad,” the movie about the slave ship that was overthrown by slaves and the American courts’ effort to determine the fate of those slaves.

Throughout the film, the main character, Cinque, and his friend are looking through the pages of the Bible. As they see the pictures, they begin to piece the story together, determining that it is Jesus who came to set the captives free. As this story comes together for them, their own dreams of hope are formed and they look to the day when they will experience freedom.

To find hope, true hope, we need to see beyond this moment, we need to see beyond the current predicament. Hope is waiting for us, a hope without fear, a hope that is coupled with love. We can’t be gripped and strangled by fear and think that we can still flourish and live. We must cast off the restraints of fear, silence the voices that seek to control us, and move towards the flourishing life that Jesus came for us to experience. In finding that flourishing life, we also need to help others achieve it as well.

May we move from fear to hope and love. May we experience flourishing and help others experience the same. Perfect love casts out fear, let’s go pursue that perfect love.

Changing A Name

In Genesis 12, God tells Abram that he will make him in a great nation. He tells him that he will bless those who bless him and curse whoever curses him. God’s promise to Abram is that through him, all the people of the earth will be blessed.

He followed the instructions to go to the land that God had shown. Then he goes off course a little. He heard the promise, but he doesn’t really want to wait for it to be fulfilled God’s way in God’s time. Maybe he heard it wrong. Maybe he spaced out while God was giving the instructions. Or maybe he is just a little bit impatient.

After following his wife’s recommendations to sleep with her maidservant and causing enmity between them, God appears to Abram again in Genesis 17. God renews his covenant with Abram and changes his name. He goes from Abram, meaning exalted father, to Abraham, father of many. His name is representative of who he will become. No longer will he be known as he was, He has been changed and God has changed his name.

In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with an angel or some divine being. In the wrestling match, Jacob is touched in his hip and he walks with a limp thereafter. In the course of the exchange, the angel asks Jacob his name and then tells him that he will no longer be called Jacob but will now be called Israel which means he struggles with God. He has been changed and God has changed his name.

Saul was a Pharisee, educated in the Jewish laws. He is an up and coming leader who has it out for this new sect, the Way. He does all he can to persecute them, holding the cloaks of the men who stone and kill Stephen in Acts 7. As he continues his murderous ways, bringing letters giving him permission to imprison Christians in Damascus, he is met by a flash of light which blinds him on the road. Jesus speaks to Saul and he is changed and God changes his name.

In the Bible, names are significant, and so are name changes. When God did something significant in people, he sometimes changed their names. They were no longer who they were, so why should they still be referred to the same way? By putting their old names behind them, it signified that they were done with who they were and were ready for a new and fresh start.

There’s been a lot of talk about names of late, particularly, in my neck of the woods, names of schools that were named for Confederate figures. No matter how you slice it, regardless of whether we claim state’s rights, I would be hard pressed to be convinced that slavery wasn’t the driving and underlying factor for the war.

When I put myself in the shoes of my African American friends whose ancestors were enslaved, whose relatives felt the impacts of Jim Crow laws, whose grandparents may have fought for civil rights, I try to imagine what it would feel like to have not just reminders of that time, but reminders actually celebrating the figures who fought to maintain the separation between blacks and whites. What would it feel like to see those names over and over again? What would it feel like to have to go to a school named after someone who thought that you and everyone with the same skin color as you weren’t good enough, smart enough, significant enough to have the same rights that they did?

Not sure about you, but I think that would suck.

Now I’ve heard from friends who went to these schools and went to these schools with African Americans. They claim that those African American friends of theirs back in the day didn’t care about the name. But considering the state of race relations in this country, how loud would you be about your disagreement with those names if you were an African American?

What’s troubled me the most about the opposition to these name changes is when that opposition has come from people who claim to know the stories I wrote about at the beginning of this. For the people of God who are redeemed, restored, and constantly reforming, change should be part of our DNA. We should be constantly transformed.

Anyone who is in Christ is a new creature, the apostle Paul wrote, the old has passed away and the new has come.  If God changes us, really changes us, he might change our name. Name change shouldn’t be something we fight, it should be something we embrace and welcome. Instead of resisting, maybe those of us who consider ourselves to be changed ourselves by the love and grace of Jesus Christ should be leading the charge to see change embraced.

If we are people of change, people who want to see hearts and minds changed, maybe we need to consider what that looks like for us. Maybe we need to talk about how God changes names when people are changed. Maybe in talking about the change that God made in some of the characters of the Bible, we might have an opportunity to talk about the change that God has made in us…….that is, if he’s really made a change in us.

Men on Fire – A Book Review

The picture of men that we see on TV is far from encouraging. Stupid. Incompetent. Aloof. Unaware. Stephen Mansfield writes that the television portrays two types of men: Idiot Man and DogMan. Idiot Man, “ruins his life and everyone else’s with his simpleton ways and his self-centered living.” DogMan is driven by his lusts and his bodily needs. Both of these are distortions, exaggerations of who men are and what they are called to be.

“Men on Fire” is the latest book by Stephen Mansfield, He writes that this book is all about restoring greatness to modern men. He frankly delivers his message to men when he says, “We need to stop living from the crotch and start living from a heart where God rules and righteous fires blaze.”

Mansfield takes his readers through what he calls the seven fires. Those seven fires are: the fire of heritage, the fire of battle, the fire of destiny, the fire of friendship, the fire of love, the fire of legacy, and the fire of God. He dedicates a chapter to each of these fires as he calls men to move from passivity, to receive the imparted information he dispenses, and to live in a way that these fires burn within them.

“A man who does not know where he comes from, what people and history he belongs to, is lost.” We need to know our stories, the stories of our pasts. We need to know from where we have come. Beyond just ourselves and even our parents, do we learn of our heritage and pass it on to the next generation? Even when we find blemishes in that heritage along the way, Mansfield writes, “that there are nearly always diamonds in the dung.” Can we find God’s meaning in our heritage?

The fire of battle isn’t about violence and war. It’s about standing up for things, being willing to fight for what is good and against what is evil. Mansfield writes, “Give me men of honor who have the fire of battle burning in their souls, and I will give you a more peaceful, more prosperous, happier society.” Mansfield speaks from his experience growing up in a military family and in military bases to share that this fire of battle does not result in a violent society, but a society that will fight for the things that matter. The fire of battle starts with prayer. Men need to understand that they are in a fight in order for them to fully appreciate this fire.

It’s important for men to choose the right friends. Associating with the wrong people will not only quench these fires within them but also will cause them to lose the battles that they face. The right people around you will not only help you take things seriously, but it will also allow for you to fight together, because “only a fool fights alone,” especially when it comes to matters of his own soul.

We need to understand our destiny, who we are meant to be, for what purpose we were created. When we see that destiny, we look at any force that tries to dominate us as a possible barrier to realizing and achieving that purpose. LIve an examined life and remember to surround yourself with others who can fight for you and with you.

Friendships are crucial. In a time when busyness can easily snatch us up and keep us distracted from the things that matter, friendships are more important than ever. When we get busy, we become isolated and turn inward, we lose our connections with other men with whom we can do battle. It’s important to find those friendships again and to stoke the fires that support and encourage them. Mansfield tells the story of men who would rather be among friends and fight in wars than be home and alone with no friends. We are better together and can thrive with a band of brothers around us.

Love is something that needs to be kept alive. While love may come easily, it also drifts easily. Unless we keep the fire of love stoked, we can lose it. How can we create habits that reinforce our love for our wives? We need to create strong visions of what can be and the people that we love in order to pursue those visions. We need to keep those visions alive and remind ourselves of what it was that we grew to love in our wives.

What legacy are we leaving behind? Do we see ourselves, “as part of a march through time?” We receive heritage from those who have gone before us and pass on a legacy to those who come behind. Our gaze should not be fixated on our generation alone but on the generations that will come in the future. We are entrusted with a gift and an opportunity to “launch those entrusted to us further than we ourselves can go.” Think about the way that David set his son Solomon up for success in the building of the temple. Men must write their legacy on the lives of those who will continue on after they are gone. We don’t shape the future through our investments in institutions and instruments but in those whose lives we have shaped.

Although Mansfield acknowledges and understands that not everyone who is reading “Men on Fire” are men of faith, he does not deny that is the heritage that he has, it is a part of who he is. He shares that, “we need a power greater than ourselves” to succeed. “We need God in our lives to heal us and to orchestrate the healing work of men in our lives.” We were not meant to do this alone, which means not only do we need the company of other men but we need to be in the company of God.

At the end of each chapter is a section Mansfield calls “The Battle Plan.” These sections are intended for men to go deeper, to ask themselves questions, and to grow in their understanding of who they are and how they should live. These sections encourage men to read this book together in order that they can stay accountable and learn from one another.

I’ll be honest, I’ve grown weary of so much of the emphasis on manhood and manliness within the church. Countless books have been written and conferences hosted to remind men of their responsibility and charge. But not all men are created equal. We don’t all get fired up with adrenaline and testosterone the way others do. That’s why I appreciate the approach that Mansfield takes in “Men on Fire.” He doesn’t waste his time rah-rahing men, hyping them up to be all that they can be. Mansfield’s approach in this book is an approach that seems like it casts a much wider net and therefore would be much more prone to catch more men with what it encourages.

If you feel like there is something more for yourself or for the men in your life, “Men on Fire” may be just the antidote for that. Mansfield writes from his experience and a strong desire to see men live into the destiny to which they are called. Check out “Men on Fire,” it may be just the spark that you or the men you love need to start a fire that burns towards the future.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge by Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Why Would Anyone Go To Church? – A Book Review

“Why Would Anyone Go To Church?” is the story of a young pastor, Kevin Makins, who started a new church. He wasn’t an expert or polished in all his methodology and theology. He simply wanted to create a church that could reach the people that “organized religion” seemed to miss. Makins tells his story about reaching out to the people on the borderland, the place between the sacred and the secular, the profound and the profane.

Makins chronicles his own upbringing within the church, pointing out the good, the bad, and the ugly of what he experienced. Like many of us, he took the best of what he learned and coupled it with a desire to change and reform the not so good things that he experienced. Not discounting the negative but also not fixating on it, he tries to remind his readers that the Church is a family and most people have been, “simultaneously nurtured and wounded by their parents.”

The church in North America hasn’t been so much about adventure or mission, Makins suggests, but rather about, “large buildings, political power, and packed services.” We’ve gotten comfortable, he says, which has led us towards preservation and left us with a false assumption that the church would always be packed and supplied with an adequate amount of staff and people.

Being in the midst of a church plant myself, I very much appreciate the honesty and candor with which Makins tells the story. Oftentimes, we hear all the success stories of ministry and fail to hear about the failures and missteps. Makins doesn’t hesitate to share those, revealing his own journey and how it differed from traditional models of church and church planting. He even tells about his failed attempt to be approved by a church planting assessment team years into his church plant.

Regardless of the hiccups that he and his faith community may have faced along the way, his emphasis is on community, which seems to be the glue that holds people together. It isn’t music or preaching or programs, those things will only sustain you for so long, usually as long as you do it better than everyone else around you. But creating a place where people can come and meet Jesus, where they can bring their mess with them and know that they will be accepted but challenged, that’s a sustainable vision for the Church.

With his personal stories, raw and honest, Makins invites his readers to consider the importance of the big “C” Church. Church isn’t a moment in time or a place we go, but an invitation, a call to follow Jesus, an invitation to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Makins humorously recounts his experiences in such a way that his readers can feel the joy, the pain, the awkwardness, and the struggle.

“Why Would Anyone Go To Church?” quickly made the list of recommended books for church planters. We need more stories like this, stories that let us know that allowing community to organically be shaped and formed may not be the most efficient way to start a church, but it certainly is the most compelling and sustainable way to do it.

For anyone who has been burned by a church community in the past, who may have given up on the church as an institution, “Why Would Anyone Go To Church?” might reinvigorate your faith not in an institution, but in the God who began that institution. It may give you the courage and boldness to be willing to step out and be vulnerable again or to create spaces where vulnerability can happen.

Whether you grew up in the church and walked away, whether you’ve recently come to faith, or if you’ve been anywhere in between, “Why Would Anyone Go To Church?” is well worth your time. Unless of course you have been satisfied with a commercial and consumerist approach to the church, seeing it as a place for programs and products rather than as a movement, a calling, or a community. If you’re satisfied with the way things are, you may want to just pass it up, but if you are hungry to see the Church be more than she has become, give it a read.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge by Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

A Movement That Starts Right Where You Are

Something’s coming! It’s a movement! Right before movements, Tim Soerens points out, almost always people are afraid to ask big and important questions, polarization and nostalgia escalate, and disconnected grassroots experiments take place on the margins. In the context of the modern day church, there is confusion about what’s happening. Rather than looking toward a risky and bold future, institutions are looking to “former glories.”

Tim Soerens asks, “How do we embody news that is so good it draws the attention and longing of our neighbors?” In light of the fact that so many young people are giving up on church, should we be asking ourselves better questions? How could they be giving up on the one place that claims to have the answers and hope for the future? They believe that their time is better spent elsewhere, in places where more change can happen.

In his latest book called “Everywhere You Look,” Tim Soerens poses these questions and more to help guide and direct those who are seeing the need to package the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that lives up to its potential as life changing and transformative. He says, “If the only place our neighbors can experience the body of Christ is during our worship services, we have failed.”

“Everywhere You Look” is Soerens effort to emphasize the church becoming a movement and a people rather than a place. The church needs to stop focusing on attendance and giving problems and worry more about embodying the good news of Jesus Christ in everyday life. The future of the church is not dependent on more hype, more professionals, and more stagecraft. Presence trumps performance. Every. Single. Time.

Soerens leans heavily on Simon Sinek’s concept of starting with why. Rather than focusing on our “What” which seems to be a common occurrence within the church, we need to focus on our “Why” to move forward. “Why” helps us create movement and change. The beginning of the conversation about what has to happen to change the church should not start with what we do on Sundays but rather why we do what we do.

Where is God already working in our neighborhoods? Are we paying attention to the Holy Spirit and his movement? Soerens suggests that we gain an appreciation and awe of our lives by becoming, “lifelong learners of the art of paying attention to the Holy Spirit in our ordinary lives.” Be risky. Be inquisitive. Be bold. See movement. We are the agents of change.

When we put so much focus on the Sunday experience, it becomes nearly impossible for us to not compare ourselves with those around us. We can easily find ourselves in competition with other churches. If we aren’t careful, we can easily transform our view of church to simply be a place that dispenses weekly teaching and singing for religious consumers. Sole focus on the weekend experience pushes people towards hype and self-help rather than allowing for transformation to occur. We want to see people become apprentices of Jesus, followers of Jesus, disciples of Jesus, not consumers of the products that Jesus’ so-called followers produce. As Soerens writes, “If the church is just another optional consumer choice, it’s just too small of a story to give our lives to.”

As co-founding director of the Parish Collective, Soerens is passionate about the parish model. It is, he says, “the playground where God can invite us into practical hope.” It has taken us a long time to get to the place where we are today in the church, so we need to settle in and be patient for the journey that will take us away from this place and to the place where numerical growth means less and transformation and culture making takes a higher priority.

Tim Soerens isn’t trying to diminish the importance of community or even the Sunday experience. But if what we do on Sundays does not inform how we live our everyday lives throughout the rest of the week, we are doing something wrong. The church needs to be a visible community living in the world. We need to rethink our strategies to allow for them to be the thing that allows us to pursue the dreams of God.

“Everywhere You Look” is a book that will challenge you and your perspective of what the church is. Soerens questions, unpacks, and deconstructs in a respectful way, never putting down the church or her history, but always making the reader sense that there is a better way to go about on the mission of God that we claim to be on.

This is an exercise and an invitation for the church to come alongside a culture that oftentimes seems to be “godless.” How do we become present alongside our neighbors and serve our neighborhoods and communities? Proximity and presence are two primary ways that this happens. We come near as God came near, we build relationships and be present among those with whom we live and work in community. This is the essence of missionality that many have been trumpeting for years.

“Everywhere You Look” was one of those books, to me, that I felt I needed to read a second time before I even finished it the first time. As simple as the concepts might be, sometimes the simplest concepts are the hardest to fully implement and put into practice. Having had conversations with others along with the author, Tim Soerens, at the release of this book, this book was meant to go through in community with one another. While I haven’t done it myself yet, I fully plan to in the not too distant future.

If you want to be encouraged and inspired about how to make a difference in the places where God has planted you, “Everywhere You Look” may provide that encouragement and inspiration. Read it by yourself or with a group.

Now What?

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans from slave to free. While it was signed in the midst of the split and struggle of the United States Civil War, the legislation did nothing to change the hearts of Southerners who persisted in their rebellion against the Union. The Civil War continued for another nearly 3 years until Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. 

Slavery, by legislation, had been vanquished, but racism continued.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Jim Crow laws were put into place, mandating racial segregation in public in the states that had formerly comprised the Confederate States of America. These laws remained in place until the 1950s when the groundbreaking and landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. the Board of Education was passed in 1954.

Ten years later, the Civil Rights act of 1964 was passed, followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act. It took one hundred years from the end of the Civil War to legally vanquish what had been put in place by those who had insisted that black and brown people were less than and needed to be treated as such.

Racism, by legislation, had been vanquished, but the hearts of men are rarely changed with the simple passing of laws.

Construction on the Stonewall Jackson monument in Richmond, Virginia began with the laying of the cornerstone on June 3, 1915, during the period which had been defined by the Jim Crow laws which had sought to keep black and brown men and women confined, constrained, and restricted by law. The statue was officially unveiled on October 11, 1919.

For over one hundred years, the statue stood on Monument Avenue in Richmond, an avenue dedicated mostly to Confederate personalities, one of many lingering reminders that regardless of the legislation passed and the progression of certain aspects of our society, there still remained some who chose not to see equality as something to be achieved and attained by everyone, no matter what the founding documents of our country might say.

On July 1, 2020, by order of Mayor Stoney, the Stonewall Jackson monument was removed from its pedestal. In the days and weeks following, additional monuments were removed along that same stretch of road on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

As the Jackson monument came down, live news broadcast the events into homes across the country and the interwebs allowed for a global participation of the deconstruction that was taking place. As the cloudy skies gave way to periods of heavy rain, the crowd of onlookers remained committed to their stance of waiting until the monument was finally removed. As the last connections of the statue to its base were removed, the statue was lifted by a crane to the cheers of onlookers, both black and white, as the rain poured down.

Once again, legislation had removed something that had been offensive and oppressive.

As I watched the live broadcast on my computer, I was reminded of the events of the more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question, “Now what?” Laws were passed, statues were removed, but we still struggled with the evil that lurks within the hearts of men.

Over the last few years, I’ve worked hard to fill the gaps of history that were a result of my education. I grew up in privilege in a town where few minorities lived. The only black and brown students at my school were ones who had been part of a program through a local church that housed these students for the year, removing them from their urban settings in New York City to essentially provide them what I can only assume would be labeled a “better education.”

I refuse to stoop to the level of so many who claim that the removal of statues means the removal of history. I spent more than 30 years of my life having never seen a confederate statue and somehow or another, I was still educated and familiar with the history of our country. If history and our understanding of it is simply promulgated by statues, then most of us have wasted our time and efforts in the classroom.

But what happens after the laws are passed, after the statues come down? What do we do now?

My fear is that too many white folks will see this as the end of the journey, a completion of sorts, that allows them to put their care and concern away until another powderkeg moment occurs and we all rally or protest or demonstrate. That somehow the removal of the symbols of racism signifies the removal of the ideology that put those symbols there to begin with.

Instead, I believe that we need to see this as the beginning of our own journey. Or the convergence of our journey, an on-ramp of sorts, with the journeys of black and brown men and women who have been on this journey their entire lives. Just because we’re finally  informed or woke doesn’t mean that we have somehow arrived, especially if we don’t do anything with what has woken us.

A long obedience in the same direction. That’s the way that Eugene Peterson describes the journey of faith. It’s a phrase that can easily describe so many of the journeys in our lives and I think that it well describes this journey too. Now begins the arduous and somewhat intricate work of moving forward. It isn’t glamorous, it isn’t easy, but I’m pretty sure it pales in comparison to the journey that our black and brown brothers and sisters have been on for decades.

Are we reading? Are we being educated? Are we stretching ourselves and letting ourselves be stretched by others in the context of relationships? Are we seeking relationships that we have never had before? Are we journeying along with others who are different than we are?

The persistent work required for the way forward is not sexy or trendy, it’s difficult. There will be more setbacks. There will be frustrations. There will be pain. There will be awkwardness. But if we expect a walk in the park, we’d best simply stick to cheering for the statues as they come down and then go back to our comfortable and insulated lives.

I have a few pastor friends who have already shared with me the fallout that they have experienced as they have stood their ground on racial issues, holding to the ideology that Black lives do matter, and everyone really IS equal regardless of their skin color. They have braved the accusations and vitriol that have been hurled at them and have continued to press on. I am grateful to associate myself with these friends who are committed to the long haul, not just the moment.

The task seems overwhelming, but the best way to eat an elephant, as the adage says, is one bite at a time. What bites can you take? Those bites can be small, but progress is progress. We can’t change the hearts of others, but we can certainly allow for our hearts to be changed. Now is the time to be the change that you want to see in the world.