Something Like A Collision

car collisionThe other night, I was driving home from the hospital. I had just gone to visit a friend who has been struggling with health issues lately. Visits like that are always helpful to put things in perspective for my own life.

On the drive home, I was fairly pensive, pondering the existential questions of life as I drove up Interstate 95. My phone buzzed as a message came in from another friend asking whether I had a minute to chat. After my talk-to-text affirmative response, I spent some time on the phone with him hearing about the challenges that he is facing in his life within his own family.

When I hung up the phone with him, my mind raced to a handful of other friends and acquaintances whose lives have been a bit of a challenge lately. Marriages on the rocks. Childrearing challenges. Sickness. Crises of faith. It was a little overwhelming for me to consider.

My mind wandered to this church planting journey that I am on. I thought about the name of this church we are starting, The Branch. Our tagline has been, “Where life and faith meet.” I couldn’t help but think that sometimes that meeting of life and faith meet feels more like an abrupt collision than a cordial meeting.

Years ago, a mentor reminded me that when you embrace a name for yourself as a church, you had better be prepared to embrace all that comes in that name. I couldn’t help but hear his words as I thought about life and faith meeting. I’ve known from the start that this collision of life and faith would be messy.

I’ve never been one to tolerate giving messages or advice that I am not following myself. To think that any kind of meeting of what can sometimes feel like diametrically opposed things like life and faith would be a walk in the park would be naive, in my opinion. Collisions rarely are tidy.

But that’s the thing, as I thought about it, the reason why I am doing what I am doing. I’ve grown weary of encountering people who are hurting who run from the church rather than running towards it. I’ve grown weary of the stories of people forming opinions about Jesus based on his imperfect followers. I’ve grown weary of church sometimes looking more like an insider’s club that suspiciously eyes outsiders for fear of what they might have brought with them. I’ve grown weary of church sometimes looking more like a retirement home for the already convinced rather than a hospital for the sick who are desperately in need of attention.

Different. Everyone wants to be different, to establish themselves within their own uniqueness. I guess we’ve embraced that same notion. We want to be different. We want to be a place where life and faith meet so that God can break down barriers to his grace. So, when we begin to see barriers being broken down, I guess you could say that we can begin to measure ourselves against our goal.

I’ve been in a handful of accidents in my lifetime, nothing tremendously horrible (thankfully), but enough to know that collisions rarely leave us without a mark. Even if there is no physical evidence of a collision, it generally impacts us mentally.

I fully expect that the more and more we see life and faith meet, collide even, we will be impacted by those meetings, those collisions. We won’t be the same, and frankly, I think that’s what we’re going for.


Clearing the Soil

bradford-pear-400x533When we moved into our house nearly 12 years ago, I was introduced to a tree that I had only been mildly aware of in the past, the Bradford Pear tree. We had five of them on our property when we first moved in. The branches of the tree spread out far and they grew fairly tall. Aesthetically, they looked pleasing to the eye, but looks can be deceiving.

When Spring came around, the tree would bloom and the blooms would smell like someone had let air out of the tires of their car. They stunk. The blossoms would fall all over the ground and make a mess of the yard.

As the years went by and we experienced some significant storms in our area, I became more aware of the structure of the tree (once an engineer, always an engineer). The trunk of the tree remained fairly short while the branches extended far out. The problem with this structure is that the branches can’t handle excessive stress, when the winds flow and the rains and snows fall, they grow weaker and weaker until they finally succumb to the weight and collapse.

Our first Bradford Pear tree broke in the middle of a storm late at night. The next morning, as we were leaving very early for a trip up north, we drove down the street to encounter our tree blocking off one lane of the road. In my haste to remove the tree, I threw my back out and was miserable for the ride north and the first few days of our trip. Needless to say, we had the tree removed.

Years later, just after a storm, our second Bradford Pear tree fell over, nearly hitting the house. We proactively removed the rest of it with its brother tree which was right next to it, thankful that it hadn’t done more damage.

Our final tree lost a branch onto the front of our van, scratching it slightly but not as bad as it could have been. We had the rest of the tree removed and I honestly thought that I was done with Bradford Pear trees. Little did I know.

While the tree company had removed a significant portion of the trees, some of the root structure was left intact and continued to grow and grow, invading the ground and sucking the nutrients from the soil.

What was interesting to me was that in the places where the other trees had been in the yard, the plants and bushes around that area began to flourish and grow. They were no longer stagnated by the Bradford Pear but instead were able to take in what was necessary for their own growth. Soon, some of these plants which had been fairly small in the presence of the Bradford Pears began to show their capabilities for growth. They were no longer hindered by this large presence which somehow made itself look so looming and large, all the while being frail and fragile.

I’ve thought a lot about those Bradford Pears over the years, especially as I’ve worked in churches the whole time. You see, I’ve noticed that there are some people who inhabit churches who are very much like Bradford Pear trees. At first glance, they look looming and large, healthy and mature. They seem to have staying power and they appear to be beneficial to the environment. But then, in the midst of storms, you begin to see what they are really made of, that they are not as strong and sturdy as they came across.

In fact, just like the Bradford Pear trees, they took the nutrients from the soil, stunting the growth of everything and everyone around them. And as soon as they were removed, the environment changed. People who had once been overshadowed were now able to grow and flourish. They were no longer hindered.

Within the church, we sometimes go into panic mode when people leave. We begin to fear and think that there might be something wrong. We might wonder how we will survive without these people who, like the Bradford Pear trees, have given off an air of belonging and mightiness, all the while they are sick and diseased beneath the surface. They aren’t seeking to get healthier, they just want to suck the life away from everything around them.

I’ve witnessed what has happened when they’ve been removed (in some way or another, but usually by their own choice). While some might panic, the end result generally becomes addition by subtraction. Their absence is also an absence of negativity, of controlling behavior, of domineering, of an unhealthy presence. As soon as that is gone, there is room for growth.

But again, like the Bradford Pear tree, the root system can run deep and wide and if you aren’t careful and vigilant, the remnants of that unhealthy growth may linger for a long time afterwards if you don’t do the necessary work of digging deep and removing every last bit of those horrible roots.

In the many churches that I’ve worked in over the years, I have seen this time and time again. In my friendships with other pastors, I’ve heard their similar stories. Over and over again, the removal of unhealthy people was necessary for the church to grow in ways that had been stagnated by the unhealthy presence of those people.

Now, before you criticize me and tell me that this is graceless and unforgiving, consider some of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when they would encounter unreceptive people. They would make efforts but they would eventually wipe the dust from their feet and move on. We can only do so much before we need to walk away and trust that the Holy Spirit will do the work that only he can do if it is work that he is supposed to do.

In my yard, I am done with Bradford Pear trees. I will never plant one in my yard. I continue to struggle with the root systems that lie beneath the surface, invading my yard and sprouting their life-sucking branches all over. But I’m pretty sure that I will continue to encounter people who act very much the same way within the church. I will continue to pray through my experiences with them, trusting that I will extend grace when I feel least like giving it. And when they leave and are removed, I may mourn their presence briefly but I will ultimately rejoice that in their absence, there will be room for good and healthy growth, something that was near impossible while they were still there.

Owning vs. Taking Ownership

I had a conversation with a good friend last night about all that’s happening in my life right now. As we get ready to start this brand new church in a matter of weeks, so many different things are coming to the surface.

Having grown up within the established church, I’ve got my fair share of stories. Despite the fallibility of people, I realized a long time ago that my faith wasn’t supposed to be in them but rather in Jesus. People will disappoint you, discourage you, let you down, and sometimes stab you in the back. We encounter people like that within the church and we are surprised but I don’t think that it should be any more a surprise to us than when we find sick people when we go to the hospital.

It’s not the surprise of finding them in church, it’s the surprise that the behavior is tolerated and sometimes even encouraged. Yes, Christ came to heal because it is the sick who need a doctor, but doctors generally give some direction on a plan of health and wellness to be on the road to recovery. If patients fail to follow that, they can’t be surprised when they don’t get better and feel better.

Over my years within the church, I’ve heard the statistics that 80% of the work of the church is done by 20% of the people. I’m not sure how accurate those statistics are and, frankly, I’m not sure I care because anything less than 100% of engagement means that we still need to be working so that people can not just attend church but be part of the church.

It makes me think about the difference between owning something and taking ownership of something. You see, I think that there are some people in the 21st century who believe that they own the church but they don’t want to take ownership OF the church.

Owning something means that you paid a price to possess it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you take care of it once you have it. It might mean that you pay someone else to take care of it. It may mean that you don’t take care of it at all.

But taking ownership of something means that possessing it isn’t the main goal, it means that you take responsibility for it. When it succeeds, you rejoice. When it fails, you lament. As it goes, so you go. You don’t abandon it when things aren’t going well. You stick by it.

A few years back, a phrase became popular to utter, “I love Jesus, but I hate the church.” The thing about that phrase is that the church is the bride of Christ. So, if you say that you love Jesus and hate the church, that’s like telling your best friend that you love him but you think his wife is a……well, you get it.

As we launch out with this new church, I want to allow God to build us into a place where people take ownership. I don’t want people to feel like because they have given money towards the ministry of the church that they somehow own the church and get to call the shots. If anyone owns the church, it’s Jesus, she is his bride, but I don’t think it’s about owning, it’s about loving and committing to her.

No, the church is not perfect, but neither are any of us. Abandoning her when she shows her imperfections is no better than abandoning your spouse the moment he or she begins to show that they are human.

I hope and pray that when people come to see what God is building through us, the specific local expression of his body, that they will see people taking ownership of the church rather than owning the church. I hope that they see beyond the flaws of the people who are there and instead see the flawless head of the church, Jesus Christ, who we are all seeking to be more like every day.

Loving Well

Too often, it seems, we can get caught up in the day to day routine that we forget about the quick passing of time. Then, when we experience the loss of someone special, we realize that we took for granted that they would always be there and never really said the things that we wanted to say to them.

When my wife’s grandmother turned 80, we celebrated her with a special birthday weekend. Five years later, we were celebrating her again and the decision was made that we would celebrate her every year thereafter. In my opinion, it was a brilliant idea. We would celebrate this incredible woman while she was still here rather than waiting until she was gone.

Having just celebrated this matriarch again a few weekends ago, the poignancy of the weekend remains. Why do we wait until someone is gone to celebrate them and let them know just how much they mean to us?

I have attended and presided over many funerals, it seems like a prevailing sentiment at each and every one that people wish that they had expressed themselves, their appreciation, and their love to the one who has been lost. They wish that they had more time and had said the things they had thought about before they had lost their loved one.

The brilliance of what my wife’s family has done over these last years is that there has always been some intentional sharing of what we appreciate about my wife’s grandmother the most. Imagine the scene with children, children-in-law, grandchildren, grandchildren-in-law, and great-grandchildren sharing about their love for this woman who has impacted each and every one of them. No waiting to share after she is gone (which I assume will still happen someday years from now), the day to share becomes today.

How often do I share with the people around me how much they mean to me? Am I intentional about telling them I love them now, or will I wait until they’re gone and regret that I didn’t say it more?

Loving well means that we let people know how much we love them now, not once they’re gone. Let them appreciate how much they are appreciated. Let them understand their value now. Let them know just how important they are to the people around them.