Laying Down My Isaac

220px-Rembrandt_Abraham_en_Isaac,_1634Abraham, the Father of the Jewish people, had been promised by God that, although his wife was barren, he would have more offspring than stars in the sky. It was through that offspring that God would save his people. God promised. Abraham believed.

Eventually, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, would conceive and have a son whose name was Isaac. The promised one had come and Abraham and Isaac were overjoyed at God’s provision for them, just as he had promised.

But the story took a turn when God asked Abraham to go and sacrifice his son as an offering. In our day, this is astounding, but in a day when child sacrifices were prevalent, it wasn’t the concept that was strange, it was the thought of sacrificing a child of promise, one who was to be the first of many offspring who would eventually result in the saving of a nation, a people, and the world.

The heading in the Bible for this passage simply reads, “Abraham Tested.” It lasts a total of nineteen verses, which hardly seems adequate to convey the depth and gravity of the situation. There is little hesitation on the part of Abraham. His language communicates his hope that he and his son will come out on the other side, unscathed.

No matter how many times that I read the passage, I struggle to put myself in the place of Abraham. To be honest, I struggle to put myself in the place of Isaac either. But what happens when God calls someone to lay down their dreams, their hopes, their future? What happens when the very thing that God promised is the very thing that God asks us to lay down at his feet?

I am very willing to give up certain things in my life, things that seem expendable, things to which I am holding loosely. But what are the things to which I am holding more tightly? What are the “Isaacs” in my life that I am reluctant to let go of?

When we think about all that we must give up in our pursuit of God, it can sometimes feel as if he is a cosmic killjoy, calling people to give up everything. But if we find that mindset dominant within us, we probably need to look towards the end of Abraham’s account. Not only did God spare and preserve Isaac, but he kept his promise.

Did Abraham realize as he trudged up that hill with anxiety weighing heavily on his heart that God had a plan? Was he concocting an escape route in his plan, waiting for the right time to make a break for it and try to outrun God, something Jonah would do hundreds of years later?

I’m looking at the “Isaacs” in my life. I’m trying to figure out just what it is that I’m holding onto so tightly. I’m asking myself, “If I’m holding onto these things so tightly, is it possible that they’ve become idols to me?”

Soul searching is never an easy thing and we rarely get the pat answers for which we sometimes wish. But at the end of the day, I’d rather much rather be self-aware and in a bit of discomfort than to be like the emperor with his new clothes, blissful in ignorance and unable to see what was perfectly evident to the rest of the world.

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What Are You Hiding?

In the wake of the suicides of two prominent public and successful figures, many are reeling and wondering just what happened. How did two people who had experienced such success find themselves in such darkness and despair that they felt the need to take their lives? How did it come to this? And the question that haunts me more than any other is, “Did anyone really know how bad it was?”

We live in an age of information. We get up to the minute news details from around the world. At our fingertips lies more information than generations before us could gather in a lifetime. We call ourselves “connected” but deep down inside, there are so many who are alone, afraid, and in desperate despair.

I’ve been through my own struggles lately, none which have led me to the sickness unto death. Struggles are one thing, but where do we go with them?

My thoughts on my own recent struggles and experiences are raw, but one thing that has emerged larger than life to me is that we are rarely honest people. We love to cover things up. We will divert and project and use all kinds of tactics to ensure that no one has a clue what’s really going on inside of us.

Even the answers that we give of our despair are untrue. We tell ourselves lies, and we tell those lies to others. Why? Why are we trying to hide? What are we trying to hide? What keeps us from confronting the truth of the situations in which we find ourselves?

I am a student of people. I watch, I learn, I gather information. Over the years, I have been both frustrated and intrigued to find that the answers that people give and reasons for their actions are rarely true. I’ve rarely received an answer when asking for a reason or rationale that I haven’t felt the need to mine, dig deeper, and discover the real reason behind the reason.

In an age when we are all supposed to feel closer than ever, we couldn’t be more further apart.

I have been blessed by many things in the midst of this world, but three stand out to me.

First, I have a family who I love and who loves me. My family has gone through transitions in the past few years, losing my parents, losing other loved ones, but we adjust. I am grateful for what I have in the form of loves ones.

Second, I have a select group of friends with whom I feel I can be more honest and open. Some are near, some are far, but the benefit of having those who I feel no need to hide from, whom I don’t need to don a social media presence before, that benefit is invaluable.

Third, my faith in Jesus Christ. Yes, critics of Christianity have criticized it as a crutch. Many horrid things have been done in the name of Jesus, but putting the blame for those things on Jesus hardly seems fair. Call it a crutch if you will, I know the depths of despair from which I have been rescued because of the hope and faith that I have. While that certainly can’t be distilled down into any empty statements suggesting that Jesus is all you need to avoid despair, depression, and suicide, I know that the smallest glimpse of hope has saved me and helped me to seek help in trying times.

I want to be part of a community that knows how to be honest with one another, even when it’s awkward, even when it hurts, even when it’s uncomfortable. I have seen the alternative and it’s been less than appealing to me.

And when we can’t be honest with each other, when we feel the need to hide, can we dig and probe and ask questions to get to the bottom of the despair that’s plaguing our hearts? Can we not settle for, “I’m fine” when we know that it’s less than an honest answer?

Two passages from the Bible come to mind. The first from Proverbs 20:5, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” It takes time and trust to get to the deep waters of a person’s heart, are we willing to spend that time? One who has insight and wisdom will take the time and will do their best to draw it out.

I am also reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul from one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible, Romans 12:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

As much despair as there is in the world, there is always hope, we can always find it if we look in the right place. I hope and pray that wherever you are, wherever I am, that we might be honest enough with those around us that we can face our despair and find hope in the midst. And if we can’t be honest, for whatever reason, I pray that there are those around us who will take the time and do the hard work of loving us and drawing out the purposes of our hearts so that we can move towards hope and peace.

Faith Among the Faithless – A Book Review

faith among the faithlessOne of the most difficult things that I have found when reading the Bible is remembering to look at the contents based on context of both writers and readers (or hearers). I often find myself jumping right to how what I read applies to me today rather than processing just how the original readers received it. When I do this, I miss some significant pieces of the story and, frankly, it’s a fairly self-consumed and overall selfish reading without gaining the benefits of exploring context.

Mike Cosper’s book “Faith Along the Faithless” takes the ancient story of Esther and connects it to the world we now live in. He retells the story and fills in some of the details that might be missed on a perfunctory reading. In looking at this ancient story, Cosper sees many lessons that modern day Christians can learn and apply to their own lives.

Cosper tells the reader that this modern, secular age has had a profound impact on the church. As he moves through the story, he reminds the reader that this story is much less like Veggie Tales or the flannelgraph Sunday school versions of Esther that we may have heard and is much more like Game of Thrones. Deception. Betrayal. Conspiracy. Murder.

Esther was not the squeaky clean poster child that Sunday school teachers have sometimes portrayed. Esther and Mordecai were Jews living in Babylon. They’ve been assimilated and it’s become hard to tell the difference between Jews and Babylonians, very similar to our current situation.

Cosper intertwines his retelling of this story amidst his own thoughts and commentary. He makes references to the portions of the Book of Esther to which he is referring. This is a helpful reference for the reader who wants to be more thorough in looking at the biblical account while reading Cosper’s retelling.

My interest in this book was more about Cosper’s digging deeper into the story than it was seeing the comparisons to modern day. His overall connection to the exilic story of the Bible was good, I didn’t feel like he was trying to take the story and overlay the lessons that he was hoping or trying to teach. He gave the lessons in context and then made the leap to apply them today.

I appreciate good storytellers who are able to accentuate with added detail when they tell stories. Cosper does that well here with the story of Esther. I appreciated this book and even think that I may go back and refer to it in any future dealings with Esther or even reread it as a reminder. It’s a worthwhile read and the lessons that Cosper takes from the story of Esther and applies to today are definitely worth considering.

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

Seeing With Your Heart

I am a visual person. I like to be able to see things. I have a white board in my office where I can write out the things that I have to do and even work out ideas. It gives me the opportunity to sit at my desk and stare at the thoughts and ideas written on it. I can work them out in my head but right there in front of me as well. My thoughts come to life in a visible way, allowing me to see where I am going and order my thoughts better.

When I can’t see things, I panic. My anxiety rises up. I flip and flail like a fish dropped on dry land, struggling for breath and wondering when I will get a glimpse and see what I have determined in my head is necessary for me to see in order to move forward.

It’s funny how the things that we can so often think are necessary for our survival are far more expendable than we actually think. We obsess over things that seem crucial to us, viscerally reacting or even overreacting. Then we realize that we can live without the very thing that seemed to crucial and integral to our own plan.

Do I need to see, or do I just WANT to see? When I can see all of the pieces laid out in front of me, it’s really easy for me to wallow in my own self-sufficiency, elevating myself to a plain far above where I belong. Seeing all of the pieces may seem comfortable to me, but it mostly eliminates my need for trust and faith in God. If I can figure it all out myself, if I can seem to be self-sufficient, if there is no mystery, what’s the use of faith anymore?

A friend of mine describes the Christian life as being a combination of the two simple yet difficult tasks of trusting and obeying. It’s one step after another. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Onward. The mundane yet laborious task of putting one foot in front of the other, not always knowing where your footfall will be three steps or ten steps or twenty steps from now. Only knowing where the next step will be. Like the psalmist’s words, a light to our path doesn’t shine for miles in front of us, it simply lights the way for the few steps that lie immediately ahead.

I’m beginning to see that what I think I need to see may be just an extension of my need to control things. Maybe trusting is less about seeing with our eyes and more about seeing with our hearts. Maybe all I really need to see is what’s immediately before me so that I abstain from self-sufficiency and I lean more on God, who has promised to guide me and provide for every step.

I’ll continue to resist, I can be assured of that. I’ll continue to search for ways that I can see what I was never meant to see. But in my search and in my resistance, perhaps I will find that the same vision that I have prided myself in with my eyes may transfer over to my heart and I will begin to see things not as I want to see them, but as I need to see them. Perhaps I will find that as difficult of a task as it is to see with my heart, it will serve me so much better in the long run.

The Plague of Complacency

objects in the mirrorBack in my engineering days, I went back to grad school and got a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Among the various classes that I took for my degree was an environmental law degree. I had always fancied myself a hack in the area of law and imagined that if I hadn’t taken the career path that I had, I may very well have ended up in the law profession.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the class other than the fact that we talked about a mindset and way of thinking that was prevalent among people called “Not In My Backyard.” We abbreviated it NIMBY and I remember evoking NIMBY often for years to come as I saw the trend play out in land development and beyond.

The basic premise is that people generally don’t care about things until they directly impact or affect them. Something tragic, difficult, or unjust may be happening to other people in other places of the world, but until it directly impacts us, we can have a tendency to turn a blind eye and even move towards complacency.

To be honest, I’ve seen this played out in my own life and in the life of others in my peer group and older. We can be given warnings and cautions but we continue to act like I did while in my 20s, as if I were ten feet tall and bulletproof. We think we are invincible and that nothing can touch us and then after countless times of ignoring warnings, when the inevitable takes place, our jaws drop and with a dumbfounded look on our faces, we exclaim, “How did this happen?”

It’s the parent who constantly lets their child get away with more and more until the child finally pushes the envelope and injures himself or someone else. It’s the individual who continues to think that “that can’t happen to me” and tests the boundaries until the very thing that could “never happen” to her ends up happening worse than she could have imagined.

Complacency is a plague, but unlike the plagues of history where people were warned and mostly understood the imminent dangers, the plague of complacency is more subtle and the its lethalness is undermined and diminished. After all, it certainly can’t happen to me.

The worst part about complacency is that I just don’t know how to fight it. In our culture, in our part of the world, complacency doesn’t really look like complacency, and just like so many other socially accepted behaviors, we not only excuse it away but we sweep it under the rug, ignoring it, justifying it, or condoning it. When we finally realize it for what it is, the damage has been done and we pick up the pieces, wondering just how to put them together again.

Complacency isn’t something new. John the Revelator wrote to the churches in the Book of Revelation and talked about complacency, or being lukewarm. Be hot or cold, but don’t be somewhere in between. Spit is lukewarm and none of like that swirling around our mouths too much. We spit it out.

The only thing to do with complacency is to deal with my own. Break it up. Destroy it. Don’t promote it. Don’t condone it. Call it for what it is and then move on from there.

The problem with complacency within the church is that we can often mask it by doing a lot of things, often a lot of good things. We meet, we plan, we execute plans, but complacency is luring beneath the surface. Instead of evoking the power that has been given to us by the ever present Holy Spirit, we conjure everything up in our own strength and power, with seeming success.

Years ago, in ministry, I heard about an Asian pastor who was critical of the western church. In seeing just how much was accomplished, he exclaimed, “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish without the Holy Spirit.” That wasn’t a compliment.

I don’t know how to fight complacency, so I’ll do my best to avoid it myself. But I can’t do it on my own. I want to plan, but I don’t want to plan first and pray later. I want to pray before I plan. I want to act, not of duty and responsibility, but out of the beating of my heart which wants to love as Jesus loves.

Complacency may seem innocuous when it’s not in our backyard, but I think it’s kind of like the passenger side mirror on cars, objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear.

Ain’t Going Out Like That

abandoned-churchI’ve been asked before whether I hate Christians, which is kind of a funny question to be asked when you’re a pastor. Digging deeper down, I think the genesis of the question was because I have a tendency to speak my mind with a combination of my New York and New England roots.

Growing up in the church, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of the local church. I’ve seen people who claim the love of Christ but rarely show it. I’ve seen people who have been forgiven for much be stingy in offering forgiveness to others. I’ve seen the hypocrisy that flows freely behind closed doors, a stark contrast from the public face that some wear. And, if I’m totally honest, I’ve probably seen all of these and more in the mirror as much as I’ve seen it in other people.

The place of the local church in society has changed dramatically over the last fifty or sixty years. Once upon a time, the local church, regardless of denomination, was afforded a place of respect within our culture, but things have changed. People have run from God. They generally want him to care when their lives are a mess, even criticizing him and asking where he is in the midst of trials and difficulties. At the same time, when things are going well, they have no issue taking credit for how they’ve made themselves who they are and how far they’ve advance their own causes, giving no credit to God for the blessings they’ve received.

Within the church, it seems that many of us have been licking our wounds and lamenting this fall from grace for the church. How did we get here? Why did we get here? Why can’t things be the way that they used to be? Instead of adapting to this new normal, we’ve allowed panic and fear to drive us to find ways to regain the church’s place in society, mostly by thinking (like Israel) that politics is the way to make that happen, especially if we can just get the “king” (or president) to lead us to glory.

But the place of Christians in our society is not much different than the place of Christians in many of the societies where Paul planted churches in the first century. Corinth. Ephesus. Rome. Colossae. The Roman empire was not a “Christian” culture. Regardless of Constantine’s move centuries later (which I believe instilled a false sense of security into the Church universal), Roman culture was pagan.

Fifty years ago, the place that the church occupied within culture and society in America fostered an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. I call it the “Field of Dreams” mentality. People respected the church and pastors enough that just being there and offering opportunities was enough. You could draw people in with your programs if you made them attractive enough. Even if you made no concerted efforts to reach out to your community, people would inevitably find their way back to the church, right?

But those days are gone, and I can’t say that I lament them at all. As difficult as life can become without certain things at times, using crutches can give us a false sense of security that also removes our reliance on the muscles that we were supposed to be leaning on. But now that the crutches of false security have been removed, we need some major physical therapy in the church to begin to strengthen those muscles that we haven’t been using for so long.

Primarily, those are the muscles of outreach and evangelism. Because those things were so programmatic back in the day, we are dumbfounded in the church to realize that there is no magic formula or secret sauce that allows us to bring people into the church in droves.

Instead, it takes one conversation at a time, one relationship at a time, over a long period of time. It take intentional investment, not a one-time event that we can throw money at in hopes that it will somehow translate into a growth boom in the local church.

But, we just ain’t going out like that. Churches continue to struggle to do this.

I think there are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is our diminished ability to connect and relate well to other people. Our culture will generally respond to crisis, but when the crisis is gone, where do we go? Where do the relationships go?

I’ve seen some messy situations both inside and outside of the church. I’ve only seen few of those engaged by some very brave people who understand the messiness into which they are venturing. It’s not easy. There will be hurt. There will be pain. There will be joy. There will be celebration. There will be life.

Somehow, the Church needs to figure out a way to relate well to the world once again. It’s not done with picket signs and boycotts, it’s done through relationships, especially relationships with those we would consider to be the “other,” people who don’t look like us, act like us, or even think like us. Jesus’ instructions about the greatest commandment were twofold: love God, love your neighbor.

Unfortunately, we’ve diminished our definition of the word “neighbor.” Instead of defining the word from Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, anyone who comes across our path, those who are like us or not, we’ve limited it to those who we enjoy spending time with or who we can tolerate. I can tell you, Samaritans and Jews weren’t particularly chummy back in the day, yet that was the definition that Jesus gave of showing love to a neighbor.

This is a big ship to turn, one that takes time and patience. I’m running out of both. I’ve never been a patient person and when I feel urgency, my patience becomes even more limited.

Ultimately, reaching out to a world in need of hope and in need of a Savior can’t be about building a Christian empire or nation, it needs to be about building a kingdom. But this kingdom isn’t of this world and it certainly doesn’t have values that look like the values of this world either. When we lose sight of what we’re building, we become like those inhabitants of Babel, building a tower for our own glory rather than the glory of God.

I’m on this journey, learning more every day, becoming a little bit more willing to take risks every day. I want to see the Church succeed in her mission, but it’s going to take some momentum and synergy to move things forward. I’m hoping I find some others who are willing to take this ride with me, not for our sake or even the sake of our local church, but for the sake of a King and Kingdom that will reign forever.

Developing Emotionally Mature Leaders – A Book Review

Developing Emotionally Mature LeadersAubrey Malphurs introduces the concept of emotional maturity for Christians by claiming that emotionally maturity and spiritual maturity go hand in hand. He writes, “And to be emotionally mature is to be spiritually mature.” Christians who claim to be spiritually mature yet lack emotional maturity are mistaken, Malphurs says.

This book is divided into four sections. The first section, Introduction to Emotional Intelligence, feels like an apologetic for the subject. Why is emotional intelligence important? That’s the question that Malphurs seems to be answering in Part 1. He gives a brief history, introducing some of the key influential figures in the study of emotional intelligence.

In Part 2, Malphurs seems to be answering the question, “Why does this matter to Christians?” He goes so far as to give a Biblical theology of emotions and why they are important. To be honest, this also seems like an apologetic section, as if he is trying to convince Christians why this subject is so important. To be honest, if someone has picked up this book, I would be hard pressed to believe that they wouldn’t see value in the subject to begin with.

Halfway through the book, Malphurs begins to get into the nuts and bolts of emotional intelligence and maturity. Part 3 is about becoming an emotionally mature leader. Malphurs introduces four different emotional maturity models and briefly walks through them.

Part 4 is the appendices, which are dedicated to the building of various skills such as networking, risk-taking, decision-making. confrontation,  encouragement, and various other practical skills for emotional health and leadership. Most of what is shared here is fairly practical. Nothing earth-shattering, at least to me.

Overall, every time that I opened this book and was reminded of its title, I felt a little disappointed that so much time was taken to convince the reader why the subject was important. I would rather have seen more space in the book dedicated to the models and the methods for growing and building emotionally healthy leaders. The book was far more elementary than its title indicates. I was expecting much deeper and more helpful.

For those who are already familiar with the subject of emotional health and maturity, you can probably pass on this book. I don’t think you will learn anything new. While the appendices have some helpful information, it certainly isn’t worth the price of the book as the information is most likely available elsewhere.

If you are just wading into this subject, this book may be helpful to convince you of the importance of the subject. It’s more of a primer for beginners than a handbook for the already familiar.

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

Miracle In Shreveport – A Book Review

miracle in shreveportAs twin brothers, David and Jason Benham shared everything from a young age. From their room, all the way to their dream of playing professional baseball. They did whatever they could to pursue that dream, as did their father and the rest of the family.

“Miracle In Shreveport” is the story of their pursuit of this dream. Every summer on the way to their vacation, they would see the lights of Fair Grounds Field in Shreveport, the home of the Shreveport Captains, a minor league baseball team, and dream of playing there together some day. Their father would always pray with them as they would pass that field, even if he had to wake them, that their dream would one day be realized.

David and Jason take turns telling their story, from their beginnings in Garland, Texas, to their pursuit of their major league careers. They tell of the love for baseball that they inherited from both their father and grandfather. They tell of the lessons that their father would constantly drill into them as they would pursue their dream, reminding them that dreams don’t accomplish themselves but can only be achieved through hard work. Their father was equally interested in his sons becoming the best people and men as he was that they become the best baseball players.

The Benham brothers’ pursuit of their dream was certainly the stuff of storybooks. One would get close and have the wrench thrown in their gears only to be setback from their goal. The other one would take strides towards making a name for himself, and then would find himself coming up against impossible odds. Over and over again, they would almost be able to see and taste their dream when it would retract like a yo-yo, moving once again beyond their reach.

The brothers’ faith is on full display in this book, as is the faith of their father, a pastor and avid pro-life supporter, and the rest of the family. The brothers talk of their father’s constant arrests in his demonstrating against abortion rights. The boys’ commitment to God and their commitment to prayer are highlighted as well. There are times when this commitment to prayer seems a little excessive, pray your prayer, ask for what you want, then wait for it to come true. While that is overly simplistic, there are moments when that’s the way that it feels.

At the same time, the Benham brothers are equally ready to abandon their dream if they feel like that’s what God is calling them to do. Through it all, there is a healthy awareness of the potential of baseball to become an idol, and a real wrestling on display in them both to ensure that it never becomes one. When things don’t go as they would have liked them to go, they are ready to move on to the next thing, but it seems that God continues to bring them back.

As the story moves on, it’s hard not be become engrossed in the story. The boys and their self-deprecating (as well as twin-deprecating) humor have a knack for storytelling. By the end of the book, I think most readers will be rooting for them, hoping that their dream of playing professional baseball together becomes a reality. Just as I did with one of their favorite movies, The Natural, that they make reference to countless times throughout the book, I found myself cheering out loud in the end, experiencing the magic of baseball that has captivated these brothers and countless millions of others since its inception. While there are moments when the story feels repetitive, nothing feels contrived or fake. The genuine faith of these brothers plays a significant part in this story and that faith along with the heartfelt telling of their story makes this book a worthwhile read for young and old alike.

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

Activate – A Book Review

activateOne thing I can say for certain about Nelson Searcy and the Journey Church is that they are incredibly generous in their distribution of the wealth of information that they have gained in becoming a church that reaches a lot of people. Having read other books by Searcy in the past, I was anxious to see what he had to say about small groups and the role that they play in the local church.

On page 27, I knew I was going to like their insights when he shared that, “Jesus designed the church to be an outwardly focused organism.” This plays out of Searcy’s first big idea, “Think from the outside in, not from the inside out.” He starts his discussion on small groups pointing to the fact that internally focused small groups result in stagnancy.

The material in the book is set up in a very logical and helpful way. The book is divided into two parts: the Activate Mindset and the Activate System. Searcy explains the mindset and paradigm shifts that have resulted in the Activate System by walking through twelve big ideas. Each big idea is set up by first identifying what “conventional wisdom” has said and then offering “Reality.” Then each chapter unpacks that, explaining what has led the Journey Church to adopt the methodology and mindset that they have regarding small group ministry.

The second half of the book, The Activate System, breaks down the approach of Journey Church into the four areas that they use to frame up and approach small groups. They label these the Four Fs: Focus, Form, Fill, and Facilitate. Part 2 of the book is divided into these four areas and Searcy walks through each area, giving clear guidelines and instruction on how they go about practically carrying out the system that has seemed to have been successful to the Journey Church.

While there may be times that the reader considers the approach that Searcy lays out and questions its validity in their own context, Searcy has an awareness of this. He fully admits that there may be certain factors in certain contexts which limit the application of some of the methods outlined in this book. He gives the reader full permission to abandon those when they don’t fit.

I found myself reading through “Activate” and wondering whether the ideas were valid. The discomfort that I felt at times was mostly a result of the paradigm shift that Searcy talks of in the book. Many of the ideas and methods that they have adopted directly oppose some of the familiar and adopted practices that I have seen in many churches who have embraced small group ministry as a means for connection and growth. My bristling at some of these methods doesn’t make them wrong, and I think that the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Searcy talks about the experience that they have had with these methods.

Searcy is also quick to point out that they have had to make course corrections along the way. They didn’t get it right out of the gate. There were failures and wrong assumptions that they’ve adjusted as they’ve refined the process more and more with every passing iteration of offering small groups.

Whether you’ve read a lot of resources on small group ministry or are just getting started, Searcy’s insights and approaches are at least worth a perusal. You may open the book and disagree with everything he lays out, but have an open mind, you may find that despite your disagreement, the things he says actually make a lot of sense when you apply them.

As I mentioned, I’ve read multiple books by Searcy. In being forthcoming with a wealth of information regarding how they do things at the Journey Church, he constantly points people to a website where readers can find additional information. He does the same thing with other books that he has written. On this website (and others connected with other books he’s written) there are some resources available, but the resources hardly seem to be as wonderful as Searcy makes them out to be in the book. Instead, the website seems to be more about selling additional resources for church leaders to use. I understand the premise and reason for this, but an honest depiction of them in the book would result in a much more realistic expectation by the reader once they get there.

Overall, I’ve appreciated most of what Searcy has shared in his books. He doesn’t feel arrogant to me in his sharing, he feels genuinely concerned to help others as they travel on similar paths in ministry. “Activate” is laid out in such a helpful way that a reader could easily move through the various sections, reading only the sections that seem to be most beneficial and useful. Even after a complete read of the book, the contents are extremely helpful to find the specific focus areas that he discusses.

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

Be Who You Are

I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago by the organization from whom I received my StrengthsFinders training. The main topic of discussion was team values.

As the hosts talked, I felt myself nodding my head over and over again like a bobblehead doll as they talked about looking at their organization and having this sneaky suspicion deep inside that what they said were and what they really were did not agree. The head of the organization said that as they looked at their values, at least their stated values, they began to realize that that was all that they were, stated values. They weren’t bad or wrong, but they weren’t who they really were. Deep inside he could tell that there was a discrepancy and the stated values did not necessarily represent reality.

In other words, the things that they said they valued were not necessarily the things that they really valued. What they said they valued may have represented the best of intentions, what they wished that they were, but they were not reality and it was that which had caused the unsettled feeling within the head of the organization. It evoked a discussion about what the organization valued based on observation rather than desire or intentions.

It resonated with me because I can relate. There are times that I may claim one thing or another about myself, but those claims are false, not representing reality. Instead of claiming what is real, I sometimes claim what I WISH to be real. For instance, someone may say that they are charitable, giving when not asked, being generous always, and rarely being selfish in what they have, but the reality may be that they are patronizing at best, reluctantly giving when asked, self-serving at worst.

I don’t suspect that I am the only one who deals with this. If we are all honest, I wonder how many of us would say that the values we claim are actual reality. Is there good alignment between what we say we are and what we wish we were?

Within the church, I feel like this is a major point to ponder. Churches may put forth their vision and mission statements, they may tote values that align with the teachings of Jesus, but how many times are the values that are trumpeted the actual values that are exhibited? Are we being consistent in our language or are we simply saying that we are something that we are not?

It lends itself to a thorough questioning and soul searching if we truly want to get to the heart of this issue. The church aligns itself with the teachings of Jesus, in theory, but I think that there are times when we are selective about to which teachings of Jesus we adhere, often casting out the difficult or problematic ones. If we lack consistency between what we say we are and how we actually behave, then we are really guilty of false advertising, saying we hold to the teachings of Jesus but only embracing them in theory rather than in practice.

I fully understand that a vision is something to which we aspire. We set up visions in order that we would progress towards them, promoting forward movement towards something. A vision is something that gives us a picture of the future, of what could be. But what happens when our pursuit of vision seems endless? Is that the purpose?

As followers of Christ, we are constantly being reformed and transformed, at least we should be. We will not reach full perfection or Christlikeness (to use a recurrent term) until we meet Jesus face to face. So where do we set our vision? Should vision be constantly changing?

I am growing weary of the self-realization that what I say I am ends up being more like what I wish I were than what I really am. The journey of self-awareness will lead us to this reality if things are off. My hope and prayer is that I will constantly be asking myself how aligned I am with what I say I am and what I really am. If I can’t get this right myself, I certainly can’t expect those whom I lead to follow suit.