Flexing Your Muscles

Strong male arm shows biceps. Close-up photo isolated on whiteAs I’ve grown in my faith as I have gotten older, I’ve realized that faith can be a lot like working out. When you are trying to get stronger and build muscles, you have to add more weight, do more repetitions, be persistent. If you simply just lift the same thing day after day, you may remain somewhat strong, but you will never get stronger. You certainly won’t grow and gain additional muscle.

Faith is similar, it’s like a muscle. If you continue to limit yourself in your faith-stretching situations, your “faith muscle” will stay the same, it won’t grow. But if you allow yourself to step out in faith further than you have done before, you will see growth and you will get stronger.

Throughout the last fifteen years of my life, I have reminded myself (and those around me) of this time and time again. Fifteen years ago, I left behind a successful career in engineering to pursue a career in full-time vocational ministry. It was a step of faith. It was scary. It was a sacrifice. But if all I did over these last fifteen years was point to that, it would be like lifting the same amount of weight day after day, it wouldn’t make me stronger, it wouldn’t make me grow.

Instead, I’ve had to step out further and further, grab a little extra weight to grow and get stronger. I can’t keep relying on faith stories and faith leaps that happened a while ago, I need to allow God to grow me as I stretch further and further.

In Christian circles, people will talk about sharing their testimony. Growing up, that came to mean telling the story about when a person first met Jesus. Those stories were always great to hear, but I also wanted to know how that decision that had been made years ago was impacting them today. In other words, did it make a difference?

Where were the stories of God working now? Where was the evidence that what had happened so long ago was still having a profound impact on the present day?

That’s what I am constantly striving for. I want to make sure that I’m telling current stories of what God is doing. I want to make sure that I’m lifting a little more weight today than I did yesterday. It’s gradual and I think there can be a danger of getting excessive with it, doing it for the wrong reason or motivation. I don’t want to flex my muscles for my own glory, to win accolades and attention for me.

So, what kind of stories are you sharing? Are you still telling stories of years ago, about what God did a long time ago? Or are you adding on some additional spiritual and faith weight, letting God grow you in new ways so that you can share current stories of what God is doing today?

 

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Stop Telling Me, Just Show Me

show me don't tell meFor years, I had grown tired of what the church calls evangelism. It just didn’t seem right to me. It felt like an Amway session or a gathering to try to sell someone a timeshare. It didn’t feel genuine and, at times, it felt downright offensive.

Now, I know that Paul wrote in the Bible that the gospel is foolishness for those who are perishing, a stumbling block for some, offensive to others. But the offensiveness should come in the content, not the presentation.

Over the course of my life, I’ve done some of my best learning when I’ve been watching and paying attention to what’s going on around me. I learn better when you show me what to do.

My father-in-law is a contractor. When my wife and I lived close to him, I relished the times when I could work alongside him, learning new things, watching a master at work. The ease with which he would accomplish things was always astounding to me. I wished for the capability that he had and showed often.

While I was working alongside him, he wasn’t sitting there lecturing me about the different steps that he was taking. He would just go about doing the work, asking for the things that he needed along the way. As I watched and learned, questions emerged in my mind and I would ask them as they popped up. My father-in-law obliged to answer the questions, and my education continued.

As I’ve thought a lot about the church lately, I think we’ve stopped learning by doing. We’ve also stopped teaching by showing. Essentially, that’s what discipleship is all about. It’s not saying, “Let me teach you a collection of facts so that you can be smart and know how to be a disciple.” It really needs to be about saying, “Walk with me and I will show you what it means to be a disciple.”

In our errors of teaching rather than showing, we’ve also failed in our witness to the world. Instead of showing the world what it means to love Jesus and be his disciple, we’ve simply said, “You’re not living in such a way as pleases God.” Meanwhile, our lives don’t necessarily indicate anything different either. We say that Jesus changes everything and then we go on living our lives as if he makes no difference at all.

So what would it look like for us to stop telling people how to live and start showing people how to live?

Again, don’t get me wrong here, this doesn’t mean that we never share the gospel with those around us, it simply means that we earn the right to share and be heard by living in such a way that it actually matters to us. I won’t go so far as to say that we need to preach the gospel and use words if we must, but we need to let our actions model the words that we speak.

I was at a gathering not too long ago with some people who have been jaded by the church. They’ve been burned and hurt and they are slowly making their way back to faith. I had adopted a posture of listening to understand rather than listening to respond, so I was doing my best to keep my mouth shut (a fairly significant feat for me).

Finally, the hostess looked over at me and said that she was curious what I was thinking. I shared that I thought it was time for the church to remember that there is an important verse that Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15. He said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for the hope that you have.” Unfortunately, I said, many people had left out some significant words in there……everyone who asks you.

The church needs to do a better job of living questionable lives, lives that cause people to ask questions. We need to do a better job to not only speak about the difference that Jesus makes in us, but also to show it and live it out. In so doing, I am convinced that people will see that difference and then we can live into Peter’s words as they begin to ask us why we’re different. In responding to their questions, I think it will look and feel a little less like a pitch for a timeshare and more like the reason for the hope that lives within us and has changed our lives.

Painful Growth

This month marks fifteen years in full-time ministry as a pastor. Having successfully navigated a career in engineering before becoming a pastor, I can say that engineering was much easier for me. I believe that pastoring is a calling, which isn’t to say that engineering is any less of a career, but rather that if someone thinks that they could do anything else other than being a pastor, they should try that first.

In those fifteen years of being a pastor, I have experienced lots of difficult times. I lost my parents. I experienced a church split. I sat through ordination exams….twice. Throughout those difficult times, I have seen myself grow. Of course, I would much rather have grown through simpler means than the ones that grew me, but that wasn’t the plan.

In my work as a pastor, I have experienced seasons or experiences of pain. Unfortunately, these seasons or experiences aren’t unique. I would guess that if you were to talk with other pastors, most of them would agree that they have had these seasons or experiences as well.

These experiences are mostly unavoidable. Sure, some of them could be avoided for a period of time, but if you live for any length of time, you will most likely face them all at some point.

Based on my own experience, these have been among the most painful things that I have experienced in ministry:

The pain of tragic loss

When my best friend from college lost his six month old to cancer, it was among the most difficult things that I ever had to face, and it wasn’t my child. I tried my best to be a friend who loved and cared without trying to offer cliche advice.

When my friend called to ask me to do the funeral, I knew that it would be one of the most difficult things that I would ever have to do.

Trying to wrap your head around the pain and hurt in this world without throwing out trite answers is tough. Yes, sin has tainted the world, but that’s not the most helpful answer that a grieving family wants to or needs to hear at the height of their pain. Helping families cope with loss is one thing, tragic loss always seems to make it harder, at least in my opinion.

The pain of people leaving your church

This seems so small in comparison to the point above, but as I’ve talked with other pastors, I haven’t met one of them who has said that they enjoy it when people leave their church. The more personally connected you are with the people whom you shepherd, the harder and more painful it is when they choose to leave. While I have never been divorced, I can say that having friends walk away from my church is the closest thing that I’ve felt to a divorce.

No matter how long I’ve been a pastor, it always feels like a shot in the gut. People tell me not to take it personally, but it’s really hard. When you pour your life into something and someone walks away from it, it’s kind of hard not to take it personally.

The pain of seeing someone waste their potential

Leaders should have a knack for seeing potential in people. I’ve seen this in good coaches, teachers, supervisors, whoever. When that potential is identified, a person is made aware of that, and that person just shrugs it off, that’s painful to me. I see that as a person embracing mediocrity, not being willing to do the hard work of growing but instead being content to remain as they are.

I wish that I could say that this was limited to those who are young and foolish, but sadly, my experience has been that I’ve seen it mostly in people who should know better, people who have even grown up in the church. There’s not much worse than seeing someone who believes that they are a mature and growing disciple of Christ with thirty years of experience when in reality they are just an infant who has repeated the same year thirty times over.

The pain of having people say things about you that aren’t true

I can fully admit that I am stubborn. I can also admit that I have a hard time letting go of things. But one of the most difficult things that I have struggled to let go of is when someone says things about me that aren’t true. It’s not just the saying of untrue things, it’s also the unwillingness of people to actually hear or learn the truth.

This has mostly happened when someone had a preconceived notion about me or when someone has generated an opinion about me based on a very limited experience. No matter how hard I’ve tried, there is no convincing them that they should take a second look and get to know me. I become a justice monster then I feel that injustice is being done to me.

There may be a lot more painful things in ministry, but a decade and a half into this, these are the top four experiences that have been most painful to me.

Like I said, I’ve seen growth come out of all of these experiences, but it’s been painful growth, growth that I would rather have come any one of a hundred other ways.

How about you? What have been some of your most difficult growing experiences?

Between Belief and Unbelief

When Faith FailsIf you’ve spent any time in the church, you may have grown uncomfortable with certain things that you see there. Aside from certain social issues that have emerged to the forefront in the recent past, there are other things that have irked people who find themselves struggling to make sense of what they know of God, what they read in the Bible, and what they experience in their daily lives. The juxtaposition of those three things is rarely as well-fitting as puzzle pieces but might rather feel more like the jagged edges of glass or pottery that were shattered and are now trying to be mended and put back together again.

Dominic Done steps into a difficult and sometimes controversial topic in his book “When Faith Fails.” He addresses doubt, a subject which has been avoided in some camps and embraced in others. Rather than taking the approach that it is bad, wrong, or sinful, Done instead recognizes it for what it is, “an opportunity for authentic and vibrant faith.”

Done divides the book into three sections: Far From Home, Exploring the Terrain, and Coming Home. Far From Home addresses how we got here to this point of doubt, wrestling with our faith. Exploring the Terrain seeks to find hope in life’s hardest questions. Coming Home deals with moving through doubt in pursuit of deep faith.

In the Far From Home section, Done is quick to correct those who may want to live or expect to live with complete and total certainty. He says that in seeking total certainty, we lose the beauty of mystery. As he puts it, “If all we value is explanation, we lose the joy of exploration.” He spends the section vying for a healthy doubt and trying to promote is as normal and an everyday part of life.

Doubt, as Done sees it, is living in the world in between belief and unbelief. It is a moment of tension, living somewhere in between. It is the place that stands in stark contrast to the Lego gospel which says that everything is awesome, because life is hard, tragic, and people sometimes suffer. It is the place you come to when everything you thought was supporting you and holding you up disintegrates.

As “When Faith Fails” unfolds in these pages, Done shares insights and wisdom, but he does it with care, compassion, and sensitivity. There are plenty of helpful phrases that he shares, none of which felt contrived or cliche to me. For instance, “God doesn’t demand that we understand him, but he does ask that we trust him.” And, “You can believe without doubting, but you can’t doubt without believing.”

The Exploring the Terrain section contains an apologetic for the Bible. Can we trust it? As he walks through this section, he helpfully tells the reader that we might need to change our approach and view of the Bible. Rather than looking at it through modern or postmodern eyes, Done suggests we see it for what it is, “an eccentric, weird, difficult, challenging, inspiring, inviting, paradigm-disrupting book that, page by page, story by story, culminates in the person of Jesus.”

Done also asks in this section whether science is the enemy of faith. As he sees it, faith and science are not enemies, but different sides to the same picture. He writes, “Science only tells us part of the story. It reveals and enriches our perception of reality; opening our eyes to the complexity and splendor of the world. But it cannot tell us why it takes our breath away.”

While many in the world of religion see science as the enemy and many in the field of science see religion as incompatible with science, there are others who live in the tension of both, scientists who are theologians and who embrace both sides.

Theodicy, the problem of pain and suffering, and the silence of God are also addressed by Done. He doesn’t throw trite answers at any of the questions he poses. He also doesn’t give packaged responses that fail to address what is at the heart of these questions and issues. If I could describe the approach in one way, it would be embracing the tension of the in between. So, if you are seeking a beautiful resolution like a thirty minute sitcom, you should probably go somewhere else.

As Done moves into the third and final section, one of the most memorable recommendations that he makes to the reader is to, “do the hard work to put yourself in a place where the truth can find you.” He recommends seeking out community because it is in community that we are shaped, formed, and that we learn. Rather than seeing community as a provider of resources to be consumed, we should see it as a family to invest in. Even as we look at Scripture, Done says, we should see it as active participation in the unfolding of a story that tells us we are all in this together. The community of the church is the place where broken people should discover that they are not alone.

Done does a great job of encouraging his readers to embrace doubt with purpose and intent. While some doubt dogmatically challenging anyone to prove those doubts false, Done recommends an approach that seeks to learn and understand, not completely, but adequately.

I have encountered a number of people within the church over the years who have been so adamantly against doubt that you would think they were afraid of the outcome had they embraced it. I wish that I had encountered a book like “When Faith Fails” a long time ago, I would have felt less awkward and much more affirmed when I found myself in that in between world.

The approach that Done recommends with doubt is very much the approach that is modeled by David in the Psalms. He started with his honest doubts, questions, and concerns, but he always came back to God, who he was, what he had done, and what he had promised to do in the future.

If you have wrestled with doubts and questions, this book won’t give you quick and easy answers, but it will help you to know that you are not alone nor is there something wrong with you. Instead, Done brings encouragement to his readers to embrace the tension and continue on the journey with expectation, anticipation, and mystery. If you can live with the tension, then “When Faith Fails” may just be the book to help encourage you through it.

(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.)

Context Is Key

A few years back, a friend and mentor of mine introduced me to a concept that really made sense regarding the local church. He talked about the three C’s of church. Contents, Context, and Containers. The contents of what church is about is non-negotiable. If we are seeking to be faithful to the Bible, we will do our best to understand it and let the contents of what we do and say as the church be driven by what it says.

The containers in which that content is housed are negotiable, they can change. Another way of saying container might be presentation. How is the contents being presented? In which containers is the content housed?

But I haven’t really been thinking much about contents or containers lately. I’ve mainly been focused on context. This friend and mentor asked a question as he presented this idea of context. He asked, “How does God want to express himself through our church in our community at this time?”

As I’ve been on this church planting journey, I’ve been visiting other churches to get an idea of how they do things. I’ve especially wanted to observe churches that meet in non-traditional spaces, spaces that are not their own. Schools. Theaters. Rented spaces where they have to set up and tear down every week. We’ve visited a number of them.

As I look back over the past decade of my life in full-time ministry, I can see a progression of my thinking in regards to church. Ten years ago, I questioned why church planting was necessary. I also questioned why there are so many churches and why people feel the need to constantly change churches. It never made a lot of sense to me and it still doesn’t completely make sense, but I’ve begun to put some of the pieces together in my head.

You see, as I’ve looked around and seen these different expressions of the body of Christ, I’ve begun to understand that it makes more sense than I thought for there to be so many expressions. After all, we are a diverse people and that diversity is going to shine differently in different contexts and in different people.

But there are two things that I think need to happen in order for this to be more effective.

1)  Before you leave and before you commit, ask a different question

It seems that people choose churches like they choose an outfit in the morning before they leave the house, it all depends on what kind of mood they are in. I think that often people come to the local church and ask themselves what she can do for them, and I don’t think that’s the right question.

With all apologies to JFK, I think his statement about asking what you can do for your country may apply here as well. Instead of asking what a church can do for them or even asking what they can do for the church, I think they need to ask themselves, “How can I best fit into this community?” or “Is there a place for me in this community?” or even “How can I best use the gifts that God has given me in this community?”

I think that some people may ask that question but I wonder how many actually go through the due diligence of seeking the answer in earnest. It seems that people are quick to express their frustration with the inadequacies of the local church and quickly go find another one. I wonder what would happen if every pastor expressed the same frustration over those members and their lack of engagement and using of their gifts in that same local church. That would be interesting!

If we think about it in terms of the context question my friend shared, I think we might wonder how we might fit into this local expression as God expresses himself through us in this place and at this time. Are we seeking ways that we fit or are we seeking ways that we disagree?

If the church is to be about the Missio Dei, the mission of God, her people will need to ask these questions with the intent of finding out how to best be used by God. This doesn’t mean that God can’t accomplish his will without us, but it does mean that we should always be asking how can I use what God has given me to best be a part of his work?

So, before you take your toys and go somewhere else, ask yourself if you have really been seeking to use the gifts that God has given you where he planted you.

2) Come Together Despite Differences

The town in which I am starting a new church is a unique place. It’s fairly diverse in many ways and it’s been cool and interesting to see.

There are a number of churches that already exist there and I’ve already had it asked of me more than once why this place needs one more church. And what I am finding is that God wants to take a group of people who come together in community to allow him to uniquely express himself in this particular place at this particular time.

If you were to put all of the churches together, I think you would have a lot of differing opinions on a number of different topics. But, I also think that there would be a number of areas where you would see agreement, and frankly, I think that gets overlooked far too often.

For how far down the road we are since the church was established in the first century, I don’t know that there will ever be a time this side of eternity when we could move towards one local expression of the body of Christ. In the meantime, though, I think we can look for a taste of what is to come. I think we can look at the essentials and see if we align there. If we do, I think we can have some discussions on the places where we differ and see if those differences prevent us from fellowship together. If we are honest, I have a hard time believing that they will.

In fact, as I look around at the community and its needs, I think that God can accomplish his work through his church if some of the barriers that have been keeping us apart are removed. That doesn’t mean that we will all agree on everything. That doesn’t mean that there might still be some significant differences. Could it be that some of these differences exist so that we can work through them and in spite of them? What would happen if the world could see the testimony of grace in these local churches as they put differences aside and seek to be on mission together?

As I continue to go from church to church to see how God is expressing himself from context to context, I am beginning to understand that these separate churches aren’t a bad thing if we can just try to find ways to come together now and then. We can be unique, express ourselves in the ways that God is calling us to express ourselves, and still find ways to cross over the barriers that keep us apart to have a taste of unity, not uniformity, not full agreement, but oneness. After all, there is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all.

The picture that we see in Revelation 7 seems to be a “someday” picture, a picture that we figure we’ll get to after Jesus returns. I wonder what it would look like if we began to practice that now, every tribe, tongue, and nation coming together to worship the Lord. A foretaste of what is to come, and I don’t think it’s a pipe dream to think we can begin to experience it this side of eternity.

Soli Deo gloria!

Raise Your Sail

The word for spirit and breath or wind in Hebrew and Greek is the same. Ruach in Hebrew. Pneuma in Greek.

There’s something to be said about the likening of the Holy Spirit to wind. In fact, Jesus’ describes this in John 3:8 when he says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Everyone born of the Spirit will be guided by the Spirit. While that life seems exciting, it’s also scary and unpredictable. If you’ve ever experienced the wind, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever been on a sailboat, you especially know what this is all about.

One of the first times I was on a real sailboat, my wife and I still lived in Connecticut. A friend from church had a sailboat and invited us to go out one afternoon. Neither of us having had much experience with sailing, we consented and agreed to the adventure.

captain jonA few hours later, rocked back and forth by the wind and waves, an inexperienced captain (me!) steering the ship, we made it back to shore. My wife made a beeline for the bathroom as soon as we got there and proceeded to lose whatever was in her stomach. She wasn’t a fan of my captaining….

Fast forward about fifteen years later, she’s begun to trust my “steering of the ship” a little more than she did back then. Honestly, I really don’t think it’s me that she’s trusting, it’s the Holy Spirit. It’s not really me who is steering the boat, I’m just raising the sail.

That’s the adventure of being led by the Spirit. While there may be times when we think we’re in control, it’s mostly just raising our sails and letting the wind blow us wherever we will be blown. There is trust. There is faith.

As I’ve gotten older, I have found that new chapters in my life require more faith than I have exhibited before. Sometimes that faith feels like more faith than I am capable of or more faith than I am willing to give.

I look back and I see that my faith is grown. If I had looked ahead from fifteen or twenty years ago, I never would have believed you had you told me what I would be up to down the road. I wouldn’t believe that I would leave a career that I had been educated in, trained for, and been licensed for. I wouldn’t believe that I would leave my family and move twelve hours away to start a new career. I wouldn’t believe that I would go back to school again and get another degree. I wouldn’t believe that I would actually be starting a new church.

Faith works like that though, it becomes cumulative, it grows and grows, we acquire more and more because more and more is required of us if we really follow the Holy Spirit. But just like the man in Mark 9, I feel like I am constantly saying, “I believe, help my unbelief.” I don’t feel nearly as capable of trusting and walking in faith as I feel like I should.

But the very one who struggled with my leading through the wind on Long Island Sound is reminding me as I struggle with the wind of the Holy Spirit that faith is required and he needs to take the lead rather than let reason and fear win the day. My wife has told me multiple times that I can’t be sidetracked from what God has called me to, I need to have faith.

This past weekend, my journey led me down to Matthews, North Carolina. I visited Threshold Church, the church where my church planting coach pastors. We had talked about my family coming down for a visit to spend time with him, see his new church building, and pick the brains of those who had been part of his original team who helped to start the church.

Raise Your Sail

I had planned on speaking for a few minutes during the service to share about The Branch, the new faith community that we are starting in September. My friend also had an artist who was part of the church paint a picture during the message.

My friend told me that he would be preaching from Matthew 13, a chapter that talks about growth, plants, and seeds. The final section he would be focusing on would be about the mustard seed, the smallest seed which turned into a fairly large plant when grown.

As I watched the painting take form and listened to my friend’s message, I was struck by the picture that was emerging on the artist’s board. A ship. A hand. A mustard seed. Six people in a boat: me, my wife, my three kids, and Jesus. Jesus at the bow. Me raising the sail. My wife at the stern, steering the ship.

Raise Your Sail at home

After I finished speaking, the artist asked me to stay up there and told me that he would be giving us the painting as a gift from the church. I was blow

n away as I had been admiring it the whole time it was coming together. What a gift!

We drove home that afternoon and after unloading the car, one of the first things I did was hang that picture on the wall of our home. It stands now as a reminder of this journey of faith we are on. It tells the story of faith, the story that we are now a part of, the story that is still being written.

We have raised our sails and we are being moved by the Holy Spirit. It’s a little scary, but Jesus is in the boat with us, so I think we’re going to be all right.

If you want to see the picture take shape in video, you can see it here.

Irresistible Faith – A Book Review

irresistible faithMany people are familiar with the quote attributed to Gandhi that, “I like your Jesus but I don’t like your Christians.” For centuries, it seems that one of the greatest apologetics against Christianity has been the body of Christ, who have misrepresented him and, “created a public relationship nightmare for the movement that he began through his death, burial, and resurrection.”

Into this, Scott Sauls brings his latest book, “Irresistible Faith.” Sauls is calling the body of Christ to be a better representation of who we are called to be in this world. If we begin to live in such a way that our faith is irresistible, perhaps the apologetic might turn around and instead of dissuading people from Christianity, they might see something in us so compelling that it will be irresistible.

Sauls splits the book into three parts: abiding in the Irresistible Christ, belonging to an irresistible community, and becoming an irresistible Christian. He calls Christians to seek out ways to distinguish themselves from the world in which we live. His call isn’t to completely sequester ourselves or hole ourselves up and practicing avoidance at all costs. Sauls points us to a place of savoring Christ rather than the things that the world has to offer.

He isn’t condemning the things of the world, he is simply condemning the loving and savoring them over Christ. He writes, “Possessing what the world has to offer only become problematic when possessing what the world has to offer starts to possess us.” Saul uses the example of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings books, a creature who had once been a simple Hobbit but who had been overcome with a lust for his “precious” that turned him into something like Hobbit-like.

Sauls also calls his readers to belong to an irresistible community. This has been a problem for many people as their experience of the church, the body of Christ, has been less than desirable. Rather than experiencing a place of welcome, warmth, and love, they have experienced a place of judgment, backbiting, and abandonment.

But we were created for community, Sauls writes, “not for isolation; for interdependence, not for autonomy; for relational warmth and receptivity, not for relational coldness and distance.” When God created Adam, he knew that it was not good for him to be alone. We also see that the community that existed from eternity past within the three persons of the Trinity has been extended outwards to those whom God has created in his own image.

There is acknowledgment of the imperfections of the church, but Sauls casts vision of what the church could be. “If all our Christian communities and churches were sold out to this one simple practice – to only speak words that make souls stronger – I wonder how many spiritually disengaged people would start wanting to engage. I wonder how many religious skeptics would want to start investigating Christianity instead of keeping their distance from its claims and its followers.” That kind of community would be compelling and irresistible to those who can encounter the opposite over and over again within the world.

Being in community means opening ourselves up to accountability and confrontation. Those things need to be done with loving intentions and humility. We are all imperfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from calling each other out with the right intentions. We should treat each others, “as fellow sinners who are on a journey right alongside us. We move together toward perfection, being animated by God who is faithful to complete the work that he began in us.”

Lesslie Newbigin once wrote that movements towards the new creation that God is seeking to create can only happe, “when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” This is the beginning of Saul’s third section of the book, how we become irresistible Christians.

We move towards becoming irresistible Christians as we treasure the poor, as we embrace our work, and as we leave things better than we have found them. Sauls is calling his readers to the work of biblical justice, being about the things that God is about. He doesn’t mince words, telling Christians that if the only faith people see is a doctrinal skeleton without the flesh and muscle that carry that doctrine out, then we have a malnourished faith which is sick or dead.

Sauls encourages a work ethic that makes no sacred and secular distinction. He is not promoting an ideology that only those who find themselves employed full-time in some kind of ministry position or organization are the only legitimate ministers. Instead, he calls Christians to the words of the Apostle Paul who said that we should do everything, no matter what it is, as if we are doing it unto the Lord.

Finally, rather than embracing a twisted and distorted theology that “it’s all gonna burn up anyway,” Sauls encourages Christians to leave things better than they have found them. While many have claimed that we can attain perfection and create a better world apart from Christ, Sauls says that the only way that we can achieve this is through the power of God. He casts a vision for what could be if Christians were to live differently.

“Irresistible Faith” is a call to action. Sauls is not simply suggesting that right theology will get us to a place where we are on track to better represent Christ. He is calling Christians to let their theology be evident in what they do, what they say, and how they act in this world. He is really calling Christians to step up to be who we are supposed to be rather than who we have become.

If you want to be challenged and called to action, then you will appreciate Saul’s work here. If you want to continue to live a life that seems no different than those around you who have no faith to speak of, then this book is probably one to avoid. If we heed the call that Sauls puts out here, I think we could see a real “turning of the ship” when it comes to how the world sees and perceives the body of Christ who is supposed to be representing him in this world.

(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.)

Reflection of a Year

The year closes down as one chapter ends and another one gets ready to begin. There are times in life when a moment feels more significant, as if you are on the brink of something.

In January of this year, as I looked back at my journal, I had written Isaiah 43:19 down, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” It was almost as if the Holy Spirit was prompting me, alerting me that something was coming.

If someone had told me at the beginning of this year what I would be heading into as 2019 begins, I don’t really know how I would have responded. I’ve never been a very big risk taker, I long for control much more than I would probably ever let on. Uncertainty is scary and I like to do whatever I can to gather as much information as possible to lessen the amount of possible surprises that might await me.

Yet here I am, stepping into the unknown and hoping and praying that my feet will fall on sure footing. I’ve prayed. I’ve listened. I’ve sought wise counsel and advice. I’ve done all that I can and that’s where faith comes in. Faith steps in at the end of the rationality and reason that we have, launching us off into the unknown.

I’ve never been a fan of resolutions that come at the beginning of the new year. The statistics aren’t good for how many people actually follow through with the new year’s resolutions that they’ve made. I’d much rather make goals and feel like I have the liberty to make course corrections along the way.

While my verse at the beginning of 2018 was from Isaiah, the verse that I launch into 2019 with is from the Psalms. The Psalms have always been by default when reading the Bible. Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” It serves as a daily reminder that no matter how much I may think of myself, the work that I am doing is not dependent on me. It’s a reminder to stay humble and lean into the unknown that only God knows, relying on his strength and wisdom to direct me as I move forward.

God has been doing some incredible things over the past few months as I get ready to launch out into this new adventure. I am excited to see what God will continue to do. At the same time, there is anxiety and fear because of uncertainty. Those things aren’t overcoming me, and that’s the key. Just as the Peter wrote, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

2019 will be an adventure, but I feel like it’s an adventure that has been a long time in the making. Goodbye, 2018, and welcome to whatever comes next!

I Will Follow

keyboardI am not a very good follower.

I like control. I like to see the steps that I am taking and just where my foot is gonna fall. I don’t trust easily and even when I trust, I still have to see enough of the road ahead for me to feel like whoever I am following knows what they’re doing, even if that someone happens to be God (as if he doesn’t know where he’s going and I do).

It’s a funny place to be when you kind of know where you are going but the details aren’t all ironed out. It’s like, you know what the destination is but you aren’t quite sure what the actual route you’re gonna take to get there looks like. The Israelites through the desert may be too vivid of a picture to better understand that.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in full-time ministry trying to prove to people that I am more than a label, more than a role, more than the box that so many have tried to put me in. It’s been somewhat exhausting, to be honest. For how much I hate labels, you would think I wouldn’t use them as often as I do. Maybe I just hate them when they apply (or don’t apply) to me.

I’ve always been one who does more than most people know. Behind the scenes, there’s a whole heck of a lot more going on than most people will see and I generally don’t care whether or not everyone knows what I’m doing. As long as things are getting done and moving along, I don’t typically care who gets the credit.

The problem with this approach is that you can easily get pigeon-holed, people think that you’re more two dimensional than you really are and label you by what they see, not by what you really are.

My journey over the last few years has been a journey of pressing into the things that I know I’m good at doing. That doesn’t mean I avoid the things that I’m not good at doing, it means that I look to surround myself with others who excel in those areas. It’s a journey of living into strengths and relying on and empowering others in the places where their strengths lie.

As much as I don’t usually care what others think about me, when I’ve been labeled, especially falsely so, I struggle with that label. I don’t like to wear it when it’s either not true or only part of the story. It’s restrictive because it’s wrong or incomplete, not because I don’t like to wear it. But if we’re all honest, there are just some outfits that we don’t look good in, even if those outfits are metaphorical and not physical.

So, my tendency is to run away from the labels. If I know that there is more to the story, I want to tell the rest of the story rather than reading the same old section over and over. Why rehash on what you already know when there is so much more to the story to hear, to learn, to tell?

I’ve kind of been in that place of running. Not from everything. In fact, I’ve been running towards some things that are incredibly uncomfortable, that are taking an awful lot of faith. But I’ve been running away from certain things that have felt restrictive, that have felt confining and incomplete.

Sometimes, we have to do that. If we’ve got a healthy dose of self-awareness, we should know ourselves better than the ones who throw the labels on us. We should know if there is more to the story to be told and we shouldn’t really be afraid to tell that part of the story, regardless of the pushback that we might get from other people. I’m all about telling the whole story, no matter how uncomfortable that might make certain people, no matter how much they might want to dwell on their favorite part of the story (even when it’s not true).

A few months ago, I met a new pastor in the area. In our brief introduction, it sounded like we had some common interests and visions for the future. So, we connected over lunch and the story of that friendship is still being written.

In our lunch conversation, he said something that really stuck out to me. He had a similar musical background to mine and he told me that he had put it aside since he came here. I could relate, I had been trying to put mine aside for some time because it was the label that I had reluctantly worn. But, he said, when the people who had known him for and with that gift came back into town and saw him not using it, they asked him why he had put it aside, why he wasn’t using it.

When he said that, his words hit me right between the eyes.

I had been running from something that I was good at because it was only telling a portion of the story. But that part of the story was some people’s favorite part, and they weren’t going to let it go. That doesn’t really fly well with an Enneagram 8, the Challenger. Don’t tell me what to do or who to be, I will resist.

But God has a funny way of bringing you back around, especially when you don’t necessarily follow or trust well. He may bring you back to the very thing you’ve avoided just to remind you what he’s given you and what you’re supposed to be doing with it.

That’s kind of been what’s happened lately. I’ve avoided music, legitimately avoided it, because I was tired of being labeled by it, but God doesn’t care how others label me, he only cares how he created me. If he wants you to live into how he’s created you, it’s gonna happen.

So, in the course of ten days, I find myself not just playing music again, but playing a lot of music. Four times in a ten day period. Four fairly unique and different venues. Four different ways for me to use the gifts he’s given me and not avoid them anymore.

In the midst of using those gifts though, a funny thing happened, I realized that I kind of enjoyed using those gifts, I just didn’t want to be labeled by them. I found myself with new friends in a setting that I’d been in many times before, and everything clicked, it all fit together.

From a musical perspective, that doesn’t happen all the time. I’ve sat through plenty of rehearsals (led a ton of them) where things just wouldn’t click. Whether it was the timing or the harmonies or pitch, something kept it from getting to the place where everything fit together well. And those times are beyond frustrating, especially when you know how it’s supposed to fit together and sound.

But then there are those other times, when you pull pieces together that have existed separately until the moment you pull them together (God pulls them together?) and when you do, they just fit. And when I say they fit, I mean they fit well. The work is effortless, the results are beautiful, and when you’re done, you wonder just how you experienced what you had just experienced.

I’m still skeptical. I still don’t like labels. I still don’t want to be stuck in a hole in which some keep trying to put me. But I’m also seeing this through my identity in Christ. That identity isn’t defined by those around me, nor should it be heavily influenced by their myopic view of it. God sees me as I am, as he’s made me. As Brennan Manning wrote, God loves me as I am, not as I am supposed to be. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t see my potential and desire to move me there, but his love for me isn’t based on getting to that place, that would be a love based on my work, not his.

Yes, I’m a terrible follower, but I’m learning to follow God a little better every day. I don’t like following when I feel like there’s a better way, a more productive way. I’m not always crazy to take the scenic route, even when the scenic route involves being used more effectively than I might choose for myself. But I’m getting to the place where I care less about how people want to see me and I care more for how God sees me and the potential that he has for me.

It’s a somewhat unnerving and painful journey. It’s a loss of control, but who said that I actually had the control to begin with?

Where Life and Faith Meet

The Branch Logo (4000 x 4000)I’m within weeks of launching out into one of the biggest adventures of my life. After being in full-time vocational ministry for the last fourteen and a half years, my wife and I are being sent out of our church to start another church in the next town.

I’ve been on a journey of growing and learning since I started in ministry all those years ago. I came into ministry through the back door, never having been to seminary when I started. Along the way, I got my seminary degree and learned through the School of Hard Knocks. I’ve been fortunate to have had some patient and gracious people along the way who put up with this Enneagram 8’s challenging ways.

I grew up in the church in the home of a pastor. I was at the church every time the doors were open and it really caused me to try to understand just what I was doing there.

My crisis of faith came in my sophomore year of college. I wanted to compartmentalize my life, keeping things separate in their nice and neat containers. But anyone who’s tried that knows that it rarely works and rarely lasts long.

I came out of that time like something from a crucible, a little more refined than I had been before. I had moved from living a secondhand faith to beginning the journey that moved me towards embracing a faith of my own.

In retrospect, that was probably the beginning of the journey that is finally coming to culmination in the weeks ahead. Twenty some odd years of trying to understand just how to live in that place where life and faith meet. How do I embrace my faith and live in the tension that culture and this world can sometimes (often?) provide?

I’ve not always been the easiest person to lead. There has been a restlessness in me since my engineering days (the career I left to come into full-time ministry). But part of the reason was because I’ve always felt this tension, this in between place in which I live as I embrace faith and yet walk and live in a world that can be so hostile towards those who do.

Compartmentalization isn’t really the way faith is supposed to work. Over and over, as I read through the Bible, I don’t see things that would indicate that faith should be relegated to one day a week. If we want to take seriously the words that Jesus said, we can’t put our Bibles on the shelf and dust them off on Sunday mornings or, worse yet, Christmas and Easter. Life and faith meet in the everyday moments that we live.

This is at the heart of this journey that I am on. The community that God has called me to be a part of is one where life and faith meet. It isn’t a place where we put that faith on the shelf for the times when we need it, because if we are honest, we need it every moment of every day.

This past week, I’ve had a firsthand experience of that. This week is a continuation of it. I will be a part of two funerals this week. One of those funerals is for someone who lived a good, long life. The other funeral is for someone who struggled and whose life was cut short by tragedy. But life and faith met in both of these lives.

As I met with families, sat in hospital waiting rooms, drove in my car, I wrestled in prayer, kind of like Jacob did with that angel in the Bible. To say that I’m walking with a limp afterwards would be appropriate. When we wrestle with God, it should change us. But we don’t always come out with satisfactory answers, and I really don’t think we are always supposed to, although we sure would like to have those answers.

In the midst of the collision of life and faith, pat answers don’t cut it. Explaining to a son why his father’s life was snuffed out can’t be done, at least not in my book. The Bible is a guidebook, a story of God’s redeeming love and just how that love intersects. In many ways, it’s a picture of the place where life and faith meet.

This will be an adventure, but more than that, it’s a calling. It’s a calling that’s probably been there for longer than I’d like to admit. It’s a calling that I needed to prepare for, and it’s not just the past five or ten or fifteen years that have been preparing me. It’s a calling that I’ve been being prepared for my whole life. God has been shaping and forming me to embark on this journey.

I’ve rarely met people who feel that they are completely ready and prepared for what is ahead of them. I find myself in the same boat, and that’s the way I think it’s supposed to be. If I felt like I could do this all in my own strength, where would faith be, where would my reliance lie? I wouldn’t be relying on God and I probably wouldn’t be dreaming big enough since I’ve always said that we need to dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them.

Here is what I do know. I know that the place where life and faith meet is a place that many people seem to be searching for. I know that this place is a place that needs to be defined by values.

So, here are some of the values that I’m discovering in this place.

When life and faith meet, there is unity not uniformity.

When life and faith meet, not every question has an answer.

When life and faith meet, relationships take priority over preferences.

When life and faith meet, Jesus meets us where we are but doesn’t leave us there.

When life and faith meet, we are brought to places of discomfort for the comfort of others.

When life and faith meet, ministry and service are not reserved for the “paid professionals.”

When life and faith meet, it can get messy, so we need grace.

I’ll be sure to let you know what I’m discovering along the way.