Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

I live in the city that was once the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. We have a road that runs right smack through the city called Monument Avenue. It is what it sounds like, an avenue that contains monuments, most of which are commemorating personalities and figures of the Confederacy, save for the lone monument commemorating the city’s native son, Arthur Ashe.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave or have quarantined yourself from any news channel like you have COVID-19, you’ve seen our “little” statues in the national (and probably international) news. There is major controversy, debate, and outrage over these monuments and whether or not they deserve a place in public.

Those in favor of the monuments continue to claim that tearing them down is erasing history. In my mind, that is a whole other post altogether. Last time that I checked, history was marked by more than monuments prevalently displayed in very public areas. Museums. Parks. Books. I don’t know, seems there are plenty of ways to preserve history….but I digress.

A few years ago, I attended a conference in Richmond put on by an organization that does great work towards racial reconciliation with action and education. It was a wake-up call for me. I’d had my head in the sand for far too long. I transformed myself into an intellectual sponge and have been reading a lot since then.

It’s been a journey and continues to be such, a process of transformation and change, and learning and unlearning, as a friend so eloquently put it.

I have been privileged to have friends of color and to be invited into spaces where honest dialogue can be had. When I’m in doubt or questioning or genuinely confused, I have been grateful to have friends, colleagues, and mentors whom I can call. I trust them. I respect them. I am blessed to be on a journey with them as guides and teachers.

When I’m uncertain, I become far more quiet than I am used to being. In fact, when I come to a place of uncertainty, people who don’t know me would most likely label me an introvert.

I’ve not always been this way. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve done a LOT of work to get to where I am today. It’s been painful, I’ve screwed up far too often, and I can easily slip back into my own biases and preconceived notions.

Last week, during a conversation at a meeting I was attending, the conversation turned towards current events, specifically protests and demonstrations. As we talked through all that was happening around us, one of my African American colleagues and ministry partners said, “They don’t speak for me.” His words have been reverberating in my head since he said them.

I keep hearing those words over and over in my head as I watch so many people rising up to take a stand, but as one friend described it, it’s a flashpan moment – a big flash and then…….nothing.

I watched a video last week of a time when Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and head of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer, spoke as well.

In the course of Keller’s talk, he said that justice always requires sacrifice. I can’t stop thinking of that.

When I put those two deep thoughts together, I keep asking myself what I am sacrificing so that my black and brown brothers and sisters have a voice. If I speak for them, I still maintain control and power, but if I let them speak for themselves, I relinquish power and control to them. If I give them authority, then their voice gets louder and louder, that authority becomes a megaphone for their voice.

I’m not saying that protests and demonstrations aren’t worthwhile, but I am asking the question of what happens when the dust settles and it’s all over? What is left?

Just like the end of the Civil War didn’t stop racism nor did the Emancipation Proclamation, protests and demonstrations won’t either.

Again, please hear what I’m NOT saying here. I am NOT saying that there isn’t a place for protests and demonstrations, but what am I doing ALONG with protesting and demonstrating? Am I getting dirty? Am I sacrificing for justice?

It’s a convicting and vulnerable question to ask if we really let it unpeel us. As much headway as I feel I have personally made, I’ve still got such a long way to go. My own Christian faith tells me that it’s more of a journey than an arrival, a process rather than a destination.

Two dear friends who have been part of my faith community went to a park in Richmond the other day. They had set aside the day for themselves and were enjoying the weather in this park.

While in the park, they met two young African American men. They started a conversation with them, asking them questions, listening, and hearing about how they are feeling in the midst of all that is happening around them. In the words of my friends, “It was a blessing.” At the end of their time together, despite our current pandemic, they shook hands (I’m sure they all disinfected afterwards).

That handshake, to me, represented something so significant and special. Despite the current pandemic, that handshake said, “I see you, I hear you, I value you.”

In my growing experience, I am realizing that it is the slow and deliberate work of relationships that makes the most difference. I can’t change you. You can’t change me. But I can change me and you can change you. Sometimes, when we allow ourselves to be changed, others can see the change and are stirred and moved by it. It’s an evangelism of sorts, it’s bearing witness.

So, I’ll still take part in protests and demonstrations, I’ll still speak up and stand up, but when I hang up my signs and take off my protesting shoes, what am I doing in the regular places of my life to ensure that I am pursuing justice? Am I making sacrifices for justice? If not, I had better ask myself if I really want justice as badly as I say I do.

Packing Up

office pack upAs I stood in my office, looking around at the boxes and empty shelves, I realized that it would be one of the last times that I would be standing in that space. The emotions that crept up on me surprised me more than I thought. I’m usually ready, or at least as ready as possible, for those not so unexpected feelings in moments like that. But not this time.

It’s not like I haven’t moved before, and as moves go, this one may be the shortest move I’ve ever experienced, literally right down the street. Even when I moved out of my office seven years ago, I don’t think I looked back at that office with the same amount of affection and emotion that I do this one.

Maybe it’s the growth that happened in there. Maybe it’s because I’m leaving that office different than I arrived. As I think back over the three years in that office, there are more memories that pop up about what took place there. Counseling appointments. Premarital counseling. Countless strengths conversations as I led people to discover their strengths and live into who God had created them to be. Brainstorming sessions. Hard conversations. How could one little room hold so many memories?

I’ve written before about the sanctity of space, about how we can tend to attach so much meaning to a place that has become near and dear to our hearts. The funny thing is that this space was never seen that way to me, I never cherished it, I hardly looked on it with affection. I never associated the space with the people there, who I love. It was just a space to me.

But as I pack up and move on, the moving on feels so much more significant than other moves. It feels weightier, not in a cumbersome or toilsome way, just in its own significance. I get the sense that I leave behind some parts of me, some parts that needed to be left there, some parts that are no longer part of who I am.

In some ways, as I look back at the last nine years, I feel as if more growth has happened in those years than in any other stretch in my life. If I were to go back and talk to myself from nine years ago, telling him what he would encounter, what he would become, I’m not sure just how he would take it. Of course, I think most of us might shy away from some of our future experiences if we knew just how hard it would be to go through them. In some ways, it’s a good thing that we can’t see as much as we wish we could, we might run away from the very things that shape us into who we become.

It seems that the older I get, the less time I spend in the same place, physically, mentally, spiritually. I grow, I move on. No matter how much of a change junkie I might become, moving on can still be hard and, if given the choice, if moving on means changing for the better and staying in the same place means remaining the same, if I’m honest, I think I would have to say that moving on is always the right thing to do.

And so it goes, and so I move on. There are memories waiting to be made, tasks meant to be conquered, relationships meant to be formed, and growth that needs to occur. In my mind, I hear the words of Paul, writing from prison, uncertain of the future but confident in God.

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:13-14

Welcoming the Future Church – A Book Review

welcoming the future churchThey have been called the most influential generation, and yet Millenials are distancing themselves more and more from the institution of the church. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves, but they’ve not always found a place within the larger context of the local church, choosing instead to give their time to things that seem to be more effective.

In his latest book “Welcoming the Future Church,” Jonathan Pokluda shares his experience of watching a weekly gathering targeted at millenials grow from one hundred and fifty to tens of thousands. Pokluda shares in the introduction that, “If young adults aren’t joining and leading in your church, eventually your church will die. Or at the very least, it will miss out on an opportunity to impact and unleash the most influential generation the world has ever seen.”

Pokluda shares the things that he has seen effective at reaching this generation, things that might be surprising to those within the church who have thought that whistles and bells would be the draw that would bring Millenials into the church. He divides his book into three sections: Teach, Engage, and Deploy.

In the Teach section, Pokluda shares that drawing Millenials doesn’t involve a hiding of the truth. Instead, it involves preaching and teaching from the whole of the Bible, not just the comfortable parts. When there are areas that seem to lack clear direction, engaging in conversations about those areas, not shying away from them.

Pokluda shares his method of preparing messages and his approach to receiving feedback to be as effective as possible. He even admits that he has seen more life change come out of conversations than out of sermons, a fairly self-aware and honest assessment from a pastor. He encourages the reader to hear feedback often rather than just a few times a year. Constant feedback allows for constant change which leads to constant movement towards more effective communication.

There is no question that the church as an institution struggles with change. In the Engage section of the book, Pokluda encourages churches to hold loosely to traditions that might stand in the way of engaging the younger generation. Just as he encouraged an honest assessment of his own communication through feedback, he does the same in regards to the methods used within the church. When we base our methods on what worked then rather than what might be effective now, we arrogantly choose to idolize those methods rather than reach a new generation. It’s by design that Pokluda positions this section and discussion after his emphasis on the Bible so as not to be criticized by anyone who might suggest that he is pushing for a compromise in teaching doctrine or morality.

Pokluda encourages an environment within the church where Millenials can learn from other generations and vice versa. While they are open to instruction, they also want to be heard and valued. Relationship and authenticity are key. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver as so many churches have done. Don’t build your church on programs and attractional events only because you will soon lose those you’ve attracted through those things to another church that does them better.

One thing that Pokluda mentions that I particularly appreciated is the importance of discipleship moving beyond straight teaching concepts. If we don’t move from the “learning” aspect to the “doing” of discipleship, can we really call it discipleship? Discipleship means following and that can’t be in word alone, it needs to be accompanied by deeds.

In the last section, “Deploy,” Pokluda speaks of the importance of vision. Millenials (and everyone else in your church, for that matter) need to be given a picture of what can be. That picture needs to be compelling, energizing, and engaging. Expecting that they will come simply because you tell them it’s important is not enough. Pokluda writes, “give young adults a vision bigger than themselves. Don’t bore them by playing church, pretending to have it all together.” He goes on to say that a weak vision is the easiest way to discourage young people to live into their calling to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Delegation kills two birds with one stone, it benefits the leader by not requiring them to do it all themselves and it allows others to step up to their own strengths and gifts to lead as well. Pokluda shares from his own experiences about how he has seen teams built together to the point of enjoying one another’s company. Shared experiences are essential for this team-building.

In another very helpful section, Pokluda shares his 5 “C’s” of vision casting: convincing, constant, celebrate, communicate, and call. While the section isn’t very long, it provides some good application for the way forward as you engage young people in the life and ministry of your church.

This is a good place to start for anyone struggling with how to best engage the next generation. There are other resources from places like the Fuller Youth Institute which give some additional practical and more in-depth approaches towards engaging the younger generations with spirituality and discipleship. Pokluda’s book provides some helpful measures that don’t feel too overwhelming for someone who feels like they just don’t know where to start. If you find yourself in that place, this book may be helpful to give you a boost and start you on your way towards engaging the next generation.

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

What’s Gonna Happen?

What’s Gonna Happen?

COVID-19 has thrown our world into a storm of uncertainty. The economy is in disarray as businesses have shut down, people have been laid off or furloughed, and the thought of reigniting it by slowly opening things up causes anxiety and anger.

I think we can safely say that the majority of the world has been touched in some way, shape, or form by COVID-19. It’s disrupted our lives and its effects will move far beyond the moment when stay at home orders are lifted and people can begin to cautiously emerge from their homes like groundhogs tentatively looking for their shadows. The world is not just untouched during this time, as we move ahead on the other side of the virus, the world will not be the same.

Nowhere has this felt the case more to me than within the church. As a pastor of a barely half a year old church plant, risk is something that I am well aware of, but moving to the other side of this will be an exercise in self-reflection that will only be achieved as we ask ourselves hard questions to which we give honest answers.

Here are five important questions that I think the Church needs to ask herself in this time:

1) Will we embrace change? 

Whether the church likes it or not, this time of separation has forced us all to embrace change on some level or another. I have said for years that the church is one of two organizations in the world that struggles to embrace change (the other is the educational system, who has stepped out during this time). Even when we think we’re good with change, we can generally open up our stable to reveal a host of sacred cows we’ve been hiding.

Change for change sake is never a good idea, but change for the sake of contextualizing the Gospel of Jesus Christ is essential. We see it within the New Testament as Jesus met people where they were as did Paul and so many others within the Book of Acts. It’s an essential part of communication to speak a language that those to whom you are speaking can understand.

The medium may change, but the message stays the same. Will the church embrace change in order to more effectively communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

2) Will we compromise or coalesce?

Changing does not mean compromising, and I believe that many within the Church don’t always get that right. Adapting does not mean conforming to the culture. Attractional ministry can easily lead us down a road where we compromise our values and shift our moral compass simply to appease people we are trying to reach.

I’m not one to harp on certain issues that have the potential to divide, but simply avoiding them is not the right approach either. Will we compromise who we are and who God has called us in order that we can become more “relevant”?

3) Will we focus inward or outward?

One of the reasons that I became a church planter is because, since I became a pastor sixteen years ago and even before that, I had grown frustrated with the inward focus of the local church. The Great Commission has not changed since Jesus spoke it. We are still called to GO and make disciples, baptize them, and teach them what Jesus commanded.

I believe that the local church can often get caught up in the last part and forget the first part: GO. While spiritual formation and discipleship is essential within the local faith community, I believe that we have created an unsustainable model that looks more like a spiritual daycare than a training ground for disciples of Jesus. If our people still look the same as they did five years ago, that inward focus isn’t accomplishing what we thought it would.

Outward focus allows us to put into practice the spiritual practices and ideals that we claim to be learning. It allows us to put hands and feet to ideas and concepts. It also allows us to constantly be changed by seeing those whom God has a heart for, those who have not yet begun to follow Jesus Christ,

If the church is to survive, we need to get back to the essentials of evangelism and discipleship rather than transactional and attractional ministry.

4) Will we build community or clubs?

Community is essential. I’ve told more than one person in the past few months that when I write a book, the theme will most likely be community. My own personal experience with community has shaped and formed me. I would not be where I am had I not been surrounded by a loving, caring, and giving community to help walk with me through some dark periods of my life.

I am well aware that there is an entropy of sorts that happens within churches, even the most progressive and creative churches. That entropy moves us from a place of intentionality of openness to a place of unintentional cliquishness (if that’s even a word). We seek to be welcoming and eventually can become so comfortable with who we have that we simply build a social club.

If the church is simply a social club, there is nothing there that can’t be replaced with a thousand other clubs or organizations. We need to be something much more than just a club, we need to be a community that seeks to change the world one person at a time.

5) Will we become extinct?

The church in America has been declining for decades. Denying that is not just foolish, it’s ignorant. Instead of lamenting that the United States is no longer a “Christian” nation, we need to get down to brass tacks and begin the hard work of evangelism and discipleship once again. If we are simply building local churches around our preaching, music, and programs, there will inevitably come along someone else who can do those things better than we can. We will continue to swap members until Jesus returns and I fear the rebuke may be equivalent to the one talent servant in Jesus’ parable.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18 were, “…and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Church will not fail because the true church isn’t a building, a program, or a person. The Church is a movement of people, disciples, seeking to be kingdom-minded and be part of God’s kingdom expansion in this world. Building the kingdom does not mean adding some beautiful aesthetics to pretty it up, it means literally building and expanding it beyond what it is today.

Will the church become extinct?

I think these questions and many more are essential questions for every disciple of Christ to ask themselves during this time and beyond? The thing about hard questions is that they demand hard answers. While some may see my criticism as harsh, the more complacent we become, the harsher the criticism for us to move out of that complacency to a place of effectiveness.

May God give us the courage and boldness to ask the hard questions of who we are in the church. May we seek his kingdom first and deny ourselves the desire to build a kingdom of our own making. May we elementarily return to our original commission and seek to go and make disciples rather than simply making consumers of programs whose sustaining power is only as effective as the latest trend.

Kingdom or Empire

seed-in-hand-copyLike so many other pastors during this strange and uncertain time, I’ve been rethinking a lot of things, not the least of which is how we go about doing ministry. It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself for far longer than the few days that we’ve found ourselves  in the place we’re in. I’ve really been asking that question since I started in full-time vocational ministry nearly sixteen years ago.

Not only am I a pastor but I’m also a church planter. I snicker to myself as I write this, thinking about what an interesting time it is to try to build a church. Then I have to stop myself and realize that while I am and have been working to build a local community and expression of the church, my bigger goal and desire is to show people Jesus. Yes, I make a living as a pastor, but if that becomes my driving force, I think I’m missing the point.

Do I worry during these days? Sure. It’s a little unnerving not knowing what’s next, when all this social distancing can stop and we can go back to gathering in groups of ten people or more to do the things that we are so used to doing. Do I get anxious? Sure. I’ve done my best to stop looking at my retirement savings in these last few days as they continue to diminish in large quantities.

But I have hope that’s beyond the circumstances. If I don’t, then I’m a fraud and I probably shouldn’t be doing what I do. Again, that doesn’t mean 100% absolute surety that everything is going to be all right and that this won’t touch me at all. I’ve been touched by tragedy before and I’m sure it will touch me again. During that tragedy, I still knew God was there. He didn’t manifest himself the way that I would have liked him to. I wished for and prayed for better things, but that’s not what I got.

Or did I?

Every parent knows that if we gave our kids everything that they asked for, we would just end up with a bunch of spoiled kids. And there are often times when the things that our kids ask for and the things that our kids need are not the same thing. Giving them what they need often has to win out over giving them what they want. While they may think they know what they need and equate their wishes and desires with their needs, parents generally know better.

So, do we trust our heavenly father? Do we trust that he knows what’s best for us?

As I keep thinking through why I became a pastor and church planter, I keep reminding myself that I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t want to see if I could build an empire. I didn’t want to see if I could stand there checking off all the people as they walked through the door, puffing myself up with every check mark I added. I certainly didn’t become a pastor to get rich. If I had wanted money, I’d have stayed in the engineering world. Get-rich-quick pastors aren’t preaching the same gospel that I believe in.

Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. The kingdom is here and is coming. A now and not yet. Leaving his church, his people, to do the work of the kingdom meant expanding that, not through buildings but through people. The church isn’t buildings. The church isn’t programs.

I’ve told people over and over again that I want to have a kingdom vision of the Church. I want to think beyond myself. I want to think towards a God-sized vision, a kingdom vision, a vision of people meeting Jesus. To think that only happens through my local expression of the Church might be one of the most arrogant things that I could think. If I only want people to come to my church, then do I really have a kingdom vision? If I really want people to meet Jesus, shouldn’t I be okay with them ending up anywhere he is preached and worshipped?

These are trying times, and I know that everyone, including those who are part of the church, is feeling overwhelmed and anxious. But I do see it as an opportunity. I see my focus staying the same but I see myself changing my medium. Instead of face to face conversations at my local coffee shop, I’m trying to evoke thoughts and conversations online. Instead of speaking to a roomful of people every Sunday evening, I’m speaking to a screen and sharing the same hope that I would be sharing if I were with them in person.

You see, I want people to see Jesus. I want people to know Jesus. He’s the only reason that I’m not freaking out right now. He’s the only thing that’s keeping me somewhat sane right now. Without him, I have no idea where I would be. If they can know that, if they can see what he means to me and the difference that it makes, then I’ve done exactly what I’m supposed to do.

I’m doing my best to be part of building a kingdom. Empires crumble and fall. Empires are built around people and their arrogance and power. The kingdom I want to be a part of building has a king who is loving and selfless and gracious and kind. He gave up his only son so that we might live. He calls us to be part of his kingdom, but he doesn’t force us there. He urges us there. He loves us there. He pursues us until we finally realize just how much he loves us. He is a gentleman king whose love far surpasses anything that we could ask or think or imagine.

I have no idea what will be when this is all behind us. So many church plants fail within the first twelve to eighteen months. But I have to keep reminding myself that my main goal isn’t to build a church, to build an empire, it’s to build the kingdom. I get to be part of that no matter what I’m doing, and no virus can take that away from me.

Clearing the Soil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a…..baby!

This process of starting a new church that we are in, it feels a lot like waiting for the birth of your first child.

A friend and I spoke the other day and he brought this up to me. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The analogy is so spot on.

When you and your spouse are expecting a baby, you go through the procedures of eating right, caring for yourself, regularly visiting the doctor, and everything else that’s necessary to ensure a healthy baby.

As time marches on and you get closer and closer to the due date, the anticipation, excitement, and terror can be overwhelming. You can’t wait to meet this baby, to see his or her face, to hold them, smell them, cuddle them, just look at them. There is excitement over what it means, this new human being who will charge into your world, disrupting it and making it perfect all at once.

But there is also the terror. Not sure how many first-time expectant parents didn’t think at least once along the way, “Oh my goodness, can I do this? What kind of parent will I be?” If we all waited to have children until we were ready, we may never ever have children.

Waiting for a church to be born has felt similar, but I could never quite find the words to describe it until my friend introduced this to me the other day.

In less than two months, a baby church will be born. We are preparing for it. When it comes, it needs to be nurtured. We wait. We anticipate. We get nervous.

Ultimately, we follow the direction and leading that God gives us through his Holy Spirit. We trust. We pray. We plan.

And to be honest, as much as I thought and planned and hoped along the way before my first child was born, when it came down to it and he was born, most of those things fell away. The only thing that I cared about the most was that he was healthy and growing. The other things were just bonuses.

In much the same way, if things don’t look exactly like I thought they should with this church, I think I will have a similar approach, my number one desire is for a healthy “baby.”

Myself 2.0

I had lunch with a friend yesterday. Nothing unusual about that. Among the things we talked about was the Enneagram, self-awareness, who we are, we were, and who we are becoming. Kind of deep for lunch conversation.

The last few years, for me, has been a journey of self-discovery, figuring out who I am, figuring out what I am good at, figuring out what I’m not so good at, and seeking to become better than I was yesterday. There are certain tools like the Enneagram and StrengthsFinders that have been helpful in that self-discovery.

But, as one who considers himself a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s more than a pursuit, it’s a calling. If Jesus is all that I claim that he is, then I should be changed by him. He isn’t some random stranger that I meet on the street who has no impact on my life. If he is who he says he is and who I believe he is, then like so many of the people who he met throughout the gospels, the collision between my life and him should have an altering effect.

As my friend and I discussed all this, he shared that he was struck by where I was in my overall emotional health. As I thought about it, I said, “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?” I mean, the big theological word that people throw around is “sanctification,” the process of becoming holy and set apart, more like Jesus.

Funny thing is, I think that some Christians miss the “more like Jesus” part of that. They’ve got the “set apart” part down pat, but when it comes to being different like Jesus, we don’t often excel. We’re set apart and different but in a way that makes an onlooking world scratch their heads or shake their fists. I have a hard time believing that’s what was meant by being different and set apart.

I have often said to friends and those around me that I don’t want to be the person that I was five years ago. In fact, if I am really in pursuit of being changed, transformed, and different, then I shouldn’t be who I was. As I look back over myself through the years, I see changes. Some of those changes are good, some are not so good. Those not so good changes are the ones where I probably haven’t fully given myself over to the work of sanctification in my life.

It’s like training at the gym. It’s not often pleasant when we are going through it. There may be pain afterwards, but hopefully, what we are becoming is better than who we presently are. I think about Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:8, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

I have been blessed by a great cloud of witnesses around me. God has given me a lot of people that I call “rearview mirrors.” They act as aids for me to see those blind spots that I am unable to see on my own. But I’ve got to look at them and then heed what they say, just having them alone is not enough to make me better and to see the flaws that so desperately need to be changed and transformed.

Today is a new day and I am grateful for it. God’s mercies are new every morning. My constant prayer is that I will be just a little more different today than I was yesterday, that John the Baptist’s words can echo from me the way they did him, “I must decrease and he must increase.” It doesn’t mean that I lose myself, it means that I just become a more Christ-like version of myself. That’s what I’m going for.

 

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?

 

Reflections On Another Trip Around the Sun

Yesterday was my birthday. It was fairly anti-climactic. Save for the excitement of my children (at least a few of them) to open the gifts they had gotten for me, a few friends I saw throughout the day suggesting they sing to me, countless texts and phone calls, and a barrage of greetings on social media, it felt pretty much like any other day.

Once you hit a certain age, birthdays seem to become inconsequential. One day I’ll hit the age when I wake up in the morning and find myself grateful that I’m still breathing. Right now, I’m in the throes of life when waking up with one less ache than the day before is an accomplishment.

Looking back over the year, a lot has happened. I’m off on my own, trying to get a church off the ground as we move towards launching in September. God has continued to humble me through my children, my experiences, and the many people who have shared their lives with me.

While the lives of so many influential people cross my path via news articles, books, movies, musicals, and countless other medium, the question I continue to reflect on is, “What difference have I made?” Am I significant? Have I really made a difference?

I’m growing to understand more every day that setting out to change the world can be somewhat of a lofty goal, but setting out to change myself and to allow myself to be changed is a far more attainable goal.

That doesn’t mean I’m an underachiever like Bart Simpson, it just means that I’m doing the best to influence what I can and walk away from what I can’t. To be honest, I’ve always joked about grandparents when I’ve seen the, reach that age where they just don’t give a #$% anymore. You know, they back out of the driveway and don’t even care if cars are coming either way. They’re going for it whether or not you’re ready for them.

I’m not saying that’s where I am….yet, but I think I’m well on my way.

Life is far too short to deal with people who are perpetually unhappy and unsatisfied. I’ve spent far too much time in the past trying to appease these people, especially within the church. I’m convinced now that if Jesus himself, or even Peter, Paul, or one of the other apostles themselves came back, they wouldn’t be able to please them either.

The gravitational pull of each and every one of us in our depravity and sin is to live our lives completely for us and no one else. That pull extends into the church and creates toxic environments where everyone’s trying to get their way, kind of like a preschool playground.

So, I’m doing my best to be a little less selfish today than I was yesterday, and to be thinking about others. In the process, I’ve rediscovered what that looks like and how it makes me feel. I’ve realized that it’s far from easy, but it sure seems to make everything a little easier.

One more trip around the sun. Older? Yes. Wiser? I hope so.

Still pushing forward. I am grateful for the opportunities that God has afforded me and even more grateful for those who surround me. My family continues to help me grow, in love and life. God continues to stretch me in ways I would never stretch myself. My community of friends is a source of strength, challenge, and hope. Hope because I begin to see just what can happen when we give ourselves to community. It’s costly, yes, but it also provides us with benefits that are priceless.

Here’s to tripping around the sun one more time!