An Easter to Remember

GethsemaneFinalFor Christians, the week leading up to Easter has been called Holy Week. It starts on Palm Sunday and continues through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and culminates on Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. It’s generally been celebrated with a mix of somberness on Thursday and Friday followed by elation and joy on Sunday morning.

This year will prove to be a very different Holy Week, an Easter to remember. One of the most significant holy days in the church calendar will be celebrated by watching worship services online and hunting for Easter eggs within the confines of our own homes and yards. Family dinners may very well be limited to the nuclear family for the sake of social distancing, if we even feel like that’s safe or a good idea.

When the possibility of Easter being impacted by COVID-19 moved from possibility to likelihood, I watched many in the church community go through the stages of grief. This realization caused all kinds of different emotions. What will we do? How will we respond?

Now, I’ve never been one to go crazy with the two big church holidays, Christmas and Easter. I appreciate their importance, but I think that there has been a tendency for us to overdo things within the church, putting on a show rather than worshipping and being grateful. I’ve also never liked the notion that churches should change things up so dramatically that the people who happen to attend on these two holidays should think that this is business as usual and that’s the way things are done every week.

A few weeks ago, when the reality about Easter being dramatically impacted by this virus this year began to set in, I read a social media post that made mention of it. As I read the post and began to think about it, my mind wandered back to that first Easter and the days leading up to it. It seemed somewhat ironic to me that we might be celebrating Holy Week more consistently with the way it had been experienced that first Easter.

As I thought about the emotions that those first disciples must have been experiencing in those days leading up to Easter, I couldn’t help but thinking that we may feel like we are in a similar place. Fear. Anxiety. Doubt. Loneliness.

What would happen if we put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of those early disciples and really made this a Holy Week like no other? What would happen if we imagined what it was like to be in such a place like they were in with the dashed hopes that seemed so palpable in those days? Could it be that experiencing all of these emotions might help us to relate and might inject some much needed meaning into our celebration?

It’s not ideal. We would much rather be gathering together in person, but sometimes we just need to learn from what isn’t ideal and make the most of it. Sometimes we have to take what’s in front of us rather than wishing for something else.

As we come to this Maundy Thursday, I imagine Jesus in the garden. Fully God and fully human. Wrestling with the task before him. Full of anxiety and maybe even fear, yet resilient and committed to carrying out the will of the Father. Obedient unto death, even death on the cross.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,     being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 1 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

Philippians 2:5-11

 

I’m tired

sisyphusI don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next nine months. I’m not sure I can take this for that long.

I’m tired of adults acting like middle schoolers or, even worse, pre-schoolers. I’m tired of feeling like people are verbally speaking the equivalent of sticking their tongues out at each other.

I’m tired of how easily offended people have become. No one knows how to take a joke. No one even knows how to smile. We’ve lost the ability to actually laugh at ourselves. While we can still laugh at others, it seems we’re offended when those laughs might be at our expense.

I’m tired of our inability to converse. We’ve lost the ability to have civil conversations with one another, especially when we don’t agree. So, if we struggle with civil conversing, we certainly struggle with civil discourse. We can’t disagree well with each other.

I’m tired of us all turning into our opinions and issues. “If you don’t like what I believe, then you obviously don’t like me.” That’s the message that we are sending every single time that we are offended when someone tells us that they have differing beliefs than we do.

I’m tired of backbiting. I’m tired of our inability to be brave enough to tell someone to their face that they ticked us off. Instead, we’re content to tell everybody else but the one who has ticked us off.

But God…

When we’re tired, at whatever, no matter what it is, there’s an answer. We can most likely grow tired when we’re trying to tackle things in our own strength and power. But Jesus told us we should consider otherwise, especially when we’re tired.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I may be tired, but I can bring that weariness and those burdens to Jesus, and he will give me rest. That doesn’t mean that it all goes away. The struggle is real and it will continue, but I don’t have to carry it on my own.

Yes, it’s going to feel like a REALLY LONG nine months for a lot of us, but we can engage differently. If we’re tired of how everyone else acts, we can’t change them, but we can change us and the way that we behave and react.

That’s my vow, regardless of how others act, as tiring as they can be, I’m going to do my best not to be that tiring for people. If I believe that Jesus can really take my burdens, I’d better act like it.

Crossing the Threshold?

I was asked an interesting question the other day by a friend. We were sitting in her office, talking about our kids, and she asked me when my son became a Christian. I stopped in my tracks and started thinking deeply. A lifetime of thoughts flooded my mind and I fumbled for an answer that would suffice, finally settling for what I thought would require the least explanation and seem the most genuine.

You see, I grew up with an approach to faith as an arrival rather than a journey. It was about being “in” or “out” and not about what or who you were pursuing. If you crossed the threshold of belief, than your eternal soul was secure. If you prayed a prayer and walked an aisle, then you had your “fire insurance.”

But as time has gone by, I’ve realized the error of that approach. It’s not that I don’t believe that there is some kind of threshold, I just don’t know that it’s as clear cut as some people try to make it out to be.

My mom always assured me that there was a day when I asked her to kneel at the side of my bed so that the two of us could pray. The prayer was “the prayer” asking Jesus into my heart. While I have no memory of the experience, I really can’t remember a time in my life when Jesus wasn’t a part of it.

As I’ve gotten older and grown deeper in my spirituality, I’ve come to a place where I realized that there’s no specific prayer in the Bible about asking Jesus into your heart. The Bible says we need to believe in the name of the Lord to be saved, so there’s a threshold there, but when it becomes about a prayer, I think it makes faith an arrival rather than a journey.

Growing up in the church, it wasn’t often that I saw people who would be considered “seekers” in my church. The people who were there had already been convinced, they had already prayed their prayers, walked their aisles, crossed their thresholds. But what of those to whom faith was more of a journey, a meandering road? Did they not qualify?

I’ve seen people come to faith in Christ after hearing a message and I’ve seen people come to faith in Christ after years of searching, seeking, and asking questions. I have a hard time saying that one of those is better or more valid than the other.

But faith is a journey, it’s not an arrival. I consider myself fortunate to have had faith a part of my upbringing. Others have come to faith through the side door or even the back door. They explored the property before they even stepped up to that door. They looked all around, checked under the porch, made sure everything seemed safe and secure.

When faith is an arrival, a crossing of the threshold, we can be in danger of letting it stagnate. What’s the purpose of growing something that serves no purpose any longer? If we’ve “arrived” then there’s no reason to continue moving forward, is there? Faith as an arrival can make us complacent, thinking that we’ve done everything that needs to be done, but that’s not really the faith that Jesus speaks about, or that Paul writes about.

In some ways, I consider myself a spiritual guide, guiding people along the journey of faith. People who think they’ve arrived at their destination don’t really like guides, they’re content to bask in the destination, thinking it’s the best place they can possibly be. A good guide may be fairly well informed, but I think they’re also always willing to learn something new, in fact, I think they’re always looking for that something new, that something that they missed along the way.

At some point, people move from searching to believing, but belief isn’t always surety. Faith isn’t surety. It may be confidence, but I don’t think faith exists without some lingering questions. After all, faith is the act of believing even when things remain unseen. How can you not have questions when you can’t see everything?

Loving Your Community – A Book Review

loving your communityAlthough Jesus’ command to his disciples was to GO and make disciples, it seems that the Church has a tendency to forget the GO part and instead remain tied to a building. The expectation has become that if the Church would just hold events in a building, people will flock there to be a part of them. Christians can become insular and shortsighted, more concerned with comfort, security, and convenience than in actually taking Jesus’ command seriously.

In his book “Loving Your Community,” Stephen Viars shares stories from his own experience and the experience of his church. He talks about how they have practiced loving their community through various means, encouraging his readers to do the same.

While it seems that the gap between the Church and the culture has grown ever wider, Christians won’t win anyone over with the message of hatred, anger, pride, self-righteousness, or apathy. So, Viars suggests loving those who don’t consider themselves Christians. That usually involves going outside the doors of the church.

Viars is clear that there is work to be done in order to better understand the needs of your community. Too often, Christians simply make assumptions about what the community needs or project those needs without fully researching or spending time determining what they are. The experience of Viars and Faith Church, the church he pastors, is that it is necessary to get your hands dirty and find this out by talking to real people in real situations.

The experiences that Viars describes in the book can easily be intimidating, especially for those who are starting at the ground level or below. But Viars is pretty candid about that as well, talking about how long it has taken his church to come to the place where they are loving their community well and making a difference.

Every chapter ends with two sets of questions, one for personal reflection and one for group discussion. These questions help to think about next steps, not only for yourself but for your church and any group with whom you might be reading and discussing this book. There are also accounts from people from Faith Church who have been impacted along the way by the various things that Faith Church did to love their community. It is helpful to hear these stories from voices other than Viars, the voices of those who have been personally affected.

As I read through this book, it was hard not to dream about what could be in the future for my own church and the community in which we serve and minister. I’ve always thought that we should only dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them. Stephen Viars gives us a picture of how to dream big and just how awesome God is as he has grown this church in loving their community.

(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.)

 

‘Tis The Season to be Hopeful

I used to be the guy who started listening to Christmas music in July. I would roll out the Christmas CDs and park them right by the stereo. I would load them in a case to bring into my car. I would pull out the ones that I would listen to regularly and make sure that I got through every single one of them.

That’s kind of what happens when music is your thing and your job. You get caught up in the season and planning takes priority.

Of course, I always used to be the one who was cuckoo for Christmas. But life can sometimes have a way of changing you, of stealing your joy a little.

I’ve had some great Christmas seasons in my past but I’ve also had some pretty crappy ones. The Christmas after my mom died, my dad was in the hospital and acting like he’d lost his mind. It was one of the most surreal and depressing Christmases on record for me.

At the same time, watching my kids grow up and seeing their faces on Christmas morning has been one of the greatest joys that I’ve experienced. If there’s anything that can make me feel like a kid again, it’s Christmas Eve and the experience that comes from having young kids experience the wonder and joy of Christmas.

But as much as I still love Christmas, I think that I’ve grown up a little bit. I’m not talking about growing up like the kid in The Polar Express. I think. I can still hear the bells, but the “why” of Christmas has become so much more important to me and, frankly, I’ve begun to look at Christmas in context with why I celebrate it as well as why it’s important in the grand scheme of things.

Last week was the first Sunday of Advent and it passed me by. I don’t think that I forgot it, maybe I just ignored it, but it hit me on the second Sunday of Advent just how important it was. I was speaking on the second Advent of Jesus and recalling the first Advent of Jesus. It all seemed to be that much more weighty and important to me.

During Advent, each Sunday has a theme: Hope, Joy, Peace, Love. I can’t help but think about those and this pas Sunday, I was thinking about hope. Hope is the thing that propels us along when it seems like there’s nothing left. Hope is what keeps us going when everything inside and outside of us is telling us to just give up. Hope is the thing that keeps us looking around the corner, checking the mailbox, waiting for that phone call. Hope is what keeps us going when everything seems impossible.

Hope is one of the only reasons why I’m still here. In the midst of pain, in the midst of loss, in the midst of uncertainty, I have hung on to hope. When it seemed that darkness would overcome, hope remained a candle that penetrated the darkness.

That’s what this season is to me. It’s a reminder that although God seemed silent, something happened to keep hope alive, to breathe new life into all those places that seemed dead and lifeless. God seemed silent until he came to dwell among us, and even as he lived and eventually died, hope still hung in there, albeit by a thread.

And then he rose. Death had not won. Hope was alive.

Christmas time is always a reminder to me that when it seems that things are the darkest, there is still hope. It may not be realized in my time, it may not even be realized on this side of eternity, but hope is there, waiting patiently for us to believe and trust. We may not understand. We may not be happy about waiting. But hope remains.

We’re coming to the two week mark to Christmas. As I look at all that those two weeks hold, it’s a little overwhelming to me. I’m afraid that I’m going to blink and those two weeks will have passed without me fully understanding the significance of these moments.

Pulling Back the Curtain, Part II

ПечатьA month into this church planting journey, I feel like I’m getting more insights every day. I’ve known since the day I left my engineering career to take a job in full-time vocational ministry that it’s a calling and not for the weak of heart. Church planting is no exception to this.

Last year, as I was in the pre-launch phase of the church plant, I told people all the time that I had never experienced more self-doubt than I had during that season of life. I’m not generally a person who struggles with confidence, but that season was rough for me. Rough, but good, as I realized that self-confidence should be replaced with God-confidence, knowing where my confidence should be rooted.

Ministry in general, especially in smaller settings, can be incredibly lonely. You’re busy running around and checking on the welfare of everyone else and not everyone is conscious of the fact that no one is checking on you. So, you need to be proactive and make sure that you’ve got someone who you can lean on in those times. Lone rangers in ministry rarely last long. In fact, I think the road of ministry is littered with the broken lives of those lone rangers.

In an effort to continue to pull back the curtain to reveal what’s behind it, I want to share some insights from this first month and a half (and all the time leading up to it as well).

1) Measuring, Not Counting

A few months ago, a friend of mine shared some insight with me that I couldn’t stop mulling over in my head. We were talking about the metrics by which churches answered the question of whether or not they were “successful.” I told him that I was tired of the “nickels and noses” model, where we count how many butts in the chairs and how much money we had raised.

He said that we needed to move to a place of measuring rather than counting. We measure life change and transformation in people. That’s not something that you can easily do if you’re just counting the people and their money.

Standing there in our worship space Sunday after Sunday, as the clock moves closer and closer to the time of our worship service,  my heart sinks further down if no one shows up (thankfully, that hasn’t happened). It’s hard not to take it personally. It’s hard not to wonder what I’m doing wrong.

But we need to move beyond just butts in the seats. Are we making a difference? Are the people who are coming being impacted for Christ? Would it matter if we were here or not? These are the more important questions, in my opinion. These are the things to measure, impact and influence.

2) Trends Take Time

The world is a very different place than it was when I was a kid. The church is also very different than when I was a kid. Assessing today based on yesterday is really hard. Solving today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions is downright silly (go read “Canoeing the Mountains”).

As much as I would like to see every person in a worship service every weekend, I know that expectation is unreasonable. Life happens. Stuff happens. While I think being part of a faith community is essential for spiritual formation, people need a reason to care and a reason to invest their time into something.

I don’t know how long it takes to see patterns and trends in data, but I can tell you without a doubt that it’s not six weeks. It’s like farming or gardening, you do the behind the scenes stuff and then just wait. We are doing our best to do that behind the scenes stuff, outreach, relationship building, consistently and persistently. We will watch the trends over time and see what we see.

3) Where Your Treasure Is, Your Heart Is Also

One of the best books that I read in preparation for this journey (other than the Bible) is a book by Simon Sinek called “Start With Why.” It’s a book that I think is an essential read, not just for church planters, but for pastors as well.

Churches have gotten really good at telling everybody “What” they do but have forgotten (or never even knew) how to tell people “Why” they do it. The “What” is not nearly as compelling as the “Why.” People rarely give to “What” but they may give to “Why.” People want to make a difference and they want to see that they are making a difference.

If someone is going to give their hard-earned money towards something, they want to make sure that it’s worth it. That makes perfect sense to me.

At the same time, this is one of those things that needs to be measured. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” When people give to a local faith community, the local expression of the church, it’s a pretty good indicator that someone believes in what’s happening. So, if they begin to give of their hard-earned money towards the vision, then it’s probably because they believe in that vision.

4) Vision Casting

Speaking of vision, it’s something that needs to be spoken of often.

I think that some pastors and planters get the idea that because they believe strongly in something and think about it all day, every day, that everyone else does the same.

Not the case.

People live busy lives. I don’t say that as an excuse, I say that because it’s true. I think that part of the responsibility of pastors is to continue to help people remember to be looking at their world through a specific lens, the lens of a Christian worldview.

They won’t necessarily do that on their own, they need help with that. They need reminders. Those reminders need to happen beyond just the Sunday worship service. When they walk out of your church on Sunday, it’s possible that they might not think as deeply about Christ again until the following Sunday.

Vision casting is about letting people see just how seeing the world through the eyes of Christ can impact them. It’s about letting them see God’s vision for the world, that Jesus cares for those in the world who are furthest from him as well as those who are close to him. This needs to happen often, otherwise people forget.

5) Culture Making

The same friend who I talked about measuring versus counting with also had a conversation with me about culture making. We talked about Andy Crouch’s book of the same name. Many people within the Church are critical of the culture in which we live, I understand that, but what is the Church doing to combat that? How does the Church combat that?

Crouch, in his book, talks about how the best way to change culture is to create culture. If we are dissatisfied with what we see in culture, are we creating a new culture? I won’t go through all that Crouch says, but this means so much more than just creating a “Christian” alternative to what’s already happening. 

Honestly, I could write a whole post (if not a whole blog series) on this, but the long and short of it is that we create culture in what we do. What kind of culture are we creating? People may be attracted to programs and certain offerings of the Church, but those things won’t necessarily make them stick. They need something more.

If I marry someone just because they are beautiful and there is nothing more to our relationship, that relationship will be short lived, because it’s based on something fleeting. But if I find someone attractive outwardly, get to know them, and find them even more attractive inwardly because of their character, it’s more likely that the relationship will have staying power.

What kind of culture are we creating in our local expressions of the Church? Are we just offering a place where people can run and hide from the big bad world that lurks beyond the doors? Or are we seeking to create a culture that engages the world beyond our doors, seeking to have conversations about what Jesus means to us and why he matters?

I’m far from done learning on this journey, but I will keep sharing as I go. I’m no expert and will make far more mistakes, but it’s in those mistakes that we can learn the most. I’ll keep pulling back the curtain for anyone who wants to see. Hopefully, the insights that I’m gaining might be helpful for even one other person in this journey.

 

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.

 

Just Being Honest

This past weekend, my family and I had the chance to travel down to the church of a good friend of mine. He had asked me to preach for him and I was grateful for the opportunity to be with him and his church family. He and I have spent the last few years becoming friends. Now, I feel even closer to him as we ramp up towards starting a new church ourselves.

There were so many joys that we experienced in our time together. As we’ve had the opportunity to travel around to different churches, my perspective has grown and I have been humbled to see all the different expressions of the church in a variety of contexts.

One thing that struck both my wife and me was the authenticity of the people in his church. They were so open and honest, sharing things that surprised me considering that they had just met us. Nothing uncomfortable or awkward, just honest and real, appropriate.

This struck me so much because this doesn’t just happen, it needs to be nurtured. I know that my friend has nurtured it. As we’ve walked together in friendship over the past few years, I have had the chance to see him journey through some difficult seasons. I’ve also seen just how God has worked through those difficult seasons, how he has grown so much through them. I’m confident that God’s growth hasn’t limited itself to him but has spread throughout his faith community as well.

As I pondered on all that I had seen, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was such a surprise to come to a church and find such openness and authenticity. But isn’t the church the place where we should be encountering that kind of thing? Isn’t it the place where we should see Jesus’ words, “Come all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest?” Why is it a surprise when we experience that kind of honesty in the church?

One thing that I sure hope happens as God builds his church through us is that this kind of honesty and authentic atmosphere can be built as well. I hope and pray that people can come back to using words like “refuge” and “safe” to describe the church, and I know that a lot of that will depend on how I lead.

Honesty is only good if it leads somewhere. Our motivation for honesty shouldn’t be to just “get something off our chest.” If we are honest and have no desire for that honesty to help someone else in love, we probably need to rethink it. In fact, sometimes, we might need to withhold our honest thoughts and feelings as they just won’t be well-received by the people we feel burdened to tell.

I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately, continuing to check my own motivations in speaking truth. Leaning into the Holy Spirit to guide and move. Holding my tongue when my motivation is wrong. Speaking even when it might be uncomfortable but doing it in love with purpose and hope.

My heart for people to meet Jesus is met equally by a heart that desperately knows that the Church has much of which we need to repent. We have not done things well in loving those who don’t look or think like us. We have not always welcomed well the widows and orphans. Pro-life has not always meant from birth to death for us. We have not always remembered that the history of the people of God includes exile, bondage, and times of wandering. We have forgotten that God’s people are immigrants, seeking solace in a land that is not their own.

I pray that the Church can begin to be honest with herself first. Once we begin to get honest about who we are, where we have gone wrong, and how we move forward, I think that kind of authenticity and humility will go a long way to letting people see beyond the Church and see Jesus.

What We Leave Behind

Last year, a family in the faith community that I was a part of lost their house in a fire. This family had experienced a significant amount of loss before the fire and it was heartbreaking to see them experience one more tragedy in their lives. It was even more heartbreaking because I stood with them watching their house burn.

It was one of those surreal moments where you scroll your social media feed and see something that stands out, kind of like “Which of these things is not like the others.” The wife had said her house was on fire. Before I knew it, I had a message from someone else confirming that it was true.

There have been multiple times in my life when I have felt completely helpless. Hearing my mom’s cancer diagnosis was one time. Knowing her treatments were done and her death was imminent was another. Standing with these friends in front of their house as it burned was another. I felt speechless and I doubted my presence there multiple times, wondering if they really wanted me there.

As the fire was brought under control, the firemen brought out personal items and it was excruciating. Family photos. Jewelry. Other items. The remnants of memories that had stood as markers were tainted. It was a hard thing to watch as it unfolded.

Last month, when news broke that Notre Dame Cathedral was burning, I had that same helpless feeling. It was hard to watch the flames uncontrollably lick the spire and roof of this centuries old cathedral, engulfing this sacred monument.

Through it all, I thought about legacy and what we leave behind. Buildings can burn, that became abundantly clear to me as I watched these buildings, but was that the limit of what was left? Memories are sometimes reliant on space, marked by some geographical location in which they took place. While those spaces and locations may change or cease to exist, the memories remain, they are imprinted within the very core of our being.

On a small scale, it begs the question to me, “What do I leave behind?” When I’m gone, returning to dust, what is left? Are there memories still burned on the minds of the people who are left? Did I make an impact, a mark, a difference?

I can’t help but think about this in the context of the Church as well. People were sad and heartbroken that Notre Dame was burning but I don’t think it was because a sacred space was gone or because they had experienced significant life change within those walls or even because hundreds of worshippers would now be forced to relocate. I think it was because a cultural icon was harmed, damaged, diminished (thankfully, not beyond repair).

When it comes to our local churches, what would happen if our buildings or meeting places were gone? What would be the evidence that we had once been there? Would we need to have pictures or a building or other tangible artifacts and remnants? Or would we find the evidence and artifacts on the hearts of the people whose lives had been changed by our presence there?

I want to be known for the difference that I have made. When I am gone, I don’t want people hanging onto only tangible things to remember. My hope and prayer is that the difference I made went far beyond the physically tangible and to the heart and soul.

Did I listen? Did I care? Did I love? Was Christ present in me? These are the questions that are significant to me, the ones that I hope can be answered in the affirmative.

What do we leave behind? My hope and prayer for myself and for the church that we are building is that what we are building goes far beyond a physical building. I hope and pray that we are helping to build a community with love, with listening, with care, and with Christ.

 

Here we go!

ashlandFor those people who know me, being in full-time vocational ministry is a second career for me. Prior to becoming a pastor, I was an engineer, moving up the ranks within the company, getting licensed, getting trained, becoming a project manager. I kept doing what I was supposed to do and found that it was very unfulfilling for me.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the work. It wasn’t that engineering was a bad field. It was really that it wasn’t what I was made to do. I’ve met lots of people who find fulfillment in the career that they were led to right out of college. I was not one of them.

Since my wife and I stepped away from all that was familiar to us back in the Spring of 2004, God has continued to do a work in me. Every few years, I can feel God stirring within me again. I ask myself a similar question repeatedly about whether I have begun to coast along, check the box, or phone it in. I’ve come to realize that life is far too short to do any of those things.

Losing both of your parents before you turn forty has a way of making you rethink things. I had two wonderful parents who were far from perfect but who taught me a ton about what it means to have faith and to live your life allowing that faith to inform who you are and how you live. While my father may have become a little more comfortable than he should have in some ways, he continued to be an example to me of living out his faith in a real and meaningful way.

Over the last year or so, my wife and I have felt the stirring again. It hasn’t been because of a frustration so much as just a stirring within us for something different.

I had gone to a conference which focused on racial reconciliation a little more than a year ago. As I sat and drank from the firehose, I realized just what a privileged life I had lived. I committed to knowing and learning more to see what I could do to be a part of seeing God’s diverse and multi-cultural kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

I connected with a pastor’s racial reconciliation group. I entered into conversations with others about my own complicity in the racial tensions that swirl around our country. I read book after book to try to gain a better understanding of where we are and just how I can get “woke” and help others get there as well.

I realized early on as a pastor that I could not be the guy who got up on a Sunday to preach a sermon that I hadn’t begun to live out myself. Every time that I stood in front of a congregation to preach, God had already been working me over to begin to embrace and try to live out what I was saying. As hard as I tried to avoid it, God continued to pull me back and stir my heart.

Not too long into our time in Virginia, I was introduced to a place called Ashland. It had hit the national media years ago when the D.C. sniper had ventured all the way down there to claim one of his victims in the parking lot of a Ponderosa located within Ashland.

Ashland is a different kind of town. Part Mayberry and yet also feeling like a small city, the down town area has a quaint and winsome feel to it. You take a stroll through the streets looking in the shop windows as the trains run right through the center of town. There’s no protection from the train, no fences to keep you away. In some ways, it feels like Cheers, it could easily be a place where everyone knows your name.

Randolph-Macon College is located towards the center of town, a small liberal arts college with more than 1400 students. Interstate 95 runs through Ashland, drawing travelers and drifters. The population is more mixed than some of its neighbors with approximately 70% of the population being white, 17% being African-American, 4% being Hispanic, and the rest being a mix of other nationalities. Ashland is a town that truly contains both those who have a lot and those who have next to nothing.

As the church that I have been a part of has made efforts to reach out in the Ashland community over the years, we gained little traction. As God continued to break my heart for the people of Ashland, I prayed and pondered over why our efforts seemed to remain mostly fruitless. I spoke with other pastors and people who had reach out to glean from their learnings and even from their mistakes.

The word that rang in my head through all my ponderings and prayers was, “incarnation.”

We usually hear the word at Christmastime as we speak of God putting on flesh and blood and stepping into time and space to become one of us. God didn’t do that because he was lonely or bored, he did it because this was his perfect plan. The way that God would achieve his perfect plan of redemption was to come and live among us, to move into the neighborhood and show God to the world.

I couldn’t help but think that God’s perfect plan was not only for his redemptive purposes but also to model to us just how we are to live. Just as Christ showed the Father to the world, so the Church is to show Christ to the world by living incarnationally. The Church is the bride of Christ and God’s plan to reach the world involves a tainted and imperfect bride who is daily being redeemed.

After months of wondering and worrying about next steps for my family, God was leading me to a place where he was calling me to step out in faith. The circumstances surrounding it all seemed to have made it nearly impossible to deny and impossible to walk away from what God had been setting up and doing. God was calling us to step out of the boat to do something different. He was calling us to live incarnationally by focusing on a community.

That’s where we are, at a place of faith and trust. While I’ve watched and encouraged others who have planted churches before, I’ve never done it myself. I am generally a quick study, but I’m also not afraid to make mistakes along the way. We’re stepping out to see what God will do.

Some have asked whether our church is splitting. That’s not the case at all. My lead pastor and I have spent countless hours praying and crying and talking about what God is doing. We are multiplying for the sake of God’s kingdom work. We are allowing God to do something different in us and through us.

For a recovering engineer, answers are important to have, but they aren’t coming as fast as I would like them. We are slowly moving to the place where they come into view. We don’t know where we will meet. We don’t know exactly when we will start to meet. We don’t know exactly how this will all be funded. But we trust that God has truly called us to this work and in trusting him, we trust that he will provide all that we need to accomplish what he has called us to do.

It will be different, like nothing I have done before. This needs to be a place that is for Ashland because God loves Ashland. I am terrifyingly excited about what lies ahead. I’ve said before that we need to dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them, I’m pretty sure that this is just the kind of dream that I’ve been talking about.