Families Matter (All of Them)

Mike —  February 17, 2015 — Leave a comment

Sunday, I preached about our need to focus on Jesus and let nothing distract us or discourage us from engaging in His mission. Then I packed a bag, tied up a few tasks that needed finished, and headed out across Nebraska for this week’s edition of the NC Institute. If you’re anywhere near the Omaha area (or not that near!) block out a few Mondays and check out the development opportunities offered by the Institute. (That plug was absolutely unsolicited and any subsequent favors I receive from Andy & Dave should not be seen as compensatory in any way. But I really like Chick-fil-A guys, so next time I drive 450 miles to see you…)

This week featured Rich Birch of Liquid Church and unSeminary talking about sociological trends that will affect ministry over the next 5 years or so. The very first trend he mentioned was the shift in families, and I’m still rolling this around in my mind. How are we to respond when kids show up to youth group talking about their dad and their other dad? Where do single moms fit into our ministry models? How can we serve and support families searching for wholeness? What does “family ministry” mean in our context? If family is the basic building block of society as is traditionally declared, then the shift that has been happening in the very concept of family has huge implications for the church. We cannot afford to get this wrong.

Unfortunately, this is an area where we in the church can be guilty of being reactive instead of taking initiative and leading well. We certainly need to ask how we are to respond as society increasingly redefines family, but I wonder if the mission of Christ could be better served if we asked “How can we shape this shift?” This isn’t the first time the idea of family has shifted in the history of civilization. Even today, some cultures have very different concepts of family than others. How can the church be at the front of helping people develop family systems that  in turn develop strong communities in every culture?

One of the keys that Rich touched on is the tension between Acceptance and Approval. We can learn to accept people who live in sin affected family systems (whose isn’t?) without approving of the sin that so distorts God’s intention for family. Here are a few things I know I need to try…

  • Remember my own need for grace. I’ve screwed up and need Jesus to make right what I know I never can. It helps me extend grace to other people who sin in different ways than I have, when I remember the grace extended to me.
  • Lead with love. When a gay couple shows up (or more likely, checks out your church from a safe distance) is the first thing they hear “You are loved.” or “You are wrong.” My guess is that if they hear the second message first and loudest, they’re far less likely to hear the first message at all.
  • Preach and teach knowing that not everyone is the same. When we talk about family issues and hold different types of family programs, do we consider these from the perspective of the single moms and dads in our communities? Are there special support systems we could put in place for foster and adoptive families that might look a little different than a nuclear family type of event? Does this message make any sense to a kid who’s never even met his dad?
  • Don’t make the traditional family an idol. Just ask Abel how long it takes for the ideal family to get off track. A family model is not what will redeem our brokenness. Jesus is. I want to make sure I emphasize that consistently.
  • Live such a hope filled life that people get the crazy idea that there just might be hope for them, too. Then help them find Him!

How To Learn To Fail

Mike —  January 28, 2015 — 2 Comments

If it’s necessary to learn to fail so we can really live, then just how do we learn to fail well?

  1. Try hard things. This part’s actually kind of a no brainer. If you’re not failing, you’re probably not attempting anything difficult. It’s easy to succeed every time when you limit yourself to whatever’s easy. I can beat my 8 year old at chess EVERY TIME… but it’s not very gratifying and I don’t learn anything from the experience. Maybe you’re ok with a life like that, but I doubt it. (You probably wouldn’t read these posts very often if you were!)
  2. Try new things. You may be doing some hard things, but they’re all inside the realm of what you already know. Try to accomplish something new and you’ll probably fail a few times along the way. Congratulations. You just gave yourself an opportunity to learn.
  3. Don’t stay afraid. Failure scares us. Sometimes it scares us so much that we don’t take any action when we’re unsure of the outcome. We know it might not work out, so we cower in familiar shadows and pretend we’re not curious about what’s out there beyond our fear. What if you let your curiosity and faith overwhelm your fear? You’re not a cat, let your curiosity run around once in a while. Being afraid is normal. Just don’t stay that way.
  4. Forget who’s watching. We sometimes think failing diminishes who we are or something, and we don’t want to be diminished so we don’t risk anything that might end in failure. But does failing really make you less? Do you think less of Thomas Edison because he failed to create a usable lightbulb so many times? Seriously, has anyone failed to make a good light bulb more than Edison? But his failures fade in comparison to his advancements. So, maybe some people thought he was crazy to keep banging his head on the same filamental wall so many times. (Yes I know filamental is not a word, but it would be a cool one if it was!) Who cares what they think? Who are they anyway? (Beside the ones watching life from the sidelines. Don’t join them.) Truth be told… most people aren’t paying attention anyway and won’t notice your failure at all. So go ahead and pretend no one’s watching. Chances are, they aren’t.
  5. Learn from other people’s failures, too. Good news! You don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself. Just observe the world around you and you’re sure to notice somebody else failing, too. What can you learn from their mistakes?

Now that we know how to learn to fail, the next trick is to figure out how to actually learn from our failures…

When my older son learned to walk, he pretty much taught himself when we weren’t looking. He’d make his way around furniture, but we could never get him to let go. If we tried the old “hold my hand until I pull it away” trick, he’d just sit down as soon as we let go. But every once in a while, we’d walk in to a room and find him standing in the middle, not holding on to anything. (Which always resulted in him sitting back down as soon as he realized someone could see him.) When he learned to ride a bike, he’d step off and let his bike fall every time he started to tip over. As soon as he sensed that he was going to crash, he’d bail out so we couldn’t see him fall.

This weekend, he had a chance to learn something new that I knew was going to necessitate a lot of falling. He got to snowboard for the first time. It didn’t go well. I tried to brace him for the falling. I knew what was coming. I remember learning to snowboard a few years ago. I don’t like people to see me fall either, so it was as embarrassing as it was painful. Despite my warnings that this wasn’t going to be easy, he was caught off-guard at just how tricky it is to slide down a mountain of ice with your feet strapped down to a waxed slab of fiberglass. (Who thinks of this stuff, anyway!?) After about an hour and a half of getting more and more frustrated, we took a break for lunch. He was tired of falling and I was tired of picking him up and trying to convince him that he’d get it.

During lunch, I realized I needed to make a choice: enjoy the rest of the day on the slopes with my group of students or fight with my son until he got the hang of snowboarding. (Sometimes being a youth minister and dad at the same time is really tricky.) Feeling defeated, I told him he could switch to skis (which he naturally took to and enjoyed immediately). In the long run, snowboarding isn’t a life skill I’m willing to fight about. What I am willing to fight about, however, is failure.

We hate it.

We avoid it at almost any cost.

Truth be told, we fear it.

But we can also learn from failing more than we learn from proficiency. If I’m naturally good at something, it’s easy to slip into coasting without even realizing it. But learning something new can be a struggle that involves the risk of failing. We have to take the risk. The growth we need requires the faith to take the risk. The caterpillar has to struggle to get out of the cocoon in order to become the butterfly he always could be. My son needs to learn how to grow through the struggle and the falling and the failing. So does his dad. Which is what makes me so grateful that I never have to fall alone.

Neither do you, so keep trying. Keep getting up and falling again toward the dreams God’s planted in you. Keep stretching yourself and try stepping into the unfamiliar more often. It’s certainly a risk. But living a safe and sedentary life in the shallow waters of familiarity carries it’s own risks. Don’t settle for what’s easy. Learn to fail.

But how? Good question for another post…

Recalibrate Your Life

Mike —  January 7, 2015 — 2 Comments

Do you ever feel like you just need to recalibrate? Like you’re going about your life and something is just a little off?

It’s easy to get so sidetracked by the business of living life as it is that we lose our bearing on life as He intended. Think back 10 years. Is the life you’re living today what you envisioned then? Maybe you need to recalibrate to get back on track. Sometimes, we encounter sudden corrections and unforeseeable detours that jar us from the path we were previously on.

“Surprise, we’re pregnant!”

“I’m sorry, the chemo doesn’t seem to be working as well as we’d hoped…”

“We’re moving you up in the company.”

“We’re moving.”

Big events like these can knock us off track, but they also can help us to shake off everything that’s not central to our identity and propel us forward with new resolve toward who we will be. But it doesn’t have to take a life altering event like a 3 day stint in the belly of a whale or the loss of a job to help us do that. We can consistently recalibrate and make sure we are keeping our lives oriented around the mission and glory of God in our lives. We can step out of our routines and examine them. What has crept in that doesn’t need to be a regular part of our day? What has distracted us from what we were hoping for (and stolen our hope in the process)?

Here are a few ways to recalibrate:

1. Read Scripture and develop an ongoing conversation with God. This doesn’t have to be a knee aching hour in a prayer closet (though it could be), but we desperately need to be going about our lives in conversation with the Author of Life. There’s no quicker way to become disoriented than to neglect (or hide from) this conversation. What is God hearing from you? What does He have to say today?

2. Quit something(s). There seems to be a popular reductionism going on where minimizing is all the rage. I’m not a very trendy guy, but this is a bandwagon with some merit. Our lives are too full of things that don’t matter. Our lives are cluttered with school activities, social functions, sports leagues, “must see tv…” These can be good, wholesome things, but seriously, if there’s something you just can’t miss, it’s probably screwing up your life more than you know. Let it go.

3. Try something new. Take a class or join a new group of some kind. Meet some new people who aren’t all engrossed in the same patterns you’re already in. Don’t just jam your schedule full of new stuff, and don’t plan on doing all of these things indefinitely (see # 2 above – you don’t want to just clutter things up again), but once you’ve made some room to breathe, give some of that time to a new, worthy endeavor. Maybe you’ll try some stuff that just doesn’t work. That’s ok. Move on to something else. Maybe you’ll find some great reminders of the hope filled life we are called to live.

4. Go outside. This one really sucks right now where I live. It’s been colder than a meat locker for weeks here and we’re buried in snow that doesn’t seem to be leaving soon. But we need to escape the cocoons (or catacombs) of our cubicles and office spaces from time to time and breathe air that’s not stale and still. We need to feel dirt move when we take a step once in a while (or even hear the snow crunch!). We need to see wildlife run around and do their thing, oblivious to our presence. Let Creation remind you that you’re not just scurrying around like that ~ God is with you. He’s crafted you for something. What is it?

Where could you go if you slowed down and let God lead?

Where could you go if you slowed down and let God recalibrate your headings?

Over at Live Curious, Todd Clark posted yesterday that “You are the most important and difficult person you will lead this New Year.” He makes the case that leadership in general starts with leading yourself, then points to four disciplines that are critical for self leadership:

  • Spending time with God.
  • Rest.
  • Exercise.
  • Obedience.

Go check out the post for yourself. Self-discipline is a big deal and these four areas are easy to neglect. It’s easy to make excuses for why we just don’t have time to read the Bible, or get enough rest, or… whatever. But the good news is that these 4 practices aren’t actually hard to do. I mean, how hard is it really to take a few minutes to do some pushups? Or read a passage of Scripture that you can think about over the course of the day? Or turn the TV off and go to bed? (that one is killing me right now, to be honest)

Glacier Seattle vacation 2014

I found beauty in a moment of rest.

Our problem isn’t that these things are hard, it’s just that we so easily give in to the inertia of the status quo. But that won’t get you where you want to go. Maybe I’m just talking to myself here… that won’t get me where I want to go. I don’t want to move from one day to the next with no forward progress. I’m sure to slip up or take a step backwards from time to time, but the trajectory I want for my life is forward, deeper into the heart of God. That’s not likely to happen without some discipline on my part.

These 4 areas of discipline are a great place to start as we set out on the journey of a new year. I intend to start here and generate some more forward momentum. I’d love to help you do the same in your own life

Imagine if we replaced all our excuses with the discipline it takes to keep moving forward?!

Christmas Confession

Mike —  December 17, 2014 — Leave a comment

I have a Christmas confession to make. I hope you won’t think less of me. I hope you won’t brand me a Christmas heretic after I tell you, and I hope we can still be friends if you disagree, but… I can’t sing the song “Silent Night.”

I don’t mean it’s out of my range or I just get choked up so much I can’t make it through the song. I just can’t bring myself to sing it.

I know it’s one of those traditions favored by the masses. I know it’s been sung by great people for almost 200 years. I know it makes such a nice scene when we stand in a circle with candles to sing it, and it sounds so pretty when all the little voices stretch to reach the “sleep in heavenly peace” notes, then gently tumble their way down the stairs of those same words to end the verse.

It’s just that, well… I just can’t imagine the birth of Jesus as a nice, pretty event. I have a pretty good imagination, but let’s be real; I’ve seen births happen. Not silent. 9 months earlier, this baby was at God’s right hand, holding together all of the known universe. Then, on that night he made his messy way out of another human being in a small Middle Eastern village that was so crowded his first bed had to be a manger!

Do you know what a manger is? It’s not some first century version of a bed fit for a king. It’s a feed box for barnyard animals! That’s what Jesus slept in to begin His revolutionary sojourn here on planet earth. A feed box!

And I’m not so sure “tender and mild” are the right words for this “holy infant.” Oh, Jesus definitely showed Himself to be most tender toward the hurting and oppressed, but mild? I’m sure he was as cute and cuddly as the next newborn baby, but his entry into this world was a cataclysmic event that marked the beginning of the end for Death (and all his friends). This was no mild addition to humanity. This was WAR! How about “tinder and wild”? This baby lit a fire that’s still being stoked by His Spirit 2000 years later as He breathes through His church!

I’m afraid we tend to sanitize and “pretty up” Jesus’ story too much, and in doing so risk losing sight of the earth-shaking nature of what was actually going on. God became man. GOD became man! The Light of Life humbled Himself to become one of us so that each of us could find our way back to His Father ~ our Father.

I don’t think it was a silent night, but it sure is something to sing about! You can still sing Silent Night if you want to. No one’s going to hold it against you. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking of Jesus as the gerber baby of the first Century. He’s the King who came and will return. He’s the one who conquered death and offers real, lasting, vibrant life.

To you.

Merry Christmas!

Now, go make some noise.

What Will You Try?

Mike —  December 11, 2014 — Leave a comment

Talking about Jonathan’s daring attack on the Philistines in 1 Samuel 14, Erwin McManus (in Chasing Daylight) writes,

Jonathan had an unwavering confidence in God’s capacity. He had absolute trust in God’s character. He seemed resolute about whether God could be trusted. That was settled for him. Jonathan’s focus was not, What is God’s will for my life? but How can I give my life to fulfill God’s will?

(If you’re not familiar with that particular episode in Israel’s history, go read 1 Samuel 13:16 – 14:23 to see where this is coming from.)

Glacier Seattle vacation 2014 346

Not the cliffs at Mikmash! No Philistines were harmed in the climbing of this cliff.

Have you ever thought about the difference in these two questions? With the best of intentions, we often want to know What is God’s will for my life? And while there are some cases where God gave explicit directions to individuals in Scripture, more often than not, we don’t get a road map as much as we get a compass. This can be a maddening question to ask. I know… I’ve asked. What do You want me to do? Where do You want me to go?

The trouble comes when the still small voice isn’t very informative. What does it mean when I don’t see the burning bush? Am I missing something if I don’t hear the voice from Heaven telling me to go back to Egypt or to go west, young man? If the voice just keeps saying “I love you, son, now go love people my way so they’ll know I love them, too.” does that mean there’s something wrong with my ability to follow more specific instructions?

Maybe there is. It’s a real possibility that there is some pride or worry or other sin that is in the way of my hearing or yours. We need to be seeking God’s work to remove these obstacles in our lives. But maybe there’s another possibility…

Maybe the “for my life” part of the question needs to be dropped. Maybe we already know what God’s will is (it’s plastered all over the walls of Scripture in case you’ve missed it), and we need to work out how to give our lives to it. Jonathan knew that God was in the process of establishing Israel in order to reveal His blessing to the world, so he picked up his sword and went for a walk toward the enemy camp. Just so we’re clear, this was not a brilliant new strategic battle plan! Neither was it an act of obedience to a direct command from God. It was one small act of a man giving his life to fulfill God’s will. It was a match lit in accord with what God wanted that God fanned into a flame that He used to display His might. It was an attempt to try something that would open people’s eyes to what God could do.

Today, God is working to redeem the world around you. How can you give your life to that endeavor today? In your neighborhood? In your school or work? Sometimes, you just have to try something ~ to make an attempt. God’s capacity is still infinitely more than you can imagine. He’s still able to save “whether by many or by few.” What are you going to try?

I’d love to help.

I used to run.

A lot.

I tried cross country in Jr. High, but decided it wasn’t for me. In high school, I found I could run fast. I discovered the existence of a whole new gear that kicked in when I had a soccer ball at my feet. In college, I’d run from my apartment to class and from one class to the next if I was going outside. Not because I was late, but just because… something said run, so I did. Why walk when you can run? I liked it.

Later, I began to run far. Something said run, so I did. I thought it would be a good experience to run a marathon… so I signed up, began to train (sort of), and ran one. (I use the term “run” loosely in this case, since real marathoners may describe my last several marathon miles as something quite different from running!) The idea of ultra-marathons is fascinating to me, but so far, the fascination hasn’t been strong enough to overcome the knowledge my body has about what it would have to go through!

Sometimes, you just have to run!

Sometimes, you just have to run! (This is my son, in whom I am well pleased…)

I used to run.

Then I stopped.

I never decided I didn’t want to run anymore. I didn’t consciously come to the conclusion that I was too old to run. I didn’t knowingly phase running out of my life, and there was no injury that kept me from running. I just ran one day, then the next I didn’t.

But, there was often something inside that kept saying, “Run.” Sometimes, my wife even suggested “Why don’t you go for a run or something?” Often, I wanted to run, I just couldn’t or didn’t muster up the strength to shake off the depression that kept me from doing it. For a couple years, I’ve always had some kind of resistance that kept me from running. Too busy… too cold… I don’t feel good…

But today, I ran.

It was just a little over a mile. Not much. But it’s something. I didn’t run fast, and I didn’t run far, but I ran.

Life is like this sometimes… God can gnaw at your inner hearing, sometimes gently prodding, sometimes pushing with great force toward your next step. He is the voice inside that urges us to “run” a great life. Don’t just sleepwalk through the dreams God has for you. Answer His call to run. And don’t stop until you find yourself both exhausted and invigorated at the finish, in the company of all those who’ve run ahead.

Revealing Hope for Christmas

Mike —  December 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

Last night, I began a series with my students on the book of Revelation. I have to admit, it was the most fun I’ve had in a while. From time to time, I ask my students what topics or passages they’d like to learn about, and Revelation is always on the list. So, this year, as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s arrival in Bethlehem, we’re going to spend a few weeks looking into what pastor John had to say to his flock in the first century after Jesus’ birth! This may seem like an odd choice… What does Christmas have to do with the last book of the Bible? Isn’t the famous Christmas story in Luke? What am I doing mixing Christmas and Revelation? Well… let’s just say this is not a Charlie Brown Christmas! Check out chapter 12, then go add a dragon to your nativity set…

I’m really excited to dig deeper into the book of Revelation for our Christmas series this year. We’re going to fly through the book in 3 weeks, then take a few weeks to begin 2015 looking more deeply at the 7 letters near the beginning of the book.

Avalanche Creek at Glacier National Park

Avalanche Creek at Glacier National Park

One of the things that made last night so fun was I felt like I was really engaging the students with something they need AND want. Most of the students had never actually read the whole book and many of those who had expressed that they got lost in all the imagery and didn’t really feel confident in their understanding. There is so much that we assume about the book that causes more confusion than it should. When we get into too much speculation, we are often not reading the book honestly and end up with a really murky picture of what John was communicating. I want to help our kids see what’s really there.

Revelation is not a book to scare us to sleep at night or frighten us into submission before it’s too late. It’s a letter full of hope for the people of God.

If you know a middle school or high school student here in the Scottsbluff area who has questions about the end of the world, the second coming, Revelation, tribulation, etc. I hope you’ll encourage them to come join us at WestWay on the next couple Wed. nights as we try to clear up a few things about the book. I’ll be challenging some of their assumptions about the book as I don’t believe Revelation should scare us. I know with certainty that wasn’t John’s intent as he shared graphic depictions of the awe inducing things he was shown. John wanted to give his flock hope through the words that he wrote. Through the visions He showed John, Jesus was offering comfort and encouragement in the midst of terrible affliction.

As a book full of hope, Revelation shouldn’t scare us. It should motivate us to worship an incomparable King by living as His emissaries to a world desperately in need of redemption.

I have a shortage of shelf space. I never seem to have enough bookshelves. Some might say the real problem is too many books, but I’m sticking with my ‘not enough shelves’ angle. Some time ago, the normal vertical-only orientation had to be abandoned and I began stacking horizontal piles in the space on top of most rows. I have my books organized in sections by topic mostly, but this stacks-on-top-of-rows arrangement has forced me to change that up a bit, mostly based on when I read something. New books just get set on the top of a stack.


Who Is This Man who calls us to Jump into the Necessary Endings of A Long Obedience as one of his Multipliers?

As I recently placed a finished book on the top of a stack, I thought the column told an interesting story of its own.

  • Jump is Efrem Smith’s look at faithful obedience to Christ, even when the outcome is uncertain. You may not see where you’re landing, but don’t let the small fences of life keep you from following Jesus.
  • In Necessary Endings, Dr. Henry Cloud describes how to create the endings needed to be able to move forward in life. Sometimes there are patterns or jobs or even people that we have to leave behind. That’s often difficult, so we get stuck in avoidance behaviors that keep us mired in unhealthy situations. Endings, as Cloud says, aren’t necessarily negative failures or tragedies to be avoided at all costs… Sometimes they’re a necessary step we must take before we’ll ever be able to take the next one.
  • Eugene Peterson takes on our cultural preference for the instant in his description of discipleship as A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Walking through the Psalms of Ascent that have traveled with Hebrew pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for centuries, Peterson holds out their consistent step after step persistence as the pattern disciples follow in response to Jesus. Keep going and growing closer to Him.
  • Multipliers is Liz Wiseman’s well researched dig into “how the best leaders make everyone smarter” (which is the book’s subtitle). It’s an organizational leadership book, so as someone who’s convinced that good leadership is a critical component of a healthy church, it was a great look at how to make disciples who are rising up to fully engage their potential in the mission of Jesus.
  • Who Is This Man? puts the life of Jesus in historical perspective. John Ortberg examines the impact Jesus made not just in his own day, but in ours as well. Just how could a first century carpenter’s boy in Roman occupied Palestine transform the history of humanity? (Hint: It’s because He is the ultimate multiplier, who humbly jumped the fence of eternity to become one of us and who faithfully executed every necessary ending on His long obedience to make all things new.)

I want to be the kind of leader who’s always growing into the next steps of his journey with Christ. So I read. A lot. I find that often, there’s an underlying current to books I’m reading in a particular time span. This was really evident in this stack. I hear God using writers to echo His own heart as they share theirs. What is He echoing into you? What story do your “stacks” tell? Anything I can help with?