A Couple Good Posts Banging Around in My Head

Just thought I’d pass on a couple posts from two other blogs that I follow.

This one is from my brother, reflecting on the death and funeral of our uncle. Gary was described as “a servant of Jesus, disguised as a donut man.” It’s interesting to think of a career as our disguise – that cover that lets us sneak into a world that won’t let us in otherwise. Gary was able to shine a light for people that may not have seen it otherwise. The sense of community that developed around him and his bakery was about much more than just the donuts. Are you using your disguise to make disciples or just to earn a paycheck?

The second post that’s rattling around is from a Canadian youth minister whom I have yet to meet, but with whom I share an uncanny amount of interests. It contains this quote, from Margaret Feinberg:

“Anyone with a pulse can point out the ragamuffin qualities of a local assembly, but if you spend too much time focused on the stains, then you’ll soon lose focus on our wildly infallible God. He is far more concerned with His church than you or I or a hundred pastors put together will ever be. He has a plan. He makes no mistakes. He will not fail.”

Never forget the church is His people living on His Mission, the church is His completely, and the church is unstoppable because He is unstoppable.

The Summer “No” Rotation

I’ve recently made a ministry decision that has put me at odds with convention. That’s not normally something that bothers me, but this particular decision is, I feel, coming with a need for a little extra explanation. It is, in youth ministry in this part of our country, unfathomable:

I’ve decided to encourage my high school kids to not go to camp this summer.

There, I said it. Out loud for everyone to hear… well, at least in print for everyone to read. I want my high school students to skip camp this summer! Fathom it. I’m all for the tipping of sacred cows (aka, idols)… when they’re sacred to other people. This one chews his cud pretty close to home, though, so I have definitely not taken it lightly.  I have been praying about this for months. Actually the concept I’m moving toward is something I’ve prayed about for years and for which I’ve sought counsel and feedback from parents, my elders, & my students.

The beauty of summer youth ministry is the ability to take advantage of extended blocks of free time that students aren’t spending in class. You can’t just take a pack of kids out of school for a week and head for the hills (though, as I write that, I wonder if it’s really true or just an untested assumption – hmm… maybe a future experiment). My summers in ministry have included essentially 4 types of catalyzing experiences: trips to camps, mission trips, trips to conferences, & a backpacking/wilderness trip.

Each of these experiences have proven to offer a unique set of circumstances and challenges through which God has worked. There is some overlap, but none of these 4 experiences is duplicated in the others. They are each valuable experiences, but due to demands on time and money, it’s not possible for most of my students to participate in all 4 weeks during the course of one summer. So, as a ministry, we always say “no” to something. Which means, my students are missing out on something good every year. Last year, for example we went to camp and coldwater (an incredible mission trip I finally got to do where no one but God knew where we were going until we left – check out my posts and follow up from that trip). We said no to conference and wilderness. A couple years ago, it was camp and a short backpacking trip. We said no to a mission trip and a conference. Another year, we attended camp and CIY summer conference, saying no to backpacking and mission trips.

I’m sure you notice the trend there. Camp has always been the non-negotiable. We say “no” to everything else, and I’m still at a loss as to why. So this year begins my experiment with adding high school camp to the “no” rotation. There is no sacred, un-cuttable program.

I still love camp. I will still be spending a week there this summer with my Jr. High students. I will miss hanging out with the students and youth leaders I would have gotten to see at High School week. I will be sending my own younger progeny to Junior week. But as the leader of a student ministry, I’m responsible for making the most of every opportunity I have to reveal God to students. Sometimes that means doing what other youth ministers shake their heads at… sometimes it means letting them think I’m crazy and in jeopardy of losing my job… sometimes that means bucking the assumed order of things and doing what’s different… sometimes it means firing up the grill and cooking up some summer time sacred cow burgers.

Thinking about Joel…

“Pass the awful story down from generation to generation.”

The last bit of the Jewish nation was facing devastation as God spoke to them through Joel. Everything they knew of their way of life was being stripped away as they inched ever nearer to a destruction they were powerless to stop – a destruction justly brought by God Himself. It may have been a punishment deserved, but God was not eager for the judgment. Over and over again throughout the Old Testament writings, we find Him patiently reminding His people of all He’d done; every trial through which He’d led, and every danger from which He’d rescued.

And so, again, God opens a door of escape. “Turn to me now, while there is time! Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Don’t tear your clothing in your grief; instead, tear your hearts.” It wasn’t just an outward change that God was asking for, He desired the very heart of His people.

He still does.

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions. In those days, I will pour out my Spirit even on servants, men and women alike.” What a turnaround! In response to genuine contrition, not only does God offer back all that they have lost, He also promises His own Spirit. Once again, an “awful story” redeemed by gracious and merciful God.

May His grace and mercy continue to break through calloused hearts as they are given fully to Him. May His Spirit continue to inspire His people to dream dreams that only He can bring to fulfillment. And May we lean completely on His presence for every breath we breathe.

“I want you to know God”

I’ve heard it said that you can cover up a lot of problems with a little success. A growing ministry can easily assume everything is okay and ignore issues that will become big problems in the future. But what happens when the proverbial wheels fall off? At some point, the cracks WILL show themselves… what then? I had a great reminder this morning to make sure I’m not focused on the less important at the expense of the MOST important. If my ministry to students ever becomes about anything other than knowing God, I’ve missed the point of His calling me to lead it – even if it looks successful. If our churches are more interested in people showing up than in people knowing God, then we’re failing at a critical level – even if lots of people are showing up. Like the priests in ancient Israel, if we’re in love with our procedures more than with the Person, we’re leading in the wrong direction.

“You refuse to know me… You will be destroyed, for you refuse to understand.” Hosea’s warnings to the people of Israel, and specifically the religious leaders of Israel, are still good for us to hear today. How often do we put ourselves in peril because we ignore what God is trying to bring to mind? How often do we “refuse to understand” what He is doing? One of the ways we do this looks a lot like the idolatry of the Israelites. We may not make little statues of gold and silver and wood – but I wonder how often our religious duty takes the place of God as the object of our worship. How often do we “go to church” out of a sense of obligation? How often do we “leave church” on Sunday disappointed at the sub-par entertainment value of the morning? Are we so enamored with the stand-up, sit-down routine that we miss the point: knowing God?

“I want you to be merciful; I don’t want your sacrifices. I want you to know God; that’s more important than burnt offerings.” Much of what was happening in Israel’s worship was simply “following the rules” – offer the appropriate sacrifice at the appropriate time. But that’s not what God wanted. He wanted a people who would know Him and be identified with Him and extend to others the kind of mercy He’d shown them.. That’s still what He wants today. He’s not concerned with perfect attendance records at all major church functions. He’ll be ok if you don’t make it to the annual Horseshoe Tournament/Quilting Bee/Pie Bazaar (or whatever other event you’re feeling guilted into attending)… He wants you to know Him.

The destruction that Hosea warned Israel about wasn’t coming because they didn’t follow the right rituals, it was coming because they’d fallen in love with their rituals at the expense of the God who’d rescued and loved them. “They have forgotten their Maker.” I pray that will not be true of the church today.

Comparing Israel to a wife who’d left her husband to be a whore, God looked forward to the day when once again “the people will follow the Lord” and when He would call to His people and “bring them home again.” Even when we are faithless, He looks forward to bringing us home; to bringing us into His presence where we can know Him most fully. Maybe it’s time to follow His instructions from Psalm 46 – “Be still and know that I am God.”

Still Hurting in Haiti

We still have work to do to make sure people see the nearness of God – even in the most painful of circumstances. Great reminder of this from Lecrae’s new song/video – He’s giving proceeds from the sale of the song to Churches Helping Churches for rebuilding in Haiti.

Live. Listen. Obey.

I’ve been reading through Abraham’s story the past couple days. If someone wanted to make up a perfect figurehead for the launch of a religion, Abraham would not be it. His life was full of contradiction. I know it’s usually David, with the whole Bathsheba incident/cover-up and the “man after God’s own heart” moniker, that gets played up as the example of living on both ends of the field – but I don’t think he has much on Abraham.
He was so faithful to God that he left his homeland at God’s request, with only a vague direction regarding where he was going. “I’ll tell you when you get there.” was good enough for Abram to go. He trusted God so much that when he and his nephew, Lot, needed to separate their ‘tribes’, he let Lot have the first choice of land – putting all his hope in God to provide for him in whatever option was left. He was such an honorable man that he refused the spoils of a victory over the kings who’d captured Lot and his family – not allowing any man to lay claim to a future prosperity that Abram knew was coming.
But he also pimped out his wife into royal harems twice, once to Pharaoh in Egypt (“Say you’re my sister, so I’ll be treated well… and my life will be spared…”) and once to King Abimelech in Gerar. Now, I understand you couldn’t just say no to royalty, but Abraham wasn’t trusting God in these moments of fear. After God promised him descendants, he and Sarah ran out of patience – she gave him her servant Hagar to take care of the child bearing duties. Bigamy wasn’t unheard of in that time/place, but it also wasn’t God’s ideal. Once Hagar became pregnant, he essentially “gave her back” to a very jealous Sarah and allowed Sarah to mistreat her to the point where Hagar fled. Nice guy!
I’m not bringing this up to disparage Abraham, by any means. But this type of contradiction makes me think, and gives me hope (’cause I screw up sometimes, too). When Abraham wisely sent his servant back to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac, there was some fear in the servant as he made his promise to follow Abraham’s instructions: “What if I can’t find a young woman to come back with me?” Abraham’s answer reveals the ledger that reconciles the many contradictions of his life: “The Lord, in whose presence I have walked… will make your mission successful.”
Abraham lived with God. He recognized His presence. 
He listened to God. He recognized His voice.
He obeyed God. He recognized His control over results.
A couple observations I glean from all this:
Idolizing leaders is dangerous. Don’t worship great leaders – follow them as they follow Christ and worship Him alone. If my hope was in Abraham, and I had just read Genesis 12-25 for the first time, I would be seriously disillusioned right now!
Fear causes really good people to do really stupid things. Abraham slipped up the most when he was most fearful of men. If God called you into the uncertainty, it is a great time to remember to be certain about Him. “Don’t fear the fog.”
Being a leader has a lot more to do with God than it has to do with me. Seriously, what does a person have to do to disqualify themselves from leadership in God’s scheme? He is at work and is working through those who will live with Him, listen to Him, and obey Him.

The Big Red Tractor

Found this great video – just thought I’d share. Gotta love the clarity possible through a children’s story!

The Big Red Tractor from Jacob Lewis on Vimeo.

Come and See. Come and Listen.

“Tell the world how glorious He is.”
“Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds!'”
“Come and see what our God has done…”
“Come and listen… and I will tell you what he did for me.”

These phrases, lifted out of Psalm 66 are resonating with me right now. I’ve been making more of an effort to meet with God in Scripture lately and this is what I read earlier today. I don’t want to just read to prepare for the next lesson or to check a passage off an annual checklist, but rather, to continue a process of transformation that God began in me years ago.

As I spend more time reading the Bible (intent about what I’m reading and discussing what I’m reading with God), I’m seeing more and more of Him at work around me. Not only that, but I’m seeing more and more opportunity for Him to work through the various circumstances of life… if someone would just use those circumstances to reveal His presence (i.e. actually BE the hands and feet of Jesus in those situations).

I wonder what the world would look like if we were better at telling people what He’s done for us? What if we were really great at giving God the credit for the awesome things He’s doing? Would people see the church more clearly if we had the courage to brave the dark crevices of each other’s tribes with light that brings life instead of judgment that piles on guilt and shame?

Exciting things are happening in and around us here at WestWay. God is working in some awesome ways to draw people to Himself and be reconciled with them… and I’m convinced we’re on the edge of seeing even more. The Holy Spirit stirs within the soul of the Body given fully to Him. Let Him move. Let Him move you to reveal Himself to people who haven’t been noticing Him already.

Here to Serve

A friend from college has recently asked “Are you serving the church or using the church?” A second friend replied with another good question: “Is the church serving you or using you?” Two questions rolling out of very different beds of experience and concern… But both these questions made me wonder (I like to wonder):

Should I be here to serve the church, or should the church be here to serve me?

I have to admit, I get really frustrated with the whole “this church isn’t meeting my needs so I’m going to take my tithe check somewhere where they’ll listen” mentality. I’ve seen this line of thinking often (not always) hide an unrepentant spirit bent on religious posturing more than transformational living. (i.e. “I want enough church to make me feel good, but not so much Jesus that he wrecks my comfortable life.”) On the other hand, it’s disgusting to see a church leadership so bent on its own agenda that it treats people as cogs in their machine with no regard to the spiritual development of those individuals.

The problem is that we’ve developed an ecclesiology (way of thinking about the church) that separates “the church” from the people who make up that particular church. But that’s like separating the bees from the swarm – you can’t. Without the bees, there is no swarm. The bees, together ARE the swarm. (When was the last time you heard two bees talking about “going to swarm”?)

Bees and -ologies aside, the church is the people of God living on the mission of God. God is at work in history to reconcile the world to Himself. The church is that mass of humanity who have chosen to champion the advancement of that agenda. The church is here to serve Him. I am here to BE the church, not GO to church. Which makes me continue to wonder…

How do we learn to “be the church” without falling into the trap of merely “going to church”?
If the contemporary visitor/member/leader status-structure keeps ‘the church’ mentally separate from the people in it, what is a better way?

What other questions does this bring to your mind?