On Resolutions

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This morning I woke up pretty early.  I read two devotional entries and the first day of a “read the Bible in one year” reading plan.  I also read a chapter in a book on leadership.  I did this because I need to read more and start my day listening to God’s word before I began to share it with others.  I then went and made an omelette of egg whites, turkey bacon and low-fat cheese.  I took my multivitamin and my fish oil.  All of this is because my doctor says I need to eat better.  Then I went running.  I am supposed to exercise.  After that, I went to my local Starbucks where I answered some emails and texts, and wrote about 1500 words on my novel.

All that before lunch.

January 1 must be the most productive day on the calendar.  It is the day when we take on our New Year’s resolutions with gusto.  It is the day that we sit back and bask in the radiant thoughts of what life would be like if we just lived everyday like this.

Sometime in February, our days tend to resemble those of last year and our resolutions are forgotten.

For this reason, it has become trendy to forego the resolution setting altogether.  Why make a goal that you won’t achieve?  Why make a promise that you won’t keep?

Personally, I realize that my reading is going to fall behind some week when things get really crazy.  I also realize that a few reese’s peanut butter cups are going to sneak their way into my diet.  As for that novel?  Well, eventually the main character is going to hover in limbo as I try to get him to come to some life-altering realizations right before his black moment.

Still, I’m making my resolutions.

Why?  Because today has been a good day.  It has been a productive day.  I would like to string along as many good, productive days as I can.  So what if a day, or a week, or a month (you are a pessimist aren’t you?) fails to reach my newly set standard?  It would be better to try and succeed some of the time then not to try at all.

Welcome to 2014.  Make the most of it.  Aim for the best.  Embrace the adventure.  Spoiler alert:  You will fail in your resolutions.  Then you get to try for them again.  Keep trying.

On Success and Failure

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I recently had coffee with a friend of mine.  He is a fellow church planter here in Hawaii. We met to discuss his recent decision to return to the mainland.  It was a somber discussion, for sure.  Church planters live on a wing a prayer.  Either a church grows and we become pastors of thriving churches, or we return home.  When we do the latter, we have to face all of those supporters that hoped for the former.

As we talked I found myself saying something about what makes a “successful” plant, but I found myself stumbling over that word.  Saying it naturally implied the other side of the coin:  failed church plants.  It felt as though I was suggesting that my friend’s efforts had failed.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Certainly, he will have some discussions about what could have been different or what should be done in future efforts.  Some people will try to calculate what aspects of his work resulted in a church plant that did not thrive.  With so much money and energy being put toward church planting, it is good stewardship to have such conversations.  However, it can be a dangerous habit to cast the outcomes of ministry in terms of success and failure.

I say it again, my friend did not fail.  He came to this island and devoted himself to making disciples.  He has proclaimed the good news.  He has taught people to follow Jesus.  There is nothing in the Great Commission that places the results on our shoulders.  If we truly want to see the kinds of things that only God can do, then we must let go of our control of the results.  We have to simply do as we are commanded in scripture and trust that God will further His kingdom as He wills.

In 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 Paul wrote,

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

When I read that verse, my mind wanders back to Kindergarten.  One day, each of us in the class got to put a little seed (a bean) in a wet paper towel.  A day or two later, it sprouted!  We moved them into little milk cartons full of soil and watched them grow.  Every day they were bigger.  This was very exciting.  Here in Hawaii, we grow pineapples.  I am told that it very easy.  Apparently if I simply chop the top off of a pineapple and bury it in the ground, I will grow a pineapple…in about 18 months.  That’s right.  Pineapples grow a lot slower than bean sprouts.

And trees grow even slower.  I have often used a tree as an explanation of Aloha Community Church.  I think of it as a tree, but I am only still putting seeds in the dirt.  It is all I can do.  It is all you can do.  Sure, we can manufacture all kinds of impressive things, but only God can make a tree.

That is why we must be careful when we cast ministry in terms of success and failure.  My friend has planted seeds.  One day, long after he is gone, those seeds may still produce.  I am confidant that they will.  Judge success and failure if you must, but remember this: we are seed planters, not tree makers.

Dear Pastor-Me…Sincerely, Church Planter-Me

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I have been a church planter for going on 11 months.  That isn’t a lot of experience, especially in light of the 12 years I spent as full-time staff at established churches (6 years as senior pastor).  Nevertheless, I would like to give myself some advice.  That is to say that I want to give my old self advice.  Church Planter Me has a few things to say to Pastor Me.

You don’t have to own it

I am quickly learning that a church will not start or grow based on my ideas.  Instead, I have to constantly watch to see where the Lord is moving.  That is not always in my ideas and my planning.  Sometimes the Lord moves in different ways through other people and I have to be ready to involve myself in what he is doing.

Small groups are the core of our church planting effort.  My plan is to see several small groups form and them come together to launch a church.  I started the first small group in October and ever since I have been carefully planning where new ones can be.  Not a single one of my plans has come about.  In our community there is a neighborhood that is isolated from the rest of the community.  It is gated and it sits in a remote location such that one never happens to just drive to it or even near it unless they intend on going there in the first place.  I knew at once that we needed a small group there.  My plan was to get a family from our sponsoring church to host it.  They live there, it was the perfect plan.  The problem was that they were so busy with things at our sponsoring church that they did not have time to host a small group.  I saw no way that I could launch a group there and began to wonder if it was God’s will that I even think of doing so.

Then a new person in our group came and said “I want to have one of these in my house. What do I do?”  They live there.  They are 4 adults sharing a house (not uncommon here in paradise where housing costs keep skyrocketing).  It was not my plant, but it seems to be the direction that the Lord is moving.

When I was a pastor, I always tried to plan for the next way our church would accomplish its mission.  I was always careful to check my plans with others, but that was it.  I checked.  My plan was either a go or it was tossed out.  What I want to say to my old self is this, “You don’t need to own it.”  It never had to be my plan.  It is God’s plan all the time, and as pastor my job is just shepherding the people according to that plan as it unfolds.  That may even mean going with the plans God lays on their hearts rather than constantly pushing my own.

It is ok to admit your struggles

I am the master of the brave face.  It is important, maybe even crucial to put up a good front when speaking publicly about ministry.  I have always believed that if I am negative, everyone else would be as well.  As a pastor, I always made sure that I celebrated victories, championed ideas, and spoke of things in their ideal states.

As a church planter, I have learned that sometimes there are just not enough things to celebrate.  Do not get me wrong, there is plenty to celebrate but this is hard, hard work.  The spiritual warfare is intense.  The pressures on my family are enormous.  The realities of our progress do not look so good when I compare them to my expectations.  This is hard.

At first, I hid all of that.  I made sure to voice prayer requests, but I knew that things must be positive.  That is how you keep people excited and on board.  That is how you keep partners running along with you.

One day, I changed that.  I typed one little line in my monthly report/blog post that broke my rules about being positive.  I said, “sometimes I am discouraged.”  I thought about taking it out but decided it was one little line; it would go unnoticed.

It was noticed.  It was noticed a lot.  For the next few days, I got tons of calls, emails, and messages about that one little line and I learned something.  If people do not know when you are discouraged, they cannot encourage you.  Those emails, calls, and messages were full of encouragement.  I needed that and by trying to be positive all the time, I was denying myself that bit of grace that my brothers and sisters were ready to give me.

Pastors are pressured to be perfect.  As a pastor I saw every one of my weaknesses as a potential deal breaker for the church.  If they knew I struggled with this or if they knew I had my doubts about that, they might not want to follow me.  In retrospect, by hiding my weaknesses, I most likely hindered the strengths of others.  If I am going to proclaim grace, I better start living in it!

Be a student of culture

In 11 months I have learned one thing:  Hawaii is a foreign land.  Yes, we are the 50th state.  Yes, we have congressmen and senators.  We have interstates.  We use dollars.  All that aside, Hawaii is a foreign land.  How else can you account for our love of Spam?

In order to minister effectively here, I have had to become a careful student of culture.  I watch, I listen, and I try to embrace what I see.  I try new foods, I follow the unwritten rules of the supermarket, and I try to learn pidgin.  I do this so that I can go from being an outsider to being a local; so that I can go from being a stranger to being a friend.  It requires a lot of effort and it never stops.

The things is, this is not the first time I have lived in a foreign land.  I have served churches in Arkansas and in rural Missouri.  Both were very different than where I grew up.  For the most part, I probably surrounded myself with people most like me.  That was not very effective.

Pastor, become a serious student of culture.  Study it, learn it, practice it.  Do not be an outsider, but become a friend to those in your community.

It isn’t “us” and “them”

In ministry it becomes easy to see two kinds of people: church people and non-church people.  The world becomes a group of people who are either us or them.  As a pastor, it always seemed as though the debate was do I lead us to go to them or do I train us to go to them.  It was always us and them.

As a church planter, I have learned that everyone is on a spectrum in their relationship to Christ.  Some are far away.  Some are not so far away.  My goal is to walk with them as they move closer, where ever they may be.  I have found that this completely changes my perspective in a lot of ways.  It removes the annoying similarities that evangelism can have with high pressure sales.  It also removes the division between discipleship and evangelism.

Pastor, you will never find that balance in your work between us and them.  Instead, see each person as one loved by Christ along a path to Him.  Guide them a bit further.

I wish I could go back in time and tell my pastor self these things, but as it is, I’ll just move forward this way and prepare to learn a lot in the process.

A Couple of Blogs Worth Your Time

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It has been a while since I’ve posted any articles to my blog. I have a few in the works, but in the meantime, let me suggest a few articles that are worth your time:

The first is Shane L. Windmeyer’s  Dan and Me: My Coming Out as a Friend of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A.

Hot off the heels of recent protests for and against Chic-fil-A and their giving to certain charities, Gay-rights activist Windmeyer writes a fascinating account of his meetings with Chick-fil-A CEO, Dan Cathy.  I call this fascinating because I believe the friendship there goes beyond the cliche of “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” to what it actually might look like when we truly learn to respect and love those with whom we disagree.

The second is Marty Duren’s The Boy Scouts and A Few Questions.  After an announcement that the Boy Scouts of America may end their long standing rule barring homosexual leaders and members, Duren calls the evangelical outcry into question.  After all, where was the outcry over the BSA’s hiding of child molesters within its ranks?  Where is the outcry over the BSA’s promotion of good citizenship rather than the Gospel?  These questions can be asked about any of the issues of the so called Culture Wars, primarily, “Have we misinterpreted the fall of Christendom as the work of Satan, rather than considering it could be God destroying our most grand, safe, and preferred idol?”

As I said, they are worth your time.

The Lighthouse

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I found a lighthouse the other day.  To get to the lighthouse, I had to drive down an unfamiliar road, past a refuse incinerator, two recycling plants, and a scrap metal buyer.  I had to drive until I reached a dead end at a beach park that no one in their right mind would desire if they sought a beach or a park.  I then had to park and walk through the park, past a smashed and burned picnic table and no less than two hypodermic needles.  Reaching the water’s edge, I had to navigate a rough shorebreak, walking carefully between waves crashing against the rocks and the roped off property of a tourist show that’s location defies reason.  After navigating the tricky shoreline, I found it amongst the weeds.  A lighthouse.  It was automated.  No charming lighthouse operator that Pete’s Dragon had taught me to expect.  Just a locked tower with a whirling light on top.

I searched for a better path out of the place, but the Coast Guard has clearly let the surrounding land go.  The weeds are high and thick, with large rocks and old concrete blocking any possible path.  “What are they thinking?”  I wondered.  Do they not realize that people like to see lighthouses?  Do they not realize that they need to make it easier for people to enjoy the lighthouse?  In the past week I have mentioned this lighthouse to two friends who each live near it.  Neither had even heard of it.  What is the Coast Guard thinking?

Their website regarding this lighthouse says exactly what they are thinking, “The light is an active aid to navigation and is not open to the public.”

There it is.  The lighthouse does not exist for tourist to come and gawk at it.  It does not exist for picturesque landscapes or vacation photos.  It exists to navigate ships.  Big ships.  Serious ships.  Ships that without navigation will meet disastrous consequences.

Serious work and comfort seldom go hand in hand. The Coast Guard has chosen to ignore comfort and ease for the tourists and instead focus on navigating ships.  The Church must forego its own comfort for the sake of her mission.  Christian, you must leave your comfort zone and be about the work of the Lord.

You are a lighthouse, not a resort.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

Matthew 5:14

Is The Easy Way The Best Way?

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As you may know I recently made a big change in my life.  I left my position as pastor of a rural church in southern Missouri and relocated to Oahu to plant a church.  The change is difficult, but it is most difficult on my 9 year old son, Caleb.  Caleb was only three when I began my ministry at First Baptist Church of Birch Tree, MO.  His first friends are there.  He was quite comfortable there.  He was a top student at the school and was surrounded by familiarity.  Then, everything changed for him.  We moved here.

Here, they do not know him as a top student.  His school is just over 7 times larger than his old one.  He is just one more student until he can prove otherwise.  The way they do things is different and he is trying to learn a lot of new methods and rules.  He does not know anyone.  Nobody knows him.  And according to one of his complaints, “they don’t even play kickball here.”

The first week of school was marked in our home with tears, imaginary stomach aches, anger, and defiance.  This was not the way for me to start a day.  Seeing my son struggle was enough for me to wonder if I had made the right decision to come here.  I am resolved to face the struggles of church planting in a different culture, but I begged God to make this easy on my son.  My biggest fear is that his difficulties would lead to resentment and there would be one more angry preacher’s kid in the world.  Then something happened.

Our prayer partners came through in droves to pray for Caleb.  We shared the emails with him and he really liked that so many people thought his struggle was worth praying for.  We also began to pray with Caleb before going to school.  Suddenly, things began to look up for Caleb.  He made a few friends, he figured out the rigid homework system, and his class did in fact play kickball.  One tearless morning we mounted our bicycles for the ride to the school.  “Wait,” he shouted.  “Aren’t we going to pray?”  Right there in the middle of our street, my son wanted us to stop and pray before he went to school.  I thought about that all day.

What I have realized is this.  The answer to my prayers is not that things got better for Caleb.  They did, but that does not make life easy for him.  The answer turned out to be that Caleb learned a little about relying on God.  The difficulty that I feared so much that he would face has actually strengthened him.  I have to learn something.  I have to understand that God loves my son even more than his mother and I do.  God knows what my son needs and He knows what is best.  He will give what is best even if that looks like struggle here on Earth.  God will give him that because of what it can make him.

Knowing this, why would I pray that God would make it easy on him?  Why would I pray for it to be easy on me.  Easy is not always best, and I want what is best.

My Farewell to FBC Birch Tree

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Six years does not seem like a long time until you begin to think of all the things that can happen in that time.  I’ve spent some time thinking about that and several things come to mind that make it hard to say good-bye.

I think about my first Sunday here.  Wyatt Layman was just 15 years old.  My first Sunday he hit me up to see if I was going to pay him to mow the parsonage.  Now he sits here, a new husband.  He and Audrey have spent some time teaching our young people and I know they are off to a great start.

There have been several weddings in six years.  One that really stands out was Caleb and Lyndsey.  I had just had surgery and had not done anything until it was time for that wedding.  Still on pain killers and straining my voice, I was determined to preach it.  You see, there were 6 other preachers at that wedding and each one made a point to tell me that if I could not do it, they could.  I figured if there are 7 preachers at a wedding and I’m the one that gets to preach, I better do it!  Weddings like that are fun because we see the beginnings of a new family.  Now we see little Luke, and it is a joy because I know he’ll be raised in a Godly home.

We have also experienced some funerals.  There were a lot of them in six years.  They were each a mix of celebration and sadness.  We celebrated a life; often seeing the funeral as a great testimony to a life lived for Christ.  Still, we mourned over a loss and each one I preached, I watched you and your loved ones in your sadness, and my heart broke for you too.  Each one left and impact.

Still, over these six years, the one that will stand out the most is my dad’s.  I remember one night when I got word at midnight that he had been taken to the hospital.  It was a Saturday night and I had to let Tracy know at midnight that I would not be here on Sunday morning.  A few days later, Caleb had to go to the hospital.  I was in Springfield and couldn’t come back to go with Samantha and Caleb to the ER, so I called James at 3am and he went.  I’ll never forget that the deacons at this church are the kind you can call in the middle of the night.

Then at the funeral, I remember 3 pews full of you, all there to support my family and I.  The day before, I had determined to buy a new suit.  I did not own a good black suit and I decided I needed it for my father’s funeral.  Samantha agreed and we decided that we would buy it and figure out how to move things around later.  At the funeral, Van Kitchens, pulled me aside, explained that he knew that times like that bring about unexpected expenses.  He handed me some money, and wouldn’t you know it was the exact amount of the suit?  I will never forget how God uses the generosity of this church.

In these 6 years, there have been some great times too.  I like to think of all the baptisms in 6 years.  The first to stand out in my mind is that in this time I was able to baptize my own son.  His walk with Christ began here at First Baptist Birch Tree.  Recently I was going through some records and realized that one of my first baptisms here was Cody.  Who knew what God had in store there?

Many other baptisms stand out as well.  Particularly 3 men.  Eddie, Ethan, and David.  Each of those men are so much larger than I am that I had to get some help in the baptistry.  Our churches, communities, and our nation are in desperate need for men to stand for Christ.  It is good to know this is a church moving in the right direction.

In all honesty, when I think over the past 6 years I think about my many mistakes.  If I have ever hurt or neglected you, please understand that I am sorry.  I have often lost sleep going over how I would do things differently if I could and wishing I could go back and do some things again.  Yet, in the end, just like we all do, I have to realize that the cross was enough and I rest in that grace. Of course, it was in those times that I was often greatly encouraged.  Without fail, when I began to get discouraged I would get a phone call from Norma, a card from Willie and Jolie, or a dinner invite from Brian and Marta.

Throughout these 6 years there is one thing I hope to get across.  We tend to turn being a Christian into so many things, but it is not about those things.  It is not about being good.  It is not about setting the country right.  It is about one thing:  That Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again to give us life.  That’s it.  We follow Jesus.  No more, no less.  No less because anything less than Jesus would not be enough.  No more, because what more could we want or need?  It is about Jesus.  If you have never given your life to Jesus, I hope you will consider to do so today.

And now our paths must separate.  We will certainly meet again someday, but before I go, I have one more thing to say to you as your pastor.

I want you to consider as a church what really gets you going; what gets your blood moving; what gets you excited about this church.  It isn’t necessarily classes, fellowship lunches, or special music, though those things are all good.  Over these past years, what really got you going was missions.

I remember when I first went to El Salvador.  I told you I was going so that the next time, we could go.  Many told me flat out that this church would not do mission trips.  But you did, and it was a joy to watch you go.  Remember how exciting it was.  That’s what I mean when I say it gets your blood moving.

I remember when Kacey signed up.  We didn’t know about that.  We wondered if she knew what she was getting into.  In fact, I had dramamine in my pocket, just in case we needed to knock her out on the plane.  But I will never forget how she stood up in front of those kids and taught.  The next year, I just put her in charge of the children’s ministry.  We had the chance to go to a school, and when we walked in, the kids were so excited because Kacey was there!  Kacey is going to see some amazing things when she follows God in the mission He sets before her.  And so will the rest of you.

Remember when the Texas group came?  You were pumped and excited and it was amazing to see how God moved.  That was a tough week.  There was a lot of hard work, but nobody cared about that.

The reason missions gets you going is because it is God’s heart.  When you set your mind to get involved in what God is doing, things are different.  Things get exciting then.

Matthew 28:18-20 says:  18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

It says Go.  The apostle Paul compared the Christian walk to running a race.  A race starts with the word “go.”  So, now is the time.  Go.  I’ll see you at the finish line.

 

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