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.

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

It Can’t Be Done!

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I recently heard a pastor talk about his golden retriever.  It is a great breed with a glorious reputation.  The golden retriever is bred to wait by a winter river; to leap into the icy waters and catch game to bring back to its owners.  Now this pastor’s dog never did any such thing.  The instincts were there, however, and each day the dog would go off in the woods and come back with a box turtle.  The pastor said it was always so proud of what it caught, that they didn’t want to tell the poor dog that there is nothing special at all about catching a box turtle.

I begin to think about that.  As a Christian, I meant for great things; miraculous thing; things that will bring glory to the One True God.  Yet, in much of my life I am satisdied doing what is most comfortable; what is easy.  I find my niche and enjoy myself.  There are times when I step out on faith and it is those times where I find myself amazed at the Lord.  It is those times where I feel like Isaiah as he stood in God’s throne room.  Still, when called to step out on a limb, I am likey to worry and say, “I can’t do that!”

10 And the apostles, when they had returned, told Him all that they had done. Then He took them and went aside privately into a deserted place belonging to the city called Bethsaida. 11 But when the multitudes knew it, they followed Him; and He received them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who had need of healing. (Luke 9:10-11)

The twelve returns from being sent out.  They have been healing and casting out demons.  They are amazed at everything they have been able to do.  Jesus takes them aside to deal with them.  This is a normal part of the Christian life.  There are times when we must be out on mission, but we must also regroup.  Jesus would often spend time alone in prayer.  Other times, he would gather just his immediate followers to minister to them and fellowship with them.  Still, other times he would minister to the masses.

As Jesus gathers with His followers, the masses come.  So He begins to teach and to heal.

12 When the day began to wear away, the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the multitude away, that they may go into the surrounding towns and country, and lodge and get provisions; for we are in a deserted place here.” (Luke 9:12)

The crowds are there and the day is getting long.  A problem presents itself.  There is no food around.  If anyone is going to eat today, they will need to leave and go into the towns.  The idea is simple, let them go and get what they need.  They can always come back later.  However, if they remain, they will probably expect to be provided with some food.  The disciples see the problem and bring a solution:  send them away.

13 But He said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless we go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. (Luke 9:13-14a)

Jesus challenges them with the impossible:  “You give them something to eat”

What?  Now this is crazy.  There are more than 5000 people here.  How is it that Jesus would expect the disciples to feed them.  Forget for a moment that it cannot be done.  Is it even fair that Jesus would expect this?  After all, wasn’t this supposed to be the disciples time to refresh and renew themselves?  This should be a rest for them, and now Jesus is telling them to feed 5000 people.

They point out the obvious.  They have no more than two loaves and two fishes.  That will not feed the crowd.  They would have to go buy food, which for 5000 people would be pretty expensive.  In other words.  This is not possible.  It cannot be done.  The disciples are saying, we cannot do this!  You ask too much!  This is not my job!

But the fact is, Jesus called his followers to do the impossible.

Then He said to His disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of fifty.” 15 And they did so, and made them all sit down.

16 Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the multitude. 17 So they all ate and were filled (Luke 9:14b-17a)

Jesus is unfazed by their objections.  He offers no argument, He just continues to tell them what to do.  He acts as though their abilities are not even a factor.  He tells them to prepare the people to eat.  What an interesting moment that must have been.  The people are hungry.  The disciples have no food. Yet, now they have to sit the people down to get ready to feed them.

Then, much to everyone’s surprise, there is food.  Jesus blesses the meal and the disciples begin to pass it around.  There is enough for everyone to eat until they are full.

Jesus commanded his disciples to distribute.  He multiplied the food.

and twelve baskets of the leftover fragments were taken up by them. (Luke 9:17b)

Twelve baskets are left over.  In other words, the disciples finish with far more than they started with.  They will not again be able to say, “we only have…”  It always works that way.  When you step out beyond your ability and act in faith, your faith is increased.

Imagine being one of the disciples.  You have a small lunch.  There are 5000 people.  The problem is simple:  There is not enough food to go around.  It is impossible to feed all of these people.  How can it be done?  Well, you can send the people home.  After all, who says you have to feed everyone, right?  Or, maybe, arrangements could be made; food could be purchased.  Then, maybe, you could feed everyone.  This is really the only way that’s going to work.

And we do the same today.  We look out at our city, our country, and our world and we see that many people need to hear the Gospel and feel the love of Christ.  The problem is simple:  you are not the person to do that!  We come up with the same arguments.  We think, its not my responsibility.  We think, maybe something could be done, but as it is, no it is impossible.

Yet, then Jesus says to do it.  When he asked the disciples to feed the people, He did not even consider what they could or could not do.  He just said, “give them something to eat.”  When He told all of his followers to Go and tell; to make disciples of all nations, he did not consider your ability either.

Thus, we struggle with the fact that Jesus seems to call us to do something that we are unable to do.

Jesus will call you beyond your abilities but well within His.  We do not find in the Bible, men and women of faith doing normal things.  We find them doing great things.  We do not look through history and see people that turned the world upside down for the Gospel by doing the same ordinary things that they always did.  Some will confuse faith and foolishness.  They will say it is foolish to do something you know you can’t do.  They are right.  But it is not foolish to follow the Lord into what we know He can do.

What is is that Jesus is calling you to that you know is beyond anything you can do?  Perhaps it is that first step of faith in beginning that relationship. Perhaps it is making your decision public.  Perhaps you have been living a safe Christian life, and you know you are called to much larger things.  You may be saying, “I can’t do that.”  You are right.  But Jesus can do whatever He calls you to do; and that is what counts.