Friday, October 29, 2010

Who, not What

I am not sure when it happened. Maybe it was during Bible College. Or perhaps during the turbulent first years of ministry. Or maybe it happened in the midst of trying to instill faith in my children. Whenever it was, it definitely happened.

What? you ask.

A shift in perception. A new way of describing my beliefs. Unlike some moments, there was no epiphany. No sudden revelations. Just a subtle move from one system of thinking to another.

It used to be I described my beliefs in terms of 'what.'

'This is what I believe about theology...'

'This is what I believe about the Bible...'

'This is what I believe about Jesus...'

But no longer! I am not confined to the world of 'what'! To me it is supremely more important to figure out who you believe.

Who do you believe about lifestyle choices?

Who do you believe about hope and love?

Who do you believe about salvation?

Why the difference? Because 'what' is subjective to my whim. I can choose this, or I can choose that. 'Who' is subjective to the authority of the person I believe, and when it comes to Jesus, there is no greater authority. Because 'what' is subjective to me, it can change and mutate, but 'who' is steadfast and reliable because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Also, 'what' leads to cold, legalistic religion. When I submit to 'what' I don't care about people, I care about rules. My concern is not about introducing people to Jesus, my concern is enforcing a law code. But the system of 'who' leads to relationship. As my relationship with Jesus grows, so does my desire to introduce others to Him, because only what He thinks matters and only what He does makes a difference.

Does this mean that 'what' is no longer important? No! but it is my contention that knowing the 'who' will lead to the 'what' and beyond!

What about you? Have you moved from 'what' to 'who'?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

This is My Story- Part 3

You may not know who Greg Allen is. You may not know that he is the worship leader for the largest Christian Church in North America. You may not know that every weekend he leads tens of thousands of Christians to the throne of God through music. You may not know that the staff around him respected not only his musical abilities, which are profound, but they also noticed his walk with God, which was so profound that they moved him from worship leader to a new position: the Minister of Leadership.

You also may not know that Greg Allen nearly lost his voice... permanently. In the late 1990s Greg had three different surgeries on his throat and vocal chords to repair damage. Unsure whether he would ever speak, much less sing again, he fell at the feet of Jesus. The leaders at his Louisville congregation valued integrity more than talent and still used Greg at times to lead worship even though all he could do was talk barely above a whisper and lip sync the lyrics. It was at this time that Greg felt God saying to him, "I do not love you because you are a worship leader. I love you because you are my child."

As I heard Greg share his story this weekend, I was reminded of my journey. I went to Bible College and got a degree in Bible and preaching. My first ministry was in northern Ohio. No friends nearby. No family around the corner. Cold weather that seemed warm compared to the culture of the congregation I found myself serving. Those first years were rough. My inexperience combined with feeling alone combined with overbearing leaders led to a lot of headaches, many of my own making. But I never wavered in my commitment. I was a preacher. I was called. I would not give up on my calling.

After Ohio came Kentucky. Everything Ohio was not, Kentucky was. Here I had friends. Here I had a network of ministers I could lean on. Here I was close enough to home to see family a couple times a year. But... these stories always have a but! But it was a difficult ministry. A church plant that had more going wrong than right when I arrived. I was hired as 'the last chance effort' to save the already 2 year-old plant. Long story short, there were internal power struggles that when confronted led to an already small church splitting. After three years the funding ran out and I was asked my honest opinion on what to do. What did I do? I fired myself! I told them to close the doors and relaunch. But my faith did not waver. I was a preacher. I was called. I would not give up on my calling.

Then came six long months of searching. Dozens of resumes went out (I stopped counting at 50!) and 'rejection' letters began to pour in:

"We're sorry but...'re too young to preach."'re too old to lead youth."

...we can't afford to support you and your family." preach too well to be an associate."

Five months went by without a single interview. My wife and I each juggled part-time jobs as we tried to make ends meet during this dry spell, when finally a church in southern Virginia called. Virginia! Virginia was home! It was a youth ministry position under a well-seasoned and successful preaching minister that I could be mentored by and learn from his example. We could barely curb our excitement! We went and interviewed for the position. I prepared a lesson to teach to the youth and was told by elders and staff alike, "Pack your bags, the rest is a formality." This had to be God's will for us!

Turns out it wasn't. Two weeks later we got the rejection phone call. I was broken. I was shaken. I began to doubt if I was really called. After all, if I was called then God would have a place for me, right? All my confident statements turned into questions.

Am I a preacher?
Am I called?
Will I give up on my calling?

It was soon after this that I attended church with a good friend in Lexington. It was a Wednesday night service at a large church and I wanted to hide in a corner and hope beyond hope for some revelation. There was worship, but my heart had no song. There was a lesson, but my mind did not feed. But... these stories always have a but! But then the teacher said they were going to do something different. He divided the crowd into groups of a dozen or less and told us to pray for each person. I tried to avoid a group, but God's people have a way of sucking you in when you don't want to be but desperately need to be included. My group was only five or six people. We introduced ourselves and agreed to pray for the person to our right. I have long forgotten the name of the gentleman to my left. I don't remember every word he said, but I remember one phrase, "Lord let this young man know tonight that You love Him."

He loves me!
Oh how He loves me!

After the amens were said I left quickly and sat in my car and wept openly. The message God gave me that night was the same he gave to Greg Allen, "I don't love you because you are a preacher. I love you because you are my child!" I no longer doubted my calling; my calling as a child of God. Within a month I was employed in Maryland as a teacher in a Christian School and part-time associate minister. It was not what I had envisioned, but for four years God held me in a crucible of learning humility and obedience; two lessons I desperately needed to learn.

Then after four years God flung open the doors to preaching ministry. Today, I find myself in southern Virginia, doing God's will and not my own. You see my story is really His story and this is my story: I am a preacher. I am called. I will not give up on my calling.

What's your story?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

This is My Story- Part 2

Stories. We love them. From a young age we are indoctrinated by story. Bedtime stories, nursery rhymes and cardboard books dominate our childhood. As adults, we are just as addicted. Movies tell stories. Music communicates story in an emotive way. Even sports usually have a storyline running through them as we cheer for the underdog to overcome all obstacles to defeat their hated rival.

What's your story? You might not think it's much, but it's yours. God has given you a story to use for His glory.

My story is simple. I grew up in a Christian household with godly parents. At the age of 16 I thought I wanted to preach. My home minister scheduled my first sermon for a Sunday night service. Blessed with a preaching grandfather and a teaching father, I had many resources to pull from to write a sermon. With the vigor of youth I zealously researched, wrote and rehearsed. I was determined that it would be the greatest sermon ever preached. In my mind's eye I saw people repenting with tears, the waters of the baptistry rippling and fire from heaven consuming those who would defy the Lord (what can I say? I love the Old Testament!) Oh the naivety of youth!

The day came and I approached the pulpit with confidence. The pulpit was old school in design. It was elevated on an elevated stage and boxed the speaker into a fixed position. As I laid my Bible and notes on the pulpit a 'gust' of air blew and all 30 pages of notes fell off the pulpit to the floor below. Two things happened. First, I learned that numbering pages is a must. Second, I learned the power of prayer as I gathered the notes from the floor beseeching God that they be in the right order! In my rehearsal time the sermon took 45 minutes. When I reached the pulpit, again, I noticed the people (who knew people would be there!) and I sped-read the notes, not caring if they were in order, and finished in under 5 minutes.

As I shook hands after the service I was touched by the good Christian people who tried to be encouraging. Some offered pats on the back, others lied to me and said it was good, a few simply smiled and shook their heads as if to say, 'Nice try. Find a plan B.' I no longer thought I wanted to preach. One of the deacons, my future father-in-law in fact, handed me a slip of paper with a scripture scrawled on it. He told me to read it when I got home. I thanked him and placed the now wadded up paper in my pants pocket and promptly forgot about it.

Fast forward a couple of hours as I sulked in my bedroom. I argued with God over His calling. I know, it's stupid to argue with God, but I was determined that He made a mistake. As I prepared to bed down I cleaned out my pockets and discovered the piece of paper. The Scripture scrawled on it was 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. As I read it, I began to weep at Paul's words, "When I came to you brethren, I did not come to you with wisdom or superiority of speech. For I resolved to know nothing among you except Christ Jesus and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and fear and with much trembling and my message was not with wise and persuasive words, but in demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God." As I read those words through the tears in my eyes I realized my mistake: preaching is not about me. It must never be about me. It's always and forever about the God who called me. I no longer thought I wanted to preach, I knew I wanted to preach.

That's my story. So far.

Friday, October 22, 2010

This is my Story- part 1

When I entered the sanctuary about an hour before the session started I heard the chords of a familiar praise song reverberating off of the 9,000 empty seats. Immediately my mind matched lyrics with music and I began to internally sing, "He loves us, O how He loves us, O how He loves us." I settled into a seat that promised plenty of leg room for my 6'7" frame. As I flipped through the conference booklet a melodic voice began to sing "This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior all the day long." But the music hadn't changed. In an instant I found myself caught up and carried away by the unexpected merge of modern mixed with traditional. Soon, another voice began to sing the lyrics that first popped in my head in harmonious unison with the familiar hymn. I began to worship as I contemplated that my story is His story of love for me.

I will have more on this topic later, but for now, What's your story?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On Purpose

Raising children is an adventure to say the least. Comedian Bill Cosby has made the assertion that unless you have more than one child you are not a true parent because one child does not fight with themselves! Lately I have felt more like a referee than a parent as our two youngest daughters have been constantly bickering over everything from whose side of the room is whose, or who is the rightful owner of a particular toy (this despite the fact that the other has an identical toy), or whose clothes are whose since Charley is beginning to wear hand-me-downs from Savannah. Sometimes the bickering escalates into something more physical in nature. The most recent bout took the form of hair-pulling and face-smacking. As I interrogated the diminutive divas, Charley kept saying, "I didn't do it on purpose" as if that was an excuse for her wrong actions.

This prompted my mind to wander to the excuses we have when God convicts of sin. How often do we claim, "I didn't mean to sin. It wasn't as if I did it on purpose"? I can remember using that excuse with my mother once, to which she quickly responded, "You didn't mean not to either." In other words, I didn't purposefully make the choice to avoid my shortcomings.

Purpose. Purpose imbues intention on an action. As I read the Scriptures I am convicted that the best way to avoid sin is not to go through life with the, "I will not do this today." Rather, we must approach life with purpose, with intention, as we decide to do good in the place of evil. Good actions must replace evil deeds. It's not enough to avoid sin. It's not enough to simply say, 'I will not do this.' We must replace the sinful deeds with good ones. We must purposefully seek to do good. We must live life on purpose.

As I thought about this, I began to evaluate other areas of my life and work with the lens of purpose set upon it. Are my sermons 'on purpose' or are they simply set up according to whatever whim hits me at the time? Do my Bible studies reflect intentionality or do they simply jump from one random book to the next? Fortunately these two areas passed the purpose test. But some areas did not. Some personal areas that deal with familial issues and other not so personal areas, one of which is this blog failed to measure up to the standard of intent. I have not approached this blog with purpose or intention. My writings have been based upon whatever is bouncing around my cranium at the time.

I want to change this. Starting at the first of the 2011 year, this blog will show more purpose. It will still have book reviews from time to time (I'm not going to turn down free reading material), but the other posts will reflect more intentionality. They will reflect (1) the topic of that week's sermon for those of you who attend Cool Springs Christian Church that will also be applicable to those not privy to the sermon material, (2) a challenge to do something for the Kingdom, and (3) prayer topics based either on the post, the ministry that I am serving in or the impact of the blog. Even though I'm a small voice at a small church, it is my prayer that God can use this blog to impact a worldwide audience!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Transforming Church in Rural America

I've been serving local churches in ministry for over a decade. All of them have been small churches struggling to find ways to grow. Some have been limited by a worship of the past, others were hampered by overbearing leaders and others still by poor location combined with limited facilities. In his book, Transforming Church in Rural America, Shannon O'Dell writes a church growth book specifically geared to small churches in small population areas. By using examples from his own congregation in rural Arkansas, O'Dell challenges the 'myth' that only churches in large urban/suburban settings can grow and succeed in dynamic ministry.

Through the use of the acronym VALUE (Vision; Attitude; Leadership; Understanding; Enduring Excellence) O'Dell imparts principles that a congregation of any size can follow. The author outlines his own successes and failures for the reader's benefit. The book is written in a very conversational tone that makes it both easy to read and to understand.

As for negatives, they are minor. There is an emphasis on vision throughout the entire book. The other principles are overshadowed by O'Dell's focus on developing, adopting and communicating vision to leaders and congregants alike. The book might be better promoted on how to develop vision for the rural congregation. Although I did appreciate the emphasis that a leader with no vision has no business being the lead minister.

Also, under-emphasized throughout the book is one of the major keys to O'Dell's success: a supportive leadership. Experience has taught me that in order to effect change in the traditional, country church you must have the lay-leadership in your corner. If not, change will not occur. O'Dell's claim that change produces conflict is 100% accurate, and without leaders that are long-time members of the church giving support, a minister will not be able to achieve his vision, no matter how clear it is.

I would recommend this book to any leader in the rural church who desire to cast God's vision before the church. The principles O'Dell outlines are solid even though his methods may not work in every congregation.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My Prayer for MACU

On October 3, two students at my alma-mater, Mid-Atlantic Christian University, got into an altercation resulting in one young man being shot and losing his life. My heart has been breaking, and this is my prayer...


I want to scream. I want to shake my fists and yell. But my enemy has no face. No, rather than give an object for wrath, he leaves this cold, impotent rage that struggles to be voiced. So I turn to You. My questions swim around my head. Questions of why this happened and how could this be allowed to happen and who does Satan think he is attacking my school, my family, my heritage?

But it's not mine is it? It's not mine, it's Yours. She was Your school and he was Your child. One family loses a son to murder, the other to prison. But they are Your families. A campus full of students has lost her security; her innocence. But she is Your campus. So I turn to You, to implore You, to beg You, be the God You have always been. The God who avenges the innocent. The God who protects the helpless. Spread a blanket of protection over the students, staff and families affected by this tragedy.

You are the God that drowned the armies of Pharaoh. Drown out the cries for retribution with Your grace.

You are the God who dried up the Jordan so Your children could enter the Promised land. Dry our tears and mend our hearts.

You are the God who knocked over Jericho's walls. Knock down the walls of fear that threaten to imprison us.

You are the God that guided David's sling. Guide our hearts toward restoration.

You are the God that destroyed the prophets of Baal. Destroy the arguments of those who would use this to defame Your name.

You are the God who restored the sight of the blind. Open our eyes to see who the real enemy is.

You are the God who rolled away a stone and proclaimed life out of death. Roll away this black curtain and speak life into a seemingly hopeless situation.

You have done all these things before and now we beg that you do it one more time. Out of the despair, bring rejoicing. Out of the anger, bring peace. Out of the sorrow, bring joy. Out of death, bring life. Then the world will know You are God.

Thank You for listening, for hearing and for doing. Take MACU in Your arms, dry her tears, and be the God You have always been.

In the name of the death conqueror: Jesus,