Monday, December 31, 2007

happy new year

What a year 2007 was. Wow.
Who would have thought that God would speak to each of us and we’d end up sacrificially giving over 12.8 million dollars toward the creation of The Healing Center, a Student Ministry expansion and internship program and launch a well-drilling micro-business/ministry with Self-Sustaining Enterprises in Nigeria? It was a love for our city, our future and our world.

It was a good year at so many other levels. This weekend I talked about The Top 3 Cool Things That Happened at VCC in 2007…and then The Top 3 Things I Screwed Up. There were more things than that (obviously), but I just didn’t have time to unpack them all.

So, as promised, here is my complete Top 10 List. Anton, drumroll please…

The Top 10 Cool Things:

1. We listened to God and threw the net on the other side of the boat. (You’ll have to listen to the message for this one, but it’s based on John 21:6. The Healing Center is just another net…for people who would never step into a church for help.)

2. We learned a little about sacrifice. (People gave sacrificially toward the Luke 4 Challenge in ways that made me cry. No kidding.)

3. We worked hard behind-the-scenes on our integrity. (Yeah, you’ll have to listen to the weekend. Sorry. Too much to unload here…but here’s the graphic for the “integrity strength triangle”. Critical for wholeness.)

4. Waited to hire the right teaching pastor. (We had a stack of resumes a couple inches thick. But it had to be the right combination of a heart for lost people and yet a hunger for the power of the Holy Spirit, a creative communicator with an edge, good and broken, leadership gifting, a certain amount of life experience, etcetera etcetera. We waited and waited. And then waited some more. We were close on some, but it just didn’t seem right. And then we met Joe in Anaheim…)

5. Landed on our five core DNA values. (The 4WARD series was a bigger deal than you think. Remember the mnemonic?—Servant community, Outward focused, Worship, Empowered transformation, and Relevant: SOWER. This shapes everything for us seedflingers…)

6. Integrated “power prayer” into more ministries. (This was subtle but critical. More and more risky prayers were incorporated into various ministries, from MercyWorks to Celebrations to wherever. Karin’s prayer training is sneaking into everything. Like cranberries, as Brian Regan says. Awesome. How cool is it that one of our blind homeless friends at Washington Park was healed at a Good Sam Run? It’s the Kingdom in action.)

7. Saw a real turn in student ministries effectiveness. (What can I say? Pete Bryant and the gang have made unbelievable strides in the last two years. After two-and-a-half years of a turn-around strategic plan, Pete said at his strategic plan presentation a year ago that if this didn’t work, we should fire him. I love that kind of confidence [risk-taking?] in God-sought planning.)

8. The development of a strong, healthy board of trustees. (We have been on a board development track that has really paid off. I’m so proud of these high-powered volunteers who give unbelievable numbers of hours to bring accountability to VCC at the highest levels. I love this gang.)

9. Getting into the Victory of Light Psychic Fair at the Convention Center. (I’m crazy about seeing Evangelism and Prayer Ministries working together and thinking out-of-the-box when it comes to spiritual power. We offered healing and dream interpretation. Get real: who else but the Vineyard would do this…and give away fortune cookies with specially printed fortunes at the booth?)

10. Turkeyfest. (Wow. Kande and the gang came up with a simple idea: instead of VCC buying the turkeys and canned goods each year and then meeting to distribute them—typically about 400 dinners—this year we simply set out boxes with packing instructions. Families then bought the goodies, including the turkeys, and even decorated the boxes and threw in extra treats…and then distributed them as well all over Greater Cincinnati. We ran out of boxes at 800. People were trying to buy boxes from others who grabbed them. Next year: 1600 boxes?)

Now for all us “glass half-empty” personality-types, here are The Top 10 Things I Screwed Up:

1. I didn’t communicate enough. (Yeah, listen to the message for these first three. My introversion/assumption is a drawback…and as Andy says, vision leaks…quickly. I’ve got to communicate more about what we’re doing and why.)

2. I didn’t ask God to move miraculously among us enough…and then take the risk. (Getting too comfortable with my/our spiritual status quo. ‘Nuff said.)

3. I didn’t teach the Vineyard how to feed itself. (We’ve suspected it. Confirmed with the Reveal survey. I own this one.)

4. Didn’t talk to God enough. (This is an embarrassing thing for a pastor to admit, but I find prayer more than difficult. Once again, relying way too much on natural gifts. Not good. The best things that happened this year have been in desperate moments of brokenness/prayer.)

5. I was too cheap. (I think some of this is simply family-of-origin-stuff from coming from a poor background. It’s one thing to be cheap with yourself, but awful when that spills out with others).

6. I cocooned too much. (The dark side of introversion. But even worse is when TV becomes the “veg factor” for down time. For introverts thrown into extroverted contexts, this can feel like an entitlement for us. That kind of thinking sucks.)

7. Didn’t worship enough privately and publicly. (Worship is definitely one of my pathways to connecting with God. Some of my most intense moments have been in the car on some of my Friday morning prayer/drives with a mix CD of favorite worship songs. But life has a way of crowding out those times. Or is that one more excuse? And why?)

8. I didn’t have enough one-on-one meetings with the greatest staff in the world. (We have an incredibly hardworking, dedicated staff that takes the tithe dollars that support them seriously. I need to spend more one-on-one time with them and express my appreciation and respect. We now have about 120 people on staff.)

9. Didn’t exercise. (Yeah, I know…my body is a temple. A big one. Does cutting the grass count?)

10. Forgot my admin assistant’s birthday. (Donna saves my life on a regular basis. What was I thinking? Or not thinking? I’ll have her put it on my calendar…)

There you have it. Now come on…what’s yours?

Monday, December 24, 2007

christmas + peace

Then a very large group of angels from heaven joined the first angel, praising God and saying: “Give glory to God in heaven, and on earth let there be peace among the people who please God.” Luke 2:13-14 (New Century Version)

I find it interesting that God would say peace to all men and women on earth at the incarnation of the Son of God, the ultimate delivery in human history. No wonder there was a huge angelic party worshiping God; God has slipped into the human race, fulfilling millenium-sized prophecies. Fully human, yet divine. And so the angel army shouts peace. Think about how significant that is. They said peace, not happiness, to all men. Not hope. Not faith. Not healthy self-esteem. But peace to all who would seek to please God, rather than themselves. The peace-gift doesn’t come to those who have it together, to those who are successful, to the clever, to the fastest, or the most significant. It comes to those who turn from being self-focused and decide that pleasing God is the highest vocation on the planet.

Let me tell you a true story.

Once upon a December there was a young musician living with a group of players all struggling to be something/somebody. He had dropped out of college, confused, sharply lonely, all the stuff that supposedly fuels the creative tortured soul. It’s the stuff of artistry, right? But a tortured soul is still a tortured soul. With no more than a few dollars in his pocket, he went out that night and stole a Christmas tree, put it up in his room, and sat on the edge of the bed staring at it for hours while he got hammered alone on cheap wine. What’s worse than a lonely drunk? But his problems weren’t circumstantial. His problem was that he didn’t have a big enough reason to exist. As Franklin succinctly put it, “A man wrapped up in himself is a small bundle.” Here is a simple truth: there is nothing more significant than personally knowing the Creator of the universe. Now that's a name to drop. In less than four months after that Christmas, the Prince of Peace, as Isaiah called Jesus, would come crashing into this young man’s life, forever changing the way he lived.

It’s been thirty-three years and I haven’t been the same since.

I made a soul journey from believing that God might possibly exist…to God may have some interaction with the universe…to God might actually interface with human beings…to God might actually know me…to God knows my name and wants to personally rescue me from my own private hell. All of a sudden, it became real when it became personal. God didn’t send His Son into the world for some faceless herd of humanity—He slipped into this world to find me. Christmas is all about a specific search-and-rescue mission. For you and me.

The significance of God coming as a helpless baby lying in a feeding trough for barn animals for me supremely affects the way I treat others and myself. Peace comes to all men and women who come alive with a desire to please God.

The word we translate peace usually comes from the Greek word eirene. It shows up in about every book in the New Testament, and in most cases it refers to relationships. It’s rooted in the Greek verb eiro, which means to join. In other words, peace has more to do with the integrity and the joining of our relationships than anything else. How much of your stress and anxiety in life is caused by relationships? Like, uh, practically all of it?

Our relationships are as healthy as we are healthy. And the primal relationship is with God. When the wall comes down between us and God and we are joined, then we become one. And peace comes. Out of a peaceful heart come relationships that are healthy inasmuch as it falls upon us, as in: Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy... Hebrews 12:12-14a (New International Version). I like that the writer happens to talk about becoming healthy ourselves first before having peace with all men.

I wish peace could be waved over the Third Rock from the Sun with some magic wand and everyone could suddenly be happy, like the proverbial Miss America line. I fear it doesn’t work like that; my trust in God is such that I’m fairly sure He would have tried if it were that simple. Besides, it seems there’s a world of difference between happiness and peace.

Instead, joining each heart to Himself seems to be the peace-plan. And it started with a baby wrapped in Jewish skin.

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Romans 5:1 (New Living Translation)

Merry Christmas, friends. And peace to all.

Monday, December 17, 2007

what i don't want to say

The message was pretty straightforward this weekend, with a bit of an inside look at why God kept dropping bread crumbs in a little village called Bethlehem to see if we’d get the hint. Like David being anointed king there. Or like a “kinsmen-redeemer” rescuing both Naomi and Ruth—a Jew and a Gentile—in Bethlehem and a prophetic reference to Paul’s letter to the Galatians that God has made the two (Jew and Gentile) into one and tore down the wall between us. Or the Jewish prophet Micah dropping the big bombshell: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times".

But I don’t want to blog about that.

After noticing a number of churches in my neck of the woods advertising a “live nativity” (as opposed to a “dead nativity”), I started wondering why we do some of the things we do in churches at Christmas. Have you ever heard of people having a “crisis of faith”? One year I had a “crisis of production”.

One September day in 2000 I was sitting in Chipotles with my wife Anita and said: “I just can’t do another Christmas Eve program again. I’m sick of them. I’m going to cancel it this year.”

She choked on her burrito and said, “You can’t do that!” She looked at me like I had said, “Let’s put the “x” back in xmas.”

I reminded her, “Are you sure? I think I’m the pastor.” I was just tired of The Big Production. And then Anita reminded me of something that changed my life. Over twenty years ago we did our first outreach as a brand new little church of twenty-five people. We gave away a few bags of groceries and Christmas trees in the projects. We were so naïve that we would knock on the doors and ask if there were any poor people there. There were several dynamics happening: it wasn’t just a need being met, but a shift in the way people—mostly estranged from church—saw Christians. Even better yet, not just saw Christians, but saw the Kingdom of God crashing into their world. We were hooked.

Suddenly my wife said, “Why don’t we return to our roots and do an outreach on Christmas Eve?”

I mulled it around for a few minutes, sucking on a Diet Coke. And then I said, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea: why don’t we do an outreach on Christmas Eve?”

She just rolled her eyes, smiled and took another bite of her burrito.

It’s become a tradition for us. Instead of The Big Production on Christmas Eve night, we bought thousands of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and passed them out to people who have to work on Christmas Eve—policemen, firemen, video stores, hospitals, and so on. Even restaurants. Turns out waiters and waitresses in your average Applebee’s love Krispy Kremes.

Last year my family went to an IHOP restaurant where an obviously harried young hostess ringing out a family in front of us said tersely without looking at us, “Sorry. We’re not serving anymore…we’re closing.”

We said, “Good for you! We don’t want your food. We’re actually bringing you some.” We handed her a box with a dozen Krispy Kremes in it and she was stunned. She looked at the box with the little card on it from the Vineyard and then looked up at us and—I’m not making this up—said, “You all are going to make me cry!” and teared up.

I’ll never forget this email: “Last Christmas Eve was a really stressful night at the Starbucks where I work because there were a lot of customers and they wanted their coffee fast—we were really frustrated. In the evening a guy from the Vineyard came in and handed a box of doughnuts to my coworker. She started crying and saying, “You people are so nice!” Several months later in March, she and I stayed for hours at Starbucks after closing just talking about God, and that’s when she decided to give her life to Christ. She started going to the Vineyard with me and she’s been thinking about getting baptized.”

But let’s be honest: it’s not all as simple as saying we’re not going to do a Big Production.

Our Outreach team, Celebration team and Facilities team might not agree with me that it’s not The Big Production. Those folks work a gazillion hours leading up to this night. It looks simple: we do a few Christmas carols, light our candles, sing “Silent Night” and then head into the gym to pick up our mostly pre-scouted locations with maps on each box of dozen (over two thousand of them…and the smell is spectacular). I guess that classifies as a Big Production. D’oh!

And we still put on a full-blown production of a free play (hey, it’s an outreach…) for three nights before all that (only four days after the previous weekend stuff). And pull off the celebrations on the weekend. And then The No Big Production Christmas Eve 8th Annual Doughnut Outreach. And then collapse on Christmas day.

Come to think of it, maybe I’m living in La La Land with my sarcastic jab at the dead nativity.

Would someone do an intervention?

Monday, December 10, 2007

colorado church shootings

The news from New Life Church and the Youth With A Mission center in Colorado is stunning. Four innocent people shot to death. It elicits the response: what in the world is going on? At this point in the stream of news, it appears they were linked: the shooter was a 24-year old psychopath who “hated Christians” and had allegedly been asked to leave YWAM five years earlier.

Google “church shootings” and you’ll find numbers of incidents; schools and malls are not the only public spaces where anyone can enter and create havoc. Churches provide an open venue with lots of people, creating opportunities for deranged people to get their “fifteen minutes”. And if you’re a believer, the evil factor feels all the more obvious. It’s morbidly curious how many of the shooters had an anti-Christian bent.

Though I’ve never really spoken much about it, we’ve had a few run-ins with disturbed people. The Vineyard has certainly been the target of vitriolic hate mail in the past. Some of it we have passed on to the authorities because of the violent and/or aggressive sexual nature of it. Frankly, my wife and I have had anonymous angry letters show up in our mailbox at home.

Some years ago a guy came up on the stage while I was talking with people between celebrations. He was pacing behind me then suddenly pulled a fire extinguisher off the wall, started swinging it and hit me with it. I wrapped my arms around him to hold him steady until a couple of guys from the prayer team came up and we pulled him to a back room, while praying for him and calling the police.

One Saturday night in the atrium a woman climbed up on a table and started preaching at people. When I asked her to step down, she hit me and said it was because she was a woman. After asking her several times to get down, we had to call the police to avoid any accusation of what we did or didn’t do. The police took her out while she screamed threats.

We’ve had a couple of people stand up during the celebration and rudely challenge us on something inconsequential in the message. We’ve had emails and letters that said unspeakable things. We’ve had people who were mad for one reason or another sit and glare during the message. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there have been some celebrations where I’ve wondered if someone might show up and do something irrational. I’ve met with angry people in public places simply because if anything happened I wanted to be in a place where it could be witnessed. We’ve had to ban some people from coming because of things that were threatened. And let’s not mention lawsuits. There are behind-the-scenes reasons we hire security police to roam the building on weekends. Any public place has a responsibility to do what’s necessary to provide a safe environment. And we do.

But it’s just a different world today. None of us can afford to get paranoid; it takes too much energy.

The early disciples had some terrifically harsh things happen to them. Paul had to escape a city over a wall in a basket by a rope. There was the time the leadership told him not to go to a particular meeting because of its riotous, dangerous potential. He still ended up getting beaten, stoned, arrested and imprisoned at different times. Paul said he was often in danger not only from the Gentiles, but people from his own religious heritage. Religious people.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing the experiences of the early disciples with our minimal travails in megachurches with padded seats and air conditioning. But the point is: angry, emotionally disturbed and, dare I say it, demonized individuals exist. And they’re sometimes hyper-religious. I think we have a hard time admitting there are people with evil intent. Jesus didn’t seem to have a hard time with it: he plainly called some people evil and at one point told one of His closest friends: “Get behind me, Satan…your agenda is your own, not God’s.” That’s pretty strong.

We have to have God’s agenda at the top of our to-do list. And that’s simply to bring the Kingdom with words and actions...and to pray for the will of God to come to this crazed place the way it always is in His dimension. Apparently that’s not always the case here on the Blue Planet. We must be willing to be the carrier and messenger of His power and grace.

Is there a cost? Is there resistance?

You’ve got to be kidding. Jesus said plainly, “I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves.”

There’s a reason why Hollywood movies, books and fireside stories from the dawn of humanity have villains and classic clashes between good and evil: it’s because it’s an intuitive reflection of the real universe.

Welcome to the world of spiritual warfare.

Monday, December 03, 2007

répondez s'il-vous-plaît

This week Adam launched us into the Christmas series called “rsvp”. God invades the planet as a Jewish baby in a feeding trough for livestock and the invitation to the kingdom party is sent out. Please rsvp.

We happen to believe the initial reaction to the touch of God is worship. Or think of it like this:

Q: What is the first response to God from a ransomed soul?
A: Outrageous gratitude.

And isn’t that the foundation for worship? Worship begins with the Big Thank You. I'd like to think that we are such noble critters that our first approach to God is awe and worship simply for Who He Is, but I don’t think that’s reality. We are in such a deep hole that the natural first response to the rope thrown in is: thanks. Plus, God is far more personal and in love with us than we realize...until we surrender.

And that’s the thing. I mentioned at our shareholders meeting Friday night that though this “surrender” is nuanced and multilayered, I believe there is a linear process: a surrender to live, a surrender to serve and a surrender to die.

The first surrender is a surrender to live. Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” In this surrender, we want help. We’re dying inside, our lives are out of control, and we’re depressingly aware of our brokenness and distance from God. It's numero uno on the twelve steps. Life has become a 500-pound gorilla on our back. We are beaten down...we are tired...we want a savior.

The surrender to live is the doorway into interaction with Jesus. Jesus always responds to a cry for help.

Next comes a surrender to serve. It is here that we let God know we want to do something for Him. We have many people who come to VCC who haven’t hit this part yet. Jesus said that self-aware people who understand what they’ve been rescued from respond in this manner as a “thank you”. He put it like this: the one who has been forgiven much, loves much. We want to express our gratitude in a tangible way; we have a utilitarian reaction. We begin to understand (slowly) that our response is not to earn anything from God, but a gracious reply to the gift of Life.

I remember reading an article in Time about a woman who survived the collapse all the way from the 50th floor in the Trade Center attacks on 911. Although some people suffer from survivor guilt, she became immersed in gratitude and purpose for God: “I was spared for a reason—I want to serve God with all that is in me—I want to make a difference.”

But last comes the surrender to die. Jesus says to us “Pick up you cross and follow me.” In other words, "Choose your form of execution and model your life after Mine." It becomes not “if I die for you”, or “if I am martyred for you”, but rather “I die daily”. This is a death to self-will, to self-ambition, to recognition, to preference, to natural gifting, to everything in you that says there is a part of me that has to be comfortable.

This is radical.

It moves beyond every healthy self-help process to something hidden deep inside. It’s the part that people won’t understand…and is the part that you can’t really talk about because it’s humility on steroids. When a person is being crucified, they don’t have a five-year plan. They don’t have a five minute plan. They aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The message of the Church to the world is: the cross of Jesus brings life. The message of Jesus to the Church is: come and die; go find your cross.

A final note: in different areas of our lives—interpersonal and inner issues that we’re struggling with—those three surrenders will cycle through on a regular basis. But in general, the process for salvation for our whole life appears to follow that order.

And if true worship is marked by sacrifice, then surrender and worship are synonymous.