Thursday, December 25, 2008

merry christmas

Merry Christmas, all. Hope you had a bright one.

The Re Gifter show was Big Fun. If you missed it...well, you missed it.

And then the donut outreach on Christmas Eve was awesome. My favorite was a sushi bar we went to. I'll tell you about it later.

God is good. Don't ever forget that. Or, donut ever forget that.


Monday, December 22, 2008

christmas kremes

Let's go outreaching! Be at VCC at 5pm. We'll sing, light candles and then deliver 24,000 Krispy Kreme donuts to people who have to work on Christmas Eve. Whoohoo!

the problem with christmas

The news story of the Christmas season in Cincinnati has been a devastating accident with our friends at Crossroads Community Church on the first night of their Christmas production. One of their performers fell from a flying harness and was in critical condition through the night. She passed away in the morning. A couple from our small group was at the production and shaken; they called us immediately. I was at the Vineyard at a run-through for our {Re}Gifter show. Our crew prayed for everyone. I emailed Brian Tome, pastor of Crossroads, as soon as I got home just to let him know we were praying for him, his team and the community there. I can only imagine the pain, the second-guessing, the what-ifs, the questions. I have one simple guiding principle: when one part of the Body hurts, the whole Body hurts. The next couple of days some of our pastoral staff and volunteer prayer team members were at Crossroads to be available, to practice “with-ness”.

On Friday, one of our volunteer bass players, a young guy named Trentin Manning, died in a car accident driving to a gig in Toledo, Ohio. Trentin was a talented musician, recently interviewed in a national musician’s magazine, full of life, full of worship, full of promise. I loved watching him play.

Saturday night there was an armed robbery at a Best Buy next door to our campus. The police showed up at our Student Union during our high school and middle school celebrations and did a lock-down for safety reasons. Parents were a little freaked, but everyone was okay.

Last night I was in the hospital until 2am with a VCC person who, without going into details, is in a very desperate place emotionally.

What a strange week.

As a communicator, it creates an odd emotional context for the delivery of the message of the beauty and power of the Incarnation. On one hand, you’re painfully aware that Christmas for some people will be seen through a particularly clouded lens for years to come. What is intended to be a joyous time becomes a reminder of a loss, a pain, or a moment in history that has claws attached. As a friend of mine who’s been divorced for years told me: “(we) fight loneliness all of the time but this time of year it is our personal tsunami.”

On the other hand, there is The Big Message: Light has come into the darkness.

It seems to me that the only way we can shout that message honestly is by allowing the light to shine into the darkest memories, the darkest moments, the darkest present times of our lives. Perhaps we create “counter” memories to reboot our OS. Perhaps there is an “embracing of suffering” that creates a sharp, empathetic outward-focus. Perhaps sheer declarative trust, as when the Psalmist boasts: “Lord, you have brought light to my life; my God, you light up my darkness. In your strength I can crush an army; with my God I can scale any wall.” (Psalm 18:28–29 NLT).

Really?—an army? any wall? You have to admire that kind of “My dad can beat up your dad” talk; it’s got to have a spiritual endorphin effect. This psalmist has experienced something that causes him to brag on his God.

Or perhaps we simply have to figure out our own extremely unique connection between personal pain and God.

One thing for sure: if we hang on to the Truth through the night, I think it makes our message more authentic in the day. And probably more potentially attractive.

Merry Problematic Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

search-and-rescue operation

In this Salvage series, this past weekend’s topic was “Recovered” (my teaching cohort Joe had spoken on restored and recycled previously). For us at the Vineyard, typically when we hear the word recovery, we tend to think of our indispensible Growth & Healing ministry because it’s such a huge part of who we are and how we think. Based on our last stats, a large percentage of our adults have benefited from our recovery ministry. Plus, it was reinforced in the Reveal survey we did: we were off-the-chart with emotionally troubled folks. Let’s hear if for the “attractional leadership” theory!

When we talk about our recovery ministry, it means rediscovering our wholeness, of finding the parts of our lives that have been lost because of abuse or hurt or divorce or our own issues and addictions or poor decisions. It means to recover your sense of wholeness, of integrity, or to find the missing pieces of your life that have been lost or ignored.

But as it relates to our relationship with God, I wanted to look at recovery from God’s vantage point, from the simple angle of “finding something that was lost”. Eventually it centered on the idea that God is in the business of pursuing us, of recovering us. The problem with a talk like this is that it can feel like over-familiar territory for pastors and priests who speak a lot. Plus, it can take on an emotional tone that can smell manipulative to me; it’s like saying, “Some of you had fathers who never told you they loved you…” Gee, you think? Or it’s like giving a prophetic word-of-knowledge at the close of a message like: “I think God wants to touch people who have fear in their lives.” Hello? All of sudden you’ve got a post-Thanksgiving Wal-Mart rush to the prayer lines.

Nevertheless, there are probably two spiritual themes that can never be hammered enough, at least in my experience: God’s loving pursuit of us and our misunderstanding of authentic repentance. They’re connected at the theological hip, but I think people tend to drown one or the other out by emotional default when they’re given equal time in a thirty minute message.

I wanted to lean more into God’s search-and-rescue mission for us. I don’t think I was wholly successful (another late Saturday night depression…), but hopefully folks will read Luke 15 for themselves and God will break through. It is one of the most remarkable, comforting and humbling theological points Jesus makes.

In his autobiography, former atheist C. S. Lewis put it succinctly, “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about 'man's search for God.'…They might as well have talked about the mouse's search for the cat.”

I would have liked to spend more time on that not being solely a “pre-conversion” experience. Frankly, I’ve been pursued by God my whole life. It’s painfully easy for me to nibble away like the maverick sheep in Luke 15. I hate it. But comfort and entertainment is the bane of American Christianity. I genuinely thank God that He pursues me.

The great—and nearly forgotten—poet, opium addict and all around troubled believer, Francis Thompson, put it beautifully in his masterpiece, The Hound of Heaven. Read the whole poem someday on the www. Here’s the first stanza:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat, and a Voice beat,
More instant than the Feet:
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

I love thinking about a Father who pursues us with unhurrying chase, unperturbed pace, deliberate speed and majestic instancy. And the jealous, protective tone of a God who says: “All things betray thee who betrayest Me.”

How can love not pursue?


Thursday, November 27, 2008


…They’ll tell you not to eat this or that food—perfectly good food God created to be eaten heartily and with Thanksgiving by Christians! Everything God created is good, and to be received with thanks. Nothing is to be sneered at and thrown out. God’s Word and our prayers make every item in creation holy. (1 Timothy 4:3b–5 The Message)

Okay, so that’s out of context…and out of everything else. And I capitalized the T. But hey, hope you have some time to eat, argue politics with some family members (uh, in love…), and reflect on how, despite whatever is swirling around you, faith somehow whispers in your ear that God is good.

One more thing. Turkeyfest at the Vineyard was beautiful. Last Saturday morning, about 1,400 complete turkey dinners were hand delivered to families all over Greater Cincy. The room was jammin. Some people left with prophetic turkeys. Uh, meaning they didn’t have a predetermined destination, just an open heart to the H.S. and a car. Wow.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Some years back I met with a middle-aged man from Columbus who was brought to the Vineyard on a weekday afternoon by a friend. He had been concerned about some chronic issue in his life that he really didn’t want to identify and wondered if his friend knew someone he could talk to somewhat confidentially. For whatever reason, my name popped up.

The three of us sat in a little room as he began to casually share his story with me, nothing too deep. He was well dressed, polite, and a successful sales rep. After about twenty minutes of mostly listening, I asked if we could pray together and invite the Holy Spirit to come. He said he wouldn’t mind at all.

We prayed for a few minutes and then I asked God to come upon him. He promptly curled over, head over his knees, and then fell out of his chair and began to writhe on the floor like a snake, grunting as if in pain. His friend was quite surprised as we went through what I would call a low-level deliverance that lasted only about fifteen minutes. It mostly had to do with demonic harassment regarding a sexual bondage. After that, he lay on the floor like a wet dishrag for a few moments, got back up in his chair, and was a bit bewildered over his behavior. I asked if anything like that had ever happened in the past and he said no. We chatted a few more minutes and he left, in his own words, “feeling lighter.”

I bet so.

Prior to launching his public ministry, Jesus presented His mission statement in Luke chapter 4:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

Immediately Jesus began His public ministry and gave expression to “the Lord’s favor”, the Kingdom of God. This is a classic passage for us at the Vineyard; we want to describe ourselves as a Luke 4 church. Matthew describes what happened after that announcement in Jesus’ hometown synagogue as nothing short of astonishing:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. (Matthew 4:23, 24)

Jesus came to announce freedom to bruised, broken and bound humanity. He came to make people whole, to set them free. If you want to know what God is like and what He wants to do, look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like and what he wants to do, we should be able to look at the Church. And if the Church is to do the same work as Jesus—and he indicated we would in several places—you can be guaranteed we’ll have some supernatural encounters.

Typically in the book of Acts, with an outpouring of the Spirit comes an initial explosion of transrational experiences: people prophesy or spontaneous worship erupts or tongues occur or, at least in one instance, the facility vibrated. But when you look at what continued in the behaviors of the Church, the ongoing evidence that God was moving among them in the Spirit were: transformed lives, the activity of spiritual warfare (usually in the form of persecution), a boldness in evangelism (often accompanied with signs and wonders), and radical generosity.

I hope this series on the Holy Spirit created a desire that moved beyond the typical charismatic borders and into a longing for God-centered power that focuses on mission.

His mission.

Monday, November 17, 2008

thin places and the power of the Holy Spirit

In Celtic spirituality, caol 'ait is a term for “thin places”. A thin place is where the physical world and the spiritual realm connect, where the distance between the natural and the spirit is narrowest. Perhaps it’s what Jacob felt in Genesis 28 after his dream of a ladder into heaven:

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:16–17 (TNIV)

Christian mystics may use the term as a way to describe the moments, not the locations, where God seems to break into our world. Or we break into His world, though I’m not sure how that works. “Break into” is probably a misnomer; I’m fairly sure heaven is unguarded. For one, why? That’s probably akin to visiting the sun; let’s just slip past those pesky solar flares and drop our landing gear.

Lately I’ve been using the phrase “storming heaven”. I’m not sure where I got that; maybe it’s leftover language from my ancient Pentecostal days. I know I have a book in my library by Jay Stevens with the same name, but it’s a history of LSD from Huxley to Kerouac to Leary. Uh, not exactly charismatic stuff.

But I think the term squares with an account in Acts. Peter and John bring a healing touch to a physically handicapped forty-something man who panhandled each day by one of the temple entrances. Remarkably, he’s instantly healed. Peter explains what just happened to all the Jews gathered as a result and basically says: “Change the way you think about everything. Anyone who doesn’t listen to Messiah Jesus will be cut off.”

We would assume that’s not the way to win friends, but the church grew to five-thousand men.

And they dragged Peter and John off to jail. The next day they stood before the high priest and the ruling leaders. It’s easy to gloss over this and not realize how terrifying that would have been; the next step could be execution. Imagine being dragged as a terrorist before the religious equivalent of Dick Cheney. After being interrogated, it reads that Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and then threw a roundhouse sermon on Psalm 118 about “rejecting the cornerstone”.

They couldn’t figure out how to punish Peter and John because all the people were still seriously praising God for what they had seen, so they let them go. They got back with their friends, explained what happened, and a spontaneous prayer meeting broke out. They finished praying with this: “…And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give your servants great boldness in their preaching. Send your healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:29, 30 NLT)

Sounds to me like they stormed heaven and were asking for two things: boldness in talking about Jesus and supernatural evidence to be manifested in His name. They all got filled with the Spirit and then the house physically shook. Now that’s a thin place.

I think that’s what I want to see. I want God to fill us. I don’t want to prescribe how that should look like in a corporate setting. I’m suspect of “charismatic promptings and instruction”. Been there. Seems to me the disciples had no clue what this corporate mysterious “filling of the Holy Spirit” should look like. Did they expect the house to shake? They just wanted boldness and evidence.

Somehow I think that’s the right approach.

Only one catch: perhaps as often as not, it’s somewhat dependent on the level of our desperation. Maybe the thin places are as narrow as our hunger.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

introducing the holy spirit

Joe launched us beautifully into this new series on the Holy Spirit. I think we’re in for a wild ride.

Doctor Luke certainly doesn’t help smooth the ride. Scholars have long said that it’s nearly impossible to develop a theology of the Holy Spirit based on the book of Acts. But maybe that’s the point; try describing the wind. It reminds me of the children's poem Who Has Seen the Wind? by romantic poet Christina Rossetti:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:

But when the leaves hang trembling

The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I:

But when the trees bow down their heads

The wind is passing by.

Perhaps it’s easier to see the effects of the Holy Spirit than to systematize the means.

In the second chapter of Acts, we learn that after Jesus was resurrected and returned to His Father, there was a mix of 120 men and women praying in the large, upper room of a house. The disciples were there. Jesus’ brothers. Mary, the mother of Jesus was there. And suddenly a massive train-like noise, perhaps as a tornado sounds, filled the room. Then a glowing light, like fire, exploded and scattered above their heads, flickered over each one of them and they began to speak in languages they had never learned…turning Mother Mary into one of the first Pentecostals. The power was so intense that they must have stumbled out into the streets looking glazed because the Jews who had come to the festival of Pentecost thought they were drunk.

But as people began to listen to them, some who had come from countries all over the Mideast began to recognize their own dialects and heard them worshipping God.

In my private prayer, I like to pray in tongues, in a language I’ve never learned.

Forty years ago, there was a combination of two waves that rocked the Church boat: it was the Jesus movement and the charismatic movement. The Jesus movement stunned the traditional church; it was marked by huge numbers of the alternative culture—hippies, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned counter-culture, and to the shock of the conservative church, even Democrats—were getting born again. The institutional, mainline church had become increasingly ineffective in its ability to read the emerging culture and communicate with it.

The charismatic movement, almost simultaneously, saw the worldwide outbreak of spiritual gifts in every denomination. Hard-line Pentecostals were shocked that even Catholics were speaking in tongues. That’s not how it was supposed to work. There was upheaval in denominational churches. It was as if God dropped a spiritual atomic bomb in the middle of the global sanctuary and said “Let’s shake things up!” In the 1500’s it was the Reformation; in the 1700’s it was Methodism. In the 1800’s it was Finney and the evangelicals.

The Jesus movement and the charismatic movement of the 20th century were, in my opinion, divine invasive surgical operations of God to blood-let the introverted, unfocused, homogeneous club the Church had become. It had its own subculture with its own language, music and practices…and institutionalized and unproductive. When believers stop connecting with lost people, God drops the bomb.

Were there excesses and craziness in all of that? You bet! What a mess. My own family was spread out and one-by-one we each came to Christ and got blasted by the Holy Spirit. We were so crazy we should have been locked up. My mom was in her 50’s and turned into a Jesus freak. One day my sister-in-law was at the Cincinnati Zoo and heard two people from India talking and said “Hey, that sounds like my prayer language!” She ran up to them and says “Do you know what I’m saying?”—and started speaking in tongues. They looked at her like she was from another planet, gathered their children close to them and walked away. Quickly. We were not well.

I have seen a lot. And through it all, look how normal I turned out.

Okay, maybe that’s not such a strong endorsement.

Friday, October 24, 2008

mortal sins, venial sins...and virtual sins reported this great news story yesterday:
Woman Arrested After Killing Virtual Ex-Husband

A 43-year-old Japanese woman, angry over a sudden divorce in the virtual online game Maple Story, has been arrested on suspicion of hacking into the game where she killed her once-virtual husband, authorities said.

Authorities said the Miyazaki woman illegally accessed the game with a password she hijacked from a colleague. That made it appear as if her coworker committed the online murder. According to The Associated Press, the woman told police: "I was suddenly divorced, without a word of warning. That made me so angry."

The hacking allegation carries a maximum five-year prison term.
Okay, so it turns out she wasn’t really arrested for killing her virtual ex-husband, but for hacking into Maple Story with someone else’s password. But even still it’s a great story.

Think about it: it’s not really your husband. And it’s not really a murder. But you're really in trouble.

Here’s a theological conundrum: what if Jesus really meant it when he said, “You have heard that the Law of Moses says, ‘Do not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’? But I say, if you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the high council. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5:21–22 NLT).

Contextually, many Biblical historians see the Law under Moses as a cultural moral advancement. When the Law said, “An eye for an eye”, it was actually a limitation on what an injured person could do to the one who victimized him. In other words, if some dude sucker punched you in the face and you lost your vision, you couldn’t kill him. The most that could be done was a reciprocal eye punch. Believe it or not, that was merciful in light of the historical moral context.

But Jesus takes this whole thing stratospheric—he invades our thought life. His point was: because God sees our hearts and intentions, this can’t simply be about behaviors. God is personally hurt by our thoughts when they are self-focused, vengeful, hateful, or arrogant. Why would He not be? How would you feel if your kids walked around perpetually feeling spiteful, angry and “me-first”? How would you respond if your second-grader swaggered around with his nose up in the air, rude to others and calling people moronic? Would you feel embarrassed? Angry?

Now what if you could hear your child’s thoughts?

What if virtual actions in a virtual world revealed our not-so-virtual and not-so-virtuous hearts? It’s just a game, eh? Or, in real life, it’s just our thoughts. Right? No one really got hurt, did they?

Maybe God isn’t virtual like Maple Story. Maybe this isn’t a game. And maybe we are actually responsible in a real way for our thoughts.

Maybe we need a savior because we’re virtually screwed up.

I do.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

“moneymoneymoneymoney…moooonnnnneeeeyyyy” ~Gamble & Huff

Man, am I late on this. Sorry.

How can you not hear constant buzz about the economy? Our country is on a `round-the-clock financial information binge. The only good news is we’re spared coverage of the latest Lohan family rehab news. Back in May we decided to do a series in October on money; who would have guessed at that time that the airwaves and zeroes-and-ones would be filled with terms like bailout, CDOs, Fannie Mae MBS?

The last time I spoke I showed the NYC national debt clock from six months ago.

It was originally designed to display up to $9,999,999,999,999. Two weeks ago it actually ran out of spaces—we hit a new high (or a new low): $10.2 trillion. They had to replace the dollar sign space with numbers; plans are in place to add two more spaces. How bizarre is that? We are in way over our heads.

These are the days when you hear preachers say:
• “Jesus spoke more about money than ______” (hell, heaven, salvation, whatever….)
• “Bla bla bla…time, talent, treasure…bla bla bla”
• “I’m no economist, but…”
• “Turn to Malachi 3…”

And, yeah, I’ve said them.

During financial uncertainty, you know what’s the real deal? —Trust.

But honest trust. That’s trickier than it reads. Think of all the things that have to be in place for real provisional trust to work: a good and true heart, healthy measures of self-awareness, child-like faith in a compassionate Father, no guile, a sense of scale, generosity, and a good work ethic. Then you can trust God deeply and honestly. “Provision” is heard differently depending on the “receptor”.

For instance, a message of trust in a Father who provides would probably be heard differently by Dorcas in Acts 9 than the Thessalonian slackers in 2 Thessalonians 3. Dorcas was known for working constantly to provide for the poor; some Thessalonian believers were sitting on their super-spiritual cans waiting for Jesus to come back. Paul laid his apostolic hammer down with this rule: “Whoever doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.” How do you think God would respond to either one who asked for needs to be met?

While it’s true the phrase “God helps those who helps themselves” isn't found in the Bible (credit Ben Franklin for that one), outside of our personal salvation, that’s a pretty pithy proverb. Coming from a “word of faith” background, I had dissed that thought. But the older I get, the more I can see our behaviors/words reflect what’s really in the heart.

And, in the Kingdom, we hear—and receive—with our heart.

You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat… (Isaiah 25:4a NIV)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

shih tzu love

This was the last weekend for our Outward Focused Life series. It ended with a big volunteer fair with opportunities to plug into ministry and serve others.

Had I more time, I probably would have talked a bit about what deters us from being servants. There is an element in our fallen genetics that resonantly whispers with Milton’s Devil in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

I think we’re easily deceived with this one. It’s my daily challenge, frankly, in a thousand little decisions. Or a million points of darkness. I lose sight of the freedom servanthood gracefully brings. There is a false freedom that enslaves me.

One day while sitting at a traffic light I noticed a man walking across a field at the VOA Park with a big Labrador dog. This dog seemed to be having a spectacular time running around him. He appeared thoroughly thrilled to be there with his master, circling him, panting, and ready to do whatever the master wanted to do. There was no leash, but the dog was staying tightly close and apparently having boatloads of, uh, dog-fun.

My Shih Tzu dog, Lucy (don’t laugh…), on the other hand, will probably never see life beyond her leash. I’m fairly sure she has the I.Q. of a carrot. One day I took Lucy for a walk around the little pond at the front of our subdivision. For some wacky reason I thought, “I bet if I take her off the leash, we’ll have a bonding moment. Master and man’s best friend, sitting by the pond together watching the wind bend the cattails and the geese fertilize the grass.” In an idealized moment of insanity, I took her off the leash. Lucy trotted a few feet ahead, stopped, looked back at me and then at the street ahead, and suddenly took off like a bullet.

I ran after her, but with no hope of catching up. She shot down the highway veering out in the middle of the street as fast as she could. By this time I’d resorted to calling her every name possible within the ethical parameters of being a pastor and city decency laws. Or in the immortal words of Ned Flanders, “Ding dang doodley darn it.”

Finally, I gave up and figured I’d eventually see her picture on a milk carton. But someone in the next subdivision was able to grab her. By the time I caught up to them, Lucy’s eyes were wild with freedom and her tongue as long as her abandoned leash. But it’s a freedom that could have killed her because she had no clue of the danger of two-ton SUV’s. Or who would feed her. Or the peril of the pound. And don’t even mention vivisectionists.

The leash is for her safety because she won’t listen to the voice of her master.

That’s the difference between a trust-based relationship with Jesus…and religion. The Law is a leash designed to keep us safe and protected. But true childlike trust and freedom is found in the leash-lessness of grace, when we find ourselves satisfied with the voice of our Master, romping in the fields of the Kingdom with Him, fetching whatever He throws and panting for His presence. We trust Him to keep us safe. We take pleasure in His calling our name.

If God asks me to be a servant—to get over myself—do I delight in that…or do I need some cosmic leash?

Maybe it depends on the choices I make today.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

availability...and reckless faith

This weekend our guest speaker, Beth Guckenberger, told her story of being available for God to use. For the last ten years, she and her husband Todd have lived in Monterrey, Mexico, caring for orphans there with a ministry called Back2Back. On their own they’re raising nine children, a mix of biological, adopted and foster kids. Beth has written a good book titled Reckless Faith. She describes reckless faith very simply: trusting in the Who when you don’t know the how, the when or the where.

Availability is the catalyst for reckless faith. When Abraham said, “Here I am”, he had no idea what would happen next. When Moses said, “Here I am”, he didn’t have a clue what he was getting into. He wasn’t even sure who was talking to. Jacob answered the angel in his dream with, “Here I am.” Isaiah was overwhelmed in his vision by the power, otherworldliness and holiness of God and responds with, “Here I am.” “Here I am” is the ultimate prayer of availability.

And, typical of the Holy Spirit, it usually starts with small things. A first step. Or as Jesus said in the parable, “Unless you are faithful in small matters, you won’t be faithful in large ones.” (Luke 16:10a NLT)

I was driving home one Saturday night at eleven o’clock after a long workday when I stopped at a gas station. After I paid for my gas and pulled away, in the corner of my eye I noticed a car in the lot with the hood up and two guys watching a smoking engine. As I drove home these words dropped in my mind: “Go back. They don’t know anyone in this city.” My first thought was “Get behind me, Satan.”

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But I did immediately think, “I’m beat. And I’m going home. Besides, it’s two guys—they can figure it out. That’s what guys do.” I knew this wasn’t totally true. I’m a guy and I don’t know anything about cars except that when they break down, it’s your testosterone-driven duty to raise the hood and squeeze the hoses to feel good about yourself, especially if your wife or girlfriend is around.

Anyway, I turned around begrudgingly, and discovered that one of the guys was just helping out. He said, “It’s probably your thermostat” and walked away. The owner of the car had his wife and little boy with him. It turned out they had driven from Zanesville, Ohio to Cincinnati to see a Reds game—about 150 miles away. He looked at me and said, “We don’t know anyone here.” I thought “God, you sure know how to meddle.” I drove them around and, believe it or not, found an auto parts store open until midnight and bought a cheap thermostat. That was the problem and he took off. Before he drove off he told me he was raised in a pastor’s home. Then he said, “I knew God would find someone.”

I can't even imagine how God does this stuff.

“A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. Which of the two was obeying his father?” (Matthew 21:28-31a NLT)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Just a quickie for insiders at Vineyard Cincinnati. We are without power because of Sunday's storm...still. The main campus building, the Resource Center, The Healing Center and Student Union buildings are still without electricity. It also means our email and phone systems are down as virtually no communication is possible. I'm still without power at home, so I'm sitting outside of Panera's running on batteries. If you're a bit confused why folks at VCC have been incommunicado, that's the deal; the phone system defaults to a busy signal. Thanks for understanding...we can't be open until we have power.

Monday, September 15, 2008

get over yourself

This weekend we passed out our “Get Over Yourself” scratch-off cards. The vibe was electric. It was a real scratch-off with varieties of different outward-focused ideas to serve others. Everyone took one…and had to do whatever it said. Already people were having a blast.

One woman told us she just laughed when she scratched off hers. It read: “Free ice cream! Give it away.” At the website were further instructions: “It might be easiest if you buy some gift cards from the local ice cream parlor, but giving away free ice cream in this heat is as easy as giving away free ice cream in this heat.” Turns out she actually owns a popular soft-serve ice cream stand and it was their last day of the season to be open. Believe it or not, she gave everyone a free ice-cream—all day—and taped the card on the front of the ordering window. Wow.

Another person told me after one of the celebrations that she knew exactly what her card would say before she scratched it off. She even told the people sitting around her. They asked, “How do you know?” She laughed and said someone had given her a $25 Shell gas card this past week. When she tried to use it, every Shell station she pulled into was closed. She thought, “Hmm. God, am I supposed to give this away?” So she knew her card was something about gas. She scratched it off and it read: “Gas Card Giveaway.” She pulled her card out of her purse and showed me. I, the Great Man of Faith, said, “No way!”

Wow. Prophetic scratch-off cards. Now we’re cooking with propane.

This weekend in The Outward Focused Life series I talked about attitude (“Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had.” Philippians 2:5 New Living Translation). There was another aspect that I didn’t have time to cover; it’s an area that I totally suck at. When we understand we’ve been sent to serve God and others, we begin to change the way we talk. A servant—or more correctly, a slave—has nothing to prove. And so Paul writes: “Do everything without complaining or arguing…” (Philippians 2:14 New International Version).

A servant is free from the need to “one-up” someone, to prove something, to blow his own horn, to be right, to outclass anyone. They already know who they are: a servant to the Creator of the universe. You can’t get a better gig than that.

Here’s my “Mr. Obvious” observation: grumbling and complaining is rampant in the Church. Heck, it’s rampant in me. James said that our tongue is like the tiny rudder on a huge ship—and sets the direction for our whole life. Our words are way more critical than we imagine. Proverbs 18:21 says: “Words kill, words give life; they're either poison or fruit—you choose” (Message Bible). Talk about “small things”.

I regularly forget that there’s a connection between my attitude, my words and my faith. A negative attitude can reveal a lack of faith…and a lack of faith can be exposed by our words. The Israelites were outed by their own words. It happened not long after the escape from Egypt. It reads in the Psalms: “The people refused to enter the pleasant land, for they wouldn't believe his promise to care for them. Instead, they grumbled in their tents and refused to obey the Lord.” Psalm 106:24-25 (New Living Translation). A whole generation died out without receiving the promise. Scary.

What do you find yourself grumbling about?—Finances? A relationship? Your job? It may very well be an indicator of a lack of faith, a refusal to believe God’s “promise to care” for you. And so we grumble in our tents. Seems to me that’s a bit dangerous. Some of us are probably forfeiting “the pleasant land” of God’s peace and rest because of our propensity to complain and focus on the negative.

This isn’t a matter of lying about how you feel or walking around in some state of denial. It’s not about maintaining a legalistic “positive confession.” I’ve been in that tribe; it will wear you out.

But sooner or later, as Jesus put it, “Your words show what is in your hearts.” Matthew 12:34 (Contemporary English Version).

Friday, August 29, 2008

mystery of the kingdom...and trading up

Most of our life is spent trading up. It’s kind of like the stuffed animal prizes at the rip-off games in Kings Island or Six Flags—you can keep playing (or throw your money out the car window on I-71)) and trading up for bigger, more valuable prizes. In real life (that’s not real?), it goes like this: you may have made a lot of personal sacrifices to get the career you wanted in order to provide well for your family. But then you discover that the time it takes you away from your kids is not worth that particular job, so you take a lesser paying, less lucrative job in order to spend more time with little Bobby. You traded up in value; a thing or perceived goal for a person.

Jesus also talks about trading up. In Mark 10 Jesus says: “. . . I tell you the truth, all those who have left houses, brothers, sister, mother, father, children, or farms for me and for the Good News will get more than they left. Here in this world they will have a hundred times more homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields. And with those things, they will also suffer for their belief. But in the age that is coming they will have life forever.” (Mark 10:29, 30)

He’s talking about a serious trade-up. The kingdom of God is worth the perceived loss of things of great value as we understand them. We have even more shocking words from Jesus in Luke 14. After a large crowd had been traveling with Him for a while, it is interesting that the scripture records that He “turned and spoke...” meaning that this large group of people was literally following Him as He traveled around. He suddenly gave them a new criterion for understanding the value He Himself must be to them. In a sobering statement, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Was He telling people to start hating their parents, their families? Of course not. Jesus knew the Law, He said He came to fulfill it—the fifth commandment says to honor your mother and father—and Paul later points out that it is the first commandment with a promise—so that it may go well for you and you may live long.

Jesus was speaking in a comparative sense—weighing those things we value, our families, and He even says life itself, against a dynamic relationship with Him, experiencing the down-payment of the Kingdom of God now. Even our very own breath is not worth clinging to in comparison to what He offers. In contrast to your love for Him, everything else will be as loss. We are again trading up those things that we treasure as most valuable, for something that is far surpassing any riches we might know.

It’s noteworthy that if we consider a simple Biblical definition of the heart as being the center of our affections, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus said “Wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He didn’t say “Where your heart is, that’s where your treasure is...,” but rather, you will find your heart focused on whatever you value most. If we could see the value of this pearl called the Kingdom of God, and could see the treasure that it is, we would soon find our hearts there as well.

But how are we to know that? How are we to understand its value?

This is part of the mystery of the Kingdom of God because it is revelatory in nature. This is the hardest thing to explain. What caused all of the disciples to risk their lives, most of them dying horribly painful deaths for something that had so much value to them? What made them trade up?

And where do I need to trade up?

Monday, August 25, 2008

your will, God’s will, and the screwy mess we make of it all

I was out of town last week and things got a bit crazy, but I wanted to comment on the weekend we talked about complexity. I’ll ramble about this weekend’s subject of mystery in a few days.

When we decided to include complexity as an aspect of God that creates awe, the challenge for me was to not turn it into an apologetic for God. Part of me falls under the spell of Paley’s watchmaker analogy; that is, if you found a pocket watch in a field you would assume it didn’t just happen—it’s too complicated with interdependent parts. Pop über-atheist Dawkins counters this in The Blind Watchmaker. I think it still has street cred philosophically, but hey, I’m just a drummer from Kentucky.

I love books about biological and cosmological systems and complexities, at least to the degree I can understand them. I find it fascinating bedtime reading. I even try to read plebian stuff on quantum theory by accessible writers like Ferris and Greene.

But that’s still about natural complexity. That’s the pocket watch. I didn’t want to start there. The question I started thinking about was the problem of free will…and assume God’s existence and that He has a purpose. Now it gets interesting. Just those four words in the same sentence make things very complicated: free will and God’s purposes. How can that work?

Even if you’re a hardcore predeterminist, it’s still incredibly complex. You could argue (oddly) that predeterminism doesn’t necessarily rule out your ability to choose freely. If you lean that way theologically it just makes God a Boris Spassky on cosmic steroids…fifty gazillion moves ahead and able to checkmate you whenever He wants while all the time you think you’re choosing your own destiny with that cool move of your bishop. Is free will not free will if you’re unaware of the Chess Master? Okay, maybe not in the purest sense.

Anyway, I’m way too Wesleyan for that. Or at least this week. Admit it: there are compelling scriptures on either side of the fence.

But I wonder if this little illustration might be more accurate where the truth actually falls. Think of our brain capacity as the size of a bottle cap (now we’re getting honest…). Imagine two toothpicks placed across it. One of the toothpicks represents classic Calvinism; the other Arminianism—predestination versus free will—in their most primitive forms. Where the points of the toothpicks meet is the actual Big “T” Truth. I wonder if that particular Truth is simply outside of our capability to grasp?

It could be a cop-out.

But how many of us can really understand current theories in quantum mechanics? And do we find it particularly difficult thinking the best and brightest brains among us might not actually understand, uh, everything? Really?

It doesn’t mean we stay stupid. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore the edges of our gray matter. I was stunned recently when I visited Ford's Greenfield Village in Michigan and saw the bike shop where the Wright brothers built their airplane. Henry Ford moved the whole house from Dayton, Ohio (a pox upon you, Dayton city fathers…). It displayed a wing from the plane with a simple plaque expressing something to the effect of: “Sixty-five years later man walked on the moon.” Can you imagine the extremely complicated technical advances in just a handful of decades? Human beings are pretty impressive on some points.

But can we know everything…philosophically and ontologically?

Please. Give me a break. That one started in the garden: “You will be like God.”

Friday, August 08, 2008

the wind in the willows and awe

Really late on posting this one.

We launched a new series called Awe. We want to look at the obvious things about God—authority, creativity, complexity, mystery, etcetera—and how they provoke a sense of reverential fear and worship. I also mentioned how children’s books are great reading for adults, especially the older classics that weren’t dumbed down, preachy, or coolly relevant for the consumer-conscious Frankenstein-kids we’ve created. Don’t get me started.

In his beautiful The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame gives one of the most striking spiritual expressions of awe. It is the feeling of “otherness”, of the intersection of fear and beauty. It is so overwhelmingly attractive and yet otherworldly that they can’t do anything…but worship. They are awestruck and, like Daniel in the Old Testament, all strength leaves their bodies and turns their “muscles to water.”

Grahame tells the story of Mole and Rat launching off in a boat in the middle of night to look for Otter’s lost child, Portly. Rat hears the faint pipe music of Pan, who is the god and good shepherd of the animals. For a while, Mole cannot hear the music…only the sound of the wind through the reeds. They find Portly sleeping blissfully in Pan’s care. Grahame writes:

“Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror -- indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy -- but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper. . .”

“. . . All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?'

‘Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet -- and yet -- O, Mole, I am afraid!'

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.”

That’s a great picture of awe. In this world, ever so often, the wind of the Spirit carries the faint music from another Place and we briefly encounter the Numinous. It leaves us unsatisfied with this world; there must be more. It draws us and yet frightens us. It is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. We sense The Holy.

I wonder how many of us sophisticated, theology-screwed-on-straight believers have really experienced the awe of God?

Monday, July 28, 2008

i sold my soul on ebay

I finally got around to reading Hemant Mehta’s book, I Sold My Soul on eBay. Hemant is an atheist who is still curiously questioning the possibility of God’s existence. He was raised a Jainist primarily by his mother in his childhood, but jettisoned his beliefs when he hit the teenage years. The story of how he felt freer after losing his religion makes the book intriguing. His comments and impressions of Christians on college campuses are worth the price of the book. Though, uh, it was only $4.99 in a discount bookstore in Myrtle Beach.

And then he came up with the idea of agreeing to attend any church for one year for whatever anyone was willing to pay him on eBay…and to honestly listen and learn. Turns out my friend Jim Henderson (who was on staff here several years ago and never short a creative idea!) beat the bids and came up with an alternative idea for Hemant: visit lots of different churches and give your no-holds-barred impression of Christians, church methodologies, styles and traditions. Be honest and don’t hold back. Journal what connected with you and what left you scratching your head. It’s your basic “pay-a-friendly-atheist-to-go-to-church” deal.

The results were a fascinating quick read for us “churchologists”.

Turns out Hement is extremely respectful and an engaging writer. Understanding where he’s coming from, his age, his background and his personality (which shines through easily) make his “reviews” easier to process. The churches that he felt spoke a clear engaging message may surprise you…and make for great questions. I heard one of his interviews on NPR some months back along with Jim and was captivated by the story.

Here’s the bottom line for me: if a church’s mission statement defines weekend services to be focused on believers, the sacraments and “family business”, then one can skip this book. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, as long as there are other methods of evangelism taking place. But if a church claims their weekend services are one of their primary ways of reaching not-yet-believers, then this book holds invaluable insights for a particular demographic.

And be careful, you Joel Osteen-bashers; that chapter alone will bend your gray matter. Yeah, there’s the obvious: did Hement hear a clear call of sacrificial surrender or did he simply respond positively to a “feel-good” message? Interestingly, he says he heard the gospel message, both obvious and between the lines. But the package was enough to pique his heart…and even get his Jainist mom reading Your Best Life Now and watching Lakewood on TV each week!

Atheists and Jainists watching Joel Osteen? Wow. Different strokes for different folks.

But it got me thinking…

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

why does God get offended?

Have you ever wondered why certain things offend God? I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately. Why do some particular things appear to bother Him and others don’t?

According to apologists, we should know the things that offend God even if we don’t have “The List”. They argue the case for an imbedded code, a moral law that is hardwired in our psyches. The apostle Paul makes the argument himself in the opening chapter of his Roman letter. For instance, we know that taking things from other people is wrong; it’s built in; we simply know it. If there’s a common thread in the ethics of the world’s great religions, it’s the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, treat people the way you would like to be treated in life. Even as I write that I’m reminded that the Church, myself included, has failed miserably in this simple chief moral imperative. Think respect.

But is that how God did it? Did He choose the things that offend Him because they hurt other people? If that’s the case, then the primal moral code of our brave new world is true: “It doesn’t matter what you do in the privacy of your own home as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” But that’s oddly devoid of the supernatural. What if things we do in our privacy—that seemingly don’t hurt others—hurt God somehow?

The question is: Why? Why would it bother God?

Let me start with an extreme example. Stop here if you’re easily offended. But extremes force us to stretch out thought-boundaries.

Suppose there was a man who enjoyed having sex with a sheep. He lives in the country; the nearest house is a quarter mile down the road. He takes good care of the sheep; feeds it well, grazes it, grooms it. The sheep is well-loved. Periodically, he brings the sheep inside and has sex with it. The sheep doesn’t seem to mind. And the man seems truly happy and never abuses his sheep.

No one knows about his fetish. He lives alone. He’s well-liked, has a disarming sense of humor and volunteers with food drives and charities. He’s a good neighbor.

So what’s the problem?

Though bestiality is condemned by the world’s religions and shunned in society, why? As long as it’s done privately and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why should it matter?

We could say it goes against nature, but again, why? If it’s damaging to the species (though cross-species copulation seems to have a built-in failure mechanism in terms of replication), what if the man practiced safe sex and wore protection? Of course, you could say that if everyone did that, the human species would die out. But is God simply the guardian of species, insuring that we propagate and populate the planet? And even if twenty percent of the population had their personal sheep gigolo, would that be enough to offset the balance of births and deaths? I’ll let the statisticians figure that out.

If God’s rationale for morality is simply evolutionary in scale, if He’s only the guardian of the species, then ethics have only a rational, Darwinian purpose. But what happens when technology yanks the rug out from under that? If children can be produced in a test-tube, then our sheep-loving man could have human children in a variety of ways without ever having contact with another human. Who needs a morality beyond “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else”?

If we say, “That’s just not how God designed the human machine to work”, and we don’t want to think this is all purely naturalistic, then we’re implying there are psychological and social elements to consider as well. But suppose the man was given a barrage of psychological tests and was found to be fairly content and functional, at least no more or less than the rest of his neighbors who wrestle with family dysfunctions, social interaction, personal value and worth and everything else use to measure emotional health.

So why would the man and his sheep offend God’s sensibilities?

Take a more common example: pornography. As long as it’s private, doesn’t affect others, and practiced in moderation, what’s the problem? No problem…until we bring God into the picture and we’re forced back to this question: why would a person viewing pornography offend God?

Or go even less extreme: your very own private thought life. What if you never purchased pornography, never entertained the websites, and never mentioned it to your family…but had an active fantasy life? What’s the problem with that? Apparently it’s a problem for God; Jesus said frankly you’re in trouble if you even look at a woman lustfully. Just reminding ourselves that God knows our thoughts is sobering.

But why do those things offend God?

What if our scales are all wrong…and the current standard of “happiness” is not the plumb line for God’s morality? Face it: none of us want to deny anyone else their happiness as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Right? I mean, isn’t the “pursuit of happiness” built into social fabric? Yes, but how do we define “personal happiness”? Maybe Joseph Goebbels had more happy days than unhappy ones. Ah, then we’re back to “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else” and Joe really dropped the ball on that one. But come on: is “not hurting others” the best definition we can come up with for ethics, let alone happiness?

Take any number of private issues that seemingly don’t hurt others.

What if there is more to the spiritual side of morality that goes beyond the naturalistic or emotional components? And what does that mean? I know it sounds noble to simply say, “That’s what the Bible says so I believe it”, but that won’t work as a cultural apologetic. I think we really need to dig into what a “spiritual ethic” means…and go far deeper than “the Bible says so” or conversely, “whatever makes you happy”. I think it will take some theologian smarter than me to clarify this one.

I was talking about this the other day with my oldest daughter Rachel and her boyfriend Tyler. She suggested the idea that God is like an artist, say, a painter. No artist likes someone else to paint over their creative work in whatever style, colors or technique they want; that would be offensive to the creator-artist. Imagine a graffiti artist adding a personal touch to Seurat’s Grande Jatte…perhaps “Pointillism Sucks” spray-painted across the lawn. Maybe the Ultimate Cosmic Artist has created a picture that reflects His glory and imagination, each brush stroke intentional and well placed. Perhaps it’s even a work in progress, and when we add the colors and tones we prefer, we insult the mind, personality and creativity of the artist. Or at least smudge what He considers a masterpiece.

And maybe that’s why some Christian thinkers are calling “beauty” the New Apologetic.

Monday, July 14, 2008

word up

Here's a cool site...and a revealing one. Wordle takes seemingly any amount of text you throw into it and creates a graphic picture of your most used words. The larger the font graphic, the more you used it. I suppose it axes ubiquitous connectors and less essential words (“a”, “and”, “the”, etc; think Strong’s Concordance, perhaps).

But it’s revealing to see the words you use most. I threw in the entire text of my book and this is what I got…

Uh, I suppose a book on outward-focused living should feature Jesus, God, People and Love pretty prominently. But I was almost afraid to throw in a transcript of one of my weekend messages. I couldn’t resist. This was my last message at VCC; it was on leadership and integrity…

Interesting, eh? Try it yourself. You can even simply type in your blog URL; it will track down everything you’ve written and create an original piece of art from the key words in your ramblings.

Revelatory. And scary fun.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

naked lunch theology

Taking a break for the next three weeks…blogs may be spotty.

It was fun coming to the Vineyard last weekend as a civilian, trying hard to not think about what’s working and what’s not. Thought the worship time was beautiful; especially when the video for “You Wait” came on the cyc. Wow. Moved to tears.

And then Joe knocked it out of the park. There was a fabulous balance of metaphor and didacticism, of self-effacement and God-confident insight. I was hooked. I left thinking, “Okay, I’m probably a little biased, but I love this church.”

I wondered what it would be like to not like your church, to not get genuinely excited about what God was doing in and through the people there. To not have your heart inexplicably and mystically woven together with others. Don’t get me wrong: of course there are things that drive me crazy. Heck, there are even people who drive me crazy (duh, yeah). But it’s like my family.

Yeah, that one; the one from Kentucky.

And then the flash of the naked lunch (as Burroughs put it: “the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”): you see how screwed up you are yourself. It suddenly becomes crystal clear: we’re all in need of Big Time Redemption. It is one thing to really see how screwed up you are; it’s another to see how passionately loved you are. And that brings us to Paul’s pointed prod: forgive as the Lord forgave you. Or, as Jesus turned it around, “He who has been forgiven little loves little” (do prophets/messiahs all drink from glasses half-empty?).

Funny how that works: the more I recognize my own need and God’s delight to fill it, the more capable I am to love others.

Do you love your church? Why?

No, really: why?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


I talked about leadership last weekend.

Sometimes people who know my background ask if I ever thought I’d be the leader of a megachurch. It seems like a funny question; I’m not sure what’s going on in my heart when I hear that. And I think I question the questioner. That’s probably not good.

Eons ago I played in a little vocal-driven acoustic group consisting of a steel-six-string guitar, a classical guitar, a violin and hand percussion. I had just become a Christian. I had been playing bar-band rock music for years before that, but as a drummer mostly. I picked up classical guitar and a little keyboards to be able to write. Anyway, some of our music was original, some was music that would be atypical for an acoustic group to do. For some reason we were asked to play at a “Night of Gospel Music”-type event. Yeah, it sounded scary to me too. I have no idea why we were invited, but there we were with our eclectic little group of freshly-saved-hippie-Jesus-freaks. Afterward, some guy from a quartet came up and said, “Thanks for coming. Your music was, uh…unique.”

Maybe that’s a little how I feel now.

It’s not like I woke up one day and thought: “I want to be the pastor of a big church.” I think I came kicking and screaming into “pastorship”. But it’s a funny thing about spiritual gifts; most of us have probably been operating in our gifts and calling for some time…before we had any official title. For instance, I realized that in group settings and after concerts I loved talking with people and watching the lights come on; there was an element of classic pastoring happening. I loved researching, prepping and delivering Bible studies as well. It seemed to me that people were engaged and responded positively. Plus, I was energized by it; it wasn’t draining to me at all. I loved seeing people think differently and having “aha” moments spiritually.

Even more, I lived for the moments of leading someone into a relationship with Jesus. In my first civilian job after I became a Christian, I had tons of ongoing conversations with people at work who didn’t know Jesus. I became the resident go-to guy for “all-things-spiritual”…and I was less than a year old as a believer! Yeah, it seemed funny to me, too. But when someone’s family member is facing surgery and maybe, just maybe, they could use some prayer…or someone is p.o.’d about the guy on Fountain Square with a bullhorn telling people they’re going to hell, guess who would have those conversations?—the hippie-Jesus-freak who loved to talk about God-stuff. Necessity trumps discomfort. And after all, they didn’t know anyone else who seemed to like talking about Jesus

You’ve probably been operating in your calling for some time. At the Vineyard, it’s always been less about titles and more about creating space for people to function in their gifting.

Everyone is different, but for me, leadership has always sneaked up on me. And honestly, the best things in my life were the things I seemed to be invited into. That’s odd because that doesn’t sound like classic leadership. But it works if the invitations are coming from God. As I said last weekend: everyone follows…and everyone leads.

By the way, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have to develop and nurture the leadership-factor. Oddly, the older I get the less assured and confident I am. That’s why it’s critical for me to find opportunities to get around people who are more adept at this leadership-thing than I am. I can’t afford to leaderslip.

And I hope my discomfort is because I’m crawling near the edges.

And listening for God’s invitations.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


We just finished Summer of Service '08 here. SOS is a four day/five night serving-oriented experience for middle school and high school students. This year over 800 students came from all over the Midwest from sixty-five different churches and nearly twenty different denominations. Each day about twenty school buses would pull up and take students to eighty-five different outreach locations and for the next four hours students served in a myriad of ways, from painting murals in the inner city to giving free water bottles away at intersections to cleaning restrooms in businesses to framing four houses for Habitat for Humanity and on and on. Some special teams (The E2 Project) that were overseen by our prayer leaders prayed together for an hour and journaled any impressions or pictures they had. Then they put those together like a puzzle and took off in vans for some “treasure hunting”…with amazing results.

It takes about seven-hundred volunteers to make SOS work. It humbles me to learn that people take vacation time to serve the students. In the end, over 90,000 people were touched in Greater Cincinnati in some way.

In the mornings and evenings we blew the roof off with high-octane worship. To see hundreds of students worshiping Jesus and giving thanks for another day of serving is terrifically moving. We finished Friday night with nearly seventy baptisms.

How did we miss the power of servanthood in the Church? I’m convinced it will be the most attractive thing about the Church in America in years to come. Not our rightness. Not our politics. Not our arguments. Not our numbers. Not the volume of our voice.

Just servanthood.

I’m convinced this is a prophetic word from God.

I met with a guy at the Vineyard who grew up in a legalistic church background. He was shocked the first time he came. After a few weeks, he emailed me and wanted to grab a coffee. When we got together he said: “Dave, I feel like I’ve been born again again.”

I said, “Uh, I have no idea what that means.”

He went on to say that when he gets there at the 8:30 celebration, there’s hot coffee—and even decaffeinated—waiting for him that he can take into the auditorium and relax with. Then he said it hit him one morning: someone got up really early and made that to serve people who would be coming in. And then he noticed all the people serving others with smiles and then began to hear stories of simple outreaches of people serving others outside the walls. Then he totally shocked me when he said, “I just never put ‘the gospel’ and ‘serving others’. I never put together ‘church’ and ‘servanthood’. It’s changed my life…and now it’s all I see in the Bible—the servant-heart of God. I feel like I’ve been born again again.”

And that was just serving in the church. Think what happens when that’s turned totally outward. Beyond the walls.

Paul the apostle wrote to the church in Philippi and said, “Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a servant and appeared in human form. Philippians 2:5-7.

How did we miss that? How did we end up with a church in America that whines about its rights and what the man is taking away from them? Please.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” ~Jesus…the God of the Universe.

Yeah. That God.

Monday, June 16, 2008

baggage drop

This final segment of the Baggage series on unforgiveness made it tough to actually watch the faces of some folks sitting in the auditorium. I can watch people drop their heads as the subject unfolds. Forgiveness is dicey. Sometimes I’ve gone through the forgiveness process (both asking and offering it) and the cancer in my soul seems to slip into remission.

But something triggers a memory and pain sears my psyche as the cancer flares up again. I inexplicably remember when I hurt someone, or the act that hurt me. Forgiveness is slippery on either side of the hill.

David Augsberger paints a classic story in his book, “Caring Enough to Forgive”. A friend divulges:

“‘I called home to see how my father was recovering from his heart attack only to discover that my mother was now in the hospital. At first they wouldn’t tell me what was wrong; finally my sister let it out that she was in the psychiatric ward after taking an overdose. ‘We didn’t call you or tell you because you don’t care about the family anymore, you’re too good for us now.’

“‘I have never been cut so deeply in my life. I didn’t sleep for two nights. My sister doesn’t know I’ve been sending a fourth of my paycheck home each month to help cover the expenses for Dad’s hospitalization. She doesn’t know how often I call home, so what she said is not just unfair, it’s really untrue.

“‘I prayed about it a lot, all night, in fact. I decided I’d never say another word about this to her. After all, she’s been carrying quite a load at home. I’ll just forgive her.’

Augsberger writes:

One-way forgiving seems generous, thoughtful and sacrificial. It’s generous, but not truly genuine. It’s thoughtful but not thorough. It’s self-sacrificial, but the sacrifice is seldom sufficient to restore the relationship.

. . . Any view of forgiveness that focuses primarily on getting release fro one’s own conscience (‘It’s obviously not my problem, I’ve forgiven him’), escape from guilt (It’s clearly his attitude that separates us, I’m forgiving’), freedom from responsibility (‘There’s nothing more I can do than what I’ve done, he’s forgiven’), is too easy, too cheap. The goal is community restored, not private perfection maintained.

When ‘forgiveness’ ends open relationships, leaves people estranged, don’t rush to it, it’s not forgiveness; it’s a face-saving, self-saving, time-saving escape.

I would like to have spent more time on the weekend talking about the actual process of forgiveness. I’m an old guy; sheer life-experience as an old-guy-pastor gives you lots of opportunities to ask for forgiveness for everything from things said in a message (the power of the microphone is, uh, intoxicating sometimes) to difficult interactions with a large church staff. I should be an expert at this.

Like Augsberger, I’m suspicious of quick forgivers. I don’t think they’re really in touch with their anger or pain. I think they’re just in “religious mode”. But don’t wait too long either. Don’t let anger fester into bitterness. Pray seriously. Ask God to help you with the timing. But do it. Forgiving a deep wound is like the layers of an onion—you forgive and peel off a layer. Later on, you discover something a little deeper, and forgiveness is experienced at a greater depth. It’s not really repeating as much as it is deepening.

But no matter what your level of expertise is, it still doesn’t make it easy.

It makes sense why Christian writer Philip Yancey would write, “The only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative.”

Hope you were able to drop some baggage.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

planet willow

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking at Willow Creek this past weekend. It was their “ministry fair” weekend where they hope to get people plugged into serving opportunities. They asked me to speak on servanthood. That’s like crack to my soul. They even used The Outward Focused Life book cover for their program.

I think the talk went well. People seemed really engaged…and they laughed a lot. Bill Hybels seemed particularly pleased. I took a couple of videos: the $1 Car Wash and The Good Sam Run footwashing. Both were hits.

For what it’s worth, here are my quick observations as an outsider.

First, the obvious: this is an extremely focused church…in everything they do. Bill Hybels and team have created an environment that has a high regard for excellence. But it’s not excellence for excellence sake, like some cranky perfectionist. They clearly are not about putting on a good show for the “church”; it’s to shake the preconceptions that not-yet-believers often have of Christianity and Christians. They’ve been at it for twenty-eight years and have never moved off their core mission of “turning irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus” and a key component to that has been the way they use the weekend service. What a great credit to your organization to stay true to your mission over several decades. I love intentional and missional churches.

Second, they are way unappreciated for what they do for the under-resourced with both charity and systemic justice stands. A lot goes on behind the scenes; it’s easy to take potshots about brick-and-mortar and make assumptions, but Willow doesn’t trumpet all the massive good they do. I’ve never understood the raking they take in cyberspace…while rarely hearing about all the good that’s been done by them globally. Not to mention the huge resource they’ve been to the church-at-large, simply in the area of leadership alone.

Third, I experienced extremely warm hospitality. Heck, I’m a nobody—and yet I was treated royally. It was easy to sense a servant-attitude in the staff and tech folks. My respect goes through the roof when any organization treats outsiders well. When I’m getting to know someone who may be a potential hire for VCC, I like to take them to a restaurant to talk and watch how they interact with servers. It can be a deal-breaker for me. It actually fascinates me how little eye-contact people make with their servers. It must be a subliminally Victorian hangover: don’t acknowledge the servants. That’s a tell-tale clue that I won’t work well with them. I want a servant-hearted staff. Period.

Last, it seemed as though a number of changes were being experimented with. I love that in churches. When honest effectiveness trumps methodologies, I get excited. “We’ve-never-done-it-like-that-before” is the death-knell for churches. It’s not about scrapping routine for the sake of scrapping routine. But it is about questioning your current effectiveness as it relates to your bottom-line mission. Author Daniel Schaeffer tells the story of a young couple with a new pup who chased and barked at a baby squirrel trapped in a tree. When the squirrel jumped to another branch, it missed and fell right into the mouth of the very happy dog. The couple reported that for the next fifteen years, the dog would sit underneath that same tree looking up waiting for another squirrel to drop out of the sky, which, of course, never happened. Psychologist Gary Oliver’s definition of crazy is “to find out what doesn’t work and keep on doing it.” Sometimes I think we function like that in churches.

I don’t know how long they’ve been experimenting with this, but Willow did a full 20+ minutes of worship in the front end of the service. That’s a move away from more performance-oriented message-themed music presentations. Their midweek New Community (believers gathering) is going away to be replaced by classes that fit different spiritual lifestages. Most of what we do in churches runs in cycles; but hopefully because we’re exploring new avenues for spiritual development and evangelism. I applaud them for trying different things.

And don’t even go to: “Gee, we’ve been doing that for years.” How effective have your outreach efforts been? How many people have found Christ through your church’s services? Maybe we need to challenge the status quo of our own methodologies regularly.

Anyway, it was quite a weekend. My wife and I had a spirited talk on the six-hour drive home, comparing notes and thanking God for opportunities that sneak up on us.

Hats off to Bill and the gang for being fearless, taking the heat when the rest of us slip under the radar or are still staring up at the tree branches, and for displaying big-time missional, personal and organizational integrity over all the years.

Keep the faith, Creekers.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

more baggage

Amazing weekend this weekend. If you weren’t here, it wasn’t just because of the life-changing message (uh, yeah…). Or the great worship set (love that classic Brown/Baloche song “Praise Is Rising”). Or the funny Closet Tuba Player video (even though our creative crew had the police called on them…). Or even the late great Johnny Cash singing the beautiful Trent Reznor (NIN) song “Hurt” over the pictures of Frank Warren’s PostSecret postcards (he changed a few choice words).

Yeah, that was all cool. But that’s not what made it amazing.

It was the preview opening of The Healing Center.

Wow. What an amazing thing God has done. A crazy multi-million dollar facility for the poor and poor in spirit. That should pretty much include anyone. I mentioned it in a couple of the celebrations, but the best line of the weekend was from one of our Healing Center staff members on Saturday night. “I can’t wait for our ‘regulars’ to see this,” she said. By regulars, she meant the families who are going through tough times that come in and both receive services and volunteer and have become part of our community. She went on, “I know what they’ll say. They’ll look around and say, ‘You built all this for us?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, God did.’”

Dignity. Kindness. Acceptance. Hope. Warmth. Grace. And the inexhaustible power of God. That’s what we want people to experience.

We have a week to move in, train, get settled in, finish up construction, and then open. It’s God gift to this city.

I had so many people ask this weekend, “What’s it feel like to see your dream realized?” It sounds like I’m trying to be cool and humble when I say this, but I really don’t see it like that. It really is God’s thing. I really believe it would have happened no matter who was sitting in my chair. He had already spoken to others similar things. And honestly, without the plethora of different teams at VCC who worked on it, it wouldn’t have happened.

Any one of us can have a Big Idea; you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to have a Big Idea. And there’s no shortage of Big Ideas. But when an idea lights up people’s eyes…then you know you’re surfing a God-wave. Bigger than us, bigger than one guy’s thought, bigger than a church. Seriously, more than once I’ve wondered how God feels? Is He excited?

Anyway, I was actually pretty numb this weekend. Not sure what that’s about. It’s funny, but over the last year I’ve walked through that building by myself several times and started crying. But this weekend, I was just kind of numb and a little tired.

But it happened Sunday night when no one else was around but my 81-year-old mom that I picked up in Kentucky and walked her through. As we passed through the assessment area, I began to cry again.

I can’t figure out how this works.

Don’t miss Joe this weekend talking about The Disillusioned Family. I’ll be up at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago speaking…talking about you guys and your hearts to serve. Life is filled with surprises, eh?

Monday, May 19, 2008


This weekend we began the series Baggage…what we believe are the five most common dysfunctions in families. We’re using Jacob and his family in Genesis as the poster boy. For all five. Although if you looked closely at the baggage pictures on the projection screens, you would have seen my initials on several of the pieces. No kidding. Jacob, schmacob—I could have used the Workman family tree.

Though this week was about The Controlling Family, I wish I could have spent some time on blame. Blame is a power tool for The Controlling Family. I would have talked about genuine blame and false blame as it relates to both others and God.

For instance, when someone has authentically hurt you, it’s okay to assign blame. To not do that is to deny your own pain and reality. But blaming isn’t the destination. If you stop there, you stifle the flow of the Holy Spirit. And whether the controller/person was intentional or not, you still have to go through the same process: forgiveness. Whenever possible, let them know how they’ve hurt you; don’t enable people to continue destructive behaviors. But regardless of how they respond, you have to move toward the process of forgiveness. It’s releasing someone from a debt they can’t pay.

And if you’re on the blame God track, you might as well get off. You won’t get anywhere with that one. The way we have to relate to God is with truth. There are times when I’ve just had to say, “God, You’re good” when the evidence seemed to the contrary. It begins with openness to God—spill your heart out, vent, get angry. God can handle that. But there’s a point where we must admit we don’t understand…and stop questioning His goodness. Hey, I haven’t sacrificed any of my kids for convicted criminals, so I’m not even in the same moral universe as God.

On the other hand, if God can genuinely blame me for an intentional screw-up, I must have one response: repentance. Repentance is owning responsibility and asking God for forgiveness. God has installed a fail-safe reconciliation strategy in His covenant when we screw up: If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

And here’s how: Jesus became the Ultimate Blame-Bearer

My favorite prophecy regarding the messiah is Isaiah 53. Isaiah prophesied about a coming King who would rule the nations. But also be a man of sorrows, a king of pain. Isaiah writes: Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6

God has somehow taken all of the blame that is rightfully ours and placed it on His son Jesus. Ever heard anyone called a scapegoat? That’s actually rooted in the Old Testament. On Israel’s national Day of Atonement, the high priest would be presented with two goats. The first goat would be sacrificed to make sure people understood the harsh cost of sin. Sin cannot be overlooked; what would you say of a local judge who simply dismissed rapists? Justice demands action. But then the priest would lay his hands on the second goat to symbolize the sins of Israel being transferred to it. The goat would then be led into the wilderness and unleashed...literally the escape goat. Israel’s sins were separated from them in symbolically.

This was all uniquely fulfilled in Jesus who became both: the sacrifice and the one who carries away our blame. We have been unleashed from blame and blaming others. We become mature people when we accept responsibility for ourselves. You can learn that watching Dr. Phil. But that doesn’t bring wholeness. We can’t rid ourselves of genuine blame. Only God can do that. The power tool God offers us is propitiation, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. He became both goats: He died a sacrificial death, but came back to life to carry our sins away. Jesus, the Ultimate Scapegoat. It unleashes us from the blame that’s genuine. We receive forgiveness for ourselves...and we offer forgiveness to those who are rightfully blamed for what they did to us.

And we no longer blame ourselves.

That’s when we become whole people. And move toward whole relationships.