Wednesday, December 18, 2013

why christmas is important. really.

Each year it seems as though the Christmas Wars heat up a few more degrees: churches boycott stores advertising “happy holidays” and atheists file lawsuits about nativities creeping onto public spaces. Evangelicals launch their annual “let’s-put-Christ-back-in-Christmas” campaign (how come no group ever lobbies “Let’s put the x back in xmas”?) while the non-religious smirk at the kitschiness of plastic babies in mangers on front lawns with light bulbs up their butts. Contrarian fundamentalists remind us we don’t know the real birth date and Christmas trees are pagan while bloated malls blast “Joy to the World” in food courts to exhausted consumers. And, obligatorily, Time and Newsweek will offer a controversial cover story about Christianity to amp up December sales.

Like a long-lost Hatfield-McCoy reason to feud, what the heck are we fighting about? And maybe that just clarifies the importance of Christmas: the fact that there is, uh, fighting.

When I was an agnostic, I would flail away at the weirdness of Christmas. After all, gods coming to earth and taking on human form was nothing new. Even more, gods who died and were resurrected was a common myth way before Jesus.

In Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis describes a moment when he began questioning his atheism:

“…the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’ To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it— ‘safe,’ where could I turn? Was there then no escape?”

No sane historian discounts that someone of some influence named Jesus existed. They may throw out the supernatural elements and relegate accounts to fanciful stories, but clearly someone named Jesus created a stir. And interestingly, only after he died.

But who creates a stir for two millennia? It’s not like an artist who was ignored during a lifetime but whose paintings are later revered. This one made claims not about what he created but who he was. Who does that and is remembered? Who never wrote a word, never traveled more than a few miles from home, had their first trained mentees desert them, and yet changed the course of human philosophy, culture and future? Who changes calendars?

From Bach to Bono and Kepler to Collins and Michelangelo to Fujimura, the arts and sciences are indelibly inked with this man’s influence. Indisputably.

When barbarians overthrew the powerful Roman Empire and destroyed any evidence of literacy, it was Irish Christ-followers—monks—that carefully copied every book, scroll and manuscript they could find, both sacred and secular. Jesus freaks rescued more pagan classics than anyone on the planet, the only ones preserving knowledge in an illiterate, library-less collapsing western world.

Who else has followers that have both caused wars and founded pacifistic movements?

Who birthed Calvin and Wesley? Who has a family as diverse as Roman Catholics and Apostolic Pentecostals? Who provoked comedic movie prayers like: “Dear tiny Jesus in your golden-fleece diapers…”

Whether your list includes the good (hospitals, art, Wilberforce) or the bad (sectarianism, wars, TestaMints®), one can’t deny the massive effect. The skeptic, the cynic, the agnostic, the materialist eventually have to admit—if they’re honest—that this all deserves a bit more than a wink and a nod. Christmas—with all its reindeer, retail, and ridiculousness—is still, however disguised, a reminder that something happened. Or better, someone happened.

I remember my first Christmas as a follower of Jesus. I was working downtown and walking across Fountain Square on my lunch break when suddenly I was struck by how much brighter and colorful and more real everything looked. Including the giant Christmas tree. Oh! Now I know who this is really about. I had passed, like Dorothy, from a black-and-white Kansas to the full-color world of the Kingdom. The previous year I had wrestled nightly with this person named Jesus…and lost. That was nearly forty years ago, and He’s still pinning me.

Merry Christmas, fellow pilgrims. I hope it’s your best and brightest yet.

When we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not telling just smart stories that someone invented. But we saw the greatness of Jesus with our own eyes.  (2 Peter 1:16 New Century Version) 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. Okay, a long time. It’s partially due to a crazy schedule over the past several months, and partly because I was processing so much change-management information in my little pea-brain I couldn't do much else.

But now I’m absolutely thrilled that Rob King is here and leading Vineyard Cincinnati in the senior pastor role. His initial introduction can be seen here and for the last two weeks he’s been bringing the heat! I’ll continue on staff, serving Rob in a background role, but with no leadership responsibilities here, including stepping off the trustee board. I’ll continue functioning as a regional leader for Vineyard USA.

Rob just finished up a series called Changeup designed especially for this transition. In baseball, a changeup is a unique off-speed pitch disguised as a fastball. It simply throws the batter off. And the truth is: sometimes life throws us a changeup. And you swing at it. Several times.

The series was intended to help us learn to lean into Jesus when change—invited or not—comes barreling across our home plate. But think about it: there is no growth without change…whether that’s physical, emotional or spiritual growth.

Think of your own life: you were once a comfortable little fetus forming in your mother’s womb. And then after a few months things began to get uncomfortably tight and claustrophobic. You placed a few good kicks…but no one seemed to do anything. Still, it was warm, dark, quiet, comfy and cozy, barring the occasional burrito.

But one day you’re sitting in your living womb and the landlord decides you’re getting too big for your britches (despite being naked) and muscles begin contracting and fluids shift and you suddenly find your head squished as you’re squeezed through a narrow canal and pushed out into a cold, fluorescent-lit room with people in masks slapping your bottom and cutting the cord that connects you to life…and putting a really ugly pastel cap on your head.

That’s change.

Or climbing up the steps of the big yellow bus that would take you to kindergarten and away from your family and more importantly your toys.

Or that first day of gym class.

Or the dreaded SAT test days.

Or the day you left home in a fifteen-year old Corolla with all your earthly belongings in the back seat and trunk.

And here you are today. You made it. Changed.

The Bible says in a no-nonsense voice that: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. And there are seasons for what God proposes to do on Planet Earth. It’s interesting in the Bible that in the major events God initiates to roll out His will—those “hinge points”, to quote Thomas Cahill—it always involved a human being who would make themselves available to God…Who leads them through revolutionary change.

What change might you be going through? How are you handling/managing/avoiding/embracing it? And who’s going through it with you? That may be the most important question, perhaps even more than how you’re managing it. At the risk of sounding trite and formulaic, are you inviting Jesus to walk with you during the change?

It was the Jewish prophet Isaiah who captured these words from God: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah 43:2). But keep in mind that life for the prophet didn’t reflect how we would interpret those verses. Traditionally, it’s believed that under the corrupt king Manasseh, Isaiah was executed by being forced into a hollow log and sawn in two. Where was the supposed protection? What’s wrong with that picture?

It depends how sharp your vision is and how far you’re willing to look into your future. Jesus described a curious viewpoint for considering God’s “protection”. He said, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body (uh, doesn’t being killed sound just a little unprotected?); they cannot touch your soul (oh! I get it now...that's worth protecting). Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” (Matthew 10:28-29)

Meditate on the connection of those sentences for a few years. Whew!

Here’s the deal: If we’re being shaped for God's purposes, not to mention eternity, we have to adjust how we view our current contexts. Who’s helping you adjust your vision? Who’s in the change with you? Wouldn’t it make sense for that to be God, the deeply personal and protector-of-our-souls God who focuses our vision on a Distant Country?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


The Bible doesn’t have a whole lot to say about leadership succession. The apostle Paul describes the selection and appointment of pastors*, but the New Testament is curiously quiet about how and when pastors are succeeded.

In the Old Testament, Israeli kings would come and go by appointing their sons, or by a coup d'état, or death or military defeat. In the work of the tabernacle, the Levites did ministry from age twenty-five to fifty, at which time they were to retire from the work (though they could still assist). On the other hand, David ruled for forty years, implying another question: which leadership context is tougher—government or church? Hmmm…

Like any leader, you want to be spending time thinking about the future of the organization you help lead. In one of my favorite leadership books, The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner write:

“The domain of leaders is the future. The leader’s unique legacy is the creation of valued institutions that survive over time. . . . In fact, it’s this quality of focusing on the future that most differentiates people who are seen as leaders from those who are not . . . It’s something to which every leader needs to give more time and attention.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. I want to see Vineyard Cincinnati continue to advance the mission God has given us way beyond a single generation. And I want to help be a part of shepherding that transition. For a number of years I’ve been concerned about the graying of our church. Our demographic stats are decent in terms of age brackets; you could even call us an intergenerational church. But it’s clear that our largest demographic skews older now, as shown in this graph just over the last eight years (And by the way, if you don’t periodically survey your church, you’re missing a golden opportunity to uncover truth
about who you really are; we do an all-church survey every two years. I’ll take facts over anecdotes any day of the week. If you want a copy of our questions, let me know.). And it’s easy to imagine what we would have been twenty-five years ago, when the average age of our leaders was mid-thirties.

My concern with the median age in the Vineyard isn’t about being the coolest church or the Next Big Thing. God never called any of us to be trendsetters; he called us to be faithful. Big difference.

And it’s not simply about dismissing aging Baby Boomers in our youth-obsessed culture. Everyone needs Jesus, no matter what age.

But we all know the reality: churches that don’t reach successive generations will eventually die. And because God didn’t put a time limit on our mission or call us to one generation of fruitfulness, we have to think hard about the future. So about four years ago I got a prompting from the Holy Spirit that I needed to release leadership to the next generation, to step down from my role.

In February 2010, Bill Hybels flew down with a team to tour the Healing Center; they were concepting a “care center” at Willow Creek and were looking at different models. In the car ride from the airport, I asked him for references of successful successions within the Willow Creek Association (10,000 churches globally) and he laughed and told me he could only think of one at that time. This was new territory…and not just for me.

For years, of course, we’ve had an emergency succession plan in place in case I got hit by a bus—and “key man” insurance in behalf of the Vineyard. But we had no real plan if the bus missed me. And so we began to think about how to identify the next senior pastor of the Vineyard. And frankly, for complex organizations, the how may be just as important as the who in terms of systemic health.

After I met with our trustees, we started having heartfelt conversations with our very-gifted teaching pastor, Joe Boyd (who was 38 at the time), about leadership succession. Together we began to work a process to help him discern his future role. After several months of conversations and prayers, Joe opted out and didn’t sense it was his calling, even as much as he loves the Vineyard and Cincinnati and feels called to be here. But being in the lead pastor role was not what he sensed that meant. We all agreed together.

We’ve ended up using a search firm—Vanderbloemen Search Group—to help surface potential candidates for the lead pastor role. We believe this is the first step of a Spirit-led process and are currently in the early stages.

This year I’ll be sixty. I want to be a part of this process and influence as much as needed and required; I want to be around to help make it a great transition. I have no intention of “abandoning the ship”. I want our next lead pastor to be incredibly successful…and to be their cheerleader and get out of the way so they can lead. My role will change: I will not have a senior leadership role, I will not be a trustee, and will serve the next senior pastor with several potential options in a background role. I have a great staff leadership team and a sharp trustee board that comprises the eldership at Vineyard Cincinnati. We’re in a healthy, vibrant place, pedal-to-the-metal on serving and bringing the Kingdom to our city and beyond. This is an ideal time to navigate a transition.

A scripture I’ve been meditating on lately is John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In the end—just like you—I simply want to be obedient to what God is saying, to let go. My walk with Jesus over thirty-nine years has been a fascinating mix of invitation and letting go.

The Spirit-filled Quaker author, Hannah Whitall Smith, who wrote some simple but profound books in the late 1800’s, penned a fascinating essay late in life:

“People talk a great deal about the duties the young owe to the old, but I think it is far more important to consider the duties the old owe to the young. I do not of course say that the young owe us old people no duties, but at the age of seventy I have learned to see that the weight of preponderance is enormously on the other side, and that each generation owes to the succeeding one far more duty than the succeeding one owes to them. We brought the younger generation into the world, without consulting them, and we are bound therefore to sacrifice ourselves for their good. This is what the God who created us has done in the sacrifice of Christ, and I do not see that He could have done less. He has poured Himself out without stint for His children, and we must do the same for ours.”

Pretty sweet, eh? Lead on, Jesus.

*The terms pastor, shepherd, bishop and elder are often used/translated interchangeably, as in 1 Peter 5:1,2: To the elders (presbuteros: a senior, presbyter) among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds (poimaino: feed, tend as a shepherd, pastor) of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers (episkopeo: bishop) not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve…   (NIV) 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

is leadership a gift?

Have you ever met someone that you thought was a natural leader?

I had lunch the other day with a young man who had immigrated to America at fifteen to escape an abusive father and dysfunctional family system. He worked the orange groves of Florida—“the hardest work I’d ever done”, he said—from sunrise to sundown, paid pennies per ninety-pound boxes. He knew no one there and spoke no English. He eventually found his way to Cincinnati to work at a relative’s restaurant, married a young girl, working two jobs while his new wife went to school to finish her degree. They eventually stumbled into the Vineyard where he discovered Jesus…and she recovered a lost faith. She baptized him last year, tears mingling with the water. He now loves sharing his faith and helping others grow.

As we talked, I marveled at his poise, his articulateness, his drive tempered with a Jesus-focused humility. When he left the table at Chipotle to refill his Coke, his young wife beamed and said, “It’s hard to believe he only has a fifth-grade education, isn’t it?”

I smiled and replied, “Your husband has leadership dripping off him. One day hell lead a church.” I don’t know if it was intuition or encouragement or the Spirit’s prompting, but it seemed there was something special about this young man as it related to leadership.

But is leadership really an inherent gift, showered on us by God…and if so, does that mean there are the “haves” and the “have nots”?

Let me lay my cards on the table first: I line up with the theory that church leaders aren’t born, they’re made and developed…as long as they get good tools, skills modeled for them and are open to the whispers of God. I would find myself in agreement with leadership gurus like Bennis, Kouzes and Posner, Collins and others.

What’s more, if there are not learned leadership behaviors, then what’s the sense of discipling others? If we’re not about developing people who become reproducers of the life of Christ in others, then we’ve got to throw out any notion of the “priesthood of all believers”, because priests are by definition leaders: people who lead others into the presence of God.

But let’s be honest: the famous passage in Romans regarding leadership seems to imply the opposite.

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Romans 12:4-8 (ESV).

It reads as though we each have a specific Holy Spirit-imbued gift for a particular use in the Body. But without taking the time to unpack this and the classic chapters in 1 Corinthians, there are potential caveats. Whether you take this to mean residential or primary giftings, or Spittler’s “dancing-hand-of-God”-gracelets model connected with the “when-you-come-together”-phraseology interpretive key of 1 Corinthians (any gift could be exercised by any of us at any time when we’re together), or simply hard-wired gifts for specific purposes, it deserves a little more thought.

For instance, if I don’t have the gift of serving, does that mean I’m off the hook of having to serve others? Or if I don’t have the gift of contribution, does that imply I don’t have to give…or at least be generous? Am I exempt from showing mercy? I would think these are rhetorical questions.

At some level, we’re all called to lead, as in leading lost children back to the Father. We live in such a way to model a life that will lead others into a rich dependency in Jesus. We’re always leading in some way. Perhaps these scriptures are more about scope or range.

But what I have noticed about leaders is this: there seem to be four attributes of leadership I’ve observed over the years. Not principles. Not necessarily values. But four modes of operating that shift contextually, situationally and continually in leaders. Over decades of leading in various capacities and studying leaders as a follower, I’ve observed four critical inner qualities for successful long-range leadership:

An inner-passion that fuels inspiration and energy. They somehow bring heat to situations and people that enable things to ignite, to combust. People feel the heat around this catalytic element of leadership. Things happen. Every successful leader I’ve known has a fire in their belly for a mission that brings a sense of empowerment and a longing for accomplishment to others. That doesn’t mean they have to have a salesperson-type personality or even be extreme extroverts. But it does mean they have to be able to express that inner-passion for a particular purpose in some communicable way.

A servant-orientation that clearly connotes that this whole thing is not about them. As a matter of fact, the organization, or the mission, or the cause, or the mechanism, is more important than them. They understand innately they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. They regularly fight with and shake off any sense of entitlement, giving life rather than expecting it. They are outward-focused and feel as though they are being “poured out.” Many of these leaders grew up in the organization.

An inner-grounding. There’s something solid, rooted and founded in their character. What’s more, they long for a similar integrity in the organizations they lead. They are driven by principles and values and a deep desire for praxis in their personal lives, their teams, their organizations and their practices. They think holistically about their churches.

A creative-bent. There’s a certain amount of blue sky-ing they enjoy with their teams and leaders. They have no problem with rounding up sacred cows and grilling burgers…or questioning organizational methodologies. There’s a “what-if” factor that fires their neurons regularly and a certain amount of calculated risk that creates organizational “room-to-breathe”. In spiritual circles they are looking for their prophetic voice.

Not every leader I’ve observed is perpetually functional in all four areas, but they recognize the gaps, stir up neglected ones as well as make themselves accountable to the people they lead for all four elements to be operating. They exercise the weak muscles and make sure they have some reflection of each one within the makeup of their management teams. Highly functioning leaders learn how to balance all four in ways that feel both semi-predictable yet surprisingly instinctive and fresh to their followers. They learn to situationally and intuitively recognize why and when one of the components needs to be activated to a higher degree.

The ancients reduced the world to four elements: fire, water, earth and air. Those correspond winningly with the four attributes listed. They are basic, crucial and foundational…and what I would call elemental leadership.

Are you aware of one of these particular elements that needs to be emphasized or amped up in your church, your ministry area, your organization—for “such a time as this”?

It may be that your best leadership opportunity is simply identifying the current gap for the ministry you lead.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

my sister bonnie

A few weeks ago on a Friday, I got a call from my mom who said she was worried that my sister hadn’t returned her phone calls in the last two days. My sister Bonnie lived alone, had been through a divorce a few years ago, and struggled with COPD, a lung disease that makes breathing difficult. Anita and I drove down to Norwood—praying in the Spirit all the way there—and banged on the front door. I ran around to the back and surprisingly found the door unlocked.

Inside I found her; she had passed away the day before. After I called 911, I phoned the rest of our family, then for the next several hours while police were there and waiting for a coroner to come, I found myself in a surreal experience. We left from there and drove to Kentucky to make sure my mom was okay, and left to go back to Mason about eleven-thirty that night.

On the way home I said to Anita, “Maybe I should call Joe tonight and see if he could pull a last minute message out and speak tomorrow and Sunday.”

She asked, “How far did you get on your message today?” (Friday is when I pray and write the weekend messages.)

“I’m pretty far. Another three or four hours tomorrow morning and I’ll be done.”

She looked at me and said, “Honey, you compartmentalize so well, you can do this!” I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but I’m glad my wife sees the male brain’s usefulness. That’s why I love her so much…she can make—as my mom used to say—a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.

Days later I spoke at Bonnie’s memorial service—by default I’m sort of the “family pastor”. What follows is my sister's eulogy...

There were all sorts of memories that I began to unpack this week. It’s funny which ones creep in. I suddenly remembered one Halloween in Augusta, Kentucky when I was probably eight years old and mom was working late in the beauty shop and dad hadn’t come home from G.E. yet. It was dark and I panicked because I didn’t have a costume to wear and all my friends were already out. I hate to admit this now, but it was a big deal then and I think I just laid facedown on the couch.

Bonnie came into the room and asked me what was wrong and then said, “No problem: I know what to do—we’ll make you into a hobo!” She scrounged up some old clothes and found a hat and made my face look dirty with some charcoal like I had just hopped off a coal train. I was thrilled—I had never been a hobo! She sent me out the door with bag over my shoulder and I caught up with my friend Stevie Thornsberry and we were off for an awesome night of high-caloric-junk-food collecting.

I remembered driving her to Pensacola, Florida and staying with our grandfather as she was struggling with what to do next at a certain point in her life. We turned around and drove back home a couple of days later.

I remembered Bonnie letting the whole band I was playing in stay at their townhouse in Atlanta several times on some of our many tours through the south.

I remember sitting with her in the oncologist’s office when the prognosis of cancer was given her. She sat stunned as he laid out a tough treatment plan of chemo and radiation. We prayed together in the car in the parking lot.

It’s interesting what floods back into your memory.

The truth was: Bonnie and I weren’t super close; there was an eight-year difference with us. When I was a little boy I remember Elvis music and her dancing with the doorknob of her closet door the first time we moved to Florence. And those “Far Side” cat-type glasses she wore. And her having the lead role in her senior class play where she played an old forgetful woman. And I have some old 8mm film transfers of her on a float in some parade of sorts in Augusta from at least fifty years ago.

It wasn’t until I was older and looking at old photos that I realized how beautiful she was.

But the memory dearest was after I had left home. I dropped out of college and moved to Cincinnati to play music full-time, living with a band. One night Bonnie came with a friend to a bar in Cincinnati where I was playing. I hadn’t seen in her in a while. On one of our breaks, her friend pulled me aside and said, “Dave, you should talk to your sister. She’s going through some really strange stuff.” That night I drove over to her apartment in Kentucky and we stayed up all night as she told me about some odd things happening in her apartment at night and she was scared. I won’t go into the details, but she had gotten involved in some occultic activity over the years that was beginning to play out in strange and dangerous ways. Being a young know-it-all atheist and materialist myself, I had no grid for the supernatural; I simply thought she was going crazy.

At the same time, even weirder things were going on with our parents. After all three of us kids had left home, mom and dad had an amazing experience with the Holy Spirit and got radically “saved”, in their words. I thought they were going crazy too…because when I’d drive to Kentucky to see them, all they ever talked about now was Jesus. I was sure aliens had invaded their bodies and sucked their brains out.

At one point during this time, mom and dad had given Bonnie two tickets for a movie showing at a theater in Covington, Kentucky. Bonnie asked me if I would go with her. It turned out to be a movie produced by Billy Graham called
A Time To Run. Mom and dad were relentless. Soon into the movie we looked at each other and said, “We’ve been tricked!” At the end, a man stood up in front of the screen and gave an altar call…and we sneaked out the back.

It didn’t help when that summer a new movie came out that was freaking people out all over the country: a movie called
The Exorcist…an over-the-top movie supposedly based on a true story of a child possessed by the devil. The band I was living with decided it would be a good idea to get high and then go see the movie. Twenty minutes into the movie, we were holding hands like little girls. I had nightmares for weeks. But it got me thinking about the possibility that perhaps there is more to this life than what we can taste and see and feel. And if there really was some sort of evil, then it seemed to me that there must be a counterpoint to that. Maybe even…God.

Bonnie came over a few times to the house I was living at in Oakley and would tell me about things she was experiencing that were scaring her, but again, I didn’t know what to tell her because I had no slot in my brain to put any trans-rational supernatural stuff.

She was getting desperate and scared, and so one day I finally said to her, “Bonnie, why don’t you look into that Christian-thing that mom and dad are into?”

I didn’t want anything to do with it, but maybe it would help her!

Some months later she did check out that “Christian thing”…and God did an amazing work in her life. I was stunned. She was the first of the three siblings to surrender her life to Jesus…and she began to change. One-by-one, eventually all of us came into a life-giving relationship with Jesus. It was the greatest legacy our parents could ever give us…and it changed the course of our entire lives and family. None of us were ever the same.

Like all of us, we’re in process; Bonnie had big ups and downs and complexities that only God knows how to untangle. Up until she became so weak, she loved attending Crossroads Church on Saturday nights near her home. A few years ago she decided she wanted to get baptized there on a Wednesday night and asked if I would go with her and baptize her. That was a no-brainer: of course. She had never been baptized as a follower of Jesus. It was a spectacular night. She gave a public demonstration in front of hundreds of people that she was under new management.

Mother, daughter, wife, sister, grandmother, aunt, cousin, friend. We each had a unique relationship with Bonnie…and Bonnie was as unique as she could be: Independent. Generous. Stubborn. Funny. Opinionated. Loving. Puzzling. And not always an easy life.

It was Jesus who told us that in this world we are guaranteed to have trouble; and then He follows that up with: “But it’s okay: I’ve overcome it.” In other words, Trust Me—there’s more to this life than what meets the eye. Everything is heading somewhere. It may not all be made right in our blink-of-an-eye-lifetime, but there’s way more to come.

This isn’t the last page of your book.

It struck me sometime back that I lived under the illusion that if I knew why some things happened it would somehow ease the pain. It would make me feel better if I knew why “stuff happened”. And then it hit me one day: even though Jesus knew all the answers to all the big questions of life, He still felt deep pain. He knew in advance how He would die on a cross, He knew why He was going to die, He knew the outcomes of His closest friends…He knew all the “why” answers, but He was still referred to in the Bible as the man of sorrows.

He wept over the city of Jerusalem. He wept over the tomb of His friend Lazarus. He wept in the garden of Gethsemane as He understood His last hours. And so even if I had the capacity to understand all mysteries, it still wouldn’t keep me from pain, from the sting of a loss.

But as we know, this isn’t the whole story.

But what bothers us is using “past tense” language, as in “remember how feisty Bonnie was”…as if they no longer existed except in our memory. The reality is that Bonnie is more alive now than she ever was in this life. She’s in the sensory-overloading presence of God, joining in worship with millions of people and creatures like we can never imagine, all singing the Song of the Lamb.

The apostle Paul—who had his own fair share of pain and loss—once wrote:

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. . . .Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling… (2 Corinthians 4:7-8, 16-5:2)

In other words, we trade this temporary tent for a permanent house. Two weeks ago Bonnie slipped out of her tent and into a fantastic new adventure. Immersed in a new world, the world that is to come, Bonnie is now face-to-face with the One she had surrendered to many years ago. If she were here now, she would want each of us to experience what she is now: unimaginable joy and beauty and health and power…but even more, that we would have a taste of that now and make a vow to follow hard after Jesus, to give our lives to bringing the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit to others, and to be reunited in worlds to come…joining her in knowing God even as we are known.

When anyone leaves us suddenly, there are bound to be regrets: I wish I would have done or said this or that. But regret has no place in the boundless forgiveness of God. Give all regrets to Him. But what it can do is cause us to shape the way we live out the rest of our own numbered days.

For we are now reminded again that life is fragile. Treat each other kindly. Let forgiveness flow freely. Let’s surrender ourselves completely to God. Let’s remind each other that as Paul said, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Let’s trust instead of doubt. Let’s encourage instead of criticize. Let’s default to faith, hope and love…and according to scripture, love never fails.


Monday, January 21, 2013

for pastors only: my top 5 things pastors should stop pretending to be

This week I read Paul’s injunction in Ephesians 6 to “obey your parents” based on his referencing Exodus 20:12 regarding honoring your parents. Interestingly, Paul paraphrases the commandment with a significant change that could have huge interpretational ramifications. He parenthetically writes that this is the only commandment with a promise, but he changes the wording of the promise, from “so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you,” to “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” I’d never caught that before.

The reason this is significant is because it reflects a view that N.T. Wright has offered in his reading of Romans 4:13 in which Paul again changes the wording of a passage in Genesis. Instead of the promise to Abraham of the land of Israel, Paul expands that to a larger vision: the whole world is the inheritance of the family of Abraham, which now includes Gentiles. Paul says in his Galatian letter that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek and that if we belong to Christ, then we are Abraham’s offspring and “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

Of course this would have significant implications in how we consider the current land of Israel and how we interpret the scope of those covenantal promises. Wright has a lot to say about that; he and others have stirred up no small controversy. But I had never before noticed the same theme being subtly expressed in Ephesians 6:1-3: an expansion from the land of Israel to the whole earth.

But none of this is really my point.

My point is that these inferences require a substantial amount of study, and I have to admit that my time is not limited to simply studying theological stances because frankly, I’m a pastor. And the pastor’s main duty is making sure the mission of the local church is carried out, and primarily that’s finding lost people and shepherding them through the process of seekers to servants. And so we have to lean into the expertise of theologians and biblical scholars we’ve learned to trust. It doesn’t mean that we don’t study; it simply means there are people who only and solely do that as a vocation for the purpose of schooling pastors like me. In many ways, a pastor has to be a generalist. We should best be able to pass on creedal basics and lead and shepherd the local church.

So here are my Top 5 Things Pastors Should Stop Pretending to Be:

1.  Bible Scholar.

Face it: we’re not. Anytime I hear the average pastor or TV preacher say, “A better translation in the Hebrew would be…” or “The Greek verb really means…”, I get nervous. I’ve done my own fair share of hacking Hebrew and Greek based solely on a commentary, concordance, century-old Edersheim material and “Follow The Rabbi”-type websites…and it ain’t pretty. And had people who are intensely schooled in dead languages and Koine Greek call me out. As they should.

While pastors must and should study the Bible, it’s not a full-time vocation for us. We should of course know doctrine, understand the canon and its origins, and be able to disciple people through scripture. But we don’t really have the luxury of spending most of our waking hours studying texts because, remember?—we’re pastors. So let’s stop pretending to be Bible scholars. We can read their work, we can quote them, we should know a few, but we’re not them because we can’t hole up in libraries for hours a day and because we have to be with our people in order to lead them.

2.  Theologian.

The Cliff Notes version is this: Bible scholars study text, theologians study what different voices believe about the text. Trees versus forest. And don’t get me started on Biblical theology or systematic theology. But it requires inordinate amounts of time to recognize the nuances and roots of various theological themes. Not for the faint-hearted.

But the argument is the same as #1. Enough said.

3.  Professional Counselor.

I believe in Christian counseling with all my heart. I’ve been to some. It’s like the old joke: Q. “Do you believe in infant baptism?” A. “Heck yeah! I’ve actually seen it!”

But it’s a black hole for pastors. And here’s why: it will suck the leadership and pastoral life out of you. For one, most pastors don’t have enough serious clinical counseling training and, second, most of us suffer from acute messianic complexes—we think if we try hard enough we can fix anything. But people are complex cocktails of spiritual, emotional, relational, neurological and chemical challenges. And I can guarantee the psyche-vampires will find you out and want to meet with you. Endlessly. And drain the pastoral blood out of you.

Sure, we can do generalized Biblical counseling; we can even cast out a few demons. But take it from me: beyond one or two introductory meetings, you’re probably in over your head. If you really enjoy counseling people—and many pastors do—just make sure you get continuing education and training, network with professional counselors in your area, and realize that your leadership of the church and evangelistic thrust will take a backseat. You’ll have great stories for sermons (uh, if you’re discreet and wait two years before you tell any “anonymous” story), but have less time mentoring and modeling for leaders.

There’s a reason why we do our support and recovery work in the context of groups at the Vineyard…and refer intense one-on-ones out to professionals.

Plus, people seem to get better faster when they pay for it.

4.  The Smartest Guy in the Room.

This is more internal with respect to staff/volunteer/leaders meetings. If you’re the lead pastor, people will naturally turn to you when a decision needs to be made or a confirming or counterpoint view requires expression. That’s your job. But just because you have the position and are potentially the decider, it doesn’t make you the sharpest crayon in the box…and the sooner you realize that, the better. What pastors can be is this: expert generalists. You can and should know a little bit about most things (such as these five roles), but you’re not the expert of any one of them.

Besides, all of us have probably worked for different bosses in different contexts. Did you ever seriously think they were the smartest person in the room? Really? And why would you think differently now that you’re in the first chair?

5. Prophet.

I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be prophetic. And I mean the whole range of the prophetic: from classic foretelling to forth-telling, from proclamations about direction…to encouragement…to exposing justice-oriented issues often overlooked.

It’s just that typically prophets don’t make great pastors. They can have an edge that counteracts invitation. A church led by a prophet will typically end up being a small group of spiritual Rambos. And those who lean into a prophetic-stance can be susceptible to becoming authoritative and controlling, copping a my-way-or-the-highway style. Interestingly, church people will easily give authority to a prophetic personality, but when they’re discontent they’ll more-than-likely pull out the “God-card” as to why they’re leaving the church because that’s the style that’s been modeled for them. A dangerous “less-than-transparent and false-authenticity” church culture can quickly develop.

Prophesy, but circumspectly and humbly. And be on guard for spiritual abuse; we can easily fall prey to it.

That’s it, pastors. Now go do your real job.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

let's talk about guns

I don’t have a clue how the gun debate will shake out. All one has to do is read the comments after any news post about the latest shooting to learn there are intensely polarized and volatile opinions…and rudeness. And then you have the myriad of “lies, damned lies and statistics”, as Twain put it, as both sides parade their best numbers and argue on their behalf.

All tangled up in this is a founding constitution that protects gun rights, an über-violent entertainment-obsessed culture, a broken-down mental healthcare system, and, let’s be honest, a firearms industry flourishing in our free-market society. Wal-Mart is the largest munitions seller in the country—I’m pretty sure it’s not philosophical for them.

But I don’t want to get into the political arguments here. Frankly, I’m not smart enough. And I have no idea what defines a semi-automatic assault weapon.

I just want to talk to my fellow Jesus-followers. The rest of you can stop reading.

I know Americans have rights. I get that. But I want to have a conversation with people who are Kingdom-people before they are Americans. Because in the end, I’m fairly confident when the sheep and goats are separated, my passport won’t mean a lot. Apparently, what matters in that particular instance is answering a few questions: Did you feed Me? Did you clothe Me? Did you visit Me? I’m going to struggle enough with those. And in that particular passage, those are asked before theological correctness.

But there’s more to it at a deeper level. It’s what I would call a “Philippians 2-incarnational Christianity”-issue. It’s when Paul describes Jesus with a cosmic scope and writes:

He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion. Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever… 
Philippians 2:6-9 (The Message)

He had all the power, all the privilege, and yet didn’t claim his rights or cling to his advantages. He was God…and let go of it all. That tells me more about Christianity than just about anything. And Paul writes that we are to have that same attitude. Selfless. It’s not about my rights.

That’s difficult for me to hear…and not just about this particular issue. And this isn’t even specifically about pacifism.

I want to go beyond that. When we are ambassadors of another Kingdom, we have to think hard about how we present ourselves and our Kingdom message to a very confused, violent and lost world, a planet under the sway of a malevolent power the Bible personifies as Satan. So my questions are as follows:

Why does it often seem that American evangelical Christians are the first to lobby for no-holds-barred gun rights, and oftentimes the first to vote for war, and yet say we are representatives of the Prince of Peace, the One who said plainly to not return evil for evil and to put away the sword, who never retaliated against violent men, and whose first followers laid down their lives rather that mount a bloody last stand à la Masada? Do we really think Jesus would fight for His right to pack heat? Shouldn’t we at least be the last ones—instead of the first—to jump on the violence-for-violence bandwagon…or at least be just a little more circumspect? Is this really the best Kingdom representation we have to offer? Even if we believe it’s our right as Americans to own whatever firepower we want, is that really a hill Biblical Christians want to die on and be known for?

I understand the nationalistic argument and I get the ramifications. And I could probably have a dog in that fight…if I didn’t have to first think hard about the optics: how do people outside the camp view my Kingdom citizenship? And shouldn’t I think twice about my Kingdom responsibilities before I respond about my American rights? Am I more interested in getting my way, making my point, winning my argument before I truly take the time to be just a little more reflective about how I express the “Jesus in me”?

I’m the only letter they’ll read. So what’s my loudest message?

Please hear me: this isn’t about “taking anyone’s rights away”. This is about being prudent enough to consider what others hear most stridently from us…and our responsibility as Kingdom-citizens before our rights as Americans.

Perhaps those outside of the faith can argue the other points. And believe me: they will.

“The thing you should want most is God’s kingdom and doing what God wants. Then all these other things you need will be given to you.”  Matthew 6:33 (New Century Version)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

new year, new hope

On a scale of one-to-ten, how would you rate the hope factor in your life?

I have to admit in years past I’ve viewed the virtue of hope as a kind of weaker brother to faith. I’ve thought of hope as in: I hope it doesn’t snow tomorrow...or I hope my boss isn’t mad at me...or I hope I have the winning raffle ticket...or whatever. In the end, it didn’t seem very practical to me; more like “wishful-thinking” than a hard-as-nails virtue.

The apostle Paul—in juxtaposing temporal and eternal issues in life—refers to three factors in the universe that will absolutely last forever: faith, hope and love. He must have thought more highly of hope than I have. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered this: there is a unique power in the human heart that hope creates, a vital ingredient for emotional and spiritual health.

Fairly often I meet with people who have lost their sense of hope. That’s a dangerous state of mind and heart. It can happen circumstantially: a marriage fails, death visits a family, an overwhelming crisis occurs, a personal failure, a rejection or betrayal, a job loss. Something that shakes you to the core…and the struggle to go on seems not worth the effort of dealing with the problem at hand. When taking a next step in life feels more difficult than our emotional capacity, we can say that we have lost hope. Our “hope tank” is empty.

When the apostle John was an old man, he was exiled on an island for being a Jesus freak. While there he had a vision that offers a radical picture of heaven coming to earth. He writes:

I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.” 

John transcribed this vision in a letter to churches in Asia who were undergoing terrific persecution and martyrdom. He knows it’s easy to lose hope when circumstances are unbearably difficult. And so John was infusing them with the virtue of hope. Hope whispers, “All is not finished, there’s more to come.”

For the cynics among us who believe that hope is only wishful thinking, it’s not wishful thinking if it’s true. And it depends what the object of your hope is. If you hope that one day your lost dog will come home, that’s possible if you have a lost dog. But if you hope that one day your lost dog will come home—and you don’t have a dog—chances are pretty sure the dog won’t come home. It really depends on what the preceding reality was.

For those who have surrendered their life to God, they’ve experienced His reality. That is, they’re hope is based on His reality. They’ve tasted and seen that God is good, as Psalm 34 says. They have experienced a truth to base their hope for the future on. Author and pastor Tim Keller describes hope like this (and I’m going to really paraphrase this):

Suppose two guys are hired at a factory and given a job of screwing on caps on bottles on a conveyor belt, one after the other, ten hours a day, every day, seven days a week. The boss says to the first guy, “Work at this for a year, and at the end of the year I’ll give you five-thousand dollars.”

But to the second guy, the boss says, “Work at this for a year, and at the end of that time I’ll give you five-million dollars.”

Who do you think is going to handle that job the best? Yeah, right. The guy making five-thousand dollars is going to give up after a few weeks and say, “This isn’t worth it! This place sucks! This isn’t even minimum wage! I’d rather quit than keep doing this over and over, day after day, 365 days a year.”

But what do you think the guy making five-million dollars will do? How do think he’s going to handle that emotionally? Yeah, he’s whistling while he works, he’s skipping his lunch break, he’s screwing a gazillion caps on a day and he’s smiling. He only has to do this for a year!—for five million dollars!

Interesting thought, eh?

The intellectual and former atheist C. S. Lewis—who became a Christian late in life—once described how suffering can be used by God to shape our character and correct some of the ways that we might avoid God. It can be used to discipline us. That sounded barbaric to Lewis at one time. And then he thought about it and wrote:

“If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place for correction and it's not so bad. Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think it is a hotel, the other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it as quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide that it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is one that comforts and strengthens you in the end. The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world would become pessimists: the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.” ~C.S. LEWIS; GOD IN THE DOCK: ESSAYS ON THEOLOGY AND ETHICS, PG.52

The reality of this world being made new in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God should cause us all to see Christmas—and the ensuing new year—in a different light. The True King has come into the world as one of us, to save as many of us as will surrender to His Kingship, in order that we might bring others along with us to work the works of the Kingdom: setting people free, healing broken people, loving the outcasts, expressing the heart of the King in tangible ways, thereby offering a picture of what is to come.

So let me ask one question: If you knew there was more coming tomorrow, how would you live today? And I don’t just mean “wishful thinking”…I mean really knew there was more than this. It was before Israel was subjugated, exiled to Babylon, and circumstances went completely south, that God said to Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” JEREMIAH 29:11

The Hebrew word used for hope in that verse is tiqvâh, normally translated as hope, but literally a rope. It’s the same word that was used in the story centuries earlier of the Hebrew spies slipping into Jericho. The prostitute Rahab risked her life to safely hide them, asking only that they spare her family’s life.

Before they left, the men told her, “We can guarantee your safety only if you leave this scarlet rope (tiqvâh) hanging from the window.

When you think about it, hope is really just a rope anchored to the future.

On a scale of one-to-ten, how would you rate the rope factor in your life?