Christmas 2015

Christmas 2015

Dear Friends,

We are thankful for all the blessings of 2015, and praise God for his goodness. Here’s a snapshot of the year.

IMG_1163Walter III took a new job with Raymond James Financial Services and Steph continues to work at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. They attend New City Presbyterian, one of North Cincinnati’s church plants. Walter IV turns 2 on January 24.

Stephen and Elisabeth will be moving to Atlanta in the spring of 2016, as Stephen has taken a new position within his company. IMG_0980They are beginning the process now of getting their house ready to sell. Garrett turned 4 on Dec. 6 and Peyton will be 2 on Jan. 22. Becky and I will be making more trips to Atlanta.

I retired from my position as Sr. Pastor at North Cincinnati Community Church on Dec. 31 and began a new position with Redeemer City to City on Jan. 1. It was a year of many changes for Becky and me. We sold our house, rented an apartment, and began looking for a ranch-style home. It took us longer than we expected, but on Oct. 30, we closed on a one story with a basement, still in Mason, one exit farther north. I enjoy my new IMG_1138job, and have the privilege of traveling throughout Southern Europe and the U.S. , consulting with church planters and seeing where City to City can help encourage movements of the gospel in the great cities of the world.

The world is in chaos, and we all long for God to act against the forces of evil and bring peace. Let us have hope. Let us remember that when Jesus came into the world, it was a time of chaos and unrest. In God’s eyes, it was the perfect time:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,  to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Galatians 4:4

God did act to bring peace to the world – in the hearts of those who would trust in His Son. He will bring peace to the world, in His time. May we renew our love and trust in the Son of God this Christmas.

In His peace,IMG_1273

Walter and Becky

New address: 3436 Surrey Ln., Mason, OH 45040

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Summer in the Cities

After a busy spring, it’s been a fairly normal summer, with most of my time in Cincy and two trips to 3 U.S. cities.  We are still in an apartment, and have not found a house yet.  God is faithfully and patiently working with us, teaching us to be patient and to trust him with our housing needs. We tend to be impatient, after over a year of looking. But God has as plan, and we are praying for grace to be faithful and patient.

Becky and I have had trips to our parents in Hurricane WV and Birmingham respectively. We’ve done a good bit of babysitting for our 3 grandchildren, Becky has driven her parents to visit relatives in southern Illinois and I’ve played a few rounds of golf. IMG_0903

On August 2-9  I was in Los Angeles and San Francisco, learning about the leading churches, pastors, and church planting networks there. The first three days were in Los Angeles, the next three in the Bay Area. There is much activity in LA with several church planting networks active in a metro area of over 18 million people. We are hoping to get involved with several of these networks,  to provide training and consulting for future church planting efforts and cooperation between networks IMG_0913to make an impact in the city for Christ.

​San Francisco has a metro population of over 8 million spread out over the entire San Francisco-Berkeley-San Jose area. We were encouraged with the number of churches and pastors interested in the work of City to City and the potential of partnering together to make an impact for the gospel in the Bay Area.

In both cities we had the opportunity to have dinner with donors who are enthused about the work of City to City in their cities and beyond.

On August 24-26 I visited Chicago, again seeking to get to know the city, the church scene, the church planting streams, and the leading pastors in the metro area. Chicago’s metro population is 9.5 million, with large Hispanic and African American segments. Over a three day period I met ​with 6 pastors from several denominations, of several ethnicities, representing several church planting networks.IMG_0914

My trips to U.S. cities have largely been focused on listening and learning,  seeking  to discern where City to City can be most helpful in terms of catalyzing church planting and encouraging networks of churches to work together to make an impact in the city.  As you know, we love cities, because God loves cities and the Bible has much to say about cities. Life on earth began in a garden, and it will end in a city, the New Jerusalem. Meanwhile cities are increasingly where people are gathering and seeking to make a life for themselves. Our task is to take the gospel to and plant gospel-centered churches in the great cities of the world.IMG_0159

The Fall will be busy, and I plan to be more active in posting than I have this summer. There are trips to New York, Dallas, Houston, and two trips to Europe coming up in October and November.

 

Reflections on 21 Years, Part 3: From Failure to Fruit

In my previous two installments I reflected on the early years, which were years of foundation-laying and growth, and the middle years, which were years of conflict and struggle. It seems those middle years were necessary years for pruning, to prepare the ways for amazing fruit in the latter years of my time at North Cincinnati. These are the latter years, up until my retirement from the church in December 2014.

We came to Cincinnati in 1993 to plant not just one church, but several, by God’s grace. However, after nine years, we had planted the mother church, but had not planted a single daughter. In 2003 we sent my Associate Scott Brown to Tempe AZ tIMG_0621o plant. We tried to keep him in Cincy but he was recruited to Tempe. God blessed his work in Tempe. But still no plant in the Cincy area. We finally made an attempt in 2004, but it was a failure. We had to close it down after four years, two pastors, a scandal, and lots of money invested.  We learned a lot. My mistakes and misjudgments were multiple. (Notably, everywhere I go and tell the NCCC story, whether in the states or Europe, pastors and church planters all love to hear about the failure. Much more interesting and helpful than the successes, it seems…)

We learned and did better in 2007-2009, planting three churches in greater Cincinnati (Josh Reitano, New City, Kevin Jameson, the Oaks, Lee Veazey, Grace and Peace). In 2009 we sent another associate, William Plott, to Madison AL to plant. Again, we tried to keep him in Cincy, but Alabama was home, and he had an opportunity he could not pass up. He has done well in Madison.

In 2012, we launched two more in Cincinnati through Associate Marc Champagne (Redeemer) and Intern Chad Grindstaff (Living Hope). We had hoped to sequence them at least six months apart – both were taking NCCC families with them – but the Lord had other plans. They both launched in October of 2012. The mother church was a bit exhausted by this point, but still rejoicing at the new births.IMG_0753

So from 2004-2013, 8 attempts, 7 churches, much praise and thanks to God. The Session was all in, and provided great leadership and support. The North Cincinnati family was wonderfully generous, gracious and enthusiastic about our multiple births over the years.  We gave away a lot of good people and a lot of resources over those ten years. God had exceeded our expectations for fruit-bearing, as well as amazed us regarding our planning and His timing. We had prayed, pitched the vision, talked about church planting, and strategized from the beginning. And nothing for the first nine years – then, an explosion in the next nine. During these years I was blessed with great associates who dropped into my lap, who had the maturity, philosophy of ministry and the experience to succeed. In so many ways, we were out of (our) control and under God’s control.

Lessons learned: 1. Patience and longevity pays. The cliché “don’t overestimate what you can accomplish in five years, and don’t underestimate what  you can accomplish in twenty” applies. 2. Failure and conflict are (usually) necessary for success to happen. Is there a better way to grow and learn?  3. Make your plans, and watch the Lord work. “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” (Prov. 16:9) 4. “Give and it shall be given to you”(Luke 6:38). What we gave away in church planting (people, money, talent), God gave back. He replaced our losses.IMG_0624

Sins to avoid: 1. Pride (“want to know how many…?”). 2. Ambition (“we need more – at the same rate!”) 3. Insensitivity (to the needs of the mother church).

After 21 years, what I’ll miss: staff relationships, leading a team, leading the NCCC flock, the discipline of preaching.

What I won’t miss: the conflicts, putting out fires, being out of ideas, the discipline of preaching.

Regrets: none. I would not trade the middle years of conflict, nor the disaster of a failed church plant. They were absolutely necessary for our church, our leaders, and me, for the glory of God. It was a great run, and great fun. Thanks be to God.

Profile: Athens – the Planters, the Anarchists, and the Movement

One of the great privileges I have is to visit and see first-hand what God is doing in some of the world’s great cities. From time to time, I will ask the church planters that I am working with to pen a profile of their city and what God is doing there. Below is a  profile of Athens, Greece, put together by one of the church planters there, Tim Coomar. Tim is co-founder of the Exarcheia Evangelical Church, located in one of the hardest neighborhoods in all of Europe in which to to plant, where anarchists, students, artists, and political activists reside. The following is his description of what God is doing. I hope it is an encouragement to you. (it’s a bit longer than normal, but it’s good stuff, Tim is a good writer, and there are lots of pictures.)

Church Planting Movement Dynamics in Athens- by Tim CoomarAthens-Santorini 008 - Copy

The Vision Begins

The Greek Evangelical Church has always been a self-supporting and indigenous denomination, virtually from its inception in the mid-1850s. So while there has never been so much of an issue of external dependency, for a very long time there has been a desperate lack of vision. This is evidenced by the fact that the number of evangelical churches in Athens has remained completely static at 5 for decades, with a 6th church being founded a few years ago largely for reasons of expediency (virtually all its members were transfers from existing churches).

This overview comes from the perspective of the First Greek Evangelical Church of Athens (AEEE from now on), which since 2004 has been developing a vision which seeks to rectify this problem, initially within the scope of the ministry of one local church yet with the hope that others will catch the same vision.

Historically-speaking, this vision had a spur, a realisation, and a decision that finally led to a conviction that has grounded everything we have done since then.

The spur was the evangelistic outreach during the 2004 Olympic Games, a citywide effort, in which AEEE played a major role. Athens-Santorini 004As we went out into the city, however, we began to realise more and more just how insular we had become as a church and how little we had been reaching out to the city. In the aftermath of the Games, we made a decision to transform AEEE into an outward-focussed church that sought to serve and bless the city with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Once we had arrived at this decision, it was then only a small step to arrive at our final (and now settled) conviction that the primary and normative way we wished to go about this would be by focussing our efforts on church planting.

One thing that we realised quite early on was that while AEEE was already a well-established institution of 150 years which had resources and could do many things, as an institution it could never reach the whole city. In order to do so, it would need to foster a movement. Leaving behind the comfort of its traditions, the familiarity of its subculture and the safety of its four walls, it would have to send its faithful out into multiple neighbourhoods of the city, to meet the people where they were and to plant new congregations in those neighbourhoods that would consequently be better-placed to serve them and bring the Gospel directly to them in creative, spontaneous and organic ways. These new congregations would also need to be self-replicating in order to carry the vision forward and prevent it from dying out after the first generation.

It was towards the end of this vision-building process that we first came into contact with representatives from (what was then) Redeemer Church Planting Center, who were able to give us further direction regarding how to go about pursuing this vision. We are delighted to be part of the Redeemer City to City global network.

Goals

In the last two years, the vision has taken a more formal shape through the establishment of ‘Polis – Athens City Initiatives’, a foundation set up to coordinate all of the different projects and activities that come under the general umbrella of city initiatives based out of AEEE. The work of ‘Polis’ (http://polis.org.gr – website to be launched late June 2015) is now divided into four main areas:

1) Church PlantingAthens-Santorini 056

2) Redemptive Presence

3) Cultural Engagement

4) Church Planting Catalyst Events and Training Labs

These four areas correspond to where we are focussing our efforts and resources as this is how we feel the work of AEEE will transformed from a few encouraging ministries to a true a city-wide movement and church planting network.

1 Church Planting and Leadership

While the vision for AEEE and its ministry in Athens was initially conceived by the Pastor of AEEE, Giotis Kantartzis, he could not take it forward on his own. A church planting movement requires church planters — lots of them. Fortunately, during this time there was a solitary intern, Alexandros Pipilios, working alongside Giotis (in a denomination which is quite unfamiliar with the practice of hiring interns, or any other full-time staff beyond the pastor for that matter). He was joined a year later by a second intern, Tim Coomar, and together they began to imbibe the vision for the city that Giotis was imparting to his congregation.IMG00026-20110627-0958_3

In the summer of 2008, plans for church planting began to take shape as Giotis officially invited Alexandros and Tim to participate in the vision by agreeing to plant a church together in Exarcheia, a key neighbourhood of downtown Athens (they would do this once they had returned from seminary). At the same time, he assembled a launch team for the first new congregation — a church ‘graft’ based in Glyfada, the key neighbourhood of the southern suburbs. This would be led by Giotis and some of the elders of AEEE until a suitable planter came along to relieve Giotis. Glyfada Church was launched in September 2009 and within four years was established with a stable and growing congregation.

In 2009, a third intern, Giorgos Tolias, had joined AEEE and when he returned from seminary in the summer of 2013, he and his wife and baby daughter relocated to Glyfada in order to take over from Giotis. In the two years he has been there, Glyfada has grown rapidly, with a weekly attendance reaching 80 on some Sundays (from an initial launch team of 30), it has been particularised and is now developing a vision for the southern suburbs, including tentative plans for a church plant in a nearby neighbourhood. In the past year it has also taken on two interns who are both excellent prospects as potential church planters.

In the meantime, Alexandros and Tim returned from seminary in the States (all three attended Westminster Theological Seminary, PA) and in the summer of 2011 relocated with their families to Exarcheia, a neighbourhood whose significance as both a symbol and a center of culture and activism is such that it exerts a disproportionate influence on the city compared to many others. After several months of learning the neighbourhood, making contacts and training an initial core group of 12, Exarcheia Church was launched in March 2013. Exarcheia Church now has a weekly attendance that is creeping over 30 and has been accepted – and even embraced – by a neighbourhood that is widely considered to be the most godless and anti-religious in Greece.IMG00025-20110627-0957_3

Over half of the makeup of the congregation are from non-believing or unchurched backgrounds and almost half the congregation live in the neighbourhood, with relocation in order to serve better the neighbourhood now part of the culture of the church. We are delighted that one of our initial core-group members (at the time a baby Christian) has now completed an internship at Exarcheia Church and within the next two years will head off to seminary in order to come back and plant a church. This coming year, we will have two more interns, one of whom had never attended a church before she joined us and the other a formerly dechurched believer who has really matured in the short time he has been with us.

In terms of other projects, there are two potential church plants in their pre-launch / exploratory phase (in the Kypseli and Neos Kosmos neighbourhoods), one new plant launched in the suburb of Agia Paraskevi in November 2014 (led jointly by Giotis and Alexandros for now) and one revitalisation, a reboot of the AEEE Sunday evening congregation (led jointly by Tim and Giorgos).

2 Redemptive Presence

Mercy ministry has always been a part of the church’s work in a city like Athens. However, we wanted our church members to acquire a constant redemptive presence amongst the needy rather than simply turning up for a weekly ministry.

Exarcheia Church is located in a neighbourhood which is already keenly attuned to the plight of the needy. As such, many of the things that a church might normally do, almost unthinkingly, like feeding the homeless, we were hesitant to do since the locals were already doing it and doing it better than we ever could. We waited and prayed for a way to be a true redemptive presence in the neighbourhood, meeting a need that no one else could. This opportunity arose through a Danish couple who were setting up an NGO to help unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan and who wanted to partner with a local church. There was nothing like this in the whole of Athens and the need was huge. We agreed to adopt the work and they moved to Exarcheia and became members of the plant. Today the NGO, ‘Faros’, has been running for over a year, is largely staffed by volunteers from Exarcheia Church and is winning plaudits from all over the city for the work it is doing amongst refugee minors.

There is a further project being set up in Kypseli along the lines of vocational training.

3 Cultural Engagement

Bringing the gospel into dialogue with the wider culture is something we seek to do both organically – through the work of each local church – and more strategically, through a public-facing forum. Imago Dei is an apologetics ministry set up to engage with modern realities within art, philosophy, academia and pop culture through the use of events and online materials. It is run by Giorgos Kalantzis, a member of AEEE and a PhD candidate in Philosophy.Athens-Santorini 007 - Copy

4 Church Planting Catalyst Events and Training Labs

We know that even if we were to grow into a very large and successful church planting network, we would still never even come close to reaching the whole city. We are nurturing a culture of generosity towards other denominations such that when we find points of contact with our vision we might already be in a position to share our resources and swallow whatever pride might have prevented us from working together in the past. In January 2014 we held a one-day training event on church planting to which ministers and elders from both our denomination and others were invited.

At the same time, we know that it is crucial for the longer-term viability of this vision that more and more leaders are developed. To that end, funding was secured for the first two years of an ‘incubator’ programme — basically a year-long internship that involves teaching and training in the basic principles of church planting and theology alongside a placement one of the plants. We have just finished the first year of the programme and it has largely been a great success. There are at least five more young people lined up for next year’s programme.

Prayer

In all these efforts, the support of AEEE has been invaluable. While the congregation does not fully understand many of the new things that are taking place, they know that what is taking place is far beyond our own capabilities and even the most skeptical are at the same time the biggest supporters of the plants in prayer.Athens-Santorini 068

Insofar as we are able, we are reorganizing our congregations into evangelistic communities and, as such, we are aiming to make prayer one of the central and defining activities that drives our evangelism. Since evangelism is such a central part of the life of a plant, we feel all the more keenly how unsustainable true organic growth is without a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit to convert and spiritually form all the new people we are coming into contact with.

Are we building a movement? Yes and no. We believe that all the work we are doing is like building a fleet of ships… a great resource, but without the Holy Spirit to come like the wind and blow, those ships will remain motionless in the water. That is why we seek first and foremost your prayers.

Reflections on 21 Years, Pt. 2: Growth, Buildings, and Conflict – Outwit, Outlast, Outplay

In March Madness, aka the NCAA basketball tournament, when a team doesn’t play particularly well but pulls out a victory, and the coach is interviewed afterward, he often expresses his relief by saying all we want to do is “survive and advance,” i.e., survive this game with a win and advance to the next round. In the madness of our middle years in the church we were characterized by growth, buildings, and conflict. Becky and I were thankful to God that we were able to “survive and advance” through those years. Because there were times when we were not sure we would survive, metaphorically speaking, and would either run off or be run off.   

The conflicts were not atypical of a young church. We grew, we built a building, and then we had conflict – largely stemming from those issues: growth and our first building project. The details would be inappropriate to describe in a public forum. But the conflicts revolved around issues of leadership, ministry philosophy, building use, finances, and trust, all threatening and then actually affecting the peace and purity of the church. My integrity was questioned, wrongly so, and my leadership was questioned, rightly so. There were times that I did not lead well. And there were those who would have preferred to see someone else leading the church. And thrown into the mix – by a God who loves us and disciplines us for our good- were some rather emotional personal “loss” issues (no excuses here, just life): temporary loss of health, loss of my father, loss of my daughter to marriage, and the potential loss of my church. (I was reading Pete Scazzero at the time, who was encouraging me to “embrace my losses.” From Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, a good read.)
 
  So forgoing the gory details, here are my summary learnings from these trying middle years:
My goal: the peace and purity of the church. I took vows to protect and work for these precious core values of the body of Christ. 
Sins to avoid: gossip, bitterness, critical spirit. I wasn’t always successful in this, confessing much when I could not or did not avoid these sins. God forgave and enabled these to be what they were: temptations to wrestle with and overcome.
Survival kit: contemplative prayer, daily office, praying the psalms (thanks again to Scazzero), exercise, golf. 
Two lessons to internalize: a. Follow the Lord’s procedures, get the Lord’s results (e.g., confession, honesty, not taking vengeance, church discipline, patience, prayer)  b. Perseverance pays. One pastor told me it would take about 5 years to see the major conflicts settled, and he was on target. They did pass. But it lasted a good five years.  The results were positive: the church survived, we survived, the church advanced, and God was honored through the surviving and advancing.  

  One of my mentors said:  there will come a time when your detractors will realize you’ve been there so many years and survived so many challenges that you’re not going anywhere. So either they leave or leave you alone. Ultimately, it comes down to the subtitle of the reality show “Survivor:” “Outwit, Oulast, Outplay.” Don’t take that too seriously, but there’s a bit of biblical wisdom embedded somewhere in there. 

  As difficult as the middle years were, I would not trade them in. I learned, I grew, our marriage grew. My wife was tested and she grew. She was the one who kept saying “God has called us here.”  We both have stories to tell of God’s love and faithfulness that we hope will be of benefit to someone else.  In hindsight, we were being prepared (pruned) for a run of fruitfulness that neither one of us could have imagined. That’s Part Three. 

The Party Capital of Portugal, New City Barca, and (perhaps) Real Madrid

I’m leaving today for a week long trip to Barcelona, Lisbon, and Madrid. This was a trip postponed while I was in the throes of “the discipline of unpleasant things” over the last month. Now we are fairly settled in our cozy two bedroom apartment- which by the way is remarkably pretty and quiet. We have flowering trees out all our windows, and cannot hear a sound at night. We’re starting to cook again and eat in, do laundry and keep “house,” getting back to some semblance of normalcy. We’ve been doing a good bit of babysitting for our grandchildren lately, which offsets the normalcy somewhat, just when we think we’re making progress. They are a delight, but an exhausting delight for both of us.   

I’ll be in Barcelona over this weekend (8-10 May), observing the work of Xavi Memba (on the right below) founding pastor of Ciutat Nova 22@ (which loosely translates into New City Church, located in the lively 22@ district in the heart of the city). Now that I am full-time with City to City, and having spent nearly three years as a CTC volunteer staff, I have a greater obligation to look into all matters of church life, offer the usual encouragements, and make recommendations as I need to. I am no longer in the “check with my boss” mode of operations, having been given increased authority and responsibility as Church Planting Catalyst for Southern Europe. Xavi’s a good guy and is doing a great job, and I always look forward to visiting Barcelona, one of my favorite cities, and spending time with him.    
On Monday I’ll be off the Lisbon, to check on a new church plant in Bairrho Alto, a needy borough consisting of two peoples: the so-called day people, who live and work there, and the night  people, young people from all over Lisbon and the surrounding country, who come to party. Bairrho Alto is THE party capitol of Portugal if not all of Europe. The challenge there is to figure out a way to minister the gospel to both groups, and establish a solid work. In addition, I will meet with several Lisbon pastors and missionaries to put the finishing touches on a conference that they will be hosting in conjunction with City to City, titled “Iberia 21,” a conference designed to equip, encourage and accelerate church planting in the Iberian peninsula. It will be held June 15-17. 

  

Finally, I get to go to Madrid for the first time, to meet some of the leading pastors and church planters there. Xavi knows many of them and will be my tour guide for Madrid. Madrid is one of our target cities, and there is church planting activity underway there. My task on this trip will be to listen, learn, and consider strategic steps forward to help facilitate a network of like-minded pastors and church planters. I’m excited for my first experience with this great city. And if things work out, I may be able to catch the second leg of the Champions League face-off between Real Madrid and Juventus in Madrid on 13 May.  

More on the back end. God is at work. An amazing privilege to see what’s happening in Europe. 

The Discipline of Unpleasant Things

I’ve been off the grid – off the blogosphere – for 21 days, and there is a reason: the last 21 days have been a mix of whirlwind, grind, ordeal, and upheaval…while we packed up our house and moved. Moved. To a new location in Cincinnati. Out of our house of 20 years, into an apartment, while we continue to look for another home. Our house sold in less than 24 hours back in March, and the prospective owners wanted to close the deal on April 24, so we had to find a house in 5 weeks, or find an apartment for the short term. We did not find a house, and are currently in a six month lease with an apartment complex not far from where we were living. So for the last three weeks (longer for my poor wife), we have been in the process of packing up the house and making arrangements to move.  Now in the midst of all this, from April 8-20, to be exact, I was supposed to be in New York City, Europe and Decatur Ala. for City to City work and a speaking engagement at a missions conference. If I would have kept those engagements, which were scheduled long before we put our house on the market, I would have left my wife to finish the packing, manage the move and the find an apartment by herself.IMG_0660

I was a bit slow to realize what that might mean for Becky, but eventually wised up and realized to be gone during that time would be, well, unwise. So I canceled the Europe portion of the trip. (I had to be in NYC for 2 days, then a week later in Decatur for the Sunday speaking engagement. That was doable.) Becky was glad, it was a necessary and good decision, and I made my contribution to the move.  With our closing on 24 April, this particular week leading up to it was the proverbial “game seven”  of the moving experience: pressure, physical exertion (I have a balky back), exhaustion, frustration, anticipation, hope, patience, impatience, ad nauseam. Moving involves activities that I detest. I now have a clear vision of what hell will be like: moving vans, boxes, tape guns, U-Haul trucks, trailers, POD storage units (nothing against these good vendors, of course, they just are part of the image in my mind), constantly moving from one place to another, carrying boxes up and down stairs, cleaning house, carrying away trash…

And yet, for all my bad attitudes and inner complaining, there is redemption (even) in moving. It’s the discipline of unpleasant things. IMG_0615Life is full of unpleasant things, the moving experience being among the most unpleasant. But it’s a form of divine discipline, and ultimately good, as a hard workout is unpleasant but good in the long run. God tells us that “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant”(Hebrews 12).  Amen. The beauty of the realism of God’s word.

The phrase “discipline of unpleasant things” randomly came out of my mouth Friday morning as our men’s Bible study was in the process of each of us sharing what the Lord was teaching us.  I’m pretty sure it’s not original, but it really captured what I have been experiencing, and it resonated with the guys. Our text that morning was Mark 6, the feeding of the 5000, and I saw it from a different lens this time around. It occurred to me (and thanks for the insight from Alan Cole’s commentary) that the disciples were experiencing the discipline of unpleasant things there in the middle of nowhere: they’re tired after an exhausting mission, their private retreat with Jesus was blown up by the crowds who found out where they were, it’s late in the day, they’re hungry, and they really want the people to go away. The disciples were irritated by it all and you can hear it in their remark “this is a desolate place and the hour is now late. Send them away…” Of course Jesus replies “you give them something to eat.” They proceed to organize everybody into groups of fifties and hundreds, no easy task with 5000+ hungry, needy, excited men, women, and children. The miracle of the feeding follows, and everybody’s having a good time. Then, the disciples get to pick up after this gigantic picnic in the middle of nowhere. Think that was fun? Life is not a constant flow of miracles. There are the occasional mighty works of God and the accompanying energizing faith. But in between there is the “discipline of unpleasant things.” We know the value of discipline, it’s all through the Bible.

I often grumble and complain about it.

IMG_0659That’s not good. But it isn’t meant to be fun. And yet it is redemptive. The comfort is that it is good for us, it produces good things, and we follow in the steps of our Master who endured the discipline of far greater unpleasant things for us and for our salvation. Now that the move is over – we closed yesterday and handed over the keys to our wonderful house of 20 years (why did we move, you ask? to get rid of climbing stairs, for us, our aging parents, our grandchildren) – we can get some rest, pray, and reflect on God’s faithfulness to discipline us for our good, that we might share in his holiness, and inhabit His house for eternity.

How do you experience the “discipline of unpleasant things?”

Why I Believe in the Resurrection

Easter Sunday reminds us that that Jesus has come, the resurrection has started, and we are on the path to the new heavens and new earth. There’s a lot to look forward to, as well as the hope today that the power of the resurrection has invaded our world (our churches, our lives), and that our labor in the Lord is “not in vain.” Why am I full of hope? Because I believe Jesus rose from the dead, and is the first installment of the resurrection to follow, for all who believe. Why do I believe in the resurrection? I have six reasons that I find compelling:

1. The empty tomb. It was open, the stone rolled away. There was nobody there. The grave clothes were left intact. The women could not have gone to the wrong tomb. They saw where He was laid to rest two days before. John and Peter came and saw. No body was ever produced. No martyr’s grave for veneration exists. tomb-front

2. The eyewitnesses. There were many who saw the empty tomb and saw Jesus himself. No one was expecting a resurrection and they had a hard time believing it until they saw Him.  Most notable was Thomas, who steadfastly refused to believe until he touched the nail prints. Jesus came to him, invited him to touch, and the famous response: “My Lord and my God!” He was seen by over 500 people.

3. The rise of the church. Messiahs don’t get hung from a tree, a normal Jew would assert. Saviors don’t get crucified, a normal Greek or Roman  would reason. Unless he was crucified and then bodily raised from the dead. How else do we account for the rapid rise of the church, at first largely composed of Jews and then increasingly populated by Gentiles? The rise was rapid, steady and continued through local and empire wide persecutions. IMG00075-20100619-1110

4. The change of the Sabbath day to the Lord’s Day. The Sabbath was a Jewish cultural and religious institution,  a sign that marked them as belonging to God from their inception as a people. It was the seventh day of the week, a sacred day of rest and worship.  For the early church, mostly Jewish, to change the day of worship to the first day of the week is nothing short of revolutionary.  Something revolutionary had to happen to bring about a cultural and religious change of this magnitude.

5. The conversion of Saul. Saul, who was renamed Paul, was of pure Jewish heritage, well-educated in and obedient to Jewish law, a Roman citizen, and convinced Christianity was heresy. His zeal for God led him to persecute the new faith. We find him a few years later preaching Jesus as Messiah and “glorying” in the Cross of Christ. For a Jew, to whom the Cross was an object of curse, and for a Roman, to whom the Cross was reserved for the worst of criminals, to glory in this Cross would be one of the absurdities of history, unless the crucified one rose from the dead, proving He was Messiah and Lord. Rome 188

6. The resurrection’s effect on me. I used to live for self, with ambitions for personal fame, influence and wealth. Not today. My life direction (to serve Him), purpose (to be used of Him), and priority activities (Bible reading, prayer, teaching and serving others), can only – only – be explained by the influence the resurrected Christ has worked in my life.

I am indebted to the writings of many on this subject, most recently those of N.T. Wright, namely The Resurrection of the Son of God, and Surprised by Hope. I recommend them.

He is Risen.

Reflections From 21 Years – Pt. 1: Impatience, Obsessions, Envy

21 Years
Having just retired from 21 years as a church planter and pastor (you’re a church planter for about a year, then you’re a pastor, I was told), I was asked to speak to a group of church planters in Cincinnati about what I had learned over that time. I divided the learnings up into three periods of time: the early years, the middle years, and the later years. Today I’ll share what the early years were about.
The Early Years
Key Activities: The foundational years were dominated by three activities: networking, starting small groups, and crafting a good worship service. I believe these are the key activities to planting a church. The planter needs to be aggressively networking, meeting as many people as he can, five days a week –  believers, seekers, churched, unchurched, it doesn’t matter. You’re getting the word out that there is a new church in town with a new idea of what a church ought to be. Small groups are where people connect with each other, and, most importantly, where they connect with the planter. Prospective members want to know three things about their potential future pastor: Can he be trusted? Does he have anything to say? What’s in it for me? They will usually get those questions answered in a small group where the planter is the leader. Our church began with a small group.  It’s how we grew and small groups remain the backbone of the church. The third piece is crafting a good worship service that connects your people to the best traditions of worship and remains contemporary to its culture.
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Sins to Avoid: The sins I struggled with and prayed against were: impatience, obsession over numbers, and envy. Actually these are perpetual temptations but especially strong in the early years. God will build His church, and patience is needed. Numbers are not the whole story, and the pastor can’t let himself be envious of other church planters and pastors whose attendance may be larger.
Goals: My primary goals were to lay a good foundation and pursue church health. If the church was healthy, numbers would take care of themselves (God will bring the growth).
Words of Wisdom: One of my mentors, Terry Gyger, told me in my first year of church planting that you grow a church one person, one family at a time.  I needed that.  I relaxed a bit and began to take good care of the people God gave us, and gave focused attention to each person, each family, that took an interest in our church.
Lesson to Take to Heart: The Parable of the Soils (And this parable helped me deal with the sins of impatience, obsession with numbers, and envy.). The lesson is that some will bear fruit 30-fold, some 60 and some 100. All who hear the word, believe it, and live it will bear fruit, some more than others, Jesus taught. I needed to be content with the fruit God gave me, and not be envious of those who appear to bear fruit 60 or 100-fold. It took me a long time to learn this lesson but it needs to be heard and applied in the early years.  (I believed I was a 30, and became content with that.)
What About Vision, Mission, Values?  It took a while to see our vision, mission and values crystallize. No need to have them all worked out in your first week on the field. it was a work in progress, and took a few years to emerge. It was important to get the input of my leaders on these matters as well. Lay leaders want to be included in discussion of important matters, they want to be heard, but at the end of the day they want their pastor to lead.
Preventive Medicine: Finally, once you get your vision, mission, values, and philosophy of ministry reasonably developed, teach it to your inquirers and new members. It is preventive medicine.

First Blog

First Post

I thought I’d better get something posted before I lose my nerve. Now that I am retired from pastoral ministry and no longer engaged in regular preaching, I will try my hand at the blog. My reasons for taking this plunge are several: 1. to keep me disciplined in my reading, studying, thinking, 2. to continue some kind of teaching ministry, which I hope this blog will resemble, 3. to give reports on my new job with Redeemer City to City from the various cities I will visit, and 4. to share reflections on 21 years of pastoral ministry and current learnings from my new life with RCTC. I’ve always wanted to write more, but lacked the time and discipline. Now I have a bit more free time- it’ll come in spurts, I think- and I will need to furnish the discipline to think and write effectively. We’ll see… The mind of man plans his way…I am kind of excited about this and eager to see how He directs the shape of these woodwords.

Don’t worry, these words will be my words, and I won’t attribute my bad writing and bad ideas to the Lord, but I hope and pray He provides guidance and inspiration for a useful contribution of writings over time. ( I think) I will be eager to get your feedback to what appears on these pages, so that I may continue to grow in wisdom and favor with God and man.

My goal is to post once a week, and in so doing I hope to bring updates and information on my work, and stimulate reflection, thought, and love and good works toward God and our fellow pilgrims.

CTC Report

I just completed a week in Birmingham AL, raising support for my ministry with City To City.  I agreed to raise half of my salary the first year, and they agreed to pick me up at 100% in the second and ensuing years. It is exciting to trust God in new ways. I think that’s one of the reasons I stepped away from NCCC, to be put into new situations where my faith could be challenged and strengthened. It’s not all excitement and pleasantry, as I am way out of my comfort zone in many ways. Having to trust God for our financial needs is a new challenge, but one that the Lord knew I needed. It’s been a great week. My beloved brother Billy set up several productive  appointments for me, and the response was very positive. I am close to reaching my goal, and may be there, depending on the response of some of the men I talked to this week. God is faithful. My next trip to Europe will be April 8-16, to Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, and Lisbon.

Thanks for reading. More to come next week.