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. 

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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.