Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I Just Turned 38

38 is not 40. So it is not as if I am questioning my very existence or reflecting on being old. But I am now in my upper 30’s and no longer in the mid-to-late 30’s. Hey, I’m not like those people who hate having birthdays because it reminds them they are aging. Complaining about getting old is like complaining about the grass being green and the sky being blue.

I am not complaining just reflecting.

Actually the reason I am reflecting at all is probably because of the great upheaval we are in right now. As my family and I fix a date for moving back to our hometown and dream and plan of planting a church…as we do so leaning on the promises of God and trusting in his radical grace for sinners like us –as our message and our very hope – I cannot help but reflect on how I got here and what has been accomplished since I set out on this ministry adventure.

This transition (what a lame way to describe all of this – its like calling cancer, “sickness”) has really been a cause of one thousand worries. One of those has been to worry about accomplishing something. Have I? Have I accomplished anything whatsoever? It’s a dangerous question and sometimes the wrong perspective can deal a crushing blow in a moment of weakness. Accomplishment can stand up tall in front of me beckoning me to bow in adulation.

If Calvin is right and our hearts are idol factories then my T.V. heads up my heart’s marketing department. When I see a quarterback or coach of an NFL Team and hear how he is years younger than me, I have to admit there can be some stinging and discomfort. It is like a finger pointing out how little I have accomplished. Then I realize that I, at the age of 38… I am not famous for anything. The horrific face of despair is then just outside my window in the dark night of the soul.

But this is so screwed up isn’t it? What kind of thought world do I inhabit when fame and adulation become reasons for assuming nothing has been accomplished? Paul had every reason for despair while being imprisoned. Prison has got to be a means for at least the temptation to despair. No one would fault Paul for being a little depressed while in a first century prison. But you look at Paul in Philippians and he is rejoicing in the faith of those Christians whom he saw come to believe in the gospel of grace and love and follow Jesus.

If Paul, who is in prison can rejoice in the faith and endurance of those he taught the gospel then certainly I can also do so in the prison of feeling insignificant. It is no small accomplishment to lead young people into deeper gospel waters of God’s grace. It is no small thing to even touch just one life with the most wonderful news in the world.

What if died today at the age of 38 right here in this chair in Andover, KS? Would my testifying about God’s grace be worth writing about? Probably not. But I love that what is insignificant in the eyes of man is worth eternity in the hearts of those who have believed.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ruin Your Life

"If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
- Jesus

Ruin it. Take it to the cross and kill it there. Daily. Your only chance is to ruin your life. Punch your IRA in the throat. Tell your investment strategist you want a life that looks ruinous to a world wild for more stuff. Look in the face of a culture bent on wealth, health and prosperity and see how their desire to save themselves has in fact ruined everything for them. Ruin your life by having people talk about your fanatical ideas behind your back. Ruin the lives of your wife and children so they will see the majestic peaks of the gospel up close instead of only in the lives of missionary biographies. Ruin your life by prizing the gospel of grace more than money. Prize it above all else and you will look like a fool. Ruin your life by ignoring the advice of pitchmen and celluloid models, who peddle a moment at the expense of eternity. Ruin your life by placing your trust in the most horrific act in all history. Ruin your life by admitting you are helpless and weak and in need.

You want life? Ruin it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Next To Theology, Music

"The devil, the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God....Music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men. Thus it drives out the devil and makes people cheerful. Then one forgets all wrath, impurity, and other devices." - Martin Luther

"Next to theology, I give music the highest place of honor." - Martin Luther

I named my third child – my second son, Dylan. Dylan is not a family name. It is the name of my favorite singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. I own a few dozen albums of Dylan’s music and have listened to them again and again over the years. I know, I know, I am not special in this affection. I personally know many who would say the same and see nothing strange about naming a son after him. No, I tell you this because even though he is the musical artist I prefer above all else, I have not listened to him for almost 2 months. And this is by choice.

The last few months have been hard. Black and blue. Never had I known the “blues” or become acquainted with anyone who is a member of the family of depression before. But now I have met them. It was more like a phone call. We did not shake hands or embrace but we are aware of one another. I do not suppose this makes me special in any degree. But it was new.

I doubted my calling to the ministry. I doubted every vocational decision previous. Doubts were my close companions and they were joined by fears from every quarter. My “secret sins and misdeeds dark” mocked me as from beyond the grave. Failure showed up to make himself known. He is a loud talker and very convincing in his evaluations. Dark were colors of this scene. So dark all the present characters longed for the curtain to come down and an intermission to take place so a breath could be taken.

There is no need for pity. I am in good company. Many men and women have been dealt the same hand and must play. But I tell you this because I found such help in a form I should have expected but did not. Music.

And not just any music, but the gospel sung. Sung with the beauty of the great painters and the raw, intense power of punk rock. Sweetly sung as if from angels who have known nothing but glory and in gravely, worn-out tones knowing the warp and whoop of the present sufferings. I clung to melodies that were echoes of the victory we have already begun to enjoy and long to see completed. But sweet were the songs sung from “the depths of woe” – their cathartic power worked on me peace in the midst of storms.

I marinated in new songs. And I swam in the depths of old hymns reborn for a new generation that knows nothing but the shallow end. Every now and again I would veer off into some other branch of music where the gospel was only veiled by other cares and concerns. It never took long for me to jerk back onto this road.

Words such as this have been the very “balm of Gilead”:

His promised mercy is my fort My comfort and my sweet support


No bleeding bird, no bleeding beast
 No hyssop branch no priest
 No running brook no flood no sea
 Can wash away this stain from me.

For only your blood is enough to cover my sin For only your blood is enough to cover me.

And even simple lines like this one…

There is no one like our God

This is no legalistic binge. I need this music. If you were to ask me about my favorite music, I would probably still tell you “Dylan.” But if you asked me what I was listening to, I would tell you a different story.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Loving Leaving Student Ministry

Last night I walked out of the house as a pastor to students. I returned home with nothing but a call and the gospel promises of the God who is there. While liberating, there is still bitter along with the sweet.

I will miss the joys of watching some go deep despite the designs of the naysayers who think we should only give crumbs to the “children.” There is a rare beauty in seeing the light-bulb come on in the lights of their eyes, when the gospel becomes precious beyond all treasures. Missed will be the conversations about real life and how real lives can be shaped by the gospel. I will miss watching repentance happen over and over. I will miss the joy in the eyes of a student that is there just because, well… just because. Most certainly I will miss challenging students legalism and license. I will miss their presence.

What will I not miss? I will not miss parents who want a sanctified babysitter. I will not miss the collected wisdom of students who are half my age explaining doctrine to me. I will mot miss the arrogance of some of those same students telling how deficient I am in my job. I will not miss the unreal expectations, the silliness and the endless need for ever more events.

In the past 6 months my admiration and mystification of Student Pastors has been maximized. I admire those who labor well for the souls of our teens. But I am completely mystified by those who do it for so long. I know it’s weird. I mean, I just quit doing it yesterday and now those who have done it for years – people who are just like me, bewilder me.

Sometimes you just get to a point where you never expected to be. I imagined I would be doing student ministry for many years. Really, I did. But when I returned home last night after my last poorly attended small group, the life of the student minister felt very foreign to me. Kind of like a country I once lived in and enjoyed for a time but have no inclination to return to. I suppose this is how God works in us so we keep our focus on the future. It is not so much, “been there, done that” as much as it is just now time to do something else.

And that’s why it is bittersweet and should be so. Bitter to say goodbye to all I have known for a number of years. But I am already enjoying the sweet taste of moving on…

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Veering Off the Path of Least Resistance

I am no missionary. At least not in the sense Amy Carmichael was. But I have been thinking about her a great deal lately as I stand on the brim of many unknowns. I think about her joys and the risks she took. Her biography by Elisabeth Eliot, A Chance to Die, echoes in my thoughts all the time.

One of the trajectories of thought is how absolutely awesome her story of sacrifice and faith is. I have no desire to diminish the ordinary lives of faithful men and women but her relentless desire to minister to the least of these at the risk of her own life in the face of many critics is well, worth writing a book about.

No one writes books about those who played it safe. No one writes books about those who did nothing radical for Jesus. No one writes books about those who lived the typical American middle-class lifestyle. No one writes books about plodding down the path of least resistance.

Don’t hear me wrong. I have no real desire to have a book written about me. But I also do not want my life to be on a path of least resistance. If our lives are given for the glory of God, then the path of least resistance is deadly to such a purpose. It is the resistance of all this world values that places us in the position to exhibit the value of God in our lives.

The primrose path affords us little opportunities to lean on God as provider, protector and friend. The need for God is abstract at the most when resistance is slight. But when the path becomes “the valley of the shadow of death” because of the unknown and uncertain, there is a need for the moment-by-moment conscious knowledge of the ever-present God.

This is what I love about Amy Carmichael. There seems to be an almost constant presence of God in her thinking and doing. Why? Because there was so much resistance. People at home resisted her. The clergy resisted her. She got resistance from other missionaries. There was resistance in her own heart. There was resistance from the very people in India she sought to love. And the weather and the land of India both colluded with her physical form to fight against her often. This is why she seemed to have such a notable character. She had to lean on God in ways that are so foreign to us; we are simply amazed when we read about them.

Last, right now I am thinking about my children. Yes, I think about providing for them physically. But I also think about providing for them a life where they have been able to see clearly the provision of God and our desire to glorify him by living as if he is there. If I had read A Chance to Die previous to Emma Caroline being born she just might have been called Amy. It is not enough for her and my sons to know that Jesus saved them from their sins. More important for them is to know he did this primarily for his own glory. And I am not all that sure they will get this as a day-in and day-out present reality if while we live, we live as if God is not there.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Kicking In the Door of the American Dream

A few days from now I will no longer be getting a paycheck. I will be trying to sell a house to move and plant a church. I do not “have all my ducks in a row.” Our insurance runs out at the end of the month. I have very little idea of where the money will come from for us to plant a church. I will have no office to hold all my beautiful books. No line item for books, conferences, etc. And most likely I will not be able to keep my MacBook Pro.

And I have never felt so free and clear.

All I have is a call. And for some reason this feels right. Right, in a way I have never experienced. This is not to denigrate anything I have done before or anyone else’s lifestyle or choices. And it does not feel ‘right’ so much in the moral sense. It just feels like I am in ‘sync.’

And I am not all that sure this has a lot to do with planting a church or indeed, being in ministry. The circumstances are not what are giving me this sense of liberty. The liberty comes from knowing there is a God who is watching over us and I must lean on him. You see, I am becoming ever more convinced we have so much to prop us up in comfort and ease for today and all the days hereafter, we can have no real reliance on the moment by moment presence of God until many of these comforts are removed.

Think about this for a moment. Even believers in America upgrade their possessions when they are replacing them. Their hope and joy is always in moving up to flat-screens, a newer model of car made available by insurance or a larger house made possible by the equity of their present home. Of course, newer and better stuff is not wrong in and of itself. The problem lies in the back corners of dark and dusty hearts. These are the corners never swept because we are too busy talking about the lists and how good we are doing in keeping them.

The problem is we have hearts that have never had to treasure Jesus for anything other than guilt, tragedy or hell. Well, yeah. What American would not want to see Jesus as such a treasure? But where are the men and women who are willing to make choices that put them in the position of leaning on the providential hand of the God who surrounds them with love?

I do not have all this figured out. But I am becoming more and more convinced that my faith for so many years ignored the fact that the God who did not spare his own Son, will gladly take care of our needs. This should free me, from the anxiety and cares of this world that keep me from kicking in the door of American Dream and taking risks for the glory of God and the good of people.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Psalm 23 – Not Just for Funerals Anymore

Psalm 23 is just one of those Psalms I seem to have always known by heart but not really known at all. Well, I know the words but I just never really paid a lot of attention to them. Perhaps this is because of it’s use.

Let’s face it, the 23rd Psalm is one we all associate with funerals. You could probably do a word association with this Psalm. Psalm 23 = Funeral. My assumption is that most people would immediately associate, “the LORD is my shepherd I shall not want” to the dying of a loved one.

But why? Why is this Psalm used for funerals? Is it simply because in verse 4, David writes, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”? If it is, that is a weak argument. And it’s weak because David wrote while he was…, well….ummm, alive. Notice he does not say, “When I die you are with me.” He says when I am walking through what feels like death or the possibility of death or danger – you, my God are with me and therefore I will not fear.

Psalm 23 is not about our physical death so much as it is about life. It is a song about the trials and travails and difficulties of life. And it is a song about the care God shows to us. This is a song about the Providence of God for his people. It is a beautiful song depicting his tender care as a shepherd to sheep, who are so prone to wander – prone to leave the God they love.

I love the poetry of it. But I wish we could retain the poetic rhythm of the first line and still communicate the truth of the thing while losing the archaic language.

“I shall not want.”

No one really talks like that anymore. David is saying, “I do not lack what I need because of the care God shows to me.” Why? "Because God –YHWH- The LORD has made a covenant with my people and me also cares for me now." He has redeemed us, how could we not believe he will care for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep?

I actually think we should be using this Psalm for weddings instead of funerals. Weddings are all about the life ahead for a man, a woman and usually a family. It is pretty comforting to know that the One Who offered up the Lamb is with us. And he is not just with us in death but daily there to provide for our needs.

Or perhaps we should put it on baby bibs for moms and dads to remember and hang over our children’s beds. I mean, this is the kind of worldview-shaping passage we need to have pounded into our heads pretty regularly. Or how about this on a T-Shirt?

Psalm 23 – Not Just for Funerals Anymore

Monday, October 05, 2009

It Feels Like Death Because It Is

Not long ago our DVD player went out. It just stopped working. So, my wife and I and the kids just resorted to using the computer to watch anything on DVD. This started to get just really frustrating. But we didn’t just go out and replace it because we knew of so many other things that needed work on: car #1, car #2, carpet cleaning, etc.

Then the computer stopped playing DVDs.

And there was no way I was going to let my kids near my MacBook Pro. That would just be suicide. But my kids want to watch Max and Ruby. They are very persistent, might I add?

So I up and decided to head down to Wal-Mart and get a DVD player. I walked down to the end of the aisle where the cheapest one was sitting waiting for the cheapo Dads. I swear it was sitting there smaller than my first Walkman. While buying it, I became painfully aware of how it must look for me to be buying the cheapest DVD player. From Wal-Mart.

I paid for it. And as I was walking to my car, the strangest thing happened. I looked at my car and noticed the really nice car sitting beside it. Mine has a whopping 205,000 miles and feels it has earned the right to not always go when told to. And the thought occurred to me. Because I am a pastor who longs to follow Jesus, I will most likely never have a car like that. And I said this while holding an extraordinarily light DVD player. It felt like death.

Or at least like a dying.

It was death to the promises of the American Dream. It was death to the pride of possessions. It was death to clinching tightly to all my sinful self holds dear. I know, I know – this is a good thing. But the Apostle John describes it like he does because that is what it freaking is. It is a death and death is usually very painful.

It is painful to the one dying because of all they will leave behind. I might as well have been sitting in a hospital bed with a horrific array of tubes coming out of every orifice when I stood there in the Wal-Mart parking lot. I might as well have had a circus of medical professionals working to revive me. It reeked of death.

It is also painful to the ones being left behind by the death of another. They must deal with the effects of the absence. And my family will at least silently grieve over missing out on certain middle-class comforts. And in the silence, there will be times when we all hear the distant echoes of funeral dirges being sung over the desires of our heart.

This is I assume what Christ meant when he told us we must take up our cross daily. We are daily dying to all the world offers us. We die to what is seemingly mundane for everybody else. But just like our physical death, the dying daily ushers us into a joy we could not imagine on this side of the grave.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


Today, the majority of the church body I serve will receive in their mailboxes a letter announcing my resignation. This day has been a long time coming. I have looked forward to it and dreaded it in the same moments. Sorrowful but rejoicing.

Most will understand the sorrow and wonder at the rejoicing.

The sorrow comes from leaving friends, leaving off developing relationships with these students, knowing we will miss Wichita and an indescribable feeling of failing to some degree.

The rejoicing stems from moving home where friends and family await us, church planting in a city we love and doing what has been a blurry dream for so long. We also long to see God move in the hearts of people - people who have been changed by a radical gospel of grace. The kind of grace that saved a wretch like me and sets men on fire for the glory of God and the good of their families. A gospel of grace which sets men and women free from the slavery of the American Dream.

Pray for us. We need it.