Category Archives: future

Not always believable, but always true

asbury sanctuary cross plasticYesterday was an interesting day. I was forced to deal with the truth of God which I currently have a hard time believing. Even now I hesitate to tell you for fear that it might push you away from the church rather than toward it (and honestly, I fear others thinking less of me). So as I begin, let me say something very clearly about God’s word for us in Scripture. This is an important lesson God taught me over the past week:

Don’t accept something because you are able to believe it, accept it because it is true.

Now, just that phrase will send theologically-minded thinkers and debaters running down a rabbit trail talking about how we know something to be true. I’m not here to debate that. What I can say is that when you read the Bible with an ear for the truth of God, when you seek to hear truth – real truth – God will show it to you. God reveals Himself to those who truly seek Him.

With that in mind, I knew this promise of God to be true: and as a recap, yesterday I was preaching from Haggai chapter 2 (a very popular book for preachers – he said with tongue in cheek). In Haggai chapter 2 the prophet is speaking to the leaders of God’s people, the ones who have just recently returned from exile. They have come back to the “promised land” that was destroyed by the enemy. The temple itself was in ruins as well. Through Haggai the Lord says to those leaders and the people – I am going to restore your land and the house of God to a greater glory than you can even remember. It’s not a carrot dangled before them to get them to dance to God’s tune. It is not an inspirational speech telling them, “you can do this.” It is a promise that God will do a new thing even in the midst of what seems to have come undone.

So, I tried to preach that promise to the church where there are significantly less people this week than there was the same week 3 years ago. I did my best to proclaim this promise of God to a room less full than it had been. That was really hard. I feel the burden of the loss. I feel the weight of the empty seats. I have come to a place where internally I carry the failure. And then God leads me to this passage. God makes me not only hear the promise, but he leads me to preach it. It was one of the hardest sermons for me to deliver because I had to keep listening to my own voice declaring a promise I found so hard to believe.

But here’s the point of all this: the good news is not that I believe this promise, the good news is that the promise is true. The reality of God and the future promise of God does not depend on my ability to believe. The future glory depends only on the faithfulness of God to deliver on His promise. And God is faithful.

I say all this to you and share my unbelief for this reason – you may be in a place where you hear God’s promise but find it hard to believe. Where God says you are forgiven, you may think your sin is too great. Where God says I will never leave you, you may feel like God is nowhere to be found. Where God says, I have come to give you life and give it to the full, you may wonder if it will ever happen for you. The good news is that God’s promises may not always be believable, but they are always true. You may find it hard to believe what the Bible says God will do and is doing, but your doubt in God does not negate God’s mercy and love and grace for you.

God’s promises are not always believable, but they are always true. That’s the hope I cling to. I encourage you to do the same.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

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Make no goals, have no regrets…

Okay, the title is not really the subject of the blog. It’s more like my confession. There are times when I don’t want to set goals for myself or my ministry or the church in general. As a matter of fact, that would be my default position. It’s something I have to fight against. But, in my mind, this is what seems to be true. If you make no goals then you have no regrets for not reaching said goals. And yet I also know that if you set no goals, you also have nothing by which to evaluate your efforts, except, well, your effort.

I can give you a rather painful example right now. You see, I am a Houston Texans fan. The Texans have lost 3 of their last 4 regular season games. This means they do not get a week off, and if they advance in the playoffs they don’t get to play at home more than once. They had a goal of securing home field advantage but they didn’t make it. Did they put in a good effort? At times. They showed flashes of potential. But, in the end, they did not reach their goal. They can still win the Super Bowl at this point, so ultimately they can achieve a higher goal. But, when evaluating their performance this incremental goal is a measure of how they are doing as a team. Effort is good, but it doesn’t always equate to success.

Goals are helpful and even necessary. That’s the lesson I am learning. Well, it’s a truth I have known but at times avoided.

So, now what? Well, in 2013 I want to set some goals – personal goals, ministry goals and church goals (that final one happens in conversation with church leadership). I can’t tell you what those goals are right now. It will take a bit of reflection and prayer to understand what my goals should be, in light of who God calls me to be and what God calls me to do.

The main point is, I do plan to set some goals – that’s my first goal. And the reason I know it needs to be done is because I regret (yep, there it is) not having set more measurable goals for 2012.

Of course, it took my wife’s review of this blog to point out that I DID accomplish some things this year. I saw a significant change in my weight. My eating habits have changed for the better. I have begun to challenge myself to develop even more as a leader and pastor. I have engaged some people in an intentional effort to help them grow as disciples and to allow them to help me do the same.

The reason I began writing this post is that I just wish I had been more proactive in setting some goals. I think that intentional effort can help keep me focused.

So, I guess the title of this post is not actually correct – make no goals and you may still have regrets. Make no goals and you have may not have a good way to evaluate your performance. And, by not having a good way to evaluate your performance you can miss out on the good things you were able to accomplish.

So, how about you? Do you plan to set some goals for 2013? Have you? Did you set some in 2012, and if so, how did you do? If you didn’t set goals, did you do some good things?

May the year ahead be one of strong effort and one where goals are met and even exceeded.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Repentance and Church Vitality

My mind remains occupied with two thoughts – the work of revitalizing the ministry of the United Methodist Church, and the work of living more fully into God’s vision for the local church I serve. I expend a lot of brain power on what we could do, what we should do, what we might do, and what I can’t believe we think is the right thing to do! But I begin to wonder, where is the talk of repentance? Where have we been unfaithful and need to confess and repent?

I think of the situation like this. Let’s say I tend to leave my dirty clothes all over the bedroom floor (this is purely imaginary!). My wife is willing to put up with it, but it does hinder our relationship. Realizing that things could be better I decide to make a change. The next day I no longer just throw my clothes on the floor I fold them and lay them carefully on the floor. I make a change but nothing of real substance and nothing that constitutes real change. I haven’t repented of my inconsiderate actions and I haven’t fully recognized the reality of what my wife would like from me.

That’s where I see things right now – both in the United Methodist Church as a whole, and even in our local congregation. We recognize things are out of sorts and we’re making some changes, but there’s no real substance to our change and no recognition of what God would desire in us and from us.

In my own setting the fault is mainly mine. As the spiritual leader I have not been attentive enough to the spiritual work of the church. Oh, I do pay attention to the church and hope to see God glorified and pleased by what we do. But, the focus on how to engage people and the focus on how we manage the logistics of a growing community with limited space, and the desire to find a way to have more people serving the needs of others – all of that is being done while giving lip service to the real need. The real change that needs to happen is in our commitment to follow Jesus and to bring glory to God. There is a need for me to repent of my misguided focus of trying to figure things out and instead focus on leading others into a deeper, stronger connection to Jesus Christ. All the things I mentioned above are not bad, but when they become my priority then I have gone off in the wrong direction. Those answers come from God, but I have made those answers my way of showing God I’m serious about the church I serve.

We don’t have to prove ourselves to God, God wants to prove himself to us. If Moses had worked hard to find a way to get water for the people to drink he may have shown God how serious he was about caring for the people, but God had a different priority. God didn’t want the people to see how serious Moses was, God wanted them to see how powerful, providential, and loving He is. So, God directed Moses to strike a rock with his staff – and viola! WATER!

The same lesson is true for the United Methodist Church and the work we continue to do to renew and revitalize the church. We are neatly folding the dirty clothes but not making any real change. We’re trying to figure out how to get the water and not asking God to do what God can and will do.

The main sin of which we need to repent is this:
We have made the fruit of faithfulness the work of faithfulness.

There is much talk about the need to measure aspects of the church – attendance, giving, involvement in serving others, etc. The latest “Call to Action” report highlights 4 drivers of vital congregations – having multiple small groups, inspiring pastoral leadership, a mixture of worship styles, and lay leadership that is regularly rotating so that 20% of the congregation has, at some point, been involved in the leadership. The problem is that we are focused in the wrong place. All the aspects of the church we seek to measure, and the aspects of the church we label as drivers – all of these are the fruit that comes from life in the Holy Spirit. And we’re not doing much to address that. When we look at vital congregations we should look at how they were faithful to God’s vision for THEM. It is their faithfulness we want to emulate, not their results. God may have given them water from a rock, but for us God wants to turn water into wine.

The call to follow Jesus and lead others to him and to call upon the Holy Spirit to act in us and through us seems to be secondary to the work of making the church strong in numbers, and of that we need to repent. We don’t need to figure out ways to form more small groups until we decide that discipleship is the main task of our small groups. We don’t need to measure our attendance in worship, we need to measure the heart of those who worship. Someone made the comment that “worship attendance = staying in love with God” – great definition, but “in-love-ness” is not what we’re measuring – and of that we need to repent. We are working on strategies and programs and “dashboard” internet reporting, but we have not asked people to get on their face before God. We have called for holy conferencing and conversation, but we have yet to seriously call upon the Holy Spirit in prayer – and of that we need to repent.

On the local level and the global level, until we recognize and confess our misguided notion that we can make this happen, nothing new will happen. Until we repent of our unwillingness to do the greater work of seriously following Jesus as individuals and then together as a church, the work we do will amount to little.

I realize I am the worst of all sinners in my own spiritual neglect. I confess to all those who read this and seek to repent of my ways. My hope is that my brothers and sisters will hold me accountable to living rightly and not falling back into sin. My desire is for all of us to confess, repent, and rejoice in the new life that ONLY comes through the power of God’s Spirit given to those who follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Do you agree with me on our need to repent?
Do you think we’re doing good enough and I’m stirring a pot that doesn’t need to be agitated any more?
Are there other ways you see to bring renewed vitality to our church – locally and globally?

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

The Local Church & the Challenge of Renewal

For my church folks – this is another post dealing with the issues facing the church in general. I think everyone should be in this conversation, but so you know, this is not a short reflection. It’s really more Mike’s Manifesto than Mike’s Musing. Read it at my own risk!

The United Methodist Church (UMC) continues to seek ways to regain a sense of vitality in our local churches. I believe, at our core, we long to have a church that is impacting lives and communities with the love and grace of God. I believe our heart’s desire is to see more people engaged in the new life Jesus has for everyone who accepts that gift (what I like to call “life at its very best”). To that end, the UMC had a webcast conversation on April 6th. There were many people gathered at various locations watching and many, like me, who logged on at home. The webcast presenters included men and women, young and old, bishops, pastors, and laity (the lack of significant racial and global diversity has been a point of contention). If you want to see more you can go click here and watch the webcast. Or go to these blogs to see some analysis: “Hacking Christianity” and “Missional Orientation” – these are two that give some insight into what was good and what was lacking. If you are on Twitter, search hastag: #umclead to see tweets sent during and just after the webcast.

I hold to a similar opinion as many others – there was far too much emphasis on numbers and statistics and accountability, and little on spiritual health, greater allegiance to the gospel, or even a mention of Jesus. It is the institution striving to make the institution stronger, but seemingly at the cost of truly building the Kingdom. One difficulty of this process is that it is once again top-down driven (the church higher-ups telling the local churches the best things to do). I believe the more significant renewal will only come from the bottom up. Change can best happen through a grassroots effort where churches decide to take on the vision of serving God’s purpose, even more so than the challenge of growing the church.

Having said all that, grassroots efforts are not easily ignited (but once they are, the resulting fire is virtually unstoppable). One of the key figures in this renewal effort is the local church pastor (and others like campus ministers). The top-down effort sees the local church pastor as needing more accountability and better tools for measuring their local church ministry. The grassroots people (mostly pastors) see the local church pastors as needing more training and support for implementing local vision initiatives.

I agree that local church pastors are the key to renewal in the UMC. They (we) are called to expend our energy equipping the local followers of Jesus to live into, and live out of, the vision God has for His Kingdom – the Kingdom we pray will come. The problem is that this great effort is hindered by various obstacles facing the local church pastors. Below you will find several hurdles that come to my mind very quickly. The answer, as always, is Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit he gives to us – power we must rely upon if we are to overcome these challenges.

Obstacles local church pastors face in the work of church renewal

Salary/ family needs & concerns
I do not believe, as some do, that preachers these days are looking for a comfortable salary or pursuing bigger appointments for the sake of a salary. I do believe we all want to take care of our families and provide a stable life and future for our children. I saw this Facebook post on a UMC preacher’s discussion page:

“[I] taught several course of study classes [to preachers not yet ordained but serving local churches, both part time and full time]. The people I have in my classes can probably turn around churches that seminary-trained clergy are too good to touch, simply because they love Jesus and they don’t know they’re not supposed to be able to do it. Of course, they can’t . . . but God can.”

The comment that seminary-trained, fully ordained clergy feel they are “too good” is unfair. However, it could easily be that they are so burdened with seminary debts and the needs of family that serving smaller struggling churches would be a hardship for them. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t, it just means it can be hard to make that choice.

The reality is that many of us who serve local churches are nervous, even fearful of not giving our families a life similar to the ones enjoyed by those in our churches. It’s hard to ask your children to do with little when their friends, cousins, and others have more. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, just means it’s hard. And yet, I would say that the financial stability of our family is not an unreasonable priority. And that leads to the next obstacle.

Church stability / finances
One of the underlying issues in the challenge of renewing the United Methodist Church is the desire to strengthen the financial resources of the church as a whole. As local church pastors we are asked to make certain our churches are paying their fair share of the overall financial needs of the global church. Again, not unreasonable, but difficult to do while at the same time trying to implement real change in a declining church environment. If you take a church that has nominal Christians who are more inwardly focused and you preach the need to be outwardly focused, you face not only opposition by voice but opposition by feet – people begin leaving the church. That will impact finances, which impacts the stability of the local church, possibly impacts the pastor and family, and certainly impacts the payout to the global church.

In just about every story of  successful local church renewal and revitalization I have come across there has been an exodus of people who were not ready for the changes being implemented.  These are the ones who liked their church “as is” and didn’t want all these new things and new ideas. More than losing membership we are most likely going to lose money. And that’s a challenge at all levels. There are bills to be paid and ministry to be resourced. Secondarily, the “top” of the church is measuring effectiveness by our overall giving. To implement real renewal with this challenge in front of us is hard

Reputation /conference standing
The first two challenges factor into this last one, but this one falls mostly on the shoulders of the pastors. We must be willing to get a bad reputation and to lose a bit of our standing in the Annual Conference. Sometimes our desire to affirm the “top-down” processes for the sake of staying in favor becomes an impediment to our work of renewal. It’s not an issue that needs great explanation – the Bishops and District Superintendents should be respected, but not feared (what they intend for evil – if they do – God can use for good). If we’re more concerned about how our appointments will be handled than we are about seeing the Kingdom of God become a reality in and through our churches, renewal will never take place.

We must begin speaking up for what we believe needs to change and stop worrying about how we are perceived by higher ups. We must also be willing to do more than just throw out criticism, we must begin to do what God wants us to do where we are – even if it means losing the favor of others. The Twitter-verse conversation during the CTA webcast spoke to “grassroots” not “top-down” work – are we ready to really take that on in a real way? If we disagree with the metrics and “dashboard” measurements, are we willing to do what needs to be done regardless of how we look on paper? It appears we want to implement real change, but at the same time cannot bring ourselves to not meet the expectations imposed upon us. If that’s not an issue of fear regarding our reputation and standing then tell me what it is. I’ll say it one more time – it’s not easy, but it is necessary.

This list is not exhaustive and the explanations could be fleshed out a good bit more, but I think it is a good beginning to looking at and naming the challenges we face. Those reading this may either disagree or have a whole other list. But the fact remains, if a grassroots effort is ever going to happen we will either need to find ways to address these issues or find the boldness to move forward in spite of them. We cannot wait for the institutional leaders to “get it”.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Is Warfare God’s Answer?

Imagine a girl looking at you as you pass by. She’s holding the hand of her parent but her eyes seem vacant and almost lifeless. You nod hello and go on your way. Inside the girl is hoping you might notice how broken she is on the inside. She’s hoping you might somehow realize that her life at home is at times violent and always oppressive. She hopes that you might help her escape from the struggle and maybe give her a glimmer of hope for her future. She watches you walk past as you make your way to your peaceful home, and inside she dies a little more.

Now, imagine this girl lives in Libya, or Rwanda, or Iraq or Darfur. It is not her parent that steals her life but the world she lives in and the rulers who abuse their power. It is the thugs on the street who beat her brothers and abuse her mother – and there is no recourse available, no justice to be had.

As I watch the unfolding drama in Libya and notice the various conversations on Facebook and on News shows, I have found myself picturing this girl. At times she is 5 years old, and at other times she is 14 – every time her eyes are the same, desperate, almost pleading. It is that image that makes me wonder what the answer is. It makes me wonder if our intervention isn’t a good thing.

And then I think of this:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
(Ephesians 6:11-13)

Warfare is God’s answer. Not fought with Tomahawk missiles and air strikes, but fought with acts of love and grace. It is the same battle Jesus fought and has called us, as his followers, to continue to fight. People in Jesus’ time wanted a political military answer of salvation, but that wasn’t what God had in mind. As a matter of fact, this Roman oppression people wanted to end took this “savior” nailed him to a cross and killed him. And yet, the victory was his when on the third day he rose again to new life.

I would ask you this – where is the Roman empire today? And where is Jesus? One has gone away into the history books. The other lives on in His people known as the Church, the Body of Christ.

I do not know what will happen in Libya or other places. I am not even certain what the answer is for our involvement as a nation. But the hope of  that girl who haunts my imagination is not found in slaughtering her oppressor. Her hope is in the life that is found in Jesus Christ. The life that cannot be destroyed.

Should I fight for her to know life? Yes. Is my greatest weapon legal maneuvering and physical attack? No. My greatest weapon is the power of the Holy Spirit in me. My greatest asset is my willingness to go into places I am not particularly welcome and to love those who need love. Maybe I befriend the family of that young girl I pass on the street. Maybe I simply find ways to show kindness and love to her when I can. Maybe I make my way into hostile countries and begin to love others as Christ loved me.

I do know this – the one I follow will lead me where I need to go and will give me every thing I need to fight the fight. He may ask me to lay down my life for these new friends, but such is love. When Jesus was here he was the greatest casualty of this Spiritual warfare, and before he died he had told his followers that the students are not greater than the master.

I believe warfare is God’s answer. It’s just not the warfare we think it is – and the result is in God’s hand. I also believe the followers of Jesus are being called to arms.

Will we fight?
Will we love with great abandon?
Are we willing to lose our life that we might find it?

If this post has left you with more questions than answers, then welcome to my world. All I know is that God can be trusted and his promise of salvation is real. How it all plays out has yet to be seen. How I take part depends on my willingness to follow where he leads.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Your Impact is Greater Than You Think

What can a long list of names teach us about God?

The Lord led me to read 1 Chronicles chapter 8 this morning. In many ways it’s like reading the phone book. Just a list of names – descendants of Benjamin. I had decided today to ask God what I should read.  When I had a sense it was 1 Chronicles 8 I should read, I turned to it (actually I typed it in and read it online). Looking at the list of names I thought for sure I had gotten it wrong.

But, I didn’t get it wrong. The Lord gave me these insights:

  • The future is beyond my control except by what I do in the present. My influence on the next generation (and the potential grandkid generation after that) is the way I can most powerfully impact the future. My children and grandchildren have a greater chance do amazing things with and for God. If I live a faithful and obedient life before them, then I have a chance to help make that a greater possibility.
  • The size and scope of my influence goes far beyond the family and friends I may see in my lifetime. It’s the commonly used idea of seed-planting. How God uses me to influence someone, to influence my children, may be a seed that continues to grow and bear fruit for generations to come. I can impact my great-great-great-grandchildren, even if they don’t know it was me.
  • I can smile now at the accomplishments of future generations. In verse 40 of that chapter it says this: “The sons of Ulam were brave warriors who could handle the bow…” Just a brief reference of a noteworthy truth, but in that comment God showed me a new truth. I can look ahead with joy knowing good things can be said about my descendants. It’s not a sure thing, but there’s no reason not to imagine it to be true, and to smile about it. That is a new sense of joy for me.

What about you? How do you see yourself influencing the future? Can you see the way God wants to use you in the present to impact the future? What gives you a sense of joy as you look ahead and imagine?

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Two Powerful Words – “What if…”

I remember times when I was “younger so much younger than today…” (cue Beatles song – sorry, I digress). There were times as a child when I would hang out with friends and we would talk of great adventures. We dreamed of time machines that would carry us backward and forward. We imagined what it would be like to push a button and have the room where in completely change around us as walls slid away and others rotated in. We would think about how cool it would be to have our own flying vehicle (shape and type changed depending on the day). That vehicle would allow us to go places faster and see things from a new perspective.

“What if…”

Two very powerful words we rarely hear uttered these days – especially in the church. But how great would it be to throw open the doors of our imagination and dream about new ways and new possibilities and new perspectives? I think we need to recapture our sense of imagination.

I saw this recently posted in the “Twitterverse” recently:

“Logic will get you from A to B but imagination will take you everywhere”
Albert Einstein

I took notice of the quote because I have been captivated by the idea of reigniting our imaginations in regard to leading and being the church. Most books I read and training sessions I attend don’t mention imagination as a skill to develop or a gift to be utilized. There are processes and steps and concepts – all of which are usually quite logical. Maybe Einstein is right – those things will move us down the road, but they’ll never give us what we need to forge a new path.

But, there’s a catch. Imagining new possibilities puts old processes at risk. Thinking of new ways to do things means the letting go of the old ways – the way we’ve always done it. It also usually means moving away from what is familiar and known. It means risking failure because we have no idea if our homemade personal flying machine will ever get off the ground or how long it will stay in the air if it does.

Using our imagination can be messy. It can be disconcerting because there is no manual to tell you how, no help desk to email, to tech support to call. Using our imagination to consider ways of living out our faith and our call as disciples would mean having to trust in something other than ourselves, something other than the way we’ve always done it. I guess it would mean having to trust the only one who can be trusted with our dreams and our musings – the God who created us to be creative.

I am meeting with leaders tonight and tomorrow. One of the questions, maybe THE question I will ask is –

“What if…”

But right now, I simply ask you – What if… you could create the future you wanted? What if… you could do things a new way? What if… you let your imagination run wild – what would you dream up?

I’d love to hear your dreams and thoughts. Leave a comment and let me know.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike