Tag Archives: church

Sometimes we really need a drink

DSC00667The other day I ran my first 5k race (for all those who have been reading my Facebook posts and listening to my sermons, I won’t keep harping on this forever, I promise!). It wasn’t too bad of a run. As a matter of fact, I think I may do it again some day. I was glad to learn a little about myself during that race. I was also glad God has used that run to help me remember something about His grace and love for me.

A 5k race is 3.1 miles long – so not even close to a long race. But, for the uninitiated runners like myself, it’s a fair distance. The organizers of the race did a great job. They had things set up and got us all moving along without any hiccups. One of the preparations they made included having drink stations at the 1 and 2 mile marks, as well as at the finish of the 5k (or the middle of the 10k for others). Honestly, I was not in need of the drink, though I took one at mile 2. What I did need was the reminder God gave me the next day. It was one that connected my every day life to that 30 minute run.

cup of waterThe reminder came on Sunday evening when I was visiting with a couple I consider to be spiritual mentors. They have logged many spiritual miles through their years and I appreciate their words of encouragement and their deeply felt prayers for me. It was in that conversation that it dawned on me, these folks were just one example of the people in my life who manned the “drink stations” along the way. On that 5k run, at mile 1 and 2, people held out cups of water that we could grab as we ran by. They were glad to help us run our race well and stay strong. And so it is with the people of God who are put in our lives and who man our drink stations. Like those friends who spoke words of encouragement to me and were glad to help me run the race of life with Jesus and to help me stay strong.

As that thought came to me that night I realized that there had been many other drink stations along the way in my life. There were many who held out a cup of cold water as I ran by. Cups of cold water that looked like an invitation to lunch, a hug and a smile, a word of encouragement or appreciation, sometimes even a prayer before worship.

Then it dawned on me that Jesus had one time mentioned these people. He knew how important they are. It’s in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 10:

And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded. (Matthew 10:42 NLT)

I was glad to remember that verse. I am glad to know God will reward those people, for they have done a great thing for me. Now, just like in that race, there are times the drink is life-enhancing but not life-saving. But, there are other times – life-on-the-edge times – when we really need a drink. So, I am grateful for those who make the offer, grateful for those who hold out a cup as I run by, grateful for the ones who offer a spiritual drink for at times I am weary and close to giving up. Those who man the drink stations have no way of knowing how badly it’s needed, but if it is, they are ready. And for that i give thanks to God.

I guess there are two questions to consider:

  1. Who are the people in your life who man the drink stations, and have you given thanks to God for them?
  2. Whose drink station is God asking you to tend to? Who is God asking you to bless with a word of encouragement, a hug, a prayer, a smile, or a lunch invitation?

Those are the questions I’m pondering today. Maybe you will as well.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

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In This Together

Rocks were flying, men were moving at a rapid pace and words were being said that I cannot repeat here. Okay, I can’t repeat the words because they were speaking Spanish of which I know very little and therefore I have no idea what they were saying. This all took place in a village outside of Living+Water+Nicaragua-2312-2807663323-OLeon, Nicaragua where I was serving on a Living Water International well-drilling team. The men in the story were loading rocks inside the form that would hold the concrete that would serve as the base of the pump for the well.

The village is called “Veintiocho de Mayo” and it’s not much to look at. The homes are rudimentary and made with corrugated metal and plastic sheeting. The people are beautiful and some of the best I have met in any country. What struck me most was the way they worked together to make this water well happen. They seem to have a great camaraderie as a community. And that may be because it’s necessary. They don’t have Living+Water+Nicaragua-2074-2807629205-Omuch and the life they live depends on having the support of one another.

Spending time among the people of Veintiocho de Mayo was inspiring and it made me realize how problematic it is to be self-sufficient. Here in the U.S. we admire the “self-made man” (or woman). We take pride in being able to make it on our own, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But, I begin to wonder if that attitude isn’t detrimental to our overall well-being and health as people. Certainly as followers of Jesus we know that being united together as “the body of Christ” is an essential part of our calling. And yet, how often do we fail to live as a true community of love and grace and interdependence? And when I say “we” I mean “me” – and possibly you, but definitely me.

I’m not sure if God needs to bring my life to a greater sense of poverty in order for me to learn this lesson. My hope is that He does not. However, if that’s what it takes for me to connect better with others and to live more interdependently, well then, I guess God has to do what God has to do. But, maybe, if I begin to live more and more with the idea that we are “in this together” maybe that will give God room to change my life. It’s at least a good place to start.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Keys to Church Fitness

iron cross image copyFor those who know me, I have been on a weight-loss, health-improvement quest for the past 15 months. I am down a net of about 75 pounds and even running on a sporadic basis (one thing I have NEVER done). I have found myself struggling to lose the other 15 pounds I want to lose. I had been down a total of 83 pounds at one point but bounced back up a bit. It has been a real challenge to maintain my regular weight-loss progression.

At the same time I have been thinking about that issue, I have been pondering the work of the church. It seems that we run into the same cyclical issues in our life as the church. In my personal fitness I know there are certain keys to being as healthy as possible and making progress toward my goals. I may not always be attentive to them, but when I am change can happen. So, I thought, what might be the keys to “church fitness?” What are some things we can focus on that will help us make progress toward our goals?

Well, number one is just that – SET A CLEAR GOAL.

Stating that as number one on the list presents a bit of a dilemma for me. The problem is that while I see that as the first essential key, I am not certain I have helped make that happen well in the church I serve. Having made that confession, I still believe it is key.

So, what’s my struggle? Well, if I equate it to my health, the issue is this: Losing weight and looking trim is not the same as being healthy. Ask anyone who struggles with eating disorders. Ask your doctor. Ask me how healthy I was when I was younger and I lost 50 pounds due to methamphetamine usage. What appears to be healthy is not always healthy. My goals in personal fitness must be more about my internal systems working at their most effective and efficient. It’s why I don’t drink Diet Coke anymore – it inhibits my liver from being as effective as it can be because with Diet Coke it has to give too much attention to filtering out the artificial chemical stuff.

So, from a church fitness perspective, just having the appearance of being a “vibrant church” is not the best goal. There has to be something more, something deeper that makes the church healthier, not just better looking.

Our goal – the purpose that drives us at our church – is “Helping people experience the HOPE of Jesus Christ.” That is a great mission driver. However, it implies internal work and may not give us the greater clarity needed as a goal to pursue. In conversations with other leaders in our church I am coming around to the idea that we need to have some sense of outward goals – developing our church in regard to what people see when they look at us and developing a strategy for increasing the spiritual fitness of the community of faith.

I plan to do more praying about and wrestling with this aspect of our church. And again, it may seem odd to point this out as the number one key. But, just because I am working through this doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just as physical fitness truths are true even when told by someone who is not yet fully fit.

The second key to church fitness is CONVERSATION

I thought about naming the second key “communication.” But that is too broad a word for what I think is vital. What can often be lacking among the church (not IN the church because we are the church – we don’t GO to church) is real conversation. So often we tend to avoid real conversations – you know, the kind where we hash out our differences and yet remain close friends? I have been struck by the number of people I know who drift away from the church, from their small group, or even from their leadership position simply because they disagree with something that’s happening within the church community or leadership. Many times the issue only surfaces well after the relationship has grown apart. The problem with having a healthy church is that sometimes the unresolved issues remain just that, unresolved. People leave and don’t say anything because they don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings, or they say, “Well, if others wanted to go that way it’s fine, but it didn’t work for me.” The problem is they never said so.

It seems we fear conversations that are real and honest. We fear vulnerability. And I guess the reason for that is we don’t think others will understand? Maybe? Is it that we don’t feel safe having real conversations and trying to work through the challenges?

The downside to the issue is that when people drift off, those who remain are left to wonder what went wrong. And if they later find out they’re hurt because they never had a chance to try to resolve the problem.

In my opinion having honest, real, meaningful conversations are key to church fitness. But, it must have one last key ingredient.

LOVE – love is the real key to church fitness.

It begins with love of God and love for all things that are of God. It is having a love for God that we live into daily through acts of worship and prayer and service. It is having a love for the Kingdom of God and seeking to make that a reality in our world. It is having a love for the people who were created in God’s image – yes, that means all people.

How often is our love mostly for ourselves and what makes us happy? Or how often is our love first and foremost for our family and then beyond that we try to figure out how to make God a part of what we do?

Do our children know how much we love God and seek to live into the joy and peace of God? Do our parents? Our friends? When I fell in love with my wife, Jan, people knew it. Is it the same with my love for Jesus? My love for the Holy Spirit?

Love, deeply felt and urgently pursued, is the love we need as the people called to be the church. As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to love God, the Kingdom of God, and the people of the world in the same way he did – with our whole being and even our very lives. Can we say that we, as the church, love this way?

Again, these are essential keys to a healthy church. We may be much like I am physically – healthier than we have been, but not yet where we could be. We may be like I was, not caring about our health and just living and enjoying life any way we want. Maybe as a Church we’re mostly busy “doing what feels good.” Well, eventually that will prove to be misguided. We will be out of shape, possibly sick, and even potentially dead. I, for one, would rather not see us go there.

So, let me know. Is your church “fit?” What might be the main essential key to focus on right now? Maybe the first question is this – do you want the church to be healthy? Each one of us will need to answer that one for ourselves.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

It’s time to stop focusing on the church

group unfocused church copySpecial parking in nearby spaces. Greeters at the door. Helpful signs in strategic places. A plan for helping people have a good experience and thereby want to return again. A plan for building a reputation in the community. A way to meet the needs of the people who come – from people with children to those who struggle with getting around.

These are things I have found myself talking about in various settings with church leaders and pastors and consultants. It also seems to be what Wal-Mart or Bass Pro Shop might be working on in their meetings. It makes sense for Wal-Mart – theirs is a business with customers who spend money and allow the business to continue growing and serving the community. The more people they can get into their store and buying what they’re selling, the more successful they are. It doesn’t make as much sense for the church. The church is not a business. The church isn’t even an organization – at least I don’t think it’s meant to be.

Don’t misunderstand: the church – the community of faithful followers of Jesus Christ – should be organized, but the community of the faithful was meant to be just that – a community. The problem is that the church, for decades if not centuries, has been more organization than community. The focus has been on measuring and considering how the organization is working and flourishing. The idea has been that by focusing on “the church” we would foster a greater sense of community. But, that idea has not borne out as valid.

I propose that we stop focusing on the church. Instead, let’s focus on community. I propose we develop a deeper sense of community in smaller, more intimate groups, and then bring those groups together to share, rejoice, celebrate, pray, and sing.  I propose that we see ourselves as families who grow together (discipling home groups) and who gather for regular reunions with our extended family. Just like families work together in the day-to-day to help one another, so can discipling groups. And, just like those families feel connected to their extended family, so too can we feel that sense of community together. I propose that we gather together AS the church and worship together with great joy and gusto. I propose that we utilize the resources we have together and impact our world in real ways. And I propose that we begin by making discipleship the greater focus of our energy.

The change is subtle, but it requires a significant shift in focus. It requires us to focus on our “family,” our community of disciples – the faithful followers of Jesus Christ who strive to live out their life with Christ every day and who want to know God at a more intimate level. It requires a purposeful engagement with the Holy Spirit. It requires a willingness to go deep in prayer and to confess our sins and to seek a more righteous life in Jesus. It requires more personal intimacy and vulnerability.

The shift in focus will take real effort and must be intentional, but I believe the result of this change will be a brighter source of light in a dark world. I believe the result will be a stronger church.

The idea in recent times has been that by focusing on making a stronger church we will foster a greater sense of community. I believe the opposite is true – focusing on a greater sense of community in “families” (small groups) and focusing on the gathering of those “families” for times of worship and fellowship will foster a stronger church.

It is the harder work. It is not as easy as parking spaces, signage, and good programs (although, those are NOT irrelevant). It is the harder work of loving one another deeply. But, if I remember what I read in a good book, it seems that this is the work to which we are called – to love one another, to serve one another, to disciple.

For those who follow Jesus and attend Asbury UMC, we are moving this direction. It may happen in fits and starts, but we are determined to make it happen. I hope you will join us and see the powerful work of God that is yet to come.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

If I had three wishes…

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????What would you wish for if you had three wishes?

Wealth? Friends? Health? Reconciliation? A new car? A new job?

The possibilities are endless. The list of hopes and dreams is extensive. That’s what makes the choice so difficult, doesn’t it?

I sit this morning reflecting back on a week at summer camp. It is a few days of concentrated community. We were adults and campers (8th and 9th graders) who jumped into a week-long life together. We ate together. We worshipped together. We laughed together.  And we cried together. Sometimes we liked being together. Other times we wished we could be back where we were.

One wish I would wish if I had three wishes… that we could live together in such connectedness in our churches more than we do.

I realize that even in our churches we do not live together as a community per se. We live together with common interests and common faith and common spiritual experiences, but not as much in community as we might. I wish we could be better at eating together, laughing together, praying together. Yeah, at times we might wish we didn’t have to deal with each other, but the life we could have might be worth those moments.

I sit here this morning reflecting on yesterday – Sunday worship. It was a good day. Testimonies were shared. Communion was celebrated. Hope was lifted up and God was glorified.

The second wish I would wish if I had three wishes… that I would embrace those moments more and savor them longer.

Life moves pretty quickly these days. It is easy, especially as a preacher, to simply try to get through Sunday morning. It is easy to get to the end of Sunday morning with a sigh of relief that the sermon got preached and the building is locked up. It is easy to look ahead at the tasks and to-do lists of the coming week. For me it is easy to lose the joy I experienced in the midst of my church family giving praise to God. So, I wish I did better at savoring the moment. I wish I held onto the smiles I had when talking to the children. I wish I remembered more those moments when I was captivated by the Spirit of God in times of singing and praying.

I sit here this morning looking out my back door and pondering the shadows and light on the walls. I can feel the warmth of the sunlight and the coolness of the shadows. I am reminded that the shadows cannot force themselves into the light. I realize the light has the power.

The third wish I would wish if I had three wishes… that we would shine more light and drive out more shadows.

I love knowing Jesus and being part of His church and being in community with other followers. I also hope to see us do more to impact our world – being the light that dispels the darkness. Lately I have heard of many who struggle with various issues – brokenness in homes and hearts, illness and stress. So many of our neighbors are trying to push back the shadows. But the only way to move the darkness is to bring in light. And when we bring in even the smallest of flames, darkness can’t fight against it. My wish is that we would let our light so shine through true acts of love and compassion that the shadows would retreat in fear.

Those are my three wishes today. I might have others tomorrow.

How about you? What would you wish for?

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Lead from the front, coach from behind

You may have noticed there was no blog post last Monday. I was in the midst of an epic camping trip with my son, Andrew. We spent a few nights in the Uwharrie Mountains (the little mountains) in North Carolina. It was a great outing.

2013-05-13 15.03.37During one of our hikes (we managed about 2 per day over the 3 days) I was struck by how our father/son relationship had changed. It also made me think that such changes may just be a natural course of leading others to become leaders.

Andrew took the lead on the first day out. He led us along the blazed path through the tall trees and the filtered sunlight. We talked as we went and had a great day. The next day it was my turn to lead – or so I thought. I put on the backpack that held our water and Gatorade and we made our way to one of the more strenuous trails. It wasn’t long before I noticed that Andrew was not falling in behind me. He was right off my shoulder most of the time. It dawned on me that he was itching to take the lead. I’m not sure he even realized it, but I did. So, I let him lead (nicely, I did not make him take the “leader” backpack).

2013-05-11 08.40.53It was along that hike on the second day that I began to think about how things have changed between he and I. There was a time when I did all the leading. I would take his hand and guide him to places. I would venture out in front and show him the way (physically, morally, philosophically). Sure, there were times when he would dart ahead and I would have to call him back. That was just part of the learning curve. But now, as we hiked and he led the way, I began to consider how things have changed.

I  will say that it might have been easy for me to get nostalgic for the days when he wanted to follow my lead. It might have even been easy for me to feel a bit melancholy over the loss of our previous relationship. But, that wasn’t the case. I am proud of how my children have developed. I love that both Andrew and his sister, Rebecca, are becoming their own persons, ready to take on life. On this hike, that day, I began to understand my role had moved from leader to coach. Where I used to lead from the front, I now was being called to coach from behind.

The reality of my children growing into adulthood is not that they now can do life on their own without me. It’s just that they need me to be with them in a new way. Andrew led the way on the hike, but I had some input as to where we went and the best course of action. I did have to decide, at times, to give in to his opinion over mine, but that’s coaching. I had to either let him show me he knew what he was doing or let him learn from the mistake I thought he was making.

Those same lessons apply to other areas of his life as well. I am no longer there to lead him along the way. He lives in Aggieland, which is 2 hours away from me. While I may not be able to lead, I can coach. Andrew will call me and ask my advice, or I will call him to check on his progress in his work in the church or in his classes. We’ll talk about the challenges he faces and how he can best do that. I continually pray for God to give me the wisdom I need to be a good coach to him.

Then there was my leadership meeting yesterday afternoon.  I have been in my current role as pastor of Asbury UMC for 7 years at the end of this month. There have been times when I had to take a clear role of leading from the front. I had to set the direction and convince people we needed to go down this path and not that path. Sometimes I got it right, other times, not so much. But, I took the lead and all the responsibility of that role. Yesterday as I sat with this group of leaders I began to understand that my role was changing. Maybe it already had I just had not yet accepted it – but either way, I realized it yesterday.

I am not currently called to lead from the front. Others are working to set the direction and to help others understand the way forward. I expect there are times when they will get it right and other times, well, not so much. Do I still have input as to our direction? Surely I do. Are there times when I will need to speak up due to my belief that we are making a harmful wrong turn? Surely there are. But, my task now is not to set the path and lead from the front. My job is to encourage and offer input and coach from behind.

I guess what happened for me yesterday was that I was trying to take the lead when I suddenly realized there were others just off my shoulder who were having a hard time following. It wasn’t because they didn’t trust me or that they wanted the lead role, it was just where they are at this time. The leaders of our church are stepping up and want to help manage the journey. So, I will fall in behind them and coach them from there. If the end result is anything like the week I spent in North Carolina being led by my son, then I will have a great time and experience life in a very meaningful and wonderful way.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

The Christian work of counter-terrorism

pfia kidsIt was this picture that made it click. Two young girls helping to paint a house on a community-wide multi-denominational work day. I realized that this was the answer and we’ve had it all along. It’s not flashy. It’s not something any government contractor will be able to monetize. But, it is the most effective weapon we have to counter the work of terrorists and people intent on making statements via mass destruction, mayhem, and death.

It’s not painting that will solve the problem. It’s not even children who will save the day or the future – well not per se. The weapon we have is HOPE. Those young girls were involved in a HOPE attack executed through careful planning and undertaken by people dedicated to operating on the fringes of society.

The churches of our area made a concerted effort to blanket the city with acts of love and kindness. They painted houses and they rebuilt porches. They made access to homes safer and took down tree limbs that threatened to take out the roof in the not-too-distant future. These young girls in the picture were part of a force of people who made others believe that love is alive and that generosity and kindness can rule the day. That’s what is otherwise known as HOPE.

Our church has a recently adopted mission statement that at first blush seems nebulous and abstract. But, as you let it sink in, as you begin to imagine how you can live into this statement, when you put it against the backdrop of bombings and devastating industrial accidents, it becomes the evident solution for the world we live in. The statement?

Helping people experience the HOPE of Jesus Christ

It happens when people give up their Saturday to cut down a big dead tree in the front yard of their neighbors. It happens as people replace siding and shingles and repaint a house. It happens when we take our children along with us and show them what it means to love our neighbors – even the ones we have not yet met. The more we can help others experience the hope of Jesus Christ through the followers of Jesus Christ, the less impact the terrorists have. When the people who say they love God and seek to love others go and truly love with their hands and feet, they paint a picture that begins to cast a shadow over the pictures of the tragedies. We don’t want people to ignore or forget what happened. But neither do we want people to believe all is lost.

The counter move to terrorism is kindness. To counter acts of violence we must fill the world with acts of love. To change fear into hope we must continue to blanket our community. We must begin to know our neighbors – across the street, across town, and across racial, ethnic, economic, and religious lines.

Two young girls and many others, led by parents and pastors and friends, fired a warning shot across the bow of the ship of fear and terror. Don’t bother trying. You can’t win. Hope is our weapon of mass rejuvenation. And the leader we follow has already taken out your threat of death and destruction. We will not bow down and we will not stop.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike