Tag Archives: community

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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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

A Changing (and challenging) Preposition

Yes, that title correctly says “preposition,” though you may think it means to say “proposition.” I want to talk to you about changing prepositions as a way to reclaim or fully claim our life as followers of Jesus. I want to encourage you in what God has been speaking to me.

Our greatest possibility for impacting the lives of others and helping people experience the HOPE of Jesus Christ comes in changing from “FOR” to “WITH.”

with cautionNow, before I get to the meat of that change the “Spiritual Health Association” (or the SHA) requires that I offer this cautionary warning first. If you are wondering what the SHA is, simply put, it is something I just made up. But, that does not diminish the validity of the warning I am about to give.

CAUTION: “with” is much messier than “for”

Okay, now that you’ve been so warned, let’s talk about what it means.

“FOR” is a very common word in our Christian vocabulary – and not a bad word. When needs arise around us we often try to think about what we can do “for” the person or entity in need. And again, it’s not a bad thing. When we hear about a village in Nicaragua where people do not have regular access to good, clean water, we want to do something “for” them. And we do. Our church, for example, is working to raise money to send a team to Nicaragua to help drill a water well and hoping to raise enough money to pay for the costs of drilling that well. Now, in fairness to our efforts, we are going there to work “with” the people of Nicaragua and that village. But, in the end, it will be something we have done “for” them.

Let’s bring it a bit closer to home. When we have people in our community who have needs – they struggle to have food on the table – our hearts go out to them and we want to do something “for” them. And we do. We give money to the food bank, we put together holiday food baskets, etc. Again, not a bad thing to do something “for” someone else.

We can move even closer and talk about our life in the church. How many of us volunteer to do something “for” the church? We usher at the worship service, we sing in the choir or praise band, we teach a class, we fix the broken things around the building. We do things “for” the sake of the church and the activities of the church – not bad.

But what if we decided to purposely shift from “for” to “with?” What if we decided to walk “with” people in our community who are struggling to make ends meet? What if we purposely decided to live in their neighborhood “with” them? What if instead of providing a meal at the holidays we invited them to eat “with” us in our home? What if we invited a struggling family to live “with” us for a time as we walk “with” them into a more hopeful future?

What if we decided that serving the church is not about doing a job “for” the church but instead is about serving “with” others? What if the work of ushering became a means of loving our brothers and sisters so much that we want to make their time of worship meaningful? What if singing in the choir was about worshiping “with” our brothers and sisters more than singing a song “for” them? What if going to church each week was not about doing something “for” ourselves or “for” God and instead became a way that we join “with” our fellow disciples to spend time “with” God?

I know, I am rambling and many of you reading this may be thinking you already have this mindset. The good news for me is that these blogs are my musings more than a treatise, so it may not be completely clear. The bad news for us is that I don’t think we live “with” each other as much as we could. Living “with” each other means we open ourselves up to one another. Living “with” each other happens not as a congregation, but as a small band of disciples living and growing together. Living “with” each other means we come together to share meals and share our lives and confess our sins. Living “with” each other means when a brother or sister falls into a pit, we jump in to help them out. It means sharing all we have “with” brothers and sisters in need without hesitation. It means that our desire to help others overcome issues of poverty and prejudice goes from doing something help “for” them to opening up our lives to walk “with” them.

“With” is messier than “for,” no doubt. It means taking a risk and knowing others whom you try to love more deeply will take advantage of you. It means giving up your own comfort in order to make HOPE more real for someone else. It means making a commitment to a small group of disciples and connecting with them as family. It even means disconnecting from family and friends in order to connect with others. You may have to forget what is behind and reach for what God has put ahead of us.

And here is the most significant lesson we need to learn about life “with” others – especially those who we seek to do things “for”: We need to learn to accept that others who are “in need” have much to teach us. We need to learn that we don’t have it all right just because our life is alright. There was a day when a woman of questionable reputation came to Jesus when he was at the home of a church-going religious leader. She began to weep in his presence and washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. The religious man was appalled that Jesus would let this happen. Jesus used it to teach the man about what it means to worship God and give thanks for the grace God gives. This woman knew the grace of God in such a way that she offered an act of worship. It wasn’t that she went to church or said all her prayers, it was simply an honest act of gratitude. Jesus said that her act was a greater work than the moral life this man was living. Where he lived his life “for” God, this woman wanted to live her life “with” Jesus.

Again, I wish I had a greater clarity of what this could mean. But all I know right now is that Jesus came as “God with us” – Emmanuel. He gave up the power and comfort of heaven to enter into this life in order to help us know a greater HOPE than we could find anywhere else. Yes, he did something “for” us in dying on the cross, but his greatest promise was this: “I will be WITH you always…” He spent his time not with the religious people, but with sinners and prostitutes and those most in need of HOPE. He also spent time with a small band of disciples walking with them and helping them grow as he lived among the poor and outcast. So, ultimately, for me, it comes down to this – if I am a follower of Jesus Christ how is he calling me to walk “with” and live “with” others, especially those who need HOPE the most? How am I living and learning “with” a small band of disciples?

Maybe I will eventually make more sense of this and I can post another blog entry. But for now, this will have to do. I look forward to your help in working through this.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

P.S. Soon after the day when I was pondering this “with” idea on a walk and talk with my son, another friend posted this link to a lengthy but more theologically astute article about this same idea. I do not deny that some of my thoughts in writing this blog post were also influenced by this article. However, the ideas in the article simply joined the thoughts already in progress inside my brain:
http://thecresset.org/2013/Easter/Wells_E2013.html

Jon Stewart isn’t helping

(be forewarned – slightly different post than usual)

For this post I will probably get slammed by my younger colleagues. The good news for me is that there aren’t many of them. And there I go, doing just what I have come to realize is detrimental to our society and to our connections as human beings in community. Snark is the language of the younger generation (the word is a combination of “snide” and “remark” – biting sarcasm is the way I would also define it). The popular use of snark by the younger generation is epitomized by the numbers of said generation following and looking to Jon Stewart for their information and political analysis. He, as the host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, is the king of snark. He is VERY entertaining. Yes, even for me because snark is one of my fluently spoken languages. But snark isn’t helping our society any more than the fringe right and the fringe left voices in our political arena are.

Here’s what I have come to realize: Jon Stewart depends on people doing and saying things he finds absurd, improper, or irrational. And, when they say these things with a straight face it makes his job that much more fun and entertaining. The problem is, these snide remarks point us in the direction of constant criticism. Snark requires us to point out the faults of others and their thinking and their political positions. Snark is used to dismiss the other person while subversively proclaiming a higher moral ground for our opposing view.

I get it. I can do it. I have just come to realize how divisive it is in our culture.

So, what’s the alternative? Well, to promote our own views with rational and helpful discourse would be one. To offer a positive word for what we could be rather than a negative word about who “they” are would be another. To acknowledge a political position and to understand it’s genesis and basis within the minds of others would provide a better avenue for presenting what we believe to be a more viable solution. The problem comes when we dismiss others as the “irrational they” by using snark to dismantle their argument. So, thereby, the solution should be in looking at others as differing from me in their view, but honoring their equal footing in the sphere of humanity as a whole. I know it won’t be nearly as entertaining for some, but it could be more beneficial for our society in the long run.

You see, the problem with snark, and I know this from my own experience, is that it is hard to contain and control. It is the Pandora’s Box of attitudes – once released it is virtually impossible to corral. What ends up happening is that every discussion becomes a mission of listening for an opportunity to set off a volley of snarky zingers. It causes us to listen less for the real issues we need to work through and listen more for a faltering word or an unfortunate gaffe. When we manage to get a good zinger put out there we find that everyone who thinks like us cheers, while those who don’t must simply suffer the brunt of our more potent wit. We become proud and arrogant in our stance because we have been able to belittle the stance of others. And then we wonder why there is such a great divide among the people of our country.

Why is snark, as a means of communication, bad for us as a country? Because the only way to not be the butt of the joke is to agree with the one doing the snarking. We cannot live together in disagreement with one another because we either feel demeaned or we feel the need to demean others. And that kind of personal attack is not easily overcome. That kind of personal attack puts distance between us as people.

So, Jon Stewart, I love your wit. I am in awe of your keen powers of observation. But, you are not helping. Snark is not a helpful form of communication in our society. I encourage you to find a way to use your power for good and unity. It won’t be easy, but I think it will be worth it.

As for me, I have come to realize that I too have the power to snark. I, too, must be encouraged to use my power for good and for unity. If I am not diligent in these efforts I know how easy it will be to use such talents in ways that continue to promote division. And that would be an unfortunate consequence of the life I live and would be antithetical to my goals as a follower of Jesus.

How about you? Am I making too much of this? Is snark and sarcasm a second language for you? What are your thoughts on how it adds to or detracts from our greater goal of moving forward together? What would Jesus do?

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Faith, the NFL, and a self-imposed lockout

A Christian not engaged in spiritual formation and the mission of a local church is like an NFL player during a lockout.

This is the time of the year when I begin to get excited about the months ahead – at least it has been in the past. This is the time when football teams, like our Houston Texans, begin pre-season training camps.  But not this year, at least not yet. The NFL owners and players are struggling to work out a contract deal, which means teams are not working out and the season is in limbo.

The players are “locked out” by the owners, unable to use the facilities to work out and train, unable to communicate with coaches to help them grow in their skills. The good news for those of us who are Houston Texans fans is that many of the players on that team are using the time to work out. They can’t use the state-of-the-art facilities they’re used to, and can’t have coaches there, but they do get together to work out and run through plays.

They may not be at the main place, but they’re making do. Trouble is, not many believe it will help very much. Oh, it’s good, it’s beneficial, but only to a point. NFL players need the facilities that have the equipment to make them stronger and more agile. They need the coaches to help them develop their skills. Unless they can properly engage in their physical and mental development, they won’t be in good condition to play the game.

As I listened to the sports-talk radio prognosticators talking about these issues it made me think about the way we can sometimes view the church. At every church I’ve served the membership roster was filled with people who rarely show up. Many are living in a self-imposed Christian lockout. The downside to their absence is much like it is for NFL players.

  • Not seeking access to the facility hinders growth. Many people avoid church because it doesn’t do much for them. Some of the blame falls on the church – we can’t really say most churches are state-of-the-art in regard to spiritual growth facilities. But, avoiding the place where God’s people gather to experience God’s presence and power as a community keeps us weaker than we could be.
  • Trying to “grow” on our own is not bad, but it’s not as beneficial as working with others. Spiritual growth is a team sport. Yes, we can read the Bible on our own, we can sing hymns while fishing on the lake, we can pray on our own, and we can read helpful books and blogs. But, when we have others who help us gain new insights, others who push us beyond what we think are our limits, and others who surround us and cover us with prayer we grow faster and go further.
  • Without coaching our skills suffer. We need people like pastors and teachers and small group leaders. Those who can look at our life from an outside perspective help us see the places where we can improve and change. Part of my task as pastor is to help hold up the mirror of Scripture so we can examine who we are in relation to who God calls us to be. Preachers and mentors and leaders are able to do more for us than we can do on our own because they’re more objective in their analysis – much like a coach on a football team. They help us see where we can be better. They help us see where we can contribute more to the success of the team – in the case of the church, to the success of God’s Kingdom vision for the world.

Self-imposed lockouts are detrimental to our spiritual growth, and ultimately to the work of making God’s Kingdom a reality in this world. The NFL has to work through their issues so they can get back to work. Christians just need to decide to engage with other followers of Jesus. For those who are willing, it looks to be a promising season for the Kingdom of God.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Another “God Uses a Lamb Story”

I have a treat for you today – a guest blogger. My ministry assistant (known to most as the Asbury Church Office Manager), Andrea Mann was telling this story when I came in the office. I thought it was one that should be shared, so here it is:

This weekend I experience such an amazing event. My daughter competed in a livestock show – she was showing her lamb, “Purgie”. Her only request was to say a prayer to ease her nerves. So we and a couple of friends stepped over the side and huddled up to pray. I said a very small prayer to ask God for peace and calmness over my daughter.

As we begin to step away, I had a women come up to me and ask me if I was praying. I told her yes because my daughter had asked to pray to ease her nerves. She asked if she could join us in prayer. I told her of course. As we began to gather, more parents and kids started to come over. They asked if they could join us.  The answer to all was “of course”.

As I stood there I noticed kids from all different schools. Some I know and some I did not. As we circled up they looked to me and asked if I would lead the group in prayer.  I did not know what to say at first. I am not one that usually prays out loud in a group.  This request made me quite nervous, but I told them “Yes, I will lead”.  I asked others to pray aloud if they wanted to also.

I began to pray and ask for guidance, not only for my child but for all those who were at the event. Other parents and kids said prayers aloud as well.

I cannot express the joy I felt as a looked up and saw the group that stood before me. For that moment we were not competing against each other. We were one unit of Christians living our faith out loud for all to see. I was one the most amazing this I have ever seen.

I can’t tell you how much God has used Andrea to bless my life, the life of my family, and the life of our church. I’m glad you have the chance to blessed by her as well through this story.

Holy high-five to you, Mike

Stranger in My House

The other day I realized there was a person living in the shed in my backyard. I rarely go out there so I didn’t really notice. I had seen that things in the backyard had been moved but it never really dawned on me that someone was there. Turns out this person has a family in a nearby town but the only job they could find to support that family was in our town. And because they did not have a vehicle that allows them to commute, they needed another option. Added to that is the struggle that paying for a second home in our town while supporting the family in the other town was just not financially possible. So they found a place in my shed.

Now the question is, what do I do? It’s my shed, my property and they’re trespassing. I could certainly call the police and have them arrested, but the reality is they haven’t caused much of a problem for me. As a matter of fact I now realize they’ve fixed the rotted part of my fence and even kept the bushes in the backyard trimmed. If I did have them arrested and then they couldn’t work, I also wonder what would happen to their family. It just seems like this is a person trying to do what they can in a tough situation and my life just happens to have been impacted by the circumstances (although the only reason my life is impacted is because someone else chose to do something illegal on my property).

As I thought about this I wondered, what if people like this knew my church could help them find a place and get situated with their family so they could avoid the legal struggle? What if there was a way for people of one town to relocate and get situated with their family so others can feel secure and safe and hopeful for the future? What if my church tried to help make that happen?

There’s lots of problems with that idea. My kids go to a school that’s already overfilled. Traffic in the area would certainly get worse. It might take longer to see the doctor or get my license tags or mail a package at the Post Office. But still, I just can’t get away from the picture of the children this person had taped up on the wall my shed – children with dimples and precocious smiles – is it possible I’m being called to help them find hope? It could mean working to improve schools or other services, and it could mean giving up some my personal comfort and convenience.

Makes me think of something I read:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:1-11)

You may have guessed already, but the story is about immigrants in the U.S. – and yes, about those who come here illegally. I find myself struggling with the issues of LAW and GRACE. I just have been convicted that my law brain was tending to overshadow my grace heart (given to me by Jesus himself). And so now I wonder, what do I think with my brain if I let God lead me by my heart? There are no easy answers, but likewise, the problems people face with their families are not easy problems.

I’ll follow-up on this, probably next week. Until then, let’s say a prayer or two about what Jesus is calling us to do for others as we follow his lead of giving himself for us (law-breakers that we are).

Holy high five to you, Mike