Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Meeting church plant needs behind the scenes

One of the things I already knew, but has been confirmed to me over my short church planting life so far, is that you need a ton of people to plant a church. You really do. You need to have a number of folks praying for you. That much is clear and we looked at Jesus reminder to pray to the "Lord of the Harvest" for Him to send out workers during our first core group meeting (Matt 9:36-39). If you want to follow our updates and pray for us, click here. We also need to have a number of folks financially supporting our work; currently we have 30 individuals and 2 churches. If interested in giving, go here. Most obviously, we need to have people actually get involved in the core group meetings who will invite new faces. I already realized all of that stuff before.

But I was definitely ignorant of many of the roles I needed people to play. Here are a few:

Folks outside our core group connecting us to others: A dear friend of ours, who for the time being lives in Bradenton but will clearly never personally be involved in our church plant, has helped us connect with several young families. Who knows what will become of those relationships, but that is how this church is going to grow. I can't meet enough people on my own through my neighborhood, fishing, gym, Tee-ball, Starbucks, etc. I try and I have met some folks from the aforementioned places, but I've realized how much help I really needed. And received.

Folks outside our area connecting us to others: I've had several pastors point me to contacts who live in the area. Neither of them live here, but they have sent me emails and phone numbers of people to call. Both of them are directing traffic from afar, and behind the scenes. Yet both have been playing a part that I just hadn't really thought much about. I needed, still need, and have received such help.

Neighbors: I had a neighbor knock on my door on Sunday morning and let me know I could have people park cars in the neighboring driveway because no one would be home for several months (snowbirds). In addition, he told me he would ask about any possible meeting space in one of the rooms at his Catholic church. And after our core group meeting, one of my neighbors took a look at my on-again-off-again air conditioner. And is still doing so.

So in addition to giving, praying, meeting, there are many ways of participating in a church plant. While ignorant of such need right off the bat, I am no longer so! And I feel there are many needs, and people to meet them, whom I've yet to discover.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Prayer: Are you talking to me?

A week ago, while worshiping at Cornerstone, I heard a succinct sermon on prayer from the Sermon on the Mount. It was quite a helpful little sermon that pointed out a few practical oft overlooked mechanics of prayer.


Prayers in public don't have to long. This is hard for Reformed folks. I think it might be hard for Charismatic folks as well. I think. Have you ever had a moment when you felt really "unspiritual?" Or I guess a better term might be simply "spiritually immature." I've had a ton of them, so it wouldn't be a great idea to rank them: not a great use of my time. But one in which would probably slide into my top 10 occurred after Sinclair Ferguson opened up his systematic theology class at 8 am with a 10 minute prayer. One guy came up to me and said, "Wow, how about that prayer. So...?" I filled in the blank with the obvious, "So long!" He replied, "No, so rich!"

I felt pretty low then. And perhaps I should have followed along better. But is longer necessarily better? The pastor indicated he thinks Jesus didn't think so. When people have a lot to pray about, it's hard to pack a ton in a public prayer. But remember longer isn't better. Something to consider when praying with your kids or at your church. 

Which brings me to the next point he brought out.

"You talking to me?"

To whom are you talking in prayer? Or better yet, who do you want to hear you? Sometimes prayers can really be more like talking to people, as though they are your primary audience.

One of the ways you can know if you consider prayer as though you're talking more to people, rather than to God, is how scared you are to pray in public. By public, I don't mean 20 or more people. I'm talking groups of 3-4 folks. If prayer is talking to God, then it doesn't matter how silly you sound to others. After all, prayer from God's saints (all Christians) is like a redolent fragrance. Like corporate singing, it is not the sound of the words, but from whence the words come: the contrite, yet joyful heart.

Many of us at various times have forgotten who our primary audience really is. I did too when in seminary, as I rarely volunteered to pray in front of a large number of future pastors. We've all forgotten this timely truth from time to time.

But when we are praying in a group, is it really only talking to God, as though it doesn't matter if people around you are listening? I mean, if it is only talking to God, others might as well just cover their ears or play on their phones.

Here's an illustration I've been thinking about lately. Have you ever waited in line for some event, or to check out of a department or grocery store, and had someone talk to you just a little bit louder than needed? Or maybe you've heard someone talking to his spouse or son or friend, and they are clearly intending for you to "overhear" the conversation. The person has a primary audience, but he also has a secondary audience. It is clear, due to his volume, word choice, that he wants to bring you into the conversation.  

Now often this can be quite annoying because you don't want to be brought in or you don't want others to be brought in. Or it can be annoying because the person might be talking to you, but their primary audience is actually another person or group "over-hearing." You can tell this because you've already heard what he has said before. The secondary audience has become the primary.

But if the speaker truly is engaged with his primary audience (spouse, son, friend), he can honestly "over-speak" to others he doesn't know, drawing them into the conversation.

I think this is what can happen in group prayer settings. God is our primary audience and so how eloquently we speak is inconsequential. But how we speak still matters. We speak loudly, intentionally, and with words our secondary audience can understand. They "over-hear" our conversation with God, and thus are intentionally brought into that conversation. 

Considering our audiences frees us from the fear of sounding silly, and in addition, it frees us to love and lead people well.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A-Roid, Vigilante Justice, and the need for a Judge

The other day Alex Rodriguez aka A-Rod or A-Roid, faced Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster. After several clear inside pitches designed to hit A-Roid, one finally hit the mark. Immediately benches were warned, but Dempster stayed in the game. Afterwards, Red Sox manager belied ignorance of any seeming intent on behalf of his less than star pitcher. 

As an avid Rays fan, I'm partial to both the Sox and the Yankees, always hoping against hope that both can lose. But since baseball is not soccer, that's just not really an option. Regardless of the fact that hit batter fueled a Yankees rally which proved the difference in their victory, the real discussion afterwards lay in the ethics of such a pitch, not in pragmatics (how un-American of us to push the pragmatic to the side).

Who was right? 

A-Roid is facing more than a 200 game suspension for his alleged involvement in steroids, which he admitted to using before. MLB has somewhat of smoking gun, so after his appeal is heard, A-Roid will be A-Bored for a season and a half. On top of that, A-Rod might be the most unlike-able baseball player on one of the more polarizing teams. Despite his individual and team success, he plays himself up to be the victim. Some of these players have been lying their whole lives, that they actually believe the lies they tell. Perhaps that, or an extreme narcissism, or both is at the root to why A-Roid won't simply admit he did wrong? 

So pitchers have every "reason" to hate A-Rod. The rest of the 10+ players suspended by MLB have taken their suspensions, but not A-Rod. That's why Dempster beaned him, even though it took him 4 pitches to do so. 

So who is right? 

Should pitchers be able to hit the "cheater" (allegedly)? Or is A-Rod right, for according to the letter of the law, he has the right to appeal-which will allow him to play the rest of the season? In that case, he shouldn't be "targeted" (again, allegedly because no one admits to hitting someone) by pitchers.

Who's side should one take?

It's probably important to look at something more than the arm that through the baseball. What's really being said by that pitch? You cheat, we don't, and we will punish you the best way we can for cheating. It's the position of the legalist. The one who says I follow the law, you don't, so I will punish you the best way I can. Perhaps shunning, running or gunning. Many folks fall into this category even though they would never admit to this. You judge, we don't judge, so we will judge you for judging. We will do something about it, and not leave it to the legal process.  

You don't have to be a Westboro Baptist member to fall into this line of work. You don't have to vote Republican. Behind the pitch, there is an unrealized self-righteousness which produces anger. Whether it comes out in a subtle form as with labels, racism, or blatant insults and violence, the heart behind it is the same. Self-righteousness always pops its ugly head.

Is it possible to take another route? Is it possible to believe that A-Rod shouldn't be allowed to play yet not personally take matters into your own hands? Can you disagree with someone's behavior, believe it a sin, and yet not judge them? Can you not make someone pay by shunning, gunning, or running, but instead leave it to another Judge?

That is the position the Rays will take when A-Roid and his company play the Tampa Bay Rays in a week.

"You know what, vigilante justice and unilateral decisions, I'm not into that stuff,'' Maddon said. "There's rules in place. There's a board  assigned to make those kind of decisions. I believe in players' controlling the game itself in regards to what's happening in that game, and we always talk about policing that. But  that is totally separate from the unwritten rules of baseball. So I do not agree with that at all. And, again, I don't believe in rogue unilateral decisions or players meting out discipline, whereas this is something entirely different.''

Asked if the Rays pitchers would act similarly, Maddon said: "There's no reason to. There's absolutely zero reason to do that for me. That's what I believe. I believe let the mechanism in place work and everybody do their jobs. ... Don't attempt to be judge and jury and just let everybody do their jobs.''

MLB, led by Bud Selig is probably not much more than a joke. The man who promoted the Roided out long-ball era now wants to be known by cleaning it up? Yet there is another judge to whom we can leave things. 

Without a Judge, on whom you can never pull a fast one, we are forced to take matters into our own hands. Without such a Judge, we only have the options of retaliating or overlooking. We only have the options of becoming an angry self-righteous legalist or driven by indifference at what we know to be wrong. A legalist or one with license to do whatever fulfills us at the moment. 

The irony behind removing God's wrath or judgment from our picture of Him is that we become more wrathful and judgmental. Or we become a completely self absorbed relativist caring about self before family and community. Neither seem all that good to me.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

If I ever lose my faith in you....?

One of my neighbors told me that he trusted that the closing of his property would take place even though he had moved out and the buyers were about to move in. All of this before the closing date. My realtor shared with me some horror stories and so didn't advise any sort of "early tenancy" for us. This guy didn't receive such counsel.

When I asked him if he really thought that was a good idea, he mentioned, "If you don't have faith in people, what do you have?' Or to put it in terms that Sting once sang about, "If I ever lose my faith in you...." What then?

I think that is definitely something to think about. Here are some random thoughts based upon a biblical anthropology. Should you have faith in people? No and Yes, yes and no, with some qualifiers.

Created in image of God and so reflect something about God
When you have found a trustworthy friend, pastor, teacher, parent, you have found a beautiful-or I guess rather handsome in some cases, thing or person. To be able to trust someone is huge, helpful, and brings great joy and relaxation. It is great to have some faith in people.

Created in image of God, but marred by sin and so naturally selfish
I personally didn't want to give early occupancy because I suspected some kind of spiritual conspiracy plan in the works (3 contracts and 80 days from last contract to closing). But even without that fiasco of selling my house, I wouldn't have granted folks I didn't know very well an early occupancy. Part of it is because I don't have a simple faith in people.

Created in image of God, but not God; not to mention man is sinful
Generally trustworthy is one thing, but 100% trustworthy, meaning that he/she will never let you down, is another. Expecting and demanding someone to be something that only Someone else can be is dangerously idolatrous and practically demoralizing. If you totally place your "faith" in anyone, even a spouse, pastor, teacher, brother/sister, or fellow church member, best friend, they will disappoint you. And if you are expecting them to never disappoint you, and then they disappoint you, simply by virtue of them not being Jesus, you will simply move on to the next disappointment. The little and natural disappointments over time can lead to serious division, anger, and divorce. Now I'm not excusing any time anyone lets you down, particularly when they sin against you. I'm simply saying there is a healthy expectation we can have that people will let us down. So don't make faith in people, general or specific, your foundation.

Disappointed person is also sinful
The person who has no faith in people in any sense, (aka cynical) has in some ways forgotten about his own sin. If everyone else is a sinful idiot, then what about you? To say you have no faith in people doing anything because they are all sinful idiots, is perhaps pridefully ignorant, as oxy-moronic as that may sound. One can hold to the doctrine of total depravity (sin affects every faculty of the person-though not to the nth degree) for other people, but consider himself to be unaffected by it. Theology is good only when it is actually applied.

Can't love if can't open self to disappointment
To have "no faith in people" is a great way to protect yourselves from being hurt. But you also protect yourself from loving and being loved. That is one of the recurring themes in Call the Midwife. A safe way to live, but it is also being less than human to live in such a way.

Can't delegate with no faith in people
To have "no faith" in people means you do everything yourself. You never delegate. Not good for a church plant. Not good for a family. Not good for a lot of things. 
In the end, the question of "what do you have" is not based upon how much or how little faith you have in people. Our ultimate object of faith is a Sovereign God who calls us into relationships with Himself (infallible), with His church (fallible yet redeemed) and His world (fallible but still bearing his His image). We have varying levels of "faith" in people that may vary as God works in them over time.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Shark Week 2013 Gospel Reflections

Every year towards the end of summer, I have one thing on my mind: Shark Week. Well, that's not totally true, particularly now that we're starting this church plant (somewhat thought consuming!), but you probably get the point. For many Shark Week marks not simply the close of summer, but also perhaps its zenith.

And for those who do actually anticipate the new week, they can almost always be confronted with the disappointment of re-runs and less than spectacular material. While this year kicked off with a mock-u-mentary (that wasn't even subtlely revealed to be fake until the end of it) on the pre-historic Megalodon, it seems to have let me down far less than other recent Shark Week's.

I love to hear the stories of shark attack survivors. Those are always my favorites. I'm not there to see the un-cut material, but I really do think Discovery does a good job with letting people mention God or Jesus. There is almost always a snippet of a survivor giving praise to God the Father or the Son (still waiting for a Holy Spirit "shout out" but that may come...). In a previous season, one story actually ended with Romans 8:28 being quoted after the wife had been killed by a Tiger Shark. This year was no different.

One South African lad of only 15 years experienced the wrath of two Great White Sharks attacking him and his surfboard. Here is Animal Planet's version. Unfortunately everyone abandoned the scene, so he was left to fend for himself. In his words, "Jesus, I need some help here....." Suddenly a big wave came and carried the lad in.

Jesus' "saving wave" was actually quite formative, for several years later, someone else surfing near him was attacked. Knowing what it was like to be left alone (and knowing what it was like to have been saved by a "third party"), he paddled over to rescue the other lad instead of swimming the other way.

What a great picture of how the gospel frees us from bitterness. That's a natural reaction when folks let us down, or for this lad, when people leave you in the water to die at the teeth of two not so friendly White Sharks. We become especially bitter when people scatter at pivotal times in life. Instead of only giving us a new life freed from bitterness, the gospel grants us a new mission, and a new motivation to move forward in that mission. No longer bound by what people did/didn't do for us (if they abandoned us) nor what people may do for us (praise or curse), we have a much fresher and lasting motivation. Freed from bitterness, and set free to serve.

Our bitter experiences can be redeemed and open the door for mission if we remember the truth of the gospel message:

At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. II Tim 4:16-18

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Disappointment: It's not as bad as I thought

As a church planter you have to ask for things. Lots of things. Now everyone should ask for lots of things, but I've found myself doing that more these days because I have less in some sense. Though much was already committed before I was even "signed," I still do have to ask for money. That's kind of hard. But I also have to ask for people. And you can't really ask people for themselves, at least not at first. Because of that I'm at the mercy of people returning phone calls, meeting me and meeting with me, showing interest in me, the church, or the gospel (preferably all three, but one out of three isn't bad). Since I cannot provide that interest, I have to ask God for it. 

And while scary, it can also be kind of fun. It can result in great excitement and praise. 

For instance, I prayed for several neighbors that I had made contact with a while ago, yet hadn't been able to connect with. I prayed specifically for two of them to return a phone call. Just 15 minutes after praying, I saw a name pop up on my I-phone. It was one of the two.

For a very short 5 seconds, I praised God out loud before answering the phone. There was talking, but it wasn't to me. He had "butt-called" me. If you're not familiar with that term, we'll just say he accidentally called me without knowing it or realizing I had actually answered the phone.

From the heights of praise to the depths of disappointment. In 4.5 seconds.

James 4 reminds us that we don't have because we don't ask. So we should definitely ask. But the problem when you do ask-and I've already mentioned that I have to ask for a number of things I haven't asked for before-is that you set yourself up for disappointment. You really do. I think we need to honestly count the cost of asking. 

Of course there is a reason that God says, "No, or not right now." Just like when parents tell there kids, which is always a good reminder. Why should I expect my kids to take it so easy, when it's hard for me?

With much asking comes much disappointment. Of course with much asking, comes much thanksgiving. But instead of basing my confidence in prayer or spiritual well being on how many times God said, "Yes" that week vs. how many times he said, "No" or "Not at the moment," I've had to reconsider how I view disappointment. 

The Psalms are full of highs and lows. Full of disappointment and full of thanksgiving. You might think the persons writing them were a bit unstable. But I think that's just a healthy vibrant spiritual life. If you aren't disappointed, you probably don't care all that much. And if you are disappointed, remember, that is so much better than being apathetic. Or even being dry. Going back and forth between disappointment and thanksgiving is far more healthy than a "stable" dry time.  

Disappointment is not a dark desert highway on the way to the Hotel California, but an experience of a real relationship with a Heavenly Father, who out of love, may say, "No" or "Not yet." 

I've been dry. I've been on spiritual auto-pilot before. I'm learning that temporary disappointing periods are actually much better. It means there is a real Father-son relationship taking place, just like the one which takes place in my house each day. Highs and lows, but it is real, not robotic. I'm learning to see disappointment in a new light.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Riley, Repentance, and Redemption?

After several months of "Rome-less" radio down in Bradenton, my wife let me know that Jim Rome was actually available on FM. That was music (ironically we're talking about 'sports talk radio') to my ears. Rome discussed the whole Riley Cooper racist tirade caught on video while at a Kenny Chesney concert (his first mistake). The "N" word was dropped like a set of dumb-bells by a meat head in a weight room. Only this meathead wasn't big enough to scare people after the racist ranting video went viral. Tebow's former teammate, and roommate, is in some serious trouble.

While the NFL doesn't seem likely to suspend him right now, it is tough to rebound from such a debacle. Remember Michael Richards who played Kramer on Seinfeld after his tirade? While he certainly has a career to think about, Cooper has to come to realization very quickly, that what he said (and probably thought-though seeing into the heart of another is impossible) was terrible and the consequences of said words could be around to stay long after.

Marcus Vick, who has done nothing good, well ever, has never been a great spokesperson for his older brother Mike. Getting kicked off Va Tech's football team opened the door to playing for the Miami Dolphins. For a pre-season. But with the help of a famous brothers name, and twitter account, you can always make enough noise to be heard by a number of folks. He actually put out a "bounty" (a la Greg Williams and the Saints, allegedly) of a 1,000 for a safety to take out Cooper in a game. Not sure where he gets that kind of cash, but that's for another day.

For today, I want to look at Vick's response.

“I know what type of person he is,” Vick said of Cooper.  “That’s what makes it hard to understand but easy to forgive him.”Mike Vick also disagrees with his brother’s remarks about Cooper, saying that Marcus should “not show a level of ignorance himself.”

Receiver Jason Avant also forgave Cooper.  “I just know him,” Avant said.  “He’s not racist.”

I wonder if there's also something else going on. Most people are centering their forgiveness around the words. But what about the thoughts? Could that be forgiven? If so, by who?

By someone who had been forgiven of something really big. Really stupid. 

Mike Vick did jail time for his role in dog fighting. It was bad. It was stupid. It was evil. But I wonder if that plays into his quickness to be able to forgive. Grace begets grace.

In Jesus parable in Luke 7:36-50, which he tells to some self righteous religious folks, he poses the question which person would be more thankful, someone with a small debt cancelled or bigger debt cancelled? The answer is obvious. Then he expostulates: 

47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Whoever has forgiven Vick, or whomever he feels forgiven by-whether God, teammates, owner, friends, fans-it probably plays into his take on forgiveness. He has loved Cooper much because he has been forgiven much. For those unwilling to forgive such racist remarks, or racism in general, it reveals how small a debt they had cancelled. Of course it does take time, and it seems as though it may take time for other teammates to come around. But if there is belief in the gospel, even racism, not just words, but beliefs, can be both called out as evil, while the forgiveness process (provided there is repentance) can begin.