Ted Talks: My New Single-Serving Friend

0 comments

TED-TalksBefore the plane even made it to the tarmac, Ted introduced himself, made some small talk and asked what I did for a living. “What do I tell him?” I thought, “PhD Candidate or Pastor,” because whichever route I went down would determine the rest of my flight. If I’m a PhD Candidate, he’ll want to talk about what I’m studying… if I’m a Pastor, well: conversation over! (At least that’s been my experience in my nearly 20 years of ministry.)

“I’m a pastor.” I said.

Conversation over. I can sit and listen to Radiohead’s new album for the millionth time or James Blake’s brilliant new album, (I Need a Forest Fire anyone?!) catch a quick nap, do a little reading, nice and peaceful… this is a 6 am flight, mind you!

“Really?” Ted said. “That’s interesting!” His eyes lit up.

“What have I done?!,” I thought as my shoulders dropped and the slew of questions began: “Tell me about your congregation! What is a church plant? What is truth? What is your stance on homosexuality or the bathroom issue with transgendered people? How can you trust the Bible? How do you understand the Trinity? What about the apocalypse? What’s your training? Why are there so many denominations if Truth is unified? Isn’t seminary pointless in this day and age?, Isn’t God really a genocidal maniac?, etc, etc, etc.” It was an absolute onslaught of questions each from a completely different direction and in no way connected one to the other, in some ways feeling more like an inquisition.

I hadn’t had enough coffee for this! I was caught off guard, discombobulated and left wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. Why didn’t I say PhD? Why?! We could have talked about racism, lynching, and white privilege, which would’ve lasted for only a few minutes before I could’ve made him uncomfortable enough to retire to the window.

Recognizing that I was completely off balance, Ted began to tell me his story: “I have a lot of Christian friends who don’t consider me to be a Christian… I grew up in an agnostic home before eventually joining the church.” Wait, what? Say that again? Now I’m really confused.

Ted continued his story integrating some of my fragmented responses to solidify the position of his church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For the majority of our flight I was being slowly reeled into an evangelistic conversation with a Mormon; I had no clue. Ted presented himself as a person seeking understanding, looking for answers to some of life’s hardest questions before spinning on a dime and presenting Mormon Doctrine and belief as the ultimate answer to each and every one of these questions. Everything was now starting to make sense.

Ted was bold. But perhaps beyond his boldness was an amazing commitment to his faith, a commitment that even at 6am on a long flight he wanted to share with me, a stranger. Once I moved passed the annoyance, I was honored. I could feel his sincerity, his conviction, the urgency for me to believe in his god.

This commitment to evangelism is one of the marks of Mormonism, something ingrained early in their faith journey and not culminated but formulated deeply in a 2-year missionary experience. With a commitment like this, it’s not hard to see why it is one of the fastest growing religions.

It made me wonder, “Why aren’t Christians like this?”

I read an article in The Atlantic a few years back where those who don’t believe in Christianity said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.” Which makes me wonder pessimistically, “Have we really been transformed by the Gospel?” Do we really believe what Jesus said about the Good News of the incarnation, his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension–you know the Gospel that Peter preached in Acts 2… or that Paul preached in 1 Corinthians 15? Do we really believe that the Gospel changes everything, that it brings wholeness, peace shalom? Or are we, as Americans specifically, continuing to allow Christianity to devolve into an American civil religion, a political platform or voting bloc?

According to Lifeway research, while we believe that sharing our faith is important, we really only pay it lip service. The reality is the vast majority of Christians never actually act on that belief. They never share their faith or do so once or twice in their lifetime.

Penn Jillette famously said a few years back:

I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

We could have a conversation all day about the proper tactics and strategies for sharing your faith, the right way, the wrong way, the insensitive way, the judgmental way, the sales pitch way, etc, etc, etc. And maybe that’s part of the problem. We have turned evangelism into nothing more than a bevy of criticized strategies, castigating each other for how they have chosen to share their faith (missional, evangelism explosion, relational evangelism, Romans Road, etc, etc, etc). The reality of the matter is that evangelism stems not only out of our transformation, but out of our transformed love for others. It is in our ability to see others as human beings, to see the Imago Dei in one another, and to love our neighbor as ourself.

As we parted ways in the airport, he put his hand on my shoulder and implored me to pray to his god… to feel the warmth in my heart of the truth of his gospel message. I was honored by his commitment to me. I was honored by the value he saw in me. How is it that the Mormons are better at showing this form of love and commitment than we are?

“What Two Books Would You Recommend for Young Leaders?”

0 comments

Leadership Books

The other day a friend asked me this question: “If you could recommend a young leader two books on Leadership, what two would you recommend?” What a great question! But TWO? Really? That’s it?!

That made a great question really difficult to answer considering there are so many great books from which to choose!

As I let the question roll around in my head and as I noodled on it a bit  I thought, “What are the two things young leaders need to learn/know/be more than anything?” Well, that makes answering the question a whole lot easier. And so I couched my answer in those two realms.

Realm One was the easiest: Jesus. A young leader needs to center themselves and their leadership around Jesus, plain and simple. Henri Nouwen does as good of a job as anyone in talking about this in the short book “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.” Nouwen writes:

My own thinking about Christian leadership had been affected by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power. Too often I looked at being relevant, popular, and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations but temptations. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”


“Do you love me?,” Jesus asks.  It is from there that everything flows. If your life is not built upon a foundation of love for Jesus, then your ministry will be all about you, your platform, your popularity, your power. This book hit me hard when I first read it 15 years ago, and it still speaks to me today. In fact, it’s why this is one of the books that I read every single year.

Realm Two was a bit more difficult, but pretty self-explanatory: Know Thyself. A young leader needs to know who they are, and also whose they are–which Nouwen gets into in a second book called Life of the Beloved (not the book I’m recommending in this section, but well worth your time!) Parker Palmer walks the reader through an intimate relationship of listening to the Holy Spirit and understanding your true self in the short book “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.” Palmer writes:

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent. . . . Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail—and may even do great damage.”


One of the greatest struggles of leaders and especially young leaders, is to model themselves after someone else and not be true to who they are, who it is that God created them to be. We keep the unique nature of our true self locked deep within as we dress ourselves with someone else’s uniqueness. Leaders, we must be true to who we are and honor that God-given nature that is groaning to be released. This is also the reason why I have read this book every year since I first encountered it 12 years ago.

I’d like to pose this question to you, the reader: What 2 books on leadership would you recommend to a young leader?

“Good Friday”

0 comments

blackWhat have we done?

Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon us.

For He hangs up on the tree, the symbol of shame and humiliation, nailed upon the tool of torture and of control.

He hangs up on the tree for you.
He hangs up on the tree for me.

Fastened to the wood.

And His blood?

It pours.

Every last ounce drained for our transgressions.
Every drop squeezed out for our iniquities.

His blood,it pours.
It pours because of you.
It pours out because of me.
It pours.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind,” writes the prophet Isaiah. “A man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hid their faces.

“He was despised, and we held him in low esteem. But He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

“For he was cut off from the land of the living and assigned a grave with the wicked though he had done no violence, though there was no deceit in his mouth.

“He poured out his life unto death…”
poured out every last drop…
poured out every last ounce…
for you.
for me.

What have we done?

Today is Good Friday. I’ve always hated that designation… for what can be good about today?

What can be good about his torture?
What can be good about his shame?
What can be good about his humiliation?
What can be good about the Son of God agonizing away on the cross, his life slipping away?

“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering. Yet we considered him punished by God,”
stricken by him,
afflicted by him.

But he was pierced for our transgressions.
he was crushed
for ouriniquities;
the punishement that brought us peace was on him.

And by his stripes we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him…
every white lie,
every lustful thought,
every impure motive,
every arrogant action,
every deceitful scheme
every slanderous word
our sins. The Lord has laid on him… our sins.

The abuse you spew out on others…
our sins,
the gossip you spread around…
our sins,
the back biting and underhanded comments you speak about your boss, your neighbor, your friends, your pastors…
our sins… the Lord has laid on him our sins, the iniquity of us all.

For he has bore the sin of many, and made intercession for you… for me… for us… the transgressors.

As Paul writes in Colossians: [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth
visible and invisible
whether thrones, or powers, or rulers, or authorities;
all things have been created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Once.
Once you were alienanted from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior, your transgressions, your sins.

But now… Now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

For you,
For me,
For us.

As Christians, the cross is a sublime moment of unarmed truth and unconditional love manifest in the face of the catastrophic. It is here on this cross, on this tree, on this device meant to humiliate and execute, that God, our merciful God, our gracious God, our loving God, paid for our freedom and showed the perfection of his love for you… for me… for us.

Oh merciful God,
Forgive us.
Oh merciful God
Forgive us for what we have done and left undone.
Oh Son of God
Rescue us.
Rescue us now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.

It is finished.

About Last Night: Trump, the Ides of March, Empire, and the Church

0 comments

Trump-Empire
I love politics; I am fascinated by the gamesmanship, the strategy, the political maneuvering, the hyperbole, even the lying and manipulation that occurs on the regular. The lengths we will go to acquire, increase, and fight to maintain power says a lot about who we are as a people. And really, isn’t that’s what politics is all about: Power.

As this entire political season has unfolded the lament of the people has risen throughout social media and across the print media landscape decrying the peculiar ascendency of one candidate in particular: Donald Trump. Pundits have spoken and written at length trying to understand how an incendiary candidate such as Trump could rise with such popularity, such influence, while using the rhetoric, language, and tactics he has; it is as if the pundits are attempting to verbally process this seemingly ahistorical phenomenon that continually races on ahead of conventional thinking. Last night was no different.

On the Ides of March, we witnessed the assassination of the Republican party as the final “establishment” candidate suspended his campaign and exited the fray. As insiders and party members scramble to save the party, looking towards a “savior” to emerge, the candidates have still pledged to support the eventual GOP nominee, even if it is Trump; as if this pledge of party loyalty and support will somehow resurrect a party gone mad.

As Trump once again marched ahead with giant strides towards the GOP’s Presidential nomination, social media and pundits let out a collective angry roar of disbelief: “How can we stop this man?”

I have been accused from time to time of being too liberal for my conservative friends, of being too conservative for my liberal friends, of being too pro-government from my libertarian friends, and too libertarian from my pro-government friends. The challenge is that I cannot be cubby-holed because my political philosophy is not derived from party affiliation nor allegiance. Rather, as a Christian, my political philosophy is derived from the red letters of Scripture (the words of Jesus). While I would love to say that my understanding of Jesus is the right one, the correct one, the best one, it is not without flaws, without fullness, still lacking the proper nuances and correctness. My understanding of Jesus is still growing, still developing, still maturing—as I hope is everyone else’s: for he who has stopped growing is dead.

As a Christian it is to Jesus and Jesus alone that I pledge allegiance, not a flag, not a president, not a country. Is this not what we mean when we declare “Jesus is Lord?”

The conflation of Christianity and Americanism has done nothing but dilute the values of Jesus within the church and among Christians (mainly among Evangelicals) in favor of propping up and supporting a political party in its pursuit of power. We are trading our sonship our daughter-ship for a piece of bread and stew. Let us not be so manipulated by the siren call and smooth talk of politicians who co-opt Scripture and use the church as a stepping stool, a means to their own political ends.

The apostle John, in describing the Church’s relationship with empirical power (specifically the Roman Empire) exhorted, “Come out of her, my people,” separate yourselves from the Empire that has engulfed and manipulated you. What’s fascinating about this “come out of her” language is that, according to scholars, this is actually erotic, R-rated sexual language: the same used for coitus interruptus, or to interrupt sexual intercourse before climax. John is describing a steamy love affair in which the Church and the Empire are not just “in bed with one another” but are intimately entangled. (In many respects this reminds me of the story of Hosea! Isn’t it interesting how history continually repeats itself?) “Come out of her!” Disentangle yourselves, and instead run back into the arms of God, remember our first love and once again proclaim that “Jesus is Lord!” If we do not, if we continue our sordid love affair, if we continue to take the affairs of politicians more seriously than Jesus, then Pax Romana becomes our gospel and the president becomes our God.

Trump is not our savior. Cruz is not our savior. Kasich is not our savior. Even Bernie with all his popularity, nor Hillary are our saviors. (In fact none of them may even be the savior of the Empire.) Presidents and politicians will disappoint us, and why wouldn’t they? Their whole game revolves around manipulating the populace in their quest for power. So while we may lament the results of last night, let us remember that as Christians it is to Jesus and his kingdom that we pledge our allegiance, not a flag or a country.

Who Is On Your Spiritual Mt. Rushmore (Pt. 3)

0 comments

SpiritualMtRushmore
Each of us have a spark of identity within our being, placed there by God at the dawn of our existence. We can either smother that spark or gently tend to that spark in such a way that it can catch fire, ultimately expressing the true nature of who we are. I firmly believe that I am who I am because of how others have helped me tend to that spark of identity, expressing well my God given nature and identity.

Part 1 was about the “Founding Fathers” of my faith. In Part 2 was about the “Author” of my faith. Here in Part 3, I want to look at Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt created and set aside a great number of national parks and sacred spaces within our country that were left protected for future generations to explore. On one occasion while camping with the great conservationist John Muir in Yosemite, Roosevelt remarked, “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”

There’s a beauty and a connectivity with God that occurs in the wide open spaces. The freedom to wander, unencumbered and explore the vastness of who God is and how He interacts and plays and smiles and truly enjoys our company. There is a real freedom in Christ… and unfortunately we have all too often forgotten this and instead traded our freedom for the chains of legalism or traditionalism or fundamentalism. It’s constraining. It’s a yoke that Jesus never intended (“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”) For many of us, freedom is an afterthought, it is a pipe dream. We’re simply unable to find the wide open spaces, let alone be let loose in there. This is a process. It is a process that requires someone who can guide us and take us into the plains and valleys, someone who knows the terrain and can help us become more and more unencumbered as we go and truly live in the joy of relationship with Jesus–in the vastness of the wide open spaces.

**Just a side note, but an important one I think–the Hebrew word for salvation, which not coincidentally is the root of Jesus’ name, literally means to bring us into wide open spaces. Sort of brings a beautiful new idea to our understanding of Psalm 23 and others like it!

You see, we need someone who can introduce us to the vastness, the space; someone who can guide us and take us into the plains and valleys, the places where true awe occurs. For me, that guide was Dr. John Castelein.

Dr. Castelein was my advisor for my Masters program. We talked a lot about postmodernism, postmodern theology, the Emerging Church, LOST–yeah it was a big deal at the time! He guided my thinking into the vastness of what is and could be possible, never chiding or deriding any thought but encouraging me to think differently, think deeper, to go beyond and think graciously about myself and all that could be possible. Dr. Castelein showed me a different side of God, a God that was free from constraint–and perhaps most importantly that constraint was not synonymous with holiness.

Dr. Castelein sparked within me an insatiable curiosity teaching me that this was okay–and to be gracious in my curiosity with others, something I’m still learning to do well. He showed me that it was okay to ask questions about God–and gave me permission to do so–but even more so to ask questions of God. To talk to Him with doubts, fears, uncertainties, questions, and everything else under the sun. And that this is all okay. And in doing this, Dr. Castelein ushered me into the wide open spaces, far vaster and more beautiful than anything I had ever experienced… and there I saw God.

Who Is On Your Spiritual Mt. Rushmore? (Pt. 2)

0 comments

spiritual mt rushmoreEach of us have a spark of identity within our being, placed there by God at the dawn of our existence. We can either smother that spark or gently tend to that spark in such a way that it can catch fire, ultimately expressing the true nature of who we are. I firmly believe that I am who I am because of how others have helped me tend to that spark of identity, expressing well my God given nature and identity.

Part 1 was about the “Founding Fathers” of my faith. Here in Part 2, I want to look at the “Author” of my faith. Etched onto the side of Mt. Rushmore is Thomas Jefferson, who is considered to be the “Author of the country,” the one credited with writing the foundational documents and values our country ascribes to. The one who exposed the values of the gospel to me in a language that impacted my soul was Henri Nouwen.

“The author for my Faith”
I was introduced to Henri Nouwen in college by my professor Neal Windham in one of my final classes of college: Senior Seminar in the Bible. Nouwen’s tiny little book “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership” was one of the key texts we explored in the class…

I hated the book.

Now you may think “hate” is a strong, over exaggerated word here, but let me assure you that it’s not. I took the professor to task during class when it came to this book thinking it was absolutely ridiculous–I certainly made known my thoughts and feelings on the book. Let me just state here that at this point in my life I was coming from the John Maxwell school of leadership (e.g. 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership; 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader; Failing Forward). I had read a few of his books by this point and had found him not only compelling but the “right” way of leadership — in fact Failing Forward is still remains an important leadership concept in my mind. Maxwell and Nouwen’s leadership paradigms stand at odds with one another, which led to a great deal of discomfort and struggle in my mind regarding the very nature of leadership.

While I didn’t resolve the tension that semester–life changing tensions last longer than a few days or even weeks–I did, however, find myself infatuated with the story of Nouwen, of “giving up his life” for the forgotten and the least of these.* I approached my professor about doing an independent study course on the writings of Nouwen seeking to understand him and his leadership. I think Windham was a bit surprised because of how I had responded to Nouwen in class, but he allowed me to and guided me through several of his books.

It changed me.

I see people differently now, not as projects or as objects, but as the very image of God present here and now.
I see love differently now, not as some sort of feel good, mushy gushy emotional expression, but an understanding of the fullness of love; that love is an active expression of peace and grace that works for the betterment of others.
I see grace differently now… and this is perhaps the biggest one. Grace is more than forgiveness, grace is the truest expression of love possible. Grace is costly… and I’m not speaking of the grace of Jesus alone, but the expression of grace that each of us are called to give to others. Grace hurts. And in the pain of grace a beautiful picture of Jesus emerges and reveals the nature of God in the here and now.

I am thankful for Henri’s life and his writings. They have changed me. I am thankful for Neal. I am thankful that he took the time to guide me through some crucial Nouwen texts, for the conversations we had through email and in person about Reaching Out, The Inner Voice of Love and Life of the Beloved. I am thankful for the insight he brought to and through those texts. This course and ultimately these texts changed me. They wrote a new story of the grace of Jesus into my life. They helped me to see who I truly am at the core of my being… and they continue to change me today.

Nouwen helped me to uncover my identity as a child of God, the beloved of Jesus. And that has made all of the difference.

* Nouwen didn’t give up his life… by “giving up his life” he really found his life and true identity… I think Jesus said something similar.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Prepare for the End… (Pt. 2)

0 comments

church planting 10 Be sure to check out Part 1 of this 2 part series.

Save at least 4 months of living expenses
You never know if/when the church you’re planting will shut down. I know it may seem counter-productive to plan for its demise before you’ve even begun, and some church planters would much rather live on the edge believing the lack of a safety net actually gives you a stronger drive to succeed, but that attitude is sort of like playing third base without a cup. I played baseball with a guy that had this same attitude. He refused to wear a cup at third base believing the threat to his manhood gave him a quicker first step… and then one day it didn’t. An unexpected short hop took him down for the count. This is the danger you face as a church planter… you never know when the short hop is coming.

Saving at least 4 months of living expenses is as close as you can get to wearing a cup. I wish that this was something I had done deliberately, that I had the foresight to plan this way. I didn’t. However, my wife and I did sort of stumble into this reality. For some reason or another–perhaps the impending birth of our daughter–we started spending money a little differently and ended up saving several months worth of income. This has helped us in a few different ways on the back side of church planting.*

  1. Time to decompress: I had a few months to simply rest, to be, and not really worry about anything financially–especially as it related to my family’s well being. I wasn’t pressed to get a job or even start looking. Instead I had the time to sit back and reflect on what happened and what I’d learned. This was been an invaluable period of time for me. This was a wonderful gift not only for me but my family.

    In talking with other church planters that have had to deal with the trauma of closing down a church, this is often a luxury they cannot afford. The lack of finances get in the way of properly dealing with this loss, this grief, and most of the time church planters end up completely leaving the ministry. Most do this not because they’ve lost their calling but because they’re pressed financially and ultimately burnt out.

    Here’s a hard truth to consider: When you shut down, you’re not guaranteed severance. I was given a month and a half of pay when we made the decision to shut down. That’s 45 days… which if you’re banking on severance alone to give you the proper space to decompress, it’s not enough.

  2. Time to reshape your rhythms: I have found that on the other side of church planting/pastoring, many of the daily rhythms in my life were completely out of whack. (It took me at least 45 days to simply rest and get back on some sort of normal sleep schedule.) After exiting the decompression phase, I spent a great deal of time allowing life to settle into new rhythms, paying attention to those rhythms, honing those rhythms, and realizing what’s been missing and what’s still missing. For me there are 7 daily and 3 weekly rhythms that I am working on to make sure are present because they are vital not only to my well being but to my family… what I’m finding is that they’re pretty simple when you have the time to pay attention to them.

    My daily rhythms: running, lectionary, journaling, reading, a walk with my daughter, time with my wife, and writing.
    My weekly rhythms: church, group-life, family day.

    These aren’t rocket science. I have to diligently work to re-make these as fixtures in my normal rhythm of life. I wouldn’t have the space to do this if I had had to jump straight back into the job market. This is necessary on the back end of church planting and I believe it helps you move back towards a healthy view of reality.

  3. Time to dream again: When the church closes down, the greatest dreams you’ve ever had go down with it. It’s hard to give yourself permission to dream. It’s made exponentially more difficult when you field the barrage of questions from well meaning friends and family, “What’s next?!” To get to this place once again is no easy task, and it takes time. If you have prepared your family financially for a period of time post church plant, you have given yourself an amazing gift: the ability and space to begin dreaming again. To give yourself the permission to dream once again, however, will not come easy–it certainly wasn’t for me. But you have given yourself the space, and the more space you afford yourself, the better off you will be.

Saving 4 months worth of income sounds like an impossible task for some, however I would like to remind you that it is possible. I lived in the second most expensive city in the country and was able to make this a possibility. If I can do it, so can you.

My hope and prayer is that you never have to go through the trauma of closing down a church, but if you do I hope these few learnings can help ease a bit of the trauma and help you walk well into what’s next.

* It also helped that my wife is a working professional, and helped in great ways to support our family during this time.

Who Is On Your Spiritual Mt Rushmore? (Pt. 1)

1 comment

my spiritual mt rushmore
Earlier this year the question was posed to me, “Who have been the most influential spiritual leaders in your life? Who is on your ‘Spiritual Mt. Rushmore?'”

Such a great question!

There have been many influential people in my life, helping me become who I am today. They have helped me see in different ways the person God created me to be, pushing me and challenging me, caring for me and loving me well. And so to answer that question felt like an impossible proposition! To help me identify those people, I decided to answer the question based around who is actually on Mt. Rushmore (history nerd alert!).

Etched into the stone of Mt. Rushmore is George Washington, the “Father of the country”, Thomas Jefferson, the “Author of the country,” Theodore Roosevelt, the “Explorer of the country”, and Abraham Lincoln, “The Great Emancipator.” Each of these designations translate well into the life of faith and speak volumes into how we are shaped and molded into the image of Jesus.

Each of us have a spark of identity within our being, placed there by God at the dawn of our existence. We can either smother that spark or gently tend the spark so that it can catch fire, ultimately expressing the true nature of who we are. I firmly believe that I am who I am because of how others have helped me tend to that spark of identity, expressing well my God given nature and identity.

“The Father(s) of my Faith”
I want to start off by breaking my self-imposed rules just a bit and etch two faces into the stone: my dad and my grandpa. My grandpa has always modeled for me a silent faithfulness, modeling a posture that is quick to listen and slow to speak. I’ll never forget the moment he pulled me aside one day to tell me, “Aaron, I just want you to know that I pray for you every single day.” That was all he said. No explanation, no indication of what he prays for me about, just consistent, faithful prayer.

This was a foundational moment in my life, leaving an indelible imprint on me that expanded my understanding of the spiritual life: We are not in this alone, we should not be in this alone. The spiritual life was never meant to be a solo act, a private event reserved only for the self. Rather, the spiritual life must be done in community because we cannot do this alone. That simple sentence, marked by a life of consistent and faithful prayer, opened my eyes to this new reality and revolutionized my worldview. It revealed to this hyper-independent person that even when I don’t think I need anyone else, there are people surrounding me and doing work for me and my soul that I don’t recognize. It revealed to me that I have never done anything independently, I have never been alone. As the patriarch of our family, my grandpa has faithfully modeled a beautiful faith in Jesus to us all.

The second etching belongs to my dad. I remember thumbing through my dad’s Bible which was always full of fresh new highlights and perfectly underlined passages and verses (he had to have used a ruler, no one can make lines that straight!–Which goes to show the deliberate nature of his study and reading.) My dad is the one who talked with me about Jesus and about baptism. The one who encouraged me to go to Bible college–“Just try it for a year,” he said–and ultimately my decision to join the ministry. Even to this day he encourages me to simply, “follow God wherever he leads.” (Which is a big part of why we moved to Seattle. There is a great freedom in that, a freedom to pursue God no matter the cost. This has led to great joy in my life, and even some great pain–none of which I would trade for anything because through it all I have seen the faithfulness of God played out in great ways throughout my life.

These two men are the Founding Fathers of my faith without them I would not be the person I am today, nor would I be where I am today. It is because of them that I am who I am.

There have been a lot of people who have influenced my faith journey in ways both great and small, and so I will be starting a new series called “Thank You Notes” to express my gratitude to the many who have played a part in shaping me and my faith.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Prepare for the End… (Pt. 1)

1 comment

church planting 10I never thought I would be one of “those” people: a “failed church planter.” I was certain that within 2 years we’d have this large church with an amazing, large staff doing tremendous things that make a huge difference in the city. Bigger! Better! Faster! Those idealistic dreams were almost an after-thought. I had built the church’s success in my mind before the church had actually come to fruition!

And if you’re honest, you know exactly what I’m talking about. We all go into church planting with these grand dreams and visions, with idealism oozing from our being, all the while stuffing realism into the trunk! This isn’t always a bad thing… in fact, it’s what makes us the crazy ones with a sort of entrepreneurial spirit that drives us to try, experiment, and start new things! This is one of the ingredients of a church planter: an unshakable desire to pioneer and start something new with Jesus at the center. (Alan Hirsch calls this the “Apostolic Genius”.)

All of this idealism we experience at the beginning doesn’t always come to fruition at the end. Inevitably, some of us will walk down a road we never thought possible staring at the difficult and gut wrenching decision to close the doors of the plant for good. I never thought that would be me… and some of you, right now think the exact same thing: “That will never be me.” (I want to take a sidestep for a moment and recommend a podcast called Start Up. It’s a great podcast about the ups and downs of starting a company, documentary style. The similarities between their experiences and the experience of a church planter are startling. Give it a listen!)

While my hope and prayer is that you would never have to join the fraternity/sorority of the “failed” church planter—honestly it feels too much like a secret society filled with shame, but that’s a different post for a different time—I do, however think there are some things one can do to prepare on the front side for what may become a reality. I believe this series of posts (Prepare for the end) are vitally important for the church planter. Too often I have seen church planters leave ministry after the closing of a church plant and I’m tired of seeing that happen. I want to help mitigate some of that by getting us thinking and preparing for that possibility. Over the next couple of posts I want share some of these ways. These posts aren’t comprehensive and so I want to invite you to add to them as well–especially if you’re a “failed” church planter like me.

Live with the fragile nature of the church.
As with any start-up (again check out the Start Up Podcast!), it doesn’t take a lot to see it all come crumbling down. We typically hear the stories of moral failure bringing down a church plant, and usually when a church shuts down we’ve been conditioned to think: “Oh, he must have been caught with hookers while snorting coke!” And yes, unfortunately these stories do happen–perhaps too frequently–but I’ve been surprised at just how little it can take to end the life of a church.

In my case it was burnout. Burnout led the dominoes to start falling. It led to how I treated my staff, how I treated my leaders, my volunteers, how I treated people within the congregation. My burnout led to me placing greater and greater expectations on everyone that they simply could not meet–and then I’d get angry at what I perceived as their lack of commitment. It was a vicious cycle that continued until I had dug a hole so deep, I couldn’t get out of by myself. Other stories of “failure” have been purely financial: the new church simply could not support itself independently. Others revolve around an inability for the new church to gain any traction with the vision and values. Regardless, there are a myriad of ways in which a new church does not make it. New churches are fragile.

It is important for you, as a church planter, to live with the understanding that the new church is fragile. This brings about a greater sense of perspective, a perspective of appreciation, a healthy temperance to taking ill advised risk, a greater appreciation for the work you are engaging in, and ultimately a perspective that helps you realize that this is Jesus’ church, not yours. Remember, this can all be gone in an instant. Own the fragility of the church.

(At the risk of sounding contradictory, I also want to say a new church is also rather resilient. One or two, even 10 missteps will not doom a church. You’d be amazed at what it can handle.)

Owning the fragility of the church is a way of preparing you for the end. This nugget helps to bring about a sense of perspective not only in the throws of planting, but on the other side of “failure” as well. This perspective helps to create space in your heart and mind so that you can get back up, heal, and continue in ministry in some capacity. It also gives you the head and heart space to effectively evaluate what went wrong on the other side. (In all honesty, that is the space from where all of these posts–10 of them now–have been borne.)

[In the next edition of “Prepare for the end” I want to talk about having a financial contingency plan.]

Three: A Dad Reflects On His Daughter’s Third Year of Life

0 comments

THREEI stood in her doorway to watch her sleep. She was bigger now and yet somehow just as tiny as the day we brought her home from the hospital. Her sweet and mischievous attitude painted all over her tiny little face, and her adventurous/daredevil-ish spirit marked up and down her legs from leaping off the furniture, rolling around and tumbling outside in the grass, and sprinting through the house with a carefree spirit squealing like a banshee. That’s my little girl: my silly, crazy, bright, joyous, wonderful little girl. I stood there silently in her doorway mourning the passing of her “two’s.”

That moment sunk in heavy…

That’s the strange thing about time, it passes along slowly, rhythmically, regularly, always rolling, always ticking, always moving, and yet the milestones that arise with the passing of time always sneak up on you. Time seems to lull us into a sense of security, a sense that nothing will ever change… and yet the reality is: with the passing of time, nothing will ever be the same.

I stood there in the doorway and smiled as tears welled up in my eyes. I love this little girl more and more every day. I love reading stories to her at night—which is more about her making up stories about the stories we’re reading than actually reading the stories right there in front of us. I love praying with her as we tuck her in—you get a beautiful glimpse into her sweet and tender heart, the love that she has for people and the astute awareness she possesses for what is actually going on beneath the surface of people’s lives. I love her carefree spirit and her fearlessness—unless it involves eating meat, she just won’t eat meat (“papa, I just don’t like it!”), and somehow that makes me feel like I’ve failed her as a father. I love who she is and I love who she is becoming; which inevitably involves change.

Oh change.

She is changing right before my very eyes and I don’t want to blink!

I love fatherhood. I love the ability, the opportunity, the responsibility you have to shape and mold a little person, but it’s also a delicate balancing act: molding her into who you want her to be versus who she really is. I am learning more and more about the delicate nature of these scales: to not impose who you want her to be or think she ought to be, but instead to help her steward the life she has been given, to help her see who it is that God has created her to be, to help her listen to the inner voice of love that permeates her being, and let her life speak. Because when it happens, when you actually let her life speak, you begin to see just how special a gift she is to the world. It’s a big responsibility as a parent to help your little one learn how to steward their life and at the same time it’s a huge honor. I love this honor, I love helping her steward her life, and I love helping her be the person she was created to be.

I stood there silently in her doorway as she slept. I mourned the passing of her “two’s” and I welcomed in a new chapter of change: my little girl is three-years old.