Sunday, December 21, 2014

Thoughts from Around the World

In Barcelona - a unique Nativity interpretation
I made some observations and captured some thoughts on my recent trip to Barcelona; Doha, Qatar; Tallinn, Estonia & Helsinki, Finland....throw in Frankfurt, Germany as the unplanned stop on the way home.
  • Airlines: U.S. based airlines, in my experience, are not the best. Lufthansa is a solid quality aircraft with consistent comfort & amenities; Aeroflot is definitely on the low end unless you want to go all the way to Carbint-air, a small airline in Haiti (I actually think they were shut down for drug smuggling) but they too fly an old Russian prop plane. The locals called is “Cari-bin-terror.” Qatar Airways took the prize on this trip. Comfortable, all the latest gadgets, “tinted” windows I’m pretty sure that can be “dimmed,” USB ports, etc….
  • Airports: Doha definitely takes the cake - it’s new, it’s expansive. The Tallinn airport is nice, quaint, clean. Munich was nice. Frankfurt - it’s big, old and ok. Chicago is Chicago. Stockholm was a very nice place. Everyone I spoke with was courteous and helpful no matter where I was. Regardless of the airport the prices are the same - ridiculous!
  • Food: There was lots of lamb in the places I visited. In Doha, Lebanese food is very popular and it was very good. The long, loaf of flat bread and the spreads were delicious! The Swedish meatballs and potatoes in the Stockholm airport were delicious - and way too expensive, but….
  • Tea: I drank a lot of tea, steering clear of sodas. The red tea in Doha was very nice, especially flavored with honey. I missed my usual Earl Grey until getting to Tallinn. My most expensive cup of tea was in Tallinn when I spilled the nicely prepared cup and so paid for another one! Oops!
  • Water: There are few if any drinking fountains in airports outside of the U.S. I was all prepared to fill up a water bottle but instead had to pay those exorbitant prices.
People: This is the topic that actually began my
Barcelona street
writing. I’ve traveled enough to know that we human beings are the same in more ways than we are different. This trip, perhaps because of the more extreme differences in cultures, I was struck even more by the similarities more than the differences that exist. People across the globe are in need of relationships. We want people to laugh with, cry with and spend time with. We want to know that someone else cares about us and that we can care about others.

At the Short Course Swimming World Championships in Doha, the similarities were paraded before our eyes. Women have to hug everyone after a medal ceremony. It takes twice as long for a women’s relay than a men’s ceremony. If your tradition is the cheek touch with the kiss in the air - some twice and a few three times - it adds to the length. But that’s the way it is everywhere. Women are more relational than men and that touch helps their connection to the world in which they live. Men are satisfied with a handshake or slap on the shoulder or butt and off they go. It’s the same around the world, with few cultural exceptions.

The divide is clearly visible for those who pay attention but I find it’s a political divide, not a human one. In Frankfurt (where I spent far more time than intended due to a generator failure on the first plane) I met a young lady from Vancouver. I was able to purchase her coffee and croissant at the Traditional German Bakery because her credit card wouldn’t work. She came over to me to say thank you, again, after eating her “most delicious” croissant ever! Her husband runs the Samsung Middle East operations from Tehran, where he lives most of the time and she is with him most months during the past 2 years. She feels welcomed. Most mistake her for a U.S. American and are excited to meet her. We agreed she just needed to insert more “eh’s” into her conversations to move that geographical identification to the north.

Politics and politicians divide us. They certainly have a job to do. The safety and economic prosperity of their respective nations, along with the posturing that often goes with it, creates divisions and difficulties that mean little to the average citizen of the world. 
Frankfurt, Germany

Frankfurt Christmas Market
We live in different cultures and follow different customs. Our societies are structured differently. Some of our values differ. In the U.S. we are more individualistic - although I’m told that Australia is the same and perhaps more by those who have visited. Most cities and towns lack the public transportation and tradition of walking that serves to isolate us. My sister-in-law and her husband live in a section of Portland that is more of a community - lots of walking, outdoor cafes, local shops. But most of our society isn't built that way.

In Barcelona or Tallinn I could walk to a grocery store in 5 minutes or to a bus, tram or metro station that would take me to where I wanted to go. Qatar was a bit different, being a society in which about 15% of the population is native Qatari. It was my observation, and I was also told, there is not much interaction between the populations. You have a working class from outside the country and then the leaders of businesses and the country. To run events, such as World Championships; or to manage construction projects for the 2022 World Cup, outside individuals and companies bring the expertise.

The American in-between my new Qatari friends
The Middle East thinks more about “us" than “me" - I think. Everything is about name and tribe, which is why we in the U.S. can’t quite comprehend all that is going on. My conversations in Qatar informed me there is always an ISIS here or there, gaining notoriety only because of the press. While this present insurrection appears to be particularly brutal, it’s not new, but seems to be part of the fabric. Our U.S. lenses bring a distortion to the reality. One Qatari said to me: “The U.S. is always in the middle of things and it never gets any better.”

The clothes are different, many times because the need is different, or from tradition. The food is different. Different drinks are available, barring some of those global brands. The cars are different but in Qatar the concentration of luxury vehicles is astounding. Never before had I seen a Rolls Royce dealer next to a Lamborghini store nearby a Ferrari place. 

The similarities are more than the differences, I believe. In each place, people work to provide for a family. Couples walk the decorated streets hand in hand or gaze at one another over a meal. Business meetings take place in a hotel lobby, in a restaurant or office and cell phones are ubiquitous. We all want the same things: meaningful relationships, someone to love and to love us and to make our way in this world.

Even Christmas connected us, although in Qatar it was quite different, save for the Egyptian glass-blower who made ornaments to cater to the tourists. Both Barcelona and Tallinn, in Helsinki as well as the airports, Christmas was in the air. Carols played, lights displayed, decorated trees all called to a season. Even in Qatar I received a magazine in my hotel room whose cover said I could find directions to the festive nature of this time of year inside.

I found a significant difference in the displays. Nativities are my favorite part of Christmas decorations. To the chagrin of my family, I like to place the wise men “afar” from the manger, often intruding upon my wife’s decoration schemes. So I was on the search for those unique ones in this part of the world. My first stop was easy. I knew I would find one in the Christmas market of Barcelona. Big figures and little ones, made from all different kinds of materials. I was disappointed in Helsinki, finding only the few church windows displaying a scene. Not one was to be found in the market or in a store. Tallinn, I thought, would not be an issue but I was surprised. A beautiful Christmas market and there was one booth with figures made in a Nordic style - and there was one Nativity displayed ‘neath the covered walk on one side of the old Town Hall.
Evangelical Free Church - Helsinki
Swedish speaking Methodist Church - Helsinki

Town Hall Display - Tallinn
Barcelona Nativity interpretation
Christmas around the world seems to be a commercial holiday more than anything else. It’s an opportunity to make a sale, to fill the emptiness of our hearts with the overflow in our storage units, closets and garages. I’ve been on a crusade for the past 11 years to do something about it with the Live Simply Project: live more simply so that others might simply live. Christmas is not about the presents as much as being present as Jesus to the least, lost and left-behind. It is my hope and prayer that this year you might find a way to reduce your consumption and increase your compassion. Merry Christmas!
Barcelona - Government Square

Sunday, December 14, 2014


The end of a journey has almost come. Which means the beginning of another is about to start. It all began and continues because I chose to say YES.

I used to be the guy who said no to opportunities. I'm remembering a previous European trip when I was 21, back in 1985. When in West Germany I remember turning down a chance to go to a West German Team water polo practice. In England, on the same trip, I turned down a chance to go to a Pub with new friends. I could run through a long list of "misses" (I hesitate to call them regrets because that's seems too harsh for the subject) because I chose to say no.....I'm too tired....I just don't feel like it....I'm a little nervous about what to expect, so "no, thank you" often came the reply.

Through the years I've tried to turn over a new leaf. To say yes (not as often as Jim Carrey in "Yes Man!") as often as possible. That approach has led me on some great adventures - like this one.

I am beyond privileged to be one of the FINA starters for USA Swimming, which basically opens the possibilities of officiating internationally. Many times I still think they got the wrong guy, but because I said yes to an invitation, I've experienced new things, met new people and been to some amazing places. This journey centered around Short Course World Championships in Doha, Qatar. I have been mentored by others who remind me to say yes, because an opportunity may never come around again. And you always approach a meet like like it could be your last, so do well, and say, "Yes." So I did.

"Yes" also look me on some detours both along the way and on the way home.

with Ellen in Barcelona
First was to Barcelona where I stayed with new friends David & Ellen. They are church planters with a special affinity for sports ministry; Ellen, in particular, with aquatics. After a proper Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving Day (Ellen is from the U.S.), which included pumpkin pie (the can of filling was my dinner contribution), there was a lot of discussion as we walked, talked, ate and prayed about what God might want to do next in the arena of aquatics.

Do you want to try this food? Yes. Do you want to go to this place? Yes. Yes, yes and yes again.

Then Doha. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have an opportunity to visit this deep into the Middle East. The invitation to Qatar (there seem to be a hundred ways to pronounce it but the locals say "Ku'-tar" with the emphasis more on the first syllable) was a no-brainer. YES! As a result I met people from around the world, brought together by our love for the sport of pool swimming; I had one of the best seats in the house to watch some of the best swimmers in the world; and the opportunity to work with referees from Ukraine and Nigeria, through whom I learned more about the role of the starter and the team we make with the referee.

In Doha I said YES a lot. Yes, I'll try that Lebanese food. Yes, I'll go to the Souq Waqif (the standing market) one more time. Yes, I'll do that, if it would be helpful for the meet. Yes, yes and another yes.

On the way home I stopped in Estonia to teach a couple of classes at the Baltic Methodist Seminary. If you look at a map, Estonia isn't "exactly" on the way home, but I figured it was more in the neighborhood that if I was at home.

It happened because I said, "Yes."

One of my classes in Tallinn
I was privileged to teach a group of Pastors and lay people, those whom are on the front lines pressing forward to take ground for the Kingdom. They were young and older, speaking Estonian, Russian and sometimes English. They taught me so much, asked many challenging questions and they say I helped them with their personal spiritual growth and with ministry.

I've been able to extend friendships with several Estonians and was privileged to eat in the home of Tarmo & Lii, along with their son Kaarel, who is a runner at Biola University in California. I've met new people, significant leaders of Methodism here in Europe - Taavi Hollman, Superintendent of this area - Dr. Ullas Tankler, Executive Secretary for Europe, Middle East and North Africa for the General Board of Global Ministries. 

"Yes" opens doors. When I say yes I meet new people. I experience new things. "No," closes doors. "Yes" opens possibilities.

2 Corinthians 1:20 tells us: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ."

Nativity from The Rock Church - Helsinki
The word "Yes" is God's word. All of His promises are fulfilled in Jesus. He is the confirmation and seal of God's promises to us. That's the celebration of Christmas. Can streams be made to flow in the desert? Yes. Can darkness become light? Yes. Will trouble and hardship really not overcome us? Yes. Can I know and live out my purpose in life? Was I created with a purpose? Yes. Christmas is the realization that all of God's planning is happening. It is YES!

Say Yes today. To Jesus. To life. The wonders will never cease. I'm grateful to the people who gave me the opportunity to say it - "YES!"

Second only to the YES of God is the YES of a wonderful woman who awaits my return. Can't wait to be home. Thanks for saying, "Yes."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Anticipation Disappointment

In Rock Church - Helsinki, Finland
 During this time of year, much of the world drips with anticipation. Many, but not all, look forward to friends and family, time away from school, presents and food, traveling. We anticipate situations involving family that, well, we just don't seem to get along with. If we're honest, we might not like them. But they're family. This is not the kind of thing we like to anticipate.

I've been a whirlwind journey these past 2 weeks with another 5 days to go. I've been to Barcelona where Christmas festivities were in full bloom with bright lights and songs filling the air. What I was looking for were some unique, indigenous gifts to share with my family. I wanted a nativity scene, for instance, because I love them. My family thinks I'm obsessed - and I might be. I enjoy placing the wise men coming "from afar" because it's Biblically accurate and my family just shakes their heads as my wife moves them back because they mess up her decorating scheme.

In Barcelona I found plenty to choose from, different styles and sizes. It's a religious city with a religious history. I was not disappointed.

Next I found myself in Doha, Qatar for the Winter World Swimming Championships. I didn't expect to find any nativity scenes there! I did, however, happen upon some Christmas ornaments. It was an interesting contrast to be in a Muslim country where a displayed cross or Bible might be frowned upon (perhaps severely) but they know tourists. I was not disappointed but rather pleasantly surprised.

Today I find myself in Tallinn, Estonia to teach at the Baltic Methodist Seminary. I came with anticipation to see good friends, to feed my gift for teaching and to find some of those unique Christmas gifts, and yes, a nativity set.

Methodist Church in Helsinki
Yesterday, my friends took me to Helsinki, Finland by ferry, an easy 2 hour 45 minute trip across the Baltic Sea. Anticipation once again of a new land and my quest.

In Helsinki I found two nativities. Not two styles or sizes but just two and they were not for sale. Both were displayed in church windows (the churches are part of the block of buildings, often with shops underneath, down a step or two, and next to anything from a coffee shop to a hair salon to apartments). I tried to buy one and she laughed at me! I assured her my wife would love it. But that didn't help.
Evangelical Free Church in Helsinki

In Tallinn's Old Town I found one nativity for sale, available with different figures from wise men to donkeys and lambs along with Mary, Joseph & Baby Jesus. One booth out of dozens had it. Just one.

I'm here to teach two classes, the first on Evangelism & Discipleship. In talking with my Estonian friends over the recent months as well as from my own reading, I knew this country to be one of the most secular in Europe. The population has little to no memory of the Church. There is no song or hymn in their hearts. The decades of Russian occupation and oppression were aggressive in limiting such options.

I mentioned my deflated anticipation in class today. I asked: "How many nativity sets do you think I found in Helsinki? In Tallinn?" It shouldn't have surprised us, but it did. For a country that is secular in its orientation, where the church is a sidelight for the majority of the community, the central meaning of Christmas has been lost. It's about decorating trees (so there are many ornaments for sale) and giving gifts (so there are many woolen goods displayed), drinking special drinks and eating special food. So of course Jesus, the nativity, isn't relevant.

 In Methodist Church - Helsinki
Craft shop in Helsinki
In Helsinki is a Methodist Pastor who is seeking to make a difference by making some connections. She calls her craft shop a "first step" into the Church. It is located underneath the church, down two steps from the sidewalk. There we found a group of ladies anticipating class but first eating biscuits and drinking tea and coffee. The classes are taught by a Christian woman from Estonia (she's the one who laughed at my attempt to buy the nativity) using ceremics and fabric as the mediums. Prayer is said. Scripture is read. Skills are taught. Projects are made. The participants aren't "in" the Church yet, but they've taken a "first step."

When all we have to anticipate are presents and trees, lights and food, which are all gone after Christmas, boxed up for another year, what a disappointment it will be. There is so much more. The celebration of the coming of God in Jesus is but a prelude to His coming again in final victory. The first advent anticipates the second advent.

What keeps Jesus central for you at Christmas? Perhaps He is not and so I would ask, would you consider what He is all about?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Synchronistic Christianity

The Sagrada Familia is simply stunning. A remarkable feat of architecture and what could have been gaudy being littered with carvings, statues and scenes was made a piece of beauty by Gaudi who began the project in 1882. The Nativity entrance tells the whole story of the incarnation while at the newest entrance you can follow the Gospel from the Upper Room, to the betrayal, to the crucifixion and the resurrection.

As I took in the expanse and the detail I noticed something that seemed out of place in such a holy story. At the base of two columns marking an entrance are turtles, one under each. I don’t recall a tortoise being prominent in either the birth or resurrection dramas.

The myth of the giant tortoise comes to us from a variety of sources, with many cultures having a story that the whole world is supported on the shell of a tortoise. But why is it here? Why put the tortoise in a mythological position of prominence at the entrance to a place of Christian worship?

Over 35 years of following Christ, I have stumbled upon a number of non-Christian elements that are held up with core Biblical beliefs. It’s called synchronistic Christianity or synchronism, the combining of pagan elements with Christianity to form something that isn’t either.

In the Bible we read in Galatians that Paul is arguing against this kind of infiltration. There were a group called Judaizers teaching that converts to Christianity needed to become Jews first in order to become Christians. First obey the Law of Moses, then accept the grace of Jesus. They’re approach may seem innocent enough to many. But where does it lead?

I was talking with David & Ellen about this, crafting the post through our conversation and thoughts. They referred me to a book called “Pagan Christianity?” which deals with some of the pagan rituals that have crept into Christian worship and theology over time. They found it a transformational and challenging book. (Regardless of your thoughts on the scholarship of the book, it does help spark the mind to consider what is really in the Bible and what is not).

If I believe that saying: “In the Name of Jesus” at the end of a prayer is required for the prayer to be a prayer, then I am probably allowing magic to infiltrate my practical theology. The Scripture does say that “if you ask anything in My Name, it will be done for you.” But it’s not the phrase itself that is somehow magical; for if prayer comes from a self-centered heart that wants a thing to benefit the flesh, then saying “in the Name of Jesus” isn’t going to transform the prayer because it does nothing for the heart.

How many times have you said - I know I have - something that finds its basis in karma? Playing racquetball, when we can’t determine whether a low shot was good or not, we’ll play the point over. If the person making the first shot wins the point we say: “It must have been good.” Karma. When a parking space opens up or all the lights are green instead of red, we might say: “I must be living right.”

In the U.S. we often equate the blessings of God with the American Dream. If I can buy a house, have two cars, go out to eat often and have nice vacations, then God has blessed me. And God certainly isn’t a North American, yet we often put our U.S. culture right up there with what is Biblically correct. The creep of culture into Christianity is subtle and strong.

In Barcelona Catholic Churches there is usually a black virgin as one of the icons or statues. She is
revered most especially in this city. Centuries ago the original statue was taken to be cleaned and it was found her face was simply dirty, not black. Today she remains black because that has been the tradition.

Is something like the tortoise simply cute, a harmless depiction of the myth? Is it ok to pull in fun, minor elements, setting them alongside Christ? Santa Claus is a happy thing, is he not? The Easter bunny is just a cute bunny, and the eggs, well, they’re just eggs connected to a rabbit that doesn’t lay eggs. Nobody really believes in the Easter bunny. It’s harmless, silly fun. Right?

The Galatian Judaizers were saying that Jesus wasn’t enough. Something more had to be added, in this case Moses. Moses would complete the work of Jesus. Silly to Biblically literate people. But lest we are too quick to dismiss the creep in our own lives, we would be well to consider the formula: “Jesus + ?? = Salvation.” Hymns led by an organ? Pews versus chairs? A certain time of prayer each day? A particular method of worship versus another?

Suddenly, Jesus + my personal preference = salvation and we’ve slid into the pit with the Judaizers. 

It is my opinion that allowing the creep of myth and culture into Christianity weakens our faith and lessens the understanding of how much we need Jesus. My question is, can we ever get rid of all the things that have crept in? I’m not sure. Things probably vary from local church to local church, from person to person (like insisting it's more spiritual to pray at a certain time and so the form begins to be worshipped more than God Himself).

The turtle made me think. What about you?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Barcelona & History

with Ellen on The Ramblas (Boulevard)
It's been a wonderful two days - not quite over yet - getting to know new friends in David & Ellen, whom I met through Athletes in Action. They are church planters who do a lot of ministry through sports. Ellen's background in synchronized swimming connected us in the aquatics world. The primary purpose for coming here was to talk about aquatics ministry around the world and what we (along with our friend, Jacqueline in Switzerland, and others) can do to encourage Christian athletes and coaches as well as be open to conversations with others.

Jacqueline is a former world class diver, Ellen a former world class synchro swimmer and me - definitely not a former world class pool swimmer! I just tag along and open doors for these amazing ladies!

We've had some great conversations about next steps. Now to put them into action.

Last night I was up until 12:30 a.m. with these crazy people! WAY past my normal bedtime, but we saw some wonderful things after enjoying a great home-cooked meal.

The day began being reminded that love is something we all have in common around the world. We are far more alike than we are different. I discreetly captured this picture which quickly took my mind to my love at home, to our need for love in our lives and thankfulness for God's love that surrounds us.

That was Friday.

This morning, David was off to a prison to do some ministry through basketball, and I slept in! Later Ellen showed me the Medieval part of the city. Everything is decorated for Christmas and in one square we came upon row after row of booths selling Nativity scenes, complete with buildings for the whole countryside. There was a large Nativity in the government square with a wonderful interpretation for a seaside city. I was told that Barcelona is known for its Nativity's and if you're going to put up one thing for Christmas, that's what it should be.

From Roman columns unearthed within the past few decades to stunning cathedrals, it's a beautiful city. Tonight we are headed to the Olympic ('92) village and park areas and then I insisted on taking them out to eat. As young married missionaries, that's a luxury they don't often get.

The Cathedral of Barcelona

The Cathedral of Barcelona

Courtyard of The Cathedral of Barcelona

The Cathedral of Barcelona

Roman columns from 1st Century

In the government square

In the government square

The "Sailor's" Church

Friday, November 28, 2014

Adventure into the Unknown

Never travel the day before Thanksgiving! I'm not sure what I was thinking! The snowstorm up the East Coast didn't help, but thanks to a wonderful United ticket agent at the Dayton Airport who engineered a new route, I was able to get moving in the right direction.

I'm presently in Barcelona on my way to Doha, Qatar as an official for the Short Course (25m) Swimming World Championships.

My hosts here at David & Ellen, church planters with a special interest in sports ministry. Ellen and I connected because of her passion for aquatics. We've Skyped a couple of times over the past year, praying for open doors around the aquatics world.

Being that it was Thanksgiving Day - and Ellen is from the States - she prepared a traditional meal for some friends and I brough the pumpkin pie filling, which she couldn't find here. It was a great introduction to some of their circle of friends, a wonderful meal and yes, the pumpkin pie turned out great!

The sun has appeared this morning, which was not in the forecast. Looking forward to a day of conversations about ministry and walking some streets of Barcelona.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Don't Discount a Double Check

I learned many years ago to never presume that I know everything that went into a decision of which I was not a part. I know far less than I think about my own decisions, much less someone else's! I tend to lean toward trust while finding some way to learn and grow as I observe the results of a decision. So when Mars Hill Church announced today that they would cease to exist, either merging with other churches or closing all 15 campuses, I'm not about to presume I know everything that's gone into that decision.

I began this post with some "fear and trembling," feeling like I'm treading on thin ice (as it begins to snow for the first time this Winter). I write so that I can learn - journaling is a great discipline for anyone. I write now so that I can look back and see how accurately I'm perceiving and where I need to grow.

I did this same exercise almost 2 years ago when I learned I would be leaving a church I'd served for a decade. I sat down that afternoon and wrote 2 pages, or more. How was I feeling? What was I thinking? Where did I agree? Disagree?

I re-read it just before my last weekend there and was pleased with the accuracy. It served as a check on my personal perceptions and self-awareness. So here goes, into a potential abyss that has the power to expose new blindspots.

Mars Hill's founding Pastor went through some trouble and difficulty, some might call it persecution, over the past year. Regardless of what you name it, he accepted some shortcomings, acknowledged his imperfection and decided to step back from leading the Church. Within weeks the leadership made this stunning announcement.

My mind went through a double check of questions and foundational beliefs. I do not for one moment suggest that any of these are or were the pitfalls of Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll. Here are the rest areas I pull into as I journey through my own soul. They are questions I've asked again this day.

I asked myself: "What's best for the Kingdom?"

I know that no church should stand or fall on their Pastor, no matter how charismatic the person is. So I ask the question: "What can I learn about leadership from this situation?" When I departed the church mentioned above, I was offered the financial and people support to start a new church. It was never a thought. It wasn't best for His Kingdom.

It's not about me. The people who make up the Church are not "mine." While it's painful to move from a place you and your family have settled into and called home - and hoped to call home for a longer time to come - I have no right to think that what's been built has been due to me. Sure, God uses leaders, but as His instrument I work only with His hand on the bow. Only as He strikes the keys or strums the strings does music flow.

A favorite seminary professor at Asbury once said: "We are temporary assistants to the Holy Spirit." Later I read Henri Nouwen's book "Making All Things New," in which he wrote about a "ministry of absence" and the professor's phrase birthed new life in me.

Jesus told the disciples: " is best for you that I go away, because if I don't the Advocate (Holy Spirit) won't come. If I do go away, then I will send Him to you."  (John 16:7) Pastors and church leaders who worry about what might happen when they're gone (for a Sunday or a vacation or a Sabbatical) would do well to mediate on these words. My task as a parent is not to make my children dependent on me, but rather to unplug them from me and plug them into Jesus. As a Pastor, I'm called to do the same.

As church leaders, we would do well to consider the signposts that line the road of personal charisma & giftedness, leading away from dependence on God's Spirit. I know I don't know them all but I do know a few:
"I'll never invite a guest speaker who is better than me."

"I don't take all of my vacation. I can't be away from the church that long or often."

"I have to be at every meeting."

The attitude that if you disagree with me, I'll sideline you.
In other words, I'm not open to feedback or criticism.

Who doesn't thrive a bit on the positive response to a sermon or teaching? But if my goal is great sermons and Bible Studies rather than measuring how many people are reading their Bibles at home, I'm probably in danger of drawing people to me instead of Jesus.

A question I ask: Are my hands open or closed?

How tightly am I holding onto the ministry God has led me to? This Mars Hill announcement has been an opportunity to double check why I do what I do. Is it mine or is it God's? If it's mine and it's taken away - whether by personal decision, moral mistake, denominational move or leadership ouster - closed hands will tear it apart, holding on to that which I believe is mine.

EGOnomics is one of my life-changing books. It can be a painful read if approached with open hands. Ego can be my greatest asset or most expensive liability. Closed hands serve my ego. Open hands serve God's Kingdom. It comes down to taking things personally. How I take feedback and criticism is an arrow pointing inward to my kingdom or outward to His.

I ask myself: To whom am I accountable?

I am grateful to a group of guys who walked with me through one of my deepest valleys and have become consistent companions on my journey. This announcement has made me double check my accountability patterns.

When I have tough decisions I ask others for their thoughts and insights, starting with my wife. The older I get the more carefully I walk, not away from risk but away from personal preference in favor of the insight of community.

These are just some of the questions I'm reviewing in my own life. I'm not immune to temptation. I definitely have imperfections. A trending news story like this causes me to pause, to double check my heart and life. What can I learn? What should I do differently moving head? How can I pray for those involved? We're on the same journey, on the same team. I won't criticize because I don't know everything. How will you double check your life?

Monday, September 15, 2014

He Died Too Young

The recent death of a Little Miami High School student has the community emotionally fragile, most especially Brayden's fellow students along with their parents who wonder what to say. A tragic death usually brings out both the best and the worst in us as human beings. It brings out the best because we tend to care, hug and talk a little more than normal. When faced with our own mortality, especially as a teenager, causes questions and confusion.

Often the worst things we can do is actually say something. When we don't know what to say it's best to not say anything. More often than not the best thing to say is to ask a question, if you must say something. "How can I help?" or make this offer: "I'm here any time you want to talk."

There's something disturbing to us humans when we don't have answers to questions. We like to know. We like to be in control. But when a tragedy like this breaks open our neat little world, we're reminded of how fragile and unpredictable life can be.

For people of faith we like to remember the promise of Romans 8:28 "God works in all things for the good of those who love Him…" We quote it, and sometimes misquote it (it doesn't say "all things work together for good" - it does say that "God works in all things") and then tragedy strikes and we can easily forget it.

The blame most often goes to God. "Why didn't God save or heal the person?" It's not a terrible question. I've asked it many times before. The more dastardly statement often heard is: "It was all part of God's plan." I usually duck for cover from the potential fallout! That's not the God I know. God doesn't cause wrecks, murders, rapes, bombings or abuse. He is good and can't be evil.

"Why did God take him so young?" When we don't know the answers our human tendency is to blame God. Eventually some people will land on: "I wonder how God is going to use this for good?" That's Romans 8:28.

There are a lot of things I don't know about in this world of ours. There are a lot of things I don't understand about the way God works or at times seems to not be at work. Two things I know about God that help me when life doesn't make sense:

1 - God is good
2 - God is for me

My confusion comes from forgetting that God has a goal for my life, for our lives, that goes far beyond the temporary things upon which I tend to focus. I forget the bigger picture, that I am not the center of the universe or of God's plan.

Why did Brayden die too young? I don't know. It is a horrible tragedy. I do look forward to the good things God will bring out of it, though. In the meantime I pray for his family and friends who must figure out what tomorrow looks like without him.

Monday, September 1, 2014

17 Weeks to Christmas - A 1st World Problem

I've seen some recent posts about so many Fridays until Christmas. Some big box stores have a few Christmas things peering out of the shadows. I heard a business news report last week that people are using layaway more frequently than in recent years, preparing for Christmas.

Now is the time to decide what Christmas will be for you this year. For the past 12 years, Christmas has taken on a new focus for me. Live more simply so that others might simply live. Christmas consumerism is a 1st world problem. Christmas Day for most, while perhaps a day of celebration and some special times, is another day to live even while celebrating God's gift of life. It's not full of presents. It's not an overabundance of food.

House renovations versus living in a house

Car repairs versus owning a car

Having "nothing to wear" versus having 2 sets of clothes - 
one for church & one for the other days

Honestly, most of what we plan for, what we fret over, what we rejoice in are 1st world problems. We overindulge in an overabundance of things we don't need. It becomes clear when we move - and purge - and find things we no longer use, had forgotten about and didn't need in the first place. Our overindulgence leads to debt, obesity, lethargy and loneliness. What we hoped would fill our lives ends up taking life from us.

How will Christmas be different for you this year? With 17 weeks to go, here are some thoughts:

1 Decide to stay out of debt. Giving gifts you can't afford, and some of those to people you don't even like, isn't what makes Christmas. If your love language is receiving gifts, this could be difficult for you. Decide how you'll give gifts while avoiding debt. Start by decreasing the number of gifts.

2 Plan family time. The focus on presents and the spending of dollars to get them has the tendency to push family aside instead of bring them together. Instead of a wrapped present, do something together: go to an IMAX movie; see a Christmas season play like A Christmas Carol. Spend your dollars on something that creates a memory rather than ripped wrapping paper and trash.

3 Sponsor a needy child or family. We started this tradition over a decade ago, where some of our Christmas savings goes to support a child in Haiti through Starfish Kids. It doesn't matter which Operation Christmas Child (better hurry on this one for this year). Find a local family to sponsor with a meal and some gifts. You might plan on serving a Christmas Day meal at a homeless shelter instead of overindulging at home.
organization you choose, just choose one. Fill some shoe boxes for

4 Give away 1/2 of your normal spending. This is the method I've used in The Live Simply Project over the past decade. We have the privilege and responsibility to use our overabundance of resources to serve those around us, and across the world. Here are some ways to do that: sponsor a child, simply give the dollars to a worthy organization, save the dollars for a mission trip next summer. 

Some people need to simply cut back on what they spend. Some would benefit more from re-purposing their normal spending to focus on family and others. Do something different this year. Make a difference. If filling our lives up with stuff - through gifts - made us happy and filled our lives, we'd be the happiest and most fulfilled people ever. A fulfilled life doesn't come from what we get or possess but from what we give and the people with whom we do life.

Christmas in the U.S. is a 1st world problem. How will you solve it this year?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Things that Wipe Out Our Relationships - Sex

Boundaries. Fences. Limitations. Out of bounds. Fouls. Disqualifications. These are good things in our lives.

Our dog, Scamp (a Border Collie-Besenji mix), recently escaped our fenced yard. After paying $170 to get him back from the Dog Warden, we fixed the fence and the following week he found a new way out - thankfully caught by a neighbor.

For Scamp, the fence or boundary is a good thing. It's a positive thing. It keeps him safe. He doesn't know any better than to perhaps walk across a busy road. He doesn't know all the pitfalls and potential hazards that exist in the world. So we have fences and leashes for his safety. We put limitations on his existence so that he is safe.

I can tell you for sure that Scamp doesn't enjoy his fence. He wants to get beyond it. His other limitations are frequently violated when no one else is around – like staying out of my room. But we know he goes in there when nobody is home.

We have boundaries for Scamp for the same reason we lock windows and doors in our houses. For the same reason we leave lights on so we come home to a well lit environment after being out at night.

God has some boundaries and I can tell you for sure that we don't always enjoy them – we sometimes don't understand them – we often seek to see how close we can come to the edge without an explicit violation. But God has boundaries for us for one reason – perhaps two – to keep us safe. And because he loves us. We don't see all the pitfalls and hazards that exist in our world. But God does. So He provides boundaries, limitations, fences for us so we know where the out of bounds is.

Sex is something that has boundaries in God's economy. Violating those boundaries is costly. We may not understand all of God's boundaries - we may not like all of them - we may not agree with all of them. We are free to choose. I choose to start with God's character and heart and then look at his boundaries.

Two things I know to be true: God is good and God is for me. If I believe that, then when I don't understand, like or agree with His boundaries, I go back to what I know about God.

When we push God's boundaries aside or step over them in disregard, when we make unhealthy choices, sex can wipe out our relationships. Here are some ways that might happen:

When sex in marriage becomes a reward or punishment instead of an expression of passion. When secrets are kept.

When avoidance strategies are employed so that a difficult but necessary conversation can't occur. Or simply not being honest with one another.

A husband confesses the difficulties of his marriage to a female co-worker; or a wife to a male co-worker.

Dating relationships wipe out when we settle for emotions and disregard character and the heart.

Let me suggest three ways to stay within the boundaries God has set: 

1. Make Relationship with God a Priority

Here's the thing I know - intimacy with God will protect you from illegitimate intimacies in your life. Jesus IN you makes the difference not more muscles, not different clothes, not the color of your hair.

Make Jesus the priority in your life and you are less likely to experience a wipe out in your relationships.

2. Establish Boundaries
I know that money, sex and power will destroy a ministry and/or person faster than anything else. So I have boundaries for those. I don't touch money. I never meet with a female by myself in private. I invite guests to speak and invite people smarter than me onto leadership teams to keep power at bay.

We slip when we compromise our boundaries. The girl who decides that she'll ignore the fact that a boy doesn't share her faith values and instead focuses on his looks. Watch out! The husband who shares the struggles in his marriage with a female colleague crosses a dangerous boundary.

3. Evaluate your inner life

Use God's Word to evaluate your life. Use Galatians 5:22-23. Do these Fruit of the Spirit display themselves in your life?

Evaluate your inner life first before you evaluate the outer life of the other. If your relationships are what you want them to be, look inside first, asking God to grow these fruit in your life. And make a choice to stay away from the other list.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What I Do Understand

There's much I don't understand about our world, my world, and around my life. I don't understand the reactions of mobs and those that travel to #Ferguson, Illinois to be part of the looting and destruction. I don't understand the destruction of a shop, owned by a law-abiding citizen, because you're pissed off at something he had nothing to do with. I don't get it.

I don't understand global politics.
I don't understand accounting.
I don't understand anything about child abuse.
I don't understand #ISIS.
I don't understand global warming or cooling or climate change.
I don't understand how engines work.
I don't understand people who can come to conclusions on half information, partial stories and not for one moment think there is more to it than they know.
I don't understand women - that's a whole series of blogs in itself!

There's a lot that I don't understand but that doesn't mean I'm helpless or paralyzed. The world may very well be going to hell in a hand basket - last time I checked, that's is the ultimate end. What I don't want to be is a part of helping make it happen. While there is way more I don't understand than I do understand, I do understand that I can be a positive influence in my world. I don't have to succumb to whatever emotion, anger, and negativity drives people to be destructive.

There are some things that I know and that's what can drive my actions. When I was a child I wasn't responsible for all of my choices. Now I am. When I was a child, I didn't have the experience or wisdom to make the best choices, but I knew right from wrong - I still know it today. There are far more things I don't know, but in light of recent events I know a few things.

1. I know that I deserve what I tolerate. This is a painful lesson to learn, and re-learn and learn again! When I didn't hold new leaders to high leadership standards, I get what I deserve. When I refuse to be part of the process of electing new political leaders, and I'm convinced that the problem in Washington rests with everyone else's leaders, but not mine....I get what I deserve.

I deserve what I choose to tolerate. Therefore, I have to choose ahead of time the things for which I'll go to the mat, the mountains upon which I'll die. As a parent, if I allow belligerence and disobedience to go unpunished, then I'll get what I've chosen to tolerate (or avoid). 

2. I have to own my choices, choices that I'm free to make. No one makes me mad - I choose to be mad at others. No one causes me to leave an organization or stop supporting a cause, I am free to choose that option. It's my choice.

I don't get to throw off ownership of my actions, blaming what someone else did. Certainly, I need to protect my family and I choose to protect my property, but I don't get to harm others because someone else did something to someone else with which I didn't agree. My actions are my own and owning them is something I must do.

3. Disagreements are inevitable - destruction is optional. I captured this quote recently but not the author:" Disagree without making the other person bad and you will transport the connection to a higher level." Relationships surround us, they make life worth living. Relationships also come with conflict but I don't have to destroy the relationship because of it.

4. God should not be blamed for as much as He is. One of my pet peeves is the stupid things people say at tragedies and funerals. Usually it happens when human beings open their mouths! God gets blamed for untimely death with words like: "He had another plan." God gets blamed for watching over some but not others with words like: "He was watching over them" when speaking of those who survived a horrific accident while others died.

A wise friend said to me recently: "Do the things that are possible and don't worry about the rest right now."

These are some of the things I know and in a world that seems consumed in chaos, I can follow and do these things. It may not seem like much on the surface but these things build a strong foundation for living well. One of my mottos is: "Do the next right thing." That's what I know and understand.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

3 Questions for Each Day

It's easy to waste a day. A few minutes in front of the TV turns into hours. Angry Birds takes your attention and before you know it, the greater part of a day is gone. An addiction calls to you. Instead of calling in your support network, you battle it on your own, knowing it's a losing battle. Pretty soon, a day is gone.

Asking questions has made me a better leader, listener and mentor. I've become a better teacher, friend and husband. I've learned to ask some questions to help give focus to my days. These questions at the end of a day brings anticipation and expectation to the next day for me.

1 Did I make a difference today? Every day I have a chance to make a difference in someone's life - probably several someone's if I'm paying attention. The question could also be asked: "Did I help someone today?" Making a difference is not an option for me. God gifts each of us with human talents and Christ followers have the added impact of spiritual gifts. Using them to make a difference isn't optional.

2 Did I help someone smile today? It's really easy to make someone smile. Smile at them first. Do something nice for them. Hold a door. Wait patiently in line. Say, "No worries" when a waitress is flustered by too many tables. Be generous with compliments because everyone will smile when complimented (well, most people).

3 Did I learn something today? I'm a learner so this is something that keeps me at my best. One of the practices that helps me learn is journaling, blogging or some kind of writing.
   Reflecting on my day helps me see where God was active and where I may have missed Him. If I can see what I learned one day, it drives me to pay attention the next day.

How do you stay focused? What keeps you learning and growing?