Friday, April 27, 2012

What Only God Can Do

The summer of our first year of marriage, Janice and I became members of ABC.  This summer marks 25 years of serving and attending ABC.  It’s the only church we’ve faithfully attended since we’ve been adults.  When we first starting hanging out at ABC, the average church attendance was around 50 people. If we broke 100 for Easter or Christmas, we were ecstatic. In those days, we met in a little building on an infrequently traveled gravel road called Alta Dale. This building is now someone’s home and our old auditorium is someone’s two-stall garage. There’s only a few of us now that could spot this place today and remember the days of Ada Bible on Alta Dale Road. But, that’s where a lot of things started for our church.
In those days, we just wanted to grow.  We struggled in that little building on the chatter-bumped road.  We had a young pastor with passion and enthusiasm (I think his name was Manion) but we just couldn’t grow in that place.  We needed to move.  For seven years, the church saved and saved to buy property to build a real church building.  In 1990, we moved into our new church on Ada Drive.  There, we began to grow. 
We were thrilled to have an auditorium that seated 150 people and children’s space for families to come.  In the next eight years, we grew from 75 people to almost 1,000. Again, we knew we had to move.  God had commissioned us to teach and build community with more people than we had ever imagined or planned for.  The Ada Drive building was no longer suitable for God’s commission with us.  The three acre plot we owned wasn’t big enough to expand.  We needed to begin a property search and start again.
It was in that season, we came across a church in the area that was going through a tremendous struggle. Through a series of events and because of poor leadership, the church had fallen to a tenth of their previous size. I don’t remember who contacted whom, but the elder boards of our church and theirs began to meet to talk about a merger. Could this be God’s providence for us?  Our building was too small for us; theirs was too large for them.  They had 15 acres, a gym, and a ton of children’s space.  We had the people to fill it.  We had strong leadership.  They were struggling and needed care and shepherding.  At first glance, it seemed perfect.  So, we stepped forward to see if the two congregations had chemistry.  We scheduled combined services where Jeff could preach and our congregations could mix.  Our boards would continue to meet to lay out the details of coming together as one congregation.  
The further we journeyed into this option, the more evident it became that a merger was going to be riddled with conflict and compromise.  Ministry philosophies, building use ideas, and leadership structure all came into tension as the dialogue continued. Finally, our elders felt the clear prompting of God to withdrawal from this opportunity. During that period of time, my route home from my job at UPS brought me by this church.  When negotiations were taking place, I would pray with excitement and anticipation that this deal would go through as I passed the church.  When the deal fell through, my prayers changed to frustration.  Why would God withhold this from us?  Why couldn’t two groups of church leaders land on a solution that would benefit both congregations to build the Kingdom?  It made no sense to me. 
Today, I look back with incredible gratitude that our church never resided in that building.  The conflict that may have developed from the merger could have threatened our effectiveness in the community.  Several years later, the church folded.  I’ve since wondered if God had removed his light from them.  Would God have removed his light from us as well?  Not sure.  But, it would have been a real struggle.  But I think the bigger reason for God to withhold this from us was because he desired to do much more than that facility could accommodate.  Within a few years, we moved into our 110 acre Cascade Campus.  This home has become a wonderful hub for two more campuses to be launched.  Thousands more people have been spiritually affected because God withheld a small gift in order to provide a better gift. 
I think we got a taste of what the disciples experienced the days following Jesus’ ascension to Heaven.  I can’t imagine the confusion these 12 guys felt when Jesus told them they would be his witnesses and would take the Good News about him to their town, their region, their country, and to the world (Acts 1.8).  Humanly speaking, how could these knuckleheads possibly do this? The simple answer—the Holy Spirit. 
As I sit and reflect on what began in Acts 2, I’m amazed how much greater God’s plans are than any human could dream.  Just imagine John or Andrew would have suggested this: “OK guys, let’s figure out how do this Great Commission thing. First, we need an attraction strategy… like speaking in languages we’ve never studied. Then, people will rush to where we are.  And then Peter will speak and thousands will respond. This will happen over and over across the known world for generations to come.” Next suggestion please. But God does things in such a way that leaves us to respond, “Wow, that’s truly something only God can do!” Three thousand people in a single day is something only God can do. This could not have been strategically mapped out or even imagined.
As we plan our lives, churches, families, and businesses it would serve us well to pray for God’s movement in all we do.  There’s nothing wrong with human dreams and plans but God would remind us that our plans may just be a starting point for something bigger, more impactful, and with eternal, world changing implications.  Seem overwhelming?  You bet, it is!  But remember, God provides the power source.  The same power that raised Jesus from the dead and blew strength into the first church resides in you and is waiting to do more than you can dream. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Failure. Now What?

When I sit in a counselor’s office, I’m there for one of two reasons. Either I’m a mess or someone in my circle of influence is in a mess. Either way, from time to time, I need help navigating through the brokenness of this world and the consequences of sinful choices. So, I have a couple go-to counselor friends that have really helped me when the brokenness of this world overwhelms me.

On one of those counselor days, my friend Mario gave me one of the best set of principles of care I’ve ever heard. Our conversation was on the topic of restoration. As a pastor, I had found myself in the middle of some difficult situations with others who had made some serious mistakes in life. Simply put, they made some really bad moral choices, their sin was exposed and now they were faced with the shame, the pain and the consequences of their actions. They were broken, bleeding and wanted someone to give them a taste of hope that healing and restoration could take place.

I’ve been around the block enough as a pastor to know that not everyone caught in their sin is truly ready to make changes in their life. I’ve known broken and bleeding people who blame, rationalize and deflect when confronted with their sin. I found some people to be more interested in just relieving the pain of the consequences of their sin then genuinely digging out the roots of their sinful patterns that caused the pain and damage. They struggle with being fully and truly repentant. Repentance simply means to turn around. It requires a person to recognize they are heading the wrong way on a one way street, to stop heading in that direction and to turn around to get on the right path. However, not everyone is truly interested in doing that.

So on that day in Mario’s office, I wanted to know, “How I can know when someone is truly repentant? How can I tell when they are healed enough to be restored?” Mario gave me four things to watch for, four things to measure.

1.Do they own their sin? Admit your sin. Have remorse over sin. No blaming. No deflecting. No excusing bad behavior. No comparing.

2.Are they transparent? Own ALL your sin that’s contributed to the brokenness. Play all your cards. Don’t hold back secrets.

3. Is their behavior changing? A changed heart leads to a changed mind which leads to changed actions. This can be slow and incremental but old ways need to stop and new ways need to begin.

4. Have the first three been measured over time? True change happens over the long haul. Patience. Persistence. Discipline. Accountability. Time.

What a huge help these principles were for me. It helped frame my role as a friend and pastor. It gave me tangible things to strive for when caring for people broken by their sin.

This week, I thought about those principles of care when I read the story of Jesus reinstating Peter in John 21. Peter had failed Jesus miserably; denying three times having any association with Jesus. Peter lied. He ran. He failed to believe Jesus’ words. He did this when Jesus needed him most. Peter was known for his impetuous, passionate spirit and had many times declared his full devotion and love to Jesus. Then… when an opportunity arose for true devotion to shine, Peter failed. Was Peter finished? Would Jesus still have plans for Peter? Would there be any hope of Peter being restored and then used in Jesus’ mission? Here are some observations I made from the story in John 21.

Jesus’ Pursuit of Restoration
Jesus pursued Peter. Peter was fishing again. Perhaps, Peter had resolved that his role with Jesus was over or, at best, downsized because of his failure. So, he goes back to his old way of life. But, Jesus finds him fishing again.

Peter’s Pursuit of Restoration
When Peter sees Jesus, Peter pursues Jesus. He jumps into the water and goes to shore leaving the boat and fishing tackle behind. Shame could have left him in the boat hiding or trying to avoid a conversation with Jesus. Instead, Peter owns it. He goes.

Tender Care and Provision
Jesus gently feeds them all a fish breakfast. He meets their everyday human needs. He cares for them. He provides for them. He takes on the role of a gentle breakfast server.

True Devotion
Jesus goes after Peter’s heart and devotion. “Do you love me, Peter?” In essence, Jesus is saying, “After all you’ve seen and heard… after you’ve failed… after I’ve died and you’ve seen me alive and well… do you really love me? Peter, has your love grown and matured?”

Back to the Mission
Jesus reinstates Peter to his mission. “Feed my sheep.” Take care of those who believe in me. Get back to the work of fishing for men rather than fishing for fish.

Consider the Cost
Jesus measures the cost for Peter. He tells Peter that this mission will end in his death. It’s as if Jesus is asking, “Peter, are you in? This is a tough mission. I died for you. Now, give yourself fully so others can believe. Peter, are you in?”

Complete Restoration
Jesus does this three times. “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.” Three times. Why? Perhaps, because it’s the same number of times that Peter denied Jesus. “Peter, own your failures… own them all… change… get back on track… and, let’s see what big things happen over time.”

Mistakes are part of life. Some have greater consequences and pain than others. But, no sin is too great that you cannot be restored to right relationship with God. God pursues healing. He wants you fully engaged and whole again. Own your sin, all of it. Then give God the chance to change you and get you back on the track of building his Kingdom.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Doubting a Compass

Because I’m a hunter, I’ve had to learn the value of owning a compass. But just because you have a compass doesn’t mean it’s always helpful. Compasses have to be believed in order to work.

A few years ago, a friend invited me on a hunting excursion on North Manitou Island just off the coast of Leland, Michigan. Though we knew there weren’t many deer there, we thought the adventure of camping, hiking, and hunting would still be worth the effort. All our provisions and gear had to be carried on and off the island on our back, so packing efficiently was critical. But one item that made it into my pack was a compass. Wandering around lost was not an experience I wanted in a strange place. Sure, you could only get so lost on an island before you found water, but North Manitou Island is eight miles long and that’s plenty of room to wander.

After a day of hiking and scouting, I had an idea of where I wanted to hunt. I set off alone to the south end of island for an evening hunt. My goal was to walk straight south for 15 minutes off the well-marked trail. Then I would sit for a couple of hours until dark, then walk back north for 15 minutes and find the trail that would lead me back to camp. My compass would be important to doing this right.

As I set out off on the trail, I set my watch for time and my compass for direction. Fifteen minutes later, I found a place to hunker down and watch the woods for deer. As I settled in, I eyed the direction that I would need to exit, visually marking a few trees to indicate where I’d walk first when it got dark. Since there weren’t any deer to see, my mind wandered during that hunt. All I could think about was navigating my way back to the trail in the dark. I knew that if I walked in the wrong direction, I’d end up at Lake Michigan, where steep cliffs lined the shoreline. Looking toward the direction I planned to exit, I reminded myself that I knew the way back to the path.

Something happens to your perception in the woods as the day loses light. As darkness fell, I found myself doubting what I remembered. I doubted the direction I was facing and I doubted the tree markers I had set up in my mind to guide my exit. As my vision became shortened, everything seemed to change. I took a minute to reassess my surroundings and grew confident again on the direction back to the trail. When my hunt ended, I set my watch for 15 minutes and began to walk in that confident direction, checking my compass to be sure. As the needle settled to indicate which way was north, I was shocked. I was walking south… so the compass indicated. I shook the compass with my left hand and tapped the top with my right hoping to see the needle move and point in my direction. But again, it told the same story—I was walking in the wrong direction. “Now that can’t be right!” I said aloud. “This stupid thing isn’t working.” I tapped it once again, hoping for a different outcome, but the needle settled in the same place. I looked around my surroundings to find my tree markers but darkness had made every tree blur in the shadows. Then it hit me. I was in an emotional argument with a compass… and I was losing. I was doubting the wisdom of a compass! I was telling a tool uniquely crafted for the purpose of determining direction with scientific certainty that it was completely wrong. In my mind, the tool that had guided me to that very place was now unable to guide me back. I was at a crossroads. Do I trust my intuition or the compass? Against everything my five human senses were telling me, I determined to believe the compass. I reset my watch and began to walk toward the compass’s version of north. Fifteen minutes later, I found the trail. Imagine that!

Why would someone doubt a compass? Why would I ever think my intuition, emotion, memory or experience would ever be better than the data that compass could give me? The simple answer is that doubt is a powerful force. Doubt creeps in. Doubt asks questions—some good, some not. Doubt wrestles with what is known. And, though doubt can spot an imposter, it can also devalue the genuine. So, what do we do when faced with doubts; doubts about things more important than finding hunting trails?

There’s a man in the Bible who became known for his doubt. His nickname has become Doubting Thomas. Thomas was a guy you may not suspect as having reasons for doubt. He was one of the Twelve who lived with Jesus for three years. He heard Jesus’ teaching. He saw Jesus’ miracles. He believed and he followed with devotion and commitment…until Jesus died. Then doubt crept in. It raised questions. It wrestled with what Thomas thought he knew about Jesus. It devalued Jesus’ authenticity. In the end, when the report came that Jesus was raised from the dead, Thomas couldn’t believe it until he saw with his own eyes. But, it’s not that Thomas doubted that amazes me most in this story, it’s how Jesus responded to him in his doubt.

“…I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.” Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!” John 20.25-27 NLT

When Thomas was faced with a “compass moment,” Jesus did something very intimate with him. Notice he focused directly on Thomas. Notice the invitation to touch places on Jesus’ person that were places of extreme pain and suffering. Would he believe the One who was sent to reveal truth? Would he follow his compass again?

I love the fact there are stories in the Bible of people who struggled with belief and doubt. It does my heart good to see how Jesus helped them navigate through times of being lost and disoriented. He’s a tender Savior who invites us to reach out and embrace him in our days of doubt and struggle.