Praying in the Fog

It was probably 6 or 7:00am. It was cold. I could see my breath. To the east the sun was beginning to piercing through at every open seam of the clouds. It provided enough light to see dimly but unfortunately not enough heat to burn the dense fog which enveloped me. I found my usual beginning point at the state park and began walking. It was off the beaten path and distant from any people. A path that was unmarked and made by people like myself who like to go against the grain. 

I encountered the presence of God that day in a way that I will never forget. Nothing spectacular. No visions, signs, or wonders. Nothing like that. I had my bible, a cup of McDonalds coffee, and a journal. That was it. But that was more than enough. I found a place along the trail in the fog and began to read and pray on a makeshift seat made of an old log. I wrote out many things I received from God’s Spirit in prayer. To this day I cannot tell you what I wrote or what year this walk was. The only thing I remember from that hike was that it was astonishing how I could encounter the beauty of God and feel so close while in the midst of dense fog, deep woods, and eerie silence. 

I had a conversation with my dad not too long ago. I asked him, “Do you ever feel like you are a runner standing at the starting line tying your shoes thousands of times waiting for the start?” He shared his heart and gave an abundance of wisdom. Wisdom that helped keep me focused on the present and not to worry about the future. 

There will be times in our journey of following Jesus where the fog will be so dense that we assume there can be no presence of God found within it. We will think there can be no breakthrough or light to see. And at times, there isn’t. But somehow, within it—we sense a deep presence of the Divine if (that’s a big IF) we can quiet ourselves to sit and pray. 

There will also be times in our journey where we feel like we are stuck at the starting line. I have been there many times. I have complained to God saying things like, “But you promised… But you said… You showed me… Where are you… Why aren’t you… When will you…” We all do this. All of us are overflowing with divine expectations more times than not made by assumptions that did not come from above but rather ourselves. And so, we do what we do by habit. We keep tying our shoes. Waiting and waiting and waiting. 

Just Be Faithful

Whether you are in the fog where you can see God or you are stuck at the starting line wondering when God will bring certain things to pass—one truth remains. We are not invited to part the clouds for the sun or run prematurely before the precise time. We are expected only to be faithful at all times.

This may be the hardest among disciplines for people of faith. Our trust is in a God we cannot see physically. We hear truth from Him in ways that are at times undiscernible. We are invited to take risks that do not make logical sense. We are told to be like children in our trust and yet we are asked to be patient in ways only an adult could understand. But even still, faithfulness and obedience is all he asks. 

I pray that today you can rest in the realization that if you will just be faithful in the midst of the fog or at the starting line you will encounter the presence of God in your life. If sitting with God in the fog and at the starting line is all we have in this life, it is more than enough to carry us forward. Because in the end, being faithful to rest in the presence of God in the present will always outweigh the anxiety of the future. He knows our next steps and will lead us always. So find a spot, kneel, and begin to pray. You will be surprised Who you encounter.

Missio Dei: Latin for “Mission of God”

I have always been enamored with the Apostle Paul in the Bible. He was relentless in seeking to fulfill his purpose and the mission God gave him. Whether we realize it or not the same is to be said about ourselves. This too is to be our legacy. As followers of Jesus (or even humans created by God in general) we were created to be consumed with the Missio Dei for all people. But what exactly is the mission? Jesus said in Matthew 28:18-20,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The Missio Dei focuses on making disciples. The process of growth in following Jesus is called discipleship. It involves, as Dallas Willard so wonderfully put, “the journey of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you.”

Plain and simple. This was Paul’s passion, the 12 disciple’s obsession, and church’s mission. Making disciples involves sharing our faith with others and helping them to pursue the same life-giving path if they choose to follow. It entails loving people and showing them in word and deed the goodness of God within us. It involves gathering as groups and encouraging one another; pressing into God together in groups called “church.” This is how those early Christians as well as the Apostle Paul impacted entire populations with the love and message of God under severe persecution and impoverishment. Through house churches filled with disciples radiating the joy and message of Jesus.  

If you are a follower of Jesus (a Christian); this is your work and calling. We would be in error to think that our calling is our job. It isn’t. That is your vocation. Your calling as a Christian is to glorify your Creator and to allow your life to emulate His within you. The best way we can do that is by radiating the love and message of the Gospel to others around us. But where do we begin? Thankfully Jesus helps us answer this with an analogy from Mark 4 in the Bible:

“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Where do we begin living out the Missio Dei? According to Jesus the answer is found is the “empty fields.” All of us have “empty fields” around us. We are surrounded by people and situations desperate for the redeeming message of Jesus Christ. Will you be the one God uses today to reach them? Will you be the one who steps out in faith into the empty field around you fulfilling the Missio Dei? Transformation of entire regions for the Kingdom of God begins with just one person. 

So I encourage you to keep your eyes open for those empty fields around you. Find that “one” around you. As you step out to fulfill the mission God in making disciples and obeying Jesus, trust that God will not leave you high and dry. Believe deeply what Jesus taught His disciples for your own life. He said,  

“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

Be wise, be bold, and above all, be relentless. For the Missio Dei is the greatest purpose one could ever live for. May it be said about us that we too were obsessed with finding those empty fields and planting the seeds of the Kingdom. 

Blessings+

Leadership Matters

If recent years have taught us anything for those living in the United States of America it is that leadership matters. Our country has been steeped in self-serving and destructive leadership for quite some time. This truth is revealed when taking an easy glance at our country’s societal landscape. From vaccines to race to education to politics to the economy–at every turn there is disunity. Even outside of politics and into the corporate world. Organizations and Fortune 500 companies have been wrecked with scandal and corruption. While we would hope that the Church of Jesus Christ nationally and around the world would be immune–we too have been filled with our fair share of corruption and scandals. What does all of this tell us? Leadership matters.

Serving as a pastor has been a rewarding experience. I have learned leadership lessons through success and failure. I have hurt and have been hurt. I have experienced jubilation and betrayal. With everything good and bad; I have found a deep appreciation. All of the experiences have made me who I am and have forged a different kind of leader within me.

In the effort to grow and become a better servant of others God has led me in focusing on the importance of becoming a “high capacity” kind of leader. This has nothing to do with ego or status. This has everything to do with a servanthood kind of leadership and growing my capacity to serve and love people more effectively. Over the past year or so I have learned it’s important we strive in:

  1. Enlarging our theology of God’s role in how we lead: How deep does our faith go? Do we trust God will lead us? Do we trust God will give us the clarity and wisdom needed?
  2. Enlarging our circle of people different than ourselves: How diverse is the group around us? From whom do we draw influence, wisdom, and advice? Diversity of voices can nurture stronger leadership.
  3. Enlarging our willingness to cope and adapt with change: No one leads in a silo. True leadership arises from the varying circumstances which cause us to stay true to our convictions and direction.
  4. Enlarging our “tool box” of disciplines: Are we doing what is necessary to hear the voice of God? Are we disciplining ourselves? Are we positioning ourselves to be effective in how we serve others and show them the love of Jesus?

At first glance I can imagine many would think this list reflects important principles for leaders in a church. It doesn’t. You may also think these are all common sense. I assure you, they are not. This short list is for anybody and everybody and requires intentionality. At the very least all of us are the leaders of our own path. We are the ones who make the decisions. We are the ones who steer our steps. God guides, leads, and provides. But we make the first step every time.

In taking those steps, I encourage you: Stay focused! Your leadership matters. In a society starving for true leaders who reflect the best in what humanity can offer, choose to lead well! Show a better way. Beware of the following traps which take away your focus and drive:

  1. Choosing to be involved in things God did not call us to.
  2. Fighting the wrong battles which distract and drain everything in you.
  3. Chase every trend and fad thinking the answer to everything is within them.
  4. Striving to be someone else or in someone else’s situation. Own your lot!

At the very least, from one leader to another, I pray you will take tomorrow and recognize that when your feet hit the floor, its game on. How you lead tomorrow matters. Lead yourself and others well.

Choose to serve; not to domineer. Choose Jesus; not the flesh. Choose people; not advancement. Choose love; not selfishness.

God is asking for your “only.”

Though we ourselves can be victims of broken promises given and received, God is the ultimate promise keeper that will never fail His children nor forget His promises to them. 

I remember as a child being told “never make a promise you can’t keep.” Maybe you remember this as well. Even as adults this statement holds true and I have learned this the hard way. Maybe this is why we are encouraged in the Bible to allow our Yes be our Yes and our No be our No? 

When it comes to promises, they are literally everywhere when I read the Bible. They cover nearly every aspect of life and even the after-life. God is not hesitant about making promises. He made them to Israel, Kings, shepherds, the Church, and to his disciples. 

Biblical scholar Evereck Storms counted these promises and found 8,810 promises. Almost 8000 of those were from God to man. Books like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel have over 1000 promises each. Almost every verse in Psalm 37 contains a promise. 

But do you know what I find the most amazing? It is not the number of promises in the bible. It is that He always keeps the promises He speaks. He too lives by that rule about not making a promise He can’t keep with the caveat that He fulfills that which He promises. 

For many all of this is not much of a source of encouragement. I understand why. Some of us have been to hell and back. Some have lost a spouse. We’ve lost a child. We were let go from a job, divorced, hurt by a best friend, and more. Things happened that we felt promised by God ought not to happen. The only challenge is—we are never promised a life free of difficulty or comfortable. I wish that were the case. But it just isn’t. If it were, there would be no need for the return of Christ. 

Often times our emotional responses to hardship and suffering paint an image and theology of God that leads us to believe that the promises found in the Bible will forever remain in the Bible with no impact on those of us living today. When this happens—the enemy wins. The reality is that even though our perception of God may change; the nature of God doesn’t. In His very nature He is the great promise keeper. The faithful one. He is Abba. 

If we find ourselves losing our ability to live with trust and belief in Him what happens over time is a slow decay where part of our core identity as Jesus followers is lost. We go from children of big faith and trust (a hallmark of early Christianity) to people of cynicism and doubt. 

Believe it or not the disciples found themselves here at times as well. The twelve disciples of Jesus were raised on stories involving the promise keeping God. But for so long these disciples were living under the harsh oppression of Rome. Surely during their pain and sorrow wrought by the hand of their oppressors they themselves had to wonder about where this “promise keeping” God was. 

I know you’ve been there. I’ve been there. But I have learned that though the deserts seem vast and dry seasons long—He is still here ready to restore faith and trust wanting to see the dry bones of our stale faith come back to life as we re-encounter His faithfulness. 

In Matthew 14:12-21 Jesus does the unthinkable. Upon having compassion on the masses who have no food He blesses and distributes two fish and five loaves of bread. What is most amazing about this story is that in doing so Jesus showed those weathered and weary disciples that the promise keeping God was still among them. While their logic struggled to keep up, Jesus took what little they had and multiplied it to their astonishment. In doing so I believe He restored faith and trust in God for those present.

I encourage you to read the story on your own. As you do pay attention to one word that is used in v. 17. It is the word “only.” As they reply to Jesus that they only have two fish and five loaves Jesus says, “bring them to me.”

Our God is not the God of “ducks in a row.” He is the God of “fishes and loaves.” No matter how little you possess God is ready to show you that He is still the great promise keeper. All He asks is that you surrender the “only” you possess. In the areas that you have lost hope or trust—I pray they come back to life within you. I am confident at one time or another God has spoken or promised things to you about your life and future. If not many come to mind the issue is not a matter of God speaking. It is a matter of His children listening.

If it is hard to listen or even pray; if you are concerned because of your weak faith, weary heart and mind, little resources, or any thing else just remember the words of Jesus in Matthew: “Come to me all who are weary and tired and I will give you rest…”

To the degree you surrender full control and heart, to that same degree you will see the faithfulness of God in new and exciting ways. The result will be a firm conviction that God is the ultimate promise keeper that will never fail His children nor forget His promises to them.

Blessings +

Taking the Leap Part 1: “What in Us Must Die?

23 But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. 24 Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. 25 He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor. -John 12:23-26

Gardening, Growth, and the Bible

I love gardening. I love witnessing things grow. To me it is still one of the greatest mysteries. You take a seemingly “dead” looking seed—dry and shriveled up—seeming to be at the end of its rope. You put it in good soil. Surround it with good nutrients. Shower it with the rains from above. And then it happens. A little shoot climbing through the soil seeking to make a name for itself. No matter what kind of plant it is–it usually begins the same—a tiny blade climbing through the soil. How it happens is still a mystery. Science can explain the many variables, but it cannot explain what activates the seed to bring the growth and to bear fruit. 

This topic is near and dear to the heart of God. Most analogies found within the Bible often refer in one way or another to agriculture and the seasons of planting, growing, and harvesting. Whether it be Mark 4:26-29 or Luke 8—seed planting and growing is everywhere. Especially within the words of Jesus. Why is this important? 

In Death Comes Life

Because in gardening there is a fundamental truth tht applies to all of life: in death comes life. In the verse above Jesus likens His own life to a grain of wheat which falls to the ground seemingly dead and yet goes into the soil and multiplies or bears fruit—which refers to His own resurrection. But Jesus decides to take it one step further and turn it around on His listeners then, as well as you and I. He takes the “death to life” principle he is living out and reveals this is in fact the life-pattern you and I were meant to live. 

This understanding of going from “death to life” is foundational to the Christian faith. So foundational that the author of Hebrews explains it as being “elementary.” She or he states, “Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God…” You get the vibe from this statement that from the very beginning they were instructed to leave behind the things which are dead within them and embrace newness of life in Christ. To cut ties with the actions which multiply sin and darkness within us and embrace new habits, desires, and disciplines which move us into maturity and growth in the love and truth of God. This would be that same pattern of living; from death to life.

But when you read the verse from John above do you notice how Jesus describes His own death? He says that “the hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.” He did not use the phrase “to die” or “to be crucified.” Instead he chose this phrase “be glorified.” Jesus saw that in death God can still be glorified. God was supremely glorified when Jesus went to the cross, died, and resurrected. I think for a Christ follower this conviction would be common sense. But remember how Jesus turned the gardening analogy around on you and I? That if we lose our lives we will truly find them? The same can then be said that when we choose to die to our own ways and desires and live for Him—we are glorifying Christ within us.  

What in Us Must Die?

This is the beautiful mystery of Christianity. We follow Jesus and in return experience the principle of death unto new life—if of course we allow the process to take place. What if the seed were to say to the gardener, “I do not want to be planted into the ground. I want to stay on the tree where I am. I do not want to fall into the soil and grow!” How ridiculous would this be? But the thing is we do this on a daily basis. We seek to cling to the trees we are planted on currently. The trees of bitterness, unforgiveness, sin, etc. 

Logically, the next question for ourselves then is, “what in us needs to die in order for growth and maturity to take root?” Is it gossip or slander? Is it addiction to alcohol, drugs, pain meds, or approval of others? Is it pornography which poisons the mind and pollutes the heart?  Perhaps it’s the love of money and possessions? Racism, prejudice, and/ or bigotry? Whatever it may be… it’s a dead work which is halting your growth. You must die in order to find life. You must call those things out within yourself and say, “Enough is enough” so that God is able to deposit within you something in its place. Something which brings true and everlasting joy, purpose, and hope. 

Jesus says in John 15:8, “This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” As followers of Jesus we are destined to bear fruit. We are destined to grow and multiply like healthy seeds planted in good soil.

But remember, to bear fruit a seed needs to what? It needs to die. Yes, its difficult. Yes, its painful. Yes, it’s a journey. But it’s the only way to leave a legacy for Christ. Isn’t that what you desire?

The alternative path is apathy. You do not want apathy. Apathy is the precursor to spiritual death where there is no hope of new life. You know full well you were created for so much more. Why settle? You’re bored. I understand. I have been there. But even in the pain of the wilderness and spiritual boredom we have to enter the door of death before we can walk the halls of newness of life. A newness best described as a daily living and breathing relationship with God where you are being used on the front lines for His glory loving and serving through the power of His Holy Spirit. It is impossible to have both. 

A Haunting Question for the Jesus Follower

One more thing. Do you notice what Jesus says in verse 26? He says, “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also.” The context of this verse is the Kingdom of God and the life to come. But the Holy Spirit brought this to life to me last week through a question. Jesus says the phrase “where I am” here. The question He gave me was:

“Is Jesus with you where you are or are you with Jesus where He is?” 

Of course, we could say both. But think about it. Is Jesus at our level consoling us in our continual haphazard efforts in growing but often choosing death? Or are we where he is which is the other side of “death to life” scenario. Grace abounds. We will never have it right all the time. But with everything we have in us, let us fight for new life. I want to be where Jesus is. I want to be driven by the Holy Spirit vs. continually consoled.

But to get to that place… I and we must die to ourselves and find new life in Him by trusting that His death and resurrection has freed us from everything which seeks to kill and destroy us.

What needs to die within you so that His life can resurrect you? 

Weathered Passion

It happens to the best of us. We began with passion, wonder, and mystery. We began with innocence, naiveté, and a splash of recklessness. And then, after a period of time, it happens. The zeal we once possessed in following Jesus and living a righteous life begins to take a turn.

Zeal turns into lethargy. A mind rocked by the freedom of grace grows bored. The heart-melting truth of God’s love becomes abstractThe stories of Jesus healing as well as the miracles of the apostles would fuel our passion and desire to see a move of God in our day.

This maybe is not how your story began with Christ. Maybe you have never experienced this kind of wonder or zeal or recklessness that myself and many others possessed. To be fair we were also ill-educated, often arrogant, and somewhat pharisetical. But hey, we really loved Jesus. Regardless, no matter what our journey has looked like the chances are we will find ourselves meandering a path of mundane Christianity at times.

An Old Journal

Earlier today I sat down with a journal from 16 years ago. I am growing old now. Yes I know 34 may not be old to some of you but in looking at my journal from 16 years ago I sure felt old. Or maybe it was when I stood up after reading it for a while? Regardless, 16 years is a long time. I came to a page that talked about my desperation for God and how I am empty without him. What is crazier is I remember writing it. It was at a table outside at Starbucks, on the right side of the outter wall.

I will be honest. After reading it I felt that sense of “where has this been?” I then began to do my usual self-defeating talk where I heap guilt and condemnation on myself for not having the wonder and joy I was reading about! “Noah, cmon! Where’s the passion? Where’s the joy?!?

But then I got out some more recent journals from the shelf and reflected on where my own journey has taken me. Through this the Spirit of God reminded me that though my joy may not be the same as it once was all those years ago, it has grown in unique ways. In that moment, I needed that reminder. Maybe you do as well.

We Have Options

We all have a few options before us as we reflect on our own journey in following Jesus. We can look backwards and remember the days of old with a longing to go back. Back to the passion we once knew and held on to. Or we can say no to this option and choose to stay in the lethergy, cynicism, and any other emotion that usually accompanies life experience, new seasons, dissapointments, and so on.

Or you can do what I believe is most beneficial. You can appreciate the past, acknowledge the challenges of the present, and embrace the journey you have been on.

You are a weathered follower of Jesus. You have been around the block long enough to know things don’t always end great. Your good intentions do not always amount to a happy ending. You might not get your reward until the other side. Not everyone will always be kind to you or walk with you–even if they claim to follow Jesus. In fact, following Jesus itself was never meant to guarentee any “smooth sailing” on this side of eternity. That is something this “Weathered Jesus Follower” struggled to realize over the years.

These and many other lessons we learn. But in the end we should take all of it and allow it to add character and depth to our faith. We then position ourselves to be able to be used by God with our children, grandchildren, and others younger than us who are beginning as infants in Christ. If we stay lethargic and cynical chances are we will be a stumbling block in front of those with fresh passion. But if we embrace our weathered nature we will then be able to guide and lead the next generation.

Weathered Passion

One more thing. I am writing this post while at a desk made of barn wood from the 1920’s I had made a few years ago. It has the circular saw marks still in it from the old saw mill. It has nails still protruding out which have been ground down to soft metal. There are divers and curves and edges that are uneven. I have never seen a more beautiful desk. It isnt pristine, new, or naieve. Its weatherd. Its beautiful.

I encourage you to embrace where you have walked. The challenges and difficulties can lead you to new places of wisdom and depth. Don’t allow yourself to forget the wonder of Jesus. If you have, I have great news. The Apostle Paul says that it is possible to have a complete renewal of the mind. The Holy Spirit can do just that. Read the Scriptures with fresh eyes. Pray and allow the Lord to restore your heart to be able to feel his warmth and tough again.

He won’t restore the passion or joy of 16 years ago. Instead he will dig new and deeper wells of revelation and love which will bring forth a new passion that has been weathered by the realities and challenges of a life of following Jesus. Because in the end–lets be real– Kendal Jackson will always taste better then Welch’s.

An Interview I did w/ Hope United on the Addiction Epidemic and the Response of the Church

The Church and The Epidemic

“…and when the man saw him who was hurt he had compassion on him….Then Jesus said “Go and do likewise.’” ~ Luke 10:33,37 from the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Along this journey of existing as a nonprofit that is trying desperately to bring hope to an addiction epidemic that is crippling our communities, our state, and our nation, we have come to the realization that real change, real POSITIVE, life altering change is never going to happen if we sit back and wait on the government to help. It’s just not. Real change is going to happen right here, right in our communities – because we are the ones who are feeling the wrath of addiction – of an opioid epidemic initiated by greed and the all mighty dollar.

But who in our community should step up? Should it be left to the families who have been impacted? How about the businesses that have financially felt the drain from an epidemic that has wreaked havoc on our towns? Couldn’t we make a case that everyone in the community is impacted in some way, shape or form by the opioid crisis? Ohio had the second highest rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids in the U.S. in 2017, more than 400,000 people have died from a drug overdose involving opioids since 1999, and according to a recent study, the economic burden of the crisis in the United States was determined to be at least $631 billion in just a three year span. It is difficult to sometimes find the support that is so desperately needed, but there is one sector of our community that I think should be an inevitable resource of hope for those devastated by addiction: The Church.

It seems like an obvious answer. It really does. But some may feel that many churches are too quick to brush the word addiction under the rug, to pretend it doesn’t exist between their hallowed walls. I had the opportunity to sit down recently with Pastor Noah Schumacher of High Mill Church of the Resurrection in Canton and learn why so many churches aren’t ready to address this issue. Here was our mind-opening conversation:

Me: Tell me why you partnered with Hope United to offer space for our new relapse prevention programming that will begin soon in Stark County.

Pastor Noah: “I always think – how cool would it be to be a church that Jesus would want to attend. So what I always imagine is – would He walk into our church and say, ‘You got it, you’re doing it right.’ Or would He walk in and flip the tables over like He does in the temple in one of the gospel stories?

Jesus was radical in making wrong things right. As a pastor of a church in Canton, we believe the church should be doing that same thing – making wrong things right.

So, when we had the opportunity to say we have offices for Hope United – to us that is one step closer to making wrong things right. Because we then get to partner in doing that kind of work with addiction.”

Me: Pastor Noah, what do you see as the biggest challenge in getting churches involved in addressing complicated, messy issues such as addiction.

Pastor Noah: “The biggest challenge, and I hate saying this, but many churches are protecting the bottom line – the bottom line financially, the bottom line culturally, a bottom line, you know, ‘we want to protect our image because we want to appear like this’…..

But really, if the mission of the church is to reach out to the community and that’s how you protect your bottom line then you are completely divorced from the actual goal of what Jesus intended to do. The goal of Jesus was always meant to be this bridge into community, but not just the higher-ups, the elite, but He was breaking down barriers…and walls to reach people that were stigmatized, people that were put in boxes by the higher-ups of His day.

What should the natural ethos of the church be?

~ Reach people who are stigmatized

~ Reach people who are in corners, marginalized and broken – who most of society are looking down upon.

And here’s the saddest part of this story:

So people who are struggling with addiction are probably the top tier group that is facing that stigma right now. (And I would add in people who are struggling with prostitution.) The church turns its nose up at a lot of these people……People who are battling, trying to get out of addiction….and what we do is we want to resort back to our safe enclave as the church and say ‘thank goodness, our hands are clean’….and ‘we have a beautiful environment here, and it’s not messy, and we’ve got to polish our steeple and our stained glass and we are doing the mission of Jesus.’

Well – no, you’re not.

You’re actually doing the opposite.”

Me: How can you encourage individuals and families who are living with a person with a substance use disorder?

Pastor Noah: “I read a book the other day (Becoming Human by Jean Vanier), and it said,

“The definition of love is to see what a person was always meant to become.”

So, when you truly love people, you need to see past whatever the battle is, but you see what God is helping them to become and you help them through that journey. I’ve noticed the way that Michelle (my wife) and I think is sometimes described as beautifully naïve, because we’ve always had the assumption that if you follow Jesus, then those who happen to have an addiction – those are the people you want to come into contact with to walk beside, to have phone calls with, to have coffee with, or to be accountability partners with….and to help funnel to organizations like Hope United. To me it’s a no-brainer.”

Me: In your opinion, what are the most important things you can offer to an individual who is battling with addiction?

Pastor Noah:  “I always think the biggest things you can give anybody, any one person in the world, are two things:  value and worth.  When you can show someone their value and their worth in the eyes of God, I think that is one of the greatest medicines to a broken soul you could ever give…I believe it really does lift up a person to a whole new place where they feel this encouragement and empowerment.

(On the flip side), Coldly telling someone ‘you’re a sinner’, ‘hey, you’re not doing this right’… I don’t think that is what Jesus had in mind. Jesus called for repentance and a commitment to a new life but He gave all people value, worth, and hope no matter their history or actions.

Me: What is currently lacking in the Christian faith, in your opinion?

Pastor Noah: “We have an ala carte Christianity. This is where we pick and choose what we want and what feels good.

So here’s what people do:

They go down the line of all the possible ways of being a Christian (signaling with his hand making checkmarks):

‘I want a community that makes me feel encouraged.’

  • ‘I’ll take that.’ (says the ala carte Christian)

‘I want a community where I have friendships and I’m challenged by the word of God.’

  • ‘I’ll take that.’ (says the ala carte Christian)

But if you have this part over here (signaling with the other hand and seemingly pushing something to the side)….

‘But I’m going to be with people who are being open about their battle with heroin (or pornography, etc..). Well…..that just seems a little bit too much.’

  • ‘I’ll just keep that one there’. (says the ala carte Christian)
  • …..’But I’ll take this good part and the good worship team.’

(Pastor Noah signals another checkmark as if this too is acceptable to the ala carte Christian.)

That’s what we are doing today. That is not Christianity and that is not at all what the church should be.”

(Pastor Noah continued on…)

“Many churches have this mindset – this is what dictates if you belong: (begins drawing picture)

  • If you believe the way we do….
  • If you dress the way we want you to…
  • If you act the way we want you to….
  • If you talk the way we want you to…..

Well, then you can squeeze in and you belong.

That’s how you are part of the church and that’s how we value you. If one of these doesn’t match up, then we struggle to show you the worth and the time that shows you that you matter to us. This was the way of the Pharisees and the way of the Sadducees. This is how they dictated who belongs and who doesn’t’.”

What we see in the gospels is totally different. Here is what dictates belonging in the gospels: (begins drawing new picture)

We have individuals at all different places and what it means to belong in the community of God is that you are going in one direction – which is closer to Jesus.

You might have people who are real close, you might have some who are further away. You might have some who just got done doing their last dose of heroin, but they know that that they need hope and they need to find Jesus.

JESUS (3) illustration followers.png

As long as they are coming this direction, then guess what? They belong just as much as this person (the person closest to Jesus) …becausethe direction they are walking is the same way.

This is how you belong.

…. This person will put their arm around that person (pointing to the people in the second illustration) and say – ‘I’ll walk you closer.’

That is what Jesus wanted.”

Wow, I must say – Pastor Noah nailed it. We need the Church in this fight against addiction. There are countless families hurting and broken hearted…maybe right in your church. Christianity is more than just attending Sunday service, it is more than just tithing, it is more than making sure all appearances look good to those around you. Christianity, and following Jesus, is about compassion, showing mercy; it’s about accepting individuals who are stigmatized and marginalized and offering them hope. It’s about having a heart for serving others and offering love when no one else will. It’s about a belief in redemption and a belief that no one is too lost to be found.

We are grateful for the churches that have chosen to walk alongside Hope United in this fight. We have been hosting The Well support group for the past 3 years for families who have lost a loved one to addiction thanks to Pastor Lennie McKinney and Crossview Church in Akron offering space for Hope United to lead the meetings each month. Pastor Noah Schumacher and High Mill Church of the Resurrection in Canton recently partnered with Hope United by providing office space for our organization to begin counseling services and relapse prevention programming by the end of 2019. High Mill Church will be our home office until construction is complete on Tyler’s Redemption Place, Ohio’s first Relapse Prevention Wellness Center in the Fall of 2020. We are so excited to begin our new programming and other offerings such as a weekly recovery support group called Everlasting Recovery that will be led by Mike Schleis beginning Thursday, November 7th.

We are so thankful for Pastor Noah and High Mill, as well as Pastor Lennie and Crossview Church, for believing in hope for individuals and families afflicted by addiction. And we invite fellow Christians and the Church to Stand United with us and help be the change we need in our communities.

Together, WE ARE HOPE UNITED.

Finding Joy in the “Test of Time”

Easy. Walk in the park. Piece of cake. 

These were the thoughts that ran through my mind the day I assumed the leadership role of the local church I lead. Ok maybe not these words exactly but if I am being honest they were floating around. For every individual called into a role of leadership there is usually a strong sense of naivete. It doesn’t matter if the role is leading a church, a warehouse, a government agency, or a Fortune 500 company. New leaders will always possess a small combination of ego and precious innocence. I was no exception.

I am more than willing to admit I fell into this category. It took some time for me to finally cooperate with God to rid me of foolish expectations in my own leadership journey. Some of those addmittedly foolish and embarrasing expectations were:

“I have an M.Div from a Seminary… I know everything and am fully prepared to lead.” 

“Everyone here is for me and believes in me.” 

“Things are going to fall right into place.” 

“This will be easy, full of joy, and fun!”

Insert all the laughing emojis you can imagine. Even typing those phrases makes me laugh out loud. A degree will surely help but it is not the end all be all for leading people. No matter what is said to you–few will truly be for you. Or for that matter believe in you. Things will not fall into place. You will have to fight, grind, and refuse to give up when trials come. 

Easy, full of joy, and fun? Drop “easy” from your vocabulary. The journey of leadership is full of many things—joy is often not the first that will come to mind. Fun will take some time to get to. A long time in fact. So it may not be easy, joyful, or fun but it will be good. Name something truly worthwhile that comes at no cost, no friction, no challenges, and no blood, sweat, and tears? Exactly. 

The Tests of Leadership

Every leader (person for that matter) has to realize there will be many tests you will walk through to become the leader and person you were meant to be. Nothing is given and everything is earned when it comes to leadership.

These tests are many. You have the character test that many will fail. The motivation test which reveals either self-propagating or a heart truly for those you lead. The patience test which tests really how deep your faith and trust runs regarding what you know God has called you to. 

There are just too many “tests” to name. However, one by one, as we remain faithful and steadfast—maintaining our integrity and Christlikeness—we will walk through the fire becoming the leader God has called us to become. I believe this for your own journey and growth. Whether you are in ministry or in the secular world. Chances are you are encountering a test right now. 

The Time Test

It is the “Time Test” which seems to be the most common among many leaders and people I do life with. This test as seen in Scripture points to this false idea that God does not seem to be fulfilling the word or promise he gave us in the past. The time required to go from a perceived promise from God to actual fulfillment tries our patience, forcing us to trust God to fulfill what he has called us to in His own time and way. 

Did you catch that? God’s timing is not yours. This applies to all situations. The timing and seasons of God are in his hands; not ours. This alone may be the most difficult aspect of following Jesus and trusting God’s provision along this difficult and arduous journey. But thank God for it. 

This time test gives us an opportunity to grow in our faith and trust. It purifies our motives and attitudes. It cultivates maturity and growth. James 1:4 states, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

The story of Abraham in Genesis 12-18 is the perfect illustration of someone beginning their journey with assumed misperceptions followed by a length of time in which the promise “delays.” Abraham was 75 years old when God called him out of Haran to travel to Canaan in Genesis 12:1-9. Abraham was promised all of Canaan from the Euphrates to the south. Being childless, the patriarch had made his home-born slave, Elazar to be his heir. But God promised Abraham that he would have a child of his own as an heir in 15:4. Abraham did not have the patience. He bypassed the time table God has ordained and instead at the age of 86 he had a son named Ishmael through his concubine Hagar. It was not until Abraham was 100 years old that God brought his promise to pass in a son born to Sarah and Abraham. He had to wait 25 total years before he could receive God’s promise. 25 years of waiting and wondering. 25 years of doubt and frustration. But he never gave up. God’s time had to run its course. 

What does all of this translate to? The time test is no piece of cake. It’s no “walk in the park” and it certainly isn’t easy. But it is sorely needed. If we can submit to the potter’s hands with patience and endurance, the purging fire of Gods wisdom will forge our leadership and growth in Christ. 

In the end, when we allow the time test to run its course, we rediscover that three-letter word we innocently began with: Joy. But this time it’s a deeper joy.

A joy in seeing the faithfulness of God at work.

A joy in experiencing growth and maturity through humility and hard work.

A joy in seeing the fruit of your patience as the promise begins to break through.

A joy in seeing that God is beginning something new and exciting through you.

A joy renewed in confidence that in all things it is God who is at work–not us or our efforts.

Don’t give up in the test of time. Stay faithful. Keep grinding. Keep fighting. Keep believing. You will see the fruit of your perseverance. Someone out there needs to remember this: Don’t. Ever. Give. Up.

“being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ…” Philippians 1:6

A Life Beautifully Interrupted

Bloody Elbows; Ragged Knees

Day in. Day out. He sat there. His knees bruised, and elbows covered in blood stained patches. His knees wouldn’t function like others because since birth he had a genetic defect which caused him to be paralyzed from the waist down. He would use his arms and elbows to maneuver himself to sit upright the best he could. He possessed no friendships or kin to assist him. This was how he lived his daily life. However, there was one day that was different.

As the bright sun rose that morning he gathered his few belongings. A cloth mat. Moth eaten satchel. Stale pieces of bread. With everything he had he made his typical slow crawl to his corner. Though it was a small space to call his own, it was his home. He had nothing and no one—only his corner. He passed the time dreaming of what it would be like to walk and run. To be included and valued like everyone else.

Each day he faced the same routine in this little spot next to the largest church in the city. His morning began with the religious folks passing by conveniently ignoring his plight. Perched high on their thrones of ego and vanity they would throw boulders of judgement and pebbles of slander.If he was lucky someone would throw a gift. It would come in the form of a faint and sporadic sound of metal clanging in his basket. Coins crashing against other coins as they are dropped by one who possessed empathy, compassion, or guilt. For this pathetic man it was the sound of hope, bread, or at the least—an apple. On this particular morning that sound was rarely heard.

Desperation Sets In

As the day went on, he was desperately searching for anyone who would help him. Finally, he saw a man walking into the church from a distance. There were two. The other was coming behind him. They looked different than the others. Their demeanor was pleasant but intently serious at the same time. It was the one who led the way that locked eyes with the beggar. Seeing this was his moment to get his attention he began to frantically yell to him. The man, not hearing him the first time, finally heard him the second time as the beggar reached a fever pitch scream.

“Sir!! Please! Look at my situation. Look at my body. Please… oh please. Will you give me something, so I can eat?”

It was at this time the second man who was walking with him caught up. They stopped their procession into the church and stood there as the crowds continued to pass by. The first man looked into the eyes of the one he traveled with. With a sort of unspoken gesture, they both knew they wanted to give something to this beggar.

The man slowly takes in his hopeless situation. He looks at his swollen and ragged knees. He pulls his arm back to see his bloody elbows. The beggar, feeling pain from his hand touching his arm, pulls him away revealing his deformed and crooked fingers. The man then looks past him to see the few positions he clings to as his own.

An Unexpected Gift

With an uncanny and firm face he says to him,

Listen, I do not have any more dollars or coins which you would expect. I don’t have the common gift you seek each week from all of these people walking past us. But what I do have—I will freely give to you.”

The beggar—confused and intrigued—grabbed his hand. The man then said,

“By the authority given to me by Jesus of Nazareth, who is the chosen One, rise up and stand here next to me.”

The beggar was unsure what to do. He had never heard of this king who possessed such authority to heal someone. But he couldn’t deny the undefinable emotion coursing through his mind and body. Something was happening. He allowed the tension of the man’s hand in his to pull him to his feet. Crying out in pain and fear he slowly arose from the dust. The man held his shoulders smiling and telling him,

“You can stand! Come on! We will help you!”

It was then he felt the deformity from within his body leave. His knees strengthened. His ankles gave him support. Tears began to stream down his face. Not only his but the other two as well. Each of them realized in that moment they experienced something no human mind could explain. All they knew is that it was good and God had just done something among them.

The man was healed. He was no longer a stigma in the society of his day. He was no longer forced to bleed from his elbows and knees. To declare this new reality to the religious elite he burst the doors of the church wide open and danced his way through the aisles. Interrupting the liturgy and teaching he smiled and locked eyes with each self-righteous individual who elevated themselves above him. It was gloriously and appropriately petty. They were unsure what to do or say. They were speechless and dumbfounded. Marveled and angry. For they recognized this poor wretched one they were so busy ignoring.

A Life Beautifully Interrupted

The man and his companion gave a gift that morning on their way to the Church. It was a gift of healing.  They restored value to someone who was ignored day in and day out. They restored someone’s dignity. The means by which they gave this gift was an authority and power they could not call their own. It came from Another. They didn’t wake up with this goal in mind. They weren’t seeking to find someone to heal that day. They were simply keeping their prayer committment with fellow Jews. But their routine, their route, their pathway was beautifully interrupted. I wonder how many beautiful interruptions await us? Are we even willing to be interrupted?


Three truths from a retelling of Acts 3.1-12:

Value and Worth before Dollars and Coins. 

Give the gift of value and worth before dollars and coins. This is not either/or. This is both/and. People in need have deep layers of shame and humiliation. Restore their hope and heart first by sharing your life and listening to theirs. Learn from them, value them, and honor them. From a place of shared interdependence and restored hearts—give tangibly. 

Celebrate Interruptions; Embrace “Pseudo-Inconvenience” 

The two men, Peter and John, did not wake up with the intent to restore this beggar’s entire life. They simply walked. But what undergirded their walk that morning was the notion that their life was not their own. They were simply empty containers willing to be filled with the power and goodness of God and at a moments notice were ready to give that which was not theirs and in turn experienced a powerful move of God.

Be Bold, Be Brave, Be Jesus. 

The same Spirit who healed this beggar through the boldness of Peter and John is within all of us who follow Jesus and seek to be filled with His Spirit. Do not worry when or how someone will be healed. Be obedient in prayer and boldness. It isn’t your job to heal. Its only your job to give what is within you. So be bold and be brave. You are living for an audience of One. May Jesus say of us, “You gave what you had so that others might find me. You were willing to be beautifully interrupted for my sake.”

 

A Prayer

Lord, give us more of your Spirit. So that we might have eyes to see people in need. Upon seeing people in need all around us give us the words to say as well as the boldness to get out of the way so your Spirit can work through us. May we be open to the spontaneous surprises of our day—bringing Jesus, hope, and love to all we come into contact with. We repent of being those who conveniently ignore the outcast, “annoying,” the difficult, the inconvenient, and all else who are equally deserving of your healing and wholeness which only come through you. Please burst the bubbles and routines of our daily lives so that we might be beautifully interrupted. In your name, Amen.

 

 

The Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of Faith…

 

Jesus of Nazareth.

The most studied man in all of history. He is known throughout the world. His sayings are prevalent. His identity is debated constantly. And he still, after all these centuries, seems to be the most offensive individual to the masses. He both offends me with his love, comforts me with his encouragement, and disturbs me with his actions.

My journey of appreciation and admiration for this man began in April of 2002. I began to follow him with everything I had. I changed my entire life because of what I read in the pages of Scripture about his life. I saw that he lived a radical life of love and purpose and I knew that was the life for me. I knew that in the end it cost him everything and even still I would tell myself—there is no better way to leave this earth than to die for humanity. And so off I went.

I am currently a pastor of a church in Canton, OH. We are not a large church. We have faced an onslaught of challenges symptomatic of the state of Western Cultural Christianity. Where personalities are followed, commitment wanes, and when it gets tough—the church will bolt. It is extremely common with many of my seminary friends as well. In fact, this is the life of many Evangelical churches.

But through it all my wife and I have been obedient to the voice of God—even when it costs us. That has been what we are most proud of: our obedience. We like to remind ourselves that in the end we won’t stand before “people.” We will stand before Jesus. He desires us to create an environment with members, agendas, and leaders that reflect the core ethics of the Gospel. We aim to please him; not people. And so, we sleep very well at night. But through all these hard and trying years of ministry I/ we follow Jesus with the utmost passion. Michelle more so than myself. She outdoes me at every turn in her pursuit of living the “Jesus life.”

Like many, my beginning phase of following Jesus consisted of many shallow and immature understandings of what his sayings actually meant. I would use them as weapons against the “sinner” and I would stand with my nose down at many. I was the epitome of arrogance and pride. I continued like this for some time. My faith and religion were confined to a very legalistic and rigid approach to Christianity. Jesus for me was the strict judge who weighed my every thought and action. The problem was that my understanding of him as a whole was lopsided.

The lens in which I viewed Jesus for many years was confined to the theological Christ; not the historical Jesus. While yes, I am sure we could debate all day regarding the separation or unity of these two—it is extremely important we allow ourselves as Christians to look at Jesus as the Jewish reformer he was. It was when I began to understand this side of Jesus that the pretentious pharisaical part of me began to fall by the way side. And what I began to see with fresh eyes was a revolutionary man who inspired me more than any other.

My journey in studying the Historical Jesus began in Seminary and hasn’t stopped since. I have grown to be both passionate and obsessive in understanding who he was so that I might live his life even more. In fact, donating half of my liver is 100% because of this man and how he inspires me to live. Through the Spirit of God, I have been able to do a descent job in emulating his life. I am still a ragamuffin—full of sin, missteps, and brokenness. But each day is closer to living his life.

In the coming weeks I will blog a few posts regarding Jesus as the radical reformer he was. Of course, we could go on and on regarding the divinity side of Jesus as we understand in our faith. It is however the historical part of this man that I believe the church would be wise in revisiting. For in the discovery of Jesus as the 1stcentury reformer we find the rule of life he beckons all of us to follow. A life that is conformed to the ethics and standards of the heart of Yahweh. More on this in the future. For this post however, I want to bring to the forefront an aspect of his life which is similar to many others of his day. An aspect that can be alarming to some and comforting to others. That yes Jesus was truly one of a kind—however he also hailed from a long line of similar reformers with the same agenda—reform Judaism!

John the Baptist and Jesus both are only the beginning of a series of prophets who bring about eschatological hope. They bring attention to the reign of God and his impending judgment and kingdom. Thus Jesus preaches, “Repent for the Kingdom is near.” As a rule, these reformers were regarded by political authorities as a threat to the status quo as well as a danger to society. They were continually sought after to be executed and tortured. Following John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth there were many other “sign prophets” like them.

For instance:

  1. In 36CE there was a “Samaritan prophet” who promised a crowd of people that he would point on Gerizim the missing vessels of the temple that Moses had buried. He brought his disciples. Unfortunately, Pilate was also there and massacred all of them. (Antt. 18, 85-87)
  2. There was a man named Theudas who persuaded a crowd to follow him with their possessions to the Jordan River. It was there that he said he would part the waters and they would cross with dry feet. Again, there was a blood bath and it ended bad. (Antt. 20, 97-99)
  3. In 52-60CE there were also numerous “anonymous” prophets who called on their followers to come with them into the desert. It was there they would see many signs and wonders. You guessed it… blood bath. (Antt. 20, 167)
  4. During this same era there was an Egyptian prophet who came and called individuals to follow him and he took them to the Mt of Olives. It was here that he promised the walls of Jerusalem would come crumbling down just as it happened in the Old Testament. (Antt. 20, 169-172; BJ 2, 261-263)
  5. In 60-62 CE there was a prophet who came on the scene and promised redemption and an end to the evils if people followed him into the wilderness. The romans put down this movement violently. (Antt. 20, 188)
  6. In 62-64 CE there was a man named Jesus son of Ananias who came from the country to Jerusalem with the message of judgment upon Jerusalem, the temple, and the people. This is very similar to the prophecy of Jesus who had said not one stone would be left standing in regard to the temple in Mark 14.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, gives us great detail regarding these individuals and the manner in which they lived. Even before the time of Jesus we see individuals similar to both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. What was their aim? To radically reform Judaism from within. With Rome coming in and occupying the territory, it brought serious challenges to the uniqueness of the Jewish people. While some wanted to make peace and accommodate this new culture pouring in (Hellenization) there were many others who wanted to stand against this cultural wave.

There were others (the sign prophets) who wanted neither. Their effort was to radically reform Judaism to an entirely new standard. They longed to see it realign with the true intents of the heart of God as they understood.  While of course this is an extremely simplified version of how this plays out; I believe it still hits it on the head. Jesus was a Jewish man ministering within Judaism longing to see Israel return to its place of being a light to the nations. In order to do so, both Jesus and John the Baptist understood radical reformations within the Second Temple era needed to take place. The parables, aphorisms, and actions of Jesus fall right in line with many others from his era—before and after. And so as we can see, the human side of Jesus is full of many unique aspects we do not often hear about.

Let us remember that as Christians what matters most is not what we know or can recite about this man. What matters most is the degree in which we appropriate the ethics and passions of this 1stcentury reformer into our modern day living. Because I can promise you this… the church and Christianity as a whole needs desperate reform. It is time to return to the dangerous and volatile ethics of this Jewish Rabbi. As we continue down this path we will see there really is a difference of the two. We have the Historical Jesus and the Theological Christ. A difference that, for me, has nurtured true joy and inexpressible freedom in faith like I never thought was possible.

More on this and the Historicity of Jesus next time.