Monday, March 20, 2017

Burning it Off

It took me a while but I finally signed up for my first race of 2017. I will be running the Booneville Backroads 100 Mile Ultramarathon in May. Every time I sign up for a race, the butterflies go off in my stomach and I’m instantly nervous. Signing up means not only spending 20+ hours running on that day, but also weeks of training to get my body in shape for it. One of the most important things is nutrition. Running ultramarathons has taught me more than anything the importance of food as fuel for the human body. Most of my life has been spent eating because I’m hungry or because I enjoy the taste of certain foods. But running for hours on end requires fuel to be burned off as energy so you don’t hit a wall and stop.

Sometimes I think we in the church need to be reminded of this fact. Now, I’m not talking about physical food, but instead about Spiritual food like Jesus talks about in His conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4. When His disciples urged Him to eat, Jesus responded, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about… My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work.”

I was reminded as our Tuesday Bible Study began to look at Haggai that sometimes we get Spiritually obese on our Spiritual food. As Haggai called God’s people back from their selfishness to focus on the will of their God, I think his words can call us back too. “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill.” While Haggai is speaking specifically of God’s people choosing their own well-being instead of the work of the Temple, I think we have the tendency to seek our own good within the church rather than the good of others. We meet together for our own “filling up” but don’t ever “burn it off”. If all we do is focus on our own knowledge and well-being, we don’t fulfill the call on our lives to “…prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” (James 1:22)

Jesus tells the great story of two builders who put together houses; one on rock and one on sand. As the story begins, it’s easy to see which builder is making the better choice. But the comparison for Jesus is that the wise builder is one who hears His words and puts them into practice. The foolish builder hears the same words; he just doesn’t do anything about it. And it leads to destruction.

We are called to be people who “feed” on God’s Word, and then “burn it off” as we show and tell it in all the places we go. I want to challenge all of us – individuals, leaders, Sunday School teachers, etc – to look for the ways God’s Word can lead us into lives of mission. It is when we put that Word into practice that we see the Kingdom of God come into view. 

The Stink

“The church is like manure. Pile it together and it stinks up the neighborhood; spread it out and it enriches the world.”
- Luis Palau

I’m new to Kansas.Though I was born in Ottawa and lived out west in Ness City when I was younger, I’m still figuring out what it’s like here. But I’ve spent a fair amount of my life in Iowa. In Iowa there’s something that we often notice when driving around the state. There’s a certain stench that begins to waft its way into the car. In our car, it’s about the time the boys start blaming each other. But, inevitably, it’s a hog farm or a semi-truck full of livestock in its trailer. What I’ve noticed is that whenever that happens as I’m driving, I instinctively reach up and switch our climate control over to inside air. I do whatever I can to shut out the smell.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that in my backyard - where our boxer leaves his own presents for us - I rarely smell anything. It seems that the offensive odor only bothers us in concentration, but while spread around, it’s not as bad and actually does a lot of good.

Sometimes in this country I wonder how much we’ve forced those around us to turn away from the church because all they see or smell is a huge concentration of us together and we don’t smell so good.

A less offensive analogy may be that of a sports team. As players spend every day in practice, working and working to learn their assignments, the fans only show up for the games. If all the Chiefs ever did was practice, they’d never have a chance to win a game.

As God’s church, we are absolutely called to assembly. The book of Hebrews reminds us that we “must not give up meeting together…” and we need to encourage and challenge one another in Christ. We need to come together to worship, to grow, and to practice. But the church is also called to spread out as Jesus teaches in the Great Commandment and Great Commission.

“Some want to live within the sound of the church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”
- CT Studd

I love the church. That’s a big part of why I love my call to lead, nurture, and teach in the church. But we are called to so much more than to be gathered up near the church bells. We are called to enrich the world, not stink it up.

So pray with me and dream with me as we look for ways to spread out in mission to our neighbors. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” So like salt, let’s flavor our community with the love of Christ. There is much to do in Gardner. I’m excited.

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Festivus Miracle

My favorite all time television show is Seinfeld. It’s a 1990’s sitcom about 4 friends in New York City who go through their mundane lives never really growing. It’s not a great example for life but it’s hilarious. There’s an episode of Seinfeld where we find out that George’s dad has created a holiday to compete with Christmas. “A Festivus for the rest of us.” It has all sorts of odd traditions, but there’s one particular part I’d like to utilize in my letter.

The Airing of Grievances. “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re going to hear about it!” - Frank Costanza

How dare you? How dare you call a 25 year old kid and his pregnant wife - who both look like teenagers - to come and lead your church? You sent men up to move our stuff, you prepared a huge parsonage, and you celebrated our coming as if we were family. What a risk. You took us in and cared for us, making our kids a part of your family, and encouraging us as we tried to figure out how to raise them. You held them in the nursery, you played with them on the playground, and you even put up with their antics in the front pews on Sunday mornings. Ridiculous.

How could you rally around new ideas with so much willingness and energy? I didn’t actually know if anything would work, but you jumped in and we did crazy stuff for our community. YOU DELIVERED TOILET PAPER DOOR TO DOOR IN THE COLD RAIN! ON SUNDAY MORNING! I was sure you’d fire me that day, but instead you kept going; delivering ice melt, giving out money in creative ways, and even starting a preschool so kids in town could be prepared for a life of education.

Speaking of the community, why would you let me spend so much time in it? You shared your pastor with community groups like the Henry County Ministerial Association, Chamber of Commerce Board, and Club M mentoring. You could have just expected your pastor to tend to your individual needs, but you saw the importance of community involvement and encouraged me to take it on.

And what about stewardship? Early on when the church struggled financially, you never quit doing ministry. We still put on elaborate Vacation Bible Schools, and spent money for the purpose of ministry. Even when we moved to give a lot more to missions, you stepped out in faith and did it. When we need a new parking lot, you were the instruments of God’s provision. When kids needed help to go to camp or to a youth conference, you gave and gave and gave.

And don’t get me started on encouragement for your pastor! You absolutely spoiled us every Pastor’s Appreciation Month and every Christmas. And not only that, but you prayed for us, gave me positive feedback on sermons, and showed us love in ways most pastors wish their churches would.

God is at work in you, First Baptist Church of Mt Pleasant. And He isn’t done. My deepest thanks for these “grievances” over the last 10 years. And know that we love you as our family.     

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Be Afraid

What are you afraid of? Do you love scary movies and look for monsters around every corner? Do you watch the news and fear that every terrible scenario you see could happen to you? Have you experienced difficulty and fear for what is next? We are all afraid sometimes.

It’s September, which means it’s the time of year that I go back in to see my doctor to check on the status of my former Thyroid Cancer. After 12 years of dealing with this, I rarely think about the possibility of recurrence… until September. Once I know that it’s time to get checked again, the old fears come back.

So what do we do about our fears? I think we have to be a little careful about what our fears influence us to do in our lives. As Presidential elections loom, we are being told by both parties that we need to fear the other. In fact, it seems that fear is the main manipulator being used by both candidates to ensure that you won’t vote for their opponent. But should we base our decisions on our fears?

I was reading recently in Exodus about the stages that led to God’s leading His people out of Egypt. If you know the story, Joseph initially brought his family to Egypt to save them from the great famine all throughout the Middle East. There in Egypt, God’s people began to grow in large numbers. By the first chapter of Exodus, the Jews were getting to be so great in number that the Pharaoh began to fear an uprising.

“’Look’, he said to his people, ‘The Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.’”

What I noticed for the first time as I read this again was that there was no indication that the Israelites were a threat to Egypt. But in his fear, Pharaoh made them slaves and treated them harshly, just in case.

Making our decisions out of fear never seems to work well for anyone. Fear keeps some from going to the doctor  when something isn’t right. Fear leads some to mistreat those of a certain race or nationality because they “look like” a criminal or terrorist. Fear gives some the excuse they need to lose all compassion for those in need. And we need to be ever careful of allowing our fears to outweigh our calling from Christ.

Jesus never acted out of fear. Instead, He called us to live out of love and grace. Jesus invited us to a new radical way of living that didn’t include fear in the equation.

After all, what is there to fear when God is for us and life is eternal?

Don’t give in to your fears. Don’t let fear take away your compassion. Don’t let fear steal your love for others. Don’t let fear keep you from living the life God created you for.

Instead, let’s live out of love; with compassion for others, mercy for those that could harm us, and even generosity for those that hate us. God didn’t call us to be afraid, He called us to be courageous. And He promises to be with us. What is there to fear?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

By Our Love

Imam Hassan Selim
April was an interesting month in Mount Pleasant. As a part of the Henry County Ministerial Association, I helped to bring to our community a class for the public trying to learn more about the religion of Islam. This was a challenge. If you joined us for the class, you saw that we all came with different ideas about Islam and even Christianity. We had folks from all different churches in the community, as well as some of other faiths like Judaism and Islam.  The purpose of this class was to help people to learn more about the religion of Islam so that we can better love Muslims we may meet.

It became clear to me during our classes that this was going to be a challenge. There is much that we think we know about other people that can be based on questionable information. Right now, this is especially pertinent as we see the problems in the world caused by groups like ISIS, the Taliban, and Al Qaida; all claiming to do terrible things under the teachings of Islam.

While our class, and especially our visit from an Imam from Cedar Rapids, taught us that these radical groups are inconsistent with the teachings of Islam; what I noticed more than anything is that we Christians can often display a witness that is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus too.

As I’d look around the classes and hear the questions and comments from Christians in the group, I was saddened at the lack of interest in loving this group of people that we don’t know or understand. For many, the desire to be right and to throw our “rightness” in the face of others trumps any act of love or hospitality. And it is this attitude that I see more and more among American Christianity. Where Jesus always seemed to choose radical hospitality and love towards all the people He encountered, we American believers instead figuratively - and sometimes literally - throw our Bibles at those who disagree with us. And we’re not afraid to loft our challenges at anyone; whether they be Christians with different understandings of theology than us, Muslims, atheists, or anyone else that might challenge our “rightness.”

So can we just stop this?

Of course I believe with all my heart, mind, and strength that God created us, loves us, and sent Jesus to redeem us of our sins. And I fully believe that apart from Him, we cannot experience real life or know the Father. And I believe that there is a reality that if we deny Jesus in this life, He will respect our decision and allow us to continue our separation from Him in the next.

But it sure seems like He was a lot less insecure about all of that than we are. While He taught people about His kingdom, He spent most of His time trying to teach us how to love. Go back and read Matthew 5 and 6 if you don’t remember. Most of the Sermon on the Mount is there challenging our religiosity and pushing us to live out His love on this earth. He was so radical that He told us to love and pray for not only our neighbors, but even our enemies.

Our Interim General Secretary of the ABC/USA met with pastors at a conference a couple of weeks ago and she shared her sorrow at hearing the old song, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”. And she feels sorrow because right now, it’s just often not true.

Maybe it’s time we work hard at loving people better. And I don’t mean having positive feelings toward them; but loving others radically and sacrificially. Like Jesus.

Here's a great example of this struggle. A letter to the editor of our local paper by someone who didn't attend the classes. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Meme Fights.

I had an interesting exchange on the internet the other day.  I belong to some running communities on Facebook, where we share information, ask questions, and discuss running. It was Easter week and I decided to post a meme (picture with words over it) that paraphrased Micah 6:8. “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God” where I’d crossed out “walk” and wrote “run”. I figure we can run humbly as well as we can walk, and thought it would be a nice inoffensive post.

I was wrong. Though my post received many likes and some positive comments, one woman shared that she felt it completely inappropriate for a running community. In her words, I was posting “religious propaganda” and she wasn’t afraid to bash it.
Have you ever had this happen? If you’re like me, the blood begins to boil inside you and you think of all the ways you can respond.
Here’s what I wanted to write in response: “Are you kidding me? The very mention of a God is offensive to you? It is so frustrating that we are now living in a world where people - like you - are so intolerant of others’ views that you can’t just ignore and scroll past a mildly religious meme without freaking out about it. And the reality is, it’s true of you too. Even if you don’t claim to believe in a higher power, your life is filled with “gods”. It may be science, or materialism, or yourself, but you’ve got “gods” in your life that you hold up. And this would still be good advice. Get over yourself.”
Thankfully, Jesus left us the Holy Spirit who steps in sometimes and helps us know when to shut up. I needed to shut up that day. Because we as Christians haven’t done a very good job of responding to people not agreeing with us. Instead of being like Jesus and offering grace and understanding to those who won’t offer it to us; we get in an argument and represent Jesus poorly. So instead of reacting, I responded. This is how our interchange went:
She: Seriously? God has to be brought up in a running group now?
Me: Apologies if it’s offensive.
She: Thanks. Yep, a little bit.
Me: Though, if you don’t like the God part, the rest is still not a bad way to live.
She: True. It was the assumption that everyone believes in a god that I didn't like. I do my best to avoid religion, and was surprised to find it on a running page. Might have overreacted due to Easter being my least favourite time of year though. Sorry if so!
Me: No worries. I hope your week is good despite the holiday.
She: Thank you! … I hope you have a good weekend too!
Now, full disclosure, she continued to go off about the post to others via the comments, especially when they stood up for my post. But at least I was stopped from being a bad representative of Christ to her. I have no idea why she doesn’t believe, or why Easter is especially hard for her, but I hope she will remember a Christian who was kind to her despite her intolerance.
I feel like what I see in the world or on the internet are Christians more interested in protecting their turf/rights than offering grace. Maybe we can be reminded that Jesus always chose grace; even as He prayed for forgiveness for those that nailed Him to a cross. Now, I’m definitely not saying to be like me; instead, let’s keep trying to be like Jesus.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

God of This City

Yesterday on Facebook from Dr. David Fitch,
 "If there's a vacant tract of land in your area, one of its least desirable uses, as far as neighbors are concerned, is a church building. They aren't usually beautiful buildings. They are considered unusable by the general community. And they bring outsiders to the neighborhood every Sunday, clogging the streets and disturbing the amenity of the place. We're not saying larger congregations don't need appropriately large facilities to meet, but when the members of those congregations don't live in the neighborhood, their buildings are sadly designated LULU's (locally undesirable land use)." Michael Frost Christiana Rice (from forthcoming IVP book Altered).

I read this post from Fitch and the comments and it made me wonder.  Is it offensive to think of our church buildings as "locally undesirable land use"? More so, are they?

Here's the real question... What value does our church bring to the community? Do we do for our community enough good to validate our "undesirable" land and buildings? This isn't an easy question. My knee jerk response is, "of course we do good for the community". We are here to help people to know Jesus and to have a life transformed by Him. We are a place to worship and to grow in that relationship, which has a great impact on this life and on eternity. But much of that really mostly just impacts people within our church community. Do we really do good for the outside community? And does our massive building and land make a positive impact on the landscape of our town?

So, I started to think about taxes. Based on very minimal research, I understand churches to be exempt from property taxes due to two factors. One, it keeps a separation between church and state protecting religion from too much governmental interference. And two, it was determined at one time that the value to a community that a church offers is greater than the value of their taxes. Basically, if not for churches, the government would have to spend money to pick up their slack.
On Jan. 14, 1924, the US Supreme Court interpreted the reason for the exemption inTrinidad v. Sagrada Orden: "Evidently the exemption is made in recognition of the benefit which the public derives" from churches' "corporate activities." -

But do we still offer enough benefit to our communities to get this privilege? It's definitely debatable. 

I'm not advocating for churches losing our tax exempt status. I fear that it would be an insurmountable challenge for many churches which would have a negative impact on our society. 

But talking about tax exemption does bring up some thoughts. For instance, how would paying property tax affect the way that we buy, build, and take care of our churches' properties? Would our churches be better stewards of our lands if we actually had to pay for it? My church building is large and sits on what is nearly a city block of land and grass. We rarely use all of our grounds for our ministry, but we've owned it for 60 years. If we were responsible to pay taxes on our property, would we sit on land that could be used either by us or by someone else? Or would that result in our rethinking what we hold on to?

So I had this idea. What if churches would decide to be investors in our communities in ways that we never have before? What if we estimated what taxes on our properties would be and began to invest that money in our communities? What if we set aside that money - or at least some money - and then partnered with others in the community for important projects? We could work with our towns to better our parks, to support our schools, to build bike trails, to support housing initiatives, or to help those in poverty. 

Can you imagine the witness in our communities if churches would have this kind of investment? It would say to them that we are not just here for our own agendas. It would literally be putting our money where our mouths are when we say we care about our neighbors. 
“Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” - Jeremiah 29:5-7
 What do you think? Are our church buildings really a LULU? Are we living up to our billing as agents of good in our communities? Could we do more?