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THE MOST PAINFUL LESSON I'VE LEARNED IN MINISTRY

Sunday was an anomaly. An outlier. It was the rare Sunday that I wasn't preaching and I wasn't on vacation. Now that's rare enough, but something even more rare happened: none of my family was volunteering to serve either.

Let me give you an idea of how unusual that is for our family.

For the last 6 1/2 years as the pastor at Live Oak Christian Church there has not been a single Sunday that none in my family, including me as the Lead Pastor, was serving, excluding vacation. That last bit is important. I DO have time off, but not once has it happened that my family and I could attend OUR CHURCH without any responsibilities. Six and a half years.

It got Karrie and me thinking: has this ever happened before?

For about 10 months I was not a part of a church staff, from March to December of 2000. Outside of that, Karrie and I went as far back as my internship at Kingsway Christian Church in 1995.

Not a single Sunday came to mind.

Not one.

Some of you may be thinking, "Well of course you don't remember it, how many Sundays have their been since 1995?" That is my point. It is such a rarity that if it had happen, we would have remembered. (And there have been 1,020 Sundays since the first Sunday of our internship in 1995.)

As Karrie, the girls, and I were driving home from a get-together Saturday night we realized that I wasn't preaching, Karrie wasn't serving, and Avery wasn't volunteering. I texted our leadership at the church and they encouraged me not to come the 1st service and just come with the girls like a "normal family" for the 2nd service.

I'm not going to lie, I was pretty stoked! We slept in a little bit, we ate cinnamon rolls for breakfast ... I even had time to play a little Destiny on the PS4 for a while!

We piled into the van ... in ONE VEHICLE! (Any other ministry family will understand how exciting that sentence is.)

When we got to the service we were late! (So THAT'S what it feels like to be late to church!)

For all of the excitement of that moment - to sit and worship with my family - something bizarre, and to me, deeply sad, happened.

It was ... awkward. Strange. Difficult.

I wasn't even doing my normal "scout-out-the-church-for-all-that's-wrong" thing that I usually do at other churches, I was just sitting with my family. My wife was agitated. My daughter felt uptight. It was like they felt, I don't know (and I don't want to put words in their mouths), but it felt like somehow my presence with them hindered worship ... like my being there, with them, my own family ... somehow it made worship harder. I have thought about it for the last 24 hours and the reality that I have literally wept over today is this:

My presence with my family in worship at my own church was UNNATURAL.

Unnatural. Me. With my own family. At our church.

Today I have sat in my office and wrestled.

Over our almost 20 years of ministry Karrie and I have worked hard to balance family and ministry. Our girls are subjected to more "come-and-help-at-the-church" moments than they should have to be. Karrie has endured more "aren't-you-Pastor-Michael's-wife" moments than she deserves. We give everything that we have to the church. Everything. I'm not trying to brag or be arrogant here, but all of our time, our giftedness, our energy, our emotions. Relationships that we build are almost all built at the church. Connections that our daughters have are almost all from church.  Financially we are one of the top contributors to the church.

Most people get to diversify themselves and church is just one part of their life, or even their faith, but not us. We are always all about the church. And it's not just me. It's my wife. It's my daughters. It's the dog. It's my family. Church, CHURCH, CHURCH!!

(I may be exaggerating about the dog.)

I guess I'm saying all of this because I'm waking up today to the reality that after 20 years of ministry, after 20 years of serving literally thousands of people in multiple States ... after investing in and building up people and programs and churches, trying to make Jesus available to others ... after trying to make everyone else feel comfortable at church so they can hear the Gospel ... the people I make the most uncomfortable at church is my family.

I'm still reeling from it ...

In 1999 I was burnt out in ministry. Karrie and I were serving at a "mega-church," we'd just had our first daughter, Avery, the ministry was growing by leaps and bounds, and we were adding a Saturday night service. We were younger and really didn't know how to get our arms around family and ministry. I remember telling the Elders of the church that I was resigning, but I didn't want to offend them with the truth of why I was stepping down.

I so distinctly remember thinking, "I will not put my family on the altar of ministry."

Now almost 15 years later I find myself seeing that I've protected my family from the expectations of the church the best that I could, and we've tried to created the most "non-pastoral" home we could - just like your house, but I couldn't keep them safe from one of the greatest enemies of families everywhere.

Absence.

Oh I'm there to tuck them in at night and I've attended my fair share of Tae-Kwon-Do belt ceremonies and gymnastics and dance practices, but I'm ALWAYS absent to worship with my kids. To LEAD them in worship.

I've taken for granted that my wife is always at the church as my partner-in-ministry, but I'm never at the church as her partner-in-life.

So, why share all of this today when it is still so raw for me? Because it needs to stop. For me and for your pastor.

Let me encourage you to do a few things to help protect your pastors' families:

1. If you're in leadership at a church, give every staff member a Sunday off every 6 weeks.
For those of you saying, "We don't get a day off from our job every six weeks." You're right, and you're not in ministry. Pastors work hard every day of the week, and Sunday comes every 7 days. Their calling isn't their job, it's their life, and subsequently it is their family's life. Many of them are consumed by the expectations and needs of others, all the time ... on Facebook, on their cell phones, on Twitter, in the Target parking lot, at the Friday night football game, on a walk with their spouse, at the playground with their kids. They can't turn off being a pastor any more than you can turn off seeing them as a pastor. Give them one Sunday every six weeks. They can be responsible to make sure all of the bases are covered; you can be responsible to protect them and their families.

2. If you're a pastor, make this a non-negotiable in your schedule.
Not an option. Not up for discussion. End of story. Period. Don't waste this weekend as a "get-out-of-jail-free" card. Don't use it as a "go-see-what-other-churches-are-doing" day. Use it as a "I'm-serving-and-leading-my-family-only" day. If you're church is willing to invest in your family by making sure you can worship with them one Sunday every six weeks, you better be wiling to let someone else do the work of the church so you can do the ministry of your home.

3. If you're a church member, let them come and be a church member.
This is a tough one, I know, but let them come and be just like you. Ask them questions about their family, their kids, their football team, their favorite foods ... just don't ask them anything, and I mean ANYTHING about church. Don't schedule appointments. Don't ask about volunteer scheduling. Don't discuss ministry ideas. Just let them come to church.

4. If you're the spouse of a pastor, protect this.
Sometimes pastors can get in the moment and forget. Sometimes we "turn it on" as soon as we walk through the door to the church. Make us shut it off for the morning. We want to, it's just that sometimes we don't realize we flipped the switch to begin with. Encourage us to be with you, and if you have to, smack us upside the head as a reminder.

5. Make it natural.
Work hard to make this normal. Make it something that you, your family, your elders, and your church expects and looks forward to. Make worshiping together as a family as NATURAL as serving together as a family.

I know this isn't new or revolutionary, and I know it isn't the answer or be-all-end-all, but it's a start. It will take everyone to pull it off, but I can't help but KNOW that your family and your church will be better for it.

I also know that this is the devotion blog from An Ordinary Guy, so let me leave you with this verse:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
— Hebrews 13:17

Maybe not what you were expecting, but that bit about "so that their work will be a joy" ... There is NOTHING I would enjoy more than worshiping with my family NATURALLY.

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CAUSE AND EFFECT

I don't know why I remember it so clearly, but I do. When I was in 6th grade I learned the lesson of CAUSE and EFFECT in class. It was a science class and I recall the discussion being about whether an a specific results occurred because of something specific, or if it was a result of outside manipulation or interference. (You'd think I'd remember something more fun like playing dodgeball in gym or finally being able to go to the high school football games on Friday night!)

Cause and effect. Something happens that specifically and solely causes something else to happen.

In science a causal relationship has to meet three criteria:

  • Temporal precedents: proving that what caused the effect happened first.
  • Covariation: proving that there is an actual relationship between the cause and effect.
  • No Plausible Variant: proving that there is nothing else causing the effect.

So, why the science lesson?

Today I have prayed with a friend, wept for a family, and dreamed with a team:

  • A very close friend of mine has an extremely stressful meeting come up this weekend. It is one of those "my-whole-world-could-change" kind of meetings. It's the kind of meeting that could be amazingly positive, or it could be excruciatingly disappointing. Either way it's big.
  • A family in our church whose faith I deeply appreciate and respect discovered crushing news about their pregnancy today, leaving them heartbroken and grieving.
  • Some of our church's core leadership team met for a few hours tonight to discuss our current land purchase and we prayed about what the "best next step" is as we pursue God's vision for a performing arts center in Bluffton.

For some reason, in all three cases I can't stop recalling Psalm 37:

Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you. He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn, and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun. Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act.
— Psalm 37:3-7

It might sound strange, but in thinking about all three circumstances I keep seeing the cause and effect of being a follower of Jesus. If you'll take a minute, read through this passage of scripture with a cause/effect filter:

CAUSE: Trust in the Lord and do good ... Take delight in the Lord ... Commit everything you do to the Lord ... Trust Him ... Be still in the presence of the Lord ... Wait patiently ...

EFFECT: Then you will live safely in the land and prosper ... He will give you your hearts desire ... He will help you ... He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun ... He will act ...

This is a scientific theory at work in the heart of man. When you are leaning into Jesus, when you have a relationship with Him, when you're only hope is to hope in Him, the effect of that relationship is staggering.

I guess I'm hearing that so much today, from stories of struggle to stories of triumph, because our God is faithful. Always. When it's good. When it's bad. When it's hard. When there is loss. When there are victories. When pain is unbearable. When grief is overwhelming. When doubt is gripping. When fear is assailing. When the future looks bright. When the sky is the limit. When all the world is for you or all the world is against you ...

It's not that you'll always get exactly what you want, or that everything will go your way. It's not that all the stars will line up, you'll win the lottery, your favorite team will win the big game, and your favorite chocolate dessert will be calorie-less!

It's better than that.

The God of the Universe will be for you. He will help you. He will act on your behalf.

He will be faithful. To you.

Even when you have a huge meeting coming up ...
Even when it seems like you've lost everything ...
Even when it seems like you have nothing to lose ...

He will be faithful to you. Always.

And do want to know the mind-blowing thing to me that this passage teaches? The cause of His faithfulness is your trust!

We trust in Him; He never leaves us ... that's a cause and effect I'll always be happy to remember.


Perfect Father in Heaven, I really don't know why You do the things you do. I often don't get it. I don't get why the bad stuff happens and I even question why a lot of the good stuff happens. Why it happens to me. Why it happens to anybody.

That being said, I'm grateful for the way You do what you do. The way You think, the way You act, even the way You teach. But I'm most grateful for the way You love - without fail or compromise.

Father, help me to trust in You, to delight in You, to commit everything to You. Help me to wait in Your presence patiently for You. And thank you in advance for what You are going to do on my behalf.

Lord, I trust You ... most of the time ... help me to make it all of the time, the same way you are faithful to me ... all the time.

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CHRISTMAS NOISE

I'm not going to lie ... I'm not a big fan of Christmas. Before you revolt and begin crying "FOUL," I love what Christmas is supposed to be about, I just don't love what Christmas has become.

Over the centuries Christmas has become the very thing it was initially created to distract people from. A little history on how Christmas came to be:

No one knows when Christ was born. In fact, for the beginning three centuries of Christianity, birthdays simply weren't a big deal. It wasn't until 336 that the first Christmas was recorded. Because of the assumed dates, it is widely accepted that Christian bishops throughout Europe and the Mediterranean placed the celebration of Christ's birth on December 25 in order to encourage Christ-followers to avoid indulging in pagan winter solstice celebrations. Truth is, much of our modern day Christmas traditions were originated in non-Christian practices: festival of lights (Jewish), yule festival (German), mistletoe (Scandinavian), giving of gifts to the poor (Roman). Even good ole St. Nick wasn't a Christmas figure:

Many of the pagan customs became associated with Christmas. Christian stories replaced the heathen tales, but the practices hung on. Candles continued to be lit. Kissing under the mistletoe remained common in Scandinavian countries. But over the years, gift exchanges became connected with the name of St. Nicholas, a real but legendary figure of 4th century Lycia (a province of Asia). A charitable man, he threw gifts into homes.
— Dan Graves (Christianity.com)

All of that is to say, it seems to me that Christmas today has become the very thing it was trying to overcome. While the original idea of celebrating Christmas was to focus people on the coming of Christ, the current idea of celebrating Christmas is less about Christ and more about celebrating.

The modern day Christmas season is filled with plenty of celebrating, but most people aren't celebrating Jesus. Sure, they may be celebrating a lot of great things - family, friendship, generosity, love, etc., but they aren't focusing on the coming or the advent of Jesus.

It's a season of commercial focus and success, that can't be argued. According to Gallup, Americans will spend over $620 million dollars this Christmas season, accounting for 19%+ of the year's retail income.

It's also a season of controversy, as many non-Christian groups will come out and dispute the purpose for and the celebration of Jesus' birth, and many Christian groups will take up the mantle and fight back with anything but "peace on earth and good will toward men" in mind.

Christmas - a time where we sing "Silent Night" and proclaim "peace on earth" has become one of the noisiest times of the year with people feeling overwhelmed and stressed about finances, relationships, time management, and loneliness.

The noise of it all seems deafening.

This Christmas I want to encourage you to do something that may seem difficult amidst all of the noise ... something that Christmas should be all about to begin with.

I want to encourage you to worship. Here's how:

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God ... but the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
— John 1:10-12;18

1. Christmas is about RECOGNIZING.
I didn't grow up in the Catholic church, or even in a liturgical church for that matter. While I'm not high on church traditions, I do recognize and believe in the value the them. I am especially fond of ADVENT. Advent is all about recognizing who Jesus was and celebrating his coming & becoming. It is about avoiding the first part of John 1:10 - his own people didn't recognize him - and holding onto the rest of the passage - to all who believed and accepted him.

If you want to spend time recognizing Jesus this December, celebrating Advent is a great way to do it. For more fantastic thoughts on Advent, check out THIS LITTLE PIECE in Time magazine by Louie Giglio. If you're looking for a solid, free, short resource to celebrate Advent, check out the free e-book "The Dawning of Indestructible Joy" by John Piper. (You can pick it up for free, HERE.)

2. Christmas is about BELIEVING.
No, I have not seen The Polar Express one too many times! I'm not talking about believing in Santa, I'm talking about believing in Jesus.

Christmas is a time of hope. It's a time of joy. It's a time of celebrating and believing in the One who has come to set the captives free. It's a time for Christians, new and old, to come back to the most basic tenant of faith that we have - believing in Jesus. For all of the other noise in life right now, Christmas is the perfect time to quiet it all, to be still, and to believe.

It's strange to me that many Christians I know seem to leave this part of Christmas out of Christmas. They'll read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," but they won't read the Christmas story. They'll stress over and focus on giving and receiving gifts, but they won't once reflect on the Gift that they believe in and need the most. They'll spend as much time as possible with all of those who are closest to them, but they'll spend almost no time with the One who is the closest of all.

Make sure you spend some time this Christmas believing.

3. Christmas is about REVELATION.
Emmanuel ... God with us ... REVEALED to us ... 

There isn't much more to say about this one. This Christmas, make sure to keep this simple idea in focus: God revealed Himself to us through Jesus. That's what Advent, Christmas, and the entire season is all about. Heaven came down and touched Earth, and everything and every ONE was changed forever.

Now I'm not saying to throw Santa under the bus, to reject every present that's given to you, or to tell everyone saying "happy holidays" to take a flying leap, I'm simply suggesting that Christians everywhere take a break from the noise of Christmas. During this Christmas season, take some time for yourself to worship. Make it a point as a family to keep Christ at the center of your celebration. Recognize ... believe ... and rejoice in the revelation!

Just a quiet reminder in the midst of the noise from An Ordinary Guy ...

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A White Christian's Response to the Ferguson Non-Indictment

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Justice, they say, is blind. People, we know, are not.

As the grand jury decision on an indictment for officer Darren Wilson was read in Ferguson, Missouri tonight a few questions ran through my mind and heart:

As a PASTOR, what do I tell the church I serve regarding this decision?
As a FATHER, what do I teach my girls about this decision?

My answers to those two questions were strikingly similar.

Let me start off by saying that I am NOT a legal expert, nor am I in law enforcement. I have friends in both professions. I know people who stand on both sides of this argument, many defending the actions of Officer Wilson, and many crying discrimination and murder. I have friends who are black, friends who are white, and friends who don't identify as either. I am very good friends with republicans and I hang out with several democrats and independents. EVERYONE has an opinion and EVERYONE'S opinions are heavily influenced by their feelings, their upbringing, and what they hear and choose to believe in the media outlets they prefer.

I'm not writing this to pick a side or prove a point. The tragedy and loss of this event demands much more respect than turning the events of August 9 into an opinion-driven political debate. The truth is, 12 people (9 white, 3 black; 7 men, 5 women) were asked to hear as much testimony as possible to determine whether an indictment should be made.

I was not one of the 12. Chances are, neither where you.

So, how do I, as a white, middle class, midwestern (living in the south), Christian man response to the grand jury's decision? Here's what is running through my head tonight:

1) WE LIVE IN A GREAT COUNTRY.
That may be a strange place to start, but I believe it is true. I truly believe that America is an amazing and wonderful place to live. This is a country that allows people to argue and debate, at the top of their lungs, everything that the government is doing, while the government protects their freedom to do so. It's a country where people are elected into office and every citizen is given the right to share their voice in that process. We live in a country that, in theory, treats everyone the same, established on a few "unalienable rights," beginning with: "ALL men are created equal."

2) WE LIVE IN A FLAWED COUNTRY.
That being said, it isn't a perfect country. Our system is flawed. Our politicians are flawed. Our government is flawed. WE are flawed. It's one thing to write that "all men are created equal," it's another thing entirely to LIVE it. If we're being honest, and by WE, I mean EVERYBODY, we all may well believe that men are created equal, but we don't necessary believe that all men should be treated equally.

I do not believe that America is the be-all-end-all country that will save the world. I do not subscribe to any thoughts, theologically or otherwise, that God has chosen the U.S.A. to be His representatives here on earth. I in NO WAY believe that every other country in the world should be like us. I AM advocating that one of the strengths of our country is it's messiness. We are a mess of messed up people, and it's in that messiness and uniqueness that we are supposed to come together, as a nation, and move forward as ONE. We are supposed to be a country that embraces differences and challenges in hopes that our uniquenesses will make us stronger. That being said ...

3) WHITE CHURCHES DON'T STAND UP FOR THE BLACK COMMUNITY.
In general, we don't. We can say that the Michael Brown shooting is about more than a race issue, and I believe that it is, but it has exposed some very nasty truths about America that we have been pushing under the rug for decades, if not centuries. And it has revealed much about the separatist nature of the American church. 

This summer we took a look at the movie "12 Years a Slave" as a church. In preparing for the sermon I must have watched the movie 10 times in one week. It's a brutal movie. Very hard to watch. Do you want to know what I was the most bothered by? The beating scenes were very difficult to sit through, and there is one rape scene that I simply could not bear to watch. No doubt the brutality of the slave-era in American was unconscionable. But what bothered me the most was the inability ... no, that's not the right word ... the unwillingness of white men to stand up on behalf of what they knew was right. Truth be told, I'm not sure much has changed today. Most white American churches will either ignore this issue completely, or they will stand by and do nothing, allowing black churches to do all the fighting.

4) BLACK CHURCHES DON'T STAND UP FOR THE WHITE COMMUNITY EITHER.
I know what's going to come of this one ... "Why does the black community need to stand up for the white community?" "What could the whites want or need from the blacks around them, they aren't the ones being oppressed or shot?"

Let me ask you, how often do you see black churches get involved in any perceived injustices against white people? Can you recall a time when a predominantly black church reached out to a predominantly white church and offered to stand with them in a time of disgrace, dispute, or discrimination?

A while back I met with an African American pastor/friend here in our small town of Bluffton. He acknowledged to me that his church would have a difficult time worshiping with our church for no other reason than the fact that we were considered a "white church." He didn't feel that way, but his church did.

5) SOMEONE DIED AND EVERYONE LOST.
What gets lost in all of this to me is that a young man died and another man took that life. Self-defense or not, every family member and associate of these two individuals is forever changed. Whether this was an injustice or not will be debated in history books for years to come, but please do not miss out on the truth that it is a tragedy on ALL accounts.

Michael Brown died. His parents lost a son. His friends lost a loved one. His life is over. Officer Darren Wilson is changed too, forever living with the loss of a life at his hands. His life and his family's lives are altered forever.

Ferguson, Missouri has lost too. For decades to come they will be a town remembered by and referenced as the place Michael Brown was shot ... the place black and white tensions exploded ... the place where riots took place ... the place that changed history ...

6) WE HAVE TO DO BETTER.
We ... I ... me ... you ... us ... we ... HAVE ... TO ... DO ... BETTER.
White Americans need to realize that racism is alive & well, seeded by hatred and fear.

Black Americans need to realize that a way of thinking (racism) is the real enemy.
White Christians need to realize that our black brothers & sisters need us to stand w/ them.
Black Christians need to realize that white brothers & sisters need them to stand w/ us.

If we ... I ... me ... you ... us ... we ... if we want to become a stronger nation, we need to do better. For our own sake. For our kids' sake. For the sake of our country's future. And as Christians, this shouldn't even be a topic of debate any longer! How abundantly clear does the New Testament make its case for unity? You know, phrases like, "One body," "one baptism," "one faith," "one church," or "there is neither Jew nor Gentile," or "slave or free," or "male or female," or on and on and on (check out Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, Romans 10:9-12).

If we, as a country, expect to see the changes that are needed to our justice system or in letting our voices be heard, then WE NEED TO FACE IT TOGETHER. If we, as Christians, expect to see the Church united, as one, without color barriers or discrimination, then WE NEED TO FACE IT TOGETHER. Are we capable of doing this? I believe we are ... but only with a lot of help ...

7) COME, LORD JESUS.
I'm just going to say it like it is ... Good Lord, help us. Racial tensions, taking lives, anger, resentment, bitterness, rage, hate ... pride, denial, arrogance, absence, injustice ... Sin has screwed us all, and we are all in need of a Savior.

 

So what now? Now, with God's help, we try to find healing in all of this. We try to see a place for the Gospel to bring hope to the hopeless and peace to the peaceless. We find opportunities in OUR worlds to live compassion, to everyone. We try not to react out of fear or hate or judgement, but instead we try to respond with truth, with grace, and with love.

And at the end of the day, we pray. We pray that God will forgive us, that His Spirit will heal us, and that our kids will do better than we did.

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