Monday, August 25, 2014

The Land of No Pain

The Land of No Pain is, in truth, a far away place. Most people like to think of dying as going “to a better place.” Followers of Jesus boldly call this place “heaven” and acknowledge Jesus as the only way (John 14, verse 6) to get there. The reason our thoughts often turn to such a Land is because we live in a world rife with pain. And sorrow. And rejection. And hatred. And brokenness.

I wasn’t thinking much about about the pain of this world when I was a young pastor, just beginning my first foray into senior leadership. If someone had used the word “honeymoon” to describe it, I would have naively called them out of order. You see, I started out as a pastor feeling loved by everybody. The church was growing. New people were coming on board. Everybody was excited. I thought it was the easiest gig on the planet…

…until it wasn’t.

Honeymoons come to an end, I discovered. Even for me. Someone once said of the pastor job: “The first year you can’t do anything wrong, the second year you can’t do anything right, and the third year is when you just might be able to settle down and get something done.” Looking back, that prophecy turned out pretty accurate, except that my first year didn’t last quite that long. Sweet souls turned sour, friends became not so friendly and opposition became as regular as Sunday worship services.

I write this shortly after a nationally-known pastor was on the cover of the New York Times. This particular pastor has stepped up and acknowledged some things about which he has been criticized. His anger and careless words have hurt many who know him and have put him in the crosshairs. For me, I hope he comes through this with some attitudes changed and relationships restored. Right now, though, I know that he is living in The Land of Pain.

Over the past few months, we have seen many big-name pastors in The Land of Pain. Some are guilty of charting their own course to that ugly place, but others have found themselves there because of the hurt in their own families. Many of these will heal, but be forever scarred by the experiences through which they are walking. Some will follow the error of their ways into even deeper error and bring devastation upon the ones who once loved and trusted them.

When Jesus said, 10 "God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. 11 God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.” (Matthew 5:10-11 New Living Translation), He was obviously talking about something other than pain we inflict upon ourselves. As you read this, you are probably aware of some of the awful persecution of Christians that are happening around the world. People are still suffering and dying because they choose Jesus. And Jesus, the One who promised to be with His followers until the very end, is pouring out hope and peace and joy in the midst of their tribulation.

I look back to that pain I went through as a young pastor. Similar hurts have happened from time to time over the years. One thing that has changed is that I am no longer surprised by it. Opposition is a standard condition for anyone who wants to know Jesus deeply. Those winds in the face can either drive you to the ground or send you soaring into the sky. It all depends on what you do in response. As for me, I would rather fly!

This weekend at Stone Ridge Church, we will spend some time on Jesus’ words about opposition. I know I need the reminder…how about you? Hope to see you there? Can’t make it? Catch the podcast!

Monday, August 11, 2014

At The End of Your Rope

I was watching an online TV rerun recently that included the U.S. President in its story line. As the dramatic action unfolded, the man was getting ready to debate his opponent in the upcoming election. The President, wanting to be reelected, intended to do everything possible to display confidence to the people. This particular President has been seriously hurt earlier in the story, but he hid his struggle, constantly communicating that he was strong and "in control."


I contrast that scenario with one very familiar to some of our Stone Ridge people who have made the trip to work with our ministry partners in the Dominican Republic. The DR is a third-world country, working hard to strengthen their economy and provide livelihoods for their people. Though many of them are poor by our standards, they often live rich lives filled with family and friends and faith. One glaring problem that they need to address is what to do with the Haitians who live in their country.


A quick look at the map will show you that the Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island called Hispaniola. Though the natural barriers that divide them are often small and porous, the two nations are radically different when it comes to resources. The Dominican is still a third-world nation, but Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. What do Haitians do when they need jobs to feed their families? They find a way across the border into the DR. Sound familiar? At least a million Haitians live in the Dominican, with some estimates as high as two million. The DR has about nine or ten million of its own citizens, so the comparatively large number of illegal Haitian immigrants is disruptive. While the Haitians do much of the work in the sugar cane fields and are often easy to spot in the cities as well as the agricultural areas, they aren’t allowed to own property and are often subject to the racial prejudices that were the norm in the U.S. 40 or 50 years ago.


Add all this up and you get a picture of what life can be like for a Haitian living in the DR. Now let your imagination carry you to the little Haitian children who grow up in a country that rejects them. If someone doesn’t come along to educate them and encourage them, their little lives can be considered of no more value than the raw sewage that trickles down the dirty paths in their shanty towns. In a society where they are regularly considered outcasts, those kids can rightfully be described as weak and out of control. Unlike the fictitious American President I mentioned above, they are the broken and the helpless of their culture…


…except that’s not how Jesus sees them. And it’s not how many Dominican Christians see them. It’s not how the people in our church who have been there see them. We see them as precious little lives, full of hope. Jesus said, "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule." Matthew 5:3 (The Message) Those Haitian kids start life at the end of their rope, but Jesus promised them what other Bible translations call "the kingdom of heaven."


All of this brings me to a picture I received yesterday. It was taken last week in La Muñoz, a Haitian village where our church has a partnership with a church and a little Christian school. We have been there many times, laughed, played and danced with the children and rejoiced that God gave us their friendship. The picture is of Korean missionaries washing the feet of Haitian kids. I looked at it and wondered, "Which group is 'poor in spirit?’" Isn’t it both? Then, don’t they all get what The Message calls "more of God and his rule?"


We will talk about that verse this weekend at Stone Ridge. It’s the first weekend of "From broken to blessed," part of our new series, "From here to where?" It is our brokenness that sets us up for God’s blessing…pretty amazing stuff. I hope to see you there, but catch the podcast if you can’t make it!


Monday, August 4, 2014

To Die For

My Grandpa and Grandma Norris, October 1940, Pie Town, NM
Photo by Russell Lee, U.S. Farm Security Administration
Coming from a very close family has a way of hooking you for life. In our case, it’s the NEARS Family Reunion held every first weekend of August in Pie Town, New Mexico. Yeah, you might have never heard of Pie Town, and that’s no surprise because our family pretty much doubles the population every year in August. We come from far and wide to catch up on news, hugs and precious memories of those from previous generations. We all eat too much, laugh, cry and tease each other, often regaling new spouses or old-enough kids with crazy stories of dad or mom or wife or husband back in the good old days.

Several family members trek over from Arizona, including us this past weekend. Our friends Doug and Ronna were with us. They came to the reunion with us for the first time a few years ago…we forgot to tell them that they would be adopted and considered a part of the family from now on. Many family members live in New Mexico, but a huge number are from the great state of Texas. Now, ya’ll, for the record, I tease Texans. I get a kick out of their twang and their state pride and their fun cowboy ways, but I must say that our family has some pretty special Texans in our ranks.

We’re also a pretty modern family. We have an annual worship service, and it’s now held on Saturday evening. I’m sure that being modern is the reason we moved the service to Saturday. It can’t have anything to do with the fact that most reunion folks have to pack up their motor homes and travel trailers, then drive what feels like a bazillion miles home on Sunday. Whatever the reason, we moved the service to Saturday.

As the "designated preacher" in the family, the nod for a Saturday sermon usually goes to me when I’m there. When I preached this year, I was approached after the service by a man I didn’t know. By the way, our reunion gang is big enough that I always meet new people there and sometimes discover that we had met before, but I forgot. Anyway, this fellow came up to me after the service to speak to me. He proceeded to tell me about what he called "my church" way down in Texas. He told me he was from near Del Rio, but that he drives about 45 miles to attend a church that he loves. He discovered the church when he lived closer to its location.

I hadn’t heard of the town where his church is located, so he explained it to me. The town is a ghost town. To make sure I heard him correctly, I asked, "Your church is in a ghost town?" "Yep," he said.

"It must have people coming from far and wide to get to it," I commented.

To be honest, I’ve known my share of ghost churches in very much alive towns, but I can’t recall hearing about a very much alive church in a ghost town. It’s certainly rare.

He proceed to tell me about some of their missionaries and their work in Mexico. He told me how they serve others. Obviously, their fellowship with Jesus isn’t just about learning something they had never seen in the Bible before.

His story got me thinking. Jesus’ ministry had its share of fair-weather followers. They came and hung out to watch the healings and get their stomachs filled. When the going got tough, those folks left Jesus. Percentage-wise only a small remnant really caught what Jesus was saying. He was calling them to leave their old lives behind and follow Him. It was a faith worth living for. In fact, it was to die for. The ones who jumped in with both feet and refused to longingly look back to their old lives turned their world upside-down. Theirs was the kind of faith that would bring to life a church in a ghost town.

We begin a new series this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. "From here to where?" is about what Jesus taught his closest guys. Jesus called them to live a different kind of life, the kind that would rock their world. He is calling us to rock our world, too. I can’t wait to talk with you about it! Can’t join us in person? Catch the podcast! Oh, and mark your calendars for next year’s family reunion!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Highlight Reel

I’m not a big fan of highlight clips from yesterday’s games. About the only time I see those sports channels that fill up hours playing and replaying…
  • the game-winning home run
  • the dropped touchdown pass
  • the three-pointer swishing through the net with the clock dropping to 0:00
  • the 40 foot eagle putt
…is sitting in a restaurant that has video screens all around me. I mean, how many times can we re-live the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat before we realize that it’s time to get on with life? Perhaps we are able to live vicariously through the replayed action from our favorite sport and think for a moment that WE are the hero making that shot or scoring that goal. But, if some of the off-field and off-court problems of our favorite stars tell us anything, it’s that even THEY don’t find enough joy in their success to make them feel fulfilled. How then can we get truly filled up by watching them?

I am pretty certain that the closest any of us gets to eternity is this moment. Eternity, the place where it’s always now, can’t be found in yesterday’s victories or tomorrow’s dreams. It can be found now, where each moment is an opportunity for us to know and walk with our creator. Our first parents may have been kicked out of the Garden, but many of their descendants discovered how to walk with God during their lives here on the planet. In fact, Paradise Lost was what Jesus came to help us reclaim. But even Jesus said, "Each day has enough trouble of its own." Matthew 6:34 (NASB) In other words, we can’t find a fulfilling life by re-living yesterday any more than we can guarantee that everything will be great tomorrow.

Living today doesn’t mean that we are without hope. Far from it! Hope can fuel today’s fires just like a desert rainstorm can guarantee a future in which many plants will peek out from the sand. But, we don’t get the plants today so we must enjoy the rain. Later we can enjoy the results of it! The earth is full of such simple illustrations.

I will sound antithetical as I tell you that I wish I had highlight reel from our Life Repurposed sermon series. The series, which will end this coming weekend, has been our most well-received series in my memory. Each week has been like drinking fresh water from a fire hose. We are truly blessed to have men who work hard to preach and teach God’s repurposing truth with such power and clarity. If I had a highlight reel, here would be a few of those highlights:

"We cannot add to Jesus Christ, but He can add to us." Mark Gomez

"We all have some scratches. We all have some rust." Tag Bender

"The devil will do anything to stop us from coming to God. But God has big buckets of love that only He can pick up; He wants to pour them into our hearts." Vicente Zaragoza

"God showed me that insecurity and unbelief keep me from experiencing God’s love." Jason Graham

"Without connection to the family, there are paralyzing consequences." Logan Coffey

"I think Paul wins ‘the authority based on suffering’ contest." Tom Burks

Those highlights tell so much about our Stone Ridge summer. Now school is about to start and we will rush into the fall schedule. We wrap up Life Repurposed this weekend in a unique way. You don’t want to miss it! Can’t be here? Catch the podcast!

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Its hot down there!"

I write this on the 38th anniversary of moving to Arizona "for good." On July 20, 1976, Cathy, Sean and I left Monterey, California in the early morning for the drive straight through to Phoenix. My sister Cabbie joined Cathy to help drive our car and take care of Sean, who was almost two. I drove a move-it-yourself rental truck without air conditioning. The part about no A/C was no problem on the Monterey Peninsula. The high there on July 19 was about 65 degrees. The July 20 high in Phoenix was 113, which means I crossed the desert between Palm Springs and Phoenix in the middle of afternoon heat. I wasn’t prepared for those hours in what might best be described as a large oven on wheels. Thankfully, my friend Barry in Phoenix recognized my electrolyte depletion and gave me something for it.

I think of that day often. Cathy and I were returning to the city and the college (Grand Canyon) where we met a few years earlier. We had no idea that we were coming to the state known for THE canyon and saguaro cacti to build a life here. Ten years flew by (along with the addition of twin daughters) in Phoenix and the opportunity arose for us to move to Yuma. That was a big step, one that some of our city friends had trouble understanding. "What’s in Yuma?" they asked. Then, more frequently than I could imagine, they added, "It’s hot down there!"

Somewhere in the musty closet of idiomatic phrases hangs the oft-used expression, "That’s the pot calling the kettle black." No words could be more descriptive of Phoenix folks calling Yuma "hot." For the sake of argument, the average difference between Phoenix and Yuma year round used to be about 2 degrees. That’s 2 degrees, 24-7-365. I say "used to be" because asphalt has long been the fastest growing crop in Arizona’s capital city and it tends to soak up heat in the daytime and dispense it gradually for many hours after dark. That may be a prime factor in a recent weather prediction (which turned out to be wrong) that Phoenix might never again have a freezing temperature. Anyway, it seems as if the meager difference in Phoenix average temps and those in Yuma is shrinking.

Add in the lower humidity during monsoon season (most storms track east of Yuma) plus the additional breezes Yuma enjoys in the Colorado River valley, and our "hot" is quite a bit more comfortable than Phoenix "hot." That’s even if you leave out the long hours of big-city traffic jams which aren’t a problem here for some reason.

If you are new to Yuma and are reading all this, it probably doesn’t mean anything to you if we are hotter than Phoenix and how much the average difference is: it’s just hot here in the summertime. And the dark of night still greets you with a blast of heat as you walk outside. A man who lived here a long time ago once said to me, "Sam, after two summers in Yuma, your brain fries and you just don’t know any better." So, heat rookies, hang on. Summers won’t get cooler, but you will adapt! (Sort of. Make sure to pay your electric bill and change your A/C filters regularly.)

Seriously though, if you are new to our desert city, welcome! I wish I could count all the times that people arrived here and hated it, then struggled when they had to leave a few years later. It’s the people of our town that seem to create a place that starts feeling like home.

I do need to warn you about one thing. I think God must smile as He seems to plan some of our hottest days for the week we at Stone Ridge have Vacation Bible School. I think it might happen again this year. Most of the kids will ignore it. We adults will need to take a deep breath (in a cool indoor space) and endure.

Crazy as it sounds to me, we are very near the beginning of another school year. You most likely have a new family or two in your neighborhood. When you meet them, why not invite them to Stone Ridge? You never know where that conversation will go! If they can join you this weekend, they can hear Part 11 of Life Repurposed. You don’t want to miss it, but you can always catch the podcast, just in case.



Monday, July 14, 2014


A few years ago, I read Larry Osborne’s great little book, Sticky Church. Larry wisely made it clear that churches need to be "sticky" to reach and retain people. He then pointed out that, like "Legos", we each have a limited number of pegs with which we can connect to others. That simple word picture is ripe with practical applications, both for me and for the church I pastor.

For me, it’s a reminder that my 849 Facebook "friends" stretch the definition of what a friend can do and be. While I may care about each of their birthdays, anniversaries and other life events, it’s far beyond impossible for me to deeply and genuinely connect with them. Some of them are high school classmates whom I haven’t seen in over 40 years. Others are college friends that I haven’t talked with in over 30 years. Some are people I have met in various travels and a momentary greeting has turned us into "friends" on FB. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not ranting here. It’s just that I understand my limitation to only a few Lego pegs in my life. I want to provide plenty of time and focus for them, which means I must limit others.

I just arrived home from a week at Children’s Camp, a frenzied and amazing week of God changing lives. Some of us on the camp staff have worked together in this way for many years. Our annual week up in the mountains is very much like a family reunion. We laugh, sometimes cry, visit and catch up. It’s like we vacate a couple of our Lego pegs for the week and fill them with each other. One part of us wants to stay connected all the time, but another part of us is aware that our pegs are limited. Upon our return home, they are quickly filled again with the long-term connections that are so important.

As I arrived home on Friday, Cathy told me about reading a book by a pastor, in which he spoke of prioritizing the most important people in his life. This clearly limited his time for many others. He spoke of his priorities with a word picture reminiscent of concentric circles. His most important relationships were in the middle with him, with another larger circle for co-workers and leaders in his church. As he added circles (Cathy’s word picture, not his), each one was farther from him and his focus.

I know that this is painful for some, who want to be the "most important" person in the life of everyone they know, but let’s be real here. We all have need for healthy relationships and we all have limited Lego pegs. As we try to make good decisions about our own "inner circle", we must be willing to embrace that others are leaving us out of theirs. When Osborne talked about this in Sticky Church, he made it clear that their church’s Small Groups are where those closest relationships are formed. Their groups are where daily life is shared and people accomplish Hebrews 10:24: "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds." (NIV)

This will be painful for some to read, but the Lego concept is the very reason we tell newcomers to our church that they need to be in a Small Group if they want to receive personal care in their time of need. If they are in the hospital, it is the Small Group who will visit them and provide food for the family. They will do so as an act of love for someone in their inner circle, rather than an obligation to meet a need. As a pastor, I genuinely love the people who come to Stone Ridge, but I am greatly limited when it comes to personal ministry. Those closest to the center of my life get the priority.

This whole Lego concept works in the macro life of the church as well as the micro life of individuals. Every church needs to decide how to use limited resources to reach people with the love of Jesus. "Everyone" isn’t a good enough answer. No church, no matter how large, can reach everyone. This reality has changed the way Stone Ridge is doing Vacation Bible School this year. Every year we are inundated with kids from other churches who are VBS hopping, giving their kids safe and fun activities during the summer break. I know this is great for those families and I don’t fault those who do it. However, we have decided to be more focused for this year’s VBS. Our church is doing Monday-Wednesday of VBS for kids who live in a nearby neighborhood. The only way Stone Ridge kids can attend those three days is if a parent is on VBS staff. We won’t open our VBS to the public until Thursday and Friday of that week. Don’t we know that this will mean less kids are in our VBS since many of the "hoppers" will be looking for an entire week? Yes! But our Legos are pretty much full in this area and we are very excited about reaching kids who otherwise wouldn’t be in anybody’s VBS.

By the way, our VBS decision will be criticized. In fact, that has already happened. In the same way some people hope to be in the inner circle of every friend, they can’t understand why we don’t throw open the doors for everyone those first three days of VBS. It was a hard call, but I think our children’s leaders were wise to make it. Remember, we are just as limited as a single Lego!

I am enjoying my "summer break" from preaching at Stone Ridge. Our Life Repurposed series has been encouraging and challenging. While SRC is enjoying sermons from a wide variety of our leaders, I have been catching my breath from the weekly grind of sermon prep. I have also been working with our partner church in the Dominican Republic and got to serve as Children’s Camp pastor. My Legos are still pretty crowded, but I am getting refreshed. I hope you can be with us this weekend for the next Life Repurposed installment. Can’t make it? Catch the podcast!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Kid Friendly

At about the time I post this, I will be on my way to another year of Children’s Camp. If you had told me 15 years ago that a week with goofy, sweaty, emotional, ego-driven, teary, disruptive, funny, angry and sweet kids would be an annual highlight for me, I would have never believed you. As a young pastor, still in my twenties, I found myself very comfortable with adults, but with little time for little ones. One year I was camp pastor for a youth camp, during which I felt a severe disconnect with the kids while I loved spending time with the other leaders. I became one of those pastors who showed up to pray every time we sent a group of kids off to camp, never imagining that I might some day be going with them.

That all changed when a pastor friend asked me to sub for him one year. "They will need you to run the song slides from your computer and take pictures of the kids during each day," he said. "Then show the pics up on the screen as kids are entering the auditorium for worship time. They’ll love it!"

Out of guilt, I said, "Yes." In my thoughts, I would check off this obligation and no longer need to go to camp. At least, not for many more years.

By the end of that first week, I found myself volunteering to come back the next year "If you need me." I was still connecting more with the adults than with the children, but loved the upbeat atmosphere and the craziness of the kids. The next year I found some way to serve. Somehow, I was "hooked" by then. Within a couple years, I was asked to be camp pastor. I’m not sure how many years I have been in that role, but it is long enough to see young adults in our church who were once kids I got to know at camp.

I tried to describe the experience to a few friends recently. Camp is zany. Kids in elementary school are usually more concerned with conquering the opposite sex than with attracting them. Every year it’s the girls against the boys in all kinds of contests to determine who will "win" by week’s end. Every year the girls out-scream the boys and every year the boys out-gross the girls. In the midst of all this, miracles happen. Some kids arrive at camp from backgrounds so broken that their counselors hear their stories and break into sobs. Other kids are more mature in their faith than some of the counselors. Mix them all together and God starts tenderizing all of our hearts. By the end of the week, the staff is exhausted and ready for home; many of the campers want to just stay.

I have lots of "favorite" camp stories. Most of them involve the kids themselves, but one stands out. One of the men from Stone Ridge, Tim, signed on as a counselor a couple years ago. Tim is a retired Marine…"Semper Fi!"…who had no idea what he was getting into with a group of ornery boys. One night we invited kids to follow Jesus if they wanted to. After they stood up and gathered around me at the front of the auditorium, we sent them outside to talk with their own cabin counselors about what they felt God was saying to them. After they were done, they went back in and joined the others in the auditorium. I don’t know what Tim heard from one or two of his boys, but it was enough to wreck him. I looked over and saw him sitting on a bench, his shoulders wracked with sobs. Kathie, our Children’s Minister, was praying with him.

I have a feeling that Tim will never be quite the same after that year at camp. I come home every year realizing that I won’t be, either.

Here at home, I have been experiencing our Life Repurposed series at Stone Ridge with a quiet amazement. We are so honored that God is touching people among us. He is repurposing all our lives and it is reflected each week with our speakers. I hope you can join us this weekend. Can’t be there? Catch the podcast!