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!



Monday, June 16, 2014

Out Of Control

For years it has been pounded into our brains that we are able to control the circumstances in our lives. The moment something seems out of control, we are supposed to force it back under our dominion using our personality, our money and/or our influence. Someone said, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." That statement may bring us a smile, but real life can leave us trying to micro-manage every detail, preparing for every surprise. To be caught unawares without a way to fix our unforeseen problem is just not acceptable to most of us…

…until something spins out of control and we don’t know where to turn.

Last Thursday, 28 of us touched down at the international terminal of JFK with no knowledge that our plans had already been jettisoned. Veterans of this route commented at how our flight from Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic to NYC took place in record time. We were on the way home with full hearts and tired bodies, ready to clear U.S. Customs, change terminals and climb aboard the plane that would take us back to Arizona. Everyone seemed to have a spring in their step and a bit of excitement in their voice as we made our way through re-entry into the United States. A few of the group began receiving messages, though, that our flight from JFK to PHX was cancelled. What could that mean?

An hour or so later, we were huddled in the departure area of our airline, waiting for Lyndsee, who led the trip with her husband Mark, to find out our options. As she discussed those options with airline employees, they were ferried back to our group who stood waiting. Long story short, most of us were stuck in New York for the next two days…with nearby hotels booked up…and with the airline telling us that they wouldn’t pay for our rooms since the flight was cancelled due to weather. Out.Of.Control!

At least, out of OUR control!

Someone in our huddled group suggested we pray. We gathered in a large circle and thanked the One who IS in control that He had a way through this. We also thanked Him that He had a purpose in this, though we had no idea what that purpose might be. After the "Amen," my wife Cathy asked, "Do we have any churches in this area that might be able to give us a floor to sleep on?" My mind went into gear…

A couple of years ago, a guy named Fausto contacted me. "We are in San Luis, Mexico (about 20 miles from Yuma) for a week of ministry," he said. "I wanted to contact you because I am originally from the Dominican Republic and I became a Christian through your partner church there." Fausto and I became Facebook friends and I would hear from him occasionally. Sometime in late 2013, Fausto and his wife Debbie contacted us to let us know that they were moving to San Luis, and would be serving in leadership of an orphanage there. Their first weekend in the area would keep them in Yuma and they planned to attend one of our weekend services.

It just "happened" that I used a sermon illustration that weekend (the sermon was planned before I knew that Fausto and Debbie would be there) about something that happened when one of our teams had been in the Dominican some years ago. Amazingly, the story I told was about an event that was a game-changer in Fausto’s life. Only God could have put all this together. After that service, Fausto told me with great excitement how that day in Puerto Plata had changed things for him and what joy it brought them that I was sharing the story.

As Fausto and Debbie began their Mexico work, we saw them quite frequently. A few months into 2014, that ministry was going through problems and they came to us to talk about it. Our hearts were broken when they told us that they needed to go back to the East Coast. Within a few weeks, they were back at a ministry (run by the same foundation that runs the San Luis work) in New York City.

…My mind went into gear and I remembered Fausto and Debbie. It turns out that New York School of Urban Ministry houses and trains people on short-term mission experiences to the city. AND it turns out, that our flight snafu was on a couple of nights when some groups had left and others hadn’t arrived, leaving them with plenty of available beds. They opened their hearts to us and made a way for us to stay there at a cost so low that we were overwhelmed.

What seemed out of control was actually a way for us to establish some future ministry possibilities, even working with Dominicans in NYC. In addition, most of our group got to see some of the major sites in Manhattan, a first for many. In fact, one of the ladies told me that her day in the city was a "dream come true."

Being out of control used to drive me to serious anxiety, and that’s not an exaggeration. Over the years, I have discovered again and again what a joy it is to simply yield to the One who loves us; the one who is really in control. He always has a way!

The grace and love of God have been on display during "Life Repurposed," the Stone Ridge Church Summer Sermon Series. It continues this weekend. If you can’t join us, catch the podcast!


Monday, June 9, 2014

Making History

I was told we made history recently.  It all started during a video call with my pastor-friends, Jose from Mexico and Domingo from the Dominican Republic.  (My grandparents couldn’t have imagined what we would consider “normal” with today’s technology.)  Domingo was describing the culmination of their series, Building A Fire-proof Marriage.  “We will take a regular worship service and many couples will renew their vows.”  
“That’s great!” I responded.  When he told me the date, I said, “That’s when we will be there; I’m excited that we get to share it with you.”  
“You will be here?” he said.  “Good!  You are preaching!”
Before it was done, he explained that I would not only be preaching, but also conducting the ceremony.  And, as it turned out, he said, “You have to wear a tie.”  The tie thing has become a big joke between us.  In my city, men rarely wear ties.  For years, I have preached in slacks and sport shirts.  Now I usually preach in jeans.  Even in our partner church in the DR, most men don’t wear ties anymore, but this was to be a special evening!
In the course of planning, Jose (our partner in Mexico, who would be translating for me) and I both decided to renew our vows with our wives as we conducted the service for the Dominicans.  Cathy and Maria agreed to go along with us.  It would be unusual and (maybe) a little awkward, but it sounded like the right thing to do.  Then, a couple of weeks before the big event, Domingo explained that they would also have some couples actually getting married in the service.  I understood this, because a church wedding and a civil wedding are two different things in the DR.  
The night finally arrived (their main church service is on Sunday evening) and we marched into the auditorium, about ten couples renewing their vows and four couples sharing their wedding ceremony.  The celebration was in three languages (Spanish, English and Sign), included two pastors and wives renewing their own vows as they led the others and a standing-room only church filled with laughter, whistles, applause and impatience for the couples on stage to kiss.  
At the end, Pastor Domingo said, “We made history here tonight.  We have never done anything quite like this before.”  History or not, it was an amazing evening.
I have long been mystified, in awe of something the Bible says to describe the culmination of life as we know it:
7  Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself.
8  She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear.” For the fine linen represents the good deeds of God’s holy people.
9  And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” And he added, “These are true words that come from God.”
Revelation 19:7-9 (NLT)

Paul, the Apostle, wrote that it is a great mystery, but his description of marriage (Ephesians 5), is really a picture of the God’s intended relationship between Jesus Christ and His bride, the Church.”  Given that description, Our Dominican celebration surely filled His heart with joy.  
Our “Life Repurposed” series continues this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  While we may not make history, I have seen a preview of the message and can’t wait to hear it live.  I hope to see you there; if you can’t join us, catch the podcast

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why We Go

Our largest team to date will depart this week for the Dominican Republic to work on construction projects, along with a medical team working in poor neighborhoods and a Pastor’s School for our partner church there. I smile as I realize that our three-year partnership is in its twelfth year. Since our first journey in 2002, people from Stone Ridge Church have been to the Dominican at least 25 times.
I remember well some of our hopes and dreams from that very first trip. It was what cemented, not only our church-to-church partnership, but scores of life-long friendships among people from both churches. That first trip began to make us painfully aware of some great needs in that country, but it took a few other experiences to show us our subtle arrogance when we thought that our purpose was to go and "fix things" there. Quickly we discovered that they knew so much more than we about faith and hard work and strategies to reach their culture with the Good News of Jesus Christ. We learned that we are at our best when they take the lead and we simply serve.
Our first trip came as a result of an invitation that we bring a music team to sing at the annual gathering of their association of churches. Though I live in a place where 115 degree summer days are common, I found myself amazed as 600 Dominicans gathered in a space that was way too small, way too warm and way too humid. The Saturday meeting was scheduled to adjourn at noon and my overheated body was certainly ready. 12:00 came and went, but even the smell of roasted meat wafting in from outside didn’t tempt the locals. Instead of ducking for the doors, they insisted upon, then stayed in the packed room for another half hour of worship; I don’t usually see scenes like that in the U.S.
That simple beginning has led me to some of the best friendships I have on the planet. When I arrive, I love to tell people, "Yuma is my home, but my heart is in Puerto Plata." There is a back story, though, and it is very personal for me. You see, for years I didn’t leave the U.S. to participate in missions work. After my very first international trip in 1981, it took over twenty years for me to go again. Then, though we had scores of people traveling to the D.R. to work with our partner church, I didn’t go a second time for another 2 ½ years.
Why, you may ask, did I not go even when we had teams traveling down? I used a variety of excuses, like "It’s not my thing." "I will give so others can go." Perhaps the most plausible-sounding excuse was, "Why not just give our money for the missionaries who live there? They can make a much larger difference." Some of you have surely felt or said some of these same things. Therefore, please take a few minutes to read on. Obviously, my commitments have changed (this is actually my third trip to the Dominican this year) and I think we have some pretty good reasons for why we go.
1. We go because we can make a difference. When one of our team members is hand-mixing concrete next to Haitian laborers, they are making a difference, by the work being done and the relationships being developed. The same is true when a doctor or nurse is hearing the hurts of poor people and dispensing much-needed medications. The difference we make grows exponentially each time one of our teams arrives in their country; many churches come once, but they have come to know us as people who keep coming back to work with them.
2. We go because our worldview gets stretched and our priorities get challenged. Our idea of hardship can be about a meal being 15 minutes late or not cooked to our tastes. We complain when the cable TV goes out for a few minutes. It does us good to meet and mingle with people who don’t always know where the next meal will come from and live with the daily reality that the electricity can go off for hours and they can do nothing about it.
3. We go because we love. Many join one of our teams for adventure, but they often encounter hardship they didn’t anticipate. What keeps bringing us back is the people. It’s the little children in Haitian villages who take us by the hand as we walk their town's narrow paths (often with raw sewage trickling at our feet); they leap into our hearts. It’s the elderly who smile at us and and the young adults who greet us in our language and the people who serve in the hotels where we stay; they all find their way into our lives and love just spills out naturally.
4. We go because we always come home with more than we took. Just recently, I told a Stone Ridge friend: "Your days on that mission trip will be some of the most joyful days of your life." One of the things we keep learning about God’s economy is that we always trade up with Him. We give something to His honor and glory and He gives us more in return. I have never been on a trip in which I felt like we gave more than we received; in fact, it’s always just the opposite. We realize that we are like the little boy who gave his lunch to Jesus, then saw Christ feed thousands with it. Everyone was full, but the little boy’s heart had to be the fullest of all!
Wherever you are, I hope that you will someday choose to go to a place of need. I pray that your world gets rocked when you see how the rest of the world lives. I pray that your priorities will change because your love grows in ways you couldn’t have imagined. If you choose well, the trip will cost you something. It will cost your time, your energy, your money, and your prayers. But, if you go with an open heart, your life will never be the same.
While we are gone, it will be an exciting weekend at Stone Ridge. Don’t miss this week’s edition of "Life Repurposed!" Can’t be there? Catch the podcast.