Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Growing Debt Worth Owing

Cathy was whisked from our home one evening last week.  A friend stopped by and said, "I have these cookies I made and I need to run them up to the church.  Do you have your shoes on?"  They jumped in the car and, upon arrival, the friend said, "I need to run these in; they are for the youth event.  Why don't you come in with me and we'll see how it's going, then we can go back to your house and play cards.  (You're taking your life in your hands if you get in a rapid-fire game of Pounce with these two ladies.)

A few minutes before their arrival, I was in an Elder meeting.  One of our pastors asked, "Can we take a short break?  My soda is running through me and I really need to go to the bathroom.  We can look in on the Youth Event while we break."  Another pastor uncharacteristically announced, "This meeting is over!"  I knew something was up.

I stepped into the door of our auditorium to the shouts of "Surprise!"  The media screens had old pics and Cathy and me.  The chairs had been placed around the perimeter of the room and we were sat in the middle of it all on a couple of easy chairs next to a table piled high with cards...all congratulating us on our 25th Anniversary at Stone Ridge.

My mind raced that night as I looked into faces new and old.  I thought about all that has changed over the past 25 years.  Our church has gone through a change of styles, location and name.  The Master we serve and the message we preach are the same.  The methods have been tweaked to more effectively communicate to this generation.  I looked into the faces and remembered the stories of people Jesus has rescued one at a time.

The party moved forward at full speed, with people munching on cookies and ice cream as we gathered in little huddles and shared life.  We hugged, remembered, laughed and almost came to tears.  Cathy and I drove home a couple of hours later, then sat in the middle of our bed reading cards.  I'm still overwhelmed by the kindness we experienced.

I titled this post, "A Growing Debt Worth Owing."  The apostle Paul wrote, "Owe nothing to anyone, except for your obligation to love one another."  (Romans 13:8 New Living Translation) The love we have received for 25 years ever increases our debt to the people among whom we serve and the One who gave me this assignment.  It brings me joy beyond words.

That night was full of highlights for us, but one stood out for me in particular.  As we were speaking to a variety of people, I suddenly saw gathered around me a group of Elders and one of our pastors.  Our church went through our darkest days about a dozen years ago and these men had all faithfully walked through it with me.  I faltered more than once that year, wondering if the church would be better off without me as pastor.  Each time I struggled, they were there to encourage me and help me keep going.  I will never forget.  "I want to thank you all for staying when many left," I told them.  "It means more than you know that you stuck it out during our most difficult season."

It may have been painful at the time, but, as one of the guys said, "It was the best thing that ever happened to us."  He was right!

To all of you who sent and said, "Thank you!", the privilege is all ours.  You are exceptional in your love and we can't find words to fully express our gratitude for your kindness to us.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Study Break

Brian is an old friend who happens to pastor a megachurch.  The eight or nine years that separate us were far more significant when I was almost thirty and he had just finished college.  Back then I was more of the mentor and he was the eager learner.  Now, thirty years later, the age difference is hardly significant.  I am forever grateful for what he has taught me.

One of the critical things I learned from Brian is something he called his "Summer Study Break."  "It's not a break to study," he commented, "It's a break from study."  He went on to explain his need to recharge his preaching batteries each summer.  At the time, he would take about six weeks away from preaching.  He continued on with his other duties of leading and pastoring, but had others preach in his stead during those weeks.

My first Summer Study Break was several years ago.  I have enjoyed one almost every year since.  Inevitably this season leads to some questions to which I will add my answers...

1. Are you enjoying your vacation? A: I'm not breaking from work, just from the creative cost of sermon prep.

2. What do you have to do all day since you don't have to prepare?  A: plenty!  I spend my life in meetings, most of them for planning what we do around here.  I help mentor some younger pastors.  In addition, I'm preparing for Children's Camp next week (I'm Camp Pastor) and for a conference where I'll speak later in the year.  Finally, I'm doing additional reading to fill up my emotional well.

3. I don't want to make a decision about this church until we have heard one of your sermons; when will you preach again?  A: I beg you, PLEASE never make a church membership decision because of the preaching of the Senior (or Lead) Pastor.  That treats the church like a retail outlet and makes you a consumer.  This is the Body of Christ.  Find the local church where He calls you and devote your life to Him there.

All that said, I am preaching twice in July, including this weekend.  I can't tell you how much I have gained from the other speakers in our "Ancient Relevance" series through the Old Testament book of Zechariah.  I am deeply grateful for our pastors John, Tom and Scott, along with Paul Cunningham and Don Vickers (who will preach in a couple of weeks).  They haven't just shared the load; they have stretched us and helped us grow in the faith.


Monday, July 4, 2011

The Ultimate Skycam

Stifling hot. There is no other way to describe it. This is my 26th summer in one of the hottest places in the United States and I still dread such days. We had been told the daytime high might reach 120 degrees (yes, you read that correctly). Cathy and I were committed to join a group from our church to cross the border into Mexico in the heat of the afternoon so we could attend the graduation of a church planting school conducted by our Dominican pastor/partner, Manolo.

We had a stop to make before we reached the border, where we would climb aboard the small bus with our fellow adventurers. I noticed the high, thin clouds overhead and was pleased when our car thermometer read "only" 105 degrees. It was about 3:00 p.m., the heat of the afternoon. Errand completed, we entered the Interstate and headed west. Every one of the approximately ten miles seemed a degree hotter than the mile before. 107...108...109... As we exited the freeway, the outside temp jumped to 112. As we turned off the car next to the Mexican border, we were only one mile from the Interstate, but the temp had reached 117.

We climbed aboard the bus (thankful for the air conditioning) and proceeded south across the border and about ten more miles on to a town called Morelos. The graduation was being held in the town's community center, which also has air conditioning. People began to pack in for the joyous celebration, during which the 35 or so graduates wore black caps and gowns. I need to explain here that the outside temps were so hot that it was impossible to truly keep this building cool inside. With the AC working overtime, I would guess the temp inside the room was 90 degrees. The graduation lasted about 2 hours!

The torrid heat that day is but an asterisk to the purpose of this post. Something happened during that graduation ceremony that reminded me again of how differently God sees our world.

The ceremony opened with the Mexican National Anthem. I suppose that had something to do with us meeting in a government building. Whatever the purpose, I was moved as I looked around to see Mexican brothers and sisters in Christ sing their equivalent of our Star Spangled Banner. One older man showed obvious emotion as he sang the song of his country, a line of which says (in English), "For in heaven your eternal destiny has been written by the hand of God."

You see, most of the people who attended that gathering are from that valley and have lived their lives there. As the crow flies, Morelos is less than five miles from the U.S. Border, yet the people born there live in a different world than we do. Our abundance and privilege often leaves us blind to their poverty and struggle. However, it was James (Jesus' half-brother), who wrote, "Hasn't God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith?" (James 2:5 New Living Translation) I'm not sure how many of my American friends would have inconvenienced themselves to sit for two hours in sweltering heat to watch 35 church planters graduate. But the people of Morelos came; they packed the place.

More important, the scene was witnessed in heaven. God's thoughts are above our thoughts. He doesn't look down from the Ultimate Skycam and see national borders. He just sees people. And those 35 graduates are going to help shake their nation.