Monday, December 22, 2014

Closing Out

A second glance at today’s title brings ominous thoughts to mind.  "Is he closing out his blog?”  “Is he closing out something in his ministry?”  “Just what is he closing out?”  I’m aware that a “Close Out” can be a sale, but does it signify the end of the business, the end of the year, the end of a certain season or just the end of a certain product?  In all cases, it means the end of something, but what?

For me, those words do signify that something is coming to an end, but it’s the same thing that is coming to the end for you: 2014.  As I “Close Out” Dwell & Cultivate for another year, I have a few thoughts to share as we head into the holidays.

A982A2B8 00F7 45D1 AE34 0E586679EBC9 Fiscal Year 2014 2015 Red Blue
1. Life is short!
A beloved aunt passed away this year.  Aunt Johnnie lived for many years with severe pain, but she was one of the kindest, most gentle women I ever knew.  For her, the 92 years she lived were actually too many; she would have preferred to go home to heaven much sooner.  Still she cheered us with her attitude and poured out love to all who knew her.

My friends Jo Patti, Bev, Olivia and Brian have all passed away this month.  In each case, their lives were relatively short and their loss brings acute pain.  Watching them slip out of this life — all were followers of Jesus and they have gone to the place He promised to prepare for them — leaves their families and closest friends with the deep sadness that accompanies their deaths.

“Teach us to number our days…” the Psalmist (Psalm 90:12) said.  We can’t really increase our tomorrows, but we can live today to the fullest!

2. Reflect on the lessons of this year.
What have you learned?
What have you gained?
What have you cherished?
What have you wasted?
What investment will yield future rewards?
What do you need to stop doing?

3. Establish a plan for the new year.
How do you want to live differently?  What new habit do you need to pick up?  I have learned that many good habits are made or lost by tiny decisions.  For instance, a decision to walk every day can generate huge health benefits.  A problem most people encounter, though, is that they procrastinate.  They plan to walk for a certain number of minutes or a certain distance, then they don’t get started on time.  That often leads to the decision not to go at all.  “I’ll just skip today,” they think.  “I’ll do it tomorrow.”  You KNOW what happens next; “tomorrow" becomes another “tomorrow” and the decision gets lost.  This is where a tiny change can change everything.  If you are late and can’t make your planned goal, GO ANYWAY!  Walking less is better than not walking at all.  When you return home, you can rejoice that you did something and be ready to do better tomorrow!

One area where I encourage you to plan is to have a daily time with God.  I have been doing this for many years and I can tell you that the benefits are amazing.  For 2015, I invite you to join me and read the Bible through.  I have discovered a plan that breaks the year into monthly segments.  This means that new people can be welcomed every month and those who get bogged down can pick it up and have a fresh start each month.  I will let you know more as we get ready to roll.  I plan for us to begin on January 5, 2015.  Also, Cathy and I both read a devotional book each year.  I will let you know more about this part of our lives, too!

I think it’s an advantage to most of us that the Christmas holidays are at year’s end.  We have some time to reflect on the past and think about what’s next.  That’s our topic this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  I hope you can join us!

In the meantime, thanks for joining me along the way in 2014!  We wish you a full dose of God’s grace and joy this Christmas season!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Family Matters

I heard the phrase again: “I need to live in community.”  This time it came from my friend Lesa, who just returned from a long-term mission experience in several third world countries.  “One of the hardest things about coming home is the rush of life in the USA.  I grew used to a slower pace with teammates who often took time to read their Bibles and pray about things before we launched into our work.”

Lesa went on to explain that facing impossible problems caused by poverty and hardship caused her team to lean into God and each other literally every day.  Their close ties were so critical that they became in every way a family…and she misses them!

I am hearing the “community” description frequently these days.  Notice that they aren’t saying that they need “a community.”  Over the years, some churches have used the term “Community” as part of their name.  There was a time that this description was used to make it known that they wanted their church to be for all who lived in the community.  Other churches used “Community” to infer that they were not affiliated with a denomination.

What my young adult friends are referring to when they talk about living “in community” is completely different.  They long to have the kind of close, healthy relationships in which the masks come off and life is lived among each other with all its joy, its hope and its brutality.  They don’t want a sanitized version of what previous generations have called “fellowship.”  When I was young, “fellowship” simply meant that a group of Christ-followers ate together.  They would eat, swap jokes and stories and the latest political controversy, all without the slightest transparency about what was really going on in their lives.

In those days, hard edges and painful discussions were reserved for the sanctity of their own homes and the safety of their families.  I remember the joy of that era, when a much higher percentage of American families were somewhat healthy.  Parents found a way to make marriages work, the term “latchkey kids” hadn’t been invented yet, most moms stayed at home and many families ate meals together (get this) once or twice a DAY!  Those weren’t perfect families, but they became deeply connected because they lived “in community.”

In recent years, all this has changed.  The press of work and the variety of “necessary” activities has pulled at the fabric of families until only bare threads are left in many cases.  Young adults who have grown up in this era long for a place and a group of people with whom they can share life in healthy ways.  They long for community.

This all became very personal to Cathy and me a few years ago.  Our young adult friend, Logan, decided that he liked us and wanted to hang out at our house.  A military officer and gradate of the Naval Academy, Logan is a very sharp young man.  Cathy and I couldn’t figure out why he wanted to spend time with a couple of “old folks’ like us!  Every few evenings, Logan would show up unannounced at our front door and ask if we were doing anything.  Most times he came in, often spending hours with us.

At the time, Logan’s fiancé, Kenra, was off on a third-world, 11-month missions excursion.  When she returned, they both spent hours at our house doing the most informal pre-marital counseling we have ever done.  We talked and prayed and laughed and cried and ate and played games. Without Cathy and me knowing what was happening, we were “in community,” often mystified that they kept wanting to “hang out.”

2013 11 09 09 25 28 1

After their marriage, Logan and Kenra began working with other young adults at Stone Ridge. Soon a large group of them were hanging out together, doing life and growing up in Christ. Some of these young adults are married and others are single.  Some came from very healthy home backgrounds and some from very broken families.  Together they are sharing the important things of life in a way that is closer to the house churches described in the New Testament than anything I have ever known.

Many years ago, someone described church as a place where people go to “be alone together.” I’m so glad for the way that mold is being broken at our place.  After all, family matters!  It always has, even in the days of Jesus.  And it’s an essential part of the Christmas story.  I can’t wait to share it with you this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  Already busy with your family? Then do some holiday baking and listen to the podcast together!

Monday, December 8, 2014

You Can't Microwave Life!

I sat in a room with our Stone Ridge Church elders recently.  For you who don’t know what sort of weird creatures elders may be, our guys aren’t all in the same codgerly (yep, I coined that word) age group.  In fact, we have at least a couple of them who are in their thirties.  These are the ones we depend on to keep our church operating as smoothly as possible and to protect us from things and people who might dilute the purpose which Jesus gave to all His followers: “Make disciples.”

Anyway, since this isn’t a post about our elders per se, let me get back on topic.  As we sat down for one of our regular meetings, I started counting as I realized how many of these men have taken a certain exhortation by Jesus’ brother James seriously.  That strong statement?  "Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you." (James 1:27 (NLT)  No less than 4 of our 10 elders and 1 of 4 pastors in the room have welcomed orphans into their homes and families. Some of them have adopted while others are doing foster care.  At least one family is doing both.

Those families are some of my heroes!  I have seen the way they have chosen to open their arms and their hearts and their wallets and their houses to welcome kids who, without them, may have been left waiting...

…and waiting...

…until time literally ran out.  Some of them have taken in kids that the system had lost hope in. Once foster kids reach a certain age and can’t go back to their biological families, they are considered stuck.  Most adopting families aren’t ready to take on those kids, hoping rather for an infant or a small child.  In at least one instance, a family adopted a child with health problems. In that child’s nation of birth, those problems would have been left untreated and the child would have died.

One common factor in every family and every kid is that NOTHING MOVES FAST!  The kids may be in desperate need and the families may be wishing the clock and the calendar would speed up, but every adoption story and every foster story plays out slowly…especially when we’re used to a microwave society.


Unlike many of you, I can remember a world without microwaves.  In fact, my grandmother still cooked on a wood stove when I was young.  When the microwave (and the dishwasher and the the clothes dryer and the electric can opener and…) was first introduced, it was touted for convenience.  Simply, it was meant to make life easier.  Somehow, though, the message that changed our way of viewing life was that we could do everything faster.

But we can’t!

Not everything can be taken out of the freezer, defrosted, cooked and on the table ready to eat in under ten minutes.  You can’t microwave life!  Ask those elder families at Stone Ridge about this and they will tell you stories of frustration and hardship and mountains of paperwork and home visits and desperate prayers before, finally, a precious child is welcomed (sometimes temporarily) by a loving family.  That’s the way real life works.

And it’s worth the wait!

As we zone in on God’s relentless love and the story of His Son’s birth this month at Stone Ridge, we need to take a closer look at just how long some of the familiar characters waited.  It was often a looooong time.  And it was worth it!  I can’t wait to share more this weekend.  Can’t join us?  Catch the podcast!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Resistance Is Your Friend

A friend of mine made me a tempting offer: “If you ever want to go somewhere in the region, let me know and I will fly you there in my plane.”  The day came when I needed to make a quick trip that was a little out of driving distance for the two days allotted on my schedule.  We took off from the local airport about midday and flew east.

We were fighting a head wind even as we were climbing to altitude.  Being in the cockpit gave me the advantage of knowing more than I could know sitting back in the passenger section of a commercial flight.  I could tell things like our rate of climb and our altitude, plus our groundspeed. It suddenly hit me that we were climbing pretty fast, but our ground speed was a snail’s pace compared to what we would be doing once we leveled off.

Red tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis in flight
This reminds me of one of my great fascinations: hawks in flight.  We live in an area where I frequently see hawks soaring, ready to dive down to the small animals that make up their diet.  I am aware of their keen vision, but the marvelous thing about these birds is the way they soar for long periods of time without flapping their wings.  I am totally captivated by how they can seemingly hang in mid-air, hardly moving.  What’s their secret?  Resistance!

Resistance is what caused our rate of climb to be so high that day in my friend’s plane.  The wind in our face, coupled with the pull of the props, allowed us to get to altitude very quickly.  If you had seen us from the ground, though, it would have looked like we were hanging in mid-air.

The very force that threatens to drive us back and stop our progress can actually lift us up!

It’s important to remember this principle as we read the Christmas story.  Even as God came into the world as a flesh-and-blood baby, a huge wind of resistance began to blow against Him. Fierce resistance was pitted against relentless love.  Again and again, the enemy of our souls shows himself in various forms, always trying to bring down the Christ and stop love’s relentless march.

What does this resistance accomplish?  I think you know, but still hope you will join us at Stone Ridge Church as we talk about it.  Part 2 of “Relentless” is this weekend!  If you can’t make it, catch the podcast!

Monday, November 24, 2014

He Never Stops

Without doubt, many of my readers will immediately recognize the title, “The Fugitive.”  The hit movie, with Harrison Ford playing an innocent man fleeing the condemnation of a faulty trial, pursued by a federal marshal played by Tommy Lee Jones, is dramatic action adventure at its best.  Far fewer of you, though, will know the The Fugitive was originally a hit TV series in the 1960s.  I was just shy of twelve years old when the series premiered in 1963.

There was something about that television series that captured peoples’ imaginations.  While it didn’t have the boom-boom-pow of the 1993 film, it drew us into the desperation and the sadness of a physician who found his murdered wife, then had to undergo the humiliation of being wrongfully convicted of killing her.

Every week of that show, Dr. Richard Kimble was in a different town with a new name. Every week, his character revealed a broken man trying to make enough money to get by, even as he sought the real killer of his wife…even as he eluded the relentless Lt. Gerard.  Gerard was a man on a mission.  To him, a murderer had escaped and he was duty bound to find him. Episode by episode and season by season, the lawman grew increasingly doubtful of his quarry’s guilt, but he kept pursuing.

Watching those shows as a kid was both captivating and interminable.  Four years of anything at that age feels like an eternity.  Everything in me wanted to see an innocent man set free and a guilty man caged.  I remember that people speculated for weeks how the show would end.  The whole thing was done so well that TV Guide magazine, in 2002, ranked the series #36 in the Top 50 TV Shows of All Time.

Obviously, I’m here to write about more than a hit TV series.  It’s what captured my young thoughts that I am remembering today.  Something about relentless pursuit stirs me at a deep level.  You see, the Bible…the whole narrative…is about God’s relentless pursuit of human beings.  Dr. Richard Kimble may have been innocent as he fled the persistent officer who was duty bound to capture him, but we have no such claim before a holy God.  We need to be caught by Him. Why?  Because He pursues us, not to punish us, but to cleanse us from our guilt and shame. The Fugitive may have been free from prison, but he wasn’t free, as long as he was running from the Law.  You and I aren’t free as we run from God, either.

And, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.” (Galatians 5:1 New American Standard Bible) Here we have been, living our lives on the run from the one who was willing to sacrifice His only son so that we could be exonerated.

We run.  He relentlessly pursues us.  All because of love!

If the entire Scripture narrative is about God’s pursuit of us, the Christmas story stands as one of the climactic events.  Think of it: God so wanted to reach us and set us free…He so wanted to give us back the relationship that was lost so long ago in a Garden…that He Himself came as a human baby.  Talk about Relentless!  My heart starts to race as I think about this Relentless God.  We are going to talk about His Relentless love all through this Christmas season and it starts this weekend.  Hope you can be there!  If not, catch the podcast!

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Look In Their Eyes

It felt both normal and strange when I realized that I could usually tell whether a Marine I just met was in a command position. I mention from time to time what a privilege it is that I have pastored many military members…mostly Marines…for a long time. After a couple of decades of this, I became aware that I could almost guess the level of authority they carry. It’s the look in their eyes.

That look, at least in higher ranking military members, is born of years in an authority system that knows few parallels. It’s the look of people who have learned to be in authority by being under authority. In fact, they never seem to lose their sense of being under someone else’s authority, no might how high their rank.

Being a person with authority was a characteristic ascribed to Jesus in Matthew 7. In fact, we will talk about it this coming weekend at our church. My thoughts naturally turn there, so I want to share with you some signs of false authority:

Yelling orders. While things like a large crowd and no sound system can force a person to raise their voice to be heard, that’s not what I’m talking about here. Do you ever issue a command, then start yelling to “make sure" it’s followed? This typically shows how little real authority you have.

Refusing to listen. This is a sign of insecurity, rather than security. Do you have to have the right answer and/or the final answer for everything pertaining to your work?

Delegating responsibility without authority to complete the task. Do you force every person under your leadership to endure your micromanagement? Some people need intense management until they fully understand their role. However, a leader who finds it necessary to micromanage everyone in the organization is showing a lack of true authority.

Taking credit without taking responsibility. Good leaders do just the opposite. They spread the credit around and take on themselves the responsibility when things come apart.

If those are some signs of false authority, what does real authority look like?

Caring for the people in the organization. Your people are ALWAYS your number one asset. It’s trite, but “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Confidently leading the way. You can be confident about your overall direction, even as you listen to your people on the best way to get there.

Helping people discover their strengths. Many people have received an education, only to discover that they hate their work. This is often because they don’t know their own strengths. You can help them discover those strengths and grow in them, using them to help the entire organization.

Encouraging risk. No organization can remain the same. If it isn’t growing, it will ultimately decline. In addition, growth means change. What risks can your team take? What have you learned from previous failures?

Passing the baton. What people in our organization are ready to go to the next level? Who is ready to take on more responsibility? One of your greatest honors is releasing people to be the person God designed them to be. The short-term loss you feel on your team will become long-term gains for everyone.

The look in their eyes tells me if someone has assumed command. It’s a look that communicates responsibility for the people in their unit and for their assigned tasks. That look tells me that they pay a price to move their unit forward and they carry that load 24/7/365. Others may go off the clock after the day is over and at the end of the week, but not commanders. No matter where they are, the phone can ring and they pick up their load and go to work. It’s not for the faint of heart or the lazy of character.

Jesus understood authority better than anyone. What is amazing is how easy His authority was for those around Him to recognize. We will talk about it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. I hope you can join us. If not, catch the podcast!

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Room With A View

It fascinates me that property in California’s coastal mountains is some of the most expensive anywhere.  Is it the weather?  Is it the view?  Is it the prestige?  Is it a combination of factors?
Whatever it is, we desert-dwellers 150 miles to the east often think of those mountainside homes, but it’s not their location nor their beauty that brings them into focus…it’s the fires.

 If not the fires, its the mudslides.

If you read this from some California coastal mountain, please give me a little grace as I write about a life lesson from Jesus.  In Matthew 7, verses 24-27, Jesus wrapped up His “Sermon on the Mount.”  His conclusion was a warning about where we build the “house” of our life.  The structure, He said, would be anchored in either rock or sand.

No matter where the structure is built, He predicted that storms would come.  Like the warm Santa Ana winds that stoke wildfires and the occasionally torrential rains that cause flooding, the storms of life are coming to each of us.  Simple truth: you WILL have storms!

The variable, according to Jesus, is where the house is built.  Even more to the point, he was warning about the type of foundation upon which the house is constructed.  The old Sunday School song said, “The wise man built his house upon the rock…and the house on the rock stood firm.”  It was different for the foolish man; his house went SPLAT!

All of this brings me back to my title, “A Room with a View.”  Like most of you, I have occasionally been privileged to spend time in a place with breathtaking views.  The temptation in those places is to spend all of life there enjoying the atmosphere.  Those lofty locations make us want to pack up and leave the less stellar places where the hardships and hassles of life are abundant.  A life with a view and few problems seems so…so desirable!  It’s almost as if Jesus reminds us of the storms to make sure we know we can’t really escape this world by planting ourselves on top of a mountain.

It’s the depth and substance of foundation that make life work, not the elevation of the the rooftop.  I look forward to talk more about it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. I hope you can join us, but, if you’re stuck in a storm, catch the podcast!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Trail's End

I spent a few minutes recently reflecting on dusty trails. My first thoughts were that much of the best in this world is found along the rarely-traveled backroads. The places where crowds accumulate may be lit up by neon, but the flittering shadows of big trees in the daytime and the sky ablaze at night are far superior to anything shining with artificial light. Those dusty trails have brought me some of my most revered memories.

On the other hand, I have been to the end of some trails where the lack of light became the playground for other kinds of darkness. It was Jesus who said, "God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.” (John 3:19 New Living Translation) I shudder to think how many hearts have been broken and how many eternities destroyed in those shadowy places.

The truth is, it’s not the dustiness of the trail that makes the difference, but where the trail ends. The trails of the human heart are many and we have a choice to follow them to beauty or to disaster. The physical darkness can be our hiding place as we indulge some secret tryst or it can be the place where we revel in the greater light we miss in the daytime. Either way, the trails of our lives are either toward God or away from Him.

We don’t stand still.

It’s a complete misconception that we reach some spot on life’s road where we permanently stop…and camp…until we die. One day, Jesus was on a mountain (Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 9) with His three closest friends, Peter, James and John. Suddenly the whole place lit up and they were joined by two long-dead men, Moses and Elijah. Peter, who always seemed the most impetuous of Jesus’ followers, wanted to build some tents and stay there. They couldn’t stay, because life’s trail doesn’t end just because we’re “in a really good place right now.”

The trail doesn’t end until it ends. And where it ends depends on the trail we have chosen. I can’t say that I fully understand this, but I have been on a few bad side trails in my day and count it a rare privilege that I was shown the way back to the right road.

Jesus said that His trail…that is, the trail of forgiveness and redemption which He paid our admission price to travel, always starts out hard. It’s never the way of the crowds. It’s always the way of the cross. We will talk about His trail this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. It would be our great privilege if you could join us there. Can’t make it? You can listen to our podcast regardless of the trail you’re on.

Monday, October 27, 2014

What season are YOU in?

I recently spent a little time reflecting on my prayer life. That topic may not sound exciting to some of you, but, for me, it is just as much a staple as meat and potatoes. (No offense intended, vegetarian friends.) Anyway, I took a few minutes to notice how my prayers have changed over the years. So far, I can identify three distinct seasons. I won’t be surprised if I discover a fourth before I go Home.

Season One: Confess/Bless
Though I was only dully aware of the depth of my sins when I was young, I spent much of my first season confessing. That season started in childhood and continued well into my late twenties or early thirties. I was constantly reminded at the time that I was broken by sin. There were sins I confessed with true repentance, meaning that I stopped doing them; other sins I confessed again and again because I kept going back to them.

It was near the end of my first season that I got fed up with my hypocrisy in some areas and cried out, “Lord, please do whatever you must do to give me the victory I have lacked.” He answered that prayer…my life started falling apart. It was my first experience at having Him shake everything in me that could be shaken. It was also exactly what I needed to bring me (literally) to my knees so that I could experience His life in me.

Along with constantly confessing, Season One was filled with asking God to bless me and those important to me. Much of that was the immature hope that He would bless me with the things I wanted. Sometimes He did just that. At other times, He taught me that He has higher purposes than I do and that “No” can be the most positive answer I receive from Him.

Season One, as I now understand, was largely about dealing with the barriers between me and God. I was just getting to know Him. There were some powerful and intimate times in those years, but I can’t now say that I really knew Him very well.

Season Two: DISCIPLINE/joy
If you haven’t noticed, my second season was one of big discipline and little joy. That season lasted from my thirties through my mid-fifties or a little later. At the beginning of the season, I went through a training course designed to help a person start praying an hour a day using the Lord’s Prayer as the outline. During those years, I would often walk through the fields and along the canal banks behind our house and pray point by point through the model prayer that Jesus taught: “Our Father, Who are in heaven…” Each point in Jesus’ model launched me into a plethora of sub-points, helping me worship, confess and intercede. I prayed for my family and for missionaries around the world. I prayed for people who need to know Jesus. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed.

I look back on this season, grateful for the discipline I learned. Cathy and I have many conversations about the unique way God designed each of us. She is far more a “task/structured” personality, while I am more a “people/unstructured.” We have discovered that I need discipline to help me get some structure in my life, thereby training me and setting me free for service to God and others. That same level of external discipline which works so well for me completely stifles her relationship with God. It chokes her spiritually and she has had to learn how to walk free from it.

What I lacked in my second season was joy. I had the small joys of accomplishing something important, but they took away from the large joys of really getting to know God as a person. I’m so thankful that I was given a third season!

Season Three: Relational Intimacy
My third season started just a few years ago. A variety of things were happening as I aged. One of them was the growing confidence I had in God. I started coming to know Him as who He is…God in three persons! Romans 8:15 is a wonderful word picture of our what it’s like to know God as our Father. Better words describe the tenderness He wants in that relationship. Read the verse in various translations and you just might become comfortable calling Him “Abba” or “Papa” or “Daddy.” Jesus called Him by such a familiar term.

Jesus Himself taught in John 14:19 that the day would come when the world would no longer see Him. His followers, though would continue to “see” him through the power of the Holy Spirit. I have long been fascinated by Paul’s distinction between the “Holy Spirit” in Acts 16:6 and the “spirit of Jesus” in Acts 16:7. Clearly, He related to them differently. The more I know God, the more I am learning something of the difference between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in my prayer life. He is still One God, but He clearly reveals Himself as one of the three in different situations.

This third season has been the time when I finally got consistent at keeping a prayer journal. With it, I am beginning to notice more of the nuances of my own personality and what causes me to pull away from Him. I am also learning his faithfulness in every circumstance. Finally, this is the season in which some of the old, classical writings on prayer are beginning to make sense to me.

Season Four?
I won’t spend time speculating if I will have one more seasonal shift…that is up to God. If I do, I think it will be more and more focused on “Thy kingdom come,” both on the macro and micro levels. It’s easy to see that our world is in a mess. God is calling intercessors into a full-scale “air war”, softening up targets for the “ground war” of gospel presentation to change lives. The mess isn’t just “over there”, though. It’s very near, often in those to whom I am closest.

The human idea of “retirement” isn’t really in the Bible. While I expect to retire from my active role as a pastor, I don’t plan to fully quit until the End. Whether that end will include an entirely new prayer season, only God knows.  I’m along for the adventure and enjoy it more every year!

I took this time today to reflect back on some of my own journey because prayer will be center target as we continue our Sermon on the Mount study, “From here to where?” this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. I’m quite excited to talk about prayer with those who attend our services and hope you can be there. If you can’t join us, catch the podcast!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Simple Life

Am I the only one who spent years of my youth mystified by how many things Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell III loaded on the S.S. Minnow for a “three hour tour?” I’m quite certain that many Americans didn’t have some of those luxuries in their own homes, but the castaways enjoyed them as they desperately hoped to be rescued from their deserted island. Truly, the simple life of Gilligan and the gang would have been much simpler if it weren’t for all the Howells' conveniences.


I’m including a picture today that may take a bit of explanation for you to “get it.” In it, Patti (who works on our staff) is playing with a couple of Dominican boys in Guananico, Dominican Republic. Guananico is an out of the way place, a bit like Gilligan’s Island. Rather than being surrounded by water, it is surrounded by hills and small mountains. It’s hot there and the humidity can completely sap you if you’re not careful. It feels even hotter because the cooling ocean breezes from 20-30 miles away are blocked by the mountains.


Unlike the bigger cities in the D.R., Guananico is far enough out in the country that life is quite a bit slower and less connected. It’s not unusual these days to see many Dominicans in the cities with their smart phones, checking their Facebook friends’ updates. The villages and towns, however, are far more likely to rejoice when they see someone like Patti show up…


…because Patti brings baseballs.


She loads up a bunch of baseballs in her suitcase when she goes and gives them out to kids as she does ministry there. And, to get a full-fledge ball game going, all you need is a baseball. You don’t need gloves or bats or catcher’s gear or a ball diamond. You don’t even need to go very far, since the “windows” of the houses are wooden slats and there’s no glass to break.


That day in Guananico, we pitched and caught and hit with a group of Dominican kids. We used tree branches as bats and did the best we could, laughing and figuring out how to communicate in two languages. These kids needed no inspiration (Bartolo Colón grew up nearby and these kids' heroes are the Dominicans who play in the Major Leagues), just a couple crazy Americans…and a baseball. Game on!


I contrast the simplicity of that afternoon in Guananico, Dominican Republic with the complex noise of our own lives. Everywhere we turn, we run into things that interrupt us from our own fast-paced agendas and some of us have reached the point where we can’t stand the quiet. How many of you turn the TV on as soon as you enter the house, just so you have noise in the background? Why? Is it because of what you fear you might hear if the distraction weren’t there?


Let’s face it: life’s a blur these days and we need a way to restore some focus. Believe it or not, Jesus had some things to say that can help us get there. We’ll talk about His words this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can’t join us? Catch the podcast!


Monday, October 13, 2014

What "bombs" do you fear?

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Germany’s bombings of London were intended to slap down the "stiff upper lip" of the British and render them as yet another victim of their blitz across Europe. Instead of crushing England’s will and thereby rendering them helpless to a Nazi invasion, the bombings actually increased the British determination to stand up to Hitler’s minions. How? The explosions created a long series of near misses that emboldened the victims to believe they would live through anything the enemy threw at them.

I thought of Gladwell’s description as I reflected on what happened to me about two years ago. In September, 2012, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This was the very disease that took my dad’s life in 1990. What I gained from watching him succumb to the invisible monster was the determination to keep a close watch to hopefully stop it long before it was unstoppable.

What did I lose? I lost a lot of joy because way too much of my time was consumed by worry and fear that I would get cancer and die. Virtually all that fear was baseless, but it destroyed many good hours (or days) nonetheless.

Two things happened in the Fall of 2012 that changed something in me. The first was when a friend — a man with a strong gift of intercession — was praying for me one day. I told him of my impending biopsy and my anxiety. He simply said, "You don’t need to carry that load anymore." With those words, he began to physically brush me off and prayed a prayer, breaking the power of fear that had gripped me. Amazingly, the anxiety left.

The second thing I experienced was something like the "near miss" Gladwell had described as the bombs fell on London. My biopsy came out positive. In the long night after getting the test results, I asked God for some word of confirmation that He was with me. Almost instantly He reminded me of two conversations that took place in the previous three months. The first was with a lady in the Dominican Republic who regularly prays for me and my family. "God told me to tell you," she said, "to not be afraid. He has everything under control." The second conversation, about a month later, was with a man in our church. "The Lord has placed you on my heart for the last three weeks," he said. "As I have been praying for you, He told me to tell you not to fear. Everything will be okay." A few hours before, I heard the dread words: "You have cancer." Now, as I reflected on those two strange conversations, I fell asleep and slept like a baby.

A couple days after that, I was sitting in a urology office in Phoenix, hearing a doctor recommend surgery and predicting that it would go well. Cathy and I knew that this was the right path for us and made the decision to schedule the operation in November of that year. The pathology of the removed prostate determined that the cancer had been more aggressive that the original biopsy showed and it seemed to be growing even more aggressive, but the news was good: the cancer was gone.

That combination of my friend’s prayer to remove the anxiety and the successful operation to remove the cancer changed something in me. Most of my old fears were neutralized. All of this brings me to something Jesus said: "Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?" (Matthew 6:27 New Living Translation) The obvious answer is, "no," but that doesn’t always break the power of worry for those who struggle with it.

For that reason, I’m very excited about the next installment of "From here to where?" at Stone Ridge Church this weekend. "From ‘What if?’ to ‘God is!’" promises to open up life-changing possibilities. I hope you can join us! If not, catch the podcast!

Monday, October 6, 2014


The summer of 1972 was pivotal for me.  Cathy and I were married that August, but it was what happened earlier in the summer that taught me some life lessons that still affect me most every day.  

 I was 20 (almost 21) years old.  I had left college without graduating (which came later) and took a job for a Christian organization in Ohio.  Cathy and I had gotten engaged that spring, then spent most of the summer across the country from one another.  She was in Oregon as a summer missionary.  Even though my pay was low, it was the closest thing to a real, steady job that I had known.  The people I worked for provided me with a car and I enjoyed a level of great freedom.  
I got involved in a tiny church in the college town where I lived.  I had been involved in small churches before, but this one was about the smallest, with only about 20-30 people in attendance each week.  I recall a certain twinge of guilt when the offering plate was passed during worship, but that uneasy feeling was minor compared to the temptation I felt in other areas.
The building where I worked was on the main street of town, and a nice men’s store was just a couple doors down from us.  I got to know the owner, which made it easy to stop in there and admire the latest in men’s fashions.  When I saw a pair of slacks I liked, I got them.  Ditto with belts and shirts and ties (yes, I used to wear them!).  When I didn’t have enough money in my checking account, they made it easy to charge my purchases.  
The freedom of a vehicle added the possibility of regularly going to movies and I ate most meals in restaurants or fast food places.  There was always something to do in my off hours and most of it cost money, which ran through my pockets like water through a tea strainer.  
No amount of angst over my lack of money to give to the church offering seemed to lessen my drive to spend on all the things that called out to me from every direction.  
I almost didn’t tell this story because of the sadness it still brings me.  I wanted to tell it, though, because God has radically changed this part of my life over the years.  I’m so glad He did.  Jesus said, "Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be." Matthew 6:21 (New Living Translation)  I remember what life felt like when my treasure and my heart were both firmly planted in the world’s lie that life consists in my possessions.  I tell my story because I am convinced that many of you, like me, are still fending off the guilty feelings of not giving while you are yielding to the temptation to keep spending more and more, with the hope of finding happiness.  
By God’s grace, I changed.  Here’s how:
  1. I married Cathy.  I smile as I say this, since she’s taken and not available for anyone else!  But I emphasize this point because Cathy had something I didn’t have enough of at that age: discipline.  Cathy had been taught (so had I) that the tithe (10% of income) comes first.  It was her discipline that helped me do what I had known, but failed to do, before.
  2. I discovered that God genuinely cares about our needs.  Over and over, we have seen Him provide when problems seemed insurmountable.
  3. I discovered that it really IS more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35)  Life’s deepest joys have come to us from giving.
  4. I discovered that you can’t out-give God. (Luke 6:38)  God is so generous and He loves it when His people start living by His divine design!  He created us in His own image, which means He created us to give.  
  5. I discovered that my heart fills with deep joy when it’s located near God’s heart.  God’s heart is in the needs of the people He created.  This is the treasure-heart principle being lived out.
42 years later, I write this with a longing that everyone…EVERYONE…would learn to live this way.  I don’t have it down perfectly yet.  There are still hiccups and messes, but the joy that comes from living this way surpasses anything I ever imagined back when I tried to fill my life with this world’s stuff.  If this can help encourage you on that journey, it would bring me great joy.
This weekend, we will dig into Jesus words on this subject.  It’s part of our “From here to where?’ series.  I hope you can be there!  Can’t make it?  Catch the podcast

Monday, September 29, 2014

Playing to the Crowd

Crowds have this effect on people.  Whether it’s the crazy faces people make as they snap their “selfies” or the bizarre antics the moment they realize they are on the big screen of a sports stadium, crowds can cause us to say and do strange things.

I have little friend named Kate.  Kate is about 11 months old and the source of many smiles for us.  She surprised us all when she started walking at about 9 months, then rapidly proceeded from walking to running to…dancing.  The other day her mom sent us a video of Kate moving to tunes coming from Pandora.  I got this big smile as I watched her rhythm; many kids aren’t walking at her age.  In the middle of the video, Kate's mom gave away the fact that she was dancing in front of an iPhone.  Rather than shut down in embarrassment, Kate broke into a wide smile and turned up the force of her jiggle.  “All the world’s a stage,” said some guy named Will.  
I wrote most of this post while sitting in front of a football game at my brother’s house.  I don’t watch sports very much and this experience caused me to reflect on how the players on the field do their job to be seen by others.  A couple years back, an NFL quarterback seemed more interested in what God thought about him than he was about the people who cheered for his team.  A lot of fans didn’t like it.  
So, is it okay when little Kate gets excited in front of a camera?  How about when a wide receiver makes a spectacular catch and the crowd goes wild?  Neither scenario seems at all unusual or critical.  But, is there a danger in living our lives to be seen by others?   Jesus obviously thought so and he had a point.  Crowds are fickle by their very nature.  What happened to the popularity of that star football player whose most famous video is not some stupendous play on the field, but the very ugly behavior toward his wife in an elevator?  In simplicity, doing good works to be seen and applauded by others limits the favor of the One who will love us even when we stumble or behave badly.
Jesus had much to say on this subject and we will learn from His words this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  I hope you can be with us.  Can’t make it?  Catch the podcast

Monday, September 22, 2014

Those Powerful Words

I once heard the story of the man who picked up his small son and stood him on a table. The boy looked at his daddy, then glanced down at the floor, which seemed a great distance below his tiny feet. The father held out his arms and said, "Jump! I will catch you."

The boy, quite afraid of the height, cried, "No, daddy, I’m scared! What if you miss?"

"I’m your big strong daddy," the man said. "Of course I won’t miss. Jump!"

The little boy looked again as his papa’s arms, then down to the floor, and began crying in earnest. "No, daddy, I’m afraid!"

A stern look in his eyes, the man said again, "Jump! I will catch you! Jump, boy!"

As a feeling of hope swirled around inside him, the little boy lifted his eyes from the floor so far below and fixed them firmly on the arms of his father. Then, crouching slightly to launch himself, he sprung off the table to his dad’s waiting arms…

…only his dad was no longer there. He took a quick step backwards and let the little boy fall to the floor. The little one, shocked and hurt, said, "Daddy, you moved; you let me fall!" To which his father replied, "That will teach you never to trust nobody!"

I grew up in a home where my dad’s word was his bond. His promise was no less powerful than a signed, notarized contract. I think about his generation and the way business was often done with a handshake. Promises were most often kept. My dad also taught me to be wary of those whose promises were regularly broken. In his car business, he knew the ones who brought a vehicle in for repairs and would want to pick it up, promising to pay him later. His principle was simple: when you pay, you get your car back. That might sound harsh, but it kept his customers honest and kept his bills paid.

King Solomon, known for his wise sayings, knew something about those powerful things we call words. He said, "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." (Proverbs 25:11 English Standard Version) I find this proverb both beautiful and challenging in this day when so many promises are made and so few are kept. Becoming a person who says what she means and means what she says might quickly distinguish someone, in the home, in the school, in the church, in the neighborhood and in the marketplace.

You probably won’t be surprised that Jesus spoke of the power of promises. That’s the topic this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. On our "From here to where?" journey, Jesus set a high standard for the way our word must be our bond. Hope you can be there. If you can’t, catch the podcast!


Monday, September 15, 2014


Cathy and I like to joke about the kinds of movies she enjoys.  Three subjects seem to fascinate her: twins, kidnappings and amnesia.  Twins is a “no brainer” subject for her, since we have twin daughters.  I’m not sure how she got fascinated with kidnapping.  Amnesia?  I used to understand that one…but I forgot!   When she was a kid, Cathy followed a comic strip that had all three.  Kidnapped twins, with one having amnesia.  Totally cool!

Though it contains none of Cathy’s favorite subjects, one of our favorite movies is a romantic comedy released a few years ago.  In it, the destined couple meet, start falling for each other, then go their separate ways early in the story.  Both of them end up trying to find love in the arms of others, but neither can quit thinking about the love they “lost.”  At various times in the story, they come amazingly close to running into each other, but always miss…until the end.  It’s easy to love stories like that.
Today, though, I want to mention a lost love that never gets found.  It’s the story of a guy who is full of selfless love for the girl of his dreams.  Over and over, he looks for ways to meet her and demonstrate the kind, gentle, unselfish love that he knows will fill her heart to overflowing.  When she seems to ignore his attempts to reach out to her, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate his love in ways that she might understand.  Each time that fails, he calls on some of his friends to approach her and tell her how great his love is.
Over and over, the girl spurns the kindness of the most caring person she will ever hear about.  She ignores him, quietly walking the other way.  Sometimes she finds other people, people who hurt her and take from her without ever really caring about her…but she flaunts those relationships, throwing them in the kind one’s face.  Sometimes she acts as if she might change her mind, having a brief conversation with him.  Those talks, though, always end with her rejecting him and running off to others.  
The sad end of this story comes when it is too late.  All his attempts to develop a loving relationship have been pushed away.  The day arrives when she can no longer say yes…even if she wanted to.  On that day, he will say the most painful words he could ever utter: “I never knew you; get away from me.” (Matthew 7:23 New Living Translation)
A careful reading of the Bible will reveal one of the great themes of the text: God designed us to have an intimate relationship with Him.  Over and over again, He is seen as the patient, persistent, loving Bridegroom, seeking His bride so that He can shower her with His loving presence.  We, you and I, are the bride.  Our whole existence is based on a huge divine attempt to KNOW us.  He gives us chance after chance to accept His offer of love.  If we do, His heart rejoices and we begin to know a life beyond our previous imagination.  If we don’t…
…we end up UNKNOWN.  For eternity.
This weekend at Stone Ridge Church, we will talk about endless love.  I can’t wait to discuss it with you!  Can’t be there?  Catch the podcast

Monday, September 8, 2014

I Quit Liking Chocolate!

As I transitioned from high school to college, a strange thing happened: I no longer had a taste for chocolate. The horror! I confess this, knowing that some of my readers just lost all faith in me. Imagine, not liking chocolate, when I am surrounded by people addicted to the stuff. Surely I’m kidding, right?





Everything else in my 18-year-old world seemed normal at the time. I was full of energy, easily distracted, lacking many of the disciplines it took decades to learn, and far more interested in playing than in doing college homework. But, among my many faults and foibles, I wasn’t temped to eat chocolate. "This is crazy," I thought, as a friend would offer me a Hershey or Nestle’s chocolate bar. "I have always liked chocolate. What happened to me?"


For a while, the only answer I could come up with…the only answer that made any sense...was something I once heard about taste buds changing every few years. I had heard that taste buds change every so often and that some people end up liking food they didn’t like before or vice versa. Surely that must be what happened to me and chocolate.


I held on to that theory until I remembered something one day. It was something I had pushed back into the far recesses of my mind, but somehow it jumped out at me. It was a memory from my senior year in high school. That year I had a job before and after school, so I had a little spending money. I also was a member of the high school German Club. Our annual club fundraiser was selling World’s Finest chocolate. Back then, a pretty good sized World’s Finest bar was fifty cents. We also sold their Bon Bons for a dollar a box. They were an almond covered with chocolate and coated by a hard candy shell, as I remember it. Anyway, I checked out a case of the bars (twenty of them) and a case of the Bon Bons (ten of them) to sell.


The only thing was that I didn’t have much time to sell. I was working many days before and after school. I was also working on the weekends pretty often and involved in lots of school activities. The work meant that I had money and, besides, I LOVED CHOCOLATE!


So I ate it.


Then I ate more of it. Bar after bar (almost two cases, I think) and box after box.


I ate it until I couldn’t stand the thought of chocolate. I just quit liking it.


If you have stayed with me this long, I need to let you in on a little secret. This message isn’t about chocolate. It’s about something else that I overindulged as a kid. I overindulged so badly that, one day I did something that scared me to the core. It scared me so deeply, in fact, that it still marks the way I interact with people.


My childhood overindulgence was anger. I got so angry one day (I was probably 9 or 10 years old at the time), I seriously tried to hurt someone I loved. I still shudder to think of it. Fortunately, I didn’t really hurt the person, but the shock of my own rage flipped some kind of inner switch in me that has, to this day, kept me wary of any anger that comes up inside of me.


Over the years, I have looked back on times when some anger would have been appropriate, but I have deferred to soft responses. I know that "A gentle answer deflects anger…" (Proverbs 15:1 New Living Translation). However, I also know that Jesus, the One I serve…the One who lives in me...fiercely drove out the money-changers in the Temple. If God shows wrath at times, it’s a part of the natural, inherent makeup of those created in His image.


It took a long, long time, but I started liking chocolate again. Some days I like it too much, but I take heart in studies that show a moderate amount of chocolate (at least the dark variety) is actually good for you. I dare say that the same is true of anger. But honestly, I haven’t figured out how to use it correctly yet. I will have to keep growing in this area.


This weekend at Stone Ridge Church, we take a hard look at some things Jesus said about war and peace. I don’t think chocolate will find its way into this sermon, but anger? Undoubtedly! Can’t join us? Catch the podcast!



Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Salt of the Earth

I’ve been thinking about it and can recall people in almost every town where I’ve lived that are what you would describe as “salt of the earth” folk. These were often not the people whose name would be found in lights. They certainly wouldn’t have their pictures in the paper for some misdeed. They were what one might call “the ordinaries.” They didn’t live their lives to be noticed and didn’t get hot under the collar if they were slighted in some way.

In Seaside, California, I think of a couple named Buck and Cora. I’m not sure what brought them to the Monterey Peninsula from somewhere in the deep South (Alabama, I think it was), but they lived on California’s Central Coast for many years. As a couple, Buck and Cora were about as different from each other as the hard wood of a maple tree is different from the sweet sap that flows out of it.


Buck’s salty persona was right at home in the Monterey of the mid-seventies. He was a man of few words. In fact, I can vaguely remember anything he said. Buck was one of those guys who faithfully attended church services and church functions, but rarely spoke. What I do remember about him was the way he showed up every Saturday to mow the lawns and trim the bushes. That church property always looked beautiful on Sundays, largely because Buck just did his job. What made it his job? I don’t know. I just know that he faithfully did it for years. If a mower broke, he would quietly fix it. If he saw a problem with the landscape, he would just take care of it. Looking back, I realize that Buck was the kind of man you might want as a neighbor. He would have been one of the first ones to offer a hand when you needed it. He wouldn’t want attention, but would simply help take care of business.


Unlike her husband, Cora’s words were like the coo of a dove. Her southern accent was a beautiful, smooth drawl that somehow had never taken on on the flat, crisp tones of the West Coast. It was that friendly voice that endeared Cora to scores of preschool children. You see, Cora would make calls to all her kindergarten class each Saturday. She would ask to speak with the child, then say, “I wanted to tell you about Sunday School tomorrow. Will you be there?” Our oldest, Sean, was still tiny when we moved away from Seaside, so we never got to watch Cora’s soft persuasion personally. However, I heard numerous parents tell stories about their youngsters in Cora’s class. Those days were long before cell phones and text messages. The telephone was a tool rather than a toy. Unlike today, children weren’t handed a phone to play games and entertain themselves. Instead, they could actually get in trouble for playing with the phone. But on Saturday mornings, their phone would ring and Cora would ask for them by name. They felt so big to have their own phone call to answer. Eyes would light up and they would have a real conversation with an adult for a few minutes. They LOVED the year that they were in "Miss Cora’s" class.


Buck and Cora often cross my mind. I came to understand that a church full of folks like them would be a productive, loving place. Though we left that town almost 40 years ago, their faces spring into the eye of my memory and I thank God for their “saltiness.” May God increase their kind.


“You are salt,” Jesus said. It’s a powerfully simple identity statement. Whether you are terse and tough like Buck or talkative and tender like Cora, Jesus designed you to add His flavor to the world around you. I can’t wait to talk about it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. I hope you can join us. Can’t be there? Catch the podcast!



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.