Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Pipeline

Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with people who know the LORD. Isaiah 11:9

The next international mission is just around the corner. Our 19 member team will be traveling to Thessaloniki, Greece, and then on to Bulgaria. In Bulgaria we will be working with a large community of Gypsies. Both of these missions are long-term commitments.

In June, another 10 person mission team will be going to Bolivia. For six years Janet has been leading teams to spiritually plow and plant in some extremely hard soil. Now, God is breaking everything loose, and all the sweat, tears, and sacrifice is paying off handsomely! This mission has come to a turning point, and there will be a lot to report when they return.

Going international is not our only mission at Christ Community. A group of us huddle every Sunday morning to learn how to help people find their way back to God. Our Monday night twenty-something-years-old group is bursting at the seams. A steady stream of young adults (that Sandy and I had never previously met) have started attending consistently. Ours is the most diverse gathering we have ever been a part of -- word-of-mouth has been the only promotion. The hunger for community, transparency, and intimacy brings us together, and most who attend have no church affiliation. We love them -- they love us. It is a safe environment. We believe that what is happening is a genuine God thing!

Tuesday night is the study with the Chinese. In the present group there are several married couples. It is likely that they will stay in the United States, and many of them are involved in a fledgling, Chinese church start! Come August, four new students from the Big Country will join us on Tuesday nights.

In September, Robert G. and I will be traveling to China. We will zig-zag all over the country making significant contacts for future Kingdom work. Some of our former students are already involved in house-churches there. We will be their guests -- and -- guest speakers!

God has provided a pipeline from East to West!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sole Survivor

Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from great personal success, or just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.
~ John le Carre

Exponential concluded around 1 P.M. on Thursday. Within thirty minutes I was behind the windshield with Georgia on my mind. For the next 6-7 hours I stared at the black ribbon stretching out before me, reflecting on the last four days of bobbing along in a spiritual sea of information. Now I am home sorting through the bullet points of inspiration I had recorded as quickly as I could.

Apart from all the take aways from the conference, I wanted to return to a quote by John le Carre I captured. At the time of discovery there was no opportunity to unpack it, but I knew there was something I wanted to come back to. John le Carre talks about a mad journey out of alone-ness. There is a lonely element to success that pushes you to dark edges -- a certain torment that comes with hurdling hurdles and breeching barriers -- a world that one experiences, but never can share it. Under those circumstances success is survived rather than celebrated.

Kindred spirits know exactly of what he speaks.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Name That Tune

Exponential has been all about Advancing the Kingdom. Nearly all the speakers/presenters are in their middle forties to early fifties--like me. Not one of them seems to be burdened down with an over-sized ego. Conversely, they are deeply committed to empowering and equipping the next generation. If nothing else, these sages are radically committed to Christ's mission of global evangelism and creating genuine faith communities.

Hundreds of young men, women, and couples make up the bulk of the audience. For me, it has been moving -- emotionally and spiritually -- to meet them, talk with them, and observe them soaking in the messages like a desert during a new rain. My flip-flop -- birkenstock'd friends are spilling over with excitement, hope, and faith. In their deepest heart they believe that the Jesus they know will change their generation and change the world.

He will -- they will.

I got off the phone with Sandy a few minutes ago -- both of us shed tears as we talked about what God is doing with these Young Lions. Almost simultaneously, both of us stated how we wish we could go with them. What an honor it would be to encourage them and mentor them and protect them. Hearts such as theirs are beautiful -- and for a time, fragile. Sandy and I are battle-tested, and we know that in the days ahead the evil one will viciously come against them -- to rob, kill, or steal God's vision for their future. We wish we were wealthy, so that we could invest in their worthy, godly dreams.

Starting from scratch, there are no buildings or bankroll -- none of the accoutrements my generation thought were absolute necessary to "do" church. But these pioneers are "doing" church -- in the most unconventional venues. Some are selling all and headed into incredibly difficult places. Places like Utah, Washington State, and Oregon. Places as spiritually dark as the most remote and pagan places on earth. Places where the soil is hard-packed and every step will mean plowing new ground.

I will not remember all their names, but I will never forget their faces -- their eyes -- their Christ-likeness. Thankfully, like them, the thirst is still there to move out to the edges -- I am dying for a visitation from God.

Also . . .

This morning I went down to the lobby for the continental breakfast. I grabbed a coffee and a blueberry muffin and sat down at a small circular table to eat. At the table to my right sat two little girls, about 4 and 6 years old. The youngest one was singing, The B-I-B-L-E.

I said to her, "I know that song, too!"

She said, "You do? Sing it!" So I began to sing and she joined in.

Then she asked, "Do you know 'Jesus Loves Me?'"

"I sure do!"

Once again, she said, "Sing it!" Of course I did.

When I finished the song she asked, "Who are you, anyway . . . what is your name?"

"My name is Bill."

"My name is Faith Anne, and my sister's name is Hannah." Now she was beaming.

"Bill, I think I like you!"

"Faith Anne, I know I like you!"

"Will you come sit with me ?" (her grandma was sitting with them)

"Faith Anne (she interrupted me and said, "Call me Faith.), I would like that, but I have to leave to attend a conference."

"You wanna have breakfast with me tomorrow?"

"Faith, I would like that."

"Bill, I like you! See you tomorrow!"

Enjoying the Adventure . . .

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Security Model

Andy Stanley was the keynote speaker this afternoon. A short time ago he returned from a meeting in China with a number of "unregistered church" leaders. In particular, these were network leaders. In China a network leader may oversee hundreds of house churches that are ministering to tens of thousands of people. The spiritual landscape in China is beginning to see a significant cultural change, and there is an increasing number of places where the unregistered churches can gather with less oppression.

The leaders posed an interesting question to their foreign advisers -- "How do we move away from our 'Security Model,' to a model that is reproducible and portable and will facilitate the continued advance of Christ's Church through the gospel?"

Andy's first response was, "You're asking me? You guys have written the book on spreading the gospel! And by the way, what is the Security Model?"

The security model was in reference to the way Chinese Believers had to "do church" -- meaning that most of the churches had to maintain a tight security and secrecy in order to survive! Now the Chinese leaders are looking for a reproducible, portable model to prepare the underground church to continue to reach their world -- even though secrecy is not the necessity it once was, and faith communities can have a more visible presence. The top priority of these leaders is to guard against this new found freedom opening the door to apathy and a lessening urgency to deliver the gospel.

One more story about the house church networks . . .

One pastor relayed an astounding, and somewhat comical, story to Andy. In one city a network leader asked for and received permission -- from the Chinese Minister of Religion (Government agency) to hold a public Easter service. He told the official he estimated there would be around one-thousand people present. With almost no resistance the pastor was given permission to do so.

Late on the Eve of Easter, the government authority called to inform the pastor that he had had a change of mind, and they could not have the public service. He meant business, and on Easter morning a dozen or more soldiers were dispatched to turn away the mass of worshipers that were supposed to gather. Imagine the soldier's surprise when only 7 people showed up for the service!

Here is the amazing part . . .

The house churches are so highly organized for instant communication (the security model) that they were able to text message the entire network immediately, alert them to the situation, and divert to a prearranged "plan B" location!

Easter morning over one-thousand worshipers gathered without a government presence in sight . . . He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Exponential

So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. Acts 16:5

Where there is no vision the people perish. Solomon, David's son

I am gathered with Church leaders from around the country in Orlando, Florida. Exponential 08: National New Church Conference, has brought us together. The main theme is -- The DNA of Reproducing Churches. In short, each of the speakers/presenters believe that it is in the spiritual DNA of Christ followers -- and the churches they find community in -- to reproduce. There are no -- talkers but not walkers -- all of them are leading churches that reproduce/birth other faith communities. Every one of them are advancing the kingdom by bringing people into the kingdom -- there is no desire to grow churches through the transfer of memberships. Communicating the vision of multiplying churches drenches every session.

Five minutes into the first session the speaker began, "There can be no Compelling Vision before you see where God is working, and then join Him in what He is doing. Once you join God in what He is doing the compelling vision will come . . . it's like the old Blackaby study says . . ."

Wow! Truth forever remains relevant.

This is not your usual stock and trade of conference attendees -- the feet of six-out-of-ten are shod in flip flops, or a pair of Birkenstock sandals. I was the only one wearing cowboy boots -- I think that makes me a non-conformist! Obviously this is a gathering of men and women willing to cast off convention. How else do you reach a generation that is no longer conventional?

Also . . .

I have met only one person I know -- and of all people it was Dave Howeth. Dave was the main contact we had in Bozeman, Montana, and the one who did the Personality and Leadership evaluation on Sandy and me for the SBC.
Shortly after we met, Dave left Montana for Denver, Colorado to follow God's call to develop a church planting initiative there. Both of us were really glad to get caught up with each other's life.

After Dave and I parted it occurred to me that it has been over a year since both of us were rerouted from Montana -- but we have never stopped experiencing God.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Inimitable Activity

The people you generally see in the Scriptures were ordinary. Their relationships with God and the activity of God made them extraordinary. ~ Henry Blackaby

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus." ~ Acts 4:13

On Thursday I was in Macon, Georgia meeting with several pastors and associates who belong to the Free Methodist denomination (less than a year ago I did not know that "Free Methodists" existed). As we sat around the table talking it occurred to me that we were not an impressive collection of "professional holy men."

Our conversation led to an exchange of testimonies. A common theme prevailed -- to a man -- we were desperate to hear and experience God. There was no indication that our thirst for God was fueled to draw attention to ourself, or for the purpose of a spiritual adrenaline rush. Instead, each man believed that the inimitable activity of God was to be expected.

Tom, who is a youth pastor in Fayetteville, Georgia started the ball rolling as he related his desire to know God intimately. Hearing from God was the only way his deepest spiritual thirst could be quenched. Tom told us about an impromptu meeting that intersected his life with another youth pastor who, though successful by many standards, knew he had been experiencing famine -- not of bread or water, but of hearing the voice of God. As Tom told us about his friend he had a hard time keeping his emotions in check. Slowly and deliberately he shared the story of Rick Morgan . . .

God has brought Rick to a crisis of belief -- Rick believes God wants to show-up and speak through and into his life. Rick is a godly man, a committed man, a faithful man, and a desperate man. Rick is a man who has not heard from God in a long time -- with one exception -- he believes God has called him to fast until he hears from Him.

Rick has not eaten since the first day of March.

I was riveted to Tom's testimony, because Sandy and I have recently gone back to the bible study -- Experiencing God. Why? A little more than a year ago, God clearly spoke to us, and let us know that He was going to bring about some significant changes -- changes that would affect every area of our life.

We have relied on hearing God's voice.

As you are probably aware, there is always a thrill that accompanies hearing God speak, but there is also trepidation, and the acknowledgment that some pain and hard decisions will follow. To quote Blackaby again -- We are brought to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action. Since then we have experienced the entire bundle.

Something we never anticipated has also transpired -- with that step of faith came the silence of God.

It has been a long, long time since we have experienced the silence of God. We don't like it. We don't want to get used to it. We believe God's silence to be the exception not the rule in the believer's relationship with Him. We, too, are desperate to hear from our Father.

There are heart issues that must be given prayerful consideration when you find yourself in this position, because it is not about us -- it is about God. One thing is for sure -- The people you generally see in the Scriptures were ordinary. Their relationships with God and the activity of God made them extraordinary.

We believe that an unwillingness to settle for a relationship of a lesser kind is not ego-centered, and we believe to settle for anything less is a false sense of humility. We are desperate. We are listening.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No Relish In It

". . . when you have lost the joy of your salvation and have begun sharing Christ out of habit, competition, or just plain duty, there is no relish in it and not much to keep you going. After all, what can you say? "'Become a Christian and be miserable like me?"' ~ Bob George

On Wednesday mornings I lead a men's bible study. When I woke up this morning I felt like I could barely put one foot ahead of the other. I am a morning person, and almost never have a hard time getting going.

Like many people, I find that life can become busy. You go a couple of nights with almost no sleep, and you feel like your batteries are about empty. Life's events can also seem to gang up on you. Over the the last few days two people I thought a great deal of, Bob and Ricky, left this world. If it had been my call, I would have considered them far too young to die. As circumstances would have it, I got the call about Ricky from his brother. My cell phone buzzed just before I entered the funeral home to pay my last respects to Bob. Jimmy had just found out that his brother was dead -- he needed me to walk him through the steps of breaking the news to his elderly parents and the funeral proceedings. Jimmy also believed he would have to go to the morgue to identify his brother's body -- my friend was hurting.

Bizarre circumstances had taken Ricky's life -- he died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his own home. The odorless, deadly fumes made him feel tired, and he lay down to take a nap -- he never woke up. It got worse. At the time, Jim's parents were vacationing on the Cape. Before he could get to mom and dad, they learned of their forty-two year old son's death from the television. Travesty and heartbreak -- a mean duo.

Back to this morning . . .

How do I say this? So, I was not in the best of moods this morning, but I knew that a group of men weren't showing up at 6 A.M. to meet the personification of Grumpy and Sleepy all rolled into one. On top of that, the subject of the study was anger -- I have had my fair share of dealing with that personal demon. My spirit was sinking, and a deepening weariness wanted to prevail. Driving to the church, I began asking for Divine help. I did something I have never done -- I put in a CD of one of my own messages. I was begging God, Help me! I want to walk the talk.

Funny how things happen. The first two guys who met me at the door this morning asked me, "Do you know _________ and his wife _________?"

"Yeah (sigh) . . . I know them."

"Man, they hate you! But don't let that bother you Bill, they are the two most miserable people in the entire neighborhood!"

I responded, "Thanks, guys."

Where I am going with all this? God guided me through the morning, and then this afternoon I resumed preparing for a new class I will be teaching at Christ Community Church. The name of the class is Compass: Finding your way to God. There is no curriculum; instead, I am developing the journey we will take. In one of the resources I was perusing, I read the above quote -- it hit hard and sounded a warning. The combination of all the events -- a lack of sleep, the death of friends, spiritual distraction, and the good news that I am hated by someone -- had drawn me perilously close to living out of a heart that would testify -- Become a Christian and be miserable like me.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Looking For God? Someone Is Looking For You!

So Philip asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And the Ethiopian said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. ~ Acts 8: 30-31

And Cornelius told us how the angel had appeared to him in his home and had told him, "Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter, he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household. ~
Acts 11:13-15

We went outside the gate to the riverside . . . and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia . . . The Lord opened her heart to pay attention what was said by Paul. Acts 16:13-14

This morning I brought the message both services at Christ Community Church. During the last month most of my thinking during quiet moments has tracked along the theme -- Looking for God. That was part of the theme of this morning's tidings. There was more -- If you are looking for God -- God has someone looking for you!

Many people recognize that at some point in their life a spiritual transition takes place -- rather than running away from God -- they begin to look for God. A catalyst of some sort causes a turn-around, and they realize that they want and need a relationship with God. Unbeknown to that person at the time, other forces are at work -- all along God knows exactly where they are -- and as they begin looking for Him, someone begins looking for them. Piled on top of all that is the good news that the one seeking them is searching on behalf of God! Time-and-time again God's record of the early church (the book of Acts) reveals this pattern.

Think about it . . .

An Ethiopian of great authority began searching for God when an Old Testament Scripture piqued his interest -- God sent Philip to find him and guide him to Jesus. A soldier named Cornelius was looking for God in prayer, spiritual values, and generosity to the poor -- simultaneously God was preparing Peter to seek out Cornelius and answer his simple question -- How do I get saved? There is also Lydia, a wealthy business woman. She, too, was looking for God -- so the Holy Spirit forces the itinerant preacher, Paul, to rearrange his itinerary in order to bring the message of Jesus to her spiritually hungry heart.

Did you know that not one of those seekers was allowed in the Temple -- the place where the way to God could be found? The Ethiopian was a eunuch -- his castration forbid him to enter the Temple. Cornelius was a Gentile, an occupying soldier -- to enter the Temple would result in his death. Lydia was a woman -- she could not enter the Temple.

Most of God's redemptive work does not occur in the houses of worship where the saints gather. Instead, God, in unpredictable ways, takes the twists and turns of people's lives and sees to it that those who are looking for Him are intercepted by those looking for them! God promises us that he will use our attentiveness to His process to help searchers become finders! They are looking for Him, but He already knows where they are. We go looking for them, but we are seeking on His behalf -- incredible!

If you are you looking for God -- Someone is looking for you!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Into The Light

What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight . . . what is whispered proclaim from the roofs. Matthew 10:27

Our Lord is constantly taking us into the dark, that He may tell us things. Into the dark of the shadowed home, where bereavement has drawn the blinds; into the dark of the lonely, desolate life . . . into the dark of some crushing sorrow and disappointment.
Then He tells us His secrets, great and wonderful, eternal and infinite; He causes the eye which has become dazzled by the glare of the earth to behold the heavenly constellations; and the ear to detect the undertones of His voice, which is often drowned amid the tumult of earth's strident cries . . . But such revelations always imply a corresponding responsibility -- "speak in the daylight . . . what is whispered -- proclaim from the roofs.
~ F. B. Meyer

Shortly after 5 A.M. I brewed some coffee, went out to the back patio, and sat down to listen to nature's musicians tune their singular instruments. Then, as if being led by a maestro their sounds blended into a beautiful symphony.

The darkness of the west was to my left. To my right, and east, the faintest signs of a new day were appearing. Sitting quietly, I began collating some of the random thoughts of the last several days. After a few moments the disjointed memories began to align and take shape. Words similar to Meyer's, but not exactly the same -- like bereavement, lonely, crushing, and disappointment -- tried to take root in my thinking. All the while I sought after cheerful, bright, contradicting words like great, wonderful, infinite, and dazzling were to keep melancholy from gaining an advantage. Eventually God's peace prevailed, but I decided the journey to that peace was too complicated to communicate -- I would not post today.

I mowed the lawn and then got on my bike.

About an hour ago I returned from the ride, and found Sandy on the back patio, so I pulled up a lawn chair, sat down, and we began to talk. She had been journaling, praying and reading, and hearing from God on a number of things. Her conversation invited me into her Adventure. Reading a quote from F. B Meyer (the one at the beginning of the post) had been especially heartening, and she read it aloud to me.

The words became special to me, too.

As Sandy sat in brilliant sunshine relaying her encounter, it occurred to me how the brightness of the eastern sky had gained momentum and scattered the blackness of the early morning -- not a trace of night remained. Also, I remembered how I had sat in that same spot, just hours ago, as light tried to reach me -- both solar and spiritual. God had spoken, and I heard Him, yet in the darkness I had decided I would not speak. However, a brief brief quote became God's prompt. It brought me into the light -- I had to speak.

"What I told you in dark, [you must] speak in daylight."

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Shack

This will be my last post for a while. Tonight, Sandy and I are flying back to New England. Our oldest son and his wife live in the Boston area, and we are going to spend some time with them. Next week is spring break and that provides the window for us to head back to the chilly Northeast. It will be a blitz -- we will return on Tuesday. Some friends are providing us with some impressive accommodations, and in spite of a forecast that is calling for 3 days of rain and temperatures in the 40s, we are going to pound the pavement in Boston. Time to dig out real winter clothes!

Both of us are bringing some books along -- most of them unrelated to our academic courses. We do a lot of book sharing -- she reads -- then I read, and vice versa. Yesterday, I picked up a book a couple of friends mentioned -- The Shack. Last night I began reading it, and, as is often the case, I got drawn into the story. Iconoclastic and provocative re-imaging of God and spirituality give your brain a squeeze . . . hard to explain . . . read it for yourself.

When I awoke this morning another book came to mind before my feet hit the floor -- The Barbarian Way (I have read it several times). At this point, I have no idea why it surged forward as my first conscience thoughts. I asked Sandy if she had seen the book, and she walked right to it, picked it off her shelf, and handed it to me. Unintentionally, I laid it face-down on the table. We had coffee, Sandy left for school, and I retrieved the book. As I reached for it I was once again arrested by the back cover -- ". . . a call to revolution against 'civilized' Christianity." Choose A Dangerous Road.

To my left is The Shack, and on my right is The Barbarian Way. Is there any significance? If the timing of these books is a spiritual prompting, I can't wait to find it out!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Goodness And Mercy Walked With Me

Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. ~ Victor Hugo

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life . . .
~ The Twenty-third Psalm

A proud mom just passed along her daughter's blog to me. I pulled it up and was caught off guard by the musings and poetry of the quiet, private young woman. With transparency and courage she has journaled the painful process of chasing down the fragments of her shattered heart. Katie lost the love of her life -- a casualty of the war in Iraq. There was another loss -- her faith.

David, king of Israel, spoke of death as a shadowy place -- a valley. Those close to death must pass through it, and for a while she stumbled along that black trail -- feeling her way -- hoping to pull back her hand and find the lost faith clutched in her fingers. What else could she do -- God was nowhere in sight?

Verse clothed itself in flesh, Goodness and Mercy each took a hand and joined her along the way. The path of the broken is trudged at a slow and staggering pace, and it is an inescapable daily task. Friends walked with her through the great sorrow -- every step of the way.

Katie is out of the twilight -- her soul has found rest.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Shutting Down

Regret for things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable. ~ Sidney J. Harris

"In fierce storms," said an old seaman, "we must do one thing; there is only one way: we must put the ship in a certain position and keep her there." You must stay upon the Lord; and come what may -- winds, waves, cross-seas, thunder, lightning, frowning rocks, roaring breakers -- no matter what, you must lash yourself to the helm, and hold fast your confidence in God's faithfulness . . ." ~ April 1, Streams in the desert

The ship was about to break into pieces. The sailors were terrified. They called out in desperation to their gods . . . Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship . . . He was sound asleep. The captain came to him and said, "What's this? Sleeping! Get up! Pray to your god! Maybe your god will see we're in trouble and rescue us." Jonah 1:4-7

Choices can lead us into troubled water, and in an instant we are in danger of being dashed on the rocks of life. Everyone -- at one time or another -- will trim the sails at the wrong time and end up in a boiling storm. At some point all of us find ourself in a storm so fierce that only faith can keep our ship from breaking apart. Show me a person that never made a bad choice or decision, and I will show you a person who never made a choice or decision -- they are a ship without a sail!

In the middle of our roughest seas we can make one of the most noble decisions -- and choose to irreversibly commit to turning the bow into the storm and drop anchor and lash ourself to the mast and hold on for dear life. Our feeble navigation systems and self-reliance and stubborn determination are incapable of delivering -- they must be shut down. A single option is left -- fix our position on Jesus, Star of the Morning.

This depth of faithful resolve is not easy to define, let alone put into a succinct explanation, but I am speaking of that moment when we roll the sanctified dice -- its double or nothing. If we will . . . the dice are loaded in our favor -- regret for what did do is forever taken away -- regret for what we did not do is never an issue!

Only one person that ever lived could look back over the entire course of his life and never feel a twinge of regret for his actions or remorse for action he never took -- we know that one person is Jesus. Although we will never live up to the impeccable standard of Jesus -- meaning we will never escape our sojourn with no regrets. We can avoid the heaviness of inconsolable remorse for what we did not do.