Leading with Love

So maybe you have heard over the past few days about the Nashville Statement.  I honestly don’t know how widespread it has become, but as someone who works in a local church, I guess I might be more likely to have heard about it or read it than some others may be.  If you haven’t heard, a group of evangelical faith leaders met in Nashville in order to come to some sort of consensus on a doctrine regarding sexual stewardship.  They released this 3-page document this week in the midst of nationwide concern for Houston.  Besides Houston, there has been many other tragedies in the U.S. recently, for example, the show of hatred and evil in Charlottesville 3 weeks ago. Much of the Nashville Statement is directly in relation to the LGBTQ+ community.  If you’d like to read the document, you can find it here.

I know, you are all still reading this to find out all about my beliefs regarding marriage and God-honoring sexuality, but that’s not why I am writing today.  I will say that wherever you come down on these issues, I would try my best to understand your beliefs and how they have formed or changed throughout your life.  I write this today because I think many are missing the point as I did when I read the document the first time.

I can honestly say that I know some wonderful, absolutely good-hearted people who fall on either side of the debate regarding the Church’s affirmation of those who have accepted non-traditional sexual lifestyles.  And I do not write this to offend or send anyone into shock.  I write this because I believe that the overwhelming majority of the current dialogue regarding the Nashville Statement has not been fruitful.  There have been a lot of voices falling on deaf ears.

Before I go any further, let me clarify: I 100% believe that members of the Body of Christ have a responsibility to other members of the Body to hold each other accountable to live lives according to the calling that we have received as followers of Jesus Christ.

And now let me say: the only way in which we can or should hold each other accountable is within the context of a faith community in loving relationship with each other.

Think about it this way, has anyone that you did not have a relationship with ever scolded or chastised you?  I would assume that was not an enjoyable experience.  Has anyone that you don’t know ever said to you, “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but…” That probably did not make you feel good.  Throughout my life, I have often resented being told what to do.  I’m working on maturing and growing, but man, that’s the worst!  Now certainly, there are times in my life where I need guidance, and I’m even learning how to ask someone else for their input (what a novel concept), but I will only receive correction well from someone that I know loves me.  Maybe this is just me, but I would bet you have felt similarly.

As followers of Christ, we are trying to be like Christ, right?  If that’s the case, we need to look at the way that Jesus lived to inform every aspect of our lives.  In Luke 19, there’s a story that I think really applies to this topic:

Jesus is traveling with his disciples through Jericho, and there’s a ton of people trying to see him.  There’s this short tax collector (social stigma implied) in town named Zaccheus, and he really wants to see Jesus, but he can’t see over the crowds, so he climbs up in a tree just to catch a glimpse.  Jesus sees Zaccheus up in the tree, and calls out to him, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today!”  Ecstatic, Zaccheus takes Jesus to his home.  But the people were not happy with this.  They grumbled to each other, “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner.”  That day, Zaccheus’s heart was transformed.  Because of his interaction with Jesus, who just went over to his house, he vows to give half of his money to the poor and to repay anyone he has cheated four times over!

So let’s think about this story.  I would bet that Zaccheus knew that the religious folks disagreed with his lifestyle choices.  But guess what, knowing that a bunch of religious people didn’t like him really didn’t make him want to change.  All Zaccheus needed for radical life change was to interact with the transformative love of Jesus.  People in our world could use a little more of that.

When dealing with people, Jesus always lead with love.  He befriended many other “notorious sinners.”  Jesus offered the Samaritan woman caught in adultery living water!  Jesus had a quality about him that not only tolerated those who had been outcast by the religious establishment, but he attracted them!  You know what’s not attractive?  Someone that you don’t know telling you that you’re a sinner.

So let me bring this back to the Nashville Statement.  Whatever side you find yourself on, there are real people, living breathing people, on the other side who legitimately believe that what they are standing for is right.  People on every side of this issue are created in the image of God, and there are devoted followers of Christ who are still developing thoughts and views on these matters.  We cannot let this be divisive in our faith communities.

Too many times, we, Christians, divide ourselves into different camps.  We split ourselves by how we like to worship, our views on the Eucharist, our traditions, etc.  And in the midst of a world that has an immediate need for the love of Jesus, we have found yet another thing that divides us instead of unifies us.

We need to be known more by what we are for than what we are against.  We need to be identified by our love for one another, our neighbors, and our enemies.  We need to be identified by our desire to lift the lowly, welcome the outcast, and break the chains of the oppressed.  

And yes, we need to be having these important discussions in our faith communities regarding our views on these topics.  But any view that does not begin with a love for God and for our neighbor is not a view that is from God.  These topics need to be wrestled with in our faith communities, but not on Facebook or Twitter.  These are not topics to make decrees about.  These are conversations to be had together in homes and at coffee shops, not on the internet for the whole world to see.  And when we do have these conversations, we must give each other permission to still be working it out in our hearts.

I must say that when it comes to withholding grace from those with whom I disagree, I am the chief of sinners, but I am encouraged because through the grace of God I know I can grow in that way.  I pray that I will be a person who leads with love, and I pray the same for all of us.

Only through the power of God’s grace can we truly become people who can speak truth in love.

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I want to be someone who…

I remember the first week of my freshman year of high school, I was sitting in English class, and we were given a classic freshman assignment.  The assignment was to set 10 goals for ourselves for the next four years while we would be in high school. I’ve never been much of a goal-setter, but I knew what to put down on the paper.  So I wrote down what I viewed as the normal “successful” high school stuff.  I don’t remember all 10 goals, but I remember two of them: 1. Graduate in the top 10 percent of my class.  And 2. Become a starter on the football team.  I accomplished neither of these goals for myself.  For different reasons, of course.  There were factors in those that were out of my control like other people competing and natural ability limitations, but also, looking back, I am not sure those were really things that I cared much about, at least, I didn’t show it by my effort level.

When someone is growing up in school, the question adults often think to ask is “What do you want to do when you grow up?”  The answers that these awkward-feeling adults are expecting is a type of profession like doctor, firefighter, or teacher.  And so, depending on the kid, they either change their mind on this a few times, or some know from a very young age what it is that they want to do.  This changed a lot for me over the years.  Obviously I wanted to be a professional athlete for a while.  Get to play sports for a job? Make tons of money? Be famous? Sign me up!  I pretty quickly realized that perhaps for me, that wasn’t going to be a career option.  So I think then I said that I wanted to be a lawyer.  I did have quite the argumentative gift (My mom always says that if she said the sky is blue, I would say its not. That’s not too inaccurate… Sorry, Mom).  Then I realized that I thought talking to people was an ok thing that I could do, so when asked, I would always tell people I wanted to be a counselor.  Then very early on in college, I found that I wanted to do youth ministry.  And guess what!? That’s what I do.

When talking to a youth minister, some people may still ask the question, “So what do you want to do, really?”  At this point, I can honestly say youth ministry.

So I’m 23, and I think I have a ready answer for the “what do you want to do?” question.

But now, I, and I suppose every other person, have to ask the question: “What kind of person do I want to be?”  This seems to me to be a far more important question.  But this is a question that is much harder to break down into a list of goals, if you like making lists of that sort of thing.

See, we live in a world that is all about climbing up the next wrung of the ladder.  Our world cares about graduating at the top of your class from business school, our world cares about getting that next promotion, and our world cares about being able to afford living in the comfortable neighborhood with the comfortable car.  From a young age, we’re conditioned to want to associate with a certain crowd.  “Oh, you don’t want to send your child to that school.” We’re conditioned to not accept finishing in any place other than first.  I remember three times in elementary school that I was devastated because I didn’t win (2 spelling bees and a science fair).  We have accepted these expectations placed on us by voices other than the voice of God.  And some of these voices have even been backed up by scriptural references!  How many times have you heard Colossians 3:23 (context: Paul’s teaching for 1st century slaves) and thought that meant you need to work harder to achieve earthly success?

Woah!  Slow your role, Michael.  The Bible is God’s Word.  Are you saying that we shouldn’t try hard at things!?

No, that’s not what I’m saying.  What I am saying is that we should not pick and choose Scripture to enforce our desire to succeed in the eyes of other people.  Definitely work diligently in your jobs and in your relationships!

Ok, ok, so here’s my point: We spend way to much time trying to answer the question, “What do we want to do?” And we do not spend enough time trying to answer the question, “What kind of person do we want to be?”

I find myself in a season of life where that second question keeps coming up.  So I’m going to make a new list.  This time I’m going to pick 10 qualities that I want to aspire to be.  Maybe if you’re reading this, it will give you some ideas about the kind of person that you want to be.

*DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT ALREADY THESE THINGS ALL THE TIME BECAUSE IF I WAS, THIS WOULD BE A POINTLESS LIST.

I want to be someone who:

  1. always tells the truth.
  2. cares for the marginalized.
  3. is hospitable toward the outsider.
  4. seeks to gain understanding.
  5. is willing to be vulnerable.
  6. seeks wise counsel.
  7. responds kindly.
  8. leads by example.
  9. radiates patience.
  10. loves deeply.

 

-MC

Perfect in Weakness

If we live long enough we will experience something that completely wrecks our plans. We experience something that causes us to turn to God and ask, “Why?” Why did this happen? Why do we have to experience loss? Why can my will not align with Your will? In these moments we feel like we have nothing to give.  We feel like there is no wind in our sails.

We live in a world and society that is low on hope.  Everywhere we turn, we see things that communicate to us that we don’t measure up.  We don’t look like the people on television, we don’t feel like the happy ending of our favorite movie, and our lives don’t seem to be nearly as fun and adventurous as the people that we follow on Instagram.

We live in a world that scoffs at vulnerability and tells us that we must always project strength.  But if we live long enough, we learn that there are days where we cannot even fake it.  There are days where everything with us feels so wrong that we can’t possibly give people the impression that things are good.  What do we do then?

“Give your burdens to the Lord and He will take care of you.”         -Psalm 55:22

Sound simple? It’s not.

Time and time again, we ask God to take away our pain, sadness, and temptation, yet we still feel it.  We try to give our burdens to God, but everyday we feel more and more burdened.  It takes far longer to pass off our anxieties to God than it does to take on more anxiety.

But there is hope.  Whatever we are going through, we are not alone. Even when we feel distant from God, He is still there working for us.  Even when everything in our life feels out of control or messed up, God is there.  God is our provider.  We will ultimately be taken care of by the Almighty God.  And there are some pains, doubts, and fears that may never leave us, but God will still work in us. Paul speaks of something like this in his life:

He says this, “In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor 12)”

God’s power is made perfect in our shortcomings, failures, and pain.  Often we may feel like we can only give a little, but God can do so much with our little. With little food, Jesus fed 5000 hungry people.  With little faith, God can move mountains.  We are fully known and fully loved by a good Father, who created us, and will do so much with what little we can offer.

Even in our deepest and realest pain, God is beckoning us deeper into a relationship with Him.  He wants to show His almighty power in us.

Let us share our weaknesses.  Let us be vulnerable and open with each other, so that God, in His unending grace, can take our brokenness and messiness and write a beautiful  story of love and redemption with our lives.

Weeded Faith

Last Saturday a group from our church was blessed to serve some of our neighbors.  Trash was picked up off the street, lawns were mowed and trimmed, fallen trees were sawed and moved, and lots of overgrowth was removed from houses, bushes, fences, and trees.

At one house, we spent a lot of time on a tree in the front yard.  It was a nice strong tree, but intertwined all throughout it were weeds.  Throughout the tree’s life, it had not received much care.  What was a beautiful tree had become infested with these foreign weeds.  As we worked, more and more overgrowth was removed from the tree.  By the time we left, it looked like a completely different tree.

I think this happens with our faith, and especially the faith of our teens.  As young people grow, they start to develop their own faith.  Thanks to someone in their life, likely a parent or parents, they have some foundational faith knowledge and belief.  That belief is going to grow one way or another, and if we as caring Christian adults allow them to grow on their own, they may end up like the tree with all the weeds.

Teens are faced with a whole mess of media everyday.  And this is not a “let’s all throw our phones away and hide in a dark room” essay.  In fact, I think many in our Christian circles underestimate our teenagers’ ability to handle pop culture properly.  However, because of this massive exposure to social media, music, movies, and the internet, sometimes it’s hard to decipher what is right and what isn’t.  Many people have what I’m going to refer to as a “weeded faith.”  For too long caring Christian adults were unavailable or assuming that “they’ll figure it out,” and now different weeds of the common culture have grown into our faith alongside the branches of truth.

I think that most of this transpires in more controversial topics that for too long Christians have shuddered in fear that a teen might approach them with.  For example, topics of sexual identity.  Many teens have never had a caring adult enter into a conversation with them about this topic outside of the likely “don’t ever do that” or “that’s wrong to do” lecture.  In these realms, the Church is often silent and teens are left to fend for themselves.  It turns out that the current culture is not quiet about these sort of topics, and if that is the only voice someone hears, they are likely to adopt that view into their faith.

And no, I’m not a parent and I never have been.  BUT I have been a teenager, and I am part of a generation that is largely a result of this phenomenon.  Too often adolescents are left to spiritually fend for themselves because they feel like they will be judged for having questions or because they believe they will get the same short and easy answer that doesn’t seem to cut it.

It’s time for the church to try and take care of some of these weeds.  No these conversations are not easy to have, and no these conversations are not always fun.  For too long we have looked the other way and chosen to believe, “Our teens don’t deal with that stuff.”  We need not only to simply be open to the conversation, but we need to initiate an open conversation on these tough topics.

Passing down faith to the next generation is impossible without verbally expressing our views and values.  Someone is going to speak into the lives of our church’s youth, and it is up to us to make sure that they are hearing truth.

On Tradition

Maybe you’ve heard the sentence, “Well, we’ve always done it this way.”  Maybe you’ve used this sentence before, I know I have.  This was likely said as a response to some new idea or proposal to change the way something is done.  If you’re a church member, you’ve probably heard this phrase in relation to church.  More than a normal group of people, churches are especially change-averse, and there are many reasons for that.  Many church members have fond memories of years past.  We like to remember the good things.  Sometimes we forget the pitfalls of our traditions because we our not individually affected negatively by them.

So before I go any further, I would like to clarify that I am not against church traditions.  Sometimes traditions just need a little tweaking, and sometimes traditions have lost their luster and keeping them on life-support is more costly to the Kingdom of God than it is beneficial.

I’m glad that two millennia ago there was a man named Jesus who saw through what had become vain tradition.  In Luke chapter 15, some of the religious elite came to Jesus and asked him why his disciples weren’t following the age-old tradition of washing their hands before eating.  Jesus’ response to them must’ve hurt, and it should convict us as well.  Jesus asks them why they are valuing their traditions over the commands of God.  Jesus says that they are refusing to honor their parents by saying that they couldn’t help because they had to donate all of their resources to God.  Jesus says, “You cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition.”  Ouch!

See, our traditions are fine until they have replaced the word of God and our call to grow and serve the Kingdom.  When we care more about holding onto our worship style than proclaiming the good news of Jesus to lost people, we’re in trouble.  When we do what we’ve always done instead of what we should be doing, we’re in trouble.  All over this nation, churches are shrinking where traditionally church has been an aspect of the culture, meanwhile in many other parts of the world where Christianity has been outlawed or minimized, God’s Kingdom is exploding.  Religious people like myself may be tempted to stay in our comfort zone and live, minister, and worship in our routine, but maybe God is calling us out of that.  Maybe God is calling us out of the rut and pitfalls of our traditional hand-washing and into the great feast that has been prepared for us.  We are cheating ourselves by living in the confinements of our lackluster traditions, and we are cheating those who we could be ministering to.

I don’t mean this to be an “I’m right, you’re wrong” essay.  In this I may be the chief of sinners.  But we must ask God for the desire to follow Him into the world.  And if you’re like me, you may not be there yet.  Please join me in praying for ourselves and our church communities.  Please pray that we may be given evangelistic spirits and a desire to sacrifice our egos for the sake of the good news of Jesus.

Traditionally, when people died, they stayed in the tomb, but Jesus didn’t.  Many of our churches are headed towards death without a transformation of the Spirit in our communities.  Let us be a generation filled with the Spirit that breathes life into the dry bones of our communities.

“Father in heaven, holy is your name. Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever! Amen.”

Peace be with you!

A Love Letter

I thank my God every time that I remember you.”

This is how Paul starts off his letter to the Philippians, and this is how I would start off my love letter to the Donelson Church of Christ.

I am overcome with nostalgic affection when I remember the people of God who have known me from birth.  These people have surrounded me and my family with love and care for the past 23 years of my life.  The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” rings true in my life and in the lives of many others who were so fortunate to be a part of the church of my youth.

It’s important to remember that the Church is a group of people, not a building.  When I say that I love the Donelson church, I am not referring to a building, though I do have many fond memories on the church property.  I remember tripping and busting my lip on a pew, I remember karate chopping another boy on the playground in preschool (I wasn’t allowed to watch Power Rangers for a while after that one), I remember being baptized in a frigid baptistry in November 2008 when the water heater was broken, and I remember many of the technical fouls our church league basketball team acquired.  But the Donelson church is not a building, it is a group of people who have walked with me from birth until now and will continue to walk with me for years to come.

I remember all of the Sunday School teachers who poured so much into our time together and loved us despite our being ungrateful and occasionally disruptive.  I remember the youth group coaches who gave us their time outside of church service and treated us like family.  I remember our home church that was a blessing to our family for many years.  I remember the many counselors that I had at Church Camp, and then later I remember all the campers that were in my cabin when I was a counselor.

Being part of the Donelson church is how I first discovered that I loved youth ministry.  I learned that church is more than a Sunday morning production.  I was blessed as I learned that people were going to care for me long after I graduated from high school.  The church partnered with me as I pursued my passion for missions.  Though I left for summers at a time, I always felt right at home when I returned.  The Donelson church has played one of the largest roles in who I am today.

I would be lacking if I did not acknowledge the immense blessing of my parents valuing the community of Christ.  I truly grew up in a Deuteronomy 6 house.  No, they are not perfect people, and they were not perfect parents, no one can be, but I am sure there has not been a day in my life that I have not been prayed for.  There is no replacement for the influence of a parental figure in the life of a child or teen.  No youth minister can replace the influence of a parent.

That said, I was also fortunate to experience the blessing of a consistent youth minister.  Loving a knuckle-headed teen like I was isn’t always easy.  Whether I was disruptive or even outright defiant, I was still treated with love and care.  After high school, I have been fortunate to continue that relationship as I fostered my passion for youth ministry.  Having that channel for formative conversation has always been an advantage for me.

Yes, I have gotten to experience this great Christian community.  If you’re reading this, you may be thinking “Wow, that’s what the Church is supposed to be! It must be a perfect group of people!”  I can assure you that it is not a perfect group of people.  That’s the beauty of it.  God can take the messiest of people and use them for His perfect plan.  For two thousand years, God has been using churches, just like this church of my youth, to bless the next generation of Christ followers.  It is far too easy to get bogged down in the dysfunction of our churches.  Let’s be a people who focus on God, and let the rest take care of itself.

This past Sunday, I was prayed for by the church as I set to get started on a new chapter of God’s story for my life.  It was a moment that I hope to never forget.  At the beginning of Hebrews 12 it reads “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  To this point in my life, the Donelson church has been the greatest cloud of witnesses I could ask for.  Because of those who have gone before us in the faith and those who are all around us spurring us onward, we are able to follow Christ to the fullest extent.  I am thankful to the Donelson church for giving me support over the past 23 years and for the support that I will still receive in the future.

The body of Christ is a wonderful thing given to us by God and bound together by the Holy Spirit.  Let us love God, and let us love people.


 

For the Kingdom,

Michael

Identity Crisis

Looking back over my 22 years on earth, I see a lot of different things that I have done.  I also see the different people that I have been along the way.  Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you.  Let me explain…

Throughout my life, if you asked me to describe myself, my answers would be different based on what I was into in that moment, or who I was trying to be.  I remember in elementary school, I thought I was THE smartest kid in the whole school.  So, in order to prove my intellectual superiority, I entered into the 3rd grade spelling bee.  I studied a little, my mom quizzed me and whatnot, so I felt very confident going in.  Obviously, I was a little nervous, there was going to be a lot of people there.

*I take the stage behind the podium for the first word.*

“Michael, your word is museum.”

“Ok… m-u-s-u-e-m.”

“That’s incorrect.  The correct spelling is m-u-s-e-u-m.”

*I start crying as I walk to my mom.*

Well, that was disappointing.  Later one of my teachers said, I bet you’ll never forget how to spell that word, will you?  She was right, I didn’t.  Why do teachers have to be right all of the time?  They’re like moms, moms are always right.

So I was determined to take my rightful place among the top spellers in the land.  I entered into the 4th grade spelling bee.  I studied exponentially more.  My mom quizzed me a whole bunch.  I was ready.  I felt like Rocky Balboa before his fight with Ivan Drago (Rocky IV).  I glided through the first several rounds with ease.  This was my year, I just new it.  And it was down to me and my arch nemesis, Bianca.  This wasn’t the first time we had squared off, she was also impressive when it came to multiplication tables.

*I step to the podium*

“Michael, your word is collage.”

“uhh… (palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy) c-o-l-a-u-g-e.”

“That is incorrect.  The correct spelling is c-o-l-l-a-g-e.”

*I step back.  Bianca steps to the podium.*

“Bianca, if you spell this correctly, you will win the spelling bee.  Your word is banana

“b-a-n-a-n-a”

*My heart burns with rage.*

I know what you’re thinking, totally unfair, right?  SHE SHOULD HAVE HAD TO SPELL COLLAGE!!!  I had been snubbed, yet again, by my imperfections and a broken system.  This was unjust to say the least.  To make it worse, my little brother Joel won the 2nd grade spelling bee in a landslide, then the 3rd grade, then the 4th.

If I actually look deeper at why I was so upset, I realize that these were not simple losses of spelling bees, they were losses of my identity.

Throughout middle school and high school, I tried to find my identity in other things.  I tried to find my identity in football.  The thing about that was, I was no good at football.  And in high school, I was injured most of the time.  I also tried to find my identity in being the funny guy.  You know this type of person, they have to be the funniest person in the room at all times.  But someone always got more laughs than me.

In college, I tried to find my identity in being all Christian author-y.  I read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and wanted to be just like him.  I started a blog – this blog – to show my skills as a writer.  I read Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, and I wanted to be just like him.  I started wearing bandanas to show how pacifistic I was.  I thought that being a pacifist was the coolest.

See, I was so busy trying to be all of these different things, that somewhere along the way, I forgot to be me.

One of my favorite quotes from the recent Olympic season is from Simone Biles (I know, you were expecting America’s new hero and role model, Ryan Lochte. /s).  In an interview, Simone Biles, darling of the U.S.A., made the statement, “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, I’m the first Simone Biles.”  It would be easy for her to feel some need to get as many medals as Phelps or Bolt, or to accept that she is another exceptional Olympic athlete who should be mentioned in the same sentence as those two icons.  Biles is a terrific athlete, and there has never been another like her.  Despite all of that, she is focused on being the best Simone Biles that she can be.

That is the point isn’t it!?  God has made us all unique and different!

We do ourselves and the Kingdom of God a disservice when we place our identity in anything other than being children of God existing for the redemption of the world.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its parts form one body, so it is with Christ.    1 Corinthians 12:12

We are all differently gifted and blessed by God to serve in ways that only we can!  We are members of the body of Christ, created for a specific purpose, and together, God will do powerful things.

 

Peace and Blessings,

-Michael