The great Spanish Saint Theresa of Avila once made this observation that when we place our trust in Jesus, "The pay starts in this life." It's true even in the really hard and sad things. This past Saturday was a really hard day for my family. Our dog Ellie Mae had lived a full life of 13 years, and now all of the muscle mass in her hind legs were gone and her hips had given out. Our dear vet simply said, "When the wheels go out on a dog, that's pretty much the end of their life." Suddenly as we watched her nobly try to make her way through each day, we knew we had to make the hard decision to end her suffering. I want to protect the specifics of my family's privacy but I can share with you my own private pain of seeing their tears.But you know what? The pay still does start in this life even when you're going through the dark valleys. We were able to experience the dear closeness of God in the middle of the sadness. Even in the presence of tears I watched our kids go to God's word for hope, pour out their hearts to God in prayer, and comfort each other better than I could comfort them. To top it all off we saw God answer every one of our prayers about the way we wished to honor our loved pet as her life ended. I gotta tell you it's weird not waking up with Ellie Mae at my feet today, sitting with me in front of the fire as I read God's word. But our sadness is filled with the comfort of God which is just a foretaste of the final comfort my kids were reading about on Saturday where it says in Revelation 21: 4 "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
This coming Friday would have been my Mom's 84th birthday, but God called her home on Leap Day of 2012. I've been thinking about my Mom this morning and I realize how much I miss her. Oh I absolutely take great joy in knowing she, who was so trapped in a body that had betrayed her through Parkinson's disease, now skips and dances in heaven. She is free, and yet I miss her. I miss those conversations where I could tell her about the entire emotional terrain of my thoughts and feelings. She would listen to anything I waned to share. I miss her laugh, her way of asking very wise questions, and I miss her playing her piano and singing to her God. I know I'll see her again, but King Solomon rightly said in Ecclesiastes "Love is stronger than death." I'm thankful for who Amy Lewis was, and for who she now is shining radiant in the presence of her Heavenly Father. My heart goes out to all of you, my readers, who are missing a loved one taken from you. May God turn your lament into a love song.
We had just wrapped up our community group last night and Martin was standing in front of our front door putting on his shoes to leave. Suddenly the door pushed him forward, almost knocking him over, and we heard Adam on the other side of the door. He said, "I'm so sorry but you have to come out here and look at this!!" Adam was getting into the car with his wife Rachel and just happened to look up to see last nights Blood Moon eclipse, and he couldn't contain his excitement. He raced back toward our front door to grab a bunch of us to look at the spectacle and so we all piled outside to look up at the glory of the heavens. Adam & Rachel Nigh, Kelly Hartell, Martin & Dale Scaiano, with Aleta, my son Josh and myself just stood on our front porch in awe of the blood moon eclipse. Except for my ridiculous "this is amazing" comments no one needed me to say, everyone else just stood there in silent awe of the wonder of God's universe. It was stunning, beautiful, glorious and I'm just happy I got to see it. David wasn't kidding when he wrote "The heaven's declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands" in Psalm 19:1
About 7 years ago I admitted to a dear, and brave, friend that the kind of church he wanted to plant in Santa Cruz might not resonate with that many people. My friend Rob Patterson had been given a heart and a vision by God to plant an Anglican Church in our city and the church he helped me start 5 years earlier was trying to help him get it planted. Don't get me wrong - I wanted him to do what God was calling him to do but admitted to him that I didn't as deeply connect with the rhythms of liturgy and this made me wonder how many other people would connect with it. I just honestly expressed my concerns for him and his family because I didn't know how many other people would resonate with an Anglican expression of Christian faith.It's such a blessing to be proven so very wrong 7 years later! Yesterday I met up with Rob and heard one report after another of how God is blessing the work of Redeemer Anglican Church. New people are coming to know Jesus. People who've been hurt and/or not well-served by the church are finding rich community. I don't talk about a lot of numbers (because really how useful is it?) but their church now has 50-60 people coming regularly, with even more coming on some weekends. Apparently God knows exactly what He is doing and I love being proven wrong. May God continue to bless Rob Patterson, his team, and the mission of Redeemer Anglican Church.
Our dog Ellie is getting older, which is requiring a whole lot more tender loving care from our entire family. For Christmas we got her a set of bones that she absolutely loves. She takes her bone, and goes outside and spends hours with it just happily gnawing away. It makes us happy to see her happy. But here's the thing - her love of that bone has made us lose sleep. When we leave her bones outside, she ends up dreaming about her bone, waking up in the middle of the night, and letting us know that she needs to get outside to be with her bone at 2am. I'm not loving the sleep deprivation caused by her love for her bones. But I can say as I watch her gnaw on her latest bone this morning that I want to desire God in the way she desires her bone. King David wrote in the Psalm 77 "I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned." I want to be drawn to God today.
I've been thinking about this for the past few months and I've made a decision. In 2019 I'm going to make a change and I want my readers to know about it. The age of the blog is dwindling. There is a growing conversation on the internet that the age of blogging, that peaked around 2008, is shifting to other forms of social media. Also, in this last year I've felt more of a drain around writing this blog each week that I didn't feel in the beginning. When I started this blog 7 years ago I did it because I found writing was a life-giving, creative outlet for me. As time has gone on I've felt this blog become more of a chore than an outlet. Finally, I've been feeling a strong tug from God, and strong encouragement from my wife, to sit down and write a book about health in the church. I know me, and I know I won't be able to continue writing a blog and also try to wrap my heart and mind around a book that can help other churches. Nothing is going to change immediately. I will continue to post on this blog until the end of April, but when May dawns this blog will have run its course. I just wanted all of you to know in advance and to say thanks for reading Suspicion Of God through all of these years.
It seems like most people don't like the morning. I love the morning. It's probably the introvert in me that needs solitude in order to recharge my internal battery. There's no better time than the morning to enjoy solitude and time with God. I love how the sun begins to come up and the trees seem to almost catch on fire as the day begins. Every morning reminds me of the newness of opportunity and the possibilities that lay before me as God goes before me in the new day. I know. If you're not a morning person you're just going to read this post and say "bah. humbug" but I just wanted to share with you a picture from the front of my house this morning to show you what I mean. Mornings with God are cool!
Today is usually the day when we look back at the year that was. I don't know about you, but my normal method of operation is to look back on my year and think of ways I could have done better, and the ways things didn't turn out the way I wanted them to turn out. I tend to look back with a view to some kind of new years resolution to do better or be better. Clearly I'm a recovering control freak who just tends to think I'm in way more control than I actually am. But as I'm getting ready to step into 2019 I want to invite you, my reader, to do something with me. Let's not look back at the ways we failed, or the ways life didn't go the way we preferred. Let's look back at 2018 and see the ways God showed up, the ways God very much came to our rescue, brought surprising blessing, and was present when we needed Him. I want that to be my focus as I wrap up 2018 as my reminder that the same God who showed up in my past is the same God that goes with me into 2019. And that reality is far more significant than any new year's resolution I can or can't keep!
It's not just beginning to look a lot like Christmas. It's almost Christmas and I hope that you've been enjoying the ride toward the celebration of the birth of Jesus. I hope that maybe you've even enjoyed the messiness of Christmas. Of course our nostalgia about Christmas's past erase all the messiness of the past, and leaves us hoping for some form of pristine goodness Christmas just can't deliver. So I hope you can enjoy both the good things that come during this holiday right along with the messy things. Because it's the goodness of God found in the messy that we really experience the presence of God's greatness and goodness.You know one of the things that has stood out to me as I've read through the story of Christ's birth is this one line that the angel says to the shepherds in Luke 2. The angel tells the shepherds that the Messiah has been born, and then says "this shall be a sign to you. You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger." The Jewish people, at the time of Christ's birth, were looking for a big audacious sign from God that He was finally going to save the day for the whole world. For them, just like for us, a sign needed to be so overwhelming and convincing and spectacular that it would be indisputable to everyone. But God's sign that He really was at work to save the day for the whole world was both marvelous and messy. A baby was born, wrapped in the kind of cloth that was normally wrapped around marvelous newborns in the 1st century. But that baby, who happened to be the marvelous king of the world, was lying in a messy donkey spittled manger. This was the sign that God had come into our messiness, and is still present in our messiness, to redeem us and the whole world. So instead of saying Merry Christmas, allow me to say Messy Christmas to you my readers.
I'm looking at the lovely aftermath of a children's theatre showing of "The Muppet's Christmas Carol" that our church hosted in the building where we worship. It was so fun to see what kids can do, how sweet they are, and how fun it is to bring families together to celebrate the stories and the joy found in the holidays. It's also very real when you stare at tinsel on the floor, card board flats stacked up, and so many other things that need to be taken down. At the same time we have carpet cleaners sucking all of the nasty out of our carpets before Christmas. After that's all done, our team is going to jump in to create a beautiful space for our Christmas eve by candlelight service. As I was doing the work I was processing the question, "Why am I doing this?" Am I doing this to feel good about myself? No - that would be a waste of time. Am I doing this to impress other people? I guess that answer would have been "yes" in my past, but not anymore. Am I doing this to be a good host to new guests? I guess kinda yes but also not really. As I thought about it more, I realized that even all the unseen, mundane, behind the scenes stuff related to Christmas is an act of worship for me and our team. Obviously this can be done for so many other reasons, but the reason I want to participate in the decorations, hosting, and welcoming of people into our faith community's celebration of Jesus is because I want to express to God my adoration of Him for the sake of others. Who knows, maybe this thought might help you as you go through all of your decorating, hosting and welcoming of others throughout the next two weeks.
Never ever overlook a moment when someone is taking the time to thank you for how you've helped them in their journey through life! When that happens you absolutely have to stop everything and see how miraculous it is that you've made an impact on anyone, let alone a positive enough impact that they took the time to say "thank you" from the bottom of their heart.Jesus once told his disciples this parable about how God would divide out people. Jesus talked about how God would say to His sheep, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." Matthew 25: 34-35 But watch how clueless the righteous sheep are about all of these quiet acts of love and service. They don't remember ever actually doing any of it. They say to God, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?" “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." Matthew 25: 37-40Honestly, that parable has always made me a little nervous because my life hasn't really been marked by inviting every stranger into my home, going to lots of prisons or clothing naked people. But I think what Jesus is getting at is that when I'm serving Him, and out of the overflow of my love for Him I'm loving others, I just make an impact on others that pleases Him, and helps others, without me really even being aware I'm doing anything. That's what I experienced the other day. A very kind individual said to me, "Andy I just want to thank you for the investment you've made in my life. I remember clearly when you said . . ." They shared with me something I don't have any memory of saying, and yet God used what came out of my mouth to help them and encourage them. I treasure moments like that! I hope I can live out even more moments of service to God and love for others, where I'm so non-focused on me that I don't even remember doing it until God brings it to my attention in eternity.
I sat at the head of our long dining table looking around at the great wealth God has granted to the church where I serve. I marveled at how "rich" we were with God's provision. Aleta and I were hosting our annual staff Christmas party, bringing all of the staff leaders to our home and getting all of us around our table to enjoy laughter and a meal together. As people enjoyed their meal I looked at each person who is on staff, and I thought back to each person who had been on staff in the past, and I thought, "We are a *rich church." Here's what I mean. We are not the biggest attended church. We don't have the biggest building. In fact we don't have a building to call our own. We don't have the biggest budget. But we've had leaders in the past, and we have leaders in the present, who really love Jesus Christ. They want to serve God's purposes with their lives. They seek His face, and they seek to honor Him in their marriages, their homes, their jobs, and in their service to the mission of Faith Community Church. Truth be told. I'm more than fine not being the kind of "rich" church that hits the metrics of the most bodies, buildings, and bucks when I get to work alongside the more important riches of humble, humorous, real godly people pursuing Christ together. Thank you leaders for who you are and for all that you do to honor Christ!
The pace is getting hectic now. We're all filling the calendar with office parties, church events, shopping, neighborhood gatherings and more. There is a lot of rushed movement around the holidays, but consider this thought today. It's something I stumbled into as an insight in my own life a few years ago: God is never in a hurry and He's always on time. Can you move as slow as God? As the pace quickens during the holidays, see if you can slow it down closer to God's pace, and maybe in slowing it down you're more fully able to celebrate Christmas.
It's funny how easy it is for me to tell others what to do. I sound so wise when I sit with other pastors, or anyone in ministry, who is dealing with a difficult conflict they'd rather ignore and I tell them, "I know it's hard, but you've got view conflict as a doorway to better things." I'm not wrong when I say this. When you refuse the fight or flight response, and you actually try to engage people when there's a conflict, most of the time that conflict becomes a doorway to greater understanding, and maybe even intimacy. Yeah, so true - until I end up in a conflict.When I end up in a conflict I find myself wanting to disregard my own counsel. I want to read the other person's mind, assume I know what they are thinking, why they're doing what they're doing, and maybe even demonize them a little bit (or a lot). I find myself in my own fight or flight reaction mode rather than settling down and working my way towards the person to talk it out and then work it out.I'm sharing this because maybe you can relate. You know in your head that conflict has the potential to be so helpful in the end when it's handled well. But you feel that twist in your gut that just wants to avoid the conflict by flight, or put away the conflict by a fight. I'll end with this, as I look back on this past week of dealing with some conflicts, I continually find that conflict can be a doorway to better things.
I'm sitting here sipping my coffee on a rainy morning, looking at our fantastic Christmas tree, and listening to Bing Crosby sing "White Christmas." As I listen to Bing croon it's funny how much my mind gets all nostalgic and thinks back to "simpler times" when it seemed like life was so much easier and everyone was friendlier, and the list just goes on in my head. It's funny how easily I can either be so romanticized by the past, or so captivated the promise of the future that I check out in the reality of the present. In the book of Ecclesiastes 7:10 King Solomon wisely warned, "Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions."Recently I was listening to a very thoughtful podcast produced by Christianity Today that was addressing the polarization of political dialogue and one of the commentators made this insightful observation that has stuck with me. They said something to the effect, "The conservative right tends to be in love with and long for nostalgia, while the liberal progressive left tends to be in love with and long for utopia. The problem is that neither the pursuit of nostalgia nor the pursuit of utopia gets us what we most need." So I'm gonna enjoy my hot coffee, and I'm gonna keep listening to Bing, but I'm going to do it content in this present moment in which God has placed me embracing the fact that "today is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it." (Ps. 118)
Last Friday my family entered into our long-standing tradition of cutting down our Christmas tree at the summit in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Our tradition is that we go to Albright's donuts in Santa Cruz, we pick up a dozen donuts, then we head out to find the perfect Christmas tree. We do all of this rain or shine. This year we did it in the rain! We trudged our way through the trees, as each tree shared all of the water they had on their limbs on our clothing, and we searched for the perfect tree. Of course we found the perfect tree - because we always tell ourselves that's exactly we found each year. Of course I had to whine as I stooped in the mud, cut the tree, carried the tree, tied the tree to the car, and got the tree in the house - you're not a real man unless you whine while you work. These are the things that make up being a family with traditions during the holidays.Then as I went outside to dump some extra trimmings I saw my neighbor's garage door open. He lost his wife to lung cancer one month ago and all of their family traditions were obliterated. I looked at his quiet house without any extra cars around and I thought of his pain. The holidays have a funny way of magnifying the human experience. They magnify our joy and they magnify our pain. So as I'm now in the thick of the holiday season I'm gonna try to be mindful of those enduring pain.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It was something that most people would see and think, "Yeah that's what's supposed to happen" but the fact is it was a miracle. Our church body was participating in communion, remembering the broken body and shed blood of Jesus offered for us so that we might have life abundant and eternal. The people made their way to the back with loved ones, and then one by one they took the bread and dipped it into the cup. When everyone's doing something together like that, it doesn't really look all that special when you see someone take communion.But what I saw was special. I watched a husband and wife who had been completely transformed by Jesus, hold each other, pray together and take communion. She had once been living on the streets lost in the haze of addiction, but she'd found Jesus and Jesus had changed her life. He too been lost in the haze of addiction, to the point that he'd come this close to losing his life more than a few times. But he also had found Jesus, and Jesus had changed his life. So when I saw this married couple, with this back story, take communion together in their pursuit of Jesus I marveled. I marveled at the mystery of how Jesus really can transform lives. I marveled that God can actually use a church to help people find Jesus. I marveled that I, of all people, get to be a part of radical transformation stories like theirs.I wish all of you who read this blog a Happy Thanksgiving. May you marvel at the many ways God has mysteriously blessed you, provided for you, and loved you in spite of yourself.
Just today I read an article in a leadership journal from a Pastor of a thriving "normal sized" church - the kind of church that's been called "small." In the article Karl Vaters correctly observes: "Different churches contribute to the growth of the kingdom of God in different ways. Some are senders. Some are builders. Some are multipliers. Some are spiritual hospitals. And some are spiritual boot camps."Here's my question to you, the readers of this blog: What kind of church do you think God has wired Faith Community Church to be? Are we sender, builder, multiplier, spiritual hospital or spiritual boot camp?I have some thoughts but I'm curious what you might think.
Yesterday was the official celebration of Veteran's Day, and today is the national holiday. War is indeed a brutal thing I've heard described to me in vivid detail by Veterans. The violence that war enacts not only ends far too many young lives, but war leaves a dark mark on any person who happens to endure its horrors. So today I want to say thank you to all the Vets who did their best to serve our country. At the same time I long for the day the prophet Isaiah described so long ago:He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Isaiah 2:4
I'm not here to cheer or cry the morning after the elections. I'm here to look back upon old, and yet fresh, wisdom. May the closing words of Abraham Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address inform all of our hearts in the aftermath of yesterday's election.With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. - Abraham Lincoln