A Cross In Our Front Yard…With Your Name On It

My son wants to build a cross in our front yard…with your name on it.

I’m the chief story reader in our home. Our 4-year old son has developed an elaborate bedtime story routine. Each night, I’m required to read from a children’s devotional book and three different children’s storybook Bibles. After reading, I must also sing three songs before kissing him goodnight: Jesus Loves Me, Silent Night, and Jingle Bell Rock. I have no clue how those last two became nightly requirements.

One Bible (The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones) must always be read last. And he always requests the “Jesus dying on the cross” story. The illustrations are beautiful. One page depicts Jesus hanging on the cross with a sign above him (the sign described in the Gospel of John 19:19-21). As we read the story again the other night, our 4-year-old interrupted me:

“Daddy, I want to build a cross in our front yard.”

“A cross?”

“Yeah, I want to build a cross and put a sign on it.”

“A sign? What would you put on the sign”

“People would come by and put their names on it and then I’ll erase their names.”

“Why would you erase their names?”

“For more people to come by and put their names on the sign.”

“And then what would you do?”

“And then I’ll erase their names so other people can put their names on it.”

As I gazed into that little boy’s eyes, I had an Emperor’s New Clothes moment. My son has no clue how powerful is words are, but I do.

While only 4-years old, he already understands the Cross has a message for us today; it’s not merely a historical artifact. 

Our children’s Bible pictures Jesus on a cross, with a sign hanging above him but… 

Without being taught, he concludes the sign on the cross should really have your name on it…and my name. 

He’s reasoned, ‘if that Cross has a connection with any one person, the connection is to usnot Jesus.’

How true, son. How true. One day our little boy will grow out of Bibles filled with pictures and large text. And he will eventually read the conversation between two men who died on crosses next to Jesus:

“And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).

I think of words from the Bible, Isaiah 53:4-6:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Our son’s sign idea reminds me about the “Deep Magic” in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. One day, we’ll read this book together and come to that famous dialogue between the Witch and Aslan:

“You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill…. And so that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property… unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.”

Last, our son understands the Cross is for public viewing…as public as a front yard next to a busy road.

Sadly, we use our front yard as much as most suburban families, which is… not at all. We spend all outdoor play time the back yard. The back yard is peaceful. The back yard is safe. The back yard is fenced-in so neither children, nor dog, can escape. And the backyard is private. 

Our front yard, however, is none of those things. Several neighbors do not have cars. A bus stop and a Dollar General are both a few hundred feet from our front door. Put all those things together and what do you have? You have people cutting through our front yard at all hours of the day. Multiple homeless pass by each week. Two busy roads intersect at our house, bringing several hundred cars by our front yard each day. And a Goodwill donation drop-off site across from our garage cause 100+ people to stop, unload their unwanted belongings, and get back in their cars. Our front yard is not private. 

This little redhead’s father has spent years keeping his faith private…discreet. I’m most outspoken when preaching before other Christians, or typing before a computer screen. But our sweet boy only knows one way to express his faith–publicly, before all the world. Is this why Jesus praises the faith of children?

During the average week, our 4-year old might spend 2 minutes in our front yard. Yet he doesn’t want this cross in the back yard where we spend our time. He wants it in the front yard, where everyone else can see it, see their name on it, and then see their name erased.

“I, I am the One who erases all your sins, for my sake;
    I will not remember your sins (Isaiah 43:25 NCV).

Yes, it probably makes more sense to see our names on that cross, than to see Jesus’ name up there- the only person who “knew no sin.” But the historical reality is that Jesus’ name was on that cross. It’s as if our names are erased from that cross because his name is there instead. Or, to use the Apostle Paul’s words, “one died for all, and therefore all died.” And that, my friends, is Good News.

I’ll never pressure our boys to choose the same profession as their Dad. But I’m already wondering if our 4-year old might follow in my footsteps. If I may borrow a message from this 4-year old preacher,

I pray you see your name on that cross, hanging above where traitors died. But I also pray you see your name erased, by the One who gladly “erases all your sins.” And I pray you also want to ‘go public’ with Christ’s Cross. 


O Lamb of God, for sinners slain,
I plead with thee, my suit to gain, —
I plead what thou hast done:
Didst thou not die the death for me?
Jesus, remember Calvary,
And break my heart of stone.

Take the dear purchase of thy blood,
My Friend and Advocate with God,
My Ransom and my Peace,
Surety, who all my debt hast paid,
For all my sins atonement made,
The Lord my Righteousness.

O let thy Spirit shed abroad
The love, the perfect love of God,
In this cold heart of mine!
O might he now descend, and rest,
And dwell forever in my breast,
And make it all divine!

O Lamb of God, For Sinners Slain— Charles Wesley, 1749

Frailty From My Father

I woke up Tuesday feeling like I had the flu, which is why I had to walk the dog.

No, I didn’t actually have the flu. If I had, I would have stayed in bed longer than noon. I’ve been diagnosed with three auto-immune disorders. Tuesday’s illness was just another Fibromyalgia flare-up: flu-like symptoms (without the fever), extreme body aches, deep bone pain, muscle weakness, mental fog, debilitating fatigue. These flare-ups come often when the weather gets cold. [In fact, I typed most of this two days later as I lay in bed from another mild flare-up].

In my case, only two things help a Fibromyalgia flare-up: Rest and Exercise. I don’t know why exercise helps. But that’s with most things about Fibromyalgia.

I’d already been resting since noon. That’s why it was time for me now to walk our dog, Bear. Everything in me wants to get back in bed. But I will myself to go.

We drive to the park. Our 100 pound chocolate Lab begins excitedly whimpering like a baby as we pull into the parking lot. I put on Bear’s leash, put my headphones in, and start the newest audiobook I downloaded from the library…The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.


In 1640 Nicolas Herman joined a Discalced Carmelite monastery in Paris. “Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection,” as he became known, was a humble monk who is most famous for learning to pray at all times, regardless of situation. He spent most of his years in the monastery as a cook, where he learned to “practice the presence of God” while preparing a meal or washing dishes.

People recognized this godly man’s spiritual discernment. They began learning from him in-person and through written letters to and from him. The Practice of the Presence of God is mainly a compilation of letters Lawrence wrote to others. Shortly after Lawrence’s death, his letters were compiled and published in 1692. For centuries, this little book has influenced Protestants and Catholics. As I read about the book’s history, I often saw that both John Wesley and A.W. Tozer recommended this book to others. Read a short Wikipedia bio on Brother Lawrence here.


I checked the temperature before we left home for the park. It was 56 degrees and a little windy. But this wooded area next to the Trinity River is often several degrees lower than the official temperature.

The cold makes Bear frisky; it makes my bones ache. Cold weather is always hard on my body. The audiobook plays in my ears. The fall air feels wet. The trees are turning all around us. Many of their leaves already lay on the ground. Various shades of green, red, yellow, and brown squish beneath my feet.

Before I awoke that morning, my body’s pain sneaked into my subconscious brain. I had just finished running a marathon on uneven terrain. My feet and legs were throbbing. Then I woke up.

Nope. No marathon. Just a night sleeping in a soft bed…and pain…pain from a ‘hidden’ illness without any known cause or cure.

Centuries-old wisdom from a lowly cook and dishwasher, letters written to those seeking spiritual counsel, speaks into my ears for several minutes as I force my tired legs to move. I begin listening where I stopped the day before. I listen to the Eighth Letter. The Ninth Letter. The Tenth Letter. And then I hear these words :

“Eleventh Letter: I do not pray that you may be delivered from your pains; but I pray earnestly that God gives you strength and patience to bear them as long as He pleases. Comfort yourself with Him who holds you fastened to the cross. He will loose you when He thinks fit. Happy are those who suffer with Him. Accustom yourself to suffer in that manner, and seek from Him the strength to endure as much, and as long, as He judges necessary for you.
Worldly people do not comprehend these truths. It is not surprising though, since they suffer like what they are and not like Christians. They see sickness as a pain against nature and not as a favor from God. Seeing it only in that light, they find nothing in it but grief and distress. But those who consider sickness as coming from the hand of God, out of His mercy and as the means He uses for their salvation, commonly find sweetness and consolation in it.
I pray that you see that God is often nearer to us and present within us in sickness than in health. Do not rely completely on another physician because He reserves your cure to Himself. Put all your trust in God. You will soon find the effects in your recovery, which we often delay by putting greater faith in medicine than in God. Whatever remedies you use, they will succeed only so far as He permits. When pains come from God, only He can ultimately cure them. He often sends sickness to the body to cure diseases of the soul. Comfort yourself with the Sovereign Physician of both soul and body.

Twelfth Letter: If we were well accustomed to the practice of the presence of God, bodily discomforts would be greatly alleviated. God often permits us to suffer a little to purify our souls and oblige us to stay close to Him.
Take courage. Offer Him your pain and pray to Him for strength to endure them. Above all, get in the habit of often thinking of God, and forget Him the least you can. Adore Him in your infirmities. Offer yourself to Him from time to time. And, in the height of your sufferings, humbly and affectionately beseech Him (as a child his father) to make you conformable to His holy will. I shall endeavor to assist you with my poor prayers.”


I rewind and listen to these words again. Then I rewind again. I meditate on these words. I’m still meditating on these words.

How do I view my illness? Do I “find nothing in it but grief and distress?”  Or do I “find sweetness and consolation in it?”

I reflect on Lawrence’s prayer “I pray that you see that God is often nearer to us and present within us in sickness than in health.” I picture my wife when our little boys are sick, as she holds them in her arms. Our busy 4 and 1-year old boys have no time for snuggling with momma…until they are sick. In sickness, she is happy to hold them against her chest. And they are happy to be held.

When did I become ‘too big’ to be held during sickness? Have I unknowingly done the same with God? I remember how John 13:23 reads in some older translations: “There was reclining on Jesus’ breast one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved” (NAS).

Does God allow (send?) some illnesses? Does he long for us to climb into his arms, resting our head (and “all our cares”) on his chest?

I remember when our 4-year old was younger, mixing up his pronouns as he learns. When he wanted us to hold him, he’d stretch up his arms and say, “hold you.”

I think of our 1-year-old. When he sees me as I walk through the door, he crawls over, gets up on his knees and raises his arms up toward me.

I think of God’s people in the Old Testament. Even in the midst of pain, famine, suffering, and siege, Israel and Judah still did not turn to the arms of God. Am I so different? How often have I relied “completely on another physician,” or medicine, or Internet tip, or more sleep, and gave no thought to relying on God during my pain?


Lawrence’s words gave me new perspective on my illnesses. I will “offer Him my pain.” I will “adore Him in my infirmities.” As I use science, medicine, and exercise to seek healing, I will remember “they will succeed only so far as He permits.” When I am sick, I will climb into God’s lap, let Him wrap mighty arms around me, and consider this frailty from my Father.

“When I get older”


A few weeks back, I had a short conversation with a famous Christian expert/author/professor. I shared my difficulty finding young people preparing for ministry who are willing to serve in churches if the positions don’t pay well.

I attempted to share how I’ve tried obeying God, regardless of how that obedience may affect our bank account. I attempted to share how God honors our obedience by continually surprising us with special donations from generous people, how he provides all our needs.

Instead, he interrupted me. He said I would understand when I was older (or, more precisely, when our kids were older and had expensive extracurricular activities).

A singing group from another church asked if they could lead music at Renovation Community’s worship service tonight. I agreed to the idea.

I kind of thought I was doing them a favor, the chance to showcase for an hour and a half the talents God gave them. The group brought about 35 people from their church to attend with them. Then, these 50+ people took an offering, designating 100% of the money to my wife and me.

I didn’t ask the group to come. I wasn’t strategizing how to increase our giving. I didn’t ask them to take an offering. And I certainly didn’t ask them to collect $909 for my family!
“When I get older,” I pray I never “grow out of” how I now understand God…that he loves his children and faithfully provides all we need as we obediently follow him.

Money comes from God, not people. The best way to make sure my family has the money we need is to do exactly what God wants me to do. God is faithful.

 

“And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:19

Highways, Hedges, and Railroads

I first heard about George* from our husband-and-wife youth directors. They had recently met this new homeless man who moved into our area. A few months later, I finally met George in March 2015. Since our first meeting, I’ve washed his clothes, shared a meal with him at our kitchen table, and spent hours with him in conversation. I’ve invited him to worship with us several times. Occasionally, he joins us.

George has hardly ever asked me for anything, which is rare for the homeless I work with. But he does come to our church building every day to refill his water buckets.

George knows he’s safe on our property. He’s safe to use our water without questions from us or the police. Our city’s police department learned long ago we do not view homeless men on our property as a “nuisance.”

If I’m working in our church gym and suddenly hear the outside water spigot turn on, I know George is outside filling up his buckets. He uses this water to drink, bathe, and do laundry.  When his buckets are full, he walks back to his homeless campsite. For years, George has been content to live in homeless shelters like this. But George finally decided he’s ready for different life.

One of my pastoral colleagues, who serves at a different church, recently contacted me.

“Do you know George?”

Yes, I know him. Is he ok?

“Yes. He told me he wants help.”

Then this dear friend began looking for ways to help George. She contacted Catholic Charities’ Street Outreach Services. Their “SOS Team” would soon make a visit to George, and assess how they could best help him. In case they visited George’s tent when he wasn’t home, they would contact me. A few weeks passed.

One day a few weeks ago, two women arrived at Renovation Community‘s summer day camp and feeding program, Camp FUSE. It was the SOS Team. They tried locating his camp but couldn’t find it. They asked if I would lead them to George.

We crossed a road, knee-high weeds, railroad track, and more tall weeds. We finally walked up to George’s campsite, hidden on one side behind many overgrown bushes and a fence on the other side.

It strikes me that two pastors from Protestant churches and two women representing a Catholic organization all worked together to help this man. Clearly, God does not regard our human-made divisions.

I invite George and the two women to meet inside my office, instead of standing out in the heat. A few days after this meeting, George joins our church’ worship service. We all gathered around him and prayed God would free him from the addictions that have enslaved him many years.


In the Bible’s Book of Luke, Jesus tells a parable (a story created for teaching) about a man who plans a great banquet. He invites many people to his banquet. But the invitees all send back the (stupid) reasons they can’t attend.

Luke 14:21 says “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.'”

The man’s servants obey and return with the new guests but explain there is still more room at the banquet. So the master again sends out his servants. This time, the servants have to travel outside the city’s walls to find guests.

I specifically remembered Luke 14:23 as I came upon George’s camp hidden behind the bushes. The New International Version of Luke 14:23 reads “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.”

But it wasn’t the NIV translation I recalled. As I illegally trespassed on railroad property, traipsed through tall weeds, and passed overgrown bushes, I remembered that Bible verse as translated in the old King James Version:

“And the lord said to the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”

The overgrown bushes reminded me of the “hedges” in Luke 14:23. But a “hedge” in Jesus’ day wasn’t a bush that needed trimming. In Jesus’ day, it was usually a low wall (picture something like an old stone wall in rural England). And highways in Jesus’ day were well-traveled roads outside of ‘city limits.’ Highways were dangerous places in ancient times.

It wasn’t advisable to travel on a highway unless you were in a large caravan of travelers. In the ‘Good Samaritan’ story, the man beaten and left for dead was found on the side of a highway. Robberies (think of ‘highway robbery’) often occurred on highways.

Yet the Master in this story tells his servants to invite disabled and homeless  people they would in the streets and alleys and those they would find along the “highways and hedges.”

Who on earth would hang out along dangerous highways and low walls?

Answer #1: Criminals and the homeless.

Criminals hung out along highways to rob people. Just like today, we tend to carry extra cash when we’re traveling long distances. So highway travelers were great people to rob. And, since most of the Roman soldiers were stationed in cities, deserted highways were great places to commit crimes, away from a soldier’s watchful eye.

The poor also hung out along highways. What better place to beg for money than a busy road filled with travelers with full money-bags? The more people who pass by, the greater the chance someone will give you money. It’s the same reason you often find panhandlers standing at the intersections of interstate off-ramps. But what about those hedges?

I don’t have much experience with homelessness, but I’ve learned a little in the last few years. The best place to sleep at night is somewhere with a roof over your head. If you can’t find that, the next best place to sleep is somewhere against a wall. Walls provide protection from wind and weather. They also provide protection from those who would do you harm. If you sleep with your back against a wall, you know there’s only one direction from which an attacker might come.

Answer #2- Gentiles (In the ancient Jewish mind, ‘people far from God.’)

To make sure this blog post doesn’t become as long as a book, I’ll keep this answer short. Jesus’ listeners almost certainly imagined “Gentiles” as he described these people. To many ancient Jews in Jesus’ day, Gentiles were “outside” God’s territorial walls, so to speak.

In Jesus’ parable, all the “normal” and “godly” people choose not to attend the Great Banquet. But the Master is determined. One way or another, people will fill his banquet hall. So he tells his servants to invite all the unwanted, disabled, poor, dirty, ungodly, and bad people to his banquet.


This is the God I serve. The Jesus who died on the cross loved the robber dying on the cross next to him. The Jesus who walked this earth touched the dirty homeless people of this world. The sinless Jesus of Nazareth invited himself to a dinner at sinful Zaccheus’s house. The “spotless Lamb of God” wasn’t afraid to gently touch the leper. The Jesus who invited me to his Great Banquet also sent me across the street, through the weeds, over the tracks, and behind the overgrown bushes to George’s camp, inviting him to rest in the Master’s House.

The Master’s Servants are called to this kind of work. This is what I try teaching the people I serve, both through the words I share and the ministries we plan. Renovation Community doesn’t officially launch as a church for several months, but we’re already working hard to set our new church’s identity. We want to be a church filled with the “outcasts” from that parable. We want to be a church full of ‘fixer-uppers’ – broken and run-down people transformed by God’s renovation work in our lives.

Jesus commands his servants to invite all the unwanted of this world to eat at God’s great Banquet Table. I’m learning that all the world’s “unwanted” are actually God’s “dearly beloved.”

They are out there. My Master calls me to invite them in.

 

*Not his real name.

Little Black Boys and Black Girls

The gun handle stuck out from his waistband as he stood by the slide. He quickly pulled it out, showing it to my son and me.
“It’s not real. See.”

Memorial Day. I took my oldest son to play at the park. I heard the music blaring before we opened the car doors. A large group gathered in the park pavilion. They brought a high-powered, professional sound system.. My 4-year old son and I were at least 600-700 feet from the speakers, yet we could clearly hear the N-word and F-word countless times over the speakers. The music was also filled with language about having sex with multiple women. An immediate reminder I live in an area very different than that of my childhood. Thankfully, my son paid no attention to the music and began playing with children on the playground.

A little black boy came from around a slide. He wore jeans and a white tank top undershirt. He fidgeted with the bottom of his shirt, pulling it up so everyone could see what he held in his waist band. He walked with a swagger, obviously trying to look like the tough guys he saw on TV (or maybe real life). The gun handle stuck out from his waistband as he stood by the slide. As soon as I saw it, I told him he shouldn’t play with a toy gun like that. I explained it was dangerous to make someone think he had a real gun. He quickly pulled it out, showing it to my son and me.
“It’s not real. See.”

But it looked very real. The orange tip on the end was only visible sign this gun was a toy.
It hit me how dangerous this situation could have been for this boy. Did you catch it?
He quickly pulled it out and showed it to me and my son. What if I had been a police officer? What if this boy had quickly pulled out his realistic gun to show the officer the gun was a toy? “This is how tragic accidents happen,” I thought. “I need to tell his parents.”
I look for the boys’ parents. I can’t find them. It appears he walked from nearby apartments. The boy quickly left. My son and I spent the next 15 minutes playing with other children on the playground. We played with two little black girls. Their loving father kept a watchful eye nearby. He soon had the girls stop playing so they could take big drinks of their water. It was hot that day. This dad and his little girls were not part of the loud party happening on the other side of the park. After I heard the F-word for the umpteenth time, I told my son it was time to go. We said goodbye to the little black girls and hopped in the car.


11 months ago, I shared my journey as a white pastor trying to faithfully serve and love my black neighbors.
I’m still playing “catch-up” a year later. In my formal studies, I ignored conversations and elective classes about racial diversity, holistic economic development, racial equality, etc. I recognized how important such issues were (or maybe I didn’t). But I naïvely believed God would call me to pastor in a setting similar to my upbringing…white and middle-class.
The same racial issues I addressed in that blog post last year are in the forefront of my mind today. I am a white, male pastor who came from a privileged, middle-class two-parent home. Yet, most of the neighbors on my street are Black. To my knowledge, our two boys are the only white children on our street. Our block has many duplexes and small apartments serving those in lower-income brackets. Few households seem to have two parents. Several on the street face unemployment, or under-employment.

God definitely called me to an area that looks different from my upbringing.

Our church attendance leans more to the “white” side than when I wrote that blog post last year. We’ve lost diversity for a few different reasons, most of them have nothing to do with Race. Some people moved away. Some weren’t happy about our church closing and preparing to re-start.

But I do think Race has been a contributing factor. Multicultural churches are a difficult environment for many. “Cultural Fatigue” is real; it becomes most evident around stylistic issues in church (music style, leadership style, clothing style, preaching style, etc). One thing hasn’t changed since last year…our summer day camp and feeding program.
In the summer of 2014, God called our church to step out on faith. On paper (especially our church treasurer’s papers!), our church had no business starting this ministry.  Our 4th annual summer day camp and feeding program is now in full swing. In partnership with the local food bank, we give breakfast, lunch, and a day camp to as many children as our volunteers can handle. Our goal for this ministry has always been the same…provide Christ-centered summer childcare for the poorest families in our community. Families of all socio-economic levels are welcome, but we started the ministry for our poorest neighbors.
Every summer our day camp (Camp FUSE, as we now call it), mainly serves non-white families. The vast majority of those non-white families are Black. Naïve white pastor that I am, “Race” never crossed my mind when we started the camp. I honestly never considered the demographic makeup of our camp attendees. But God has used our summer day camp as a beautiful tool to break down racial barriers.


 

I walked into the gym the other day during camp. Almost instantly, I received a surprise hug from a sweet little black boy. I scan over the group that day. Our white volunteer associate pastor and camp director is playing with the kids. Our two white ministry interns (a third intern is Hispanic) are at the check-in table. A mainly white church youth group is with us for the week. I see the teens throughout the gym, playing with our campers. I’m bothered by the “optics.”

It bothers others, too. A black mom, who sent her daughter to camp last year, emailed me. She asked, “Will there be any African-American adults there this year?” My reply is honest: I hope so, but we don’t have any African-Americans scheduled to volunteer with us; can you help us find some? The woman did not register her daughter.

I keep praying God gives us church and camp volunteer leadership that looks as culturally diverse as our camper attendance. One day God will give us that diversity.

I pry the little black boy’s arms off of my body. He loves giving hugs. He’d give hugs all day long, to every volunteer here, if we let him. He’s mildly autistic and doesn’t always understand expected social norms. This sweet boy asks us to make him paper airplanes. But if they’re not perfect, he throws the airplane away. He then returns and asks we make him another one.

But his autism is mild. My mind begins to consider hypothetical future scenarios. So mild, in fact, he may grow up to be an independent man…a man who can drive a car. But he would still be a mildly autistic black man driving a car. What would happen if he gets pulled over? He’s not good at making eye contact. Would that make him look suspicious? Could he obey the commands he’s given? A few years ago, such questions would have never crossed my mind. But Jesus called me to serve in a place where I’m now constantly thinking about such questions.

When almost all the campers have gone home for the day, I bring over our 4-year-old son. Our fair-skinned redhead plays on a chalkboard with a little black girl. He loves coming to play with the remaining campers. Every day, he asks Momma when he can join Daddy in the gym for day camp.

As my son is playing on the chalkboard, a few older black boys are playing basketball. They’re funny, kind, rambunctious boys. I have a shtick with them. I take the ball and tell them I’ll teach them how to really play basketball. I make an exaggerated granny shot, and completely miss the goal. They love to laugh at me.


An older black boy in our neighborhood is part of our church family. He and his two sisters hardly ever attend our Sunday services. But they rarely miss youth nights with our white husband-and-wife youth directors. 

We invited the youth directors over for dinner a few weeks ago. I live in the church parsonage (the church-owned house on church property). As we sat in our living room, our front door was open. This teenage boy saw our youth directors and came inside our house. We teased him about wearing a hoodie. He always wears a hoodie. It can be 95 degrees outside, but this boy will still wear a hoodie. He stays for an hour, talking and joking with us. Then he leaves… with his hoodie. I would trust this boy to house-sit for us. But I know others may judge his appearance and assume his stroll in the neighborhood spells trouble. I pray for him as he walks out into the evening dusk. Lord, please let him not be wearing that hoodie if he ever gets into trouble with the Law.


August 28 marks 54 years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Of late, I’ve thought much about one line in that speech. It’s the line where Dr. King dreams of a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

My wife and I face “cultural fatigue” as we serve where God has called us. Following Jesus is good, but it is rarely easy. We’re in a setting dissimilar from our neighborhoods as children. I believe God called me to serve our church and community for at least 20 years. This means, our boys will grow up in a church, and on a street, where they will always have opportunities to join hands with “little black boys and black girls.” I look forward to the day when the church their daddy pastors (and the pastoral staff) is just as diverse as our neighborhood.

Social media fills my news feed with tragic stories. Black boys, black men, and some black women are shot and killed. Their faces remind me of the black boys, black dads, and black moms in our day camp. I read the stories of their deaths. I read the stories of the court cases to follow, and the rulings juries and judges give about those who caused the deaths. I am a white pastor, striving to lead a multi-cultural church, with a summer ministry that serves predominantly black families. And my heart hurts. I know God’s heart hurts.

I wish I had paid attention many years ago to discussions about Race. I wish I had more answers. I wish I knew how to help our white church members understand our black neighbors. I wish our black neighbors understood the heart of this naïve white pastor who desperately wants them to feel loved and welcome in our church, but who can’t figure out how to make that happen.


My mind daily swims in a sea of questions for which I have no easy answers. I think of Jesus’ disciples. One time, he told them to all get in the boat to travel to “the other side” of the lake. But then a great storm happened while they were on the lake. If they hadn’t followed Jesus, they could have weathered the storm from the safety of land, inside a dry building. Instead, they’re on a small boat, with hardly any shelter from the rain, in the middle of the lake.

I imagine those disciples on the boat each time a well-meaning friend recommends I pastor a different church, a safer church, a suburban white church. When denominational leaders or other churches with a strong budget (whatever that is) recommend I submit my resume for review, I picture Jesus asleep on that rocking boat.

Jesus does not call everyone to the same work; it’s dangerous to assume otherwise. Jesus has called others to serve in those churches; He has not called me there. Amidst the racial storms taking place in our nation, and in my own community, I see Jesus with me in the boat. No, I do not have answers to all the questions such racial storms have created. But know with certainty I am following the correct path Jesus laid out for me.
I grew up on one side of the “lake,” a side with people who all looked like me, lived like me, thought like me, and talked like me. I’m on a pastoral journey to the “other side,” a side filled with (sometimes, uncomfortable) diversity, serving and worshiping with people who do not look like me, live like me, think like me, or talk like me. Rarely is this journey easy.  But I know Jesus is in the boat with me, calling me to participate in Dr. King’s dream, one that involves being the best pastor I can be to “little black boys and black girls.”

 

Saving Makes Me Sick

I have 3 autoimmune disorders: Fibromyalgia, Celiac Disease, and Immunoglobulin A (IgA) deficiency. Apparently, I lived with the disorders for many years before receiving correct diagnoses.
I control the Celiac disease by avoiding gluten. That’s pretty easy. But the other two disorders are more tricky.
Immunoglobulin A protects your mucus membranes – eyes, nose, mouth, respiratory system, and GI tract. But I don’t have enough of it for adequate protection. This means I get sick more often, more easily, and more severely than the average healthy person.
Fibromyalgia is a nuisance when you’re a pastor with two young kids, trying to re-start a church, planning for a large summer day camp ministry [after losing our very accomplished day camp director three weeks ago], and managing 5 churches and a funeral home sharing one aging facility.

But (usually), it’s no more than a “nuisance.” I live each day with varying degrees of chronic pain, muscle fatigue, drowsiness, and mental ‘fog.’ But I’ve had about 10 years to adjust. So most days are fine…until I get a “flareup.”
Fibromyalgia flareups differ with each person, but mine tend share the same symptoms of a severe cold, minus the fever: extreme muscle fatigue, severe mental fog, body aches, and lethargy.

When I get a flareup, I’m dead to the world. Forget whatever I planned or committed to do. It’s not happening.
Like most people with fibromyalgia, some of my flareups are predictable…happening after overdoing life. Some flareups come out of nowhere.
I woke up with a flareup Friday morning. It was bad. Really bad. It didn’t fully go away until Sunday morning. And it was predictable. All week I’d stayed up late working on my computer, or in bed working on my phone. I spent a few days working on renovation projects in a hot gym. I spent a lot of time in the heat working on the lawn, because I’m vain about how my lawn looks. Thursday morning, I suddenly resumed exercise after months of ‘not having time to exercise.’ Thursday afternoon, I drove to a conference an hour away. My friend had generously given me a free ticket. But on the way back, I probably had two-days-worth of calories in my fast food meal.

I ABSOLUTELY believe God can miraculously heal me of my illnesses. But I don’t think I want healing, at least not now. My bodily frailties are God’s gift to me until I learn an important Biblical concept… Sabbath.

Even though my thoughts spur me on to more and more work, my auto-immune disorders force me to keep Sabbath. If I were as healthy as my 31 year old body appeared from the outside, I could just keep working, and working, and working. Folks, that’s sinful.
My fibromyalgia flareups become the ‘Sabbaths’ I sinfully refuse to take. How unfortunate for my children, my wife, and myself that these Sabbaths do not help anyone but my physical body. My body finds rest, but my soul and my relationships do not.

My achy body, mental fog, and fatigue make concentration difficult. It’s nearly impossible to read my Bible or pray. I certainly can’t hold a quality conversations with my wife or play with my children. “Don’t bother daddy because he’s sick” is a common phrase during flareups.

God has a better way.

“Sabbath” is a recurring theme throughout the Christian Bible. God’s people (Jewish or Christian) have a long history of misunderstanding, ignoring, and dishonoring Sabbath. Throughout much of Scripture, “Sabbath” literally referred to the seventh day of the week. And this seventh day of the week was always supposed to be a day of rest. “Sabbath” and “Rest” are inextricably connected in the Bible. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, however, “rest” also becomes a place [hint: it’s also a Person ;)].

In the third chapter of Hebrews, the writer sets up a metaphor between the “Promised Land” and the concept of “Rest.” Chapter 4 starts connecting the dots:

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.” Hebrews 4:1

Now we who have believed enter that rest” Hebrews 4:3a

“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.” Hebrews 4:9-10

My condition punishes my body every time I over work. It’s a physical reminder that Jesus has invited me to “rest from my works.”

Now, I’ve grown up in Protestant churches and received formal Biblical training at Protestant schools. I understand the doctrine that became a common catchphrase of Protestant Christianity… “Salvation by faith, not by works.”

I understand my works don’t save me (or do I?).

Yes, Jesus calls me to “rest” from a “salvation by works” mentality. But Jesus also calls me to rest from a “I can save it by my works” mentality. That mentality pushes me to over work:

I can save the church’s budget by my working harder in all things finance-related.

I can save our church’s image in the community by keeping a well-manicured Parsonage lawn.

I can save our summer day camp after losing our director.

I can save my family’s finances by bringing in more church members who give.

I can save my family’s finances by being a cheapskate.

I can save myself from leadership mistakes by attending one more church conference.

I can save refugees in the community who need help by personally furnishing their empty apartments.

I can save everything and everyone…until I can’t even get of bed.

Saving makes me sick.


Christ, and Christ alone, can save. Christ saves churches, church budgets, ministries, families, and people. So, the smart pastor would only “do the work he sees the Father doing.”

Christ, therefore, calls me to rest from my works. My work is heavy, burdensome, and leads to unnecessary illness. Christ’s work “is easy and his burden light.”

What will it look like to only do the work Christ would have me do? I’m not entirely sure. But here’s a few guesses:

  1. More prayer…prayer for help from others, prayer for wisdom on what work to do, prayer to know what I should leave undone, etc.
  2. More Bible reading – I’m not the first God-follower to faces similar situations. I should see how God advised them and how they responded.
  3. Working on tasks because God wants them completed, not because I (or others) want them completed. If I’m about to begin a task motivated out of fear, stress, peer-pressure, etc., I should pause and pray for direction.

God taught me this with two important lessons this week:

  1. Yet, another, flareup caused by over work and
  2. an unexpected $500 donation

While attending that conference an hour away from home on Friday, I saw a friend. We started talking about our summer day camp. Then, she suddenly surprised me with a $500 check for the church. That evening, and the next day as I rested in bed, God graciously reminded me of that check. God has the power to provide for our EVERY need. My hard work leads to exhaustion. Jesus’ work often leads me away from the crowds, into solitary places where I am refreshed and rested in God’s presence. The only work I need ever do is to follow Jesus.

Only Jesus has the power to save. Only Jesus can give me rest.

Provision For His Purpose

Want to read an amazing story about a loving God? Keep reading. 

I’m often asked (as recently as Sunday) how my family survives on my small pastor’s salary and how our church, filled with many poor members, can afford to serve so many poor in our community… especially since we never ask for money. In addition to my pastor’s salary and living in the church-owned house, my family is supported by generous extended family and friends, and the government (including food stamps and Medicaid). I also receive a stipend from another job, where my boss refuses to fire me for my poor job performance! God has provided our every physical need and given us a comfortable life. I’ve shared in detail on my blog how God has miraculously provided for my family. 

But today, I’ll share some events showing how God provides all our church needs to serve the people He wants us to serve. And God provides without us begging for money:

I recently posted on Facebook that I wanted to buy a used crib for an Iraqi refugee family. I met Gaaith and his pregnant wife when our church met at the park. They are from Baghdad. Now read how God worked…

My friend Christina read the Facebook post and tagged her friend Melody. I was looking to BUY a crib, but Melody offered the crib and mattress for FREE. I had never met Melody until today, when I picked up the crib from her house. 

I drove to Melody’s house in our church van, which we bought for a bargain from another church. 

We paid for the van using money from an insurance check. 

The insurance check was intended to repair water damage in some rooms we had planned to rip out anyway for future renovations. 

But a volunteer work group completed those renovations for us. I had never met a single person in this group before they came to work here.

They came because someone outside of our church recommended the group serve at our location. 

The group donated all their time and materials. So the insurance money sat unused in our bank account.

In addition to the van, we put the remaining insurance money towards replacing two large sanctuary a/c units for $14,000. Our church doesn’t even use the sanctuary. We meet in my backyard, in the gym, and at the park. But the church renting out space from us has now been blessed with working a/c. 

I left Melody’s house in the church van with the donated crib in the back and to Gaaith’s apartment. His wife’s c-section is Friday, May 12 at 3:00pm. Please pray for her. On my to Gaaith’s, I asked Jordan to meet me. Jordan is our volunteer associate pastor.

Jordan first visited our church on accident! He and his fiancé intended to visit another church one Sunday morning almost two years ago. But he received incorrect directions as he tried visiting a church with a similar name to ours. Once inside our building, he didn’t even enter the right worship service! They entered our main sanctuary, used by another church. After a few moments, some church ushers suggested they might be looking for our worship service on the other side of the building. One year later, Jordan told me God called him to serve at our church even though we couldn’t pay him. Jordan is our new summer day camp director and will volunteer at the camp every day for 9 weeks this summer. 

Yesterday, I posted on Facebook the exciting news about another refugee who called me. She has an apartment with no furniture. I didn’t ask for money or furniture, only prayers for this new ministry God seems to be starting through us. 

Lindsay saw my post and offered to donate a couch and some other furniture. I’ve never met Lindsay. We’ve only been friends on Facebook for about 48 hours. 

I connected with Lindsay through Karey. Karey and I used to be neighbors. Karey shared a Facebook post about our church’s upcoming summer day camp. Lindsay asked Karey more about it and offered to volunteer. 

Then Karey commented on yesterday’s post, saying she has an old kitchen table she’d like to donate. I’ll pick up Karey’s table and Lindsey’s furniture next week. 

And my friend Greg saw the post and connected me with an organization that can help us with funds and resources to help in ways our church cannot. 
Dear friends, I believe Jesus loves you and me more than we know. He’s a loving father who provides for his children. And he will gladly provide the resources for you to obey his purposes. If you need something in this world, Jesus is the first one to ask. You may find, as I have found, Jesus often uses others to answer your prayers. Just like any loving parent, he gladly gives to his children when we ask. 

Self-Righteousness Revealed at Supper

On April 8, 1855 the famous British pastor Charles Spurgeon preached these words:

“I slew him-this right hand struck the dagger to his heart. My deeds slew Christ. Alas! I slew my best beloved; I killed him who loved me with an everlasting love.”


There’s a phrase that’s made the American preachers’ circuit for many years: “If you were the only person on earth, Jesus still would have died for you.”

My Systematic Theology professor had his own spin on that phrase: “If I was the only person on earth, I would have killed Jesus.” 10 years later, that phrase fills my thoughts this Good Friday.

Do you see that picture at the top? That’s our kitchen table. God taught me a Good Friday lesson (and a good dose of humility) while sitting at that table last Monday. During supper our pre-schooler asked why people put nails in Jesus’ hands and put him on a cross. Great pastor and father that I am, I gave the fastest answer I could think of that required the least amount of thinking… “because they weren’t nice people.” Problem solved. On to the next topic.

But my wise wife saw the teachable moment I missed…

“Do you know why Jesus died? He died because people do bad things. That’s called sin. You sin, and Mommy sins, and Daddy sins.”

That’s right, Pastor Chris.

Jesus wasn’t crucified because those people “weren’t nice people” (how very self-righteous of me, by the way) Jesus died on a cross because I’m not nice people. Jesus died on a cross because people like me sinned against God. And people like me crucified God-in-the-flesh. Romans 5:10 states “while we were God’s enemies [i.e. people who would kill God if we had the chance], we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”

Why did Jesus die on a cross with nails piercing his hands?

Because I sin.

As I heard my wife’s words to our little boy, the second stanza from How Deep The Father’s Love For Us started playing in my head. The most piercing lines were “Ashamed I hear my mocking voice / Call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held Him there / Until it was accomplished.”

Those words have played on repeat this Good Friday…


How deep the Father’s love for us

How vast beyond all measure

That He should give His only Son

To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss

The Father turns His face away

As wounds which mar the chosen One

Bring many sons to glory


Behold the Man upon a cross

My sin upon His shoulders

Ashamed I hear my mocking voice

Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there

Until it was accomplished

His dying breath has brought me life

I know that it is finished


I will not boast in anything

No gifts, no power, no wisdom

But I will boast in Jesus Christ

His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?

I cannot give an answer

But this I know with all my heart

His wounds have paid my ransom

–Stuart Townend

FAQs About Our New Church

Thank you to all who have expressed support since my last post, Our Church Is Now Closed. But God’s Doing A New Work Here. If you don’t want to read that post, here’s the gist: We closed the church I’ve pastored for almost 4 years (Grace Tabernacle) and are starting a new church called Renovation Community, which officially launches October 1, 2017.

I’ll try answering some of the most common questions I’ve heard. I hope this helps you better focus your prayers for us.

Q: If Grace Tabernacle closed the end of Feb 26 and your new church doesn’t launch until Oct 1, what are you doing until then?

A: We’re inviting the public to join us as we prepare to start our new church. We’re hosting weekly community events. Last Sunday afternoon we had a cookout at a nearby park. We invited families there to eat with us and gave them information about Renovation Community Church.

Q: What about all the people who attended Grace Tabernacle? Where are they now?

A: They’ve known about this transition for a LONG time. Many have stuck around to help us start the new church, but some have left to find different church homes. We love all who no longer meet with us and pray they find the right place for them.

Q: If you closed, how are you getting money to pay for the facilities Grace Tabernacle owned?

A: I began preparing for this transition several years ago when I sought out groups to rent the building. The four other churches and funeral home that use our facilities subsidize many of our facility expenses.

Q: If you closed, how is your family getting money to live?

We’ll see how God provides. So far, those from Grace Tabernacle who stuck around are continuing to give when we meet together. Kelly and I work hard to manage our finances. But, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, God has also provided for us through others’ generosity. We have never asked for money, nor do we plan to begin asking, yet God has provided our every need (and many of our “desires”). Medicaid insures our boys and we receive food stamps. A day will probably come when we no longer receive government help. Until then, we thank the Lord for it.

Q: Grace Tabernacle was part of a global denomination called The Church of the Nazarene. Will Renovation Community be Nazarene?

A: Yep.

Q: Isn’t this just a name change?

A: No. I understand why people may think that… the lead pastor of the old and new church is the same person and many people have stuck around from the old church. But it’s not just a name change. All of November and December of 2015, I called our people to pray and fast about upcoming changes. I called them to pray about whether I should pastor them into the future and whether God wanted them to stay or go. I explained BIG changes were coming, changes that not everyone could handle. Changes continued to happen ever since then. In April 2016, I began an extended message series about “Becoming a Renovation Community.” The people who stuck around were those willing to help launch a totally different church, a church called Renovation Community. It just so happens that many of us attended the same church before choosing to start this new one.

Q: Can I start attending Renovation Community now?

A: If you’re not a Christian, the answer is YES!!  We’re having an Easter breakfast service at LeBlanc Park (6300 Granbury Cut-Off Fort Worth, TX 76132) this Sunday, April 16. And we meet Sundays from 4-6pm. But you’ll need to contact me or another member of our group to learn where we will be on a particular Sunday. We don’t always meet at Grace Tabernacle’s old building. You can also learn where each Sunday’s meeting location will be by following us on Facebook.

If you are a Christian, the answer is… MAYBE. We’re not interested in stealing people from other churches. Jesus didn’t come to earth and suffer death on a cross just so Christians could waste time jumping from church to church. If you’re considering joining us because you’re unhappy at your current church, I’ve got news for you…it’s only a matter of time before you become unhappy with Renovation Community. Every local church  consists of imperfect people (including imperfect pastors). We sin against God and others, we can mis-hear God’s plan for our local church, and we can make BIG mistakes. Consider this quote from 19th Century British preacher Charles Spurgeon:

“If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it.”

In other words, one reason your current church isn’t perfect is you. Sorry. I still love you. If you’re interested in joining us and believe your motives are correct, I’m happy to talk with you more.

Q: Will you fundraise?

A: No. We don’t believe it’s wrong to ask God’s people to financially support God’s work. But we don’t believe God wants Renovation Community to ask for money. We’ve learned to walk by faith about our finances. Instead, we’d rather you volunteer your time and serve alongside us. Read more about that below.

Q: What other ways can I help Renovation Community?

A:  For now, our greatest need is finding volunteers for Camp F.U.S.E., our summer day camp.  Although Grace Tabernacle closed, Renovation Community chose to continue this one vital neighborhood service. For as little as $1/day, low-income families can send their children to a safe and fun environment for breakfast, lunch, and weekend ‘Snack Sack.’ Each week, campers will learn about Jesus and the Bible in a daily chapel, play games, make crafts, and learn from Career Day speakers, and learn in our all-new computer lab.  Learn more and sign up to volunteer at http://campfuse.com/volunteering.

You can help us repair the aging church building we have inherited. If you can find the time, we can find the supplies needed to make repairs. Everywhere you look, the building needs repairs – paint, drywall, tile, roof leaks, a/c repairs, tile, outside drainage issues, landscaping beautification, concrete parking lot repair, electrical work, deep cleaning, plumbing, etc.

We also need help establishing church ‘infrastructure,’ like organizing ministry teams, forming good church policies, training volunteers, etc. I’ll share more opportunities to help in coming months.

You can like us on Facebook and share our posts about how God is working through among us. We’d love to spread the news of God’s great work in our neighborhood.

You can sign up as a prayer partner at www.renovation1000.com. We want 1000 people committed to pray for us before our October 1 launch. Our prayer partners will receive special updates on how they can pray for us and how God has answered prayers.

 

Have more questions?

Contact me. The more you understand what we’re doing, the better you can pray for us. I’ll gladly create another post with answers to your questions.

Our Church Is Now Closed. But God’s Doing A New Work Here.

The church I came to serve almost four years ago is now closed.

Church closures can be nasty. Thankfully, this one wasn’t. It closed with dignity and grace. And its leaders gave me permission to do what I’ve felt called to do since I arrived…close this church and plant a new one at the same location.

Let me back up.

Our church had a truly beautiful history for more than 52 years. In the early 1960s, a group of people dreamed how God could work through a church on the far-west side of Fort Worth. The pastor most responsible for starting this church later went on to pastor one of our denomination’s largest churches in the country. God worked in mighty ways. He worked in the hearts of countless people who began following Jesus through this church’s ministry.
Time doesn’t permit recounting all the sweet memories that took place in this congregation for over 50 years. And I will always be incredibly indebted to the pastors who served before me.
But God made clear he is doing a New Work here. God has created new life. Many in our church have noticed the new life for quite some time. And, for quite some time, it’s like I have pastored two churches.
As one church neared the end of its life, it did so with beauty and humility. That church reminds me of the saintly grandmother, the strong and dependable family matriarch who lived a long and full life. Always thinking of others, she clung to life on the hospital bed until all family members have a chance to say their goodbyes.

After almost 4 years of hard work, prayer, ministry, and focusing on church health, we felt it was finally time to say “goodbye.”

People in the new church knew nothing of the older church’s long and storied past. Many also didn’t “look” like the average church member from the  came from different races and socio-economic backgrounds of than the majority of members from the old church. Many rarely showed up Sunday mornings at Grace Tabernacle…it’s like that church wasn’t their church.

Over time it became very clear. God was doing a new thing. And it just didn’t make sense trying to make this “new thing” fit into this 50 year old church.
So I asked our leaders permission to close and restart…
I explained there would still be a church in our building, and I hoped the people from the old church would join the new church. But it would be a new church, not simply a new name for the old church.

Thankfully, our leaders also noticed God’s new work. And they agreed to my bold request. Sunday, February 26 was Grace Tabernacle Church of the Nazarene’s last official Sunday for worship.

On Sunday, April 1 Renovation Community will officially launch.  Before October 1, we want 1000 people, the Renovation 1000, committed to pray for our new church. As I’ve shared in some of my other blog posts, God has taught me to walk by faith. He will pay all our bills. So I never need to ask for your money. But I will ALWAYS ask for your prayers. Will you sign up to pray for us?

To learn more about the new church or join our Renovation 1000 prayer team, go to www.renovationcommunity.church.

Or go to www.renovation1000.com for a direct link to our prayer team registration.

**If you have connections with Wedgwood/Grace Tabernacle Church of the Nazarene, please share this post and highlight our Celebration Service July 22. We hope to fill the building as we remember how God worked for 52+ years in that great church.*