Saturday, June 14, 2008

For Amy

I have to take a break from talking about vision to reflect on our time in Virginia honoring the life of our 12 year old friend Amy. Amy is the daughter of my wife's life-long friend Hannah and her husband Mike. For almost a year and a half she has battled brain cancer that ultimately took her life. It has been an emotional roller coaster of praying for healing, of hearing good reports, and then, ultimately watching a beautiful little girl and her family lose the battle to a dreaded disease.

So Julie and I considered it a privilege to join the family for the memorial service at Fourth Presbyterian Church near Washington, DC on Monday. It was an experience that I will not soon forget.

Nine hundred people came to the memorial. It was the largest funeral service at that church in 25 years. Considering that Fourth is the church of choice for many senators, congressmen, and other world leaders, that begs a question, "What made Amy so special?"

I know that I can't possibly explain it all from Dallas, but some things were clear in our three days there. First, Amy was an unusual kid. She had a quality of honesty, coupled with a feisty personality that made a mark wherever she went. In fact, our family has been laughing about Amy and her unique personality almost since she was born. So I know that part of the reason for her impact is simply her personality.

But it's clear that there's more to the story than that. I was also impressed by the communities she lived in. Amy, her four siblings, and her parents are all active. They play sports. They are engaged in many lives. Through their activity, they have clearly touched many lives as fun, but more importantly, good people. It was amazing to see how many different worlds they live in and how the people in those worlds love them.

The church community stands out. The pastors and the people of Fourth were extraordinary in their demonstration of love for this family. At least in this instance, Fourth and its leaders were remarkable in their faithfulness to their calling.

Of course, part of the reason for the response is the universal love of children. I think all societies weep when a child is lost. But Amy's family caused an unusual stir because of a quality that is very rare, but always attractive. I'll call that quality grace. There is a quiet, but powerful grace in that family that I believe touched those who saw it. The whole family, including the sister and three brothers, shared in the daily care for Amy. Love was demonstrated by the constant service and care, especially when Amy neared her death. But it was the quality of the service that was most noticeable. There was a constant joy. You could feel the love for Amy and each other in their tears, as well as their laughter. You were constantly aware that they felt it was a privilege to serve the youngest member of their family. They demonstrated a quality that is so powerful, that even as death approached, you knew that death was not winning, not really.

The grace was rooted in the grace they knew and experienced in Jesus. Amy's family believe that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection makes available God's grace to them. They know what it is to be loved when you cannot possibly adequately return that love. In God's grace they knew the purity of love that serves, and they, in turn, passed that love to Amy. And that grace gives them the security of hope. While the sadness is at times overwhelming, there is a hope in that family rooted in the belief that Amy's existence did not end, but that she is now in the presence of her God and her savior.

Most of us will, gratefully, never have the test that Amy's family faced. And consequently, we will never have such a dramatic opportunity to demonstrate what God's grace has done for us and how it can change the world around us. But Amy's family shows the absolute power of grace.

How do we demonstrate grace in the smaller tests and opportunities that we face?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Vision, vision, who's got a vision?

Our church's vision statement (see below) includes the ideas of community, of following Jesus, and of attracting others to Him. But there's one more element that is in practically every Christian statement you read: glorify God.

The statement is reflective of the most famous lines from church history: "What is the chief end of man?” from the Westminster Confession. The answer is "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." That line captures eloquently the emphasis of Scripture that all of creation ultimately exists for Him, and not for us.

So ministries often remind themselves that they exist for Him, not us. In other words, we are not just organizations selling services to a clientele. Instead, we exist for strictly spiritual purposes.

But that is hard to do. We have to constantly remind ourselves that life is more that just surviving on earth, it is to be lived for the one who made us and gave His Son for us. We are here to bring Him glory.

Sadly, individually and as a church, we too often forget this vital purpose. We place our own temporary interests first. And ironically, when we do that, we suffer in the short term, too.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

More on that vision thing

Different organizations use different systems to accomplish their vision. Whether it's a manufacturing business or a service organization, each creates mechanisms to create their product. It's tempting to think that a church accomplishes its vision through worship services, sermons, education programs, etc.

While all of those programs are parts of the process, I think that a local church or congregation is primarily a community--and it is the community itself that ultimately does the work of the church.

The Bible dictates the things that churches do: teach, serve, evangelize, worship, relate. But it seems that the mystery of the church is that the Spirit uses the working of the gifts in community to do His work. I think that means that we can do a lot of church things, but if we have not created that sense of community, where we experience Jesus through the lives of others, then we will miss the best He has to offer.

But community is hard. Our human nature makes community hard, and today's lifestyle makes it even harder. We're busy, stressed, independent...all things that frustrate the kind of relationships that the Spirit works through.

But being hard is no excuse. Our fellowship must constantly create opportunities for believers to touch other lives. And over time, I believe God uses others to transform us into "passionate servants of Jesus Christ who attract others to Him."

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Vision Thing, Take 2

Grace Bible Church seeks to build a community that glorifies God by developing passionate servants of Jesus Christ that attract others to Him.

So reads our church's mission statement. If organizations aren't careful, they spend hours and hours developing these statements, only to immediately forget them. What a waste!

Our statement attempts to reflect what we believe the Bible teaches about the role of the church. From the Great Commission we have the "product" of the church: passionate servants of Jesus Christ who attract others to Him. The usual language is "disciple", but we have chosen the longer statement in order to clarify our understanding of what a disciple really is.

It is our prayer that we will be a church that is characterized for a passionate love for Jesus. Attendance alone is not the standard: Jesus didn't just come to us, He died for us. So coming isn't an adequate response to His sacrifice. He deserves our passion, our lives.

The statement is intended to raise the bar, to cause discomfort. It even begs the question: How much do I love Him? Or, "What is my vision of loving Jesus?"

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Vision Thing

I was interviewing a man for a staff position at Grace and he asked that great question: "What is your vision of Grace?" I must admit that part of me hates that question. I've been around long enough that I've grown weary with what many call vision. I believe in vision, I think I even have one, but I think the word is over-used.

My first thought when asked that question is to say, "My vision is for Grace to be a church, in the fullest sense of the word." Quite frankly, as I understand the teachings of the Bible, I become increasingly aware of just how much it means to be the body of Christ--and I fear we have a long way to go.

And having worked in marketing, I somehow rebel against using marketing principles too liberally in the life of the church.

But I must admit that we all need to know where our organization is headed. And if that's what vision is, we need one. So in coming blogs, I'll talk about VISION.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Good News/Bad News

One of the most remarkable things about being a pastor is the constant interaction with so many other people's lives. When I first started, I had a hard time managing the sadness of hearing and seeing the pain in others. Life-threatening illness, death, divorce...there always seems to be at least one family or person in the midst of a heart breaking situation. They come to me. I pray with them. Sometimes I have Biblical advice they haven't thought of, but more often than not, all I can really do is listen.

It's easy to forget that there's always good news. There are weddings. New babies are born. Jobs are found. Of course, one reason I forget is people don't always come tell the pastor about the good news. But I think that it's easy to concentrate on the bad and neglect celebrating the good news.

And it seems that the more good news we have, the more we magnify the bad. This week I've read two articles decrying the tendency of the wealthy and the privileged youth both in America and abroad to focus on difficulty rather than blessing. Written by secular authors in secular publications, both found the irony that with so much wealth and prosperity, we can often still feel like we are owed more. It's like we're spoiled.

I think that the more we celebrate the good, the more we can weather the storms of the bad news when it comes. It's a healthier perspective. It's gratitude.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Breaking the Silence

OK, the blog has been MIA. No excuses--I just went silent. It was certainly nothing personal, just a lapse. I promise to do better!

I find that the older I get, the more some things seem to simplify. In the past I may have envisioned complicated solutions for problems or challenges. But now experience has taught me that the solutions are much more simple to articulate, and harder to implement.

And there's the irony: the real solutions can be explained simply, but are much harder to actually live out.

For instance, marriage can be very complicated, but successful marriages are often quite simple: they are characterized by moment-by-moment selflessness. Selflessness is a simple, one-word solution, that is remarkably difficult to live out. But selflessness goes to the heart of our character.

Maybe that's why we try to create these complex solutions. They sound good, and they allow us to avoid the hard reality that the real solutions demand.

Maybe I should have stayed quiet.