Thursday, April 28, 2016

Reflecting at 15 Years - Love

As I continue to reflect on my last fifteen years, I move to perhaps the hardest part for me, at least sometimes. Learning is not always easy, but it is something I typically enjoy. Learning for the sake of doing is a part of living. But why do we do what we do? Not just because we have learned it, though that is important, but a deeper purpose must exist.

The name of the post includes “love” so that is obviously where I am heading. But before I get there, let me state that I am a pretty practical guy. On certain aspects I can get a little overzealous, yet I have found myself caring and planning less on other aspects during the last few years. For instance, I majored in business and finance in college, but now I don’t overly focus on personal monetary issues. That isn’t to say I am negligent, but in the past, I would spend hours and hours and hours and hours planning down to the penny, and then some.

So, being practical, I want to make sure that what I am doing has a purpose. The purpose may not mean much to others, but as long as I see value (especially in the short and long terms), then it is worth it. Again, a for instance. This series of blog posts may not be read by many, but it is encouraging me to reflect, and I can come back to them in the future. And by posting them here, instead of just an entry on my computer, others may find a simple nugget of encouragement. So, this is worth it.

Personally, I have a vision statement, a mission statement, a strategy, and steps to full these. I have also developed each of these items for my role as pastor and for the church that I pastor. Some overlap certainly exists because who I am as a person influences my role as a pastor, as does the church I serve. But who I am as a person also transcends (or should) my role in any local church, although it should blend into any church as well.

But, and now we get to the core of this, while these statements help to keep me on track, if they do not incorporate love into the statements, or I do not choose to live by loving, then as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, what I am doing has no lasting value. It isn’t just what we do (even if that is in keeping with our goals), it is why we do it (i.e. not just to fulfill a goal). We were created by a loving God in order that we might love Him and love others (Mark 12.30-31). And our love is not self-generated, it is a reflection of God. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4.19).

I believe my immediate family would profess that I have always loved them. Not perfectly, but constantly. I appreciate how my relationship with my wife has developed during our years together. I have enjoyed watching my children grow and am now learning to appreciate them as young adults. All of this is a part of love, but to love is more than about family, it is to be a part of overall living.

I have learned. I have begun to live. Now I need to better love. I need to love what I do (the living part), but I need to love as I do as well. I need to be more intentional in loving others and investing in them to help them grow as people have done for me over these past few years. Recently, a friend told me that he believes I am loving toward others. I appreciated those remarks more than he could know, but I know that more of me needs to love more of others more often.

So a part of these next fifteen years, is to learn more about to love others, to live with a greater capacity to love, and to express that love in ways that are appropriate in any given moment. I will never have the full capacity to love like Jesus on this side of eternity, but if I fix my eyes on Jesus, my faith (and love) will become more perfect over time.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Reflecting at 15 Years - Live

Last week, I began a series reflecting on having been called to ministry fifteen years ago this coming summer. Two weeks from this Sunday will conclude my fifth year at my current church, and that is largely what prompted this exercise. Last week's focus was on what I have learned. This week will focus on the outgrowth of learning and our call to LIVE.

In much of the world today, the primary focus of learning is in order to do something. The internet has made it easy to watch a youtube video in order to accomplish a task rather quickly and easily (and cheaply!). However, for much of history, people have lived while they learned. What I mean is that apprenticeships have been a part of many cultures throughout history. Learning was often in the form of watching and then doing, and eventually showing others as they watched and then did themselves. While this form of learning still exists, it is not the primary way, at least not in the western world. Sitting in classrooms wondering what the purpose of learning a particular subject (e.g. Algebra) is commonplace. (For what it is worth, most everyone does use some level of Algebra daily. For instance, if you have $5 and would like coffee and donuts for breakfast, then you can by “y” number of donuts at 99 cents each, and one coffee (x) for that amount. Or  1x + 3y = $5, with taxes needing to be included and fractions/decimals being ignored. But I digress, especially because I do not like coffee and cannot eat donuts – gluten.)

While some people may choose to learn for the sake of learning, this is not the norm, especially in America. We want to learn for the sake of doing. Except in the local church. Many people each week attend church without expecting to learn, without a desire to serve, and with no remorse for either. And if something is learned, then it is often not applied. (I understand that some pastors and/or teachers do not provide appropriate application to the text, or do not give people the opportunity to serve, but that idea will be covered under Lead, in two weeks). James 1.22 says that we are to be doers of the word, not just hearers. If we hear the word and do not do it, then we are deceiving ourselves. In fact, James says this type of inaction is proof that any faith a person once had is dead (James 2.14-17).

So, learning is important, but its primary purpose is so that we might better live. It is not just what we know that counts, it is what we do with it. Of course, we are not perfect, nor will we become so in this life. But our living can set an example for others and help them to better learn how to live for others. That almost sounds like the apprentice model mentioned above. More importantly, it sounds like the discipleship model Jesus used. “Follow Me,” He said, “and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4.17). By following Jesus, the first disciples would learn a new way to live, and could then show others as well (2 Timothy 2.2). The same is true for us today.

Over the past fifteen years, especially, I have learned a great many things. But most importantly, I have learned that what I learn I must then live. It isn't always easy, and I certainly don't always do it well, but that is part of the learning process itself.

So, as I prepare for another fifteen years of ministering in the local church, my focus will be more on teaching others to do rather than simply helping others to know. As I have the opportunity to teach at the collegiate or seminary level, I want to impart the idea to students to make their classwork meaningful beyond a grade at the end of the semester. (This is a major reason why I am so proud to be a two-time alum of, and now an adjunct professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary – @MBTS, which has the mantra of “For the Church.” The courses and teachings are ultimately for the benefit of the church, not just for a student to get an education.)

The reality is that most every professing Christian knows plenty about the Bible, but do not live according to what they know. I am no exception. In response to the fact that Jesus died for us, the question has been posed: “Will we live for Him.” Will I? Will you?

Imagine, for a moment, the difference we could make in the lives of others if we each of us focused on living a little bit more of what we know.

Imagine how much difference we could make in others lives if we began to live out all of what we know.

But imagine how much difference we would see in our own lives, if we heeded the call of Jesus to “Follow Me.”

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Reflecting at 15 Years - Learn

As I take a short break from preaching to gear up for our next series, I have been reflecting on my call to ministry, and as pastor because next month will be five years since I became the pastor at my current church. I share a little of that reflection here.

In late June of 2001, I remember listening to a pastor deliver a sermon. I do not recall anything about that particular sermon, other than realizing that God was beginning to call me into ministry during that period of time, and the call was coming to a climax on that day. As I listened, I began to think of all the sermons this man had preached and I wondered, “How does he come up with something original every week?” And the following question was even more daunting, “I am not creative, so how can I come up with something original if I am called to preach?” Well, thankfully, I was not called to serve as a pastor (yet!), and therefore did not have to worry about this issue – yet!

How naive I was! Certainly, I understood that the source for a message/sermon was the Bible, and, as a text it is expansive (wide) and has a great deal of depth (deep). But fifty-two Sunday morning messages, plus the potential of Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, and other studies. That is in excess of 150, if not 200 messages/studies per year. Being in my early 30's at the time, that meant that I might prepare as many as 8000 lessons, sermons, etc., over a forty-year ministry! (For what it is worth, that is about one lesson for every four verses in the Bible).

But what I had not truly grasped was the impact of God upon the process. First, He has given me more creativity that I would have ever dreamed possible, especially since moving to Fairfax five years ago. Second, some lessons take more time. For instance, I recently completed a series on Jesus promise to build His church (from Matthew 16) that took five weeks to cover each of His five words – I will build my church. On April 24, we are embarking on a journey through the book of Mark to discover both the Jewishness of Jesus and how He responded to the various opportunities that came His way. These examples are just two of many, but suffice it to say, God has taught me that He has a never ending well from which to quench my thirst for learning, and from which I can also teach.

But more than anything, I have learned that I must never stop learning. That is actually a mantra of mine, though the mantra developed during this time and stands in stark contrast to how I felt when I finished my undergrad. Specifically, I can be quoted as saying, “When you stop learning, you start dying.” From that day in the summer of 2001, I have started and fulfilled learning requirements for both a master's and a doctoral degree at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But more importantly, a hunger for learning developed, and I realize that, even (especially) pertaining to the Bible, I have more to learn than I already know. And having recently traveled to Israel, learning biblical details in light of the cultural context has become even more important to me,

Ultimately, I now know that even if God grants me forty more years to teach, I will never run out of material because I will never run out of material to learn. And even if the material were to be fully absorbed, I would still need to perfect applying it to my life and helping others to do the same.

Truthfully, I have learned a great deal about myself and my God over these past fifteen years. I look forward to seeing what the next fifteen years hold for me as well.