Exciting News!

It has been a whirlwind new year for me so far.  I had a great time teaching a 3-week Gospels intensive over the winter term at ACU, and got to preach as the Angel Gabriel on Christmas Eve which was a ton of fun.  We’ve made a transition in our worship service format at church which has been fantastic on our community, and I got to go to kenpo for the first time in 6 months last week!

In November, our worship pastor took a sabbatical to rest and recharge, to enjoy some family time and refocus his ministry on seeking Christ and seeking to lead people to Him.  We didn’t have a delineated sabbatical policy as a church for our pastoral staff, so our elders made one.  In a nutshell, every 5th year we give our pastors 2 extra weeks of paid leave that must be taken all at once and should be used for the purpose of spiritual renewal.

Since then (late October) I have been praying about a sabbatical, because this is my 5th year serving as the senior pastor of our church.  2012 will be a sabbatical year for me, and I have been praying and seeking God on how best to take my sabbatical this year.  I wanted it to be significant, and while 2 weeks alone in the woods with my Bible might be awesome I just sensed that would not really do what I wanted to do.  I wanted to really grow in Christ in ways that I normally couldn’t, knowing that meant getting away from my normal routine.

Here is where God stepped in.  Over the past several months I have built a friendship with the father of two of my previous students from ACU who is also a pastor in town, who pastors a very large congregation and whose heart for shepherding and for preaching lines up with mine.  He asked Laura and me to have dinner with him and his wonderful wife, and at dinner he asked us to join him next month on a pretty crazy trip.

He asked us to join him for 15 days in Israel! Surprised smile

I have never been to Israel, but having heard from many of the life-changing time that it is for pastors and professors I really want to go.  This will be an awesome time of spiritual growth and professional development, and will benefit me in the pulpit, the classroom, and as a shepherd.  Rather than try to explain it all to you myself, I asked Mark to explain why this makes a PERFECT sabbatical and why it is an important trip to take.

I am so excited to go and sit in a boat on the Sea of Galilee like the disciples did, to stand next to the wall that Nehemiah rebuilt, and to go back through the Gospels like I did over the past 3 weeks and see and touch and smell and taste what it was like in Jesus’ world.  I know it won’t be relaxing like a vacation and plan to wring every bit out of every moment that I can, but it’s invigorating just to think about the amazing opportunity to even go!

Pastor Mark has been incredibly gracious to offer us to come along with him not only for the big tour he is leading, but to spend a few days before and after with him there to see some stuff that a big group just can’t.  He’s also being very generous to help us go and to provide room in his personal schedule for us, and has been generous financially too.  He has been to Israel 10 times and is using the very best guides to really avoid the tourist traps and instead experience Israel in a life-changing way.

So if you would, please pray for us as we plan this trip. Just like with our trip to Rwanda in 2010, this one is on short notice.  Just like our opportunity there, we have 5 weeks until we leave. Just like Rwanda, I believe that God has orchestrated the events leading up to allow us to go, and that He has it all in His hands.  And just like our trip to Rwanda, we have no idea how we are going to make the trip work financially.  I know that finances are not a major concern to God, and that He has all the money He needs to do everything that He wants to do.  I also know that, looking at our finances, it makes no sense to me how He is going to make this trip a reality. 

The total costs for this trip, all things considered, will be around $7000. I believe that God wants us to go on this trip and that it will be a blessing on my own spiritual growth and on my ministry for the next decade or more, and we are stepping out in faith to go.  If you would, please, I have three requests of you that would make a world of difference to me:

  1. We cherish your prayers!  We need God’s guidance as we try to figure out all of the logistics.  Pray for how we will take care of the kids, for our home, for our church and my classroom at ACU as I am not there to shepherd. Pray for us to be transformed by God during this trip in seeing Him and His Word in a new way and to be able to bring that home with me and impact others in a greater way in my preaching and teaching ministry. Please pray for God’s hand to provide financially for us to be able to go, as that part is still a big source of anxiety.  I know that God hears His people in these regards.
  2. Please share this post with your friends and your church!
  3. If you feel led to help us in some way, we would absolutely love that! Whether that is feeding our pets or house-sitting for us, loving our kids while we are away, or providing financially for the trip we would be very grateful.  Please, I don’t want anyone to feel pressured to give or help; I know that times are tough for many and that life is busy.  That said, if you’d like to help with going financially or some other way that would be an answer to prayer.

We are really excited to share this news with everyone and looking forward to seeing God at work in this trip.

Thanks so much, and may God bless your 2012!

Good or Great?

It’s an interesting week in my life, as God has taught me a major lesson in priorities and selfishness.  I feel like I can relate to Archippus, who was reminded by Paul the Apostle:

Say to Archippus, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.” (Colossians 4:17)

Allow me to back up.  If you know me, you know that I am a gun nut.  I just dig firearms.  I love to shoot and love to hunt.  Some guys like cars, some are into computers, some play lots of sports. (I do all of that to various degrees, too…)  But for me, shooting is it.  I am good at it, I enjoy it, and it is stress-relieving.  It’s not any more expensive than golf and there is less beer involved. Smile

So a couple of months ago a friend encouraged me to send in an audition email to the producers of Top Shot.  I am a big fan of the show, so I went ahead and sent their producers a casting email just for fun.  I got a call from their producers!  After a 20-minute phone interview they asked me to make a casting video for them; this is what we made. (hat tip to Lowman Photography for the amazing video)

After the video was submitted, Laura and I started really praying in earnest about it.  It wasn’t a slam dunk that I would be cast, of course, but there was a real chance that I could be chosen I think.  (I have friends who have worked in the industry and they liked my chances)  The hitch: the production schedule.  Filming for the show is August 3rd-September 15th, during which time the cast is sequestered.  They go live in Southern California and have no contact with friends and family for 6 weeks. 

That was a pretty steep price to pay.  I was asking my wife to let me have 6 weeks of no contact with her; same with my kids.  I was asking my church to allow me to basically take a sabbatical of 6 weeks and our two other pastors to pick up the slack.  I was asking both schools I teach at part time (ACU and Phoenix Seminary) to let me take about 4 weeks at the beginning of the fall semester off or maybe replace me for a semester.

So I did what I always do when things are not clear: I started praying, and started talking to my mentors.  I talked to the man who led me to Christ, Keith, who is a wonderful mentor and friend.  His advice was that this is a great, national opportunity to preach the gospel but if Laura wasn’t fully on board I should let it go.  I talked to several other people about it too.  We decided just to let the process take its course and hey, if they said no then fine.

After awhile of not hearing, I finally sent a follow-up email to the producers asking if I had been eliminated to just put the idea to rest.  I didn’t want it hanging around if I were out of the running!  He emailed me back and said that I was still “in the running,” and that was when I really had to make a decision.  That email, telling me I was still in, didn’t fill me with excitement or joy; instead I felt a sinking feeling because I still had to decide if I could ask everyone to go out of their way for me.

But more than anything the advice of the man I call my “hunting mentor,” Norm, rang in my ears.  Norm reminded me that I have a very unique calling and opportunity.  He reminded me that I get the unique privilege to be a shepherd and to serve people with the message of Christ.  And that got me thinking about underlying motives.  It got me thinking about why I wanted to be a contestant on Top Shot.  It’s because it is a cool show and the contestants get to participate in some awesome marksmanship contests. 

So, at the core of it, I was asking everyone around me to sacrifice a bunch so that I could go play with guns for six weeks.  Now, how much does that sound like what Jesus says?

“And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?’” (Luke 9:23–25)

Yeah, not much.  Sounds pretty selfish to me.
So Laura and I prayed.  And Wednesday I sent the producers an email asking them to take me out of consideration.  They were disappointed, but understood.  Someone else will take my place for sure!
I don’t post this to toot my own horn, but just to let you, dear readers, in on my thought process.  As Paul tells us, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. ” (1 Corinthians 6:12) It would be “lawful” for me to go, but even if profitable for me it wouldn’t be for my wife, my kids, and my church. (okay, if I won the $100,000 grand prize it would be…but there are no guarantees there for sure) 
So God reminded me that I needed to focus on the great rather than the good and the fun.  That I needed to die to self a little and think of those around me.  After a few early days this week of self-focus about this, He has reminded me again to put others ahead of my pleasure and seek the kingdom of God. 
How about you?  How is God leading you to put aside ambition and self-interest in His cause?  How is God changing your priorities and habits to be more like Him?

Excuses, Excuses

Why is it that good habits require constant work to maintain, but bad habits are always ready to go no matter how long they have been controlled? I know several important theological truths guide this discussion, (like the “competition” between depravity and regeneration for my habits) but it still ticks me off that I have such a hard time keeping the bad habits at bay while keeping the helpful ones going.

JabbaToo often I feel like Paul in Romans 7:14-25. I know what I should be doing, and how helpful the discipline is for every area of my life. I know that I need to exercise so I don’t end up looking like Jabba the Hutt.* I mean, my wife loves me and all but there are limits to how much she is willing to put up with!

For me to stay in shape, I need to exercise. I have found out that when I run three days a week or more I keep my weight down, which then helps with my residual back issues from the car wreck I had in 2000. I sleep better, eat better, look better, and have less stress when I run consistently. Sounds like a piece of cake, right? I know what you’re thinking: “JUST GO RUN THEN!”

The problem is how easy it is for me to get out of the habit of running. It seems that something is always standing in the way of me getting out for my jog. For awhile my shins ached after runs, which made me want to quit. It has been, shall we say, a tad on the warm side this summer in Phoenix. I needed new shoes for awhile. My schedule is really tight and I have no time.

I really started thinking about my habits on Thursday, though. I ran Monday, but left the orthotics for my shoes at our kenpo studio Tuesday night. The orthotics have made my shin splints go away, and I do NOT want them to come back. I needed them, so I didn’t run Wednesday. (for the record, I did not leave them there on purpose)

On Thursday morning I got up to go, but really didn’t want to. I had missed Wednesday and was off my stride, so it would have been really, really easy to skip Thursday too. We beat the heat by running at about 6:30AM, and I was really tired Thursday morning and also knew that I would have about 3 hours of kenpo that night.

Thankfully, Laura was up and getting ready for her run. (I think she was going to run 14 miles while quoting Chaucer and correcting school work for the kids…something productive like that anyway) That meant I had to get out. She wouldn’t have said anything, but still we both knew that I needed to get out. I also have something that I am training for, as I am going to run the P.F. Chang’s half-marathon in January. I know that I need to get the miles in before January 17th, or I will fail with a whole bunch of people watching on.

So despite my laziness telling me to go back to bed, I hit the road.

4.2 miles later I felt great. I was right back on my game, to the point that I am planning a 7-miler for tomorrow. All it took was the resolve to get out for my run—even though I wasn’t going to run all the miles this week I wanted—for me to overcome the laziness and get back on track.

I realized then that I had been doing something similar spiritually too. My schedule got whacked out when we went on our cruise in May, which knocked me off of my routine of daily devotions. I had just been using my sermon preparation time as my time for Bible reading this summer.

The habits of personal devotion and sermon prep overlap, but coming to God’s Word to prepare to feed others is not quite the same as feeding myself. Think of it as the difference between cooking yourself dinner and catering a meal for a group and you get my point. When I cook for a huge group I get tastes and samples, but I don’t get to eat like I do when I cook for myself.

So I dug back in and regained my passion for devotions. I read Obadiah, and now I am 4 chapters through Micah.** All it took was a couple of days, and I am back on my stride! It’s in my schedule, on my radar, and once again filling my soul. I can really feel the difference in my attitude and in my outlook.

Laura and I have noticed the same pattern in our prayer lives. When we pray together as a couple we do much better. When we don’t is is SO easy to keep putting it off, but our marriage is so much better when we make the time for the good habits we need. Just a few minutes talking in the morning and then praying for one another makes a humongous difference in the way we relate.

Small decisions matter; when we make small decision to cut corners, it never ends well. It is the cumulative effect of the small decisions and little habits of our lives that make or break so much.

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard, Observe her ways and be wise,
7 Which, having no chief, Officer or ruler,
8 Prepares her food in the summer And gathers her provision in the harvest.
9 How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?
10 “A little sleep, a little slumber, A little folding of the hands to rest”—
11 Your poverty will come in like a vagabond And your need like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:6-11)

Make some good habits this week. Begin something new or reestablish something you used to make a priority that is important to your life. Rekindle the closeness in your marriage by praying over your spouse and listening to their heart; pick up the Bible that only gets brought to church on Sundays and read it a little. Put the Twinkie down! 🙂

It takes effort to make good habits, but the alternative is not pretty. Sure it is easy to see when we are not taking care of ourselves physically, but how many of us look like Jabba spiritually or relationally? Have you ever met someone who “let themselves go” in their spiritual life, complacent and apathetic because they got out of the habits that built them up? If you take an honest look, is that you?

Maybe you can’t run a marathon today (I sure can’t), but you can make a healthy decision to take a stroll. You can’t reverse years of talking badly to your kids instantly, but you can restrain your tongue tonight. You might not be able to rekindle the passion for God that you once had in a single reading, but come to your senses like the lost son in Luke 15:17 and “head for home” with some prayer, Bible reading, and heading to church this week with a new attitude.

Sure you have excuses and reasons why you can’t. As my old tennis coach used to say, “An excuse is the skin of reason stuffed with a lie.” See it for what it is and overcome it. Don’t let the laziness and the excuses win.

*Yes, kids, there are Star Wars nerds so gigantic that they have made their own wiki, and that wiki is ridiculously detailed with back-story and character analysis of the most obscure Star Wars related stuff you can imagine. You can’t make this stuff up!

**The New Testament is my specialty. I haven’t been in the Hebrew Scriptures for awhile, so I thought it was the place to go.