Let's Give Thanks for One More Thing

In less than 10 days we will celebrate Thanksgiving.

We are, of course, thankful for things like our faith, family, health and country. But I would like to suggest that we give thanks for one more thing: a simple but important opportunity which is within our reach every day.

The opportunity I am suggesting - if each Christian would engage it - would literally transform each of our communities. What is it?

Our country is going mad. Mass shootings are commonplace. Racial tensions are boiling over. Young men and women are being radicalized by ISIS. Domestic violence, opioid abuse, sex trafficking, bullying, loneliness, isolation, and depression are all dramatically on the rise.

Governments and national organizations are trying to figure out policies and programs that will solve these problems for us. But there is a radical idea already out there that just might prevent future terror attacks, and reverse the other trends almost completely.

What is it?

“Love your neighbor,” (Jesus in Matthew 22:39).

More from Jesus, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” “Freely you have received, freely give.” “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (John 13:34, Matthew 10:8, Matthew 25:40, Luke 6:46)

Any questions?

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. And what the world needs now is for Christians who have received abundant love from the Father to then love our neighbors who need it so badly.

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). And now, having received that abundant love, we can go love the people the Father has placed nearby. “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another,” (1 John 4:11).

I know it’s tempting to ask, “But am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer of Jesus? “Yes.”

By the way, “Love your neighbor,” doesn’t mean simply to be “nice” to your neighbor, or politely “tolerate” your neighbor. It means to offer “grace” to your neighbor. Grace is the gritty kind of love that is not deserved or earned but is desperately needed. Grace – simply put – means treating people better than they deserve… like the Father has already treated you and me.

“Christians-who-actually-love-their-neighbors” is the radical idea that will transform and save every community. Because that’s what grace does when it is shared… it transforms and saves people. Enemies become friends. Strangers become family. And those who would have been left alone with their festering thoughts come into the light of care, grace and truth because a Christian regularly invites them over for a meal and conversation.

All we have to do is do it.

What if we didn’t wait for governmental policies to be written and implemented? What if we didn’t delegate to national organizations what Jesus gave us to do? What if all the Christians in worship on Sunday went home and did the one thing Jesus gave us to do – love our neighbors?

And that’s the opportunity I am suggesting we give thanks for on Thanksgiving. The opportunity to notice and care about the people God has placed nearby each day. What’s their name? What’s their story?  How are things going for them this week?

What if we hung out with our neighbor so we could find out from our neighbor? What if Sayfullo Saipov, the man who drove a rental truck onto a Manhattan bike path on October 30, had had a Christian neighbor who regularly invited him over for meals? What if Devin Patrick Kelley, the man who shot dead 26 worshippers in Sutherland Springs on November 5, had had a Christian co-worker who noticed his increasing anger and agitation and had walked with him rather than avoided him?

In those cases, we will never know.

But there’s the opportunity. Yes, what’s done is done. But starting today we can be that Christian neighbor or co-worker who understands the real reason our Lord placed us where he did: to be a way through which His love, care and redemption would get to the people nearby who need it so badly. From Him, through us, to them.

In nine days we will celebrate Thanksgiving.

With thanksgiving in our hearts, let’s go do what Jesus gave us to do.

While Celebrating the HOW, Don't Forget the WHY

We are finally arriving at the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Back on October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther nailed 95 theses for debate to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

And what was at stake with the Reformation? The answer to that is as simple as it is critical: Getting the “HOW” right of our salvation. How are we saved? Is it by works of the law or by grace through faith alone?

Of the many portions of Scripture which answer this basic question, the one that is most prominently held up on Reformation Sunday is Romans 3:19-28. It is one of the assigned readings for the day. This familiar passage culminates with, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” (verses 21-22).

That’s HOW we are saved. By God’s grace through faith alone. And that’s worth celebrating.

However, while we are celebrating the HOW of our salvation, let’s not lose sight of the WHY of our salvation. Because the Lutheran Church was born out of a grave concern for getting the HOW right, we can sometimes forget the importance of the WHY. However, the HOW and the WHY are two parts of the same whole. They belong together. Together they form the COMPLETE message of God’s Word.

So, HOW are we saved? By grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, of course. And WHY are we saved?

Umm…

See what I mean? We Lutherans are wonderfully clear and articulate about confessing HOW we are saved. And it is a gift to the world. But we are a little less clear about WHY we are saved. And because of that, our response to being saved by grace through faith can devolve into a vague passiveness as we live out our daily lives. In other words, because we are clear on the HOW but not so clear on the WHY, we settle back quietly to sit on the bench and run out the clock until we die and go to Heaven.

But can such a passive response to salvation by grace through faith be what God intended? Of course not. But what IS our response then?

The good news is that the same Bible which clearly answers the question of HOW we are saved also answers the question of WHY we are saved. (We just haven’t asked the question as consistently.) And it turns out there is a very important PURPOSE behind God going to all the work of saving us.

Paul puts it succinctly in Ephesians 2:8-10. First Paul gives us HOW we are saved, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Nice and clear. Then he gives us WHY we are saved, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” In other words, WHY did God do all that work of grace-ing us and faith-ing us and saving us? Simple. So that we could be freed to do the good the Father has prepared in advance for us to do each day. Again, nice and clear.

Going back to his letter to the Romans, Paul is a little less succinct, but he is unpacking the same message. In chapter 3 he begins unpacking the HOW of our salvation and continues to unpack it all the way through chapter 6. But when he finally gets to the end of explaining the HOW, he then points us directly to the WHY: “Therefore, do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather [wait for it] offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness,” (Romans 6:12-13). In other words, we get to offer ourselves to God so he can use us as tools for making something right happen in the lives of people around us.

Paul delivers both the HOW and the WHY.

Of course, he does. They belong together. And together they form the complete message of God's Word.

According to God, now that we are saved by his grace through faith alone, we have things to do each day. God does not save us so that we can passively sit on the bench and run out the clock until we die and go to Heaven. He saves us so that we can again be the way by which his goodness gets loose in the lives of people around us who need it so badly (Ephesians 2:10). He brings us from death to life so that we can be the reason something right happens in the lives of people around us who need it so badly (Romans 6:13).

So, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let’s keep the WHY of our salvation as clear as the HOW of our salvation. God’s Word instructs us to and our neighbors need us to.

By grace through faith... for a purpose. Here we stand.

Because You Just Never Know...

Fellow Neighborhood Missionaries, this is why we do what we do. This is why we cast the seed of attention, conversation and interaction with our neighbors - because you just never know what Jesus may be up to.

Mark and Malinda had lived in their neighborhood for 20 years. And for 15 of those years they had diligently tried to avoid a certain couple that were... well, shall we say "rough around the edges." They drank, smoked and had tattoos. They were a little too loud for everyone else in the neighborhood.  You know the type.

Then Jesus decided to intrude on Mark and Malinda's tidy little attitude and routine. (Yep, this is what we refer to as "Jesus messing with us.") You see, their congregation had gone through a book called, "Joining Jesus on His Mission" and, in a word, Mark and Malinda knew it was time to repent of their attitude. They knew it was well past time for them to go down and re-introduce themselves to their neighbors of 15 years.

And, wouldn't you know it, just as they decided to do this, a "For Sale" sign went up in the neighbors yard! They couldn't believe it. They felt terrible. Here they had successfully avoided their neighbors for 15 years and now that they were finally ready to get over themselves and join Jesus, their neighbors were going to move. Wow.

However, instead of giving up in defeat, Mark and Malinda immediately headed down the block to do something they knew they should have done long ago: knock on the door, say hi, and ask how their neighbors were doing.

And when they did, well, like we said, you just never know what Jesus may already be up to. Turns out Mark and Malinda were warmly received and had a great conversation with their neighbors. They found out their neighbors were worried about the sale of their home.  They needed to get a certain price in order to be able to do what they wanted to do in their next season of life. Their realtor, unfortunately, was not optimistic.

When it came time for Mark and Malinda to go, Mark took a bit of a chance and asked, "Before we go, would you mind if I prayed for the sale of your house?" Surprisingly, the couple quickly agreed and even wanted to hold hands for the prayer!  Afterwards, Mark and Malinda headed back to their house truly amazed at how Jesus had set everything up. But it was only the beginning. They hadn't been back in their home for 15 minutes before the phone rang.  It was their neighbor. She was breathless. "You're not going to believe it!" she said. "We just got off the phone with our realtor. We got an offer on the house and they offered ABOVE THE ASKING PRICE!"

Fellow Missionaries, this is why we do what we do. You just never know what Jesus may be up to! Don't judge your neighbor or ignore your neighbor. Have fun casting the seed of attention, conversation and interaction with your neighbors.

Because you just never know.

My Small Part of God's Great Big Mission

"What difference can I make?"

As I talk with people across the country, I find that one of the biggest reasons people shrink back from getting up and getting started with joining Jesus on his mission is that the mission itself seems overwhelming.

And it is.

After all, the mission of God is global in its scope. It is by definition massive. It includes every person in every community in every nation. As I write this, there are approximately 7.2 billion people spread out over 57.3 million square miles on the face of the earth. How in the world can our small lives make a difference when the mission of God is so enormous?

Well, hold on there. Before we give up, let’s do some math. You see, while there are 7.2 billion people on the face of the earth, 2.2 billion of them are baptized Christians. That leaves 5 billion unbaptized people. Still overwhelming, right? But if we do the math, do you know how many unbaptized people there are per Christian on earth? Not millions or thousands or even dozens. There are two.

Five billion unbaptized people divided by 2.2 billion baptized people is roughly two people each. Millions or thousands or even dozens would be overwhelming. Two is not. Two is doable. Looks like Jesus’ overwhelming mission isn’t so overwhelming after all. All that needs to happen is for each of us to take up our very small part of his great big mission.

You see, the scope of God’s mission is, indeed, global. It is as massive and expansive as the earth and everyone in it. But the focus of God’s mission is radically local and radically personal. We don’t start with the whole earth. We start with our nearest unbaptized neighbor or friend. We can’t win the world for Christ until we meet our neighbor who needs Christ. So, what’s their name? What’s their story? As simple as it sounds, getting to know and offering friendship to one or two of them is how we engage the massive, global mission of God. And if each of the 2.2 billion Christians on the face of the earth took up their small part? Wow…

Imagine 2.2 billion Christians taking the next year and starting to get to know and offer friendship to one or two of the unbaptized people nearby? What if we stopped being overwhelmed by the 4,999,999,998 unbaptized people who we don’t know and started to invest in the one or two who are already nearby? The magazine “Christianity Today” recently reported that in the U.S. 20% of unchristian people don’t know even one Christian personally. Is it because no Christians live nearby or work alongside them? Is it because no Christians hang out at the same coffeehouses or brew houses? Is it because no Christians work out at the same gym or have kids in the same school? Hmm….

But this could change. And easily.

What if all the people in church worshipping Jesus this Sunday went home and did the one thing Jesus gave us to do? What if all the people in church worshipping Jesus this Sunday went home and started loving their neighbor? Not the nations, not the city, not thousands or hundreds, just the few already nearby.

By the way, mission is much easier and a lot more fun when we get to know our neighbor’s name and a little of their story. Fred Rogers, from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” used to say, “It’s hard not to like someone once you know their story.” Are you tempted to dislike your neighbor, judge your neighbor, or avoid your neighbor because they are so… whatever you disapprove of? Then draw deeply from the grace God offers you, and invite that neighbor over for a meal. During your time together, have the goal of getting to know a little of their story. Then replace your neighbor in the story with yourself. What would you be like if you had grown up in the environment they had? What would you be like if you had been caught in the consequences of one or two of your bad choices like they had? What would you be like if what had happened to them had happened to you? And if you had ended up “that way,” wouldn’t it be a blessing from God to have a neighbor nearby who treated you with the kind of love you didn’t deserve but needed so badly? Wouldn’t it be a blessing from God to have a neighbor who took time to get to know you and really listen to you? Wouldn’t it be a blessing to have a neighbor nearby who wasn’t repelled and judgmental like a Pharisee but patient and redemptive like Jesus?

This is who we are. This is what we do. We aren’t given the job of fixing our neighbor or saving our neighbor. Our job is much simpler. We are to love our neighbor, as the Father has already loved us. This is our small part of His great big mission.

If 2.2 billion of us each took up our very small part, his great big mission would come to pass.

What is "Disicipling" According to Jesus?

The following is an excerpt from my new book, "Joining Jesus - Show Me How: How to Discple Everyday Missionaries."

If we’re going to understand what discipling is according to Jesus, let’s start with gaining clarity on what the word discipling means.

Perhaps you are familiar with these words: Apprentice. Trainee. Intern. Padawan (for you Star Wars fans).

What do these words have in common? They are familiar nouns used to describe a person in the process of becoming skilled at something – like a profession, a craft or being a Jedi Knight, for example. They are also synonyms for a less familiar noun: disciple. A disciple is a person in the process of becoming skilled at something, too. And then there are these familiar words: Coaching. Training. Mentoring. Drilling. These are verbs we use to describe the actual process through which certain skills are developed. As in, “The employee receives coaching to develop her job skills.” These familiar verbs are synonyms for a less familiar verb: Discipling. Discipling is also a process through which certain skills are developed.

So when you hear the term disciple of Jesus, think apprentice, trainee, intern or Padawan of Jesus. Likewise, when you hear that Jesus is discipling us, think Jesus is coaching, training, drilling or mentoring us.

Now, the next question is, “To what end?” If a disciple is a person in the process of becoming skilled at something and discipling is the process through which the skills are developed, then what are the skills? And what are we to do with them? In other words, to what end are we being discipled? For that answer, we will first go to Jesus and watch how he disciples his followers in the gospels. After we have done that, we will start distilling what we have found into clear and simple summary statements.

Over the years, I have settled on the following summary: Discipling is Jesus’ process of showing the people of God how to participate in the mission of God as a daily lifestyle. Could it be that simple?

Well, let’s go find Jesus in Matthew 4 and find out. Matthew 4 is one of the places in the gospels where we see Jesus initiating his discipling process with people. He approaches two brothers and says in verse 19, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus is on a mission. He has been sent by his Father to redeem and restore all things. When Jesus says, “Come, follow me,” he is inviting the brothers into a training process so they (the people of God) will be able to participate in the mission of God as a daily lifestyle. This training process then continues to unfold throughout the rest of the Gospel narrative until Matthew 28 when Jesus commissions them to make even more disciples who will participate in the mission of God, too.

But it starts here in Matthew 4:19, where we quickly learn four things about Jesus’ discipling process:

1)      Being a disciple of Jesus starts with Jesus.

Jesus initiates the discipling process and it is born from his grace. He comes to them. He chooses them and befriends them. He gives them a new identity and a new vocation. And then he begins to train them. “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

2)      Discipling is a process of training that changes us for the good of others.

Jesus invites them to follow him in order to train them and change them. And this change is not primarily for the good of the disciples themselves. Jesus changes them for the good of others. When Jesus says, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” he is saying, “Come, follow me and I will change who you are and what you do for the good of others.”

The rest of the New Testament uses a variety of terms which are essentially synonymous with the personal change discipling causes: Discipling = training = growing = maturing = transforming = sanctifying = conforming = being “taught to obey everything I have commanded.” And all for the good of others.

3)      The way Jesus disciples them is through joining him on his mission.

Joining the mission is both what Jesus trains them for and the way Jesus trains them. Being discipled isn’t something that precedes joining the mission. It is something that happens as a result of joining the mission.

4)      Discipling the way Jesus does in the gospels results in disciples who make even more disciples.

Multiplication is built into Jesus’ discipling process from the beginning. In Matthew 4:19 when he invites the brothers to be discipled, he already knows his goal is Matthew 28:19-20 when he will commission them to make even more disciples. So from Matthew 4 to Matthew 28 Jesus is showing them how to participate in the mission of God as a daily lifestyle so that they can then show others how to do the same. The way Jesus disciples his followers results in disciples who make even more disciples – who will make even more disciples – who will make even more disciples – until the nations will be discipled to participate in the mission of God throughout the entire earth. (Pretty cool, huh?) In many nations this is already happening. If we clarify, simplify and imitate Jesus’ discipling process, we will see it, too.

Is that what you thought discipling was? This may not be the answer you thought you’d get, but it is the answer Jesus has been giving from the beginning.

What about catechesis and catechisms? What about all the nuances and details of pure doctrine? What about the next volume of theological textbooks we still need to tackle?

I hear you. But what about, “Come, follow me?”

When Jesus disciples someone in the gospels, he says, “Come, follow me.” When we disciple someone, we say, “Go to a class.” Hmm… Something is off. Is this one of the reasons we are not seeing the kind of results Jesus saw in the gospels? Is it because our understanding of discipling is not the same as Jesus’ understanding? “Come, follow me” is not the same as “Go to a class.”

Have we unintentionally begun substituting a system of scholarship for Jesus’ process of discipleship? Have we made knowing answers about Jesus more important than actually joining Jesus in the community? Have we made “being a disciple” only for the smart kids who can master theology? There is nothing wrong with being smart or mastering theology. The problem comes when we substitute mastering theology for actually joining Jesus on his redemptive mission as a daily lifestyle. C.S. Lewis once observed, “Being a great theologian can easily be mistaken for being a good Christian.”

Of course, studying the Word of God and discussing its theology was a key part of Jesus’ discipling process. Whether as a twelve year-old boy in the Temple or in Caesarea Philippi with his disciples, he encouraged theological discussion to be rich and deep and wide-ranging. But here’s the question: To what end would he have us study and discuss? So we can know more? Or so we can be more and do more with him in our communities that need it so badly?

If scholarship is the goal of discipleship, then we end up with scholars who make more scholars who know right answers. If joining Jesus is the goal of discipleship, then we end up with disciples who make more disciples who participate in the redemption and restoration of all things. Scholarship is fine. But redemption and restoration of all things is the goal.

“Come, follow me,” Jesus says, “Let me show you how to participate in my Father’s redemptive mission.” This may not be the answer we thought we’d get, but it is the answer Jesus has been giving from the beginning.

[More next week...]

"Don't Whisper Softly"

My sincere apologies for not having posted a blog since Advent! I have only one excuse. I was busy writing a book. And, I don't know about you, but writing a book - even a short one - is slow, hard work for me. But now that it is complete, I can share a few excerpts with you over the next few weeks (or at least until the book is finally available on Amazon).

The title of the new book is "Joining Jesus - Show Me How: How to Discple Everyday Missionaries." And here's a peek at what you can expect:

I never saw it coming.

As I sat in the passenger seat of this 75-year-old grandma’s aging Buick, I was about to have the ride of my life.

Over the weekend, I had been speaking at a women’s mission conference in Eugene, Oregon. The conference had ended at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday and I was scheduled to lead a training workshop at a church in Portland later that afternoon. So in order to save money on a rental car, this gracious senior had volunteered to drive me back to Portland. I anticipated an uneventful two-hour ride at a reasonable pace (read: within the posted speed limits).

I was wrong. On both counts.

After I put on my seatbelt, she carefully shifted the car into drive and eased her big Buick out of the parking lot. Once we were on I-5 heading north to Portland, she glanced at me and said, “If we hurry, I can take you on some back roads and show you our beautiful wine country. Would you like that?” I asked, “Can we do that and still make it back to Portland in time?” She answered with a gleam in her eye and a slight smile on her face, “We sure can.” And with that, this 75-year-old church lady literally put the pedal to the metal!

Leaving others in the dust, we sped along the interstate for several miles. When she saw the exit she was looking for, we got off the interstate and headed into the hills. Quickly. And she was right. It was beautiful. It was June and the hills between Eugene and Portland were filled with one picturesque vineyard after another. And she was eager to show me it all. But to do so she had to race along the back roads at speeds that would make any Formula One driver proud.

The roads twisted left and right, up and down. Each corner took my breath away, both because of the speed at which we took them but also because of the next view that was revealed. If I lived, I would have some beautiful memories! And then, unexpectedly, she decelerated. We had entered a wide valley and just up the road was a little place she knew of. As she eased into the parking lot, she said, “I always take a pit stop here.” The place was an unexpected wonderland. It was a cornucopia of garden produce, crafts, flowering plants and baked goods. My adventurous friend also knew it was hosting an annual event called “The BBQ, Berries and Brew Festival.”

I partook of two of the three offerings. (She insisted.)

After we got our plate of food and glass of brew, we were directed outside where the land and the view opened up. People were sitting at picnic tables, relaxing and visiting, while an artist played his guitar and sang. It was a surreal experience. Moments before, I had been flying white-knuckled through this picturesque landscape. Now I was sitting in it, enjoying some music, some surprisingly good BBQ and a little something from a local craft brewery.

I turned to Speed Racer and asked, “Do we have time for this?” She looked at me disapprovingly and replied, “Of course, we have time. Now, take a deep breath and enjoy your surroundings.”

So I did. And when I did, I discovered something. (Like I said, I never saw it coming.) Jesus had evidently brought me here for a reason. It wasn’t just for the beauty, or the BBQ, or the brew. It was for the song. Turns out, the artist singing was Tyler Stenson, an award-winning singer/songwriter from Portland. (Clearly the event planners were serious about the entertainment they brought in.) When I heard the words he was singing, one of the lines really settled on me. It went like this, “When it’s the end of the line – your train having rolled through its time – all your graces and legacies stand. So don’t whisper softly the things you want loudly to be.”

The song wasn’t a Christian song or even particularly spiritual. And yet it was. “Don’t whisper softly the things you want loudly to be.” I scrambled to find something to write with so I wouldn’t lose the words. There was something there. Jesus was messing with me through the lyrics.

As we got back in the Buick and continued to Portland, I hardly noticed our breakneck speed anymore because 1) I had come to trust my friend’s skill as a Formula One driver, and 2) I was busy rolling those lyrics around in my head. Through it Jesus seemed to be wrestling with me about legacy; about seeing the end from the beginning; about limited time; about clarity and priority; about intentionality and consistency. And then I realized. There was a parallel here for me about how I was leaving my legacy with my family and friends and how I was discipling them. If I wanted to leave a legacy of family and friends who were filled with Jesus’ love, joy, peace and patience; if I wanted to leave a legacy of them seeking his kingdom and joining him on his mission, then I couldn’t whisper softly the things I wanted loudly to be. Instead, I needed to disciple them on purpose.

[More next week on what discipling is according to Jesus and how to disciple people the way he does in the gospels.]

"Armed Robbery and Emmanuel"

I was taught a valuable lesson about being the “Emmanuel” of God by an armed robbery.

Between March and August, 2011, I worked in a jewelry store owned by my neighbors. They hired me while I got back on my feet and started building the foundation for Dwelling 1:14. During my six months at the store, I never did find my mojo as a jewelry-guy, but I got to know the staff and became friends with many of them. I got to know their stories and they got to know mine.

Of course, most of my story is wrapped up in being the husband of Susan; the father of Amanda, Emilie, and Ellen; a pastor for 20+ years; and a follower of Jesus. Some of the staff embraced me right away. Some were unsure of the “new pastor guy.” I had to prove I was there not to sell religion to them, but jewelry to the customers. And eventually I did.

Even though I never got the hang of selling jewelry, as the months passed I began to gain the trust of the rest of the staff by at least trying hard and being willing to laugh at myself. And even though I wasn’t selling religion (or, more likely, because of it), I eventually found myself having spiritual conversations with most of them. I did that not by being a pushy or clever Jesus-salesperson, but by being a watchful Jesus-follower. I simply watched and listened for what Jesus was already up to. I would ask some questions, do some listening, offer some encouragement or insight or, sometimes, prayer. I was surprised when they began jokingly referring to me as “the Pastor of Lewis Jewels and Timepieces.”

When the day came for me to resign my position so I could lead Dwelling 1:14 fulltime, I was leaving a group of friends. And, after that, I would make it a point to regularly stop in to say “hello” and stay in touch. Which is why I was so concerned when I got the phone call from my owner-friend a couple years later. The store had been robbed at gunpoint. Shots had been fired. The armed robber had been wounded. Everyone was fine. But no one was fine. They had shut down the store for a couple days to clean up the damage. “But could you come by?” my friend asked. “I think everyone needs some encouragement and prayer.” We set it up that I would come the next morning.

When I arrived, the store itself was almost back to normal. But the staff was not. They were trying to be brave but their eyes were still haunted. Fear remained close by. My friend gathered his staff. The store became a sanctuary. I gave them words of grace and encouragement. We held hands and prayed in the name of Jesus. It was good. It was reassuring. It helped.

Then my friend made a little announcement. “For the remainder of the morning Greg will be available to talk with you in the back office. Feel free to come back. Take as much time as you need.”

Everyone headed back to work and I headed back to the office to await the first person. And I waited… and I waited… I had waited about 15 minutes when I realized no one would be coming to me in the office. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I decided to go back out into the store and see. I went up to the first lady I saw and just asked her how she was doing. For the next several minutes she poured out what she had experienced the day of the robbery, what her thoughts had been, and what her feelings still were. I was able to repeat several of the things I had said earlier to the group, but this time it was to her personally. There were tears, there were smiles, there were hugs.

I spent the next couple hours going from person to person doing the same thing.

What had I learned? I call it “the Lesson of Emmanuel.” I could have waited all day for the people to come to me in the office and nothing would have happened. But, as soon as I went to them – and was with them – the words and feelings and healings began to flow. They just needed someone to come to them. To be with them. To ask. And then listen. When all the “bad stuff” from inside got out, then the “good news” I had to share could be heard and get in.

Of course, “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” And Jesus is Emmanuel… literally. He is the “with us” God. He is God made flesh and dwelling with us. And as the Father sent him, so he now sends us. Because Jesus is inside of us through baptism, we are now Emmanuel… literally. We are the body of Jesus living in the neighborhood, heading off to work, attending classes at school.

And we are sent. Not to sit in offices waiting for hurting people to come to us, but to go out to them and see how they’re doing. Allow me to repeat: Not to wait for them, but to go to them. To be with them.

That’s what an armed robbery taught me about Emmanuel.

Where Does All the Love Come From?

As I talk with people both in the church and in the world, it is clear that the #1 solution to most of our problems, hurts, burdens and aggravations is forgiveness and love.

For instance, what would happen if in every marriage both the spouses humbled themselves and loved each other... especially when the other spouse was acting like a jerk. Or what would happen if all of us Christians who were in church last Sunday went home or went to work and started to do the one thing Jesus gave us to do... love our neighbors... especially when they are irritating us. What would happen if all the teens and young adults who are rocking to Jesus songs in their ear buds on campus, treated people who were rude to them better than they deserved? If Christians loved unlovable people, and loved such people habitually, the world would be better. Yes?

Love changes people.

Here's the rub. Where in the world does all that love come from? I'm not feeling it when I'm not first receiving it, especially from the angry, rude, irritating people. I don't have it in me. And, I'm betting, neither do you.

So is loving our neighbors and loving our enemies just a nice thought for Sunday mornings? Do we hear the words of Jesus and immediately beg off because "we are sinners" and can't do it anyway? Or have we not answered the question correctly yet?

Here's the question again... Where does all that love come from? Not from Christians. Not from inside me. The answer is, “Love comes from God," (1 John 4:7). From God, through Christians, to a world that doesn't deserve it but needs it so badly. You already are loved with the abundant love of the Father, so, “Freely you have received, freely give.” There’s a lot more love where that love you have received came from! You don’t have to wonder if you have it or where you can go find it. You don’t have to chase after it or earn it. You can simply remember you already have it. And in abundance. In fact, way back when you were baptized, it was already settled. What the Father said of Jesus at his baptism he said of you at yours, “This is my son (This is my daughter), whom I love; with him (with her) I am well pleased.” That’s our starting point. That’s our source. That’s our True Identity. We are loved, forgiven, and pleasing to the Father. We have that. And in abundance. Remember it and then share it with the next person who doesn't deserve it but needs it so badly. “Freely you have received, freely give.” That’s who we are and that’s what we do.

It's the only hope for the world. 

Now – deep breath… hold it… exhale – what happens when you actually believe this? What happens when you believe you are loved by the Father? Have you noticed? When you believe you are loved by the Father, joy starts to bubble up. You already had an abundance of joy in you, but it wasn’t bubbling up as long as you forgot you are loved. But when you remember you are loved, here comes joy! And on the heels of joy, do you now see what is emerging? Peace. Love and joy together call forth peace. And with love, joy and peace, look what now is within reach… patience. It’s always been there inside of you. You had it as a gift. You just forgot you are loved by the Father, so it seemed far away. But remembering you are loved jump-starts the chain reaction toward patience. After that, look what starts tumbling forth… kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness… and finally even self-control emerges not as an effort of our own but as a fruit of his Spirit and love.

Where does all the love come from for loving the unloveable, loving the jerk, loving the rude, loving the enemy, loving our neighbor or coworker or spouse who is irritating us?

Love comes from God. Freely receive. Freely give. From God, through us, to a person who doesn't deserve it but needs it so badly. It's our only hope. And then watch what God will do when we do so habitually.

Mission Effectiveness: Good, Better, Best

“Activity does not equal accomplishment.”

Years ago I jotted down this quote as I listened to a John Maxwell talk. It made a lot of sense to me then and it still does today. Being busy doesn’t mean I am being effective.

This is especially true of mission. Mission activity does not equal mission accomplishment.

As I travel around the country, I often meet increasingly weary, frustrated leaders who have poured a lot of energy, leadership capital and money into activities and programs they had hoped would have “missional” results. However, despite all the effort and investment in mission activity these particular leaders are not seeing a correlating mission result. In other words, they are not seeing new people come to faith in Jesus.

These leaders are starting to realize mission activity does not necessarily equal mission accomplishment.

Can you relate?

Perhaps it is time for a more insightful way of evaluating mission effectiveness before we put all that effort into the activity.

See if this helps.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the late Steve Ogne. Steve had been a well-known church planting trainer and coach. When it comes to evaluating mission effectiveness, he had suggested using a simple spectrum of “good, better, best.”

In other words, when considering “mission” activities, think about the level of mission accomplishment you can realistically expect to see as a result. Since so many pioneers have been experimenting over the last 20 years, we can evaluate with a relatively high level of experiential insight.

Here’s how. In terms of mission accomplishment relative to activity investment:

1) Making a difference in a person’s life is good.

2)  Making a difference and making a friend is better.

3)  Making a difference, making a friend and making a disciple is best.

Good, better, best.

So, concerning the mission of God, it is good to make a difference in someone’s day or life. That matters immensely. However, it is better to not only make a difference for the person but to be in position over time to become friends with the person as well. And, at least in terms of mission effectiveness, it is best to not only make a difference and make a friend but to then be on our way to making a disciple.

Experience (and the Gospels) tells us that the key to mission effectiveness is not activity per se but relationship. Therefore, activities that put our people into position to progress from strangers making a difference to friends making disciples can be our new, clearer goal.

Recently I received a note from a mission leader in another state. They were becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of mission-result they were seeing from a huge food give-away they sponsored as a congregation. Lots of volunteers, lots of money, lots of energy. However, as far as they knew, no one had come to faith in Jesus. Giving away food to the hungry is good, of course.  But they had begun this activity with the hope that they would see many people eventually come to faith in Jesus.

As it turns out, the leader and congregation had made a common mistake… one which we have been slowly coming to understand over the last several years of experimenting. They had underestimated the importance of ongoing relationship in mission effectiveness.

The leader writing me wanted to let me know that as a result of reading my new book, “Joining Jesus on His Mission,” they had gone to the latest food give-away and instead of simply making a difference (good), they sat among the people and began to make a friend (better). As a result, the leader has an ongoing friendship (outside of the food give-away environment) with a family from the community. Now there is a realistic hope that this friendship, in time, will be a context for the Holy Spirit to lead the family to faith and discipleship (best).

What are you and/or your congregation doing that is intended to be “missional?”

Into what categories do your activities fall?

·        Making a difference. (Good)

·        Making a difference and making a friend. (Better)

·        Making a difference, making a friend and making a disciple. (Best)

Once we have a realistic understanding of what our activities can accomplish, then a clearer, more realistic strategy can emerge.  For instance, mission activities that simply “make a difference” can take on a strategically important but more realistic role in a congregation’s overall mission strategy. These kinds of activities are effective at giving our members a way of dipping their toe into the “missional” waters for the first time.  Activities that “make a difference” can be viewed by mission-rookies as relatively low-risk. Such activities give them first-step experiences that help them begin to think and feel differently about the people in the community around them. (Good)

However, where leaders unintentionally help their people get stuck is when these kind of “good” mission activities are the only environments we propose or promote even though they are not necessarily conducive to the next step of making friends. A better idea is to have the next step of the strategy prepared ahead of time so that when people are ready they can move from “the good” of making a difference to “the better” of investing themselves for the sake of making a friend. As leaders, we do not need to think “either/or” – that is, either good or better – rather, we can think sequentially. Good to better to best.

Each step in this progression requires more of a personal investment from our people, but the progression we now propose and promote gives them the actual experience they need to be ready for the higher investment and gives them a more realistic opportunity to see missional fruit as a result of their investment.

Mission effectiveness is all about the depth of relationship we are able to enjoy with people who don’t know Jesus. What will be your strategy to help your people progress from strangers making a difference to friends making disciples?

Many have found my book, “Joining Jesus on His Mission” to be a helpful tool for accomplishing just that.  Shoot me an email or give me a call if you’d like to talk.

Why is Witnessing So Hard for Us?

Wherever I go, I find people of God who want to be better equipped to witness. They long to be able to tell people the good news of Jesus. But they lack confidence. They feel unprepared. They are afraid.

What is wrong?

I have found that the core to our fear of witnessing rests in a handful of misunderstandings.

1)     Our expectations are off. I have found that most people have a vague expectation that somehow their witnessing is supposed to result in conversion... on the spot… immediately… preferably accompanied by tongues of fire on the head. With such expectations who wouldn’t be terrified?

2)     Our models are off. As we look around for what it looks like to “be a witness” in our neighborhood or workplace, we see preachers and teachers “witnessing” at church. But we can’t carry a pulpit or podium into our neighborhood or workplace and “witness” like they do. Outside of church our models are even less helpful. We see street preachers in public spaces or aggressive people in our workplaces or neighborhoods and know those are not our models either. But we are still left wondering what a natural, enjoyable spiritual conversation with a pre-Christian person looks like.

3)     Our understanding of “good news” is off. As Lutherans, we can be so concerned with being doctrinally correct, we lose track of what is actually “good” about the “good news of God”. We hear the “good news of God” preached and taught at church. During confirmation years, we have perhaps memorized the “good news of God” for a test. We have the head-knowledge down but what about the heart-knowledge of the “good news of God”?

4)     Our understanding of “witness” is off. When it comes to “witnessing” our faith, we tend to overestimate correct words and underestimate lifestyle and friendship. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves thinking that if we can just say “it” correctly, a pre-Christian will come to faith. While the Holy Spirit uses words to create faith, we forget that He also uses two other ingredients: the way we live and friendship. Jesus points to this in Matthew 5:16 when He lifts up doing good as an important form of witnessing (as does Peter in 1 Peter 2:12 and 3:1). Friendship with pre-Christians is important because it allows us to share our lives and our stories over time. Perhaps one way to understand how words, lifestyle and friendship go together is to ask, “Am I known by my pre-Christian friends for what I say I believe? Or am I known for what I actually do?”

5)     We lack experience. Leroy Biesenthal in his witness training workbook from 30 years ago wrote, “Experience has shown that although all are witnesses, not many witness. I give thanks for those who have been moved by God’s Spirit to give a ready testimony to their faith. But the number is few. Even among church people, I find precious little important Gospel sharing. Oh, there’s a lot of ‘church talk’ and ‘institution sharing’ but not much [talk about what Jesus is doing in our lives]. Indeed, I have repeatedly suggested that one of the reasons we in the LCMS find it so difficult to talk to others about Jesus is that we rarely talk to each other about Him in a natural, casual, spontaneous way.” Every Sunday we have trained professionals or gifted volunteers telling us about Jesus.  But when do we have an opportunity to put our thoughts, stories and beliefs into words?

When people have these kinds of misunderstandings combined with this kind of inexperience, no wonder witnessing seems so hard!

The solution?  Simple.  Start with relaxing.

1)      Expectations: Rather than putting pressure on ourselves to “hit it out of the park” or feeling like it’s “baptism or bust,” remember that Jesus puts the focus for results on Himself. Our role is so simple even a child can do it: Each day watch for opportunities to cast seeds of love, service and good news into the lives of people around us. Then watch what HE does.

2)      Models: Rather than trying to model ourselves after professional preachers or aggressive promoters of religion, look for models who know how to listen and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit as a lifestyle.  (More on this in a moment.)

3)      News that’s Good: What is “good” about the good news of God?  What is it about the good news that makes a person smile and say, “Wow! Am I glad you told me that!” We already know the answer to this intuitively, we just need some help clarifying it and putting it into words.  (More on this in a moment, too.)

4)      Witness: How we live and how we love is just as important as what we say. In fact, if we live and love well, pre-Christians will seek out what we have to say. However, if all we have are words, people will lose respect for us.

5)      Experience: How do we gain experience in giving witness to our faith? The easiest way is to regularly gather with other everyday missionaries to tell our stories of seeking the Kingdom and joining Jesus in daily life. In chapter 19 of my book, “Joining Jesus on His Mission” I talk about the importance of the missional community. By coming together in order to tell our stories (using the 5 Questions), we become models for each other for witnessing. At the same time, we start to gain experience in reflecting, recognizing and putting into words the stories of what Jesus is up to around us. We gain experience reflecting on what is “good” about the good news of God. Over time, this kind of reflecting and telling of stories becomes increasingly familiar and normal for us. Now when the opportunity arises to tell a little of our story (a.k.a. witness) to our pre-Christian friend, we are no longer new and unfamiliar with how this goes. We do this every week in our missional community. Witnessing is now simple and even fun because we have EXPERIENCE.

Leroy Biesenthal was right, “I have repeatedly suggested that one of the reasons we in the LCMS find it so difficult to talk to others about Jesus is that we rarely talk to each other about Him in a natural, casual, spontaneous way.”

Here’s the solution. And it’s not so hard after all.

Turn Bible Study into Discipling

Preaching and teaching the Word of God is a top priority for church workers in every congregation. Likewise, there are numerous volunteer teachers and group leaders in every congregation. All of them prepare thoroughly and conscientiously because they want to get the preaching/teaching right. They honestly believe much is riding on accurate theology and insightful life application for their hearers and students.  And they are right!  Much is riding on this.

Here's the rub.  If preaching/teaching is simply the accurate transmission of theology and abstract (albeit insightful) life application, we will see little growth/change in the people receiving the teaching. The reason? Jesus tells us. The end goal of His preaching/teaching is not simply knowing truth cognitively nor getting the right answer in a discussion or on a quiz. The goal of Jesus is experiencing His truth through putting it into practice in real life.

Jesus' parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders (Matthew 7) says it this way: Don't be the fool who hears His words but doesn't put them into practice.  You end up knowing the right answer in theory but remain inexperienced in how truth really works in life (like building on sand). Instead, be the wise one who hears His words AND puts them into practice.  In this way you find out stuff about the Kingdom that the abstract thinkers never do.  You find out how truth works in real life. You become an experienced Jesus-follower (like building on rock).

How can we turn the corner from simply preaching and studying God's Word accurately but abstractly to discipling our people in God's Word concretely? How can we start to see long awaited, long desired GROWTH in ourselves and our people? It starts with us no longer seeing preaching and teaching as ends in themselves and starting to use preaching and teaching as means to the greater end of discipling God's people... like Jesus does in the Gospels.

I have found we can do this in a simple, consistent way by adding one important question at the end of our preaching and teaching time (or our family devotions).  Ask the people this question: "As a result of what you have received from God's Word today, what do you think He is giving you to believe or do in the coming week?" Then give everyone about 90 seconds to write down their response. When they are done, end with a closing prayer inviting the Holy Spirit to help everyone watch for opportunities to put that belief or practice into play during the week.

The next time your class or group gathers, give the people 10 minutes to break into groups of two or three and share with each other what they found out as they put that belief or practice into play. (We call this "Take-10.")  This helps ground God's Word in the experience of their real lives and gives them deeper insights to the words of Jesus.

Give this a try for the next few weeks.  If your experience is anything like those who have been doing this around the country, you will see a marked increase in the stories people have regarding hearing the words of Jesus AND putting them into practice.

Score.

The New BIG Goal for Easter 2017

7:16 a.m. Easter Morning

7:16 a.m. Easter Morning

It was just before sunrise this past Easter Sunday morning. 100+ neighbors gathered in the predawn light in a public green space near our home to commemorate and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There was excitement. There was joy. There was community. There were donuts. There was the resurrected Jesus on the loose in the neighborhood.

And there were Baptisms... seven of them... two families who live in the neighborhood and who are now citizens of the same Kingdom. There was water and the Word. There were covenant promises made by the Father. There were smiles, and tears and laughter. And hugs... lots and lots of hugs.

This was the fifth year we've had Easter Sunrise in the Neighborhood.  I get asked a lot, "How does that happen?"  How does 100+ neighbors gathering before sunrise happen?? (Full disclosure: When I was the pastor of a local church we could never even get 100 members to a sunrise service!) How does having seven neighbors ask for Baptism happen?? Facebook comments were excited when I posted pictures later that day. People wrote things like, "That is simply amazing!" "So awesome!" "Wow! Like the early Church!"

Friends across the country were blessed to know what Jesus was up to in our neighborhood.

But that's just it. There is no reason this should be a unique or amazing story in my particular neighborhood. This could be normal.  This kind of story could be status quo for Easter morning in our neighborhoods all over the country. (Yes, I know Midwest, you alway like to point to the challenge of your Easter weather.  Got it.  So, instead of 100 in a green space, change the narrative to 20 in a warm space. :)

Allow me to take the mystery (and fear) out of being a neighborhood missionary. It really does boil down to this: do you want to see more unbaptized people baptized in the next year? Start investing in friendships with a couple unbaptized people beginning this week.

Going to church every Sunday doesn't make you a missionary.

Having mission passion and a mission strategy doesn't make you a missionary.

One thing makes you a missionary... do you have a growing friendship with Jesus and with an unbaptized person or two? You see, it really does boil down to actual time spent with actual unbaptized people... having fun, having a meal, having a conversation, enjoying them as a person of value. Not for hours and hours every week. They probably don't want to be with you that much! But some time every couple weeks invested in the friendship.

Fun Fact: There are approximately 7.2 billion people on the face of the earth currently. Of those 7.2 billion people, 2.2 billion are Christian.  That leaves 5 billion preChristian, unbaptized people for the 2.2 billion Christians.  Sounds overwhelming, right?  "Let's all head out this week and shoot for about a million unbelievers each.  We'll report back next Sunday and see how we did!"  Sounds crazy.

But how does the math really work out? Do you know how many preChristian, unbaptized people there are per Christian on the earth? It's about two each. Two. 5 billion divided by 2.2 billion = about 2 people each. Two preChristian, unbaptized people for each Christian. Hmmm... two isn't so crazy. In fact, two is doable.

What might happen if over the next year each Christian were to invest in friendships with 2 unbaptized people?

So what is your church's mission/outreach/evangelism strategy for the next year? What if you put that on hold and shifted the strategy to simply this: over the next year each member offers friendship to two unbaptized people who are already living/working/playing nearby. Meet them, find out their names, eat with them, laugh and visit with them.  Find out their story. Find out what they think, what matters to them, what makes them mad, what they value, what they hope. It's simpler than we think and a lot more fun.

And share your story, too. Who you are. What you feel. Who you lean on. Not all at once. But as the conversation invites it. It takes time. Be patient. Enjoy it. (Remember, Jesus has got this. He is just ahead of you not just behind.)

After one year, if you have 100 people in church, there could be friendships with 200 unbaptized people in the neighborhoods.  What other strategy offers such potential?  What program could you substitute that results in 100 Christians having friendships with 200 unbaptized neighbors?

Will all 200 people want to be baptized in a year? No. But here's how this math works: no friendships with unbaptized people = the number of adult baptisms you saw last year.  200 friendships with unbaptized people = more than you saw last year.

So here's the new Easter Sunday 2017 BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal): two friends who just happen to be unbaptized.

Ready, set, go.

Unbaptized no more. "You are Mine."

Unbaptized no more. "You are Mine."

The Reason He Took Away Our Sins

“As we prepare to celebrate what we’re saved from, let’s not forget to champion what we’re saved for.”

It’s almost Holy Week.  For congregational leaders this is a busy, busy time because we are making such important preparations. A lot is riding on these next ten (or so) days. This is the Super Bowl of the Church Year. Many more people than usual will gather ready to be led through the climactic events of our Lord’s redemptive work. There will be liturgy and word; experience and emotion; symbol and sound; table, garden, cross, and tomb.

And we need to prepare…

There are messages to write, music to rehearse, experiences to plan, decorations to arrange, bulletins to print… and to what end? We want the people of God to hear and experience the good news of God: Jesus died on the cross and rose again to save us from our sins!

But as we prepare to help the people of God celebrate what they are saved FROM, let’s not forget to champion what they are saved FOR. Easter is not a finish line; it is a launching pad! Let’s go ahead and tell them the REST of the story. Let’s go ahead and tell them what is now in play BECAUSE Jesus died and rose. Let’s go ahead and tell them what they are saved to DO.  On Easter Sunday Jesus launched a redemptive ADVENTURE and many of our people don’t even know about it!

In our Lutheran teachings we are very clear and specific in confessing what we are saved FROM.  We are saved FROM sin, death and the power of the devil.  A stunning gift that is worthy of tremendous celebration!  However, it also seems that we Lutherans are not always as specific about confessing and celebrating what we are saved FOR.

And what ARE we saved for? What is the rest of the story? Why exactly did Jesus die on the cross and rise again to save us from sin, death and the devil? Was it so we could simply run out the clock until we die and go to Heaven someday?

A favorite passage for us Lutherans is Ephesians 2:8-9. And for good reason, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” In these verses we are given the nuts and bolts of our salvation. But verses 8-9 are followed by verse 10. And verse 10 tells us WHY God did all that work of grace-ing us and faith-ing us. Was it just to get us into Heaven someday? Or was it because He also has something up His sleeve for our Monday?

Verse 10 clears it up, “For we are God’s workmanship [God did all that work of grace-ing us and faith-ing us for a reason], [we are] created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There it is! That’s what we are saved FOR!

We are saved FROM sin, death and the devil SO THAT we can participate in the mission of God again.  We are saved FOR getting up each morning and heading out with Jesus to participate in the good which the Father has prepared in advance for us to do.

That’s the rest of the story.  That’s what the people of God get to DO!

Because we are baptized, every morning, Jesus in effect is kneeling near our bed waiting for our eyes to flutter open.  When He sees we are returning to consciousness He smiles and says to us, “Good morning! I’m glad you’re finally awake!  As soon as you’re ready, let’s go see what the Father has prepared in advance for us to do today. It’ll be fun! Come, follow me!”

Saved from sin, death and the devil. Saved for joining Jesus on His mission.

As we prepare to help our people celebrate what they are saved FROM, let’s not forget to champion what they are saved FOR.

In the Gospels, Easter wasn’t the finish line for Jesus; it was the launching pad for His all-out rescue mission. This Holy Week that rescue mission is still in full play and Jesus is still inviting us who are saved and free to join with Him. Go ahead and tell your people the good news! Go ahead and tell them that Jesus died and rose not just so we could go to Heaven someday (a stunning gift) but so that we could go with Him on Monday, too (a great adventure)! It’s what we were saved FOR.

“Good morning! Let’s go see what the Father’s prepared in advance for us to do!”

Advent(uring)!

There are only seven days left until Christmas, but there is still plenty of opportunity for Advent(uring).

What is Advent(uring)? It is diving into the melee of pre-Christmas crowds and sales clerks and postal workers and office parties and... in other words, diving into the craziness of what we are already enduring (at least for another week) and seeing what Jesus may be up to.

We are in the middle of it anyway. Why not look for what Jesus may be up to, as well? It's not that he is inactive during busy times like these, it's that we get distracted. So Advent(uring) is heading into the craziness and, while we're there, looking for the opportunities Jesus has prepared in advance for us to do.  You just never know what Jesus may be up to! It's an Advent(ure)!

Example: yesterday I had to go to the Post Office to mail off some last minute book orders. I drove up to my local Post Office and the line was literally out the door. Great. And I had 9 packages. I know. I was THAT guy... the guy who is ahead of you in line with a bazillion boxes. You quietly groan to yourself.

With you in mind, I decided not to stand in line for live postal service.  Instead I went to the automated service machine.  There was only one woman in front of me.  Unfortunately she didn't know how to work the machine. Great. And she had EIGHT packages. Now I'm the one groaning under my breath.

Thankfully, I was ready for an Advent(ure). What might Jesus be up to here?

Because I ship a lot of books, I have used this machine many times.  It can be confusing because of all the questions it needs to ask the customer.  But once you catch the logic of it, it is really pretty easy.  So when I saw the woman struggling (and becoming visibly embarrassed) I began gently suggesting which buttons to push and how to correct her mistakes.  Soon she caught on.  And although it had taken several minutes to do her first couple transactions, the last several were done in no time.

She was relieved and thankful and her face turned from a worried frown to a big smile.  Advent(uring)! I didn't get to preach the Good News to her, but I did get to plant a small seed of good in her life. And you just never know what Jesus may do with that seed.

So now it was finally my turn for the machine. Nine boxes.  And wouldn't you know it,  when I glanced behind me,  I saw another customer who only needed a few stamps. So I invited him to go ahead of me.  Guess what.  Yep.  He didn't know how to work the machine either.  So I helped him. 

He left relieved and smiling, as well.  I was starting to enjoy standing at the machine and helping stressed customers regain their joy. Advent(uring)!

So while I was on a roll, I let the next man go ahead of me, too.  He only had one package.  Piece of cake.  He noticed my boxes of books and noticed I had a vague resemblance to the picture of the author on the back of the book. He said, "Did you write these books?" "Yes, sir," I said, "Would you like a copy? I'd be happy to give you one.  Consider it a Christmas gift." Turns out his name is Baldo and he was ripe and ready for "Joining Jesus," too.  Who would have guessed?

I came to a busy Post Office to mail nine boxes. Jesus brought me to the Post Office to be a part of the good he had prepared in advance for these three people.

It' called Advent(uring). And there's still plenty of opportunities before Christmas for you to play, too.

You just never know...

[A special thank you to Rev. Mark Dahn who first used the word Advent(uring) in an email to me!]

The Girl with the Pink Hair...

An unusual look passed over the face of the girl with the pink hair and facial piercings. Then she said, "No one’s ever nice to me…”

Like most great stories, mission stories are made up of a series of individual episodes. These individual episodes eventually are strung together to tell us the whole story. But the story itself takes time to unfold. Each episode within the story leaves the story itself incomplete. There is suspense and uncertainty. There is unfinished business. There is usually a series of “cliff hangers” that keep the story pressing forward into the next episode and the next until – eventually – we come to an amazing conclusion.

That’s what makes a great story great.

Mission stories are the greatest of stories. They are real life stories, authored by God Himself. They are stories of unredeemed, ruined people discovering His love and forgiveness and experiencing the restoration of new life with Him. Eventually. As noted, these stories are made up of individual episodes which unfold over time, usually years. “Mission episodes” are moments in time when God decides to have us cross paths with a person who needs a little of what we have in abundance – His grace or kindness or joy or truth.

And there’s the rub.

The nature of an individual “mission episode” is that while it is important to the overall story God is writing, the story itself is yet unfinished. There remains suspense and uncertainty. We are left with a cliff hanger of which we may never know the conclusion until we come into Heaven. Bottom line?  If you need to know the conclusion of their story at the end of your episode with them, you will usually be frustrated. Why? Because at the end of an episode all you really will know is that there is more story to come. You’ve done all you can do and now you have to be patient as the Writer of Stories moves beyond you and on to the next episode of the person’s mission story.

And, I don’t know about you, but I’m not that good at patience.

That’s why I find it helpful to think about the individual mission episodes ending not with an exclamation mark (usually reserved for the amazing conclusion of the story) but with an ellipsis mark.

A what?

An ellipsis mark. You know, the dot, dot, dot used at the end of a phrase to indicate a pause in a thought or a story… (there’s one now!)

I have found over the years that most mission episodes end with the dot, dot, dot of an ellipsis. That’s because an episode is usually somewhere in the middle of the story and there is more story yet to come. I may help move the story along with my particular episode. But the episode ends with…

I used to worry about my episodes ending with the dot, dot, dot. I didn’t want the cliff hanger of the ellipsis!  I wanted closure. I wanted conclusion. I wanted redemption being accomplished! But instead there was only a pause… These days, I have learned that if I come to the end of my particular episode with a person, and redemption has not yet come, I see it concluding not with failure but with an ellipsis. Jesus isn’t finished with the story yet. There are more episodes to come for the person.

When I began to understand that, when I began to trust that Jesus is doing the bigger work of stringing smaller episodes together in the whole story of a person’s redemption I found peace. I now have peace even as I see episodes ending with the dot, dot, dot of the ellipsis. I don’t feel obligated to force more conversation, to force more than Jesus had prepared in advance for me to do. As my part ends with an ellipsis mark rather than an exclamation mark I know I can trust Him with the rest of their story.

Back to the episode of the girl with the pink hair…

My friend walked into a local Target store. It had been a bad day for him. A really bad day. Have you had one of those lately? He had come to Target to return an item. “Won’t this be fun,” he muttered to himself. That’s when he spotted the girl with the pink hair and facial piercings behind the counter. He had seen her here before working the register. There weren’t too many people who went for that kind of look in his part of the country. She stood out. And, on this particular day, for some reason (o.k., it was God’s grace), her hair gave my friend a smile. Not a smile of mockery or derision but of joy.

Her pink hair gave him joy. Go figure.

So as she processed his return, he simply said, “You know, I have had a really bad day. And I just want you to know your hair has made me smile.” A frown formed on her pierced lips. My friend quickly added, “I’m not making fun. You really have made my day better. Thank you.” That’s when the unusual look passed over her face and she finally said, “No one’s ever nice to me…” [Notice the ellipsis.]

Her pink hair stood out to him. His simple act of grace stood out to her.

It was a powerful moment as my friend realized what was happening. To a person who regularly receives love, his small act of kindness would have been a small matter. But to someone who regularly receives none…

Afterwards, my friend worried that maybe he hadn’t said enough. Maybe he should have done more.  Maybe he should have somehow brought up Jesus. There was no baptism at the return counter that day or even a solid Gospel presentation. The girl with the pink hair’s mission story remains unfinished. It is a cliff hanger. I can’t tell you how her story ends because it’s still being written… but it is being written by Jesus. All I can tell you is how this particular episode ends. It ends with my friend again thanking the girl with the pink hair for her service and for making his day better. It ends with a seed of grace having been planted in a hurting heart.

And it ends with the dot, dot, dot of the mission ellipsis.

It's Neighboring Season!

It's “neighboring” season in America!

Jesus is already on the loose in your neighborhood pursuing His Father’s mission of redemption and restoration.  And He invites you to join Him!  One of the simplest ways to do this is through “neighboring.”

“Neighboring” is how we get to know our neighbors. Neighboring takes seriously the fact that mission happens best in a context where relationship and friendship have been cultivated over time. Neighboring may happen through a planned event like a cookout or through something more spontaneous like stopping for a chat while walking the dog. Either way, neighboring puts us into position to start finding out who our neighbor is, what their story is and what Jesus already seems to be up to in their life.

On pages 149-151of the book, “Joining Jesus on His Mission” I share 30 ideas we have used over the years that put us into position to meet and enjoy neighbors. Some are more for introverts some are more for extroverts (why not team up and make it easier for both!). Some are planned, some spontaneous. However, all these ideas have been tried and found to work. (Order the book by clicking here. For quantity orders, email me for discounts at finkeonthemove@aol.com)

I enjoy receiving emails from people telling the stories of how things are going in their neighborhood. I have included a few below to encourage and inspire you to give neighboring a go during these summer months.

From Tricia in Kentucky (a pastor’s wife): We had our first intentional front porch conversation with our new neighbors. Turns out, they moved here from California believing they would be neighborhood missionaries. All it took was an offer of coconut cream pie to open the flood gates. Chatted for 2 hours - decided on a neighborhood connecting time - he even prayed over my husband who had surgery earlier in the week (such a role reversal). When Jesus is already there, you just need an open heart when you show up to the conversation. Thanks be to God for His perfect timing. PS- they were sitting out in their driveway for a few days. I should have known what they were planning! Going to give them your book.

From Pat in Austin (an instructor at Concordia University): On Good Friday and the Saturday before Easter I baked a bunch of muffins and gave them away house to house in our neighborhood.  Had some neat conversations and also got a few prayer requests.  On Easter morning there was a little basket of candy on our doorstep, and one of our neighbors wrote us this note (which totally made my day).

Thank you – It’s not just the muffins or the thoughtful sharing but a quality reminder of fellowship in our community and the desire to inspire and make the LORD present in our daily lives.  Jesus lives!”  Deborah

From a widow in California: I have an unusual opportunity here because I own a home and rent out the bedrooms to students to pay my mortgage. I am always looking for ways to reach out to them, as most are not believers. I have found a group of students who worship on campus on Sunday nights, and I was able to connect 2 students with each other – one who was homeless and still struggles with alcohol and drugs from time to time and another who is active in the group on campus. What a blessing to have them thank me for connecting them together.

From Donna (a retired teacher): I took care of my son's chickens while he was out of town..  They were producing eggs faster than I could eat or store them so I began distributing a dozen at a time to my neighbors.  It gave me an opportunity to talk with my neighbors, and I even got to know one neighbor that I have been trying to love as Christ has asked us all to do, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."  We had great conversation and he was quite friendly, much to my surprise!  It was a blessing to me because Jesus was already ahead of me, preparing my path.  I never thought being “The Egg Lady" would be a ministry opportunity!

From a couple in San Diego: We had a neighborhood gathering which we had been hoping to have for over a year. We finally met last night and just got to know one another for the first time. Originally we hoped to have 6-8 folks but we ended up with over 30 adults, 8 children and 3 nuns...they all seemed hungry for this time together...that lasted over 3 hours! Great fellowship...getting to know each other and sharing our lives...I was overwhelmed with what was happening! I don't know where God will take this...but it is exciting! I share this, because others may have a vision just waiting to happen! Please pray for this group of wonderful people.

Does Jesus have a vision just waiting to happen in your neighborhood, too?  There’s only one way to find out. Let neighboring season begin!

If you have a story to share, please email it to me!  You can help encourage others, too.

What Are You Expecting to See Today?

The Easter Gospels communicate many important truths. Here’s one I overlooked until recently: How easy it is to miss Jesus when we don’t expect to see Him.

In John 20, Jesus is standing right in front of Mary but she doesn’t realize it is Him. At least one reason why? She didn’t expect to see Him there. “Where have you put Him?” Mary asks the One she thinks is a gardener. “He’s supposed to be in this tomb.”

In Luke 24, Jesus is walking right alongside the two on the road to Emmaus, talking with them about recent events.  But they don’t realize it is Jesus.  At least one reason why? They didn’t expect to see Him there. “Don’t you know what has happened?” they asked the One they think is just another traveler. “They killed Him 3 days ago in Jerusalem.”

And in John 21, once again Jesus is standing on the shore easily within sight of Peter and the others who are fishing.  But they don’t realize it is Jesus.  At least one reason why? They didn’t expect to see Him there. After all, who would expect Jesus to show up out of nowhere to cook breakfast?

But that’s the point. Since His resurrection from the dead, you just never know where Jesus will show up! He’s out of the tomb and on the loose pursing His Father’s mission! Seek Him and you will find Him. Expect Him and you will see Him.

And then?

  • · “Rabboni!” Mary cries out in recognition.

  • · “Were our hearts not burning?” the two ask in recognition.

  • · “It is the Lord!” the fishermen shout out in recognition.

A blinding flash of the obvious!

And here is a blinding flash of the obvious for us, too. As with Mary and Peter and the others, Jesus is regularly showing up right in front of us, as well. If we aren’t recognizing it is Jesus, there is probably at least one reason why.  We aren’t expecting to see Him there! However, Jesus is regularly showing up in our vicinity, too, pursuing His Father’s mission in the lives of people around us. He invites us to expect Him. He invites us to join Him by seeking and finding the daily redemptive good He has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

Whether we have the fun of recognizing Jesus showing up rests largely with whether we are expecting to see Him or not. How easy it is to miss Jesus when we don’t expect to see Him, but how simple it is to recognize Him when we do. A blinding flash of the obvious!

And what will Jesus look like when He shows up in our vicinity?  How can we realize, “It is the Lord!” before the moment passes? Look at the people around you.  What’s their name?  What’s their story? Look for where a little grace can be applied in their life.  That’s where Jesus is already present and working. “It is the Lord!”

Mary only saw a gardener.  The two on the road saw just another traveler.  Peter saw some guy on shore cooking.  But in each case it was really Jesus.

When you look around today, who will you see?  Someone having a bad day?  Someone needing an extra ear or an extra hand?  Someone in need of a little hope, a little grace, a little news that is good?

Jesus says, when you see that, “It is the Lord!”

You can expect it.

A Good Answer for a Misleading Critique

At the end of 2014, I was surprised to add up that my book, “Joining Jesus on His Mission,” had sold more than 10,000 copies since its publication in late February.  10,000 copies in 10 months.  Never saw that coming!

When I wrote “Joining Jesus” my goal was simple: I didn’t want to write a theological textbook but a practical handbook.  I wanted to honor and stand on the shoulders of our best biblical theology without feeling the need to repeat all of it.  I wanted a short book that showed regular folk how to actually join Jesus not a long book theologians simply sat around and talked about.

Regular folk seem to appreciate that.  Not all the “theologians” seem to.

For instance, on Amazon.com there are 36 reviews posted.  35 are glowing.  1 is not.  It would be easy for me to set aside such a critique. After all, you can’t win them all, right?  As I read the review (or the one posted on a synodical website) my initial thought was, “Did they read the same book I wrote?”  In that way it was almost comical.

However, not so funny is how some innocent lay people have Googled “Joining Jesus” (when their pastor or group leader has suggested it as a resource) and they find one of these two misleading reviews online. The reviews can cause undue hesitation, confusion about their pastor’s judgment, or worst of all, keep them from joining Jesus on His mission.

While my initial thought after reading the review was, “I think they missed the point,” Vicar Mark Hunsaker of Branson, Missouri did one better.  He posted his own review on Amazon.com, which I believe does a wonderful and winsome job of answering the misleading critique.

I have received permission from Mark to include portions of his review below so that you can show it to your folks who are wondering what to think.  (Thanks, Mark!)

A Good Answer from Vicar Mark Hunsaker

“While another review I read here suggested that this book is ‘theologically inadequate,’ I would challenge that notion by saying that this book is a wonderfully accessible foray into practical use of the theology of mission. In fact, I find it noteworthy that a reviewer would look for 20th Century dogmatic language (which has been forwarded from earlier centuries) in a work intended for those who have not studied such disciplines. Indeed, Greg Finke is light on theological jargon and lighter yet on academic and theoretical ideas. But when considering the author's setting and purpose, this is entirely appropriate.

“What will you find? A book which is utterly practical. While pastors and other trained theologians may have the ability to systematically engage theology and know how to use it in their vocations, the average church-goer probably doesn't.

“But that is where this book's contribution comes alive: What should we ACTUALLY DO on a Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.? Or on Friday night when I'm at my neighbor's house for dinner? Or on Sunday afternoon when I'm at the local Cracker Barrel for lunch after having just attended Divine Worship where I received God's Gifts?

“The issue isn't that this book is theologically inadequate, but rather, that it is engaging theology in an area where our tradition has been inadequate. It is challenging us to look again at the imperative Jesus gave us in Matthew 28:18-20 and then asks the very important question: What does it look like to live out that imperative where I live, learn or work? How we answer that question is very much a theological exercise.

“Finke's question, ‘How's Jesus been messing with you lately?’ comes to bear right here. He is not promoting a departure from God's Word as some have suggested, but rather he is calling us back to it. How is God's Word, his clear Word, disrupting our apparent status quo? What are the things we are doing, looking like in comparison with God's Word? If we've got our distribution of God's gifts just right, but we are not "preaching the Word wherever" we go (a description of the laypeople in Acts 8:4), then why? Does our view of ‘church’ passed down to us from the 20th Century match what is in Scripture? Does our view of the activity of the church match what is in Scripture? These are questions Finke challenges us to look at and the way we answer them is very much a theological exercise. His efforts to get the rank and file thinking theologically about these things, in very practical ways that play out in their vocations, is simply wonderful.

“An outstandingly practical and theologically provocative work!”

It All Began on Christmas...

[Here’s some Advent meat and vegetables to go with the sugar cookies.]

We may sing, “All is calm, all is bright,” to celebrate Christmas, but Christmas is really D-day… the day the rescue mission of God launched into the created world.  Christmas marks the day God got Himself born into our created world.  Bethlehem was His beachhead.  By getting Himself born as a baby, He got Himself into the reality of the created world… and with a purpose.

On one level a baby being born and placed in a manger is calming and beautiful. But to the forces of hell, it was a strategic strike marking the beginning of their end.  They knew it was coming.  It had been foretold from of old.  They just couldn’t stop it.  God was rescuing the world.

And He invites us to join Him.

You see, while it all began on Christmas, and was established as an irrevocable conclusion at the cross and empty tomb, the rescue mission of God is still very much in play right now.  The yeast is still spreading throughout the loaf.  The Good News of God is still making its way deeper into the neighborhoods of the world.  It has started.  But it is not done.

Have you noticed the unrest in Syria, Ferguson, your own community, your own family?  They are all signals that the rescue mission of God is still pressing forward and that the forces of hell are still pressing back… hard.  But it won’t work.

Why? [At this point you will expect the answer to be, “Because of Jesus.” And that is the first and biggest part of the answer.  But the full answer for why the forces of hell won’t win in places as widespread as Syria or St. Louis or your own home is because of people of God like you.  Read on.]

God is rescuing the world… through people.  God began rescuing the world through a person… Jesus.  He continues rescuing the world through people… people like us who now have Jesus living in us.

Wherever the forces of hell still press back, the people of God are invited to be counter-forces of love, joy, peace and Good News.  We are not only beneficiaries of God’s rescue mission, we are agents of it.  We don’t get rescued and then sent to the sideline to wait for Heaven.  We are not only saved from sin, death and the devil; but we are savedfor joining the rescue mission of God.

Wherever peace will prevail, wherever love and joy will reemerge, wherever forgiveness begins to trump vengeance, know this, men or women of God are somewhere in the middle of it joining Jesus.

It began at Christmas… but it continues today.

What will you be in the middle of today with Jesus?

Joining Jesus

“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood,” (John 1:14, MSG)

Jesus is on a mission.

He is on a grand adventure to redeem and restore human lives to the kingdom of his Father. This is nothing new. Ever since he broke out of the tomb on Easter Sunday, Jesus has been on the loose, pursuing his redemptive mission, messing with people, ripening people, preparing people to be drawn back to the Father he loves. It’s what he does.

And he’s on the move in your neighborhood, too.

The concept of “neighborhood” is very important for the missional lifestyle. So let’s take a moment to define it. “Neighborhood” is all about relationships, or the potential relationships we could have with just a little intentionality.  For our purposes a “neighborhood” is defined as any network of relationships (or potential relationships) to which we have regular access. We may not know the people yet or know them well, but for a variety of reasons these people are regularly within our reach. What are some examples of these relational networks we call “neighborhoods?”

Obviously the “neighborhoods” where we live qualify, and so do the “neighborhoods” of our workplaces and schools. We are regularly within reach of the same people. But there are many other “neighborhoods” in which we regularly find ourselves. For instance, some of us have access to recreation leagues, yoga classes or craft beer clubs. Some of us are band parents, soccer moms or routinely wait with other dads as our daughters finish up dance classes. Some of us volunteer with community revitalization groups or social service agencies. Some of us are Chamber members or Rotary Club members. Some of us are at country clubs, community centers or the Y. All of these are examples of “neighborhoods” in which we may find ourselves. Take a moment to list the “neighborhoods” to which you have access.

Now, here’s some important news: Jesus is on the loose in all of them.

How do I know? Because Jesus is on a mission to redeem and restore all people. Jesus reminds Nicodemus of this when he spoke the well-known words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son …” (John 3:16). God sent his Son for the world. His goal is not to save some and leave others out. Paul underscores this in 1 Timothy 2:4 when he says that God our Savior wants all people to be saved. Will everyone respond? Will everyone believe God? No. But that does not change the goal and desire of God in sending his Son. As if to emphasize that very point, God speaks of why he is sending his Son in Isaiah 49:6, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

So wherever you go, whether to the ends of the earth or just to work, if there are people there, you can be sure Jesus is up to something redemptively. His purpose is to redeem. His goal is full restoration. This is what Jesus does. He doesn’t get distracted. He doesn’t veer off course. His timing is always precise because his redemptive mission is always what he’s up to. Different people. Different timing. Different stories and pathways. Sure. But this is what he is up to all the time.

There is, of course, much mystery in how Jesus works out his plan in each person’s life. Some people are resisting, some are ignoring, some are oblivious, and some are almost ready. But Jesus is in the redemptive process of uniquely preparing each of them to receive what the Father would freely give them: forgiveness of sins and a new life with him forever.

That is Jesus’ mission.

And he invites us to join him.

This is an important change in mindset for most U.S. church members: Jesus is inviting me to join him on his mission. He does not give me a mission to do FOR him. Jesus is on a mission and he invites me to come WITH him.

The first time I realized Jesus was inviting me to come WITH him and not go FOR him was a great relief.  If I go FOR Jesus, I am doing the work and seeing the results of what I can accomplish. When I go WITH Jesus, he is doing the work and I am seeing the results of what Jesus can accomplish. One is hard the other is fun. One is exhausting the other is energizing. One causes me to worry (“Did I do everything correctly?”) the other causes me to be at peace (“Let’s see what Jesus does next.”). One tempts me to force things with people the other invites me to keep loving people.

So, for years, when I thought of myself as being in mission, I had it in my head that Jesus was sending me off FOR him … on my own … to do the best I could … which I knew would not be very good at all. I was afraid people would reject me or I wouldn’t know what to say or, worse, I would say something and botch the whole deal for Jesus. What a burden! Can you relate? But I had it precisely backwards. Jesus wasn’t sending me out to do his work FOR him, he was inviting me to come WITH him and join the work he was already doing.

What a relief! You see, only Jesus can do Jesus-work. So let him. Someone once told me, “I can’t. Jesus can. Think I’ll let him.” Our job isn’t to try and do Jesus’ work FOR him. Our job is to watch for, recognize and then respond to the work Jesus is already doing in the lives of people around us and JOIN him.

This is our new missional mindset.

We can do this.

Over the next few weeks, we'll find out how.