Medical update and questions I’m asking

PrintHere’s an update on my medical condition and how it has me thinking.

After five weeks of vocal problems a specialist let me know that I have a cyst on my left vocal fold that is damaging the right vocal fold every time I talk. I’m sure you can imagine all the thoughts that go through the mind of someone who uses their voice for a living. Obviously, it must be removed as soon as possible, and surgery is 9 days from now.

Practically, this means I must severely limit my speaking until the cyst is removed, and for several weeks following. So for the next month this extremely extroverted pastor will only be able to speak a few words per hour. I can’t quite express just how humbling and discouraging this has been. This means my wife will need to lead our eight children without my verbal support for most of the rest of the year. Our staff will have to endure the inconvenience of text communication. And it will be several months before I am back to full capacity. This assumes everything goes as planned.

My friend Brian asked a great question. Do you sense this is God trying to change your focus or the devil trying to threaten your calling?

How would you answer that?

Many Christians, of course, would say this is quite simple. Of course this is the devil. God gives abundant life, the enemy steals, kills, and destroys. Fight. Resist the devil in this. Others have a different emphasis. God is sovereign. He is a good shepherd and you can trust that nothing happens in this universe outside of his control. Relax. Submit to God in this.

This is why I appreciate how James exhorts us in both directions in the same verse: “Submit to God. Resist the devil.” (James 4:7)

It is a petty theology that makes no room for affliction and God’s ability to use it for his purposes and our good. If God wants someone like me to shift direction, or give myself to solitude, or re-examine my pace, or spend more time writing, or watching, or evaluating, or praying – I would love for him to send that message in a more enjoyable package. Like a fortune cookie. But honestly, I’m not sure I’d be listening. But I am now. I submit to God.

At the same time, it is an incomplete theology that leads us down a path of passivity where we settle for unholy fatalism. Paul had a thorn in his flesh – and he asked for it to be removed. God said no – so he asked again. God said no again – and he asked again. Jesus commanded us to ask and keep on asking, to seek and keep on seeking, to knock and keep on knocking. James 4:2 says our big problem is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer. “You have not…” not because it is not the will of God, but “because you ask not.” Thus, when it comes to difficult circumstances and our enemy the devil, we need to have a gear to get on our knees and fight. Jesus rebuked fevers as well as storms and demons. I’m with Jesus, and I’ll agree with anybody rebuking this cyst. I resist the devil.

This helps free me up to pray. Look at this.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication WITH thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)

Brilliant. Do you have a desire? Ask … with thanksgiving. Do you want to start a company? Ask … with thanksgiving. Do you want children? Ask … with thanksgiving. Do you want a thorn (or a cyst) removed? Ask! Our failure to bring our desires to God is beyond foolish. I’ve often thought that if Eve wanted more variety in the Garden, I bet God would have created something new – if she would have simply asked. But she didn’t. She was too distracted with what God had not done. Can you see why praying WITH thanksgiving is so incredibly wise? It causes you to meditate on the fullness of God instead of the lack of your circumstance.

Give thanks.

This is my “request”: May it be in my life on earth as it is in heaven. I ask God to remove the cyst, restore the voice, and amaze the doctors. I believe for healing, so we have 9 days to avoid a knife on my throat!  Yet I also ask for Him to do His work in my soul, not just my body, so that he will in every way be my first love. I bring him my fear, discouragement, and doubts, but I come with thanksgiving … mindful that Jesus is the healer, His blood is sufficient, and He carried away our infirmities on the greatest Tree we call the Cross.

I truly covet your prayer. “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” (Ephesians 6:18-19)

Envy is idiotic

green eye envyEnvy is idiotic.

I loved hearing this in church today.

The wise man gets it. “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” (Proverbs 14:30)

Why? Because it’s not just that we’re not satisfied; we’re not satisfiable. Ever since the beginning our fault-finding streak has been killing us. Even in the best of circumstances, we find a way to listen to the voices that point out, “So you can’t eat from that tree?” Listen to wisdom! Even if you lived in paradise with a perfect body and a perfect partner, eating nothing but organic food, with no injustice, or disease, or pain – you’d still find a way to be unsatisfied.

This is why envy is so idiotic.

You miss what God has done, because you’re so distracted with what he has not done. You miss who God has made you to be, because you’re so distracted with who he made someone else to be. I shared some of this a while back:

If you could ever thank  God made for who he made you to be, you’d want to be you so badly you wouldn’t know what to do.

Chew on that.

Because what if the gifts of God really are stunning?  Including yours.

What if He really doesn’t make mistakes?  Including you.

What if He’s so infinite that every single one of His children is fashioned uniquely significant beyond our capacity to describe?  Regardless of their age. Regardless of their qualifications.

What if He is so potent that His resources never become exhausted, and your potential is more weighty than you’ve realized? Perhaps His economy is not like ours. What if He doesn’t run out of money, or food … or talent?

What if His grace is so amazing that His mercy and kindness are able to swallow up your failures and darkness? What if this tree we call the Cross and this savior we call the Christ really have removed the only thing standing between you and the real you. Between life and real life.

If only you realized who God made you to be. You’d stop this whole envy thing. And you’d step out and be you.

I can’t always make myself stop envying. But I can make myself give thanks. And gratitude is a game-changer.

I dare you to pray this prayer: “I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it well.” (Psalm 139:14)

Happy Thanksgiving.

Second-hand smoke

cigarette-300x224It is quite possible to know a lot about God and very little of God.

Sometimes I ask questions I should not ask. Especially with married couples. The mild version of the conversation usually starts with, “Do you still kiss?” I remember being at a conference where I met a cheerful and outgoing couple, when the question popped out of my mouth. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but on this occasion the raw approach blew up in my face. The couple squirmed, closed their mouths, looked at each other, then looked right back at me with a sadness you could cut with a knife. Their silence said it all. No. We do not kiss. We are not intimate. We are not happy.

Ever notice how the Bible describes the intimacy between and man and a woman? “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived…” (Genesis 4:1) Something deep within us longs to be known.

Intimacy.

Marriage is not just about marriage. The apostle Paul lifts the veil on the subject: “This mystery is profound, but I’m saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32) It’s not like God needed an object lesson to illustrate our relationship with him so he settled for marriage. Marriage was created as a sign of the gospel.

Which brings us back to the problem with so much Christianity. It’s like a travel agent selling time shares for a property she’s never seen. Or a vegan waiter pushing pork chops he’s never tasted. The pictures look good and the food smells great, but the experience is second-hand. Far too much of our Christianity is like second-hand smoke.

I spoke with a man last week who came away from a debate with a Christian group. He could not out-talk the Christians. He did not out-think the Christians. And yet, as I debriefed with him after his encounter, he ended with these words: “I just don’t want to be like them.” They did not smell like Jesus.

Ever notice you start to smell like the people you spend time with?

This is a call to reclaim intimacy. Look at what David wrote: “The intimate friendship of the Lord is reserved for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” (Psalm 25:14) His response? “My eyes are ever towards the Lord.” (25:15)

Far too many believers are bored with their relationship with God. Like spiritual pornographers, they attend religious gatherings to watch other people encounter God, while they themselves are lifeless and dull. Wearied by the “duties” associated with “serving” God.

Maybe the accusation is true. Perhaps the faith of too many Christians is only inferential; it is the result of deductions. You can have right theology and to do right mission and to live a right life and tell your friends all the right facts about God, and yet know very little of God.

I can promise you this. There’s more.

Stop treating the Bible like a brochure to a land you’ll visit when you die.

And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God…” (John 17:3)

Maybe the gospel is better than an invitation to go to heaven when you die. Of course that’s true. But, if you have ears to hear, you can start going to heaven before you die. Don’t let this day end before you encounter the living God.

Dear church family – Big news

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You may have no interest in what is to follow, so feel free to skip this one. This will give you an idea of how we make decisions and steward money as I announce some big news.

Backdrop.

Several years ago, we recognized that we were outgrowing our current property, so we prayed. We seriously prayed. I needed answers to questions. Do churches really need to grow? Why build buildings to honor the God who said, “I do not dwell in temples made with hands”? Doesn’t bigger often mean worse? Or corrupt? Or corporate? Church growth obsession feels to me something like the American-dream pursuing money-worship that afflicts so many of the Christians in our culture.

Yet as we prayed it was uncanny just how clear the will of God was: “Go East.” From multiple people, in multiple settings, there was prophetic direction that was unmistakeable. I cannot overstate how surprising and specific this direction was. In the light of the ever-present debate (and recent conference) questioning the legitimacy of present-day spiritual gifts, many people question how much stock one should place in “hearing from God.” We have the Bible, after all; what else do you need?

When we heard “east” we assumed  this meant we would purchase a piece of property, so we began to save money and look for land. But no piece of land ever worked out. I was disappointed. The only ray of hope was a potential partnership with a school on the east side of town, Lincoln Middle School. Little did we know how much we would come to love this school, their administration, and the surrounding area. The gospel is preached, kids are tutored and mentored, the community is being reached in sustainable fashion. I  baptized two more people right there in that auditorium on Sunday. It has been stunning to make much of Jesus in response to the Spirit’s bidding us east.

In similar fashion, we recently began such a partnership with another school on the southwest side of town, at Kanapaha Middle School. We’re already beginning to see evidence of similar happenings, and  I can’t wait to hear the amazing stories in the years to come.

Despite the fact that we kept adding services and campuses, we recognized that we would still be in desperate need of a main hub.

Extravagance as the default setting.

Again, I had to ask the question of growth. Isn’t it dangerous to grow? Don’t churches lose their edge and their perspective? And their first love. So we continued praying and fasting, as well as setting aside money, if the Lord would give us land that would help us make space. So little by little, month by month, we disciplined ourselves to set aside a portion of money.

Our commitment is to give first, save second, and spend third. But we want our giving to be exceptional. In fact, we have purposed to make extravagance our default setting. The result has been an increase in both our amount and percentage of giving to missions. And every year, somehow, we have ended with surplus. Last year we reached 50% giving to missions for the first time, a vision we verbalized a decade ago.

Some of you may remember that we sold a Christian radio station to a regional company several years back. We sold it with a generous interest rate on the loan. A couple years ago, we were meditating on the Torah where Israel was instructed not to charge each other interest on loans. We could not shake the sense that God was calling us to radical and extravagant obedience with this Chirstian-owned radio station. So we calculated the interest we had collected (in the many scores of thousands of dollars), and refunded it to our brothers. We still ended the year to the good.

It has been stunning to watch how God honors his Word – even during the worst economy since the Great Depression.

We still need a main hub.

Through all of this our Making Space fund kept growing as well. It just so happened that as the real estate bubble burst, we ended up with enough cash on hand to make a move if we could find a piece of property. While we were giving and saving, we also continued searching for a dry, flat piece of property that would help make space to make disciples. Within the last couple years the sense of urgency rose among our elders and deacon board, so again we sought the face of God. Praying. Fasting. Asking for direction from the Spirit.

And God is faithful.

Again, He has spoken with clarity and confirmation.

The net result was the discovery of 50 acres, in Gainesville, on 39th Ave, right off of I75. (Our current property is about 10 acres) The land was not without challenges. The price was higher than our savings, and our elders insist that we stay out of debt. The city & county would have to flex on various limiting challenges.  Yet we knew this was the will of God.  As we prayed, the price came down.  And then, with incredible flexibility and favor from the county, the limiting factors were removed. The property is viable. And we closed on Tuesday of this week.

It is paid in full. We do not owe a penny.

I remember sitting in a board meeting where we were discussing our space challenges and the challenges of another church came up: the Underground in Tampa. We love that church. They needed $64,000 to finish their new facility, which will be greatly used for the poor all over Tampa Bay. In a matter of minutes your deacons voted to withdraw the full $64,000 from our Making Space Fund to send to them. Within a month, the price on our property dropped by another $250,000. It was beautiful and confirming. God will always supply.

Where do we go from here?

We now stand in fear and trembling, desiring to submit to the Spirit and truly please our Father with every step we take from here. We make disciples – not buildings. We long for the activity of God – not bricks and mortar. We recognize that God needs no building to work his wonders. God does not “need” us. And yet, he chooses to use us, if we will give ourselves wholly to Him.

We have no confidence in the flesh. We do not trust human wisdom. We do not want the traditional American-dream building campaign that so often distracts churches from their mission. But we are going to follow His lead.

So with a sense of gratitude, and a sense of urgency, we called a prayer meeting out on the property this past Sunday at 4:30. We wanted the very first thing done on this property to be a prayer meeting. It was gorgeous. This Wednesday, we are calling a day of fasting and prayer so that we will only move in the will of God. Finally, this Wednesday night at 7pm, we will have an open forum to discuss the direction and possibilities of this property. I believe we have heard several things from God about this property … Prayer, the poor, harvest, and leadership. But we want thoughts, insights, scriptures, prophecies, ideas, creativity … anything that may help as we prepare for the next steps.

We cleared the bulk of our bank accounts to buy the property without debt, so we are especially interested in hearing from God about securing money to build in ways that will not compromise our commitment to missions and the poor. If somebody has been waiting for a good time to jump in and contribute toward some Making Space momentum, now would be a great time. (You can contribute to our Making Space fund here)

The eyes of the Lord go to and fro across the earth, looking for people through whom He can show Himself strong. I want us to be some of those people. We are debt-free, and I am asking God for nothing less than miraculous provision … so that everything we do will make people wonder – how did God do that? Half of our church is college students. Half of our money goes to missions. How will we ever find a way to raise money needed to move forward with God’s call on our movement?

Jesus.