You Matter

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? I went through a lot of stages. Around age thirteen I wanted to be a professional skateboarder for the Powell-Peralta Bones Brigade. By the time I was fifteen I was playing guitar in a rock band and had all kinds of dreams swirling around in my head. At eighteen I was considering law school (inspired by A Few Good Men). At another point I simply wanted to be a business owner (actually did that in my early twenties).

The point: All of us have had different dreams of what we wanted our life to be like. But for most of us, there was a common denominator: We wanted our life to matter, to be special, to count for something, to make an impact. Let me ask: Has that changed for you?

Many of us tend to think that the individual acts of regular people are not that important, so the idea of our role in making the world a better place is diminished. Thus, making a difference with our life is not taken very seriously. We think that making a difference is for the Mother Teresas, the Martin Luther Kings, the Nelson Mandelas, but we’re wrong. Because Jesus essentially says, “Your Life Matters.”

In the 1980s, New York City was in the grip of one of the worst crime epidemics in its history. Then, suddenly and without warning, from a high in 1990, the crime rate went into a dramatic decline. Murders dropped by two-thirds. Felonies were cut in half. Why? The most intriguing answer is called the Broken Windows Theory. The notion was that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken, people walking by will subconsciously conclude that that no one cares. This sends a signal that anything goes and soon more windows will be broken.

The idea is that crime is contagious. It can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community, which means that little things matter greatly. To solve the problem NYC waged war on broken windows and graffiti. Cleanup spread to the entire city starting with the small things, such as turnstile jumping on the subways, the squeegee men who came up to drivers at intersections, public drunkenness, littering, and prostitution. Quickly, crime began to fall in the city.

As Christians, we are the mended windows and the scrubbed-off graffiti. It’s acting in little ways that then leads to the big events, the big moments, the big opportunities. The little things don’t just add up to big things; they become the big things. Making a difference means being light in a dark world. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.” In other words, “Don’t hide the light.” If a light doesn’t shine it makes no sense.

Essentially, Jesus is saying that there’s nothing more useless than someone who is a Christian in name only, someone who carries the title, but doesn’t live the life. Christianity is not simply about a life that is informed with certain truths. It’s not just about a life that is conformed to certain practices and rituals. It’s about a life that has been transformed through a relationship with the living God.

I’d dare say that many people primarily invest their lives in two areas: (1) Making a living, and (2) The life that their livelihood brings them. Hear me out, while it’s fine to earn a living, if that’s the goal line, you will never experience the life you long for. No assembly line is going to manufacture something you can buy that’s going to bring purpose into your life. No promotion, no deal, no contract, no stock option, no corner office, is going to make you feel at the end of your life like you did something of eternal significance.

Let me be frank with you. Many people call themselves “Believers.” Many people consider themselves a Christian. Yet often times they’re simply not serious about it. They’re not as committed to it as they should be. How long is that going to go on? What are you waiting for? You matter. This is your one and only life. Make it count.


(Sources: James White; James Wilson; George Kelling)

shepherds-staff

Pastor. There’s so much associated with that word: shepherd, overseer, servant, leader, visionary, spiritual guide, teacher, and prophet just to name a few. I remember when God called me to be a pastor. I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor staring at the ceiling with tears in my eyes on a cold night in 1997. What a journey it’s been since that time.

Becoming a pastor was the farthest thing from my mind. I never planned to be a pastor. I had very little inclination toward being a pastor. In fact, I had a lot of plans, but “pastor” wasn’t one of them. Then, suddenly the time arrived, and there it was: I answered the call to become a pastor. Now, I can’t imagine not being a pastor. It’s like I never knew what I wanted to be until I became what I was supposed to be.

During the process of becoming a minister I didn’t know I was becoming the person I am today. For my own formation as a pastor, every step along the way was a much-needed part of the journey. Being a pastor is a learning process. Those that are unteachable often fail to remain faithful in ministry. You can’t learn anymore if you’ve already arrived. Part of being an effective minister means being faithful in the moment and learning from every situation.

Too many pastors spend their time either thinking about the past or dreaming about future. They’ve never learned to exist in the present. The inability to live in the moment robs so many people of the little God-moments along the way. Learning to be grateful for what God is doing right now is a discipline. And although God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, walking with Christ is an ever-changing adventure.

Men and women who are pastors in American culture today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. These leaders seek first success and ask God to bless their endeavors later. We forget that pastoring is an ancient practice. We don’t have to reinvent it every time someone writes a new book.

I love America, but I don’t care for “the American way.” The values of this country is based on consumerism and success, not servanthood and sacrifice. Consumerism has made its way into the church and it treats God as a commodity to be promoted. In an age of marketing and strategy we dehumanize people, turning them into giving units and statistics instead of living beings.

With this modern understanding comes a competitive spirit that causes us to treat one another as rivals. We forget that we are all on the same team working for the same King. This consumerist mindset causes many pastors to become disappointed and disillusioned with their congregations. An authentic spiritual leader cannot survive in this climate for very long. I wonder if at the root of the issue is a cultural assumption that all great pastors are “movers and shakers,” people who get things done and make things happen. This is certainly true of the leadership models that trickle into our awareness from modern culture: politicians, businessmen, advertisers, celebrities, athletes, etc.

While being a pastor certainly has some components of leadership as seen in our present society, the pervasive element in our 2000 year pastoral tradition is not someone who “gets things done,” but rather the person placed in the community to be a prophetic voice. A pastor is someone who calls attention to what is going on in the world and what our response before God should be. Being passionately faithful to that is more important than anything else we can do in ministry.

In my current position (superintendent, bishop, a pastor to pastors), I hope to provide a new sense of dignity and worth to this ancient calling. Along the way, I want to insist that there is no one-size-fits-all model for becoming a successful pastor other than being true to the call. God calls every pastor to be the most genuine version of themselves that they can possibly be. There are no shortcuts, no imitating, no gimmicks, and no trying to do it on your own. There is just faithfulness. Be faithful.


(Source: The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson)

Redemption Stories

The Bible is the story of redemption and it’s filled with redemption stories. For example, the Moabites were not allowed to dwell among God’s people because of their refusal to help the wandering Israelites (Deut. 23). Then Ruth the Moabite shows up. She enters the story and challenges the prejudice against the Moabite people and everything changes.

Joseph was a man alienated by his brothers and ultimately betrayed, only to experience the resurrection power of God when the Lord redeemed him from the pit and elevated him to a position of leadership. From his prominent status, Joseph redeemed his family, those that betrayed him, from famine and starvation. The story of Jonah describes pagan sailors on a boat who end up praying to the God of heaven and earth. The Ninevites were enemies of Israel, yet redeemed by their faith in the words of a most improbable messenger. Esther, an unlikely Jewish girl in exile from Jerusalem, living among pagans, was elevated to Queen and used to redeem her people.

The people of Uz are considered evil (Jer. 25). Then the story of Job is told and he was described as being the “most blameless man on earth.” In the Old Testament no foreigners or eunuchs were allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23). Then the Book of Acts records the story of the African eunuch being welcomed into the fellowship of the church (Acts 8). God’s people loathed Samaritans, but then Jesus tells a story about a “Good Samaritan” that challenged everyone listening to change their mind.

Throughout scripture the story may begin with prejudice, discrimination, and animosity, but when the Spirit of God moves, people have to either change or reject God’s redemptive purpose. Redemption stories include being open to people from all walks of life, welcoming people, accepting them wherever they may be, and trusting God to bring them to a new place. The mission of the church mandates that we go and make disciples of all people. Once people meet Jesus, God incarnate, he doesn’t leave them as he found them.

Luke 15 is one of my favorite passages to preach from. The story never fails to leave congregations in tears. Luke 15:1-2 states, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” These two sentences describe Jesus being with sinners and religious folks at the same time. What an audience.

Think about that scene for a minute. Jesus is spending time with people of ill repute. Tax collectors, who were infamous for swindling people and extortion. People called “sinners,” meaning people with foul mouths, who had made mistakes, slept in the wrong beds, made a habit of lying, and lived immoral lives. These were people whose lives went against everything that the religious leaders of the day stood for… people who were very far from God.

They were gathering around Jesus, listening to him, taking in everything he had to say. They were captivated by this man who, while compromising nothing, welcomed them, spent time with them, and talked with them about a God who loved them, and wanted to be in relationship with them. They didn’t realize it, but they were interacting with God in the flesh, who wanted to bring forgiveness and a new beginning. The story of redemption was playing out right before their eyes.

While that interplay was happening, the religious leaders gathered together in their holy huddle and said, “Can you believe this guy?” “What is he thinking?” “Doesn’t he realize they’re the enemy?” Jesus obviously overheard them. The scripture says that he turned to them and was upset that they didn’t get what he was about. Upset that they didn’t see the heart of the Father. Upset that they had hardened their hearts toward the very people God sent him to save.

Jesus was so troubled, that he told not one, not two, but three straight stories about something that was lost and then found. The moral of these three stories is simple: God is completely consumed with finding what is lost. The heart of the Father is always in absolute, ongoing, permanent, search mode. Jesus makes it absolutely clear in the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son that there is nothing more critical than seeking what is lost in order to find it… Nothing.

Redemption is more than an ancient biblical concept.

Max was a business executive with a wife, kids, six-figure salary, and a house in the suburbs. During the 2008 economic meltdown he lost everything: his job, house, wife, and family. He found himself living on the streets and eventually ended up at a rescue mission. It was there that he was introduced to Jesus. Now Max is back on his feet, but his life is very different than it was before. Max is a living example of God’s redemption.

Paul and Cindy were living on the streets of a major U.S. city. Cindy is legally blind and Paul has a myriad of medical problems. Through the missional outreach of a local church they found a place to belong and was introduced to a new way of life. The church adopted them, they discovered a relationship with Jesus, and now they’re living a new life in their own home. Paul and Cindy are examples of God’s redemption.

Redemption matters more than anything. It’s the reason God sent Jesus into the world. So, tell your redemption story. Live out the redemption of God before a watching world. Let the narrative of God’s saving grace ring loud and clear in your life, because at the end of the day, it’s what matters most.

“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)


(Sources: Bixby Knolls Christian Church; Rick Lee James; Doug Hopkins)

Talking Heads

Recently, when visiting my hometown I got to hang out with an old friend. During our conversation he said, “I don’t have a lot of people in my life that I can talk to about anything significant. People don’t like to think about important issues.” Let that sink in: “People don’t like to think about important issues.”

Note the name of this blog site: “You Are What You Think.” Thinking is imperative to our spiritual journey. God instructs us to use our mind… “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).

What we think about God is the most important thing about us. What you think about God affects everything about your life. It affects how you view the world, how you raise your children, how you interact with other people… I could go on and on. With that said, we need to be careful. There are a lot of talking heads, voices in the world, all of which want a platform in your mind. They want to shape the way you think.

The world is full of filters. When we allow the image of God to be sifted, that image quickly becomes distorted. People tend to filter God through many things, including: politics, culture, nationalism, etc. In doing so they develop a false sense of who God really is and it affects their ability to engage him on a deeper level. For example, if you filter God through the lens of American politics you will tend to view God as being on the side of the Republicans or the Democrats. He is not.

If you filter God through patriotism you begin to think that being a good American means being a good Christian, and consequently you begin to view foreigners differently, which leads to discrimination. A pastor recently shared a story with me where someone got up at a funeral and said, “I know uncle Joe is in heaven because the bible says that if you’re an American you go to heaven.” Jesus doesn’t shroud himself in the American flag, or any other flag for that matter. His Kingdom is not of this world.

If you filter God through religious subcultures, you will be tempted to go one of two routes. You might become a fundamentalist who thinks that God is only like the people who share the same views as you, often focusing on non-essentials. Or you may lean toward a Universalist perspective and develop ideas about God revealing himself through various religions.

Some people filter God through media. This ties into my theory on why people don’t like to think about important issues. They’re either afraid or they feel guilty. They’ve been silenced by what I call fear-peddlers and guilt-trippers. You see, your cable news networks are fear-peddlers. They’ve got to keep the ratings up, so they spin every story. The more shocking, the more heated the commentary, the more debate, the more “what ifs”… the better the ratings.

Then you have the guilt-trippers, those who over-empathize with every movement that comes along. These are people who guilt you into being silent. Those who say things like, “Can’t we all just get alone… shame on you for saying anything contrary to another person’s opinion.” These people would rather take the “live and let live” approach than to speak truth and risk offending someone… even so far as calling those things which are evil, good (Isaiah 5:20).

Conservatives tend to be fear-peddlers (i.e. warning, “if you don’t do this”). Liberals have a tendency to be guilt-trippers (i.e. threatening, “how dare you”). When the liberals label me “conservative” and the conservatives label me “liberal” it helps me realize that I must be doing something right. My desire is to be a good citizen of the Kingdom of God and I believe the way of the Kingdom is discovered in-between all the rhetoric and labeling.

Reducing the talking heads is imperative for a healthy spiritual life. Take a break from all the noise. Discover the beauty and majesty of silence. Learn to listen for that small still voice in the midst of all the clamor. Filtering God through our own unique preferences and leanings certainly has the ability to damage how we think about God and realizing that makes a huge difference in our walk with him.

Turn off the news networks. Turn down the volume on the fundies and libs. Refuse to allow your life to be inundated by fear-peddlers and guilt-trippers. Stop allowing negative influences to shape your thinking. Don’t allow God to be filtered. Disconnect. Find the in-between. You don’t need the talking heads of modern culture informing your every thought. Read, pray, open the scripture, and seek the wisdom that only comes from above. It will change everything…guaranteed.

Crown of thorns and bible on old wooden background

When speaking about “Essentials” we are referring to what is indispensable concerning Christian faith and practice. In reflecting upon this subject we always want to leave room for varying ideas, convictions, and opinions. However, we are often confronted with voices that want to make non-essentials essential, making the conversation all the more challenging.

The tribe of which I am part, the Church of the Nazarene, released a publication last year entitled “Nazarene Essentials” in an attempt to bring more clarity to the subject. Unity is the goal. For unity to exist among any group there must be underlying principles that the adherents of the group subscribe to. When digression from foundational doctrines takes place, harmony is lost.

The Bible has always been central in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. In John Wesley’s words, “God himself has condescended to teach me the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book! At any price give me the book of God. Let me be a man of one book.” Later Wesley’s methods were categorized in what we call the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. In this, theological reflection and doctrinal development are filtered through four sources pertaining to what we believe and how we live as being: (1) Established in Scripture; (2) Clarified by Tradition; (3) Confirmed by Reason; and (4) Vivified in Experience.

Many churches today live in a state of tension due to an increasing openness toward social ethics. When cultural preferences begin to replace scriptural principles division is soon to follow. This error is common among religious progressives and conservatives. Progressives frequently rally around social issues and by default undervalue biblical standards. Conservatives tend to stress conformity to strict codes of conduct often resulting in legalism. Disunity occurs because people in both camps focus on personal convictions and preferences, thus placing too much emphasis on lower level theological issues.

So, how do we know what is most important? We must start with the Gospel; it is central to the Christian faith. Everything revolves around the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, it’s imperative to understand exactly what the Gospel is and what it is not. The Gospel is not my response to Jesus. The Gospel is not the results of believing in Jesus. Essentially the Gospel is the fact that Jesus, God incarnate, died for our sins, arose from the dead, ascended to the Father, and promised to return.

With that as a foundation allow me to provide four tiers pertaining to how we should distinguish Christian essentials from non-essentials. These lists are not exhaustive, but serve as a point of reference concerning levels of importance for Christian faith and practice.

Tier 1: Essentials. These are matters of orthodoxy versus heresy. In other words, you cannot be a Christian if you do not believe these things: (1) Doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit); (2) Person and Work of Jesus Christ (deity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection); (3) Continual Work of the Holy Spirit; (4) Original and Personal Sin (we are born sinners in need of a savior); (5) Salvation by grace through faith; (6) Divine Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures (the bible reveals the nature of God and all things necessary for salvation). These are matters worth defending. It is appropriate to correct those who contradict sound doctrine in these areas.

Tier 2: Practices. These are matters that determine local church practice and ministry: (1) Polity or Church Governance; (2) Administration of Sacraments (Baptism and Communion); (3) Philosophy of Ministry; (4) Theological Persuasions (Calvinist vs. Arminian). These are issues that a local church needs to have general agreement on in order to minister effectively. While differences in these areas should not lead us to question one another’s faith, we might have to agree to exist in different fellowships.

Tier 3: Interpretations. These are matters that we can disagree on peaceably. Interpretations vary, but should never cause us to questions a person’s dedication to Christ. I will name a few that seem to get more attention: (1) End Times (preterism, historicism, futurism, etc.); (2) Views of Creation (literal 24-hour, gap theory, day-age, etc.); (3) Spiritual Gifts (miracles, healing, prophecy, etc.). I’ve pastored people who hold diverse opinions on various third tier theological issues, yet were able to exist in unity.

Tier 4: Convictions. These are often matters of the conscience, where scripture does not bind all, yet some may need to live a certain way while others live differently. Convictions often revolve around: (1) Education (public or private); (2) Politics (social issues); (3) Entertainment (movies, music, etc.). The last category refers to matters similar to the ones that Paul dealt with in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-11. When scripture does not give us a command, we must use wisdom. Also, we must refuse to lay our convictions on the shoulders of others.

Again, none of these lists are exhaustive. However, they do give us a place to start thinking about what is truly indispensable to the Christian faith. To be absolutely clear, the most essential part of our faith is Jesus. He is the way, truth, and life; no one comes to God except through him. So, the best advice I can give is… put Jesus first and with everything else live by the famous words of Saint Augustine, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”


(Source: Nazarene Essentials; Discipline of The United Methodist Church; Derek Radney)

american-jesus

Compassion and competition are two words that we don’t typically use in the same sentence. Compassion is the kingdom way; competition is the American way. As Americans, we celebrate winning at all costs. For us bigger is better. This is not God’s way. He calls us to sacrifice, service, and surrender. God rejoices in the laying down of one’s life. We often find ourselves trying to live in both of these realities. Yet, the longer we walk with Christ the more we feel the tension between the two.

The spirit of competition has worked itself into the place it should never exist: The Church. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I love a great ball game. Organized competition in sports and other arenas of life are fun, but when the same mindset spills over into the church it’s detrimental to the work of the kingdom. Think about it, competition puts us at odds with other people. It’s the process of trying to outshine another person. How can we genuinely serve others if we are constantly trying to surpass them?

The kingdom-life is a call to compassion, not competition. Compassion is a word that usually evokes positive feelings. We all like to consider ourselves compassionate people. However, compassion is not as natural of a phenomenon as we might think. The word “compassion” suggests: suffering with another, becoming weak, laying down one’s life. In fact, the bible teaches us to present ourselves as “living sacrifices.” The problem with living sacrifices is that they have the tendency to crawl off the altar, stand up, and start competing again.

There are two powerful narratives at work in our lives simultaneously. The first is the American narrative: a story of power, wealth, and prestige. The American story is one of competition: bigger, better, faster, and stronger. Americans don’t like limits. We like graphs in which all lines move up. This narrative tells us that limits are bad and boundaries are to be crossed. The American way is up.

The other narrative at work is called the Gospel. This is the way of Jesus embodied by his life, teaching, death, and resurrection. This narrative requires downward mobility. In Christ we don’t compete for a place in the kingdom; instead, God has chosen to be God-with-us. Jesus came down in an act of divine compassion. In turn, God calls us to reflect Christ in how we live and interact with one another. Subsequently, through us, the kingdom crashes into the world.

The way of Jesus is down. Jesus taught that the only way to find your life is to lose it. He said the first must be last… If you try and keep your life, you will actually end up losing everything. This teaching is woven throughout the Gospels. In fact, if you attempt to remove it, you would end up removing a large portion of what Jesus taught.

See for yourself: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, and the persecuted (Matt. 5:3-10). Don’t store up treasures on earth (Matt. 6:19-21). The one who seeks to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Matt. 16:25). The last will be first and the first will be last (Matt. 20:16). If you want to be great, you have to become a servant (Matt. 20:26). The greatest among you will be the servant; the humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled (Matt. 23:11-12). Anyone who wants to be Jesus’ disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23). If you cling to your life, you’ll lose it; if you let your life go, you’ll find it (Luke 17:33). We could go on, but I think you get the picture.

The Jesus narrative and the American narrative are worlds apart. The American story teaches us that life is about success. Our worth is connected to being bigger and better. Life is a competition and the one who dies with the most toys wins. If we are going to follow Jesus, we have to switch narratives because his story is one of compassion, humility, vulnerability, and servanthood.

The kingdom invites us to pour out our lives in certain assurance that life will never run out. The Christian life obligates itself to intentionally move downward. It’s counterintuitive; it’s not natural. Nonetheless, it’s the way of Christ and it is good. The kingdom narrative calls us to devote ourselves to a lifestyle of compassion as we learn to embody the good news of a better way. This is the tale of two tales: American and Kingdom. We’re born into one; we choose the other.

(Sources: “Compassion” by Henri Nouwen, “Shrink” by Tim Suttle)