Blessed To Be A Blessing

As a child, I hated hearing the saying, ‘It is better to give than to receive’. I pressed my imagination as far as I could, and I could never figure how it might be better to give than to receive. When Christmas came, all I wanted was to receive presents. As a youngster, I could not see farther than my own two hands could reach.

But when I grew up and had a child of my own, I began to understand more profoundly than ever why it is better to give than to receive. We catch a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said it is better to give than to receive when our children enthusiastically rip into their Christmas presents. Their giddiness, anticipation, and unfettered joy makes what we receive pale in comparison to what we so gladly give. Recently, I had the privilege to experience the joy of giving at a whole new level. Our church, The Connection  has been looking to find a sister church we can partner with. Long before we joined the team, they wanted to find an inner-city church, under resourced but working hard to impact their community. We hoped that our experience working cross-culturally might help us connect with a multicultural church in the inner city. We wanted to serve the “other”—people different from us. I made some phone calls to find churches that might fit our desired outcome, and the Greater LA District of Foursquare churches suggested a pastor slugging it away in South Central LA. I excitedly called the name I was given, Pastor Terry Perades of Faith Community Church. I shared the heart of our church to be a blessing and serve this church. We looked for a true partnership where we could receive from them what they had and give what we had. Soon it was clear this church fit perfectly to what we were looking for. It was like a match made in heaven. Pastor Terry and this church making a difference in their community had been praying for years as we had for a partnership like this.

I knew we connected with the right church when I heard how Pastor Terry cared for his community. As an African-American pastor, he ministers to kids coming from broken homes. He has made it his aim to be a father figure to the kids in his church, and he does. He shows up at their schools regularly to find ways to help the kids succeed. Furthermore, he loves on the children of the neighborhood. They put up a portable basketball hoop in the church parking lot and saw kids flock to play some ball. He thought, I could cook them food at one of their houses and have a few kids, or I could cook food here and serve a lot of kids. So Pastor Terry offered the kids dinner. He invited some of the youngsters to help him cook. The kids came in and helped enthusiastically. Pastor Terry did not talk about Jesus but simply exampled Jesus to these kids. At the end of the day and without any prompting, the children asked if he had any Bibles. As any good pastor would, Pastor Terry ran in and grabbed as many Bibles as he had on hand. These children from the neighborhood began coming to the church and more than that, they gave their lives to Jesus. I quickly learned the heart of a pastor in the inner city.

The beginning of a partnership took place as we talked on the phone. We then hoped to collect toys from our people at the Connection Church to bless the children of South Central LA for Christmas. Our church asked if our people could buy new toys to donate to children they had never met. As a little, upstart church, we hoped to get 50 toys for these disadvantaged children. All this happened so fast as we started the whole process the first week of December. We only began our assignment at the Connection Dec. 1. But God was in this, and the church resonated with the vision.

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By the time we came to our first in person meeting with Pastor Terry the Thursday before Christmas, we had 50 toys to bring with us. Pastor Clayton and I piled the gifts in the back of his truck and drove up to LA. When Terry and Clayton met, they hit it off immediately. Pastor Terry began sharing stories of the children they were reaching. He told one story of transformation that blows your mind. Often kids come to their church unable to read, which as he said is not uncommon in these neighborhoods. He explained that as their parents work so long each day that no one has the time to help the children with their school work and reading. Pastor Terry told us how the church embraced these children who were illiterate. They helped tutor them and give them hope to excel in school. Now, some of these kids are thriving and in college. We loved listening to Pastor Terry’s passion. We could have listened to his stories for hours, but we had gifts to deliver.

At this, Pastor Terry directed us to a side room where the gifts could be safely stored until their Sunday Christmas celebration. When Pastor Terry saw all the gifts laid on the table, he began getting choked up. As a father figure to many of these kids, he knew intimately how much these gifts would impact them. He couldn’t put into words what this would mean to these kids. As he spoke from his heart, we knew we were simply walking in the steps God was guiding us into. I am so excited to be part of a church that thinks beyond themselves—a church that sees giving as better than receiving. I’ll never forget my 2013 Christmas as we began a partnership with a church doing an incredible work in LA. I am reminded once again; we are blessed in order to be a blessing.

Do you have any examples of when it was better for you to give than to receive?

Advent Is For Hope

adventAdvent is for hope. Now, let me substitute the word anticipation for hope. See what I am doing there. It’s that feeling we get on Christmas Eve as we wonder about what is in that neatly wrapped box under the tree. I love Christmas for all the longing, yearning, and anticipation this season brings. But what happens when our anticipation dissipates into thin air. Our hopes are no longer on the back burner. No, they are not even simmering any longer.

I feel that is how it got with my two baseball teams. Anticipation fizzled. But I loved my teams and believed as an eternal optimist that baseball glory was around the corner. Growing up in Chicago and Orange County I had the luxury of two teams. Two teams with losing reputations. One team hadn’t appeared in a World Series since 1945 much less won one since 1908. The other team from Orange County had never even appeared in one until I was a college graduate. This team has now won a championship in my lifetime, the other still lives in that mythical place of maybe next year. In fact, it is so bad for the Cubs that they are saying maybe in 2016.

As for the Angels of Anaheim in Orange County of the greater Los Angeles area, I fell in love with them as a kid only to have my heart broken in 1986. If you don’t know what I am talking about, we can tell that story in another place. After that fateful year, their chances for glory were few and far between. Gene Autry’s dream of bringing a championship faded fast as he neared the end of his life and ownership of the team for 30+ years. He sold the team to Disney who at least improved the fan experience. I still think Angel Stadium is one of the best places to see a game.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2002. I am in my final year of Bible College. I loved my team. I went more than a handful of times which without a car or much money that is a pretty big feat in and of itself. Thus in my senior year, the Angels got my phone number, one way or another, this happened. Their marketing team called me to ask if I wanted season tickets. A full plan was out the window. However, I said, tell me more about these mini plans.

The bottom line was that they would end up costing me more money as I would buy two tickets (one for my friend who drove me or went with me depending on your perspective) and I would no longer get the half price deals I got game by game. I pushed back. They said, but this will get you priority when it comes to playoff games. Playoff games, I laughed. Oh yes, they made some big off season acquisitions. I laughed again. Now, mind you, as previously noted, I am an eternal optimist and believed that Darren Erstad, Troy Glos, Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon along with some young kids like David Eckstein, Adam Kennedy and Benji Molina would do some damage. However, I could not believe that a trade for Kevin Appier and free agent signing of Aaron Sele would bring home the bacon.

I don’t think their magical line about priority for the playoffs was grabbing too many other people’s attention, but it got me to laugh. The games that year like every other year were mostly played to half empty stadiums. I say half empty as a half full kind of optimist, because the less people in the stands meant the more options for me to sit closer as the game wore on. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a great salesperson to convince someone to buy what they want. I ended up buying tickets as I wanted to insure seats against the Yankees and Dodgers. There you have it. I went all in for my team but with little to no expectations that my tickets would pay off for playoff priority. I knew my eternal sunshine of optimism was rarely rooted in reality. I looked forward to a fun year.

However, a magical, Disney-like magical year ensued. The team started slow, but turned it on later. The Rally Monkey , in his third year on the jumbo tron did his magic. Comebacks became the norm. The bullpen gelled and a powerful offense carried the Angels to baseball heaven. Oh, and because I had playoff priority, I spent my life savings on all the playoff games I could get. I sat in the bleachers and banged my thunder sticks to play a part in the Series run.

I even remember when my loss of anticipation turned to expectation. When the Angels pulled off the improbable in defeating the Yankees with some great come from behind wins, I said, they can beat anyone. And they did. My hopes waned from belief to wish but back again to palpable anticipation as the World Series ring came into grasp. Only a series against the Twins and whoever the lowly NL presented stood in the way. All those years of hoping would finally culminate with a championship. It wouldn’t go down as incredible as the Red Sox beating the curse of the Bambino or one day when the Cubs finally win one again. Nope. But it did in my books go down as amazing. Most amazing was this play that turned the fortunes of a World Series from the Giants to the Angels. And Anticipation grew tangible.

Hope diminished but was reborn in anticipation as winning became realistic. That’s my story in sports.

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Isn’t that what the hopes of God’s people must have been like? But times a million. For more than a thousand years, they looked for the Messiah. They waited generation after generation through good king and bad, through exile and more exile, through the remnant and the dispersion they waited. I am sure patient longing turned into diminished hope, especially during those silent years.

But I bet when God started speaking again and again, the anticipation built like it did for me. The exciting thing about Christmas this year for me is the reminder of hope/anticipation. God is at work, and I anticipate him doing incredible things in my life. I look forward to the promises in our life being fulfilled as the promise of Jesus was fulfilled on Christmas.

Will you hope with me?

Get Out Of The Way

We all want to see the power of God move, right. Well, maybe not all of us. But you know who I am talking about. Many of my friends talk to me saying, we want to see God move in our midst. We want people to encounter God in a real way, which raises the question… Then why don’t we see God move more. Or maybe you ask, why doesn’t God move like he once did? I postulate that first, God is moving, and second, we get in the way. One word comes to mind, control.

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Coming back from Asia, I find we Americans love this little word, control. We love to have it, be in it, and get more of it. We plan, strategize, think, and develop structures. We find ways to empower people or to empower ourselves. We love to take charge or know who is in charge. As Americans, we do one thing well. We take charge. We don’t wait on others, we go for it. When it comes to the church world, we bring our Americanism right in with us. I wonder if we really think we can put God in a box and control the outcomes. It is as though we think if we plan a meeting well enough, we can see God do incredible things. I am not against planning, but I was recently in a meeting listening to a lot of experienced leaders talking. One leader from Central America said, in the past he remembered the missionaries and pastors praying a lot. Now, he observes them planning a lot. Think about that, we went from praying to planning. Now, we have exported that to the rest of the world. We almost plan so tightly that we squeeze God right out of the picture.

Over the past few years, we have seen worship services expressed with great diversity. As missionaries, we visited a lot of churches while itinerating. Our whirlwind tours through the churches were a real treat as we saw all different sizes and styles. But I will never forget what one pastor told me. Now for context, this church was rather large and had four services on a Sunday—three in the morning and one in the evening. The three morning services were each 65 minutes with only a few minutes wiggle room to let people in and out. I asked the pastor how do they get everything in such a short time. His response captures our American ideal.

He said, one mentor once told him that if God doesn’t move in 90 minutes, he is not going to move. I thought, hmmm, that is an interesting perspective. First, I believe God is always speaking and always wanting to move. The onus is not on him to move, but on us to be ready. We come in with the baggage of stress, tension, family issues, work dilemmas and more. Yet, we blame God for not moving when perhaps we were not ready. But sadly, we think we can create a moment in which God will move. The reality is that God wants to move, we just need to get out of the way. As we served in Thailand, leading Our Home Chapel, we found the best thing we could do is develop an environment in which he could move. We wanted to create space for God to move with a ready heart. We needed to contend and press in to meet God. In no way am I saying that every time we gathered that we met God or felt his presence in power. But neither did we blame him for not moving. It’s just too complex to think we can manufacture an experience with God. Sometimes we have to wait a bit longer than 90 minutes. And that means getting a little antsy as we wait. Let’s be honest, it is tough waiting. But when we get right down to it, God moves on his schedule and not ours. The quick example comes when the disciples waited in the upper room 10 days before they encountered the Holy Spirit in power. If we want to see God move, we need to wait, hunger, and anticipate God doing something in our midst. We need to get out of the way and give him space to move. Space to move in his way and in his timing.

Do you have any examples when you felt God moving in a powerful way? Explain.

Living Servant-leadership

I don’t know a more nebulous term than servant-leader. It is almost a paradox that we don’t easily live in. Is it more servant or more leadership. Often, I feel we throw around this adjective ahead of leadership to help soften leaders that run roughshod over those they lead.

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You know the type, more boss than leader. They use the phrases, “too many chefs in the kitchen” or “too many chiefs for the tribe”.  These leaders throw around their weight and ask us to listen not because of their ideas or vision but because they are the leader. For them authority flows out of position and not personhood.

What do we do with leaders like that? We add an adjective and hope that makes them think more like Jesus. You know, more servant and less tyrant. We have all worked for bad leaders. I don’t have to name names. And yet, we still want to write more and more books on leadership.

Why?

The Bible talks far more about being servant than about being leader. Yes, leadership is a gift of the Spirit, so why don’t we trust the Spirit to move through those he has gifted to lead? Well, that is a question that moves away from my story.

My story illustrates the servant side of leadership. You know, the side that sees serving as primacy to leading. The part of leadership that says, I have the best interests of those entrusted to me. The kind that Jesus talked about in Mark 10:45 in serving and laying down his life for them.

Jesus always turned things upside down. As King, the subjects are supposed to give their life for him and the kingdom. But as king, Jesus gave his life for his people and the kingdom. How often, does a leader say, not my way or vision, but yours? These are true tests of a leader who says he is servant.

But I have a living picture of servant leader. Recently, I was in some high-level meetings with our movement, The Foursquare Church. I spent time hanging out in and out of the meetings with dozens of servant-leaders. I did not expect to have any meaningful interaction with our President as I am way down the totem pole or hierarchy. Yet, I was surpised. Our President, Glenn Burris came alongside of me in service like I never anticipated.

Who am I? I am just a young guy with no position. I was one of the strategic thinkers in the room, sure. But the room was chalk full of bright, brilliant people with more gravitas than I. I am known by our president, but he is supremely gifted in relational intelligence and knows everyone. And everyone wants to push back on our meetings and grab the ear of our leader. They have a greater need than I to have time with the president of our church.

Well, one of our last breaks, I happened to have a sidebar with the President. As we talked, he asked if I wanted snacks. (You see, as the blind pastor who writes this blog, I do need serving from time to time, more than the average guy). I nicely said it is okay, I can get another leader here to help me out. But he insisted. So I insisted further that he did not need to spend his valuable time on getting me a plate of snacks.  But how much can you insist against a good leader?  So after a little back-and-forth, I acquiesced.

Glenn not only got me a plate of yummy snacks, he asked me what I wanted and listened to what I said. He served me with a gift of hospitality often not exercised by leaders of such high capacity. He grabbed me all the good veggies I wanted and dobbed loads of hummus dip on another plate. He carried the two plates and a bottle of water back into the room. He even found my seat and moved my computer to insure I could snack with ease.

I was so touched, I turned to say to him and those around me, we can talk about servant-leadership all day, but I just experienced it.

Wow!

As long and intense meetings came to a conclusion, our leader paused to help serve a guy that had plenty of other gracious people all around willing to help. Our President grew in my eyes not for his vision or capacity, but for my trust and relationship. I go to bat for a guy like that. Why, because I know he has my best interests in mind. Not to say I agree with everything a leader does or says, but that is part of being a strategic thinker and in the room. I will say, I have grown in respect for our leadership, and this is just one little reason why.

I have been impacted on this topic by Duane Elmer’s book Cross-Cultural Servanthood.   Grab and ransack it for practical helps even in your own community.

Having The Tables Turned

Meeting a celebrity, no matter how famous, will put you in a weird place.

What do I say? I don’t want to embarrass myself. I hope I don’t talk to them about something that relates to a different celebrity.

This is compounded when the said celebrity is related to a good friend. The kind of friend who will love to tell stories on you.

That was the precise predicament I found myself in recently. I was surprised to know the special guest for our church’s turned out to be more than I anticipated. I knew the artist performing was related to a long time friend, and what do you expect when the artist is a relative of a friend. No comment. Oh, I happened to be running partners with this friend’s husband. We ran two marathon’s together.

That is right, he was my guide in two marathons six years ago. Well, almost two marathons. The second marathon, I left him to run the final few miles alone. I really wanted to meet my goal, so I went it alone and blind. That is a crazy story for another time. But my partner’s family told on us many times both out of humor and admiration, stories of accidentally running into bicyclists, fire hydrants and fences. Joe and I had good times.

Now, as the evening’s entertainment is being introduced, I find out she used to be the lead singer of Mayfair Laundry

I knew that band from the 90s as they were a cool rock band, and one of those cool bands with a girl singer. I like new stuff as much as the next guy, but I have to admit, I was yearning for some vintage 90’s rock from the defunct band’s lead singer. But we live in the now, and we got to hear Kim Dexter’s new stuff

Her husband and founder of the alt-rock band, Mayfair Laundry worked the board in the back. Turns out he won a Grammy for some of his other work too. We were in the midst of greatness, and I barely knew. My mind was blown.

I sat enjoying the night thinking the whole time, why didn’t my friends tell me their relatives were so cool. Or maybe they did, and I just missed it. Isn’t that how it goes. We always think our relatives are way more incredible, and everyone we brag about them too cynically never believes it.

At the end of the night, I thought I would tell my friend that she should be embarrassed that she never told me her brother was that cool. I would have begged ahead of time for some rock from my prime rocking out years.

Then she had the unmitigated gall to want to introduce me. Oh no, I told her. This is a good story for you to tell around the dinner table. But she insisted. I was done for. Was I really going to talk to a guy about his glory days? I had nothing witty to say. Oh boy. Now, I was going to really look silly. I had no way out as she yelled across the room for her brother Paul. Paul, she shouted again. He was coming, and the meeting was inevitable.

But then she started talking as she introduced me. She did not play up how much I wanted to know the guy who won a Grammy or started a cool band. Nope, she introduced me as the guy she had told so many stories about. I was the guy who ran into all those things with Joe.

The tables were turned on me. Now, I was the celebrity. Well, celebrity of sorts. I became the one whose reputation preceded him. And I was embarrassed for an altogether other reason. My false humility, which is more faux than humble turned me into a sheepish guy who looked to get out of that situation quicker than a dog runs away with the cookie it stole off the table.

Maybe next time, I meet a celebrity it will go better. Have there been any times you did not know what to say? How did you react?

What Is Your Theology

Frozen Yogurt Shop

I wasn’t sure if he was flirting with her at first.

You know how you over hear conversations that grip your attention. I know I do all the time. Perhaps it is my reliance on hearing. Or maybe it is something altogether different—my incurable curiosity.

Well, my curiosity got the best of me the other day as we were eating frozen yogurt. Thankfully, our daughter still calls it ice cream. We can indulge her with weekly walks to the frozen yogurt shop for her favorite—chocolate ice cream (or the healthier alternative of yogurt).

As we sat together in front of the little shop in San Clemente, we over heard a man beginning a conversation with another woman as they both enjoyed the tasty dessert during half-priced happy hour. The topic of his conversation caught our attention. He started asking her about the church she attended. Innocent, right. Sure, and a good way to begin a conversation with a cute girl. Later, my wife confirmed that he was not flirting. I still hold my doubts.

However, the post here is not concerned with the pickup methods of middle-aged men. This post is much more concerned with where the seemingly light-hearted conversation went. They shared stories of where they had been to church over the past two decades. They talked about previous pastors and different ups and downs of their churches. Then it came.

Oh yes, a it finally came. He came to the point in the conversation where he could find out what kind of Christian this new friend might be. He asked the ever important question, what does your church teach about the end times?

If a mockumentary was filming me at that point, the scene would have shifted over to me answering questions about what was going on in my head.

Me: Really? I just heard that nice guy ask the girl about her end times beliefs. Hmmm, He as figuring out if they had a future as friends, and the essential thing he needed to know was what she believed about the millennial reign of Christ from a passage at the end of Revelation.

The awkward tenure of the conversation did not seem awkward at all to this guy. He went on talking as casually as one talks about the weather or the satellite TV company they prefer. He went into great detail talking about different churches in the area and their views on the end of the world. He told this unsuspecting bystander which churches were pre-millennial and which were amillenial.

My wife and I walked away after lingering over our yummy yogurt wondering what was that guy’s deal. Maybe we had been out of the country a little too long to get it. Six years in Thailand can taint a person on how they view life.

We reflected that in six years working with Christians in Thailand, oh and many more who were not yet Christian, that we had yet to have any one ask us about the millennial reign of Christ. No, in fact, we rarely if ever were asked what our theology was.

There were too few of Christians. If you ever met another Christian, they were thrilled to bump into another believer. The odds of running into another Thai person that knew God was around 1-in-150.

But on those rare days when we met another Christian and celebrated that we both knew Jesus, our conversations went different than this obscuretheology talk. People in the pre-Christian culture of Thailand never asked about doctrines (orthodoxy) in their small talk. They asked about how your walk with Jesus went (orthopraxy).

The thrust of discussions were always about how we lived our life and rarely about how we organized our beliefs.  We find it fascinating how Americans codify people according to their systems of belief.

We miss the culture in Asia where life and practical living mattered much more than if someone was orthodox enough. We enjoyed finding common ground in living out our beliefs with others. We long for the days when we can have deep conversations that unite rather than divide.

When was the last time someone asked you about your theology?

His Hands Extended

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The church I grew up in used the motto ‘His Hands Extended’. That meant they aimed to be an extension of God’s grace and blessing to the community we lived in.

I recently heard a story that embodied this ethos as good as any church could. To be his hands extended is a big part of the mission of God, and as missionaries, we aim to bring people into contact with God. When we look with the eyes of Jesus, we often see the hurting and pain of his people. As his hands extended, we desire to fill the void and bring a piece of heaven—healing or love–to the broken hearted.

Some of our Foursquare Missionaries have done just that as they work in Baja California. Don and Sandy Godwin have found a niche serving deported Mexicans. They found that when some illegal immigrants get deported to Mexico, the US government does not stop to ask if the Mexican can speak Spanish. In some cases, these people have grown up in the US only learning English. The immigrants made a life in the US, but now they are sent to what is supposedly their home with no connections and barely enough Spanish to survive. The Godwins have started a church that specializes in offering compassion to English speaking Mexicans.

One pastor told me last week at the Southwest District Conference of one story related to this compassion. One of the people in his church did not have their papers in order when Immigration came through. The pastor told his people he could contact someone he knew in Mexico that might be able to help. He hoped to offer a glimmer of hope to a family about to be uprooted and shipped back “home”. Baja Mexico was many things, but home was not one of them for this family. The pastor sent a Facebook message to the Godwins hoping they could find this deported family.

My pastor friend said he waited around anxious that his Hispanic friends were lost and without help back in Mexico. He hoped his message made it to the Godwins. After no response, he decided to call them that afternoon. He hoped to hear a plan of how they could contact the newly deported family. When he got on the phone with them, he immediately asked if they got his message. The urgency was palpable in his voice.

The answer the Godwins gave instantly cut the tension building in this pastor’s heart. They told him, don’t worry, we have the family sitting in our living room as we speak. Not only did they have a plan on how to help them, the missionaries or agents of God’s mission were already in the process of expressing God’s heart to these people.

I don’t know a better living metaphor of being Gods’ hands extended, but I am sure there are millions of them around the world.

What is your favorite example of being God’s hands extended?