Sunday, January 20, 2013

Friday, November 23, 2012

Manuscript Excerpt: Racing Horses

Yes, I'm writing a book. No, it will probably never be published. But that's okay, because I'll just self-publish it and buy a copy of it on

Anyway, I wanted to post a short chapter that I wrote to the blog to get feedback from folks. I suppose this is as good a way as any to determine if I'm on the right track or not.

The chapter is a reflection on the first sermon I preached at Ember, called The Divine Interruption. The sermon is based on Jeremiah 1, and you can listen to it in the sermon player on this blog. (Just scroll all the way to the bottom.) But you don't have to listen to it to get this chapter.

So if you take the time to read this chapter, would you mind taking a few extra minutes to give me some feedback in the comments section? Honest feedback (positive or negative) only, please.


Racing Horses | Chapter 3
Reflections on The Divine Interruption

God is with those he calls. That was the lesson of the previous chapter, which was also the sermon I preached at the first worship service of Ember Church. That is an important truth to remember because when the storms of life come it will be the first thing you forget. When life gets hard, harder than you can bear, your first temptation will be to rage at God, “Where are you?! Where did you go?!”

The second temptation will be to question the veracity of your calling. “Maybe I was never really called to this,” you’ll darkly wonder. You will doubt your calling because the cruelty of your circumstances tells you that God has abandoned you. “If God is with those he calls, and God is obviously not with me, then I am not called.”

I wrestled with both of these temptations in my dark hours, often bouncing between the two in some sort of sadistic game of existential ping-pong. I would rage at God for disappearing when I needed him most, and then I would passive-aggressively despair that I was never truly called to ministry in the first place. Maybe I’m not even saved! Back and forth I would go, spiraling ever downward into an internal chaotic darkness.

The moments of clarity would come, however, when I remembered this message in conjunction with God’s undeniable call on my life. Despite my present circumstances, I could not doubt what God had done in my life up to that point, nor could I deny the deep draw to ministry within my soul. If I’m not teaching a class or preaching a sermon, then I’m writing a blog. If I’m not discipling young believers, then I’m thinking about what I would say to young believers in different circumstances. Ministry is something I can’t not do. It is God’s call on my life, and no amount of ministry failure can undo that calling.

Knowing that I was called then, it naturally followed that God was with me. I couldn’t deny the exegesis of the passage. It was clear as day in the words God spoke to Jeremiah. Perhaps that episode where God called Jeremiah to the prophetic ministry was a one-time, unrepeatable event. Even so, the principle behind God’s promise to be with Jeremiah and to rescue him is undoubtedly general, and applies to all ministers of the Gospel. Sometimes you need your head to pull your heart back from the edge of the cliff, and this was certainly one of those times for me.


At the beginning of the first chapter I wrote that Ember’s death felt like a failure, like I had stepped out in faith and fallen flat on my face. In the previous chapter I wrote that when you step out in faith it is not solid ground onto which you land, but rather the arms of God into which you fall. So which is it? Did I fall on my face, or did I fall into the arms of God? The answer, I believe, is “Yes.”

I fell on my face in the sense that Ember didn’t work out like I had hoped or planned, and the death of Ember was very painful for me. I also felt like a bit of a fool, seeing as how I couldn’t make the church thrive and survive, despite the near impossible circumstances. There’s a part of me that believes that, now that I’ve failed as a church planter, I’ll never be able to get another job in ministry again, and that I don’t even deserve one.

On the other hand, I fell into the arms of God in the sense that I was depending on him at a level I hadn’t experienced before. Even though God didn’t come through for me in the way that I wanted him to, my faith has been deepened. You never really know how sweet the still waters are until you’ve passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I also found, by laying Ember down, how redemptive failure and suffering are kingdom victory. I discovered how trials can be grace.

Is it possible that God would let us fall on our faces in order to teach us to trust him even more? I think so. In ways that seem backward and counterintuitive to us, stepping out in faith and falling on our faces is the same as falling into the arms of God. There are times when failure is the purest grace we can receive.

Success and Faithfulness

Success isn’t the point. It has never been the point. The metrics of the kingdom of God are in conflict with the metrics of the evangelical church. When Jesus says, “few are they who find [the path to life],” how can we obsess over how big our churches are? Shouldn’t we assume that the majority of the people who are already within our churches are doomed to spend eternity apart from God?

But I digress. Faithfulness is the point, not success. And it’s at least possible that some of the most faithful saints were also some of the most spectacular failures – so much so that we may have never even heard of them. If God has called us to an impossible task, then success is removed from the equation and all that is left for us is to be faithful.

In my experience, faithfulness meant laying the church plant down and becoming more present to my family in their time of need. Even though it was obviously the right decision, it still felt like failure. I suppose faithfulness will feel like failure sometimes.

Isaiah the prophet likely experienced this. God even prepared him for it by telling him, right from the beginning, that the people won’t listen to him and they won’t change their ways. We learn at the very beginning of Jeremiah’s book that he failed, too. After all, if he had succeeded in bringing Judah to the point of repentance, they would not have been sent into exile in Babylon. In fact, none of the prophets were able to stem the tide of God’s judgment against his people. In that sense, they all failed. Even Jesus failed. He was unable to convince the leaders of Israel that he was the Messiah, and in the end he found himself friendless, crucified like an enemy of the state.

You might be saying to yourself, “But that was the whole reason Jesus came – to die for our sins. He didn’t fail. He accomplished precisely what he set out to do.” That’s true, but how many of our congregations look like Jesus’s congregation? By our own Western, consumer-driven standards, is not the lonely figure of a crucified man the very definition of failure?

Every person – all the prophets, and even his own Son – that God sent to his people failed according to the world’s standards of success and failure. I think we ought to be paying more attention to that reality than we are. I think that ought to tell us something about what it means to succeed and fail in the kingdom of God. As I’ve already written, I believe that redemptive failure is kingdom victory. Our goal should not be to succeed on behalf of God, but to be so faithful to his call and mission that when we fail (because we will) our failure will be inherently redemptive, thus bringing about tremendous kingdom victory in the spirit of the Gospel, the crucifixion (redemptive failure) and resurrection (kingdom victory) of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

64 Sundays

Dreams are not eternal. The things we do in this life, the organisms and organizations we create, have a lifespan. Leaves bud, flourish, brilliantly change color, then fall to the ground dead, shrivel up, and get consumed into the ever-turning, ever-recycling earth, destined to become nourishment for the next round of leaves budding in the warmth of the coming spring.

So it was with Ember Church, my near-decade-long dream whose lifespan was all too short, lasting only a little longer than the leaves I just raked from my front yard. I had hoped that this church would take root and flourish for decades, outpacing my own life on this earth. But that's not how it turned out. Despite my prayers and best efforts, Ember Church died young - just 64 Sundays old.


Before we were married, I made a promise to my wife. I told her, "I will never sacrifice my family for a church." I had heard enough horror stories of the rebelliousness of pastor's kids, and I resolved that, as much as it was up to me, I would not push my kids into rebellion by putting the church before them. They, and my wife, would come first. And if I ever had to choose one or the other, I would choose the family.

When we decided to step out in faith and plant Ember Church, we knew that I would have to do it bi-vocationally, meaning that I would work a full-time job to provide for the financial needs of the family, and use my spare time to pastor the church. We knew this would be extremely challenging, and would demand sacrifice from all of us in the family. We determined that we could do this for 2 years, and then we would re-evaluate the situation. The hope was, at least on our part, that the church would have grown large enough by then to support me in full time ministry.

We were thrown two curveballs that caught us off guard. First, it took me a year to find a job. That process was brutal, and I really don't want to relive it here. Suffice to say, it was a stressful and desperate year. The second curveball, however, was thrown with a full count in the bottom of the ninth, and it buckled my knees so hard I couldn't even get the bat off my shoulder. That was Zeke's epilepsy.


The first seizure was in May, and the second in June. Then a third one in July. After that, things went downhill, and fast. He started having seizures about 10 days apart, and we wound up at the ER five or six times in about a month's time. As his meds increased, so did his seizures. He went from developing slowly (but developing) to regressing.

We didn't know what was going on with him. He was losing words. He was losing motor skills. He was already developmentally delayed, and we had worked very hard to get him to where he was, but it was all slipping away. Before long Breena noticed that he was having tiny, micro-seizures throughout the day - lots of them. He would seize for a brief second at the top of the stairs, lose his balance, then tumble to the bottom. This happened a lot. All the words he had picked up through extensive therapy were gone, replaced by a loud, frustrated, "Enh!" He was descending into physical and mental chaos.

I made an offhand comment in one of my sermons at Ember that chaos is the defining characteristic of hell. Zeke's chaos translated into chaos in our family, and the only word I could find for it was hell. Despite our prayers, despite the medication, Zeke just kept getting worse; and the deeper into chaos he spiraled, the more closely we followed him. Our lives became a living hell.

All the while I was trying to pastor this church that I loved and believed in, but that hardly anyone came to. Ember wasn't growing; it was shrinking. And that's hard to do when you're a small church to begin with. I was discouraged. I was angry. I didn't know what to do. I felt my son and my church slipping away.


Nobody was getting a good version of me. My wife was getting a bad husband. My kids were getting a bad father. My church was getting a bad pastor. I was stretched too thin. I couldn't work a full time job, be a family man to four kids and a wife, be the father of a child with special needs, and pastor a small church into stability and viability. It was too much. I was desperately banging on and kicking at this "church" door, trying to get it to open, trying to make this church work; then God showed me: "This isn't a door. It's a wall. And if you keep banging on it and kicking at it, your whole house is going to fall down on top of you."

It was time to call it. I couldn't go on. If I persisted with Ember, it would cost me my family. I would have broken my promise to Breena, made almost eight years earlier. I would have sacrificed my family for the church. While the Son of God was an acceptable sacrifice to God for the sake of the world, the sons and daughters and wife of Andy Holt are not.

Things moved quickly after that. I told Breena. I told my parents. I told Ned Berube, the president of the ARC. That was Tuesday morning. I told Garth, our other elder, on Thursday. Then, on Sunday, I told the rest of the leadership team. That night, because Travis, who was scheduled to preach, got sick, I went ahead and told the church. That sucked. (And would you go freaking figure, it was our best attended service in weeks, and we even had a new couple!)

The following week we had a celebration dinner, telling stories of what God has done through the 64 Sundays we had together as a church. It was beautiful, and it broke my heart.


To the people of Ember Church I want to say this (and I know you'll say that I don't need to, but I do): I'm sorry. I'm sorry that this beautiful little church didn't survive. I'm sorry that I couldn't do more to make it last. You all said such wonderful things at our celebration dinner, and for that I'm grateful. I'm glad we got to do that. I remember a lot from that night, but one thing stands out: Mary, who always seems so happy, standing up and, through tears, telling us that Ember is the only place where she knew it was OK to not be OK. That got me.

I'll always remember the Jeremiah series, and hopefully I'll write that book someday. I'll always remember the two baptismal services, and dunking Somers, Becca, and Cody the Guy I Didn't Recognize Because He Shaved His Beard in that freezing cold baptistry on New Year's Day. (The second baptism service, when I baptized Mary, Ian, And Dustin on Easter, was much more comfortable.) I have a lot of other memories that I'll always treasure, and I hope you do too. We only got 64 Sundays, but they were beautiful and difficult and wonderfully worth it. And now that this leaf has fallen to the ground, I hope and pray that it will enrich the soil of the wider Church, and that you who were a part of Ember will nourish and flourish wherever God takes you.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Message from Grandma's Funeral

This is the text of my message from my Grandma's funeral.


“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus said that. It’s one of the beatitudes, that beautiful set of thoughts with which he began his Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

As you mourn today, you may not feel much of a blessing. We have lost someone very dear to us. My Grandpa has lost his wife. My dad has lost his mother. I have lost my Grandma. She was a part of us, an important part of us, and now she is gone. Many of us are experiencing an internal emptiness that is hard to explain. It’s an emptiness, a deep sense of loss, that you can only understand if you’ve gone through it yourself.

And so we mourn. We mourn for the one we loved. We mourn for ourselves, and the life we must live without her. And it’s good to mourn. It’s okay to cry. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of your humanity. Grandma impacted us all, and one of the ways that we honor her today, is to mourn, to grieve, that she is gone.

Miriam Holt has left us a legacy that is worthy of honor. She devoted herself to Jesus. As a teenager, she wrote this in her journal:
“I, Miriam Muir do solemnly swear that I will keep the following resolution to the best of my ability, made on this day, January 1st, 1943. Since I have consecrated my life to my Savior, I must act accordingly. This includes daily reading and communications, witnessing, etc… that He may live through me and I trust Him completely. And give Him back his tenth, and more. This seems to cover everything,… I had thought of others, but they seem so insignificant now, as if they are all taken care of in the above.”
Grandma kept that New Year’s resolution for nearly 70 years. The legacy of commitment to Christ predates even her, though. The story is told of how her mother, Mary Muir, passed by a bedroom doorway as a child and saw her grandmother praying, with arms raised, for God’s blessing on her family and the generations that would descend from them. That prayer was offered over 100 years ago by either Susanah Funk or Elizabeth Maurer, both of which are my great-great-great-grandmothers. Five generations later, and now even to six generations, we can testify that that prayer has been answered with a “Yes.”

Grandma loved to travel. She took me to Israel after I graduated high school. We visited all the sites in the holy land together. In Jerusalem we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and then to the Garden Tomb. Both sites claim to be the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. We prayed at the wailing wall, where I had to don a paper yamaka to get in. We spent a night at a kibbutz on the border of Lebanon. We went to Bethlehem and into the cave where Jesus was born. We travelled out onto the Sea of Galilee, saw the Jesus boat, then down the Jordan river to the Dead Sea. We climbed up Masada, and saw where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in the desert. It was a wonderful trip, a great time spent with Grandma.

When we were kids, Grandma always had the kids over for a weekend, or even for a full week. We loved to make cookie dough. I’m sure we eventually baked the cookies, but the real prize was the cookie dough. We would climb onto that kitchen table peninsula as she got out the mixer. The real prize was to lick the mixers clean.

In the summer we would go to White Star Quarry, which had been turned into a beautiful beach. We loved swimming at White Star, going past the buoys to where the big kids jumped off the rafts, and, when we got a little older, jumping off the really tall high dive.

Grandma loved to sew, and she always making something. My favorite was the swim trunks she made us. You have to remember that this was way back in the early ‘90s, and so for bathing suits what the boys wanted was black biker shorts with a big neon stripe up the side. They were awesome. Thankfully, we were too skinny for them to be as tight as regular biker shorts.

Grandma also became a convenient alibi whenever my mom served me a dinner I wasn’t interested in eating. “I don’t like this,” I would say. “How do you know,” she’d reply, indignant, “you’ve never had it before.” “Yuh-huh. At Grandma’s.”

But what I remember most about Grandma, and what had a lasting impact on me, was her love and commitment to Jesus. She faithfully read the Scriptures, incorporated herself into the life of her church, prayed, and strove to live a life that was pleasing to God. She was a woman of godly character and integrity. There is nothing about her that we have to conveniently forget, no element of her life or character that we must gloss over in order to honor her memory. She lived well, and so we remember her well. Here commitment to Jesus has yielded fruit down through the generations.

And so we gather today to mourn, but we also receive comfort. We receive comfort in knowing that, not only is she with Jesus in heaven today, but one day she will rise from the dead and live forever. Because of her faith in Jesus, death will not have the final word for Grandma.

We are comforted when we mourn because we know that Jesus rose from the dead, conquering death. We know that, through faith in him, we too will rise from the dead to everlasting life. Death is not the final word for those who call on the name of Jesus in this life. We mourn her passing, but we are comforted by the hope we have in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This hope is available to all. Sometimes we feel as though we’re not worthy to have this hope, to receive the forgiveness of sins, or to be saved. We feel as though it’s too late for us. But that’s not true. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has already happened. You can no more earn the resurrection of Jesus than you can the American Revolution. It’s a past event. God has already sent his Son to die for you. The hope of the resurrection of Jesus has been available to you for nearly 2,000 years. It’s not a matter of being worthy, it’s a matter of embracing the reality of the historical fact of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Grandma embraced this fact. She embraced Jesus. And now her hope has been realized. And while we mourn, she longs for us to be comforted with the comfort she has in her Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Nakedness of Faith

Wednesday night I was out with my 2-year-old son Zeke trying to take care of some work-related stuff. I love this little guy! He's curious, relentless, and fearless. He also has a speech delay, as well as some other developmental delays, that have prevented him from talking and doing other age-appropriate activities. On top of that, he's started having seizures in the past few months, which means he's been diagnosed with epilepsy. It's a terrifying thing to watch your young child seize up, lose control of his body, and struggle to take breaths. Zeke disappears deep into himself during his seizures. I look into his eyes and I don't see anyone there.

Before Wednesday night, he'd had four seizures, two of which I have seen in person. As we were walking into the store together, I noticed that he wasn't acting like himself. He was quiet, tired, and cranky. He seemed to have trouble focusing, like his head kept moving, involuntarily, over his left shoulder. His left eye began to twitch, and I saw the emptiness in those big brown eyes. This was a seizure, mild in comparison to his other ones, but the first one without mommy around.

For the third time in ten days, we wound up in the ER at Children's Hospital. The seizure had ended by the time we arrived, and his energy and vitality slowly came back to him. He was himself again in about an hour.

Zeke, after destroying his yogurt.
I don't know why this seizure happened. He had his regular dose of medication. It started in a familiar environment - our van. I have no explanation, which means, I guess, that a seizure could grip him at any time. This reality fills me, as it would any parent, with deep anxiety. What if it happens again and no one's around to help him? Why didn't the medicine work? Are the seizures related to his developmental delays? Will he ever be "typical"?

On the other hand, as Breena and I were driving Zeke home from the ER that night, we were both filled with tremendous faith. Despite the seizure, we both were seeing signs of progress with his speech and overall development. We believe that God will heal Zeke. We believe that God is healing Zeke. We don't know when this healing process will be done. We don't know how it's all going to shake out. But we hope and believe that God is working, and will continue to work, a miracle in Zeke's life.

Believing this, and saying it publicly, fills me with a sense of vulnerability. I can't control whether or not Zeke has another seizure. There is no surgical procedure, that I know of, that will fix his developmental delay. He's either going to grow out of it, or he's not. God will either heal him in this life, or we'll all have to wait, as so many people do, for the resurrection. Obviously, my wife and I are believing God for the former.

Zeke and Mommy.
This kind of faith makes me feel exposed, like in those dreams when I show up to school naked. (Yes, I still have those dreams, it's just that the context is different now.) To trust God for something, whether it's your son's healing or your own salvation, requires you to take a stand. This faith demands that you forsake all other avenues of rescue, and lean solely into the object of your faith - to believe, as it were, without the aid of a safety net.

The nakedness of faith is that we put everything on the line for Jesus and let him decide how he'll come through for us in the end. Faith demands that we let go of control, that we throw ourselves onto the person of Jesus Christ in complete desperation of soul. It's him, and nothing else. (Of course we're still giving Zeke his medicine, but we understand that the medicine isn't actually healing his brain or aiding the developmental process, it's just keeping his seizures at bay. Sometimes.)

I can't control whether or not Zeke has another seizure or choose the day he'll start speaking clearly. Neither can I manipulate God into making his seizures and developmental delays go away. All I can do is trust that Jesus is King, and that no matter what happens, he loves me, he loves Zeke, and in the end we're going to be a part of his eternal and infinite reign. This has a strange way of making me feel both vulnerable and secure. I have nowhere to hide, and yet I can hide myself in Christ. I have no other clothes to wear, and yet I can put on faith like a garment. I believe, and I believe nakedly.