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 amazon.com.

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.

Falling


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.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Finding Jesus in the Sh*t

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS EXPLICIT LANGUAGE
Don't say I didn't warn you!

I had an epiphany a while back. Some of the leaders of Ember Church were gathered in our backyard, praying for one another, and it came to me: One of the reasons that Ember Church exists is so that people can learn to find Jesus in the shit of life. While I won't claim that as a "word from the Lord" (for obvious reasons), it immediately struck me as true. That's not going to become our mission statement, nor will you see it on any t-shirts, but it has really resonated with me and the leaders of our community.

Life isn't fair. Sometimes life doesn't simply hand you lemons, it hands you big, steaming pile of shit and says, in its best Ron Burgundy voice, "Deal with it." The authors of the Bible, especially of Job, Ecclesiastes, and many of the psalms, understood this reality well.

Of course, it's human nature to lament the injustice of life. I'm a good person, so why did I wind up with [cancer] [a cheating spouse] [a child with autism]? And there's never an answer to this question. It's almost as though the heavens are mocking us, replying in a booming baritone, "Deal with it."

So we live through these difficult circumstances with a sense of God-forsakenness. We throw up our arms in exasperation and cry out, "God left me! I don't know what I did to drive him away, but clearly he's not going to bless me now. He must not want me anymore!" We instinctually believe that God and the shit cannot coexist. We are wrong.

••••••••••••

Ask yourself a question: What is the essence of my prayers? For many of us, myself included, our basic prayer is this: Lord, please take this away. Whether it's a sickness, a trial, or some other kind of obstacle, our basic message to God is essentially, "Make this stop." We want our lives to be shit-free, and we look to God to be the one to clean it all up.

If that's your most common prayer, you shouldn't feel guilty. You're not alone. The apostle Paul prayed that same prayer to God. Three times he cried out to God for some affliction (unknown to us now) to be removed. Heck, even Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion, "If it's possible, let this cup be taken from me."

Unfortunately, God's answer to both Paul and his Son was a resounding, "No." But it was a "No" with a reason. For Paul it was so that God's power could be made perfect in that man's weakness. For Jesus it was so that all the world could be saved from sin, death, and the powers of hell.

Now back to our prayers. What if, when we ask God to take our trials away, he is saying back to us, "No, I'm not going to take this away or make it stop, because this is where you'll find me." What if what God really wants us to learn in this life is that he can be found in the shit? Where else would we expect to find the God who was homeless, broke, and sentenced to die as a criminal but in the muck and mire - the total shit - of our lives?

You don't have to get all fixed up to find God; God got completely broken in order to find you. Nobody knows rejection and suffering better than Jesus. Nobody bore the weight of evil, sin, and death more heavily than Jesus. His life was harder than yours. His death was more excruciating than yours will be. Jesus didn't step out of heaven and into some Roman palace in order to live the most opulent lifestyle available at the time. He came out of a woman's womb, grew up as a blue-collar handyman in a tiny corner of the world that lived under oppressive, foreign rule. In his hour of greatest need, all his closest friends either betrayed him or abandoned him. And as he died on the cross, he suffered the judgment of God the Father, the one with whom he had had perfect, harmonious communion from eternity past.

Jesus knows what the shit looks like, smells like, and feels like. Jesus is in the shit.

••••••••••••

Your trials and diseases and crappy circumstances are not a sign of your God-forsakenness. Instead, they're the signal that God is near at hand, that he can be found here, and that he understands. Your circumstances don't need to change in order for you to draw close to God, just your attitude.

Whatever it is that you're going through, Jesus is with you. You can turn to him, right now, and he will be by your side. I would even go so far as to say that it's easier to find him when life sucks than when everything is going great, if only we would humble ourselves enough to speak his name.

God's not looking down from heaven, arms folded and brow furrowed, watching while you wallow in the crap of life, exclaiming with divine self-satisfaction, "Deal with it!" No, he's down here with us, feet and clothes covered in shit, his hand on our shoulder and a look of infinite empathy and reassurance on his face, speaking tenderly, "I'm here, too."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Between the Washbasin and the Cross

I write and talk a lot about agape love. One of the most formative sermons I've ever preached (formative for me, at least) was on agape love. Agape is one of Ember Church's core values. I blog about it frequently. We're talking about it at Ember Outdoors this summer.

Agape love is a major theme of the New Testament, especially the writings of John. In John 13, the apostle writes:
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Of course, every instance of the word "love" in that passage is a translation of the Greek word agape. So you might as well write it like this: A new command I give you: Agape one another. As I have agaped you, so you must agape one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you agape one another.

Jesus said this before he went to the cross, but he referred to his demonstration of agape love in the past tense. What was he talking about? He was talking about how he had just washed his disciples' feet. That was an act of agape love, one that resonated deeply within their own souls, and should be paradigmatic for the way in which they ought to relate to one another.

But washing their feet wasn't the only act of agape love Jesus would commit that week. It was the very next day that he was brutally tortured and killed on a roman cross, dying as the final sacrifice for the sins of all humanity.

The sweet spot of agape love is between the washbasin and the cross. In the washbasin, Jesus set aside his rights, privilege, and honor as the world's true king to perform the duties of the lowliest household servant--washing the filthy feet of 12 nomads, one who would, just hours later, betray him. At the cross he laid down his life and forgave the sins of humanity.

Jesus didn't just talk about agape love, he defined it. He demonstrated it. He lived, and yes, died, it. The agape love of Jesus encompasses the washbasin and the cross, and this is the same agape love which he demands of us.

"A new command", he said. Like the first two: "Love YHWH your God...", and "Love your neighbor." Now a third. "Love one another." Agape one another. Agape one another with a washbasin, and with a cross. The love of Jesus' was no sentimental affection; it was both dirty and bloody. And that's the kind of love he expects from us: agape love.

Whenever you're not sure how to love somebody, just remember how Jesus loved us, and that the sweet spot of agape love is between the washbasin and the cross.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ember Outdoors


This summer we're doing something fun at Ember. Rather than meet at the church building and continue services as normal, we're going to meet outside, in our backyard, and have church around a campfire. Some of the same elements will be there, but many won't. I won't be preaching. Instead, I (and others) will be leading discussions on some of the topics we've covered this past year. We'll also eat a meal together, which I hope will be a true expression of the Lord's Supper in our own context. (It's actually supposed to be something closer to a full meal than a nibble of bread and a shot of grape juice.) We'll sing songs around the fire, and just generally have a great time hanging out.

We'll meet from 5-7pm at our house. If you need directions, send me an email at andy@emberchurch.org. It's open to everybody, and should be a really low key way to get to know some of the amazing folks at Ember.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ember Tuesday

Yesterday was a crazy day at work as we welcomed in the Governor of Ohio and the Mayor of Columbus. I also played in our first company softball game of the year. All that to say that I didn't have time to blog about church this past week.

It was another great service. I was telling Garth, afterward, that it seems like we're just beginning to hit our stride--just in time to transition into Ember Outdoors, where we'll be focusing on community-building and living out the things we've been talking about lately.

Speaking of which, Sunday night's sermon was one of my favorites. It was one I've preached several times before, but never at Ember, although the themes from the sermon undergirded all that we've done in the past year. 1 John 4:7-21 was the text, and the sermon was called Agape.


This is a message that you really ought to listen to. It's been formative for a number of people, not least of all myself. I don't say this very often about my sermons, but this is one you've got to hear.

We had a sweet time of responsive worship, both before and after the sermon. My amazing wife Breena did a great job with her songs. I love watching her worship, coming more and more into her own as a singer.

In a couple of weeks we move from the sanctuary to the firepit. What an appropriate place for Ember Church to meet! I'm really looking forward to building our community in a nontraditional way. We'll have more information on this coming soon.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ember Monday

Yesterday morning I sensed that God wanted me to give a different message at church than I had prepared. I had planned on giving an old message called Agape, from 1 John 4. It's a very important message, one that I'll probably preach this coming weekend. But God had something else in mind for last night's church service.

In the hours leading up to the service, I sensed that the Spirit was going to show up. I had no idea what that would look like, of course, but I just had the feeling that God was going to move in some way. In my mind I was thinking, "I sure hope so, God, because I have only a vague idea of what I'm going to say!" So in our prayer time before the service started, I asked the team to pray over me--that's something I haven't done yet at Ember.

The service started and Emmy belted two powerful songs, You'll Come and Closer, neither of which I had ever heard before. It was a powerful way to start the service. I especially appreciated the simple words of Closer:
Beautiful are the words spoken to me
Beautiful is the one who is speaking

Come in close, come in close and speak
Come in close, come closer to me

The power of your words
Are filled with grace and mercy
Let them fall on my ears and break my stony heart
That's the whole song, but I felt the words were right on target with what my heart, at least, was yearning for.

When I got up to pray before the sermon, the tears came. It took me completely off guard. I hadn't even started preaching yet, but I was already crying. I haven't cried in a long time, and certainly not while preaching since I don't even know when. But I wasn't crying because I was sad, or downtrodden, or empty. I cried because I was full. I cried because, after running on empty for months, God had filled up my soul.

The sermon was about the second beatitude, Matthew 5:4, which reads like this: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. I basically talked about what I had learned from Dave Johnson, pastor of The Church of the Open Door, while at the ARC National Conference last week. The basic point of the sermon was that mourning means letting out what's on the inside, and that God's kingdom is where the people who have the courage to do that are comforted, not condemned.

I preached without notes for the first time at Ember. I didn't know exactly what God wanted me to say, I just knew that this is what he wants for our community: that we would be a place where those who mourn are blessed because they are comforted. After the sermon, which you can listen to in the sermon player, I invited everyone to take whatever posture they felt appropriate for our responsive worship set. As I sat in the back, running the slides, I didn't see anybody standing. I thought to myself, "The sermon fell flat, but that's okay. God wants us to be this kind of church, so I'll keep preaching this message." But when I stood up I saw something unexpected. I saw people laying across the chairs, heads buried in their hands. I saw people kneeling. I saw people weeping.

I don't know exactly what happened. I don't know what was going on in each person's heart. But I believe that the Holy Spirit showed up, and I believe that he spoke to us. Beautiful are the words spoken to me. Beautiful is the one who is speaking. Come in close.

It was a rich and tender time together in the presence of Jesus. I hope that we have more times like that. We gather together every Sunday night at 5pm at 401 E. Schrock Rd. All are welcome. Always.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ember Monday

Last night at Ember we started a new non-series series. Since I only have four preaching weekends (and six weekends altogether) before we transition for the summer, I thought I would preach on some things that are important to what we're doing, but not necessarily tightly related to one another. This week and next I'm preaching two sermons from 1 John that I wrote while I was at Heritage. Last night was a sermon called Halakah, from the first 16 verses of 1 John.


The point of the message is that what we do with our bodies matters to God. John was dealing with an early form of the Gnostic heresy, which taught that everything spiritual is good while everything physical is evil. The implication of this heresy is that Jesus, who was good, did not have a body. If he did not have a body, then he could not have died for us. There are other, equally drastic implications of this teaching. I'll post the audio soon (hopefully today?). I found a post I wrote a couple years ago after preaching this sermon at Heritage, which you can read here.

After church a bunch of folks came over to our house. (We try to invite everyone, so if you haven't been invited, I'm sorry. We really want you to come!) Specifically because Travis and Kristy were out of town, we decided to have a campfire in the backyard. (That's what you get for going to Clevelandtown!) Here's a photo from my wife's instagram stream.


We love campfires, and these are going to be a big part of what we do as a church over the summer. But more on that later.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Stupid Arguments

Sam left a comment in the previous post about a discussion he was having with friends about 2 Timothy 2:22-24. He asked for my thoughts, particularly as they regarded our conversation a while back about David Platt, reformed theology, and whether or not God hates sinners. That conversation began with this post, in which I criticized David Platt's exegesis of the psalms. It then continued in the comments and into several other posts, including:
Biblical Hatred
How I Read the Bible
Why I Criticized David Platt on My Blog
Questions for Calvinists
A Response to a Response
That was a long and involved series of posts that had a lot of theological debate. The passage that Sam refers to from 2 Timothy says this:
Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.
So I think the first question is this: Is the discussion about Calvinism v. Arminianism, predestination v. free will, etc. a "foolish and stupid argument"? I've heard a lot of folks, exasperated from the same late-night conversation playing itself out over and over again, decry this conversation as one of those stupid arguments that Christians should avoid. I'm certainly sympathetic to that position; this conversation can be exasperating.

But I don't consider it a foolish and stupid argument because I believe that it pertains to the nature of God. Calvinists and Arminians understand God in fundamentally different ways. If you believe in, for example, double predestination, then you perceive God in a radically different way than someone who believes in free-will. Roger Olson, an Arminian biblical scholar, would even go so far as to say you believe in a different God altogether.

Where it breaks down, though, is when you are more concerned about being right than having godly character. Not only can our drive to be right, or to win an argument, obscure our perception of the truth, it can also reflect deep character flaws that need to be redeemed. When your aim is to win the argument rather than discover the truth, you have become quarrelsome. That might sound like a petty sin, but quarrels lead to broken relationships within the body of Christ. In fact, doctrinal quarrels have led to the fractured and splintered state the Church is in right now. Being quarrelsome is a serious issue that reflects deep character shortcomings.

While some conversations are important to have, and some disagreements are going to result from those conversations, it's important to not be foolish or stupid, or do anything that would turn those conversations into an argument or a quarrel. We must strive, as the Scripture says, to be kind to everyone. We must be able to teach, which is definitely not the same as shouting or arguing.

So I say, let the conversations continue, but let them continue in the spirit outlined by Paul in this passage.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Ember Monday

Christ the Lord is risen today! That was our celebration last night at Ember, even though we didn't sing that song. Garth and Kelly pulled together a great team of musicians and singers from our congregation to lead us in praising Jesus. I think it was our biggest music team yet!


I preached a message on Mark 16:1-8, which concluded our series on the Gospel of Mark. It was our longest series yet--15 weeks in all. I preached all but one of the weeks, when Cory led us through a Passover meal (which was awesome!). You can listen to the audio of that presentation here.


The part of the service that I was most excited about, of course, was the baptisms. We baptized three folks last night--Mary, Ian, and Dustin. I've already written about the holy privilege of getting to hear their stories, which made it so much more meaningful to baptize them last night.




Special thanks to Lauren Kreischer for taking photos. It was a great night and a great service. My heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who made it happen. The resurrection of Jesus is the reason that we all gather together in the first place.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Easter Baptisms

Last night I had the holy privilege of preparing three people for baptism. I heard amazing testimonies of God's power from Mary, Ian, and Dustin. I was truly overwhelmed by the goodness and power of God, and I am so excited to baptize these three this Sunday at Ember.

Baptizing is one of the greatest honors I have as a pastor. I get to be the participating witness to their public confession of faith and full identification with Jesus, his death, and resurrection.

I'll be honest. Planting this church has been hard in many ways. It has not turned out like I had hoped or expected. And yet, as I consider those who have been impacted by our church, such that they would take the step of obedient faith and be baptized here, I am on the verge of tears. These beautiful and courageous souls have given me and Ember a great honor, something I will never forget.

Easter is the celebration of new life, of the power of God to conquer death, and of our own hope of resurrection and life forever with Jesus. Baptism is a symbol of all of that. If you want to be baptized this week at Ember, let me know. I would love to make that happen.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Ember Monday


Technically, yesterday was Palm Sunday. We should have been celebrating the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem. But because we don't have the capacity to host holy week events, we covered the crucifixion. In other words, we had Good Friday on Palm Sunday.

We talked about the gruesome details of the crucifixion, and the agonizing pain that Jesus endured on our behalf. But there was more than physical pain at the cross; there was also cosmic, divine pain.

I put a rather provocative post on facebook yesterday afternoon: "Tonight at Ember Church we'll be talking about the end of God..." By "the end of God" I meant the end of the divine dance of self-giving love that had been going on from eternity past among the members of the Trinity. At the cross, the Father cried out, "Stop!", and the dance stopped. And in that stillness, he reached out his hand to you and said, "Come. Come and dance." The end of God is the new beginning of us.

The sermon ended with a cliffhanger. I wanted the congregation to feel the dissonance of the cross, to experience a bit of what the first disciples experienced that first Saturday. To wait, disturbed. As the preacher said, "It's Friday...but Sunday's coming."

The music team did a great job last night. Emmy and Kristy sang beautifully while Garth and Travis held down the instrumentation. Once again I saw that, though we are a small church, God has given us many gifts. There's a lot of talent at Ember!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Marriage & the Resurrection

Yesterday I posted about how Jesus brilliantly refuted a trap question from a group called the Pharisees. Today I want to look at how he refutes the Pharisees' rival group, known as the Sadducees.
18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children.21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. 22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. 23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”
The Sadducees were a different group from the Pharisees. The two groups often engaged in sharp debate, and the resurrection was one of those flashpoints of conflict between the two. The Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection; that’s why they were sad, you see. (Whaa-whaaaa)

They came to Jesus because they had heard that he believed in the resurrection, and they wanted to pose a question to him that they had probably posed to many Pharisees. It was a dishonest question, meant to make resurrection look like a ridiculous, and even unbiblical, idea. I imagine that no Pharisee had been able to give them a satisfactory reply, so they thought they could trap Jesus with this one.

One woman. Seven brothers. Each man obeyed the biblical law by marrying his older brother’s widow and trying to produce an heir for him. This was how a family was able to continue it’s line. Should the oldest brother die without an heir, the next brother in line was responsible for marrying his brother’s widow and producing a male child for his dead brother. It was a sort of surrogacy.

So the woman and the seven brothers die without producing an heir. When the resurrection happens, and here the Sadducees are probably snickering to themselves, whose wife will she be? She couldn’t possibly be married to all of them; that would be adultery! How can there be adultery in the resurrection? How can obedience to the biblical law in this life lead to disobedience to the biblical law in the resurrection? That’s exactly the situation we have in this scenario. Obviously, the Sadducees conclude, the resurrection cannot exist.

But Jesus refuted them, and quite easily actually. But he did it by dropping the bomb that destroys the hopes and dreams of every young, evangelical Christian. “When the dead rise,” he said, “they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” There will be no marriage in heaven. Or, to put it more accurately, romantic, sexual love, and the unique bond between two people that goes along with it, will not exist in the resurrection.

Now let me say this. If you find that thought so depressing, so repugnant, so distasteful, so disappointing that you don’t even want to participate in the resurrection anymore, then you have made marriage and romantic love into an idol. In fact, I believe one of the most powerful idols that afflicts young people, and especially young people today, especially Christian young people, is the idol of romantic love.

We put a lot of hope into romantic love. We think of it as normal. We think it’s our right to be loved, and to experience this romantic love, for all of our lives. But there’s a greater love, a better love than this, and too many of us are missing out on it because we’ve made romantic love an idol in our hearts.

The greater love is the agape love that we will experience with Jesus for eternity. At the end of the Bible there’s a wedding; the groom is Jesus, and the bride is the Church. But they’re not getting married under the compulsion of romantic love, but rather in the promise of agape love.

Agape love is the love of the cross. It’s the love that lays down its life, that forgives sins, and refuses to demand its rights. This is the love that Jesus made a reality for us when he died for our sins on the cross.

There won’t be marriage in the resurrection, because in the resurrection, agape love will replace romantic love. Romantic love is a shadow, a wonderful, exciting shadow, but still a shadow of the deep self-sacrificing love of God that we will all experience together, with God, for all eternity. We are invited to fully participate in divine love of the Trinity.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Whose Image?

People hated Jesus. They tried to trap him. They wanted to kill him. This passage represents one of their best efforts at trapping him.
13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.
So now the religious leaders are pretty upset. They’re trying to trap Jesus with this question. If he said that it’s not right for the Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, then he would be arrested by the Romans, and potentially tried for insurrection. If he said that it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, then the people would reject him because they despised the pagan Romans, and deeply resented their presence in Israel. What’s he supposed to do? What can he say? There’s no way out of this conundrum.

Well, you can’t trap Jesus. He knew exactly what was going on, and he wasn’t going to be caught in their trap. So he had someone bring him one of the Roman coins, a denarius. “Whose image is this?” he asked.

“It’s Caesar’s,” they responded.

“Well then, give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

But he left something out. Where is God’s image inscribed? On us. On every human being on the face of the earth. Genesis 1 says that we are made in God’s image. We bear God’s inscription.

So everything that has Caesar’s image on it belongs to Caesar, but everything that has God’s image on it belongs to God. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Go ahead and give your money to Caesar. God doesn’t really care about that anyway. But give yourself to God. That’s what he wants. He’s not concerned about your taxes. He’s not concerned about the pagans collecting your money. He’s concerned about your generosity toward him. How much of yourself are you giving to God?

Are you being generous with yourself—your thoughts, your actions, your heart, your will, your talents, your gifts, your being, your future—are you being generous in giving yourself to God? You are made in the image of God. You belong to God. All of you.

There have been some dominant themes that, I believe, God has been trying to pound into our heads and hearts throughout the course of Ember’s existence. One of those themes is that God can change us at the level of our deep heart desires. He changes us through the power of the Gospel, through his grace and mercy seeping into the cracks of our hearts, our minds, our wills.

But in order to be changed we must give ourselves over to his grace. We must throw ourselves down at the foot of the cross, placing all of our trust, all of our hope, all of our dreams, all of our desires upon the broad and broken shoulders of Jesus. We must abandon our way of doing things, our agendas for this life, and throw ourselves fully onto the grace of God found only in his son, Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ember Monday

Last night we did something completely different. Instead of gathering in the sanctuary, we pulled some tables together in the lobby/fellowship hall and celebrated a Passover meal. Cory Baugher, who is a Christian high school Bible teacher, led us through the meal, teaching us the symbolism of the feast and how Jesus fulfilled Passover. It was truly remarkable, and I learned a lot! I heard from several other people who said it was a wonderful night at church, and they were really impressed with Cory's teaching. I just wish we had been able to find a way to record it. If you want to experience it first hand, Cory will be taking his home church, Karl Road Baptist, through the same ceremony and teaching in a couple of weeks.

It was so nice, for me, to be able to sit back and be blessed by someone else's teaching. Thus far, when we've had someone else teach (mostly Travis Ell), I've either been in Children's Ministry or doing something else for the service. But last night I just got back to sit back, relax, and be taught. It was truly refreshing.

I've been thinking about what to preach on after the Mark series ends on Easter Sunday. We have about a 4 or 5 week window for a preaching series. Do you have any suggestions? Is there something that you'd like to hear me preach on, whether you go to Ember or not? Let me know in the comments section.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

God's Perspective

I flew on my first business trip yesterday, leaving Columbus at 5:30 in the morning and getting into Savannah at 4:30. (It shouldn't have taken that long, but that's another story for another day.) The thing I love most about flying is being able to see the ground from 30,000 feet, especially at night. It's breathtaking.

I know that God doesn't live in the clouds, but when I think about God looking out over the earth, I always imagine him having this airplane-level view. He can see far more than we can see on the ground.

Many of Jesus' parables offer a picture of life from God's perspective. The parable of the vineyard, in Mark 12, is one of them.
1 Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 2 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

6 “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

7 “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

9 “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
11 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

12 Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.
Jesus just took the entire history of Israel and turned it into a parable. That’s what this is about. It’s about what the kings and leaders of Israel and Judah did to God’s prophets from the time of Elijah until the time of Jesus. They were stoned. They were impaled on spikes. They were sawn in half. They were thrown into pits and left to die. They were rejected, scorned, mocked, ridiculed. They were treated shamefully, beaten, killed. This was the pattern that existed in Israel for almost a millennium. God’s people killed God’s messengers.

It’s an interesting way to look at it, isn’t it? From God’s perspective? How often do you look at the circumstances and events of your life from God’s perspective? And if you were able to see your life through God’s eyes, what would you see? How would you see things differently?

The other night my wife and I were talking about stress, and the things that add stress to our lives. She talked about how she gets stressed when I’m in a bad mood, or when I’m angry. It doesn’t even have to be at her, but she still feels stressed and guilty. I said I feel the same way. When she’s stressed or frustrated, I have an emotional reaction to that, even when she’s not upset with me.

In that moment we experienced this wonderful thing called empathy. We understood each other. We saw things from one another’s perspective. And that felt like a relational breakthrough.

What we need in our relationship with God is empathy. We need to see things from his perspective. That’s what Jesus offers us in this parable. In fact, that’s what Jesus offers us in himself. He is God’s living and breathing perspective. He is God. Knowing Jesus, having a personal relationship with him, means empathizing with God.

And here’s the amazing thing about Jesus. Yes, he is God. But he is also human. And he empathizes with us. Jesus understands. Whatever you’re going through, Jesus gets it. He knows how it feels to be lonely, rejected. He knows the meaning of suffering. He was victimized. He was tortured. He was mocked. Jesus gets it. Jesus gets you.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ember Monday

For those who were at church last night, we probably won’t remember much from the service, but we will remember huddling in a small room in the basement, waiting out a strong thunderstorm and a tornado warning. Just as I was ending the service, we started to hear the tornado sirens, and somebody mentioned that we were under a tornado warning (which is the more series kind). So we cleaned up really quickly and headed down to the church basement to stay safe.

The church basement is really half first-floor, half basement. It has several doors to the lower level parking lot on the south side, but is built into the side of a hill, so there are no windows or doors on the north side. As the storm approached, we moved into an inner room to stay safe. Other than some funny comments from my kids, things were rather uneventful.

There was some video from last year’s tornados in Joplin that I kept thinking about. About a half dozen people were holed up in a beer cooler at a local gas station. You couldn’t see anything on the video, but you could hear the prayers, the cries, the screams. It was intense. Though we were never in serious danger from the storms, I did imagine something like that happening to us. (What can I say? I have an active imagination.)

During the actual service, we covered Jesus’ teaching in Mark 12. We also opened up the floor to those students who were coming back from short-term missions trips the previous week. Becca Lowe shared about her time in Jamaica, how the students there are very bold in their evangelism, and how the campus leaders are excited to have 5 or 6 people show up for their gatherings.

That last point really convicted me, because attendance has been down significantly at church, and that is discouraging to me. While I’m not that interested in building a megachurch, I do want Ember to grow, and I want to see more people entering God’s kingdom. I think we’ve got a good thing going here, and that we bring something unique to the table as far as central Ohio churches go. Hearing that those Jamaican leaders were excited about having 5 or 6 people at their gatherings was really good for me. That’s the perspective I need to have. I need to remember that this isn’t a race or a contest, and that the size of a church doesn’t reflect on the character or calling of its pastor. More importantly, I need to focus on the people that do come to church, what God is doing in their lives, and how I can best serve them, loving them in Jesus’ name.

Friday, March 16, 2012

From Eros to Agape

Breena and I watched a movie the other night called Like Crazy. It was an interesting movie that I think I liked--a love story without being a chick flick. I don't want to give anything away, in case you decide to spend the dollar and rent it from redbox. But I will say that it got me thinking about love and relationships.

You've probably heard it said before that, in the early stages of a relationship, you experience the emotional joys of being "in love"; later, however, if you want the relationship to work, you have to choose love. Eventually, love doesn't come pouring out of your heart like a river at flood stage. You have to do things that nurture and foster love, even to the point of choosing love against your emotions and will.

This is true. Sorry to disappoint you, but the Hollywood love story is a myth. Happily ever after is hard work. But I want to look at this from a slightly different perspective.

What do we mean by "love"? What are we talking about when we talk about love? The trouble is, love is far too big a concept to be confined to one word. The Greeks knew this, and had four words that each defined part of the love spectrum.

The love that we often talk about is eros, or romantic love. This is the butterflies-in-your-stomach kind of love. It is erotic and sexual. It's the love of every Hollywood love story.

The funny thing about eros is that it dominates then dissipates. At first, it's all you feel for the other person. You're captivated by them. You can't help it. You think about them all the time. It's always hot when they're around. You just want to rip each other's clothes off. This is normal. It's good. You're meant to feel this way...for a time.

But then...life happens. Your googley eyes return to normal. You've thoroughly digested most of the butterflies in your stomach. You stop feeling toward this person in such extremes. This is also normal. And good. eros is meant to fade. Not all the way, obviously. But it's meant to become a healthy part of your love spectrum, not the only sort of love within it.

When eros doesn't dominate anymore, it can feel like you're falling out of love. You might even find yourself saying that you don't love that person anymore, that they're not "the one", or that you just don't feel it any longer. When this happens, it's important to remember that eros isn't the only kind of love. In fact, it's not even the most powerful kind of love. When eros fades, there is a greater love ready to come in. That love is called agape.

I've written a lot about agape, especially as it pertains to God's love toward us. (You can find the most definitive post here.) But agape is also the love that we are commanded to have toward one another, particularly between a husband and a wife. Agape is not so much a felt love as it is a willed love. We choose agape, often against our own wishes and desires.

When eros fades, that creates more opportunity for agape. A healthy marriage will have a good mix of both eros and agape, as well as the other kinds of love in the love-spectrum. As my own marriage grows and matures, I've found that choosing agape has led to feeling more eros. Making room for agape has actually created more space for eros. These two kinds of love are not mutually exclusive, but actually serve one another.

So, in your marriage, when you feel yourself "falling out of love", choose to love your spouse in a new way. Choose agape.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ember Monday


Last night was our most lightly attended service ever. I say that with a bit of enthusiasm, though, because about half of our congregation were on short term missions trips with Cru. Some were in Jamaica, others were in Florida. We prayed for all of them, and trust that God is doing great things in and through them this week.

We continued our Mark series with chapter 11, where Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey and clears the temple. We asked the question, "What sort of king is Jesus?" He's not a typical king. He's the sort of king who goes to battle on a colt, not a war horse. He's the kind of king who goes to a cross, not a throne.

Jesus began his reign as King over All through his humble self-sacrifice, and his reign continues in the same spirit. Our task, then, as his followers, is to live like he reigns. Our lives must reflect the rule and reign of King Jesus.

Furthermore, the New Testament makes it clear that we, Jesus' followers, are the new temple of God. We must live like Jesus reigns because we are where Jesus lives. If we are his temple, our lives must reflect his reign.

Next week at Ember I'm going to try to shoot some video, so bring your friends! Let's get that place packed out for a little promo video I'm putting together!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What Kind of King Is Jesus?

I talk a lot about Jesus being King, both on this blog and at Ember. Last night, a friend asked me about the different images that language conjures up in people's imaginations. What sort of King is Jesus, anyway? Is he like a medieval feudal king, a tyrant of sorts? Is he a tribal king? Is he a modern, royal figurehead type of king? Is he like the Roman emperor?

This is an important point, and I'm not entirely sure how to answer it. I suppose the image I think of when I talk about Jesus as King is Tolkien's great literary character, Aragorn. We find ourselves at various points within the story, and so he is like Strider to some, like the king-in-exile to others, and like the conquering-hero-king to still others. The metaphor is imperfect in many ways, but this is helpful for me, at least.

Let me explain it another way. Jesus reigns as King in the same sort of way in which he became King--through his death and resurrection. Jesus' reign continues in the same spirit in which it was inaugurated, through the humble exercise of self-sacrificing love that leads to victory over the power of death. Why should we expect Jesus to rule any differently than this? The "iron scepter" by which he governs is nothing other than his own cross.

What sort of King is Jesus? He is humble and self-sacrificing; then through that, he is powerful and strong. The power and sovereignty of Jesus exist on the far side of his humility and agape love, not his might. Remember the image of Revelation: On the throne was the lamb that was slain.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ember Monday

Last night we rebooted our series on Mark (after a 1 week hiatus) with the story of the Rich Young Ruler. I preached a message that I had (mostly) written in seminary, which I titled Too Big for Heaven then, but changed to The Small to fit the titling convention of this series. I wrote that sermon probably six or seven years ago. A lot has changed since then, but I think it held up okay. My voice was giving out after a few days with the flu, so I definitely rushed it. (It was only 23 minutes, about 10 minutes shorter than normal.) My friend Evan got the main point and Instragrammed it.


We welcomed another new addition to the music team--Kristy Farren! She did a great job of leading several songs, and especially One Thing Remains, which is fast becoming an Ember favorite. I love watching Kelly & Garth bring new people in the musical fold, and I REALLY love watching all this talent pop up from all over the congregation!

God has us in a really interesting place right now. Sometimes I think this first year is a cocoon year, a year of active preparation and testing. I don't know what's going to happen on the other side of it, but I'm sure looking forward to it!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sermon Scraps: The Commitment (Part 2)

Here is more from the lost sermon on marriage, The Commitment.

•••••

Some time ago we came across an argument between Jesus and the teachers of the law. I mentioned that the way theological arguments happened in those days was through a successive appeal to authority. The ultimate authority, for those first-century Jewish teachers of the law, was Moses, the man who wrote the first five books of the Old Testament.

So in the course of your argument, if you’re able to prove that your position can be traced back to Moses’ words, then you win. Jesus knew that the Pharisees held Moses in the highest regard, and he probably didn’t feel like arguing that day, so he just conceded the point: What did Moses command you? Jesus is like, “Okay, I’m more interested in teaching than arguing, so just give me your best argument right off the bat.” Let’s just cut to the chase.

And the Pharisees presented Moses’ position: “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” Before we move on, we should probably ask the question: Where did Moses say that? Great question! It’s actually in Deuteronomy 24. I bet you didn’t even know there was a Deuteronomy 24! Let me read it to you.
1 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Interesting. Did Moses ever say a man can divorce his wife? He didn’t, did he? The law here is not, “Here are acceptable grounds for divorce”; instead, the law is, “When one of you gives your wife a certificate of divorce…”. Moses never permitted divorce; he just conceded that divorce was a reality when human beings marry one another.

But Jesus isn’t ready to concede that point. Look at how he interprets this passage in Deuteronomy 24.
5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
The fact that laws like this exist, Jesus says, points to the reality that you’re all a bunch of hard-hearted sinners who are too stubborn to humble yourselves, work through your issues together, and persevere through trials in order to keep your commitments. No, Moses wrote you this law because you’re only willing to fight for what you want, you’re too proud to admit it when you’re wrong, and you’re ready to drop your commitment the moment others start impeding upon the realization of your selfish desires. That’s why Moses just conceded the reality of divorce—because he knew people too well.

Jesus knew people really well, too, but he’s not willing to concede the reality of divorce. Jesus has far too divine an imagination to settle for a world in which divorce happens.

The Pharisees have made their appeal to Moses. Now Jesus is going to make his appeal—to creation. And remember, he was there. The New Testament declares that Jesus was present at creation. He remembers how things were originally designed. He knows, firsthand, what God’s intention had always been for marriage.

God did not build divorce into his creation because he did not build sin into his creation. He did, however, build marriage into his creation because he also built self-sacrificing love into his creation by creating human beings as free, moral agents. But God has never been willing to concede the reality of divorce. He says through his prophet Malachi, “I hate divorce.”

So Jesus quotes from Genesis 1 and 2, the only passages in the Bible, until Revelation 21 and 22, that are unstained by the presence of sin. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’” God had a plan, and that plan did not include divorce.

You see, we were not originally created as hard-hearted sinners who are too stubborn to humble ourselves, too proud to admit that we’re wrong, or all too ready to drop our commitments the moment others start impeding upon the realization of our selfish desires. That is not how God made us. That is not found in Genesis 1 and 2.

But we were made as ‘male and female’, the perfect complements to one another. Perfect partners. By design. According to plan.

Moses looked at the world and conceded the reality of human sin. Jesus stepped into our world and refused to accept our reality, then he went about changing it. Here’s the most important thing I or anyone else will ever say about marriage: We’re supposed to be looking at Genesis 1 and 2, not Leviticus 24. Our model is the beginning of creation because Jesus came to make all things new, to restore creation to the way God originally intended it, to undo all the evil that has been wrought upon God’s good creation by sin and death. When it comes to marriage, we claim Jesus as King must look to Genesis 1 and 2. Male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. And we must conclude what Jesus concludes: "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

Christian marriage is not based on romantic love or sentimental feelings; it is based on the beginning of creation being re-created in our hearts and in our most important relationship. Marriage predates Moses. Marriage predates sin. Marriage was built into creation by the Creator himself.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sermon Scraps: The Commitment

Last weekend I was scheduled to preach a sermon on marriage from Mark 10. I was really looking forward to it, but God had other plans for the message that night, so the marriage sermon had to be scrapped. I promised to post some of the excerpts here on the blog.

My blog has taken a back seat lately. Working a fulltime job in the marketplace has limited the amount of things I can do, and, unfortunately, I've had to all but eliminate two things that have been very profitable for me in the past: reading and blogging. (And don't even get me started on blogging about reading!) I'm hoping that this will be a temporary adjustment period, and that I'll find the time to read and blog again soon.

I suppose that's enough of a pity party. Here is some of what I was going to say about marriage last week at Ember.

•••••

Marriage is a difficult subject for many. Divorce is even harder. Many of you may be children of divorce. You’ve watched your parents turn on each other. It’s often been said that what kids need most is not to know that their parents love them, but that their parents love each other. Divorce destroys that love foundation. So, before we look into our passage for tonight, I want to briefly lay a theological foundation of a love that never gives up, burns out, or fades away.

Because of what we see in Jesus, we can know these things: God always keeps his promises; God always follows through on his commitments; There is perfect, eternal, infinite love between the three members of the Trinity; We are invited to fully participate in the divine love of the Trinity. The Trinity will never get divorced. The love of God that exists within God is infinitely strong. It can never be broken because God is perfectly selfless, humble, and unstained by any sin.

In a world of dissipating love, it's a comfort to know that there is a love that is stronger than life, that sustains creation, and that resides within the heart of the One that made all that exists. Our new family--the family of God--is built on a foundation of self-giving love that does not change over time.

•••••

I'll share more on this tomorrow. There's a much longer section that I hope will be worth reading, but I wanted to put this theological foundation up today. I hope this provides some perspective on what love is and where we can find the love that never lets us down.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ember Monday


We've officially moved past the half year mark of services: Last night was our 27th service. The message was from Mark 9:30-50, where the disciples are arguing over which one of them is the greatest. (On a total side note, some scholars would have us believe that the Gospels were written to solidify certain disciples' standing and position within the larger Christian community. If that were true, then why do the disciples consistently come off looking bad in the Gospels? To put it simply, these guys are not the heroes of this story; Jesus is.) Jesus' answer to their selfish ambition is to say this: If you want to be first, be last. If you want to be great, serve. Where Jesus is King, greatness is measured by an upside-down standard.

If I had a main point to the sermon, I suppose it would be this: The path of greatness can only be traversed by those who have forsaken greatness altogether. The aim of our lives is not greatness, achievement, or the actualization of our potential; the aim of our lives is Jesus Christ, the one whose purpose all along was to die at the hands of the authorities and rise again three days later.

One of the best parts about Ember, for me, is watching my wife's heart come alive as she sings with the music team. She's done it 4 or 5 times now, and it's been a revelation for her. And I get to have a front row seat for the experience! It couldn't be better.

We also welcomed a new member to the music team tonight, Emi. She's got a great voice and has been serving at the church since just about the beginning. It's so cool to see people like Emi get involved.

If you live in central Ohio, you should come join us for worship some time. We meet on Sunday nights at 5pm at 401 E. Schrock Rd. All are welcome!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

God Came Through

About a year ago, Breena and I decided to step out in faith and move forward with planting Ember Church. Though we were surrounded with a great group of friends who were also committed to the task, we knew that I needed to find a full-time job to support my family while we planted. This is called bivocational ministry, and while most church planters and pastors don't go this route, there are some of us who choose to minister the way Paul did. (Paul was a tentmaker and a leather worker, trades he held while establishing churches in the various cities to which God led him.)

Very early on in this process I had a serious conversation with God. It went something like this: "God, if you want me to plant Ember Church, you've got to get me a job. In this economy, and with my past history of job searching, it's truly going to take a miracle for me to get a job. So I need you to move for me." I didn't sense God telling me anything in that moment, though the first Ember sermon ever proclaimed this truth: God is with those he calls. I believed that God would come through for me, for my family, and for this church.

Months went by with no progress on the job front. The church started on schedule, but still no job. Then Bexley was born, but still no job. Thanksgiving. Christmas. I was beginning to doubt that God was with me. I was beginning to doubt that he would come through with a job.

Sometime during the holidays I had pressed through my period of doubt and began to trust God again. I was more confident than ever that he would come through with a job, and very soon. Then came the new year, and companies started posting job openings again. There was one job posting that caught my attention for it's unorthodox language, and I determined to give this one a little extra attention. I wrote the most audacious cover letter you've ever seen. My opening line read like this: "You can stop your search now, because I'm your guy." I got a call from them the same day! After a year of submitting applications and resumes with no response, I got called back the same day.

I waited and waited to find out if I would get that first interview. On Tuesday of the following week I received an email from the HR department asking if I was still interested in the job, and whether I had gotten the email the previous Friday to set up a phone interview. "What email," I shouted! "I never got an email!" Some technical glitch had occurred, and I never received it. The most important email of my life, and it got tied up in cyberspace. What is this, 1997?

Of course I responded right away, and had a great interview the next day. Then the waiting really began. Would I get the second interview? Would I make into the next round? Several days passed before I heard anything, but I finally got the good news. They were bringing me in for a face-to-face interview!

I called my parents and they offered to buy me a suit. (How am I this old and still don't own a suit?) I gladly took them up on the offer, and had a really good interview. That was Friday, and they were interviewing two more candidates on Monday. So, once again, I waited. But I had been waiting for about a year for God to come through for me, so a few more days wasn't going to be too bad.

It must have been Wednesday when I got the next call. They wanted me to come back for a third interview! This was unprecedented, for me. Not that I've never gotten a job anywhere, but that I've ever participated in this many rounds of interviews. This time, I interviewed with the team members with whom I might be working, and then with mentors within the company. Both of these interviews were to determine if I fit with the team and the culture of the company. I thought both interviews went really well, and had a strong sense that, by this point, there weren't any other candidates being interviewed. When I got home, I told Breena, "I think I'm going to get this job."

That was Friday, so we had another weekend of waiting. Monday came and went, so I decided to call the manager on Tuesday. When I got through to him, he dropped this bomb on me, "I was just getting ready to make you a verbal offer. Can I call you back in an hour with the details?" BAM! And like that, I had a job. A great job. At the best place to work in central Ohio.

God came through. It was his time (not mine), but he did it. He came through for me, my family, and Ember Church. I've only been at work for a couple days now, but I already love it. I'm excited to go there. I'm excited to get started on video production. I believe in the company and what they're doing. I believe in the culture they're trying to create. I simply can't imagine how things could have turned out better for me, and I am very grateful to God for his faithfulness. I pray that he will come through for you as he has come through for me.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ember Monday


Last night at Ember we reached the midway point of our series through Mark, and we came to the story of the Transfiguration. It's a truly remarkable story, and we saw how it is a picture of the great redemptive arc of Scripture. In fact, I made the audacious claim that I would explain the entire Bible in that one sermon. I think I managed to do it, but you can judge for yourself. Listen to the sermon called The Gospel According to Mark 07 - The Glory in the sermon player. Or, if you're a reader, you can download my sermon manuscript here.

We tried something a little bit different with the music last night, as Kelly and Garth led from the floor, and went unplugged. I enjoyed the change of pace as it felt even more intimate than we typically do, which is saying something.

The big announcement is that God came through for us in a big way by providing me a full-time job, which I started today. We prayed and believed for a long time, and God came through in his time, and in a big way. My new employer is the #1 rated place to work in central Ohio. I'll be doing a lot of cool stuff with video, and I get to work with a great team of people. I couldn't have asked for more! This means that Ember is free to move forward with the only financial constraint of rent. There's no stopping us now!

Come and join us sometime for worship. We meet at 5pm on Sunday evenings at the beautiful American Baptist Church in Westerville: 401 E. Schrock Rd.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Prince of Motown

I've been super busy this week and haven't been able to blog at all, but that doesn't mean that the world has stopped. If you read this blog regularly, or know me at all, you know that I'm a huge fan of the Detroit Tigers. I love the sport of baseball, and have been a Tigers' fan since I was 5 years old.

Last year, the Tigers dominated the American League Central Division, beat the hated Yankees in the first round of the playoffs, and then lost to the Texas Rangers in the AL Championship Series. They showed a lot of heart that year, and Justin Verlander dominated the league by winning both the Cy Young and MVP awards.

A huge part of the Tigers' success was the addition of Designated Hitter and Catcher Victor Martinez. He hit really well, especially with runners on base, and provided outstanding leadership in the clubhouse. But something terrible happened to him last week. In a freak exercising accident, Martinez tore the ACL in one of his knees--an injury that will keep him out of baseball for the entire 2012 season.

Martinez's absence leaves a gaping hold in the Tigers' lineup, one that no Tigers' fan thought could be filled by one person. There was one free agent left on the market, Prince Fielder, who could meet or exceed Martinez's statistical contribution, but Fielder is a first basemen, and Miguel Cabrera was already holding that job down just fine. (Cabrera is arguably the game's best hitter.) Nobody thought the Tigers were in on Fielder, until they announced that they had signed him to a 9 year, $214 million contract!


I was floored. Then I was excited. Then I thought, "Where's he going to play? What about Cabrera? What will happen next year when Martinez comes back? What's he going to be like at the end of that contract? Will he be worth it?"

Miguel Cabrera will be switching to third base, which is actually his natural position. He's a really big guy, and will need to shed a few pounds, but Jim Leyland, the Tigers manager, seems confident he can play there. So I'm not going to worry about the defense. This wasn't a defensive move. This was a move that Mike Ilitch, the Tigers' owner, wanted to make to win a World Series before he dies. (He's 85 years old.) And if everybody stays healthy, this move certainly puts the Tigers into that upper echelon of teams in the game. The Tigers have the games best pitcher in Justin Verlander, one of (if not the) the best hitters in Miguel Cabrera, and now a serious power threat to complement him in Prince Fielder. Besides those high-level, possibly Hall of Fame caliber players, the Tigers have an excellent supporting cast in Jhonny Peralta, Brennan Boesch, Alex Avila, Doug Fister, Jose Valverde, and many others. This is, easily, the most talented Tigers team since they won the World Series in 1984.

Last year, Prince hit .299 with 38 home runs, 120 RBIs, and an OPS of .981. For reference, the man he is replacing in the lineup, Victor Martinez, hit .330 with 12 home runs, 103 RBIs, and an OPS of .850. Martinez is an excellent player, but at 33 years old, he is on the down side of his prime. Fielder is just 27 and still entering his prime. I expect similar numbers to these for at least the first 5 years of the contract.

As a fan, I'm excited about the offensive potential of the Tigers' lineup. Coupled with our excellent starting rotation and shut down bullpen, this team has a great shot to win the World Series. If there were still a move to make, I would really love them to pick up a speedy, defensive wiz at second base. But no team is perfect, and in my opinion, the Tigers are the best team in baseball. Here's to hoping we get Mr. Ilitch, and the city of Detroit, that World Series trophy in 2012.