Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lead Me On

Not all of my dreams in my journey with God have been fulfilled, not even when they were dedicated to Him.

For example, when my husband Barry first accepted the pastorate of Mountain View Baptist Church in Tucson, Arizona, the church was only seven years old—and popping. Our youth building was jammed, kids rooms overflowed, and our adult classrooms were full. Soon the church was conducting three Sunday morning worship services and two Sunday schools, all on a small parcel of five acres of land.

So we prayed, sought the Lord and dreamed of a new dwelling place. We sent faithful scouts to spy out the land, pooled our money and bought 19 acres for $525,000. In the desert, God was making a way—until something happened that brought things screeching to a halt.

Environmentalists made a case that the land that we’d staked out served as airspace for an endangered bird. This hot piece of desert land for which God had moved heaven and earth for us to purchase became a frozen tundra, a sacred airport for the thinning ranks of pygmy owls presumably circling overhead. We never saw a single one, but we had it on good authority—the EPA—that they were there, and they stopped our building plans in their tracks.

Churches are like people; they are dynamic beings.  In the ebb and flow of church life that followed, long after we’d moved on in our journey, the land that Mountain View Baptist Church dreamed of was finally released from EPA captivity—but by then the need and desire to move the church had migrated into something else.

Last year, 12 years after we left Tucson, Mountain View Baptist Church invited us to celebrate the church’s 25th anniversary with them. We simultaneously learned that the land into which so many had poured their prayer, hopes and dreams had been sold, and the proceeds had been designated for much needed renovations to the existing property, kicking off a new building project.

Barry and I put on our game face and accepted this turn of events gracefully. But for those of us who remembered the day we bused people over to prayer-walk the property, wasn’t this, well, too little and much too late? "Our” piece of property now housed a charter school. It wasn’t at all what we had envisioned.

Until we discovered something else. Just as the Ohio church, a recent plant, that Barry now pastors rents meeting space at a local recreation center, the charter school  on that coveted piece of land also shares its space with a body of believers—a  new church plant. This church is led by young men who had been teenagers at Mountain View while we were there.

As we celebrated Mountain View’s 25th anniversary over dinner, sitting to Barry’s left was Chase Delperdang, pastor of Legacy Community Church of Tucson, which meets on the land that Mountain View bought—and sold. Chase and Marcos Salazar, who serves as Legacy’s administrator, are carrying on a legacy in a way that only God could have foreseen … because the legacy is His, not ours.

Years ago we were sure that the desert land that we purchased was destined to have a church worshipping there. As it turns out, we were right. About almost everything else, we were wrong. For some, it is proof that the dream was merely a desert mirage. For us, it’s the glimpse we need to carry on.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.~ Hebrews 11:13 NIV.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Truth About Child's Play

The kids drew me into their game without asking for my consent. One moment I was safely at arm’s distance, monitoring their play while their parents attended a Bible study—and the next I was fully engaged, slipping easily into their imaginary world. The yard became a town. The wagon became the bus, and I became the bus driver.

Soon almost every kid in the yard had places to go and people to see. These kids led busy lives. They needed to go to the doctor’s office and “Little House.” They had to stop by the bank and use the ATM to get money. A visit to the hospital was followed by a movie at the theater. I was carefully paid with greenbacks (leaves) for every trip I made, but we stayed on the road so much I actually found myself wondering if the bus might end up with a little car trouble.

“The bus driver is taking a little break,” I finally told one of my passengers. “Give me a minute. Or call a taxi.” But soon enough we were back at it. Up and down, ‘round and ‘round the yard, I took my passengers from the doctor’s office to Little House to the bank to the theater.

It was not all play. For starters, although I recognized that my customers were already quite savvy about making the rounds of life, I taught them a thing or two—beginning with how to hail a cab. I’m convinced this is need-to-know info and will someday be put to good use.

Meanwhile, the highlight of my evening came when, as I was driving my empty bus along the road (sidewalk), I heard a cry emitting from somewhere below my waist. I looked down in time to see little eyes grow wide in a small frightened face while little arms clutched my knees. “Save me,” the littlest citizen of Little House town begged. “Save me.”

He clung tight. I listened hard. Yep, there most definitely were scary sounds coming from the bushes. So I did what every Good Samaritan should be ready to do. I consoled; I acted. “I’ll save you,” I assured him, patting his little back. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay. Would you like to ride my bus? You’ll be safe there.”

Gee, I love being a hero, even in an imaginary world of roadside monsters. It reminds me of how it makes me feel when someone in real trouble needs my help, and I’m actually there to give it—and actually do. I renewed my commitment on the spot to “saving” people as one of the things I want to do with my life in worlds imaginary and real.

Child’s play taught me something, too. First, it’s downright fun to disappear into your imagination, at least every now and then. How could I have forgotten? Second, I put myself in a great place to rescue someone, not only when I assuming a lifeguard position, but when I position myself as a servant. When you’re serving, you’re close to the action.

I figure if I want to help people and make a real difference in the real world, serving others will give me opportunities there, too. Most of the time it’s probably going to feel like I’m mindlessly driving in circles. But on those rare occasions when someone puts their arms around me and pleads with me to help them, I’ll know it’s my destiny.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dishing Out Mercy

The waitress targeted our friend for her request. We were eating together at a restaurant when our server approached him. “I’m giving you this, but I’ll take it off your bill,” she said as she placed in front of him a dessert he did not order.

“I’m in trouble,” she added when he looked perplexed. “I got it out to eat myself, but I’m not supposed to do that unless I’m on break. So I brought it to you.”

She turned away, leaving the four people at our table to try to make sense of what just happened. Meanwhile, the cheesecake looked just as tempting to our friend as it apparently had been to the server. He picked up his fork.

“You must be really special for the server to bring you dessert you didn’t even order,” we teased.

When the woman brought our bills she slipped our friend’s under his dessert plate. “I brought you the cheesecake so my manager would think it was yours,” she explained. “I could have lost my job.”

“And I ate it,” our friend said easily, “so as it turns out it was mine.”

“I had to put the cheesecake on your bill,” she continued. “Otherwise my manger would know. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” she added with a touch of defiance. “

Termination for eating on the job? It did sound like a cruel and unusual punishment; maybe there was a back story.

“I’m going to give you the money to pay for it. I just can’t let my manager see me. Can you wait until my break? Maybe meet me outside?”

As she talked, I watched the woman carefully. It crossed my mind that she didn’t look particularly repentant. Although she spoke in a low voice and her words were urgent, her demeanor was cool, almost nonchalant.

As an observer to this little drama, I didn’t have a decision to make. I wondered fleetingly how our friend would handle it. Here was someone who did something she knew was against the rules and, when caught, devised an intricate plan that required the mercy of a complete stranger to cover it up. Would playing along encourage her to do the right thing the next time she was tempted?

“Nobody needs to lose a job in this economy,” responded our friend. “Don’t worry about the bill. I’ve got it covered.” It was a particularly generous gesture because he himself had himself been struggling through extended unemployment.

She didn’t know his job situation, but our server recognized that she’d been the one served. Her eyes filled. The tension she’d so successfully kept hidden surfaced. “Thank you.”

In the next few minutes we got to tell her a little about why Christians extend grace to people who don’t deserve it. In the telling, I was reminded that I am no different than our server. I have not deserved the grace I’ve received in my life either. Nevertheless, I have been let off the biggest hook of all because Christ paid for my mistakes.

When viewed objectively this kind of grace just doesn’t make sense. It even threatens the moral order of people who want, above everything else, to see the sinful get what they deserve.

It doesn’t really make sense to the one on the receiving end either. And that’s what makes grace so powerful and so wonderful.

See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God …~ Hebrews 12:15

Saturday, March 19, 2011

When Best Laid Plans Go Awry

During my husband’s first pastorate more than 25 years ago, Barry and I began attending the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. We enjoyed hearing gifted preachers, discussing trends and movements affecting the church and rubbing shoulders with people who do what we do.

I didn’t make last year’s convention, and this year I returned feeling just a little out of place. In the interim, Barry had transitioned from pastoring an established church to becoming a church planter/pastor. While we love what we’re doing and heartily believe that it may be our most important ministry to date, we are no longer positioned with the pastors we started with in ministry, who are now shepherding large, influential congregations.

The trip got off to a rocky start. Our first flight to Orlando, the convention site, was canceled because of weather. To make it out the next day we had to switch airlines and airports.

We were disappointed that our trip was being cut short, especially when we were losing the morning tentatively set aside for beach and seafood. After we landed in Orlando, I headed to baggage claim while Barry finagled with the airline for an extra day on the back end of our trip. “But there was nothing available,” Barry explained when I re-joined him, suitcase in tow. “It will have to be two more days. Is that okay?”

Two extra days? “But I’ve got work to do. I didn’t plan to be gone that long.” The airline clerk handed us our itinerary. It was out of our hands; we were booked for two extra days.

Orlando brought back lots of memories because we’d lived on Florida Space Coast for six years. As we drove to our hotel, I found myself homesick for our children—the way they used to be: little, lively, loving—each within arm’s reach. I was homesick for the way we were, too: a young couple who knew no fear in ministry. I was beginning to feel like a fraud. People our age were already enjoying the fruits of their labor; we were starting over. “God, really, why are we here?” I had to ask.

Tuesday morning, we’d barely walked through the doors of the convention center when a woman came up to me. I recognized the name on her tag. “Have you got a ticket for the Ministers’ Wives luncheon?” she asked. I didn’t. Feeling so out of place, I was planning on skipping it this year. But I couldn’t turn down the wife of Florida’s executive director.  

The luncheon was just as inspiring as previous years. Our table host pointed out the tote bags full of goodies at each place as well as a New Testament commentary on the table. “One of you will take that home, too,” she said after we each introduced ourselves. At the end of the lunch, she turned to me: “I have a heart for work in pioneer areas, and you are the only one at this table involved in that. I know church planting is hard work. I’d like you to have this.” She handed me the book.

““It is hard work,” I confessed. “But it’s fun, too.”

I rejoined my husband after lunch. “See anyone you know?” In years past, it was hard to move without spotting someone we knew. “Not really,” Barry said. It was as if we truly no longer moved in those circles.

That afternoon, however, we discovered new friends, a couple from Ohio, staying in the same hotel. This pastor had planted a church in Cleveland. Our churches were about the same age and size. As we went to dinner and traded notes, I started to relax. So what if we weren’t on the same plane as others? I know that God has us where He wants us.

After the convention was over, we spent that extra day on the beach and ate seafood at our favorite restaurant just as we promised ourselves. When we tried to fly out of Orlando, however, weather grounded us again. After a few hours, the weather cleared enough for us to board a plane for D.C—but not in time to make our connecting flight. “Nothing until this time tomorrow,” the clerk informed us. Barry and I looked at each other.

We swallowed our frustration, booked new tickets, booked a hotel room, rented a car and went to see the sights. We were stuck in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. “Might as well have fun with it,” we told each other as we headed downtown.

It had been four years since we had an honest-to-goodness vacation, a luxury that transitioning churches, dwindling financial resources and church planting had curtailed. Was God arranging a break that we would not have planned for ourselves?

The trip turned out to be more than a quick three-day hop to Orlando for a convention with a quick excursion to the beach that I had planned. It was extended by circumstances beyond our control to a full-length vacation. Yes, we paid a price—in time, hotel rooms and rental cars—but we found ourselves with friendly people spending time in some of this country’s most intriguing cities. And along the way, we were inspired and refreshed.

As we flew home, I reflected that our life in ministry isn’t really what I’d planned either. Two years ago I would never have dreamed that Barry would take the lead in planting a church. Ministry has been hard work, and the detours God has taken us on have not been without their hidden costs. But I’ve gotta say: It’s been fun, too.

In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps ~Proverbs 16:9 NIV

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blown Away

Twice recently I found myself sitting around a table with a group of people intensely discussing the work of God. Mostly I listened. On these back-to-back days I got the distinct impression that was what I was there to do.

The dynamics of these two occasions were distinct yet similar. On both days, the tables were crowded with people who, for the most part, didn’t really know each other—most of whom had not, in fact, met before that day, and who came together for very diverse reasons. At both tables, however, passion for Christ dominated the talk.

I watched one woman share her faith as her neck and chest grew increasingly splotched. If that was from nerves, she didn’t let her own discomfort deter her. She leaned forward, describing the transformation that takes place with life in Christ. She was intense, and the discussion on salvation that ensued was compelling.

The next day I found myself at a table where a man held court, telling multiple stories of God’s work in his life. As impressive as God’s interventions was his response to them: this was a man in awe of God. He looks for Him and finds Him everywhere. I watched two grown men sitting at that table respond with tears.

I was moved, too … to remembrance. Sitting at a table with people who seize the opportunity to share their faith is a refreshing—and humbling—experience. Their rush of words and exuberance flattened me, even as the Holy Spirit’s fresh wind renewed me. At one point the man looked at me and said, “You have to decide why you are here today.”

I already knew; twin experiences are not by accident but design. I was there to be reminded, to be invigorated—and convicted—by passionate people speaking on Christ’s behalf so I will reserve my place at the next table. I must never lose my voice but always look for a release for my own pent-up rush of words: I am a follower of Christ, whose undeserved grace and glory in my life still blows me away.

“As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen or heard”~ Acts 4:20 NIV

Monday, November 1, 2010

Page Turners

As a writer and reader, imagining possibilities and making up endings has never been a problem for me. Just the opposite. Often the scenarios I dream up seem so wonderful or whimsical that they diminish the real thing. That is, until I run into the real thing, and He proves to me, yet again, that He really is the author of life.

Consider this recent example: A year and a half ago my husband and I, along with several other people, planted a church. Make no mistake about it: Church planting is hard work, and it takes a lot of hard-working laborers to get the job done. We have some of the most dedicated people I know working with us already, but our vision is big; we can use more. We prayed for laborers. In my own mind, I even picked out a few people I knew were looking for a church home. They never showed.

A few months ago, however, a friend from another time and place called us. He was looking for a job. He was looking, in fact, all over the country, including our area. We’ve been friends with this man and his wife for a long time. They attended the church my husband pastors in Tucson, Arizona. We lived in the same neighborhood. We’ve visited with them in several states through the years. But our friendship is not simply social; it’s much deeper than that. We’ve shared life—and death. We sat beside them and prayed as their baby died.

Almost simultaneously, a friend that we knew from a church my husband pastored in Montgomery, Alabama found us online. To our collective surprise, we discovered that her husband was being stationed at the Air Force base here in Dayton. We shared a lot of history with this woman, too. She used to give us complimentary tickets to the theatre where she worked, a generous and greatly treasured gift. But our friendship was not really social; it went deeper than that. My husband presided over her first husband’s funeral.

I never saw this plot twist coming: Both couples now live here. Both joined our church. They are helping us live out our story and mission assignment—and I’m hoping we do the same for them. While I hoped to cultivate people and introduce them to the work we are doing, God took a shortcut and moved to surround us with friends who already knew our ministry.

God likes to surprise me, and He’s good at it. Meanwhile, I am hooked on His plot twists and alternate endings. I bow to His superior plotting as I look forward to the next chapter.

Friday, May 7, 2010

And God Said, "Let Them Eat ... Pie?"

Normally I don’t get very excited about dessert, although I like it as much as the next person. But this week dessert fed my soul.

Our church scheduled a big event for this weekend, literally. We’re calling it Big God Weekend as we host evangelist Ken Freeman. Ken is a compelling speaker and personality with a phenomenal ability to connect to people who don't have a personal relationship with Christ. We anticipate great things (hence the title) from our weekend with Ken—but not just because of him. My pastor husband carefully reminded our church that we need to pray and (gulp!) go one step further and practice a much neglected spiritual discipline: fasting.

My husband is adept at fasting. He’s accomplished several 40-day fasts. He loves the time he spends with God in prayer. I, however, fast in much shorter time periods: two days ... one ... a meal at a time--and try not to feel virtuous about it.

We host a weekly Bible study in our home, and I normally serve food before we get started. But this week as I was contemplating a menu, Barry said, “Maybe we should all fast together that night.”

We knew that would encourage some to fast and introduce the discipline to others. We sent out a memo to our regular attenders: No food being served; they got it.

Fast day was busy, a round of meetings and deadlines, and the only food I scrounged was a package of peanut butter and crackers for lunch. By the time I picked up my daughter from school, I was hungry. The errant thought crossed my mind that I could grab a bite to eat now and still skip dinner later… couldn’t I? “God, do you want me to fast?” It sure seemed like He said yes.

My mind reviewed the next day, already thinking ahead to the meal I would eventually eat. Except … there would be no time for fixing or finding food that day either. I sighed. It was going to be another cracker day. I felt so deprived. “God, are you sure?” It sure seemed like He was.

Our group arrived, and one guy carried in a picture-perfect chocolate silk cream pie. Uh-oh. He didn’t get the memo. I figured his family would enjoy it just as much as the group.

So, despite the pie, we fasted that night, and we prayed. We prayed for the weekend and big results. We prayed that we would please God and be more like Him.

As I returned home later that evening from picking up our daughter from her life group, my eyes fell on a plate with two slices of pie. "For tomorrow," my husband said. "A gift."

And I had worried about eating crumbs for breakfast? Not with my God, who provides in the most creative ways, and graciously arranges ways for a hungry heart to get filled with Him--while you eat ... pie!