Howdy. I'm Matt Todd. My wife and I have four kids and a dog,. I'm passionate about orphan care. I'm a die-hard fan of the Evansville Aces, the Indiana Hoosiers, and Star Wars. I'm trying to live life by the Todd family motto: "It behooves us to live!"

Some of my thoughts in the wake of Charlottesville, Virginia

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend have brought to light the deep-seeded hatred that has lurked beneath the surface of our society for generations. It’s been our nation’s dirty little secret. Some say it’s America’s Original Sin.

Many have thought that if we ignored it, it would just go away. If we stopped giving it any credence, it would wither on the vine and die of starvation. Maybe those tiny pockets of crazy KKK folk would eventually disappear due to lack of interest. That’s the easy response. Because admitting we have a societal problem is uncomfortable. It’s embarrassing. And it’s shameful.

But we cannot pretend it isn’t happening anymore. In all honesty, we shouldn’t have been pretending in the first place. But many of us have been. And although it’s been a long time coming, it appears that Charlottesville has served as a wake up call.

I would hope that if you’ve spent any time with me at all or if you’ve read any of my writings at all, it should go without saying that I deplore racism, white supremacy, and any other form of hate-filled rhetoric that these misguided characters might espouse. Let me say it again so there is no doubt in anyone’s mind: I reject racism and I repudiate white supremacy.  This a poison that will only lead to destruction. There is no room for such hatred in our society.  Period.

And there’s even less room for this type of venom in our churches.

Somehow along the way, people have tried to connect the Church with racist, white supremacist views. I assume some of this goes back to the time leading up to the Civil War, when church leaders who were sympathetic to the cause of slavery desperately needed some proof texts from Scripture to prove that the enslavement of an entire race was somehow divinely appointed. So they ripped verses out of context, twisted the meanings of different verses, and did the little song and dance that many of us do when we try to make the Bible say what we want it to say instead of what it really says.

If you’ve come here thinking that Jesus encouraged and supported some kind of hate-driven agenda, you can go ahead and put away your proof texts and your mental gymnastics because I want to take a few minutes to remind you* of what Jesus has to say on this matter:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. – John 13:34 (emphasis mine)

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.‘ There is no command greater than these.” – Mark 12:30-31 (emphasis mine)

You’ve probably heard the story of the Good Samaritan. If you haven’t, you should read it. Right now. Go ahead. Read it. I’ll wait. If you don’t want to read it, you can watch this video. Jesus makes it pretty clear who our neighbors are. He makes it pretty clear how to show love. And he made it very clear what we’re supposed to do in response to this story.

“Go and do likewise.”

And just in case you haven’t gotten the hint yet, let’s look at what the Apostle Paul and see what he has to say.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28 (emphasis mine)

You think one race is cursed while another is elevated? You think one is inferior while another is superior? No way. Not in God’s community. There is no distinction. We should all be united. That’s our call. It’s what we’re meant to be when the love of Christ transforms us. Love your neighbor. Show mercy. Love one another.

And that’s the same thing that John tells us in his first letter to believers.

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. – 1 John 4:8

You might as well go ahead and read the rest of that chapter. Shoot, read the whole letter. If you have any doubt about how we should live in a world full of hate, 1 John has the answer. Spoiler alert: It ain’t hate.

It’s that simple.

And it’s that difficult. Holy cow, it’s hard.

Because when I see images of people gathering to spewing  hate and breathing violent threats, my first reaction is to respond with hate. In fact, I want to punch them in the throat.

Indiana Jones punching a Nazi, much like many people want to do after Charlottesville
Image via Nazis Gettin’ Punched

That’s what I want to do. But that’s not what I’m supposed to do. “Love your neighbor,” remember? One could argue that a white supremacist Nazi type of person is hardly a neighbor. So maybe it’s all OK to simply respond to hate with hate.

Wrong.

(Jesus said:) “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Matthew 5:44

Jesus wasn’t merely talking in theory. While we were still sinners, while we had set up residence in the Enemy’s camp, Jesus put “love your enemies” into practice when he spread out his arms and died for all of humanity – even the ones who beat him, hurled insults at him, and executed him.

If I’m being honest, that’s a pretty tough example to follow. And I also have no idea how to put that into practice. Because I’m outraged at the fact that people think it’s OK to treat other people like they’re less than human. I will not let their trash gain legitimacy in our society. And I will not allow them to hijack my faith.

But where is the line between responding in holy anger (yes, there is such a thing) and responding in hate? I don’t know. But I do know this: I know in the end even after everything else has passed away, only love will remain.

And now these three remain: Faith, Hope, and Love. But the greatest, the most excellent way is love.

It’s all about love. It will always be about love. Love will remain. That’s the answer to the ugliness that was displayed in Charlottesville. It is the answer to any ugliness we encounter, honestly. That’s what it boils down to.

Love.

So I’m learning how to choose love in the midst of hate. I’m learning how to stare Satan’s minions in the face and respond in love. Because these all of us desperately need Jesus.

I know what the answer is. But I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know what it looks like in real life. How do we flesh this out? I don’t have all the answers, but I know where to start.

So I’m learning to stand with love. That should be my default setting: love. But since we’re being honest here, I can tell you that it isn’t my “go-to” response most of the time. But I’m doing my best. I’m learning to love the way Jesus loves me.

I hope you’ll learn with me.

*Do I really think that sharing these verses is going to change the mind of a devoted white supremacist? No. I don’t think they really care about the words of Jesus. Or Paul. Or John. I doubt they really care about anything other than statements that promote their own twisted, hate-filled, repugnant views. This post is really for people who might be on the fence, although I don’t see how you can be on the fence. It’s also for people who are looking at these white folks, connecting the dots, and thinking that this is what the American church is all about.  

A dark Saturday

Light piercing the darkness after Holy Saturday

Yesterday was Good Friday – the day Jesus was crucified on the cross. It’s the day that the Son of God himself was executed. His enemies were victorious. His followers were in disarray. It’s the day that is remembered throughout the world because without Good Friday, we couldn’t have Easter. Without the death of Jesus on the cross, we wouldn’t be celebrating his resurrection three days later.

And that’s what we like to do in churches. We recognize and even celebrate Good Friday, but then we skip ahead to the celebration on Sunday, reminding everyone that it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Somehow during this remembering and celebration we minimize the fact that there is a Saturday in this story. And it feels pretty bleak.

Imagine with me for a moment that you’ve been following this man throughout the countryside. He’s proclaimed Truth. He’s healed many. Throngs of people greeted him. He had performed countless miracles. People’s lives were changed. Your life was changed.

You were there when he entered Jerusalem and was greeted with crowds of people shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And you watched them make a path out of palm leaves as you followed him through the city.

Then the bottom fell out.

Within a matter of hours, your leader was betrayed, condemned by the authorities, and publicly executed by the State. Everything you thought you knew was proven wrong. The hours following Good Friday were a frightening, lonely, and hopeless time. They had no idea that their world was about to be changed and everything Jesus had promised was about to come true. They were surrounded by darkness, questioning everything they believed.

And the demons celebrated. All signs had pointed to hell’s victory. Evil had triumphed over good. Everything was spiraling out of control.

I’ve been there.

You’ve probably been there, too. If you haven’t been there yet, you will be someday. It’s part of the human experience. You could suddenly lose your job and find yourself wondering what on earth you’re going to do next when the bills are piling up. I remember waking up the day after my father in law died, hoping against hope that everything had been just a dream. I had a similar hope when my nephew died. Life is full of our own personal Holy Saturday moments.

Some people never leave their dark Saturdays. It’s like they’re stuck. They’re stuck on Saturday. And it’s because so many people are stuck on Saturday that we cannot rush through Saturday to get to Easter Sunday.

If you’re feeling isolated, abandoned, or alone, this day’s a great reminder for you. Maybe you are heartbroken, betrayed, or feeling completely helpless and hopeless. This day’s a great reminder for you.

If you feel like nobody is listening to you, this day’s a great reminder for you. And if it feels like your prayers are just bouncing off the ceiling and God doesn’t really care, this day’s a great reminder for you.

If the reality of death is looming over you, this day’s a great reminder for you.

If you’re surrounded by darkness and despair, this day is a great reminder for you. Light and life are about to burst forth out of the tomb. The world is about to be turned upside down.

It’s Saturday.
But Sunday morning is coming.

Do you see it? The light is peeking around the corner. The darkness will not last forever. Let me say this again: the darkness will not last forever. It’s Saturday. But Sunday morning is just beyond the horizon. It is about to pierce through the darkness. Do you see it?

Hallelujah.
Amen.

 

Todd Bussey: More than an old youth group minister

Leigh was part of our high school youth group. I asked her to share some memories from her experience with Todd Bussey as our youth minister. I knew she would have some stories to tell. I’m glad I asked. Because she delivered!

Thanks for sharing, Leigh!

Todd Bussey!

I met Todd Bussey 30 years ago when I first went to youth group on a Sunday night in 1988.

Young, energetic, silly, larger than life in personality and stature…he drew us all in and, quite frankly, made us a family.

He often met us for chips and salsa at Hacienda after youth group and made the mistake of showing us where he lived.  Now, I personally never used a credit card to break into his apartment, but I was often sitting on his living room couch when he came home…along with anywhere from 5-20 other kids.

Todd arranged goofy skits and fun outings.  He encouraged us to get messy and let go of the typical high-school drama.  Along with Scott & Corri Brooks and Brian & Dawn Gower, he put up with constant attempts to get him off-topic, countless shenanigans, and some very reckless new drivers in the church parking lot.  He moved to a new apartment, and he didn’t even bother to lock the door.  

Todd Bussey, Dawn Gower, Brian Gower

He took us to Summer in the Son and led us to think maybe we’d go to Kentucky Christian College someday.  He forced us to stop at Cracker Barrel whenever we were traveling.  He kicked us out of the church van if we complained about his driving. He wore a skin-tight Batman costume and climbed down from the balcony in the sanctuary.  We were all super-proud that we were the ones who got to go back home with the hilarious guy who started each morning there with a grin.

I knew he loved everyone, but he found a way to make each of us feel special.  

I witnessed his true caring, and I know he spent long nights with a few people who needed him.  He sent me flowers to celebrate my birthday when he found out it had been overlooked one year by some of my peers. It was an endearing gesture I have not forgotten all this time later.

When we graduated from high school, he came to our open houses, let us know what we’d meant to the youth group, and prayed over us.  Because of the bond he’d fostered between us, we kids kept in touch with each other even though we all went our separate ways…and then when we came home from college on breaks, we now went to his house on Lincoln Avenue.  The door was always unlocked.

He sent me Audio Adrenaline’s new CD  when I graduated from college (a nod to our time at SITS when they used to be called A-180). I got my first teaching job, and I still came home on breaks to visit.  He counseled me through the break-up of a serious boyfriend…and then called my now husband by the old boyfriend’s name at our wedding rehearsal.  (He managed to use the correct name at the wedding, thankfully!)

Todd Bussey officiating Leigh's wedding

He was just “Todd – my old youth group minister…”

…until a family crisis made him “Todd – the person you call when everything is falling apart.” At a moment’s notice, he simply showed up and was the example of Christ we needed at a time of true despair.

It’s pretty powerful to realize that God placed this man in my 12-year-old life so that he could be a source of strength in my adult one.

And my story, of needing Todd as a grown-up, is not unique. That youth group family still keeps in touch, and I know he’s been there for others during times of confusion, pain, sorrow, and deep loss.

When Todd left Evansville this morning to move his dear family to Florida, he left behind a building that housed a ministry that touched my life — and that’s been weirdly hard for me to come to terms with. However, the friendship, admiration, and deep connection remain…no matter what state Todd lives in.

I’ll still celebrate his February 26th birthday that he shares with another important man in my life…my dad.  

I’ll still reminisce with my parents about the time the entire extended Bussey family stopped by our cottage in Michigan just to say hi.

I’ll still send him our Christmas card — how did that goofy girl end up a teacher, wife, and mom of 4 kids?

I’ll still text him selfies of me and random (or maybe not so random?) people that show up in my life who happen to know the legend that is Todd.

I’ll still seek his advice for big decisions and his support in times of trouble.

I’ll still fondly remember youth group on Sunday nights.

Love you, L. Todd!
Leigh Blackburn Stella

Perhaps as a testament to the positive effect that Todd had on the lives of those young kids in the late 80s, you might not be surprised to find that he moves to his new position in Florida at a church under the direction of Jason Cullum, a Cullen Avenue Christian Church High School Youth Group Class of ‘92 grad like myself.  I’m sure his new flock will enjoy these throwback photos of their new/our old partners in crime.

Todd Bussey and Jason Cullum

Todd Bussey and Jason Cullum

Well done, David

David Rinehart playing the grand piano at the Villa Philmonte at Philmont Scout Ranch, 1990
David Rinehart playing the grand piano at the Villa Philmonte at Philmont Scout Ranch, 1990.

One of the few bright spots from my middle school experience was my involvement in Boy Scouts. Scouting had a huge impact on my life because of the adults who were there to mentor me. We also had a great group of older Scouts who would guide us and teach us. One of those older Scouts in my early days in Troop 322 was David Rinehart.

I looked up to him. A lot.

I know he was flawed. We all are. This is no hagiography. I know David wasn’t perfect. But to a kid entering his preteen and teenage years, David was about as close to the embodiment of the Scout Law that you could get. He ultimately went away to a small Christian college in Kentucky and then came back to our home church to serve as a worship leader.

I hadn’t really been in contact with him after I left Evansville. Unfortunately, that does tend to happen. Even in this hyper-connected age of social media. I was still happy to see him whenever I returned home. I think it’s safe to say that I still looked up to him. And I thought about him often.

In fact, I think about him every time I use a Dutch Oven or a cast iron skillet.

I think I was in seventh grade, serving as Assistant Patrol Leader. It was late one evening and we had just finished dinner. I’m not sure why, but I was the one in charge of my Patrol. The Dutch Oven we had used had burnt food that was caked onto the bottom of the pot. We decided to fill the Dutch Oven with water and sit it on our camp stove. This was somewhat standard procedure. The idea was that the hot water would help release the burnt food while you scraped the bottom with a metal spoon.

Shortly after turning our camp stove to a high flame, all patrols were called to an evening Troop meeting. Thinking it would be a quick meeting, we left the camp stove on so the water would reach a boil. I know. Big mistake. But I wasn’t really thinking. And even if I was thinking, I’m not convinced I would have known better, anyway.

With the stove set to high, the water started boiling pretty quickly. During the Troop assembly, I forgot about the Dutch Oven. We took our time getting back to our campsite. When we did finally make it back, I was shocked to discover that all of the water had evaporated and the camp stove was just burning the burnt food even more. Our Dutch Oven was a carbonized, unusable mess.

I went to the adult leaders. They asked David to come to see if there was any way he could help salvage the Dutch Oven. Late into the evening, we scrubbed and scraped and rinsed. At one point, as we started to make some progress, he stopped, looked up at me, and chuckled, saying,

“Don’t ever do this again.”

Then he continued scrubbing and scraping away.

cast-iron-skillet

This moment is etched in my memory. I think of it every time I cook with cast iron. In my mind’s eye, he looks up at me and says “Don’t ever do this again.” Then I chuckle and go back to cleaning the skillet or Dutch Oven. It reminds me of his servant’s heart. And the more I look back at those middle school and early high school days, the more I realize I really looked up to him.

Things will be different now.

In the early hours of Sunday, November 13, David, his mother, and one of his daughters died in a horrific traffic accident. They were on their way home from an amazing, season-ending performance at the Bands of America Grand Nationals here in Indianapolis.

Since learning of the news, I’ve seen countless testimonies about how David led worship with all of his heart, ushering others before the Throne and joining them in praise to Our Father. I’ve been reminded of how passionate he was when he directed a choir. And I can only imagine what kind of choir music he might be directing in heaven. What a glorious sound that would be.

David Rinehart leading worship
image via the Crossroads Youth Choir & Babd facebook page

After seeing David kneeling down with a servant’s heart, I hope I see this image in my mind’s eye the next time I’m cooking with cast iron. I hope to see him leading worship with everything that was within him. Maybe I’ll even catch a hint of the melody. And I’m sure I’ll have to swing and sway along with the beat. Just like he did.

In that moment, I will remember that there will be a day when He will wipe away every tear, as I shed a tear of my own. And I will long for a day when there will be no more death, no more mourning. No more crying or pain. I will see the beauty that will rise out of these ashes.

But for now…Now I weep. I weep for a man I haven’t seen in over a decade, but who had a much larger impact on my life than I ever realized. And I know he touched countless others with his life, too. So I join the chorus of those countless others, saying (or singing) the words that I long to hear someday. I am confident he heard these words early that Sunday morning.

“Well done, David. Well done.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me. I think I need to find a cast iron skillet and fix some dinner tonight.

A few Septembers to remember

septembers-to-remember

September is a strange month for me. I’ve already talked about how September 11 is a mixture of laughter and sorrow in our house, thanks to our new family traditions. And, of course, there’s the anniversary of bringing Mihret home from Ethiopia. But there’s also a series of days in September that lead me to some self-reflection, contemplation, prayer, and even a little bit of dreaming. These anniversaries aren’t necessarily things I celebrate. They turned my world and my family’s world upside down. But I think they’re worth discussing,

September 1999

I did not attend Milligan with the intent of going into Youth Ministry. I don’t know what I really thought I was going to do with my Ministry degree, but youth ministry really wasn’t in my plan. Thanks to the recommendation of one of my professors, a church search committee approached me. Would I consider moving to Kentucky to take over the ministry programming from preschool thru college-aged students?

i’d recently graduated. I was a newlywed. And this position kind of fell into my lap. OK, it didn’t exactly fall into my lap. It wasn’t handed to me. I had to go through the interviews. We had to go through the process. But it was clear that doors were opening. So, although it was never part of my grand plan, I became a Youth Minister and moved our tiny little family of two to central Kentucky in early 1999.

It was clear from the beginning that I didn’t know what I was doing. Really. I can say that with almost two decades of analysis. I was ill-equipped. I can’t blame my alma mater for that. I just didn’t pay much attention to anything anyone said about youth ministry during my ministry-related classes because I was convinced I wasn’t going into youth ministry after college.

I was wrong. And it showed.

Christy tried to help me as much as she could. The staff tried to help me as much as they could. But in the end, there were too many unsaid, unmet, and unrealistic expectations. I had them. So did the Board. And so in early September, 1999, the Elders and I agreed that we should part ways.

This hurt in a lot of ways. This might be one of my biggest regrets. In retrospect, I believe things could have changed. Everything could have improved. And if I could go back and change things, I probably would. I was already emotionally exhausted just a few months into this ministry. So I left. And it hurt.

But I learned a lot from it. I was more confident than ever in my calling into some type of full time pastoral work. So I started addressing some organizational and administrative issues. I also talked to other youth ministers, attended some conferences, and had a better vision of what I thought a dynamic, impacting youth ministry would look like. And so I approached my next ministry position with a fresh outlook and renewed vigor.

September 2002

After everyone survived the Y2K non-disaster, I joined the ministry staff of a church in the Indianapolis area. With a great group of adult volunteers, some strong student leaders, and a passion to impact Indy, we made a difference. We went on a mission trip to serve a ministry reaching the Navajo nation. We began a student-led Sunday night worship service that was pretty fabulous. We hosted Christian concerts. We attended CIY’s summer conferences and Believe conferences. We had a written purpose and Vision. An abandoned firehouse was transformed into a student outreach center. Teens were getting baptized. Lives were being changed. I was turning down job opportunities at other churches. Things were clicking on all cylinders.

Then the wheels fell off.

Administrative issues kept rearing their ugly heads. Instead of addressing them head-on, I just pretended they didn’t exist. I wasn’t spending enough time with some of our students. Some parents were upset. That got other people upset. Including my immediate supervisor.

Bada-bing, Bada-boom…

I left the Student Ministry position in September, 2002. I felt betrayed, alone, and uncertain what to do next.

The Interim

I found myself questioning God quite a bit during this time. While I told my youth ministry kids, “Don’t give up on the church,” I have to admit that I was close to doing that myself. We tried attending churches nearby. We were always met by former members from my former employer. “What are you doing here?” they would ask, oblivious of the events that had recently transpired. It was a completely innocent question, but it cut like a knife.

Every. single. Sunday.

We eventually found a church in Fishers. It was a small church plant with big dreams. It was a place where we could get plugged in, but we could also start the healing process. It was like a soothing balm for our hurting souls.

Christy and I had two very young kids by this point. I did whatever I could to provide for them. I worked in warehouses. I managed a pizza joint. I was a substitute teacher. We moved in with my father in law for what was supposed to be just a month or two. Maybe three. It eventually turned into two years. I still attended conferences. I got some counseling. I learned some organizational tools that still help me today.

We knew this was just a season. But I’m not going to lie. It was hard. I had interview after interview. Christy and I wound up visiting all kinds of churches all over the place: from Iowa to Florida.

Nothing.

To make a long story short, we returned to Upper East Tennessee. I enrolled in seminary to solidify whatever cracks may have surfaced in my ministry foundation.

September 2011

After Christy earned her M.Ed degree at ETSU and I had completed three years of seminary, we started to sense that our season in Tennessee’s fair eastern mountains was coming to a close. In the Summer before what was going to be my final year in seminary, we loaded up a moving van, hugged some dear friends, and waved goodbye to Johnson City. I had accepted a preaching position in a small church south of Muncie, Indiana. It was a homecoming, of sorts. And because of a series of events that included some wide open doors and some doors that had been slammed shut, I was confident we were where God had led us. I think it’s safe to say, though, that I never really felt at home there.

Some great things happened during that ministry. There were some pretty high highlights. I baptized Aiden and Alyson there. But I’m not going to lie. It was a rocky time. Whenever I’d get together with other pastors from the area, someone would always wind up saying, “I can’t believe you’ve stuck around with them this long.” And this was without telling them anything that had been going on.

I’m not gong to lie. I questioned God. A lot. Why would God lead me somewhere like this? There were days when it felt like I couldn’t do anything to ever satisfy some people in the congregation. I felt like a punching bag sometimes.

But when you look at people like Jeremiah, Elijah, and even Moses, it’s important to remember that “calling” does not always equal “fun times.” Sometimes God asks us to do things we don’t really want to do. And since I was still sure that God had led us to East Central Indiana, I needed to stop complaining and keep doing my best to reach our community. But I quietly looked around for other opportunities.

I stuck around with them for four years before they decided they’d had enough of me. It was pretty apparent early on that I wasn’t going to retire there. I was never going to be seen as a “local.” I saw first hand how the stereotypes about small churches might be more true than we want to admit. And there was plenty of talk about people and their problems instead of talking to them. And very little was actually decided upon by those in leadership. People just kind of did what they wanted to do and claimed the leadership had agreed to it. And that worked because nobody really knew what they really did or didn’t agree to do.

It is no secret that I was not surprised when they fired me. But it still hurt. A lot. The sense of betrayal cut deep. I could go into details, but I won’t. Let’s just say that it took a long time for those wounds to heal. It honestly took a good teeth-kicking.

Moving on

Things have certainly changed over the years since we were pushed out of Eacst Central Indiana. Our family has grown. I’ve picked up marketing/PR skills and experience. I know who I am. And I know Whose I am. That’s where I find my satisfaction and worth. I don’t need a title or position to have meaning.  Although I do preach in some area churches on occasion, I’ve moved on.

I’ve moved on.

Do I question my calling? Nope. I believe God used me in each of those ministry situations. I also firmly believe that He is using me right here where I am now. And that isn’t in the pulpit.

Every once in a while, someone will ask me if I plan on returning to the pulpit full-time. I say that I’m not against it. But it will require a giant neon sign floating in the sky that refers to me by name with a very specific set of instructions.

And I’m only half joking.

After seeing the dark underbelly of, for lack of a better word, church “politics,” you might wonder what I think about church in general. I think it could be argued that I’m even more dedicated tot he ministry of the church throughout the world, I’m spite of my not-so-positive experiences. In reality, all of us are messed up. And when messed up people get together, they’re likely to make messed up decisions and mess up some things along the way. That’s the beauty of the mission of God. He uses messed up people with messed up lives to accomplish His plan.

Don’t believe me?

There are countless examples in the Bible. If you need for me to, I can spell them out for you. If I was still preaching regularly, it would make a great sermon series. Maybe I’ll just write a book instead.

Hey, that’s not a bad idea. I don’t think I need a neon sign for that one.

C is for Cross

C is for Cross - A to Z Challenge 2016

There is a deep, rich Christian tradition in Ethiopia. Assuming what we read about the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 is correctly understood to mean what we know today as Ethiopia (apparently there’s some debate that it could have been a court official from the area now known as Sudan), Christianity was present in Ethiopia in the first century. And in reality, the link between Ethiopia and the children of Israel goes even farther back than that. But that’s for a later post (like, maybe J is for…). For now, I wan to focus on the crosses in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian crosses are beautiful. If I understood correctly while I was in Ethiopia a few months ago, there are four different styles of cross designs in Ethiopia. And the four different designs come from four different regions of Ethiopia. Of all of the different styles of crosses that you find in Ethiopia, this one is my favorite:

Ethiopian cross

Kind of looks like a key, right? That’s by design. It’s a reminder that the cross is the key that opens Heaven’s doors.

How cool is that?

The cross is our entry into heaven!

We can get so distracted by “churchy” things that we forget to keep the main thing the main thing. That’s one of the reasons we have this cross hanging on our wall. It’s a reminder that everything changes because of what was done on the cross some 2000 years ago. It’s not some magic talisman or merely a trinket to revere. It’s a tangible reminder of the work that was done on a hill called Calvary.

I could get all preachy here, but I won’t. Just remember that the cross is the key. And because of that key, God is doing a new thing with His new creation.

K is for ‘Koinonia’

K is for Koinonia #AtoZChallenge

Summer in the Son (aka SITS) at Kentucky Christian College (now known as Kentucky Christian University) was an annual tradition for our youth group while I was in high school. In fact, it looks like it’s still an annual tradition for them.

My experiences at SITS were highlights of my high school career. I guess you could call Summer in the Son an Ebenezer in my life. During my Freshman year, I was on the team that won the conference’s volleyball championship. Later on (possibly the year before my Junior year), I had the honor of standing up with one of my friends and watch him get baptized. I was introduced to the music of Rich Mullins, DC Talk, A-180 (later known as Audio Adrenaline), and Al Denson. There are some days where I think about songs like Be the One

and Beyond Belief

…and I have a little tear well up in the corner of my eye. It’s not because the videos are so hokey. Don’t get me wrong. They are pretty hokey. But the tears well up because the music takes me back to that Ebenezer. And I remember where God had brought me. And how far He’s brought me since those five amazing Summer experiences.

Summer in the Son was where I was challenged to shock the world with the Good News.

At the end of each night, our youth group would meet in an upper room in the Chapel. We’d sit in a big circle and share highlights and lowlights from the day. We’d laugh. We’d cry. We’d open up. Some people would share some pretty deep secrets. There was a lot of praying. There was a lot of hugging. And more crying. And more hugging. And more praying. And it would go on for hours. It was pretty intense. There were many nights where we’d be late for curfew. But that was OK. Because something BIG was happening. And God was moving in some powerful ways.

It was known as koinonia – “fellowship.”

There are very few moments since my SITS days that I’ve really, truly, experienced a deep connection with so many people on such a strong, personal level. I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit was working on us and through us during those intimate moments in the upper room.

I’m thankful for these moments in my past. I’m thankful for the adults who were there and prayed with us, prayed for us, listened to us, and supported us. I’m thankful for the other students who were there and for the bond we continue to share. I’m thankful for the grace that was showered upon us. I’m thankful for the unconditional love that we encountered each night. I’m thankful for the healing that began and the friendships that grew.

I’m thankful for the way God uses simple, no-frill meetings like our koinonia sessions and turns them into something that’s life-changing.

**I’m participating in the April A to Z Challenge. This post is part of that endeavor. You can see my other entries to this year’s challenge here. A lot of people are doing the same thing. You should check out some of their posts!**

Egyptian Christians, St. Bartholomew, and counting the cost

In light of recent news of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt because of their faith, I was reminded of something that I had written 10 years ago for a church history class while in seminary. It was a meditation based on the painting of St. Bartholomew. Christian tradition says that Bartholomew the Apostle was martyred for his faith. It was a brutal execution.

St. Bartholomew

You can read the whole devotional thought here, if you’re really interested. It’s OK if you aren’t. That’s not really the reason I’m writing today.

I really want to share one of the meditation’s final paragraphs. Because the point is just as important today as it was when I wrote it ten years ago.

The image of St. Bartholomew calls upon us to pray for the persecuted church around the world.  It tells us the story of the millions of Christians who have given their lives for the sake of Christ and His kingdom.  It is a startling reminder that the price of following Jesus Christ is not cheap.  It is not a road that will be traveled lightly.  There will be trials and persecution of all kinds.  In the end, it could cost the believer everything – including the loss of life.  It is the example of St. Bartholomew that encourages the believer to press on towards the prize, knowing full well the costs involved.  It is with that same confidence that we face the perils of following the Lord of all things.

I think these martyred Egyptian Christians do the exact same thing. While the nations rage and come up with a fitting response to these barbaric acts, let us count the cost and take up the cross with reckless abandon. Let us live in boldness, full of hope, joy, and love, as we press on towards Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

I know it’s not easy. I’m not pretending it is. But this is how we are going to change the world, my friends.

A former pastor’s plea: Encourage your pastor.

Recently, I found myself looking through some archived emails of mine. I was searching for an old piece of information. I don’t remember what I needed, exactly. But I remember that I needed the information for some type of job application.

Mr Popular

During my quest, I stumbled upon some conversations that happened during the years I was pastoring that small church in East Central Indiana. While I believe I have completely moved on from that experience, having let go of whatever bitterness I had harbored (remember when God kicked me in the teeth?), I’m not gonna lie. Reading some of those emails hurt my heart.

Not one of the emails I had read was positive. My inbox was full of messages that pointed out what I wasn’t doing right. They focused on the negative. Not one of the 8-10 emails that I skimmed had a positive comment. That still hurts my heart.

It hurts my heart because I know I’m not the only pastor to have received emails like this. It hurt my heart because I know that many pastors have received emails like that this week. Maybe even today. And at the same time, they haven’t received any words of encouragement. I know it’s easier to point out areas improvement instead of talking about what was done well, but a constant barrage of negativity, continually hearing things like…

“You didn’t do _________.”
or
“You forgot to pray for _________.”
or
“Why haven’t you brought more young families to our church?”
or
“We’re not growing. What are you going to do about it?”
or
“Why haven’t you visited _________ yet? She’s had a hangnail on her pinky for a week!”  – OK. I’m only half joking about this last one. You’d be amazed at how some people get worked up about the silliest of things, though.

A constant barrage of negative attitudes, criticisms, and complaints with no reprieve can wear you out. Pastoring can be a lonely profession. Being a recipient of such discouraging messages over and over again only makes things even more isolating.

It’s no wonder so many people walk away from the pastorate.

I know this isn’t the goal of most people who complain and gripe and criticize. But it happens. And this isn’t healthy. There’s already a spiritual battle taking place around our church leaders. Let’s try to minimize casualties due to friendly fire, shall we? So let’s do something about it. Let’s all work on being an encouragement to our pastors and anyone else in church leadership positions.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up - 1 Thessalonians 5:11

This month is Pastor Appreciation Month. It’s a good time to start fixing this heartbreaking trend. But please don’t stop when the calendar switches to November.

Here are some ways you can encourage your pastor all year long:

1.) Send a note.

You have no idea how much impact a simple note or card can have. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. All it really needs to say is “You’re doing a good job,” or something like “I appreciate you because _______” or even a simple “Thank you.” These simple gestures don’t take very much time but they are powerful.

I used to keep a “Feel Good” folder tucked away in my files. Whenever I was having a really tough day, I would pull that out and look through a couple of the notes and cards I’d received over the years. These items are always a beacon of light whenever times are tough and it feels like the darkness is creeping in.

2.) Watch what you say.

There are times you have to be critical. I get that. I understand that. Criticism isn’t a bad thing. It’s important. It helps people grow and improve. We have to help each other get better. It’s part of how iron sharpens iron.

BUT…

Don’t let the only things that come out of your mouth be negative. Consider following this rule: for every criticism/complaint/negative comment you make, say three positive things. It might sound silly, but it’s a simple reminder to keep our eyes on the positive.

And even when you need to say something critical, make sure you’re still speaking life. We are called to be life-givers. Not soul-suckers.

Speak life. In all you do and say, speak life.

3.) Help protect your pastor’s family.

Pastoring is tough. It can be even tougher on a pastor’s family. Family Life has some pretty good suggestions about how you can encourage your pastor by helping to protect your pastor’s family.

4.) Bring a guest.

You want to make your pastor’s day? Maybe even your pastor’s month? Invite a guest to participate in a worship service with you. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. You don’t even have to introduce your guest to the pastor. If you’re part of the majority of churches in America, your pastor is probably begging you to bring a friend some Sunday. Imagine what an encouragement it would be if your pastor found out that you did what you were asked to do!

Avoiding friendly fire.

When I was ordained 15 years ago, I remember being told by a few people during the service that I was now a “marked man.” In other words, we are in the midst of a spiritual war and choosing to step into a role as a church leader means that you’ve decided to allow a giant target to be placed upon you. Satan wants to see the Church destroyed. A great way to do that is by destroying her leaders.

I firmly believe that a spiritual war is waging all around us. As we are fighting in this war, however, let’s make sure that the target that’s on our leaders doesn’t get moved to their backs. Let’s avoid wounding our pastors with friendly fire.

I’m open to suggestions!

What are you going to do to encourage your pastor this week? These four ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. I’d love to hear your suggestions. We’re all on the same side. Let’s work together to encourage and lift up our church leaders in ways they’ve never experienced before! When we do that, we’ll have a tiny part in changing the world.

I admit that I haven’t been as good at being an encouragement to my church leaders and pastors as I should be. So while I’m waiting for your awesome suggestions, I’m going to go sit down and write some notes to some members of our church staff.

I hope you’ll join me.

Finishing sentences

A few days ago, I asked this question on the Life in the Fishbowl facebook page:

“Pick a number between 1 and 449.”

I know. I know. An odd request. But here’s the results – 303, 52, 225, 322, 352, and pi. I know. I know. Everyone’s a comedian.

And now you’re asking, “So what?”

I know. I would be, too. In fact, I probably would’ve stopped reading this post by now because it really isn’t making any sense. Fortunately, I’m going to change that right about…now.

The method to my madness

Back when I was doing youth ministry full-time, one of my favorite games to play was “Would you rather…” Someone would pick a number and I’d read the number’s corresponding question. Stuff like, “Would you rather fly or read minds?” People who would rather fly would go to the left side of the room and people who would rather read minds would gather in the right side of the room. It was a great way to learn how other people in our ministry thought. What was important to them? What made their minds tick? It also opened the door to some more important questions later down the road.

I also had a list of unfinished sentences. I used it on occasion, but not nearly as often. I probably should’ve used it as my go-to tool because there’s a lot of potential in those questions.

Sentences

I rediscovered the unfinished sentences and thought it would be an interesting exercise for this blog. Each week for the next several weeks, I’m going to finish one of the unfinished sentences that everyone picked when they chose their numbers.

You’re invited

This could be a fun writing exercise and should help force me to stretch a little out of my comfort zone. But it doesn’t have to be limited to me. You’re invited to join in the process. Each Monday, I’ll post the unfinished sentence for the week. If the unfinished sentence inspires you to write something, I’d love to share it. Feel free to send it to me and I’ll publish it here. I’m also going to encourage my family to write their thoughts, too.

I’m looking forward to doing this and I hope you are too. This could be pretty fun.

And just to make life easier for you, here’s the list of unfinished sentences that were chosen. That way, if you read one that sparks your interest, you have time to write it ahead of time.

The Schedule

  • June 30 “It’s difficult for me to have disciplined, consistent time with God because…” (#303)
  • July 7 “Next year looks better to me because…” (#52)
  • July 14 “If I could change one thing about the way I was raised, it would be…” (#225)
  • July 21 “The roadblocks that keep me from having greater faith in God are…” (#322)
  • July 28 “My friends pressure me to…” (#352)
  • August 4 “When I need to go somewhere to think, I will most often…”
    – or –
    “The one think I could do this week to strengthen the spiritual foundation of my life is…” (#3 or #314 – aka pi)

Are you ready? Let’s do this!

Update (July 16, 2014)

Did I mention that those dates weren’t set in stone? I’m going to follow the sequence of questions, but don’t expect one every Monday. That original schedule might have been a bit ambitious for the middle of the summer with all of the family activities that have been happening.