Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Destruction of Innocence

When I was in Kindergarten, I watched as the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded on a live feed in front of millions of school children.  And innocence was lost.

Throughout my high school days, our small town high school saw an extraordinarily large number of deaths among our students- nearly a dozen over four years from a high school that had about two hundred and thirty.  And innocence was lost.

In November of 1999, I was awoken to a fearful call from my mother, making sure I was not on the Bonfire stack that had fallen the night before on the A&M campus.  Twelve students lost their lives, many more injured, and a university culture was forever changed.  And innocence was lost.

Less than two years later, on a clear September morning, a handful of airplanes destroyed a nation's innocence and trust- in many ways we became a nation of fear.

But what happened on Friday in Newtown, Connecticut is more than a loss of innocence.  It is a total, absolute destruction of it.  There have been shootings, and school shootings even, but none like this.  Twenty children, babies really, are dead.  Those that lived now face life having faced an act so evil, so vile, no one could imagine it even possible.  I mean, who could think it possible to point a gun at one seven year old after another and shoot to kill?

And we must not forget the six adults who were simply following their calling, taking a deep breath before the week to come that was the last week before Christmas.  It's a week of joy and chaos rolled into one that they will never see.

We are good at blame in America.  I've heard the lax gun laws blamed.  Connecticut's governor blamed violent video games.  Surely some are blaming the parents of this killer- even though the mother is one of his victims.  There has blame placed on schools for "removing God" from their campuses.  We want to know who is at fault, we want to know that there is a reason, and we want to reason to be so far from who we are as individuals to remind us that we could never be capable of such evil.

Oh, but we are.

We are every bit as capable of such evil.  But each day we choose not to act in such a manner.  We fight against the subtle temptations that build up to a cacophony of urgings.  We say no to the voice that whispers to us to do evil.

Somewhere along the way, Adam Lanza stopped saying no.

Maybe it will come to light he was crazy or on something that drove him to this.  But I believe he could have been stopped- by himself.  He chose to do this, not Friday morning when he woke up, but with small decisions all along the way leading up to yesterday.

"So," some will ask, "Where is God?"  It's a good question.  Why did He not intervene?  Why did He allow innocent children to die physically while others died emotionally and spiritually watching their friends and teachers die?  Why, on the same day in China, did He allow another twenty two children to be cut by another person wielding a knife in their school?  Why, for that matter, does God allow evil at all?

It's time we owned up to the fact that it doesn't make sense, and we cannot now, nor will we ever, be able to explain it.

It sure looks like God let us down Friday.  Many atheists will hold that tragedy up as an example of how there is no God.  And it sure looks like good evidence.

But, then there is Vicki Soto.

I do not know Ms. Soto's spiritual condition, but she was evidence of God.  She hid her students, she placed herself between them and the killer, and she took a bullet for them.  She died so that they may live.

 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.-- John 15:13

And we are celebrating Christmas in a week and a half.  I've heard so many news reporters comment on how this situation is such a painful moment in a time meant to be joyous.  But we are forgetting something:

If not for the death of the innocent Jesus on the cross and His resurrection, there would be no reason for joy this season.

Yes, Jesus was an innocent like these children.  Yes, there was just one of Him and He was an adult.  But He was more innocent than these children.  And God was involved in His death- so that we could live.

So, this tragedy does not ruin the joyous nature of the season- it reminds me of the grace of God that has before used the slaughter of the innocent to make things right.

It hurts right now- even for those far off and detached.  I cannot imagine or fathom the pain in Newtown today.  I will not tell them it will be alright- I will not offer them hollow platitudes or straw men to attack in the form of guns or games or "no God in schools."  I will pray, I will mourn with them.

And I will remember that Jesus Himself said on the cross- "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

It sure seems that way today, doesn't it?  So, I will not defend God and His action/inaction Friday.  For one, thing, He does not need my defense.  For another, I am incapable of explaining God's will.

But I do know that there has been unspeakable tragedy before, and I know that He can heal us if we let Him.  It will not come quickly or easily, but we can know healing and peace.

I simply pray that this tragedy will serve to wake all of us up to the frailty of life.  To the brevity of it.  And to the need to find hope at all costs.

And remember that often hope does not make sense.  It goes against what we are able to reason and understand.  And if we hold on to that strange hope, it is faith.

The kind of faith that can help us all survive the destruction of innocence.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Leaving the Ministry to Save My Faith

I believe everyone is born an idealist.

Everyone has plans, grand and glorious.  The unfortunate people have those hopes dashed pretty quickly by a terrible luck of the draw with parents or homes or illnesses that destroy.  The slightly more fortunate ones make it to school where bullies and standardized tests chip away at the positivity.  If you make it to college, it generally gets renewed- but then real life puts the choke hold on idealism once again when careers and family obligations stack up.

The really lucky ones are idealists well into their kids teenage years.  Having been a youth minister for seven years, I know first hand the face of dying idealism in a teenager's parent.

At some point, all of us see our dreams die.  But a real idealist will find a way to resurrect that dream, that hope, that call.

Idealism, really, is about an unwillingness to let the core call and dream of you life stay dead.

I began my ministry career- or accepted the call to ministry in church speak- the summer after my sophomore year at A&M sitting beside a stream in Research Park.  The call was clear and specific- God wanted me to go to the ones others would not.

Over the next seven years, I found myself spending time with students that others overlooked.  Befriending them, and disciplining them, and loving them.  In 2007, God called again to plant a church in a bar in College Station to reach college students others missed.  In September of 2008, the Gate met for the first time at Hurricane Harry's.  It has been our home since then.

It was idealistic, for sure.  A church with no funding, no backing, no members, and a handful of adults with no advertising and intended to be led by college students.  One pastor told me point blank it wouldn't work.

He was wrong.

It did- not perfectly by any means, but it grew and deepened and survived.  We saw students come and go, some stayed and became leaders.  They too would eventually leave for jobs and marriage and life.  We reached some students that had seen the church turn their back on them, or at least lose sight of them.  We were like a family.  We saw God do things- never huge things, but good things.  Idealistically, we saw a big breakthrough around every corner.

But it never came.

And people kept graduating, and being called on to new things.  And we began to shrivel a bit.

I held on to idealism, and hope, and stubborn unwillingness to let it go.  We tried to revamp and restart, but it never caught on.  And I grew weary.  And I grew spiritually apathetic.

See, every minister reaches a point when their church threatens to become their lesser god.  At that moment they have choice to choose to seek God at the risk of their church, or let the lesser god suck their true faith.

I am at that crossroads.  For the last year or so, every scripture I have read, every insight I've grasped has been funneled into the leadership of the Gate- to the detriment of my personal relationship with Christ.  Over the last few months, I've awoken to realize my lesser god is not worthy of the attention that should go to the One True God.

My church is good, but it is not God.

I've taken stock of the people who make up the Gate.  They are good people, they are growing in their faith, and they deserve a leader who is passionate about God.  I'm not right now.  But I need to be.

Our church will close on November 18.  We will still meet in our small group for the time being, we will still spend time together and seek Christ together.  Because we are still and will always be a family.

God is calling me to a speaking and writing ministry, but before that happens, I need to get right with God.  It will hurt to end something that has been so dear to me- but my church is just a thing.  The people who make it up will still be a part of my life, so it is not a sad ending.

The church never did all things I dreamed it would.  It never got huge, it never did a ton of cool ministry things.  But it was not a failure.

It helped people find Christ again.  My daughter was baptized in this church.  I have been challenged and encouraged and tested by this church.  I have failed some- but in the end, God has shown me victory.

I am leaving the ministry to save my faith.

I will not be gone forever, and when I return, it will be different.  I will have new dreams, new plans, new hopes.

Idealism reborn- as authored by God.

As soon as I find Him again.  Shouldn't be long, because even though I've lost sight of Him, He's never lost me.

The Gate was a good thing, but it was a lesser thing.  It got in the way of God- the greatest thing.  I've grown bored of the lesser thing, and hunger for God is beginning to grow.

For those who are a part of the Gate now- or ever have been, we are still on this journey with Christ together, even though the Gate is ending.  We will still walk closely together as long as possible, it will just look different.  I'm sorry for the ways I've failed you, thankful for the things I've learned from you, and expectant to see the good things God did in you that I got to be a part of building.

We are all born idealist.  Then, idealism dies so it can be reborn as something better- hope.  And faith.  Faith in Christ our Savior- a greater thing than any that has come before or will ever come.

Please, pray for me and each other as we all move forward in pursuit of Christ.

May God bless you all.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Lie of Nostalgia

I never played High School Football, but it is on my mind a lot on Fridays in the Fall.  Especially certain Fridays, when the air is cool, it's about 4:30 in the afternoon, and there is a smell in the air that belongs to something, but I have no idea what it is.  In these moments, my mind runs back to October nights fifteen years ago when my sleepy little home town got real quiet in the hours before it exploded with life to cheer on their Panthers at Chambliss Field.

It was the best thing about small town Texas football, and I miss that feeling.

Of course, that is just one of a thousands things that fall under the category of "the good old days."  Those days you never really appreciated until they are gone- like the fun of High School, the freedom of College, the money you had before you spent it all on spouses and kids.

Who among us hasn't wished for a return to something, some time, that was better than 'today?'  I do it all the time.  Now, I love where things are right now, but I'd be dishonest if I said there were not some significant things I wish would "go back to the way they used to be."

Chief among those things is my desire to return to the way my spiritual life was when I was in college.

I was passionate, I was bold, I was trusting of God and my relationship with Him.  Faith came easy to me.  Except when it came to dating- never had much faith there.  Thankfully, God provided my wife, not me.  But I was the guy who never missed a daily time in prayer and scripture- and mostly it was deep and meaningful. I never struggled with consistency, and I always had time to spend with God.  I knew what I stood for, and the world was black and white.

But, things changed.  More people told me "You can't do that," than told me "All things are possible."  More of the things I believed with ease came up against walls not easily demolished or scaled.  Black and white smudged to gray more often than not.  I got married and had kids, got out of full time paid ministry, started a church in a bar, endured four years at a job I hated, and spent a lot of time begging for God's rescue that seemed to never come.

I didn't have the time I had for God, and when I did, I had/have struggles with faith that are new to me.  Struggles like "I trust you God, but I don't trust that your plan is that I will win out in this."  In college, I believed that if God gave me a plan, it would be successful.  I've since learned that sometimes God gives us plans destined to fail because He is disciplining us- Hebrews 12 has a lot to say on that.  It's fair to say I've become jaded and cynical- and not in a fun way.

So, I find myself nostalgic for the days when it was easier, when my relationship with God was simple and easy.  The lie of nostalgia is that if we could only go back to the way things were, things would be better.

It's true if we could actually go back, but we can't.  There is that old proverb- "A man cannot jump into the same river twice, for the river has changed and so has the man."  For better or worse, we are not and can never be again the person we once were.

I argue that we NEED to look at it as a "better" situation.

Sure, I had hope unbounded at 22.  At 32, hope is far less common, but it is hard fought and lacks the naivete that taints that young hope- with hindsight, of course.  Faith was easy back then, and that made life good.  But it also was from a life untested.  It's easy to have faith when you've never failed.  It is easy to have faith when there are few voices telling you "no,"  especially when those that are are quiet whispers.

A lot of that faith I was so full of back then was injected with a healthy dose of arrogance, I must admit.  My faith was as much in myself as it was in God.  I've since learned that I am a failure, and have little to be arrogant about.  I recognize now, and not with hollow recognition, that I have gotten where I am by God's work and a little by my reaction to it.

I do wish, so very much, that I could chat with God like I used to.  That reading the Bible was as easy to do as it was before.  But I recognize that my relationship with God is just that:  a relationship.  And all relationships must grow and evolve over time as long as one of the people in the relationship is a human.  Because we change even if God doesn't.  I am different, I look at things differently now.  But I still trust in that one absolute that cannot ever change:

Jesus died for my sins, and rose so that I could live.

So, if I want to spend more time in the Word or in prayer, I need to look forward- not back to what I once did.  The way I once lived for God has led me to this moment, this time.  The way I once lived for God led me to grow and mature- I should not revert back to what I once was, no matter how good it felt.  That would defeat the purpose of a continued relationship with Christ.  He wants us to grow.  And when we fall into sin, He does not want us to loop back around to the "good" before - that means we are likely to fall into the same trap again- He wants us to grow into a new "good," one that is better than the previous.  It will not be easy- that's OK.  In fact, that's great.  Struggle with your relationship with God.  Question it.  Change your stance, your politics, your general (non-core) theology, your Bible Study habits.  But never change this:

Jesus died for my sins, and rose so that I could live.

And leave the nostalgic feelings for cool, October Fridays when you get a desire to relive High School days. Just don't try to relive them- because that would just be sad.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Gate Begins

"...but whatever your original intentions, you have become truly lost."
                                                                          -Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) to Bruce Wayne         
                                                          (Christian Bale) at the start of Batman's career in Batman BeginsI've never hidden the fact that I'm a huge Batman fan.  In 2005, Batman Begins began a movie trilogy that would contain some great quotes, and some pretty powerful life lessons that have impacted me greatly. 

The quote above has been rattling around in my head for a couple years now, in regards to the Gate, and my leadership of it.  We set out to create a church for a young generation, one that reached out to those that other churches couldn't or wouldn't.  We wanted to have open arms, but also hold tightly to the ways of Christ- and that might mean telling people that we would love them, in spite of their sins.  We would be a church that reached people, through service, and through missions, and through meeting them where they were in life.

We did some of that.  And at times, we saw a glimpse of what we were meant to do.  We saw wonderful work done through Big Event, or through sitting at a bar talking with people, or in our one on one discipleship.  We had good services at Hurricane Harry's and we grew...sort of.

But something has felt wrong for a while.  Something has felt...hollow.

We started the Gate because of a hatred for the hollowness many young people felt from church.  Hatred of a culture within the church that created 'pew fillers' or warm bodies that never did anything that connected to Christ or demonstrated Him to the world.  We started the Gate because we loved Christ and wanted to see His love shared with a potent and powerful generation of potential believers.  We started the Gate because we believed God was calling us to College Station to start a church in a bar to be on the frontlines of Christ's battle for the souls of college students and young adults.  We started the Gate to be a part of God's movement and passion and hope for the world.

But we- rather, I- have become truly lost.

I have become convinced that many pastors, and thus, many churches, either sell out to become palatable to the masses and the church establishment, or they burn out trying to change the world.  The few who don't do either of those things, they become something different. 

They become symbols of Christ that our world desperately needs.

It is my desire that our church will be a symbol- 2 Corinthians 5 would say "ambassador"- of Christ to our world.  And our world, is Bryan College Station.

But for our church to become that symbol, we must all- starting with me- be a living symbol of Christ.  The kind of people who others can see a difference in.  Not because of a bumper sticker or t-shirt or necklace, but because of a compassion, a love, a joy that overflows, and a readiness to admit our mistakes when we do fail.

Being a symbol is not at all about individuals or churches becoming famous or celebrities.  In fact, if that happens, I'd argue we can't be that symbol.  Instead, being a symbol of Christ is all about acknowledging that you are less, and He is more.

In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne says he wants to take a symbol, and chooses a bat.  But that is not the symbol he creates.  People do not begin to change because he is a bat- they change because of the content of his actions- he is a symbol of justice.

The Gate, or any church, is the bat costume we put on.  Our true symbol must be Christ- that must be what people see when they look at us.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Just Because"

One of the things I've enjoyed most about my current situation is the time I get to spend with Kenna.  When Leslie was little, I was in the ministry full time and had a pretty lax schedule.  But we moved before Kenna was one, and her personality appeared while I was at work.  I've always regretted that I didn't get to spend the same time with her that I did Leslie, so this has given me an opportunity to change that.  Like yesterday, we sat down to lunch together while she watched My Little Pony.

And this morning.  I was driving her to Mother's Day Out, and we were making small talk.  For some reason, I asked, "Do you love me?"  Not sure why, really.

"Yes, Daddy," she responded, with a don't-you-know attitude.

Then, and I really don't know why I asked this, "Why do you love me?"  This is a dangerous question for a man to ask any woman, even his daughter.

She kinda giggled, and smiled, and said, "Just because."

In my rational mind, that wasn't an answer.  "Just because what?"

Still smiling, but with a firmness of a resolved answer, she said, "Just because."

(Now, the though process that I'm about to share took all of a second to go down.  I say that not to brag about my lightspeed thought process, but to point out exactly how quickly this went down.  Also to explain that my mind works that way to anyone who has ever been in a conversation with me and I said something that seemed random- I just made really quick though adjustments and didn't tell you.)

I grew a little irritated.  I wanted to know why she loved me.  For whatever reason, we humans need to qualify things.  We can't just say we love something, we have to prove why.  It's true in our tastes for food, for our political preference, for our favorite movies, for our faith, and for our affections.  She couldn't love me "Just because."  

That was unconditional love.


That was unconditional love.   

That was the love that I was supposed to have for her.  And I do, but how often have I tried to qualify why I love her?  It's good things, like her creativity, her sense of humor and her beauty.  And for her sister, it is her mind, her athletic prowess and her beauty.  (Seriously, they are both gorgeous girls.)  It's other things for each of them (and for Kristin as well), but deep down I love them just because they are.  And she was saying she loves me just because I am.  

That's the kind of love we all long for.

That's the love that God offers us.  He says "I love you as you are.  I do not need you to be the smartest, the prettiest, the strongest, the most theological, the most faithful.  I don't even need you to be a good person.  I love you because you are.  Just because."

He does not love us for our quality- He loves us in spite of our lack of quality.  He doesn't love us because we are chaste or promiscuous, or because we are straight or gay, or because we are honest or liars, or because we are pacifists or murderous, or because we are Christian or Muslim or Atheist.  There are things He hopes we choose, paths and beliefs He wants us to hold, but He will not force us.  And if we choose His way, He is pleased and overjoyed and He loves us.  Any good we do should be just an expression of our appreciation.  If we go against Him, He is hurt, He is broken-hearted, and He acts in justice- and He loves us.  I believe even if we reject Him to point we go to Hell, He loves us- and He is devastated over our rejection of Him.  Because we are all His children.  He loves us. 

Just because.

I looked back at Kenna in the rearview mirror.  She sat there smiling and looking back.  She had no idea that God has just spoken to me through her.  "Hey, Kenna.  You know I love you, right?"


"Do you know why?"

She smiles and shakes her head "No."

"Just because."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Eulogy for the Gate

Last night, the Gate closed its doors.

It was just over four years ago that a handful of people gathered in my living room for burgers and to talk about a new church we were starting.  Some of those folks were still with us when we first walked into Hurricane Harry's for the first night of worship as the "church in a bar."  It was different and somewhat odd at first.  I'd frequently get migraines from the smell of old cigarette smoke that had dug itself into the walls.  It was hot in the summers, and cold in the winters.  Week in, week out we'd set up and tear down.  Sometimes it was one or two of us, sometimes four for set up, but it was always the whole church for tear down.  It was there that we first really began to bond.

Over the years, we added a few more people to the church.  By last night, we'd had almost a dozen different people lead worship from time to time, we'd had a half dozen nights where the students spoke, we'd observed the Lord's Supper through a night of music we called Restoration at least twelve times.  We'd served at Big Event- the service project A&M students do in March- three times.  The first time we found a home where the wife signed up without the husbands' knowledge.  So we moved a massive dog house across a mud filled yard that had just been trenched for new water lines.  We'd served at food pantries, and helped with a city-wide youth service that got rained out so it moved to a nearby church, despite the speakers and some of the bands leaving early.

We never figured out how to consistently get out sound system to work.

Those were the things we did, but they are not who we are.

Who we are is more complicated.  We are Baptist, Catholic, Anglican, Church of Christ, Methodist, Non-Denominational, Charismatic, and other things I can't recall.  We love sports, knitting, comic books, video games, working on computers, art, music, building things, playing games, serving people, and eating.  We were the cool kids in high school, we were the outcasts.  We were pastor's kids, we never went to church much.  We only listen to Christian music, we never listen to Christian music.  We are shy and reserved, cautious in beginning relationships, and averse to physical touch- we are boisterous and friendly and love to hug.  We like to talk and debate theology, we just like to rest on faith.

We are all sorts of people.

We are the in-between people.

And because the people we are is what the Gate is, the Gate is not dead.

Well, not permanently.

When the Gate began, we wanted it to be a church led by college students, but they would be acting pretty much just in the vision of we the leaders.  We wanted to reach students, we wanted to share Christ with them like Paul said- " I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means  I might save some. (paraphrased)" - 1 Corinthians 9:23.  But we had trouble getting into the mindset of college students.

So, why not let the students cast the vision?

To do this meant that there had to be major changes.  No slight and subtle shifts, it had to be fresh start to ingrain this mentality at birth.  The church needed to re-start, to re-boot.

To resurrect.

Like Christ died and lay in the grave for three days, the Gate died and will lay in the 'grave' for three months.  And then, on August 26, 2012, the church will rise.  We do not yet know what she will look like, how she will act.  We know her theology, her place of meeting and her name, but the rest is still in the hearts of the students and young adults who are starting this church with us.

The Gate is the people who are inhabited by the Holy Spirit and connected to each other by this community called the Gate.

And that is why we yet live!