God’s Reassuring Presence

I’ve just wrapped up preaching a four-week series on the “4 G’s” (originally from the book by Tim Chester entitled You Can Change). These four truths are:

  • God is Great… so you don’t have to be in control
  • God is Good… so you don’t have to look elsewhere
  • God is Glorious… so you don’t have to fear others
  • God is Gracious… so you don’t have to prove yourself

Every time I preach or speak about these four truths I am reminded of just how much energy I put into trying to take control of my life, satisfy my desires, look good in other people’s eyes, and prove myself (both to God and others). But I don’t feel guilt over this, rather I feel drawn to enter more fully into the life of God’s greatness, goodness, gloriousness, and grace. I find myself reassured by God’s presence.

Today I read from Psalm 139. Verses 1-6 in the Message translation read:

God, investigate my life;
    get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you;
    even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
    I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say
    before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
    then up ahead and you’re there, too—
    your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful—
    I can’t take it all in!

In one sense it can seem terrifying to ask the Righteous Judge to “investigate your life!” After all, no one can stand guiltless in such an investigation. But then the Psalmist immediately reminds us that God knows it all already, and God’s presence remains. God knows it all, the good and the bad, and through Jesus we are accepted as beloved children!

sea turtleIt is too wonderful for me as well! So my prayer is simply that I may continue to release control, be content with all that God has given, listen for God’s voice, and be reassured by the grace offered richly in my life. This is my prayer for you as well.

History and Place

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Reading the 110 year-0ld minutes from the Stanwood First Presbyterian Church – originally recorded in this place where I now sit reading on my Mac.

I’ve always loved history, and recently I’ve been captivated  by the history of the Stanwood and Camano Island area. There is a fabulous three-volume collection called the Stanwood Story that was published by the Stanwood-Camano News back in the 1970’s. I bought copies of it when I first moved to Stanwood and read through the first volume. I have finally gotten back around to reading it and I’ve made it all the way up to 1935. The pictures alone are captivating! The Presbyterian Church building makes a cameo in a few of the pictures over the years. But what is most intriguing to me is realizing that simply by moving here I am now part of the story of this place!

Of course the story within, under, and over the history of any place is the story of how God is working. So as I read, I love seeing the passing mentions to Reverend so-and-so being involved in something of sinificance. Usually it is mentioning the way a pastor helped out with a particular social need in the community or was a key member to start a new organization. Of course, the construction of a church building makes it into the narrative as well, but the “Church” is much more present throughout the story. And now, all these years later, we get to be a part of this as well.

Then there is the sense of connection to the Stanwood First Presbyterian Church. The building that we use now as our worship space is the same as theirs. And even though I came into the Presbyterian Church through the back door (so to speak – since I was not raised as a Presbyterian), when I find out about their history I feel like I am finding our more about my family history. So I find myself sitting at my laptop, reading the notes that were scrawled into the minutes of the first meetings of the the Stanwood First Presbyterian Church by the light of a lantern. It turns out that we had communion this month on March 5 – almost exactly 110 years since they had their first communion (March 3, 1907).

 

 

God’s Wrath?

stormI just finished reading a fascinating blog post by Michael Brendan Dougherty titled “This Election Is God’s Judgment On Us.” He wrote this on the eve of the general election, before anyone knew what the result would be. I feel like I need to preface any following comments by saying that I am not sharing this to express my thoughts on the results of the presidential election but rather to reflect on what brought us to the point that we are at in American politics. Neither is this intended to endorse the author – this is the first post that I have read from him so I don’t know where he stands on other issues.

Here is an excerpt from the end of his post:

So these are the last of tens of thousands of words I’ve written in the run-up to this wretched election. I have lost my illusions about my political allies. Everyone seems to recognize the world tipping into craziness, and they respond by holding on tighter to their own version of craziness. Maybe this is mine. Roll your eyes if you like. I no longer fear Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or their fans. This election has taught me to fear God.

I have often said publicly, and I will continue to say, that I do not believe that God deals with nations now in the same way that God did before Jesus came to make everyone part of the family. It seems that in the years that I have been alive, every time something bad happens to this country there is some “Christian” leader somewhere hollering that this was “God’s Wrath” upon our nation. I think that this is absurd! To me it is just as ridiculous as the claim that every time we get sick or hurt that God is punishing us for something that we have done.

I do, however, find the argument compelling that part of experiencing “God’s Wrath” on sin is experienced when God allows us to corporately pursue our own demented desires to their final conclusion. In other words, even though there are undoubtedly faithful individuals within any society, the society as a whole will still suffer when God allows the masses to pursue rebellion and rejection of God’s desires for humanity. The author seems to imply that our two major party candidates for this election are examples A and B of this phenomenon. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that I agree with all that is said in the referenced article, that is not my point. I don’t. In fact, if you have the time to read it I would love to hear some of your thoughts and reflections because I think it is very well written and worth further digestion. But I do believe that this election is likely to have a terribly negative effect on many of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, and perhaps even more around the world. This makes me grieve and also causes me to repent of the times when I have remained silent or sent a tweet when in fact I should’ve been more involved in doing God’s kingdom work.

Reflection: Four Years Into Planting a Church

boat-and-reflection-2-1450160In October of 2012 my job transitioned from the Youth Director at Mountain View Presbyterian Church to the Organizing Pastor of a New Church Development or “church plant” (also now called a “New Worshipping Community” in the Presbyterian Church). Next week our Presbytery will be voting to approve the chartering of Tidelands as an official congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Soon after, we will ordain and installed our first elders, and I will be called and installed as the first teaching elder (pastor).

What took so long?

Four years is a long time, but it sure doesn’t feel like it has been a long time. Maybe time just seems to go faster because I am getting older. Or maybe, it has something to do with the old saying “time flies when you are having fun!” It has been fun! Some might say it has been “hard,” but in my experience some of the most fun things are hard! In truth, this process has taken even longer than four years. The planning and discernment phase took over a year as well. Welcome to the world of thoughtful, intentional Presbyterian mission! I had a good friend jokingly say early on, “If we Pentecostals were planting a church in Stanwood the city would all be converted by now!”

The Model Determines the Pace

There are many models for planting a church. The important thing, in my opinion, is to pick the model that fits the mission, and not the other way around. Many church plants start with a “bang!” They first get facilities, staff, musicians, lots of advertising, lots of lay leaders, and then do a grand opening. This works well for reaching a certain group of people and probably is the correct model for some. However, this would not have worked well for us, and quite honestly, I doubt that I would be the right pastor for that church. You see, we knew that God was calling us to reach out to monaco-yacht-show-6-1560327those that either couldn’t or wouldn’t come to a Sunday morning church worship service. So while we could’ve leveraged a large group of people from Mountain View to launch our Sunday services off with big numbers, that would’ve done little to help us connect with those that would not come to our worship service. Besides, there are some really great churches in this community that do amazing Sunday morning services already and appeal to a wide range of believers. So we started slow and small with a focus on missional communities and an emphasis on going to where people are at, rather than trying to get them to come to us.

Slower Than Expected?

Without a doubt, using a model based on missional community is much slower than we anticipated. Multiplication takes time if you are going to do a good job of raising capable leaders and discipling new believers. Could we have gone faster? Probably. But the real question is should we have? And I still don’t know the answer to that question yet, and I hope to do some more reflection on that in the near future. I probably need to do a blog post about the things that we would do differently if we had a “do over.” But overall, I am happy with where we are at. There is some wisdom in the statement: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” (Apparently this comes from the tactical training world, but I find that it works in many different situations, including church development).

Some things certainly have happened much faster than we anticipated! The biggest one by far is that we actually have our own building! That wasn’t in the plans. And the truth is that every time we take a step in one direction it closes some doors and opens some others. The essential element is to be both intentional and discerning about every decision and how it lines up with the vision for the church and the leading of the Holy Spirit. We have said “no” to many things that, when looking back, would’ve taken us into directions that we are glad that we didn’t follow.

Organic Growth – Where We Go From Here

I know, I know… “organic” is one of those trendy words that is almost as popular as “missional” right now! I first heard this concept being applied to the church at a conference at Regent Seminary where someone was talking about church worship styles, and I’ve used it in my ministry ever since. The basic idea is that if you want something to orange-flower-1393625grow and be healthy you have to use the ingredients that are there. As it applies to worship music, this means that you shouldn’t try to force in musical styles that you are copying from other churches when you don’t have the people to accomplish it. Use what you have. This also goes with the leading-from-strengths idea.

What this means for us is that we will likely have some times of rapid growth, and some times anemic growth. It will all depend on the people that are part of community and what they are ready, willing, and equipped to do. To take the organic analogy one step further, I want our church to be a perennial, not an annual. When the time is right, and the resources are there, I hope that we create brilliant, beautiful growth. When resources are scarce, and times are hard, I hope that we will take advantage of it to prepare for spring – deepening our roots, rather than simply giving up and dying.

Freedom to Fail Because Jesus Has Succeeded

No matter what happens, I know that we would not have gotten this far if we had not stayed grounded in the Gospel message. Jesus has already accomplished all that we need. Now we have the freedom to live in faithfulness, knowing that our failures and our successes do nothing to affect God’s love and acceptance of us. I remind myself of this every day. I could not do this work without that ongoing assurance. Whether Tidelands grows into our vision of a church that has missional communities all over our area and plants new churches in other regions, or whether our circle of influence remains small and we are deemed insignificant, I know that God is pleased with faithfulness and patient endurance and that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38f)!

Missional Myth

I would say that the #1 question that I get asked after describing the missional community model to someone has to do with how anyone could possibly have any time to live this way. This great video from Caesar explains that it is not about “additional but intentional.” If you watch far enough he goes into detail about the rhythms of our life and how we can make them more intentional.

 

New Church, Old Building (Part 3)

We’ve moved in! June 7 we had our first worship service in our new building. Mountain View Presbyterian sent a worship team to help us launch. Having a violin in the building really makes the music soar! I haven’t posted for awhile because it has been a lot of work getting everything set up and ready. Currently we only have an occupancy rating of 49, but after we make some more changes to the doors and exit signs we can increase that to around 180.

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There is still a lot of work left to do. Like any church that owns a building, we will probably have an endless list of projects that need to be done, but we are pushing forward. Our guiding goal is to be good stewards and leverage what God has given us to bless the community. We already have a couple of community groups lined up to use our space for some events and we hope to continue in this direction. We are beginning to make some good connections with neighbors and look forward to getting to know our neighborhood better. It is a lively and fun part of town to be in!

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Our biggest concern about purchasing a building was that it might end up being a distraction from our goal of building a congregation of missional communities. Yet even with all of the time, work, and expense of moving through the purchase process and moving into the building, we continue to see positive movement with our missional communities. Perhaps the biggest change has been that we are now hosting a small, informal worship gathering in the Senior Center at 10:30 AM on Tuesdays. Our goal is to provide worship for those that are not able to travel to come to worship on Sunday morning. We also want to continue with the relationships that we have established there and hopefully build new ones. It is going to take some flexibility and creative thinking to establish a missional community around those that live at the Senior Center, but this seems to be a step in the right direction.

Tidelands Sanctuary 2I’ve posted some pictures of how we have arranged the building currently. Adjustments and some new equipment will be necessary to make it all come together for our needs. Our biggest challenge at the moment is that the acoustics of the building create a lot of bounce and echo. As nice as it would be to hire an acoustical engineer, we are going to have to try out some more creative solutions. Having chairs and some soft couches in the main sanctuary help somewhat, but it will obviously need more sound diffusion and/or absorption.

You may also notice that we don’t have a formal office space set up. Right now the plan is to keep the building open and flexible and create a cafe-type feel where possible. Once we get some cafe-syle, bar-height tables we will have plenty of available space for myself and any volunteers to work on projects – which is all we really need at the moment. We also have plenty of available space for small or large meetings.

Tidelands Sanctuary 4It is wonderful not to have setup and takedown these past few Sundays. It isn’t like we had all that much to setup to start with, but it was still quite a bit of work. After 2 1/2 years of setup and takedown I almost don’t know what to do with myself on Sunday morning! It is wonderful to have a “home base” in Stanwood. I will continue to use my office at home on Camano as my “study,” but I am already spending more of my day in and around Stanwood – this has always been the goal.

Tidelands Room

Yes, that is the pastor’s kid lying on the floor!

 

 

New Church, Old Building? (Part 1)

The other day I received an unexpected phone call from a local realtor. He said, “the old Stanwood Presbyterian Church building is for sale or lease and I was wondering if you might be interested?” It took me a moment to process this revelation before letting him know that I would indeed like to take a look at it. You see, I was under the impression – I think all involved with Tidelands were under the impression – that there had never been an official Presbyterian Church congregation in Stanwood before! It turns out, that not only was there a Presbyterian Church founded early in the life of the Stanwood community (1906), but there was one founded on Camano Island as well (1915). I had to do some digging, but found this information listed in volume I & II of The Stanwood Story by Alice Essex. According to this same source, the Stanwood Presbyterian Church building was dedicated in July 1909 and the Rev. Mark Matthews of Seattle was involved (you can read more about his life in the book The Reverend Mark Matthews: An Activist in the Progressive Era by Dale Soden).StanwoodPresBuilding1

Before I say more about the building as it currently stands, let me share a bit about the journey that God has been leading me on. A few years ago, I did some interviewing for various pastoral positions in the PC(USA). One congregation I visited had an historic church building in a small, Washington community. The building was in constant need of repair and was surrounded by old downtown homes. After my visit I remember telling my wife, “That church wants to grow and expand but they have a building that is no longer functional for them. They need a pastor that will help them move out of their 100 year-old facility and organize a building campaign – but they don’t realize it! I don’t think that I am that guy.” At that time I still couldn’t conceive of a healthy, growing, congregation that wouldn’t need a large, modern facility with lots of rooms for all the programs. That has all changed since starting Tidelands.

IMG_1246 IMG_1247 IMG_1248In fact, two months ago at our board meeting (we call it our “Core Team” since we do not yet have an official session) I tried to share my “vision” for the kind of space that I could see us in. We have always known that our current worship space at the Stanwood Community & Senior Center would be temporary, and there have already been some Sundays where things have gotten a bit crowded. We want to have permanent office space in the community too, and ideally the two would be together in one place. However, we define ourselves as a congregation based on the missional community model. This means that our primary mode of being the church here is lived out in small, neighborhood, missional communities. This means that we don’t need a huge space with a lot of rooms for programs. We also don’t want to get sidetracked or impeded in our mission with a facility that requires a lot of time or money. So what might that space look like?

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I wrestled to find the right words as I talked with our Core Team, trying to explain what I felt in my heart to be the kind of space that would mesh our mission with this community and our identity. I didn’t do a very good job! Our clerk recorded this in our January minutes as she tried to capture what I was saying: “…looking for a space with a ‘grandmotherly’ feeling like the Social Room at the Senior Center has. A space that doesn’t feel commercial and cold, feels natural and authentic, a functional space in Stanwood possibly.” While I’m pretty sure I didn’t say “grandmotherly,” I know what I had in my mind. And what I had in my mind is exactly what I saw when I visited the old Presbyterian Church building!

So back to the building: Why would we even consider an historic church building in the old downtown part of Stanwood? If you take a look at the pictures in this post you will notice that the building itself has a small entry area, one large sanctuary area, and one side-room with a small kitchen on one end that would have to function as a multi-purpose room. There is one bathroom (handicap accessible), and a small raised platform area on the side of the sanctuary (original choir loft?). That’s pretty much it. There is no property to speak of outside. The building has been beautifully remodeled (we were told that the current owners found hand-written notes in the walls from the first members of the congregation). The floors are all hardwood and look original. You can even see an outline on the floor of where the original pulpit/chancel would have been.

IMG_1252As I mentioned earlier, it is not the most practical building for running a lot of programs simultaneously. But, at least for now, our “programs” are our missional communities and our worship gathering. It is in our missional communities that discipleship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, children’s ministry, outreach, and so much more take place. The beauty of this is that this only requires wiling hosts to open their home (we also have a MC starting at the Senior Center utilizing their available space). This building would give us a functional office space in the side room, but it would need to be a shared space. I could see us setting up some simple workstations by the wall, thus keeping the bulk of the room open for children’s ministry or other activities. This would create a base for volunteers and a place for me to get administrative work done. I would maintain my “study” at my house (my current office). In the sanctuary we could utilize folding chairs and tables and a folding stage. This would give us the ability to keep the room open for community events or as a rental space to earn extra income (it was most recently used as a dance studio).

IMG_1265Obviously, this is not a new, modern space. While that would undoubtedly create some challenges, it also does something that we have been striving for from the beginning: it would root us into the story and fabric of this community and place. And what a story! With all that is being said about the demise of the church in our society, how wonderful it would be to be able to reclaim this historic church building as a house of worship and prayer! That, in itself, proclaims the gospel in a culture where new is often better and old is easily cast aside. Thus we could proclaim a new work of God for today in an old place.

I don’t know what happened to that original Presbyterian Church. I hope to eventually be able to do some more research and dig something up. I also realize that this building might not seem “old” to those of you living on the East Coast (and especially not to those living in Europe), but in this part of the county this is an “old” building. In the meantime, it is fun to dream of what could be.

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When the Church Looks Biblical

As I get older I find that very little of what I say or teach originally came from me. Sometimes I can remember where I read or heard something that I am saying, sometimes I can remember that it was not my idea but I cannot remember where it came from, and often I suspect that I forget altogether and take the idea as my own. Those are probably  the best ideas. They hold so much truth that I “own” them.Bible

Such is the case when it comes to one of my favorite things to say in response to those who want to start or reclaim a “New Testament Church.” I know this isn’t my idea, but I now claim it as my own. My response is this: “Which of the crazy, sinful, messed-up New Testament churches do you want to be like?” The reality is that most of Paul’s letters were written, in part, because there was a major problem in a particular church community. Even if we go to the earliest, and claim the first church in Jerusalem that we read about in the beginning of Acts as our ideal, we have to stop short in our reading. Otherwise we find racial tensions, people deceiving the church, and administrative problems.

Such has always been the case with the church. It isn’t a perfect community, but it is a community formed around the worship of a perfect God. Currently I am re-reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall, about the life of King David. In it I am finding a lot of inspiration for my current preaching series on 1st and 2nd Samuel, following the life of David. While reflecting on the story of David at Ziklag, Peterson writes this:

Every time I move to a new community, I find a church close by and join it–committing myself to worship and work with that company of God’s people. I’ve never been anything other than disappointed: every one turns out to be biblical, through and through: murmurers, complainers, the faithless, the inconsistent, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring moralizers, glamorous secularizes. Every once and a while a shaft of blazing beauty seems to break out of nowhere and illuminate these companies, and then I see what my sin-dulled eyes had missed: word of God-shaped, Holy Spirit-created lives of sacrificial humility, incredible courage, heroic virtue, holy praise, joyful singing, constant prayer, persevering obedience. I see “Christ-for Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

The phrase “biblical through and through” grabs me! A “biblical” church, if it reflects what we see in scripture, is made up of a thousand stories of sin and redemption, failure and hope. To be “biblical” in this sense is not to be moral, or to have good exegetical preaching, but rather to be in relationship with a Holy God that continues to work through the messy community of redeemed people that we call “the Church.” I wonder if all those “Bible” churches had that in mind when they put it in their name? Hmm… “Tidelands Bible Church.” That has a nice ring to it!