Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Jesus + Baseball = Awesome

A couple of weeks ago we went to Houston to celebrate Olivia's birthday with some family there.  We planned a pretty jammed pack couple of days and even managed to fill in some activities we wanted to do during summer vacation.  The day before we left, my dad texted and said that his church had some extra tickets for the Astros' game Saturday night.  Every time we go I scout out the schedule to see if there's a game.  I knew about this game already because this one had a special treat...David Crowder playing at Faith & Family Night after the game.  If there are two things that are nearly impossible for me to pass up, it's baseball and David Crowder.  Put them together (even in the Astros are ridiculously bad), add my family, and it just doesn't get much better than that.  So, we decided that some things are worth losing sleep over (we had to drive back for Sunday morning), and this was one of them.

The game was predictable as the Astros got smoked, but the Faith and Family night ensued.  I am usually somewhat skeptical of forced, large scale Christian events (yes that is strange for a pastor).  I didn't really know what to expect, but I figured I would endure some lame testimonies from rich baseball players to get to the Crowder part of the night. They invited all the fans down to the 1st base side where our first surprise happened. A young lady who was in our 1st youth group in Sugar Land appeared right next to us. Her family and ours are close, and to make it more fun she recently got hitched to a Ukrainian guy.  Since there were only a handful of people at the game to begin with, the odds of finding another Ukrainian couldn't have been that good.  But we found him, and they sat with us.  He spoke to the girls in Ukrainian while they got embarrassed and giggled. It was good fun and great to see them.

First out of the shoot was Reid Ryan. Since the Astros couldn't woo Nolan from the Rangers, they did the next best thing by hiring his son.  He is the president of the Astros, and he came out and welcomed everyone. Not only that, he said that he was excited to be a part of helping people know Jesus Christ personally.  He dropped a big fat JC, and gave some other heartfelt remarks that were really strong. He went on to introduce the chaplain for the 'Stros, one of the radio announcers and a couple of players.  The chaplain said that Major League Baseball is very quietly a 3,000 member church every given week across the country. He went on to tell of the chapel services and Bible Studies they conduct and told stories of MLB players coming to Christ through those things. The announcer was Steve Sparks, a former pitcher, who talked about believing in Jesus after realizing his identity had previously been wrapped up in baseball. A couple of players and one of their wives talked about the ups and downs of chasing your dream and the sacrifices they made for each other to get to where they are. They explained in detail how their faith in Jesus helped them navigate through uncertain seasons.  I was blown away.  They weren't just speaking in generalities, they were quoting specific scriptures and testifying to the role the Word had played and continues to play in their life.  It was awesome, and God was glorified by their stories.

After that, Crowder came out and rocked, well blue-grassed the house down. It was so, so good. This is cheesy, but I found myself losing it.  This monument built to worship baseball was suddenly transformed into a house of God. The bazillion dollar HD jumbotron became nothing more than a ProPresenter backdrop as worship filled the stadium.  It was the worst worship environment ever, and it didn't matter. I glanced over to see Jake get swept up in it all. The girls enjoyed it too, but they were more excited that b/c of the smaller crowd, their chances of getting on the big screen increased drastically. The whole thing was a tremendous blessing, and the Spirit was just there.

It's silly how God can use things that bring you joy to fill your soul. This year has been challenging and has had a lot of ups and downs for us.  We've spent a great deal of time being tired, And even though we sacrificed yet more sleep for the concert, it was worth it for souls to be filled.  A sweet time of refreshing caught us by surprise, and it reminded me of how important positioning for refreshment is. Next time I hear about baseball and Crowder, it's going to be even harder to keep us away. Just think how awesome it would've been if the Astros were actually any good!

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Monday, August 26, 2013

School in San Marcos

A copule of years ago we had a tough decision to make regarding school for our kids.  When we first got back from Ukraine with the girls, our plan was to homeschool them and allow Jacob to stay at the private, Christian school where he was.  He loved it there. It was stellar education, and we loved the people and environment we was surrounded by.  However, as we got used to life with three children, two of whom barely spoke English, we started to feel that homeschool would not be the best environment of learning for the girls.  We found a self-paced, private, Christian school that allowed them to come and acclimate to American education.  Holly got a second part-time job to pay for it, and it worked out well.  When it came time to decide about school for the next year, we were conflicted.

We loved the schools we had been a part of, but Holly was having to spend 4 days away from the kids just so they could go to these schools.  Additionally, staying at the same schools would've ended up with three kids getting out at three different times at two different schools.  That was a difficult season for us in general, and we felt like we needed to streamline and simplify life while also choosing a good environment for our kids.   We decided we wanted all three kids at the same place if at all possible.  That reality came down to either paying for three kids in private school (which we couldn't afford without Holly working full time) or putting three kids in public school.  

We anguished over the decision.  We talked with the kids and included them in the conversation as we met with both schools to see what going forward for our family would look like at either place.  As we prayed it through, another thing started to come into play for us.  We felt like we had been called to San Marcos.  We didn't want to come and only plant a church, be we wanted to come to be missionaries to our city.  We had gone to public school for Jacob's kindergarten, and we still have dear friends from that season of life.  The longer we prayed and discussed, we started to feel like making the move to public school was the right thing for us. 

Along with everyone else, we had heard stories of the challenges of San Marcos schools. We had questions about safety, questions about academic performance, questions about ethnic diversity, and questions of what's best for our kids.  After meeting with the school administrators and some of the teachers, we felt completely at peace about moving forward.

Our first week was met with a rude awakening.  Jacob was stabbed with a pencil.  We immediately questioned our decision and talked about bailing on our plan.  However, it was a fluke.  It was an impulsive kid in the advanced science lab who freaked out for no known reason.  It would've been easy to have jumped on the bandwagon of San Marcos schools being un-safe and left.  We initially wanted to.  However, we felt like we were supposed to stay.  That young man wrote us a letter of apology, and we got to forgive him.  It was powerful. Jacob forgave him too, and he became one of his closest friends that year. 

Last week, Jacob's choir sang at the SMCISD Convocation.  As I sat there, I was amazed at the encouraging spirit among the faculty and staff of all the school.  There are many challenges in serving the families of San Marcos, but there is literally an army of people who are facing those challenges head on with a great attitude.  What was once a place of uncertainty for us has become family.  Our kids have had wonderful experiences at Travis, and we are continually grateful for how God has provided for exactly what the girls have needed to transition into a new culture, new language, and new education system.  Additionally, God has opened so many doors for us to jump in and help serve other kids. 

We know that everyone has to choose what's best for their family when it comes to school.  We have had great experiences in both private and public schools.  We have friends who are doing well with homeschool.  There are a lot of good options.  I guess I just wish more people considered that SMCISD is another good option. The faculty, teachers, and administrators at SMCISD are great.  They are committed, they are great teachers, and they are making a difference.  We have been blessed to be among them, and our kids have had wonderful experiences.  We are glad to call Travis family, and we're grateful for how God has provided for all of our needs while allowing us to be a part of serving our city.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Custom Made Crisis

Two Sundays ago, my dear friend John McComb gave up a Sunday to come and preach to our church family.  John is one of the most honest and faithful people I know, and my life is better because he's in it.  He preached from 2 Samuel 6 and focused on what he called a "Crisis of Faith." Days later his sermon is still resonating in my heart and soul.  So, I thought I would unload a few of those thoughts.

The first thing is that everyone will go through a crisis of faith.  John challenged us that often a crisis will come when you've been doing everything right.  When crisis comes, many people often wonder what they've done wrong to deserve such a terrible or challenging situation, but in scripture we often see people of consistent faithfulness presented with difficulty, suffering, or pain.  The purpose of the crisis is growth.  Crisis has the ability to take you to a place of faith that you never would've gotten to otherwise. God doesn't send hardship because He's mad at you.  He sends it because He loves you and wants you to know Him more.  Each crisis that we endure is custom made to take us to a new level of faith, to a deeper place of knowing and trusting God.

One of the harder things resonating with me is the idea that a crisis is designed to kill part of you.  God wants to prune away the areas of your life or church that aren't bearing fruit consistent with the calling that God has ordained for you.  Nobody enjoys pruning, but there isn't growth without it.  This reminds us of the cross.  Jesus could not have been raised in new life or power if He had not died first.  A crisis gives us that opportunity to identify with Christ in His sufferings in order that we may share in the resurrection power.  Over and over the Bible teaches this.  Suffering brings identify with Christ and closeness to God like nothing else.  Crisis builds character and maturity.  It's not fun to be pruned, and it requires faith to believe that there is life on the other side of the death.  The truth is that there is something in all of us that needs to die in order for there to be more life.  There are things in our churches that need to die in order for God to bring new life.  It's hard, but it's true.

The final thought I wanted to share is something that came back to me about a sermon I preached in Africa last December.  It's easy to blame the devil for bad things that happen, but the enemy is limited in what he can do.  God is ultimately sovereign over everything.  I told a group of pastors that the church belongs to Him. It's His church.  It's possible that a church will suffer because of sin or corruption.  Many people do a fine job of killing their church on their own.  However, it's also possible that a church will go through a crisis simply because God wants them to.  It's not that they've done anything wrong.  It's God's prerogative to bless or prune.  It's His job to protect His mission, and we pray for Him to do whatever it takes for us to be the people He has called us to be.  This may mean that circumstances in a church are radically altered.  We have prayed this at River Stone from the beginning.  If we have become anything other than what you want us to be, make whatever adjustments are necessary.  Crisis forces us to live in what we claim to believe - everything is the Lord's.  The church, our lives, everything.  He is responsible.

In crisis, the natural response is to focus on the casualties and pain. However, the spiritual response is to be open to God's why.  Everything He does is on purpose.  Everything He does is for the good and protection of His children.  As a result of believing in this, I've come into this week more open to the Lord's pruning and praying things like this...

 Kill what needs to be killed.  Prune what needs to be pruned.  Do whatever you need to do to demonstrate your power and faithfulness.  Make me into the person you created me to be.  Mold our church into the vessel of your Kingdom that will bring you the most glory.

Thanks, John for speaking so much truth and love to us.  We are better for it.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

3 John Recap

We've spent the last couple months working through 1st, 2nd and 3rd John at River Stone.  They are not lengthy books, but they are rich with practical teaching.  John repeats himself over and over again over issues of Love, Light, and Life. Billy finished off the series a few Sundays ago, but I keep thinking about some of the things he said.  So, I thought I would recap/paraphrase...

What you say doesn't always matter...

Grandpa John called out two different people in the church. He first noticed a member of the church who disagreed with the direction of the church and was making accusations of the church leadership.  He then recognized someone else in the church who was building people up and being a blessing.  Billy did a great job talking about the importance of discernment in the context of community.  John's Gospel says that fruit is the evidence of the Spirit's work in a person.  Just because someone says they're an authority, spiritual or makes an accusation doesn't mean they're right. There will always be people in the church who create division, and there will be people who encourage and build up the church by being a blessing.  It is important to identify which is which and both confront the issues of division and encourage the issues of blessings. There will be both kinds of people in every church.

Self-centeredness prevents submission...
The issue of submission is very counter-cultural for Americans. There always seems to be a strong, "You can't tell us what to do" mentality among us.  We are always hearing about our rights and freedoms.  The interesting thing is that when we enter into the Kingdom of God, we forfeit our rights.  Our opinion is no longer authoritative in our lives because we have chosen to submit to the truth and belief in God.  The man accusing the leaders of the church in 3 John was identified as putting himself first.  Individual preference, feeling, or opinion is not the same as Gospel Truth.  It is important that we don't let those preferences, feelings or opinions carry the same weight as God's Word. Just because we have a thought about something doesn't mean it's biblically accurate.  Not every feeling is from the Spirit.  Putting self first will lead to rejecting the authority of church leaders.  Rejecting the authority of church leaders is rejecting a very important principle of the Kingdom of God. This was the root issue of the man identified as divisive.

On the prowl...
I had never thought about Peter's referral to Satan as being an imitator of an image of God.  Jesus is called the true Lion of the tribe of Judah.  In Satan's prowling, he makes himself look like something that should be worshiped.  I think the aforementioned preferences, opinions and criticisms are some of those things. The only thing worthy of worship is our Savior.  Worship always glorifies God and edifies the church.  If it doesn't do both of those things, it isn't worship.  If it isn't God-worship it is self-worship. We have to constantly evaluate our worship by how it glorifies God and edifies the church.

I am amazed at how practical these lessons from 3 John are.  One of Billy's main thoughts was that experience makes us better prepared and equipped to operate in discernment.  As we see this more and more in the church, we are more and more responsible to respond appropriately to the two types of people mentioned in this short book.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Faithful Man

1996 was a critical juncture for me.  I found myself torn between my pursuit of a career in Physical Therapy and a growing passion for investing in Jr. High and High School students.  Until that point, I thought my life would be include both.  I had many great people who invested in me during my teenage years who loved students and also worked in the real world.  They probably didn't realize how closely I was watching and taking notes for who I wanted to be.  They set a great example, and I was following that example post- high school.  

After working that plan for 18 months or so, I found myself with a greater role in the student ministry at my home church after our Youth Pastor left. As time went on I felt like this was becoming something more than a way to spend my free time.  I was pretty sure it was turning into a calling.  As soon as I allowed that possibility to become my reality, everything changed. 

I moved from the church I spent the last 8 years at to a new church plant where my dad had been playing the piano.  It was a place where I was welcomed and invited to be a part of both working with students and helping out with music. At the same time I was moving to be a part of this church, a new Worship Pastor had come.  I didn't know then that this man would be my father-in-law within two years.  What I did know was that this man had been a Youth & Music Pastor for 21 years at the same church, and he had now followed God's call to build the Kingdom in a new place.  He immediately welcomed me, a mediocre guitar player into his band.  He also invited me to choir practice, and the first time I went mutual friends set Holly and I up for what became our first date. 

The next several months were defining in my life.  Not only did Holly and I begin our relationship, but I was transitioning from something I had been planning to do for years into something unknown.  After volunteering with the students at the new church and working with some great Youth Pastors, I felt like this was something I wanted to give my life to.  I remember applying for a summer intern job for for a church in the Woodlands, and they asked my questions about my philosophy of ministry.  I asked Rick what my philosophy of ministry is.  His said "2 Timothy 2:2." I had no idea what that verse said, so I looked it up...

and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2, ESV)

I didn't have any better ideas, so I put it down.  

This week, one of those faithful men that my father-in-law poured himself into was tragically killed at 41 years old.  From the first time I started hanging out with Holly's family, I would always hear them talk about BJ.  He was part of the family.  As I've read testimonies of those who were close to BJ, I see the fruit of 2 Timothy 2:2 at work. 

My father-in-law Rick is one of a kind.  He has a gift for taking the mediocre things of this world (like me) and making them feel meaningful. I've never met a more patient person.  I've never met another person willing to risk more to make one person feel accepted.  I'm a closet perfectionist, and I would always struggle with how Rick would pull together musicals, worship services, or projects.  I would always feel like they weren't ready, but he'd go for it anyway.  It never bothered him, because for him it's always more about the people than the product.  And, to my great surprise, every single time, the product was good...really good. 

I didn't know BJ well, so I can't speak with any authority about him, but I do know that because Rick made room for him, he came to be a faithful follower of Jesus.  Not only that, he became a minister of the Gospel who continued to pour himself into others who needed someone to make room for them.  I saw the words his son spoke about the power of forgiveness, and all I can think about is 2 Tim 2:2.  

I grieve the loss of such a close friend and minister of so many of our friends and family.  However, I can't stop thinking about what it would've been like if the Crestmont folks hadn't made room for BJ.  What if Rick and many others hadn't invested Gospel into BJ?  The memorial service today would have a completely different feel.  By the grace of God and faithfulness of His people, today's celebration will be focused on the fact that BJ is with His heavenly father.

I am praying for BJ's family, and for my family and friends in this.  I am also reminded that this Gospel of the Kingdom saves souls, changes lives and reproduces faithful men.  I'm grateful that somewhere along the way faithful men poured into Rick and Rick poured (and is still pouring) into the next generation and that generation is pouring into the next. May we all be reminded of our opportunity to make room, love, teach, and entrust.  Faithful men (and women) will be the result.  

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

My Mission Trip

Holly and I have been involved in the USA office of Links International for about 5 years.  In the last year, we have taken a bigger role in the organization to expand the work of the USA office.  Links UK has been around for over 30 years and has a long history of sustainable mission work that has occurred in partnerships with people in over 60 countries.  Links makes serving the poor and making a difference in the world an attainable goal.

Last December I took my first trip to Africa, and there are no words to describe my time there.  One of the things I had an opportunity to do was to train and encourage church and community leaders.  The time spent with those leaders resulted in an invitation to Zimbabwe where I have been asked to come and see how Links can partner in that region to address needs of business/community development.  I have also been asked to take part in a conference that will develop leaders who are currently leading businesses in the region. Starting businesses is one of the most effective ways for families to escape poverty.  All over the world, principles that Links teaches have rescued people from extreme poverty.  The opportunity to invest in a new region is very exciting.

On the way to Zimbabwe, I will spend some time in the UK office where I will take part in a Day for business leaders in the UK.  We love to partner with business people to connect them with people on the ground who can affect the changes they would like to see in the world.  I will be working alongside team members in the UK to serve business leaders.   I will also spend some time with church leaders and the Links staff and board to strengthen the relationship between the UK and the USA office.

As Links USA is young and developing, we don't have deep reserves of cash sitting around waiting to be spent.  I would like to ask you to consider investing into this trip and to be a part of walking families out of poverty and into provision.  The airfare alone for this trip is just under $3,000, and there will be another $500-$1,000 of travel expenses.  Would you consider partnering with me to be a part of changing the lives of some of the people of Zimbabwe?  Would you be a part of helping businesses engage with missions?  More than anything, would you join me in praying that we would have what we need to continue to be available to those who invite us to help?

Please let me know if you have any questions about this trip or anything else that Links does to change lives and transform communities.

If you would like to donate, please visit this link...

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Monday, June 03, 2013

Parental Vision

Recently I spent some quality time studying the book of Proverbs, and it is amazing how something you have read dozens of times can still speak to you as if you've never seen or heard it before.  One particular passage, that is very familiar, took on a new angle for me. 

"Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint..." -  Proverbs 29:18 ESV

Back before my ESV days, I remember the NIV text saying that where there was no vision the people perished.  Those are some pretty serious consequences for a lack of vision.  As a result, I've often used this verse as fuel to rally whatever organization I'm working with to embrace a big vision.  The newness of this verse, however, has to do with the context.  This chapter in Proverbs is a lot about parenting and raising children, and this vision verse is right in the middle of it.  It began to sink in that this is a verse about raising kids. 

Kids are a big part of our life.  We have three of our own, and we spend a great deal of time mentoring or leading after school programs that our church is a part of to reach out to at-risk kids in our community.  Adopting our girls took us to a world where there was pretty much nothing but the casting off of restraint.  Surviving trumps everything where there was no vision. We see it in the kids in our community who are struggling to survive as well.  There doesn't seem to be  room for dreams or vision when reality is overpowering. 

Even in kids who don't have a lot to overcome, I wonder if the daily grind of school, homework, self-centered extra-curricular activities, repeat is robbing them of the vision they need to not cast of restraint.  Do they have an identify of their own in what they are going with most of their time?

Out of this verse, I was convicted that I'm not imparting enough vision into my own kids' lives.  I'm so focused on day-to-day functionality and obedience that I don't spend enough time prophesying and dreaming with my kids.  When they are older, will their time with me reflect more that they can make their bed and follow rules or will they be able to see their role in God's great story and follow Him faithfully for all of their days?

Over the years I've become a fan of how Donald Miller tells stories, and more recently how Bob Goff does the same.  Donald Miller tells a story of painting a picture of living a bigger story for a teenage girl who was struggling in this book.  Bob Goff talks a lot about including his kids into living great stories in this book.   These are just examples of what I feel like Proverbs is leading us into parents. 

We should be the first ones to dream big and pray prophetic visions over our kids (and for any kids around us really).  We shouldn't force them only into the mold of what we expect them to be, but we should pray and lead them into everything God created them to be.  Without vision or dreams, they'll coast into a life of survival and peer acceptance that will be the equivalent of perishing. 

Norman & Grace helping our kids dream...