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Principles are weird…are you weird?

jetskiSometimes it’s hard to do the right thing, even if we have resolved to live our lives on principle. We will always be tempted to fall back into a habit of self-preservation and the seeking of our own self-interests. However, there’s another factor that will make it difficult to live consistently on principle.

Living on principle is weird.

It is unusual to find someone committed to living on principle. When you do, they stand out. They spend a huge amount of time doing things apart from their own self-interest; they don’t simply volunteer one or two Sundays a month at church, they are consistently and regularly volunteering hours whenever and wherever there is a need, while also being active in other community activities and outreaches. They don’t look at their time as something they sparingly donate, they are focused on making a significant impact on the world around them.

Looking around, you will see lots of people spending their money on lavish vacations, recreational activities, bigger and better vehicles, and other things that make life a little more comfortable. Often times, people who live on principle seem short on cash. They live below their means because their spending is tied to their principles. This doesn’t mean they don’t go on vacation, upgrade vehicles, or have other comforts, but they could have much more than they do if they didn’t spend so much money supporting their church and other worthwhile missions and causes. It isn’t an issue of tithing 10%; that is simply a minimum. Jesus highlights that we are called to more than the minimum; we are called to live generously.

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Luke 21:1-4, ESV

Living on principle means putting those valued ideals of yourself and your own comforts. For some, that may mean donations yearly in the tens of thousands of dollars. For others, that may “simply” mean hundreds or thousands of dollars. It means we are willing to sacrifice some things that would be really nice for something bigger than us.

I remember when my youth pastor, Tim Hunter, challenged us to give 10% of whatever we money received as junior high and high school students. He said, “Right now, you are sacrificing a meal out or a case of soda, but if you can’t do that now how will you be able to sacrifice a jet ski or a new car when you tithe as an adult?” Living on principle means the mission is more important than the money.

As a ministry director for a new nonprofit, it’s fair to say that funds are not plentiful in my household. However, we were what I would call “comfortable” in our finances when I was a youth pastor and my wife worked for a law firm. We owned a modest home, had decent vehicles, and I even eventually saved enough money to buy my Harley Davidson motorcycle. However, that purchase came after a year of saving extra money after our tithe, our other bills, and additional giving to groups and missions like our support for a missionary friend in southeast Asia and our giving to a Christian summer camp that we are passionate about. Anything we purchase beyond essentials (true essentials, like food and clothing, NOT “essentials” like cable TV and gym memberships) was weighed against doing what we could do to support the advancement of the gospel in and through the various groups we worked with.

If by some fluke a “normal” person notices that you are living on principle and not for our personal interests, it will grab their attention. While they will talk about going to the cabin every weekend and the new snowmobile they bought to replace the “old one” that they bought last year, you talk about volunteering at the food distribution over the weekend or at the local youth drop in center. In addition, even though they know you make enough money to afford new things, they will notice that you don’t buy new toys every year. They may eventually work up the gumption to ask, “What’s different about you?” And when you give them the answer, their response will be simple.

You’re weird.

And they’re right.

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Change, principles, and other boring stuff that can dramatically alter your life

bowieI’ve been involved in church leadership now for almost 14 years (that seems like forever). I have now worked as a volunteer in a church, as part-time staff, as full time staff, as paid temporary staff, and as a supported ministry worker. I have been asked to give advice to churches I do not regularly attend, and I been asked to not give advice to churches that I do regularly attend. I have also spent years working with ministries that seek to supplement and support in-house church ministries. I have been part of growing and vibrant ministries, ministries that have struggled and declined, and ministries that have switched from one to the other and back again.

When you work with any organization, and I think especially with churches and ministries in the last 10+ years, you experience change. It is inevitable. Either your ministry is changing and adjusting to different demographics, attitudes and cultural climates around you in order to better reach the people God is putting in your path or you begin to experience declines in attendance and engagement with your ministry. Sometimes you enact those changes along the way and you find that you do not experience the results you are hoping for, which leads to further changes. It is a difficult, confusing, turbulent cycle that tests our patience, resolve, and even our faith.

With change comes uncertainty and conflict. Again, these things are unavoidable. I remember major conflicts that took place when I started my full-time ministry and all of the twists and turns that took place over my first three years as a youth pastor. People were upset and extremely frustrated because of change, because of lack of change, and most importantly because of a lack of assurance over what the future would bring – and this was true of people from both sides of the conflict.

I was forced to navigate these waters as a 21 year old church leader, and for over a decade now I have continued not to just dip my toe in these waters of change and conflict but to dive in head first. I was not ready back when I was too young and inexperienced to deal with what I was thrown into and I am not ready now, as a 32 year old church leader that now has experience but still not enough to deal with what is coming my way.

Why do I do it? Some would say it’s because I like to argue (not completely untrue), but, truth be told, I am weary of the battles that feel like they have been continuous and unrelenting for too many years now. I continue to fight, to accept and work through conflict, and to seek difficult and painful changes for one reason: principles.

I believe God has called all of His followers to something extraordinary. I believe we are called to change the world, not just in subtle ways through our everyday lives but also I big, dramatic ways like what can happen when likeminded believers work together towards a God-sent vision for a group or a community. I believe He has called us to do difficult things because nothing that is worth doing is easy. I am willing to endure the deep pain that conflict with fellow church members, many of whom I truly have considered family, brings to my heart because I know that “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5, ESV)

There has been a single principle that I have lived my life by. In some ways it is far too simplified, but it has worked for me. I’m not entirely sure where it came from (the Sunday School answer would probably be “God”), but I think it might be from my answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?”

The answer is not 42.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Ecclesiastes 12:13

This is a simple answer by a wise man as a culmination of 12 chapters of a book laying out a methodical process to find the meaning of life and what was learned along the way. The principle I live my life by is simply this: “do the right thing.”

So, in any situation, the question becomes, “what is the right thing?” That’s the part that isn’t so simple. I will say this; the answer is never easy, convenient or comfortable. This has required that I get rid of any notion I had of living life my own way. It has meant that I would take on the role of servant to nearly everyone who has asked something of me. I have sacrificed money, time, energy, and personal desires for what at times feels like no reward at all. It has forced me to put relationships that I value at risk, it has caused me to sacrifice a comfortable job for the instability of something new, and it has brought me pain, sleepless nights, and heartache.

And it has totally been worth it, because it has put me in the place God has wanted me and it has caused me to do what I have been created to do. There is nothing better than that.

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Grammys and art: Sia-squatch…or Take Off, You Hozier

GRAMMYSThe Grammys were last night. Here’s some highlights:

Pharrell did “Happy” in a weird orchestral setting with a piano player who is famous enough that no one has heard of him and the Pirates of the Caribbean music guy pretending to play guitar.

Beyonce performed a gospel chorus. She sang it once. It took 27 minutes.

Something they called a “Sia” was there. I think it might be related to a sasquatch.

Beck won Album of the Year, which is completely different than the Record of the Year. Obviously.

The big winner of the night was Sam Smith.

I have never heard of Sam Smith.


I didn’t watch the whole thing, and part of the joy of having DVR is that I could zip through the program and get some highlights while my daughter was not-sleeping late last night. I did monitor my Twitter feed, and this caught my eye:

If you’ve never heard or paid attention to the song, it is a musically beautiful piece whose lyrics intentionally demean Christian worship. The focus of the song is on the worship of ourselves and our sexuality instead of the God that created us.

This tweet created a lot of response. Very little was positive. Several individuals pointed out that the author’s intent of the song was to demean Christianity, some seemed to think Acuff didn’t think to look into the song and had just reacted to a catchy tune the first time he had heard it. Acuff interacted with several of respondents and later shared this thought:

As followers of Christ we are called to seek truth. God has revealed Himself to the world in various ways; He has given us His Word as a revelation of His story and nature; the universe proclaims truth of it’s Creator; and we have an opportunity to explore truth and beauty through art. Art is hard to define and comes in an overwhelming assortment of variations and forms. It can be good and bad and it can and often does reveal truth and beauty, all of which gives us a glimpse at the God of all goodness, truth and beauty.

Hozier intended to demean God, but sometimes when we are confronted with evil we get a glimpse of an insight into human nature and sin, and through that insight we see the truth of our savior standing in opposition to evil, and we can be encouraged through that insight.

Acuff looked through an artistic representation of something beautiful but wrong and saw a truth about the one true God. Lets not be so quick to criticize peoples reactions to the world around us and instead look for the different ways God is using the world to share Himself with us.

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Be More Musk-y

Elon_Musk_-_The_Summit_2013My church is currently going through a vision-casting process. The church has been growing steadily for 3 years and has been near-capacity on Sunday mornings for around a year, and the youth and children’s programs have begun to fill the spaces available to them. Some solution needs to be found in order to continue to reach out and minister to our community.

This is the second time I have gone through a visioning process with a church. The first time was when I was on staff as a youth pastor at another church. In both cases there were challenges that needed to be met and it was clear to at least most of the leadership that something needed to be done. However, in both cases and in most similar situations in churches, ministries or businesses, hundreds and/or thousands of hours of work has to be put in to come up with any answers. The first visioning process I was a part of took those hours and translated them into almost no appreciable change to what was already being done. I am far more hopeful that the process I find myself in the middle of now will bring about more effective change.

I have recently been fascinated with the work of an inventor and businessman by the name of Elon Musk. If you do not recognize his name, you will very likely recognize his work. He started his career by creating PayPal, an internet money transfer site that sold to Ebay for $1.5 billion in 2002, just 3 years after Musk started the company. Musk also is a co-founder of Tesla, one of the leading electric car manufacturers in the world – they make electric cars that actually work! Seriously, if you haven’t seen those cars, go check them out!

Recently, Musk has been in the news because of another of his businesses, SpaceX. The company was founded in 2002 and, in 2008, was awarded a $1.6 billion contract from NASA to become the first commercial company to transport equipment to the International Space Station. SpaceX has been continuing to develop better space vehicles, with the goal of continuing to expand space exploration. The next step in development was attempted early this year, when they tried to land a first stage rocket (the part that drives the launch) onto a floating platform in the ocean. Think about that; they believe they can safely land a rocket from space onto a boat! You can read about it here, and check out the first attempt!

They described the first attempt as “50-50 at best,” but they have come up with several ideas to improve chances for their next attempt, coming in the next couple of weeks.

While all of this is happening, Musk has a couple of other little projects up his sleeve. He has proposed what he calls a “hyperloop” from LA to San Francisco; it is an air-powered transportation system that will allow riders to travel 350 miles in around 30 minutes, for cheaper than any other current form of transportation. He has also announced plans to build a “space internet,” a satellite system to not only provide high-speed internet globally but with the purpose of providing communications to a Mars colony that he envisions happening in the next couple of decades; “It will be important for Mars to have a global communications network as well. I think this needs to be done, and I don’t see anyone else doing it.” (for more, check out the Bloomberg Businessweek article here)

Musk is 43, and he has accomplished more in the last 6 months than I expect to accomplish in a lifetime. He has accomplished these incredible feats of engineering and vision by dreaming big, aggressively pursuing those dreams and bringing people on board his projects that can help him develop the projects he has envisioned. Technology is jumping by leaps because of the work of Elon Musk.

I am not an engineer. I am not a venture capitalist – that takes money, and I don’t have any. But there are some important lessons that I take away from Musk’s story – dream big and pursue your vision aggressively.

When we think about what God is doing or could do in a church, organization or in our own lives, we often think too small. We serve a big God that wants to do dramatic, amazing things! Through prayer and faith God reveals the pieces of His plan that He wants us to know and pursue. Don’t let “we can’t” or “I’m not sure” or “that just isn’t us” to stop you from following what He has called us to do.

When I launched The Gathering in Fairmont, MN, I told people that our goal was a fundamental transformation of our entire area, and that I believed God wanted to use us to make Fairmont, Martin County and the surrounding communities a light for the Gospel to our entire region. I still believe that is what He wants for our area, and while I still pray for God’s guidance and wisdom, that is the vision that I continue to pursue because I believe that God is big enough to accomplish anything!

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Thoughts to drive us – Better resolutions than yours

ResolvedBeing sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.

Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.

1. Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.

2. Resolved, to be continually endeavoring to find out some new invention and contrivance to promote the forementioned things.
3. Resolved, if ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again.
4. Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God; nor be, nor suffer it, if I can avoid it.
5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
7. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
8. Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.
9. Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
10. Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.
11. Resolved, when I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances don’t hinder.
12. Resolved, if I take delight in it as a gratification of pride, or vanity, or on any such account, immediately to throw it by.
13. Resolved, to be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality.
14. Resolved, never to do anything out of revenge.
15. Resolved, never to suffer the least motions of anger to irrational beings.
16. Resolved, never to speak evil of anyone, so that it shall tend to his dishonor, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.
17. Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
18. Resolved, to live so at all times, as I think is best in my devout frames, and when I have clearest notions of things of the gospel, and another world.
19. Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour, before I should hear the last trump.
20. Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.
21. Resolved, never to do anything, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the more meanly of him.

-Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a fiery preacher in New England and is considered to be one of America’s greatest preachers and theologians. He is particularly notable as a central figure in the Great Awakening.
These 21 resolutions are the first of 70 written by Edwards. For the full list, click here.

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Gospel Outside – Don’t Lie To Yourself

While the gospels are the easiest place to see the person and work of Jesus Christ, the entirety of the scriptures share the gospel story. Gospel Outside will highlight a part of the gospel seen outside of the 4 Gospels of the New Testament.

Art by Scott Erickson. Visit www.scottericksonart.com

“Man Acquainted With Grief” by Scott Erickson

Have you ever had a problem but just wanted to pretend it wasn’t there? For the last two weeks I’ve been sick. I don’t think it has been one illness, I think I have had the luck to contract several illnesses in succession. Over those two weeks I did what I think many of us often do – I tried to pretend I wasn’t sick. I’m sure many of you have done the same thing; you show up someplace when you know you should be home resting and everyone looks at you with concern and asks, “Are you ok? You look horrible!” Despite the fact that I was obviously sick I went Christmas shopping, pretending I was fine right up until I was so exhausted by my illness that I couldn’t walk straight. I decided to go home before I face-dove into a store display.

We can be very good at pretending to avoid a reality we don’t like, and we will often carry that delusion right up until we are forced to face reality. Problems arise when we are able to avoid that reality for long periods of time and we continually perpetuate the lie we want to believe instead of facing the truth we don’t like.

We can often do this when it comes to our sin. Sometimes we like to pretend that our actions are fine when the reality is that we are really enjoying our sin. Sometimes we like to ignore some things we really should be doing and pretend that our avoidance of what God has called us to do is something other than sin. And sometimes we like to pretend that, when we ask for forgiveness from those sins after we finally own up to them, the sins simply evaporate from existence, “because Jesus.” We don’t like thinking about what that forgiveness cost.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
-2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)

Our forgiveness isn’t a pat on the tush and a redirection of our life, it came with a terrible cost. Sin, even the “little” sins, are a rejection and rebellion of the King of the Universe. In order for our rebellion to be forgiven and our sin to be paid for we needed someone to pay the penalty as our substitute. This was what Christ came into the world to do. The Eternal Word, the being that spoke creation into being, took our sin fully upon himself and died so that we could avoid the eternal death that is the penalty for sin.

Don’t look away from that fact. Remember what it was that the infant Christ came into the world to do – to be tortured and to die as the only human in history not to deserve what he got and the only one able to bring salvation for the rest of us. Praise God for His grace and mercy!

The art pictured here is called “Man Acquainted With Grief” by my friend Scott Erickson. Click here to go to his website and check out his other work – some very powerful and some that is just plain fun!

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My Response To Critics: Hey guys, I’m a false teacher!

Anti BartSo I think this is my final comments on the past conflicts we have seen in our push towards unity among Christians in my community.

Unless it isn’t.

So anyways, this lesson comes to us from a letter to the editor responding to my “Unite around the Bible” article that was published by the local newspaper. Here is some of what the letter writer says:

There are many sad things going on in this world and one of them happens to be so called “Christian” churches manipulating scripture to satisfy their own self worth and greed.
They then try to hide this manipulation by promoting a fake sense of “unity” to fool the public into a false belief that their disagreement with scripture isn’t harming them and all these other denominations really agree with their point of view…

So if you want true “Christian Unity” don’t follow the false teachings of the fake unity around us today, but ground your beliefs in the only true source God uses to obtain real “Christian Unity” – the Bible.

Anthony Scheff, “Unite around the Bible,” in Readers’ View, Fairmont Sentinel, Thursday, October 6, 2014, pg 6

As I have stated previously, we have not sought to water down God’s word or to ignore aspects of scripture, we have pushed to work together towards what God has called us to while not letting those disagreements on secondary issues prevent us from accomplishing the tasks to which He has called us. To claim that what we are doing is “manipulating scripture” is laughable. To think that the push is about making ourselves feel good or lining our pockets is absurd – for the Unity Station fair outreach I contributed hundreds of hours of work, and thousands of dollars were committed to the project, with income from donations covering well below 10% of the expenses.

As the writer of this letter continues, he echoes the criticisms of the local pastor who claims that any short of full agreement with their interpretation of scripture is acceptance of “false doctrine,” which this letter writer equates with being “‘united’ in belief with Satan.”

While some of the rhetoric in this letter goes massively overboard, it is representative of something I have seen more and more in recent years. In any (reasonable) collection of believers and Christ followers there will come disagreements over the scriptures. That is as true among a collection of believers in a church who have agreed to a statement of faith from that church or denomination as it is in an ecumenical collection of believers that crosses denominational and faith-tradition lines. However, more and more I am hearing claims that someone else is believes “unbiblical” or “false” teachings and beliefs.

Just because we don’t agree with someone doesn’t make them a false teacher or heretic!

Church tradition has laid out what we call orthodoxy. Orthodoxy can be defined as a standard of belief that has been carried by those faithful to the one true God throughout history. We do not stand as believers today on our own; we are supported by the faithful around us in our churches and communities as well as around the world, and we are supported by the billions of faithful followers of Christ who have come before us over the two millennia since Christ walked among us. Sometimes opposing viewpoints can both claim orthodoxy: for example, Calvinism and Arminianism both can show support for their respective beliefs from throughout Christian history.

Now to make the claim that any disagreement with one particular set of theological beliefs ignores the breadth of viewpoints from throughout history, as well as the breadth of viewpoints within the lifespan of individual teachers and leaders from history. With careful study you can see how Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and nearly any other great teacher from history developed their beliefs over the course of their lives. They did not jump into ministry at 18 years old with a fully developed set of beliefs and a full understanding of the scriptures; God walked these great men through the process of sanctification, teaching them, guiding them and growing them just as he does with each of us today.

Last week I posted an extended quote by Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate. Jerome was passionate about God’s Word, so much so that his life work was to bring a translation to the church that would be the most useful and as accurate possible. Here is a quote from Jerome:

Do not take offence on account of the simplicity of Holy Scripture or the unsophistication of its words, for these are due either to translation faults or have some deeper purpose. For Scripture offers itself in such a way that an uneducated congregation can more easily learn from it, some benefit there, and both the learned and the unlearned can discover different meanings in the same sentence. I am not so arrogant nor so forward as to claim that I know this, which would be like wanting to pick on earth the fruits of trees whose roots are in heaven.

-Jerome (342-420 AD)

“The Christian Theology Reader,” ed. Alister E. McGrath, Blackwell Publishing: 2007, pg 88.

Jerome, one of the greatest pure Bible scholars in history, was so impressed at the depth found in the Bible that he claimed it would be arrogance to claim to have full knowledge of God’s Word, even though an uneducated, average, every-day church goer can pick up a Bible and have an insight that would completely blow away long-time pastors and scholars alike.

So my closing encouragement is this: don’t take the Bible for granted. Be reminded of the incredible gift it is, and humbly acknowledge that part of that gift is our lack of understanding and opportunity to seek truth together, knowing that God is passionate about opening His truth up to those who seek after him.

The Lord has said: “ask, and it shall be given; knock, and it shall be opened; seek, and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). So let us study here on earth that knowledge which will continue with us in heaven.
-Jerome

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