Category Archives: Biography

You Won’t Get It Until It Happens to You

Inspired by an incident 18 years ago today…

You won’t get it until it happens to you.

Shake your head at the perp being led

from the cop car in cuffs.

Just shrug off the one shot dead.

After all, he deserved it.

Validate the stereotypes of your set.

Identify with your race, your income, your politics.

You won’t get it until it happens to you.

It was cold that night back in ’99,

2AM when the police pulled us over,

four friends ironically

on the way back from a donut run.

Why? I asked the officer.

“For changing lanes and making u-turns.”

But I never got a ticket.

No, something worse went down.

The big cop was a bully

and I was incensed at the injustice,

What I said was,

(and under my breath):

“You’ll see me in court.”

The bully had good ears

and appeared at my window,

“What did you say?”

I should have said nothing more,

but my wounded pride repeated

my powerless threat.

The bully changed that.

Made me get out of my car,

searched me spread eagle on his hood,

then sat me like a criminal

in the back of the police car.

Then the big cop

gave me a long talk.

“We can pull over anybody we want,

whenever we want.”

I stayed quiet,

but it was too late.

They turned a deserted street

into a stage that night.

Pulled me from the cop car,

and marched me out but not far.

The rookie cop cuffs me in front of my friends,

while the bully who gave the speech pretends

to find something

in the back seat of his own cop car.

With a fast sweep of a long arm,

he reaches down and then,

like a magician produces

into the cold thin

air of a February night

a charred plastic baggy.

“Your youth minister’s a doper!”

he slandered loudly

to the gape-mouthed young men

in my car.

It sounded like a joke

or a B movie line,

but he waved his charred baggy

to prove the lie.

The cops made my passengers walk

in the middle of a cold night,

even though one offered to drive

my car.

The cops maced him

and took the two of us jail.

For what?

Possession of what the officer

actually had in his own possession.

My life changed after that night:

even though I was innocent,

even though my first and only drug screen

was clean,

even though I passed

a police polygraph,

even though the DA dismissed the case

without me having to plead.

For too many people an arrest is enough.

Innocent until proven guilty?

A reputation can be ruined by an accusation.

You won’t get it until it happens to you.

So don’t jump so fast

to those conclusions

Sometimes the “guilty” are not.

Sometimes the good guys are not.

But you won’t get it until it happens to you.

The Merge

Church splits are common. However, I only know of only one church that reunited after dividing, and I was part of it. “The Merge” of First Baptist Church, The Colony was official 28 years ago today.

In January of 1988 I began the Master of Divinity program at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. I filed my resume’ in the placement office with the hopes of serving in a church during my seminary career. By the end of the semester I received a call from the newly appointed pastor of First Baptist Church, The Colony. Pastor WB had seen my resume’,  and, after an interview, wanted me to be their Youth Minister. He invited me to introduce myself to the congregation during a Sunday morning worship service.

On the drive from Ft. Worth to The Colony that Sunday morning I took a wrong turn and ended up passing by the old Texas Stadium in Irving. First time I’d seen the fabled home of the Dallas Cowboys in person. As I walked up to the church I encountered two middle school boys sitting on the monkey bars in the children’s playground. They would be part of the small youth group I led beginning in the summer. Our first official activity was to attend the Youth Evangelism Conference at Reunion Arena in downtown Dallas.

Every weekend I commuted from Ft. Worth to The Colony and built a Saturday-Sunday youth program. Over the next six months our group doubled in size, from a dozen members to a high attendance of 26. I really enjoyed working with those kids.

At that time The Colony had around 20,000 residents, many of whom were younger families, so you’d probably expect the First Baptist Church to have more teenagers. In fact, you’d anticipate more members. Our auditorium seated 200 and it was never filled on Sunday mornings. You see, something had happened to this church before I arrived.

When Pastor WB first interviewed me he mentioned that the church had exprienced a split. A large group had left First Baptist and formed a new church called Calvary Heights, which met at the local high school. They called the former youth minster of FBC to be their pastor. The old pastor of First Baptist had evidently been the source of the contention that resulted in the split, and had subsequently resigned. First Baptist had called WB to be their pastor only a few months before he brought me in as their new youth minister.

So, the church had split over a disagreement concerning their former pastor. I was leary about this when I interviewed, but once I met the youth it didn’t matter. Several months into my tenure at First Baptist talk of a merger began. Each church appointed three members of a committee, which met for several months to discuss the possibility. By the end of the year, the committee had a recommendation: Merge! Wow, I was amazed at this. However, the pastor that hired me was not so enthusiastic. In fact, WB wholeheartedly opposed the merger.

You see, the committee’s recommendation was for the 27 year old pastor of Calvary Heights to be the senior pastor of a re-formed First Baptist Church, and for 60-something WB to be the associate pastor. I would be the youth minister. I was in favor of the merger. However, I had been hired by, and called by the church to, serve under WB, and he was opposed.  During my brief time in ministry training I’d been taught that staff at a church are called to serve under the pastor. That means submit to his authority. However, I was still a member of the congregation of First Baptist Church, and the church would make the decsion here. What should I do?

I remember the meeting I had with WB to discuss the issue. He was angry with me. He accused me of undermining his authority because of my support for the merger. In fact, at one point he began to yell, then lunged at me over his desk. It was not a very Christlike display of character. However, it helped me decide what I must do.

A business meeting where the congregation would vote on the merger was scheduled for a Sunday night in December. I knew what I must do. At the appropriate time in the meeting, before the merger vote, I stood up and read my letter of resignation. Then I walked out the back door, expecting never to return to First Baptist Church, The Colony. I met with a couple of my students at the McDonald’s across the street to say goodbye. I drove back to Fort Worth that night sad and shaken.

Now, that’s not the end of the story, or I wouldn’t be writing this today. But perhaps I should explain why I resigned rather than remain and vote for the merger. My primary responsibility if I am not the pastor is to serve the church under the pastor’s authority. If I cannot support the pastor, I do not oppose him or try to undermine him, I simply seek another place of service. That’s why I resigned.

On Monday morning I received a call from a congregational leader, perhaps one of the deacons (I don’t recall), informing me that my resignation had not been accepted. Ok, what, how could they refuse my resignation? This leader continued: WB had quit, stormed out the back door (and broke the glass on his way out!), the congregation had voted to merge, call the pastor of Calvary Heights, as pastor and me as youth minister. My objection to supporting the unstable and unChristlike WB was eliminated when he quit. I chose to serve the newly merged congregation under the new pastor, Bill Wilks. I would serve alongside two wonderful men: Morris Seay, education minister, and Ralph Baxter, music minister. It was like being called to a new church, except I got to keep the youth I’d worked with over the previous months.

The first official day of the merger was Monday, January 9, 1989. I remember the date distinctly because it was listed on so many records as the date people had joined the First Baptist Church. I had nine youth in attendance the last Sunday before the merger. On the first Sunday after the church reunited we had 90 youth!

There is so much angry energy expended when we disagree with one another. Divorce, political division, church splits and many other examples abound. It’s like the power of an atomic bomb, the destructive power of which was unleashed by the USA at Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Those bombs worked by splitting atoms. However, there is exponentially more energy released when atoms unite in nuclear fusion. That is, when atoms unite.

When the church unites to do God’s will, His power is released, and people are saved, delivered and healed. Our families, our churches and our nation need to come together in the name of Jesus. I believe that will only happen when we who claim to be Christians actually follow Jesus, and allow the Holy Spirit to fill us so that we have “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

“… walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ephesians 4:2–6.

 

38

Easter arrives early this year. It has to do with the moon and the arrival of Spring. In 1978 Easter Sunday fell on March 26th, today’s date. That’s cause for me to remember and celebrate because on Easter Sunday of 1978, a couple of weeks after my 16th birthday, I publicly committed my life to Jesus Christ. It happened at the North Phoenix Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona. I’d visited there a few times over the previous year, and each time I felt a strong compulsion to respond to the invitation at the end of the worship service. For those of you who may not have been to a church that holds an invitation, it is the time when the choir sings a special hymn and the pastor encourages people to walk to the front of the church to give their lives to Christ. Perhaps some people “walk the aisle” as the result of how they feel at that moment, and some don’t ever really do anything beyond that. It wasn’t that way for me. I felt strongly that I needed to “go forward,” but never reacted to that feeling because there was a stronger one holding me back: fear. I think I was afraid of what people would think of me.

That same fear thrust me into temptation about a year and a half earlier. It was the beginning of my freshman year at Thunderbird High School. I’d had a problems fighting and being bullied in junior high, so I really wanted to start high school off right. I wanted to make new friends, get involed, and be more accepted. I looked at extra-curricular activities and figured I’d join Key Club. That seemed to be the place for good kids, maybe some of the more popular people. I wanted to be both and didn’t believe I was either.  I wasn’t popular. Sure, I had a couple of friends, but mainly I just kept my head down when I walked the outdoor hallways of our campus. And good? Well, I didn’t really have any behavior problems in school (yet),  but I didn’t feel like I was a good person on the inside.

It was early Fall in Phoenix, and it was a Friday. I was wearing dark brown corduroy pants and a long-sleeved, tan shirt with a prominent western design (wasn’t trying to be a cowboy, but I liked that shirt). Final bell rang and ended the school day; I headed toward the room where people interested in Key Club had been invited to meet. I can still see that classroom door in my mind’s eye. As I approached. I imagined the stares I’d get as I walked through the door, and the popular kids would be thinking, “What’s he doing here?” I didn’t go through that door, never even got close. Fear seized me and I kept right on walking . I’d missed the school bus, so I would have to walk a couple of miles home. I decided to hang around for the football game on campus that evening. Since I didn’t really have any friends to hang out with, I meandered off campus.

I sauntered into the Thrifty Drug Store across the street. No plan, no money, just looking to kill some time. Now, I don’t know if I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid, or if I was just plain bored, but I what happpened changed the trajectory of my youth. Once inside Thrifty Drugs I was drawn to the liquor section. I didn’t drink, didn’t even like the taste of beer, or any other kind of alcohol. I’d tried it all in 7th grade when my cousin and I raided my aunt’s liquor cabinet. I couldn’t believe people drank such terrible tasing stuff. Now, I knew that as a minor I wasn’t supposed to be in the liquor section of the store, but I didn’t care. Maybe I didn’t feel worthy to be a good kid, so I’d just continue to be a bad one. There were mirrors angled down from the ceiling all the way around the store. I scoped them all out. I even sat down, then laid down on the floor to see if I could be observed. Finally, I stood up, slinked over to the refrigerated  reach-in display, and cooly pocketed a small Michelob beer (I chose it for its diminutive size). Then I started to walk out. As I passed the check-out I felt a hand grip my skinny bicep. A man looked down on me and asked me something like, “What do you have in your pocket?” He was the manager of Thrifty Drugs, and he took me upstairs to his office. He called the police, and I got taken home in the back of a squad car.

Both my Mom and my Step-dad were home when the police brought me to the door. They proceeded to ball me out, and I proceeded to ball my eyes out for the next hour or so. I decided then that I would never steal another thing. I didn’t want to be a bad person. It took over a year for me to figure out that I’d never be a good person on my own.

My Mom was always good to us at Christmas, and so I had a television set in my room. Back then we only had five channels to watch: the three networks, PBS, and the local station, KPHO channel 5. When I was younger I always watched channel five when I got home from school because they had Gilligan’s Island and a kids show called Wallace and Ladmo. On Sunda our family didn’t ever go to church, and there was nothing much to do, so I’d watch TV. Sunday mornings had two viewing options: political shows and religious shows. Boring. For some reason though–maybe I was searching I don’t know–I started to watch this church that broadcast its morning worship service on channel 5. This was the North Phoenix Baptist Church, and Richard Jackson was the preacher. I was impressed that they never asked for money. Other religious programs spent half the broadcast or more begging for dontations. NPBC just showed their worship service. I hadn’t been to church very often, but I liked this. I liked what the preacher had to say. He talked about Jesus, and preached from the Bible. They always ended the service with an invitation to pray to receive Jesus into your heart. I prayed that sinner’s prayer more than once. In fact the first time I remember praying it was while watching a Billy Graham Crusade when I was around 12 or 13. Both NPBC and Billy Graham had a choir that would sing the hynm Just As I am, and people would go forward. The words of that song struck me because they told me what I needed to know about God’s love. It is unconditional. He loves me just as I am.

“Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O lamb of God, I come, I come.”

At some point I shocked my Mom by asking her to take me to this church. She was kind enough to bring be there several times over about a one year period. Each time I was there I felt compelled to go forward at the invitation, and each time I resisted. I was afraid. This was compounded by the fact that TV cameras were rolling. What would all of those people think? Well, I don’t believe I ever formulated it that way in my mind; I was just too scared to step out into the aisle. So, for me, going forward in church required advance planning. Beyond going forward once in a worship service I planned on committing my life to Jesus Christ. Initially, I didn’t fully realize the message behind Just As I Am. I wanted to commit my life to God, so I tried to clean up my act. I stopped stealing, improved my grades in school, and tried to stop other bad habits I had. The problem with all of this is, I was doing it in order to be good enough for God. I wanted Him to accept me. The Gospel message I was hearing clearly from Pastor Jackson was: God loves you and accepts you. If you could be good enough for God on your own, Jesus wouldn’t have had to die on the cross for your sins. This is revolutionary. Just about everyone tries to gain God’s favor by doing good. The Gospel says God’s favor cannot be earned. We already have it in the Beloved, who is Jesus Christ.

I had a plan. On March 11th I turned 16 and got my driver’s license. That would enable me to drive myself to church consistently. Easter Sunday came on March 26th in 1978. I asked to borrow our green 1973 Ford F150 pickup to drive myself and my sister to North Phoenix Baptist Church. When we got there I sat on the outside of the pew near the aisle; that way I wouldn’t be able to make the excuse that I didn’t want to bother people by squeezing by them when the inviation time arrived. I don’t even remember what the sermon was over (although, Pastor Jackson kindly sent me a copy of the tape for that service some years ago), but as soon as the choir started singing Just As I Am I bolted down the aisle. I was wearing my fashionable disco clothes, including a blue faux silk shirt and two and a half inch platform shoes! I shook the hand of Don Mapes, who happened to be the youth minister at NPBC, and sat on the front pew with a deacon. We prayed the sinner’s prayer and filled out a card. The point for me was commitment. I had finally gone beyond feelings or even faith in my head to faith acted out with my feet.

The Bible states clearly, “By grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, that faith has to be real. That means faith must result in more than mental acceptance of facts or private feelings about God. Faith means believing something enough that I’m willing to do something about it. On Easter Sunday of 1978 I did just that, and I’ve never stopped beleiving and following Jesus since that day. It’s been 38 years today!

I was baptized the following Sunday. One year later, around my 17th birthday I surrendered my life to preach the Gospel. I am now the pastor of a church that God led me and other wonderful people to start. I wouldn’t want to live another life.

Growing Again

I got off track. Okay, that’s a colloquialism, but it’s true. I am a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus, but I got away from my calling to preach Good News. Why? Reasons that I can think of: 1) Disappointment 2) Rejection from people I cared about, 3) Desire for things outside the will of God, 4) Disbelief that God wants to bless me.

Let’s begin with the last first. I’ve tried many things to get God to bless me. Early in my Christian life I made promises that I couldn’t keep. I’ve fasted, both food and other things. I’ve prayed, complained, journaled, read more and more of the Bible, served, given money, offered personal sacrifices. Nothing changes me, and that’s the real issue. I must change, but “a leopard cannot change its spots” and I cannot change my nature.

I’ve come to the realization that what I do and who I am doesn’t matter. It’s who God is that can change, well, everything– even me. That’s the nature of the Gospel. God is good and God loves me (and you) and God has done everything that needs to be done for me (and you) to be blessed and changed. We cannot change our natures, but God will… once we trust his love and goodness enough to permit Him to begin (and continue) that process of transformation.

I was saved many years ago at the age of 16. I made a deal with God that involved nothing more than taking him at his word. I was a lustful, sin sick teenager who heard the message that God loves me and accepts me “just as I am.” I tried to clean up my act, but was not able to measure up. I couldn’t eradicate the lust of my heart. When I heard the Good News that Jesus died for me just as I am to make of me what he wills, then I accepted the offer of life in place of my living death. So, the deal went like this: Lord, I cannot do this on my own; I cannot stop this lust in my heart. If you accept me as I am and you will help me, then you can have my life.

It’s interesting that even many years later I still default to trying to please God by trying to stop lust and sin as a precondition of his blessing. That’s not the deal I made with God, though; or, I should say, that’s not the deal He made with me (and offers everyone in the Gospel). God is good, apart from Him, I am not.

Don’t try to compare yourself to me, though. You might be tempted to say: “Well, I’m better than you. I’m not doing anything that bad.” You might be surprised to find that that isn’t true. Even if it is, Jesus is the example of what a human being is supposed to be, and I assure you, you’re not that good and moral. Or, you might say: “I’m much worse than you. I’ve done horrible things.” You might be surprised to know that God judges the heart above the action, and even when I’ve done nothing externally wrong, my heart is wicked and yearns for things that, even if the world accepts, God hates. So, I may have imagined it but never done it, and you have done it. The difference is whom you’ve hurt in addition to God and yourself, but we’ve both sinned.

The point is: God is good no matter what we’ve done, and he offers to make us right. First, he sees us as good and right, even though we aren’t, because Jesus became our sin and died in our place, debt paid, penalty served. Theologians call this justification or imputed righteousness. What it means is, because of Jesus God sees us as righteous, even while we are still struggling with sin. There are many places where this is taught in the New Testament. For example:

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 3:23–24, NRSV)

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, NRSV)

This is the basis of the Good News, the Gospel. Yet, although I’ve preached it every week, I still fell short of consistently living like I believed it. Why? Well, I said I had an issue believing that God wants to bless me. That resulted from a guilty conscience as I wrestled with lust and anger and other sin. Formulated into a statement, it would be: How can God love someone who desires this, or who has done that?

It goes deeper, though…

Are you ready for the real confession? I’ve always had a suspicion that God doesn’t really love me. Yes, “God so loved the world,” and I’m part of the world of people he loves. But that seems so general and impersonal. God loves everybody. I’m not disparaging that; I appreciate it. However, it didn’t translate into me feeling God cares about me personally. So, yes, I’ll get into heaven because of Jesus, for God loves the mass of humanity so much that he came and died. But what about “he died for me”? I believe God loves people; I just don’t think he really likes me all that much. Sometimes it feels like he doesn’t want to be around me. So, I feel neglected, sometimes abandoned, even though I’m saved.

I default to that because when we consider God in the natural, we are inclined to understand him to be like our human fathers. My biological father was absent; my step-father was distant. I wanted my step-dad to adopt me, but he wasn’t willing to ask me to take his name. I experienced rejection from both men. Additionally, I could never measure up to my step-father. He was a big man, bigger than life sometimes. I was a scared boy. He tried to help me. We studied karate’ together. He certainly didn’t need this; he did it for me. So, don’t think he was a bad guy; he wasn’t. I’m not disrespecting the man. However, I could never call him “Dad”. I always called him by his first name instead. I could call him my dad to other people, but never to his face. Why? He didn’t ever give me permission to.  Almost no one knows this, but when I was baptized as a teenager, I used my step-dad’s last name. I was looking for a Dad when I came to Jesus. And I found one in God the Father, but I have had a hard time sensing or receiving his love and acceptance.

In the natural I feel rejected, neglected, abandoned, unworthy of affection and incapable of measuring up, even at my age… That is how I’m inclined to feel about God the Father.  As a result, even though my thinking and theology teaches otherwise, I have a proclivity to act like I’m on my own living for God doing ministry for Him. Yes, I’m saved, and yes I’ve got some gifts the Lord has given, but I often feel I have to do it all myself.  This is the reason I’ve become so angry when things don’t work, or situations don’t work out, or when people have abandoned or opposed me.  I just feel like there is no one in my corner to to help me up or fight for me when I’m down. This has created a negative environment at times. And it does not indicate that I have the right quality of faith in the God of Jesus Christ.

However, that has not consistently been the case, and it has begun again to change. God is a good, loving and engaged Heavenly Father and the One whom Jesus gives me the right to call “Daddy.” I’ve begun to sense that once again as I’ve simply chosen to believe it in spite of my own sin.

Last year I began with a fast of several things; in fact, I encouraged our church to do the same. I continued saying “no” to one of these things for many weeks. This didn’t stop my lust, anger and other assorted attitudinal sins, though: only faith has helped.

These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.” (Colossians 2:23, NRSV)

The year was not one of growth, at least not on the surface. However, what I began to realize and internalize more deeply than ever is this: God loves me anyway. I’m not saying I believe he loves me and doesn’t care if I become angry or lustful. I’m saying, he loves me in spite of my sin and loves me enough to stay with me and work with me and help me overcome. That is a very big deal.

I’ve known and taught, nearly my whole ministry, that our lives must be God-centered rather than self-centered. Early on, I was profoundly affected by the book Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. I came to the conclusion that our greatest problem is self-centeredness, and that our greatest pursuit must be God himself, living a God-Centered life.

However, in reading this confession you can detect a lot of self orientation. That’s because knowing something, even teaching it, is not the same as realizing and living by it. That is what has begun to change over the last 6-12 months. Through the typical disappointments and failures, my faith has– are you ready for this?– grown stronger. This has not been the result of me overcoming my weaknesses, but of realizing God’s acceptance of me in the Beloved (in Jesus) IN SPITE OF MY FOOLISHNESS AND SIN.

The covenant I entered with God is the New Covenant, and it is not offered to those who are deserving, good and moral, but to those who recognize they are weak and in trouble. This Agreement with God was inked in blood, but not mine. Jesus signed it when he was crucified. I cannot fail because the New Covenant is in Jesus’ blood. He is the Guarantor. Not me. My part is to agree, to commit my weak self to Him, to open up and let His Spirit enter and do the lifelong work of transformation. I just need to trust Him, instead of myself. “Trust in the Lord wit all of your heart and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). I need to love Him, above myself. “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

I fail my Father daily in big and small ways, but Jesus never falls short. His covenant of grace will always remain in place. He will never deny or forsake me. That is the Gospel, and it is very Good News.

What will be the result of this renewed realization? I am okay. I am secure. I am not easily angered or shaken. I will persevere in believing that God will bless and anoint and cause me to succeed in His work. I will not fail. Discouragement, disappointment, anger and doubt are all dissipating, evaporating like the dew when the sun grows warm. Hallelujah!

I am positive of this. It is not self-assurance or delusion, but faith.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

I am convinced. Faith is inherently positive, so I am positive. This will be a challenge in a darkening world filled with bad news, increasingly opposed to Christian faith. However, I am not afraid. I will not shrink back to destruction, but I will persevere in faith to the preserving of my soul in paradise and life eternal (Hebrews 10:39).

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37–39, NRSV)

Amen.

Overcoming Anger, a Christian View

Anger is easy. There’s a lot to be mad about: some is justified; some is not; and too much is pointless. Anger is my default emotion, my drug of choice, if you will. When I get hurt, it makes me mad. When something doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, it frustrates me and that results in anger (hence, my longstanding problem with technology). When I have to wait for something for what I feel is too long, that impatience results in anger (just experienced this with our abysmally slow internet connection). When people ignore me or reject me, it makes me angry. All of this bubbles up from the well of Pride, which is to say Original Sin. Pride expresses itself in manifold ways in different individuals, and this is an obvious way it comes out in my life.

In the Bible, James, the half-brother of Jesus and pastor of the first Jerusalem church admonishes, “The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). And yet, when someone cuts me off in traffic, when things don’t turn out as I expected, when I feel I am being treated unfairly, anger flairs and runs me, then ruins a portion of the day. This is wrong. Knowing that, however, doesn’t stop it from happening.

The results of human anger are devastating. Health problems may be caused or exacerbated by chronic anger. Depression is often the result of internalized anger. I may strike out in anger and injure someone physically or emotionally. Anger may even result in murder. Jesus clearly taught that anger leads that direction.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21–22, ESV)
When I’m angry with another person because of a real or perceived wrong they’ve done to me, then I have the motive which may escalate to hatred and murder. Even though I can’t imagine myself killing someone, I am guilty of harming them in my mind and I possess the motive to do harm. Slander is character assassination, so even if I wouldn’t dream of killing the target of my anger, I may very well feel no compunction about ruining their reputation.

It is likely that anger constitutes an addiction. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not attempting to turn myself into a victim of genetics, or the poor choices of my youth. Every time I erupt in anger, I am making a clear choice. I am guilty. However, that doesn’t mean it is easy to control. In fact, I’m coming to realize that, like any addiction, fighting anger is futile because I’m fighting my own will. “A house divided against itself will not stand. This is made worse by the fact that I’m fighting anger with, well, more anger. What I must do is attack the basis for all of my anger, not just fight daily skirmishes against it’s myriad outbreaks.

The command and control center for anger, and for Pride, which is its basis, is the self. More specifically, “me” striving to live apart from the manifest presence of God. We weren’t created to live apart from God, and doing so has grave consequences. Anger is one of them.

My self must come to an end. It must die. I’m not suicidal, don’t worry. I’m not talking about ending my life but about ending the self-life. This includes: selfishness, self-centeredness, selfish ambition, even self-protection, manifesting as a constant need to defend the self. However, I cannot do this alone. No addiction can be eradicated without outside help.

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now Iive in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Jesus Christ came to earth to accomplish what you and I cannot alone. The Son of God took on the fullness of our humanity, lived the life we are supposed to, then took on the full weight of our sin. Then he died. I must die with him. I must be crucified with Christ. That is how the self-life comes to an end.

“If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Most importantly, Jesus Christ rose from the dead. In so doing he brought hope for a new life and a new self. Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born anew” (John 3:3). This may also be stated, “You must be born from above.” The resurrection makes that possible for everyone who will believe.

So, in order to overcome my anger, I must identify with Jesus Christ on the cross, through the grave, and in the resurrection. I must realize and remind myself daily, and even moment by moment, that I am a new creation in Christ. I have a new identity. No longer do I live my life apart from God. I’ve invited his Spirit into my innermost being, and a transformation has taken effect. I have a new nature. My thinking must agree with this reality.

When I agree with God’s Word and Spirit that I am a new person, that I have been re-created to be a “little Christ”, then the anger dissipates. It is replaced by a peace that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:5-6), and by a humble confidence in God.

Pass Me By

Ever feel like the world is just passing you by,

like one of those days when you watch the sky

as the windblown clouds roll on by?

I watch while others succeed and I

do not begrudge or envy,

not much, not really.

But I do wonder why,

Why am I standing still,

Still,

while other lives move on?

What have I failed to do, God?

Do you hear me,

or have you stopped listening

to me cry?

I am not a perfect man,

but I have seen enough to know

that there has only been One.

Every leader I’ve ever followed has failed

in some way or another.

So, you do bless the imperfect.

What about me:

why am I still here;

why am I not free?

My eyes fail from looking for help.

I look to the hills but none comes,

not from the children of men.

Whom do I have in heaven but Thee?

Nothing on earth appeals to me.

All is lost, as it should be,

So I try to live for Christ,

even though I rarely see any

earthly reward,

and my heart is sick from hope deferred.

I am fully aware and entirely willing

to take all the blame here.

I just don’t know what I’ve done

or failed to do

that merits such persistent

mediocrity.

Is there something more,

something I’m missing here?

Did you call and I failed to hear?

Did I go when I wasn’t called?

Who is deaf like your messenger,

or blind like the one whom You’ve sent?

Open my eyes, Lord,

I want to see Jesus.

Open my ears lord,

and help me to listen.

Don’t pass me by.

Sayonara Nissan!

“For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?”
From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

Now I will measure my ministry in Nissans.
-Pastor D

Throughout my time at this church there have been some hard times, and many of those have been related to money, or the lack of it. But I’ve always had a nice car to drive. I’ve had a 16 year relationship with Nissan that, it appears now will end. The “why” is inexplicable. NMAC (Nissan’s finance company) simply will not offer the same loyalty lease deal they’ve given me since 1999. This is strange since I’ve leased FIVE cars from them. Oh, well, Sayonara Nissan!

This has brought me to evaluate what’s happened in our church during that time period. I can chart the changes that have taken place by going from Nissan to Nissan.

1999 Nissan Maxima
It all began in 1999. That’s when I got my first ever new car. It was a black Nissan Maxima with tan leather interior. Prior to this I had always purchased used cars, most of them were just transportation, nothing special. In 1999 Nissan advertised a lease deal on their Maxima. I had a friend who drove one and spoke highly of it. The six cylinder engine Nissan put in these had a good reputation for power and reliability. Additionally, this was the only large, four door passenger car with a standard transmission. So, in February of 1999, I started driving a Maxima. I really liked it.

I was youth minister at this time, and, of course, I wanted to show off the new car. One Sunday night a group of teenagers and youth volunteers came over to my apartment after church. We were practicing a skit for the following week. One of the adults was playing on my computer and suggested we go to Dunkin Donuts. It was late by then, but the donut shop is open 24hrs. A group of us piled into the new Maxima, and, well, the rest is history.

There were a lot of police cars at Dunkin Donuts that night. Being the responsible adult that I was, I noted the time (around 1:00 AM) and told everyone we needed to get back to the apartment. I thought everyone was over 17 (curfew would have been midnight for anyone younger), but honestly I wasn’t sure. On our way back a couple of the teens in my car wanted me to see a statue at a local “Buddhist temple” (it’s still there, and I really don’t know what religion they are, but that’s what we called it). I agreed, but had to make a (legal) u-turn to get to the street where they said I could see a statue sitting in the middle of a man-made pond. When we got there you couldn’t see anything because the fence was covered in plastic. I didn’t let anyone get out of my car, and we pulled away.

Two of Garland’s finest pulled us over as I turned onto the next street. The end result was a false arrest and my new car getting dented by the police as they wrestled with an adult passenger. The car was impounded overnight. I hadn’t had it for two weeks at that point. Btw, if you want to learn more about this incident, which is quite relevant and informative relative to bad police, you can read it here http://wp.me/p42WJH-f

As a result of this incident, my reputation was damaged, far more seriously than the new car. The pastor of the church where I served as a minister at the time stated that he planned to make my position part-time by the summer. This necessitated a change, whether I was ready or not.

On occasion prior to this incident I had considered the possibility that God might one day call me to start a church. In fact, I had even discussed this with some of the very volunteers who had been over at my apartment that fateful night. I believed I saw the need to craft a church to reach those who were unreached by traditional churches. When I broached the topic with the pastor of the church were I served, he was in favor of the idea, so much so that he facilitated its implementation.

On July 4th, 1999 we started a brand new church called City of Refuge. Our first worship service was held a a local park called 111 Ranch. The idea behind the name and the church related directly to the incident that precipitated its existence: a City of Refuge is a place where those who are presumed guilty can be free of judgement.

We met for small group Bible study in a house that doubled as the pastor’s residence, dubbed “the Baltimore house” from the street it occupied. We met for worship in the ballrooms of hotels, in parks and wherever we could find space. We spent a great deal of time, energy and money putting on a dramatic outreach called House of Judgement. This had begun many years earlier and was at its peak at this point.

2002 Nissan Maxima
My lease on the ’99 Maxima was up in 2002. If memory and my calculation is accurate it was the summer of that year when I leased a 2002 Maxima. NMAC (Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp) was kind enough to recognize my responsible payment history and pre-approve me with tier one financing without a credit application. Good thing, because I’d been through a lot of difficulty by that time.

911 had happened the previous year, and the entire nation had begun to change. Our church was changing too; many things had happened and not all of them good. Some key leaders who I had been mentoring left the church, and not all of them continued to live for Christ. In fact, I discovered that some of them had been hypocrites all along. To make things worse, these young men whom I’d spent many years teaching were saying some pretty awful things behind my back. I felt betrayed.

On December 2nd of 2002 something happened to me that continues to have a serious impact on my daily life. In the morning I woke up to a beautiful, sunny day. By 1:00pm I had lost the hearing in my right ear and was experiencing severe vertigo. I lay in bed for a week, unable to move without becoming dizzy and nauseous. To make things worse, I suffer from tinnitus; when the right ear went deaf, the ringing in it didn’t go away but increased until it was nothing less than torment. I went to several doctors, but none could help me. Eventually the vertigo subsided, but I am still deaf in my right ear to all but the loudest of outside noise. The ringing is continuous and as loud as normal conversation, which I am able to hear in my left ear. This is a constant drain on my energy as I strain to pay attention and make out what people are saying.

The church was not able to pay me a full salary and I was unable to find a full-time job to supplement the erratic income. Let’s just say, as my reputation had been damaged at the beginning, so now my credit had been damaged too. This was a dark, depressing time, and I was very grateful for my car. Everything else seemed to be falling apart, but at least I had something nice to drive.

At this time I was living with a member of our church. He had an old Geo Metro sitting behind his garage. It was an ugly, turquoise, three cylinder buzz box. However, I remember thinking that maybe I should try to buy that car instead of leasing another new one. It would have saved money. My pride got the better of me, and the Lord was merciful and gracious. Even so, I still wonder if I should have humbled myself (further) by trying to buy that car. This is all the more thought provoking when I consider my present situation. We’ll return to that at the conclusion.

In 2002 all of our church meetings were held at an old movie house called the Ridgewood Theater. We had begun to renovate the facility, but discovered many things that needed to be addressed. We continued to produced House of Judgement here. Additionally, I wrote and we produced plays for Christmas and Easter. Many people came to our theatrical events, but in spite of this numerical success, our worship service attendance was quite modest. One reason was, we discovered that the building we were leasing had no heat. Winter worship services were very cold indeed, especially since they were held on Sunday nights. I am sure there were significant spiritual reasons that trumped this problem, not the least of which was a need for more faith.

The Lord led me through a time of discovering, learning, applying and leaning on the promises he has for his people in the Bible. When God makes a promise you and I must hear it and heed it. We must have faith in God as a good and loving Father who will fulfill His promises, even when circumstances don’t support what we believe God is saying. I saw many amazing promises about me and our church during this period, but there was little happening to validate them. I still believed.

At this time I wanted us to move on from being the City of Refuge to become a city set on a hill for all to see, like Jerusalem. I wanted our church to take hold of the promises God has offered his people. Often the name Zion is attached to those promises in the Old Testament. It was another name for the city of Jerusalem and represented God’s people. That seemed like an amazing name, which had an ancient origin and resonance in the culture of 2002. We officially became Zion Church in February of 2002— three years after the incident that moved me to start City of Refuge.

I remember after picking up the new Maxima I preached a sermon on faith, and illustrated it by playing a scene from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. In the scene Yoda is teaching Luke Skywalker how to be a Jedi when Luke’s X-Wing fighter sinks into a swamp right before their eyes. Yoda inspires Luke to attempt to use the Force to raise the ship from beneath the mire, but the apprentice Jedi fails. Why? Yoda easily raises the ship, then an astonished Luke Skywalker puts his hand out and touches it as he says, “I, I can’t believe it.” Yoda responds, “And that is why you fail.” Most of those who were at church the night I used this illustration were aware of our difficulties financially. I encouraged them to resolve their own problems by putting complete faith in a good and loving God who promises and provides for His children. Then I told them to go outside and touch the car I believed God had provided. I had parked it next to the entrance to our meeting place.

2002 was also the year that we began to have a real youth ministry again. Until that time, the church was populated with so many (older) teenagers that it seemed the entire congregation was a youth group. However, we needed a dedicated ministry to junior high and high school students. Craig Wilson had graduated from Baylor and returned to Garland. When asked, he responded to the call and began to lead our small youth group.

2006 Nissan Altima SE-R
My lease on the ’02 was up by 2006 and I really didn’t like the body style of the latest Maximas. A salesman talked me into a limited edition Altima, called the SE-R. It had a lot of the features of Nissan’s 350Z, and that sold me. Of all the Nissans that I leased, that Altima is the only one I would have purchased at the end had they offered a good enough deal (which they didn’t). In fact, in my present situation I’ve considered buying one. They made a limited number in 2005 and 2006 and they’re hard to find, but who knows? Once again Nissan offered pre-approved credit and a really good deal, and once again this is something I wouldn’t have qualified for on paper. Credit bureaus are not forgiving entities. So, I praised God for the blessing.

By 2006 we were a very different church. Young people grow up and move on. They change, their needs change, and they are impatient for things around them to change. From 1999 to 2006 we lost and gained many people. The church retained a small core of strong leaders. Yet, instead of being a church comprised largely of 16-22 year olds, we now embraced a much broader age range.

I officiated the weddings of a number of our leaders in 2005 and ‘06. We had transformed from a church of mainly singles into a church with increasing numbers of families. We had a growing number of youth by this time due to the leadership of Craig Wilson, who now had a wonderful wife to help him. Craig married Rachel in 2005.

Also, I met and began to mentor a young person in Craig’s group named Aaron Cloud. The first thing this 14 year old kid told me was that he wanted to be a pastor some day. So, I believed I needed to teach him. This was the first time I’d spent any significant amount of time with a young teenager since we started the church.

We moved to downtown Garland in 2004, where we met at the Main Street Coffee House initially. Later we leased space from a Seventh Day Adventist church (which worked out because they worship on Saturdays). Soon we began worshiping on Sunday mornings, which was, in part, an effort to meet the needs of families with young children. However, I also think we had become more comfortable with being a church. There is an element of tradition behind church. People (especially in our part of the country) expect churches to meet for worship on Sunday morning; we had probably come to share that expectation. At times we’ve tried to revive Sunday evening services, usually as an option in addition to Sunday morning, but this has been largely unsuccessful.

2006 was the last year we produced House of Judgement. The next year one of our founding members passed away suddenly from cancer. Chuck Tomasek was a dedicated youth worker and tireless volunteer for every dramatic production we did. We have missed him greatly.

2009 Nissan Maxima
NMAC made their usual loyalty offer and I turned the Altima in for a new Maxima. The body style had changed and I liked it much better. However, Nissan no longer had a manual transmission option, which I missed. This was the most luxurious car I’ve had the privilege of calling my own.

By this time the church considered downtown Garland home. For a year we sublet space from the Garland Opry in one of the oldest buildings in downtown Garland. It is right on the Square at the corner of Sixth and State. In 2009 we leased it on our own and that’s where we remain.

The church continued to grow in diversity, even if our numbers remained relatively small. What began as an outreach to young people had now become a church for people of all ages. That is not to say we had lost our youth appeal. In fact, due to the long and hard work of Craig Wilson our youth group comprised half of our typical Sunday morning worship attendance. We funded large numbers of teenagers to attend camp each year and had to rent a 55 passenger bus to get them there.

It was during this lease that I met and began to mentor three teenagers, two brothers and their friend. I’ve never come close to going over on the number of miles allotted me under a lease contract, but I added many additional miles to the ’09 Maxima picking these kids up and driving them around. For the first time, I had to be cautious about how much I drove! I spent more time and money on these kids than any I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with many young people. I’m not boasting; rather, I’m disappointed, in them, in myself. At first, they seemed to be receptive to what I taught them, and I was happy to spend the time and energy investing in their lives. As time went on, however, they each continued to get into trouble at school, to become less and less interested in Christian faith, and to become increasingly immoral. I persevered, but all they did was take advantage of my willingness to give them rides and buy them meals. The jury is still out on these kids because they haven’t yet reached maturity. I hope they are open to the Lord as he seeks to correct them by bringing on the consequences of their poor choices. Far more than that, I hope they each have a change of heart before they wreck a significant portion of their young lives.

We began leasing the upper floor in our building in 2010 to provide space for children and youth. One of our members left shortly before this because he and his wife determined that we didn’t have enough space for their kids. I have always tried to make certain that we provide for children, even if, as a single man, some have assumed that I am not concerned about our kids. Honestly, nothing infuriates me more than this misperception.

During this time period I moved to downtown Garland, first living in some new apartments that were a block away from the building our church leases, then moving above the church so that we can continue to afford the space for our kids. I was able to move out after about a year, but have had to move back in for the last two years to keep us in the space.

Our church has sought to be visible and active in downtown Garland. We have an entry in the Labor Day parade, pass out free hot chocolate during Christmas on the Square, and I participate in the Downtown Business Association. Downtown is changing and we are here for that reason.

2012 Nissan Altima
On February 14 of 2012 I turned the ’09 Maxima in early and started driving another Altima. This was strictly a financial decision. The dealership called me to take the car early, and I asked them to give me a deal with a lower payment. This has been a good car, but nothing exciting. In two weeks I’ll turn it in and not look back.

After a decade as Zion Church, I led us to change the name again. This time it was not because of changes in our church so much as changes in the world around us. The name Zion didn’t have the same cultural resonance as we sensed in the early 2000’s. Islamic extremism, cults and general misunderstanding by some older people led me to pray about a new name. Zion’s motto was “Spirit and Truth”; it came from the narrative of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. She had asked him where someone should worship, and Jesus responded: “those who worship God must worship in Spirit and in Truth. Lifewell comes from the same story. Jesus told the woman that if she asked, he could give her water that would become in her a well of water springing up to eternal life (4:11 & 14). Later in John, the Lord promised that He would give water that would become “streams of living water flow(ing) from within” (John 7:38). These streams of water are identified as the Holy Spirit. “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those hwo believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:39). So, we seek to preach Jesus in order to bring that living water to people. The Holy Spirit will live within anyone who will believe in and receive and call on Jesus to save them. Therefore, not only do we receive life, but we become channels of that life for others.

Our church revised it’s founding documents, and, most importantly, it’s mission statement. The new mission statement contains phrases from each of the previous phases of the church:
City of Refuge, Zion and now Lifewell.
It reads:

Lifewell Church is called out to be a refuge, worshiping God in the Spirit and in truth, reaching the unreached with the Gospel and learning to live well through faith in
Jesus Christ.

I thought the church would experience numeric growth after we made this very significant change. We have not, yet. We have continued to persevere and mature. We have been tested and tried. People have left the church and gone on to larger congregations. But those who remain will be blessed, I believe. Indeed they already have been.

Our leaders began having children, and I have become like a grandparent. I love these kids. Although I’ve always been concerned about the kids who come to our church, I’ve not interacted with them. Over the last several years all that changed. The biggest change came when Craig and Rachel’s daughter Jubilee began to talk, and talk to me! Then they had Asher. I’ve never held a toddler who likes me as this boy does. Now all the kids like me. Dean and Tasha’s daughter Maddy asks many questions about Jesus, Ransom talks to me and shows me his toys. I love these kids. I really do.

I believe the church is in its basic final form, but there are still changes, improvements and growth coming.

Sayonara Nissan!
Well, Nissan didn’t offer me a new lease this time, and no one with NMAC can tell me exactly why. Loyalty is not rewarded any longer, it would seem. I believe in Providence, however, that God is working all things together for my good. There is a reason for this and I am seeking to discover it. There is a path to take and I am searching for it. I’m sure that’s the main reason I’ve spent all day writing this overview of our church’s history. I want to know where to go and what to do next, and that is not just a concern for what I’ll be driving in two weeks when this lease is up.

Regret is a terrible thing. We cannot change the past. There are plenty of things I’d do differently in leading our church. “Hindsight is 20/20,” as the cliche’ goes. However, I believe in a God of second chances; indeed, He offers many chances. He forgives the past when we confess, and He offers us a new future. So, here I am in a similar position to 2002 when I thought about trying to buy that old Geo Metro. This time, it appears, I don’t have the option to just slip into another new car. I checked on a Honda yesterday, and even after 14 years my credit is not tier one. Credit Bureaus are not forgiving. The initial offer before they checked my credit was great, then they came back and upped the lease price by TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS A MONTH. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and that, my friend, is an established fact. Our financial system is at fault for this. I’ve paid my car payment on time every single month for three years. I’ve never missed a payment in 16 years. I’ve paid off a student loan after 30 years. None of that matters, apparently. At least, not enough to elevate my credit to the status it was in 1999.

Providence. What is God saying? What is God preparing to do? I’ve been unwilling to humble myself by driving an old car again because I have so little in my life the looks anything like achievement. At least a new car spoke of some degree of success. Now what? Honestly, I’ve told the Lord that I’ll drive a used car again. I’m certainly not going to pay the ridiculous interest they want to charge me to lease or buy right now. But what does God want? What is His will? I doubt that I was supremely concerned about that in the financial area back in 2002. Perhaps this is a test. Well, I will drive anything He wills. My pride is withering quickly.

Most importantly, I will go anywhere, and I will do anything the Lord calls me to. I have almost no debt at this point. I may have to take a loan from my annuity to buy a car, but technically that’s not debt because it’s my money. Without debt I’m free to do what the Lord wills without restraint. So, exactly what is that? Where do we go from here, God…?

“Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”
-T.S. Eliot, Prufrock