“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.
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.
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
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.
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