Monday, November 2, 2015


Louisville, Kentucky. November 2, 1969. On this day and in this place a baby girl was born who would change the world. So far, she has never won a Nobel Prize or been highlighted in the national news media. She has never been a guest at the White House nor has she ever served a day in Congress. She has not been part of the many different roles the world might point to for someone who has changed the world, but we don't necessarily point to or operate on the same standards the world does. Instead, we have a different mark altogether for what it means to change the world, and this small baby who is now a mother herself fits the bill for certain.

Her name is Karen, and today is her birthday. I have only known her really for half of the years she has been alive. To be fair, we did meet in college, but only briefly and, since we were in different organizations and different majors, our paths rarely crossed. We met (or met again) through an interesting set of circumstances in 1992, falling in love and marrying a year later.

As a child, Karen changed people's lives by being part of their lives. Stories reveal that she was full of energy and confident in who she was. She became a follower of Christ at a young age, and from that point on, the spiritual impact she made coupled with the social impact to produce a lifetime of differences that are too many to count. As a cheerleader and then as a cheer coach, she has helped others know the game of football, and she has impacted some to help them know the difference Jesus can make by not only living a life but speaking confidently into relationships of trust about a Savior who had transformed her life. In college, her personality drew her to those who even today are making significant differences in the communities in which they live. As a teacher, she taught young learners the importance of reading and math. As a small group leader, she impacted the lives of young girls on the journey of faith and helped them see the possibility of being spiritually minded while at the same time being fun and engaging in life. Over the years, many have been blessed by this baby girl as she has grown and developed into a woman of God.

Over the course of life, this young lady has certainly impacted the lives of others for good. Pockets of the world have changed because she has been part of them. More specifically, though, this young woman has changed the world by being a champion for a cause that will last into eternity. She has been and continues to be a champion for one small group who is forever changed and would not even exist if it weren't for her presence. This small group of people have grown from her teaching, her nurturing, her investing, and much more. Even more than what she has done, this group has grown from who she is and from the sanity she brings to daily life. She works to find balance in a crazy schedule and many times she has to fly solo as leader while I am out of town. More than any other lives she has impacted, the lives of our family present and future are forever changed because of who she is.

Happy Birthday today to Karen Elizabeth Smith Permenter. We are blessed by all you do and by the many testimonies from others whom you have impacted, but most of all we are blessed by the woman you are and are becoming in Christ. Have a great day and be filled with the spiritual blessings of Christ in heavenly places.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fathers Pastoring Their Homes

Crisis in our churches has reached a critical level. Statistics tell us much about the condition of our churches today, yet statistics do not even begin to describe the pain and loss that many followers of Christ feel having seen the impact of cultural floods on the body of Christ. Through the storm, the Lord has provided Pastors to oversee the work of the church to guide believers into God's best for their lives, their families, their churches, and their communities. The job is not an easy one, and the work is overwhelming at times. For those who are called to the task, however, the reward is eternal, and I pray that many will endure the days ahead.

When we read Paul's letter to young pastors, Timothy and Titus, we find that he placed significant emphasis on the character of the man who leads the body of Christ. The Lord has placed under-shepherds strategically to protect His bride, to love His bride, to guide His bride, and to serve His bride. Among the qualifications we see that an elder should be able to teach, not a brawler, sober-minded. Other qualifications dot the landscape, and one stands out boldly among the others. Pastors are to be men who can manage their households well. At one point, Paul says that his children should be believers and spiritually under control. This role defining trait reminds us all of something that we know to be true but often don't consider. Before the church existed, the family existed. Could it be that Paul is reminding us that men - all men - have been given the stewardship of pastoring their own home. Those who do so well could be candidates for a specific role in the church, but all men are called to be the under-shepherd of Christ over the spiritual condition of their homes.

Ephesians 6:4 tells fathers not to create aggravation in the lives of our children. Of course, my kids love to quote that verse. It's amazing how easily they could memorize it when they "struggled" with others. Instead of creating aggravation, we are to train our children in the ways of the Lord. This training means that we are to create environments for our children to know God. We have an opportunity to use the most special and moldable times in our kids lives to introduce them to Jesus and to teach them what it means to grow to look like Jesus. Paul says that all Christ followers are involved in a process called sanctification and that pastors are key leaders in guiding believers along that journey. Doesn't it make sense, then, that since we spend so much more time with our kids than church leaders spend with them, we should also be actively engaged in guiding our kids along the sanctification journey. Certainly the church helps with the process, and wise parents will find ways to involve children in the sanctification process through the workings of the local church. 

At one time I was working on doctoral study, and one of the primary professors at the seminary challenged me by saying that the process of sanctification could not be measured so there would be no way I could equip parents to engage their children in sanctification through the church. He quoted some study about parents who sit with their children in worship being more effective than others at having children stay connected to the church. Hearing him speak to this issue made me very uncomfortable because it seemed like he was telling me that the best thing for a child was to show up at church, sit with her dad, and wait for growth to happen. The problem with that logic is that the evidence of Truth in scripture contradicts it, no matter what statistical results might reveal. Scripture tells me that when fathers disengage from training their children in the ways of God, disaster is practically a certainty. Take the Old Testament priest, Eli, for an example. He ignored his sons, and they became rebels bringing judgement on Eli's house. Samuel also neglected his children, and the children of Israel rejected Samuel's family as leaders. Even David had a tumultuous family situation because he failed to do the one thing that mattered most. Deuteronomy 6 gives us clear instructions as to how we as fathers are supposed to lead (pastor) our families. The scripture is not a magic potion or a sure fire guarantee, but the scripture is the direction God has ordained for us to follow.

Parents engage their children in sports, dance, academics, and a host of other activities. We model what it means to be a responsible citizen or perhaps in some cases the opposite. We teach them by our behavior how to respond in certain situations. We engage in many ways so why would we not engage spiritually? Certainly the measurement is not based on rules and boxes checked on an offering envelope. Being a dad is messy, at best. Measurement happens over time as we see our kids make wise choices and begin to transfer their dependence from us over to Christ. We cannot reject the chance to pastor our family just because there are no offerings to take, numbers to count, or annual reports to deliver. Actually, the best measurement is when we suddenly realize that transformation has happened slowly but surely. Being involved with our children in mission trips, scripture memory, Bible stories, and prayer times are powerful tools in the father-pastor's bag to help us equip the young saints in our home for works of ministry. Every believer at every age has a heart to be developed, and young children are no exception. 

As Pastor Appreciation Month comes to a close, I am humbled to know some great fathers who are working to engage their kids on the journey to be like Christ. There is no way I could list all of their names, but I will spend the next few moments lifting them before the Heavenly Father and praying that these father-pastors in homes across the world know that they are making a Kingdom difference. Press on, dear brothers, press on.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Partner in Ministry

It's day four of the final week of Pastor Appreciation month. God has encouraged me greatly as I have reflected back over those He has used to influence the path He has me on in this crazy play unfolding on the stage of life. Many of us could point to pastors who have influenced us in our childhood and in our adult life. Others of us smile as we see those who have come along through a children's ministry or a youth ministry being called into ministry of some kind to accomplish Kingdom purposes. Sometimes, God allows another unique opportunity for those who are actually in ministry to grow, to develop, and to learn not from someone who is mentoring them or from someone they are mentoring, but instead from a peer in ministry. Such was the case for me during a time of full time ministry in 2012 and 2013. 

The Lord was gracious to us as a church when he brought a young man and his bride to serve as our Associate Pastor with responsibility primarily for students. The process to get him to town took some unexpected turns, curves, and deep dives at times. For a time it seemed like the enemy was going to keep him away, but the ministry he has had and is continuing to have in this place must confirm for all involved that despite circumstances that were most uncomfortable at times, God brought this young man to town for His greater purpose. 

Much of this post could be spent highlighting the Kingdom advances that have taken place under this young man's guidance and leadership. Students returning to the path of righteousness, families engaged in missions, parents and teenagers equipped for ministry are just a few of the lights that dot the path of ministry God has grown over the last few years. Since the posts this week have been about influence, I'm hoping to share how the Lord used the relationship of trust this young minister and I developed to spur me on in conviction, confession, and change. 

One of the traits that God immediately used was this man's honesty and confidence in who God had created him to be. Pretense was never part of his vocabulary, and he helped me to see areas where God wanted me to grow in confidence of who He created me to be. I've mentioned before that doubt somehow tends to stay near me. I have been known to doubt ability, call, and even favor with God. During the short time that we had in ministry together, King Jesus used this man's influence to remind me that as believers we are all children of the King and heirs with Him in heavenly places. As we spent time together on Monday mornings over coffee at the local coffee shop or when we gathered early on Sunday morning to pray about what God would have us be and do as men of faith, the Spirit quickened me to recognize areas where He wanted me to conform more to His image and likeness. 

We were able to spend family time together enjoying the fellowship that comes with unity of the Spirit. His brother and his parents became friends of ours, and my son still keeps in contact with him and his brother even now. We spent mission opportunities together and even found occasion to work through a tension or two that came with the daily journey of sanctification. One of the most meaningful times I recall was when we decided to preach a series on worship. Our church was going through some challenges, and we knew the Lord had us in place for a reason. He had called us together to equip the saints for the work of ministry, and while the methods I landed on may or may not have the most effective, the messages and the result proved to be meaningful. You could never know unless you have experienced the opportunity to engage in weeks of prayer and study of God's word together with one who is likeminded in faith and purpose how meaningful it is to have a pastor to journey with in ministry. We spent hours talking through the scripture and planning how best to present it to the congregation. We took turns over the next several weeks preaching the Word, and the body of Christ responded as a whole very well. Of course, there were some dissenters as there always will be, but the result was evident, particularly on the first Sunday as many came forward to kneel and pray asking God to remove barriers and lead His church into new opportunities for worship, growth, and Kingdom expansion. Following this time, we saw God bring people to salvation, ministries flourish. and people engage even more vigorously in the word of God. One Sunday morning we preached together from Revelation as the Lord unfolded what worship is like in its most perfect setting. Needless to say, the Lord used His word and the partnership with this fellow minister to help me see that Christ is always faithful to keep His promises, and that the Rock upon which He has built His church will never be shaken.

We moved after a short time to a new place of service, and I am confident that I missed this partnership in ministry most of all. Once you have had this type of relationship with a ministry peer, going it alone becomes a challenge at best. I am reminded of the relationship Paul and Barnabas and then Paul and Silas had together and though I would not begin to compare our ministry with that of these three mighty men of God, I can at least see why they must have had a blast spreading the gospel and planting churches together and why, after Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways, God provided Silas to pick up the empty space. I pray that Joel found as much joy in the experience as I did, but I have a feeling I was the one who was being truly blessed.

Today this young man and his bride have welcomed a beautiful baby girl into their family, and God continues to bless them as they continue in obedience to the call God placed on their lives a few years ago. I am grateful today and will always be for the friendship and partnership in ministry that the Spirit forged with Joel McDonald, and I am eager to see how God expands his heart as the years come one by one. I am thankful for the opportunity to be challenged in my faith to remember that we must always be true to who God has created us to be no matter what may come our way. As I have remembered this young man today, I am reminded that we must celebrate that God is at work in us according to His good purpose and then press on for the reward of Christ as we fix our eyes on Him as the author and perfecter of our faith.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let No One Look Down On You Because You Are Young

For many of us, our idea of a pastor is someone who is older and wiser, with many years of experience under his proverbial belt. This experience gives him the opportunity to and the responsibility of leading a congregation in ways that someone younger and less experienced might not be able to lead. For most of us, too, we meet pastors at some point in their journey once they have already become a pastor, having attended school and worked with churches in some form or fashion before landing in the congregation where we are mostly connected. For most of us, generally, this process is the way things work. For most of us, generally. For some of us, occasionally, God brings someone into our lives before he becomes a pastor and allows us to see the pathway unfold in small pieces of times. This occasional experience is one that I have had the humbling honor to watch in the life of one particular young man.

I first met him when we moved to Panama City to serve as youth pastor. He was in the ninth grade and trying to find his way through the avenues life placed before him. He came from a solid family, and immediately we made a connection. The youth group was small in the beginning but soon grew in size and influence. The senior pastor had a vested interest in seeing the youth group grow since he had two children in the ministry, and he supported and encouraged the various stages of development along the way. One of the trends in the early nineties was for youth groups to have a band on Wednesday nights for a time of worship. The youth group didn't have an already established band, but there were three guys who were interested and who started getting together to play around with some music. At best, the beginning was rocky. They started with songs that they enjoyed, but as you can imagine, Proud Mary was not quite the song that fit with the strategy we were implementing in the youth ministry. I know. It's shocking really, but the strategy was taking us somewhere different. Eventually, the guys began to learn other songs, and we were on our way. In the beginning, my young friend stayed very much in the background, but before too long, he took a leadership role in the group along with a couple of others, and soon we had a band that gave us something to attract students to what God was doing in our midst. 

Leadership in the band was not the only place where this teen flourished. He had one of those personalities that drew people to him and to whatever he was doing. We had a small group of guys that met for Bible study weekly, hoping to spur some growth in the lives of the young men. We struggled at times with focus, but we plugged along with positive results over time. Even with the struggles that accompany teenage boys moving along the spiritual continuum, God was at work in this young man's life in ways that would reveal themselves in years to come. One of the joys of ministry is being able to find opportunities to spend time with those who are open to the Spirit's leadership in their lives. Of course, with this joy comes the challenge of balancing time between those who are open to the Spirit and those who are apathetic to the same Spirit.  Sometimes there is not enough time or energy to go around, and I can't say I always got it right. 

The young diamond in the rough Christ was molding continued to grow into a well rounded young man. His parents encouraged him to pursue his own interests, and he did so with passion. When he was interested in something, he went after it with reckless abandon. Let me pause for a reality check because, like other pastors I have mentioned, this young man was not perfect. None of us are to be completely honest. As I mentioned, his parents encouraged him to pursue his own interests. Math was not one of those interests. We spent many hours navigating quadratic equations and equilateral triangles, and he came out on the positive side, yet math still never was a highlight of his high school career. (If that's the worst I can think of, I suppose we weren't in too bad of shape, right?) Girls, on the other hand, seemed to be something he was interested in, and he was quite the ladies man - in a good way. Guitar was a passion that could never be questioned. He took his guitar every where he went, and any chance he got, he played. One certainty was clear. If he put his mind to it, the Lord was going to develop it into something good. 

The Lord was not just working on skills in this young man. The Lord was also working on his heart. I watched him interact with others, some of whom were not always the most popular to be around. I saw his heart for his family and how he interacted with them when he didn't know people were watching. After graduating high school, he decided that he would work for a summer camp in his home town, and suddenly the Lord began to bring everything into focus. As hard as it is to believe, math wasn't part of God's eternal plan for this eager college student. His life was not to be bound to equations and proofs. Confession would bear witness to the fact that sometimes we (meaning I) can focus on some things that really are not of eternal significance, and we (meaning I) have to be reminded that God was in charge long before and long after we (it really is easier to say we .... makes the sting spread a little wider) came on the scene. I would like to say that slope-intercept somehow played into being able to surf or that exponents helped him lead a small group Bible study for exponential Kingdom growth, but I would be pushing the envelope way too much to try. Instead, God used the time at this summer camp to channel his interest in people, ministry, worship, and yes even girls into the plan God had been working on all along. During this summer, God brought a Godly young woman into his life who became his bride and supporter in ministry. God began to expand his thoughts for his future, and eventually he ended up as a youth pastor at a church in the city where he was attending college. Years spent as a youth pastor were good to him as his pastor recognized his heart for ministry and his passion for seeing people grow to be like Christ. He began to have opportunities to lead worship from time to time, and gradually God's plan became crystal clear. 

Today this young man serves as a worship pastor for a church in South Carolina. He and his amazing family have embraced God's call and are enjoying the fruitful blessing of ministry. Recently I was able to spend some time with them. We had dinner together, and I got to know their children a little better. What a refreshment to see this young man now a dad loving his wife and kids with the same passion that I had witnessed during his growing up years being directed toward a Kingdom focus. We spent some time talking about ministry and about his heart to see people encounter God on a weekly basis in a way that created more of a desire for them to encounter God on a daily basis. We talked about the struggle between creating a worship experience of excellence and one that is mere performance, and the Lord brought tremendous encouragement as the reality of the Spirit's work became clear. Praise God for young men like Jeremy Daniel Lloyd who have surrendered themselves to Christ and have recognized that we do the best we can to create excellent experiences, and then we trust the Spirit to do the work. We don't have to conjure up the Spirit of God. He is active when we are submitted to Him. (Could I at least say that I did see a set he designed for the platform where he leads worship, and I am pretty sure that he had to use designs, shapes, measurements and some angles to get it to fit in place? Maybe math had some influence after all???)

Seriously, once again, I am challenged to be more like Christ because of what He is doing through a Pastor I know. During this final week of Pastor Appreciation Month, I pray that Jeremy and Whitney Lloyd are being showered with the fullness of spiritual blessings that pour out from heavenly places. Scripture says, "Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example ...." Thanks, Jeremy, for taking the scripture seriously. Be encouraged, my friend. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Equipped for Ministry By The Word

As many of you know, October is Pastor Appreciation Month, and this week I am spending a little time thinking back over the impact various pastors have made in my life. I have learned much from each man whose authority God placed me under, and hopefully I have used those lessons to grow and to develop skills God can use in me. Pastors came into the little town where I grew up like mosquitos getting in line at a blood drive, and they often went as quickly as they came. I remember bits and pieces of each one, and I remember the pain that they went through most of all. Sometimes I wonder if the Lord doesn't use some churches to refine those He has called into ministry in ways that we might never be refined otherwise. 

When I was a senior in high school, I experienced what has traditionally been termed a "call to ministry." This call was not as specific as I would like, but I do remember the moment. I went to my pastor, and together we talked through what a call to ministry really means. I made the decision to pursue this call through vocational ministry public on Easter Sunday of my senior year in high school. This time in my life was an extremely important time, and I am thankful that God put a Pastor there who would help guide me through it. 

This important spiritual decision was not the only decision my pastor guided me through. I was one of those kids who always felt like I was a disappointment to everyone around me, and most of all to God. I would sin, and Satan would beat me up like crazy. I would read my Bible more, pray more, memorize more scripture. Nothing seemed to help me overcome that sense that I was being tossed back and forth by the waves of fear and doubt. I remember as a young teenager going to my pastor's house a few blocks away from where we lived. We sat together on his couch, and he listened to me. I don't know that anyone had ever listened before like he listened. He heard my fear and my doubt. He heard my deep desire to please God and to be secure in my relationship with Christ. After he heard, he saw. He looked me in the eyes (not an easy feat since he was much taller than I was), and he told me that he saw a young man who was troubled and confused, but also a young man who loved Jesus. He told me that people didn't worry as much as I did about not being saved if the Holy Spirit wasn't working in their lives. Then, he gently reminded me how the Spirit works in a believer's life to grow him through a process of pruning. Often that pruning can be painful, but always that pruning is helpful. He reminded me of a verse that I have never forgotten even though doubt and fear have followed me into various times of my life. The verse was Romans 8:1, and I have repeated it often. "There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." 

I also learned about the importance of studying God's word from this man. We had a small church, and when we had a part time youth minister, he was mainly with us only on the weekends. Wednesday nights, then, were much different from Wednesday nights in youth groups today. We spent our Wednesday nights in prayer meeting and Bible study with the adults. We had notebooks and everything!!! For those who know me well, you can imagine that as I am writing those words, I am about to soil myself with excitement. I do love to study God's word, and truthfully that love for study really flourished under the leadership of my pastor during my teenage years. Paul's second letter to Timothy reminds us that "all scripture is God breathed and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly equipped for every good work." Bro. Paul (that's what we called him) took his role seriously as he used his gift to oversee the body of Christ by making sure that we were equipped with God's word for the work God called us to do. I wish that everyone had taken the study of the Word seriously. Perhaps he would have been with us longer to continue to guide that church into truth. You can probably imagine that the more the Word of God was lifted up and taught, the more Satan fought against this man of God and his family. Those in the church who are not followers of Christ always react negatively to studying God's word because God's word is a two edged sword, able to penetrate to the very depths of our being. I am sorry for those who failed to see that our pastor was loving us through teaching and instead looked for ways to hinder everything he was called to do. 

Love for the Word of God started in my life as a young child as my mom made sure that she read Bible stories to me and as I learned verses through Bible Drills. The Word really came alive when Brother Paul Lloyd and his family came to the small church in our small town and demonstrated the integrity of which the apostle wrote in Titus 2:7-9. Paul wrote to Titus, "Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us."

My prayer today in this last week of Pastor Appreciation Month is that Brother Paul Lloyd and his family know that God has used him in my life and ultimately in the lives of many others he may never even meet. Bro. Paul, your influence means more than you will ever know.

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Pastor Indeed

Friday, December 3, 1993. We arrived at our new apartment in Panama City, Florida, ready to engage in the new ministry assignment the Lord was providing. At the time, we had no idea that we were about to meet some of the best friends of our lives and by far some of the best students we would ever have the honor of serving. In God's unique way, we also met the man who would be our pastor for the next 22 years. I have served with several men who were also pastors, and as church environments changed, so did the men who served in those roles. I have been on the staff side of the pulpit and the member side of the pulpit, and as a church member, I have also had many pastors who made strong impacts on my life. Even today, our family belongs to a church body that like most has a man at the helm in the role of Pastor. We have only been attending this church for a little more than a year, and I hope to get to know our pastor over time. We have a large congregation so doing so can be difficult, to say the least. While I have had many men influence my journey as they served in the role of pastor for various congregations, there is one man who has transcended geography and years. In fact, he has proven to be more than a pastor. He also is a friend. 

We actually only served together on staff for less than a year, but that year was enough for me to see that this man had a pastor's heart that could not be matched. As time has aged me, I have studied extensively what the Word teaches about pastors, elders, bishops (all used interchangeably by Luke, Paul, and Peter). Personal  study and academic study all lead to one conclusion. When Jesus left His bride in the care of under-shepherds and gave instructions on how the body of Christ should be cared for, he must have had my Pastor in mind. I've never met a man who loves the church quite like he does. He knows his congregation, and he loves us often to his own expense. He prayerfully considers how the Lord is moving in and around us and designs worship experiences for us to meet together as a congregation around the throne of God. He has invested in the lives of many adults, students and children over the years, most recently my own, as he carries out the passion of his heart discipling the body of Christ in the word of God through the primary ministry to which he has been called. Many might be surprised to discover that my Pastor is a Worship Pastor. Minister of Music; Worship Leader; Jack of all Trades; Chief Bottle Washer. He has worn many hats and labels over the years, but the one that means the most to me and to my family is, of course, at the risk of being redundant - PASTOR. 

My pastor exemplifies Paul's qualifications for what it takes to lead God's people. You could read the qualifications in Paul's letter to Timothy and to Titus, and you could insert his name in the appropriate places. Many pastors meet most of the qualifications, and fail at some, but not my Pastor. While he is not perfect, he does demonstrate on a consistent basis that he wants his life to honor the Lord. He never seeks acclaim or recognition. His family is a testimony to his leadership, a trait also described in Paul's writings. His wife is a Godly woman, and his children love the Lord by loving their families and training them in the ways of God. They serve actively in the local church and strive to display Christ to those around them. 

I was reminded most recently of the impact my pastor has had on my family as I listened to the youth choir from our church singing at a local nursing home. My daughter loves to sing and having the opportunity to be in the choir is a highlight for her. My oldest son has traditionally ... well, he's .... hmmm, how should I say it? He has managed to dodge the children's choir bullet in every church we have ever attended or served, and most recently we have been at churches that did not have a youth choir so he effectively avoided that one as well. Until now. He actually has joined the youth choir. I know. I know. Sit back. I hear Fred Sanford in the background. This is the big one Elizabeth. What in the world would draw these two teenagers into a group that they really have not had any exposure to in years? It's not a what. It's a who. He is our pastor. 

The word pastor is actually only used as a noun in scripture one time, and that one time is in the book of Ephesians as Paul lays out the roles that God has given the church in order to function effectively. The word comes from a Greek word meaning "to shepherd," and for many of us we consider the pastor primarily a shepherd who visits the sick and preaches the word. Actually in Ezekiel, the Lord brings condemnation on the shepherds and tells them that He is going to remove them from their position. He says that He will shepherd His people, and Jesus took that label in the Gospel of John when He said, "I am the good Shepherd." Because of the harsh language of Ezekiel and the words of Jesus in John, married with the writings of Luke, Paul, and Peter, I am sometimes hesitant to use the word "shepherd" when it comes to describing the role of Pastor. The other words used in the New Testament are Greek words for our English translations "elder" and "bishop." Literally the words describe someone who has experience often coming with age who can oversee the spiritual matters of the body of Christ, particularly making sure that the people are equipped for the work God has called them to do. Many functions accomplish this task, but the overall task is to work within the body to grow the body to reflect the character of Jesus. Wow. Now that's a big responsibility when people like me are part of the church because I'm pretty flawed. There is a lot of growth to be done in me. I know that I am ultimately responsible for my own walk with Christ, but the Bible is pretty clear that Pastors do bear some responsibility in that process. I am blessed to have one who invested in me over the years, and I am honest enough to say there are still "many miles before I sleep." 

October is Pastor Appreciation Month, and over the next few days, I hope to share some different insights about the role of pastors. Hopefully this post is a start to set the tone for what is to come. I'd like to officially say thank you to the man who has been my friend, my mentor, and my pastor for 22 years. 

Ricky Clark, you are appreciated this month and every month, and you are loved. You are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, and I am humbled to learn from you how to worship my King and how to embrace the journey of sanctification.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Revealed Character

In the early 1970's a sports commentator for CBS sports made the statement that has been attributed to others over the decades and used to remind us of an important truth. A friend gave our son a plague with the saying on it several years ago when he made a significant switch in sporting games. The saying is most likely one you have heard before and one that bears repeating. "Sports don't build character; they reveal it." With all that we read in the news, see on the screen, and experience in our lives, the quote burns within the hearts of many who might not have been able to express it but who most certainly know it is true.

Almost everybody has "their team," and almost everybody has "their sport." As a Mississippi State Bulldog fan, the sport that is easiest to talk about is college baseball. It's easy to be a fan of the bulldogs during baseball season. Last year it was easy to be a bulldog fan during football season, and the verdict is still out on how easy it will be this year. The irony of using "easy" and "fan" together is that being a true fan is being a fan when being one is not easy. Anyone can be a fan when things are going well. Loyalty surfaces when things aren't going well. Why? Because sports reveal character.

Our small town is like most small towns. We don't have much going on except football. Winning the state championship last year makes the anticipation of Friday nights build incredibly as the lights go off after one game, the stats are reported, and the week begins again. It's almost as if we live from Friday to Friday. Allow me a few moments to express some silly frustration. It really is silly. I'm just too much of a Mississippi State loyalist not to mention it. It's hard sometimes to go to games on Friday night. It didn't used to be, but this year something has happened. It started toward the end of last football season, and the strangeness has expanded into this year. 

First, an important note for later rantings is that the saying that accompanies our team is "Roll Tide". We are the Peabody Golden Tide. Now for you SEC fans, you can already begin to see where this is going. In addition to the Alabama influence, most of the people in Trenton are Tennessee Volunteers. Rocky Top is the song of choice, and orange is the color of the day. You might think that the influence of Tennessee would make it's way over into Peabody, but don't be fooled. Fortunately (no offense to my Tennessee friends - really) we are not subjected to singing Rocky Top at every game. So far. We do have another situation that concerns me deeply as a true Mississippi State Bulldog. Fans have begun to bring cowbells to the game to cheer the team on. Hold on just a minute before you get any idea that Peabody fans are beginning to see the light. Not so, Mary Lou. Instead, all around the stadium on any given Friday you can hear fans ringing cowbells and yelling, "Roll Tide." To top it all off, many of those same fans are actually fans of what all Mississippi State loyalists call "the school up North." So you have Ole Miss fans ringing a cowbell shouting Roll Tide. Do you feel my pain yet? I am considering a takeover of the announcer's microphone to get us going with some "hold on, wait a minute, gotta put some dawg in it ....." The only problem (despite a recent t-shirt to the contrary) is that our biggest rival happens to be - the Milan Bulldogs. (Actually that is not the only problem. We should also consider that the microphone is far away from me in the press box, and that the announcer is a Presbyterian minister who has a distinct size advantage over me and would be very willing to switch from sprinkling to dunking me in a pool of water for an extended time if I tried any movement that resembled a takeover in favor of MSU messaging. Kidding of course. Fortunately, Paul and I are friends, even though he says, "Roll Tide," with an enthusiasm that concerns me at times. Again - :).

Take a moment and close your eyes. Imagine the travesty of what you are about to read. Wait - are you sitting down? We even have a team we play who because of their school name uses the Mississippi State "M" symbol, calls themselves the Rebels, and plays Rocky Top as their fight song. Oh Lord, who can deliver me from this wretched condition ...... I digress. 

Finding oneself in such a precarious situation every Friday night can present a case study in situational ethics. Suppose .... "Is it ever justified for an Ole Miss Rebel (or black bear or whatever name they are calling themselves now) to ring a cowbell?" Or, "is it ever justified for a MSU bulldog to yell Roll Tide?" Are we breaking some kind of SEC code that brands us as dissenters when we enter the stadium of our alma mater fully clad in the appropriate gear? Remember, sports don't build character; they reveal it.

Whew. Okay the confession is over, and I feel like perhaps I have been purged of any obligation to stop by the Chapel of Memories at MSU before entering the stadium in a few weeks for homecoming. I have a feeling that the sportscaster who made the now famous quote was not at all talking about anything we have just experienced together. Instead, I wonder if he might have been thinking about other ways that sports reveal character.

Our town is one of the towns that has decided it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to praying at the ballgames. We have a moment of silence. I have to admit that during the moment of silence I spend time praying that somehow during the next four quarters God will be glorified (and that if anyone decides to rush the holder - which is highly unlikely - that said holder, aka my son, will be mysteriously lifted into the air by a legion of heavenly beings. Of course, since God did not choose to do so for His own Son as He was facing crucifixion, I won't get my hopes up. By the way, Daniel has made it known that he would prefer us not to scale the fence and come onto the field for any reason). 

To be fair to all involved, we have managed to all stand and unify around the singing of God Bless America just before the fourth quarter. Not to be a pessimist, but it does seem strange that we are praying through song for God to bless America but we can't pray with words for Him to change our community and our school. Oops. Another digression. Another blog on consistency might be in order. I am grateful for the fourth quarter acknowledgement. Truly grateful. I would rather have a moment of silence than be led in prayer by someone who is praying to some false god for sure.

So, on to the idea of God being glorified in sports and sports not building character but revealing it. Over the years, I have been blessed to see coaches and players navigate the cheering crowds, the bad calls, and the fair weathered fans with dignity in high school, college, and professional football. Tim Tebow created problems for many Christ followers who recognize that a gator and a snake are closely related in the animal kingdom. Never forget it was a snake that Satan used to trick Eve - a snake whose curse was to crawl on its belly. Could it be that at one time the snake did not crawl on its belly but on legs almost like - wait for it - a Gator? Just a little theological exercise to get your mind thinking for the day. How do you explain Tim Tebow's Gator connection? Praise God for young men with a heart for missions, I suppose. Imagine the struggles he must have had during his college years. I'm kidding!! Calm down, my sweet Florida friends. The bottom line is that he loves Jesus with his whole heart and teaches us all that it is possible to play the game in a way for God to receive the glory.

 An interesting connection arises between how much glory God receives off the field and how much he receives on the field. We see lots of players on television making touchdowns and amazing plays followed by some symbol to give glory to God. Maybe it's a fist bump toward the air, a finger (index finger that is) pointing up, or a kneel in the end zone. I have not watched every game or seen every time a player gives glory to God, but the times I have seen it have always been after a success. Why is it only after a success? What would the reaction be if after an especially rough tackle, the focus of the attack arose from the bottom of a mountainous pileup filled with hot, smelly players three quarters into a game in the middle of September in the heat of West Tennessee with a symbol that gave praise and honor to God as the One who gives and the One who takes away? Doesn't scripture tell us that "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him?" (Romans 8:28) Shouldn't God be glorified when things don't go well? What about when we are crushed, torn down, tackled, intercepted, or beaten (slight paraphrase of 2 Cor. 4:8-11)? Why does God get the glory for the touchdown or the completed pass, yet when things don't go right we tend to look to and even become more like the world? We see it on Friday nights, and we see it in our lives every day. Where in the Bible do we see the exception that allows us to throw away integrity, honesty, and character when it comes to football? I would take time to search for it since many Christ followers seem to live by that principle, but I know it's not there so I won't waste my time. 

Let me jump in real quick before the heckling starts to say that in no way am I saying that there are not areas of inconsistency in my own life. I pray Psalm 139:23-24 regularly, and I am sure there are avid football fans who do the same. The baffling part is not those who are on a journey. Instead, the part that causes so many to stumble is that many Christ followers actually pause the journey during the season, hoping that somehow God is too busy watching the cheerleaders to notice our bad behavior. 

Sidebar:  Let me assure you that watching the cheerleaders is not how I picture God, especially considering the ever shortening of what many call uniforms. I actually heard a cheer the other day that called on the players to "stomp and shake it; stomp, stomp, and shake it ...." What? Seriously? Excuse me, but I'm not excited about seeing some young man in shoulder pads and tight pants "stomp and shake it." The truth of the matter is that I am also not interested in seeing young ladies - teenage girls - "stomp and shake it ..." What ever happened to "Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar ..." (I guess Common Core is affecting more than our academics.) Oh, for more space and time. Pray for us fathers who have daughters who have chosen the cheerleading route. Patience, Lord, patience.

Back to the purpose at hand. Perhaps the only time a Pastor gets a break from the morning coffee shop gossip is during football season when those same Christians are having fried quarterback extra crispy with their eggs, toast, and coffee. We want to have young men who are hardworking and honest in our communities so that one day they will lead us, raise strong families, and make our society stronger. We want them to follow rules, stay out of trouble, avoid drugs, sex, and alcohol. We want them to walk tall, be respectful, and have a strong work ethic. And we want them to win football games. Some will say that this next sentence comes from my not being a football player myself, but I pray that it comes from the heart of a father who wants his children and their friends to grow up to be Godly men and women who make a Kingdom difference in our world. I remember one pastor friend saying, "I'm not growing ball players. I'm growing missionaries." Wise words. Here is my burning question. Why do we have to choose? Why can't we praise young men (and women) who are all of the things we want them to be even if the game doesn't go our way? Have we really come to the point we choose winning a game over victory in Christ? When did we decide (even those of us who are every Sunday rear in the pew kinds of people) that sometimes you have to compromise to be a winner? Oh that we had the same passion for seeing the lost come to Christ that we do for seeing the ball make it across the goal line. 

Football is such a large part of our society that we should not be surprised that the game and everything surrounding the game is a spiritual battlefield. Our spiritual enemy wants to steal, kill, and destroy everything that could bring glory to God. As such, he uses people in the spotlight to cast doubt on the character of God. For the next several weeks, I am praying for a young man who has a chance to show his peers that even in the midst of unjust circumstances, God is still God. He is forever on His throne. Do you remember when Joseph's brothers got tired of him and cast him aside, selling him into slavery? That story seems to come back to me more often lately than ever before. Eventually, God exalted Joseph to a high place, and Joseph had to deal with his feelings toward his brothers who had treated him so unjustly. He told them that he forgave them because what they meant for evil, God meant for good. Jesus did not just glorify God when things were going well. Even on the cross, He pointed us to the Father. Paul reminds us that our suffering is for a little while until we attain the fullness of God's work in us (Romans 8:18). 

Servanthood is certainly evident when successful people do good deeds. Servanthood is best seen, however, when we take the injustice the world throws our way, lay it at the feet of Jesus, and look for ways to use our experience for His glory. Pray with me for a young man in whom I have seen Jesus for the last couple of years. You can look into his eyes and see that he loves the Lord and that he is doing all that he knows to do to be the young man Christ has called him to be. This young man and his family are friends of ours, and perhaps I take injustice toward him too personally. I have strong convictions about what God has in store for this young man. Sometimes situations happen, and since no one really knows the private story, the world does not see or know the injustice. In those moments, the one who is hurt could become bitter and angry because the injustice is real. He is expected to take the high road and to pass off certain events as just part of the way the game is played. Pray for this young man and for others like him in your own communities who are seeking the Lord and trying to live the honorable life. Satan will attack them with great intensity by trying to destroy their confidence in who they are in Christ and by trying to tear down the trust they place in others. Consider the abuse Tim Tebow has taken for standing up for his faith and remember that the same type of attack happens daily to Christian students of all ages. 

Pray for those students who are coming alongside the other to encourage him and lift him up. Rest assured that the roles either have been or one day will be reversed. We all need a cheerleader sometimes (not one wearing a pillowcase, but more of a proverbial cheerleader who will hold us accountable and come alongside us in the journey). Some scripture that I am trying to remember these days come to mind:

"Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another." Proverbs 27:17

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." Matthew 5:7

"Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will  he also reap." Galatians 6:7

The truth is that adversity is part of life, and recent experiences have reminded me of that sign a friend gave my son a few years ago. It still hangs in his room today.

Today perhaps your meditation and your prayer for those who are in difficult situations can be "that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" Philippians 4:11, ESV. 

Maybe you are the one going through a time of injustice. As I wrote that sentence I spent time praying for you that you might have someone come alongside you and that you might know that the Spirit of God is always with you to comfort you and to see you through. Perhaps your prayer could be, "I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked" Psalm 3:6 and 7, ESV.

Maybe you are the one providing the support. Stay with the task. The roles could reverse any day, and in these moments you are helping your friend see Jesus. "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" Proverbs 17:17, ESV.

Maybe you have thought about certain situations in your life and realize that you may be the one who has mixed up your priorities and as a result have caused grief for someone else. There is no time like the present to make things right. "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" Matthew 5:24, ESV. 

Let's close with this passage for today: "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above very name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" Philippians 2:5-11. ESV.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Cord of Three Strands

Two young men with a common goal, thrown together as a result of a pastor search committee inviting us to join a struggling congregation, but also drawn together by what seems to have been a spiritual connection that only time will fully explain. 

You'd have to know the whole story to grasp why these two young men fascinate me so much. Time nor energy will allow me to share the entire narrative, so I will be brief. The story is a living example of the truth shared in the previous blog - the one reminding us that "weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning" (Psalm 30:5). 

You may have already read that our church experience in Trenton started out on an all time high. God was at work, and people in the church were excited about what God was doing. Most of the people, actually, but not all of the people. Underneath the surface was a brewing faction of people who quickly became uncomfortable with what the Lord was up to in this place. Unfortunately, families and friends began to separate, almost as if people were forced to choose sides. Satan always makes us think we have to choose sides, doesn't he? Anything to diminish God's glory. 

Almost immediately after our move, our oldest son became friends with a young man in the church. They were almost inseparable, and their friendship brought our families together, as well. You might imagine that the enemy works in the most sensitive places. This situation was no exception. The enemy used the church and broken relationships to threaten the friendship between these two young men. For a time, the relationship might have been strained, but today they are an example to many of how to accomplish a common goal with two people unified by the Spirit of God.

Interestingly enough, what the enemy meant for evil the Lord meant for good. The pain of separation was strong, yet moving away from being part of the same Christian based organization actually forced these two young men to decide that they were not friends because they went to church together or because their parents were friends. Instead, they were friends because they actually liked each other and encouraged the development of different character traits in each other. The enemy is losing this battle, and not only this one, but he is losing another battle in the community. These two young men together play an important role in the one thing that seems to matter in our town more than anything else - football.

The miracle of God's glory is that every time (so far) these two young men step onto the football field to execute the extra point, the Lord brings them success. Don't get me wrong. The kicker is strong and extremely accurate. The holder is determined, steady, and amazingly precise. Perhaps Ecclesiastes 4:12 will help the image become more clear: "And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him - a threefold cord is not quickly broken." Each week as fans watch the Golden Tide push ahead toward victory, a spiritual battle is being fought as well. The enemy wants to steal God's glory, and in many ways he has done so in this community. Perhaps, though, our Lord is not finished yet. Paul wrote some convicting words in Romans 15:5-6: May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (ESV). Could it be that a segment of this small community is being exposed to the light of Christ in unsuspecting fashion? How fascinating that God might use the one thing that this community rallies around (Peabody football) to teach us all that in Christ we can overcome whatever the enemy puts in our way. Two young men with the power of the Holy Spirit at work to glorify Christ. Wow. We really do serve an astounding God.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What A Difference A Year Makes

The ancient prophet Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations 3 that the mercies of God are new every morning. The darkness may seem to linger. Emotions that come dangerously close to clinical depression may fill our existence. The heaviness of defeat may linger. The mercies of God are unchanging. 

If you have read any of the recent posts, you know that the past two weeks have been an awakening of sorts. During this time last year, our family prayed that a group of men would take a stand for the bride of Christ and for biblical authority. We prayed for wisdom as to how to proceed no matter which direction they chose. They chose poorly, and our family had to decide whether we could continue to be part of a body of Christ whose leaders rejected the Great Commission, belittled the truth of God's word, and sat silently while the enemy tore the body of Christ to pieces. 

The irony of contrast opened the opportunity for us to be part of a revival in another local congregation the same week. This church, though small in number, was large in the Spirit. This body represented everything that the other did not. They loved each other, valued God's word, and looked for ways to spread the gospel with the resources God provided. Being with this congregation while watching to see what another group of leaders would do cemented the truth that some bodies are so unhealthy that only a miracle can revive them. Some congregational research even says that the only solution for some unhealthy churches is for them to die. Perhaps someone can come along and replant in the area. Perhaps the remnant who still longed for a deeper walk with Christ can begin again. Some congregations, though, are so damaged and are causing so much damage to the name of Christ that closing and perhaps starting over are the best options.

Families may find themselves in the middle of these situations. The struggle is that families can't physically close and replant. Spiritually, though, the story becomes more interesting. We have learned from experience over the last year what we have known cognitively for years. "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning" (Psalm 30:5). As a family, we sensed God's strong inclination that we needed to separate from one particular body of Christ so as to avoid the spread of spiritual disease any further into our family. As we made steps to that end, the evidence of contamination began to surface very quickly. We received counsel from friends, called on the Lord through prayer, sought answers in God's word, had many "intense" family discussions, and cried a lot (mostly in private where no one would know). Two of our children had seen the body of Christ at its worst and questioned the validity of those who claimed to be followers of Christ while perpetuating an institution that was opposed to the cause of the one they claimed to follow. Our youngest had one concern (oh the beauty of childhood innocence). He loved his Sunday School teacher, and his teacher loved him. They joked together, laughed together, and learned together. This man taught our youngest to enjoy Jesus. David's main concern was that he wanted to get his pictures from his Sunday School classroom. We went to get them, and he looked around without saying much. It wasn't until a few months later when we saw this man and his wife at a football game that we realized what David really missed was the relationship God had formed with this man. One of a few rare gems in a hurting body of Christ.

The winter in West Tennessee was the worst winter we had ever experienced. The weather was bad, too. We connected with a church about 30 minutes away from our hometown, and gradually our two older kids bonded with others in the youth group. The light began to shine ever so slightly. Conversations revealed that they could now see the difference that making wise, Godly choices will make in our lives. Relationships began to form that let us know they were beginning to understand that a person can be "unequally yoked" in many different ways. We praised God as we proceeded with caution in what seemed like His direction. 

This past Saturday was a monumental day for us. We celebrated two birthdays by going to a Mississippi State game in Starkville. Each kid could invite a friend. We travelled as a family and spent the day together. No conflict. No stress. We looked to the future as our oldest considers college. We just enjoyed each other for a whole day with no dark cloud or weary emotions. It was one of the best birthdays I have ever had. It was in the top of great days in my life. Joy has come in the morning.

A year has past. I would be misleading if I didn't say that many parts of the past year have been filled with light, namely our kids connection with the youth group, continued friendships we have with a few who remain faithful, renewed friendships with those who had been missed, lessons about the importance of fighting spiritual battles on the spiritual battlefield. I would also be misleading if I didn't say that we still have moments of struggle and spiritual attack. The difference the year makes is not as much in our circumstances as in our learning to be strong in our circumstances. Granted, some of the circumstances are more difficult to find strength in than others, yet the Lord is growing us one ray of light at a time. His word reminds us that the key to this strength is that "this book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have good success" (Josh. 1:8).

Maybe you are in a season of darkness. Could I encourage you to hang on to the Lord as tightly as you can? He loves you, and He wants the best for you. He will deliver you through the struggle. Maybe you are in a season of light. Could I encourage you to praise God for His blessing and to establish reminders of these times so you will have some anchors when the storms do come your way? You know that one day the storms will come. Find a group of Christ followers who are alive. Connect with them to draw from what God is doing in their lives. Alive looks different to different people, but we all know what alive means. Don't settle for the darkness when the the mercies of God are on the horizon. 

What a difference a year makes. Who knows what these next few months will hold? None of us really know what tomorrow may bring. The best we can do is press in hard to know the One who will surely bring tomorrow. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In Search of Church

Anytime you read a book, review an article, hear a sermon, or participate in a Bible study about the church, the author or teacher will most certainly make a distinction between what they will call the universal church and the local church. Jesus spoke to his disciples about the foundation of the church, declaring that the gates of hell could not prevail against it. Paul wrote about the spiritual connection among all believers from time to time as he addressed Christ followers as part of the larger church body. Mostly, his writings are to smaller groups of connected disciples gathered together in homes throughout the regions he had visited or that he anticipated visiting. 

As history has unfolded, the church has changed and developed. Local churches have been born, lived a life cycle that many would call vibrant, and then have died. Other congregations struggle along with a limp while trying to redefine who they are and why they exist. Still others are shells of their former existence and are content to exist in the faithless, sin-induced coma that has encapsulated them for some time now. 

With so many different groups wearing the same label, many Christ followers find it difficult to find a biblical community of devoted disciples on mission for Christ. Many have discovered that the best we can do in our culture is to recognize that there are actually three different groups of people that we could call church. First, Jesus' words about the Church can never be ignored. There is a fellowship of called out ones who are part of the Kingdom of God, and the gates of hell can never prevail against them. Then, there are the Christian based organizations that form, split, reestablish, and meander on through life sporting the latest terminology for the church of America. Third, there is the local expression of the greater Church. This local expression is often found somewhere deeper within the Christian based organizations. These devoted Christ followers serve and worship alongside others who may be there for other reasons. They often work on projects and committees, teach in classes, participate in discussions, and go on trips with the expanded group of census recorded Christians. For some, the distinction is difficult to identify, and for others the difference is clear. 

As a child, we had a small group of people who gathered together after worship on Sunday nights. Sometimes we ended up at my dad's restaurant, Don's Drive In. (His name was Don in case you have somehow become distracted in the reading). Other times we ended up at the home of James and Patsy Sugg. Either way, the result was the same. A small group of Christ followers fellowshipping around a meal and sharing life together. Our families were friends who supported, cared for and encouraged one another.

Karen and I had the same experience in Panama City. After church on Sunday nights, several folks would gather at the local Mexican restaurant for a meal and fellowship. We laughed together and talked about life. The experience was a time of bonding. Other times we gathered at the lake for special occasions or maybe at someone's house for a youth ministry Christmas party. Sometimes the meal was just a casual encounter in someone's den with plates of burgers or pizza on our laps as we got to know one another better.

We had a similar group in the local church I served in Wauchula. By this time, everyone's family was growing and going out to eat became a little costly. From time to time, we would just gather together at someone's house after Sunday night worship (I detect a common theme here) to relax and enjoy one another's company. We tried as best we could to avoid "church" discussions because they always seemed to disrupt the laughter and the peace that came from just being together. 

I suppose that this type of group is what meant the most to us in Ocala. Church life in Ocala was tough (and that is putting it nicely). One church painfully birthed several others over the years as "good Baptists" fought and decided that it must be God's will to plant a new church a few blocks away. Eventually all of our friends ended up in different churches, but we all stayed connected spiritually. In a strange way, God started something in October 1999 that has remained throughout the years. After attending one of the Christian organizations that didn't seem real keen on new faces, we visited another congregation hoping to find a place to connect. We walked in the door and saw another couple we had seen the week before. We talked and realized that we were all visiting that morning. Later we connected over lunch, and the Lord formed a friendship between two families that still exists today. The truth is that our kids have more lasting friendships from this community of believers than from anywhere else we have lived. Soon after this first encounter, the Lord put together a small group of several couples. Here was the local expression of the body of Christ within a larger Christian organization. As we gathered together, we studied what God's word teaches about marriage, parenting, and spiritual growth. We laughed together, cried together, and cemented relationships that would stand the test of time.

This smaller expression of the body of Christ was not just limited to adults. Our kids formed these relationships too. Oddly enough, within this group two of the couples we have remained close to have 6 girls between them and no boys. One of the families has twins and the other one has children who span the ages of our three kids. What a blessing it is to watch kids of the opposite sex interact together in friendly, brother/sister kinds of ways with no insecurities getting in the way. Early on, our oldest son found a friend at school that he connected with. Only God could introduce two boys and two sets of parents at different times, only later revealing that the kids and parents had been drawn to the same families in Christ. Last week that young man turned 18, and in a few months our oldest will turn 18 as well. Both young men have navigated the journey with grace. Another boy soon appeared on the scene, and as faith would have it (notice I said faith, not fate), this boy's parents were also Christ followers who became very significant in our lives. As time went on, we connected with a family of four boys whose parents loved the Lord boldly. Then, the Lord brought a couple together - one person from our past and another from our present - both now part of our present and our future. The couple married and continue to challenge us in our journey of grace. 

What sets these smaller groups apart, and how can people be so connected when they don't travel to the same building at the same time every Sunday morning? Paul tells us that the Spirit of God connects us in a way that is a mystery. Christ followers are unified beyond walls and city limits. Many gather together weekly, yet fewer are connected in the biblical expression of the church. Luke's writing in Acts describes for us what the true church looks like. Followers of Christ living life on mission and glorifying Christ by the fruit of their lives. The bride of Christ.

Maybe I'm the only one, but perhaps I am part of a much larger group of folks who need more than a large group gathering of disconnected people. Who is your church? It's not simply about where you attend or where your "membership" lies. Certainly local connections are important, yet maybe it is more about who the Lord has connected you with to spur you on toward love and good deeds. Be thankful if God has provided you with people who are close in proximity who make up your church. Be mindful of the truth that sometimes the church develops over years and miles. Find a way to keep those connections for the glory of Christ, for upon that foundation we stand. God's people joined together by the Spirit of God covered by the blood of Christ - upon that foundation He promised to build His church and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.