God’s Not Done With You

“Today I thank God for second chances.”  -Eli, 8 years old


At a time when the very bottom fell out of the bottom in my life, I grabbed for the phone book and went in search of a church…any church…with something called a “Stephen’s Ministry.” (A special lay-led ministry designed to help those going through a tough season in life.) Thumbing through the yellow pages (remember those?), I landed on some place called Edenton Street United Methodist Church. I called the office, and after explaining my situation, a lady on the phone said something like, “Oh my, I think you might need to speak to the director, Pastor Kay Johnson.” 



In my mind I heard over a blaring loudspeaker, “Cleanup on aisle seven please! I repeat! Code blue! Huge mess on aisle seven. Manager’s help needed!”


After a long face to face meeting with the Rev. she said, “Oh, Stefan, God’s not done with you yet. Some church will have a place for you. He gives second chances all the time.” She then grabbed a business card, jotted down a number and said, “Here, call this number.”  (I did, with no luck.) I left her office with a glimpse of hope and clinging to a mustard seed of faith that I might one day be used by God again, scars and all. She had no idea that “some church” would soon be her church.

Fast forward a year, and ironically, after hearing I was out of the ministry and had returned to teaching in the public school system, Jonathan Jeffries, a pastor at the same church invited me to check them out. I did.

One hundred forty people sparsely filled the front of the room that morning. Tables filled the back of the hall where kids would feel free to color and, well— just feel free. (Who wouldn’t want that?) Small beginnings. Who knew this church would become a conduit of the grace of God to me. Couriers of second chances. (Worth a listen)


Recently an email I received called those days “The Miracle at Kerr Hall.”  It read, “We saw the magnificent transformation of a group of ‘broken, disheartened, unknowledgeable, sinners, holy, misfits and knowledgeable Christians.’ What made us converge at The Gathering was the welcoming, non-judgmental, inclusive, forgiving, unpretentious, non-threatening environment where the broken could come to be healed, the sinner to seek forgiveness, the stinky to be embraced, the homeless to get spiritual shelter, and where rich and pauper were one!” We studied a book back then called “Messy Spirituality,” and the untamed, undomesticated, untidy, and downright unpolished faith it offered spilled into our Kerr Hall services and permeated our everyday lives. 

Another one of the men from those early days, whom I still meet with in a group each Saturday, summed up the “second chances” idea perfectly, when after a joint confession time where I spilled details of my past, simply replied, “I DON’T CARE.” Now, that’s a real friend and real grace.

Today, there are no room for tables, the one service is two, and soon to be three. Now I’m the one with the blessing of carrying my own granddaughter, London, to the back, letting her feel free to grab a few pieces of crayon or chalk and to— just feel free. Thank you, Eli, for reminding me to thank God for second chances. Thank you, London, for helping me to stay on my knees…and play. And thank you, God for Your promise that He who the Son sets free is free indeed…gratuitously pardoned, and eternally kept.


There’s no place like HOPE,

Stefan

Too Soon To Give Up

Have you ever Skyped someone or sent a video message and found yourself carefully cropping and editing just what you wanted them to see in the picture? Pretty soon someone will invent an app that only shows what’s in the background. 

Who hasn’t been there? We edit and crop stuff we don’t like about ourselves and try and show a constant smiley face to the world. Well, you’re in good company. Almost everyone’s in a battle to control thoughts and ultimately actions. A blogger on one of my favorite sites, “People of The Second Chance” puts it this way:
“It is often said a man is his worst critic. But I think the truer statement is this: a man is his own bully. All day long under the yoke of comparison and shame, we speak cruelties to ourselves.
“You really blew that!”
“Why are you even here? No one even cares.”
“That’s a stupid idea.”
“You look horrible today. What a mess!”
That’s not criticism. It’s flat out injury. It is not a loving correction; it is verbal MMA cage fight. Tiny little sucker punches all day long. Jab. Jab. Knock out!
If we bully ourselves long enough, whether out loud or in our head, we willfully drain out every last ounce of confidence, love and hope with words that eat away at the way we actually see ourselves.
It’s time to kick the bully out of your head. It is time to call the browbeaten by name… even if it is your name.” ~ Scott Pace 
There’s an enemy that doesn’t want you winning this fight. Paul says, “Our battles are not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities and rulers in this dark world.” Jesus conquered sin, death and the grave, and that means in Him we can too. 2 Corinthians 2:14 states, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.”  Romans 8:37 says, “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” A new popular chorus I’ve been singing declares, “My one defense, my righteousness, O God how I need You.”
Fight back with the Word today. Be set free through the Word. Be healed by the Word, and for goodness sake, trust in Jesus to empower you to live by the Word. Don’t Give Up. 
There’s no place like Hope,
Stefan

Pinterest, People and Steeples

Yesterday was a perfect day to take a walk through downtown Raleigh to a new juice and salad joint I’ve been eyeing.  (They had “juiced beets with kale”, which up to that point I’ve been making at home but never had the idea you could actually sell to anyone.) You notice a lot of things when you make the choice to skip the car and hoof it a few blocks. One glaring observation was that there are church buildings everywhere. From steeples to storefronts and everything in-between. I only found one actually open, with a big sidewalk sign reading, “Come on in…we’re open.” The hospitality crew, a homeless man, (or an angel in disguise) slept soundly there in the shade of the old stone steps.


Maybe the church buildings stuck out to me because, as a person who’s worked in churches for over 33 years, I seem to keep bumping into Jesus outside the church. (I actually bumped into my pastor on the way…so, if you’re reading this…if the shoe fits…) Anyhoo, I read a brief article by New York Times Best Selling Author, Donald Miller, where he’s almost defending his position that during this season in life he’s not tied to one local church. He writes, “I’d say half of the most impactful people I know, who love Jesus and tear up at the mention of His name, who reach out to the poor and lonely and are fundamentally sound in their theology, who create institutions that feed hundreds of thousands, do not attend a traditional church service.” I guess he encounters Jesus outside church walls as well.

I stumbled upon a webpage the other day simply called “Beautiful Churches.” (There’s also a page called Beautiful Abandoned Churches…that’s another blog) It’s a Pinterest page with some of the most beautiful, rich, colorful, diverse churches you’ll ever see. The photos were extraordinary, but I noticed one glaring omission. People. These were all churches in the traditional sense, as in buildings. But in actuality, the church is…people. So, I decided to start my own Pinterest page and call it, “The Beautiful Church.” I’m asking my friends around the world to send me pictures of their church. Not building stuff, but people.

When trying to describe the page I was reminded of the old rhyme we all taught our kids, “Here’s the church, here is the steeple…” But, here’s the twist. Instead of the people being locked inside two tightly clasped hands, this church would be all about the people. So, here goes. If you have pictures you would consider “the church” you could send them my way and together we’ll help shift the perspective of beautiful buildings to “The Beautiful Church.”

Jesus prayed: “that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17

 There’s no place like HOPE,

Stefan

Went Off Without a Hitch

The TV show America’s Got Talent recently had a 93 year old man pull a 5000 lb pickup truck with his teeth.  Not to be outdone, I saw another man go for the world record of pulling a Boeing 747 as he walked.  (Seriously, where will you ever need a skill like that?)  In ancient Greek mythology, Atlas carried the whole world on his shoulders.  What’s this fascination we have for hauling around heavy loads?

Finally, after 5 years, I decided to remove the U-Haul trailer hitch from the back of my car.  It was installed by the previous owner, I’m assuming to haul around something small. After all, my car is a 10 year old Toyota Camry nearing 200k miles with a four cylinder engine.  What can you really pull with that? (Maybe a portable hotdog stand…if the wind’s behind you)  Well it may surprise you. Upon removing it I noticed that the weight load capacity is 3500 pounds.  What???  My car only weighs 3200 lbs!

When taking off the hitch I found it was bolted to the frame and some of the bolts were rusted on.  (Great chance for me to use my grinder  This thing cuts through anything and has saved me hundreds of times from costly shop work.)  When that heavy hitch finally fell to the ground I kinda felt a sigh of relief.  A spiritual lesson worth sharing.  (I’ve also started to purge a massive amount of unused and unwanted things I’ve been holding onto in my house.  I sense a life change coming for me and I don’t want the burden of old crap holding me down)  What’s my point?

We often go through life with our own U-Haul hitch for the heavy loads we carry.  Shameful past.  Guilt.  Broken relationships.  Regret and remorse.  Hurt.  Secrets.  Habits.  And don’t forget all the “shoulda, woulda, couldas.” That stuff is a load we were never meant to haul around.  My suggestion: Release it.  Is it rusted, bolted, or welded to the frame of your life?  Doesn’t have to be.  God’s got a grinder that’ll cut that stuff away.  Actually, He’ll keep on cutting every time we try to hitch up some new weight on our soul.

So ask yourself today: Do I have a U-Haul hitch or am I pulling a load too heavy for me?  “Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matt. 11:28-30 Msg

Oh, BTW, U-Haul rents a trailer for you to take your junk to the dump. They’ll also give you a huge plastic bag that you simply fill up, call them, and they haul it away. (And PLEASE don’t just take it to a storage container. That $22 billion dollar industry is a whole new blog.)

There’s no place like HOPE,

Stefan 

Seeking Imperfect People


Have you ever noticed that God chooses some pretty unlikely characters to do some pretty interesting things?  Cheats, liars, murderers. Folks often unqualified, lacking good references and possessing a resume’ we’d probably pass over without blinking.  I posted the text you see here to my Facebook wall and oddly had more people pass it on and share it than ANYTHING I’ve ever posted before.  

I had people text and email me explaining they had someone who needed to hear it.  Let me say that in all honesty, although I’ve never had an affair, murdered anyone, or been dead, I’m guilty of most of the things named in the list of “challenges” faced by these Bible characters God chose to use.  I’m so glad for second chances, and a grace that doesn’t let go.

As God continues to weave your story (and mine) all together, lets remember that, “He who began a good work in you is faithful to complete it in Christ Jesus.”  I bet He’s using you today in ways you can’t even see, to bring light, life and hope… even if you feel unusable. 

There’s no place like HOPE,

Stefan

From Chicken to John Legend

A few weeks ago I did the song “All of Me” by John Legend in my son’s wedding, and then I heard he was coming to Raleigh. It was last night. I really wanted to go, but had no ticket. Really cool thing happened. 

5:00pm – Home from work. No tickets. 

6:00pm – I’ll just get some work done for church. 

7:00pm – I wonder what’s new on Netflix. The concert woulda been great.

7:30pm – Sitting on my bed watching a documentary on killer whales. Fascinating. Concert starts now.

8:00pm – Facebook friends start posting pictures of the concert opening. 

8:07pm – Hey, I wonder if there’s a point where they just let everybody in.

8:08pm –  Wow. Never knew killer whales don’t really like working at SeaWorld. More friends post photos on Facebook of the show. They’re having a blast!

8:16pm – A prompting again says “Stefan, just go down there and ask to walk in for free.” I get dressed and run out the house.

8:28pm – Arrive downtown and oddly find a single open parking space close to the gate. I can hear the music and applause. (Angels saying, keep going to the gate!)

8:30pm – I get to exit gate, and they look at me like I’m crazy when I ask if it’s possible to enter without a ticket. Small talk with security guy. I ask who I can talk to and they said give me 2 names at the main gate. 

8:31pm – I walk in that direction past a crowd of people listening outside the fence. Approach ticket lady #1 and explain I don’t have a ticket. She gives me that look of, “You gotta be kidding. Security!”

8:32pm – She lets 2 other ladies through who were scrolling through their phones to find their tickets. 

8:33pm – I know its coming. She says, “Just go ahead, it’s fine.” And now I was in the concert. I’m flipping out because 30 min earlier I was in my house finishing a piece of chicken and now I’m at the concert…for free. I’m in the back. I download a Camera Zoom App really quick for my phone. The sound and visual was amazing. No seat, but that’s OK. This is perfect. But I wonder what its like in the front.

8:36pm – I walk up towards the restrooms and realize somehow I’m next to the stage. Wow! More pictures. Incredible energy. Security eventually makes us all move back. Suddenly a hand comes out to shake mine. Its my friend Brian, owner of a Sports and Entertainment Ticketing company. Great time catching up. For years we met on Thursdays at a local sports bar. He asks where I’m sitting and I tell him I don’t have a seat. He says “Ok, now you’re with me. Comon.” Through security we go down to the 4th row. One empty seat was there in the middle. Ok God, is this real? It all started with an inkling to get up and just believe that I God could do… anything. Incredible evening. 

I posted a day ago, “So far in 2014 the accumulation of experiences has outweighed the accumulation of things in my life 100 to 1.” A few months ago it was a life changing trip to Mt Everest Base Camp in Nepal, and now just downtown to see a concert…on faith. I think God experiences, and certainly God glorifying opportunities knock on our doors every day. Lord help me to believe and respond when you speak. “You’re blessed when you stay on course, walking steadily on the road revealed by God. You’re blessed when you follow his directions, doing your best to find him. That’s right—you don’t go off on your own; you walk straight along the road he set.” Psalm 119:1 The Message

Lesson From a Cabbie

“What do you do for life?”

She stepped off the plane, grabbed her bags and looked for the nearest taxi.  It’s not hard on the small island of St. Croix. There’s always a line of taxis lined up along the outdoor baggage claim.  Guys waiting to take the next person hopefully as far and as long as possible to keep the meter running. As a young executive for a large international company, she’s used to rushing here and there, exploring new places, and making small talk with taxi drivers.  But this one question, from one driver, in his “Cruzan” accent stopped her in her tracks, when it actually came out wrong.  He simply asked, “So, what do you do for life?” He meant of course, “What do you do for a living?” but for me, the slip was better than the intended question.

 So, what do you do for life?” Yeah you!

TD Jakes preaches.
John Legend sings.
Dwane “The Rock” Johnson played football, wrestled, and now makes movies.
Lebron…switches teams…ok, and plays basketball.

I posted the question on FB and got answers ranging from “some commit murder”  to “some people hold grudges for life.”  A lot of answers bypassed the existential vibe and simply said what they did for fun.  Other people responded with what they did for a living. 

Most people who know me have probably heard me use the famous Lennon quote, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”  As wild as it seems, I’ve gotten lost around the world, in third world cities, on the side of mountains, and deep in the ocean, and those times of “lostness” have been some of my greatest moments of life. My life isn’t some well planned, neat and tidy always upward trajectory of … up.  But, what do I do for life?  I guess, I might answer the question truthfully like this: “I play hide and go seek with my granddaughter London, and at times with God.”  I also watch my kids grow and live out their lives.  I talk with my family and friends each day.  I give.  Singing, writing, reading, hanging out with friends, all life, but not all of life.  

I realize I haven’t mentioned Jesus even once yet in this talk about life.  That’s messed up. Some might think I just went “Debbie Downer” in a perfectly good blog by bringing Jesus into the picture, but the truth is: No Jesus, no life.  Know Jesus, Know life. 
   
“Do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity.” (Proverbs 3:1-2 NIV)  

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6 
  
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10 
   
“But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matt. 7:14 

If you’re wondering how the woman chose to respond to the cab driver’s question, she said, “I love my God, my family and my friends.” Thanks cabbie for making us think.

There’s no place like HOPE,


Stefan