3 Years of LOVE. and Counting

It is crazy to think that Vertical Church, Atlanta, is celebrating our 3-year anniversary. If you are new to my story, I along with my wife started a church in the statistically worse part of our city where a large collection college campuses exists (my wife and I graduated from these colleges). It was ridiculous to think that we would establish this local assembly in the midst of college students and the urban poor and that it would actually work. At the time, it felt like equal parts faith and stupidity. All we knew was that God was leading us, and that was enough.

I had spent years dreaming about planting a church in the West End/Vine City area of Atlanta.  I remember being in the community and noticing an old man struggling to get down the street. Looking at his face I felt like I could see all of the hardship and pain that he’d ever experience. I could not stop the tears from falling as I said aloud, “I am coming”.  Not that I, by myself am anything, but I fully believe that when I come, God is with me! I believe that was the moment I became the local pastor (even though it was years before we launched).

We started by serving in the community! That was the first public thing we’d done. It seemed appropriate. The community doesn’t necessarily need more churches in buildings, but more churches that will serve. Service is a verb, it’s what we do, not what we attend. Our area has been a “project” for so many including Christians, only to ultimately let them down.  If we were going to have impact, we would have to change how people saw church. So, we would be known for how we showed love to others. We started a movement called LOVE.

We have been consistently serving like we have lost our minds! It is because we look at what lengths Jesus went through to demonstrate his love. If we are going to follow his example, we should do the same. LOVE. is not a project. It is a movement! In 3-years we have done over 6,000 hours of service, we have distributed over 5,000 meals; we have given 4,000 books to a local school. Add to that, our work to fight sex trafficking, our back to school event (one of the largest in the city), our work with the homeless population, and our ongoing investments in church planting. We have been apart of community revitalization efforts – thinking, praying and giving voice. It’s clear to see we have been busy.  We have even invited other churches to join us in loving the overlooked, ignored, and forgotten.

We have become a vital part of the community. One local leader said, “I don’t know how we made before you arrived”. Another one said from the stage at one of our events, “Vertical Church loves us!” That is what LOVE. means! It doesn’t just mean something to us, but it means something to our community.

Yes, we have hit the 3-year mark. Most experts agree that it is a major milestone in the life of a church. It means that we are establish, that we have a much higher chance of making it over the long haul. We still have some challenges, like our finances. Even though we have a team that gives consistently, the amount they give is limited to their limited means. We will probably have to raise funds for the next 5 to 7 years. But, it is so worth it! I have found that it is easy for people to invest in our church because it’s easy to see our LOVE. in action.

It’s our Anniversary! I couldn’t be prouder as a pastor, and more honored to be a member of Vertical Church.

If you would like to join in the worthwhile work go to http://www.verticalatl.com/giving/

When Life Sucks

When I look over the past year and consider this new one, I am reminded of how the year started well, but ended horribly. Almost everything I desired in 2014 happened and did early, but that tricky 3rd quarter kicked my butt! It started when at our church I taught a series called, “What To Do When Life Sucks.” That series turned out to be prophetic, as I would have to practice what I had literally just preached.

Let me start by saying that some people have a problem with the whole concept that life would suck for a Christian. They believe that since we are Jesus followers everything in life should be good, easy, and pleasurable. I say…LIES! All of the guys who were following Jesus died bad or lonely deaths. Paul was stoned, shipwrecked, bitten by a poisonous snake, and ultimately killed. Jesus Himself was beaten, rejected, and ultimately crucified on a cross. The Bible is filled with people who had to find joy in the most trying of circumstances. That is the power of the Gospel; Christ is glorified above all challenges.

For us, it started with my son holding his leg gingerly. We had been monitoring his hip placement for the past several years. So, we went to get it checked out and discovered that his hip was 65% out of socket. As a result, he would have to have surgery before the end of the year. The recovery was the challenge, in that he would be in a body cast for 6 weeks. We started trying to wrap up everything we could before his appointment with the knife. This was an especially hard for my wife who was trying to complete her doctoral dissertation (which didn’t get done). So, before facing the challenge of a kid in a cast from his chest to his ankles, we first had the challenge of completing all major plans through year’s end. It was pressure on top of pressure.

The surgery went well, and we started the scary process of recovery with him. We had to fight off fevers, pain, and the dreaded sleep deprivation. We were up every 2 hours for weeks. We even had to go back to the hospital as he had become dehydrated. People were asking how we were doing and the only honest answer was, “challenged” it was usually followed with a huff, puff, and a shake of the head. This is coming from people who care for a young man who is totally dependant on us. But, this was 10x more than we are used to facing.

Add to that, just before all of this, one of our members was admitted to the hospital on Thanksgiving Eve. We raced from giving out meals in our community to sitting by her bedside with her husband as it was looking like it would be the end. She rebounded, but while caring for our son we would have to make it to the hospital continually and do our best to care for this family who was in need. While in need of care and support, we found ourselves giving what was being given to us. Which I think is both beautiful and poetic.

My son started turning the corner, and we assumed things were getting better. My wife and I even had a chance to take in a movie, hallelujah! But, when we left the theatre, we received word that our member in the hospital was in her last moments. We once again raced to her bedside for the last time, and we were there to see her transition into eternity. Being a new lead pastor, this is the first time I had lost a member, not to mention one who was very close to my heart.

We are still not through this season as my son is still in a cast, my wife must find space to finish school, and the funeral (rather celebration of life) is coming. We have taken hit after hit, lately. Last year ended in struggle and this year of course, started the same way. Little did I know that life would suck so hard, so quickly.

What I taught in a message, but would live through experience is, you can’t always determine the challenges you will face, all you can do is determine HOW you will face them. Hard times come! Cancer, layoffs, sickness, childlessness, divorce, surgery, death, etc. are a part of life and denying it only sets us up for disappointment and frustration. I am not endorsing pessimism or worse masochism, but rather preparation for difficulty so that if and when it comes our way we can proclaim the power of this scripture…

“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.”  James 1:2-4 MSG

This scripture is as challenging as it is beautiful. Not everything that is good for us, feels good! The hope for Jesus followers is that all things work for our good, even times that just plain suck!

Fatherhood, Hardship, and Hope

Sometimes life sucks, and there is little you can do to change things, all you can do is accept them! I am not talking about something that I have not experienced myself. The sad truth is that most people know this to be true, but it seems to me that Christians can be so “spiritual” that they can be the last to realize it. I think this creates disillusionment when life does what life does.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. When my son was born with some major challenges, it shifted things for me. I had numbers of fellow believers telling me that these things would/could not happen to people who loved God as we did. That didn’t seem accurate considering that I had friends, who loved God, who had special needs children. Being a Christian didn’t mean that things would be easy.

Life would become increasingly difficult with each passing day. We had to consider things that other parents wouldn’t have to think about. Most parents don’t have to worry about if their child had a seizure throughout the night and stopped breathing. Most parents don’t wonder if they will have to change the diapers of their preteens. Most parents don’t have to even think about whether or not they will have grandchildren or if their children will ever leave the house and live on their own. These are some of the normal considerations in our world.

I will tell you that there are some amazing benefits to our lives. Children with special needs inspire hope in a way that little else does. To see our son struggle to do something new that others find easy is motivating. It robs us of all of our excuses. If he can, through all of his challenges, then we certainly can get over ours. We live in a beautiful paradox, deeply desiring for him to be 100% capable while not wanting to change a thing about him. That is our world.

You many not have a special needs child, but you may have to take care of an ailing parent. Cancer comes for people indiscriminately. Jobs have layoffs, spouses cheat, cars breakdown, terrorist attack, etc. No amount of prayer, or believing will exempt us from the truth that life happens. Paul taught us to be ready for tough times…

“Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.“ 2 Tim 2:3

Too many Christians are trying to deny hardship and difficulty and miss the fact that sometimes God himself ordains difficulty. The hard truth is that we can’t always determine the variables in our lives, but we can determine our attitude and perspective in the midst of challenges. If the goal of God for believers is an easy and carefree life then none of us would have hardships to bare. After all we have a faith based on the brutality of the cross, and are encouraged to take our crosses. It is because of our son’s special needs that we are able to display courage, faith, and hope in the midst of and in spite of difficulty. Our pain produces character in us that little else would or could.

 

* For more details about my journey as a father of a child who has special needs you can read it in an essay I wrote in a book called - Dads of Disabilities

Requiem for Happiness?!

It might sound crazy what I’m about to say…but happiness is overrated. In our current culture happiness or the state of being happy, is the goal! Pharrell Williams masterfully created a song that captures this mindset perfectly. So catchy and danceable, I love it! But, if one’s personal happiness is the goal, then I am afraid that anarchy, hedonism, and narcissism are our ultimate end.

The problem with happiness is that it can be exceedingly self-serving. I know people who have abandoned their children for it. They walk away from good marriages because they’d be happier with a lover. Some are happiest not working hard, so laziness and total dependence on others is their goal. Sociopaths are most happy when killing, raping, and bringing harm to others.  Is that the ultimate goal?

Happy- is delighted, pleased, or glad over a particular thing. The very nature of happiness is that it is temporary. It is not a continual state of being. Get a car or house with glee and the moment something goes wrong, that temporary feeling disappears. The spouse that made you so happy will eventually, bother, frustrate, and hurt you. That is not a happy moment.

Even the United States Declaration of Independence says that we have a right to the pursuit of happiness, but our country’s founders knew that it was not a guarantee. Too many people believe that happiness is a right. It’s an entitlement that must be allowed, given or taken. So, forget about responsibility and commitment (they say), HAPPINESS is what life is about. It must be the guiding light of our lives, no matter how many people we harm by our selfishness. “As long as you’re happy” seems to be the mantra of our day.

Some would agree that I am right, and anytime you hurt someone else then it’s dirty happiness. But, the moment you are no longer hurting another then you’re good. I would argue that some of the happiest people are the addicted lost in their addiction. They are often not harming anyone else, just themselves. The truth is that our lives are not, solitary; we have a profound affect on others. No one has a life that doesn’t impact someone else. If that were not true, then we would not have suicide hotlines. If a person would be happiest dead, then let them. No, but that is not how we treat those who’d consider suicide. We try to give them enough hope to move forward in spite of their temporary unhappy situation. It’s because we know (if only in the back of our minds) that life can and usually will get better.

So, am I saying that happiness is a wasted pursuit? No. The point is that we have made it the litmus test for what is right and true, and that my friend is incorrect thinking. If life is a marathon, then happiness is not the finish line, but rather the brief water stations throughout the race that refresh us! When we see it as momentary, we can endure the lulls and valleys that will inevitably come, and occasionally remain for a while. Too often we feel like God has abandoned us when we are not in a particularly happy place. When happiness comes, AWESOME! Enjoy the moment, but don’t expect it to last forever, that is unrealistic. The goal should be to have a balanced life with a reasonable amount of happiness to inspire and encourage you along the way. That’s the cool part of being a Jesus follower, heaven is the only place were happiness is eternal, that’s why it’s called Heaven.

Color, Culture, and Church

Over the past few years there has been a lot said about the multicultural and/or multiethnic church. I will talk to another pastor or leader and the question will arise, “Are you a multicultural church?” This question always gives me pause because depending on how one uses the term will determine how see they answer. Since this has become a pop term in church circles many determine your success and effectiveness based on it.

The reason people care about color and culture in church is because in the American church we have failed horribly. When you look at church history in this country racism is more than present. Christians used race to enslave blacks for hundreds of years. It’s been a regularly discussed topic that Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour of our entire week. So, yes it’s an important issue that the church should address.

The issue of race and culture is a multifaceted problem. I have found that when many people say they have a multicultural church that means that they have a half white, half black church. That is fine if you have a community that is 50/50 between those to two races. If there are Asians or Latinos in your community then they should be present too. We have a tendency to see things as black and white when there are more ways to celebrate the diversity of people groups in our neighborhoods.

It’s important to identify that we can have many colors in a church, and all of them have the same culture. Culture goes beyond skin complexion. There are other African Americans that have little to no cultural connection to me (Not that they have to for us to worship together). We share a color not a culture. There are whites that grew up in an urban setting, in a similar environment I as I did, who share my culture. An Asian Pastor friend of mine told me that many Asians grow up essentially white. The two issues are not necessarily synonymous.

I have found that some churches are proud of the numbers of varying colors in their congregations, but they have no consideration of culture. They in essence are saying, we want your color, but we don’t value your culture. This “oversight” is evident in music style, preaching, and involvement. A truly diverse church not only acknowledges these differences, it celebrates them. This can be deceptive because a church can have the allusion of multiculturalism, all while saying we don’t value your perspective and background.

I have found that it may be better to simply measure color and culture based on the church’s community dynamics. If the local area has a high Hispanic and Nigerian population, then a truly multicultural church should reflect those numbers in their membership and involvement.  At Vertical Church Atlanta, we see our cultural differences in social economics, age, and educational backgrounds. Yes, the vast majority of our attendees are African American, but 97% of our community is as well. We have other colors and cultures represented in our body, but we represent our community. I would say that we are multicultural. We are not half white or black, but well represented. I think that should be the goal!