Category Archives: Personal Reflections

My brother’s death: A year later

Today, March 16th, marks the one year anniversary of the death of my brother Ben. He was 28 years old.

This has easily been the most stinging grieving experience I’ve gone through so far. It got me reflecting on ways that our culture experiences grief, as well as the ways grief is processed in Mexico, where I spent a number of years.

Mexico has a number of traditions surrounding the mourning of a loved one who has passed away. The deceased person is usually buried within 48 hours of his or her death, but family members and friends gather for nine consecutive nights at the home of the deceased one to carry out the “novenario”. An “altar” with flowers, candles, religious objects and photos is set up for the family member who has been lost. Those gathered each night say prayers for the deceased person and eat together. At the end of the nine days of the novenario a religious ceremony takes place, with those in attendance taking up the flowers from the altar and carrying them to the grave of the deceased afterwards, followed by a special meal together.

Further traditions and rituals are prescribed for various points of time throughout the first year and beyond. These traditions give structure to the mourning process. They ensure nothing is rushed; everything happens at its prescribed time throughout the year.

One important ritual following the death of a loved one is the “cabo de año” taking place on the first anniversary of the person’s passing. At the cabo de año family members attend a mass in memory of their loved one. Afterwards they gather for a celebratory meal together.

After the cabo de año, Mexican tradition says family members of the deceased should go back to wearing colored clothing and no longer wear black. The black bow that has hung over the entrance to the house of the deceased, signifying his or her passing, is taken down. The family member who was lost will continue to be honored, however, each year on the Day of the Dead.

Though grieving is a fluid process that can continue in some ways for many years, the cabo de año marks a transition and some level of resolution to the grieving process.

Now one year removed from the passing of my brother, I can really appreciate the rituals and traditions that accompany the mourning of a loved one in Mexico. I’m not sure that most of us Americans are all that good at grieving the loss of a loved one. It feels at times like we try and gloss over or sugarcoat the painful reality we’re experiencing, and the process can feel rushed.

At some funerals it seems more time is spent trying to get God off the hook for taking away our loved one than is spent remembering the loved one and acknowledging the pain of losing him or her. After the service is done, and possibly a potluck, precious little structure exists in our culture to facilitate the ongoing mourning process.

Those first few grief-stricken days I spent together with my family for my brother’s funeral were incredibly healing. The pain was intense, but simply being together and sharing the pain with one another felt like it did wonders. We laughed and cried together as we shared stories and celebrated Ben’s life. It didn’t seem like anyone tried to dismiss the pain we were experiencing with a trite comment about him being in a better place or, “We can’t understand why God chooses to do these things, so we just have to trust Him.” We were in the moment, we felt the pain, we mourned the loss, and we shared it together.

Here are a few other thoughts and reflections I have related to Ben’s death and the grieving process:

  • As stated, the freedom to simply experience the pain and mourn our loss was paramount. I think Americans in general and evangelicals in particular need to learn better to feel pain when pain is real and raw without having to try and quickly make it all better or explain it away. These things just take time, and I think on some level it’s dehumanizing to pretend that it’s okay that someone close to us just died. I’m deeply comforted by the conviction that my brother has entered into an eternity in God’s direct presence, but that doesn’t mean I have to be okay with our losing him at such a young age.
  • On that note, I don’t buy into a way of defining God’s sovereignty that says that God is the orchestrator behind everything like this that happens. God is a good God, but the aftereffects of the curse are such that we live in a world where crappy things happen sometimes. It doesn’t mean God is the one doing the crappy things, and I don’t think it’s an offense to God to feel that losing my brother is crappy. Because God is sovereign and God is good, He can work the most awful situations for good (and He has certainly brought much good out of Ben’s death). But I’d still prefer to have Ben here for many more decades, and I refuse to blame God for his death.
  • The first week or so after Ben’s death felt like a very healthy time of grieving for me as I was with family and friends. Among other things, it’s amazing how much comfort came from having my two older daughters along with me on the trip out to Kansas for the funeral…seriously, so much of it is about just being with loved ones in painful times. In the months following the funeral, though, I felt more disconnected from loved ones. I sensed that my spirit had more grieving to do than was happening on a conscious level during the days. On a handful of occasions over the past year I woke up at night crying hard in my sleep for my brother. This, too, felt very healing.
  • I appreciate that we had an open casket funeral. I’m fairly uncomfortable with death and dead bodies, and I’ll wager that the majority of the people reading this are as well. But I never got to say goodbye to Ben while he was alive, and seeing his body in the casket somehow seemed to make it a little better. Even though I didn’t believe his spirit was there anymore, the day of the funeral I hung around his casket as long as possible before the lid was closed. I wanted to see Ben, and I put off saying goodbye as long as I possibly could. I dreaded taking him to the cemetery and leaving him there, and that was indeed the hardest part of the entire process.
  • Ben died of a medical event associated with the epilepsy from which he suffered most of his life. I believe that Jesus has broken the curse of sickness and death that entered the world in the Garden of Eden. Losing Ben has strengthened my resolve that we who belong to Jesus must keep pressing until we walk in such a measure of victory that everyone upon whom we lay hands is healed. I believe it is part of our inheritance in Jesus. I don’t think someone like Ben should ever have to die for the reasons he died. That doesn’t mean I carry around any guilt over Ben (or anyone else) not having been healed – I don’t. But nor am I willing to accept people being sick and dying when Jesus has set us free. It’s not about beating ourselves up over what we lack in our experience, it’s about accepting an invitation Jesus is giving us to a fuller kind of life. We must press forward.
  • Many people would think being one of six siblings sounds like a very big family, but it’s amazing how small that number feels when we used to be seven. We’ll always be missing a part of us until we’re together again.
  • I’ve never been prouder of Ben than I was the week of his funeral, hearing numerous accounts of ways he touched lives, inspired people, and persevered in the face of discouragement. It was so encouraging. I felt like hope was the word God gave me the day of his funeral. I can’t imagine mourning a loved one while having no hope.

My grieving process has included doing a lot of talking sometimes. I’ve continued it here, in written form. I hope something I’ve shared will resonate with you or encourage you in some way wherever you’re at. There may also be a thing or two I’ve said here that rubs someone the wrong way. That’s okay. The important thing isn’t that we all agree, the important thing is that we’re all together. That’s what makes grieving bearable.

The impact of a family

I saw this story posted a couple of places today about a study on how many of what gender kids in a family works best. The story said that parents of four girls report more noise and fighting than parents of two girls. My response? Duh. A two-girl family only involves one relationship between siblings (A with B), while a four-girl family involves six different relationships (A with B, A with C, A with D, B with C, B with D, C with D). Get it? When you have six times the amount of relationships going on, there is bound to be more conflict. The cool thing is there is an opportunity for a lot more love to be shared, too!

This got me thinking about my family of origin. I’m the oldest of seven siblings. So between the seven of us we have 21 different one-on-one relationships. Throw in my parents, and our family of nine has 36 different relationships. Wild, huh?

Let’s say Erin and I end up only having our four daughters. That’s 15 different relationships in our family. Now let’s say that each of our daughters marries and has, on average, 3 kids. Each one of their families would then have 10 relationships within it. Four daughters, that makes 40 relationships. If each of our 12 grandkids were to then have three children, add another 120 relationships to the mix. All in all, that’s 175 relationships just between those who are immediate family members of one another. Now watch this: One relationship – the marriage Erin and I have with each other – will profoundly affect all the rest. What an impact we have!

Erin and I are are coming to a greater understanding of the tremendous importance of family heritage. We receive an inheritance from our parents and grandparents that we can pass along to future generations. And we as parents can add to that inheritance that we pass along, as well. I’m becoming more grateful all the time for everything good I received from my parents. It will live on!

Of all I’ve received from my parents and grandparents, I’ll mention just one thing at the moment: In my young, formative years, I think my parents handled discipline really well with me. This had a positive impact on my forming character, and it gave me a healthy model that I am now able to use in training my daughters. I recently recognized (and this may sound a bit strange) that some of the times I most feel God’s love are the times when He is disciplining me. That is a gift from my parents. Hebrews 12 says that God disciplines those He loves, and I learned this because I felt my parents’ love when they disciplined me.

As parents, we cut off the negative things that inevitably get passed along from our ancestors, we receive the full inheritance from them, add to it, and pass it on. Who else wants to do that? Let’s not underestimate what loving our spouses and children will do to make this world a better place!

“A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children…”
Proverbs 13:22

(And by the way, I don’t for one minute receive what that study says about having four girls. We are so blessed by our four girls and experiencing and expecting so much good through them!)

This is church

A few nights ago our team got together.  We sat around on couches in our living room.

We caught up on things that are going on in each of our lives.

We examined passages of Scripture together.

We were greatly encouraged as we shared different visions and prophecies that God has been giving.

We prayed together.

We took communion together.

We encouraged, prayed for, and prophesied over a team member who was trying to discern God’s will in difficult personal circumstances.  God gave her direction and she has since acted according to it.

Our time together didn’t incorporate every possible expression of church life, and it’s not nearly the only model for church.  It is church, though.  Church is not a building, and it’s not a meeting – it’s who we are.  I love the edification that takes place when we meet together with our church family.

Recognizing pride

God has sobered me a lot the past couple of months regarding the danger of pride.  Pride was Lucifer’s sin, and I think if you could say that one sin is more deadly than all the others, pride would be it.  It is so dangerous because it is so blinding.  Think about this:  Unless your conscience is totally seared, you know it if you’re living in sexual sin.  You know if you’re robbing people, too, even if you refuse to deal with the sin.  You feel the sting of conviction when you gossip about someone.  Few people, though, know they have a big pride problem but refuse to deal with it.  Most people in bondage to pride have very little idea it’s there.

John Bevere explains that a prideful person will always become more religious.  Religiosity covers the pride, and pride keeps a person from seeing the religious spirit.  Nasty little cycle, huh?  That’s why Jesus said that many people who have done all kinds of great spiritual things will be blown away on the day of judgment to be rejected by God (Matthew 7:21-23).  What a scary thought!

I haven’t always taken pride that seriously.  I sort of assumed that as long as I was in “mostly good standing” with God, He wouldn’t be too put off by a little pride.  I recently realized how ridiculous that thought is when I started meditating on James 4:6:  “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (emphasis mine).  In other words, God isn’t just a little disappointed if I’m prideful.  It doesn’t slow down His work in my life a bit.  God is flat-out opposed to me if I’m proud.  Every good thing in our lives comes because of God’s grace, and He gives that grace to the humble, not the proud!  That got my attention.

I am learning that a prayer God is quick to answer is, “God, I don’t care what it takes, please expose every area of pride in my life.”  I never used to have the guts to pray that prayer, but now I do.  I am growing in the fear of God, and I see that pride can separate me from Him without my ever knowing it.  I don’t care what it costs me anymore, I don’t want to fall away from God.  So I’m asking Him to expose pride, and He is.

The trouble with a blind spot, of course, is that it’s hard to see.  Something John Bevere said in a sermon I recently listened to really helped me.  He explained how humility is simply fully trusting God in absolutely everything.  Looking at it that way, I have begun to see my pride more readily, because I can recognize a host of areas where I don’t fully trust God.  Until my life is 100% submitted to God in everything, pride has not yet been fully conquered.

Oh God, keep me from pride.  Expose every single area of it in my life.  Don’t let one little bit hide in darkness.  I only want to do what you want me to.  I don’t want to fall away from you.  Give me your grace as I walk in humility.  Knowing how susceptible I am to falling, I’m trusting you to keep me.  It’s only by your grace.

Strive no more

I have been the king of striving. Striving is trying to do things (often good, God things) in my own way, in my own time, and in my own strength. God began a work in my life several months ago to break me of this.

I never imagined how thoroughly engrained striving was in my life and what a difference it would make to trust God instead. The freedom I’m experiencing as I break free from striving is remarkable. I am learning the truth of a passage of Scripture that is becoming a theme for me now:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Striving is tiring. It wears you out. It puts a strain on relationships. It is full of worry. Trusting God is the opposite of those things. For the longest time, I never believed Jesus that His yoke really is easy and His burden light. But now that I am exchanging my burden for the yoke of Jesus, I’m finding how true His words are. I wish I had never doubted.

In breaking free from striving, I had to make an ugly confession: Not only did I not trust God’s words, I didn’t think He had a big enough vision. I subconsciously believed for years that if I submitted myself fully to God, nothing much would happen in ministry. I thought the only way to see things really change and progress was to make it happen myself. I feel like a creep for saying that, but that’s what I believed. I have repented of that attitude and now wholeheartedly believe that God always has the very, very best at heart. The way to achieve God’s best is to fully submit to Him and abide in Him. “Remain in me, and I will remain in you…Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” (John 15:4)

I’m finding it’s really fun to relax, figure out what God is doing, and see what part He wants me to play in it. I’m responsible to obey what He shows me to do; He’s responsible for the results. It’s freeing not carrying the burden of the results. It’s exciting to see God doing all sorts of things through me as I trust in Him.

Trusting fully in God is always the way to go.

One year blogging!

This past weeked marked the one-year anniversary of my blog. When I started blogging, I stated 3 reasons for doing it:

  1. To keep a written record of the journey of our church planting team and the things we learn along the way
  2. To better keep in touch with friends and family, giving them a more behind-the-scenes look at our lives and ministry
  3. As an outlet for my growing interest in website development

Twelve months and 110 posts later, I’m pleased at what I have been able to do this past year with the blog. I have been encouraged in communication with folks back in the U.S. at how many of you seem to have a greater understanding of our ministry because of the blog. I am also glad that I have been able to record a number of lessons I learned over the past year.

As I look back on the first year, I would love to be writing a lot more about specific things going on with the church planting ministry, including what we’re trying, what’s working, and what’s failing. Sometimes it’s hard to get it all written down, though.

I didn’t start the blog intending necessarily to be its only author. One of these days it will be cool if Erin gets to post some things, so that you can see more of our lives through her eyes. She has her hands full, though, so I’m not putting any pressure on her.

The blog has certainly provided me a chance to tinker around with a website a little bit, although I wouldn’t mind more time for that, either. At the moment I’m starting to dabble with PHP coding a little bit, hoping to aquire a few skills to better customize our site.

For me, the India trip in April was the high water mark of my blogging this past year. I thoroughly enjoyed posting frequently, sharing lots of photos and insights to what I was experiencing and learning. My readership tripled during that time, and I loved the dialogue I had with different friends through the comments. I hope that over time my day-to-day blogging could look a bit more like what I pulled off while in India. Those two or three weeks were a good representation of what I envisioned a year ago when 520life was born. It was a significant time commitment, however. (If you missed the India posts, you can check them out by clicking through to the India category.)

All in all, blogging has been at least as enjoyable and about as effective as I had hoped it would be. As long as God allows me to continue, I pray He will be glorified through the pages of this website.

Is there certain news you want to hear or a certain topic you would like me to address on this blog? If so, leave a comment below, because I would be interested to know.

Honor the king

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.

1 Peter 2:13-19

God has been nailing me with this passage lately, speaking to me about my attitude towards all kinds of different authorities. He has commanded us to submit ourselves to every authority instituted among men. In the second paragraph, note that He doesn’t just command slaves to submit to good masters. Even harsh masters are worthy of submission. Ultimately, it is God that we are submitting ourselves to when are subject to those over us.

I have recently learned that submission is not the same thing as obedience. Obedience is our outward actions, but submission speaks to our heart attitude towards those in authority.

To paraphrase Peter a bit in today’s terms, I think we can say: “Honor every authority above you, including every authority in the government, including those you don’t like or with whom you completely disagree!”

In this presidential election season, another good post regarding our attitudes as followers of Christ has been provided by Brian Bailey. Here is an excerpt:

At some point, though, we have to take responsibility for the tone of politics. Even though our discourse is largely a reflection of what we hear from the parties and the media, why should we descend to that level? Why can’t we do better? If you are fed up with how politics is practiced, let’s start changing how we practice politics.

The candidate you support is motivated by political calculation and a desire to win just like his opponent. He has compromised when he shouldn’t have, ducked when he should have stood up, and made many mistakes (and will continue to do so). Like all national politicians, he is a flawed man surrounded by flawed advisors. The nation’s problems will not be solved by his election, but he can and hopefully will makes things better, improve the political process, and appeal to our better natures.

The candidate you oppose is not stupid, senile, dangerous, different, or corrupt. He loves this country and has served it most of his life. He will defend our nation with honor and always do what he thinks is in the best interest of America. He does not deserve to be mocked, belittled, or hated. The snide and snarky only serve to make intelligent debate between reasonable people impossible, while escalating the smack talk arms race.

There are endless arguments to be made for and against each of these candidates on the issues, but why do we have to demonize and deify them in the process?

Good words, don’t you think? If you don’t agree, I challenge you to consider what it is you disagree with and why.

I encourage you to read Brian’s complete post. I commend him and others who are taking a stand this election against the slew of negativity all too often coming from Christians. If you think the message of honoring our leaders is for Kingdom people, then do your part to positively influence those around you.

God of all nations

A few weeks ago, I shared my two cents on following Jesus during this election season in my post Who would Jesus vote for?. If you happened to read that post, you’ll know why I appreciated the recent post Church and Politics Don’t Mix by Kevin Hendricks, which included the following excerpt:

“…our cries should not end at God bless America, but continue to include God bless Iraq, God bless Afghanistan, God bless Ethiopia, God bless Haiti, God bless China, God bless Peru–as Christians we should seek for God to bless all the people of the world.”

We wholeheartedly agree and would chime in with an emphatic, “God bless Mexico!”

You can click through and read the rest of Kevin’s post, which mentions missionaries who have have seen a decrease in funding because of people not agreeing with their political views.

The lessons I learned this summer

It would seem God has decided to use these few months as a refining time in my life. This has been neither something I was looking for nor something that has been particularly pleasant, but I am very grateful to Him for the results. In fact, at this point I’m beginning to embrace it. And the process is continuing.

Here is some of what God has shown me:

For a person who likes leadership and has viewed it as a strength of mine, it was disconcerting to realize my entire leadership style needed to change. In a sense, I can say I am beginning to learn true leadership for the first time. Leadership is influence, and one does not need a position of authority in order to positively influence others. What I knew how to do before was to manage. Managers, when in a position of authority, are able to use external controls to keep people doing what they should be doing. Take away the authority and controls, and a manager can no longer influence others effectively.

Leaders, on the other hand, influence others on a deeper level by inspiring them to do the right thing. This they are able to do sans external controls.

Example: I have been overseeing a handful of church planting apprentices who are learning Spanish. We use a good language learning program that is hard work but beneficial, and I really believe in it. I took on new apprentices who I did not know well at all, laid down all the rules about who they could talk to, where they could go, and what they had to do, and then cut them loose. They were frustrated by the level of control I exerted, and within months some of them were ready to give up and go home. I came to see that they had not bought into the system because I had tried to force them to do the right thing by giving them rules, rather than inspiring them with the way their sacrifices would pay off.

This was the first big thing God showed me, that I need to influence people through inspiration rather than rules. Interestingly, I have known all this in my head for some time. I have read leadership books, talked leadership theory, and listened to some of the best leadership speakers around. I could have given the right answers on any classroom test on leadership. I am living proof that you haven’t really learned something until you apply it to your life.

The next thing God showed me was the reason I want to control people. The reason I prefer control is that I often do not trust people, and the reason I do not trust them is I do not have adequate relationships with them. The reason I do not have adequate relationships, I realized, is I have not left time in my life for this. I have packed my schedule full of tasks, trying to make every little thing happen “for the ministry”, which left me very little people time. I suspect many of the things I have been running ragged trying to accomplish the last couple of years were things God never intended for me to be doing.

I am having to repent of controlling people, not trusting people, not having close relationships with people, and not making time for people. Each domino caused another to fall. This repentance is very much a process, because I am having to break very engrained patterns in my life. First and foremost, I want to have closer relationships with others. It’s all about people, after all. In the context of these relationships I will be a more effective leader. People are influenced by those they trust, but no one trusts someone they don’t know. I now see how trusting others and inspiring them is a much more loving and respectful way to treat them.

I am a few weeks into a process of trying to reorganize my life, get rid of unecessary tasks and demands on my time, and dedicate more of my best time to people. It’s not easy, and I’ve suffered setbacks. One disappointing realization is that I think some of the people closest to me will be among the last ones to feel the effects of my change. I am encouraged, though, by a few positive steps I’ve taken so far. If you were to take a moment to pray for me in all of this, I would sure appreciate it.

God is really good, though. This was a blind spot in my life, and He has been gracious enough and patient enough to show it to me and get me on the road to change.

What I need to learn this coming year

Most recent years I can look back and see a definite theme or subject that has been the main thing God has been teaching me. For instance, my first year in Mexico was all about learning the importance and power of prayer. The past year and a half has been dedicated to simple, organic church principles and the importance of discipleship. I haven’t usually had an agenda about what I will learn in the upcoming months, but this time around I do. In the upcoming ministry year, (a ministry year for us runs from September through August) I really need to learn more about authority and leadership structure in the Church.

The past year and a half, my worldview has dramatically changed regarding the Church. I’m all about simplification, laying aside those practices that are unhelpful and/or unbiblical, and seeing people discover what it is to be the church rather than to go to church. It works great in the early stages of discipling new believers, because they can come together in homes or parks or coffee shops, pray and worship together, teach one another, and minister to one another. No building or salaries to worry about. No institution. Minimal structure.

I know we’re approaching the time, though, where more definite leaders need to be raised up from among those we’re discipling. I’m not sure Jesus had in mind the extensive organizations that churches are today, but it’s hard to deny biblically that some structure is necessary. Positions of leadership and authority did exist in the early Church, and they seem to be given a fair amount of attention in Acts and the Epistles.

This leaves me in uncertain territory. I understand that authority and leadership and structure must exist, but I’m not sure what they should look like. I have certain points of difference with contemporary Western models of church leadership. Also, I have recently been forced to rethink much of what I have believed and practiced concerning leadership and authority. So my big question is how churches are to go about setting up a leadership structure that is in keeping with biblical principles. Will it involve official positions with ceremonies and titles? Is authority earned or ascribed or both? If both, does one or the other have precedence? Was the structure the early Church developed exactly what God had in mind? In other words, should we study early Church history (beginning with the New Testament) and create the exact same structure they did, or was their expression just one of many possible expressions?

I don’t know, but I hope to learn.

If anyone has thoughts on any of this or would like to highlight pertinent passages of Scripture or other good resources, chime in with a comment. I’m already off and rolling studying Scripture, and I will have much more to do this year. I’m excited that Neil Cole of Organic Church fame is working on a new book entitled Organic Leadership. If all goes well, in the coming months to a year or two, hopefully I will be sharing many new insights on this blog in the area of church leadership and structure.