The Grace of the Pivot

Recently, I preached a sermon and wrote a blog post called “Failing to Understand Success”.    It’s a play on words.   We get a better sense of what success in God’s Kingdom really is by failing.  It’s so tempting to believe we can go forth and accomplish good things for God.  That’s a common – albeit flawed –  missional line of thinking.

Jesus really meant what he said in John 15.  He’s the vine.  We’re the branches.  Apart from him we can do nothing.  Nothing is really not very much.  Because God loves us, our attempts to do great things for God result in many frustrated efforts and missed goals.  God created us to be in a right relationship with himself.  To achieve “success” without God would miss the point of walking with God.  But personally, I am so stubborn that if I feel like I’m succeeding at things, I’ll just keep pressing on and will probably grow prideful in the process.  Allowing me to fail is like a tool God employs to humble me and draw me back to a place of depending on him.  I am grateful.

But what do we do when the moments of failure arrive?

I find it’s tempting, (and easy) to freeze and do nothing.  Actually, we can even rationalize doing nothing by calling it “waiting on God.”  God does call us to wait, but in the waiting, we’re still called to put forth effort.  But toward what?

It’s tempting in another way to assume that if we failed at one thing, we should just go back to doing something that worked previously.  For example, if I trying to get people to come to a Bible study through incarnational contact work and fail miserably, I’ll just give up and advertise in the paper to see who shows up.   Knowing what has worked in the past does have value.  It’s great to be able to pull out a tried and proven idea – and “it” might work.  But I would encourage seeking missional solutions to missional problems, to depend less on “it” and more on God.

Just as a reminder, by missional, I mean that God has a mission and sweeps us into it.   It’s God’s mission and ultimately the success or failure of the mission is on God.  The mission’s outcome is not on us.

So, when we fail, rather than freezing or going back to old ideas, we can pivot to something better by putting the responsibility for the mission’s success back on God.  Don’t just freeze. Turn.  Go back to God and ask him what his mission is for this place, people, and time.

Do you remember the Kairos Circle – the Learning Circle?  The central skill for the learning circle is discerning when God is near.  When God comes near, we repent, which involves turning, or pivoting,  from our planned path to pay attention to discern how God is leading and what God is saying.  I have found that when I encounter frustration and failure, going back to that circle helps.  I have also discovered that God is near during the difficult times.  Have you encountered a difficulty in mission?   God was there.   Good news. That was almost certainly a kairos moment, a time when God had come near.  So it’s time to do some work to answer two questions:  What is God saying?  What will you do about it?

First step.  Make observations:  What exactly were we trying to do?  What do I observe about the frustration, roadblock, or failure?  What happened?  Who was involved?  What have I been learning through scripture, circumstances, and the church?  How have I been feeling?  Why?  What were other involved saying?  What were they learning?  What was going on in their lives?  Recently, I hit a road block in leading the Wednesday night group.  I had a nice plan for reaching out in my neighborhood and when I helped form the group it was, in part, to get a community organized for that mission.  They were supportive and willing.  We actually did a little neighborhood praying and connecting.  But as a group, we began to be limited by health problems, family challenges, distance apart, and time.  And really, God pulled this group together for those things.  We needed each other.  Building relationships in a neighborhood takes time and consistency and we couldn’t get a rhythm going.  I could have pushed through, but when a leader does that, the leader can often end up walking alone!  That kind of defeats the community part of missional community.  So I choose to try to pivot.

Second step: Reflect: What ties the observations together?  What do they mean?  As I reflected on the observations above, it struck me that we have more natural concern for the next generation than for our neighbors.  We are pretty well connected in the community, and several of us have experiences with Young Life. It just so happens that Young Life in our area needs support.

Third step: Discuss and Pray: Talk it over with the people who’ll be involved.  At our last meeting, we talked about how to move forward with mission.  Ahead of that, I’d had some formal and informal conversations about this with group members.  We are at a place where we need an “Out” – a dedicated direction for mission.  I still haven’t given up on reaching out to my neighbors, but that’s gone in a different direction and now involves a different group of people altogheter  (That’s another pivot story).

Fourth Step: Ask: What is God saying about himself, about us, or about our relationship with him?  Well, I believe God cares about kids.  I believe he’s heard our prayers for our kids and their friends.  We’ve been praying for them for years.  God has been opening doors for Young Life in this area – I believe his hand is in that!  Finally, I believe God is saying he cares about kids a lot, and he’s telling us that we are here to be a part of expressing his love to the next generation.

So what will we do?  We’ve already started.  We’re praying for Young Life.  We’re encouraging the Young Life Area Director, and we’re making plans to raise financial support.

That’s what a pivot looks like.  What will we do, though, if we fail?  Hmm.  Pivot again.

I find a lot of grace there – in these pivoting moments.  I find grace because, often, flowing out of these failures, I get to learn more of the height, width, depth, and breadth of the love of God.

But what if we fail really bad?

Well, if the failure is really big, God’s grace is bigger still!

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End of 2019 Announcements

A few things we think you may want to know before 2020!
Giving: If you’d like to make a donation to LoveFirst Coast before the end of the year, try to get it to Rita in the next week or so. You mail a check payable to LoveFirst Coast  (or FCMC), 252 Bridgeport Lane, Elkton, FL 32033, or you can use bill-payer to the address above with the phone number 904-826-1530.
Next Gathering – Christmas Party at the Alexanders December 21 – 6pm to 8pm.  Bring finger food!  Expect singing!
Our Next worship gatherings – Sunday, Jan 12, 6-8pm (place tbd) and Sun Jan 26, 10-12am at the Wehmeiers.  
 
Underground Open in Ybor City –  Friday-Saturday Feb 7-8.  A group of us are going to learn about micro churches and missional living from Tampa Underground.  Cost is $79 for registration.  If you decide to go, let us know.  Some of us are getting together on lodging.  It’d be cool to have you with us or close by.   
 
LFC Retreat is February 21-23 at the ECO Lodge in Fargo, GA.  This year we’ll focus on the sacraments and the connection between sacrament and missional living.  The retreat is already paid for except for food – and we all pitch in for that.  We just need to know you’ll be coming.
 
Fund Raiser Sarah Alexander and two of her friends are raising funds and awareness creatively to do something about human trafficking.  She wanted to let people know last night at our worship gathering, but didn’t get the chance.  If you’d like to help Sarah raise funds and learn more about something that stirred up her heart, check out The Dress Quest.
The Lord is good and worthy of praise!
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Dec 8 Worship Gathering

Jesus invites people into his mission.

That’s pretty astonishing when you think about it.  Jesus, who is the one through whom and for whom all things were made who is at work addressing every evil, reversing every curse, and making all things new loves us and invites us into a relationship with himself and into the work he is doing.  That’s Jesus.

The Taber family has a really cool story.  As they’ve been following Jesus, they have discerned that God has invited them into mission in their neighborhood – the Gables.  On a night when we’ll be studying the incarnation, we’ll be hearing about their heart for mission and commissioning them as a family to the work God is calling them to in their community.  (Read John 1 if you want to get a head start!)

We plan to begin with pulled pork dinner at 6:00pm.  Pray for good weather – we’re hoping to be outside.

There will be some important information about parking and logistics and we need to get a estimate for food.  Reply to this email or send me a text (904-599-2889) to let us know ahead of time that you are coming and we’ll add you to the texting thread.

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Failing To Understand Success

“Yeah, my friends sounded enthusiastic at first, but then they just kind of blew me off when I tried to get together.  Some of them don’t even talk to me anymore.”

“We’ve met a bunch of neighbors and see them out all the time, but it seems like they put up a barrier when we try to invite them over.  They don’t want to come into our house.”

“My colleagues who said they’d help only came once or twice.  They all think what I’m doing is great, but none of them seem to have time to help.  I’m still doing the work all by myself and it’s really discouraging.”

“I was starting to make some inroads at work and even got to pray with some people.  But when my coworker resigned, she accused me of all kinds of crazy things.  It came completely out of left field.  She’s gone now, but since then it seems like people are holding back.”

We’ve been at this for six years now, and the quotes above are compilations of lines from conversations from those years.  I think it is safe to say that everyone who has tried to do something missionally encountered difficulty.  They experienced failure on the mission.  

Just to be clear, we understand missional living to be about joining God in his work.  We believe God has a mission and invites us into it.  Mission, then, is saying yes to God’s invitation.  But what does it mean to succeed in mission?

If you saw the 1995 movie, “Apollo 13”, you may remember the story.  Things went wrong with the spacecraft from early on.  The crew was trying to come back to Earth and many things had somehow gone wrong.  Without some major adjustments, the mission would absolutely fail.  If they failed, the space program would be discredited, science would suffer a setback, American pride would be wounded, and most tragically, three astronauts would lose their lives in space.  At one point, the engineers at mission control are gathered and (dramatically) brainstorming to find a solution, spurred on by Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris).  As the meeting wraps up, he spells out a plan, gives everyone their marching orders, and makes the terms clear: “We’ve never lost a American in space, and we’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch.  Failure is not an option!”

Sometimes, we operate that way.  Some of us live in a failure-is-not-an-option culture.  God’s given us a mission, and we give it our all.  We’ve got to raise the money, build the house, get the food, gather the people, and advance the kingdom.  But why is it success in mission so important to us? Is our involvement in the mission the make-or-break piece?  Whose mission is it anyway?  If we fail, have we failed God?  Has God failed?

If we must to succeed, if failure is not an option, then stepping into mission is to pretty risky.

My friend Scott likes to say, “God loves risk takers.”  I think he’s right.  Jesus celebrated risk takers – there are stories in the Bible about Jesus.  He celebrates shepherds who leave flocks to find the one lost sheep.  He praised gentiles and women who risked crossing racial, religious, and ethnic lines asked for miracles and got them.  He welcomed a pharisee who risked peer rejection came to talk with him in the night.

But while he praised the risk takers, he also pointed out that the risks were real.  Success in mission was not a guarantee.  He told stories about fools who failed to count the cost before taking on a project.  He told his disciples, “you’ll be rejected by family, run out of the church (synagogue), and persecuted for his name’s sake.”  When he sent the disciples and the 72 out on mission (i.e. Matthew 10) his instruction included what to do when people rejected them.  And he knew what that was like, because there are stories of people rejecting him.  The risk was, and still is, quite real.

“Failure is not an option” is essential attitude for space flight.  But when trying to join God in mission, failure is a real possibility.  There’s risk involved.  Let’s say the mission is starting a Bible study with neighbors.  Success means they come and you study the Bible.  What if they don’t come?  Maybe the mission is finding a mentor to support ten families of refugees.  But what if the mentors refuse to sign up.  What if the mission is caring for a group of widows in your community, but then you, the care-giver gets sick, or distracted, or so discouraged you just can’t do it.  Is that failure?

The book of Acts gives us a clear picture of what happens to the risk takers who live life on mission.  Right at the start, the Apostles are told to be quiet.  They take a risk and keep speaking and are beaten and told to be quiet.  They have a division issue in the church.  It’s taking the Apostles off their preaching mission so they appoint deacons and things get better.  But then one of the new deacons, Stephen, gets arrested for speaking about Jesus and is killed by rock throwers. More arrests are made. People are prosecuted and jailed.  The church scatters.  Any failure in that Jerusalem church mission?  The apostles stay behind.  James gets executed.  Peter gets arrested.  Yes, there was success.  They drew big crowds, performed wonders, and had a great church.  They succeeded.  But in terms of establishing a church, they lost much of their initial success.  The church they worked so hard to build in Jerusalem struggles. 

But that church’s setback and failure resulted in church planting movement.  I’ve heard it said that failure is just a step toward even greater success.  Maybe so.  After all, that scattering led to a mega-church being established in Antioch and the launching of the first church planting mission.  (How’s that for success!)  Any church planting expert will tell you that the book of Acts can teach us a lot about church planting.  What if the mission is church planting.  What does success look like?  Establishing new churches, obviously. 

And the Spirit speaks.  “Set aside for me Saul (Paul) and Barnabas for the work I have for them.”  Out of that success, missionaries Paul and Barnabas go out on mission to plant churches.  And… they succeed with a miracle and a convert in Cyprus, but there’s no mention of a church being planted.  They get deserted by a friend in Perga and report nothing else there.  They had initial success in Pisidian Antioch, only to see it evaporate and turn into persecution.   They traveled to  Iconium where they preached and performed miracles and won some over – only to be run out of town.   They went to Lystra, preached, and performed a huge miracle.  Finally success, right?  A lame man was healed and walked.  But the religious folk in the city misunderstand the message.  And just then a group of agitators show up and turn the crowd against Paul and Barnabas.  It gets ugly.  Rock throwers attempt to kill Paul and leave him for dead.  But the almost-dead apostle gets up and keeps going.  A small church got started in that town, but I wonder how that felt after the initial success of the big crowd, powerful message, and miraculous sign.  Finally, they go to Derbe.  They preach and a large number believe.  A church is planted.  Success at last!  

Now, if my counting is right, this church planting mission plants one solid church in five tries.  Four attempts that involve pain, rejection, and suffering result in one absolute failure, three small struggling groups, and one success.  On the way back to Antioch, they visit the little churches they started in order to encourage them, saying: “Keep the faith – we must go through many hardships to enter God’s kingdom.”  

How’s that for an encouraging promise to claim.   ‘Cheer up.  The Bible says, “We must go through many hardships…”‘

I’ll just say it.  If God sent those guys on a mission to plant churches, it wasn’t a great success.  To make it that much worse, Paul and Barnabas have a fight and part ways. They weren’t even able to sustain their church-planting missional community.  Not much success to see here.  A lot of failure.

But what if the “work set aside for them”  that the Spirit was talking about was not as straight forward as church planting.

If we read the Bible carefully, the expectation of great success of mission should not be our motivator.  It stands to reason: the culture around us can be very much opposed to the mission, or just apathetic toward it.  The forces of hell want to discourage us.  Moreover, some of the people we expect to be helpers, supporters or allies will let us down, tear us down,  or oppose what we are doing outright.  The sin of the world works against us and we fall into traps.  And worst yet, our own sinfulness shows up.  

I know.  “If God is for us, who can stand against us…”  But even that verse is not about succeeding in some venture.  If we look it up in Romans 8, the next line is “he who did not spare his own son, but graciously gave him up for us all…”  God is for us.  God was certainly for his son.  And God “gave him up for us…”  Put the whole thing in context. “We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered…”  God is for us.  He is so “for us” that nothing can snatch us from his hand.  But God is for us must mean something other than success in achieving missional goals.

What then?  Since failure is a real possibility, should we even try?  (Don’t stop reading.  Encouragement is coming, I promise.)

I think our culture kind of preaches against failure.  Culture, and a lot of Sunday sermons, suggest keys to success.  Nobody talks about finding the keys to failure.  But there are definitely good things to hunt for in failure.  Since we can expect some failure, maybe we can learn to be grateful for it because of what it brings.  Because good things, the best things, are the gifts God gives us in our experiences of failure, things that lead to a better success than achieving mission goals.  What is the connection between failure and better success?

Some might suggest that failure helps us find clues for success in the next venture.  That’s obvious.  Mistakes can lead to failure and we can learn from our mistakes.  But there’s something better if we mine a little deeper.

We can find grace in failure, because success blinds us to our character flaws and weaknesses, but failure reveals them.  We come to know ourselves better and to understand better our need for the help of God and his people.  But there’s still more.

We can see our sin in failure.  Often, others see our sin when succeed.  They’ll see our pride, how we take credit for what God did, and maybe how we used people.  But achieving success allows us to excuse ourselves.  It’s the price we all paid for success.  But when we fail, we get humbled.  We can see for ourselves how our character flaws worked against us, how our sin proved costly to the people around us.   Confession, repentance, and the healing of our souls unfolds.  We find still more grace.

Failures lead us to know know more of God.    Some people, for example, think God’s love is somehow conditional, that it’s based on succeeding.  But it’s when we fail that we discover it’s a lie.  We discover that “God’s arm is not to short to save.”  We come to know what Paul prayed that his churches would come to know – that God’s love for us is deeper, broader, wider, and higher than we ever realized.  We discover we were not made, as a friend of mine once prayed, “to do God’s work for him.”  Rather, before anything else, we were made to know God and his great love for us.

As a result of our failures, we can know more of God’s love and that will lead us toward discovering an increased capacity to love others.  This happens far more naturally through failure than success.   John says, “we love because he first loved us…”  The more we know of his love, the more we can love others.

We also gain insight for encouraging others in mission.  I have found that church leaders who have failed in mission are great to have around when I’m struggling.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like “successful” church leaders.  They offer formulas for things like making a program work, raising money, empowering staff, or attracting people.  “Try my formula.  It will work for you, too.”   I have found that sort of thing genuinely helpful, but also discouraging.  This is because every time I try to apply their formulas, I have some success but it appears to be less success than I hoped for.  But maybe you’ve heard – one in four pastors have been forced out of their churches.  Church leaders who have failed are pretty easy to find these days.  Now, some leave the church, burned, bitter, and resentful.  But I know many who have done the hard personal work of looking at their failure, enduring hardship, and walking with God through the disappointment and losses associated with “failure in ministry”.  The rejected church leaders who’ve “failed in ministry” are precious to have around.  When I talk with them, they seem more interested in me than in giving me a formula, more patient with my stories, and a great deal wiser.  They seem to know Jesus personally, and they want me to know him better, too.  I’ve also noticed they pray for my needs with greater humility, greater precision, and greater love.  

They can say with both authority and hope, “Jesse, keep the faith.  Expect hardship on this journey.”

Back to the gospels.  Have you ever read what happened when the disciples return from their mission.  (See Luke 10.)  They had enjoyed great success on their mission.  They tell Jesus, “Even the demons submit to us in your names.”  And Jesus is happy for them.  Great spiritual victories were won. “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven…”   But Jesus points them to something better.  Hd tells the disciples to rejoice – not because they have succeeded in casting out demons, but because their names are written in the heaven. 

And that, my brothers and sisters is the success worth pursuing.  Funny thing about engaging in mission.  Jesus certainly wants us to go.  He commands and commissions and sends us on mission.  But the thing Jesus wants his disciples, what he wants us, to celebrate, is our citizenship in his kingdom.   He doesn’t love us, claim us, or choose us because we are supposed to succeed in our mission – because the mission isn’t ours anyway.  He has a mission.  His work in us is his mission!  But his mission is bigger than us, too.  And we know more of him as we step into it.  Somehow, just taking part in it, walking with Jesus on mission, helps us discover more depth to the truth that we belong to Jesus.

Let me share a few other quotes, again compilations from our years together:

“I really feel like I’ve grown more over the last five years than at any other time in my walk.”

“At the service club, they were suspicious of me for so long and they even told me I wasn’t allowed to pray.  But now they completely trust me and I can talk to anyone at any time.”

“I used to think that church was the place you had to go to be close to God, but now I know he’s with me no matter where I go.  Trying to live my faith used to be so boring.  Now it’s an adventure.”

“My prayer ministry at work has finally opened up.  Many people have signed up for emails and regularly share prayer requests.  I’m so grateful for how God opened things up.”

“This group has given me courage to keep trying.  And I know God so much better. I am so grateful.”

May you come to know the Lord more fully, and may Christ be more fully revealed in you and through you as you walk with him in his mission!

 

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Worship Gathering – Sunday, Nov 17, 2019

Recently I read that a major health study identified something that “creates a greater health risk than obesity” and “is more destructive to health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day?”  It’s  isolation and loneliness.  This week, we’ll be looking at something that can literally save lives.  It’s the creation and experience of community.  Community is an important part of living life on mission, and it’s a not an option for people who follow Jesus.

We’ll be at the Samuel’s house this week.  (Sunday night, 6-8pm).  Send me a text at 904-599-2889 to let me know if you can join us and we’ll connect you with the food and location logistics!

I hope you can be with us – and if not, I hope you have plans this week to engage in authentic community.

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Healing Service Sunday November 3

Next Sunday we’ll gather under the cover of Nicholl’s Barn (3445 N SR 13, 32259) at 6pm for a time of fellowship, sharing a meal, and a worship service of healing prayer.  Specifically, we’ll be praying for healing among the youth of the First Coast and for healing of the deep political divide in our country.

What is a healing service?

The church is called to heal.  The followers of Jesus are called to be healers.  Its a ministry that every follower of Jesus is invited into.  So, we’re having a healing service.

  • Jesus healed – read all about it in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
  • His disciples also had healing ministries (i.e. Peter and John in Acts 3)
  • And so did those who learned the faith from them. (i.e. Phillip in Acts 9)
  • And the earliest writings make it clear – so did the early church.

I remember receiving a really wonderful experience of healing in the Spring of 2015.  I was at a week of training on leading the church in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Some friends there sensed that I was carrying a wound, still hurting from things I’d experienced.  In a very intentional, but graceful way, they listened to my story, loved me through it, and prayed for me in a way that allowed me to experience God’s healing touch.   I recall being delivered from a lot of pain – pain I didn’t even know I was carrying.  It was such a marked difference that I was a little nervous going to sleep that night.  I was worried the pain might return when I woke up.  Well, when I got up the next morning, the pain was still gone – and it stayed gone.

Coming out of that, I got a very clear impression from God that what He does for us, He delights to do through us.  We are hold healing services in response to what God has done.

Our focus this year came as a result of our service earlier tonight (October 27).  In response to our time of worship, we want to focus our time to pray for healing among our youth and also for healing of the political divide in America.  (There are some connections between the two.)

The famous verse from the Old Testament  says that God will heal the nation when his people who are called by his name humble themselves, pray, seek the Lord’s face, and repent, then he will hear from heaven and heal their land. (See II Chronicles 7:14)  Even if you can’t join us at Nicholl’s, why not set aside time next Sunday night to join us in prayer.

May the Lord bless you, keep you, and make his face to shine upon you.

Amen!

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Gathering Next Sunday Night

Have you ever noticed that our God loves to do great works through small things?   Zechariah 4:10 warns us not to despise the day of small things, because “‘It’s not by might, and not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord!”
 
Next week we’ll gather to share a meal at 6:00 and worship and pray together afterward.  
We’ll be having grilled pork.
Let us know if you are coming and we’ll coordinate food!
 
Hope to see you next Sunday.  Put the following dates in your calendar so we can be together.
Because it’s a lot easier to do all those “one another” commands when we get together
 
  • Sunday, Oct 27 – 6-8pm – Gathering place to be determined
  • Sunday, Nov 3 – 6-8pm Healing Prayer at Nicholl’s Barn
  • Saturday, Nov 9 – 9:00-1:00 Half Day Retreat at the Bays
  • Sunday, Nov 17 – 6-8pm Gathering (place to be determined)
  • Sunday, Dec 8 – 6-8pm Gathering at the Tabers
  • Dec 20 or 21 – 6-8pm Party
  • Discipleship Groups and Bible Studies are on-going.  Stop by a gathering to learn more.
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