Friday, July 30, 2010

The Blessing of the Bottleneck

bot·tle·neck (bŏtˈl-nĕkˌ) – n - a narrowing that reduces the flow through a channel

Note: The photos in this posting are just a few of the photos that we have scanned to our computer and then thrown away this week. They are as follows:

  1. My dad (circa 1960) – He passed away in 1996, and I still miss him greatly. There are days when I would simply love to hear his voice and smell his distinctive “dad smell” again.
  2. Jeff McDaniel (from 1984) – He was my best friend in high school. He died four years ago of Lou Gerig’s Disease (ALS). We were “the two amigos” and our English teacher, Mrs. Hoots, used to joke that we were attached at the elbows.
  3. Scott Stanze – He was a leader at Crosspoint Church when I was pastor there. He quickly became one of my best friends. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006. He was a huge Buckeye fan that I will miss until I see him again.
  4. My old Highland/Fairview youth group. This was a photo taken in 1994 during a Kentucky Missions Trip. Every one of those kids (now adults) hold a piece of my heart.

As you all know, we have been in a waiting period for the last year. It was 12 months ago that we felt God’s call to move to Guatemala and over eight months ago that we put our home on the market. Since then we have been waiting.

Dad 1 But while we have been waiting, we have also been busy. Plans have been made, paperwork completed, passports issued, and our lives have been downsized. The downsizing has been done in stages as we have gone through our possessions numerous times, thrown away much, and sold even more. Each time we go through this process, we realize that we still have too much and need to reduce those possessions even more. But finally we are nearing the end of this process. Our house, closets, and storage rooms are nearly empty.

The reasons for this mass sell-off is three-fold. First, God has shown us that we have too much junk. Quite frankly, we have realized that we have wasted our time, money, and energy purchasing and maintaining things that we did not need and seldom use while billions in our world live without. That has broken us and moved us to downsize and remain downsized in the future.

scan0004 Second, we need money for the start-up of our new group home in Guatemala, and one source for those funds is the selling of our possessions. As we sell our home, vehicles, toys, and clothes every penny is being designated toward start-up costs of this new ministry.

And finally, as we move to Guatemala we must go through a bottleneck. That bottleneck is a six hour flight to Guatemala City on which we can each take two suitcases. Those two suitcases must contain all of our clothing and possessions with which we will live for the foreseeable future. To ship additional items is expensive, so we will make do with what we can carry (plus about six cases of ministry equipment and supplies and seasonal items that have been carried over for us by ministry teams.)

Scott Stanze 3 Two years ago I would have said there was no way we could reduce our lives and household down to two suitcases each. But God has been gracious in leading us on a journey that has shown us what is really important and how little we really need. That enabled me to throw away large amounts of sentimental possessions on Tuesday. We filled-up the back of my pick-up truck with old photos, newspaper clippings, cards and letters, and more. I selected a small percentage of photos and clippings for scanning, but the rest went to the dump. Possessions that used to be considered priceless memories are now being sold on E-bay. Even as I type this my daughter, Brittney, is in the next room sorting through and disposing of many of her own sentimental items. And all this is happening because of the bottleneck that lies ahead.

KY Miss Trip Some of you are likely shaking your heads and thinking badly of us now. How could we give up so many sentimental  possessions? And, to be honest, I will admit that I would have likely felt the same two years ago. But the blessing of the bottleneck has been to reveal to us what is really important, and it is not the boxes of knick-knacks that have cluttered our storage for years. It is the people and lives they represent. And those knick-knacks don’t come close to capturing either the memories or the people behind them.

Further, we have a choice to make. We can cling to those things that are mere shadows of those relationships, or we can let them go to save real lives and love more people. I believe that, in light of God’s Word, there is little doubt what our Jesus would choose.

And so, we are facing another yard sale in which many formerly cherished items will leave our home. But we can let go and move on knowing that the memories they represent are forever, and there are still more memories to build. That is the blessing of the bottleneck.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Leftovers (A public confession)

pennies-in-the-hand Recently God has pointed out un-confessed sin from my past. While it is never pleasant when my loving Father takes me to “the spiritual woodshed,” this experience has been especially painful. Why? Because it has exposed a spiritual blindness and hypocrisy on my part that has left me deeply broken and ashamed.

This sin goes back to the almost seven years that I spent as pastor of Crosspoint Church here in Troy, OH. Our body of believers was made up primarily of low and low-middle income families, and offerings were almost always low. As a result, we regularly struggled to pay our bills. My strong insistence was that we always pay the bills outside the church before paying the internal bills, so I regularly received only a portion of my salary. Yet we always managed to squeak by as a congregation.

As the pastor, I served as the Chairman of the Elder Board and was the spiritual and visionary leader of the church. More than any other person I influenced our budget and its priorities. And, as the only salaried employee of the congregation, I was the one who was best positioned to encourage the church to steps of faith regarding our spending. Yet during my seven years as pastor we never once tithed to missions. (I feel dirty and ashamed having written those words and want to quickly delete this blog and start over with another topic.) I am not saying that we never supported missions, because we did. But the percentage of our budget devoted to reaching the world beyond our community was always very puny and never exceeded 3%.

The discussions regarded missions usually consisted of talk about “fiscal responsibility.” After all, if we are struggling to pay our rent and other bills it would be foolish to increase our budget for missions. Right? So, missions always received our leftovers, and there were very few leftovers to give.

I literally wince when I look back and think of how we managed to buy sound and video equipment, more chairs, poinsettias at Christmas, and other “essential supplies and equipment for ministry” while neglecting the most important use of our money. If only I had the opportunity to do it again, I would certainly do things much differently.

What makes this especially shameful is that I was living a double life. Wanda and I have been married for 22 years this month and we have always been faithful in our personal giving. Even through the very lean years, such as the one we are now encountering, we have not only tithed to our church, but have given as the Lord directed to support missionaries and meet needs in our community and around the world. And through those 22 years we have seen the miraculous hand of God provide for every need. Every bill has been paid and been paid on time. Sometimes the provision has come at the very last minute, but it has always come from the hand of our loving Father.

Malnourished I share those details with you, not to make public our giving, but to show you the incredible disconnect between my life as a husband and father and my life as a pastor. Any rational person would recognize the faithfulness of God in my personal life and giving and translated that to my role as a church leader. But I did not. And that was my sin. As a result, for seven years we managed to keep a roof over our church and a decent sound and video system but neglected the great needs of the church around the world and turned a deaf ear to the cries of the poor, hungry, and dying. I accept full responsibility for that sin. It is mine alone as the pastor of that church.

Now my role is to challenge the church to look beyond themselves, see a dying world, and do something about it. I have a passionate message that burns in my heart that comes straight from the Word of God and calls the American church to sacrificial living and giving. But recently Jesus has turned that message around and delivered it back to me. And, as a result, it has broken me and changed me.

If I could spend those years at Crosspoint again, they would look much different. The first item we addressed in our budget would be missions as we sought the Lord for His heart for the world. Instead of getting the leftovers, we would give Him first dibs on our money. Then, from what remained, we would devise the rest of our budget. I am confident that, instead of struggling to pay our bills, God would have multiplied what remained and we would have spent it much better than we did.

But I can’t change the past. So I find myself grateful for the grace and mercy of God which is new every morning. I thank Him for this ongoing “woodshed” experience and the changes it is bringing about in me. And I thank Him that the future is still unwritten and I have a chance to give Him my first and best, both today and the days ahead.