“Why Do We Have All This Stuff?”

August 31, 2022

In a recent conversation with friend Rob, he told of cleaning out a packed room at his house. In the process he spoke out loud the words of the title—something to which most of us can easily relate.

Several years ago, my family returned from the mission field after a few seasons living in Vilnius, Lithuania. While there we lived in a small, rented, furnished apartment. The little amount of stuff we accumulated was mostly given away before we left. All of our furniture and other belongings had been in storage back in the Mississippi during this time. Once we settled into our new job and location in Florida upon our return, we were reunited with all of that by way of a moving company. Standing overwhelmed among all of the boxes and furniture, my wife and I (no longer accustomed to such) just looked at each other. Neither of us had to say it. We just had that, “Why do we have all this stuff?” expression.

Full transparency here: we have all that stuff and even more now—like most everyone else. We eventually reacclimated to stuff. We just seem to be stuff-oriented. We become proud of stuff. We identify with stuff. Whether it is a costly treasure or an item found in the bargain bin (there is a kind of pride found in both). We are glad to talk about our stuff. We surround ourselves with it. We display it. We value it and value being associated with it. Certain stuff can add status. Others admire it, which we enjoy.

Stuff can be sentimental—nostalgically taking us back to people and places of our past. Perhaps some of our stuff is family heirlooms or a cherished gift given by someone special. Some stuff we declare as priceless and irreplicable, which we would never, ever actually refer to as “stuff.” Our emotional connection to stuff can be strong. Stuff can be comforting like that.

Our economy runs on stuff. Commercials sell it. Amazon delivers it. And we want it. It is a “must-have!” It is “on sale!” It is the “latest style!” It will make us happy! It has more bells and whistles! It saves us money! Our old stuff—even if still usable—fades. So, we buy more stuff.  

And we keep buying it, without actually getting rid of much old stuff. Storage unit rental companies count on that—stuff is their business too (Is this a version of getting bigger barns? See Luke 12:16-21). Then one day, we pause, look around at our clutter and say to ourselves, “Why do we have all of this stuff?”

That is where folks like me come in. My hobby/side hustle is stuff. Once you have reached stuff saturation, I come to your yard sale and buy your old stuff only to re-sell it. It is repackaged as “vintage” and then becomes someone else’s “must have.” Our stuff just keeps recirculating. After all, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”  

Doing this hobby has evolved my perspective on stuff. I’ve learned a few things along the way. Tons of stuff has been produced over the decades. Old does not always mean rare and/or valuable. Stuff is a commodity which fluctuates in value according to the marketplace. Tons of stuff has been produced (did I mention that). And we really, really like stuff.

But seriously, here are some lessons learned:

  • Stuff is just stuff. Even if it is pricey; rare; investment level commodities; it remains just stuff. As the old cliché goes—none of us can take it with us. Wars have started over stuff. Lawyers get rich arguing about stuff. Families fracture over stuff. Lives are lost over stuff. But in the end, it remains stuff—lifeless objects incapable of returning our love or devotion.
  • Stuff is not irreplicable. Sure, there is some unique, one-of-a-kind stuff that once lost cannot be duplicated. Yes, there is rare and extremely valuable stuff, that if lost would create huge financial losses. But even that level of stuff cannot replace relationships, family, contentment, lasting joy, peace, hope and God’s love—all are infinitely more precious and valuable. Stuff should never supersede them. Stuff really is replaceable, they are not.
  • Stuff should not define our life. Admittedly, someone much wiser than me, made this point a long time ago. Jesus put it like this: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). This statement looms large over our piles of stuff. It can punch us in the gut. I am not greedy—just a collector, right? Life is simply about more than stuff—the life that Jesus calls us to, anyway. Some amount of stuff is necessary. All of us will own stuff, but does it own us? Maybe that’s the question Jesus wants us to ask.

Stuff can be fun. Some stuff–food, housing, clothing–is essential (all of which God promises to provide—Matthew 6:25-34). But stuff will always be just stuff and therefore perishable. We should never put our trust in it nor should we elevate it over the imperishable. Stuff may capture our heart, but it can never truly satisfy it (which is why we keep going back for more).

Let’s once more consider what Jesus said about stuff:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

So, as we buy stuff, keep stuff, sell stuff or give it away—remember to never treasure it. That has a diminishing return. Instead, let Jesus define our life. Treasure him above all else. Use our stuff to glorify him and further the kingdom. And trust ever in him. His grace, mercy and love, that is what truly is irreplaceable.

“Why do we have all of this stuff?” That IS a good question.

There is No “Formula” for Church Growth

August 25, 2022

Back in the day I would disagree with myself here. Then, I bought in hard to the church growth movement. I devoured the books. I attended the seminars. I was a true devotee. I went to many a workshop, sat enthralled at stories of how the presenter’s church was bursting at the seams–growing like crazy! Eagerly I went back to my home church impatient to share and implement all I had learned.

Maybe you remember:

  • Everyone needs seven friends to stay connected to a church
  • A church cannot grow beyond 85% of its physical capacity (auditorium seating; class room space; parking spots, etc.)
  • Seminar your church up for “felt-needs”—marriage; parenting; finance; etc.—to attract unchurched folks
  • Get the worship “right” (what exactly “right” meant depended upon which expert was suggesting it, but it always included making worship as appealing as possible to attract more guests)
  • Small groups are THE essential component
  • Establishing a “Discipling” method is an absolute key
  • And who can forget the Open Bible Study method; or the Jule Miller films; door knocking; or the bus ministry

Even now, I do not discount the wisdom still found in these ideas, approaches or methods. Folks were (still are) brought to the Lord through them. But honestly, if I now hear a pitch about a “church growth formula” I do the proverbial eye roll. There simply is not one that exists, at least, that can be plugged into just any church and always create growth. That is a myth. It may generate book sales, but often that is about all.

Growing healthy churches is difficult work usually accomplished over time and always, always about relationships. Events can attract. Programs can mobilize. Worship can inspire. Seminars can inform, but no matter the church; regardless of location; whatever the size and resources; it ultimately is about one person sharing their faith with another. It is one person inviting a friend to read Scripture together; to talk about Jesus together; to pray with each other; to go together to worship; to encourage each other in the Lord.

And there is no one specific formula for this; no one size that fits all churches and situations. It comes from within the heart of someone passionate enough about Jesus to introduce him to others around them. If our church is not growing, it could very well be that we are maxed out with no room for anyone else. It could be that our worship is lifeless and unappealing. Or maybe our small groups are not up and functioning properly. But more likely it is not any of that–it is probably that we are simply not sharing Jesus within our circle of influence.

Think about the first church—those tiny house churches in the first century. They existed long before anyone came up with any church growth formula. They likely did not grasp ideas about an attractional model of worship or the need to host cool, culturally-connected events. Yes, they were small groups and maybe they practiced the empty chair, but what they really had was an undeniable, unstoppable, unwavering commitment to sharing the Good News of Christ—even in the face of severe oppression. It was the “word of their testimony” empowered by the “blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 12:11) that enabled them to grow their church. They had no formula but they did have a calling from Christ:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

If we can once again take that calling seriously. If we can ever rediscover our passion for Christ and share that with those who do not know him; If we can reach the point where “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” concerning Jesus (see Acts 4:19-20); then our churches WILL grow. We will make disciples.

You know the story. The scandalized Samaritan woman. A most unlikely evangelist. She met Jesus. Her life changed. She then told everyone about him. She infected others with Christ. They got excited too and rushed out to meet him. Jesus viewing the masses headed his way. All these millenniums later his words still ring true:

Do you not say, ‘Four months later and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. (John 4:35).

There was no formula that this woman followed. Just her heart overflowing from the blessings of being with Jesus. She could not help herself. She had to tell everyone. Open up our hearts, Lord, to this kind of unrestrained passion. Open up our eyes to see the harvest. Open up our mouths to tell them about Jesus.

Normandie! D-Day Remembrance

August 22, 2022

In July, I (along with my family) had the opportunity to visit the Normandy Beach area in the country of France—home to Utah, Omaha and the other WWII D-Day beach invasion sites. This was a bucket list trip for me evoking all kinds of emotions both expected and unexpected.

Even in my youth, WWII captured my imagination. One of my fondest memories is acquiring the Marx Battleground Playset which had green US toy soldiers against the gray toy soldiers of the German army. Hours were spent reliving imagined battles with plastic tanks and bunkers. The Longest Day, an old black and white move about D-Day was popular in my childhood. I’ve watched that movie probably at least a dozen times. John Wayne leads the all-star cast. As a kid, these guys portrayed my heroes. (Spiderman and Batman were around, but not quite like they are now). I read kid’s books about Ike and Patton.

But more recently, it is the work of historian and author Stephen E. Ambrose that really brought the struggle and sacrifice of that war into clearer focus for me. His book, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of WWII chronicles not just the battles, but the personalities, planning and preparation of the European invasion by the allies tagged Operation Overlord. Even more so, it is his work, Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, that personalized this grand collaboration to rescue Europe from Nazism.

If you have ever read the book or seen the mini-series, then you understand. Putting names and stories on the soldiers such as with Dick Winters or Arkansan Bull Randleman or numerous others who never made it back home intensely highlights the high price paid for freedom. It is impossible to read the book or watch the series (especially when listening to interviews with surviving Easy Company soldiers) and not shed a tear or a few. Regardless of how you may feel about warfare in general, these men gave all of themselves as they parachuted in behind enemy lines or charged onto beaches out of Higgins boats into enemy fire during the D-Day battles. They were mostly just kids. They were all afraid. But they went anyway. They were all heroes.

I’ve personally known a few WWII veterans. Levy church members, L.T Blevins and Arlis Owens were two. Arlis came ashore on a Normandy beach. They were heroes. Neither remain with us. Not many do.

All of that was on my mind as I stood on Omaha Beach; as I gazed out on the horizon at Utah Beach; as I stood staring down the cliffs at Point Du Hoc, imagining the kind of courage it took for those Army Rangers to climb up with enemy guns blazing down upon them; as I walked amidst the quiet solemnity in the American cemetery with all of the thousands of crosses and stars of David.

Sure, I had some fun—posing beside a tank; seeing a real Higgins boat; or buying one of the replica “crickets” from the museum gift shop. But I was always aware that this was a kind of sacred ground. No, not holy. The violence and destruction of war is unholy. I pray that no other generation ever has to storm the beaches; that nations can always find a way to live peacefully together. It was sacred not because of some imagined glory of war–there is no glory in that kind of devestation. It was sacred because at that moment in history in that spot, brave young men who were called upon, unselfishly gave their lives in the (ultimately successful) attempt to end a war that had already produced millions of causalities. They are the real heroes—not the generals or presidents.

They indeed were a band of brothers, not quite seen since. Yes, they were our country’s Greatest Generation.

Old Preachers

August 8, 2022

It is difficult for me to process. I certainly do not feel like it. In my heart it seems impossible, but no denying it—I am an old preacher. I have been doing this blessed thing now for over 40 years. No doubt that life is like a vapor.

So, what is it like to be an old preacher? I am still figuring that out—specifically in regards to my younger colleagues. When I was the young man in the room, I often thought the old guys were cool enough, but dated. I was eager to flex my preaching muscles and the old guys? Well, sometimes they seemed in the way.

I’ve had mixed experiences with older preachers. Some blessed my life in legacy ways through mentoring and encouraging. Others not-so-much.

I once had an offer to relocate to a church. I visited as part of the dreaded “try out” weekend. On staff at this congregation was their old preacher. Let’s just say there was tension immediately and I felt unwelcomed. It was a large factor for me not working with this church. I have heard horror stories about older remaining preachers undermining the new, younger guy.

When I came to my current congregation, the previous preacher remained. He had been here over 25 years. Red flags, right? But it could not have gone better. This older brother embraced me, supported me and loved me. We remain good friends today as he moved on after a year.

When I think now about my younger self—impetuous, too self-assured, and impatient, I want to be the kind of old preacher that would befriend that guy and help him mature. I do not want to be an impediment in any way. There are far too few of us for that.

Remember Paul’s words to Titus: “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance” (Titus 3:2). While not singularly directed toward old preachers, it applies.

Old preachers have much to offer (of course I would say that). I am still at it—preaching and enjoying it. But I also know my days are shorter, while my young preaching brothers are just getting started with fresh energy, new ideas, and a wonderful optimism for kingdom growth. Old preachers can support that energy, engage in those ideas and encourage that optimism. Maturity brings with it perspective that can be offered as well.

That is the kind of old preacher I desire to be—no bitterness; no hindrance; no, “it was better back in my day, son.” Just support, encouragement, a little guidance and perspective. We need our younger preachers to preach the Word and us old guys can bless them along their journey—just as we were blessed.

Baltic Family Camp 2022

August 2, 2022

What a joy it was to share a week with brothers, sisters, missionaires and friends from eleven European countries last week at the Baltic Family Camp (BFC) in Lithuania. Ten years ago this camp began with the goal of providing rest and spiritual renewal for missionaries and Christians in Central Europe along with creating a network among the mostly small, distant churches on that continent. Thanks to the blessings of the Father, those goals have been accomplished. Ten years later the BFC brings together family in the Lord!

After a two-year absence due to COVID, we (113 campers) gathered at a wonderful new campground (Camp Bebriukas, which means “Beaver:) near Moletai, Lithuania and focused on our theme of “Nobody But Jesus.” Dr. Daniel Napier (who along with his wife, Karly, serve on the mission field in Greece) was our guest teacher. He offered us fresh insight on the privilege of prayer by unpacking Christ’s prayer in Luke 11. Thanks to other gifted teachers from the states, the children and teens enjoyed interactive classes, crafts and activities. It was a tremendous week of growth, fellowship, worship, and family. One young lady, Victoria, put Christ on in baptism.

We also heard stories from refugess from both Ukraine and Belarus. In spite of the conflict raging near this part of the world, God is at work bringing relief, rescue and hope to those affected. The camp confirmed once more that our connection in Jesus goes beyond any nationality or borders.

The need for the BFC just grows greater. God continues to use it to build up his kingdom.