I am an illegal immigrant

Mercifully, the election season has only a few days left. This cycle, perhaps more than any other, has brought out the worst in people who seem to value political power more than things like integrity, compassion, faithfulness, or unity. We have the two most hated political candidates in history, and this is precisely what America has asked for. It’s a scary time in some ways.

One of the things that I have been most discouraged by is the way that professing Christians have rallied around Donald Trump. I get why secular humanists like Hillary Clinton, but I don’t know what Christians, especially evangelical Christians, see in Donald Trump. His signature goal is to build a wall to keep out all those rotten illegal immigrants. I agree that we are a nation of laws and laws do matter, but somehow Christians have forgotten that we too illegal immigrants in the way that we talk about this topic.

First of all, we forget that we are “aliens and strangers” in our current land (1 Peter 2:11). Whether that is America or France or China, all Christians are supposed to live in such a way that we understand that we have no claim to this land. Our citizenship is primarily in heaven (Phil 3:20) and we ought to live like our loyalty lies there first. This world hates us more than Donald Trump hates illegal immigrants or Syrian refugees, primarily because it first hated Jesus (John 15:18-21). The world system does not want us here and does not give its permission for us to be here. Today we consider the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and the fact that we have this day is proof enough that Christians outside of America are very much treated as the illegal immigrants we are. American Christians would do well to wake up and let our spiritual status inform some part of their political fury against those who are here illegally so their families can survive.

More than that, I am an illegal immigrant eternally. Only through the grace and mercy of another am I able to consider Heaven my eternal home (2 Cor 5:1). I wasn’t born there and don’t deserve citizenship there in any way. My eternal zip code should be Hell. Christians born in America often seem to think that they did something special to get here when in fact they did nothing more than the “anchor babies” many of them hate so much. I am not saying we shouldn’t take our American heritage seriously – we should. I am saying that the vast majority of people participating in Donald Trump rallies miss the fact that they expect the grace and mercy of another to be activated for their eternal residence, but they are unwilling to consider the place of extending grace and mercy toward those who would make a temporary residence in America. This kind disconnect is the evidence those who hate the church use to discredit the whole faith and that criticism is fair.

This is not a call for amnesty or open borders or anything like that. I would most likely oppose anything like that politically. It is a call for Christians to talk about these issues as though they understand something of the life of a illegal alien. It is a call to resist the urge to fight harder to stop people from entering the country illegally than to introduce the very same people to the One who holds the keys to a much better, and eternal, residence.

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13 Things for 13 Years

Well yesterday was Andrew’s 13th birthday. In addition to being sort of a gateway to young adulthood in our culture, Andrew’s birthday is something of a reflection point for me since he was just one month old when we began our journey in Georgia. This post is dedicated to 13 memories I have of Andrew over the years God has entrusted him to us.

  1. I am grateful the Lord has given Andrew much grace to adapt to our mission here in Carrollton. His daily life is much affected by the number of neighborhood boys who want to play basketball with him in our driveway. Most days he demonstrates a lot of Jesus even when he’d rather stay inside.
  2. I appreciate how much Andrew is willing to play with little kids. This has been useful to Jesus many times. My favorite memory of this is hearing how he entertained a little Kurdish boy despite the language barrier on our mission surveyFor Limber trip to England a few years ago.
  3. Andrew introduced me to Phineas and Ferb, one of the greatest cartoons of all time. He looks as good as I do in a Perry the
    Platypus shirt.
  4. One of my favorite Andrew moments happened at the dentist. He was talking with the staff there about life and when they asked him about his favorite playmate, he said Annalise. My eyes still water many times when I think of it. He is a terrific big brother.
  5. Even though he is in many ways a typical guy, Andrew is much more sensitive to others (even animals) than I am. I have learned a lot from him by seeing him take on the burdens and hurts of other people and creatures.
  6. Andrew has always been a bit of an engineer. When he was a little over 1 he figured out how to open up the glove box in our van. The thing that struck me wasn’t that he figured it out – I suppose lots of kids would do that when prompted. The sIMG_0001urprising thing to be was that he wanted to figure it out and then stuck to it once he committed.
  7. Andrew has always loved super heroes, even as a little guy. I know that’s not uncommon, but I mean he REALLY love superheroes. He once read the Marvel Encyclopedia cover to cover in a little over a week. He even will tolerate the inferior DC superheroes like Green Lantern.
  8. He is 1-0 as a starting quarterback, including the wackiest play probably in the history of Upward Football. Even though he was nowhere near the best player on the team, his constant encouragement to his teammates could be heard by everyone at the field and he never gave up because he wasn’t thrown to when open.
  9. One time during a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, he was called onstage by Thomas Jefferson who handed him a feather pen and an actual sword, only to ask which was mightier. Not only did he correctly answer that the pen was mightier (which he was allowed to keep), but he didn’t stab anyone. Sometimes I wonder if they would have let him keep the sword if he got the answer wrong.
  10. Andrew not only likes sports, he is a student of them. He likes to understand what makes certain plays work in certain situations. That he has learned most of this from video games rather than TV commentators says more about how bad TV sports commentators are (with a few exceptions) than how great video games are.
  11. This is a silly memory but still dear to me. A few years ago we were going camping and needed a quick meal before we arrived. We went to Wendy’s and I got the Baconator and he got the “son of Baconator.”
  12. Andrew has some unusually astute insights into the Scriptures, and had them even when he was very young. It’s always fun and encouraging to see the way he approaches a passage and what he can get out of it that I miss.
  13. Since I travel a lot with work, I have been giving Andrew a little pep talk every time I leave about some of the big things about being a Christian man – serve others, set an example of obeying God with joy, be responsible with things God entrusted to you. God has been pleased to let me see him grow in each of these things over the years, and I’m excited to see where God will take him in the future.

Please join me in wishing Andrew a Happy Birthday and praying that God would continue to mold him like Jesus.

2016 Reading List

Well this is long overdue but I wanted to share some of the books I’ll be reading based on a quick survey of friends, especially friends who are very different from me socially, politically, geographically or in their general personality and backgrounds. I felt like this year ought to be one where I read a little more broadly than I normally do so hopefully you readers will agree that this is not the normal stuff I’d be choosing.

Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – suggested by two very different people so I am eagerly anticipating it although I know nothing about it.

Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send by J.D. Greear – more like the kind of thing I would normally pick up but the author has a very different philosophy of ministry than I do so I’m hoping to get stretched and strengthened at the same time.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – A classic I probably was supposed to read in high school or college but never did. I didn’t realize how large it was until Lydia got it for me from the library.

Fear and Trembling by Soren Kirkegaard – Something a friend picked for me precisely because he didn’t think I would like it. I am over half done and happy to report that he was right!

Side by Side by Ed Welch – Author was a seminary prof but his class was on the totally opposite end of the counseling spectrum and he always struck me more as a deep thinker than church body life master so I’m interested to see what he has to say.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – I have wanted to read this since it was published. I don’t read a lot of biography so it will be a change of pace. Several people have told me I won’t be able to put it down, but knowing how much I dislike reading I’m sure that won’t be a problem.

The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got that Way by Amanda Ripley – Ripley wrote a fascinating book on why some people survive disasters and others don’t that I bought a case of to give out at work and is an extremely talented writer. I vassume from her first book that she is far more secular than me in world view so a book on education will be interesting.

Trinity by Leon Uris – Another big thick book of unknown content and style highly recommended by someone I respect a lot who is coming off a major life adventure himself. I figure if someone who’s just had their horizons broadened recommends it, I ought to take that recommendation seriously.

Fools Talk by Os Guinness – I’ve never read anything by Guinness before but I am consistently reminding myself how much I need to focus on being more winsome in presenting Jesus Christ as the supremely beautiful savior and I’m hoping this helps me.

The Reformers and their Stepchild Verduin – A good friend told me years ago to read the book and he’s never gotten one wrong yet. I’m interested to see how much of the Reformation is really being embraced today.

A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren – Certainly not something I’d normally pick. One of the ironic things to me about watching Bernie Sanders is that he’s actually right about many of the problems but has some kind of disconnect in the solution (IMHO). I’m hoping this will both open my eyes to areas where maybe I am blind and also help me understand people on the left side of the political spectrum a little better.

Outlive Your Life by Max Lucado – Max is a popular Christian author who in my opinion is more popular than Christian many times. I hope this will help me understand the “churchianity” subculture a little better.

Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren – Basically the same as the Max Lucado book. I feel like I might be the only person in the western Christian church who hasn’t already read this book. From the snippets that I have read and what I already know about Warren, I’m assuming I’m not going to like it but I think it’s important to see what Christians (broadly defined) are reading.

Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen Ambrose – Who wouldn’t want to read a book about the men who built the transcontinental railroad from 1863 – 1869? I mean, everyone wants to hear stories about the Pony Express but why isn’t there more interest in the people  that ended its short life. Not me! Got this book for 25 cents at the Friends of the Library store here in Carrollton so I’m hoping I at least get my money’s worth from this Band of Brothers author.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo – This was the #1 adult book sold on Amazon.com in 2015  and so it may make some sense to see what it says and to see what it says about our culture that so many copies were sold on this topic.

Learning about Hope

Lots of times people will use kids waiting for Christmas as an illustration of how the Christian should hope in the Lord. You hear it all the time and there is definitely something to it but all illustrations fall apart at some point and we shouldn’t take that one farther than it actually goes.

This is what I mean. It’s December 26. We had a great Christmas morning yesterday. Kristen made some yummy treats for breakfast. Everyone was up early with excitement. There was the air of anticipation throughout the house as you would expect. I suppose it was around 9am when we finally started opening some presents but there was an almost tangible hope in the atmosphere until the very last present was opened.

Today it’s a day later. At 8:10 I am the only mouse stirring. I know everyone was grateful for their presents and very pleased to see the generally high level of care given to each gift that was chosen (except for the regifting of baked goods by someone who shall remain nameless!). When people do get up some of the fun stuff received will be fully enjoyed.

It’s just that a rice cooker or a makeup kit doesn’t quite get you out of bed the way hope does. It doesn’t mean that hope in Christmas morning revelry isn’t real, it just means that it is inadequate to sustain someone past a certain point. It’s a hope that can be fully realized in a moment.

That’s where the illustration really breaks down. The Christian hope is an eternal hope and I suspect that it may only intensify as time goes on. As we see Christ face to face and start to really understand who He is and what He has done for us, we will be all the more eager to participate in that hope because for the Christian, hope is a person not an event. We get to enjoy that person long after Mario Kart gets old.

Even more than that, the Christian’s hope is equally shared across all believers so it can be mutually enjoyed in a way that a makeup kit or Nerf gun cannot. Our earthly hopes are not interchangeable as if we could mix up the tags on the presents and everyone would be just as content. (This actually happened on one gift and produced a funny moment.) We share the hope in Christ, and as Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 2:19, there is a sense where part of our hope is built up in one another (For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?)

So by all means keep looking forward to Christmas and keep using it as an example of what it means to look forward to the union with Jesus that awaits every believer, but remember it is but a poor shadow of the real hope that we have.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

Back to what?

I’ve been disturbed by all the TV commercials, articles and blog posts by moms elated that their kids are going back to school. They generally portray school as a way to free the moms to do important things, regain their sanity or some other noteworthy pursuit.

This would be sad enough if it was only happening by people who did not love Jesus, but it is especially disturbing when moms who profess Jesus chime in with their undying gratitude to offload their kids onto someone else during the day. One that threw me off recently was a very popular Christian author and speaker who posted a picture of her and three of her mom friends jumping off a boat into a lake with giant smiles and the caption “Dealing with our grief on the first day of school. Trying to cope. Send prayers.”

Simply put, this is sad and pathetic. Schools serve a purpose and certainly not everyone is required to home school or never leave the side of their child to be a God honoring parent, but to gloat and revel at the notion that you don’t have to be around the child God Himself personally entrusted to you is really outrageous. Think of some of the lies you have to believe to revel in getting rid of your kids.

I’m not responsible for the irritating things in my child that have me happy they are gone. All kids (and parents) have sin struggles and idiosyncrasies that make them hard to be around sometimes. But the truth is the Bible is very clear that if your child is habitually sinning to the point where you think getting away from them for eight or nine hours per day that parents are primarily responsible for it. Ignoring the problem rather than spending time correcting it not only guarantees your child will continue in it and harms those your pushed him or her onto, but brings shame to the name of Christ.

My kids will never know my own comfort is more important to me than they are. Of course it’s hard to hide a Facebook post seen by hundreds of thousands of people from your kids, but even if a mom isn’t that obvious, the Bible says that it’s out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:4345). If you are excited about the chance to get away from your kids then it’s almost 100% certain that you place your comfort ahead of their good lots of times besides going back to school. Don’t kid yourself – children are more intuitive than we admit.

I deserve a break from my kids. I want to be careful here because there are seasons for all sorts of things, and there is nothing wrong in taking time away from kids to invest in a marriage or other ministry activity. My problem is with the way people describe their experience of sending their kids back to school. When you see something like “I had to console myself with a pedicure and a glass of blush!“or “Yeah! Well deserved!” (actual comments) it denies the reality that what all of us deserve is an eternity in Hell.

God is a not good. Psalm 34:10 (and about a thousand other verses) make it clear that God is good. Everything He does is good and He does not withhold anything good from those who seek Him. God did not punish you by letting you spend extra time with your kids – it was a good thing. Acting like summers with your kids was something to be escaped rather than treasured denies the goodness of God in everything. If you wasted the summer by pining away for the moment when you could get rid of your kids and get back to your coffee clutch or book club or ladies bible study or whatever activity will now fill your time that means you think God is only good for 9 months a year.

Offloading my kids is better than turning to the church to help bear my burdens. I readily admit that there are some times when having kids around for the summer, especially smaller kids, can be challenging. The question then becomes what is the most God-centered way to deal with the extra burden? The Bible says to do two things – run to Jesus in prayer and run to your church family for burden bearing support. Sending your kids out of your presence is not really a God-centered option to deal with burdens.

I could list 10 more lies that are necessary to believe to revel in sending your kids to school but I think I’ve made my point. Children are a blessing from the Lord. They may not act like it every moment of every day but they are. Christians believe that God placed specific children in our families for their good but also for ours. Those who don’t love their own kids enough to work through conflict or discomfort are also not going to love lost people enough to show them Jesus or a church family enough to fulfill any of the one another commands necessary for a healthy church body.

Resuming the blog posts

In thinking about my time and our goals here in Carrollton, it seemed wise to resume blogging for a while. Writing has been a helpful way for me to focus my thoughts in the past and as we try to reach people who are more far removed from the church it will be important for me to improve my brevity while maintaining the train of thought. I have seen the impact of doing less counseling over the past two years show up in my current counseling – less focus and precision, and I hope writing a little more will help me grow in this area more.

My categories will not significantly change. I will still talk about our ministry life, a Christian way to view current events that strips away conservative political positions to try to find biblical ones and reviews of books I am reading. I also hope to share insights and experiences about how our church model tries to integrate our counseling skills.

Thanks to those who have helped so far and encouraged us along the way. I am so grateful that God has given me a wife that loves me and loves Him more than she loves me.

Church update

We wanted to share an update with those who have asked about our church plans for the future. There will be other updates, so please let us know if you’d rather not receive them.

 

You may not realize that our interest in church planting began five or six years ago. We read the book Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis and started imagining a local church full of people that lived like overseas missionaries. We were drawn to the idea that church wasn’t a place you went but a people you were. That kind of vision has serious implications on the way we structured our lives, our schedules, career choices and places we would live, shop and hobby. We also saw one of the implications of thinking like a missionary was that we would structure our local church around missionary teams seeking to reach specific people groups in our area. This emphasis seems especially important given the increasingly “post-Christian” nature of America.

 

In May 2013 our family visited England to spend time with The Crowded House network of churches led by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis to see this kind of model in action and learn everything we could. We went thinking that if there was a benefit to us spending extended time in England that we would relocate there as God opened the door. It turned out that God didn’t have that for us, but seeing this model working in real life helped us visualize what it could look like back home. At The Crowded House, people do not join small groups based on a convenient time, format, demographic or topic but based on the people group that their small group (which they call a “gospel community”) is focused on reaching. The missionary target might be an ethnic group, a geography or a special interest.

 

When we came home from England we spent a year at a four year old church plant in downtown Newnan. That experience benefitted us in many ways and it was helpful to see and hear about many of the growing pains new church families face. Many of the people at that church were very different than what we were used to, which helped us refine what was and was not required in a church. As we look for our new church family to be much more economically and racially diverse, we think this this time will have been a helpful stepping stone for us.

 

As we thought about where we might start a church, we had several things in mind. We wanted to find an area where we could share life with people who were poorer and more ethnically diverse than we were used to. If we stayed in the south, we wanted to be able to use our biblical counseling skills both to serve Christians and as an evangelistic tool. Since Mike will continue to work at RGA, we also needed a place where he could get to the airport and work from home without significant problems.

 

Carrollton, GA was a good match. Carrollton is an area of 110,000 people about 25 miles northwest of where we live now. For an area this size, it has few churches that proclaim man’s greatest problem as the sin that separates them from God and the exclusive remedy of Jesus’ full and final sacrifice through his death and resurrection. The two churches we know best have very traditional models and are not located near the poorer and racially diverse area of Carrollton. One in four families in the county live in poverty.

 

We will close on a house in Carrollton, GA on September 24. The house needs a lot of work and will hope to move in by the end of the year. One longtime Carrollton social worker told us the area where we are headed is “in transition” which is sort of code for fewer middle class white people which are the people we hope to reach and serve.

 

We have been meeting as Living Stones Church with the Helton family for three months. Our plan is to meet in our current homes until we are able to live in Carrollton full time and then to meet in our home there. We are not opposed to finding a building at some point and since we have no paid staff we have the resources to do that but for now it is not necessary. We are intentionally staying low key for now but will post from time to time at www.facebook.com/livingstonescarrollton .

 

We will be starting with two initiatives. One is to establish a gospel community in one neighborhood in Carrollton based out of our home. Rather than type a lot, you can see more of our approach from the Total Church book (or its sequel, Everyday Church) or the  www.wearesoma.com website. There’s nothing original in our approach – we want to be good servants to our community and live out the Gospel well in front of them. We’ll build as many contact points with unbelievers there as possible and continue to gather corporately on Sunday mornings in a pretty informal style.  Additionally, we will offer free biblical counseling to the community which we plan to use as an evangelistic tool as much as a service for those already in Christ.

 

Bryan Helton and I will continue to work in our jobs and we are not looking for financial support. We have been told that new churches should try to find as many people as possible who will commit to pray weekly for them (if you would commit to praying for us weekly please let us know). We know that apart from Jesus we can do nothing and would welcome your prayers in these areas:

  • That we would abide in Christ and look to Him to be our strength, vitality and purpose rather than “success” in church planting.
  • Establishing connections to community leaders early and learning ways we can serve the community well and meet people.
  • That God in His mercy would let us see ministry fruit in our families and those we meet early in our work to help fight against the potential for discouragement that many new churches face.
  • For Mike to pursue sacrificial leadership in our home, true companionship with Bryan Helton in leading the church and integrity in his dealings with the community.
  • For Kristen and the kids to trust God with all the changes happening now and in the near future.
  • To grow in our love for people who are different from us quickly, and for patience with those differences that are particularly difficult for us.

 

We believe this is how God would have us live, but we also want to say that we don’t disparage more traditional church models. In fact, there are some things traditional models can do that would be very difficult to accomplish in the model we are pursuing, but the model we are using does seem to us to be the best way to reach the kind of people Jesus looked for in our particular time and place. We commend books like Total Church and Good News to the Poor by Tim Chester to you as a primer on this kind of model, and we can recommend other resources as well if you are interested.

 

With you in Him,

 

Mike