Faithfully serving Christ never gets old …

80.jpeg

Our family experienced an unusual fall season, which was highlighted by the birthday celebrations of two brand new octogenarians. And contrary to what some of you might think, I was not one of them! No, we had a huge family gathering to mark this milestone for my father and, a few weeks later, we had another for Carolyn’s mother.  

I’m not sure what your picture of an octogenarian is, but if it’s someone who is frail or failing, you haven’t met my father or mother-in-law. Truth be told, I pray my life will look something like theirs when I cross that same age threshold.  


My father, for his part, is busy as ever. He is active in his church, serving as chairman of the deacon board, teaching Bible study, playing the piano for services, regularly directing the choir, and other things too numerous to mention. He is an involved grandpa, great-grandpa and neighbor, mowing the lawns of the elderly people in the neighborhood. Unless, of course, it’s snowing. That’s when he clears their driveways!  And a few months ago he decided to take a little trip to visit family and friends where he ended up driving through 15 states covering several thousand miles — in his convertible! 


My mother-in-law also is constantly on the move. Not long before her birthday celebration, she spent 10 days traveling with a purpose to learn more about the Bible and grow in her Christian walk. She wants to keep growing, which will undoubtedly assist her with the new small group she just formed and hosts at her house! And a couple months from now, she will travel to south Texas to continue her annual practice of volunteering for several weeks with a mission agency.

I wrote earlier that I pray my life will be like my father and mother-in-law’s when I get to that same stage, but after sharing all they’re doing, I think I’ll need more rest!  


You would think a good verse to reflect on when considering the example of a couple octogenarians would be something about fighting the good fight and finishing the race like Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 9. However, I don’t think there’s any “finish” in these two. I’m picking a different verse. The one I like is Hebrews 12:1-2 that says, “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.”  


In each of the birthday celebrations, we heard reflections of eight decades gone by. While there were many blessings and happy memories to share, they each have stories of hardship and struggle when days were difficult and circumstances were heavy.  They each lost a lifetime spouse in the past couple years and there are health issues to battle.  But none of those trials have buried them. They have just shined a light on their perseverance in the race marked out for them.  


I am learning from their example and that of so many like them at Pathway Church. You don’t have to hit a big birthday to be inspirational. I look at the lives of people dealing with a terminal illness or unthinkable struggles and see the resolve to press on to greater heights, and it gives me strength and courage as well.  


As you face the challenges of your own life, don’t let them bury you either. Take the advice from Hebrews and “fix your eyes on Jesus.” That is the essential starting point, because He is the One who ran His own race with perseverance. As Hebrews 12:2 continues, it was, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame.”  


Jesus has gone before us and has made a way, setting an example that we can follow. Our races are not all the same, but we’ve all been called to run, so let us do it with perseverance, fixing our eyes on Jesus.  


Like a tree planted near the Living Water …

Tree.jpg

(Our guest blogger this month is Tim Kolodziej, Director of Communications at Pathway Church.)

So I’m consistently returning to one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It’s in the very first chapter of Psalms.

“They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.” — Psalm 1:3

The psalmist is describing what life looks like for someone who walks closely with the Lord. It’s such a vivid and beautiful illustration of the abundant life Jesus refers to in John 10:10. And it always makes me pause to imagine some other ways to describe a tree near the water.

Now you try it. Read verse 3 again then close your eyes and let your mind take you to the river. What words, and images, capture your imagination?

Here are some of mine:

•Vibrant

•Lush

•Fruitful

•Nourished

•Growing

•Rooted

•Satisfied and ...

Abundant.

Yes, that’s what an abundant life, rooted in Christ, can look like. Though the world is constantly pleading with me to “do,” “be” and “become” to find my worth, this brief passage has given me a new desire for my future self.

I want to be just like a tree.

But only if I’m planted near the river.

The one with the true Living Water.

Ryder Cup golf illustrates biblical fellowship to a tee …

If you are a regular reader of my monthly installments to this newsletter, you may know I have been drawn to sports-related topics lately.

In August, I wrote about Chris Archer, who couldn’t wait to get into a Pirates uniform. In September, it was Le’Veon Bell, who may never again put on a Steelers uniform. And with the start of the Penguins season just days away, you might logically guess that this month would have something to do with Sid or Geno. Yes, that would be logical, but it’s also … wrong.

What has captured my attention recently is the 42nd Ryder Cup. In case you don’t know (or care) what the Ryder Cup is, it occurs every two years and pits the best golfers of Europe against the best golfers of the United States. So I thought I’d take a swing at writing about it.

The event is hosted alternately in Europe and in the U.S. This year’s contest is at Le Golf National in Paris, and by the time this blog is posted, the competition should have just concluded. The Americans haven’t won on foreign soil for 25 years, which means they’ve been losing nearly as long as the last time a movie was shown at Spotlight 88!

If you watched any of the coverage, you almost certainly were struck with how seriously the players, coaches and fans take the competition. There are huge crowds, raucous chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” fist pumping and more. There is a lot of pride in winning the cup and a lot of intensity, too. Several players will tell you it’s the competition they most look forward to during the year, and some say it’s their highest goal to make the Ryder Cup team. You would think that the pinnacle for any player would be to win a major or the season-long championship.

When asked about what makes the Ryder Cup so special, player after player will give you the same answer — team. Every other week of the year, a player is competing as an individual against every other individual. Yes, they all have caddies who offer assistance and some camaraderie, but it’s still a competition among individuals. However, for one week of the year, they are a team. They play together and root for each other and win or lose as a group. And they LOVE IT! And I love it, too, in part because it is fun to see the way the team comes together, but also because it gives us a little glimpse of how God intends for us to operate in the body of Christ.

Most of us have the orientation of the professional golfer — we go it alone. We might have a few people around us who we interact with on a pretty regular basis, but we rise and fall on our singular merits and talents. Of course, some of that is to be expected since we are individuals. But the scriptures call us to pursue team activities. There are wins that come to us by being with others and sharing life together. Many of us find that challenging because we’re taught we should be able to do it ourselves, but the scriptures tell us there are different principles to live by if we want to thrive.

This truth can be found in many verses, but some that I find particularly compelling are the “one another” passages. You’ve probably heard some of them: “love one another,” “be devoted to one another,” “everybody get together, try to love one another right now.” Oh wait, that last one might be something else, but I needed to see if you were still paying attention.

There are about 100 “one another” verses in the New Testament. Some of those that jump off the page are exhortations to “bear one another’s burdens,” “encourage one another,” “pray for one another,” and “comfort one another.” There is much that could be said about each of these, but here is the central truth: You can’t fulfill any of these if you’re not spending regular time with others. And that’s going to require intentionality.

None of us stumbles into genuine, biblical fellowship and oneness with others. We’re too busy. We’re too individualistic. We need to break that down, which means we’re going to have to live in a way that doesn’t come naturally. We’re going to have to choose engagement.

At Pathway, there are loads of opportunities to engage in “one another” activities. You can find it, in part, through serving in a ministry or being faithful in worship. But the best place of all to find it is through an environment where you can get to know others well and where you can be known. It’s hard to bear one another’s burdens if you’re not close enough to share them. It’s hard to be devoted to someone with whom you’re not spending regular and quality time. The most natural place to invest in relationships is in a small group.

I know many of us have a natural reluctance when it comes to getting close to others, but it’s important to realize that we’re not told to love one another only if we feel like it. This is to be standard operating procedure. That should give us the inclination to get over whatever barriers are otherwise holding us back. Besides, the testimony of most reluctant people, once they give it a try, is that the depth of friendships they have achieved makes it well worth overcoming any initial hesitation.

I’d encourage you to take some steps today to pursue “one another” relationships. Simply expressing your desire to get connected to a small group will make that happen. Just keep in mind that for a believer in Jesus, connection and community with others are not extremes for just a few, they are par for the course.



The example of Steelers’ Bell rings true for all of us, too

The Steelers are just days away from playing their season opener against the Browns. Based on their recent success against Cleveland, some are suggesting there’s no reason to play the game — just give Pittsburgh the victory and move on to week two.  In fact, people are ready to give the Steelers a lot of victories this year, believing they’ll win a record seventh Super Bowl. 

 

There are some good reasons for optimism: Many consider Big Ben to be a top five quarterback, Antonio Brown to be the top wide receiver in the league, and Le’Veon Bell to be the best running back. However, with the season about to open, Bell has yet to show up and he is not under contract.  

Virtually everyone agrees he’s holding out for more money, though that’s not the part of the story that interests me. What captured my attention were Coach Mike Tomlin’s remarks about what is being lost as Bell holds out. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t know the plays, or that he would lack the physical conditioning for playing 60 minutes at game speed. In fact, the concern he expressed didn’t have anything to do with Le’Veon at all — it was about the rest of the team. Specifically, the younger players.  

 

Tomlin spoke of the undeniable benefit of role models. He said the team was going to miss the positive contribution that could be made during training camp and the preseason when it comes to demonstrating attitude, work ethic and being a team player. Even though many might say Bell’s decision “is just business,” those contributions are absent.  

 

Mike Tomlin isn’t the only one who knows something about role models and the influence one person can have on another. My guess is that you have a few people you can point to who have shaped your life through their influence. It might have been a coach, parent, youth pastor, boss or someone else. And whether you acknowledge it or not, there are people’s lives you are shaping. Whether you are doing so with intentionality or by default, others’ lives are different because of yours.  

 

This is something we should take very seriously. The scriptures agree. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Our lives are examples and we need to be cognizant of what sort of example we are setting. We can’t object and say we never asked for or aspired to be an example of anything. We already are and apparently it’s pretty far ranging from speech, to conduct, to love, to faith, to purity.  

 

When we read in Proverbs 13:20 that, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm,” we tend to take it as a call to follow wise people, not fools. And that would be a reasonable conclusion. But who is to say we’re just to see ourselves as the follower in that verse? We also are the leader of others. In the realm of our own lives, we also are leading others wisely or foolishly. You can’t be neutral and you can’t just sit on the sidelines. Even while Le’Veon is sitting out, he’s still an example to those who are on the field.  

 

These realities beg two simple questions: “Who are you influencing?” and “How are you influencing?” 

 

Are people’s lives being enriched by what they see and hear from you? Are your kids, neighbors and work associates aspiring to something greater because of your example? Or are you influencing them in a direction they will eventually need to overcome? 

 

I pray that my life would set a good example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity. That’s my prayer for you, too.

 

Like the Bucs, we might need to make a bold move ...

As I sit down to write this post today, the Pittsburgh Pirates are the hottest team in baseball. They have won 16 of their last 20 games, including 11 in a row! So, when I had the opportunity to go to PNC Park and see them in person during the streak, of course I wanted to go. Wouldn’t you know it, they lost that game. And not only did they lose, they lost ugly, giving up 12 runs, striking out a record number of times and committing three errors. Thankfully, their imitation of the Bad News Bears was short-lived. They soon got back to their winning ways, which had everyone wondering what they would do at the looming trade deadline.  
 

Without going baseball geek on you, a moment comes at the end of July when every team has to decide if they are going to be a buyer or a seller. If they believe their team is good enough to make the post-season, they will typically buy, or add quality players to their roster, to help them through the remainder of the season. If they believe they are out of contention, then they typically sell, or trade players from their team, in return for future prospects. The Pirates have been widely criticized in the past for not being willing to add when they were in the running. Not this year! They made a couple of bold moves that are being lauded throughout the baseball community.  

 

We’ll see throughout August and September if the Pirates’ trades pay off. But what I find so compelling is that every team needs to take a cold, hard look at itself and decide if has what it takes or if it doesn’t. For some teams, like the Red Sox, who are 40+ games over .500, or the Orioles, who are 40+ games under .500, that’s pretty easy. It’s a little more complicated for a team like the Pirates, who have only recently climbed their way into a winning record. But regardless of how easy or hard the assessment might be, it has to be done. 
 

Even though you might not be a baseball executive who has the responsibility to make that assessment for your team, you are in a position requiring you to make other assessments. Those have to do with how well you’re playing in the present season of life.  Unfortunately, there is a temptation to push off making those assessments, which keep us from improving our position in the short-term and for the future. Just as it is for a baseball team, that will leave you in a place where you’re sacrificing responsibility and opportunity.  
 

The scriptures call us to assess ourselves. The Apostle Paul writes, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions.” (Galatians 6:3-4). That sounds well and good, but the truth is that self-examination can be very hard. It can be painful to open up our lives to honest scrutiny, because we all have areas where we can improve. But to do so, we first have to acknowledge that everything isn’t as it should be. That should be something we’re ready and willing to do, because it is the fast-track to blessing, but the temptation is to become defensive and resist what the examination would reveal. The result is that we hamstring our own potential progress.  
 

The good news is that when we are willing to open our lives to scrutiny and acknowledge areas where we’re weak, there are other resources we can bring onto the team, if you will, that make us better, shore up weaknesses and prepare us for a more successful future. James tells us that whoever looks into the perfect law that brings freedom and patterns their life accordingly, they will be blessed in what they do.  
 

Refusing the mid-season honest assessment may make life more comfortable temporarily because you have put off the difficult reality check. However, that comfort will be very short-lived as reality will eventually crash in, requiring action. The problem is that the delay only takes us farther and farther away from the goal. You’re going to have to face the truth eventually and the sooner you do it, the more quickly you will turn yourself toward winning ways. 
 

So, what trades do you need to make in your life today?  

 

Pray that students accept Challenge to grow in faith

As you read this blog, many of our youth are away at a conference called Challenge, where they are indeed being challenged to walk closely with Jesus and align their lives with the will of God. This is a national student ministry gathering put on every other year by the Evangelical Free Church. It has been going on for decades. As evidence, I participated in the event when I was a kid!  
 

Every time our students head for Challenge, I am reminded of my own experience. In those days, it took place every year and included a talent competition where a panel of judges would select a winner. Well, growing up a drummer/percussionist, I considered my options: tympani solo (try getting those into the back of the youth group van), or a triangle solo (much easier to transport, but a little boring after the required five minutes). In the end, I decided to do a marimba solo.  
 

If you don’t know what a marimba is, don’t worry about it — my judges didn’t either. In fact, one of them wrote in his comments, “I don’t know the first thing about the marimba, but I liked the way your hands moved fast.” Another wrote, “I don’t know if that was good or not, but it sounded wonderful to me.” At the end of the competition, I was recognized for performing the BEST marimba solo that year — as well as the ONLY marimba solo!
 

I have many other memories from those conferences, including the youth choir from one church that usually won all the awards. No one liked them. More significantly, I remember the theme verse my final year was Hebrews 10:24: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”  
 

Even more important, at that same event I received my call into ministry. Being a pastor was not on my mind before that time, but the Lord opened my heart in a unique way and I felt a prompting like I had never experienced before. It would take a while to figure out what all that meant, but I have a distinct memory of being alone in a drab dorm room during an afternoon break, and being convinced of the Lord’s leading.  
 

My own experiences at Challenge always move me to pray extra hard for Pathway youth as they engage in the worship, teaching and other features of the event. I am mindful that what happened for me could also happen for one of our students. I’d encourage you to join me in prayer that whatever our youth encounter, that they would be challenged, indeed. 

It’s time to shine like the Pittsburgh skyline

 Pastor Jeff recently toured the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, which is known for its stunning interior. He learned it wasn’t always that way.

Pastor Jeff recently toured the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, which is known for its stunning interior. He learned it wasn’t always that way.

Pittsburgh is a great city and I love to visit its unique spots — from the strip district to the stadiums to Mount Washington to the Milkshake Factory! I am amazed at the revitalization that has happened from the days of the soot-filled air and streets to today’s gleaming skyline. That’s what made it fun to take a walking tour of the city recently.  
 

The Cultural District also was featured, including the historic Stanley Theater, which is better known today as the Benedum Center. The Benedum has a stunning interior that features 90 crystal chandeliers, and 18-foot tall mirrors reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (France, not western Pennsylvania). Our guide informed us that in 1977, it was transformed into a rock concert venue and the ornate wall-coverings were painted black, hiding its beauty and history. In 1984, with the rise of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, it was restored to its former glory. Interestingly enough, it cost $3 million to build in 1927 and $43 million to restore. 
 

A few days after our tour, the Benedum came back to mind. Someone was talking about their sin and its darkness and how it had kept them from allowing God’s work to be done or seen in them. What a perfect parallel. Sin is a darkness that covers up what God would desire to do in us. In Proverbs we find the lament for sinful people whom we are told, “… have left the straight paths to walk in dark ways.” (Prov. 2:13). 
 

We know all too well the path of the dark ways. We all have allowed something beautiful to be covered up in our lives. Some people claim their life doesn’t have much to offer. Others live in such a way that degrades the value that can be found in them. But because God’s image is stamped on us, we all have value and something to offer. To deny that, or to refuse to let it rise in us, is painting over the ornate details of God’s design with doubt and denial. 
 

It is true that we’re not all we will be one day. The Bible itself points that out. In 1 John we read, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2). We are not all we will be one day — do I hear an “Amen?” But nonetheless, the basis of what we will be is already in us. John says we are God’s children NOW.
 

The spiritual life is a lot like restoring the Benedum. When it was created, it was beautiful and ornate and designed as its builder intended. We, too, have been created as beautiful and ornate and exactly as the builder intended. And as we conform ourselves more and more to the image of our creator, we are being restored, remade, and renewed. Every choice for obedience and righteousness rubs off a little of the blackness and reveals the beauty underneath. 
 

What a shame it would have been if the beauty of the Benedum was lost because it was allowed to be covered and hidden. And what a shame it would be if the beauty of what has been created in you is lost because you don’t make the decisions or do the work necessary to let it shine through. What can you do today to rub off a sin or behavior that will reveal God’s design in you more fully? 

 A mural depicting ‘The Two Andys’ — Warhol and Carnegie — was part of Pastor Jeff’s walking tour of Pittsburgh.

A mural depicting ‘The Two Andys’ — Warhol and Carnegie — was part of Pastor Jeff’s walking tour of Pittsburgh.

A High Five for our Moon Campus …

(Click on the image to begin slideshow.)

 

Happy anniversary!
 

Those are always fun words to hear because they celebrate milestones. Anniversaries are almost always about good news. No one ever wishes you a happy anniversary to observe the day you lost your job or the day your favorite pet died. Of course, weddings are among the most familiar anniversaries we recognize. Carolyn and I will celebrate our 34th later this year. 
 

There is a different anniversary on my mind right now. It is not the anniversary of the Penguins’ last Stanley Cup — that isn’t even a year old yet. It’s not the kick-off of the All In initiative — that will be three years in the fall. The one on my mind is the five-year anniversary of the launch of our Moon Campus.  

It hardly seems possible that it has been five years already, but it has been, which is a testament to the faithfulness of the leaders and volunteers who make it happen week in and week out. It was a delight to be with the people of the Moon Campus to celebrate this achievement during a special luncheon. While there, I had the opportunity to thank the whole campus for their service and dedication.  
 

As I looked across the room I saw people who show up every week long before the Sunday morning service begins to transform a banquet room into a worship space, and then tear it down again right after. I saw people who made a nine-month commitment to help get Moon started in 2013 who are still connected, some of them driving from Chippewa every weekend. I saw people who lead the Sunday morning adult class, and serve in the nursery, and teach the children, and guide the youth, and facilitate home Bible studies and much more. Virtually everyone at the Moon Campus has a place where they serve and contribute to the ministry. The spirit of teamwork is palpable.  
 

The glue for all these years has been Pastor Chad Agnew. He has guided the campus from the first day until now and has done a great job. It hasn’t always been easy with the church meeting in three different locations over those five years — with another move on the way — but he has led with distinction. I am truly grateful. 
 

When you pray, thank God for what He has done through the Moon Campus and ask for His blessing on the next five years and beyond. Ask for God’s favor in locating the next place He has for the congregation to meet. You may also remember we are still searching for a full-time campus pastor, so pray that God’s direction would be clear.  
 

We have so much to be thankful for at Pathway and one of those highlights is our Moon Campus. To all at that campus, I say “thank you” … and “happy anniversary!”

As scam proves, bearing good fruit starts at the root …

Fraud Alert! 
 

That was the ominous heading of the email I had received. No one wants to be greeted with that notice when they access their inbox — especially when you’re expecting friendly correspondence or an ad from a sock company I bought one pair from in 2003. However, to be honest, I wasn’t very alarmed. “Annoyed” would be a better descriptor. That’s because my first thought was it must be spam.  
 

I considered ignoring it altogether, but being a prolific spam receiver, I could tell there was something a little more plausible about this warning. Yet, I’ve learned not to click on any links, so since this regarded a credit card, I decided to initiate the contact by calling the company directly.  
 

After navigating several touch-tone menus, a helpful woman came on the phone. “Sir, did you attempt a transaction at Wal-Mart in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the amount of $45.52?” I answered, “No, I did not.”  It really was fraud! I was stunned, and not just by the fact that the email alert was legit, but also that the transaction was flagged as suspect in the first place. Understand, in the last six weeks this card has been to Africa and California and various airports in-between, and every purchase was approved. Yet the sole fraudulent transaction was caught in the very state where the card was registered. Amazing.
 

The whole experience made me ponder what tipped off the system that it wasn’t me attempting to make the purchase. I wondered if the person attempting to use the bogus card was trying to buy kale or Brussels sprouts and the company knew that Jeff would never try to buy those items! Or maybe it was Kitty Litter?  
 

I’m sure the actual reason for the alert had nothing to do with the specific items the perpetrator was trying to purchase. However, that could be a useful tactic if someone wanted to develop the software.  That’s because we are creatures of habit and our actions are virtually always consistent with who we are. That’s true when it comes to what brand of peanut butter you buy, but it’s more than an observation about brand loyalty.  
 

Jesus also tells us that behavior is predictable. He says that who we are on the inside is going to show itself on the outside. On one occasion, He was talking about some false prophets and He said, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:16-17).  
 

I don’t know about you, but I find that to be very convicting. Those little slip-ups that happen in my life don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are the predictable and expected fruit that have grown from the soil of my heart. Ouch!  
 

I have a couple responses I can make to such a revelation. One is deflection. I can insist that attitude or action wasn’t really me. It was an aberration. And when I take that position, what I’m saying is that I’m not responsible. I don’t need to own it because it happened in spite of who I am, not because of who I am. Of course, that is the opposite of what Jesus taught. In Jesus’ example, we’d effectively be saying that we believe grapes do indeed grow from thornbushes.  
 

The other response is to own the things we say and do. It can be difficult and embarrassing because we must admit that change is required in us. However, it is the only way to spiritual health. As long as we deny our heart needs to grow, we won’t do anything about it. That’s because we either don’t think it is required or to do so would be an admission to everyone that there is something actually wrong.  So we keep up the front, hoping to never be discovered, becoming a slave to our issues in the process.  
 

Regardless of the difficulty, the only way to develop a good heart that grows good fruit is to root out the harmful influences. It is to admit them and seek the help that will give you the needed victory. Challenging, yes, but it is worth the effort because by your fruit you will be known.  

Orkarkar reflections: Experiencing hope in a village that once had none

It started on an early morning walk around the village. It has become my practice, while in Orkarkar, Pathway’s global partnership community, to walk the fence line as the brilliant, starry night sky surrenders to the glow of the approaching sunrise. Normally, as the sun is preparing to peek over the horizon, my gaze would be in that direction. On this day, however, I uncharacteristically turned my back on the sun and was overwhelmed by what was in front of me.  

I saw buildings — lots of buildings. There was a beautiful church.  There were eight classrooms of a school. There were three multi-dwelling structures for teachers and more. It was a pretty remarkable sight to be sure, but what grabbed my attention was what I saw that wasn’t actually there. Now, before you lock me up in a padded room, let me explain.  

Perhaps I’ve seen one too many HGTV shows with the predictable before and after photos, but what I could see that morning was the “before” image of an empty field. That is what our Orkarkar center was just four years ago when I stood there for the first time. There were no buildings and no fence; just dry grass, dusty dirt patches and rocks. But then, as if on cue, the image I saw in my mind’s eye morphed into what was actually present on the site before me and it prompted me to reflect. 

The ensuing flood of reflection began with the school. I was told that 267 students enrolled a short three weeks prior to our 2018 mission team’s arrival. Yet now, I was told that the number was actually 278 students. I guessed that someone made a clerical error on the numbers, but that wasn’t it at all. Both numbers were correct. It’s just that due to the tremendous need in the area and the dearth of schools, a growth spurt of eleven students, virtually overnight, can happen — and it did.  

For me, it wasn’t about the actual numbers of students, it was about the fact that Pathway has brought educational hope into a region that was languishing without it. The students, whose faces we’ve come to know, would be arriving for school soon. Four years earlier that wasn’t the case. Instead of coming to school to learn and study and play, the children of the region would stay home, or wander the nearby hills. Younger girls might be married off before they even reached their teen years.  

But on this particular morning I was reflecting and rejoicing that life is different in Orkarkar today. Children are receiving an education that will allow them to break out of generations-long cycles of poverty.  Some will be able to progress to advanced classes and even college, possibly returning to this village, or another, as teachers to help educate the students yet to come. I couldn’t help but reflect that Pathway is impacting precious lives in the present, but also families for generations. That is immensely rewarding.  

My reflection didn’t stop there. It also went to Orkarkar’s vibrant and growing church that was essentially invisible four years earlier. It went to the eternal impact the gospel is having on individuals, marriages and families. It went to growing relationships between the Maasai and our teams.  

Eventually, the sun crested the horizon and started streaming light over my shoulder and I needed to get busy with the work of the day, but that didn’t stop my reflection or celebration of all that is happening in Orkarkar. It continues today. 

There are dramatic things happening in that remote location that are making an enormous difference in that place. And in me. 

 

When it comes to spiritual fervor, let your voices be heard ...

 

Do you sing in the car? If you don’t, you’re in the minority of Americans. According to researchers, 56 percent of people sing in their cars. I thought the number might even be higher. And what are people singing in their cars? A different study revealed that the most popular song to sing behind the wheel is “Achy Breaky Heart.” OK, that’s not actually true. That one is painful enough to listen to, let alone sing. No, occupying the top spot is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
 

Whatever your favorite jam, why not use some of the time at those stoplights to raise your voice? Nobody’s going to care if you can be heard, right? Well, that’s what one Canadian man thought when he was rocking out to the ’90s dance tune, “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” The 38-year-old man was grooving to the beat when police suddenly pulled him over. Four, yes four, officers approached his car to ask him what he was doing. After a short exchange, they charged him with “Screaming in Public.” Is that really a crime? Hadn’t those officers ever gone to a sporting event? ANYWHERE? And just how bad was his singing?
 

The man’s fine was $117. He says he’s going to fight the ticket in court, though his wife might not be his best witness. She said that if it were his singing he was being fined for, it should have been $300!
 

The whole story just makes me smile, because here is a guy who is fully engaged. I certainly have done my share of singing with gusto while at the wheel, and still do, but typically if someone is coming up beside me, I bring it down a few notches. But not this guy. Apparently, the police were within earshot and he was still going after it.
 

Let that be a lesson for our church. Full engagement is a perfect description of what a Christ follower should look like. We should be giving it our all, at the top of our lungs, as it were. Our concern shouldn’t be for who is watching and our participation should not change based on what other people might think. Paul gives us our marching orders when he writes, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” (Romans 12:11). 
 

So, how’s your spiritual fervor?
 

There are many reasons we need to be attentive to the level of our spiritual engagement. For one, it is a measuring stick of the depth of our relationship with Christ. No one who is partially engaged is thriving in godliness. No one who is sort of committed is defeating sin with consistency. Spiritual health goes hand-in-hand with the level of our engagement.
 

Another reason engagement is so vital is because Pathway is a church that relies on the active participation of its people to do the work of the ministry. There are simply too many classes and groups to be taught, too much worship to be led, too many needs to be addressed with only a skeletal crew of volunteers. We need you to be engaged.
 

In a recent passage we’ve studied in “The Real Thing” sermon series through the letter of 1 John, we saw that the people of the church are at different places in their spiritual walk and that we have a unique contribution to make depending on what that stage is. Not everyone can accomplish the same thing as everyone else because we’re at different levels of maturity, age, energy, and more. You can’t look around at the sea of people and conclude that there are many other people who could do the job you might otherwise do and just as effectively. You have been uniquely gifted and have a unique contribution to make.
 

I wonder, if someone pulled up next to you in life, what would they observe? Would it be excessive engagement? If being fully committed to Christ was against the law, would you be fined? Let’s go after it, whatever is required, for the sake of our own growth, for the church and for Christ.

We've got plenty to celebrate — and lots more in store ...

As I write this first blog of the new year, I do so having recently read about the most memorable events in the U.S. in 2017. There have been many, from a new president, to an unusually active hurricane season, to the total solar eclipse. At Pathway, we could compile our own list of memorable events, from the opening of the new children’s wing, to dynamic worship experiences, to the many acts of outreach that have taken place. I am so thankful for Pathway Church and the impact it is making in many, many lives, including my own.

It is certainly enjoyable to look back, but what I like even more is looking ahead. I’m fascinated by what’s coming in many different realms. Did you know that you could soon own an air selfie camera? It is essentially a flying camera that you control to get your photos from whatever vantage point you desire. No longer will your solo picture-taking be limited by the reach of your arm. And how cool is the idea of surgery performed by robots or crashless cars? None of that is fantasy. As someone pointed out, “Fantasy is more like suggesting the Pirates will win the World Series.”

There are all sorts of exciting things we can watch for in our world, and the same thing is true in our church. As the year stretches before us, there is one that is clearly on our minds. It is the next phase of the building project. We have achieved a huge milestone with the opening of the new children’s wing, but if you’ve been on the Chippewa Campus, it is pretty obvious that there is more to come.

A trip from the children’s wing to the main lobby travels through the cavernous former administration area that presently features bare stud walls, cement floors and absent ceilings. Someone asked me the other day if that’s how it’s going to stay. I’m pleased to tell you that there is more in store. You also may have noticed some missing walls near the café and missing wing walls and ceiling tiles in the worship lobby. These also are signs of progress. They are the demolition and preparation phase of what will be a renovated lobby and café that will stretch seamlessly from the children’s entrance past the worship entrance and through the café area.

While some of the renovations will be completed in visible areas, others will take place behind closed doors. Examples include the former children’s area that is now being transformed into office spaces and a youth wing. Additional adult classrooms are being constructed as well. The remainder of the project is expected to be completed in the late summer or early fall of this year. We are excited for the enhanced ministry opportunities that will come along with it.

Of course, there are many things to anticipate beyond the building. I am very much looking forward to seeing how the Lord leads in the filling of some important staff positions. He has already blessed us with some new key leadership and, no doubt, He will continue to guide us.

I am also looking forward to launching a brand new sermon series the first weekend of January. I have been feeling pulled in the direction of preaching through 1 John and the timing has lined up perfectly. We’re calling the study “The Real Thing” because it makes it clear how our lives can be just that. It’s easy to get sidetracked or drift off course, but 1 John helps us get centered. I am praying that this series of studies will propel our church forward in ways that will deepen our faith and help us give it away.

For all we know about the future, there are other things we don’t. However, that is far from saying it is uncertain. We know that God has it in His hands and that He will lead us into it as we are faithful in seeking His direction and will for us. Please pray with me as this year begins that we would know the mind of Christ and apply it in all we say and do.

 

Would you like that super-sized?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Carolyn and I traveled to North Carolina to be with family. It was there I discovered a new restaurant called Cook Out. I’m sure many of you are familiar with this chain of restaurants that are found in abundance in the Southeast, but it was new to me. Now, since it was Thanksgiving and the turkey wasn’t the only thing that was stuffed, we didn’t actually eat at Cook Out (other than a delicious malt), but it afforded me the opportunity to learn something about the menu.  
 

What I discovered is that a single Cook Out tray (yours for only $4.99) is enough to feed a family of four. Or two Steelers’ linemen. Or one college student. For instance, you can order the big double burger, which you might think would come with a side of fries or some coleslaw. And yes, that would be an option, but why be so predictable? You actually get two sides with your burger and the sides are more like meals themselves. So, you could get the big double burger with sides of a chicken wrap and a quesadilla, or two bacon wraps, or a corn dog and chicken nuggets. And, of course, you’ll need a drink to wash all that down so you can choose from their two beverage sizes — large and huge. 
 

Now, the reason I bring up Cook Out is because it reminds me of the Christmas season at Pathway. You see, at Pathway, it is easy to find an entrée-sized outreach endeavor to participate in to show the love of Jesus. Maybe you’d select the recently completed Thanksgiving Kit outreach where Pathway volunteers provided all the food for 74 complete meal kits that served over 400 people. I have heard a number of stories of deeply grateful families who were blessed by your generosity. It would seem that with a little side of some other gift giving, your season could be complete. But if you consider the other choices this season, you will see that instead of little sides, the options are other entrée outreaches.  
 

There is Operation Christmas Child. The people of Pathway recently packed 525 boxes that are headed around the world to brighten the Christmas of needy children. A couple dozen volunteers also turned Pathway into a relay center, managing shoebox collections from another 38 churches and groups. In all, nearly 3,000 boxes passed through the Pathway lobby. 
 

Another entrée for your consideration is Project Angel Tree. You can select an angel from the tree in the lobby that will give you gift ideas or the clothing size of a particular child of a prison inmate. You can then purchase an item that will be delivered to them for Christmas. We anticipate that hundreds of gifts will be given by the Pathway family for Angel Tree children. 
 

Then there is Give Joy to the World. Through this project we hope to provide clean water to those in desperate need in Liberia. A single well can provide disease free water, as well as the living water of Jesus Christ for about 1,000 people. A small portion of the Give Joy proceeds also will go to advance our partnership in Orkarkar, Kenya. You can find more information about Give Joy at the table in the Chippewa lobby or at www.lifeatpathway.com. 

In this Christmas season, I encourage you to feast on the outreach opportunities that are right before you. Gluttony is usually a problem, but in this case feel free to fill your plate for the sake of those in need close to home and around the world.  

 

Merry Christmas and Happy Eating!

Pastor Jeff

Remember to ‘Fall Back’ — and go ALL IN, too …

Daylight Saving Time. There are few events in life that evoke as much joy on one occasion and angst the very next time it rolls around. You probably have mixed feelings about it yourself. Why? Because one time it grants you an extra hour of sleep, such as this November 5, and the very next time it steals that hour back from you and makes the early service at church that day the lowest attendance of the year!

Benjamin Franklin is credited with the idea of daylight saving time in 1784, though it was never enacted in his lifetime. The US didn’t give it a try until 1918. It’s puzzling that we call non-saving time “standard” time, despite the fact that standard time is only four months of the year. I ask you, “Is that really standard?”
 

Daylight saving time was instituted to save energy, especially in times of hardship such as WWI and energy crises. But there have been other interesting effects as well. In September of 1999, West Bank terrorists created time bombs they handed off to their Israeli counterparts. But because Israel had just switched back to standard time, the terrorists misunderstood the timing and the bombs exploded while they were being put in place, killing three terrorists instead of the dozens of people at their intended target.
 

There are also several instances of twins being born on “Fall Back Sunday” where the older was born just prior to 2 a.m. (the official time to change the clocks) and the younger was born after, but the birth certificate says the younger was actually born first. Or, if you choose to ride Amtrak overnight on Fall Back Sunday, you will come to a dead stop at 2 a.m. and sit for an hour so their trains arrive at the same time as other nights.

I’m sure we could debate the pros and cons of daylight saving time. Personally, I am for it every fall and against it every spring. There is no shortage of lawmakers who are proposing that we “Lock the Clock” and stop observing the annual adjustment. There are an equal number who want it left like it is.

Truthfully, the decision to leave it or change it doesn’t capture all that much of my attention, but what does is the boldness to make the change in the first place. It seems like it’s not all that big of a deal to borrow an hour that is given back before the year is through, but it is actually a huge change. It requires everyone to make a coordinated change at a precise moment. It was hard enough getting my two daughters to leave  for school at the right moment, let alone syncing up with the rest of the country!
 

Well actually, that’s part of the problem, too. The whole country doesn’t go on daylight saving time, let alone the whole world. So, the time difference between people changes. Then we’re told that the time change has an impact on people’s health and increases the number of fatal car accidents and more. That one little hour has a huge impact. Yet for the sake of other benefits, we make the change.
 

It seems to me that’s a great lesson when it comes to the church. How easy is it to look at a needed change and say, “That would be too much work,” or, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Whenever there is a hill to climb, it is far too easy to find an excuse for why we shouldn’t even attempt it.

It may be you have fallen prey to such a mindset in your life, or work, or ministry. It can be attractive because it seems easier and doesn’t require much of anyone. But what I would submit to you is that the easiest choice is rarely the best choice. As I think of the things we have attempted at Pathway, the ones with the biggest payoff have been the hardest ones. Just think of the effort and energy required to start the church 42 years ago. Certainly there had to be easier options, but a few handfuls of people said they didn’t want what was easy, they wanted to follow the Lord’s leading despite the cost. We could highlight so many other choices through the years that haven’t been easy, but taking them on resulted in advanced ministry.
 

Fast-forward to today. We recently opened a brand new children’s wing. It was not easy. There were significant costs of time, resources and finances. The same is true regarding the work left to do with the building remodel, the development of the Orkarkar project and providing new wells. But despite the required work, I can’t even imagine not going forward. The work is definitely worth the effort because of all that is required.

Sure we could have refused to go after these priorities, but the temporary ease would have left us outside of God’s will. Instead, we are at a place where we are making a difference in people’s lives literally around the world and where we have an exciting new ministry facility that will help us impact lives with the gospel and the Word. It is all possible because people have gone, and continue to go, ALL IN. It hasn’t been easy and it has required sacrifice, but it is totally worth it!

So, as you consider the Lord’s call on your life, understand that the way there probably isn’t the path of least resistance. But if you’ll make the effort and be willing to do the hard thing that might even seem undoable, you may just find the power to get it done and the favor of the Lord along the way. And that’s a path worth following. And should it require more time of you, you can get started well with your extra hour when we fall back!

 

Getting an early start on giving thanks …

Thank you.

 

That’s really all I want to say in this month’s installment of our Pathway newsletter. 

 

Thank you. 

 

Now, at this point some of you are thinking, “It’s not November. THAT’S Thanksgiving month. Poor Pastor Jeff has his dates mixed up.” I’m certainly not above getting my dates mixed up, but in this case I am aware that it is October. I just thought “Thank you” sounded better than “Trick-or-Treat.”  

 

Truth be told, I couldn’t wait until next month to express my appreciation for you. It has been bubbling up inside and I just wanted to let it out. As the Apostle Paul signs off his letter to the Romans he writes, “I rejoice because of you.” (Romans 16:19). I understand that sentiment.  

 

One of the reasons for my thanksgiving is your continued participation in the outreach bag ministry. Every month those familiar blue bags are placed on tables at the exits and every month they disappear only to return one week later filled with items to bless others in need. The most recent effort focused on providing school supplies to area elementary classrooms. The result was 41 large boxes packed with pencils, paper, erasers — and much more — delivered to some delighted teachers. And those teachers have been expressing their thanks as well. Incidentally, it was my privilege to be invited to pray at a recent school board meeting where I heard even more words of thanks for Pathway Church and your heart for blessing our community. 

 

Another reason I rejoice because of you, to use Paul’s words, was your response to the Hurricane Harvey relief effort. In one somewhat spontaneous offering, you gave nearly $11,000. On top of that, a team is traveling to the Houston area at the end of October to be a part of the restoration effort. Thank you.  

 

I also recently received a report from Living Water International on the wells funded by your ongoing gifts to Give Joy to the World. There have been approximately 70 such wells you have provided and we’ll be renewing that effort again through the upcoming Christmas season.  

 

Then there’s the 93 percent from our church family who jumped on board with the ALL IN initiative to provide a building to reach children in our community who need to learn about Jesus and help others grow more fully in Him. Then there are the efforts to advance the gospel partnership in Orkarkar, Kenya, spurring a community to come to life and thrive far beyond expectations. Then there are other endeavors to reach out through mission trips to Canada and Italy and the Dominican Republic. I could go on. 

 

There are lots of great things you’re engaged in that make me thankful, but none of those above is the biggest reason. The biggest reason I am thankful is because there is a compelling urgency in the heart of the people of Pathway to make a difference for good and for the gospel. The areas of service, such as those identified above, will likely change in the months and years to come. However, it is my deep and abiding prayer that our hearts will always be committed to following the lead of Jesus, looking beyond ourselves, meeting needs and advancing the good news of the gospel.  

 

I believe that is your desire and passion as well. And for that I say …

 

Thank you.

Children's Wing nearly ready - with much more to come ...

It looks like the exciting day is just around the corner! What day, you ask? Well, I’m not talking about the Steelers’ season opener, though that is definitely exciting. I’m not talking about the day the Pirates are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, though sadly, that might be soon, too. The day I’m talking about is the opening of the new children’s wing!

 

If all goes according to plan, we should be in the new building THIS MONTH! It has been fun to watch the progress being made since the day we broke ground a little over a year ago. We have come a long way. But truthfully, what has been even more exciting has been anticipating what is going to take place within the walls as we seek to see children come to faith in Jesus and grow deeply in their relationship with Him. One of the last times I was in the building, I had the opportunity to do a personal prayer walk and ask for the Lord’s blessing over all that will take place in each classroom, large-group space, special needs room and even the play area.

 

Occupying the children’s space will be a great blessing, no doubt. However, even without the first scripture being recited or song sung in the new area, we have already been blessed. The blessing began when a congregation of faithful, generous people chose to go All In to make this project a reality. That was no small undertaking.

 

The people of Pathway Church decided they weren’t just going to fund a project to build a building, advance a global partnership and provide clean water (the All In initiatives), but they were going to make a choice to follow the Lord more fully as individuals. As a result, nearly 93 percent of our congregation engaged financially. When the nationwide average among churches is closer to 65 percent, that is noteworthy, to say the least. As a result, it’s not just the shape of our facility that is changing, it is our very hearts. I rarely consider any aspect of the project without thinking of the sacrifice being made by so many to minister to the families of our community and the needy around the world. And for it all, I’m grateful to God for the opportunity to serve among you.

 

While we celebrate the completion of the children’s wing, it takes only one pass through the church lobby to realize there’s more to do. The plan from the start has been to complete the children’s area and then launch the remodeling aspects of the project. Those will start soon. They include renovating the lobby and café, as well as the existing children’s ministry area and the A-wing. If you don’t know where all those spaces are that’s OK, just know that when we are finished, we will have provided for adult classes, youth ministry areas and administration offices. The renovations will take about one more year to complete.

 

These are indeed exciting days at Pathway Church. We are grateful for where the Lord has brought us and where He is taking us as we continue to go All In.

Test the waters and experience God’s promises …

Summer is an interesting time at Pathway. It is a time for our annual lakeside baptism service, which was very powerful this year with several dynamic stories of God’s grace. It is a time for the excitement of SonZone and SonZone Jr., along with mission trips for our students.  It is also a time for vacations.  

I asked one vacationer where she had traveled, though the dark tones that highlighted her face gave it away. She said they’d been to the beach. I asked, “How was the water?” She said, “I don’t know, we didn’t go in. We don’t like sharks.” Now, it could just be me, but it seems that going to the beach, but not going into the water, would be like going to Kennywood, but not riding the Jack Rabbit, or going to Oram’s, but not getting a donut!  

 

However, I understand the fear of sharks is real. It seems it all started with the movie “Jaws” and the resounding adjacent bass notes (ba-dum, ba-dum) letting you know a shark was on the prowl and that someone was about to become a meal. And today we have the Discovery Channel’s recently concluded Shark Week that reminds us how deadly they are and how they can swim even faster than Michael Phelps. Sharks are ominous creatures and no one wants to get killed by one. The irony is, almost no one ever is.  

 

I did a little research and discovered there are only a handful of fatal shark attacks in the world in a year’s time. As odds go, that makes it an EXTREMELY rare event. “How rare?” you might ask. Well, let’s just say you are far more likely to die falling out of bed than being attacked by a shark. There’s a higher chance you’ll meet your demise by a falling coconut or a falling vending machine than a shark (Just when you thought it was safe to get a Mountain Dew …).  And if you ever find yourself at a vending machine under a coconut tree — run, do not walk away!  

 

As for the proverbial rarity of being struck by lightning, you are actually 75 times more likely to get zapped than bitten. You’re even more likely to be injured by a toilet than a shark! Who knew? In fact, one of the few things that is less likely than death by shark is winning the lottery. Well, that and the turnpike reducing toll prices. 

 

It’s fascinating to me that though swimming in the ocean is even safer than walking down the sidewalk, people have such a fear of it that it keeps them from the water on a beach vacation. They’d rather just dig in the sand, which ironically, is also statistically more deadly than shark attacks!  

The reason for avoiding the water is not because the threats are real, it is because they are perceived to be real. The truth is that perception is a powerful motivator in what we do and don’t do.  

 

The power of perception is one thing when it keeps us from vacation activities, but it’s something else altogether when it influences our behavior in more critical realms. What happens in your life when you perceive that your friends or work associates are not going to respond well to a word you might speak about your faith? For many of us it influences what we say, or may keep us from saying anything at all.  Or in relationships, our perceptions tempt us to draw conclusions that haven’t been tested anywhere else than in our own minds. As a result, we bail on the relationship before we ever give it a chance. 

 

And what about when it comes to fulfilling God’s unique and adventurous call? You might tell yourself you’re not capable of living that life (ba-dum), or that the work would be too hard (ba-dum), or that God can’t use you for something that big (ba-dum), or that you’re sure you’d mess it up in some way or another (ba-dum, ba-dum). So you resist God’s call and it’s no more rational than expecting death by shark — only for you it’s death by doubt.

 

What we need to do is tell ourselves the truth about who we are and whom we serve. When we perceive we’re in trouble if we venture into deeper spiritual waters, we need to remind ourselves that God is the One calling us there and that He promises to go before us. We need to remind ourselves that He is the One who carries on to completion the work He starts in us. We need to remind ourselves that what seems so deadly to us is probably just misinformation from our adversary intended to keep us on the shore and away from the action.  

 

It’s time to stop letting our false perceptions influence our behavior and steal the joy that comes from fully engaging in God’s plan for our lives. It’s time to stop letting our fears of what could be get in the way of swimming in the promises of God. 

 

It’s time to jump in.

The water’s fine! 

 

My travel wasn’t top flight, but conference was …

It was recently my great pleasure to represent Pathway Church at EFCA One, our denomination’s bi-annual national conference.  This year it was in Austin, Texas, so I booked the cheapest flight I could find, happy that it was on one of the well-known national carriers, thinking that might increase the likelihood of a smooth flight experience. It didn’t.  
 

It’s never a good sign when you arrive at your gate and the jetway is not nuzzling up to an airplane. It’s even worse when they tell you at your scheduled departure time that the airplane that should be connected to that jetway is actually 500 miles away sitting at another airport. However, the agent said with too little empathy, “That plane is still coming to Pittsburgh to get yinz, and it should arrive in a couple hours.”
 

Ugh, that means missing my connecting flight. 
 

I did miss that connecting flight and I also would have missed the later one I was rebooked onto, except for the fact that it was delayed significantly as well. Sounds like good news, right? Not exactly. The delays meant that I would arrive in Austin AFTER my rental car agency closed. Thankfully, I was able to reach them before they locked the doors and prevailed on some poor soul to wait for me to arrive. He asked if the plane would get there when the airline said. Great question!
 

 The agent promised to wait until 2am, which, as it turns out, gave me just enough time to sprint from the gate to the rental counter after the plane landed. Mission accomplished — well, almost. The weary-eyed agent said they had messed up the reservation and had given my car to someone else. “But,” he added, “I am willing to give you the one vehicle I have left. How would you like a minivan?” The truth was, I didn’t want a minivan and it turned out I wouldn’t need anywhere near that amount of cargo space, because once I backtracked to baggage claim I discovered my luggage had been lost! 
 

Circumstances eventually improved, though not prior to one early morning run. Leaving the room at 6am, the temp was already in excess of 80 degrees, though I didn’t actually mind the heat.  I would just cool off with a nice shower upon returning to my room. Or not. Now drenched in sweat, I learned that the shower was not working and that I was scheduled to soon be with others representing Pathway!  
 

You’ll be pleased to know I found a way to remove the layers of sweat and accompanying odor before anyone recommended removing Pathway from the denomination. You also will be pleased to know that apart from the turbulent beginning to the trip, it was an excellent conference spent with many others who share our heart for the gospel and reaching people with the love of Jesus Christ.  
 

There were a number of highlights to the conference including great times of worship led by the teams of Austin Oaks EFC, along with great messages from the likes of D.A. Carson, Jared Alcantara, Kevin Kompelein, president of the EFCA, and others.  There also were numerous intensive sessions to choose from and I benefited from presentations on creativity in ministry, LGBTQ issues and more.  The gathered delegates also adopted a resolution advancing the biblical definition of marriage and began the discussion of a proposed amendment to the ninth article of our statement of faith regarding eschatology.  Our congregation will have the opportunity to interact on that subject in the days to come.  The soonest the proposal could be acted on nationwide is at the 2019 conference.  Pathway will be able to speak into the proposal and also make its own decision on the potential change. 
 

I also had the opportunity to connect with several friends, fellow pastors, Pathway missionaries and denominational leaders during my time in Texas. One of them who is familiar with Pathway spoke of the great things he is aware of and commended you as a church family for the impact you’re making. I enjoyed telling others about your generous heart and willingness to make sacrifices for people you haven’t even met.  Those who didn’t know about Pathway said it sounds like we have a great congregation. I said, “We sure do.” 
 

The events of EFCA One are still vivid in my mind and I’d be happy to tell you more about it. It remains fresh in my mind because it was an excellent conference and it just ended. In fact, I am writing this as I sit in the airport waiting for my return flight home. It turns out I’ll have plenty of time to write. They just announced my flight is delayed.
 

Backyard tree not exactly the apple of my eye …

I’ve been in a pruning mood. It’s a good thing, too, because there is a lot of pruning to be done in my yard. You see, the previous homeowner thought it would be nice to have a few pieces of home-grown fruit, but instead of planting a tree or two, he planted an orchard! Have you seen the rows and rows of trees at Peace Valley? Exactly!
 

OK, my backyard doesn’t have rows and rows — anymore! That’s because this year I pruned a couple of the trees right at the ground. Yep, I cut them down altogether. The problem wasn’t that they weren’t producing, it’s that they were producing too much and that my annual ritual was annoying. As fall would approach, one apple tree in particular filled with sub-standard fruit and then the seemingly angry tree would begin to spitefully spit the fruit onto the ground below. So for several weeks, I had a choice to make.
 

Option 1 — Ignore the fruit on the ground and mow over it. Eventually, the fruit would rot, then it would attract bees, rodents and other unsavory guests before it killed the grass. There also was the issue that prior to rotting, the hard, dense apples could get picked up by the mower and be shot as projectiles throughout the neighborhood, breaking windows and knocking children off their bicycles. 
 

Option 2 — Pick up every piece of fruit by hand. It was not unusual to pick up multiple five-gallon pails every few days. However, fearing one of my flying apples would put an elderly neighbor in the hospital, I always went with Option 2. Not any more! This year I went with … 
 

Option 3 — Cut it down.
 

The interesting thing about that tree was that it looked like it was thriving. It had grown tall, the leaves were a rich green and it provided some nice shade if you wanted to sit beneath it at your own risk. The problem, however, was that it wasn’t thriving — not as an apple tree. Green leaves aside, a quality apple tree isn’t tall and it’s not a good shade tree either. A quality tree is one that is pruned to be smaller and airy so it can be sprayed to prevent disease and so the sun can reach the fruit. My tree looked healthy, but it wasn’t.
 

My tree reminds me of a lot of some people trying to follow Jesus. If you look at them, they are growing and look healthy. There is something that is being produced by them and maybe even some fruit. But if you look more closely, you can see that there are some very serious issues. For one thing, the fruit being produced in their life is diseased and never ripens to maturity before it is spit out and rots away. For another, they may have worked to grow in a way that is reminiscent of a different species, but in so doing, negates their ability to do what they were intended to do. How many times do we pursue our own interests and possibly even make some headway in producing it in our own strength, but all the while we miss out on the calling of God or the purpose for which He has made us?
 

The problem with my apple tree was that it was neglected. It wasn’t pruned when it should have been and it wasn’t sprayed when it was vulnerable. That didn’t kill it, but it rendered it worthless in fulfilling its purpose. Eventually, the best choice was to cut it down, extensive branches, green leaves, broad shade and all.
 

If we’re going to avoid the problem of my apple tree, we need to make sure we’re not neglecting the basic principles for developing a thriving spiritual life.
There are times when we must prune something that might LOOK good in the moment, for the sake of what IS good in the big picture. Jesus used this pruning analogy in John 15 to let us know that it’s not OK to just produce something, we are to be focused on producing the right things. Evaluate your own heart and life to see if you are getting rid of the things that might be good, but aren’t best, and if you’re pursuing the things that will line you up to fulfill God’s purpose in you. If not, start pruning.
 

I didn’t get rid of the entire orchard in my yard. I have another apple tree, a peach tree and a pear tree. I’m doing my best to prune them and care for them as necessary to see what can be produced. Perhaps with some intentionality, there will be a good harvest in the months to come. If there is, I’ll be sure to write about it. If not, look out neighbors!


— Pastor Jeff

 

Running on empty? Just keep going …

Many of you know that a few years ago, I took up running. This is something I once boldly declared I would never do. It’s not that I didn’t like running — I actually HATED running! OK, I didn’t hate it in all forms. If there was a ball to be dribbled or a pass to be caught I could do it for hours. But to run? I mean, just to RUN? No thanks!

 

For one thing, most runners I knew either collapsed or vomited violently at the finish line, and for another, I couldn’t bring myself to wear those tiny little runner shorts that expose the white part of one’s thighs above the tan line. Come to think of it, that sight might be why runners vomit violently in the first place. But now, with the advent of longer running shorts I figured, why not give it a try?

 

When I started running, it was just for the exercise. I didn’t even think about doing any races. However, when Pathway’s own Mukti 5K came around, I entered. After all, it was for a great cause. Since I didn’t die, I decided to try a 10K and then a half-marathon. And since I didn’t have anyone to talk sense into me, I signed up for a marathon — and then another. I have heard it said that you run your first marathon for the sense of accomplishment and you run your second because your body forgot to tell your brain how miserable you were during the first one. Well, my body should start talking more, because I’ve continued to sign up.

 

Some of you are aware that I just ran another marathon in Boston. Honestly, it was  the fulfillment of a dream. It is a very special and historic race and it was a privilege just to qualify for it, let alone complete it. I had the opportunity to race the same course that day with many of the world’s elite runners. I’m not suggesting they were a lot faster than me, but let’s just say that by the time I finished, they could have received their prize, showered, eaten dinner and been on a plane back to their homes!

 

However, the speed of the elites, or of any other runner, for that matter, really isn’t an issue for the majority of mortals in the race. Unless you have a chance to beat the other 30,000 runners, you’re not running against people, you’re running against the clock. Everyone is out for a “P.R.,” which stands for personal record. I actually set one in this year’s Boston Marathon — for my worst ever! It was tough going.

 

There were reasons for my struggle I’d be happy to bore you with if you ask, but regardless of the causes, my legs were rebelling. Yet, there were a few things that kept me running miles beyond what seemed possible. Among those was the sense of accomplishment, but as the miles increased, along with the pain, the most significant motivation was that I knew Carolyn was up ahead to cheer me on. Carolyn has been at all of my marathons and has made it a priority to see me multiple times in each race. That has meant navigating her way by car through the streets of Los Angeles, riding subway trains in Chicago and walking untold miles to designated meeting places along the course. For the Boston Marathon, she spent hours pouring over public transit schedules figuring out how she could see me in the most places.

 

Then she donned a bright orange hat, made a pole with a neon flag and green polka dot balloon on top, and waved it wildly so I wouldn’t miss her as I ran past. And knowing she was up ahead along the course was instrumental in encouraging me and motivating me to keep going.

 

While I was running in Boston, I was well aware that Carolyn’s presence ahead of me was pulling me along. In fact, it caused a couple verses from Hebrews to roll through my mind shortly after I passed her near mile 21. Those verses say, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

 

Those verses are talking about a marathon. No, not one that’s measured by 26.2 miles, but one that is measured by a lifetime. The truth is, we are all in a race and elsewhere the Apostle Paul tells us to press on in running that race for ourselves. But these verses tell us we are also all spectators in the race of others and we have a responsibility to help them run. You probably have some people around you who are struggling in their race and they may be ready to give up. You can’t let that happen. You need to start waving your flag and cheering to spur them on toward finishing their race well. You might even have to figure out how to navigate your way to where they need you most so they won’t stop short of the goal. The way you provide that motivation may differ from person to person, but you can’t give up so they won’t either.

 

— Pastor Jeff