Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Poetry, Young Love and New Year’s Eve

One of the odd applications I often find from studying the Scriptures is a desire to write in the manner that the biblical authors did. For example, when I first began reading and analyzing closely Paul’s epistles to the Mediterranean churches, I developed the habit and skills of writing meaningful letters. Though correspondence is often considered a weak spot among men, I was inspired by Paul to also write “epistles” in addition to imbibing the content of his writings. In addition, upon closer examination of Psalms this last year, I was driven to attempt writing “psalms” (i.e. Psalm 23 - Firefighter version and Psalm “343”). Though I would never suppose to write Scripture, it is symptomatic of my high bibliology that I want to write as eloquently as the inspired authors did.

Having said that, I am now completing a course of close study and analysis of the biblical Song of Songs. As a collection of love poetry, the Song of Songs constitutes an anthology of poems compiled by Solomon to express young love. Each of the poetic sections appears to celebrate a young couple in love, whose longing affection for each other culminates in a wedding night. While the song does not express the totality of love that a married couple will experience over the course of their lifetime together, it certainly does showcase the young love shared by the lovesick couple in the “spring” of life.

Because of the literary beauty of the Song of Songs, and because of its inspired place in the biblical canon, I am likewise moved to write in that fashion too. Only yesterday I wrote a love poem for my wife that was guided in form and function by the Song of Songs. Its content was for her eyes only, so I’ll not reveal it here. Nevertheless, it was difficult to compose not because I find expressing love to Naomi cumbersome, but because the Song of Songs expresses young love. However, we have been married for fifteen years now. The love expressed by young people infatuated with each other has distinct limits that the mature couple has grown beyond. Not that the middle-aged couple neglects the category of physical attraction that leads to sexual fulfillment, but the Song of Songs traffics exclusively in this limited arena. Therefore, to write a love poem in the genre of the Song, but also to express the love of fifteen years, requires extra skill and attention.

The extra attention was necessary because the love of fifteen years is deeper and more mature than that expressed in the Song. If I had simply written my poem to Naomi in a manner that sounded just like the Song, she would have found that flighty and devoid of the deeper love we have developed over the years. Good love poetry should be idealic to a degree, but also it requires a degree of believability. This is a delicate balance to be sure, but the tension between idealic love and mature love is an absolute necessity for a vibrant marriage of any age.

For new year’s eve, the whole genre of young love finds appropriate expression. The focus is on new life stages and benchmarks. New years are timely reminders to renew life trends that might have grown stale. Not that mature love is by nature stale, but it must be vigilantly guarded against growing tepid and boring. As a result, it is fitting that the Song of Songs motivated my poetry to Naomi near the New Year’s celebration. The reminder to conjure aspects of idealic love as part of a maturing love was a welcome application of God’s Word. I’m sure Solomon would consider it an apt lesson from his collection of love poetry as well.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Last Service

This morning Woodcreek Bible Church held its last service. For a church to close, and hold its final service is a heavy moment. By "heavy" I imply it is not to be taken lightly in any way. Across America churches close all the time, but seldomly do they do so on purpose and with purpose. We had the privilege of knowing what our purpose was, the mission we're called to and the time frame we had to pursue it as a church body. As a result, we were able to conduct our final service with that purpose and mission in mind.

A church service though, conducted with the end in mind, is quite different from a regular one you might encounter on any given Sunday. It's one in which the worship reflects on what God has done in and through the church body over the course of its life. It's one where the communion table takes on a far more meaningful significance than it usually ever can. The sermon has a distinct commissioning flavor to it. While some aspects seem like finishing the course and completing the race, other parts point toward launching into new life.

I am particularly thankful though, that God enabled us to end well, and conduct ourselves with missional purpose. While such a service is heavy, it's not sad. Some may be saddened by the finality of it upon further reflection later on, the same sense of triumph should be shared by all. Many churches throughout America close all the time, but few close like this. It was glorious to behold.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dallas MEPS Ministry

"Hurry up and wait." That is just one of the mantras I learned in the Navy 20 years ago.

Spending nine hours in the Dallas Military Entrance Processing Station may not seem like fun to most, but they don't have my perspective. Truth be told, I might not describe it as "fun" either, but it certainly wasn't a royal waste of time. Braving the battery of tests conducted at this facility gives one a sense of being well looked after. In every corner of the facility, a different room held new medical testing to undergo. In such an environment, one can feel quite alone and shuffled around. I saw it on the faces of many new inductees to military service who were there to have their own testing done. Most were in their early twenties. Some were nineteen or eighteen. A few were even seventeen who were there by written permission of their parents. Their youthful countenances were pulled tight in valiant attempts to mask any feelings of uncertainty and fear.

When my recruiter was describing what I could expect at MEPS, he suggested that sometimes officer candidates or chaplain candidates might receive the "red carpet treatment." This meant that my process might be expedited more quickly than most. I did not expect this, but instead was prepared to simply go down and submit to the process that I encountered. What I found was that my case was no more briskly moved along than any other. This might have been a point of disappointment, but instead I discovered that the wait opened up opportunities.

When I sat among new recruits, I observed on the expressions of young faces to my right and my left that this new environment was unsettling for them. Even though this was MEPS, and not Basic or Boot, the commands to follow instructions, strip down to underwear and obey the rules had them back on their heels. Just this little taste of military life was enough to have them feeling off balance. In addition, some that I spoke with (or waited with outside yet another office) had families who they worried might not adapt to this new arena.

It seems that waiting longer than expected at MEPS (9 hours) was necessary to execute a ministry that was not expected either. In those moments when I was next to the new inductees needing assurance, comfort or courage, I was moved by the Spirit to converse with them in a manner they needed. I was there to be a chaplain for them. Little did I know that while undergoing medical exams for chaplain candidacy, I would have moments of chaplaincy even then.

This is an important lesson. When God is planning to assign you a new area of ministry, he likely will begin having you perform it right away. I have found this to be true on many occasions of my life, but I still get surprised when he pulls stuff like this. For me it was a improvised chaplain ministry among new recruits. For you, who knows?

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Return of Star Wars Christmas

Back, by popular demand, or simply by virtue of having "Mary Did You Know?" sung way too much in evangelical church services, I present to you the following:

Last year a friend of Tiffany Grant's, Naomi's sister in Houston, masterfully composed this Star Wars Christmas classic. Since she knew I was a Star Wars fan, she forwarded it to me.

Merry Christmas to all...
...and to all, may the force be with you.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rig for Church!

Approximately one month ago, when it appeared increasingly inevitable that Woodcreek Bible Church was going to close, I asked two questions of God:

1. What will you do with Fate?

In other words, how will you see that our community is ministered to with a missional church presence? Our church has prepared much of the ministry "soil" with outreach efforts and visible presence. My concern was that our closing would leave a ministry vacuum in the community.

2. What will you do with us?

In other words, since I thought being a pastor might very well have been the career I was looking for, what could be my rightful role now? I've volunteered in many ministry settings, performing many different tasks for churches I have served, but having a family means that I'll have to eventually get paid for the ministry I perform (1 Cor 7:33). What ministry career could be both a good fit for me and a good means of supporting my family?

God answered the first question by providing a friendship with Pastor Trent Brown of Gateway Fellowship in nearby Royse City. Because of the common vision for the community, our common ministry philosophy and personality compatibility, I was very comforted that God had supplied Gateway not only for Fate, Texas, but also for any of Woodcreek's people who desired to remain and have an impact in this area.

Simultaneous to that though was God's answer to the second question. This he did by inspiring me to reflect on this year, and what I have learned about myself and how God has designed me. Though pastoring did not yield "successful" results (I covered this in "Defining Success"), serving as a fire chaplain concurrent with that was an extremely good fit. Not only did the fire department receive me warmly after earning their trust, but the Federation of Fire Chaplains felt like "home" as well. What this told me was that a career as a chaplain would be a wise pursuit, given what I've learned through all of this.

However, paid fire chaplain positions are extremely rare. Therefore, if one wished a career as a chaplain, the military was then most logical place to look. The problem was, I had served in the United States Navy in my late teens, having been honorably discharged after ten months of service for medical reasons. The medical reason was a psych eval following my stress-related breakdown. I was in way over my head in the nuclear power program. Nevertheless, the psych/medical reasons for the honorable discharge in 1988 resulted in an RE-4 reenlistment code, which are very difficult to reverse. This code typically prevents anyone from ever re-entering the military.

Following my service in 1988 though, I had another psych eval performed by a psychologist in Gig Harbor, WA who determined I was mentally fine. To remotely consider waiving the RE-4 code, the Navy would need a more current eval also declaring me fit. Just before thanksgiving I found a local Dallas psychologist to perform an evaluation. I turns out that he, too, was a former Navy psych and new just what to test for. He declared me not only fit, but well suited for the Navy chaplain calling. However, even though my pastoral, chaplaincy and military experience all combined to make my resume' more attractive, it was the medical waiver that would be the greatest initial hurdle. Would a medical review board waive my previous medically produced RE-4 code, or would it stand, keeping the Navy door closed?

On Friday, I received the call from my recruiter informing me that I had been cleared by medical to proceed with my application. This was monumental news coming on the 20th anniversary (this week) of my discharge from the Navy in 1988 (Dec 15th to be exact). There are still more requirements that must be met (not the least of which is graduating from DTS in May), but this was a large hurdle the outcome of which was totally out of my control. It was very encouraging, and redeeming news. 20 years after I was medically released from the Navy (with the expectation never to return), I have been medically cleared to apply to return for the purpose of ministering to those under the same pressures I once succumbed to. God is fun.

At this point I don't want to presume to declare with certainty this to be "God's will." Many evangelicals throw around such phrases rather irresponsibly. However, because of the seemingly Providential nature of these events, I'm confident I should boldly proceed. I have preached that God will find the right place for all of the people of our church, and it would seem this applies to our family as well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Triumph of Cooperation over Competition

One of the greatest aspects of this time of transition that anesthetizes the pain of closing Woodcreek Bible Church is the triumph of the missio Dei through cooperation with Gateway Fellowship of Royse City. Without this level of kindred mission, the process of closing a church would "feel" like failure. As it happens, analogies of transformation (i.e. caterpillars and butterflies) apply to an encouraging degree. This pleasing outcome is due in large part to a spirit of cooperation between Pastor Trent Brown and myself. Trent's cooperative attitude may be born of a passion for the effectiveness of the kingdom of God in this area. He could answer that question better concerning his motivation. Mine, however, was cultivated through previous exposure to the military and years spent teaching martial arts.

In the northwest, I worked for a martial arts school that had several locations at the time (3 in Seattle plus Spokane and Portland). The Calgary based company had most of their studios in Canadian cities. Working as an instructor for Temple Kung Fu Studios, I was often called upon to travel from one studio to another to fill a staffing gap or strengthen the teaching of a particular studio. Not only was this normal for me, but all studios were receptive to visiting instructors as well. Cooperation among studios was standard because of having a common master. The entire organization was under the leadership of Grand Master Olaf Simon. Because of the common master, all instructors in the Temple Kung Fu system saw each other as teammates. Even the three studios in Seattle knew they collectively were in competition with other schools, but not with each other. What made cooperation eclipse any thoughts of competition was the common master.

Those exposed to martial arts understand submission to the head master. However, Christians have a Master who alone can legitimately hold that title in every arena, not merely martial arts. As a result, believers should seek cooperative avenues out of a sense of submission to the Master. To compete with any of his other instructors is to run contrary to his mission of training as many people as possible for relating to him. Having now been the chief instructor for the "Fate studio," it is well within the Master's purgative to close the Fate studio and move many of those students to the Royse City studio. There they can continue their training uninterrupted, plus enjoy exposure to that chief instructor. What's more, I may have an opportunity to serve with the instructors as the Royse City studio as well. One Master - many studios. This is a standard strategy for the martial arts temple. It's also how I think of the Church.

For those that view the Church this way, the resulting effect is a triumph of cooperation over competition. We don't mourn the loss of a job as much because we trust that the Master will reassign us to a new studio. Nor do we mourn the closing of a studio as much because we know that a nearby studio will continue the training for our students. The cooperation between Trent and I has been pleasingly reminiscent of my days with Temple Kung Fu. Therefore, my main concern over Woodcreek Bible Church has been, "Did I train them well prior to us all being reassigned." It would seem that, through my reassignment to a new studio, the "Master" was not disappointed with the training his disciples received. Otherwise, it hardly seems likely that Jesus would burden Trent's studio with my presence as well. Cooperation has advanced the training for all, and it's a joy to watch unfold.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Finishing Well

Yesterday, December 14th 2008, the members of Woodcreek Bible Church unanimously voted to dissolve as an independent church body effective December 31st. In addition, the sentiment among all present was to finish well, in as Christ honoring a fashion as possible. For this reason, there is no sense "winding down." If anything, there's a sense of sprinting to the finish line. All are in agreement that the property must be sold in a timely manner, that funding for the mortgage payments must continue until it sells and that everyone is being led of the Spirit to remain purposeful into their next ministry. In other words, unity prevails even in moments such as this. What an awesome thing to behold.

Some declared that they will continue to worship and serve in this community by attending Gateway Fellowship nearby. Some declared an intent to serve Christ at a church closer to their home. Others honestly declared a need for more time to perceive the Lord's leading for them. Nevertheless, it seemed all were led of the Spirit to close out WBC as a church body, finishing well in this season of their service to Christ.

Many that I have encountered have lamented the closing on my behalf. However, once I explain the nature of the training that all have undergone here, they rejoice along with me that such a transformational time could occur in the midst of disappointment. Even then, the "disappointment" is tempered by the triumph of the training. The strategic planning we, as a church, performed (far from being wasted) produced more strategic believers. In this way, our mission ("to reach, train and send out the most loving and contagious followers of Christ in the world") still is being achieved. I am thrilled to have been with these people for this amount of time. It has been an awesome period of training for us all, and this is evidenced by how driven we all are to finish well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Sense of Adventure

As a Christian, I'm supposed to live a life that is God's to do with as he pleases. The range of roles he could have me play is as wide as the human needs in ministry. The selection of locations in which I might serve him are as diverse as the continents and peoples of the world. I've been recruited into the mission of God, and equipped for service that requires my unique obedience. It's a cutting edge, mysterious and exciting existence. The humdrum ruts that most believers fall into hits well far from the mark. As an agent of Christ, its better than any action flick.

Consider the following quotes from fictional action characters:

"I work for the British government." - James Bond

"I'm an analyst for the CIA." - Jack Ryan

"I'm a professor of archaeology." - Dr. Henry Jones Jr.

"I just swing around hitting the Gotham nightlife." - Bruce Wayne

"I'm a mild-mannered reporter." - Clark Kent

These job descriptions have rather exciting characters attached to them. Take the top three for example. If I took a job that had any of those institutions on the business card (MI6, CIA or Marshall College Department of Archaeology), you might react with, "Wow! How exciting. It makes you sound like James Bond (or Jack Ryan or Indiana Jones respectively)." Where's that sense of adventure when we say that we're a Christian?

I proposed a different attitude toward our job description. Instead of just, "I am Christian," we might consider, "I'm a follower of Jesus Christ, and the ruler of the universe has sent me into this culture to infiltrate your customs and craftily persuade as many as possible to submit to his rule before either he comes here or you go to him." Actually, that might freak people out. Perhaps you don't need to say all of that after all. Instead, just keep all of that in your head when you declare, "I'm a Christian."

What's lacking from most believers' minds (in convinced of it) is a sense of adventure. It's a feel that you've been enlisted in a epic narrative that requires grand twists and turns to do justice for the story. For the Ott clan, this sense of adventure has been well established for sometime now; that's why we approach some of the mammoth changes in ministry and life the way we do. It's a little thing to imagine total new ministry directions and strategies if Dr. Jones or 007 has to go through what they do.

Take for example all the hoops I had to jump through today to arrange my course schedule at DTS. The customization that was necessary for my requirements to be met in time for a May graduation seemed improbable. Nevertheless, events transpired that appeared Providential before my eyes. The miracles afoot were exciting to behold. Such it is with my church; such it is with my school; such it is with my life. How adventurous it is to serve the Lord. He never, ever gets boring.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Strategic Planning - Strategic Life

The most sobering part of facing strategic moments such as this in the life of a church is knowing that you've been built for exactly this purpose. All of my life, skills, experiences, knowledge, instincts, drives and passions have come together to train this church body for whatever comes next. Whether they execute my preferred outcome and humbly accept assimilation into the Gateway Fellowship ministry, or if they collectively disperse into their remote communities (knowing what they all now know regarding the missio Dei and their place in it), that will be the reason for which I was brought to this place. I have exactly the right team of people, at precisely the right time, with just the right mindset, who have undergone just the right training to execute the Spirit-let strategy for them. A striking sense of destiny floats into all of this.

The strategic planning that Woodcreek Bible Church has performed has accomplished so much more than merely planning for church growth. All who participated witnessed how the Holy Spirit leads believers in making plans for effective service. The gravity of that is astounding. Rather than blindly assuming that the Christian life is to be approached haphazardly, they saw how deliberately we must plan for serving Christ and pursing the Great Commission. This knowledge of the strategic process is not restricted merely to how churches run. It applies to all of life. The totality of the believers existence is to be strategically led of the Spirit into whatever they are to do next. Viewing themselves as the tip of an arrow, the Christian knows that God will use them strategically to accomplish outlandish results for the kingdom of God with pinpoint accuracy.

This is how I approach the closing of Woodcreek Bible Church. I see my calling to the church, and subsequent ministry here as very strategic. If the adoption into Gateway proceeds, then I was used of God to facilitate this expansion of his mission strategy in my community. If the members elect to disperse instead, then I was used strategically to advance his mission wherever they go, for they would appear not to be leaving just as they were when I came. In any case, the strategic life will seek to advance the missio Dei regardless of personal results. God has strategically designed me as a trainer of people to develop in their devotion to and service of Christ. That's his strategic use of me. It has been that wherever I've gone.

I see the adoption plan before our church members as the logical trajectory of our strategic planning, but any decision is possible if they all have elected to live a strategic life. Whatever they decide, through the leading of the Spirit, to do next, my great hope is that I have trained them well to pursue it.

Intensity and Blessing

I am so wiped out. As with any great high, there's the potential to crash hard. I'm there this morning. Which begs the question, "What was the high?" Certainly all pastors experience this to one extent or another. That's why Mondays have classically been the day many pastor take as their day off. However, this is different. Yesterday's "high" was born of several uncommon factors inserted into my pastoral Sunday/workday.

The backdrop to these elements is the pending closure of Woodcreek Bible Church. This is not a sudden thing, as though we were surprised by its approach; nor did the leadership wake up one morning and decide that they were tired of leading. On the contrary, staff and elders alike have poured our hearts into pursuing God's mission for this church. Nevertheless, the fruit of that labor has been a continued trajectory of decline in attendance and collective member energy. That's the bad news.

The good news is that God has provided an opportunity to for the healthiest developing instincts of the church to be realized. There isn't space here to cover all the details, but having a neighboring church (Gateway Fellowship of Royse City, TX) adopt us all at once will be a fitting completion of our church's strategic planning this year. Because of the fit it represents and the timing that appears providential, all of my work with Woodcreek Bible Church seems to have built up to this point. In other words - and this is quite significant for one who sees myself as more of a "trainer" than a pastor - it would seem that God called me to this church for the purpose of training it for this moment and this opportunity. This is not "spin." This is interpreting design and Providence in the manner that every believer must.

The illusive struggle to discover "God's will" for one's life is always fruitless - at least in the manner commonly pursued. Most often what Christians call "finding God's will for my life" bears a striking resemblance to fortune-telling and horoscopes. The Christian labels change, but the paganism is still detectable in how the pastor/counselor is treated like an old gypsy woman hovering over a crystal ball. "God wants you to go to college; major in aquatic archaeology and discover Atlantis," is the pronouncement sought from the counselee in the pastor's office. Solomon says that this is "meaningless" and chasing the wind. Nevertheless, people of genuine faith want to know that the wisdom they employ in making life decisions is both supplied by God and sensitive to his leading. Even if they are not paganly pursuing Christian fortune-telling, but instead are legitimately wanting to be led of God, we want evidence that we're being faithful to God's preferred design for us. We want to detect God's voice in the present saying, "Doing well, good and faithful servant." Therefore, the Christian is left with the same thing Israel had to go on: (1) this is what God pronounced should be our character, ethics, behavior, etc. and (2) this is what our experiences have been executing it.

All we can go on (far from fortune-telling) is to know the Word of God concerning our composition and character as a believer, and then examine how God has, in his Providence, cause obedience to his Word to play out in my experiences. In other words: (1) what does God require of me? and (2) what has happened when I've pursued those known requirements? This is what I call "interpreting design and Providence." It's a simpler way of expressing what is often stated as SHAPE:

What is SHAPE?

S - Spiritual Gifts - What are you uniquely gifted to do?
H - Heart - What do you love to do?
A - Abilities - What natural talents and skills do you have?
P - Personal Style - Where do your personal traits best suit you to serve?
E - Experiences - What has your past situations prepared you for?

Your SHAPE can determine your ministry focus.

"SHAPE" is a legitimate means of Christians evaluating their sensitivity to God's leading in their life, without degenerating into fortune-telling. It's interpreting design and Providence.

All that to say this - this strategic adoption opportunity for our church appears to fulfill my "SHAPE" as it relates to the church I was called to in 2007. Therefore, I'm very personally vested in it. For me, this produced a high intensity level for me all Saturday and Sunday. Saturday was preparation. Sunday was execution. The sermon was eerily pertinent to the strategy plans facing us, and after lunch the business meeting was the completely revealed fruit of all my labor. To describe the whole morning and afternoon as "intense" is to discover new levels of understatement. After a brief "veg" period at home in front of the TV, I went back to the church to give the same presentation again to all the Gateway leadership, plus give any background on myself and discuss "adoption" plans with them from 7 to midnight. The whole day was an intense high.

It also was a great blessing too. This blessing started early as well, when Sunday school was well attended, experiencing good discussion on the study topic. It continued through the main service as we took of the communion Table together, expressing meaningful worship. I enjoyed delivering the sermon, and people seemed receptive. After lunch, the business meeting (which could have been quite scary) was conducted with grace, understanding and sincerity from everyone. Later that evening, 5 hours of planning and discussion ensued with Christian brothers that feel like colleagues already. It was as pleasing as it was exhausting.
*There's an analogy I could use here referencing other exhausting pleasures, but I've decided not to.

God provided both intensity and blessing to coexist. Just because one comes down hard from a "high" does not mean that the "high" was somehow unhealthy. Would that all believers experience the Spirit's leading and powerful filling in such a draining manner.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Maintaining class off the ice

One of the reasons I prefer to watch hockey to other sports is because of how much easier it seems to be to like the players. They keep their nose pretty clean, and stay out of "tabloid" publicity. NFL and NBA are notorious for employing foul-mouthed hoodlums who know they will not suffer any substantial punishment for antics while outside the playing arena. I specify "outside" because its a better gauge of the players personality than during the "thick of battle." In Dallas, owners Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban disgrace their respective sports for how quickly they turn a blind eye to their players' public and blatant flaws.

By way of contrast, Sean Avery of the Dallas Stars is now suspended indefinitely. After making some off color remarks regarding his ex-girlfriend now dating a Calgary Flame on Tuesday, the NHL suspended Avery pending further inquiry. Stars owner Tom Hicks stated afterward that had the NHL not suspended him, the team would have. Now Stars coach Dave Tippett suggests that a good team cannot be built with Sean Avery in the mix. In this way, the league, the owner and the coach all seem interested in maintaining the dignity of the game. This value is certainly in short supply in professional sports, and I applaud them for upholding it.