Category Archives: Life

When vertical becomes horizontal

photoFor over two years, every week, with only a few exceptions, I have spent a couple hours talking life with Anthony Giambroni. Our relationship started with a vertical church leader/church member dynamic, but has over time has become a horizontal friend/friend relationship. For me, this is the goal for all mentoring relationships (though it is often elusive to attain). Anthony has become such a close friend that I forget he is nine years younger than me! He is a man of integrity and character. He seeks after the Lord. He desires the things of God. And I am thrilled he is joining full-time staff with h2o this summer! It’s been a privilege- one of my greatest since entering ministry- to be a part of his journey to maturity in Christ. I look forward to seeing how he continues to develop as a leader and servant in the years to come. I am blessed to share life with Anthony and other godly men who challenge me to greater faithfulness and service as a husband, dad, pastor, and friend.

On returning to seminary

Two years ago, I made the difficult decision to walk away from a full-tuition scholarship at Ashland Theological Seminary, having completed half of a Master of Divinity degree at that time (about 15 classes). The combination of two major life circumstances precipitated the decision. I was about to become a dad for the first time, and a dear friend who was dying of cancer had just moved to a town near Kent. The prospect of continuing graduate school, being a new dad, and being available to sick friend, all while still working at least 40 hours per week with the church, left me fearing I would not do any of  these things well. I took the feeling in my gut as motivation to seek God and His counsel for my life. I still wanted (very much) to continue in school. With great creativity and painstaking precision, I produced a schedule of how I could pull off all of these pursuits. Yet in prayer, time and time again, I sensed God asking me to let go of seminary. The other commitments were more important. To pursue all of them would cause all of them to suffer. And I would be left spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. And though, on the surface, giving up what would amount to about $24,000 of free education makes no sense, I knew in my heart it was exactly what God was asking me to do. So I did.

Last week I returned to seminary, this time taking only one class (God again provided a scholarship to cover the cost of this class). On the hour-long drive to Ashland, I couldn’t help but think back to the decision I made two years ago. I remembered the peace in my heart as I sat in the office of the seminary Dean to inform her of my decision. But I also remembered the sadness I felt at the forfeit of a tremendous blessing and a personal passion… the disappointment that comes when God rearranges the timetables we create for our lives. Yet I am absolutely convinced God’s will was done.

Now two weeks into seminary, I am realizing how much has changed since the last time I started seminary. Tiffany and I had no kids, we had just moved to Kent to plant a church, and I was serving as a regular staff member of the church. Now we have two kids, our church has been planted and has influence on campus, and I am a pastor with a great deal more responsibility in the church. I have realized this: The blessings of these realities so far outweigh the financial blessing of a scholarship.

Seminary, for me, has always been an exercise in humility. To learn about God is to experience God, and to experience God is to be humbled. Theology is not primarily an intellectual pursuit, it’s a deeply spiritual one. When that focus is lost, seminary becomes something terribly dangerous. Andrews Walls has said “Theology is an act of adoration fraught with the risk of blasphemy.” Theology demands humility. Not only is there a risk of blasphemy but worse there is a risk of spiritual pride, the myth of intellectual ascent to a place of superiority over the authors of Scripture, or even God himself. For me, having to surrender my passion for a season and focus my attention on more important matters has produced in me a humility that I pray guides and shapes my second round of seminary.

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Remembering Aaron

I remember the feeling in my gut as I walked through the student union at BGSU. I was anxious. I was scared. Not the horror movie scared but the fear of rejection and humiliation scared. I felt unprepared and unqualified for what I was about to do. I had done it a handful of times before, but somehow the intimidation and awkwardness of it never subsided. I was looking for someone with whom I could start a spontaneous conversation. A conversation about Jesus. You know, the type of outreach that receives equal skepticism (if not disapproval) from believers and nonbelievers alike.

I saw a guy reading the school newspaper. He was sitting by himself. He dressed like me. He had short hair like me. He seemed clean-cut like me. He wore cool glasses (not like me, much to my dismay). I remember thinking “I can talk to this guy.” I led with “Hi, I’m Matthew from h2o, the church on campus. Would you mind if I asked you some spiritual questions?” He agreed. I was noticeably relieved by his willingness to talk with me.

What happened in the thirty minute conversation that followed makes sense only if there is a God above who is spinning this world with a purpose and plan for us all. I learned that my new friend Aaron had been raised in an unashamedly Baptist home in Missouri. He could remember a time when, as a young boy, he invited Jesus into his heart. In high school, he went through the religious motions- church, youth group, summer camps, and Christian concerts. Yet as he sat telling me about his life with an openness and rawness that still amazes me to this day, he admitted that those days were a thing of the past. He was living as a prodigal far from home- in northwest Ohio of all places. He had unintentionally become the stereotypical college guy- went to the parties, chased the girls, drank the beer, ditched the classes, etc. And he was left feeling lost and lonely.

I told him a bit of my story. I had been a prodigal, too. Much more prodigal than him, actually. Then he said something striking: he told me God was answering a prayer as we spoke that day. You see, the reality of his brokenness had hit him that same morning. He prayed to God for the first time in a while. His prayer was simple, as I recall him telling me. Aaron asked God to show him that He was real. He wasn’t convinced anymore. He wanted to believe, to be sure. But he wasn’t sure he could. Something had happened since moving off to college. But somehow, as our Creator orchestrated this divine intersection of our two lives at a table on the second floor of the BGSU student union, his doubt disappeared. His prayer had been answered. God was real after all. Hours after his prayer was uttered a nervous guy trying to be a missional Christian asked him if they could have a conversation. And both of our lives would be forever changed. To claim coincidence here would be an offense to the sovereignty of the One who dreamed this interaction from eternity past.

We became close friends over the next few years. Our lives were inextricably intertwined. We shared life. We did ministry together. We had those rare life-changing conversations. We had a depth and realness to our relationship that came so naturally. I remember when he told me he had feelings for Ali, a girl in our Bible study group. I remember a few years later praying with him in a small back room at the church just moments before he married Ali. Then I moved to Kent to plant a church. Our friendship changed. But our love for each other remained. The awe over how we first met that day in the student union never faded, and it created in us a bond that couldn’t broken by distance.

I was sitting in a seminary class when I got the text telling me that Aaron was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s ironic that I was sitting in a place that is supposed to give answers to questions about faith and life. Yet there are no token answers for why a 26-year-old would get cancer. No amount of theological precision offers hope in the midst of the reality of disease. Persistent headaches brought Aaron to the doctor and tests were run that revealed the devastating news. It was cancerous. It was in an advanced stage. It was largely inoperable. His prognosis was staggeringly bad.

As much as I remain amazed at how we met, that memory will fade long before the memory of saing goodbye to Aaron. His fight with cancer ended a year ago. On that day he met face-to-face the God who orchestrated our friendship and rescued him from the emptiness of this world. The day before he died I visited him with my dear friend Rob- Aaron’s closest friend in Bowling Green. With the door closed and Aaron unresponsive on a hospital bed situated in his bedroom, Rob and I told him how much we loved him and how he had impacted us. Not once had he questioned God in the midst of his disease. Not once had I heard a complaint or a curse. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such faith- it was innocently childlike and incredibly mature at the same time. We talked about old memories- as many funny ones as serious. And we talked about the glory that awaited him. When I spoke, Rob cried. When Rob spoke, I cried. It was both incredibly sad and entirely beautiful. Even my words here can’t approach the weight of what happened in that room.

Aaron’s legacy far exceeds his years on this earth. There are so many ways he has impacted me. Let me share just one.He has helped me to grow up. I live in a world of college students. A world where tears are typically the result of romantic break-ups. Where tragedy exists only in film. Where death is a fairy-tale. Where faith is stifled by the comfort and ease of our lives. Where desperate need for Jesus is a mystery. Yet today as I think of Aaron, I remember that there is a reality beyond what I see each day . And while I am called to this place, I must live beyond its borders. And I must invite others to this new place of depth. To journey beyond the superficiality and immaturity that, though unavoidable, is not insurmountable. To a place where we must painfully reckon with the tragedy and evil of this world in order to taste of the goodness and power of Jesus.

The ending of Aaron’s life is no less appalling to me today than it was a year ago. His death, any death, is a primal offense to our very being. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that “God has set eternity in the human heart.” My tears attest to this fact. When all the token phrases and comforting words have been said, death remains no less unnatural to us. We long for eternity. We long to live in a reality where life and all things good go on forever in all their beauty and power. C.S. Lewis once said, “If I find in myself a desire that this world cannot fulfill, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We are made for another world, meant to enter another reality and live another story. A reality entirely different from the one we now experience. Where everything good is forever. Where love and relationships will have no end. Pain no more. Suffering no more. Tears no more. Oppression no more. Disease no more. Death no more.

Only Jesus gets us here- to this place we long for. He rose out of the grave victorious over the evil, sin, and death that reigns in our world. In Jesus we are ushered into this reality now. And though we experience it only in part now, it will one day be all we know.

(This post is an updated and expanded version of a similar post I wrote in the fall)

On becoming a pastor

A confession: being a Christian is still unnatural to me. Ten years of walking with Jesus has not yet eroded the bewilderment I feel over my own conversion. There is still an enduring and awkward astonishment I feel about my journey to faith. From the vantage point of this world, I am an unlikely believer. I remember, as a new campus missionary meeting with potential donors from my hometown, I needed to spend as much time legitimizing my own conversion as sharing about the ministry to which I sensed God calling me. The people weren’t rude. They were just surprised (like me). I wasn’t from the right family. I didn’t have the right church background. I didn’t have the proper training or education. What I had instead was a story.

I had a story of God meeting me in pages of Scripture as I read the New Testament over and over as a lost and restless high schooler. A story of God showing me the emptiness of my pursuits as a college freshman. A story of God giving me the words to say as I prayed a prayer of surrender beside my bed- a prayer that I knew would change the trajectory of my life. A story of God leading me to exchange my dreams of status and significance for a calling to obscurity and servanthood (in ministry). All I had was a story.

On Sunday night, during our worship service, as I watched a video of my wife and closest friends affirming my calling to be a pastor, and I heard godly men speak of my qualification for the role, the shock and bewilderment rose up within me again. I thought: “Really? Me? A pastor? I don’t have the right past, the right training, the right pedigree.” A part of me wanted to resist the affirmation, deny it, explain it away. And so as I sat there I struggled to embrace the encouragement as coming not primarily from these people but from God himself.

Then I remembered the story. I thought back to the undeniable work God has done in my life. I recalled the transformation of my soul that has unfolded over the last ten years. And I remembered that I lay claim to none of that work. That change was not precipitated by me and it is not sustained by me. From eternity past God wrote the story of my life. He shares none of my bewilderment and shock and awkwardness. The decision to follow Christ. The decision to join h2o church as a college senior. The decision to join staff. The decision to join a church plant to Kent State. It all was orchestrated by God before any of it came to pass. So why do I feel what I do? Here is my best answer: Because the call to follow Christ is a call to become like Christ, the tension will always remain. What I am becoming is not what I am (or was). It’s something (actually, someone) outside of myself, utterly different. God’s aim is not to clean me up and make me look a little more presentable to Him; it’s to make Jesus come alive through me. This is why Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

Jesus said that to find life, you must lose it (Matthew 10:39). Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed through our body.” As long as the Father is making me like the Son by the power of the Spirit, the awkwardness and tension will remain. I am daily dying to myself so that Jesus may shine through. This will always be unnatural, for though I am new in Christ, the remnants of the old persist. The in-breaking of the new (Jesus) will always be a shock (and an offense) to the old. The extent of the transformation God wants to work is so great that it will always be unnatural to us. We, who are mortal and broken and sinful, are called to become like the One who is immortal, perfect, and glorious.

God gets glory when He looks at us and sees his Son- even if in incomplete and broken fashion. I felt appropriately humbled at my ordination service as I remembered that it is Christ himself who has written the story of my life. And he hasn’t just written it. He is it. In the end it’s not a story about me; it’s a story of a God who humbly shares himself with us. For now, we are like him in only a fractured, not-yet-finished way, but someday in a complete and glorious way… the day we see him face-to-face. (1 John 3:2).

2011: what I will most remember

Remembrance is a biblical mandate. The people of Israel were instructed to remember the mighty and providential work of YHWH- even to construct monuments and memorials so as to not forget what He had done for them. The Psalms are littered with recitations of God’s action in human history. Jesus broke bread with his disciples at the Last Supper and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We are prone to forget. To forget the work of God in our midst. And our forgetfulness is not harmless in God’s sight. Forgetfulness breeds discontentment and dissatisfaction. And somewhere deep in our hearts there’s a battle raging between the humble choice to remember (and thus be content) and the selfish choice to forget (and thus be discontent). In Psalm 78, the author gives a laundry list of ways God intervened miraculously for Israel, but laments that the men of Ephraim “forgot what He had done, the wonders he had shown them (v.11). As this psalm attests, Israel would remember and worship, only to forget and be disobedient, then remember again, only to forget again. The remembering always led to right worship; the forgetting always led to rebellion and divine judgement. The relationship is clear.

We remember, that we might worship. Is not the essence of worship the act of remembering God’s work in the past and present and his promise to redeem all in the future? So I’ve been asking myself this question: what will I remember from 2011 that leads me to worship? Here goes:

  • I’ll remember being with my dear friend Rob Warren as we sat next to our dying friend Aaron. We shared our love for him, our sorrow for what cancer took from him, and our confidence in the redemption that awaited him. Never before had I experienced such depth of emotion and the visceral presence of Jesus as I did in that room that day. Aaron died the next day and my faith is still being tested and transformed because of it. I have written a longer post about Aaron here.
  • I’ll remember learning to be a father to Mason alongside an amazing woman- my wife Tiffany- who teaches me daily the joy of giving away your life. I’ll remember moments where God transformed my selfishness, frustration, and impatience into something that resembles- even if just slightly- the heart of the Father toward me. I’ll remember laughing with Tiffany at the crazy faces our son makes and the way he dances with his arms more than his legs, his insatiable desire to have books read to him, the way he says “momma” and “dadda” and the way he looks at me as I rock him to sleep at night.
  • I’ll remember watching our church plant drop the word “plant” and become simply a church. I’ll remember being in the pool with Justin Hendricks and a whole bunch of people as they publicly proclaimed their new faith in Jesus. I’ll remember the group of people who hung out in our cabin at Colorado LT to discuss theology and life. I’ll remember having the realization that our church wasn’t just led by staff anymore but by an amazing group of college students who are naive enough to believe Jesus for big things.
  • I’ll remember realizing that saying goodbye is an unavoidable reality of God’s Kingdom. I had big dreams for Brian Regueiro. He and I were going to do a church plant and do life and ministry together for years. Then God called him to the work of justice in DC. I’ll remember the journey God took me on to a place of joy and excitement in dying to my own dreams for sake of Christ’s Kingdom. I’ll remember realizing that the scope of God’s mission is so much larger than collegiate church planting, important as it may be and confident as I am that it’s my calling for now. I’ll remember learning that the mark of my discipleship is not just in how many people stay part of our ministry but also how many are sent out to labor for Christ elsewhere.
  • I’ll remember learning all over again what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I’ll remember being enamored again by the person of Jesus and the mission to which he calls us. I’ll remember doing teachings and hearing teachings from the Sermon on the Mount that reminded me of the inescapably exhaustive work of redemption Jesus wants to work in my life, the life of my friends, our church, and this world.