Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kiva - What Success Looks Like

Microlending has really taken off over the last few years. The concept is that by loaning fairly small amounts of money to people in second and third world countries, we can give them a chance to raise themselves out of poverty. If you are unfamiliar with microlending (or microfinance) you can read about it here: About Microfinance. The link is from an organization called and that is who I am writing this about. Kiva is a website that allows normal people like me to make microloans to people who are trying to lift themselves out of poverty. Most of the loans go to the working poor who are trying to start or expand small businesses that allow them to provide for their families. I made my first loan with Kiva this year and it went to a woman in Peru who needed funds to expand the inventory in her small grocery store. I didn't lend her all the money, my loan was grouped with the loans of others to come up with the amount that she needed. Kiva works with some amazing microfinance institutions who really know how to make this work. Therefore, their default rate is incredibly low.

But as to why I am writing about this today... Kiva has a great program that allows people to buy gift certificates. So, my brother-in-law got me a Kiva gift certificate for Christmas. I applied it to my account so that I can make another loan. I logged on this morning to decide who to loan to and got this:

Thanks Kiva Lenders! You've funded EVERY loan on the site!!
To date, Kiva has enabled lenders to send $51,875,860 to the working poor around the world.
Currently, we are experiencing a traffic spike and all previously fundraising loans have been fully funded. Our team is working with Kiva's Field Partners around the globe to approve new loan applications every day.

They have run out of people to loan to. As an organization, that is what success looks like. Of course, it doesn't mean they are done. They certainly have not eradicated poverty living in the world but their mission is working. Their mission to raise awareness of the power of microfinance is having an impact. They already have more loans on the way and I am sure they are considering how to expand their reach so they don't temporarily run out in the future. I am sure it is a good but stressful day for the folks at Kiva.

Blessings for a Happy New Year!


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some Thoughts at Christmas

As tomorrow is Christmas, I thought a Christmas posting would be in order. First of all, let me wish you a very merry Christmas. Second, let me write a bit about Christmas, specifically what I like about Christmas and the parts that leave me disappointed. Let me premise the second part by admitting that I still see Christmas from two different viewpoints. There is the view from the first 27 years of my life when I wasn’t a Christian and the view from the last 10 years I have spent as a Christian. During both phases of my life, I celebrated Christmas. What is most interesting to me now is that I see how we, as Christians, celebrate in both religious and secular ways, I think it just might be easier for me to see which is which. I just look at the stuff I added after my baptism. I want to be clear that the secular stuff is not inherently bad. In fact, some of the parts of Christmas that have nothing to do with religion are the best parts.

Here is what I like best about Christmas: First, it inspires hope and charity. Whether you attend church or not this time of celebration inspires a sense of hope that despite the realities of the world that surrounds us: climate change, economic turmoil, massive worldwide poverty and disease, etc. etc. etc. that everything might just be okay. That is imbedded in the Christian message of Christmas, that in the incarnation, God, in Jesus comes into the broken world to give us hope. But even for those who don’t know about Jesus, the Christmas lights that shimmer in the darkness, the parties that add joy to our sometimes joyless workplaces, the excitement and the anticipation speak a word of hope.

And for Christians, non-Christians and everyone in between a spirit of charity fills the air. As I was reading the news online this morning I noticed that the typical banner ads that say “Buy! Buy! Buy!” have been replaced with ads that say “Give! Give! Give!” They are there because charities and foundations know that people are more likely to give right now. Many of them don’t even know why, it I just something in the air. For Christians, it is imbedded in the message of Christmas. God, out of a sheer gift of love, sent his Son Jesus Christ to be with us, to love us, to save us. We believe that God’s love for us is a sheer gift that cannot be earned by anything we can do. We try to respond to that gift at Christmas by doing our best to imitate the outrageous generosity of God. We always come up short, but we try. At Christmas, even for those who don’t know the reason, this outpouring of giving is contagious, from people dropping money in the Salvation Army bucket, to buying an extravagant gift for a loved one, or writing a big check to a charity for the first time, this spirit of unconditional love and charity fills the air.

Here is something else I like about Christmas: Paired with the coming of the new year, it drives us to reflect and dream. This is the time of year of “year end issues” of magazines and television shows. As a people, we look back at what we are proud of and what we are ashamed of. That corporate reflection leads us to do the same in our personal lives. We look at how we spent our time and money, friends we have gained and lost, precious memories and painful heartbreaks. And then, we promise ourselves we will do better. We make resolutions and promises or just make an effort to try better. As Christians, we think about this as sanctification. We know that we are not all we should be and we believe that Jesus shows us that God loves us just the same. But we also believe that God wants more for us, that God wants us to learn and grow and become better. God wants us to live better and love better. So, at Christmas, we spend a little time trying to imitate God’s love and then commit to do better in the future.

There is much more I love about Christmas, but let me point out a couple of things that still leave me wanting. First, despite our best efforts, Christmas leaves people out. This is true inside the church and out. Despite our best efforts, and I do believe we make efforts (For instance Pastor Charles Anderson’s sermon last Sunday - I will post a link here when the podcast is available.) people believe that Christmas is about joy and so if you are hurting there is no room for you. On television, in the movies, everywhere you look, Christmas is smiling faces, big happy families and brand new Lexus sedans with giant ribbons. Those who aren’t up to smiling, don’t have family and can’t afford any presents, can feel excluded and that is really unfortunate. Christmas is about the coming of Jesus Christ who clearly came to bring good news to those who seem to be the most excluded. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and bind up the broken hearted. Yes, Christmas is about joy, but it is much deeper than that, it is about hope, even when there is no joy to be found.

The second thing about Christmas that leaves me wanting is this: it ends. This is not me being sentimental, it is something more theological. There is something very odd about celebrating the fact that the creator of the universe came, in the form of a human baby, to live with us and save us from ourselves and that we celebrate that fact with lights and trees and presents and cookies and parties and then, one week later, we take down the lights, put the tree at the curb, return the gifts we don’t want, throw away the stale cookies, clean up the mess from the parties and get on with our lives as if it was all over. While for Christians, the hope remains, the attitude often changes. For the rest of the world, the entire spirit of hope, charity and the attitude of reflection and spirit of dreaming can get put in a box and stored in the attic until next year. And that is just too bad.

Don’t get me wrong, it is good to spend some specific time each year intentionally reflecting on the incarnation, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, but I am always left a little disappointed that this time doesn’t change us more, that it doesn’t change me more and that we will all have to wait another year to truly experience the gift that has been given.

Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Good News in the Midst of Bad News?

This article from earlier this month in The New York Times is worth a read.

Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches

Published: December 14, 2008
Many ministers have jettisoned their standard sermons to preach instead about the economic downturn.



Discipleship Pathway - From the Underside

On the wall of my office resides the "not so pretty" underside of our Pathway to Discipleship. Most people who enter into the system will never need to see this part. But, it is this part that makes it a true system: the feedback loops and subsystems and all the other stuff that makes it work. My first run at a discipleship system wasn't really a system at all. It was just a series of options that people could choose to participate in, or not. Most of the pieces that are living on my wall are about making it, not just a systematic approach, but a system that lives and breathes to help people grow.
The system is up and running but we are still tinkering. The next component to roll out is New Testament Survey. I am almost finished writing, as I should be, it begins January 13.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Merry Christmas AND Seasons Greetings

This drawing appeared in the New York Times this morning (Attached to an article, It's A Narnia Christmas by Laura Miller.)    It drew my mind back to last night's teaching.  I haven't included the entire teaching last night, but some of the opening comments.

What is Christmas?

“What is Christmas?”  That is a question I have asked for some time.  I got a lot mixed signals growing up.  Mel Torme told me that Christmas is:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

Jack Frost nipping at your nose

Which, of course left out any notion of decking the halls with boughs of holly, something that we never managed to do at my house. 

Now, I do know that Christmas has something to do with dashing through the snow, and being from Western New York, I have done that, though never in a one horse open sleigh.   But even now that I am married to my true love, I have yet to receive 12 drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords a leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a milking, seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French Hens, two turtle doves, not even one single partridge in a pear tree. 

I have dreamed of a white Christmas but haven’t had that dream come true much in Texas.  I even remember as a child during one unusually warm December saying, “It’s not really Christmas if it doesn’t snow!”

I love all of these images, because they remind me of a wonderful time of year.  They represent family and love and the magic of this time of the year and I embrace them.  But, one of the things I try to do in Advent is clarify.  I try to clarify what things are good in a sentimental way and what things are clearly about Jesus Christ.  They are both good.  We can embrace the secular and the sentimental.  We can embrace things that are about family and even things that are just about winter itself.  But, it is good to reflect on what is what and which is which that we might remember to worship that which is truly Christmas, our savior Jesus Christ.



Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reading on Relationships

I just finished Randy Frazee’s book The Connecting Church, Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community.   Randy is a pastor at Oak Hills Church right down the street in San Antonio.  However, this book was written when he was at Pantego Bible Church in Arlington.  (He has also been a teaching pastor at Willow Creek.)

I found myself getting depressed while reading this book.  This was by no means a reflection on the author’s work.  What was bugging me was this:  when it comes to small groups, I have read more books than I can count.  There are always great ideas, new insights and stories of success.  However, when I talk to my colleagues, we all suffer from the same trouble of trying to create true, organic community within the church.  Occasionally, I just feel like I am feeding more data into my brain and going nowhere.  However, with Randy Frazee’s approach, I found a bit of hope.  I found hope in the fact that before offering more approaches, he starts with the problems.  The entire book is based around three problems that get in the way of true biblical community: the problem of individualism, the problem of isolation and the problem of consumerism.  For each of these problems he addresses the issue with, not just a small group plan, but a pathway to getting at the root of the problem.  For the issue of individualism, the solution lies in common purpose.  This may be my favorite part, Frazee points out that we often try to jump into small groups in order to nurture and sustain ourselves while we don’t even agree on what it is we believe.  It is awfully difficult to hold each other up and hold each other accountable when we don’t agree on even the basic tenants of our faith.  For the problem of isolationism, the author really digs deep and suggests we really reconsider where we live and how we live in community.  He suggests that true biblical community happens, not at church, but in our community, in our neighborhoods (imagine that!)  For the problem of consumerism, the path leads us to rethink our possessions and our interdependence and how our relationship to both can foster or prevent true community.

I really liked this book not because  it gave me a whole lot of concrete steps regarding small groups but that it helped me to better understand the goals and pitfalls of trying to foster true community.  I would be really interested to know how the author’s thinking has grown or changed in his time down the street at Oak Hills.  So, Randy if you read your reviews, give me a call or yell real loud, we aren’t too far away.



Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Matter of Trust

In my study and practice of Christian discipleship, one issue has never really crossed my mind until recently.  There is something to be said about the context in which one learns and grows as a disciple.  I believe that there must be a certain sense of trust in the system.

If we think about the word “disciple” itself, from the Greek methetes, we can see we are talking about a student or apprentice.  For one to truly gain from being a student or apprentice, one must have a certain amount of trust in the teacher.  If one were training to become a plumber and entered into an apprentice relationship with the plumber, but didn’t trust the plumber, there would be something lacking in the process.  If it were me and I were the student, I could find myself second guessing the plumber.  “Is he teaching me correctly?  Does he know what he is doing?  Is he trying to mislead me?”

In some ways this is easy for us.  The one we are following is Jesus Christ and as Christians we can put our full trust in Jesus Christ.  However, and here is the sticky part, the Holy Spirit calls and equips others to be the hands and feet of Jesus in all aspect of the church including in helping people to learn and grow in Jesus’ image.  This includes preachers, teachers and leaders.  While we may put our trust in Jesus Christ, if we do not trust the ones working for Jesus we may find ourselves in the place of my imaginary plumber’s apprentice.

This is not as easy as it sounds.  While, through faith, we put all our trust in God through Jesus Christ, we know better than to blindly trust human beings.  Nearly all of us have heard of people being led astray and some of us have been led astray ourselves.  However, in the journey of discipleship – of looking to Jesus that we might look like Jesus – at some point we have to make a choice.  At some point, we have to prayerfully evaluate those in the faith community around us and decide if we will walk with them or even allow them to lead us in our faith journeys.  We can always reevaluate but there is one thing that we clearly can’t do:  we can’t decide to follow or even walk with someone in a spirit of distrust.

In some ways, the commitment to Christian discipleship is a lot like marriage.  In marriage, we have to establish some level of trust.  We have to believe that our spouse really means the vows that were said in the ceremony.  We have to believe that she won’t harm us, that he won’t betray us, that she will work to protect us.  Of course, if that trust is violated we are devastated; but at the same time, we cannot live in the spirit of distrust assuming that our spouse will intentionally wrong us.  I have seen relationships where that was the case and they did not last very long.

Any pastor who has moved to a new church and any church that has received a new pastor knows that there is always a time of testing and transition.  Conflict is likely to arise over seemingly simple things: the new pastor wants the communion table in a new place, wants to change the order of worship or has a different style of preaching.  Change always creates stress because it creates uncertainty which can lead to fear.  Often this period of uncertainty is quickly resolved because the members of the church decide to trust their new pastor.  This does not mean that they will never question what the pastor is doing, but they are less likely to question the integrity of the pastor.

Let me try one of my previous examples.  I trust my wife.  I trust that when she says she loves me that she means it.  Because of this, if it were my birthday and there were no cake, no card, no present, I would assume either a) she has a surprise in store or b) she got so busy taking care of our child that she forgot.  I would not assume that she was purposely ignoring my birthday to hurt my feelings.

It works the same way with our church leaders.  At some point we have to decide if we trust that they: love Jesus, love the church and want to do everything they can to connect people with the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.  We might still disagree with what they do or how they do it but we assume that they are doing it for the right reasons.  We can disagree but there is one thing that we clearly can’t do:  we can’t decide to follow or even walk with someone in a spirit of distrust.

Often I don’t see that.  In an effort to make disciples of Jesus Christ, I make so many decisions every day that I can’t even count.  I realize that all of these decisions are not perfect and sometimes they are totally wrong.  But I believe they always represent my best efforts to use my gifts to spread the love of Jesus Christ.  But, too often, people respond out of a lack of trust concluding that my action or inaction represents something devious or even unchristian.

As a clergy person, I am not off the hook here.  I have to make that same commitment every day with the Christians that surround me.  I have to believe that the people around me, no matter what their behavior, are trying to grow in the image and likeness of Christ.

This comes up for me now in my thinking about discipleship because if that trust is not there at some level we will be stranded on our journeys unable to embrace the gift of community that Jesus gave us with his gift of the church because we are too busy protecting ourselves that we cannot be open to the direction of others.

One of the worst theologians of our time, Billy Joel says it well in his song A Matter of Trust:

I've lived long enough to have learned
The closer you get to the fire the more you get burned 
But that won't happen to us 
'Cause it's always been a matter of trust

Joel is talking about a different kind of love but we are talking about the powerful love of God in Jesus Christ, a love that we are called to share with each other.  That kind of love and that kind of trust will burn us sometimes, but if we don’t let go we will put a giant stumbling block in the path that leads us to recreation in God’s image.  Jesus surely knew that this kind of love had consequences but he also knew that the power and love of God was way greater than any human consequences.

May God bless you on your journey of discipleship.







Monday, December 8, 2008


I don't like to post often about "not posting."  In my first year of blogging, I wrote quite a few times about why I wasn't writing.  I quickly learned that if I had time to write about not writing, I had time to write about something more interesting. 

But here I am falling back on bad habits.  I was really getting a good blogging rhythm going.  Usually I fall out of the rhythm for lack of focus.  This time, I fell out due to over focus.  Let me try to explain.  For the last 3+ years that I have been keeping a weblog (first and now this one) I tended to post in down time.  Those down times consisted of times I was waiting for someone or something or my brain needed a break from something else I was working on.  Recently, in light of an increasingly heavy workload, I reworked my organizational system to reduce downtime.  Through better tracking of my time and keeping a list of projects that can be worked on during downtime, I am working more efficiently and getting more down.  However, one of the casualties has been something that depends on downtime: the weblog.  So, because I believe this space is important, I am going to try to make it intentional and even carve out some time to work on it.

I hope you will keep checking back.



p.s. by the way, the weblog has a new address.  You can still reach it the old way but you can also find me at