For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Difficult Decisions and the Will of God

Last week we made the announcement that we will be leaving Strasbourg and returning to the United States in October. I will become the senior pastor of Word of Life church in Coon Rapids, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. 
I thought it would be helpful for our friends here to understand what has led to our decision. If you’re looking for a post about church problems or juicy gossip tidbits, you are going to be disappointed. Life and ministry here have been good. We are not making the move because of church problems or conflict. In fact, the people of the church here are fantastic, the mission of the church is incredible, and Strasbourg has a way of capturing the hearts of those who linger here for any length of time. The leaders of the church, both formal and informal, are passionate followers of Christ whom I am glad to call friends. They are guiding a local church with a global impact. 
We are leaving because we believe that the Lord is calling us to serve in another place. How did we come to this conclusion? Let me give you some of the principles we used and then tell you how they worked in our lives. Perhaps they will help you understand our decision and, more importantly, perhaps they will be useful in making decisions in your own life as well.

Key Principles in Finding God’s Will

Principle 1: Absolute Surrender to Jesus

When trying to discern what the will of God is for our lives, it is important to start with a good and solid foundation. We cannot take the basics for granted. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:28-30). This is first step in finding the will of God. He wants us to love him with everything we have. 

Loving the Lord like this requires abandonment of everything else. Jesus made it clear that you cannot serve both God and money. So financial considerations must be set aside when seeking the will of God. He will provide whatever is needed for us to accomplish his will (Matthew 6:24-33). 

Loving the Lord requires us to set family aside. Jesus made this clear on multiple occasions. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). We naturally have great affection for our families and may feel responsibility for their welfare. But the Lord demands first place. He alone knows what is best for our families. 

Principle Two: The Authority of the Bible

If we want to know the will of God for our lives, it is foolish ignore the Bible. It is, after all, the inerrant revelation of his will (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Psalm 199:105)! It is important that we understand that the Lord has already spoken to us through his Word. Regardless of our circumstances, God’s Word provides the wisest counsel imaginable. We need to be students of the Word if we are serious about knowing his will. This takes time and diligence so that our mind is renewed (Romans 12:1-2) and we can understand what it is he wants us to do. 

People who say they want to know God’s will but are not interested in following what the Bible teaches are deceived. It answers most of the questions about how we are to live and what we are to do. Of course, the Christian life is not about following rules apart from a relationship with Jesus (John 5:39-40), but the Bible is clear that relationship will be marked by obedience to his word (1 John 2:3-6). And following the Bible means more than just finding a verse that justifies what we want to do. Instead, it means applying the full range of Biblical teaching to our situation.
Principle Three: Fitness for the Role

God has designed us to be part of his body. Each of us has a different role to play and God has given us various gifts, personalities, and desires that will match with the role he has for us (1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Romans 12:3-9). He has prepared things in advance for us to do and the things will match our capabilities (Ephesians 2:10). This does not mean that he will only call us to do thing that we are fit to do or that we will never find ourselves feeling inadequate. Sometimes he will call us to trust him to use us in spite of our lack of giftedness in an area. Usually, however, the long-term call of God matches who he created us to be. 

Principle Four: The Advice of Wise Counselors

The Bible speaks of the importance of counselors (Proverbs 11:14; 12:15; 13:10; 15:22; 20:18). We need to seek the advice of others who can give us perspective and insight into our situation. These people must be grounded in the Bible, which is a source of true wisdom. They must be primarily concerned with helping us find the will of God in our lives. They must be the type of person who will confront us when we need correction. We must be careful that we do not seek counsel from only those who confirm what we already want to do. They must speak God’s truth in love even when we don’t want to hear it.

Principle Five: A Familiar Voice

Following the Lord is a matter of relationship. Jesus told us that his sheep would hear his voice (John 10:3-4). Counselors are not a substitute for hearing from the Lord for ourselves. We must seek to actively cultivate his presence in our lives. Sometimes it will be his still small voice or the Spirit speaking through the word. In any event, when we are submitted to doing his will, his voice will bring with it a deep sense of peace (Philippians 4:4-7).

How The Principles Worked in Our Lives

When we were in the process of moving to Strasbourg, our friends in the United States asked us how long we would be staying in France. Their question was a logical one, but we didn’t have an answer.

I had accepted an open-ended call. Our denomination does not move pastors around every so often. My first pastorate lasted fourteen years. We explained to people that we didn’t know when or if we would move back to the United States. We’d be back for vacation every year, but we had no idea how long we would be gone. 

However, we did make a commitment to ourselves: we would stay for at least three years no matter what. I’d talked to enough missionaries and read enough biographies to know that the those first three years would be hard. As a result, we promised ourselves that the three-year mark would be our first major reflection point. 

I had no idea how hard three years would be. Those of you who have done this will nod your heads in agreement. If you haven’t done it I probably don’t have the skills to describe it any more than I can describe running a marathon (I’ve run three) in a way that will make you actually feel what it is like. Simply visiting another country doesn’t do it. You can put up with almost anything for a couple weeks or a month. 

The daily grind of living life in a foreign country wears you out in unimaginable ways. The “cuteness” and “exoticness” wears off after a few months. Language difficulties and cultural faux pas pile up and seem to crush you. At times you feel like a deep-sea diver in the depths of the sea. And someone is pinching your oxygen hose. During those first three years we talked to other missionaries about how we sometimes felt and they nodded knowingly. 

And suddenly it was over. Like Jonah after he was spat out of the great fish, we found ourselves on the beach. France had become home. Life in America seemed strange, while life in France felt good. A glance at the calendar told us that three years had passed. We had made it. We had survived transition.

At the same time, as we looked to the future there were questions in our hearts. Was Strasbourg where we were to live and serve until we retired? While we enjoyed the church and our friends here, there was an unsettledness in our spirits. We knew it was time to begin seeking the Lord for confirmation of what we were to do. We missed our family, but loved much of the life here. We prayed that God would lead us and laid everything before him. Our family, our finances, our future, and our French life were laid at the foot of the cross once again.

I tried to pay attention in my daily bible readings to what God might say to me about this. The problem is that there are some things that the Bible doesn’t speak directly about. It won’t tell you to buy a PC or a Mac. There is no verse that will tell you which job to take. There are principles, but often it is more about walking in relationship with Jesus and the wisdom that he provides by his Spirit. 

I knew from the Bible that my life needed to be connected to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).  Our church was certainly involved in discipling people from the nations. But was this the place I was to spend the next ten or fifteen years? Or was my ministry here designed to move the church to a certain place of maturity and then I would be departing for another assignment? If so, then staying would actually hinder the ministry of the church. There was no Bible chapter or verse to guide me. There was the voice of the Spirit, but he was strangely silent. I only knew that there was a vague unsettledness inside. What was going on? 

Like most pastors, throughout my ministry I have had wise counselors outside the church that I served that I could talk with about things I was facing. These men knew us well and had experienced many things in both church and missionary settings. In May 2017, we went on vacation to the United States. While we were there I had lined up meetings with several of these men. In the past, they had encouraged me, imparted bits of advice, and reassured us that we were in the middle of what God wanted for us. I was looking forward to talking to them.

We were at the airport when I received an email from an unexpected source: a former prayer partner. His message was a simple one. The Lord had been speaking to him and wanted him to tell me something: “God may call you back to the States and when he does do not hesitate and do not be afraid.” He had no way of knowing we were asking ourselves about the future.

In my meetings with each of my wise men, I went over some notes I had jotted down. 
·     I thought we had made it through the transition years. God was doing good things in the church. 
·     Leaders were being developed. 
·     Church services were full.
·     God was touching people from many nations of the world. 
·     But personally, we were left feeling a sense of ineffectiveness. It felt like we couldn’t get out of second gear.  
·     I was really struggling with the language. If a person talked slowly, I could understand them but speaking was a disaster. Many of the conversations at church are in French. I am a mute listener.
·     I was struggling with vision. What was happening in the church was good, but the next steps weren’t clear to me.
·     The constant turnover of people in the church was wearing on us. 
·     I was concerned about Janet’s inability to use some of her giftings in a foreign context. 

Amazingly, each of my counsellors gave the same advice. In the past, they talked about the difficulties of missions work and how overseas workers often struggle with feeling ineffective for years and they gave advice about how to deal with it. This time, each of them talked about “ministry fit.” 

They explained that in general, long-term fruitful ministry flows from matching needs with gifts. Sometimes God calls us to meet needs for which we are not gifted. He does it to meet a particular need or to teach us things. However, serving outside of our area of giftedness for the long haul will lead to burn-out, ineffectiveness, and an unhealthy church. In each meeting, they sensed that the Lord might be leading us back the United States. They thought that this was the cause of my unsettled feelings. 

Two of the counselors had the same suggestion: apply for a denominational position that was opening up. The fact that we even considered it showed us that our long-term place wasn’t in Strasbourg. It would be somewhere else. But where? And when? And how?

This had happened to us before in our previous church. We realized that we weren’t going to retire from there, but we didn’t know where we would be going or when. A wise man told us at the time, “Relax, keep working. You will know it when you see it.” A long time later, the Lord opened the door to come to Strasbourg. 

Fast-forward to 2017 and we were in a similar position of loving our current ministry and church home, but knowing that at some point there would be another door we were to walk through. When, where, or how that would happen were a mystery. 

In March 2018, ten months after meeting with our wise men, our former District Superintendent in Minnesota told us about a church in a Minneapolis suburb called Coon Rapids that was looking for a pastor. He thought that I would be a good fit there. Intrigued, we prayed about and decided to have my resumé thrown in the pile. We heard nothing for two months and assumed they were not interested. That was okay with us, we had plenty to do here in Strasbourg.

In May, we left for a hiking vacation. It’s an ancient pilgrimage route called the Camino (“The path”). There was plenty of time for prayer and reflection as we walked the 180 miles from Porto, Portugal to Santiago, Spain. As we wondered what God was up to, Janet was reading a blog about the Camino.  A question had been posed by someone who was worried about getting lost. Someone had responded, “Don’t worry about finding the Camino, the Camino will find you.” In that moment, we sensed that the Lord had things in control. We just needed to wait on him. It might be months or years. We would just serve him as best we could where we were until he showed us differently.

A few days later, I checked my email during a rest break on the trail. There was an email from the church in Coon Rapids. They wanted to interview me on June 9. Would I be available for a Skype call? We said yes. Two days after the interview I received an email saying that they had unanimously voted to ask me to come and candidate on the weekend of July 15. Would I be available? I would be in Minneapolis on a previously-planned vacation. It appeared that perhaps “the Camino was meeting us”, so I said yes.

I was still a little concerned. While I thought that the Lord would call me away from Strasbourg one day, the thought of moving to the United States bothered me some. The Strasbourg church is unique. It is made up of an ever-changing group from over 30 nations. The city is rich culturally with a fascinating history. I was afraid that I was ruined for an “ordinary place”.

Amazingly, before the candidating weekend, I had another meeting with a wise ministry veteran. He had, at one time, served in an international church. As I explained what I was feeling, he nodded his head in agreement. He then reminded me that I needed to focus on being in God’s will rather than the outward circumstances. “There is no better place than the center of God’s will. By the end of the weekend you will know if it is God’s next assignment for you. Relax.” He might have well as said, “Don’t worry about finding the Camino, the Camino will find you.”

The candidating weekend itself went well. We fit with the personality of the church. It is in a suburb that is becoming ethnically diverse. It has an active addiction recovery ministry, an outreach to a low-income housing area, and tremendous potential. It felt right. This was the place God was calling us. Just like he called us to Nashwauk. Just like he called us to Strasbourg. Now he was calling us to Coon Rapids. That was confirmed a few days later after they had prayed and voted unanimously to call me to be their pastor. After praying about it, we said yes.

There is peace in our hearts. The unsettledness is gone. Today we are certain that we are in the will of God in our decision to return to the United States. This does not mean that it will be easy. In fact, as we consider leaving our friends and life here in France we are grieving. Our solace comes from knowing that the Lord is in control. 

Just like when we left Nashwauk, God has already been preparing the man who will become the next pastor of Trinity International Church of Strasbourg. He and his family will be warmly greeted and shown the city. They will discover the joys and challenges of pastoring a church of people from the nations. Like us, they will stand in awe at what God is doing in a local church with a global impact. 

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