our journey together

our journey together

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Neal Story

How it Came To be: The Neal Story
Young Jason, a wayward Christian in the height of his rebellious streak meets Jessica the sassy Jewish girl fresh out of boot camp. Marriage followed a short courtship. Plans for children however were thought to be  halted when we were given the news that we were unable to have them. Our hearts ached to be parents and we struggled through some rough times as a newly married couple after receiving  this news. Two years had passed when we found out that we were pregnant with a precious little girl, a blessing we never expected or dreamed could be. We were going to be parents! My dear mother-in-law often says “never say never,” so it was no surprise to her when we were blessed with yet another miracle baby¾a boy! For medical reasons we were unable to have any more of the babies my body was not supposed to be able to have in the first place. We didn’t feel that we were done ‘having’ children, so we prayed. For what? We weren’t sure.
 Jason took his first youth ministry job in Ohio where we became foster parents to a little boy, and mentored another. This was the beginning of our foster care journey. Moving back to Minnesota two years later we were licensed as foster care providers with the county. We had calls for children before the ink was dry on our paperwork. Unbeknownst to us this was the beginning of one of the most heart-wrenching and life-changing periods we had yet experienced. A decade of unimaginable joys and pains were ahead of us.
 We spent a few years doing foster care for the county. One of our last children was a little girl that we were seeking to adopt. Her mother was losing her parental rights; no family was stepping forward or found to take her so we were asked if we would adopt her. At this point we had been parenting her for nine months. We loved her as one of our own children, we couldn’t wait to welcome her as a permanent addition to our family. Two days after the request for us to adopt her, the social worker called and told us that they found a family member to take her. Our hearts were broken; how could this happen?! Within two days she was gone.
 Jason said, “Jessica, I don’t know if I can do that again. No more babies”. Shortly thereafter we switched to a therapeutic foster care agency where we planned to take in more teenagers thinking it may be easier on our hearts. What were we thinking???  Those teens were just as easy to love and just as hard to   let go of.
One day Jason was at the church working when I received a call asking if we would take  medically-fragile infant twins. The little boy came first (now our Malachi) and his twin sister (now our Miriam) three days later due to her being hospitalized. They had been separated because no foster home would take them together. After Miriam came we put them in the same crib and they snuggled into each other. They both had severe asthma and very poor immune systems. They had been exposed to many harmfully chemicals while inutero and the degree of damage would take time to see. The day came when, once again, a social worker asked us to adopt. We cautiously said yes and waited to see if the birth parents would work their plan and get their children back or  if  they would lose their parental rights and we would be able to  adopt them. As we waited we got another call asking if we would consider adopting the twins’ 2 1/2 year older brother. They (the county) were going to go to termination and wanted the siblings to be adopted together. Oh and by the way their was another baby on the way! Whew!
We spent many hours in prayer and had many family meetings (as adoption is a family affair). We gave our final yes.
Our sweet Titus came home when he was 2 ½ and we were already his 11th move. He came to us with diagnoses a mile long and a file two inches thick .  He had faced abuse, neglect, drug exposure, and the list goes on. So much pain for such a little boy!  Although we loved him just the way he was, baggage and all we knew we may have a rough road ahead.
Not being sure if they would be taking the baby away at birth we waited. As well not knowing the challenges this little one would face in her development with all the drug exposure she had. At two days old and a whopping six pounds little Ruthie came home.  A year and a half later we finalized her adoption. Wow, we were now a family of 8!
A few years and several wonderful foster children later we got a call that a 12 year old boy needed a forever home. His dad was dying and didn’t have family to care for him so he called the county and asked for help. We met with Cory and his father and his father chose our family to parent his child from that moment forward. This man did the most selfless act that can be done. He gave his child a family. Cory’s dad was there on the adoption day, he came for holidays, and had Jason do his funeral. 
We continued to do foster care and came to a place that we thought we were done “having” children and as well were planning to stop doing foster care as our children’s special needs were increasing. Malachi had been diagnosed with a vascular malformation and autism. Miriam was diagnosed with fetal cocaine effect and was constantly sick, we now know that she has an auto immune disease. Titus with his reactive attachment disorder and PTSD and much more. Ruthie having Fetal Alcohol effect and anxiety disorder. Cory had so much grief to deal with and pain he didn’t know what to do with.  So we gave up our foster care license. A few days after that we got a call from a woman asking if we would adopt her baby. She was in a tough place in life and knew it would be the best for her baby. I grew to know this woman and saw the love she had for our little one. She may possibly be the best birth mom in the world.
The night that she went into labor she called and asked me to come to the hospital. I remember my nerves being that of a first time mom. I was so excited! Birth mom not only allowed but asked me to be there the entire time. I was even able to cut the cord. Our little Josie (a name we all chose together) was seven weeks early and stayed in the NICU for 19 days before being brought to her new home by her birth mom and birth grandma. We were all able to pray over Josie and bless her and her birth family.
So that is it. That is our family, the Neal clan and how we came to be.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What is the right way to evangelize?

What exactly is the job of a farmer who raises crops?  Is it the farmer who produces the vegetables and fruits that we enjoy, or is it the ground the seed is planted in that is to be given the credit, or is it the seed itself, or is it sun, or rain, or a good season, or is it God?  I think the answer is yes.  I believe all those things play into a good crop, and I think that it is ultimately God who has His hand in all those elements from the seed leaving the farmers hand to the picking of the crop.  This is a good example of what the gift of evangelism is and how we, as Christians, are to evangelize in this lost world.   Evangelism is the processes of casting the seeds of the Kingdom of God (sharing the gospel) into the hearts of people whose hearts have been tilled, in order that they are readied to hear the good news of the Kingdom.  Evangelism is also the process of tilling (helping remove the rocks of doubt), water (acts of kindness, relationship building, confirming), and harvesting (co-laboring with the Spirit in helping someone become a born again believer).
One of the key elements of being a seed sower is to actually throw seeds into the ground.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about a farmer who went out to scatter seeds on the ground and then in detail explains the kind of soil the seeds land in.  When Jesus explains the parable to his disciples he explains that the seeds are the message about the kingdom and the soil is the condition of the hearts of people who hear this message.  Therefore one of the main responsibilities of a follower of Christ is to share the message of the Kingdom or in other words the good news of the gospel of Christ.  In the Bible there are many places we find that anyone who is a Christian has the responsibility of evangelizing.  We find Jesus’ commissioning his disciples (Matt 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:46-49, John 20:21, Acts 1:8), examples of believers (not just Apostles) witnessing (Acts 4:31, 6:8, 7:52, 8:4), and commanding us as believers to evangelize (Eph 3:6-7, 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2, Philippians 2:14-16, Colossians 4:5-6, 1 Peter 3:15).  The word evangelist in the Greek literally means, “A bringer of good tidings and the name given to the New Testament heralds of salvation through Christ who are not apostles (Blue Letter Bible, 2011).  Taking all these examples along with the whole metanarrative of the Bible we can see that it is our God given responsibility to be evangelists whether we think we have the gift of evangelism or not!
In this example of a farmer scattering seeds we see this is primarily proclaiming the gospel, but to evangelize is far more complex than just saying words.  In John 3:34 Jesus says that when he proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom he was speaking the words of God through the power of God.  Therefore I do not want to down play the importance of speaking out loud the gospel.  However it is equally important to prepare the soil / heart of a person who does not know or care about God.  Before a farmer goes into the field to scatter seeds, he prepares the field by tilling it and removing rocks.  Continuing with the metaphor I see tilling and removing rocks more of the friendship, service and apologetic aspect of evangelism.  Tilling is not a very fun thing for the soil or the heart.  God brings many things into our lives to cause us to stop and turn to Him.  We can get involved with the tilling process when we help people see what God might be doing in their lives by pointing to what He has done in our own life.  Paul helps the Church of Corinth see that God has comforted them in their times of need so that they may comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).  As well when we begin to care about our neighbors and they begin to care about us, we build trust and credibility in the relationship and as a result we are able to lovingly help them remove doubts and barriers to God in their lives.  As well tilling can take on the form of meeting their needs in times of trouble.  This kind of evangelism usually precedes the proclamation of the gospel or prepares the way for the proclamation of the gospel.  As well I see this kind of love as a demonstration of the Kingdom just as much as miracles.  Jesus told us that whenever we care for “the least of these” we are caring for Him (Matthew 25:40).  Loving “the least of these” could as well be seen as watering the seeds and helping them take root in the hearts of those in need. 
Yet I do not see us all being farmers, who are the ones who really know how to sow the seeds, where to sow the seeds, when to sow the seeds, how and when to water the seeds.  The farmers are ones who seem to know the ins and outs of farming far better than your average gardener who dapples in seed sowing in their back yard.  In the Bible it seems clear that there are some who are specifically gifted by the Holy Spirit in evangelism.  As well it seems the scriptures point out that this gift, evangelism, is a gift to the church.  In Ephesians 4:11-12 Paul writes, “It was He (God) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelist, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up.”  These evangelists or farmers, if you will, have been gifted by Holy Spirit in order that they may equip the church to reach the lost.  These farmers help the little gardeners to be more effective in planting seeds in the soil of their neighbor’s hearts. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

God Loves Us and has Commissioned Us to Love

How much do people really matter to me? Does it matter that people are in pain, that they are hungry, abused, cold, desperately alone, seeking happiness but failing, sick and wounded, I could obviously go on and on and on. The real question is can I stop focusing on my own needs long enough to reach out to people around me and allow God to love them through me! I have not come to a conclusion yet, but I am willing to ponder the idea.
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave … (John 3:16a).” If I start here with the presupposition that there is a God and that He cares about the world. I logically come to this conclusion by looking at creation and that there is ultimate truth or an ultimate right and wrong. Creation points to a good Creator and ultimate right and wrong point to a morally good Creator, who cares about His creation enough not to leave them alone. The incarnation of God is, in my opinion, the ultimate act of love. God came to rescue the world and me in our pain! “God so loved the world that He gave, His only begotten Son that whoever believes (trusts) in Him will not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).” God cared enough about me to give sacrificially of Himself and ultimately pay the price for my sins (Romans 8:1-4), in so doing this I am now able to fulfill the purpose of my existence – being reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) and able to be in a right relationship with Him. I am now capable to love God back by the gift of grace through faith in His Son Jesus.
Jesus did not only come to die but to live, to model, to teach us how we are meant to live our lives. Paul inspired by the Holy Spirit put it this way, “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His son… (Romans 8:29).” God has predestined those who have put their faith in Him to become like Jesus. We are to follow Jesus’ example because we are to be like Him and He loved people! Bill Hybels in his book, Becoming a Contagious Christian, writes about how he came to grips with who matters to God.  Hybles was reading Luke 15 where, “Jesus was so upset over the discussion the religious leaders were having about who matters to God and who doesn’t, that He said, in effect, I never want there to be confusion on this again. I’m going to tell you not one, not two, but three stories – rapid fire – to make sure everybody understands who really matters to God… There I (Hybles’ writes) was, seeing this and trying to grapple with what it means when Jesus says all people matter to Him. I knew what it meant theologically. That part was easy enough. But what did it mean practically (Hybles, pg 20)?” People matter to Jesus and because people matter Jesus they should matter to me.
God is a God of mission. He sent His Son, Jesus, and Jesus sends us into world to be His Body to the world (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12). Therefore if God has sent us into the world we must learn to love all people, lost people, dirty people, stinky people, annoying people, poor people. Shane Claiborne quoted Gandhi in his book, Irresistible Revolution, “When people asked him (Gandhi) if he was a Christian, he would often reply, ‘Ask the poor. They will tell you who the Christians are (Claiborne, p. 161).” Jesus talked about this when He told the parable of Sheep and Goats that our lives will be judged by our actions not our words (Matthew 25:31-46). This has so gripped me that one of the core values of the church plant I am pastoring is: To be a missional church… We are called to be active in the community and the world! A church on a mission to BE the Good News of the Gospel to our Community. Rather than viewing missions as what we do with 10% of our resources, we want our whole lives to be in service to God. Each house group will have its own mission to the community based upon the leading of the Holy Spirit and the passions of their hearts. We want them basing the mission on the Scriptures Isaiah 58, Mathew 25:31-46 (http://churchdonedifferent.net/about.html). When I read the book “A New Kind of Christian” by Brian McLaren, I remember how angry I got with some of his conclusions but one thing I totally agreed with him about was this idea of mission. He wrote, “For Christ, his “called ones” … were also to be his “sent ones.” He trained those whom he called to follow him as apprentices so that they could be sent in his ongoing mission to teach his good news. In this line of thinking about the church, we don’t recruit people to be customers of our products or consumers of our religious programs; we recruit them to be colleagues in our mission. The church doesn’t exist to satisfy the consumer demands of believers; the church exists to equip and mobilize man and women for God’s mission to the world (McLaren, pg 156-157).” Therefore because Jesus has called us and sent us out to be co-laborers in His mission to reach the lost, we must learn to let His love “compel us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one form a worldly point of view (2 Corinthians 5:14-16a).”
Knowing that there is a God, who cares about people (including me) and that he wants me to be involved in His mission in reaching the very people he cares about, causes me to pause, realizing this must be the reason I am on this earth. When the religious leaders of Jesus’ day wanted to test Him they asked what is the ultimate purpose for mankind, and Jesus responds by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).” To love God and to love people are the reasons I am here! John writes in his first epistle, that anyone who loves is from God because God is love and it is when we love each other that we see God in the other person and His love is made complete in us (1 John 7-12). Shane Claiborne put it this way: “Mother Teresa offers us that brilliant glimpse of hope that lies in little things: ‘We can do not great things, only small things with great love. It is not how much you do but how much love you put into doing it.’ Above our front door, we have hung a sign that says, ‘Today … small things with great love or don’t open the door” (Irresistible Revolution, 2006, p. 319). I conclude Amen Teresa and Amen Shane! If I ever want to reach someone who is lost, in pain, hungry, abused, cold, desperately alone, seeking but failing, sick, wounded, I better be able to hold my hand out in love or not at all!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Is Jesus the Only Way?

For school I needed to write a one page paper on, "Is Jesus the only way?" So, I thought I would share with you my thoughts.  I realize this is a very deep question and I could have wrote pages on the subject but here is what I was able to do with the assigned restriction:

As I ponder the question, “Is Jesus the only way?”  I am reminded of how many times as dad I have to tell one of my eight children, “Because I said so!”  “You may not understand right now that it is for your own good so I you need to obey.”  “No you cannot jump off the roof, no you cannot play in the street, no you cannot have ice-cream for dinner, no you cannot play baseball in the living room, no you cannot wake you’re your sister up, no you cannot go to the park on your own, you are only two.”  As a dad of eight children and a man who has had over ninety foster kids come through his house I fully understand that children do not always understand what is best for them.  I have come to the conclusion that God must feel like I do as dad sometimes, saying to us no you cannot serve both money and me, no you cannot live your life totally self-centered, no you cannot call me Allah or Buda or Ginger or Bob – I am Jesus, the way, the truth and the life no one can come to the Father (God) except through me, the real me not someone you have made me up in your mind!  The answer to the question is yes, Jesus is the best way for us to live in contrast with the things we think is best for us, and no, not every road leads to heaven.  To be reconciled to God through Jesus is where we find true joy and happiness!
I think this question is very relevant right now in the Christian community with the all the buzz going on with Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.”  (Just to be clear, I am not saying one way or the other, what Bell might be saying in this book because I have not read it, but what is being said about the book is bringing this question to the forefront of the Church right now.)  The Universalist idea that all roads lead to heaven no matter how they live or what god they choose to follow, is an insult to our intelligence (even if I wish it were true, for the sake of the lost!).  To say that all roads lead to heaven is like saying, “That no matter what color you thought was your favorite, for example orange, in the end all colors is blue.”  To think that no matter what our choices are here on earth, good, bad or indifferent, do not matter because all will be with God in the end is to misunderstand God Himself.   We misunderstand His divine mercy and justice.  God is completely just and completely merciful, through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.  Through this sacrifice God’s wrath towards sin has been justified and He is able to show us mercy.  In Romans 5:6-10 Paul writes about God’s mercy and His need for justice because of His wrath towards sin, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”  All roads do not lead to heaven!  God hates sin, Habakkuk 1:13 tell us, “Your eyes (O Lord) are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.”  God needed to deal with the sinful nature of mankind, and through Jesus has built a bridge, saying to all mankind, “I made a way, where there is no other way, I’m telling you the truth, no one else can reconcile you to God, and through me is where you will find true life.”
Is Jesus the only way to heaven?  I believe this is the wrong question because it is not about getting to heaven. In his book God is the Gospel, John Piper essentially asks whether we are in love with God: “The critical question for our generation – and for every generation – is this:  If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”  I think, sadly, many people would say yes to Piper’s question!  I believe one of the right questions is, if there is a God, does He care about us, and if He does, what can I do to please Him and know Him.  I believe this to be true as well I understand that this is only possible through the cross where my sin is dealt with, but for what reason did I need to deal with my sin?  Was it only to go to heaven?  No, it was so that I am able to be reconciled to God!  To do what I was created to do – worship God in spirit and truth for eternity.  To be able to be in right standing with God for eternity!

Piper, J. (2005). God is the Gospel:  meditations on God's love as the gift of himself. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How do we become confidently shy?

I feel like the shyness of God / the idea of a humble God is something of a beautiful ministry that brings me to a place of deep awe and worship.  I love the deep truth of a God whom I cannot fully understand (Trinity) who is in perfect oneness, in perfect harmony and perfectly other focused.  I love the analogy in, “The Shyness of God,” where the Spirit’s ministry as one at a blackboard pointing at the drawing of Jesus saying, “Look at him, listen to him, learn from him, follow him, worship him, be devoted to him, serve him, love him be preoccupied with him.”  As well the Son always in complete surrender to the Spirit and complete surrender to the Father Then when you take this idea of a God who is perfectly Three in One, in a perfect humble relationship with One Another, to this meek God who was willing to humble himself on behave of us lowly humans, it absolutely blows my mind!  Jesus is telling of this truth to his disciples in John 16:7, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you.”  Jesus knows that his death will take away sin from anyone who puts their faith in him and receives this gift of forgiveness but forgiveness is a means to the end.  The ultimate reason Jesus died on the cross was to bring us back into relationship with Triune God, Father, Son (paid the price), and Spirit (leads us to that gift so that we may be reconciled).
So, the result of there being a humble God, is that I am able to be reconciled to God, and from this reconciliation I become so changed, so humbled, that I want to share this message of reconciliation with others  who do not have this joy (2 Cor. 5:16-6:2).  As well, from experiencing this humility in the person of Jesus Christ spurs me on to want become like Him (Philippians 2:3-8) and be humble with others around me.  As I experience becoming more and more like Jesus (my true identity), I am able to have the confidence and assurance to become appropriately shy.    What do I mean by shy?   The “shyness of deference, the shyness of a concentrated attention on another; it is not the shyness (which we often experience) of self-centeredness, but the shyness of an other-centeredness (The Shyness of God, John Ortberg).”

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Good Shepherd

To me, the image of the “Good Shepherd” is one of encouragement and an example to me as a pastor.  One of the ways that the “Good Shepherd” impacts my life is by being one of His sheep I can and will be able to trust where he is leading me.  I can have faith in His leading me in the right path because the “Good Shepherd’s” guiding is only meant for my good.  David picked up on this imagery in Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd… He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.  He guides me in paths of righteousness… Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me …”  As well Paul writes about how God’s only has plans for good, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose (Rom 8:28).”

As I fully trust in the “Good Shepherd” and surrender my will and control to His good purposes for my life I begin to find what true life really is.  I find that although I may have thought I knew what happiness was for me I was wrong.  I may have thought I knew what the purpose of my life was, but I was wrong.  The One who created all things knows what I was created to do and what will bring me abundant life.  From this fullness of life, love flows: from God to me and then from me to others.   This fullness of life is too powerful, too big, and too good to contain inside myself or to selfishly try to keep it!  The overflow of love finds its ultimate expression in the giving of it away (love for the One whom first loved me and then for others).  As John wrote in his first letter, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God.  Because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).”

From Jesus, the “Good Shepherd’s” example of love (laying his life down for his sheep), we are to love people: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:3-8)!”