There’s nothing like sitting by a fireplace on a cold wintry night, sipping hot chocolate, and listening to Christmas music while gazing at a brightly-lit Christmas tree.
I love Christmastime, but the truth is that a lot of what I enjoy has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. That can bother me. Actually, there is far greater reason, theologically, for Easter to be my favorite holiday. After all, the Nativity is the warm-up for the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. But I don’t have those warm fuzzy feelings at Easter, and that bothers me, too. The Gospel writers spend thousands of words retelling the events of the last week of Jesus’ life and shortly thereafter. They spend hundreds of words writing about Jesus birth. It seems that Jesus himself wants me to concentrate more upon his mission than on his being born. He instructed the disciples to take communion by saying, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me,” and, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1Corinthians 11) We are to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes—not his birth in Bethlehem.
The world around us seems to like the baby Jesus better than the grown-up Jesus, however. I can understand that … after all, the Baby Jesus didn’t overturn the tables of merchants or talk about Hell. Christmas is also about giving and receiving presents, and maybe that’s part of the reason that the world makes such a huge deal about Christmas. And, um … it’s also probably another reason why I like the Yuletide Season so much. I’ve written nostalgic songs about Christmas; but even if I am singing about all the trappings of the holiday, the lyrics always end up with the hope that springs from the birth of Jesus.
The hope of Christmas is that a Savior has been born. Verily, verily I say unto you – if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, nobody would be celebrating His birthday over 2000 years later. Nobody. Not even Christians. (Because there wouldn’t be any!)
So, I celebrate this holiday with one eye on the manger and another on the cross. Truly, there are no warm, fuzzy feelings of peace, joy and goodwill at Christmas without the rest of the story.
Setting into motion an outreach to the left-out in the Land of the Scots
We’ve just got a few more days left in Scotland before we leave to come home. It’s been a remarkable trip – made so especially by the hospitality we have received from God’s people here in the UK. This trip would not be possible without free places to live. It’s been a stretch financially just coming over here, traveling from place to place, and buying what we need from day to day; but it’s all been great. Mary and I will return next week feeling that we have been used of the Lord and inspired. I’ll cut to the chase and bring you all up to speed on what’s happening with Scum of the Earth Church in Scotland.
I think I’d not remembered what hard soil Scotland is spiritually when it comes to reaping a harvest for the Kingdom of God. It’s not like the USA. Even though I would say that our home country is approaching a post-Christian era, we are not quite there yet. The southern states are particularly slow getting there; and that’s good. There’s still enough Christian memory in America to make the planting of new churches easier than it is here. Most people in the United States have family members who still attend church. There are plenty of Christian programs on the radio and television. There are even Christian films that seem to be gaining in popularity. It’s simply not that way over here. Scotland is so post-Christian, I’d say it’s pre-Christian when it comes to most of the population. Many people don’t even have Christian friends, and the perception they do have of Christianity is negative.
Thus, people who plant churches here have work to do before they start sowing Gospel seed – they have to plow the hard ground. That means getting people ready to hear the words of Jesus and to take them seriously. It means building relationships with people who have no faith at all and loving them until they trust you. It means being there for them when stuff happens and things go awry. It means waiting for the Holy Spirit to move in their hearts. Thank God that he is there to lead us and to help us.
Stuart and Lynsey Gilmour have their work cut out for them. What we have done here is to help train them for that task. They cannot be too encouraged or overly prepared to do the work God has called them to do.
In addition to meeting with Wes & Cindy White and Mike & Carol Kurtyka from Communitas International (the missionary organization that will act as a legal covering for Scum Scotland in the UK), we have met with other people this week who are friends of Stuart’s & Lynsey’s and will act as accountability here. Mary and I have also forged relationships within at least one church in the area that will hopefully come alongside Scum Scotland in the near future and provide additional prayer support for the Gilmours.
Just so you know, when people actually do come to Christ here, they end up becoming very strong believers who gather in dynamic, faithful churches. It’s what the Scripture teaches us, “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more,” (Romans 5:20). We have every confidence that this will be the case with Scum in Scotland; but first, there are pubs in which to meet its future members. There are concerts to attend where those whom God has chosen to eventually live in this scummy little corner of his kingdom are now listening to bands sing about anything but Jesus. These are the people that the Gilmours and their friends will invite into their lives.
It is extremely difficult to get away from the busyness and commerce of the holiday season. We’d have to live like monks or like the Amish. The best we can do is to focus on the important stuff the church celebrates so that, in at least one community, we are not bowing to the culture. The church has got to be the place where Jesus is the heart of the holidays. We can’t expect that from anywhere else.
Folks at Scum have reminded me what the holidays really mean because they lack the ecclesiastical baggage I carry. For example, over the years they have wanted to do a liturgical Christmas Eve service. I never would have thought of that for us, but to them it marked a reverence that was genuine. The services are beautiful and powerful, and we’ve added a twist with original poetry from the people at Scum of the Earth along with hymns, responsive readings, and various Scripture readings. This year will be no different, as it’s now become a seasonal tradition for us; but that’s okay because whatever happens will be from hearts that seek to glorify God.
If someone says, “Don’t forget the meaning of the holidays,” (or, “Keep Christ in Christmas!) my initial reaction is to take the opposite side and argue for the spirit of the holidays to be an everyday thing. (Keep Jesus in each mundane, non-holiday date on the calendar.) But people find purpose and grace in the holidays. Christmas and Thanksgiving are about taking time out to celebrate God’s goodness to us. In one sense, we shouldn’t have to set aside special times during the year—we should always be grateful and mindful of everything that God has done for us by sending Christ—but that’s simply not the case, so we mark our calendars to remember.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another person considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord…
(Romans 14:5 -6)
My advice for celebrating the holidays is to do so in the context of community. Celebrate with your family of origin, with your church family, with your group of friends, and with other families who may invite you into their spheres. But the holidays should be a time of service and ministry as well. Married folks are tempted to provide only for themselves and their children, but they have the ability to open their families to others (and thus be an example to their children that it’s not all about them). Singles are free in this instance to serve the Lord without restriction (St. Paul was right when he wrote about this in 1Corinthians 7). Singles can visit a forgotten person in a nursing home on Christmas morning or serve a meal to homeless folks at Thanksgiving without fear of neglecting someone else. Jesus would be doing all these kinds of things. Seems that at every Jewish holiday we read about Him doing something for somebody. The community of Christ should be no different during our holidays.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly my job description might look like after I step down from Scum of the Earth’s staff within a couple of years. At any rate, I am sure that I have heard from the Lord that Scum does not need a 65-year-old senior pastor. That will be my birthday in February, 2019. Until then, I am more than happy to serve this local body of believers that I’ve been a part of since its inception in the year 2000 – and I am excited to stay part of the congregation after that. One reason I know I’ve heard from the Lord is that I never would’ve come up with this idea on my own. I had planned to “die in the pulpit,” as I believe that young people need older people (obviously, I’ve always thought that way). Now, as I look at the wisdom of me stepping down, it becomes apparent that this unique church requires a passing the torch because God is calling me to broader ministry and because the next season of Scum Denver’s mission needs a leader with different gifts. To that end, Jesse Hellmann became the governing elder of the church in September.
I met with my friend, the Rev. Dave Male, while in Cambridge, England. Dave Male is the Church of England’s National Adviser for Pioneer Development, working to facilitate the development of a comprehensive and integrated vision, strategy and practice for pioneer ministry across the country. Dave has been the founder and Director of the Centre for Pioneer Learning in Cambridge, which aims to equip, resource and send out both lay and ordained pioneers (nationally and internationally). He was Tutor in Pioneer Mission Training at Westcott House and Ridley Hall, Cambridge University. (It was during this time that I met him.) Previously David spent seven years as the Vicar of The Net Church in Huddersfield which was one of the first fresh expressions of church in the U.K. He has written a number of books around pioneering issues. He is also a member of the Archbishops College of Evangelists.
My meeting with Dave was encouraging. He said, “Mike, we’ve got to explore: What is it that you offer the body of Christ in a broader sense than being pastor of Scum of the Earth Church?” That’s a rather humbling question, and the answer may not be only what I think. There’s an old proverb that says, “A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9, New English Translation). So, I’ve got to figure out what I can in my own heart … but be open to the Lord changing my course. Here’s what came of our hours together that day:
Consult with congregations of older Christians about attracting more young people to their churches (perhaps a 1-2 year consult length). Maybe do a “pilot project” with a church for a reduced fee.
Help begin other Scum of the Earth church plants around the country….via other churches, not necessarily individuals.
Work with individual, young pastors as a mentor.
Provide training for pastors who have never been to seminary. (Perhaps online only?)
Social media is important. I need to blog, write for publication, be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. in order to get the message out.
Dave’s main concern for me was that I’d be too soft about keeping a realistic financial sense about this kind of ministry—that I would have to be more hard-nosed than I usually am (and then stay focused on what ends up working financially for me). I think he is spot-on about that. I have never been motivated by money (which was one of my downfalls as a salesman all those years ago). Baby steps – that’s what I need to do – and it makes me think about that Bill Murray character from the film, What About Bob? Now, all I’ve gotta do is start!
While in the Cambridge area, we went to see some pioneering ministers who had been former students of Dave’s at Ridley Hall. We met with Elis and Sheila Matthews, Edd and Katie Stock, Izzy Turner, and then drove to Liverpool to meet with Dave and Lizzie Lowrie – all young and zealous for the Kingdom of God, stretching the borders of the church to meet those who are lost and without hope and introduce them to Jesus. We also got to reconnect with our expatriate Scum worship leaders Nat and Genevieve Nelson who are living in Manchester, England —which was wonderful. We had introduced them to the Lowries earlier, and the Nelsons have helped them a bit with their StoryHouse Cafe, an outreach to the Liverpool community. Mary and I also met a friend of the Nelsons’, Shara, who will most likely be visiting Scum sometime early next year. (She is currently reading my book, Pure Scum.)
We are now back in Scotland. Stuart and Lynsey Gilmour—plus building a core church-plant team—are again our focus before we fly home on the 6th of December.
After a really full week and a half, things slowed down tremendously for Mary and me. We flew down to Cambridge, had supper with our friends, Sue and Paul Butler, and then all four of us got up very early the next morning to board a plane for Limoges, France. The Butlers own a small cottage near the village of Beaulieu and the four of us were going on a retreat there. Both Paul and Sue are ordained ministers in the Church of England having come from charismatic church backgrounds. You could say they’ve got both the theology and the spirituality to be dynamos for the Kingdom of God. We spent time praying together each day and even reading Scripture from the Church of England’s daily office (these are Scripture readings and meditations for each day).
The French countryside was beautiful – rolling hills, deciduous forests, farmland, and villages that date back hundreds of years – in addition, we were just a couple of hundred yards away from the Dordogne River. Very different than our surroundings in Colorado! In a span of four days, we also got to tour churches, have a couple dinners out, and sample French pastry each day at teatime.
We have known the Butlers for years and they were our primary tour guides when we were on sabbatical back at the beginning of 2014. They hosted our Scum of the Earth mission team last year for a full week and ministered to each member in significant ways. It’s especially good to be prayed for – and have your future prayed for – by people who know you over a length of time. It is especially significant when those people know the highs and lows, the heartaches and joys, of ministry on a daily basis just like you do. All I can say is that Mary and I are very grateful for their care.
We flew back to Cambridge, England a few days ago and were dropped off on the doorstep of Heather and Dave Male’s home. We have known them even longer. It was Dave Male, on sabbatical in the USA during 2007, who just happened to be visiting a friend in Denver one weekend. While looking for an out-of-the-box kind of church to attend on Sunday he spotted Scum of the Earth on the Internet and thought to himself, Well, with a name like that, I have to check it out. He contacted me and we agreed to spend time after the service. It was then, over a couple of beers at Bennigan’s, that he asked me if it was okay for him to bring students from his theological classes at Ridley Hall in Cambridge to visit every couple of years. I assented, figuring it probably would never happen; but that’s not David Male. He never says something unless he means it. The next year he showed up with about five students. Two years later he showed up with a larger group and he brought his wife, Heather, along. A couple years later, more came. Then in 2012, Dave asked me if I would go on a small speaking tour with him to six cities in England; and of course, I agreed. I had never been to the UK before. We spoke to people in London at the headquarters of the Methodist Church, to students at St. John’s College in Nottingham, to a group of pastors in Tunbridge Wells, to Fresh Expressions folks in Hereford and then in Oxford, plus students and pastors in Cambridge. While we were in the UK, Dave and Heather invited us to live in their home come 2014 while they were on sabbatical in Australia for four months – and that is how Mary and I ended up in their home in Cambridge for four months. In between, we’ve had three different interns come to Scum of the Earth from here in Cambridge, one of them being Dave and Heather’s son, Callum Male.
Jesus works through his people, and sometimes the most seemingly “random” meetings turn out to be major events in our lives. I have been contemplating the impact of the relationship with Dave upon my ministry while here. It really is remarkable. Not only has everything I’ve already mentioned transpired, but I’ve taught classes at Ridley Hall in Cambridge. Never saw myself doing that in my wildest dreams. And so, yesterday, Dave and I met together to talk about my future after I step down from Scum of the Earth staff in a couple of years. (Mary and I will not be leaving the church we helped start, but I do feel it’s time to pass the torch of leadership completely to the next generation.) I have no intention of retiring, and we couldn’t afford it anyway. I look at it as a job description change – and my conversation with Dave was about what that may look like. I’ve got about a page of notes and a lot of work ahead of me. I think I will leave writing about that for another time.
It’s been a week since we have come to Glasgow, Scotland. Mary and I were picked up at the airport by our friend, Jill Morrison, with whom we lived in July, 2015. We were all set to stay with her and her husband, Graham, at their home again this time; but just a few days before we left Denver, a fire began in one of their upstairs bedrooms. The fire did a great deal of damage to the top floor of the house and filled the bottom floor with smoke, but the house was saved by the fire brigade. (They think that a faulty extension cord hooked up to a phone charger may have been the cause.) It will take six months to restore their home. In the meantime, we are staying with good friends of theirs, Liz and John McFarlane, for the first week-and-a-half. After that, we will be spending time with friends from Cambridge, England for two weeks – and then it’s back to Scotland where we will be staying with the Morrison family in their rental home until we return to the U.S.A. in December.
That first night we had a lovely supper with both the McFarlanes and the Morrisons, and the next day took the train to the Falkirk area to meet up with Stuart and Lynsey Gilmour. The Gilmours are the young couple I’ve written to you about before – the ones who feel called to begin Scum of the Earth in Scotland. Lynsey was struggling through a cold (which I promptly got myself) but we had a marvelous time catching up and having suppers together. Over the next few days we kept going back to visit them via the train and rides from Stuart or John. Our discussions have obviously been swirling around the beginning stages of planting a church. To that end, we’ve also been watching a series of videos I received from a fellow pastor who specializes in this.
We also met with American missionaries from Communitas (formerly known as Christian Associates). To make a long story short, Communitas is a missions agency, based in Denver, which has people in the Glasgow area. They possess both the legal covering the Gilmours need in Scotland and the conduit for donations to come from the United States. It was a very good meeting. They are fine people who already love Stuart and Lynsey and we are looking forward to working together. Mary and I also met with the pastor from Mosaic Church, where Scum of the Earth folks have attended whenever we came to work at the Glasgow City Mission (GCM). He is also a Communitas missionary, so we heard some good old American accents a couple days in a row. He has also met the Gilmours and is excited about what we are attempting.
From there, we went to meet with people from the GCM, spending the afternoon in separate meetings with the director and the assistant director. The primary reason was to reestablish the relationship between Scum and the mission. We had each decided to take 2016 off and not have a Scum team work there this summer. The upshot of the afternoon was this: they are excited about us returning with a crew of people who can fill-in for volunteers who go on vacation. (This past summer they’ve had many shortages.) That evening, we ate with the staff member who had been the volunteer coordinator for GCM last year when Mary and I led the trip for the month of July. We had a fantastic time at our favorite Greek restaurant in Glasgow. The owner came to our table and we had quite the conversation about the Isle of Crete (where he was born and where my mother’s side hails from).
In between all this, we’ve been trying to keep up with things in America – our family, Scum of the Earth Church, the World Series – and trying to avoid the U.S. election process. I get asked about our country’s presidential choices daily, so it’s hard to escape it even over here.
I regret to inform you that due to purchasing airline tickets over here and other ministry expenses, I did not receive a full paycheck this month. I sent out a special plea to a list of “Scum Alumni” hoping they may help make up the difference. Could use your prayers about that situation.
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:3-5
Our weapons are different from the world’s because our enemy is different. A Christian’s real enemies are never people. On the contrary, we are to love people! Our enemy is the Devil, the one Jesus called the “Father of Lies.”
This is an extremely important distinction. We build up people and destroy lies. Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, New Agers, Wiccans, Atheists, Agnostics, Abortionists, Liberals, Conservatives —these people are not our enemies. Our enemies are spiritual strongholds of deception, half-truths, arguments over insignificant theological points, proud thoughts and anything which leads the people we love away from knowing the God who loves them completely in Jesus Christ. It’s good to remember this.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
who, being in 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!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the Glory of God the Father.
The lesson here is simple yet difficult. In following Jesus we are following One who did the opposite of our natural inclinations. We are inclined to equate our own thoughts with God’s (instead of considering that beyond our grasp), we are inclined to make more of ourselves than we ought (instead of making ourselves nothing), we are inclined to be served (rather than to serve), we are inclined to appear to others greater than we actually are (not less), we are inclined to pride (not humility), we are inclined to disobedience rather than an obedience which causes even a part of us to die (i.e. our self–image, our comfort, our desires.)
We enjoy following Christ up to the point where He heads towards the cross. After that, He’s on His own, it often appears (sadly).
But those who follow Him “on the way down,” will also follow Him, “on the way up.”