When God Closes a Door…

October 15, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

There’s a common story that I hear a lot living in Northwest Arkansas.  As many of you probably know, the corporate headquarters for Wal-Mart is here, and that is a huge magnet for businessmen and women from all over the world.  You add a university and a few other corporate headquarters and suddenly this area of the state and country has a lot of different people from a lot of different places.  Contrast that with a lot of other parts of Arkansas where the overwhelming majority of people are from Arkansas.

when god closes a doorSo, the story I hear is from people from different parts of the country who at some point in their lives had to/needed to move to Arkansas for work.  As someone who has lived 38 of his almost 44 years in Arkansas, I love and am proud of our state.  On the other hand, I can see it from their perspective…Arkansas.  Arkansas, where they invented the toothbrush (instead of teethbrush), land of Deliverance, where the family trees are straight lines.  I’ve heard them all.  From these people’s perspectives, these are not jokes but fearful realities.

However, the conclusion of the story is always the same.  “I was so surprised! It’s so nice here! I love it! I’m so glad that God brought me here!”  They describe coming here as either their only option or their least bad option.  They come here and quickly consider it a blessing.

Which leads us to our Christian cliche of the day.  “When God closes a door, he opens a window.”

Allow me to give it a different spin.  “When God closes a door, who knows what’s going on?  Just trust that it was shut for a reason.”

When God closes a door, he may be saying, “Wait right here.  I’ll open it later.”

When God closes a door, he may be saying, “What is wrong with you? Why would you want to go out there?  That’s not good for you!”

When God closes a door, he may be saying, “I know you think you want to go out here but you don’t.  Try this other door, on the other side of the house.  It leads some place different.”

When God closes a door, he may, in fact, open a window, because he wants you to take a different path to get to the place you both want to go.

The only thing that you can know for sure when a door closes, is that the door is closed.  (I know I just blew your mind!)  There are other things that you need to know/remember.  God is a good God that loves you and wants your best.  You can trust God.  He is very much interested in your good (mostly in making you good and seeing you do good things).  God will never deflect you from your best path.  Him deflecting is how you can know something wasn’t your best path.

So, how can you know what God is doing when a door closes?  That’s a great question without an easy answer.  Here’s a few tips.

1) Ask him. Talk to God and learn to listen. He wants to lead you, so let him lead you and believe that he will.

2) Ask a friend or mentor who has been where you are. There are often repeatable patterns that others can see because they have lived it, that you can’t see.  Do not walk through a confusing time alone, when God has placed others in our lives to help us see what sometimes we can’t see.

3) Take a minute. That’s a common expression for us in our house, but maybe not to you.  What it means is slow down and calm down.  Take a minute to make sure that you are not overreacting or allowing disappointment to control you. Let trust and hope fill the spot that anxiety and fear are currently filling.

Put all that together with an attitude of trust and at just the right time, which may seem to you like too late, a different door, or the same door, or a window will open, or you’ll wake up one day and wonder why you ever wanted to make a move in the first place.  God has laid out for you the path of good that he wants you to walk.  Just trust and follow, all the way to Arkansas if need be, or (gasp) Mississippi. (Sorry that’s what we do here.  Pretend that we are better than Mississippi.)

For we are God’s handiwork,created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10

How Can I Know God’s Will?

September 24, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

“How can you know if ___________ is God’s will for your life?”  This was the fear-gripped question that my friends and I would ask in college.  There were several books written on the topic and people found themselves in different “camps.”  This is what Christians do.  We ask a question, read a book and over-aggressively defend that viewpoint as if our mom wrote the book.  One camp was very regimented in their approach.  Pro/Con lists, seeking counsel, deliberate strategic thinking, etc.  The other camp was significantly more mystical in their approach.  God’s will can only be found in deep meditative prayer and it will be revealed to you in a mystical way.  God is not found through man’s deliberative processes.  Two different camps, but they both shared one thing in common: it was neither simple nor easy to determine what God’s will for you is.

We felt that somehow finding God’s will must be very hard.  It required a lot of stress and just the right technique and theological viewpoint.  If you failed to discern God’s will correctly, the consequences would be dreadful and perhaps irreversible.  Now mind you, we weren’t debating whether or not something bad was God’s will.  “I have been praying for a couple of days and I’m wrestling with whether or not God wants me to kill this dude or not.”  We also weren’t wrestling with obvious good things.  “I’m not sure if I should be praying or not.  I’d pray about it, but…you see my dilemma.”

We wrestled with choosing between multiple seemingly good or neutral options.  After I graduate, should I go to grad school or go on staff with this ministry? Should I ask this girl out or not?  What should I do this summer? Go home and get a job, go on a mission trip, what? It was easy to get yourself worked up in knots about whether or not what you were planning was right or not. The great fear was “being outside of God’s will.”

This struggle presupposes a few things.  One is that if you make a bad decision, and by bad we mean a good decision that we’re not sure was God’s best decision, that God would be mad, disappointed, judgmental, etc.  Another is that once you are down a secondarily good path (perhaps now apart from God or with him opposing you) is that you are destined down a wrong path for quite some time.  So the stakes are incredibly high.  You could think that you are making a good decision, and others may even agree with you, but if God disagrees and believes that you could have made a better (God-approving) decision, then you will find yourself in a bad place with God.

What this ignores is God’s sovereignty, omniscience and general good-hearted nature towards his adopted sons and daughters.  “I wanted you to go to grad school but you became a missionary instead.  You failed to determine my elusive will.  Prepare the smite button.”  God has made it clear that he is directing the path of the one who trusts in him.

One of the Best Far Side Comics Ever

One of the Best Far Side Comics Ever

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

He is also giving the desires of hearts to those who delight in him.

Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 37:4

God also says that he has created the path.  That’s the hard part.  We just need to trust and follow that path.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Eph. 2:10

If we are following God and trusting him, then we can make a decision knowing that he is leading.  We can trust that God wants the best for us.  He is leading us, if we will let him.  We can trust him, not our decision making ability.  You will make some bad decisions.  You will zig when you should have zagged.  But we follow a God who will gladly use the zig to work the big picture plan that he has for your life.

This leads to another issue that we overlook: God is working a much bigger plan than we are.  We believe that there is no more greater pressing matter than what we will do the summer before we go to college or the next job that we will take or what house we should move into.  However, God is working a significantly bigger plan than that.  When we do long range planning, we think in terms of 5 years down the road, “How will this impact me?”  God is thinking about how this decision is going to affect your grandson, because he is going to live next door to a girl who is going to have a friend whose grandson is going to be a significant world leader.  He is thinking in 1000’s of years.  We think in terms of 5-10 on our best days.  God is working a big complicated, multi-generational plan.  He’s got this.  You can’t shipwreck God’s big picture plan.

You should still use a good process.  Wise counsel and prayer are always good ideas.  Pro and con lists are good as well.  Good decisions typically follow good processes.  However the foundational piece of any decision making process has to be a deep-rooted trust in God.

Delight in him. Follow him.  Trust him. Make a decision.

When Getting Fired Is the Best Thing That Could Happen

September 10, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

Immediately after finishing my seminary degree, our family moved to the suburbs of St. Louis to join some friends in planting a church.  It was an exciting opportunity for us.  First what could be better than planting a church and serving alongside friends?  We weren’t taking some job where we didn’t know anyone in completely unfamiliar circumstances.  We were friends and knew each other.  We had worked together before in college ministry and we were friends.  Also, I was young and inexperienced and this was an opportunity for me to get in on the ground floor as a leader at what was certain to be an incredible fast-growing influential church.
However, for multiple reasons, this church was failing miserably.  We were there four years and essentially saw minimal to no growth.  There are a multitude of reasons why this church failed—enough to fill an entire book—20 Leadership Lessons from a Failed Church Plant.  However, I will focus on the one that’s relevant to what we are talking about.  That’s the great thing about having such a miserable failure on my resume, you can use some part of it to illustrate anything.
I really wanted to be a teaching pastor at contemporary church.  I really wanted to plant a church with friends.  I was passionate about small groups and the local church being used to reach lost people.  I was excited about the opportunity and the job.  But passion and enthusiasm could not overcome one thing.  Like I mentioned earlier, the job that I was given was not one I was good at.  My primary responsibility was in the area of administration.  I also taught about once a month and I was overseeing small groups, but the bulk of my time was spent managing the business side of the church.  I was developing and maintaining a church database, paying the bills and managing the church finances.  To say that I was no good at that would be a huge understatement.  I was terrible at it.  People who know me now laugh when they hear that I was to be the organized one.  People who don’t know me but have seen my car, or my desk, the files on my computer, my closet, well let’s be honest, those who have seen any aspect of my life know that administration and organization are not in my list of strengths.
No amount of passion for being a pastor, serving with friends or loving the great people that were a part of our church could overcome the fact that one of the main thrusts of my job was something I was no good at and was not passionate about.  So here’s what happened.  I would spend twice as much time doing simple tasks as it would take someone who was gifted in that area, which is already time wasted.  However, in addition to that I would waste time dreading the tasks and then waste time on the backend being cranky about how awful those tasks were.  You can judge me if you want, I know how you are.  However, you are the same way.  If there is job that you have to do, that you hate and are no good at, you waste all kinds of time both in doing it and not doing it.  I believe that when we try to accomplish something that is completely out of our sweet spot——something you are not talented in or passionate about—it takes us four hours to accomplish a one hour task.  We spend one hour not doing it, two hours doing it and one hour exhausted from doing it.
What are the results of this? First I’m exhausted mentally and emotionally from having so much of my day being jobs I can’t and don’t want to do.  That then means I am taking time away from the parts of my job that I can and want to do well.  Now I’m not only failing at the parts of my job that I am destined to fail in, but now also I am failing in the areas of my job that I could be good at, if I had the time or the emotionally energy to do it.
Now in addition to not doing my job well, I am slowly sinking into a depression because I can feel myself failing (in addition to other parts of the church failing for other reasons).  So how can I get out of this? What I tried was completely ignoring the admin piece of my job except for the bare essentials.  This way I can focus on the parts of my job that I can do well.  Anyone who is administratively gifted or at a minimum understands the importance of the administrative side of church has just passed out.  A church needs a solid infrastructure (run by an efficient team) and without it weaknesses will be exposed.  To be honest there wasn’t much difference between me focusing on admin and not focusing on it.  In both instances, it was terrible.
However, that eventually catches up with you—depression, avoidance and failing at some primary job responsibilities. After four years of the church struggling, my friend invited me to lunch and fired me.

Immediately after finishing my seminary degree, our family moved to the suburbs of St. Louis to join some friends in planting a church.  It was an exciting opportunity for us.  First, what could be better than planting a church and serving alongside friends?  We weren’t taking some job where we didn’t know anyone in completely unfamiliar circumstances.  We had worked together before in college ministry.  Also, I was young and inexperienced and this was an opportunity for me to get in on the ground floor as a leader at what was certain to be an incredible fast-growing influential church.

However, for multiple reasons, this church was failing miserably.  We were there four years and essentially saw minimal to no growth.  One of those reasons was that the job was not a great fit for me at all.  Some of my job was a good fit.  I would teach about once a month, which I loved.  I was overseeing the small groups and I enjoyed that as well.  However, there was a huge problem.  I was the church administrator as well.  Take a moment and let that sink in.  If you don’t know me, then you need to understand that everyone is laughing right now.  I could attach a picture of the inside of my car and you would understand, or my closet, or my desk, or I suppose a picture of me.  I have no administrative gifts at all.  I was a disaster at that and it was the core of my job.

Other parts of my job were going well,  I was shepherding and teaching well.  Small groups were going OK, especially for a church that wasn’t growing and struggling.  It didn’t matter.  I was struggling.  After four years of being there and with no warning, my friend and the lead pastor, took me out to lunch.  (I take that back.  Invited me to lunch.  I paid for my own lunch.  Minor detail, but still.)  At that meeting, he blamed all the church’s problems on me and fired me.

(Since that time, we have reconciled and he has apologized for blaming me and took responsibility.  I put this disclaimer in here, because I don’t want anyone who knows the people involved in this story to think that I’m still upset or he and I aren’t good.  We are.  No resentment here…except for that maybe I had to buy my own lunch.  Just kidding.)

At that moment, I was devastated.  It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.  I had lost my job, my church and my friends all in one awful moment.  For quite a few days, I wasn’t sure that I would ever recover from this loss.  I spent a lot of time crying, yelling and not sleeping.

However, the 10 year anniversary of that moment is coming up in January, and after ten years, I have to say that it is one of the best things that ever happened to me.  What can often destroy people, God has used to grow me and help me become the man, pastor and leader that I am today.  Without the “worst” thing that has ever happened to me, I would not be where I am or who I am. What about you? Have you had a devastating moment in your life? Have you allowed it derail you?  After 10 years, here is what I have learned about these moments and how God has shaped me through them.  Ultimately he can do the same for you.

Here are some ways that God made the “worst” the “best” for me:

1) God drew me closer to him. When you lose your church, your friends and your job all in one moment, it can feel that you don’t have much left.  It can also feel like you have nowhere to go.  However, God was always there.  The first thing that my wife said to me after I told her was, “Well, clearly God is up to something.”  It was hard to believe at first, but eventually it became clear to me as well.  God was with me, loved me, and wanted my best.  I learned to lean on him more in this adversity than I had in a long time.  I chose not to turn on God but instead to lean in, and my relationship with him deepened in great ways.  Move toward God.  Don’t pull away.

2) I woke up out of a daze. I’m not going to lie.  I was in a rut.  I wasn’t enjoying my job or much of my life.  However, it was my life.  It was my job.  So, I kept doing it.  I was headed nowhere personally or professionally.  I was drifting slowly on a boat headed nowhere.  However, in a moment, that rut was gone.  Rather than dwelling on the loss and grieving, I was able to realize that I was stuck some place that I didn’t want to be and headed to a place that I didn’t want to go.  Difficult change has the power to wake us up and refresh us if we choose to not give in to despair.

3) I took the opportunity to evaluate what my best role was. So if I wake up out of a daze, now my head is clear.  So I ask, what should I be doing if it’s not this?  Where should I be doing this?  What am I good at? What do I love?  When anything is possible, well…anything is possible.  I applied for jobs all over the country in all sorts of different roles.  Through some good prayer time, introspection and multiple interview processes, God began to make it more clear who I was and want I needed to be doing.  Don’t focus on the loss.  Embrace the opportunity

4) God led me some place better. Ultimately then, the next job I took was a much better fit for me and I saw God’s blessing in my life more than I ever had as a pastor.  Then as that role began to change, I recognized that it wasn’t going to be a great fit for me long-term.  I could see the signs now.  That then led me to where I am now, which I believe is a job in a place where God wanted me to be all along.  I didn’t get here the most direct way, but I did get here God’s way.  So, let’s not ever lose sight that even though the path may seem crooked, we are being led by God right to where he wants us to go.

5) Unexpected blessings. I made a decision 4 years ago that there was no longer any point in my past that I was going to regret.  Of course, there are situations I could have handled better, and I regret that.  However, big picture there are no regrets.  Why? Because of Laylah Loften, our adopted daughter.  She was born in a hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas at just the right time and just the right place for her to be ours.  If anything in our life had been different, we would have missed it.  So, no regrets.  If this is all the good that had come from being fired, it would have been more than worth it.  Don’t lose sight of the tremendous events and blessings in your life that possibly would have never happened if the temporarily devastating events hadn’t led you there.

Don’t let a twist or obstacle in your path become the time that you give up.  God is working a long-term big picture plan for your life.  He can and will take some of the worst moments in our life and use them to bring great good.

How have you seen God work in this way in your life when life handed you something unexpected and hurtful?

Does God Really Have a Plan for My Life? (The Path)

August 27, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

pathI was at Student Mobilization’s first Christmas Conference in 1992 and we were meeting in the banquet room of Bonanza right on the strip in Branson, Missouri.  One of the highlights of that is being able to pay $1 at the beginning of each day and get soda with free refills all day long!  I was a college student, back then it was the little things, not that I would say no now to all I could drink soda for a dollar. It was an incredibly fun week.  My team made it to the finals of the 3 on 3 basketball tourney. I was there with some great friends from school and was able to reconnect with new friends that I had made earlier that summer at a summer project called Kaleo.  But more than all the fun that I had and more than the joy of being able to connect with friends, this conference in Branson was a powerful week in my life.  God was confirming in my life that he wanted more from me than what I considered to be the normal Christian life.  I heard speaker after speaker talk about what it truly meant to follow God. I began to more fully understand that God did not simply want church attenders and generally religious people. God wanted my whole life.  I was being remade.  I could tell that my life was never going to be the same again.

Then one of the speakers introduces to us the idea of unreached people.  Unreached people in missions terminology are groups and cultures that are far removed from the gospel.  There is no church among the people capable of reaching the culture for Jesus Christ.  These people are relatively hopeless, not just in that they don’t know Christ but that for the most part they don’t know anyone who knows anyone who could explain the gospel to them.  I was totally overwhelmed.  I had never been confronted with that level of need before.  Between that and how God was changing my heart about discipleship, I knew that God wanted to use me to change the world.  God wanted me to make a difference in the lives of people who were unreached.

The last night included a lot of powerful worship. They were preparing us for a night where we were to reflect on the week and commit to apply what God was laying on our hearts.  They didn’t want us to get all fired up and go back to school and get into the same routines.  The last speaker spoke and encouraged us to consider what God wanted us to do. He knew that God was speaking to us and he wanted us to think about what specific ideas and applications we were taking away from the conference.  After some time of reflection they wanted us to share.  People were supposed to stand and speak out what their life application for the conference was.  After a few people stood and shared, I boldly stood up and declared that I was going to be a missionary to an unreached people. In that moment I knew that’s what God wanted me to do, so I stood up and told everyone.

Over 20 years have passed since that moment and what I declared has never happened. While I suppose that there is still time left for me to do that, I now believe that honest heartfelt declaration from a 21 year old is not the direction that God has for my life or necessarily that he ever had.  God was definitely speaking and leading.  God was telling me to make some changes and was reshaping my life, and I truly believed that was what God wanted.  Now, 20+ years later, God has reshaped my life in many ways because of that season in my life, just not by going to an unreached people.  So I wonder what really happened? I look back and ask, “What was God really saying?”

I also think about the people all over the room that didn’t stand up.  Not only did they not stand up, but they hear messages like that and think “There’s no way that applies to me. God doesn’t think of me like that.”  They do not believe that God truly has a big plan for their lives.

Two types of people both struggling to determine what God really wants from them.  One, not truly believing that God wants to use them.  The other is incredibly fired up but life took him somewhere different than what he thought.  Are you either of these? Did you once have big plans and dreams of how God was going to use you, how you were going to make a difference? Then life got in the way, life zigged when you wanted to zag, and you are left confused wondering what went wrong. Or are you someone who doesn’t believe that you are someone that God truly wants to use? Calling is for those people and you are just an ordinary person living an ordinary life.

Regardless of where you are now and how you got there.  Know this: God has big plans for your life and wants to use you to change the world.  I’m going to spend a lot of time on here for the next few months talking about how we can discover what that plan and path is and how to navigate the ups and downs and twists and turns that we will face trying to get there and stay there. I encourage you to subscribe so that we can walk together discovering God’s path for our lives.

Selling Houses and the Will of God

June 10, 2010 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

My history with selling houses is well-known.  For those who don’t know, we have moved twice when needing to sell a house, once from Conway, AR to Colorado for seminary.  The second was from St. Louis here to Cabot, AR.  When moving to Colorado, our house sat empty for almost 6 months before it sold.  When moving to Cabot, we did a little bit better.  The house only sat empty for a little less than 5 months before it sold.

I don’t know if you have ever been in that kind of a situation before.  You may be one of those people with those stories of how you sold your house in an hour for a more than full price offer.  If you are, I’m not sure this post is for you. You can wait for the “People That Annoy Me” post (just kidding…mostly).  If you’ve been in this situation before, you know that it can become quite a serious time of theological reflection.  Our house is on the market for the third time as we prepare to make a move.  We are far from the theological crisis time, but this topic is just on my mind now as we try to sell our house again.

Here are the choices that most people have:

1) I must be making the wrong decision.  If this move were God’s will, my house would have sold.

2) God is punishing me because I am in some kind of sin.

3) God is trying to teach me something.  As soon as I learn it, the house will sell.

Let’s see if we can break these down and still keep this to the size of a blog post.  The first option, I believe, is a very dangerous theological perspective to have.  I evaluate whether or not I am making, or made,  the right decision based on if my circumstances are working out well, i.e. the way I want them to.  There are many times that Paul followed God’s call on his life and ended up beaten, shipwrecked, emprisoned, etc.  Following God is not a guarantee that everything is going to go smoothly.  In fact, often the opposite is true.  The path that God calls us to is often riddled with trials.  You have to do the work of prayer and discernment on the front end, asking God if this is the right move, change, etc.  Then you have to move forward with confidence, because very often difficult circumstances await.

The second option is a little difficult.  I certainly am not going to say that there is no way that you are experiencing a trial because of sin in your life (I’m not going to say you are, either).  Evaluating yourself and your sin is a great idea.  Asking God if there is any sin that is damaging your relationship and keeping him from blessing you–also a good idea.  One note of caution, if God can only bless us if we have no sin in our life, you know who is in trouble?  That’s right.  All of us.  Sometimes our sin can bring judgment in our lives.  Deal with it, if that is the case.  However, don’t assume that every obstacle in your life is connected to sin.

The third option, I have ranted on before.  It in fact, kicked off the Stuff Christians Should Stop Saying series (see here).  What I was not saying then and don’t what to say here is that trials, don’t exist (at least in part) so that God can teach us something.  God was definitely teaching Paul dependence on Him.  Joseph learned a lot about humility in a pit, as a slave, in prison.  Here is the thing, God is always teaching us and refining our character.  However, most of the things that God is teaching and shaping in us, aren’t things that we “learn” as if it were Algebra.  When do you “learn humility?”  I am learning about humility.  I will never “learn” it as if I have completly conquered that issue, just as I will never learn patience and dependence on God.  God will be refining me in that area for the next 50 years of my life.  God is teaching us during trials.  The danger comes when we believe we can learn our way out of a trial, as if we are in control.

Maybe you have made a wrong decision and that’s why things are going badly.  Maybe your sin has caught up with you.  Maybe God is using this as an opportunity to refine a major area of character in your life to prepare you for something great.  But, it may just be that we live in a fallen world where bad stuff happens.  I believe that we, read I, spend way too much time worrying about why and not near enough time listening to God and learning to trust and depend on Him. 

What if we took all of the energy that we wasted stressing about “why” and turned that into prayer, reading and studying about Joseph and Paul who went through worse trials than most of us?  What if we took that time to connect with God’s Son, Jesus who endured the worst of trials so that we could have life in him?