Why I Celebrate Christmas

Being an American living in Nairobi, Kenya it could be easy to entirely forget about Christmas. There’s no Thanksgiving and no Black Friday or Cyber Monday to mark the “one month until Christmas” box on the calendar. There’s no snow and no amazing light shows on houses to drive miles to see. I have yet to hear of a Christmas office party or any ugly sweater contests. If I looked hard enough, and was willing to pay for it, I could probably find some eggnog or apple cider (a Millar family tradition). There are no trees to be cut (not legally anyway) and the only fake tree we found was $400.

If I was looking for Christmas in these things then Christmas would never come to Nairobi.

Being out of the highly commercialized Christmas culture in the USA gets one to really remember what Christmas is and why we celebrate Christmas. The outer facade of Christmas is stripped away and you’re left facing the deeper truths of the Christmas season.

When I think about all the Christmas I’ve celebrated for the most part they blend together. That said, I clearly remember the Christmas of 2006. Two months prior to that I had been arrested for drunk driving. My blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit at .24 and that was on “slow night of drinking”. That led to me being kicked off my college baseball team. I had also been recently kicked out of my college dorm for too many drinking violations. And the girl I was dating broke up with me.

I was lost, depressed, and alone. Sure, I was home with family for Christmas but not a single one of them were in a much better season of life then I was. We were all hurting in different ways but trying to pretend like nothing was the matter. I remember it so clearly because it was the most difficult Christmas of my life. Yet, despite that, it is the best reminder I have of why we celebrate Christmas.

The birth of Jesus is the third most important event in all of history – following only his death (#2) and then resurrection (#1).

Jesus birth proves to us that God is not a distant God. It enlightens us to the fact that He doesn’t look down from heaven upon us with pity and arrogance. He’s not sitting in his throne waiting to punish us for messing up or not being “good enough” people. He doesn’t despise us or revile us or harbor bitterness against us for our failures and shortcomings. Jesus birth shows us that God is not actually angry with us at all but that He loves us dearly.

John 3:16 & 17“For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son so that anyone who believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.”

Romans 5:8“But God showed His great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”

During that Christmas in 2006 I felt worthless, alone, unloved, and unlovable. I was hurting and lost and scared. Nothing was going my way and it felt like nothing ever would again.

But I realized that Christmas that God didn’t want to condemn me for my actions. Instead, He had already shown how He felt about me. He had shown His love for me in the gift of His Son, Jesus. Despite my alcoholic tendencies. Despite my immorality. Despite my lack of genuine care for anyone other than myself. I was somehow still loved by God. And not just “kind of loved”. Not just “put up with because He’s God and He has to”. But truly and utterly loved… without end. That literally changed my life forever.

This is why I now serve as a missionary in Africa helping to start new churches so that more and more people can know of Jesus amazing love. And this is why I celebrate Christmas. Because I am reminded that I am loved just the way I am. I don’t need to put on my best clothes and pretend to be something I’m not just to be loved. I am already loved.

I don’t know what you’re going through this Christmas. I don’t know how you feel about yourself or the situation that you find yourself in. But I want you to know that you are greatly loved by God. No matter what you’ve done or haven’t done – you are loved.

If you take nothing away from the obligatory Christmas church service this weekend just remember that Jesus was sent to live on Earth because God loves you. Simply ponder that truth for a minute this Christmas season and see if it doesn’t do something inside of you. You. Are. Loved. Period.

 

 

Trust: A Life Lesson

This morning I was in a bus working my way towards the Central Business District of Nairobi as I headed to the Kenyan Immigration Office. All morning I’ve been racked with anxiety and stress. My Kenyan work permit was approved but only if I pay within 30 days of the approval. I did pay online within those 30 days but today, the day I was actually dropping off the receipt of insurance bond, is 35 days after the approval (why I couldn’t drop them off earlier is another story all together). Meaning, if the Kenyan immigration services wanted, they could give me major issues and even revoke my work permit. My ability to stay and serve as a missionary in Kenya long-term hangs in the balance.

At some point in this anxiety filled bus ride it hit me: I just conquered the third highest bungee jump in the world last week, taking on a bridge that was 216 meters above the ground, without breaking a sweat and barely an elevated heartbeat. Why am I so filled with anxiety about this?

The answer forced me to come to a difficult reality: It seems I can trust God with my continued living  (good health, long life, functioning physical and cognitive abilities, etc.) but I struggle to trust Him with my life (my plans, the future, ministry engagement, etc.).

When it comes to a planned adventure I find it easy let go and I completely enjoy the ride. Part of the fun of an adventure is the unknown. When it comes to life I hold on tightly trying to control even those things I cannot control. This morning for the first time I realized that I don’t view life as an adventure but instead I view it as something to be carefully planned out in order to eliminate unknowns. But within that outlook there is no trust in God, which explains my anxiety.

I don’t know what will happen with my work permit. I was told to wait for an email and given no definitive timeline. But if I can view this process as a mini-adventure in the grand adventure of life then I will be able to sit back and enjoy the ride. I will be able to trust God to be the Almighty, All-Powerful One that He says He is. Just like jumping off that bridge, at this point there is literally nothing else I can do but enjoy the fall.

What do you need to let go of today? What adventure are you in the midst of? Understanding that could change your outlook (and stress levels) forever.

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A Modern Day Apostle

One of the best things about my role as NewThing’s Regional for Sub-Saharan Africa is the people I get to meet and the stories I get to hear. I get to travel throughout Africa and sit down with, what I believe to be, some of the most faithful and bold men and women on the planet. One of these days maybe I’ll stop being surprised and inspired by what Christian leaders are doing here in Africa but I hope that’s never the case.

For instance, last week I was in Uganda. There is a pastor their named Alex. Pastor Alex and I had talked a few times and exchanged emails but we had never met. He picked me up from the airport and we started to get to know each other more as we drove.

Our first stop was to his newest church plant, which is about two years old. It’s just outside of Entebbe, Uganda in a remote neighborhood off the beaten path. The church edifice itself is made of tin sheets and has a wooden frame. It can probably hold 120 at capacity. There’s also a small two room building next to it – one room is an office and the other a storage room. Behind that is a small bathroom.

About 10 yards from the entrance to the church is a beautiful stone building that was being finished while we were standing there. It’s a school that he’s building. He says that he NEVER plants a church without also starting a school citing, “There are too many Muslim schools coming up and not enough Christian schools. We need our children to get a good Christian education.” He continued on, “Normally, I hold the school within the church building during the week but God gave me some additional resources and directed me to build a school here. So I did.”

In my notes I had written down that Pastor Alex had 6 churches under his leadership but I asked him as a confirmation and to continue the conversation. He said, “Yes, this is our sixth church.” After he named all the locations of the 6 churches (which were spread throughout the country) I asked over how many years those churches were planted and he paused for a moment and said, “About 14. I usually take 2 or 3 years at each church until God tells me to go elsewhere.”

At first I thought I heard incorrectly so I asked a clarifying question, “So, you mean that you yourself planted all 6 of the churches that are under you now?”

Pastor Alex responded by saying, “Yes, God tells me to go someone and I move there. I start doing evangelism and eventually put up a church building like this one and then also start a school. After a few years God tells me to go somewhere else so I raise up a leader to take over for me and move on to the next place. But I never go anywhere until God tells me so I don’t know how long I’ll be at this one or where I’ll go next.”

On the side, when Pastor Alex isn’t tending to his congregation or the school, he runs his own tourism company. He also owns and manages a small convenient store/shop and operates his own farm that has over 60 head of cattle and various crops.

I don’t think Pastor Alex fully realized that magnitude of what he was doing. I don’t think he thought he was doing anything special or out of the ordinary. He was simply doing what God told him to do. He was simply doing what needed to be done to move the Mission of God forward. I was in complete amazement and he was just going on with business as usual.

Can we say we’re just being obedient to God? Are we only doing what He has asked of us? Do we even know what God has asked of us? Are we willing to do whatever it takes to advance the Mission? And when we do, do we think we’ve done something special or do we realize that we are just unworthy servants? Are we telling our own story or is it so noteworthy that others are telling it on our behalf?

Just some food for thought…

NewThing Catalyst Community – Kihihi, Uganda

Last week the NewThing Sub-Saharan Africa team was in Kihihi, Uganda training 30 churches and approximately 100 pastors on church multiplication. It was an incredible time! We’re so grateful for the opportunity to learn from and encourage such faithful men and women.

Here are some pictures!

West Africa Circuit

On Sunday this week I returned to Nairobi after a 16 day trip to the West African countries of Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria (I also spent a day in Rwanda, which is in East Africa).

During my time there I had 7 different flights and 7 different speaking engagements. I slept in 6 different beds and was fortunate enough to sit down and talk with 11 pastors. It was an incredible trip!

There is WAY too much to tell you so I thought for this particular post I would just show you a piece of what I was able to see and experience. Enjoy!

MONROVIA, LIBERIA

ACCRA, GHANA

IBADAN, NIGERIA

IKOT EKPENE, NIGERIA

LAGOS, NIGERIA

KIGALI, RWANDA

The Life I Never Wanted

At the end of this week I am getting on a plane and headed to West Africa. I’ll be visiting pastors and Christian leaders in Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, and then a quick stop in Rwanda (which is in East Africa). While I’m in those countries I’ll be meeting people I’ve never met, seeing things I’ve never seen, and doing all of that in countries/cities that I’ve never been. The hope is to build friendships and see how together we may be able to make a positive impact in this world in the name of Jesus Christ.

That’s my role as Regional Director for Sub-Saharan Africa with NewThing (www.newthing.org) – to support and complement what God is already doing. To be a catalyst for movements of reproducing churches throughout this region in Africa.

When I get back to my home in Nairobi, Kenya after this upcoming trip I will have added two new countries on the list of places I’ve been fortunate enough to have entered in my 32 years on this Earth. That will make 19 countries in total – all of them having been visited in the last 6 years. And over that 6 year period I’ve lived outside my country of origin for 4 of those years.

In addition to that, upon my return to Nairobi at months end, it will be just less than two weeks until my beautiful and amazing wife and I celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary. She is a woman who has taught me much about what it means to love, to fight for what is right, to be generous, and to trust God. A woman who grew up thousands of miles away from me in a country that I had barely heard of and never been to until I finished college. A woman who is almost entirely my exact opposite and thus completes me in innumerable and immeasurable ways. A woman that makes me better every day.

What does this have to do with anything? Why am I writing this? Because this life that I am living, this current reality that I find myself in, is a life that I never wanted. Not in a million years would I have chosen this life. Not for a second would I have considered it an option. I was never supposed to leave my small town in Wisconsin. I had no desire to see the world. I didn’t care to meet new people. I was more than fine in my simple life. I didn’t choose this life.

Yet, as I sit here in Kenya on this absolutely perfect Monday afternoon. As I look at the face of my wonderful wife. As I think about all that God has enabled and allowed me to experience – the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the things I’ve seen – there is no other life I would rather have. There is no place I’d rather be. There is no other reality that could match this one.

This life is everything that I never wanted but it is exactly what I always needed. It may not be the life that I ever wanted back then but it’s the only life I can imagine ever having now.

Ephesians 3:20 – Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or imagine.

 

“Doin’ The Bull Dance…”

Growing up in the 90’s Adam Sandler was BY FAR my favorite actor. You simply could not beat Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore or Big Daddy. He was the best! One of the classic lines in Happy Gilmore (a movie that is chalk full of memorable, reusable quotes) is when Kevin Nealon looks at Happy run around pretending his golf club is a horse and says, “Doin’ the bull dance. Feelin’ the flow. Workin’ it. Workin’ it.”

When visitors come from the States to spend time in Nairobi one of the first questions is often something along the lines of, “How do you drive here? It just seems so… chaotic.” And on the surface to the average American it very much is. But after you’re here for a while you begin to understand the inner working of Nairobi traffic. It’s pretty much the same as Happy Gilmore on his golf club – you just feel the flow.

Traffic in Nairobi is more about flow then structure. When it’s moving you move with it. When it’s not, you don’t. If there’s a hole you flow into it. If there’s not you either wait until it starts again or try shut down the flow of the intersecting traffic by creating a new opening to get the flow going again. It’s really actually quite simple if you throw out everything you learned about driving in America and begin with a fresh set of eyes.

As a melancholic, Type A, ISTJ Meyers-Briggs personality I don’t naturally “flow”. If left to my own devices I will structure life to death. (Literally, I would plan the timing of my own death if I could.) It has taken Jesus and a few years living in Africa to get me to chill out, trust the process, and let life unfold. I’m certainly not there yet but I’m closer than I once was.

The thing I’ve come to learn and appreciate about loosening up and letting life happen is that, like Nairobi traffic, it can look and feel a bit chaotic but somehow you still end up getting where you were going. And often you do so in amazing ways that you never could’ve planned for. On top of that, despite what’s going on around you there is a sense of peace knowing that it is God, and not you, that is in charge. That’s more than half that battle of getting in the “flow” right there.

Try to feel the flow a little bit more this week. Try not to plan so much. Keep some unscheduled time in your calendar and sit back and honestly ask God what He’s up to. Ask Him what He’d like you to do (or not do). He might tell you to sit there and relax. He might tell you to call or visit a friend or family member who’s in need. He might tell you to read or even exercise. Whatever you sense Him saying just go with it, just flow. Don’t work towards an outcome. Don’t try to be productive. Don’t ask “why”. Just flow. you might find it’s exactly what you needed.

Our Pace = Our Receptivity

This morning I was reminded of a church that my wife and I helped to start in downtown Chicago a few years ago. What came to mind specifically was one of the ways that we reached out to those who may not know Jesus. Every Saturday we’d host a cookout at the North Avenue Beach in attempts to connect with our fellow Chicagoans. We gave away hotdogs, chips, cookies, and pop/water to those that passed by. Once we they realized it was all free we had a captive audience.

Initially, the first few times that we did this, myself and a friend/co-pastor would walk the streets of Chicago on and near the North Avenue to hand out fliers about the cookout during the work week. We’d tell them that we would be at the beach giving away free food around lunch on Saturday. On top of that we’d walk the dog park near the beach and the beach itself to inform people of our weekend plans.

You would be amazed at the how drastically different those who were walking the streets responded as opposed to those who were walking their dogs and/or walking the beach.

Those walking the streets had a one track mind. They said “no” before we even opened our mouths. Whatever we had they didn’t want it. We literally could’ve been handing out $100 bills and they would’ve turned us down. Their minds were already made up before we said anything. In their busyness they had no time to receive something that could’ve benefited them.

However, those in the dog park and on the beach, more often than not, would stop and give us 30 seconds of their time. They’d listen and say “thank you” even if they had no intention of joining us. At least they were open and willing to hear us out.

I believe most of us (myself very much included) are just like this when it comes to interacting with God. When our schedules are so busy and we allow the clock to whip us like an evil, overbearing master we aren’t open to hear what God may be wanting to tell us. He may be trying to direct us to the best opportunity of our lives but we’re so focused on our schedule and our timeline that we ignore anything that may inconvenience us in the moment. We’re so locked in on getting to he next thing that we say “no” before God even opens His mouth and thus we miss out on so much that He’d love to bless us with.

On the other hand, when we’re relaxed, at ease, and at peace we are open to listening. We are open to be directed. We’re open to being led. We’re open to doing something we hadn’t planned for. We’re open because we’ve loosened our grip on life and we’re just enjoying the ride. We’re open because we don’t have a firmly set schedule so flexibility is easy and adventure comes more naturally.

We have to learn to let go in our daily lives and be more available to God. He won’t waste His time speaking to those who don’t want to hear. He won’t leave you but that doesn’t mean he won’t stop talking, guiding, and directing. He doesn’t force Himself or His plans on anyone. He’ll leave us to our own devices; to make out own decisions. But He freely and gladly counsels and leads those who are willing to listen.

To Him who has ears let him hear but to hear we must slow down and be willing to listen.

We Just Worshiped

Like most every Sunday I went to church this morning. But, unlike most every Sunday, I attended a church service today that was outside. It was held outside because the structure where service is usually held was maybe half the size of the bedroom I grew up in and there was an overflow of people. Thankfully, we live in Nairobi where every day is sunny, clear, dry, and eighty degrees (or about twenty-two degrees for my Celsius friends).

Also unlike most every Sunday there was no worship team, no service flow, no order of service, and the only musical instrument was a keyboard. When someone wanted to sing a song they came up front, grabbed the microphone, and led the congregation. When someone wanted to give a testimony they came forward, took the microphone, and shared how God had impacted their life. When someone wanted to lead us in dancing they came forward and showed us how to bust a move.

There was no pressure to put on a show. No pressure to please the crowd. No pressure to have a flawless service. We just worshiped. Freely.

After about two hours of this the pastor preached. He didn’t have any notes. He just read a passage from the Bible and shared what was on his heart. What was different about this particular Sunday for me is that the pastor actually prayed longer than he preached. He prayed for healing for those that were sick. He prayed for opportunities for those without work. He prayed for providence for those who needed school fees to finish high school and college.

He prayed with faith and expectation that God was going to both hear and act. Before we left for the day the pastor had prayed specifically for each and every person there, including the 10 or so children. We just worshiped.

I’m not knocking other ways of doing church. I understand different contexts are, well, different. What I’m saying is today was a different church experience and I enjoyed it. Thoroughly.

How often do we, as individuals or as church groups, just worship? How often do we come before God undignified, without plans, to just be free? I know I don’t do it much, if ever. Today I was reminded to just worship and not worry about anything else.

 

Isn’t That Crazy?

I had a glorious 90’s flashback this afternoon as the song “Crazy” by Seal found it’s way in to my head. I haven’t the foggiest idea how it got there but, hey, it’s from the 90’s so it can stay as long as it wants.

Any who, all I could remember from the song was the hook which says, “No, we’re never going to survive unless, we get a little crazy.” I considered my memory lapse an all out travesty so after YouTubing the song, I Googled the lyrics (YouTube and Google –  two awesome things, on a very short list of  awesome things, that did not come from the 90’s).

As I read the lyrics this line caught my attention, “In a world full of people only some want to fly. Isn’t that crazy?” I thought to myself, “That IS crazy, isn’t it? Why wouldn’t we all want to fly?”

Obviously, it is impossible for us to fly in the same way that birds do or planes do or Superman does. But that’s not what I’m talking about nor do I think that was Seal’s rallying cry.

No, what I’m talking about is living a life of letting go – a life completely unshackled by fear. A life that trusts God for anything and everything. A life of adventure, love, peace, joy, and surrender. That, in my mind, is truly flying.

I see two major reasons why we might not fly:

  1. We don’t believe it’s possible at all. (Lack of faith)
  2. We don’t believe it’s possible for us. (Lack of trust)
  3. We don’t know how. (Lack of knowledge)

The first obstacle is a matter of exposure and belief. We look around and see everyone else running the same rat race that we’re stuck in. Overextended, overtired, overbooked, overworked, and overanxious. If we’ve never seen someone else fly than we how can we believe it’s possible?

But throughout Scripture we see verses like, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” or “Be anxious about nothing” or “Rejoice always” and many others that, to me, allude to the possibility of flying. All we need is a little faith.

The second obstacle is a matter of humility and action. If we believe that living a life totally unencumbered and dedicated to God is possible than it must be possible for us. God wouldn’t put it out of reach for some and not others. That’s not how he works. Humility is not just the opposite of pride; it is thinking rightly of ourselves. Realizing that we have as much opportunity to fly as anyone.

Throughout Scripture we see ordinary men and women living lives sold out to God, “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.” It’s possible for each of us. All we need is a little trust.

The third obstacle is a matter of letting go and prayer. If we believe it’s possible to fly and if we believe it’s possible for us to fly then the rest is easy. This is by far the easiest hurdle of the three to jump over. If we’ve made it this far then there should be nothing keep us from taking the first step.

If we need guidance we can study Scripture and ask others around us to help us let go. To help us release all our cares to God. All we need is a little knowledge.

I’m certainly not flying as high as I’d like to – at least not yet. There are glimpses, now and again, of amazing heights and incredible freedoms but then I look down and I forget who’s responsible for keeping my in the air.

Don’t be afraid to fly. Don’t be afraid to let go. Don’t be afraid to trust God for great things. Desire to fly. Get a little crazy or, as Seal said, we’ll truly never survive because men and women following Christ will cease to fly.