In recent years, the phrase “pay it forward” has become very popular in Christian circles.  The movie by that name (produced in 2000) helped to make the phrase famous.  Even in Midland County, we have seen this phrase take on new meaning connected to the life and death of young Jayden Lamb; around here, people “pay it forward Jayden style.”

You probably know what this means: to do something nice for someone else, even a stranger, before they do anything nice for you.  You might pay for the person behind you in line at McDonald’s.  You might leave your waitress an extra-large tip and a word of encouragement on the receipt.  You might donate blood, hold the door open for a stranger, or offer to take a picture for a couple holding their camera at arm’s length.  All of these ideas are summed up in one word:  selflessness.

“Paying it forward” is a wonderful thing to do.  After all, it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).  What’s more, Jesus taught us to do unto others as we would have them do to us (Matthew 7:12) – something we learned, hopefully, at an early age and continue to practice our entire lives.  And living selflessly is at the core of what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13) and dying on the cross to take away the sins of the world (Matthew 20:25-28).

But there’s a problem with “paying it forward”:  it can be done outside the context of relationship.   If you pay for a stranger’s coffee at Starbuck’s, that’s great, but what have you done except help that person feel good and save them a few dollars?  If you leave an encouraging Post-It note in a library book, that’s great, but how does that strengthen your connectedness to other people?

In Christian circles, we frequently talk about “outreach” as a primary goal for our lives.  We want to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others, because it really is good news.  But if we only pass tracts to strangers or put bumper stickers on our cars, then we may be missing something.  Reaching out to others requires a connection between people.

Do you remember watching the movie E.T. (1982)?  The quintessentially memorable moment in that movie occurs when the extra-terrestrial “E.T.” reaches out his shining finger and touches – and heals – Elliot’s injured finger.  (“Ouch!”)

Making an impact on someone’s life means we have to risk making personal contact with him or her.

So, pay it forward, Jayden style or Jesus style.  Live a life that is beneficial to those around you.  Do nice things; say nice things; help those in need.  But don’t do it impersonally.  Take the extra risk of learning a name, making a friend, asking a question.

Pay for the person behind you in line, and introduce yourself to her.  Learn her name.  Ask her if there is any other way you can help her today.

Do a random act of kindness for a stranger, and learn his name too.  Ask him about his story, sit down for a cup of coffee with him, and listen to his life experiences.

Say hello to your neighbors, and take over a plate of cookies.  Invite them over for dinner.  Give generously to meet their needs, and remind them that God loves them too.

Build relationships with those whom you bless.  If you never see them again, at least you are becoming more selfless, more sensitive to the needs of others.  But who knows?  Perhaps your paths will cross again in the future.  Maybe you can become an encouragement, a spiritual asset, a praying friend for your neighbor.

After all, wouldn’t you like to have more friends like that in your life?

This fall, I am planning to begin a four-year journey: the Doctor of Ministry program at the Anderson University School of Theology. This is the seminary at which I earned a Master of Divinity degree before coming to serve at Mt. Haley. The Doctor of Ministry (or DMin for short) is a professional, applied, and terminal degree. I have discussed the particulars of this opportunity with the Church Council, and today I would like to share with you why I am excited to take on this challenge.

First, some details: The DMin is designed for people actively serving in pastoral roles. It is a part-time distance program; I will continue serving as the full-time senior pastor at Mt. Haley for the duration of this degree. Over the next four years, I will take one class per quarter, excluding summers. Almost all of my studies will take place at home, except for a week-long set of “intensive” classes in Anderson each term. The final year of this degree will include a “Professional Projectthat will directly apply to our ministry together at Mt. Haley.

This journey’s benefits to our church will, I believe, be tremendous. Down the road, I will choose between two tracks in the program: Spiritual Formation and Leadership Development. At this point, I am leaning toward the former; spiritual formation has to do with growing deeper in the faith, building stronger relationships with God and others, and learning to follow Jesus more closely. (I have used the term “discipleship” to describe this in the past couple of years.) The classes I take each term will certainly find direct application in our life together as a congregation. My desire is that this process will strengthen Mt. Haley spiritually even as it strengthens me professionally.

The overarching theme of all programs at the Anderson School of Theology is “Biblical Reconciliation.” This DMin program is no exception. The curriculum is designed to emphasize God’s work of reconciling humanity to himself, as well as our work of reconciling with each other and with God. Restoration of relationship is at the core of this idea. To study spiritual formation through the lens of God’s desire to love, heal, and forgive this is especially appealing to me.

I am excited to begin this program and to share its benefits with you! Please keep me in your prayers through this process. If you have any questions about the DMin program, its requirements, or its impact on Mt. Haley, come and talk with me any time. Your input is valuable to me!

Pastor David