I was getting ready for Zeke’s birthday party – it was the first of his birthdays since he went home to Jesus – when my phone rang. Though I didn’t recognize the number, it was from the 614 area code and I thought a friend from Columbus might be calling to check in on our family on Zeke’s birthday. Instead, it was a man named Yogi, a pastor with the Christian & Missionary Alliance who was planting a church in the Columbus area. He had gotten my name from Pastors Dean and Troy from LifePoint Church, and he wanted to see if I had any interest in exploring the possibility of joining him on this church plant.

Though Breena and I had just bought a wonderful house in our dream neighborhood in Toledo, I said that I was always willing to explore something that God might have me do. So we talked more the next day, and then Breena and I met him and his wife, Joy, for dinner a couple of weeks later. It seemed to all of us that God might be doing something here, so we agreed to pray and stay in contact.

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The central message of Christianity is something we Christians call the Gospel, a word that literally means “good news.” Christianity is a “good news” religion. It exists to tell the world that something good, something true, something beautiful has happened, and now everything can start to get better again. Everything can start to be remade, rebuilt from its brokenness–even you and me!

One of the things that I love most about being an evangelical is that the Gospel is constantly put front and center in my life because I hear it proclaimed from the pulpit in church nearly every week. I see it in action in the lives of my friends. I watch as it transforms people, moving them from sinner to saint. And we evangelicals are careful to tell you that there’s nothing you can do to earn this Gospel, this salvation. It’s a free gift from God. It comes by grace, through faith. You can’t buy it. You can’t work for it. You can’t earn it.

Why is that? It’s because of what the Gospel is. The Gospel is an event, a story. It’s the story of Jesus.

Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 15.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [many].

The Gospel is the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. When we proclaim the Gospel, we proclaim the news (which just so happens to be very, very good) that Jesus died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day, appearing to many. The Gospel is a proclamation of historical fact, which like all facts of history, can neither be changed nor earned.

This is a profound comfort. A comfort so glorious and gracious, in fact, that we find it very difficult to live with. The fact is that you and I are prone to change the Gospel. We’re apt to add to it, to make it earn-able. We engulf it in doctrinal tests to determine who’s out and who’s in. We define it in terms of behavior, turning the Gospel into some sort of morality test. (Which, of course, isn’t good news at all, because if Jesus is the standard of morality, then who among us could ever hope to pass that test!) We’re all tempted to add things to the Gospel, but adding anything to the Gospel destroys it, changing it from an event in real time and space to a philosophy, a doctrine, a list of rules, or a set of behaviors.

But the Gospel is not abstract. It is not intangible. It is not conceptual.

The Gospel happened. The Gospel is blood and flesh, nails and wood, thorns and fists. The Gospel is a tortured scream, an agonized groaning, a declaration of God-forsakenness. It is a desperate look to heaven, a final breath, a surrendered spirit. The Gospel is a suffocated man on a Roman cross. A man who was God. Now dead.

The Gospel is myrrh and aloe, a king’s burial. It is strips of linen, a stranger’s tomb. The Gospel is silence. Burial.

The Gospel is the first breath back from the dead, renewed hands folding up burial clothes. The Gospel is a stone rolling away from the inside, terrified soldiers, gleaming light. It is an angel laughing, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It is the tears of Mary, hands grasping at the gardner’s feet–Jesus’s feet. The Gospel is two men walking along the road talking with a stranger, the risen Jesus they did not recognize. The Gospel is doubting Thomas’s fingers running across the wounds on Jesus’s hands, proof which led to his declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God!” It is Jesus and Peter, sharing a breakfast of reconciliation. “Do you love me? Feed my lambs.”

This is news. World-changing news. But this news cannot be changed. This news cannot be earned. You can no more earn the Gospel than you can earn the Revolutionary War. It is an event that happened long before you were born. Earning it is simply not part of the equation.

And yet we do. We change it. And I think most of us change it one way–we limit it. We say, “Sure, Jesus died and rose again. God loves the world so much that he offers salvation to everybody for free! That’s all true and it applies to every one…every one, that is, except for me. I am depressingly special, because I still have to earn my way back to God.”

This is what we believe in our deep, deep hearts, isn’t it? We think that God only likes us if we’ve had a day of little to no sin. We think that God will only bless us if we set the course of our lives to accomplish some great thing for him. We so easily forget that the Gospel is a true story that does not change as the years pass. It’s not a philosophical statement. It’s not a logical argument. It’s not even a doctrine! The Gospel is a statement of historical fact. It’s the story of Jesus.

When we change the Gospel, when we believe that God will only accept me if I don’t sin or that I have to somehow earn God’s saving grace, we are denying the story, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We change it from the story of Jesus into the story of me. We put ourselves into the middle of the story of the world. We say, “I’ve got to pull myself up by my own moral bootstraps. I’ve got to make my way, against all odds, back to God!”

But the Gospel is not about you; the Gospel is for you. It’s the story of Jesus dying and rising for you. You don’t have to do anything to earn his death and resurrection. That already happened. What could you possibly do to earn something that already happened? Could you earn the Revolutionary War? How ridiculous! And yet everyday we live our lives as though we have to earn the Gospel, that God loves us so much that his Son came, died for our sins, was buried, rose again, and was seen by many.

We receive the Gospel. We receive it by faith. We say, “Okay, God. This is what you’ve done. I can’t change that fact. I can’t go back in time and pull you off the cross. I can’t do anything to earn what you’ve already done. I believe it. I receive it. Thank you.” The Gospel has happened, and that is good news. Jesus’s death and resurrection have provided the means for you to be reconciled back to God, to be forgiven of all your sins, and to be made new. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn it.

Christian, nondenominational.

That’s how I’ve always defined myself. From childhood, through college, and for all of my years in ministry, I have always attended nondenominational churches. My churches have been a part of networks (like the Willow Creek Association, or the Alliance for Renewal Churches, with which Ember was associated), but never a denomination. Now, however, Breena and I attend LifePoint Church, which happens to be part of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m certain that God finds this hilarious.

Today at LifePoint we had the privilege of hosting the SBC-Ohio’s annual evangelism and church planting conference, called Momentum. There were four plenary speakers, David Uth of First Baptist Orlando, Phil Hotsenpiller of Influence Church, Tony Merida of Imago Dei Church, and Michael Catt of Sherwood Baptist Church. (Sherwood is the church that produced the films Courageous, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants.) There were also several workshops, including one by my old friend Matt Pardi of H2O Church in Bowling Green, and another by Shane Tucker, the Worship & Arts Pastor (and my boss) at LifePoint.

I wasn’t planning on “attending” the conference because I was really there to work, but I did get to sit in on just about everything, so I really felt like an attendee. The first highlight for me was Tony Merida’s message, which was so good I pulled out my notebook and started taking notes. He was talking about endurance, and he made the excellent point that grace is the means of endurance. “If you are fatigued,” he continued, “then you are an excellent candidate for grace.” I am fatigued. My wife is fatigued. Like all parents of kids with special needs, we’re exhausted in just about every way you can imagine–physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, relationally. We’re just tired. It was restorative, if even in just a tiny way, to hear Tony say those words. On the flip side of that, though, I was challenged when he said, “It takes great discipline to be a pastor.” Ouch.

The second highlight was Phil Hotsenpiller’s breakout session on transformational discipleship. (I only went to this session because Shane wouldn’t let me go to his on Creative Process. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me in there because he was going to be dogging on me the whole time.) My takeaway from this teaching was that it’s vital to challenge the minds of men. So much of what Phil said on this point resonated with me because getting people to think more deeply, more critically, and more creatively is a major driving force in all of my communication, whether on this blog, through the preaching I did at Ember, or the teaching I did while at Heritage. Using a teaching on Satan as an example of how he disciples men, Phil asked some very good questions that pretty much blew my mind, but he did it in the same way that I try to approach the Scriptures. The point he was getting at is that men need to be challenged, particularly intellectually, because they’ll get bored after 3 years of church. Amen, brother.

I really enjoyed my time at the conference, and know that God used it to speak to me in several ways. After attending a church planting conference, I’m surprised to find that I’m not jonesing to get back out there and plant again. It’s not that I don’t want to plant another church or be a lead pastor again; it’s that I know that the time is coming, but it’s not now. Even stranger, I’m totally content with that, which is how I know that God has me right where he wants me. This conference was wonderful to take in as an attendee/worker, but it also confirmed the contentment I’m currently experiencing as I pursue God in this pulpitless season of my life.

What’s next? I don’t know. But I’m happy to have spent the day with the Southern Baptists.

Dreams are not eternal. The things we do in this life, the organisms and organizations we create, have a lifespan. Leaves bud, flourish, brilliantly change color, then fall to the ground dead, shrivel up, and get consumed into the ever-turning, ever-recycling earth, destined to become nourishment for the next round of leaves budding in the warmth of the coming spring.

So it was with Ember Church, my near-decade-long dream whose lifespan was all too short, lasting only a little longer than the leaves I just raked from my front yard. I had hoped that this church would take root and flourish for decades, outpacing my own life on this earth. But that’s not how it turned out. Despite my prayers and best efforts, Ember Church died young – just 64 Sundays old.


64-SundaysBefore we were married, I made a promise to my wife. I told her, “I will never sacrifice my family for a church.” I had heard enough horror stories of the rebelliousness of pastor’s kids, and I resolved that, as much as it was up to me, I would not push my kids into rebellion by putting the church before them. They, and my wife, would come first. And if I ever had to choose one or the other, I would choose the family.

When we decided to step out in faith and plant Ember Church, we knew that I would have to do it bi-vocationally, meaning that I would work a full-time job to provide for the financial needs of the family, and use my spare time to pastor the church. We knew this would be extremely challenging, and would demand sacrifice from all of us in the family. We determined that we could do this for 2 years, and then we would re-evaluate the situation. The hope was, at least on our part, that the church would have grown large enough by then to support me in full time ministry.

We were thrown two curveballs that caught us off guard. First, it took me a year to find a job. That process was brutal, and I really don’t want to relive it here. Suffice to say, it was a stressful and desperate year. The second curveball, however, was thrown with a full count in the bottom of the ninth, and it buckled my knees so hard I couldn’t even get the bat off my shoulder. That was Zeke’s epilepsy.


The first seizure was in May, and the second in June. Then a third one in July. After that, things went downhill, and fast. He started having seizures about 10 days apart, and we wound up at the ER five or six times in about a month’s time. As his meds increased, so did his seizures. He went from developing slowly (but developing) to regressing.

We didn’t know what was going on with him. He was losing words. He was losing motor skills. He was already developmentally delayed, and we had worked very hard to get him to where he was, but it was all slipping away. Before long Breena noticed that he was having tiny, micro-seizures throughout the day – lots of them. He would seize for a brief second at the top of the stairs, lose his balance, then tumble to the bottom. This happened a lot. All the words he had picked up through extensive therapy were gone, replaced by a loud, frustrated, “Enh!” He was descending into physical and mental chaos.

I made an offhand comment in one of my sermons at Ember that chaos is the defining characteristic of hell. Zeke’s chaos translated into chaos in our family, and the only word I could find for it was hell. Despite our prayers, despite the medication, Zeke just kept getting worse; and the deeper into chaos he spiraled, the more closely we followed him. Our lives became a living hell.

All the while I was trying to pastor this church that I loved and believed in, but that hardly anyone came to. Ember wasn’t growing; it was shrinking. And that’s hard to do when you’re a small church to begin with. I was discouraged. I was angry. I didn’t know what to do. I felt my son and my church slipping away.


Nobody was getting a good version of me. My wife was getting a bad husband. My kids were getting a bad father. My church was getting a bad pastor. I was stretched too thin. I couldn’t work a full time job, be a family man to four kids and a wife, be the father of a child with special needs, and pastor a small church into stability and viability. It was too much. I was desperately banging on and kicking at this “church” door, trying to get it to open, trying to make this church work; then God showed me: “This isn’t a door. It’s a wall. And if you keep banging on it and kicking at it, your whole house is going to fall down on top of you.”

It was time to call it. I couldn’t go on. If I persisted with Ember, it would cost me my family. I would have broken my promise to Breena, made almost eight years earlier. I would have sacrificed my family for the church. While the Son of God was an acceptable sacrifice to God for the sake of the world, the sons and daughters and wife of Andy Holt are not.

Things moved quickly after that. I told Breena. I told my parents. I told Ned Berube, the president of the ARC. That was Tuesday morning. I told Garth, our other elder, on Thursday. Then, on Sunday, I told the rest of the leadership team. That night, because Travis, who was scheduled to preach, got sick, I went ahead and told the church. That sucked. (And would you go freaking figure, it was our best attended service in weeks, and we even had a new couple!)

The following week we had a celebration dinner, telling stories of what God has done through the 64 Sundays we had together as a church. It was beautiful, and it broke my heart.


To the people of Ember Church I want to say this (and I know you’ll say that I don’t need to, but I do): I’m sorry. I’m sorry that this beautiful little church didn’t survive. I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more to make it last. You all said such wonderful things at our celebration dinner, and for that I’m grateful. I’m glad we got to do that. I remember a lot from that night, but one thing stands out: Mary, who always seems so happy, standing up and, through tears, telling us that Ember is the only place where she knew it was OK to not be OK. That got me.

I’ll always remember the Jeremiah series, and hopefully I’ll write that book someday. I’ll always remember the two baptismal services, and dunking Somers, Becca, and Cody the Guy I Didn’t Recognize Because He Shaved His Beard in that freezing cold baptistry on New Year’s Day. (The second baptism service, when I baptized Mary, Ian, And Dustin on Easter, was much more comfortable.) I have a lot of other memories that I’ll always treasure, and I hope you do too. We only got 64 Sundays, but they were beautiful and difficult and wonderfully worth it. And now that this leaf has fallen to the ground, I hope and pray that it will enrich the soil of the wider Church, and that you who were a part of Ember will nourish and flourish wherever God takes you.

Last night I had the holy privilege of preparing three people for baptism. I heard amazing testimonies of God’s power from Mary, Ian, and Dustin. I was truly overwhelmed by the goodness and power of God, and I am so excited to baptize these three this Sunday at Ember.

Baptizing is one of the greatest honors I have as a pastor. I get to be the participating witness to their public confession of faith and full identification with Jesus, his death, and resurrection.

I’ll be honest. Planting this church has been hard in many ways. It has not turned out like I had hoped or expected. And yet, as I consider those who have been impacted by our church, such that they would take the step of obedient faith and be baptized here, I am on the verge of tears. These beautiful and courageous souls have given me and Ember a great honor, something I will never forget.

Easter is the celebration of new life, of the power of God to conquer death, and of our own hope of resurrection and life forever with Jesus. Baptism is a symbol of all of that. If you want to be baptized this week at Ember, let me know. I would love to make that happen.

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