Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Matt's Day. Again.

December 30th is Matt's Day in our home.

He died on this day at age 23 in 2001. He was killed by a drunk driver speeding down the wrong way on I69 between I469 and the Dupont South exit. We think of him almost every time we drive past that spot. Which is often.

And we do little things on this day to remember him, though I think of him a lot anyway. Today I wore his old Montreal Canadiens NHL jersey. And listened to Rusted Root, Weezer, Wallflowers, and DMB in his honor.

I also make a point to sit and reflect about life and death, love and forgiveness, meaning and hope. I've not always handled well the tragic death of my little brother Matt. Thoughts of his death can easily fuel morose musings of the meaninglessness of life. That's where Kierkegaard comes in so handy. He has been an essential friend and guide in the many years since Matt was killed.

This evening I read and reflect in front of a lovely fire while the temperature outside dips down, down, down into deep chilliness. The heat of the fireplace, though, directs my heart towards learning to love my dead brother Matt.

You'd think that death ends the love two brothers have for each other. But St. Paul writes that "love abides." What does that mean for those that protest death and grieve the dead? Kierkegaard writes words that kindle hope for a love that abides, in this life and the next:
The one who truly loves never falls away from love.

He can never reach the breaking point. Yet, is it always possible to prevent a break in a relationship between two persons, especially when the other has given up? One would certainly not think so. Is not one of the two enough to break the relationship?

In a certain sense it is so. But if the lover is determined to no fall away from love, he can prevent the break, he can perform this miracle; for if he perseveres, a total break can never really come to be.

By abiding, the one who loves transcends the power of the past. He transforms the break into a possible new relationship, a future possibility.

The lover who abides belongs to the future, to the eternal. From the angle of the future, the break is not really a break, but rather a possibility. But the powers of the eternal are needed for this. The lover must abide in love, otherwise the heartache of the past still has the power to keep alive the break.

It is too easy to let hate and bitterness rule my heart in response to the senseless death of my brother. It's been hard work to make sense of his tragedy and let love reign over it. There were regrets I had about our relationship.

I wanted to be a better big brother. I should have been there for him more. More present and interested in him. I was busy launching my own life, getting married, finishing up school, starting a church. I was there for some of his big moments. But not for any of the little ones.

It's been difficult to figure out what kind of future I can have with my dead brother when the years preceding his death were seeds for regret after his funeral.

The whole thing depends upon how the relationship is regarded, and the lover - he abides.

Can anyone determine how long a silence must be in order to say, now there is no more conversation?

Put the past out of the way; drown it in the forgiveness of the eternal by abiding in love. Then the end is the beginning and there is no break!

But the one who loves abides. "I will abide," he says. "Therefore we are still on the path of life together." And is this not so?

What marvelous strength love has! The most powerful word that has ever been said, God's creative word, is: "Be." But the most powerful word any human being has ever said is, "I abide."

Reconciled to himself and to his conscience, the one who loves goes without defense into the most dangerous battle. He only says: "I abide." But he will conquer, conquer by his abiding.

There is no misunderstanding that cannot be conquered by his abiding, no hate that can ultimately hold up to his abiding - in eternity if not sooner. If time cannot, at least the eternal shall wrench away the other's hate.

Yes, the eternal will open his eyes for love. In this way love never fails - it abides.

May these curing words of Kierkegaard impart a fresh perspective on the breaches of love in your life. As you grieve and mourn the deaths in your life, may you learn to abide in love. Death will come for us all. We may not get to choose our death day, but we do get to choose to abide in love all the days we have left.

That's what I'm choosing to learn to do on Matt's day.

Love abides.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Our God Is Able: Martin Luther King Jr. and The Strength to Love

"Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling." Jude 24

At the center of the Christian faith is the conviction that in the universe there is a God of power who is able to do exceedingly abundant things in nature and in history. This conviction is stressed over and over in the Old and the New Testaments.

Theologically, this affirmation is expressed in the doctrine of the omnipotence of God. The God whom we worship is not a weak and incompetent God. He is able to beat back gigantic waves of opposition and to bring low prodigious mountains of evil. 

The ringing testimony of the Christian faith is that God is able.

The devotees of the new man-centered religion point to the spectacular advances of modern science as justification for their faith. But alas! something has shaken the faith of those who have made the laboratory "the new cathedral of men's hopes." The instruments which yesterday were worshipped today contain cosmic death, threatening to plunge all of us into the abyss of annihilation.

Man is not able to save himself or the world. Unless he is guided by God's spirit, his new-found scientific power will become a devastating Frankenstein monster that will bring to ashes his earthly life.

At times other forces cause us to question the ableness of God. The stark and colossal reality of evil in the world - what Keats calls "the giant agony of the world"; ruthless floods and tornadoes that wipe away people as though they were weeds in an open field; ills like insanity plaguing some individuals from birth and reducing their days to tragic cycles of meaninglessness; the madness of war and the barbarity of man's inhumanity to man - why, we ask, do these things occur if God is able to prevent them?

This problem, namely, the problem of evil, has always plagued the mind of man. I would limit my response to an assertion that much of the evil which we experience is caused by man's folly and ignorance and also by the misuse of his freedom. Beyond this, I can say only that there is and always will be a penumbra of mystery surrounding God.

What appears at the moment to be evil may have a purpose that our infinite minds are incapable of comprehending. So in spite of the presence of evil and the doubts that lurk in our minds, we shall wish not to surrender the conviction that God is able. 

Let us notice that God is able to subdue all the powers of evil. In affirming that God is able to conquer evil we admit the reality of evil. Christianity has never dismissed evil as illusory, or an error of the mortal mind. It reckons with evil as a force that has objective reality.

But Christianity contends that evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. 

History is the story of evil forces that advance with seemingly irresistible power only to be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. There is a law in the moral world - a silent, invisible imperative, akin to the always in the physical world - which reminds us that life will work only in a certain way. 

In our own nation another unjust and evil system, known as segregation, for nearly one hundred years inflicted the Negro with a sense of inferiority, deprived him of his personhood, and denied him his birthright of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Segregation has been the Negroe's burden and America's shame. But as on the world scale, so in our nation, the wind of change began to blow. One event has followed another to bring a gradual end to the system of segregation. Today we know with certainty that segregation is dead. The only question remaining is how costly will be the funeral.

These great changes are not mere political and sociological shifts. They represent the passing of systems that were born in injustice, nurtured in inequality, and reared in exploitation. They represent the inevitable decay of any system based on principles that are not in harmony with the moral laws of the universe.

When in future generations men look back upon these turbulent, tension packed days through which we are passing, they will see God working through history for the salvation of man. They will know that God was working through those men who had the vision to perceive that no nation could survive half slave and half free.

God is able to conquer the evils of history. His control is never usurped. If at times we despair because of the relatively slow progress being made in ending racial discrimination and if we become disappointed because of the undue cautiousness of the federal government, let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able.

In our sometimes difficult and often lonesome walk up freedom's road, we do not walk alone. God walks with us. 

He has placed within the very structure of this universe certain absolute moral laws. We can neither defy nor break them. If we disobey them, they will break us. The forces of evil may temporarily conquer truth, but truth will ultimately conquer its conqueror. Our God is able.

Let us notice, finally, that God is able to give us interior resources to confront the trials and difficulties of life. Each of us faces circumstances in life which compel us to carry heavy burdens of sorrow. Adversity assails us with hurricane force. Glowing sunrises are transformed into darkest nights. Our highest hopes are blasted and our noblest dreams are shattered.

Christianity has never overlooked these experiences. They come inevitably.

Like the rhythmic alternation in the natural order, life has the glittering sunlight of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. Days of unutterable joy are followed by days of overwhelming sorrow. Life brings periods of flooding and periods of drought.

Admitting the weighty problems and staggering disappointments, Christianity affirms that God is able to give us the power to meet them. 

He is able to give us the inner equilibrium to stand tall amid the trials and burdens of life. He is able to provide inner peace amid the outer storms. The inner stability of the man of faith is Christ's chief legacy to his disciples. He offers neither material resources nor a magical formula that exempts us from suffering and persecution, but he brings an imperishable gift: "Peace I leave with you." This is the peace that passeth all understanding.

At times we may feel that we do not need God, but on the day when the storms of disappointment rage, the winds of disaster blow, and the tidal waves of grief beat against our lives, if we do not have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds.

There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have genuflected before the god of science only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate. We have worshipped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short-lived. We have bowed before the god of money only to learn that there are such things as love and friendship that money cannot buy and that in a world of possible depressions, stock market crashes, and bad business investments, money is a rather uncertain deity. These transitory gods are not able to save us or bring happiness to the human heart.

Only God is able. 

It is faith in him that we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism.

Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death? Why be afraid? God is able. Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, or the waywardness of a child? Why despair? God is able to give you the power to endure that which cannot be changed. Come what may, God is able. 

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom.

When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.

[selections taken from pages 107-114, Strength to Love]

This sermon of MLK was read in preparation for the Easter Sunday 2014 sermon entitled, "The Resurrection and Why God Let's Bad Things Happen to Good People." So much of the MLK sermon connected with my developing thoughts for my own sermon. By typing out many of the thoughts and paragraphs of his sermon, I hope to spread his message while also letting it shape my own.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Anchor & 15 Years

Today marks Sunday number 781 for Anchor Community Church! 

For fifteen years we've been gathering for worship in the 3rd Street neighborhood. We've believed from Sunday number 1 that there ought to be an overflow effect - all this worship in one place for all those years ought to make a difference in our community.

That's why it's always been extra special when we see our neighbors walking to church. And why there's always extra joy in working together to serve our neighborhood. Is our neighborhood better off because of Anchor after a decade and a half? I hope to God it is.

I could point to the Youth Center, our Community Connections Ministry, the 46808 Neighborhood Churches Partnership, the work with Associated Churches, NeighborLinkFW, Habitat for Humanity, A Hope Center, and Community Harvest Food Bank, our ministry with Redemption House, the years of VBS and Neighborhood Clean Up Days, the Halloween Maze, the meetings with Judge Charlie Pratt.

I could point to the baptisms of men, women, youth and children. Each one a sacred and special moment for our congregation and neighborhood. Each life consecrated to God and part of the Kingdom of God, sent into a big world way beyond the sidewalks of our neighborhood block.

I could point to the men and women who have been called into ministry while part of Anchor. Or the ministry opportunities we have provided for people where their faith and love has been stretched and then stretched some more.

There will be eternal gratitude for every single person who has ever been part of Anchor Community Church.

Hundreds and hundreds of people have been part of our congregation for the past fifteen years. I suppose you could say it's a sign of failure that they all didn't stay. I look at it as an opportunity for blessing. God has had his plans for Anchor - and apparently it's included allowing a wide diversity of people to serve and lead, to be served and saved while part of this congregation.

In learning to submit to what God has been doing amongst us, it's included learning to graciously receive whomever He brings to our church - and then letting go when it's time for God to send them out into his Kingdom work elsewhere. Whether for a long time or short time - God has brought so many wonderful people into our congregation to bless them and us, to challenge and stretch our faith, to ask of us more than we thought we could give.

Being part of Anchor is not for the weak of heart. It takes a lot of faith and love to be part of Anchor. And hope. Whether it's God planting seeds of faith, hope and love - or asking you to pour it out into others - there is a unique challenge to being part of this church.

In our welcome to our neighbors and city, we've learned to befriend a wide range of people from many walks of life. With where our church is located, we've been especially sensitive to the people who walk into our congregation with a broken heart and wounded soul. Anchor has sometimes felt like a field hospital for sinners. Lots of emergencies, tremendous crisis, tragic stories, unending pain. But it's been in those moments where our faith, love and hope has been used by God in unimaginable ways.

From field hospital to table of hospitality, we've learned to embrace as friends and family people who God brings our way for help and healing, and then let them turn around and out of their woundedness warmly welcome others who are hurting.

As difficult as this Gospelwork is, what else would I rather want to do with my life? To be part of a community where I need more faith then yesterday, where I am invited to give and receive more love then I thought capable, and to need more hope than ever.

When Anchor had it's first Sunday, Tara and I were a few years out of college, I was getting ready to celebrate my 24th birthday in about a week, no kids and the future in front of us. A lot has changed since then. A lot of life, a lot of death, a lot of growing up. And God has used Anchor as an anchor for our family. Our congregation has been a source of safety and security in the many storms that have come our way.

I've had to do a lot of maturing while pastoring Anchor. I know that the congregation poured out much grace and mercy upon me as their young pastor. Sometimes I shudder at the sermons and leadership decisions that Anchor had to endure while I did my growing up. But I've never felt like the congregation was "putting up with me." It's been mounds and mounds of generosity, graciousness, and gratefulness.

When I transitioned from my pastoral internship at Emmanuel Community Church to the lead pastor role at Anchor, I determined to serve for at least ten years. I figured I would need that kind of longevity to both learn how to pastor but also help Anchor establish it's ministry and make a difference in the neighborhood. Soon after we started I put together a 30 to 50 year plan, looking forward to what could be if God allowed us to stay with Anchor. We blew past the first decade, and now we're halfway through the next. Here's what I wrote in January 2001, a few years into our journey as Anchor:

* To be a true anchor for the neighborhood amidst the chaos of spiritual ignorance and indifference, broken families and friendships, educational apathy and isolated neighbors.

* To be an influential neighborhood church that is the hub of activities for the community in a 10 block radius.

* To be a church that faithfully and effectively encourages and equips more people to love God and to love people as they reach out to seekers and build up believers (become fully devoted followers of Christ).

* To be a great-great-great-great-great-great grandparent church that continually evolves and reinvents itself in order to faithfully and effectively fulfill the purpose of Anchor.

* To be a church where people can learn to live a life of grace and truth (love) and engage in activities that will enable them to leave a faith-full legacy.

* To be a church where many people regularly respond to the call to be missionaries, pastors, teachers and evangelists.

* To be an encourager and equipper to other residential neighborhood churches so that they too may become faithful and effective in fulfilling The Purpose.

While I might phrase it a bit different now, the arc of ministry is still the same. What we started way back then is still being played out, one way or another. Change happens so fast and often, it can be hard to stay on course. And it can be too easy to get discouraged. Pessimism sneaks in and questions everything. It's in moments like that which I remember our founding verse in Hebrews 6:19-20a

"We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf."

Jesus is the anchor for my family, our church, and our community. Whatever doubts and fears assail our hearts, we remember that Christ is with us, and we are with him, and it is His kingdom work which we are joining.

Whatever kind of anchoring we are for the community, it is by him and for him. He casts us forth into the sands and reefs of our community amidst storms or in harbors at his will, we go as he sends us, knowing that is he is here.

I'll close my reminiscing with this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it comes from a collection of his writings that my Dad gave to me a few Christmas' before his death. I'm thankful to my Dad and Dietrich for the words that point me to Christ, fueling faith, hope and love into the future.

"The essence of optimism is not its view of the present, but the fact that it is the inspiration of life and hope when others give in; it enables people to hold their heads high when everything seems to be going wrong; it gives them strength to sustain reverses and yet to claim the future for themselves instead of abandoning it to their opponents.

It is true that there is a silly, cowardly kind of optimism, which we must condemn.

But the optimism that is will for the future should never be despised, even if it is proven wrong a hundred times; it is health and vitality, and the sick person has no business to impugn it.

There are people who regard it as frivolous, and some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future.

They think that the meaning of present events is chaos, disorder, and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations.

It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; and in that case, though not before, we shall gladly stop working for a better future."

Friday, September 13, 2013

On Being an Adult & Becoming Fully Present

How do you know when you are grown up? For us guys, when are you a man? What makes an adult an "adult"?

This extended quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, taken from his Letters and Papers from Prison, resonated with me when it came to discerning some characteristics of being an adult.

But is it not characteristic of adults, in contrast to an immature person, that their center of gravity is always where they actually are, and that the longing for their fulfillment of their wishes cannot prevent them from being their whole self, wherever they happen to be?

The adolescent is never wholly in one place; that is one of the essential characteristics of youth, else he would presumably be a dullard.

There is a wholeness about the fully grown adult which enables a person to face an existing situation squarely. Adults may have their longings, but they keep them out of sight, and somehow master them; and the more they have to overcome in order to live fully in the present, the more they will have the respect and confidence of other people, especially the younger ones, who are still on the road that the adult has already travelled.

Desires to which we cling closely can easily prevent us from being what we ought to be and can be; and on the other hand, desires repeatedly mastered for the sake of present duty make us richer. Lack of desire is poverty.

Almost all the people whom I find in my present surroundings in prison cling to their own desires, and so have no interest in others; they no longer listen, and they are incapable of loving their neighbor. I think that even in this place we ought to live as if we had no wishes and no future, and just be our true selves.

When I think of my desires - to be a great dad and husband, to make a lasting difference in the world, to pastor a church that transforms lives - I get inspired and overwhelmed. I love the idea behind the desires, but the burden of making them come true can be overwhelming. They are good desires. But I can let the desires - which are very much forward oriented - take me away from being fully present now.

And no greatness comes from living in the past or the future. In fact, at times, these desires have produced self-loathing and depression in me - for I felt that me being me would undermine my ability to fulfill my desires to great things! On this side of that darkness, I am becoming more open to becoming more present by mastering my desires and focusing on the duties set out before me.

And I am guided forward by Bonhoeffer's comments on being an adult by becoming fully present with my whole self. In whatever situation I find myself as a man, a dad and husband, a pastor or neighbor - being present as Tim is more vital than letting my desires fuel my actions and wrench me a way to the future.

My future-oriented desires undermine the vitality of what is happening right now. I suppose the same would work for my past-oriented desires of regret or nostalgia.

I know that I don't want to become the kind of person who takes no interest in others, doesn't listen, and is incapable of loving my neighbor. Learning to master all my desires, no matter how noble I think some of them feel, acknowledging them without fueling them, will help me live in the present and embrace the duties that God and society have presented to me in the now.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hiss! Roar!

My brother Ben used to say stuff like that all time.

You ask him a question, he'd reply, "Hiss! Roar!" You ask him to pass the bowl of veggies at the dinner table, he'd hand it to you accompanied with a "Hiss! Roar!"

Why did he say that kind of stuff? Who knows. That's what made it funny.

Him and Matt always came up with bizarre but catchy and cool phrases to throw around as substitutes for normal answers. The dinner table was a sacred time for our family, but it became a comedy club once we got older. Ben would sing most of his way through supper, serenading us with the most obnoxious commercial jingles. He had a good voice too, which helped the tune stick in my head long after we had cleared the dinner plates. When we complained, he just smirked and sang a different one. Now I had two annoying melodies in my head.

Personally, I would never had thought of the odd phrases generated by Ben and Matt. It would never have occurred to me to memorize lame commercial jingles and then sing them loudly and often when people gathered in the house. There's plenty of things that Matt and Ben did that would have never crossed my mind to do.

But now I do. Pretty much only with my kids. It's a way, I guess, for me to remember Ben and carry him around in my heart. It's one of the ways I'm not the same, nineteen years later. I think I'm done being sad. I don't miss him anymore, not really, since it's been so long. I still sometimes wonder how life would be different with him here. We'd all be a lot more jolly, that's for sure!

I've come to realize that I've been carrying around Ben in me all these years. I don't have to try to remember him, I just do. And he's influenced me, so that I do things he would do. That's why I don't miss him as much, because he feels more present, not less.

Being angry about his death is what made him feel distant. He wasn't an angry kid. Not when he was going blind. Not when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Not when he had the surgery. Not when his life was radically altered that summer. He accepted it. We didn't. But now I guess I finally am. Being a slow learner can be painful.

Be that as it may, I'm happy Ben was, is, and will be part of our family. Today is his death-day. It'll be a good day to smile. And smirk. "Hiss! Roar!"

Monday, July 29, 2013

Endings Are Better Than Beginnings

In cleaning out my Dad's desk yesterday, I came across all sorts of papers and books and his writings. It's been almost fourteen months since My Dad died, but almost twenty months since he last sat at that desk. I found his last devotional reading from his Daily Bread on Saturday December 16, 2011 - it was tucked into one of his many worn and well read Bible, at Isaiah 53. 

As a preacher, going through another preacher's files, it forced on me a harsh question: in the end is it all meaningless? All those meetings, all those prayers, all those expectations, all those words: in the end what do they add up to? Only God knows and justly judges a persons work and worth. Somehow what my Dad did matters, for I and my family and many others have have been blessed by him. But on the other hand, the finality of my Dad's death impresses me to consider what my daughter and sons will remember about me when they go through this preachers old desk.

It is this thought that has settled on my heart and shapes my reading of Ecclesiastes this morning. What makes life meaningful? It's an old question that preachers and everyone else have been wrestling with through the ages. Going through Dad's stuff made me both melancholy and grateful. It also made me want to meditate on the writings of another preacher, found in the book of Ecclesiastes. I've provided some quotes from chapter seven that were helpful to me as I contemplated on my Dad's untimely death and my fleeting life. 

A good reputation is better than a fat bank account. 

Your death date tells more than your birth date.
You learn more at a funeral than at a feast— 
After all, that's where we'll end up. 
We might discover something from it. 

Crying is better than laughing. 
It blotches the face but it scours the heart. 

Sages invest themselves in hurt and grieving. 
Fools waste their lives in fun and games. 

Endings are better than beginnings. 
Sticking to it is better than standing out. 

Don't be quick to fly off the handle. 
Anger boomerangs. You can spot a fool by the lumps on his head. 

Don't always be asking, "Where are the good old days?" 
Wise folks don't ask questions like that. 

Wisdom is better when it's paired with money, 
Especially if you get both while you're still living. 
Double protection: wisdom and wealth! 
Plus this bonus: Wisdom energizes its owner.
On a good day, enjoy yourself; 
On a bad day, examine your conscience. 
God arranges for both kinds of days 
So that we won't take anything for granted.

I've seen it all in my brief and pointless life—
here a good person cut down in the middle of doing good, 
there a bad person living a long life of sheer evil. 

So don't knock yourself out being good, 
and don't go overboard being wise. 
Believe me, you won't get anything out of it. 
But don't press your luck by being bad, either. 

And don't be reckless. 
Why die needlessly? 

It's best to stay in touch with both sides of an issue. 
A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality, not just a piece of it. 

Wisdom puts more strength in one wise person 
Than ten strong men give to a city. 

There's not one totally good person on earth, 
Not one who is truly pure and sinless. 

I tested everything in my search for wisdom. 
I set out to be wise, but it was beyond me, 
far beyond me, and deep—oh so deep! 
Does anyone ever find it? 
I concentrated with all my might, 
studying and exploring and seeking wisdom—
the meaning of life
I also wanted to identify evil and stupidity, 
foolishness and craziness. 

But the wisdom I've looked for I haven't found. 
I didn't find one man or woman in a thousand worth my while. 
Yet I did spot one ray of light in this murk: 
God made men and women true and upright; 
we're the ones who've made a mess of things. 

(Excerpts from Ecclesiastes 7, the Message translation)

Thursday, June 06, 2013


Transitions are the stuff of life. Or: change is the only constant.

There is a lot of transition in my life these days. It is unsettling.

There is a desire for stability and certainty that stays with me. It makes me moody, depressed, anxious, and envious.

Some of the transition is life stage stuff. I'm closer to 40 then I used to be. Health stuff is becoming more of an issue. I've got to pay closer attention to my body and how to not abuse it.

My four kids are all getting older everyday - though it seems most apparent when they finish up another year of school. Like they did the other day. 5th grade, 3rd grade and 1st grade are all coming up this fall.

And I'm back in school, at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois; I'm finishing up my first class in Missional Ecclesiology for my doctor of ministry degree in Missional Church Leadership. The class is messing with my assumptions about ministry and church. "New" brings both opportunity and anxiety.

Tara and I are approaching our 18th wedding anniversary, 19th engagement anniversary, and 20th dating anniversary. In all those years (two decades!!!!!) there has been so much transition (aka: growing up). I can't believe how much of my narcism and pettiness she has had to put up with all this time. There is so much more room for improvement for me when it comes to loving.

We are moving, for the fourth time, to a house we hope to make our home for a long time. Hopefully it can be a hangout house for our kids and their friends, and our friends.

But selling a house, buying, packing and moving brings with it lots of transition tension and frustration. All this while Tara is wrapping up a challenging school year as a kindergarten teacher, I'm transitioning back into pastoral work with Anchor after a four month sabbatical, and the responsibilities for lots of other details in life all seem to converge at once.

I suppose this sounds like whining. Maybe it is. But it's all swirling around in my head. And now that it's typed out, it doesn't all seem so intimidating. Still a little overwhelming, though.

But it's not just the physical transitions, the geographic ones or the scheduled changes. It's also about what I believe, what I see, how I interpret reality, what my purpose is, what matters in life, and how to sort through all the ramifications of my choices. There is spiritual transitions, existential transitions, philosophical and theological transitions, emotional and social transitions. It feels like everything in my life is in transition. Like I can feel the churning of all the transitions. Well, not all, but a lot.

Maybe the transition that weighs on my mind the most is economic transition. Meaning: the growing awareness that every economic transaction has a real consequence on how other people live and experience reality. For over three decades I never cared where my stuff came from or how it was made. But now there is a growing awareness that my purchasing power affects real people. My Apple products that I purchased affect the livelihood of underpaid workers in China. The Tyson chicken I eat was likely prepared in a disgusting factory by illegal immigrants. The gasoline I purchased for my car came at the expense of local villagers who were displaced by an energy company in Africa. The more global our economy, and the more "truth" that journalists uncover, the more aware I am becoming of how my actions affect other people.

I don't want to think about how to better spend my money on products that will contribute to real flourishing of workers. It seems so complicated. And yet....

Jesus makes a big deal about money and possessions in his teachings. I don't want money and possessions (ie anything I buy with money) to have priority over a life oriented around love of God and my neighbor. If I really am going to let the love of Jesus affect every part of my life, that has to include my money and all that I possess - whether for survival or leisure.

In getting ready to move, it has become apparent to Tara and I that we have way more stuff then we need. And we hardly ever go shopping for stuff! It is too easy to accumulate more stuff then we can even use. And as our economy becomes globalized, cheap stuff isn't so "cheap" anymore; and technology that is supposed to bring convenience and leisure to our lives often makes life more cluttered while impoverishing those that slave in another land to produce the minerals or piece together the instrument for my user-friendly life.

I can feel the resistance in me, the desire to put my head in the sand and not pay attention to the impact that my dollars have in the world. I tithe. Tara and I give more then ten percent of our before taxed income away. Most of it to our local church, and then also to other charities and needs. And we still have more then enough money to accumulate stuff we don't need. We could afford to give away more money. And yet some of the best use of our money would be to use it more wisely on the products we know we need.

Constant items we purchase are food (grocery and restaurant), utilities and mortgage for our house, gas, household items, and then there is the occasional purchase of clothes, luxury items like movies, music, books, and then big ticket items like vacation, technology stuff, and gifts for birthdays and Christmas. I'm sure I'm missing something. Tara and I work hard to handle our money well. But it seems so apparent to me that we need to pay more attention to what we buy, who we buy it from, how it was made, who made it, and what the real cost of the item is to us and those who "made" it.

To me, this transition gets at a core belief: does my money have anything to do with my love for God and my neighbor? Who is my neighbor? The one in need. Does my use of money in purchasing stuff keep people in need? Does it create greater need? Does it contribute to alleviation of need? With where I live in America, in Indiana, in Fort Wayne: do I believe that God wants a greater accounting with the why, what and how how of what I do with my money? And my time, for that matter.

If love of God and neighbor is the summary commandment of Jesus, and if money really is a central part of my life, I ought to make some practical connections with how I view/use money and possessions. Otherwise, all my Christianity is a whitewash for my unexamined motives and assumptions about money and possessions. As the truth comes out about how Americans purchasing habits shape the world, Christians have to ask: what does my use of money and possessions communicate about Jesus and the gospel?

It's this kind of musing that is bringing about fundamental transitions in my heart, mind, and life. There are expenses in moving, going back to school, doing a sabbatical, and raising a family. There is money to be earned through our work. Where we live, how we live, what we live for all connects to money and our purchasing values. I have paid too little attention to money and how it shapes my schedule, my time and energy for friends, my availability and heart for my family.

I want to do something great in the world. This desire is something I am learning to submit to Jesus. Same for my desire for stability and certainty. But in my desire to do something great in the world, I ought to probe around my unexamined assumptions about money. Maybe I can do more in the world with less. But with the less that I do consume/purchase - knowing how/what/where it came from can begin to make a great difference in the world. And my motivation for all of this? Obedience to Jesus. Because what I really desire is to please Him. And that starts with believing Him. And I'll know I believe him when I obey him. And I can only obey him when I let him convict me of my sins, forgive me, put a clean heart within me, and reshape my desires such that I can participate in his restoration of all things.

And now that I've written this post, gotten stuff out of my head, I feel better. And has all this just been a way to procrastinate on changing any of my purchasing habits? Tomorrow will tell....

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sabbatical Reflections [part two]

It's the start of my fourth week back with Anchor since my sabbatical ended. The time is quickly churning by as I talk with Anchorpeople, reconnect with the ministry and the community, participate in meetings, and worship together on Sundays. It's good to be back. 

I'm continually reflecting on my sabbatical and how it changed everything. I've been thinking about how we pulled together to make the sabbatical happen. We did it once, and I think Anchor can make it happen again in seven years. As I reflect on the sabbatical, it seems to me that almost any church could make a sabbatical happen if they plan it out, prepare for it in advance, and pray their way forward in it.

The initial conversation in 2012 about a sabbatical happened in September when Tara and I met with the Pastoral Support Team at McAlister's. The Baumans and Suttons listened to us as we poured out our hearts. In the brutal honesty, we were able to share with them where we were at as individuals, as a couple, and as pastor and pastor's wife. And they asked very good questions. As we talked through the options of what to do, the sabbatical option seemed to have the most promise for healing and hope.

Three and a half months is not enough time to prepare for a sabbatical well. The urgency of the situation, the maturity of the staff and ministry leaders and of the congregation, made it possible to plan and prepare for the sabbatical. However, the idea of a sabbatical had been presented two years prior with our Resource Team. And two years is a better framework for planning and preparing a pastor and congregation for a sabbatical.

In the fall of 2010 I had attended a sabbatical funding workshop in Indianapolis sponsored by the Lilly Foundation. Indiana clergy can apply for a generous grant from the Lilly Foundation for a three to four month sabbatical. If accepted, funds are made possible for the church to function well during the sabbatical, and so that the pastor and his family can receive a salary and have funds to travel and relax and learn on sabbatical. The application and planning process is very rigorous. And much time is needed to prepare.

At the time I presented this opportunity to my family and to Anchor, there was a short window of time to plan and prepare the application. In contemplating whether Anchor could provide a sabbatical for me, I was unsure of it's possibility. I had come to lead Anchor in such a way that the ministry was very pastor-driven, pastor-centered, and pastor-owned. It seemed to me that if I stepped out of ministry for three to four months, the ministry of the church would have some level of chaos with out the pastor.

It was a revealing and convicting moment for me. I could trace out how it came to that point, but the larger issue was how to transition out of it. I was thankful for the revelation, but frustrated by reality. The possibility of a sabbatical through Lilly was very inspiring but also overwhelming. I didn't think that I could make enough changes in three to six months such that the congregation would feel confident they could move forward in ministry without the pastor. Maybe the could've, but I didn't think so.

It was difficult to let go of the Lilly possibility. But I was determined to make some changes so that someday the church would be congregation-centered instead of pastor-centered. Instead of me coming up with great ministry ideas and working to make them happen, I realized that I needed to pay attention to the great ministry ideas the Holy Spirit was stirring up in the congregation. By rearranging my priorities and pouring into the congregation, I would be equipping and encouraging them for ministry. This would make for a lot more ministry getting done, it would remove me from the middle of ministry, and make possible for more leaders to emerge. And with this new kind of environment, a sabbatical would be much more likely and much more beneficial for the whole church.

Once I made that attitude adjustment and began to look for the Holy Spirit to bring forth ministry possibilities through the congregation, neat things began to happen. God started bringing people to Anchor, and started to raise up people out of the congregation to get involved and lead and serve in ministry. In my mind, Anchor began to stabilize and gain confidence in itself when it came to ministry to the community and amongst itself.

In 2011 we introduced a governing process using guiding principles that reshaped how we led. By spending the year refocusing on how we lead, other men and women were able to step up and contribute significantly to problem-solving, to decision making, and ministry needs. With more leaders learning how Anchor makes decisions, and a stronger sense of mission that shapes our decision, the possibility of a sabbatical continued to grow. I continually looked for ways to connect people to ministry opportunities, coaching them as I could, encouraging them and supporting them along the way.

In 2012 my dad died. For a variety of reasons that are best saved for a different blogpost, my dad's death wiped me out. My ministry was tied up in my relationship with my dad. And my ministry with Anchor has been a force in my marriage for thirteen years at that point. The grieving and mourning that Tara and I went through was very difficult on our marriage, and on my ministry. I'm thankful that Anchor had grown in it's ability to lead and serve as a congregation, that it was not nearly as pastor-centered as it used to be. As Anchor's pastor began to wither and stumble, the congregation was able to carry on, and carry me.

For pastors that are interested in a sabbatical but don't feel that their church is big enough to afford it or you don't think you have the staff or leaders to minister during the sabbatical: you can do it.

If you plan and prepare far enough in advance, you can do it. If you are convinced in your heart, if you are convicted by the Holy Spirit that you ought to take a sabbatical, then Jesus will help you prepare and plan your congregation. It was two years of planning and preparing on my end that helped contribute to a good sabbatical experience for Anchor. Lots of other things came together that I will give credit to God for.

But if you want a sabbatical, and you know God wants your church to have one, then prayerfully lead the congregation forward so that they grow in their leadership and serving skills. Reexamine your structure so that it is not so dependent on the pastor. Identify key men and women in your church that have the gift of teaching and give them opportunities to deliver sermons on Sundays. Find out who has a talent for ministering through preaching, and continue to give them ways to develop that gift. Given enough time, God can help you put together a preaching and ministering team so that during the sabbatical you can rest and the congregation can grow.

I'd love to have more dialogue with pastor's and churches to help them figure out how a sabbatical could be used by God to bless them. Let me know if I can help. I'm learning as I go, Anchor is learning as we go forward. We'd love to share what we're learning. 

Click here for more of my sabbatical reflections.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Sabbatical Reflections [part one]

It's my third day back with Anchor Community Church. The time has been spent reconnecting with leaders from the congregation. We've been catching up on the sabbatical experience for all of us. All the conversations have prompted some helpful reflection for me.

I didn't do a lot of reflection about the sabbatical during the four months, but now that I'm on the other side of it, now seems a good time to do so. Over the next few weeks and maybe even months I intend to write out my reflections as a way to connect the congregation to my sabbatical experience.

Anchor provided my family with a tremendous gift for which we will be forever grateful. I want them to know some of what resulted from the gift of the sabbatical. I've begun to hear stories of how God used the sabbatical in the life of the congregation. Apparently we all have a lot of stories to tell. I want to hear them, and share mine.

But I also want to connect with other pastors who may be interested in a sabbatical. It seems to me that most pastors need a sabbatical, but don't believe that it is possible. Through my reflections, I hope to encourage pastors to follow up on their awareness that they do need a sabbatical. Not only that, but then provide some insights on how they can begin to prepare now for helping make a sabbatical possible in their future.

My first brief reflection here centers on the point I just made in regard to pastors: I was convicted, confronted, and eventually convinced that I needed a sabbatical. I needed a Psalm 23 experience.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
  He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
  He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

It was with some embarrassment that I admitted I needed a sabbatical. Shouldn't I have managed my life better such that I didn't need a sabbatical? Isn't a sabbatical a luxury item? Who am I to get a sabbatical, shouldn't that be reserved for pastors with more experience or bigger churches who have "real" stress or more complicated, enduring problems that they've had to shoulder? And how dare I ask my small congregation to help fund a sabbatical for me, isn't that selfish of me? If none of them will ever get a sabbatical through their work, how is it fair for me to request that they grant one to me?

You could come up with your own objections to a sabbatical. Maybe the time is not (ever) right. Maybe the money isn't there. Maybe you're too busy to take a break...

Through my family, close trusted friends, through experience, counseling, honest self-assessment, and the Spirit of Christ, and probably some other factors I'm not clear on, I became convinced that I needed a sabbatical. In taking stock of who I was becoming to my wife and children, to my friends and family, and even my congregation, I finally acknowledged that I needed an extended time of cessation from being a pastor. I knew it had to happen. No more putting it off. Either the sabbatical happens, or else something else does...something else not good.

Since sabbaticals aren't a common experience for congregations in my denomination, or many other denominations that I am aware of, there is little precedence for preparing for a sabbatical. Anchor had to dive into uncharted waters to prepare for this sabbatical. Ideally the next sabbatical will occur before I'm worn out, but at just the right time for a Psalm 23 experience for all of us.

But for me, I became convicted that a sabbatical had to happen. That conviction accelerated the conversations and planning. Had we not been operating out of urgency, we may have prepared better for the sabbatical. As it was, God was gracious to the congregation, taking care of all of us as we walked in faith. It was hard work preparing well for the sabbatical, but it was good work that had to happen. Anchor's leaders were amazing in their willingness to step up and help make this experience possible for my family and the congregation.

For pastors reading this who would like a sabbatical, do the research. Find out if there is any precedence in your denomination or region for a sabbatical. Talk to that pastor or congregation. Here's our denomination's helpful guidelines for sabbaticals.

Start paying attention to your schedule and self to determine how weary you are and can you make some small changes immediately. It's better to enter a sabbatical already making some key changes to diet, sleep, schedule and rest.

Continue to pray about the sabbatical with the Lord: does this desire have God's blessing? Is the Spirit of Christ giving you permission to pursue a sabbatical? The conviction and confirmation that you ought to take a sabbatical are key to moving forward. Second-guessing your decision will undermine the success.

For Anchor: with the rapid pace of preparing for the sabbatical, I gave off the impression that I was doing fine, that I had the energy to lead and preach well. I'm grateful that my ministry went well (for the most part...) up to the end of the year. But everything comes with a price to be paid. I was on fumes, I crossed the finish line of December 31st with nothing left in the pastor-tank.

For all the confusion that my sabbatical may have caused, I am sorry. That's maybe part of my pastoring that didn't go well at the end.

But, I was convinced and convicted that the sabbatical had to happen. And I am deeply grateful that Anchor helped make it possible. Thank you.

Check out this link for more blogposts published during my sabbatical, as well as upcoming sabbatical reflections.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Liberate Christians From Themselves

It is probably helpful to break down the pseudo-divide between the secular and the sacred. Especially when it comes to churchwork. As a pastor it is too easy to believe that my churchwork is not worldy work. But in reality, my work as a pastor through the church is just as much of the world as collecting garbage or managing an ER or waiting on tables in a chain restaurant.

"Work puts human beings in the world of things. It requires achievement from them.

Christians step out of the world of personal encounter into the world of impersonal things, the "It"; and this new encounter frees them for objectivity, for the world of the It is only an instrument in the hands of God for the purification of Christians from all self-absorption and selfishness.

The work of the world can only be accomplished where people forget themselves, where they lose themselves in a cause, reality, the task, the It. Christians learn at work to allow the task to set the bounds for them.

Thus, for them, work becomes a remedy for the lethargy and laziness of the flesh. The demands of the flesh die in the world of things. But that can only happen where Christians break through the It to the "You" of God, who commands the work and the deed and makes them serve to liberate Christians from themselves."

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pg 75 [from A Year With Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Daily Meditations from His Letters, Writings, and Sermons]

My work as a pastor is in the world, with people of the world. I read, write, speak, plan, ponder and work with all the tools of the world. The one sacred work I do is pray to Christ. And even that task is in the world, often on behalf of the world. In breaking down the illusion that my work is sacred, I can perceive how worldly my work really is. The dismay of this acknowledgment gives way to relief.

Work in the world is a gift of God. In the beginning God blessed work, intended that our work in the world would result in a carefully stewarded Earth that was a blessing to all Creation. Work in the world has obviously been corrupted and a tool of abuse and terror.

But for the Christian, we remember the original blessing of work in the world. And my work in the church could be, as a pastor, as a Christian, a way to reconnect with work in the world as a blessing.

Unfortunately, instead of work being a tool of God to remedy my self-absorption and selfishness, I, like too many people, have merely let work become an avenue for it. The gift of work has become a form of self-enslavement to my vision and desires for achievement rooted in my selfish ambitions.

Indeed I need Christ to liberate me from myself. By the work of my hands I led myself into enslavement, and by the work of my hands, good works that Christ designed for me to participate in, I will I find myself liberated from myself.

I am tempted to squeeze too much significance out of my work. Either to satisfy my insecurities or to fuel my ambitions. The invitation by Christ, though, is to remember the embedded blessing of work itself.

Entering into the work for what I can get out of it is a corrupting action. But participating in the work that I deem is commanded by God, well that kind of work becomes liberating. It becomes liberating because if flows out of simple obedience to Christ, and I am trusting that He is the one using the work for his redemption of the world.

My work in the world is part of the renewal of all things when I let it renew me through my obedience to the tasks set before me by Christ. He saves me in part through the work he gives me to do, which requires my trust and obedience.

In looking ahead, I am hopeful that the work assigned to me in the world will be a form of purification for my self-absorption and selfishness. There is a relief in trusting that through the worldly work God assigns me, he will liberate me from myself. Much to the delight of those who work with me!

Monday, February 25, 2013

When We Humble Ourselves...

In my striving to be like Jesus, and in my desire to focus on what I'm getting right, I fail to pay attention to how "infinitely far away we are from resembling him." I nurture a toxic spiritual pride when I ruminate how far I have come in following Jesus and trying to be like him. I end up belittling the actual teachings of Christ and gloss over my many sins. Like pride. Or anger.

"It must be firmly maintained that Christ did not come to the world only to set an example for us. If that were the case we would have law and works-righteousness again.

He comes to save us and in this way be our example. His very example should humble us, teach us how infinitely far away we are from resembling him.

When we humble ourselves, then Christ is pure compassion. And in our striving to approach him, he is again our very help.

It alternates: when we are striving, then he is our example; and when we stumble, lose courage, then he is the love that helps us up. And then he is our example again."
~ Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations, pg 223

The striving to be like Jesus will produce a profound humility in us, for we will only understand how profoundly and "infinitely far away we are from resembling him" as we seek to do that very thing.

Like Peter attempting to walk on the water in the effort to imitate and follow Jesus, it was his stumbling over the stormy waves, losing courage and needing the strong hand of Jesus to save him from drowning. But Peter got out of the boat! And when he began to sink fast, he did not hesitate to call out in fear and anger to Jesus to rescue him!

What does it mean to be humbled by Jesus's example to us? And how do we approach him?

I suppose we must first take Jesus example to us very seriously. Apart from Jesus, we will have no inclination to believe or obey his instructions or follow his Way. It is too difficult. It requires too much courage and truth and love.

And yet my striving to do so, tentatively getting out of the boat and angrily crying out for help when I sink is both humbling and a demonstration of trust. With an infinite gap between my way and the Way of Jesus, there can be no pride in what I accomplish in imitating Christ. I will only barely perceive the mystery of the infinite distance between my life and His.

And yet when I seek to love others as imitation of His love, when I do so trusting that he has initiates the work of love, and will help me do it, and rescue me when I flail in pride and anger... it is then, having been humbled, that I can choose to approach Him on the Way. "He is the love that helps us up. And then He is our example again."

Monday, February 04, 2013

Revolutionary Christianity

In focusing more and more on what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, there is some new imagination required for what that would look like in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Especially when being a pastor in a community results in potential political activity.

I am disillusioned with our political reality in the USA. And I'm disappointed in how popular Christianity as aligned itself with politics in order to protect their assets, their power, their position, and their rights.

There is within me an instinctive repulsion to pastors and politics. What's the alternative to posturing and press statements? How to think about being a pastor and involved in politics without ending up as a pawn or a prig?

In these days of searching and listening, I turn again to Jacques EllulI found the following paragraphs to be immensely helpful to me as I seek confirmation of God's leading in my life's work.My interests and skills and calling have lead me into social and political work. In my vocation as a pastor, there is some inner questioning whether this direction is appropriate.  In seeking some kind of justification or spiritual foundation for what I sense to be right, Ellul is most helpful.

"The Christian can never regard himself as being on the winning side, nor can he look on with pleasure while everyone else goes to perdition; should
he do so, he would be lacking in the Spirit of Christ, and by that very fact he would cease to be a Christian.

Bound up with the lives of other men (be economic and sociological laws, and also by the will of God), he cannot accept the view that they will always remain in their anguish and their disorder, victims of tyranny and overwork, buoyed up only by a hope which seems unfounded.

Thus he must plunge into social and political problems in order to have an influence on the world, not in the hope of making a paradise, but simply in order to make it tolerable - not in order to diminish the opposition between this world and the Kingdom of God, but simply in order to modify the opposition between the disorder of this world and the order of preservation that God wills for it  - not in order to 'bring in' the Kingdom of God, but in order that the gospel may be proclaimed, that all men may really hear the good news of salvation, through the death and resurrection of Christ.

Thus there are three directions in which the Christian ought to action the world:First - starting from the point at which God has revealed to him the truth about the human person, he must try to discover the social and political conditions in which this person can live and develop in accordance with God's order.

Second - this person will develop within a certain framework which God has ordained for him. This is the order of preservation, without which man lacks his true setting. Man is not absolutely free in this sphere, any more than he is free in the physical or biological domain. There are certain limits which he cannot overstep without danger to the society to which he belongs. Thus the Christian must work, in order that the will of God may be incarnated in actual institutions and organisms.

Third - this order of preservation will have meaning only if it is directed towards the proclamation of salvation. Therefore, social and political institutions need to be 'open': that is, they must not claim to be all, or absolutes. Thus they must be constituted in such a way that they do not prevent man from hearing the Word of God. The Christian must be ceaselessly on the watch - intelligent and alert - to see that this 'order' is preserved.

But, in doing so, he will find that he is confronted by two possible errors. The one error consists in believing that by constant progress in this order we shall attain the Kingdom of God. It is enough to remind ourselves of the Book of Revelation, or of Matthew 24, to condemn this attitude.

The other error arises out of the conviction that by achieving certain reforms we shall have reached this order which God wills. In reality all solutions - all economic, political, and other achievements - are temporary. At no moment can the Christian believe either in their perfection or in their permanence. They are always vitiated by the sin which infects them, by the setting in which they take place.

Thus the Christian is constantly obliged to reiterate the claims of God, to reestablish this God-willed order, in presence of an order that constantly tends towards disorder. In consequence of the claims which God is always making on the world the Christian finds himself, by that very fact, involved in a state of permanent revolution.

Even when the institutions, the laws, the reforms which he has advocated have been achieved, even if society is reorganized according to his suggestions, he still has to be in opposition, he still must require more, for the claim of God is as infinite as His forgiveness.

Thus the Christian is called to question unceasingly all that man calls progress, discovery, facts, established results, reality, etc. He can never be satisfied with all this human labor, transcended, or replaced by something else.

In his judgment he is guided by the Holy Spirit - he is making an essentially revolutionary act. If the Christian is not being revolutionary, then in some way or another he has been unfaithful to his calling in the world."

Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, pgs 35-37

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How To Listen To God

Can silence from God be something to listen to? Is being with God, in silence, also a form of listening? 

God knows my need for a conversation with him better then I do. It also seems that the more I trust God, the less often he speaks to me. Is that how prayer is supposed to work? 

I've found that listening to God is more about waiting and willingness, and timing. When God's ready to speak to me, will I be ready? 

But what happens when I want God to speak to me, and I don't hear anything? If timing is everything, and my waiting is turning to anxiety, I'm making it less and less likely that I will be prepared for a helpful conversation with Him. 

God never has a speaking problem. He is a very good communicator. But he is also mysterious, wise, and working at a much deeper, more profound level then I can understand. The answer or conversation I want to have with God may not be the one that He wants to have with me. Will I be okay with that? 

Maybe, before God says anything new to me, maybe I should review what he's already told me in the past. If I disregarded the prior conversation, maybe God's not too eager for another one. Yet.

I can be listening too hard, and then find myself muddled by so many voices - in my head, or from the conversations and sounds around me. I have to trust that when God speaks, I will know it is him. I just need to put myself in situations where I know that I want to hear God, and that I'm at peace with how and when and what He says. His timing is more important then mine. My anticipation for his words to me are just as important as the reception of them.

God can speak to us while we are in the middle of chores around the house or wrapping up work at the office. Listening to God can come in the darkness of night or in the midst of a grey shrouded day. Our posture to God, our attitude of readiness and willingness counts for much. God is full of surprises, so when He does speak, it could be in an unexpected, unlooked for way. 

God is also concerned with six billion other people besides me, so that whatever it is he is telling me isn't just for my own sake, but is intertwined with what he is telling other people at the same time around the world. My need for God is very personal, but his conversation with me is very missional. I maybe the apple of God's eye, but so is everyone else.

For me, there are three ways that I have found that are fruitful in the work of listening to God.

The first is regular and thoughtful reading of God's Word. In discovering and discerning how God has spoken in the past, it will prepare me well to listen in the present. Sometimes through the stories, the teachings, the poems, the laws, the prophets God speaks, sometimes he doesn't.

Second, in conversation with close friends between whom much honesty exists - it is in this raw space that I find myself able to listen to God, to hear what he wants me to be and do. Mostly by reminding me of what he has already told me, or convicting me of mistrust and disobedience, which is fueling the deafness in my ears and heart.

And thirdly, silence - silence on a walk or run, a hike, sitting in the sun, in front of a fire, even mowing the yard. Solitude and silence, intentionally making space in my soul and schedule to listen is a rewarding and rich experience.

How do you know if you've heard from God? If you've been listening for him, how do you know if it's His voice? Well, if you really want to hear him, you'll know whether it's him or not. Especially if you've been reading God's Word or spent time with wise Christian women and men.

Listening to God requires a desire to hear Him. That may sound so obvious. If you want an answer from God, you have to decide if you really do want to hear what He has to say. And if you aren't very familiar with God's Word, you may difficulty understanding what he is saying to you, or you may have unhelpful expectations of what God's response may be like.

All of this to say: if you find yourself wanting to listen to God, that is an act of God at work in your life. It is a gift of grace that you desire to listen to God. Listening to God, bottom line, is about submitting to Him. If you want to listen to him, you will follow the prompts of God's Spirit to prepare yourself to hear Him.

Being a God who likes to use the element of surprise, he also reserves the right to make himself heard and understood in spite of our selves. Which is a very good gift indeed.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Barely Hanging On

What can you do for the people you know who are barely hanging on? Especially when you are the one barely hanging on. What do you do when it seems to you like almost everyone is barely hanging on.

Except that you wouldn't know it by looking at them.

What you see isn't always what you get. You see people and you think they have it all together because that's how they act. So then you feel bad for not having it all together like all those people.

And you wonder what their secret is, and how you can learn that secret so that you don't have to feel like you are barely hanging on, so you can have it all together like them.

But then you find out that they don't have it all together, that they are actually barely hanging on. So then you feel betrayed. Here you were, beating yourself up for not having it all together like them, when all along they were barely hanging on just like you. Well, not just like you. Everybody is barely hanging on, just in different ways.

Well, not everybody. Some people actually have it all together. But they've got to work so hard to have it all together that they don't have much time or energy left over to help others who are barely hanging on to find a way to get it all together. So basically people that are barely hanging on have to start hanging out together. At least if you are going to be barely hanging on, you might as well barely hang on with others. Why be lonely when you're barely hanging on?

Except that it's embarrassing to admit that you are barely hanging on. People will look at you and wonder what is wrong with you. Except that most people who are judging you are also barely hanging on. Oh the irony.

So why is it so hard to let others know that you are barely hanging on? Is it because of denial? Or is it false hope, that I'm only barely hanging on for just a bit longer - so why admit to something that won't be true of me in a short time. Except that you do end up staying that way. And stay in denial. A weird denial; you seem to be crystal clear with yourself about barely hanging on, yet obscuring the truth towards others about your clinging. Is there shame in barely hanging on?

It seems to be such a universal experience - millions of people all barely hanging on and all ashamed about it, all committed to keeping it a secret. If everyone would just come clean with the people in your life about barely hanging on, maybe, just maybe, we'd find that what we call barely hanging on is not so bad. Maybe what we call barely hanging on is normal.

Maybe what we are barely hanging on to isn't worth it.

Maybe trying to be busier than God intends isn't worth it.

Maybe trying to make more money to afford more material possessions isn't worth it.

Maybe trying to make yourself so happy or fulfilled isn't worth it.

Maybe it's okay to fight with the people in your life, to not be content, to be unsettled and dissatisfied.

Maybe we don't have to want to be like other people.

Maybe we should just let go of what we are barely hanging on to. Maybe we'll find that the fog around our feet is hiding the ledge that is inches below our toes. Maybe we're barely hanging on to something that God's fine with us not having anymore.

Maybe we want more for ourselves in this life than God wants for us.

Maybe God's not interested in giving us more then we need.

Maybe we confuse the things we have for the things we need, and we attribute to God gifts that he didn't give or care about. Does God really care about you having a bigger house? Does God really care about you having a safer car? Does God really care about you getting a flatter TV? Does God really care about you having the perfect marriage and kids?

Maybe God doesn't care about any of those things in and of themselves. Maybe God put the fog around your feet so that you'd pay attention to what you're hanging on to. Maybe God wants you to notice what you are barely hanging on to and make a decision about it.

Maybe God isn't answering your prayers for help amidst your barely hanging on because he doesn't want you to hang on anymore. Are you barely hanging on to your marriage? Are you barely hanging on to your kids? Are you barely hanging on to your home? Are you barely hanging on to your job? Are you barely hanging on to your health? Are you barely hanging on to your friends?

Maybe it's not that God wants you to let go of your marriage, your kids, your job, your life - but God does want you to let go of the expectations and assumptions you have about them. If you expect someone to always make you happier, if you expect a job to always satisfy you, if you expect your kids to be more than they can be, if you expect life to give you more than it owes you - then yes, you'll continue to barely hang on to a ledge that leads to nowhere.

But maybe you'll finally decide you're tired of barely hanging on, you'll admit that you're tired of barely hanging on, you'll let others know you're tired of barely hanging on, and then someday maybe you'll quit barely hanging on.

And you'll discover that in letting go you finally stood firm on your feet instead of grasping with aching fingers. When you land on your feet, you may find that there are still intractable problems and insatiable desires. But instead of equating success with solving all problems and satisfying all desires, you'll be bravely honest enough to accept life as it is.

Accepting your life as it is allows you to hear the words of Jesus as spoken to you as you really are, not the you that you were barely hanging on to, a you that didn't really exist except in your fantasies.

And by hitting the fog-laced ledge with your feet, now it becomes possible to follow the way of Jesus in life as it really is, not just with your head and grasping hands.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. [Romans 15v5-7]

So if all of us who are barely hanging on will just accept one another in the same way that Jesus accepts us, maybe we'll have the courage to let go? Maybe instead of expending so much energy on ourselves and our clinging, we accept from God the endurance and encouragement he's willing to give for the life we really have, not the one we wish we had. And maybe this would help us to see people as they really are - not as ones who have it all together, but as ones who are barely hanging on. Maybe if we can learn to glorify God as we're barely hanging on, we'll someday be willing to praise God standing on our feet.

I know, I know, it just looks like there are so many people who have it all together. So many people, who despite their problems still seem to be happy and worry free. You see them smiling, you see the ways they are blessed, how they seem to work through obstacles with ease, the same obstacles that seem to trip you up.

Yes, all those people who you think are successful and don't fit into the category of barely hanging on - there are some of them. But for most of those people you think have it all together, there's something in their life, something important, something they care deeply about that is not going well. And in that area of their life, they are barely hanging on. And it's in that clinging, that concern, that worry, that fear that God meets them and invites them to trust.

People don't have it as together as you'd like to think. But regardless of whether you think they are barely hanging on or not, what matters more is you - you can't cling and take God's hand at the same time. Either you continue to choose to barely hang on or you trustingly take God's hand and let him lower you down on the fog-laced ledge.

And quit looking at other people and judging for yourselves whether they are barely hanging on or having it all together. Quit comparing people. You barely know their story. Pay attention to your own story.

You don't have to keep barely hanging on anymore. And you don't have to keep comparing yourself to others anymore. You don't have to. You don't. But if you do, if you continue to barely hang on, I understand.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Jesus & Our Culture of Addiction

Alcohol, smoking, drugs, gambling, food, video games, internet, sex, shopping and work have been referred to as the ten most common addictions. Someone put together a rather long list of addictions from A to Z. It would seem that almost any substance or activity that provides some kind of rush, satisfaction, pleasure or ecstasy is now considered a prime candidate for addiction. Thus, almost anyone is now a possible candidate to become an addict.

Addictions often get labeled as either a hedonistic choice or a disease of the brain. In the book, Addiction and Virtue, Kent Dunnington makes the case, using Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, that addictions are instead best understood as a complex habit. It's well known that people are a sum of their habits. Addiction happens to be a very alluring yet destructive habit. Dunning explores the role of reason and appetite in forming habits, emphasizing that addictions are a complex habit formed as a rationale response to a moral and intellectual crisis.

Dunnington makes a case that addictions are how many people react to the deep longings swirling around in them. Addictions are new to human history, one of the tragic by-products of our Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment. Our uniquely individualistic, hedonistic culture breeds meaninglessness, arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness. As people get reduced to cogs and cubicles in our post-Industrial, Information-age society, and as doubt and cynicism chew away at our certainty, absolutes and beliefs, humans must find a way to cope.

For the Christian, addiction is certainly a sin. And like all sins, it is one for which repentance and forgiveness are needed. But unlike most sins, addiction is in a category all its own, being a complex habit that is more then just a series of bad moral choices or a disease in the neurons. Understanding the roots of addiction in our culture help bring about Christian compassion for those that are addicted. It also helps mobilize Christians to better understand their culture, which will result in more accurate criticisms as well as more helpful solutions. This is where Jesus comes in.

When Jesus entered his culture, there was much to critique. Instead of rampant addictions, he addressed demonic possession. The evils of Empire, the terror of kings, the thousands of crucifixions, the chronic starvation and disease - this is what Jesus confronted. The trauma that filled people, the brokenness, the ache caused by unrestrained wickedness and demonic activity met its match in Jesus.

To all who would listen, Jesus called people to repent, to turn away from the evil, to return to God - for the kingdom of God had come. The sign of God come to Earth through Jesus was evident in demons being powerless before him, being sent away almost effortlessly. Thousands of the crippled and diseased - products of not enough food, brutal wars, and slave labor - found healing and hope in Jesus. Jesus was recognized as a king, the Son of David, the Messiah, the deliverer, the forgiver of sins - and he was a direct threat to Caesar, King Herod, and all others with power who propped up the destructive status quo.

And here we are, followers of this King Jesus, in a culture that fuels addictions. What can Jesus do through his followers in response to loneliness, boredom, meaninglessness in our culture and communities? If the kingdom was still coming into our neighborhoods today through those that trust Jesus - what kind of healing and hope would that bring to addicts?

In the Spirit of Jesus, Christians must be astute critics of culture. But this will only have credibility to the degree that they are honest and humble about how they are both products of that same culture and have also been able to create an alternative society that brings about healing from the more destructive elements of the culture.  Bill Wilson, one of the famous founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, was an alcoholic who found healing and hope through Jesus through passionate and pious Christians. His story of how he became a Christian has been published for all to read. 

Interestingly, a recent survey showed that the majority of people who are getting help from A.A. got connected through former A.A. members. Only 1% of the respondents said that their church referred them to an A.A. meeting. Without making too much of this stat, and recognizing that churches are one of the places you might find a A.A. meeting happen, there seems to be a disconnect between churches and success in overcoming addictions. Spirituality infuses the recovery outlined in A.A. Spirituality infuses church...but not in a way that helps fuel healing. Why is this?

Dunnington points out how addicts are "a kind of unwitting modern prophet" that the church ought to heed. Imagine a church that heeded this prophecy. Imagine how a church like that could help answer Jesus' prayer for the kingdom to come. Imagine how a church like that could help answer the prayer of the addict: "God, save me." Imagine how difficult it would be to be part of a church like that - difficult yet inspiring.

This reminds me of another of Jesus' words: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well." Difficult words to live by, yet when done so very inspiring - both for those that do it and those who see it.

How do you see addicts? Or do you prefer to not see them? We can be sure that Jesus would see them. And that he would have compassion on them, as sheep without a shepherd. And he would bring them healing and salvation. Addiction is a complex habit, hence it requires a complex, indirect response. It's not that people aren't delivered from their habit of addictions, it's that too few are saved. And it's that the church as a whole too often judges or overlooks addicts.

The irony being that we all breathe the same cultural air, and but for the grace of God, they could be you. Maybe if more addicts were welcomed into the church, the church would feel more urgency in embracing a spirituality that brings healing and not just warm fuzzy feelings.

Dunnington's book illuminates the role of virtue and habits from the perspective of philosophy (Aristotle) and theology (Aquinas). These explorations into ancient virtues and centuries of developed thought on the role of reason and appetite in human behavior will enrich your perspective. It will also reveal how negligent most Christians are in regard to habit, to habits of virtue, and to habits of spirituality. Dunnington's insights on addictions as habit and sin will deepen your understanding of how close we all are to becoming addicts.

The loftiest suggestions come in tying addiction to idolatry, pointing to renewed worship of God (not praise songs, but attitude and allegiance) as a way to bring order and meaning to life. This alternative, along with a resulting loving community of Jesus-followers has potential to help nurture more healing for more addicts who refuse to be bored, who refuse to live without purpose, and who will do whatever it takes to avoid the feelings of loneliness.  The difficulty is in the pervasive weak worship of too many churches, the ambivalent communities, and the anemic Christian ministries.

Still, Jesus speaks to all with ears to hear: "Repent, for the kingdom of God has come." And those with eyes to see: Jesus heals as he preaches.

My argument has been that addiction is a habit informed as all habits are, by rationality. And I have been trying to probe the structure of this rationality. I have been trying to display how addiction insinuates itself into the cogitative estimation by supplying order and integrity to an addicted person's life - order and integrity that we as human beings, and particularly as modern human beings, crave.

Addiction, I have argued, operates as a moral and spiritual strategy, carrying out particular functions in the moral life and empowering a person for the pursuit, albeit misguided, of ecstatic satisfaction. This is why I have paid much attention to the constructive and positive potential of addiction and have elaborated little on the destruction and havoc it wrecks. Addiction is mysteriously powerful, but if we fail to ask what the power consists in, then we make it not only mysterious but also foreign.

I have attempted to make addiction less foreign, giving us ways to think about the pull that addiction has on all of our lives. I hope my analysis has shown how near, rather than how far, each of us is to the major addict.
~ Kent Dunnington, Addiction and Virtue, pg 167