Monday, March 27, 2017

A Year after First Impressions - An Adoption Update

We had our first meeting with Sensi a year ago, but it feels like yesterday. I still have vivid images of his orphanage in my head: the entry gate and guard, cement walk and flowers, playground and scuffling children. We made a few introductions before anyone tracked down Sensi for our initial contact.

I remember him shuffling down the steps, guided by one of the nuns, a vacant look on his face. "Sensi, this is your family," the sister said, turning his head so it pointed toward ours. "He's just embarrassed," she explained, slapping his cheek.
I reserve my most honest first impressions for God and my wife. But I can admit to holding my breath.

This maiden voyage to Ethiopia, this first visit with Sensi, has surfaced in many conversations in recent weeks. We talk about the outpouring of gifts and prayers for our family. We recall the flurry of travel plans and packing of bags. We cringe at the interminable flight and mental, emotional exhaustion we felt. We remember God's faithfulness in big and little ways. We recite the smells, sights, tastes, and sounds we heard in Addis Ababa. And, of course, we reminisce about our precious few hours with Sensi before crossing the ocean again and leaving him to wonder who these strangers were and when they might return.

A year after first impressions, life with Sensi is beginning to feel normal. It doesn't feel the same. It does't feel easy. But it feels normal. We're accustomed to his early bedtimes, nighttime nosebleeds, stomping feet, contagious laugh, sense of humor, creative drawings, loud chewing, nervous pooping, hyper-focus, short attention span, and dawdling at the doorway. Liz and I have developed a divide-and-conquer approach to parenting necessary for family rhythms in a household of five. Claire and Margot have settled in as the less-asked-about sisters of Conspicuous Number Five (but if anyone asks, they are remarkable).
A year after first impressions, I've stopped holding my breath. I've started moving forward with greater hope in God's bright future for my boy. Caring helpers surround him, building his confidence, speech, and physical strength. A loving family embraces him, cheering his victories and calming his tears. (Just the other day, his sister soothed his tears about his uncomfortable orthopedic braces.) And a heavenly Father molds him, so that childhood suffering will not have the final word on his life. 

A year after first impressions, God is writing a better story for Sensi. I am grateful to be part of it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Death, Funerals, and Grieving Words

I attended a funeral this past weekend. The deceased, Jeremy Sprague, was a former classmate and friend. When Liz and I moved to Phoenix, he arrived some weeks later and spent a month on our floor. For the following two years we shared life: meals, house church meetings, hikes, concerts, and weekly consumption of Arrested Development (binge watching was not yet a thing).

Then Liz and I moved to Denver. Our contact with Jeremy was minimal. We saw each other once in the past ten years; we received one or two Christmas compilation CDs. Otherwise, radio silence. News of his death came as a shock.

We drove to his hometown, Lima, Ohio, for his memorial service. On the way, Liz and I shared memories. We shook our heads at the idea of a classmate and peer dying. At thirty-seven, we are too young to die, but death is no respecter of ages. It takes infants and elderly, sinners and saints, healthy and infirmed.

Liz and I mingled momentarily in the visiting room before sliding into the chapel to secure a seat. As we waited for the crowd, casket, and family to claim their spots, I took note of the odd layout and decor of the room. Fluorescent lights cast a harsh glow over floral couches and folding chairs. Soft, piano music played from a PA system. Nothing in this funeral home reflected the style and flair of the deceased.

But the dead are given little voice in these matter. We must speak for them. Ironically, our speaking for the dead also has an odd shape to it. In our state of shock, grief, or disbelief, we try and make sense of death with selective memories and sentimental tropes.

Funeral services are rife with selective memories. Time and again I have wondered if the person remembered was the one that I knew. The deceased performed heroics. The deceased epitomized humor or hospitality or kindness or grace. The deceased knew no failings, but glowed with virtue and grace. We tell these stories to ease the sting of death.

In the preface to his book, Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card admits his discomfort at the way every person is cast as a saint in her eulogy. Selective memories, he argues, do not grant true honor to the dead or freedom to those grieving, but leave people shackled to a lie. His novel makes a compelling case for honesty. (If my children speak at my funeral, I hope they laugh at my crazy eyebrows and annoying habit of teaching lessons.)

Our sentimental tropes go beyond trying to ease the sting of death; they deny death altogether. People often say, "He's still alive; I carry him in my heart." (So common is this phrase, one can purchase it at the funeral home souvenir shop.) Or they assert, "She'll always be present with us, even though she's gone." Such comments betray our unwillingness to accept death.
I can understand: death is a bully and thief.

But we must be careful not to let sentimentalism delude us. We do not carry people in our hearts. Disembodied souls do not remain present with us. These cliches are likely the fruit of our culture's fledgling, Christian imagination. We no longer say, "Absent from the body, but present with with Lord." Our modern refrain is: "Absent from the body, but present with us." And we envision the dead eternally resting in our indulgent hearts. I know my own heart: to dwell there forever would be a punishment as cruel as hell.

Death hurts. It stings. It rattles us and robs us of people we love. Selective memories and sentimental tropes will not win them back. God grants us full right to grieve for as long as we need to, but he wants us to leave the dead with him.

So may Jeremy rest in peace.

Monday, March 13, 2017

In Search for Inspiration - Turning Duty into Delight

On Monday's I post to my blog. Some articles have inspiration written all over them. A catchy title, nagging comment, or personal experience takes possession of my fingers as they hit the keys. Other weeks, I cycle through the routine topics I care to meditate on - family, adoption, Christian spirituality, and pastoral ministry.

(Disclaimer: If I'm simply looking to boost readership, I just put the words "Adoption Update" in the title. You people seem far more interested in my family life than my theological ramblings. I suppose I should feel flattered.)

However, many Mondays I approach the blog more out of duty than delight. Consistent writing is a discipline. If I want to clarify my thinking, grow my platform, widen my sphere of influence, publish books, and, some far-off day, unburden my church from the weight of my salary so our people can invest in my successor, then I must write. It is my duty.

Sadly, duty often moves forward with little help from its accomplice, delight.

Writing is work. Parenting is work. Marriage is work. Friendship is work. Witnessing is work. Pastoral leadership is work. Work is work. If we wait until inspirations strikes to make progress, we will might as well take a seat. Just be warned: the bench is full.
Image result for steve martin parenthood
Of course, no one wants to settle for mere duty. When Steve Martin's character in Parenthood laments, "My whole life is duty," one can't help but pity him. We have all felt the same way at times. We don't want to go to church, have company over, or attend a youth sporting event. We don't feel like shoveling the snow, giving money to Salvation Army, or folding the laundry. Inspiration does not spring us from bed at dawn; duty calls with the morning alarm.

I must admit, however, that inspiration is overrated. N.T. Wright exposes inspired feelings as an idol of Romanticism. In fact, if virtue only counts (i.e. "is justified") when it's spontaneous, then we have simply created a new legalism, Wright argues.

Moreover, we must not put duty and delight in opposition with one another. They are co-laborers in all fruitful work. We need duty to overcome lethargy. The manuscript will not write itself. The casserole won't put itself in the oven. The shelf won't organize its amassing clutter. We need delight to spur on further work. Satisfaction follows effort.  Publishing an article, taking a bite, and clearing the clutter produce a sigh of relief and belch of gratitude.

I need this reminder on uninspired Mondays, when my fingers hover over the keys. Certainly I am not alone. Inspiration eludes most of us as the hours pass and days go by. But we press on, dutifully, knowing that joy comes often comes once our fingers have hit the keys.
It is true that our hearts are often sluggish. We do not feel the depth or intensity of affections that are appropriate for God or his cause.  It is true that at those times we must exert our wills and make decisions that we hope will rekindle our joy. Even though joyless love is not our aim... nevertheless, it is better to do a joyless duty than not to do it, provided that there is a spirit of repentance that we have not done all of our duty because of the sluggishness of our heart. (Piper, Duty of Delight, 31)
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Inspired by a brief but meaningful conversation with a fellow writer-as-a-second-(or-third)-career.

Monday, March 6, 2017

"I" Joins Civil Suit against LGBTQ for Letter Exclusion - On Cultural Conversations

I have a gay aunt. Who doesn't these days?
I have a transgender cat; well, technically, it's neutered.
I have a Black son whose life matters.
I am raising educated girls who outperform the languishing boys in their classrooms.
I work with Hispanic students and worship a migrant Messiah, each who keeps a low profile.
And I have plenty of biblically informed convictions on culturally volatile topics. The problem: I just don't know how to talk about them without feeling controversial.
It's tough being a Christian in this "present, evil age." Any misunderstood gesture, statement, opinion, or explanation can be used against you. We are not helped by naive and flippant Christians who use social media as a bully pulpit to dehumanize people who identify differently in matters of race, religion, politics, gender, and sports teams (yes, we should even love Michigan fans). These folks are, to use the apostle Peter's words, troublesome meddlers (1 Peter 4:15), and all Christians suffer needlessly because of them.

Moreover, Christians suffer because of anti-Christian trolls, psuedo-Christian politicians, and vigilant, special interest groups who are so easily offended by any sign of slight. They brand a difference of opinion with the new scarlet letter: "I" (for intolerance).  They denounce, defame, and leverage the same democratic power plays they despise from the Moral Majority. The ground has shifted, Hollywood and professional sports constitute the new moral majority. (And we thought we were just being entertained - ha!)
But I'm not writing to vent or gain pity for the poor, misunderstood Christian. (We'd never get it anyway.) I simply want to surface the problem deeper than yoga pants and popularity contests. Beneath the rhetoric of love and tolerance in our country is a current of hate. Differences of opinion divide us because cultural conversations are messy and misunderstandings abound when social trust is a veneer.
In this "present, evil age," it's tough being a human. We receive more sympathy from Siri and Alexa than our fellow man, fellow woman, or fellow gender-fluid neighbor. But if we think critically, we should see more unites us as a human race than divides us. We share longings for intimacy, impact, and a sense of order (e.g. integrity). We have wants and needs, hungers and thirsts, convictions and confusion, pet peeves and personality quirks, deep hurts and heroic moments. We each bear the image of God and bloodstain of sin.

Our cultural conversations would benefit from finding common ground before leveling objections, joining civil suits, or taking offense. We can disagree gracefully and still grant dignity and show love, which is the highest calling of the Christ-follower (John 13:35). Love and disagreement are not mutually exclusive; however, to coerce someone into my conviction (be it monogamous, heterosexual marriage or culturally defined tolerance) is not loving.

Christians might consider practicing cultural conversations "in house" before airing them in public. Convictions range even among fellow believers; we may learn to talk through these topics (e.g., gender, politics, racism, entertainment, immigration) in humility. We may learn to listen reflectively before responding defensively (don't join the civil suit against the LGBTQ; it's not real anyway).

Most importantly, we may begin to redirect the cultural current of hate with a steady resolve to love.

NEXT STEPS:

  • Gather a group of Christians you trust to have a cultural conversation (different generations and life experiences will enrich the dialogue)
  • Covenant to reflective listening, not defensive responding
  • Pick an hour or two to meet
  • Choose a current, cultural topic (racism, gender, sexual-orientation) and give people a chance to pray, research, and formulate questions
  • Gather for a discussion and appoint a facilitator to begin, end, and moderate fighting
  • Join in big group hug and sing Kumbaya at the end (optional)

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Inspired by a conversation during Leesbug Grace's Sunday morning Engaging Hour (9:00). Two good primers on this topic includes: David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons's Good Faith and David Platt's Counter-Cultural


Monday, February 27, 2017

Choosing Favorites - On Parenting

Sensi is my favorite kid at meal times. He eats most of what we set before him. He complains little and talks less, taking seconds (and thirds) before clearing his dish. Meanwhile, my daughters peck at their food like birds. They mumble about mashed potatoes. They groan about green veggies (except for broccoli). They eat meat sparingly, mostly when it's breaded and deep fried.

"Sensi is my favorite child right now," I tell them at the dinner table. They roll their eyes.

But Sensi is not always my favorite child. For a nominally verbal child, he makes tons of noise. He smacks his gums and stomps his feet. He crashes his toy cars and slams bathroom doors. "You're too loud," I tell him. "You're... too... loud," he parrots back.

In the early mornings, Claire is my favorite because she shows responsibility, exudes confidence, takes risks, and encourages her siblings. "Claire is my favorite," I tell them on the way to school. They roll their eyes.

But Claire is not always my favorite child. She does not lose gracefully, gives herself first choice of the cinnamon rolls, and struggles to follow through with goals. "Finish strong" I say. "I'll finish you strong," she replies in her head.
In the evenings, Margot is my favorite because she persists through a challenge, manages her emotions, cracks a joke, and shows tenderness to her brother. "Margot is my favorite," I tell them at bedtime. They roll their eyes.

But Margot is not always my favorite child. She drags her feet, whines about school, and hides in the shadow of her big sister. "Look for the good," I say. "Uuuuugh," she replies.

Children are a complex of their parents best and worst traits. We favor them when they reflect what we love about ourselves. They frustrate us when they mirror our deficiencies.

I watch my kids with awe and horror. They nurture my sensitivity, test my patience, and remind me of the unfailing love my Heavenly Father shows me. These children came from me (most of them). They reflect me (all of them). They give witness to my appetite and volume, my confidence and compulsion, my wit and withholding nature. Each one is my favorite... some of the time.

But I must be careful. The folly of choosing favorites plays a prominent theme in Genesis. Successive generations of parents select one child to the exclusion of the others. Abraham chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Rachel chooses Jacob over Esau. Israel chooses Joseph over the eleven others. A recurring cycle of sibling rivalry and parental despair results.

Every child wants to be chosen; feeling second-rate leaves deeps scars. Such wounds trace their way thick into the foliage of the family tree. Listen to the rustling leaves: Choosing favorites is bad parental practice!

So I should stop the ruse. I should tell my kids that they're all my favorite all the time. (And everyone gets a trophy.) In fact, this is exactly what my mother-in-law told her daughters. They all turned out pretty fine. But one of them is my favorite.

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Inspired by reading through The Story with my daughters this past January.

Monday, February 20, 2017

I Hear Voices - Feeling Accused and Responding to It

First and foremost, this is not a cry for help. I am having a rare, despondent moment that I know will pass. Feelings come and go. During adolescence, negative feelings enfolded me; happy moments were mere flirtations. In contrast, a sense of blessedness has defined my adulthood. My faith, family, vocation, and strong support systems usually keep me buoyant.

But today, this last hour, my mind has descended. Negativity enfolds me. [Dim the lights. Cue the cello music. Zoom in and fix the camera on my weak and wet eyes. See if I can write myself out of unexpected and lonesome depression.]

It started with the voices. I hear them sometimes. An idea will flash in my head. It draws my attention with its weight and volume. The pitch and tone sound like my voice, but I am reluctant to claim authorship. It's a sudden sermon idea or illustration. It's a word of encouragement I must speak to another. It's clarification on a knotty issue in my personal or family life. It's a term of endearment from a heavenly Father to His beloved child.

These words come regularly - not daily or hourly, but several times a month. They fill my lungs and I run with them.

Unfortunately, another voice creeps in on occasion. It's an accusing voice, a condemning voice, a taunting voice. It's volume is but a whisper, but its weight is lead. Doubt and discouragement follow its tone.
Today, this past hour, I tackled my typical Monday agenda: writing emails, sending texts, organizing my study, making lists, updating my calendar. Then, as I drafted my monthly pastor's report -- an account of my time and energies in teaching/preaching, vision-casting, professional development, and pastoral care -- an assault of accusations poured forth.

  • A denied request for help with a service project proved people are tired of helping me
  • An ignored text message proved I am not worthy of a response
  • A underwhelming response to a new ministry initiative proved my ideas are dumb
  • A mild correction proved I am petty
  • Unsolicited comments on musical choices and sermon content prove I am failing my people 
On top of this relational data, I found in my study evidence of my incompetence as a pastor. 
  • Partnerships I started but did not maintain 
  • Letters I wrote but did not send
  • To do lists with outstanding assignments
  • Ministry projects I sanctioned but did not resource or empower
  • Books I will never read
  • Leadership skills I will never master
  • People I will never reach
Every corner of the room offered insult and accusation. This heavy weight, this haunting voice, this present darkness comes from the father of lies. He's robbing my joy and stealing my light. From the beginning, this has been his task (John 8:44-47). Like a lion, he roams, desperate and hungry, looking for an opportunity to pounce on lonely prey (1 Peter 5:8). 

In her book, When Godly People Do Bad Things, Beth Moore distinguishes between temptation and seduction. The latter, she writes, raises the enemy's efforts. "Seduction is... a [sudden] tidal wave of temptation and unholy assault” (pg. 4). It manifests itself in loneliness and errant thinking (1 Cor. 2:11; 11:14). Today, I am seduced: deceived and alone.

But these are feelings. They are not true. [Raise the lights. Cue the trumpet. Zoom out to frame my strong and steady shoulders. I am writing myself out of this lie.]

The assault is real, but it distorts reality. I know I am not a failed pastor or worthless person, but I am susceptible to the enemy's voice. It may derail me or anyone it targets. Surely, it will come for others as the hour draws to a close. 

But Satan will never have the last word. That privilege belongs to God. And He is on my side. So really, who can be against me? 

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can beagainst us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-38, ESV)



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NOTE: This blog felt too much like an easily resolved TV drama, but I truly feel released. Truth does transform Christian thinking (Rom. 12:1-2). And exposing the enemy subverts his attacks.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leadership Is Overrated - Thoughts on Love & Marriage

I love my wife: it is my primary calling as husband. Leadership is not.
Bear with me. I know love and leadership are not mutually exclusive. However, during twenty years of following Jesus, the fist-pounding for male leadership has grown more pronounced.  "Make the hard decisions! Take the big hits! Set the family tone! God expects more of you, men!" These exhortations build into a bold declaration: "Husbands, fathers, and pastors must be leaders."

I've read, heard, and probably articulated similar claims to male superiority (though many wouldn't call it that). Sadly, I cannot seem to find the biblical references.* Jesus rebuffed any grasp for power (Mark 14:35-45; John 19:10-11); he modeled servitude unto his death on a splintered cross (Phil. 2:6-8). Love trumps leadership every time.

I revisited this topic last week following a conversation with a young adult considering marriage. Like many young, Christians men, my conversation partner admitted his hesitancy to get married because his lack of spiritual leadership. "If I can't lead her, should I get married?" he wondered.

It is a fair and noble question, but somewhat off the mark. I took him to Ephesians 5:25-33 to consider the husband's primary calling. Silently, he perused the text. Then I asked, "Where does it say, 'Husband lead your wives?'"

"The husband is 'the head' of the wife," he noted.

"You're right. It does say that. Just like Jesus is the head of the church. Is that the same as a command to lead?" Neither of us was certain.

"Look at the passage again," I prompted. "What is the primary command to husbands in this passage?"

"Is it love?" he replied after a minute's reflection.

A glimpse at the following verses makes it clear: A husband's primary calling is to love.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33, ESV)
Love is primary; leadership follows. Love may result in leadership, but we cannot force or fake love to secure authority. Love's greater aim to please God and enrich others in His name.

A husband who demands to lead may not have an unruly wife; he may have feeble love. Learning best practices in leadership is no substitute for Jesus' course on selfless love: give and forgive; serve and sacrifice; tend and care; listen and, well, listen some more.

Husbands, your wives don't need you to be a better leader -- leadership is overrated -- but a better lover. Now get to it.



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*Two "headship" passages (Ephesians 5; 1 Corinthians 11) come to mind. This metaphor is challenging and open to varied interpretations. I think cultural context plays heavily into application here. Not to mention references are not commands (imperatives) but ontological statements.