Monday, August 7, 2017

Questions and Answers from the Hot Seat

During the Engaging Hour at our weekly Sunday morning services, we have invited people to sit on the "Hot Seat." It provides an opportunity to field anonymous questions--on past experience, present struggles, future dreams, and personality quirks--from fellow church members. The Hot Seat lets us peer into one another's lives. It is a safe place to share stories, practice introspection, and laugh together. Deeper awareness of self and others is the goal.

These are the rules:

  • No one is coerced to sit on the Hot Seat. 
  • Questions may provoke thought, but not pry.
  • You have 18 minutes. Go!


Yesterday I sat on the Hot Seat, but it barely warmed up before the timer went off. So I decided to answer the remaining questions here on my blog. I'll try to keep it shorter than 18 minutes. Go!

How did I ask Liz to marry me? 
Following a romantic dinner of Subway and viewing of It's a Wonderful Life, I convinced Liz to walk with me in the snow. We bundled up and followed a predetermined path to the Winona Lake Hillside. We arrived to the glow of luminaries lighting the aisle to the stage. A giant snowman that I built earlier in the day awaited us; the diamond ring, set on his carrot nose by Liz's younger sister-in-law shined in the dark. Like a gentleman, I bent my knee, took her hand, and proposed marriage. She agreed, tearfully, and we celebrated by making snow angels on the hill.

What practices help you in your prayer life?
I am an unfocused pray-er. My mind twists and turns in the silence, often ending in a rehearsal of my sermon that God doesn't need to hear. So I require the aid of some routine. I spend a minute or two in silence, meditating on an attribute of God or simply presenting myself to Him (Here I am.). I journal some prayers, always noting specific points of gratitude. I often read a Psalm to guide my thoughts. Occasionally, I will open my prayer notebook, which lists people and areas I talk to God about (e.g., family, church, personal goals). Finally, I often fall alsleep reciting the Lord's Prayer.

Who influenced my salvation?
My dad took us to church for a year during my childhood and every Christmas and Easter thereafter. These services planted a seed. A neighborhood family invited me to VBS in fourth or fifth grade. By middle school, I started to attend youth group and church regularly with the Beall/Gillespie family. It was then I encountered Jesus personally. I continue to work out my salvation with fear and trembling with the help of God's Spirit, family, friends, church, podcasts, and many good books.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
I want to live in the Here-and-Now until I reach the New Heavens and New Earth, and I'm not just being romantic or complacent. I love the lot God has given me. My wife envisions us growing old and dying in our current home. I envision it happening after a steak dinner on a Friday while we sleep holding hands.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In the same house, but not dead. At the same church, and it's still alive, too. I'll be approaching fifty, so I expect to be offering as-needed care to my adult children and aging parents. Sensi speaks is full sentences and can read Garfield books to himself, but remains in our home. Liz and I will love each other even more deeply. Several aspects of my ministry will have shifted. I will have finished a D.Min. program, preached through most of the Bible, developed younger leaders to share more of the responsibilities at Leesburg Grace (whose name will officially be Leesburg Grace by then). I will focus more of my time on writing and equipping others; I will better accept my weaknesses. My facial hair will pass the creepy stage. A Boston Marathon medal will hang on my shelf.

What is your 10 year vision for Leesburg Grace?
In the past month I've heard this phrase a hundred times: The mission does not change, but our methods must. I concur. The desire to see every follower of Jesus in our congregation becoming full in Christ, united in love, and strong is service remains constant. I will continue to refine and focus on the nineteen markers of spiritual maturity. Our culture of loving welcome (showing care to show Christ) will persist. A decade from now I will continue to pastor our church; however, by then, a committed, creative core team of others will lead with me. We will begin to see some of the slow-and-steady maturation spill into life transformation, especially for those who have never walked with Jesus. Moreover, we will have deployed a few full-time kingdom workers and partnered in a church-plant. Additional staff, updates to our music stage, and a freshly-paved parking lot would also be nice.

What do you enjoy most about being a pastor at Leesburg Grace?
I love to preach, teach, and let thoughts of God fill my mind. I love the variety and flexibility pastoral ministry allows me both with my schedule and weekly duties. I love to create new things and the freedom afforded to do so by our beloved congregation. And, of course, I love the motley band of Jesus' followers we call Leesburg Grace.

Why is Michigan better than Ohio State?
It is not. (And whoever said there are no bad questions was wrong. This question proves it.)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Lost Art of Lingering

I have developed the spiritual discipline of lingering as an essential part of pastoral ministry. I linger in the sanctuary, hospital room, coffee shop, front porch, and family room. Some would even say I linger in my sermons: they can get long!

Lingering is the ability to draw out, extend, and prolong a connection or conversation. People I linger with are not always comfortable with it. Truth be told, neither am I.

Sitting for eight hours in a car with someone else, I can endure. I accept my context and do not dream of jumping out of a moving vehicle (most of the time). But when I go beyond an hour at the table with someone, my skill in lingering is tested. My focus wanes, eyes gloss over, and body begins to pulse with nervous energy. I look for lulls, escape pods, and excuses to move to the next thing. How sad, and yet, not unusual.

Just the other week, I struck up a conversation with a neighbor while walking my dog. His daughter (whom I mistook for a son...oops!) sat quietly in the stroller. I greeted him before he set out on a jog. It was clear he did not want to linger.

Two blocks away, I spoke with another neighbor. Back and forth we discussed the weather, local produce, and rapid growth of my children. "Well, I shouldn't keep you," he said. He repeated the line twice before I took the hint and stopped lingering.

If it is not our busy schedules, boredom with conversation, buzzes and beeps from our ubiquitous phones that forestall lingering, it's our general dis-ease with silence. Lulls make us feel awkward. Pauses are pregnant with our insecurities. So we distract or excuse ourselves from lingering.

In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle addresses our reluctance to linger with "The Seven-Minute Rule," learned from a college-aged student. It takes seven minutes for a conversation to morph into something meaningful. Rather than go to the phone when a conversation sputters, "Let it be." Turkle explains, "Conversation, like life, has silence and boring bits. This bears repeating: It is often in the moments when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other. Digital communication can lead us to an edited life. We should not forget that an unedited life is also worth living" (pg. 323).
Cover art
Life, edited or not, rushes by. Lingering forces us to slow enough to enjoy it. Lingering allows us to pace ourselves so we can draw out, extend, and prolong our time with people. God made us for relationship. Lingering makes our relationships richer.

(NOTE: If you skimmed this post, you should go back and linger over it.)



Monday, June 19, 2017

Not Forgotten

"God has no abortive processes or forgotten [people]."

Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner wrote this in his Ecclesiastes commentary, reflecting on the enigma of time and enduring work of God (3:1-15). Allotments of times, stages of life, and seasons come and go. Humans, like dogs, return to dust (3:16-22). The fruit of our labors ends up in the hands of other men. We are, all of us, forgotten.
But God does not forget us. None of us:

From the second story window of Martin's Supermarket, I watched a widow walk to her car. Her husband died two years ago. Her grief has lost its edge. Those who accompanied her through the valley of the shadow of death have moved on to more current crises. They forget her unless they see her. God does not forget her.

I talked with a former missionary after yesterday's service. He spent no more than two terms abroad. He returned home with little to show for his great sacrifice. He toiled in various trades until retirement rolled around. Most people see him as a kind old man, forgetting (if they ever knew in the first place) his contributions to God's kingdom. God does not forget him.

A young man confessed his struggle with pornography recently. Over the years, some close friends challenged him, prayed for him, encouraged him. The young man made progress and relapsed and progressed some more. Years passed since his initial confession. The struggle, although lessened, lingers, but his friends have forgotten his regular need for accountability. God does not forget him.

Recently some peers shared their struggle with infertility. They had moved beyond "just trying" to various forms of intervention. They called on doctors and drugs to increase their odds. They asked friends to call on God. Each month marks a failure to conceive. Each new birth announcement, often shared by friends who have momentarily forgotten their struggle, resurfaces their pain. But God does not forget them.

Add to these personal accounts, the biblical narrative, replete with barren wombs, enslaved people, aging prophets, and unfulfilled promises. Waiting, wandering, and exile describe a vast portion of the biblical plot. Their plight results from their forgetting God.

Bud God does not forget them. "[He] has no abortive processes or forgotten men." None of us.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Show Care and Listen Hard

Listening is hard work. I especially feel this after preaching a sermon. (My congregation probably feels this during the message.) Post-sermon conversations are shrouded in fog. I'm coming off a holy mountain, my bald head shining with perspiration but bereft of thought. I stutter through small talk, nodding and blinking and shifting my weight. I have to pin down my thoughts and focus my eyes; they tend to wander.

This happened again yesterday. Ironically, I began our worship service with a call to Hear others' hearts. It is the second principle of our current theme: Show care to show Christ.

Up until a month ago, I explained this opaque phrase with anecdotal stories. But a recent session at a church leaders' conference compelled me to Brand and Wear my church's mission.* So I did what every good pastor would do: I made CARE into an acronym and a purchased a T-shirt with our meme.
The acronym took three or four iterations, but I finally landed on the following:

Sphere of influence -  pray God uses you where He places you
Hear their hearts - approach others as an active listener
Offer help or hospitality - let your home and hands give credence to your words
Words of hope - let God speak through you when the time is right

I am currently in a CARE campaign, Teaching the theme on Sunday mornings and Wearing the shirt midweek. I've noticed when I wear a shirt advertising my church, I'm not self-conscious, but wearing a shirt saying "Show care to show Christ," has helped me redouble my friendliness (or zip up my hoodie).

So back to my bad listening: Following the sermon I engaged someone in conversation. I asked a question and received a response. I asked another question. Another response followed. By my third inquiry, I realized I was less interested in answers than filling air space. I registered the words the woman said, but her heart was far from me. And when I looked into her eyes, I could tell: they brimmed with tears.

The man who had just taught the "Show Care" brand (and wore the shirt to sell the theme), failed to apply the product. Listening is hard work if the goal is to hear another's heart. I paused, letting the air space stretch out. I confessed to God my callousness. I asked the woman another question, but this time tuned my ear to her heart. It beat.

_____________________________________
*Dave Ferguson led the session at the RightNow Media Conference. He shared the BLESS theme of Community Christian Church (CCC), as an example of developing "missional intentionality" in his people. BLESS, like SHOW, is an acronym. Ferguson borrowed his template for creating cultural change at his church from Andy Stanley, whose process includes six-steps: "Name It, Brand It, Wear It, Teach It, Institutionalize It, Recognize It." Dave Ferguson did not wear a shirt that said "BLESS," but the graphics people at his church designed some cool signage.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Bathing in the Morning Breeze

I took a sensory bath* this morning. By the light of the waking sun, under the cover of a thick fog, to the melody of a hundred birds, against breath of a gentle breeze, I ran. My calves pumped, feet skipped, arms danced, and brow perspired. My morning jogs summon echoes of Eric Liddell: When I run, I feel God's pleasure.
Image result for when i run i feel his pleasure
While the love of running is not universal (a straw poll of fellow church members yesterday proved the point in a 14-2 vote against running), the human impulse for sensory pleasure is. We all enjoy having our sense of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell stimulated. For some, the smell of charcoal spells ecstasy. For others, the sight of rainfall moves their soul. Most kids like to spin. Adults opt for floating down a lazy river.

Somewhere along the way, culture mistook sensual for sexual and turned pleasure into an adjective for adult store paraphernalia. When society insists on seeing humans simply as evolved animals, it is no surprise we lift all restraints and celebrate every sexual impulse.

But sex alone is not the problem. The God-given gift of sensual pleasure has also been distorted by gross indulgence in food, media, sports, material goods, and chemical enhancements. Consumerism does not offer a sensory bath, but a deluge. In Why Everything Matters, Philip Ryken's exposition of Ecclesiastes, he writes: "Most Americans today experience more pleasure than most people in the history of the world. Yet in spite of our prosperity - or maybe because of it - we still suffer from poverty of the soul. The taste of pleasure has grown our appetite for this world beyond satisfaction" (pg. 31).

Ryken goes on to argue "God is not a spoilsport." He wrote sensual (or sensory, if you please) pleasure into the script of human existence. Such pleasure was intimately anchored to his presence in the Garden of Eden. Our ultimate longing is to be at rest with God. Our penultimate pleasures should always point heavenward.

Followers of Jesus need not blush when we consider sensual pleasures and sensory baths. (Disclaimer: I was not naked when I enjoyed my sensory bath this morning, but my shorts were short!) Instead, we must recover the fact that God created us to become loving cultivators and mindful curators of pleasure. Consumers of pleasure selfishly indulge; connoisseurs of pleasure gratefully receive.

I implore every child of God to enjoy a sensory bath. Taste and see (and touch and smell and hear) that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).

_____________________________
This post was inspired by my sermon entitled Pleasure from Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.

* I learned the term "sensory bath" from an Empowered to Connect parenting training Liz and I attended for foster and adoptive parents. Many "kids from hard places" have sensory-processing issues. Sensory baths employ exercises (e.g. spinning) and tools (e.g., weighted blanket) to engage the senses to heal the mind. After the training, we sandwiched our daughters with pillow cushions, and they loved it. The neuroscience of the sensory bath is fascinating, and underscores our God-given potential for healing, not just emotionally, but I imply above, spiritually. Our senses can help reconnect us to our Creator.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Holy Matrimony, Happy Matrimony: God's Splendid Gift

I attended a wedding last weekend. Peter and Cassie, a young couple from my church, tied the knot. They looked radiant: reading vows, exchanging rings, pouring sand, holding hands. Their smiles beamed and eyes brimmed with tears. At one point, I pressed my arm against my wife's, reflecting on fifteen years of marriage, so grateful for her friendship.
Liz and I sometimes muse about the early years, how much we loved one another while knowing each other so little. We were poor, naive, and a bit passive-aggressive. We moved often, furnished our living spaces with cinder block arrangements, and debated the color of our dishes. (They were gray). But we had no lack of love for one another.

As difficult as Liz and I know life to be, marriage has never been too terribly hard. Sure, we fail to communicate details, approach parenting differently, and suffer the typical tensions around money, sex, and Netflix; but love covers a multitude of sins. And when our human love tanks run low, God's grace abounds.

God authored marriage. His passion for the institution has no rival. His vision for our marriage eclipses our happy-but-momentary view. So we learn from him. His marital wisdom has nurtured fifteen happy years of faithfulness.

God teaches marriage is a gift, not  a right. Thus, he calls us to steward the gift, not spoil it. Considering ways I'm grateful for my spouse will do far more good than airing my grievances. Taking time to listen, give eye contact, affirm, empathize, and share my heart nurtures the marriage. Its too easy to get busy, lazy, or take the gift of companionship for granted.

God teaches forgiveness is a way of life. Liz and I talk about "1000 Little Forgivenesses" before arriving at One Big Absolution. If I make a habit of forgiving (i.e. releasing my preference in) minor matters--squeezing the toothpaste from the middle, not putting DVDs back in their cases--and so does she, then we have normalized forgiveness. We must be humble enough not to codify our preferences.

God teaches marriage is central to family life. When our children were babies, we could stick them in strollers or cribs and control them. Now they want to have conversations and control. They could become the epicenter of our family if we allowed. We will not. We aim to be marriage-centric as a family. When both mother and father abide in Jesus and delight in one another, the long-term health of the family has greater promise.

I have shared similar ideas with Cassie and Peter, David and Val, John and Michelle, and many other engaged couples over the years. One of the privileges of pastoral ministry is reaffirming the holiness of matrimony. I am equally pleased to share advice to help them experience happiness. The potential for holiness and happiness in marriage reaffirms God's splendid gift.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ten Years of Pastoral Ministry - Lessons Learned

This week marks my tenth anniversary at Leesburg Grace Brethren Church. Ten years ago I returned to the town where I attended college and lawfully wedded my wife. Ten years ago I had an impressive crop of dark brown hair and little experience. How the roles are reversed. Weathered, wise, and bald, I have established my pastoral rhythm and learned a few lessons along the way.
Fellow pastors will read the following observations, nodding in agreement at many points. Readers who are not professional clergy may appreciate the candor of a hired, religious gun. My wife and children, who probably won't read this, would simply say, "Here he goes again with the lessons."

  1. My life with God is the wellspring of meaningful ministry impact. Anyone can act religious. Anyone can posture as spiritually sympathetic. Anyone can develop people skills, rhetoric, and organizational competencies to manage a church efficiently. But I refuse to view ministry as mere mechanics; meaningful impact is the fruit of abiding in Jesus (John 15).
  2. My family deserves the best of me. Some of the greatest professionals are the worst parents. Balancing family life and personal success requires focus and discipline. To borrow Andy Stanley's great line, "I choose to cheat" the church, rather than my family, if it comes to that. God makes this provision for elders and overseers, asking them to be men who lead their families well.
  3. Preaching requires more editing than I ever expected. If the congregation let me (and it won't), I could preach for hours. The Bible abounds with theological ideas, anthropological insights, difficult questions, and practical advice. Bridging the text to the complexities of our post-modern culture and specifics of our congregation adds another level of depth. Closing in on 500 sermons, I still wrestle in deciding what to include, emphasize, illustrate, and cut.
  4. Preaching brings more joy than I ever expected. I love the creative process of sermon-crafting: to brand a series, build a message, and find ways encourage participation. I love the research and meditation that goes into studying God's word. I love the way preaching builds awareness in my soul (as I personalize the message), empathy for people in my church (as I agonize over their struggles), and awe of God (as I gaze into his revealed heart).
  5. I have too many faults to count. I am an administrative imbecile, communications delinquent, poor recruiter, vanilla vision-caster, reluctant delegator, and always running late. Fortunately, love covers a multitude of sins, and the body of Christ complements many a minister's weaknesses. I'm finally learning to own my weakness and allow others to thrive where I fail.
  6. I must not take myself too seriously. While I will not downplay pastoral responsibilities -- equipping, preaching, prayer, counsel, leading, shepherding, etc. -- the pastoral title still feels a bit too snug. Like everyone else in my church family, I am a struggling child of God. I happen to have a microphone and personal study, but I have the same identity and Spirit. My heavenly Father, of course, helps maintain this perspective by allowing many a humble moment.
  7. I don't give God's people enough credit. More often than I'd like to admit, I assume people from my church care more about pop culture and politics than the kingdom of God. I assume their service is driven by duty and a desire to bail me out, rather than an overflow of joy. Admittedly, I have heard a few groans and seen a few frowns in ten years. But I have also heard numerous prayer requests, personal testimonies, and words of gratitude. I remind myself often, "God is at work in his people. He will finish what he has started" (Phil.1:16).
  8. I hate outreach events. Lest I come across too strong, I should clarify. I hate outreach events, not reaching out to show the love of Jesus. Spinning our ecclesiastical wheels to run a public relations event that results in limited life change and lots of carpet stains has never sat well with me. I prefer ongoing ministries that build relationships with people to show Christ's love in tangible ways.
  9. I will never be famous. None of my YouTube videos has gone viral. None of my sermons has caught fire (or much flack). None of my blog posts has trended. The invisible audience I envision all too often is imaginary. Even within my modest, denominational circle, I am bound to remain conspicuous. I will likely never speak at my Fellowship's national conference or make the CE Wall of fame. While I have not yet resigned in my reach for the invisible audience, I find relief in admitting its futility.
  10. God has merely begun his work through me. To borrow a phrase from the prophet Isaiah, ten years is "a drop in the bucket." Ten years of pastoral ministry has never felt like a drag. Books and conferences aimed at pastors assume we are an ailing, languishing, dried out bunch. By God's grace, my experience does not match up. God had given me joy, endurance, imagination, love, wisdom, and good companions in my first ten years. Not naively, I expect he will continue to bless. It is, after all, his work, not mine. And he boldly claims to "do more than we ask or think through the power that works in us" (Eph. 3:20).