Monday, December 11, 2017

The Writer's Life - A Professional Update

Editing has been my theme word for 2017. It came to fruition in ways I did not expect. To the best of my imagination, editing meant trimming the fat from my ever-expanding list of duties. I am happy to report I quit one ministry team in 2017 and officiated the funeral of one outreach event at our church. Otherwise, I fattened my schedule with new responsibilities.

To my surprise, these additions primarily revolved around writing projects. I caressed the keyboard and wielded my red pen more in 2017 than any previous year. Highlights include the following:

But of all-things-editing in 2017, I've found the greatest joy in contributing to a forthcoming commentary on the book of Philippians. Kregel Academic plans to publish The KERUX Commentary Series geared to help pastors combine careful study of the text (i.e., exegesis) with creative preaching elements (i.e., homiletics). KERUX transliterates the Greek word for preaching.

This design may change, but was released at recent ETS Annual meeting.
I fuel most of my writing efforts with the limited energy of artificial deadlines. On Mondays I blog because I thought I should. At the beginning of the month I edit Pastor's Perspective articles because I said I would. In the winter and fall I has out curriculum because the timing seemed good. These self-imposed dates keep me from procrastinating. But if I don't blog (no offense to you), no one is clamoring for it (not even my dear old mother!)


Writing for a legitimate publisher feels different. Deadlines are given to me. I may have some room to push back, but I'm not the driver. So I make steady gains, day after day, to avoid the sloppy push to the submission date. I wake up extra early to write. I sneak away on the weekends to write. I find an open hour and warm cup of tea every few afternoons to write.

Writing and editing does not come easily. It is a slug fest. It is a staring contest. It is a hold-your-breath-underwater sort of task. But when you see your name on the cover of the book or your readership reach new heights, you're ready to bound your knuckles, fix your eyes, and take another dive.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Sensilton Timothy Sprankle the First: An Adoption Update

Sensi has lost his celebrity status. Eighteen months after his settlement on the Sprankle homestead, he has, well, settled. He is a bump on our couch. He is a seat in the classroom. He is a face in the crowd.
A year ago, students jockeyed to hold his hand and usher him through hallways. Today, he walks alone. A year ago, adults greeted him eagerly in doorways. Today, they offer him a polite "Hello," and let him shuffle past.

The novelty of the adopted, Ethiopian child has worn off. The reality of the child who pays little heed to anyone has taken shape. I grieve this reality, but I choose not to blame my son. He was dealt a defective Thyroid and unfortunate family situation (sick mother, under-employed father). He spent five years in two orphanages stocked with children but short on resources. I envision five-year old Sensi nestled in a corner flipping through the same ragged book; sitting alone on a bench, silently assembling the same simple puzzle; his verbal, social, and cognitive development a glacial drift.
Since coming to our home, Sensi's progress has exploded. He speaks, reads, draws, plays, runs, makes associations, and identifies shapes. Great teachers, therapists, and special instructors have accelerated his learning. More importantly, they have loved him. We have loved him. I cannot understate the improvements from day one, where my son turned his back on the entire family at mealtimes.

But I remain shocked at the infancy of his thinking and information gaps (chasms, really) carved in his neural circuitry. Examples abound:

  • Sensi's stock answer to every question: "I don't know." What did you do at school today? "I don't know." Who did you play with at recess? "I don't know." (He doesn't seem to know anyone's name.) What do you want for a snack? "Snack?" Yes, snack; what do you want? "I don't know." What do you know? "I don't know."
  • What Sensi does know is the day of the week. It's always Sunday. Is this because he's a pastor's kid? Probably not. He just knows it's a day, so the answer will pass.
  • This morning Sensi came downstairs with his USA shirt on backwards. I don't think this was an unpatriotic statement. But I am certain he didn't know his shirt was on the wrong way. (He often wears them inside-out, too).
  • "Chew with your mouth closed," has become a refrain at the table. "Take smaller bites," is the chorus. Sometimes I gently place my hands over his lips to press them together. Nonetheless, every meal is a chomp-fest.
  • The preschool toy aisle has a magnetic pull on Sensi. If the object lights up, makes sounds, or spins, my son must touch it. The Charlie Brown snow globe in our home has a similar effect. For the sanity of the family, we may ban Charlie Brown for the remainder of the season.
  • And then sometimes, often, Sensi simply fails to acknowledge others exist.

None of this steals our love for our son, it just stretches our capacity to consider it pure joy. We continue to teach and train him, read to and play with him, hug and kiss him, enfolding him into our family rhythms, even if  he's content to burrow in a corner of the couch.

And if the going gets really tough, we've started to wrestle and mess with him. Recently, we've begun to call him Sensilton Timothy Sprankle the First. 

"I'm not Sensilton. I'm Sensi," he retorts, grinning.

"Okay, Sensilton," I say, and he growls. 

Then I pin him to the ground until he fights back. And he's beginning to assert himself. This is a good sign for Sensilton Timothy Sprankle the First, because fighting makes your brain fire. 

May God set his mind ablaze.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Persevering in the Face of Pain

I look around the room on Sunday morning. These people, this body, perseveres in the face of pain. They do not conceal it; they wear it in graying hairs, deepening creases, dark circles, and pursed lips. Life beats on them, abuses them, kicks them when they are down. But they get back up, take a breath, and press on. Perseverance is the mark of mature faith.
The list of painful circumstances is not unique to this people, this body, but can be found in any and every church. It comprises...

  • the death of a sibling whose eternal hope was never located in Jesus
  • a diagnosis of cancer to an already fragile body
  • years of restless sleep and exhausting days: feeding, cleaning, and attending to tireless infants
  • the final days of pregnancy, where time crawls, nothing fits, and hormones run haywire
  • extended family gatherings fraught with tension: every topic a landmine, every nerve on edge
  • deep, deep loneliness as the aftermath of a death, a divorce, or the era of digital friendships
  • an uncertain career path leading to financial insecurity and instability at home
  • a sputtering marriage: out of sync and low on joy, mostly just going through the motions
  • children who have strayed from their moral bearings or simply left home, leaving gaping holes in the long-awaited empty nest
  • a family member's disability that forces the rest of the clan to ever-changing plans
  • struggles with pornography that ebb and flow, but have recently hit high tide
  • an internal voice of self-loathing, provoked at every advertisement, social media post, self-assessment, or attempt to seek God in prayer
If I simply scratch the surface of my congregation, their challenges bubble to the top. These people, this body, bleeds. We all do. And yet, they are resilient. Beaten and bruised, crushed and kicked, they rise. For we are resurrection people. People of the empty tomb persevere. 

These people, this body, takes its cues from Jesus and the apostles. Paul captures this beautifully in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11 (NASB):
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you.
Perseverance in the face of pain, he argues, is the first step toward Christian hope. 
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, NASB)
Even his prayers reiterate the need for perseverance. He makes the virtue a regular part of his petitions.
For this reason also, since the day we heard of itwe have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patiencejoyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. (Colossians 1:9-12, NASB)
Perhaps there is no greater encouragement than to encourage perseverance. Perhaps there is no greater prayer than to pray for perseverance. Perhaps perseverance is at the heart of pastoral ministry. I know it is what these people, this body, needs. They wear their pain on their faces like I wear mine.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Pastors in Cars Going to Conferences

Years ago Jerry Seinfeld produced a series of conversations between comedians while cruising in his fancy cars and dining in chic cafes. Appropriately, he entitled the show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Seinfeld was a gracious host, laughing earnestly at his colleague's ramblings. His show reminded me of the value of car time with companions who share a similar vocation. I dreamed of my day with Pastors in Cars Going to Conferences.
Image result for comedians in cars getting coffee netflix Image result for comedians in cars getting coffee netflix
Last Tuesday morning, the dream became reality as I slipped through a thick fog into the front seat of Lee's Toyota. We stopped a half hour later in Turtle Town, Indiana, to pick up our friend Aaron. Our trio was complete: three solo pastors of small churches in insignificant, Indiana towns. Our destination was set: Providence, Rhode Island, where we would join the Evangelical Theological Society's (ETS) 69th Annual Meeting. Our conversation was worth the admission and mileage.
But what do three Pastors in Cars Going to Conferences talk about?

The short answer is Everything.

We catch up on family life and church happenings. We commiserate about ministry challenges and personal shortcomings. We summarize recent sermons or visualize improvements in our context of service. We assess films and lament our fantasy football teams. We wax nostalgic from college days or conferences of yore. We roast each other, celebrity pastors, or ETS papers that drew yawns or flimsy conclusions.
These are not my pastor friends; we are a different sort of Justice League.
In other words, pastors, like comedians (truck drivers, stay-at-home mothers) are people, too. We are a critical, geeky, busy, self-evaluating, culturally-inclined, and family-oriented bunch. If you give us thirty hours on the road and ten hours in food courts during a week, we will be full of conversation and bloated with gas.

So, again, what do three Pastors in Cars Going to Conferences talk about?
The better answer reduces down to 4 observations:


We love our churches: Aaron, Lee, and I could not express enough gratitude for the people in our congregations. As solo pastors of small churches we know people on a first name basis. We know details of their lives: struggles, ambitions, victories, and vocation. Collectively, we may grow tired of infighting, politics, hobby horses, and slow movement. But, individually, the people in our churches are beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

We want to grow: Professional development drives us to these conferences (that, and Lee's car). We want to mature in our pastoral leadership and acumen for preaching. We want to expand our base of knowledge, our resources for ministry, and our network of other leaders. And, truth be told, none of us would complain if a few more individuals, couples, or families joined our church body. Admittedly, we each pine for the green pasture of a second pastor to compensate for our limitations.

We talk more about our ministries than our Messiah: Every conference I attend, this reality confronts me: We speak more about what we do for God than how we're doing with God. Ask a pastor what he's preaching on, and he'll give you a ten minute brief. Ask him what he's learning from God, and he'll just be brief. The latter question requires meditation; the former, regurgitation. I am guilty as charged. (In fact, it's why I blog and journal, to force myself to slow down and live reflectively.)

We need each other: I prioritize time with my fellow pastors and friends. Their empathy, encouragement, and shared experiences take me farther than they could possibly imagine. The solo pastor stands ever on the edge of discouragement or despair. But climbing in cars and going to conferences reinforces that he is not alone.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Common Bonds: Links between Uganda and USA (3 of 3)

When I travel to other countries, I politely badger residents with questions. I realize no single person is an expert in his or her culture, but they provide a window into their home country's worldview. Inquiry allows me to peer into these windows. (Forgive the creepy metaphor!)

One afternoon I asked Damali about cost of living in Uganda. "What are the most expensive parts of living here?"
Gordon & Tim at Baby's Home with Damali
"Medical expenses," she said. Affordable health care is neither universal nor  easy to access. Medications do no come cheaply. Neglected childhood vaccinations lead to nagging adult problems. The spread of disease, lack of clean water, and distance between good clinics makes medical life difficult.
Tim at village school, where we provided a medical clinic and school supplies.
Damali proceeded to explain the way family members share financial burdens. If an uncle or cousin is sick, you might foot the bill. If a grandmother or niece dies, you might pay for the funeral. And mom and dad--if they're alive--cannot always cover the cost of education, added Aisha. It may be an older sister or auntie who pitches in for your fees.
Uganda team eats lunch with Aisha and Melissa from Sonrise Ministries.
"But God provides," Aisha added dogmatically. She shared a story to prove it. Feeling the weight of compounding expenses and little money, she lamented and prayed. Days later she found a pile of cash among a stack of clothes. Providentially, the stash of shillings and school invoice matched. God provided.
Image result for money in uganda
I also asked Sonrise workers about hobbies, foods, worship services, and their personal testimonies. They, like people from my church, were saved by grace through faith. Their children, like mine, enjoy running about and playing games. Their Millienials, like ours, are glued to their phones, peeping into others' lives through the global glowing window called Facebook. (Also creepy!).

I saved my final question for Pastor Ivan on our drive to the airport. Pastor to pastor, I wondered, "What are the key values people hold in Uganda?"

"I think they are no different than yours," he replied. "People want to be safe, loved, and make a difference. This is true most places."
Barbed wire, gates, and walls surround most homes in Uganda to promote security and ward off thieves.
I agreed. The common bond among humans is greater than the sum of our differences. Media exploits our distinctions, glamorizing extremists and giving preference to odd behaviors of fringe groups. We are trained to focus on skin-deep dissimilarities--pigmentation, gender, religious garb, tattoos, dialect, and geography--overlooking the biblical teaching that every person bears God's image (Gen. 1:26-28).

Lest I am misunderstood: this is no plea for pluralism. International travel and interracial friendships reinforce the need for universal dignity and finding middle ground. But not all faiths lead to God.

Refugees and immigrants, Boomers and Millennials, people of color and those pale as the moon, dysphoric and homophobic share a common link to Eden (Acts 17:26). And God has a common longing for all peoples: He wants us back (v. 27 cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). He even made the way possible and personal in Jesus (v. 30-31; John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Whether in Uganda or the United States, God calls all peoples to turn back to Him in trust. For those living stateside, we may be at a disadvantage.

"It is easier for people in Uganda to have faith," Pastor Ivan said. "It is all we have. In the United States, the need for God is not felt. You can provide for yourselves."

So it seems. But self-preservation and self-sufficiency is a myth. It is a fog covering the glass house we Americans live in. I am glad I had a week in Uganda to see it from the outside and be reminded of my deep and lasting need for God.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Looking Poverty in the Face - Uganda Update (2 of 3)

We ascended a rough clay road to arrive at the slums. Daniel, one of the Sonrise Ministry directors, prepared us for our task. While one of the Mirmbe girls visited with her family and delivered food, we would take a tour of Masese, one of many slums near Jinja.
"The children will come up and hold your hands," Daniel said. "This is okay. Just do not touch your face afterwards. These children are very dirty."

We squeezed out of the compact Toyota, and a swarm of children surrounded us. Dusty children, snotty children, shirtless children, shoeless children, and children carrying smaller children grasped for our hands. They smiled and chattered in their native tongue. We marched together between single-room houses and storefronts, up and down inclines, over puddles and around trash. One child pushed a makeshift toy--a cracked CD tacked to a yardstick--the whole length of our promenade.
Daniel led us to a home belonging to one of young ladies from the Girls' Home (i.e., Mirembe). Inside the windowless, six-by-eight home, the aunt reclined. She was one of six living in the house. An unknown sickness hobbled her.

We ducked into the dim enclosure, and I knelt to pray, reaching for the woman's hands. Upon closer inspection of her face, I could not tell if she was twenty-five or sixty years old. Poverty is a thief, stealing life and vitality. I prayed simply, asking God to bless this aunt and her home.

Children in the slums look tired but happy. Adults in the slums appear hardened. They may have come to the city looking for work, but finding none, they settled for four walls and a metal roof. Many men turn to booze, one of the Sonrise workers told me. The family we visited, had fixed their hope on their niece getting out, getting educated, and returning to rescue them from economic despair. Sadly, their niece may be no older than nine; the aunt may not live another nine years.

We said our "Amen," and "Farewell," and then directed the mass of children back to our parked vehicle. They grabbed at our hands, poked at our bellies, tugged on our skirts, and clung to us until we departed. As soon as we piled in the car, we began scrubbing our hands with wet wipes and rubbing them with sanitizer. The chemical assault to my senses was unable to wipe away the stain of extreme poverty seared in my mind.

"You will always have the poor with you," Jesus said, diffusing the ire of the disciples at the waste of precious ointment Mary poured out on his head (John 12:1-8). But his axiom does not erase the bitter sights of extreme poverty when you view them firsthand. Dirt and grim, over-sized shirts and undressed babies, junkyard toys and inebriated men, trash piles and piss puddles, small dark homes and herniated bellies.

Nor does Jesus' axiom tell us what to do about poverty. So I knelt, looked poverty in the face, and prayed for God's blessing. It's a start. But Jesus' brother James said, "Do more than see and pray. Give." (James 2:14-17). And just because we cannot give to every need, doesn't mean we should not give to any needs.

I, for one, certainly have more than I need. So I kneel and pray: "God, make me generous."

Monday, October 30, 2017

Adoption Is Not the Final Word on Orphan Care

Our social worker informed us we were the fourth or fifth best option for our would-be adopted child. Liz and I had just begun the (would-be five-year) adoption process. We felt God leading to “care for orphans” (James 1:27) by bringing one or two into our home. Lest we get a messiah complex, our case work set us right. We were far down the list of good solutions.

Best case scenario: Mom and Dad raise and love him.
Second best: a loving family member provide him a home.
Third: someone from Ethiopia.
Then: an Ethiopian or African-American couple from the States.
Finally: a humble, middle-class White couple from the Midwest.

The enumerated list (and our low position on it) sobered me. But it also misled. Fortunately, on a recent trip to Uganda, God disabused me of one myth of orphan care. For more than five years I have equated “care for orphans” with adoption. The Christian Alliance for Orphans estimates 153 million children worldwide have lost one or both parents (See their White Paper on www.cafo.org ). It is a colossal figure, nearly impossible to erase when financial, legal, and political forces enter the mix. To find an adoptive family for each of these children is a fantasy.

Two weeks ago, God showed me another way to care for orphans. After a week of observing and interacting with Sonrise Ministries in Uganda, I met fatherless and motherless children who were nonetheless surrounded by numerous aunties, uncles, brothers, and sisters. Though they were short on personal space and wardrobe options, they were rich in food, love, and learning opportunities. Sonrise Ministries exploited a gap between scenarios two and five above—demonstrating family for the fatherless need not be nuclear.
In a sense, Sonrise was birthed in an orphanage. Four of its directors grew up together in a children’s home founded by an American veteran and evangelical Christian. Several other Sonrise leaders and staff members aged out of the same home. They were not all blood related, but they were family. And their passion for orphan care grew out of personal experience.
Sonrise started as a Baby Home, but it grew to capacity. They added a Children’s Home, making space to expand and educate children as they developed. The Children's Home, likewise, ran out of room. They added a Girl’s Home for females plucked from the streets, which, too, has no space to increase.
So they started building: schools and homes in disparate villages. They started digging: wells for water and trenches for farming. They’ve kept on praying: for protection and growth, wisdom and provision.
From the outset of our adoption, God used a social worker to disabuse me of a messiah complex. For this I am grateful. But I wish I would have been more attentive to other means of orphan care. Adoption is not the final word on orphan care. The children of Sonrise Ministries have been knit into a big, beautiful, non-nuclear family, short on fathers, but flush with the love of countless aunties and uncles. 

It took a week-long trip to Uganda -- rubbing shoulders with followers of Jesus who are crafting a family and future for the fatherless -- for God to reveal another effective way of caring for orphans. I witnessed God doing beautiful work where others might only lament the ashes. 

                                                                                             
First in a three-part reflection on my week in Uganda.