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)

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.

*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.

Monday, February 6, 2017

What a Pastor Does the Rest of the Week...

I talk for a living. So they think. They might be my congregation, siblings, or random person I meet at the supermarket. They say things like, "You only work an hour a week. Har. Har. Har."

The aforementioned hour is Pastoral Primetime (with limited commercial interruptions). It is my weekly window to wax eloquent to a live studio audience.

For the remainder of the week, they are my focus. They might be my congregation, children, or random person I meet at the gas station. They talk; I listen."

Eighty-five percent of pastoral ministry is listening--actively, prayerfully, reflectively. I give my week to hearing from God and good authors, podcasts and pundits, scholars and colleagues, Hispanic toddlers and daycare kids, and, of course, my friends, family, and spiritual community.

Their stories inform my sermons. Their thoughts complement my teaching. Their problems shape my preaching. Their lives affect my liturgy.

But this is not why I listen. Active listening is not a means to a better message. Acting listening shows love and increases one's understanding of another. I want to love, so I listen.
In fact, I wish more people would learn to listen actively. In his book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, Peter Scazerro identified reflective listening as a primary skill for loving well (see pp. 181-184). He provides five guidelines for the speaker (e.g., talk about your own feelings), four for the listener (e.g., let the speaker finish her thoughts), and cues for validating and exploring the other person's thoughts.

When the leaders of his church modeled active listening and trained their people to do likewise, Scazzero noted a seismic shift in their spiritual family. He writes, "[Listening] does not come naturally to anyone I have met thus far. Few of us have every had the experience of being truly listened to. When I began to listen - really listen - to the people's stories and hearts... they felt valued, worthy, and loved."

Preaching may remind, provoke, and inspire, but active listening shows love. They should be glad I only work an hour a week. (Har. Har. Har.) It allows me much more time to listen and show love.

Written in conjunction with a newsletter I wrote for The Equipping Network.

Click here to learn five obstacles to active listening and how to overcome them.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Applause of Heaven - An Adoption Update

We celebrate Sensi regularly, making up for lost years of parental praise. We applaud little leaps and mighty triumphs. We praise him when he cuts his own food. We praise him when he wipes his own butt. We praise him when he finagles his own zipper. We praise him when he dresses himself. We praise him when he shuts the door, makes his bed, clears his plate, cleans up his toys, and finishes his homework.
Sensi ran upstairs and put on his blue shirt to "Join the Blue Team." We praised him for it.

As these motions become habitual, we scale back the adulation, but we're always on the lookout for new advances to cheer. Sensi continues to develop, progress, and nestle into our family. The language of praise is one simple way we can reaffirm our son.

Liz has developed an endearing routine to motivate Sensi with his homework. When he finishes a problem, reads a sight word, or articulates an idea, she proclaims, "You're so smart." She seals the compliment with a light jab to his shoulder. Sensi always beams with pride before retaliating with a punch of his own (always harder).

In moments of praise, Sensi's expression is priceless. His smile erupts, eyes twinkle, right arm bends at the elbow, and fingers splay out, pressed against his cheek. (Typically the middle finger shoots up first). Praise sends a positive shock through my son's muscular system. He cannot hide his delight.

One time while sitting around the table, Sensi performed a remarkable feat. He consumed a vegetable (that wasn't broccoli). Amazement gripped me and Liz; Claire and Margot sat in awe. We responded in the only appropriate manner: We gave Sensi a slow clap. He suffered sensation overload - grinning and jerking and flipping us the bird.

Sensi is not the only beneficiary of praise in our home. We praise the girls for their kindness, patience, and creativity. We praise Liz for her empathy, intentional love, and smashing good looks. We praise the dog for peeing on a light pole. And we praise me for endless displays of wit and wisdom.

The language of praise speaks to a universal need for belonging and significance. A biblical word comprising these concepts is honor. According to Bruce Malina, "Honor is the value of a person in his or her own eyes (that is one’s own claim to worth) plus that person’s value in the eyes of his or her social group. Honor is a claim to worth along with the social acknowledgement of worth." (The New Testament World, 30)

We all long for divine honor. We all want to hear the applause of heaven. Grasping for divine approval is in our DNA as image-bearers, for God "crowned [us] with honor and glory" (Psalm 8:5b). And for those who believe in Jesus, "praise, glory, and honor" awaits us the revelation of Jesus (1 Peter 1:7 cf. 5:1, 4, 10).

The ecstasy Sensi shows at a word of praise gives me a foretaste of the heavenly honor I hope to receive. In "Weight of Glory," C.S. Lewis explains this illustration:
I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child - not in a conceited child, but in a good child - as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised... I thought I could detect a moment - a very, very short moment - before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure. And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased whom she was created to please.
Lewis does not dismiss how praise turns to vanity or how ambition clouds our desire for approval. He does, however, help explain our native and innocent hunger for praise. And he encourages us to live for divine approval.
The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God... to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness... to be loved by God, not merely pitted but delighted in as an artists delights in his work or a father in a son - it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But it is so.
These reflections by Lewis bolster my resolve to speak praise to Sensi and my girls. Any fear that I may be "overdoing it" is quieted by the notion that I am preparing them for the applause of heaven. Some glorious day, I want to stand by as God says to them, "Well done." Then I'll watch their smiles erupt, eyes twinkle, and a shock of delight transform their humble bodies into glorious ones.

Monday, January 23, 2017

We Crave What We Eat (or Taste and See the Lord is Good)

In Made to Crave, author Lisa TerKeurst makes a simple but profound statement: "We crave what we eat." I tend to reverse the order, thinking, "I eat what I crave." 
Both propositions speak truth. When I crave something salty, I satisfy it with a handful (or bowl) or chips. When I crave something sweet, I treat myself to some of M&Ms (i.e, a small bag). Every time I give into one of these cravings, I train my body to want the guilty pleasures of sodium and sugar all the more.

Regular consumption reinforces my cravings. I crave what I eat; I eat what I crave. The cycle trains my greedy palate and digs deep grooves into my gut. My stomach decides for me when and what to eat. Every attempt at dieting and self-restraint dies quickly to the power of habit.

Lisa TerKeurst was not original in her observation. St. Augustine made similar remarks in his Confessions. His lust for academic success and sexual pleasure diluted his appetite for God. He wrote:
I had no liking for the safe path without pitfalls, for although my real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul, I was not aware of this hunger. I felt no need for the food that does not perish, not because I had my fill of it, but because the more I was starved of it the less palatable it seemed. Because of this my soul fell sick (3:1, emphasis added).
Our cravings are not easily ignored because we have steadily fed them. Our occasional rewards -- a Coke, cookie, or can of beer -- become routines. Once entrenched, our cravings become compulsory. They take on a mind of their own, hijacking rational thought and rewiring our wills. (Read James K.A. Smith's You Are What You Love for more on spiritual habit.) 

Two stories come to mind: I think of Edmund eating Turkish Delights in the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. How many Turkish Delights did he consume before betraying his siblings? The more he fed his appetite, the less he craved family loyalty. Perhaps, Edmund's loyalty to his siblings was already famished. Perhaps, it was not the dark magic of the morsel that controlled Edmund, but the darkness of his appetite to rise above his older brother.
Another story of dangerous cravings appears in the Book of Genesis. Esau, twin brother of Jacob, returned home from a hunting expedition famished. His hunger felt deadly. His brother offered him an appetizing bowl of red stew. But Jacob demanded a high price. "Your birthright for my food." Perhaps, it was not the savory aroma of the stew that controlled Esau, but his lack of spiritual dependency. He made the exchange and exposed his disregard for God and family.

Both Edmund and Esau fell prey to selfish cravings. However, to limit cravings to food would obscure the point. 

Cravings also comprise success, pleasure, security, wealth, entertainment, physical well-being, knowledge, control, and significance. We need not look far to identify our cravings; it includes areas we expend a majority of our time, money, conversation, and mental/emotional energy on.
  • We crave physical health when we feed our bodies with a steady diet of exercise, nutritional facts, supplements, and disease concerns.
  • We crave amusement when we feed our souls a steady diet of sports,* television, movies, social media, shopping, books, board games, and YouTube videos.
  • We crave success when we feed our minds a steady diet of self-help literature, late night emails, early morning memos, sixty-hour work weeks, dreams of advancement, and ongoing comparisons.
St. Augustine warned against craving these "lesser goods." Confessions opens with the memorable precept: "Our hearts will find no peace until they rest in You." Echoes of that idea weave their way throughout the book. In other words, God must be our primary craving to experience true satisfaction.

But to crave God, we must feed our spirit with a steady diet of His Word (preached, read, and memorized), His presence (prayer, solitude, and corporate worship), His people (large gatherings and small clusters), and His work (evangelism, justice, giving, and serving). 

We are called to "taste and see the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8). We will crave Him when we consume His goodness. We must not accept substitutes.

*As an anecdotal example, I weaned myself off NFL football in recent years. Ten years earlier, I watched every weekend, played Fantasy Football (FF), and tracked statistics obsessively. Football became something of a god. Then my daughters were born and we cancelled our TV service. I stopped playing FF and only watched games at other people's homes. Each year, I've watched a little less (2 hours total in 2016 season). Cared a little less (Who's in the Superbowl?). 

It helps that I'm a Browns' fan, but I'm mostly not starved for NFL because I've replaced it with family time and naps. I always win with a nap.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Myths, Storks, and Same-Sex Advocacy

We watched Storks with our children last weekend. Based on the previews, I expected nothing more than few dumb laughs. We had exhausted the family-oriented Redbox rivals, so Storks it was.

We watched and laughed. Hard. More than a few times.

Andy Sandberg (the voice of Junior) delivered (pun intended) with his usual blend of sarcasm and self-depreciation. His female counterpart, Katie Crown, gave life to the offbeat Tulip. The officious boss Hunter, lively Gardner family, and posturing Pigeon Toady provided comic relief. But the wild and relentless Wolf Pack stole the show.

Well, not quite. A tiny little scene at the end of the film grabbed my attention. When the storks resumed their work of bringing babies to wanting families (instead of e-commerce to consumers), the filmmakers captured the emotion in a closing montage.

[Cue Vance Joy's Fire & Flood. Release the storks.]

The birds carried infants of various shapes, sizes, and colors to families of various shapes, sizes, and colors. One delivery followed another. Each couple reached with open arms and bright smiles. White couple. Black couple. Old couple. Young couple. Same-sex couple. Hispanic couple. Mixed race couple...

My wife and I shared a similar reaction. Wait!? What?! Was that two women who just received a baby?! Were they just sisters?! Were they just friends?! Did our kids notice that?!

No: They were certainly not just sisters. No: Our children watched unaware. The same-sex advocacy was too subtle for their little eyes.

However, same-sex relationships are not a foreign concept to them. They saw me reading an article on the computer the day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v Hodges. They asked why rainbow lights shone on the White House.
"Now men can marry men and women can marry women," I explained to my 8- and 9-year old daughters. "Huh?" they replied.

A few months ago my younger daughter read graphic a novel called Drama. She asked her mother, "What does gay mean?"
"It's when a boy likes a boy, or girl likes a girl," my wife said. "Huh?" Margot responded.

We have had further conversations with our daughters about marriage as defined in the Bible. (I know a prevailing wave of thinking in our culture would qualify my statement as "how we interpret marriage in the Bible." I'm certainly not ignorant of lenses I bring to biblical interpretation; we all have them. Nevertheless, I am confident the lenses I wear have been formed by diligent personal study and orthodox faith.) Storks delivering babies may be a myth. Progress and tolerance may be myths. Biblical marriage is not a myth. It is a mystery: God ordained husband and wife to reflect the love of Christ for his church (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Moreover, we expect the regularity of such conversations with our children to increase as they mature. Same-sex advocacy will be less subtle when they graduate from elementary school and watch Prime Time TV. It won't slip pass them in a closing montage; it will smack them in the face in school hallways and on sitcoms.

Sexual practice has always been somewhat loose in high school. Now sexual identity is loose, as well. We want to prepare them for gender liquidity without engendering fear or scorn. We want them to show confidence in their convictions but grace in their interactions. This "perilous and exciting" balance is what G.K. Chesterton called Orthodoxy. I am an advocate.

Monday, January 9, 2017

God's Property - Reflecting on My Identity in Jesus

God owns me. My redemption and adoption secure my place in his household. Through the blood of Jesus and seal of the Spirit, I am God’s blessed child. To forget this fact is to forsake my true identity.

Sadly, various voices make rival claims for my soul. My job tries to take possession of me. It demands more than my nine-to-five allegiance. Work creeps into my weekend and nightmares. Obsessively, I check my phone for emails.  Incessantly, I craft my sermon to perfection.

My consumer goods try to take possession of me. Old things tell me they're worn out and ready to retire. New things shout false promises of happiness. Advertisements come through my phone and TV screens; they blare from billboards and arrive direct in my mailbox.

My physical appearance tries to take possession of me. I ignore its signs of middle age—balding, bloating, and bad knees—and pretend still to be sprite. “I am a runner,” I proclaim. “I can still wear an Adult Small," I lie. (Mediums fit better.)

My expressions of leisure try to take possession of me. I push against the streaming impulse of binge-watching and social media. I binge read and evade Facebook. But I regularly check Yahoo Sports and my Twitter feed.

My religious affiliation tries to take possession of me. I can pile up modifiers -- born again, evangelical, Grace Brethren, progressive-conservative, non-liturgical-but-as-traditional-as-the-rest-of-them (whoever "them" is) -- to narrow my niche to a point. My moral convictions only sharpen the point to a sting.

I have only scratched the surface. Rival voices abound. Our social classes and Linked In networks, alumi and sports teams, soda brands and cell providers, dietary fads and hobby clubs, successes and self-help groups, mental disorders and family dysfunctions all make claims for us. 

In reality, these interests and factors identify us by reduction. We become algorithms instead of image-bearers. I echo Jarod Lanier's titular sentiment: You Are Not a Gadget. I offer Eugene Peterson's warning against dehumanizing our souls into impersonal functions.
In our present culture all of us find that we are studied, named, and treated as functions and things. "Consumer" is the catch-all term for the way we are viewed... To be treated as a consumer is to be reduced to being used by another or reduced to a product for someone else's use. It makes little difference whether the using is in a generous or selfish cause; it is reduction. Widespread consumerism results in extensive depersonalization. And every time depersonalization moves in, life leaks out. (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 39)
We must not let reductive titles take possession of our identity. We are not gadgets. We are not consumers. We are not cogs in a machine, affiliates in a religion, or aging bodies grasping for former glory. We are so much more. We are image-bearers of God. And we, who follow Jesus, are God's treasured possession (1 Peter 2:9).

This post reflects upon my Unlikely Belonging sermon (1 Peter 1:1-12). For further reflection, consider these questions:
  • From my list above, what voices try to possess your soul? What other voices could you add?
  • How do you reduce people in various contexts (home, school, work, church, social media, shops/restaurants, entertainment)
  • What words do you hear God speak over you as it relates to your true identity?
  • Will you accept the Misfit Mission? See picture below.