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.

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*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).

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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).

Monday, May 8, 2017

Glory Days, Coaching Kids, and Making Strides

I coach track for a rowdy bunch of fourth through sixth grade students. It is safe to say most of them do not have the makings of an Olympian. They flail and shuffle and smile and wave in their lanes. They look at the fans, their feet, or the runners behind them more than the finish line ahead. These are not the tactics of elite players. No: these are children at play.

What my athletes do not realize is they have a winner in their midst. "It is I," said the balding, aging, former winner of the Wheeler Award. "It is I," wrote the blogger reminiscing about his glory days.

During my peak running career, I could run a 5K in less than 16 minutes, an 8K in 26 minutes, and a 10K just over 32 minutes. For twenty-six laps around the track, I kept pace like a steady clock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The longer I ran, the stronger I felt. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. I learned mental tricks and breathing tips and once predicted my race time to the second. Tick. Tock. Yes: I was a champion.

But these days I stuff my pride and go by the title, "Coach Mister," or "Claire's Dad." I am a part-time volunteer, living vicariously through the next generation as I cheer from the infield and coach from the sidelines.

My strategy is to develop their mental game. I encourage my distance runners to break the race down in to smaller segments.

"Stay calm: No one wins the race in the first fifty meters."
"Stay close: Stick with the leaders."
"Be strong: The second lap is the hardest, so be tough."
"Dig deep: Go all out for the finish."

I recite other mantras -- stay strong; you're tough; everybody hurts -- and offer various forms of affirmation -- good job; way to go; high five; crash it, you did great. And by the end of the meet, I feel satisfied in having coached these students not only for track, but also for life.

All our problems break down into smaller problems. 
Encouragement and honest feedback diffuses our fears.
We are stronger than we think we are.
Keeping focused on the finish line helps us fight through pain.

As I watch these children flail and shuffle, smile and wave, I can't help swell with pride. Not because I could beat every one of them in a race (I credit the Holy Spirit from holding me back from trying), but because many of them are making strides. My daughter Claire is one of them.
Sprankle Family runs with cousins at Joe's Kids Splatter Dash on Saturday, May 6th. Claire won the mile. Margot took second. Sensi received a medal, but will not be entering the Olypic Games anytime soon.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Happily Ever After - God's Big Story Ends Well

The author of Hebrews calls Jesus the "Author and perfecter of our faith" (12:2). The final chapter of his Big Story awaits his return and renewal of all creation (Rev. 21:5). Various authors of Scripture provide glimpses of this renewal, including golden streets, glittering crowns, glorified bodies, domesticated beasts, vibrant streams, angelic songs, glassy seas, diverse nations, and God among his people (e.g., Is. 65:17ff; 1 Cor. 15:35ff; 1 Pet. 4: Rev. 5-7; 21:1ff). "Happily ever after," is an appropriate summary.
Of course, to appreciate this final chapter, one should trace the entire plot of the Bible, starting with the opening lines: "In the beginning" (Gen. 1:1). From Creation to Consummation, God's Big Story shows the Creator's overflowing love, tremendous patience, and personal sacrifice. It displays human rebellion, rejection, and failure to reflect their Creator. It makes God's love plain and approachable in the person of Jesus, whose story is told in the stuttering life of the church.
 


Sadly, God's people have settled for theological principles and moral exhortations. We've traded his Big Story for a Sinner's Prayer and theological hopscotch. When we strip doctrinal proof-texts and ethical examples from their storied context, we settle for a brittle, humanized, scientific text. 

Moreover, we betray the very form of communication implicit to Moses (see Deut. 1-5), Joshua (see ch. 24), David (see Pss. 103-105), Isaiah (see ch. 5), Ezekiel (see. ch. 16), Jesus (see Matt. 13) and Paul (see Acts 26). Part of the imago Dei is the capacity to share stories; crocodiles tell no tales.

Among the many authors advocating for a return to the storied understanding of Scripture, author Eugene Peterson makes his point clear. "[The] Bible turns out to be a large, comprehensive story, a meta-story. The Christian life is conducted in story conditions. The Bible is basically and overall a narrative—an immense, sprawling, capacious narrative…. Story doesn’t just tell us something and leave it there, it invites our participation" (from Eat This Book, 40).

Author Scot McKnight addresses those who conflate story with fiction. "Saying the Bible is Story is not saying it is make-believe or a fib or fiction or myth, nor is it to assert that gobs of the stories didn’t happen. We say the Bible is Story because if we read it from beginning to end, we discover that it has three features: it has a plot (creation to consummation), it has characters (God-Father, Son, and Spirit—and God’s people and the world and creation around them), and it also has may authors who together tell the story." (from The Blue Parakeet, 66).

Followers of Jesus should take a fresh look at God's Big Story. We should learn to live it and share it. The wounded world will find story-tellers more winsome than moral watchdogs. And they may find the "Happily ever after" of heaven more appealing when they understand the cruciform path God chose to meet us there.