Monday, November 28, 2016

A New Preaching Experiment

Sermons shape God’s people. The preacher works with the text as the text works in him. The preacher adapts ancient words to modern ears, giving it volume, cadence, and voice. The preacher welcomes the congregation into that work of formation. For God's word is public good.

The pastor crafts the sermon to shape the people in partnership with God. The preacher studies and takes notes, outlines and edits, polishes and delivers. He implants truth and sends the people home. And God causes the growth.

Sadly, measuring said growth over the years has proven difficult. I suspect people have a better understanding of the biblical text and certain redemptive threads as a result of my preaching. But I cannot claim to have saved a marriage, stopped an addiction, started a revival, or rekindled any fading flames of evangelistic zeal. Nor have I seen God provoke many such acts through me.

So I'm toying with my methods again. I've already changed styles and added rehearsals. I've toyed with various presentation media. I reduced my minute count and number of sermons in a given series. Here and there I've received an "attaboy" or "I thought you were going to preach shorter" comment. Mostly, though, these tweaks have minimal effect.

It's time for another change. My latest iteration of preaching will include a subscription, offered in 4- to 8-week installments. I call it pre|form.


pre|form is a sermon enrichment experiment. It invites select people into the sermon-crafting process to deepen the impact of a series of sermons. pre|form does not elevate preaching as much as preparation and participation. The hypothesis is simple: Those with greater investment in the sermon will reap greater benefit from it.

The idea burst from the pages of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool). Studies of educators who “primed the pump” and invited their students to test-drive classroom materials proved far more productive at mastering the material. Preparation and personal investment formed them. By receiving prompted material, physics students were taught to “think like physicians” rather than think like students. 

I want people to "think like sermon-makers" rather than religious spectators. And I want God to cause the growth.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Bet, Beard, and Beautiful Thing

I made a gentleman's bet yesterday with an elderly man from our church. Steve has eclipsed seventy years. He is a mainstay in our spiritual family. He knows our history because he's lived most of it. He knows our facilities because he's maintained almost every corner. A wellspring of stories, tireless servant, and icon of conservative values, Steve is a good man to have on your side.

Bell and pulpit from Leesburg Grace on Vimeo.

But this week Steve is my rival. He approached me on Sunday and remarked on my "beard." (Yes, this deserves quotes. Every November I join the cause for two weeks before abandoning it. I can't stand the itchy face, patchy hair, and public shame. Case and point, my daughter asked her teach to turn me down as a volunteer this week because I'm "trying to grow a beard it looks bad.")

"I was thinking about your beard," Steve said. "I thought I'd wait until the last week of November and see if I could get a thicker beard than you by month's end."

"You're making a gentleman's bet, Steve?" I asked, extending my hand.

"I guess I am. I won't shave until after next Sunday's service. And I did shave this morning, so it's clean."

"I actually stopped shaving the last week of October," I confessed. "I needed a greater head start."
Steve proceeded to tell me about the good old days of dark hair and long beards. His smirk betrayed a personal history of minor rebellions. Many summers ago, after mowing and sweating and picking gnats from his scruff, he decided to shave. But the sight of my facial hair surfaced in him a longing.

"What's the prize?" I asked. There was some talk of Steve's Camero, but we sealed our bet in a church building, so we decided to keep matters friendly: bragging rights and humble pie.

Truth be told, I felt flattered Steve even acknowledged my beard with a contest. I felt honored my unshaven face inspired his nostalgia and competitive spirit. As he reaches back for the good old days, and I look ahead toward middle age, Steve and I meet in the center.

On Sunday we will call on the congregation to cast its votes. (I will ask them to restrain their laughter.) And together we will let them know, in some curious way, they are witnessing a beautiful picture of the body of Christ -- younger men and older men stirring one another on to love and good beards.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Advance: A New Chapter - An Adoption Update

The international adoption story unfolds in predictable chapters. First comes The Process: an anxious age of waiting and paperwork. Then comes The Meeting: a surreal experience. The Arrival and Post-Adoption Adjustment closely follow: a period of trauma and trials, wonder and hope, burrowing and bonding.

During the early stages of The Adjustment, we mapped our progress by days and weeks. Every Friday marked another milestone. By week twelve, we changed integers and started counting by months.

Today we crossed another significant marker. Six months has passed since Sensi's arrival. Half a year has passed since The Arrival. Moreover, Liz and I suspect a new chapter has begun: The Advance.
The Advance describes developments in almost every area of Sensi's life--emotional, behavioral, physical, and social. (Spiritually, Sensi shows little growth, though the demons seem to have departed.) The Advance does not eliminate the low-grade exhaustion each member of our family feels, but it wraps the strain in a garment of promise. There is an evolution; life-as-we-now-know-it (aka, the new normal) has begun to bud.

An comprehensive list of advancements is not necessary. However, a few glimmering anecdotes provides a picture of growth.
Six months ago Sensi sat at our breakfast table with his back turned to us. Today Sensi faces forward.
Six months ago Sensi spoke no words. Today Sensi knows more than a hundred words, counts to ten, writes twenty letters, and utters some unprompted phrases.
Six months ago Sensi ignored his sisters and avoided strangers. Today Sensi often shows more etiquette to strangers than his sisters whom he cherishes.
Six months ago Sensi stayed indoors, rarely played with others, and dragged his feet when he walked. Today Sensi ventures outside, engages with others, and skips and struts along the sidewalk (unless someone's holding his hand... which is most of the time).
Six months ago Sensi deferred getting dressing to his parents. Today Sensi dresses himself, though not without incentives and reminders.
Six months ago Sensi seemed happy and compliant. Today Sensi seems happy, loved, and healthy in his rebellions.
Six months ago Sensi scribbled copies of the same drawing for hours. The image: a man with a ball bouncing off his head. The caption: Bonk! Today Sensi draws vampires and mummies, pirates and ninjas, and Christmas scenes galore.
The Advance is far from complete. We continue to pray for more and stronger words. We continue to push for more and stronger independence. We continue to watch Sensi tear through reams of paper and get trapped in Infinite Garfield Loops. But six months later, The Advance is evident. The evolution of Bonk! and other developments stoke our gratitude.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Martyr and Messiah: Two Sorry Self-Perceptions

I spilled a glass of juice on my desk this morning. Some dripped onto the Oriental rug below. I sopped it up with masses of toilet paper. While incidental, the event awakened twin false prophets in my head. They whisper bad thoughts. Today, they sounded something like this: Is this what I get for getting up early to pray? And, Who put that laptop there?
Perhaps some context will help. I spend my mornings at this desk, setting out a glass of juice, journal, candle, Bible, and prayer guide. This study area and sanctuary sits in a dark corner of the basement. Usually the surface of my desk remains clear until I arrive. Occasionally the children have had a spark of inspiration, cluttering my work station with inspirational debris. (Why don't kids typically have sparks of organization?) And sometimes my has wife moved her laptop to my desk to print something.

This morning the desk was cluttered, but the lights were out and I didn't notice until I set my cup down. I placed it on the edge of the computer. It toppled. Out came Strawberry-Banana smoothie, followed several minutes of cleaning and many thoughts of blame and pity.

These thoughts harass me more than I would like to admit. I envision a miniature Messiah-me perched on one shoulder and a miniature Martyr-me on the other. Messiah-me says, "You are always right. It is not your fault." Martyr-me says, "You do so much. You deserve better. You are a victim." Neither of these voices offers a healthy self-perception. 
The Messiah-me cannot take blame, but only shifts it. He is always in the right. If there is a wrong, it belongs to another. Messiah-me cannot be late; his family makes him late. Messiah-me cannot overdraw the checking account; it was all the other spenders in the house or a banking error. Messiah-me is incapable of being too harsh or unreasonable; the children or serviceman deserved it. Messiah-me makes me sick; I am infected.

Unfortunately, Martyr-me is no better. She is the constant victim, never getting the credit she deserves, tirelessly serving and thanklessly giving. Martyr-me is the first one to rise and last one to retire in the home, but rarely gets a minute of rest. Martyr-me seems eager to listen but cannot find an audience for her stories and complaints. Martyr-me forgoes her self-care, personal goals, and right to the bathroom to make sure everyone else gets a good start to their day. Martyr-me wears me out; I am exhausted.* 

Not only are these false prophets incipient, they are ironic. They speak often and so close to the truth. Martyr-me makes sacrifices, but is more self-focused than self-forgetful. Messiah-me shows leadership, but is more self-righteous than others-oriented. One wants pity, the other awards blame, but they both vie for my attention.

After cleaning up the spill and silencing these voices, I turned my focus to Jesus the true Messiah and Martyr. I spilled my guts to Him. He cleaned up my mess. He always does.

___________________________________
*NOTE: A month into our post-adoption adjustment, Liz and I played "The Martyr Game" where we took turns sharing our sacrifices, tallying the points, and feeling simultaneously justified and disgusting. It is a dangerous game; we have not played since.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Curse You, Productivity!

I received an unsettling email from James Clear yesterday. The author is a consummate blogger and self-made, motivational guru. He sends out weekly email posts blending insights from neurology, psychology, and biography. Like all self-made men, Clear also offers a plethora of online workshops promised to build my habits, hack my life, and increase my productivity. To date, I have not signed up for a single workshop, but yesterday he made an offer I could hardly refuse.
For 48-hours (and 48-hours only) James Clear will provide a fifty percent reduction on his Habits Seminar. The teaser for the workshop included a free tip.
Find one little habit you can accomplish within the first five minutes of waking up and do it tomorrow morning. Make your bed. Do 10 pushups. Meditate for 30 seconds. It doesn't matter what you do as long as you appreciate the fact that you are starting your day off with something positive. Don't let distractions rule your life. Inject some momentum into your day right off the bat. (www.jamesclear.com)
I am no stranger to good habits and routines. For years I've preached (literally, I'm a pastor) the notion that Christ-like character results from choices that determine actions that become habits that produce character. In this sense, Christian faith and self-help praxis align.

After reading Clear's most recent tip, I visualized my morning routine:
I shut off my alarm; roll out of bed; reach for my slippers and put on my slippers; reach for my hoodie and put on my hoodie; stumble to the kitchen; pour a glass of orange juice; creep down the basement stairs (gripping the rail with my free hand to account for the steep and narrow passage); migrate to my desk; sit and light a candle; lay my forehead against the wood; pray or return to sleep.
Physical discipline does not enter into my morning routine, save for the occasional scratch, stretch, and crack of the spine. I attempt to set a tone of worship, obedience, and gratitude for the remainder of my day. Some mornings show more promise than others. Some mornings I ignore the alarm and remain in bed.

Clear's tip caused me to reconsider my first five minutes. I questioned the use of my waking moments and tone for the day. I wondered if I should do pushups, learn a new vocabulary word, or chant Gregorian-style.

As I drifted to sleep last night, productivity options flooded my mind. I slept terribly, which is a productivity sin, according to Clear and others I read. Every time I awoke, an internal clock started ticking. What am I doing? What tone am I setting? What time is it?

After three false starts to the day, my alarm finally sounded. I shut it off. 6:15.
I lay still for a minute. Tick, tock. 6:16.
My day began to slip. I got up, groped in the dark for my slippers and sweatshirt. By the time I stumbled into the kitchen, two more minutes passed. Tick, tock. 6:18
I poured my orange juice, but had to open a second gallon. Another minute vanished before I descended the first step. Tick, tock. 6:19
Before finishing the journey to my desk, taking a seat and lighting a candle, the opening five minutes of my day had become history. Tick, tock...beep. 6:21: And I had accomplished nothing.

The productivity experiment dismantled me in a single day. It stole from my sleep and set a failed tone for my day. "Curse you, productivity," I shouted.

And with that idol off my chest, I pressed on to prayer.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Hospitality Interrupted

We used to host people for dinner. On Thursdays, friends and family often shared our table. Then we invited a young lady to live with us for a year; she and her boyfriend became our standing guests. The girl married, moved, out and we had seats to fill. 
Then my wife became anxious. Food triggered her stress. Mealtimes lost some meaning, morphing into a “just get through it” ordeal. We stopped issuing invitations. Liz’s gluten-intolerant-dairy-restrictive diet and my daughters’ selective palates did not help the situation. Most nights Liz would prepare three separate meals, and she didn’t want any of them. I consumed my share and more. We still had seats to fill.

And then we adopted a son from Ethiopia. In our training sessions we were encouraged to guard our home life, limit visitors, and slowly introduce our son to extended family and friends. At this advice my wife and daughters breathed a sigh of relief. Our home would be a refuge, not a thoroughfare. Sensi fills our empty seat and shares leftovers with me.

During the past few years--of boarding and waiting, anxiety and adjusting—our hospitality has taken a hit. I must confess: I miss the table fellowship—conversation with family, laughter with friends, and sharing with church family. I miss setting the table, arranging chairs, and creating a mood with music and candlelight. I miss watching the children excuse themselves to play with cousins or friends while the adults pick at food scraps and pour another splash of wine. I miss the stiff legs from sitting too long and strain on the belt from eating too much. I even miss the mountain of dishes left as physical evidence of an indulgent evening.
But there as seasons in life where some virtues are sidelined. In midlife crisis, our first responsibility is survival; hospitality can take second place. Empty-nesters can fill empty seats. Retirees can plan family reunions. Cousins can host Thanksgiving and Christmas. And we thirty-somethings can focus on survival. Hospitality may be interrupted for a few years. Or a decade. God can manage without our fancy plates for a time.

The allowance extends to any crisis, not just the strains of middle age. Families poised to move homes can interrupt hospitality for a time. Families facing serious illness or recovery can interrupt hospitality for a time. Families with newborns or aged parents or ornery teenagers can interrupt hospitality for a time. Bickering couples or grieving widows or lonesome singles with no cookware can interrupt hospitality for a time.

But no interruption should be permanent. God made the table to share, and Jesus modeled this with his body and bread (Matthew 26:26-29). Hospitality is an intimate act of kindness. Some followers of Jesus will have a special knack for it—those with cloth napkins and cheesecake—but God requires hospitality from all his children (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:13). For when we receive others into our homes, we open the door to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).

I look forward to some glorious Thursday, when the interruption ends, and Jesus dines with us again.
__________________________

Hospitality by Eugene Peterson 

Benedict taught us well: Receive
Each guest as Christ. The bell rings, the door
Opens. Some unexpected, and some, yes,
Unwelcome. Our guest book spills out photos.

  Christ abused, Christ the fool,
  Christ sullen, Christ laughing,
  Christ angry, Christ envious, 
  Christ bewildered, Christ on crutches.

Like Gospel writers of old we pray
And reminisce over left-behind guest signs --
A bra, a sock, a scribbled thank you --

  And let them grow into stories. Sometimes
  It takes an unhurried while. Then,
  There it is: absences become Presence. Resurrection.

(from Holy Luck [Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2013], pg. 46)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hacking My Wife's Habit Loop

These days my wife is a bit anxious.  Too much "people time" triggers her nerves. Too much "alone time" makes her worried. She talks about it, prays about it, practices self-care and swallows little pills. Nevertheless, she may have shingles and cancer and swollen glands. 

I've wanted to help my wife. I've watched her get caught in repeated patterns of worry. I've wanted to hack into her habit loop and bring her back to sanity. (NOTE: She did ask me to fix her, but as a husband I excel at the art of problem-solving, not empathizing.)

Here is my wife's loop:
  • Cue: She feels a tingle on her arm
  • Routine: She inspects her arm with anxious eyes for traces of shingles.
  • Reward: She finds no shingles and regains sanity for a minute or two.
She may swing through this cycle a hundred times a day. It makes me dizzy, and she is exhausted. Yesterday we started our hack.
According to Charles Duhigg's perceptive book, The Power of Habit, every habit follows a similar path: cue - routine - reward. While it is helpful to identify cues (e.g., driving triggers my nail-biting) and acknowledge rewards (e.g., biting my nails helps me stay attentive), Duhigg argues real change comes from modifying routines. He illustrates below:
My wife's deep longing is to feel secure: safe, healthy, and okay. She is not opposed to pain; I've seen the woman endure some pretty gritty births and one unfortunate death. But given such limited control over her world and body, security feels elusive. And shingles... certain. Something about this tingle - inspect - sanity cycle grounds my wife momentarily. 

I can't explain it - I'm merely a witness - but I can suggest a tweak. Yesterday I made my suggestion. After catching my wife running her index finger along her forearm for the fourty-second time (she is not as subtle as she thinks), I offered an alternative. "Every time you feel your shingles coming back," I said, "do a few squats."

"Really?" she replied, as if my suggestion was crazier than her obsession.

"Sure. You need a new routine. Every habit..." [Blah, blah, blah. Insert explanation of Duhigg's habit loops.]
"Okay. I'll try," Liz replied.

This conversation transpired in the kitchen. Liz stood by the table while I loaded the dishwasher. As I set a few cups in the top rack, I noticed her squat: one, two, three. I rinsed some plates and mixing bowls and placed them in the top rack. Liz began to squat again: four, five, six. Before I finished filling the dishwasher, my wife had completed the fourth round of her new routine.

Success: I hacked her habit loop. Instead of shingles, she can worry about sore thighs.