Monday, December 24, 2012

Don't Send a Plumber To Do a Rooter's Work

Sewage spilled to our basement for the second time in two weeks. The pipes were backed up. My girls go overboard on the toilet paper, and there are only three of them. Families of five and nine flush far more often then we do.

Of course, the problem is not with what escapes our house, but what is trying to get it. Roots from our maple tree creep and encroach and enter through the sewer line. Sometimes they make it hard for the dirty dishwater to make it downtown. Other times they stall the progress of our biological waste.

Root problems are serious. So I called the plumbers on Friday afternoon. We have them on speed dial. The operator recognized my voice. "Can you come out today? Can you get rid of some roots?"

"Not today," the man replied. "Maybe tomorrow."

"Is there an additional fee for coming on the weekend?" I asked, my last minute Christmas presents in jeopardy.


"I'll call someone else."

"Good luck with that."

Pipes dripped; noxious fumes circulated. I scanned the list of plumbers frantically. Roto-Rooter was next on the list. I called.

"Where you at?"

"Main Street."

"I'm just heading out of Warsaw. I'll swing by."

A minute later the Roto-Rooter man knocked on our door. He wore a navy jump suit, brown smears on the shoulders and knees. A crop of silver hair swept over his head, white teeth gleaming from his grizzled face.

"Your pipe over there?" He pointed to the location of the pipes. I nodded.

He strode to his van and grabbed his machine. He sent the wire down the channel, spinning and cutting invasive roots from my backyard to my sidewalk. The wire continue to unravel. The machine continued to rotate. But I could only imagine its progress: root issues remain underground.

Within a quarter hour he packed up his machine and said, "Got her cleaned." Then he showed me a clump of tiny membranes. "Here's your problem. Roots grow most in the winter. Should flush some Crystal Copper Sulfate down your stool once a month. Kills the roots before they grow to big."

Roto-Rooter man handed me a bill. He charged thirty bucks less than the plumbers. He gave me advice to stall future issues. He even wished me "Merry Christmas." And laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, down the street he drove. 

The moral of the story was all too obvious: Don't send a plumber to do Roto-Rooter's work.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Beans, Booty, and Adopting our Boys

"I'm only going to give this pitch one time," I said as our worship service commenced. "I don't want to abuse the platform. But I wanted everyone to know that Liz and I are selling freshly roasted coffee beans. I've set a few jars on the back table. They should be good for the next few weeks. Three dollars from every jar goes toward our adoption."

After the announcement my friend Micah commented to Liz, "I didn't know Tim was such a salesman."

I'm not, but every container of coffee was claimed. This was our first stab at fundraising as we wait to adopt a sibling pair from Ethiopia. We've been roasting for four weeks, waiting for eight months.

Selling beans has proven profitable. The math is simple:  $4 (beans) + $3 (donation) + $1 (refundable jar) = $8.  In a month, we've grossed $102. People from our church have rallied around us. One man only makes payments of $11. As an added bonus, the product never goes to waste. We either turn leftovers into gifts or breakfast. And the branding process--it's called the Fuller House Roast--has incorporated the artistic talents of our biological daughters.

In addition to weekly payouts from coffee sales, Liz and I received an early Christmas gift from a stellar couple in our church. They pointed to a box beneath our tree. "Get your present."

Margot couldn't lift it herself. We helped her raise it to the couch. Curious, we opened the card: "Thanks for being part of our marriage the past two years. We love the Sprankles and can't wait to love their "Fuller House."

Inside the box was a collection of gold coins and confetti. Liz teared up. I shook my head. The offering reflected a year's worth of love for us. A dollar here. Clink. A dollar there. Clink. Adoption booty.

We spread the green and red confetti on our Christmas tree; we put the booty in our bank. For the boys...we wait.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Pastor Finally Confesses Laziness

I'm tired of being lazy. I figured if I told enough people about it, the confession might prove motivational. I mentioned it as a problem during Sunday's sermon--I hadn't taken the time to think of anything else to say. Exposing my personal flaws is much easier than biblical exegesis.

Now is the hard work of doing hard work. Mind you, "hard" is a relative term. I can read a book for hours. I can write emails and post blogs like a canon fires. I can consume calories and spit out questions like four-year old boy.

Hard work for me is making phone calls and planning meetings and sending letters and setting organizational goals and communicating organizational goals and evaluating organizational goals (and many other phrases that include the words "organizational" and "goals"). I'm still exhausted from organizing a shelf in my closet on Saturday because I'd made it a goal.

But I'm not ready to lay down and accept my indolence as a mere quirk of personality. God demands more from me. He wants me to put the shopping cart in the corral, put folded laundry in the dresser, finish my book, clarify my point, pray for the lost, floss my teeth, and learn the banjo.

In the end, my renewed effort to execute will expand my service for God. One gentleman from my church let me know his approval as he departed yesterday. "Great sermon, pastor," he said, his brow raised and handshake extra firm. He appreciated my self-disclosure. He's looking forward to the banjo.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Seven Things I Love about My Daughter

My eldest daughter Claire turned seven on Sunday. Becoming a father changed my life. As often as a groan about toilet paper waste and heaps of clothes on the floor, I would not trade being Claire's father for the world.

(Same with Margot, but this one's dedicated to Claire because of her birthday. I can hear the younger asking, "Did you write about me, Daddy?" And when I reply, "No," the outcry "That's not fair" would soon follow. You'll get yours when you turn six, My Dear.)

As a tribute to Claire's seventh birthday, I wanted to list seven things I love about my daughter. In no particular order...
Claire gets stylish.
  1. She learned to dress herself. There was a time when getting clothes on this child resulted in tantrums and fits suggesting mild abuse. I feared she might be stuck in flannel pajamas her whole life. Of course, the downfall of a child fond of clothing is the pricey affection for brand names.
  2. She shows bursts of independence. Whenever Claire finds me doing a task she believes she could complete, she demands an chance to help. Whether I'm holding a spatula or a circular saw, Claire thinks she can manage on her own. To date she has not lost a finger.
  3. She is just like her father. Claire does not only disbelief this notion, she rejects it. Unfortunately, her cleverness, calculated boisterousness, inability to hold a tune/remember a lyric, and penchant for narrative all reflect her father. Quite honestly, he's not a bad man to emulate. I just hope she doesn't grow into my eyebrows.
  4. She is kind. Teachers say it. Her friends say it. The cashier on aisle ten at Walmart says it. Claire shows a kindness common in quieter children, but uncommon in its constancy and selflessness.
  5. She poses good questions. Her queries reflect an understanding of God and maturing faith. She watches people and seeks to uncover their meaning. She shows an ability to read between lines and look beneath surfaces. She found her Christmas presents under our bed.
  6. She is creative. She makes up songs and stories. At times her vocabulary surprise me. While her mother and I struggle to enter Margot's Barbie marathons, Claire is at home when playing with her sister. I often pray the creative spirit will remain alive in our children as it reflects the heart of their Creator.
  7. Claire at a potty box.
  8. She is adventurous. Claire would ride a dinosaur or climb a mountain. She braves "potty boxes" and rides ahead of us on her bicycle. I expect her to board a plane some day and cross the ocean. I wouldn't be shocked if she chose to live where she landed. However, just last week she mentioned having her eye on the house across our alley. I'm okay with that scenario, too.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why I Won't Survive the Zombie Apocalypse

I searched Walmart yesterday morning for Twinkies. After hearing the report that Hostess, the preservative-laden, snack cake maker would cease operations, I figured it was time to revisit my childhood indulgence. Walmart had none to offer. Simultaneously, sales on E-Bay spiked. 
For some people, the limited good of Ding Dongs, Ho Hos, and other Hostess factory favorites spelled profit. For me, the death of Twinkies spells disaster.

While I've done very little planning for the Zombie Apocalypse, three items on my list are batteries, bottled water, and Twinkies. I can think of no other food better suited for a global pandemic. Rumor has it a box of Twinkies can last decades. If not twenty years, it could nurture a remnant of survivors as they battled Zombies and rebuilt America (or whatever country has the supply) for at least five.

But I cannot afford $25.00 a box. Black Friday deals concern me more than alien invasions or undead uprisings.

And if I'm truly honest, I'm not sure I buy all the hype of surviving the Zombie Apocalypse. The Darwinian instinct is not so strong in me. In fact, I work from a different lens altogether. If Survival of the Fittest demands stockpiling sponge cake and AAA batteries, I'm going to assume I'm created for a different end. Alkaline and corn syrup aren't the recipe for a meaningful life.

No: I'll stick to the biblical version. Glorified bodies sound more promising than undead armies. Golden streets look better than golden cakes. Of course, the new earth will not skimp on the creme filling.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

I'm a Pretty Big Deal

I spent Monday and Tuesday in meetings with guys who lead churches that could swallow mine in one gulp. They can also grow facial hair and request iPads with their administrative budget. They are visionaries, practitioners, and godly role models whose combined service in the Grace Brethren Fellowship adds up to half of a millennium. (Tom Julien tipped them over the landmark.) It is no surprise that such men do not want to see anything short of revival in our family of churches.

My contribution to the meeting was minimal. I ate my share of chocolate cake and visited the Men's Restroom more often than others. Two or three times I piped up to ask a question or provide clarification. Mostly, I listened and learned from giants.

Below is a list of takeaways. (To those who were hoping to gather information on the topics of discussion, I can only say "Sorry." What's said in the Hilton, stays in the Hilton.)

  • Christians are not supposed to set Hairy goals, but Holy ones (the 'H' in Collins' BHAG has been Christianized).
  • Either men have become better at multitasking, or they find their mobile devices more engaging than group discussion.
  • There is a Farming Model of Evangelism, which is dirtier than Friendship Evangelism.
  • Movemental is a word (even though Blogger and Microsoft Word don't acknowledge it. Nor will I add it to my dictionary). However, if you type it into YouTube, you might watch some wicked Parkour videos.
  • Spontaneous prayer movements require detailed planning and good teleconference services.
  • "Irish pubs are good places to do evangelism," says an unnamed member of our meeting. They're also a good place to buy beer.
  • Church is hard to define.
  • Canadians like to box.
  • I'm a pretty big deal.
The last takeaway became my summary response to the question I was asked several times: "Why did you go to Ohio for meetings."

"Because I'm a pretty big deal."

Humor aside: There is work to do. Our Fellowship of Churches needs us. Great and small alike.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Father Makes Urgent Plea: No More Pets!

We put our fifth fish to rest the other day. Two days after its friend passed into the watery afterlife, Jeremy Goldfish turned belly up. Cause of death was not determined: it may have been grief or too many political ads. Perhaps, for fish, death is contagious. Or, more likely, my wife and I might be culpable because we rarely cleaned the tank. (Full disclosure: Three days passed before we removed the first floating carcass.)

Of the five goldfish that have lived in our home as temporary residents (and decoration), Liz and I have purchased only one. We did so to justify our decision to keep the fish tank her younger sister bought her years ago. Every time we've moved, we taken the ten dollar tank with us, hoping some day to grace it with an aquatic pet. One fateful day Liz pulled the tank from the basement and declared, "I'm going to buy a fish." She did; it stayed alive for two days.

The second fish came as a prize at a church fall festival. Margot won it for landing a ping pong ball in a bucket. The Methodists on Main Street apparently misunderstood Jesus' metaphor of fishing for men. That fish died within weeks.

A friend gave Claire our third goldfish for a birthday present. A Barbie doll must have been too predictable. Birthday Fish survived nearly a year, but also made its way down the pipes.

The final two entered our family toward the end of summer. They were party favors from my neice's sixth birthday. Dollar Tree was having a special on Fish Bowls ($1.00 a piece, if you can believe it), and goldfish go for a dime. It costs more to feed and flush them than it does to purchase a dozen.

The good news is that the fish are gone. We've rid ourselves of the tank, too. Unfortunately, our inventory of pets remains high:
  • One hermit crab that stinks like shrimp and does nothing
  • One Tuxedo cat with a mangy coat and recurring seizures
  • One Golden Doodle (say that and try to feel manly) who jumps fences and eats anything not made of cloth or metal
We bought the dog. The rest arrived on our porch unsolicited.

This blog entry is an attempt to limit future pet purchases for the Sprankle Familly. Self-control and monthly budgets are difficult enough on their own. We don't need any more pets. We don't want a pony or a kitten or a Gila Monster or a ferret or a bunny or a chinchilla or a parrot or a baby panda.


I'm not joking.


I'm begging you.

For the love of all that's good.

No more pets as presents and prizes!

(A gift card and block of cheese would be nice.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Pastor Admits to Doing B-Work

A man in my church admitted to doing B-work on his doctoral program. He also made it to every one of his son's soccer games during his son's senior campaign. The father's priorities were clear.

The comment reminded me of a confession my wife made one day after she engaged in an all-day Barbie marathon with our youngest daughter."I'll never look back on my life and say, 'I wish I would've done more dishes when the girls were young.'"

Or folded more laundry. Or dusted more blinds.

Many older mothers likely lament missed opportunities with their children. Many older fathers likely regret staying late at work while their sons batted cleanup. Or played second doubles. Or nailed the solo in a concert performance. Or struggled with math homework.

An "A" in one area of life results in a "B-work" elsewhere. I almost dumped my to-be wife in college because Greek paradigms enticed me. And cross country races. And campus ministry. Good grades earned me a distinguished diploma. Liz has made me a better man.

The struggle for success becomes much more manageable when I determine what areas of life demand A-level attention. As a small church pastor, my weekly responsibilities range from sermon creation to counseling to curriculum development to loving neighbors to discipleship to vision-casting to directing YouTube videos to board meetings to program management to event planning to office administration to pencil-sharpening to folding bulletins to communications to teamwork to to writing blogs to equipping to ordering cheap crap from Oriental Trading.

(B-level film created by Tim Sprankle)

I am not a straight-A pastor; I don't strive to be. Business books and Andy Stanley tell me I should find what I'm best at (i.e., A-level) and find that "seat on the bus." There's only one problem: I've always had a problem sitting still.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Worshiping with Surround Sound

Our worship team often cannot hear themselves on stage. One instrument drowns out the others. The melody gets buried beneath monitor mixes and hot guitars. I don't notice from the auditorium. I'm too distracted by the children in our worship service, who provide their own surround sound.

Josh taps marker caps on the table; Tina asks him to be quiet. Ellie punctures a Styrofoam plate with a ballpoint pen; I redirect her. Annie dances in the aisle; her father helps her twirl.

This is a typical Sunday morning: lots of noise. Some static. Some symphonic. Mostly joyful.

Then Margot tugs on her mother's sleeve to present a drawing; Liz is proud.

"It's Jesus," Margot explains. "He's protecting a girl from the storm." Margot's theology is sound; her sense of proporiton has room to improve.

The same Jesus who commands storms in Margot's art is the one who invited children into his company. Children: Noisy, messy, and prone to run with scissors. Jesus loves them. Let them come.

Monday, October 8, 2012

One Body Short of Exploding

"We are on the cusp of exploding," I described to my elders at a recent meeting. "We are just one or two bodies short." We always are. We may always be.

Case and point: Saturday we scheduled a Paint and Scrub Party. We had a hallway described as "in process." Late in July a group of Operation Barnabas students put the first coat of paint on the cinder blocks. The second level of blocks was not smooth, but rough. The paint didn't take well. The students ran out of time. The hallway remained "in process" for two months afterward.

I'd hoped the Paint and Scrub Party would complete the process. No one touched the hallway. Only three bodies came to paint. They tackled the nursery--another lingering job that remains lingering.
My problem is that I tend to fuss about those who chose not to attend, rather than glory in the few who are there to serve. Reasons for not coming on a work day abound: poor communication, busy schedules, unappealing tasks, forgetfulness, laziness, and college football.

The same reasons surface when we hold hours of prayer at our church. Attendance stinks. I fuss about the absentees rather than the intercessors.

This feeling of frustration pervades most areas of ministry:
    • We need one more couple in the nursery to keep it staffed
    • We need one more teacher for children to fill the rotation
    • We need one more musician to perfect the band
    • We need one more girl to bring balance to the youth group
    • We need one more evangelist to inspire our outreach
    • We need one (or three) more names for the annual ballot

    Of course, I would be foolish to think this problem plagues only smaller churches. A recent conversation with a small group leader at a large church confessed the need for more leaders. Talks with other pastors have revealed a similar sentiment: One more body would make us better.

    The challenge lies in defining what is "better." It is not bigger. Nor is it more efficient. To employ one of Jesus' metaphors, the best churches are those that harvest. "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Pray to the Lord of the harvest, that He might raise up workers for the harvest" (Luke 10:2b).

    According to Jesus, harvesting work begins with prayer. Unfortunately, our church is one intercessor short.

    Monday, October 1, 2012

    The Underground Church Elevates Us

    "The distinctive feature of the Underground Church," wrote Richard Wurmbrand, "is its earnestness in faith." Pastor Richard Wurmbrand chronicled his experience of persecution and torture as a Romanian pastor and Christ-follower under the Communist regime in his book Tortured for Christ. His stories reach beyond personal experience, providing glimpses of the Underground Church as an exceptional expression of Jesus' Bride.

    Tortured for Christ"The members of the Underground Church don't call their organization by this name. They call themselves Christians, believers, children of God." The title, like the moniker Christian, was bestowed upon them by their opponents, Wurmbrand explained (cf. Acts 11:26 cf. 1 Pet. 4:16).

    The contrast between those who follow Jesus underground in oppressive countries versus those who follow Jesus in multiplexes and strip malls is striking. Christians in America have labels, too: Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Methodist, Pentecostal, Brethren, Baptist, and Non-denominational. Our labels didn't emerge from the mouths of accusers, but grew from marketing teams, dead theologians, and ecclesiastical publicists. The choice in affiliation, style, and programming abound in Western churches.

    Not only do we differ in the number of choices and level of freedom we have in our context, but there may be an inverse level of commitment and intensity. We squirm when a sermon reaches the thirty minute mark; those Underground sit in crammed rooms for hours. We give token offerings from our overstock; those Underground offer their first fruits. We read one-page devotionals like a spiritual vitamin; those Underground feast on the Word like starving children. We fight depression, gorge on media, showing signs of ADHD, anxiety, and over-taxed schedules; those Underground radiate simplicity and joy. (Wurmbrand wrote, "I have found truly joyful Christians only in the Bible, in the Underground Church, and in prison."

    I'm a prisoner to this reality--Consumption and Progress, Skepticism and Self--but I want to break out. May Jesus set me free. I trust He will use our brothers in sisters Underground to help.

    Monday, September 24, 2012

    My Big Mouth Offends the Masses

    It happens to the best of us: Our mouths spew out words that our minds had not yet finished processing.  They come across ill-timed, poorly phrased, and seasoned with a hint of scorn. We say things we don't mean, or think we don't mean. Then we remember that Jesus taught the words of our lips reflect the state of our heart (Matthew 15:18). Wicked hearts mutter wicked words. Gentle hearts speak sweetly. And the fool appears wise when he remains silent.

    By some combination of old jealousies, older grudges, angry eyebrows, strong metaphors, and restricted time limit, I turned an opportunity to encourage a body of Grace College students into a unplanned offense. (Did I say I have angry eyebrows?) Within an hour I was called by a local church pastor asking about my speech. By the end of the night, the chaplain had me on the phone to schedule a meeting about my message. By Sunday morning, I was exhausted, emotional, embarrassed, and sad.

    With vague detail, I confessed the situation to my church family. They are versed in my tone and furrowed brow. One man burst from his chair, rushed the pulpit, and demanded prayer for me. Later he told me, "I've never seen you so grieved before." Others asked for full disclosure, wanting the drama to give pulp to my apologetic statement. One guy shared an original poem with me, showing how we own our failures is as much a testimony to spiritual maturity as our triumphs in godliness.

    In the end, my sin allowed grace to abound through others. Would I give the same chapel message again, so that grace might abound? Certainly not. (And they won't ask me back.)

    But I'm glad grace abounded on this occasion. It helped erase the bitter aftertaste that my foot left in my mouth.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2012

    Fight Club Threatens the Future of Doughnuts

    The men from Grace Community Church (Goshen, IN) strutted into the ministerial meeting. Their chests puffed, shoulders broadened, wrists decorated with matching "Fight Club" bands, and each man carried a water bottle. They looked good. "Sexy men of God," to quote the pastor from Raising Helen. This was neither a matter of pomp or presumption; they simply showed the fruit of healthy accountability.

    Trim bodies and firm handshakes are byproducts of Grace Community's explosive Fight Club, a ministry "By Men. For men. To Reach Men." It grows from the passionate heart of lead pastor Jim Brown, who has often stated, "Reach the man; you reach the family. Reach the family; you change the city."

    Jim Brown lives the vision. His team embodies the mission. They have matching bracelets and slimmer waistlines to prove it. And they're aglow with spiritual fervor. Rumor has it that the city of Goshen has caught on. Water bottle sales in the city have skyrocketed; doughnut sales are at an all-time low.

    The interesting thing about Community Grace's transformation is its contagious nature. Three steps into the hallway of the Oceola Grace Church, and I discovered an advertisement for "Men of Valor," a ministry likened to 'basic training' for men, providing "accountability and teamwork in your spiritual and physical life." At Leesburg Grace, we shared in a seven-week growth experiment called, "Man UP." Winona Lake GBC has been wrestling with the idea of purchasing the "Fight Club" kit. (You can too for a mere $249!)

    The fervor for Fight Club-esque gatherings underscores several truths about men:
    • Passive worship services often fail to grip a man's heart; men want to participate
    • Accountability is typically too compartmentalized; men want holistic spiritual training
    • Lowered bars are easy to skip over; men want a challenge--to break their back bending or leap over a wall.
    Our ministerial meeting closed with an on-site luncheon. Pizza Hut catered. The Goshen staff did not stay for pasta and bread sticks. They departed together, and the energy in the room immediately changed. Several men rushed to the snack table and feasted on Long Johns and glazed pastries.

    Their presence inspired us to pick at fruit. Their absence enabled us to indulge on doughnuts. Next time I hope they stay for lunch. It will spare us the calories and feed further conversation.

    Tuesday, September 4, 2012

    TJ Maxx and a Brilliant Metaphor

    T.J. Maxx makes it debut in Warsaw any day now. They have a sign along IN 15, the parking lot is paved, posters adorn the windows, and a banner flies over the doorway. Coming soon!

    The signage confuses me. From all appearances, T.J. Maxx is there. I can see a building, lights on and clothing visible through the window. But no bodies. No workers. No shoppers. Just an empty building.

    So what is T.J. Maxx? A building? A brand name? An overstock of discount merchandise? Or is it something more?

    Perhaps the store is the sum total of workers and shoppers, inventory and advertising, cash registers, operating hours, and credit card consoles. Indeed: We are guilty of oversimplification when we call T.J. Maxx a discount retailer.

    We commit the same sin when we limit the definition of church to a building or a service.

    Thursday, August 30, 2012

    Community - What the American Church Should Do

              Relationships in our digital age are difficult to navigate. The technology is easy. We can screen friends, callers, and chose followers at a click of a button. It is intimacy that is elusive. Our culture has lost a sense of hospitality, trading it for home theaters and Netflix subscriptions. Reasons to leave home are in decline. Front porches have vanished. If people allowed their dogs to crap in the kitchen, we would never see our neighbors.
    And yet, hidden behind our security systems and flat screens is a God-given need to connect with others. We are created for relationship. “Male and female he created them… It is not good for man to be alone… Husband and wife…begat…begat…begat…” So goes the story of Genesis: God created us for community.
    Times of gathering must go beyond Sunday morning. We may not meet “daily” for bread-breaking and  the apostles teaching like Acts describes, but there are changes the church can make in the 21st century to reclaim community. The following ideas scratch the surface.
    1.      Movie Clubs: People love film. Some prefer a certain genre or director; others like particular actors or eras of film. Regardless of the content and style, movies should be leveraged for shared experience and rich dialogue. On several occasions I’ve participated in movie groups. They never last too long—the guy who picks the foreign film always kills it—but they give believers an opportunity to discuss their Christian worldview, eat popcorn, and share an experience they would otherwise engage in the privacy of their own home.
    2.      Pseudo-Sports Outings: Liz and I organized a Bocce Ball tournament when we lived in Phoenix. A significant portion of our church joined. We spent the entire day throwing balls around and mocking one another. I recall several meaningful discussions in between rounds. In a more recent season, Corn Hole became the flavor of the month. We found an old trophy from Goodwill that we awarded at the annual Thanksgiving bout. The pseudo-sport itself doesn’t matter (e.g., ping pong, disc golf, Risk); extended time together is important.
    3.      Table Fellowship: Family meals have disappeared. Soccer schedules and band practices have robbed families (who’ve acquiesced). Churches play a part, too, offering programs and holding meetings five nights out of the week. One of the most simple and intimate ways to create community is to invite others to the dinner table. We’ve also had friends join us for Saturday morning pancakes. You cannot help but feel intimate with others when you’re all in your pajamas. Not only does table fellowship require people to open their home, share their refrigerator, and dirty their dishes, it also reflects the heart of Jesus.
    4.      Prayer and Accountability Partners: As effective as small groups and shared events can be, there is no replacement for regular accountability. The frequency depends on the relationship. Weekly meetings may feel overwhelming; monthly meetings, too sparse. Most people benefit from guidance—a Bible reading plan and set of standard questions benefit members as long as they do not become a form of legalism. As mentioned before, accountability groups suffer when the members don’t recognize their need or show little commitment to the process.
    5.      Create Margins in Weekly Gatherings: For a while I attended a church that offered two services. One Sunday I caught sight of the schedule: Every minute was portioned out. When managing crowds and volunteer crews, efficiency is critical. However, people know when they are cogs in a machine, ushered in and out for maximum seating capacity. Community does not flourish in the sitting position; it happens in aisles and hallways and margins of time when the program ceases and the Spirit flows. The culture we’ve created allows for starting late and going long and mid-service interruptions with roaming microphones and spontaneous prayer. These margins may overcook the casserole left in the oven for Sunday lunch, but they encourage people to interact with one another when they’re sharing space.
    6.      Write Letters: Text is too instant. Email is too informal. Social media is too impersonal. Letters are intimate. Every personal, hand-written letter or card is a treasure. Several ladies in our church make their own stationary, giving their correspondence even deeper meaning.

    Tuesday, August 21, 2012

    Teaching--What the American Church Should Do?

    Bruce was on a roll; he interrupted my sermon two weeks in a row. I've given the invitation several times. His interruption was the first in five years. If these interjections continue, revival is sure to follow.

    For the church to thrive in the 21st century, she must rethink her method of teaching. Sermon is one form of instruction, but it has severe limitations. Sermons are passive, too formal, and top-heavy. Congregants walk out of Sunday morning service with weary eyes and overstuffed minds. (This, of course, assumes an exegetical message, not the religious fluff of Joel's pulpit and Joyce' podcast. Those people float out of the service from all the hot air blown up their butts.)

    For better or worse, we are living in a day and age where sermon is losing its cultural footing. All monologue is losing its audience. College lectures have moved to online forums. Secondary education has resorted to group projects and presentations, where the blind lead the blind, and passing grades abound. Journalist begin an article; readers finish it. Talk radio, political speech, and podcasts depend on instant feedback (i.e. Twitter), savvy engineering, and controversial callers. If the medium is the message, the message is loud and clear:

    Sustained listening is unsustainable in a digital culture. Speak up. Everyone has a voice.

    One caveat: Only the comedian can engage an audience for thirty-to-sixty minute slots. It is no coincidence that many "good preachers" study comedians and mimic their trade. Unfortunately, jokes about Jews and Ham sandwiches only go so far in holding one's attention. Moreover, the sermon should be more than a stream of observations and punchlines; it is an exposition of a culture and a Text.

    Now, back to the program: We were discussing how the church must change the way it teaches to maintain its audience the 21st century. We cannot pretend to be an oral culture like the Early Church (WWECD? is a bad question), but we can take on her ethos of contextualization. Below are five ideas to teach today's distracted-but-desperate-to-participate audience.

    1. Word Feasts: Get engrossed in study and discussion. Take six hours on a Saturday to journey through God's word: reading, reflecting, and asking questions. I've heard of college student meeting in coffee shops for hours with Paul's epistles and fresh baked muffins. David's Platt's church has made a program of this, called Secret Church, a tribute to persecuted believers who pour into God's word. Deep study is counter-cultural.
    2. Forums: Invite passionate people from within your church to discuss topics and concerns that make their heart race. From abortion to racism to global poverty to hermeneutics, these topics provide a springboard to a multitude of people. Invite a gifted leader to moderate the discussion and ask probing questions. This could take place in a restaurant, sanctuary, or neighbor's backyard. Diversity of opinion deepens understanding.
    3. Video: While media depersonalizes the message, it packages truth in a manner that connects with a culture enamored with entertainment. These can be simple and informative clips on YouTube. When using digital media, always invite responses. Conversation moves content.
    4. Practicum: Move the sermon to the seats and streets. Instead of pontificating about prayer for thirty minutes, provide five minutes of explanation and twenty-five minutes of practice. Instead of talking about "reaching the lost" from the pulpit, send people from the building to start conversations in the neighborhood. We must reconnect learning with practice.
    5. Catechism: As antiquated as this method of learning sounds, its strength lies in the discipline required to make doctrine second nature. Moreover, at its best, catechism is a communal practice, inviting parents and their kids or diverse congregants to recite basic truths from the Bible aloud. (Parent: Who created the heavens and the earth? Children: God created the heavens and the earth.) Ancient is the new future.
    What teaching methods will you use in coming weeks to ensure a thriving church in the 21st century?

    Wednesday, August 15, 2012

    WWECD?: A Bad Question

    I'm tired of starry-eyed revisionists who speak of the Early Church as modeling the perfect form. She didn't. The Early Church was bigoted, loose, petty, and naive. Its earliest members showed preference to those with sheared foreskins. They gave more charity to pure-blooded Jews than migrant proselytes. They broke laws and upset economies and started turf wars.

    And yet the "word of God continued to multiply" (Acts 12:24).

    The Early Church grew in spite of herself. She grew because God had a mission and chose the church for its execution. She could not die because God put His resurrection Spirit in her. It fills the church even to this day.

    But the church described in the book of Acts was not given as a mold for post-modern America. The Early Church's boldness and prayerful dependence is remarkable, but her ecclesiology is antiquated. We should not expect to gather daily for bread-breaking and apostolic teaching. Too many people are gluten intolerant. Too many miles separate brothers and sisters in Christ. Skype and Facebook cannot bridge the distance.

    Jesus launched the Early Church in a foreign land, proclaiming Christ in a foreign tongue. The apostles spoke Jesus in their context: the 1st Century Mediterranean world. Values of honor, kinship, and limited good dominated.

    Our context is different. Our native language is individualism, tolerance, consumption, and entitlement.

    What Would the Early Church Do? is the wrong question, because their doing (i.e., behavior) grew from divergent beliefs and values. Simply mimicking the form of the Early Church without understanding its culture is as ridiculous as a rural church pretending to be Willow Creek. (Bill Hybels looks bad in overalls.)

    Over the next few blog posts, I'll consider What the American Church Should Do? (WWACSD?) to join God's mission. My focus will include teaching, community, worship, discipleship, and service.

    Monday, August 13, 2012

    The Unlikely Pastor: Aloof

    "I don't know what Pastor Tim has planned. He's kind of aloof."

    My most recent critic was Rachel, a recent graduate from our youth group. She had just returned from Momentum Youth Conference with six other students, re-energized in her relationship with Jesus. Moreover, Rachel expressed a passion to "be the church" not just "go to church."

    This distinction came from speaker Francis Chan. Every Sunday their church hits the streets of San Francisco by giving, praying, feeding, and proclaiming Jesus on street corners, coffee shops, and restaurants. Our students wanted to follow suit. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a Chipotle (or human being) in Leesburg, Indiana.

    "What does "being the church" look like in our context?" we asked at our next youth group.

    The Town of Leesburg comprises approximately 300 homes. Many residents live on fixed incomes--disability, unemployment, retirement benefits, meth profits. The teens brainstormed, listing the following components of a plan: tithe money, Walmart, and knocking on doors.

    We asked more questions; I gave a few suggestions. We refined the plan: Our church would provide door-to-door grocery service, buying any one item for any family with any need (cigarettes and People magazine excluded).

    By no means was the plan perfect, but it satisfied the students' longing to move the church beyond its walls. We took their passion and gave it contours. Then we put it on the calendar: two Sundays out. Not only would we have time to gather support from our adults, but the blitz would sync perfectly with my sermon on Paul's first missionary journey (Acts 13-14) scheduled for that week.

    Two days later I left for California. The students would give the first plug for their outreach event while I attended a conference of my own. Sunday arrived. Students took front stage at our church. They shared stories of growth and speakers of note. Then Rachel sabotaged me.

    "I don't know what Pastor Tim has planned. He's kind of aloof."

    Rumors about my inability to plan had been growing over the past five years. Evidence to back up the claims abound. Ideas come easy to me; plans are overdue pregnancies. I need to surround myself with Hebrew midwives who can make my ideas breathe.

    Then again, any church that limits its vitality to pastoral initiative is certain to die. In fact, my higher aim as a pastor is not giving birth, but building a nursery. I want to create a context where the ideas of others get feet and flourish. This means giving permission rather terms of service. This means providing guidance rather than giving directives. This means empowering members rather than employing them. This means allowing for failure rather than demanding efficiency.

    And, worse case scenario, it means you might appear aloof.

    NOTE: The Care Blitz underwent further tweaking. Leesburg Grace divided into three groups for worship. A handful prayed; half listened to the sermon on Paul's first journey; half canvassed the town with care packages. We talked and prayed with many of our neighbors, and gave away 70 care packages on August 12, 2012.

    Monday, August 6, 2012

    The Unlikely Pastor: Skinny, Young, and Thoughtful

    "That's my seat," I said, pointing to the empty spot beside the widow. The couple in aisle six stood up and breathed  a sigh of relief. They had feared a four hundred pound seat hog would travel from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis with them. I was a welcomed sight: skinny and young. I even promised not to take both arm rests.

    We sat down and buckled in, and then woman turned to me and asked about my travels. "I'm returning from a pastor's conference."

    I used to shy away from exposing my vocation. Responses are varied--some people start confessing sin, others curse. This woman's response was humorous. She said, "You don't look like a pastor."

    "I don't typically travel in my clergy robes. It's not comfortable." I paused, and then added, "Are you people of the faith?"

    "Oh no," they responded in unison.

    "Would you mind if I proselytized you the entire trip?" They declined.

    For a few minutes, we traded pleasantries. We talked about family and travel. Eventually, the conversation veered back to religion.

    "I have a book I have to show you," the woman said. Her husband stood up and retrieved her purse. Buried in the bottom was a new work by Jonathan Haidt entitled, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The author is a social psychologist from the University of Virginia, who explores the group-think, tribalism, and the shortcomings of our rational minds.

    The book served as a segue to discussing political debate in a civil manner. If the recent Chik-fil-A spectacle proved anything, it is the power of our media to amplify opinions. We have the tools for anyone to give unsolicited and unfiltered commentary on issues as diverse as Freedom of Speech and Waffle Fries.

    During the flight I took a cue from Haidt's dust-jacket: I listened.  My traveling companion outlined her six big issues for the upcoming election. She argued for reform on campaign finance and education. She wanted restrictions on Wall Street and freedom for ovaries. She dreamed of a smaller carbon footprint and larger federal government.

    Occasionally, I chimed in with a question or comment. Once I affirmed my belief in the Sovereign, Creator God, who will reign in spite of Mitt Romney or Barack Obama's best campaigning efforts.

    Each time I furthered the conversation, she sang her refrain: "You don't look like a pastor."

    Finally, I asked her what a pastor looked like. She didn't know, but apparently we don't look skinny, young, or thoughtful.

    Thursday, July 26, 2012

    Poisonous Berries and Theology

    Margot wanted someone to eat one of the berries. "Then we would know if they were poisonous," she said from a tree branch. She had followed her sister and cousin up a small trunk. They were collecting fruit and nuts.


    I warned all the kids that the berries were fatal. Uncle-Daddy's word should be enough. I am educated and trustworthy guardian. Nevertheless, Margot wanted proof. She wanted to witness a death. No one from our party offered. I could see her scanning the playground for volunteers. Only first-hand experience would convince my daughter.

    The way we elevate personal experience over theology amuses me. Mom said the stove was hot, but her daughter didn't buy it until she got burned. Jesus forecast his resurrection, but Thomas didn't believe until feeling the nail holes. Pastor Dick stressed the efficacy of prayer, but member Jane didn't believe until her request was answered.

    C.S. Lewis once wrote about the difference between theology and experience using the metaphor of a map. Many a man has preferred getting lost on SR 13 than consult a map. Most people would prefer a dip in the Atlantic to a class on oceanography. Both have their place. And yet, stressed Lewis, the map was born of out years of exploration and experience. Tried and tested and refined over time.

    Theology is a map. It has been tried and tested and refined over time. It was born out of years of exploration--Abraham went and Moses wandered--and experience--Jesus arose and the Spirit descended.

    When our experience does not conform to our orthodoxy, we pit ourselves against a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). I can swallow what my Uncles and Fathers in the faith have said, or trust my five senses.

    The fruit dangles. What will you chose?

    Tuesday, July 24, 2012

    Spam and Southern Hospitality

    "On five," I instructed. We each had a fresh slice of Spam on our forks. Six of us committed to eating the mystery meat together. My wife and I were hosting Operation Barnabas students in their final week of tour.

    "One. Two..."

    "Wait," interrupted Karly. "Are we eating on One or saying Five and eating?"

    The Spam was not getting any hotter. Or fresher.

    "Five. Then we eat," I said. "And close your eyes; it might help."

    We resumed our count. "One. Two. Three. Four. Five." We bit down, but Spam does not require chewing. It slides. Several girls shuttered. One found it agreeable. We possibly changed a life this morning.

    Operation Barnabas is all about life change. Every summer they gather nearly one hundred teenagers from across the country to live as itinerant missionaries out of a big blue bus. They follow the model of Joseph, who was called Barnabas because of his great encouragement to the church (Acts. 4:36). They organize pep rallies for Jesus, animating puppets and turning shreds of paper into crucifixes. They sing and serve and eat more hot dogs than Kobayashi, all with a smile on their faces.

    Their tour leads them to different cities, churches, and host homes. Sometimes they have to sleep on the floor. Sometimes they eat Spam. It is a summer filled with memories.

    "We'll remember yours as the Spam house," Alex said. I was proud of my family for such tremendous hospitality. We might list our house on and cite Spam as an amenity. Then again, opening my home to random travelers with Spam fetishes gives me a stomach ache.

    Or perhaps I'm still reeling from breakfast.

    Friday, July 20, 2012

    Why More Adult Volunteers Should Attend Youth Conferences

    "I'm trying to teach this kid how to take notes," Nick said. He serves as the Junior High Youth Pastor at Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church. He'd gotten up from his folding chair on the second level of the EKU's Alumni Auditorium. Nearly 2000 bodies filled the room for Momentum Youth Conference, most of them were teenagers. Many did not know how to take notes.

    "Francis Chan was good," Nick admitted. "But how do you take notes on what he said?"

    Nick made a good point. I heard Francis Chan speak the previous morning. Actually, "speak" is an understatement. Francis bellows. He shakes his fits and pumps his arms. He bows to the ground and punches the floor.

    What he doesn't do is open his Bible much. He fails to fixate on a single text or story, but chases rabbits down trails and holes. He drums up excitement and makes energy, but his main point is elusive. Something about courage. Or experience. Or evangelism. Or the failures of the church. Or the flavors of In-N-Out Burger.

    Nick and I watched the students nod and laugh and raise their hands in commitment. We also noticed their notebooks were empty and their Bibles closed.

    But perhaps youth conferences are not the context for expository preaching. Perhaps they are spiritual pep rallies or religious Tea Parties. Learning the Bible is antiquated. "Live the Bible," is the cry for the Next Generation.

    Unfortunately, you cannot live what you do not know. You cannot practice the "radical life" of a disciple if you've never observed how Jesus called John and rebuked Peter and overthrew Legion and confounded Levi and subverted Pilot. For truly radical living takes the Bible seriously. Cracks it open. Takes notes. And then hits the streets.

    This is why we need more adult volunteers to attend youth conferences. Adults can help students outline the ideas of Francis Chan. They can reiterate salient points and Scripture references. They can help students become better at knowing.

    In turn, the students will inspire the adults to become better doers. Adults can ride in the wake of junior high enthusiasm. They can prove Francis Chan wrong about the church being "Head knowledge only." They can set an example in thoughtful engagement with their communities. They can live noteworthy lives, as their students observe. Bibles open. Pens ready.

    Thursday, July 12, 2012

    Flirting with Norma and Making Disciples

    Norma wanted to flirt. She greeting our youth group by calling us cute. I told her I was married, but she could have the boy beside me who wore a cool hat. His name was Wesley. He was young enough to be her great grandson.
    Wesley wears a cool hat and provides oversight. a way of preparing our students for Momentum Youth Conference--their annual, 5-day pep rally for Jesus--the youth leaders scheduled opportunities to live out the theme: UNSEEN. Jesus calls us to care for "the least of these" (Matt. 25). James defined "true religion" as caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27). So we took our students to a nursing home to play Bingo and flirt with Norma.

    I'm admittedly divided on the role of so-called mountain top experiences for teenagers (read Disservice from Momentum 2010). I've been there. I've confessed my sins. I've made my commitments. I've lit candles to seal them in wax. I've also let the fire grow dim and sinned again. We all do. 

    The spiritual high is bittersweet when we descend into the valley of daily habits and homework assignments.

    What has helped me keep perspective this year is an idea from the book Almost Christian (Oxford, 2010). The author salutes "immersion experiences" (e.g., camps, retreats, missions trips, youth conferences) for teens, as long as parents and youth leaders adequately prepare and debrief. Dean writes, "[T]hese experiences are only as good as the guidance before and debriefing after" (pg. 153).
    Most of the players use two cards to increase their odds of winning.
    Guidance Before: Last night we played Bingo with fifteen residents of Grace Village. We met a Navy vet and a retired teacher. We watched one person drool, one fall asleep, and another cheat. We flirted with Norma and shouted "B-12" so the hard of hearing could discern it.
    Caleb celebrates his birthday by giving to others.
    Debriefing After: After we return from Momentum, we will feed the homeless. We will fill their plates, hear their stories, and tell them about Jesus. They will probably complain about the food.

    Ongoing Conversations: Between these experiences, we continue to discuss how to engage with dropouts and losers, handicapped and handcuffed, outcasts and elderly. We showed them how Jesus made a life of it. We pray and hope they see.

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012

    Man UP dies...well

    When I first envisioned Man UP, the dead surrounded me. Claire and I were enjoying one of our weekend scooter rides through Oakwood Cemetery. We scanned tombstones for the name David Plaster, my college mentor. I whispered stories about the deceased in my daughter's ear.
    Every tombstone tells a story. Oakwood Cemetery

    I wanted the men of our church to hear these stories, too. Pastors and conference speakers have overplayed the metaphor of the dash--the small grammatical stroke between birth and death that constitutes life. The dash tells only part of the story. Other telling signs adorn the burial plot: flowers and flags; Bible verses and Mason marks; toy tractors and family names.

    Oakwood Cemetery is an expanding library. Five new titles arrived this week.
    The exapanding library at Oakwood Cemetery

    I sent our men off with a blank peice of paper (naked we come from the womb) and crayon. They sought out their first name or year of birth on tombstones. Williams and Fredericks outscored Timothys and Micahs forty to nothing. Fortunately, my birth coincided with Mr. Dillinger's death in 1979.
    Brian Beery forges his last name.
    After rubbing names and dates on the page, each man wrote his obituary. We returned to the chapel to share notes, sing Victory in Jesus, and pray for one another. Only Art volunteered to read his obituary. "Art Bushen was a servant who embraced joy, followed Jesus, and longed to hear God say, 'Well done.'"

    I almost heard it spoken from the heavens this morning. Perhaps Art did, too. The old man teared up. This was a fitting and good death to Man UP. The end is not so bad when resurrection looms.

    Monday, July 2, 2012

    Spinning Wheels: a ministry metaphor

    "I'm going to be productive today," I told my wife on Monday. I'd already accomplished several goals: laundry, exercise, unloading the dishwasher, watering the lawn, and making breakfast for the family. I hoped to take the momentum into my study at the church. I even cancelled a lunch so I could dedicate my attention to tasks.

    On Monday mornings I get things done. 
    • I pick up bulletins shoved under seats in our auditorium, fill in the empty blanks, and throw them into trash cans.
    • I write a weekly email to our church called "PTs Weekly Feed," which serves as a virtual reminder that I exist beyond Sunday's, and, yes, my sermon did have a point.
    • I edit the recording of the message and post it online. I take out the heresy, removed awkward pauses, and add a laugh track. Then I publish for a swelling fan base.
    • I turn in my receipts, update my expense account, and cringe at the number of milkshakes I consumed in the previous week (4).
    By lunchtime, I've worked up an appetite.

    For the rest of the week, I find myself bouncing between coffee shops and bookmarks, spinning my wheels in between. I'm trying to write a book. I'm trying to develop curriculum. I'm trying to fuel a movement. I'm trying to counsel, coach, and keep tabs on people. I'm trying to build readership and take leadership and have fellowship and play Battleship.

    My boat is sinking. My wheels are spinning. This is ministry, and I am not alone.

    I guy from my church asked me to bike to Churubusco with him a few weekends ago. He's training for a bike ride across Iowa, so I felt obliged. We drove there and back. The end point was the starting line. No real progress. We spun our wheels; the sun burnt our legs. 

    Before my neighbor left for youth camp last week, he asked me to water his plants. He told me he subscribed to my blog (Hi, Marc!), so I felt obliged. His flowers melted halfway through the week. His students' hearts did not. He spins his wheels; the grip of apathy continues to hold.

    I shot baskets with a few guys from my church yesterday. The wind picked up and made a good shot impossible. (Most of us liked the excuse!) One guy shouted at the wind to stop. I told Him Jesus did that once, and the wind obeyed. Yesterday it kept howling; we continued to miss.

    These vignettes underscore the difference between accomplishing tasks and engaging people. Checking items off a list equals progress. Americans love progress. Contrarily, nurturing the life of Jesus in people feels more like a slow climb up a gentle grade. The hamstrings burn as the wheels spin. The top of the hill brings little relief because the rider knows the road does not end at the peak. The journey continues. The horizon looms. The wheels must keep spinning.

    Tuesday, June 26, 2012

    Man UP, Cards Down

    Nine men gathered in the Fish Barn this morning to play Texas Hold 'Em. We had to explain the rules to a few of the guys. Christians used to consider playing cards a sin. Today Americans call it a sport. I'm not sure which description is more ridiculous.
    Over the course of the hour, I lost two dollars in change and confessed a few sins. Fess UP was our theme. We ate peanuts, placed bets, and received our challenge. While week five of Man UP did not boast the adventure of last week's boating accident, it did net John several bucks. Our self-proclaimed poker novice won the largest share. We called him a hustler; he never fessed up.

    Christ-followers must confess sin. Confession loosens strongholds and invites forgiveness. Christian men should not live in the darkness. Christian women should not suffer in the shadows. "We have all sinned," Paul states. The failings of our brothers should not surprise us. The sins of our sisters should come as no shock. And yet, confession is curiously absent from most Christian friendships.

    This morning we asked our men to be honest. Some unleash hell with their tongues. Others have cheated employers and deceived neighbors. One spoke about his judgmental spirit. We laid our cards on the table. We showed our hands. We banked on God's grace. Fortunately, He is rich in mercy.

    "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, NASB).

    Tuesday, June 19, 2012

    Man UP, Boat DOWN

    Man UP, a weekly gathering of Leesburg Grace men, has become my favorite hour of the week. Every Monday night I send a mass text to our group. Location, theme, and items to bring appear in the message. Men arrive early in the next morning with crust in their eyes and Bibles in their hands. They leave with a shared experience and corporate challenge. This morning they left with wet pants.

    Our rendezvous point was the Boathouse restaurant. From there we crossed a bridge and came to a pontoon boat I'd secured a few days earlier. During my crash course in boating, I couldn't help but notice the weight panel over the steering wheel: Limit 8 people OR 1060 pounds. I told the owner I was bringing eight men aboard, and our median weight eclipsed two hundred pounds. The math added up to a sinking ship. The owner assured me the figures were a suggested guideline, a golden rule.

    The men climbed aboard timidly. Dave said, "I always make boats sink." I admitted the transport might not start, for the owner had told the me the evening that he'd flooded the engine. We prayed, and boat roared to life. After a quick stop to pick up a straggler from a nearby pier, I shoved the throttle forward. The target was the center of Winona Lake, where we would enjoy some public Bible reading.

    But my plans took a sudden nose dive. We had not dispersed our more-than-1060-pound human cargo evenly. The front of the boat submerged; water rushed onto the deck. "Come to the back," someone shouted. The men cleared the bow and rushed the stern; the boat raised up. Nervous laughter filled the air.
    We proceeded with our readings. Each man bellowed a verse over the murmuring water and groaning engine. We read Mark 6:45-52 and 2 Samuel 22. A few times we had to shout, "Speak UP!" because the reader's voice did not register with enough authority. Godly men must learn to Speak UP. Finally, every man chose his favorite verse from 2 Samuel 22 and sounded his barbaric yawp.
    • The Lord is my Rock!
    • The Lord draws me out of deep waters!
    • With my God I can jump over a wall, I can rush upon an army!
    • I will call upon the Lord; He will save me from my enemies!
    • In my distress, I call upon the LORD. He hears my voice!
    The exercise was cathartic. It sealed in our hearts the belief that God cares, guards, attends, and delivers. This belief came in handy a few minutes later when the engine of the boat died.

    Monday, June 18, 2012

    Five Reasons We Do Not Finish

    I ran a marathon with blisters on my feet bursting open at mile eighteen. My socks were soaked and bloodied, but I finished. Months of training, pride, and a few loving hollers carried me through. The espresso-flavored fuel gels probably helped, too.

    Unfortunately, other ares of my life are haunted by unfinished business. I am not alone. Most of us could use a good work day to tie up some loose ends. However, before any of us becomes a finisher, it is helpful to expose reasons we do not finish.

    1. Laziness: Some people barely start something, let alone finish it. Although the laundry does not require constant attention, it does consume the better part of a day when you consider sorting, washing, drying, folding, and restocking closet shelves. The very thought of dedicating several bursts of energy to this household chore makes me glad I have a few pairs of clean underwear in my drawer.
    2. Busyness: So much of our time goes to the road, commuting from one obligation to the next, we hardly have time for a pet project. In our age, we wear busyness as a badge of honor. It goes nicely with the bags under our eyes. And by the end of the day or week, we tend to be too tired to do much more than update our status, continue our game, or watch the next show queued on our Netflix account.
    3. Distraction: Stephen King argues for a desk in the corner of a quiet room when writing. Annie Dillard opts for a cabin in the woods. In contrast, the typical venue for creation and connection is the bustling coffee shop. Espresso machines steam, friends chatter, keyboards click, and Wi-Fi streams digital distractions right before our eyes. Simply put: one cannot finish when distractions abound. As much as we laud our ability to multitask, finishing requires focus.
    4. Suffering: Once I put weeks of preparation into a speaking opportunity at a national youth conference. I carefully pitched the topic, creatively packaged my material, and prayed hard for the outcome. Five people attended; the remaining two thousand people went elsewhere. The rejection, albeit impersonal, hurt. Most of our efforts face some form of pain, both emotional and physical. Whether we are trying to reconcile a relationship, sell insurance, or complete a bike ride, success depends on our ability to endure some measure of suffering.
    5. Fear: I've heard many musicians talk about unfinished songs. They have a chorus or refrain or bridge, but they cannot tie it together. And they will not force it, for they fear they will ruin a good tune. In other words, they are afraid of failure. This fear, of course, is not unique to musicians. The world is filled with incomplete canvases and unresolved plots. A promising start is more satisfying than a weak ending. No one likes a critical review or rejection note.
    Which of these reasons is holding you back from finishing?