Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Prophetic Arrival - The sermon and Prezi

Here is what I said: The Sermon.

Here is what it looked like on the big screen.

If you have questions about prophecy in the life of Jesus, send it in the comment button. I predict I'll respond.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Unleashing the Prophet Within - Five Ways to Speak Like a Prophet

By nature, humans are predictive creatures. We forecast the weather, write out budgets, consider oil futures, and bet on players to score big in fantasy football. (My dog and fish make no such predictions; they merely replay their predictable routine--eat, poop, bark, breath, sleep--day after day.)

Indeed, humans are predictive animals, but I want something greater for God's church. I want us to be prophetic: speak for God to our fellow human. Prophetic godspeak includes prediction, but goes well beyond fortune-telling and draft pick projections.

Evangelical Christians tend to collapse the latter into the former. Recognizing this tendency, I highlighted the prophetic voice in the Christmas story yesterday.  Gospel writers, apostles, and Christ Jesus himself cite the prophetic voice of the Old Testament in their writing and preaching (e.g. 1 Peter 1:19-21). They say God's promises have been fulfilled (2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 1:1-4). 

Looking back, these authors can see what the original speaker could not: Jesus is God's Messiah.
Looking forward, however, the picture was not so clear. Hosea's prophecy (11:1) is a perfect example. 

In context, Hosea leads his people in a reflection on the past. God delivered us once from Egypt (Exodus 12-15). The covenant curses promise a future exile if we continue to disobey God (Deuteronomy 28), which we are doing! But even if we do return to Egypt, God will call us out of Egypt again (ch. 30). Thus, the prophetic force of Hosea spoke words of rebuke and comfort to the people of his day.

Ultimately, all prophecy serves as a word from God to the people of the day.
When Paul encourages the gift of prophecy for the church (1 Corinthians 14; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21), he envisions the people of God proclaiming the word of God to all people. We've lost that sense of the prophetic--the word that edifies, exhorts, and consoles--instead reducing God's Word to a printed version of an ancient text.

But God still speaks today. His word is living and active (Hebrews 4). It comes alive in preaching, counseling, teaching, (blogging?), and spiritually sensitive conversations. And here are Five Ways to Unleash Your Prophetic Voice:

  1. Pray for a Word: In his magnificent book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer tells his readers between every human relationships stands Jesus. He intercedes for us. To speak a prophetic word of admonishment, we should ask Jesus to give it to us.
  2. Meditate on the Story: The Old Testament prophets immersed themselves in the saving acts of God. They thought about it, sang about it, and, naturally, talked about it. Their prophetic voice emerged from a strong historical consciousness. Make an effort to retell mighty acts of God.
  3. Memorize God's Word: The prophetic voice always speaks in concert with itself. When we memorize passages and ideas from Scripture, God may bring them to our minds at the proper time. Who knows when you might need to say to someone, "Be still and know He is God"?
  4. Consult with Other Prophets: Find people who evidence a close walk with God. These people are listeners. Their words carry weight. They pray without ceasing. Like Elisha to Elijah, become a prophet-in-training, so you can take their mantel when the time comes.
  5. Open Your Eyes to Animate Your Lips: The prophets were not only historians, they were story-tellers, poets, bards, and thespians. They inhaled the riches of God's creation and breathed them out as fresh metaphors. The hope and criticism in their sermons was intensified by what imagery inspired them: sheep and shepherds, bones and blood, vines and branches, brides and whores. Take note of the world: what grabs your attention may serve as a prophetic word to another.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Unleashing the Poet Within - Five Tips to Spark Poetic Creativity

This Christmas I'm taking a cue from characters in the Nativity Story. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon each bring a poetic voice to the birth of Christ.

Mary's poem, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) rejoices in God's ability to reverse the fortunes of His servant. She spoke the prayer after six months of bearing the Christ-child.

Zechariah's poem, the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), blesses God, remembering His promises and looking forward to His redemption. He spoke the prayer after nine-months of waiting for the birth of his prophet-child.

Simeon's prayer, the Nunc Dimittus (Luke 2:29-32), expresses Simeon's relief at God's salvation. He spoke the prayer after decades of waiting for God's promised Messiah. God had told him he would not die until he laid eyes on His Anointed.

I would argue these poems did not spring from the authors' lips spontaneously. Rather, these were carefully crafted reflections on the nature and mission of God. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon displayed a poetic theology, answering C.S. Lewis's essay question, "Is Theology Poetry?" long before it was raised. Indeed, humans are "poetic animals," as Lewis' stated.

I would further argue our aching and amused world does not need more spontaneous expressions of Christian praise, but more poetic voices. Christians must learn to unleash their inner poet. We are, in fact, wired for poetic expression, as divine image-bearers. God spoke poetically to Job and Isaiah. He spoke poetically through Solomon, David, and Moses. Even Jesus's sermons and Paul's epistles were laced with poetry. We can speak poetically, too.

While I do not assume I can convince someone she is poetic, I will, at least, provide the courtesy of five poetic tips to living a more poetic life.

  1. Start. Get a writing instrument and go. Don't worry about its quality or completion. Some poems aren't worthy of a conclusion. But you'll never improve if you don't begin. 
  2. Set strict limits. Start with a known form, like Haiku, chiaism, or acrostic. Boundaries do not restrict creativity, but focus it. Another way to set limits is to use a timer (e.g. 5 minutes) and write as many words and phrases for a given topic (e.g. snowfall) in the allotted time. You can come back later and fashion the pieces into poetry.
  3. Forget rhyming. The definition of poetry (whatever one you chose) does not include rhyming. Figures of speech, imagery, honesty, and rhythm are more important to good poetry.
  4. Choose topics that interest you. Write about your passions. Write about your experiences. Don't wax poetically about slave trade only because it's a trend. Don't write about scars you don't bear. Your initial inspirations should be personal.
  5. Turn your emotions into an image. Poetry makes abstract matters concrete. Pick a normal emotion like rage and describe it in action. My fists pounds the wall / my eyes flash red. Then play the action out to its end.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Sins of Speech OR Otherwise I'd Brag

Sins of speech come in many forms: gossip, slander, rumors, abuse, cursing, and deceit. Other ways of erring with the tongue often go unaddressed-- sarcasm, criticism, pessimism, teasing, and taunting.

The book of Proverbs takes pains to expose sins of speech. No less than forty references prohibit deceit or encourage honesty. For a sampling, see:  

Proverbs 6:16-19; 8:6-9, 12-14; 10:6, 14, 18-21, 31-32; 11:11-13; 12:6, 13-14, 18, 25; 13:2-3, 5, 16; 14:3, 5, 25; 15:1-2, 4, 7, 23, 28; 16:10, 13, 24; 17:4, 7, 20, 27-28; 189:4, 6-8, 13, 20-21; 19:1, 5, 9; 20:18-19, 25; 21:23; 22:11; 23:15-16; 24:7-9, 26; 25:10-11, 14, 24; 26:4, 28; 27:14; 29:5; 30:5-6, 10, 14; 31:26

In a culture predating digital media and written contracts, honest speech was central to ancient Israel. Her word served as her guarantee. A broken word upset relationships--familial, business, and social.

In our brave new world, we would do wisely to heed the Bible's speech ethic (Shut up! Speak slowly! Say something nice!). It's too easy not to filter speech from behind a screen; anyone sound STRONG in CAPS LOCKS. It's too easy to manipulate our posts so our online persona is no more than an avatar; anyone can sound spiritual when requesting prayer on Facebook. We  must be aware of the most subtle and widespread word-sins: impression management.

John Ortberg describes this in his book, The Life You've Always Wanted (p. 169):
If we take notice, we will see that a vast amount of what we say generally includes a great deal of impression management. For instance, if we tell someone about a television program, we may preface our report with a disclaimer: “I don’t watch much TV, but the other night…”
This is merely an exercise in impression management. We do it because if  we don’t, the listener might think we just sit around eating bon bons and watching sitcoms.

If we being to listen for these kinds of comments, we will discover that attempting to control the way others think of us is one of the primary uses we put words to in contemporary society. Human conversation is largely an endless attempt to convince others that we are more assertive or clever or gentle or successful than they might think if we did not carefully educate them.

My words aim to impress more often than I'd like to admit. It motivates a fair share of my blogging, tweeting, teaching and preaching. This, I suppose, is why few should teach (James 3:1). My judgement is more severe. I must give an account for my words--a tool I take pride in wielding--otherwise I'd brag.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hard Work from behind the Desk

Full disclosure: If I weren't writing this blog right now, I'd be reading online articles about the Cleveland Browns. Or I'd be striking a horizontal position on the futon next to me. I want sleep. I want to slack. It's the perennial, post-lunch problem for solo pastors and desk jockeys.

But I cannot sleep or slack today because I preached against sloth on Sunday. Solmon's advice echoes in my ear: Go the ant; see how they work hard! (Proverbs 6:6-11). Or maybe that's just the sound of Judy Rogers.

Proverbs forced me to look my sloth in the face. I know churches that require their pastors to work 50-55 hours a week. According to a recent Gallup Poll, the average work-week in America is 47. I can't compete with these pastors. My typical work week rarely eclipses 45 hours. In this case, though, I'm happily below average.

For more on sloth and the Christian life, see the notes:

What drives me is not hours invested, but impact.
  • Does the time I spend in sermon preparation simply organize thoughts, or does it edify people? 
  • Does my leadership simply ensure tasks are done, or does it empower and equip people? 
  • Do my short and long-range plans simply fill the calendar, or do they position our church to give witness to the wonderful love of Jesus? 
  • Do God and my church need 50+ hours in clerical robes to maximize my impact?
  • Do the short-term gains of busyness justify the long-term loss of energy and exuberance?

These are tough questions to consider. Too tough. I think I'll take that nap after all.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Sex Talk in Church

I talked about sex in church yesterday. I felt great about the sermon until an eight-year old boy walked in. He had dismissed himself from the children's class and plopped next to his father. The whole church tightened up when he entered the auditorium. I stuttered for a minute, finding user-friendly synonyms for words like "harlot" and "prostitute." The phrase "hanky panky" came in handy for the last ten minutes.

Proverbs 5:1-23 was our primary text. Solomon discussed sex with his son often in Proverbs (2:16; 6:12ff; 7:1-27). Considering he had 300 wives and 700 concubines, it's no surprise the topic was on his mind. His advice on sex falls in two categories. Negatively, he prohibits casual sex. Positively, he promotes covenant sex.

This teaching remains consistent throughout the Bible. Sex is not a bad word. In the right context it is a great word and a great thing. The right context is NOT the college dorm room, your parent's basement, Internet chatrooms, pornography, hotels rooms with prostitutes, or your neighbor's bedroom. Casual sex, Solomon warns (and modern authors like Laura Sessions Stepp), ruins you with regret and a sense of isolation. Don't be seduced by casual sex!

According to Scripture, the right context is wherever you and YOUR SPOUSE agree to enjoy a shameless act of intimacy. Well, perhaps wherever is a little too broad. Stay out of my house. My wife and I have claimed it!

(NOTE: I tried to embed the Prezi, but the code didn't work. Here's a link.)

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Slow Clap and a Culture of Celebration

October is Pastors' Appreciation Month. You could've fooled me: I thought every month was Pastors' Appreciation Month. At least once every Sunday I hear, "Good sermon pastor." I'm not always convinced they heard the sermon that issued from my lips, but I'll take the attaboy. I've never doubted the people at Leesburg Grace Brethren Church appreciated me.

Yesterday, however, my church took moment to recognize me and my wife publicly for our God-honoring service, Christ-like humility, awe-inspiring creativity, and thought-provoking sermons. They didn't use these words exactly, but I interpreted. What the president of our board did do was hand us a Halmark card with a check, and say, "We're grateful for all you do."

Then he added the exclamation point. He initiated the Slow Clap.

The whole church put its hands together. Slowly. Then faster. And faster. The clap climaxed in outright applause. There is no greater way to appreciate someone than to offer the Slow Clap.

My wife and I became a huge fan of the Slow Clap a few years ago. We had grown weary of the high five, fist pump, and butt slap. Some of these gestures spread germs. At least one of these gestures is inappropriate across genders or for non-family members. (I would never high five my neighbor's wife!)

The Slow Clap, however, transcends setting (try it at concerts, graduation speeches, funerals), does not discriminate (old people and children love it), and invites participation (by definition, no one slow claps alone). We started slow clapping for our children and dinner guests at supper time. We started slow clapping for extended family for their moments of self-discovery or triumph. We started slow clapping for friends after a bit of good news.

Eventually the Slow Clap made its way into our church. We slow clapped for answered prayer. We slow clapped for youth group testimonies. We slow clapped for our beloved Diana Davis - 70-year old retired missionary to CAR - coming into our worship service fifteen minutes late. The Slow Clap started slowly at our church, but it has spread like wildfire. The spark is in any hand willing to start a celebration. In our church, there are many.

I am glad for the culture I have helped shape: a culture of celebration. It almost makes me want to...



Clap.    Clap.
Clap.    Clap.    Clap.
Clap.  Clap.  Clap.Clap.Clap.CLAP.CLAPPPPPPPP.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Seven Reasons for Attractional Outreach Events

How do we respond to the demise of Christendom? The question haunts me.

I've searched the Church Leadership books for a prescription. They've suggested slowing down (e.g., Slow Church), creating missional communities (e.g., Everyday Church), and rediscovering our neighborhoods (e.g., The New Parrish). None of these authors promotes "attractional outreach events" -- a wordy way of saying, activities that entice people to come to your church building.

Unfortuantely, I was raised and trained on the method of mass entertainment. Living Christmas Trees and Vacation Bible Schools brought my family to church. Fall Festivals and Wild Game Feeds have knit our church together in service.

I will not abandon attractional outreach events. Not yet. Below I make my case:
  1. Attractional outreach keep Oriental Trading in business. Who else will buy 100 plastic off brand Slinkies embossed with crosses? What other occasion justifies the purchase of 50 paddle balls stamped with the phrase "Jesus saves"?
  2. Attractional outreach events promote big volunteerism. As much as we want everyone to serve as a mentor, tutor, or spiritual friend, we can at least feel good that large groups of people will move chairs, donate baked goods, and distribute candy.
  3. Attractional outreach events integrate different social classes. While the average church goer may not brave a homeless shelter, jail cell, or trailer park, when a church advertises free gas cards, sweatshirts, and entertainment, the "least of these" is sure to show up with open hands.
  4. Attractional outreach events direct money outside the walls of the church. Well, technically speaking, if the event is attractional, the money stays within the church walls, but its target audience is outsiders. And, for the record, at an attractional event these people are not referred to as "these people," "outsiders," or the "the least of these." They are called "unchurched" or "prospective members."
  5. Attractional outreach events encourage church members to invite others. Apparently, most congregants subscribe to a belief that friends and family do not need corporate worship, spiritual community, and preaching. They need chili and bluegrass music. We are better at selling a good time than God.
  6. Attractional outreach events employ pastors. As most of us know, pastors only work on Sundays. Two or three times a year, I schedule an outreach event on a Friday or Saturday to give the impression that my work responsibilities go exceed Sundays. 
  7. Attractional outreach events reflect Jesus' ministry practice. The Son of Man did not exclusively work big miracles in big crowds, but He did feed five thousand, four thousand, and preach to masses. Perhaps Jesus preferred the slower, smaller, more local forms of reaching people, but He did not altogether avoid crowd-pleasing moments.
Most of this list is tongue-in-cheek. It comes off the heels of our annual Fall Festival in Leesburg. I'm still feeling the warm glow of our largest attractional outreach event of the year. To the best of my knowledge, the Fall Festival has not resulted in a single conversion, new attendee, or moment of discovery for a serving member in my congregation.But the event is fun. It blesses the community. And it gives our church family a point of contact with our community.

Perhaps some day our neighbors in Leesburg will invite us to hide Easter Eggs in their living rooms and cook hotdogs in their backyards. Until then, we'll invite them to our lawn.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Our Adoption Story - Nine Years in the Making

My wife Liz and I have two beautiful daughters. Claire and Margot came into the world through tremendous labor pains; more than twenty-four hours each. For the second birth, we attempted a home delivery, but after a full day of contractions with no progress, the midwife took us to the local hospital. The doctor prescribed an emergency Cesarean birth. My wife’s uterine wall was seriously bruised; the contractions were not pushing baby the baby down, but merely battering the womb. 

Both Liz and baby Margot came out of the surgery healthy, but my wife felt timid about having any more children.

A few years passed and the desire to expand our family flared up again. However, the scars of previous pregnancies lingered. We diverted our energies by caring for the swarm of underprivileged children living in our neighborhood. We invited them into our home, fed them, provided a safe place to interact with our own kids. Eventually, the longing for a larger family and the care to the local ruffians led to discussions about foster care. We talked to friends about their experience fostering several kids, but after weighing the age of our daughters, governmental hoops, and transient nature of many foster relationships, we decided against pursuing it.

Another year passed and talks of expanding our family had subsided. Liz and I grew comfortable with our rhythm. Both our daughters had outgrown diapers and begun schooling. (They could even pour their own cereal!) I began the year reading the books A Hole in Our Gospel and Radical. Toward the end of winter, I woke up in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep. I slipped downstairs and read for two hours about poverty, disease, unclean water, HIV/AIDS, and the growing number of fatherless children in Africa. I felt something akin to the birth pangs my wife had experienced four years earlier. I knew I had to do something about it.

The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?  - Slightly Imperfect  -     By: Richard Stearns

A few nights later, my wife and I watched a movie called The Constant Gardner. The film exposes the gross, medical disadvantage African people experience. One particular scene in the movie shows a child boarding a plane to leave the country. She is told she cannot go. The protagonist, Justin Quayle, argues with the pilot, who glibly responds, “I cannot make an exception for one child.”

“But for THIS child, we can help,” Quayle says.

Tears flowed down my wife’s face and mine.

Conversations about expanding our family resumed. Liz had been thinking about adopting for several weeks. As had I. Every time Liz prayed about it, she envisioned Africa. Another congruence. God was stirring us, but we wanted to be certain. During the Lent season in 2011, we fasted and prayed, begging God to make His will clear.

Within a week, He made the path luminous. We met a random family at one of our local parks whose adoptive son Jacob shared his story with us. One of my wife’s co-worker told of a recent homecoming from Ethiopia--they brought two boys with them. We discovered a network of adoptive families in our small town of Warsaw (IN). We arranged dinners and discussions. We talked with family and friends. Feedback was overwhelmingly favorable.

By the end of Lent, Liz and I agreed to move forward with our intentions to adopt. Over the course of the summer, we researched various agencies and open countries. In August we applied to the Ethiopia Program with Children’s Hope International (St. Louis, MO). After being approved, we completed our homestudy, dossier, and educational work.

Since then two years has passed. We’ve waited patiently and prayed. We’ve waited patiently and read. We’ve waited patiently and raised funds. We’ve waited patiently and crept up the waiting list.

Our plan to wait patiently, however, was interrupted in August 2014 by a friend who sent us a text message about an Ethiopian boy on a Waiting Child List. We spent a month considering the 5-year old boy’s file: he was quiet, physically challenged, and cognitively delayed. We could not keep ourselves from loving him. So in September 2014 we agreed to pursue the adoption.

Now we wait impatiently and pray. We wait impatiently and update paperwork. We wait impatiently and raise funds. We wait impatiently until we can bring our son home.

To stay current with fundraising efforts, please visit: 


Monday, October 6, 2014

The Invention of Wise Guy

I invented Wise Guy to serve as the spokesman for my current sermon series in the Proverbs. He shares an uncanny resemblance to me - facial hair and gray mop excluded. But he fashions himself after Uncle Sam and King Solomon.

Every Sunday I welcome Wise Guy into our worship service. He visits us via satellite (or Ethernet) to answer a pressing question. I'm harvesting inquires from my congregation because I value participation and my creativity has limits.

So far we've asked Wise Guy about selfies, making friends, finding lost things, and error codes on the computer. More questions are in the queue:
  • What do I do about a pesky neighbor?
  • What do I say to a husband who has gotten carried away with Rock Band and cannot sing?
  • How do I get my kids to clean their rooms?

Wise Guy dispenses unconventional wisdom. His answers are not always orthodox or predictable; Bible verses do not attend his counsel. He tends to digress into "when I was a boy" stories or political rants - something directly tied to advanced ages.

And yet, I treasure Wise Guy's partnership in preaching. For Wise Guy gives the people at my church something to laugh about before we dive into ancient Hebrew instruction. This is good: for laughter is tasty medicine (Proverbs 17:22).

Monday, September 29, 2014

Flies and a Side of Fries with Eugene Peterson - My Sabbath Week

The Tamarck Brewery was abuzz. Chatty patrons filled the dining room. The clatter of plates and forks and pints of beer resounded. Nineties music blared from the speakers. A hungry band of flies wandered from table to table seeking whom they might devour. Several swirled around Eugene Peterson's brow. He attracted more flies than the ordinary man.

Tamarack Brewery at Night

Eugene had chosen a table in the far corner of the restaurant. We may have sat outside, but the rain prevented us. As we looked through the menu, Micah informed Eugene he need not worry about covering the bill.

"This is not usually what happens," Eugene demurred. "Traditionally people come out to visit me and talk about how difficult ministry is. Then I buy them lunch."

"I hope you don't mind if we break tradition," I said. Eugene smiled.

Again, that lucky feeling swept over me. Not only was I about to break bread with one of my favorite authors, but his comment reassured me I was in the right vocation. To love pastoral ministry is a gift. To lead a church that inspires me rather than depletes me is a lucky aberration.

But my luck was about to change. Toward the end of our meal, I asked one bad question, and Eugene Peterson chided me. I was stunned. Silent. Convinced that Eugene Peterson preferred Micah's company to mine. (Surely the humble carpenter reminded him more of Jesus than the haughty clergyman.)

The waitress returned, and we placed our orders. Eugene requested a bowl of split pea soup and draft of Hat Trick IPA. "The drinks are named after hockey terms," Eugene said. We had to tell him what a hat trick was.

I ordered a turkey sandwich and Yard Sale Amber. None of us knew the connection between yard sales and hockey. Micah ordered a burger with seasoned fries. His gluten-free diet prohibited him from ordering a beer. It also kept him from the fries. Eugene and I helped ourselves.

The conversation returned to ministry burnout and the growing number of pastors leading large, high-octane churches whose ministries come to a crashing finale. Eugene did not cite moral failure as the common factor, but the restless pace and programming of the mega-church. At these venues,  Sunday mornings do not slowly advance in the same direction. They escalate. More emphatic sermon series, more emotive songs, more audacious outreach ministries -- higher and bolder churches become. Eventually, pastoral leaders fall off the cliff. People in the congregation are not far behind. The interior life of too many pastors, Eugene lamented, is vaporous.

Later in our conversation, we talked about ambition and fame. I explained an epiphany about my writing life. The pressure I used to place on myself to write regularly and with intentions to publish had created unnecessary guilt. Sermon preparation, lesson planning, lunch meetings, and church gatherings took the better part of my week, but I always felt like I should carve out time to write. Wake up early and write. Go to bed late because I wrote. Skip lunch to write. But I could never sustain the plan.

However, if I viewed the next ten to twenty years as a developmental stage, I was sure to have rich resources. Biblical study and insight, personal anecdotes and experiences, and countless interactions with God's people would abound. I would have plenty to draw from and expand upon in book form. Better yet, the plan was guilt-free and sustainable.

Eugene Peterson's writing career had followed a similar path. His books flowed from his pastoral opportunities and insights. His titles about pastoral leadership came out of years of conversations with other pastors. His series on spiritual theology addressed the questions and concerns he gathered from students, colleagues, and congregants. His poetry came from years of walking in the woods.

Micah asked Eugene about fame. "Are you well-known around here?"

Eugene glanced around the restaurant and said, "Nobody here knows me."

"Is that difficult?" I asked.

By way of analogy, he told us no. What cured him of his need to be known was a walking tour of Galilee. He bypassed the larger towns -- those stamped with Roman wealth -- and camped out in Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida. These less populated cities marked Jesus' primary place of ministry. The Christ who "became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (John 1:14, the Message) was more obscure than we give him credit for. Obscurity was no concern for Eugene Peterson.
Our conversation continued to roll through lunch. And then I asked my fated question. "Perhaps this is a bad question, but would you consider yourself more of a 'This-is-the-day-that-the-Lord-has-made' or 'Come-Lord-Jesus' kind of Christian."
With no hesitation, Eugene replied, "This is the day."

The question was not too bad, but neither was it good. His quick and certain response provoked me to ask another. It was the next question that undid my luck.

"Do you think most Christians are of the 'Come-Lord-Jesus' kind?"

This time Eugene did hesitate. He pressed his lips together, concealing his smile in a serious gaze. After a long pause, he said, "I prefer not use stereotypes; I don't find them helpful."

I could feel my face get hot. I was rattled.

He continued, "I'm often surprised by the spiritual depth that people show. I find that most people wrestle with God and the real issues of life."

He said no more. Nor did I. Eugene Peterson had just chided me, and I was not sure why. Perhaps I had come across arrogant. Perhaps I had tried to create a special category of super saints, in which Eugene Peterson and I could co-reign.  Perhaps this was a demon he had fought for decades. Perhaps I had touched on a fear he had about other people, and after fifty years of pastoral ministry was afraid to admit defeat. Perhaps it was just a bad question.

At that moment, I was relieved to have my buddy Micah with me. I reached for one of his fries. I waited for him to resurrect our dialogue. He let me pick at his plate and regain my composure. I heard Runaway Train playing in the background; I wanted to board. I counted flies around Eugene Peterson's head; I noticed the glow was gone. Perhaps it was never there.

I eventually returned to the conversation. I don't remember much toward the end. As promised, Micah paid the bill. As promised, Eugene gifted us each a book of poetry and a copy of The Message for my aunts.

We parted in the parking lot. Eugene headed south; Micah and I turned toward the mountains. We had some climbing to do. And I was longing for a mountaintop experience.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Lucky Conversation with Eugene Peterson - My Sabbath Week

Our time at the Eugene Peterson's home was remarkably ordinary. We talked and laughed and smiled and answered questions. There were pauses and tangents and stories of note. At one point I asked permission to use the restroom. At another point Gene slipped away to discuss something with his wife Jan. But for the better part of an hour and a half, we enjoyed a conversation. Micah and I were lucky strangers in Eugene Peterson's humble home.

He had helped build the modest house with his father. It had walls and windows, family photos and handmade furniture, Christian books and artwork, a fireplace, a sofa, and several chairs. Silver and gold were not on display. He lived simply, quelling my fear that the man behind The Message, The Jesus Way, and The Pastor might dwell like a king.

We exchanged greetings at the door. I told him my name and shook his hand. Micah followed suit. Then our host welcomed us inside. I watched his feet shuffle as he ushered us into the living room. I listened to his voice crackle as he talked. He appeared fragile. The years had been kind to the eighty-two year old pastor/author, but even kindness has a mortality rate.

"You'll have to remind me. Where are you from?" he asked after we took our seats.

"We're from Indiana," we said.

"I don't know anyone from Indiana," Eugene said, smiling as if he had discovered treasure. The glow from the window behind him created a halo around his head.

I felt the stakes rise. Not only did I want Saint Eugene to like me, but I also wanted him to remember me as the God's ambassador from Indiana.

"What brings you to see me?" he asked.

I replayed the story of my wife's birthday gift, my love for his writing, my appreciation for his view of God's word and our world, and my shared frustration with pop evangelicalism. "Your respect for people, and love for story and language - each of these emphases resonate with me in my pastoral ministry."

"Well, I thought we could sit here for an hour or so and get acquainted. Then we can continue our conversation over lunch at the Tamarack Brewery."

Micah and I consented to the plan. We began to share about our lives: family, career, faith. Eugene gave us a brief biography, spanning from doctoral studies to church planting to scholar-in-residence to academia to translation of The Message and various other writing projects. His latest work was a book of poetry entitled Holy Luck.

The word lucky played a special part in Peterson's career. When he first endeavored to translate the whole New Testament into common English, he began with Matthew. (He had already paraphrased Galatians for his church, which provoked a publisher to inquire about the rest of the Bible.)

"The first four chapters of Matthew were wooden, difficult. I hadn't found my voice. I was ready to quit," he recounted. "One Sunday I was at church and a woman who was new to church life came up to me and said, 'I feel so lucky that I get to be here.' She said the same thing week after week. 'I feel so lucky. I feel so lucky.' Then I knew I could translate the Sermon on the Mount. I went to my basement and started on the beatitudes. I wrote, 'Lucky are the...'"

Although the editor discouraged the translation (for luck was the devil's business, God dealt in certainties), Eugene had found his voice in simple exclamation of a woman in his congregation.

I told Eugene that I felt lucky. "I love my church. I love the people. I love to preach and teach God's word. I hope to be there for a long time. I feel so lucky." Micah shared the sentiment. He loved working in beautiful homes, putting up fine trim. He loved his wife and kids and neighborhood. We were two lucky friends.

Eugene shook his head. "I can't tell you how encouraging it is to hear that you both like your jobs and your place in life. The majority of people who come to see me are depressed, burned out, or looking for an escape."

"How often do people come to see you?" I asked.

"Two or three times a week. Some come for a short visit like you. Some stay over night."

The statistics of pastoral burnout have always surprised me. Across the country, churches close daily. Pastors quit, get fired, or transfer to churches where they suppose a fresh start will revive their spirits. Most of Eugene Peterson's conversations take place with unlucky pastors. I simultaneously felt burdened and blessed.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Our Gay Old Time - My Sabbath Week

I had a gay old time traversing the country with my pal Micah - the two of us tucked away neatly in a blue Prius. We drove with smiles plastered to our faces, giddy for the gas mileage, unfettered from the worries of daily life.

However, there was one worry that continued to crop up at many a fuel stop, camp site, and scenic detour: I feared people took us for a gay couple. Two guys grinning in a Prius is all the evidence our world needs to presume homosexuality. It didn't help our case that I packed my sleeping bag in a pink, Disney princess sack.
The modern age has trained us to think gay. Television series and episodes cannot seem to air without a gay character, couple, or plot line. Celebrities and athletes boost their endorsements by confessing their homosexual orientation. Gay marriage has gained traction nationally. The marketing strategy of the LGBT has been so effective, many teenagers today wrestle with their own sexual identity. While decades ago teens simply struggled to understand their raging hormones, they now must filter their sexual impulses through what appears to be three possibilities: straight, gay, bisexual.

It's no secret that sex sells in our culture. We are sexual beings. But the menu for sexuality has changed dramatically in recent decades. Homosexuality used to show up as a seasonal dish; now it's a main course.

Micah and I joked about how people might perceive us. I made an effort when talking to strangers to mention our wives and kids. Micah restrained himself from holding my hand. We only posed together for two pictures. We only shared a bed once and not in the Honeymoon Sweet at the Overlook Bed and Breakfast. There were ordered separate mattresses and ignored the sign telling us to bathe with a friend.

Ironically, one of the richest parts of our gay old time was a visit with my aunt and her partner in Big Fork, Montana. We stayed with Aunt Ann and Melissa the night before our meeting with Eugene Peterson. I informed Micah of their living arrangements. While their lesbian lifestyle was never mentioned aloud during my upbringing, it was no secret that Aunt Ann and Melissa were a couple. In my conservative family, they were described as "special friends."

The town of Big Fork is situated on the north eastern corner of Flathead Lake. The area is flamboyantly conservative: Tea Party representatives, Ten Commandments signs, and independent evangelical churches abound.  My gay aunt and her partner routinely drive past religious billboards and icons, confronted on every street corner by pop evangelicalism. They've grown convinced that Christians in their area are insecure, but they only know them from a distance.

Micah and I talked with my Aunt Ann and Melissa over dinner. They asked about Eugene Peterson. They had Googled him, but were more interested in my intrigue with the man. I praised his writing, his ability to draw connections from the biblical world to ours, and his opus: The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language.

"Eugene did not want people to view the Bible as if God spoke in exalted, spiritual language," I explained. "The Message shows God speaks to the common person in a common tongue."

We continued to discuss spiritual matters with my aunts (as I came to call them, my love for them as people outgrowing my dislike for homosexuality as a practice). We defined what a Christian is, and Ten Commandment billboards did not make the essentials list. Rather, Jesus is central: His forgiveness, sacrifice, resurrection, and invitation to follow Him. "I mess up all the time," Micah said, admitting his orientation toward sin and failure. "But I know God forgives me and accepts me because of Jesus."

We discussed the true meaning of "born again," pointing to Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus (John 3). I stressed the need for God's intervention in our lives; self-help projects do not merit eternal life. Nor do certain labels for certain types of Christians. 
And we listened to criticisms about hypocrisy in the church. My aunt told us her departure from Methodism came after realizing the people attended for social purposes, not spiritual ones.

The conversation ensued the following day. My aunt asked if I thought there were any gay people in my church. "I've only known of one in seven years," I said. "But I would not be surprised if others struggled with homosexual tendencies."

"Would we be accepted in your church?" she asked.

"Probably not," I replied. "As a church we do not believe homosexuality is God's design or desire. We don't bring it up all the time, but you would probably feel that belief at our church."

It grieved me to tell my aunt the truth, but I had no choice. She asked me to speak for my church, and I did. Sadly, the line between loving people and endorsing a practice gets fuzzier at the institutional level. I would invite my aunts to a family dinner without reservation. However, I could not reserve them a seat at my church's Love Feast. Some aspects of life remain exclusive.

I made sure to tell my aunt that when issues like this become personal, folks tend to show love. Individuals are better at showing love than institutions. Churches are institutions. Christians are people.

As a Christian, I hope I showed my aunt love. Both of them. I think I did.

I believe Micah did, too.

Even Eugene Peterson, the consummate pastor, reached out to my aunts. He inscribed two copies of The Message, one for each of them. He handed me the books and said, "Tell them I wrote The Message for people like them." The cast of "common people" comprises gay and straight, male and female, Jew and Gentile, sinner and saint.

My Aunt Ann and Melissa received Eugene's gift with gratitude. I pray they will receive God's gift of grace in time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leaving Traces on the Long Road Ahead - My Sabbath Week

My friend Micah had never been out West. His family traveled often when he was a kid, but Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park never made it on their itinerary. When Micah agreed to drive across the country to meet Eugene Peterson with me, he hoped to see these points of interest on the Long Road Ahead.

We had sights to see. We had selfies to take.

The trip commenced after our Sunday morning service ended. Our wives and children were the last to clear out of the church building. We exchanged hugs, kisses, and farewell prayers. Then we rode.

The line from Leesburg, Indiana to Mt. Rushmore comprises nearly sixteen hours of driving. We stopped overnight in the town of Mitchell, South Dakota, made famous by the notorious Thunderbird Inn. It was the only hotel in the area shouting Vacancy in neon lights. There was a reason. The beds were concave, likely hollowed out by bugs. The air reeked of disinfectant, suppressing the trace of urine coming from the carpet.

The next day, Micah and I arrived at Mt. Rushmore close to lunch time. We posed for a few shots, trying to align our faces with George and Company. Micah's image became an instant success on Facebook. He made it his new profile picture, soliciting likes and comments from his virtual friends and biological family.
Micah Nightingale

My picture featured a Grace in the Burg tee-shirt: I wanted to leave traces of my church at a second major landmark in less than sixty days. In July I attended the FellowShift Conference in Washington D.C. and stood in front of the White House for a candid moment. Having my church represented at the White House inspired me to take my church to other notable places. (In fact, I challenged people from our body to take pictures wearing their Grace in the Burg shirts all across America. I think I recently saw an image from a congregant at Wal-Mart in Warsaw (IN), which is not exactly what I had in mind.)

After we finished capturing the moment, Micah and I sat on a bench and made lunch.  We ate turkey sandwiches beneath the watchful eyes of dead presidents and constant clicks of cell phone cameras.
And I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the human impulse to freeze time. We enlarge our history in stone monuments. We compress our past in digital photographs. We all long to leave a trace.

Throughout the remainder of the Long Road Ahead, Micah and I stuffed our phones with video footage and still images. We recorded bison ambling through Yellowstone, waterfalls rushing to the river below, high mountains peaking through stratus clouds, campfires blazing at twilight, and friends enjoying God's expansive creation, even if it made their joints ache and muscles sore.

There was only one part of the trip I did not exploit with my camera. There is no photographic trace of my conversation with Eugene Peterson. Some moments should not be interrupted for a pose.

Part Two of Five in My Sabbath Week

Monday, September 8, 2014

Eugene Peterson or Bust - My Sabbath Week

My wife gave me the perfect birthday gift. Earlier in the year, she noticed my vital signs were languishing. A few families had left our church. I had stopped delegating and began to organize, execute, and run too many programs by myself. And a sermon series in the book of Hebrews dragged me into a world of rich, canonical observations that did not translate into rich, transformative applications.

Meanwhile, every ministerial meeting I attended with fellow pastors centered on big church programs made bigger by making passive men into godly leaders. All the churches around me were getting more spiritually lean by means of push-ups, Proverbs, and pornography purges. The slow and humble task of shepherding people seemed lost in the ruckus of chest bumps and self-help rallies.

My wife noticed my struggle to keep pace with the losses in our church and gains in other bodies. So she wrote a letter. Her addressee was Euguene Peterson, author of The Message and numerous books on spiritual formation and pastoral ministry. She asked if I could visit him. But if a face-to-face coversation were impossible, she requested a handwritten birthday greeting.

Eugene Peterson sent me a card. He wished me a birthday blessing a month in advance of the actual date. He spoiled the surprise, but redeemed himself by inviting me to Montana. "We should have a conversation about our shared vocation in pastoral ministry." 

Weeks later, I contacted him to make traveling plans. The first week of September, I was invited to his residence. My friend Micah would join me for the journey, a Sabbath week to drive across the country, hike across some mountains, and hold counsel with a seasoned Christian pilgrim whose writings had shaped my pastoral imagination.

Eugene Peterson or Bust. I was ecstatic.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Fine Woodworking and the Fragility of Small Churches

Scott was hauling lumber. I spied him from down the street. He wore a lime green collared shirt with the name Jordan Fine Woodworking embroidered on the front. Scott was the newest man in the crew. He told me about the job less than a week ago at our regular pastors' lunch.

Scott is a laborer-by-day and pastor-by-night. He estimated that about a third of the fine bunch of Fine Woodworkers comprised clergy (former and current). Like me, they are (and were) leaders of smaller churches that suffer great strains from losing but a few families.

In smaller churches, the budget can turn blood red with the departure of one or two key "giving units." In smaller churches, ministry programs can burn out when a committed leader moves on. In smaller churches, morale can nosedive with shrinking attendance. In smaller churches, pastors may have to learn new skills (carpentry and coffee making) to keep their families fed and mortgage paid.

I guided my bike toward Scott when I spotted him. I called his name as he slid a ten-foot board into the back of his company van. He stopped, turned, and nodded at me. Sweat covered his brow and stained his shirt. His work day began well before mine. His work responsibilities threatened splinters, a sore back, and calloused hands. And when he came home at night, church business awaited him.

I felt a bit guilty. I made a comment or two and left him to hauling wood. Then I rode on toward the bookstore to start my pastoral work of reading and writing emails. It's not my fault Scott has become laborer-by-day and pastor-by-night; regardless, my pastoral vocation suddenly seemed lite.

But then I remembered what brought Scott to his current situation: Leading small churches is fragile work. The solo pastor is shepherd, teacher, volunteer coordinator, project manager, custodial worker, nursery aid, jack-of-all-trades (and master of none), court jester, marketer, and punching bag. The job description evolves with every business trend and change of season.

Moreover, pastoral ministry cannot claim the satisfaction of a daily progress report or finished product, unlike the construction site. Only Sunday marks our progress--that we held a service, that we preached a sermon--and many Sundays tell us more about the passing of time than the transforming power of life with Jesus.

These thoughts captivated me as I finished my commute to the bookstore. Instead of feeling guilty about Scott's situation, I began to feel jealous for his new job that guaranteed perspiration and productivity. I wanted something more concrete to mark my output for the day than my Inbox. I began to scheme how I might pick up work as a third-shift doughnut maker or early morning landscaper. Bi-vocational dreams began to accelerate my heartbeat.

Then I stepped into the air-conditioned bookstore and the guilt and jealousy melted away. My appreciation for full-time, pastoral ministry--unproductive and precarious as it is--was born again.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Authority Issues

"Are you saying I have authority issues?" I asked.

Six other pastors huddled around me in my office. This was our second of several meetings to provide fresh insight and counsel to one another. We agreed to put different pastors on the hot seat for the summer. My seat was heating up. After two hours of discussing my strengths, weaknesses, strategies, and dreams, the diagnosis became clear. My distaste for leadership gurus, vision-casting, and church literature was more than a preference.

When I asked the question, they nodded. And smirked. I had authority issues. Sadly, it is not uncommon for spiritual leaders.

The symptoms include:
  • aversion to best practices, meetings, strategic planning sessions, and accountability
  • inability to ask for help, follow through, or celebrate others' successes
  • constant re-invention of the wheel (and other already tried-and-true inventions or activities)
  • distaste for canned curriculum, catchy sermon titles, and ecclesiastical creeds (alliteration and assonance are acceptable)
  • demand for originality
  • preference for small gatherings where I am the dominate personality
  • various schemes to take over the world
Not all the symptoms applied to me. To date I have made only one attempt at world domination. It failed. (Or has it?) Nevertheless, the conversation with my colleagues left me wondering how much my distrust for authorities and institutions affects my pastoral ministry. (Answer: More than I can imagine.)

Indeed, every leadership book I have forced myself to read stresses the importance of leaders being "under authority." I can flippantly claim to live under the lordship of Jesus. But even Jesus taught to give Caesar his due. And Paul, a bond-servant of Christ, encouraged members of the church to submit to one another in the fear of the Lord (Eph. 5:21).

Our respect for other believers demonstrates our fear of God. We should heed their advice, consider their perspective, and listen to their diagnoses. If I didn't have such glaring authority issues, I would probably do these very things.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Our Kids Prefer Heaven over Hell and Jesus over All

My daughters were asking their mother about Hell last night. They remember the name of Heaven (and Jesus, Heaven's King) so well. Hell is less familiar territory.

We speak of outer darkness, eternal fire, and total separation from God infrequently. We prefer the happier topics of Jesus, resurrection, forgiveness of sins, new creation, and the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, we are probably guilty of preaching a partial gospel focused on restoration to compensate for the partial gospel we heard growing up of judgment, depravity, and penal substitution. But you can't have the good news without the bad. As Fredrick Buechner notes in Telling the Truth, "The Gospel is bad news before its good news."

So my wife relayed the images Jesus and others have provided for Hell: fire where the worm does not die; wrath where sin earns its wages; separation where the soul has no access to God; darkness where no light (or joy or hope) can penetrate. Predictably, my girls found Heaven more inviting.

What pleases me most about my daughters' innocent embrace of Heaven over Hell is their preference for Jesus. We speak with them often about the riches we have when we follow the Son of God. We enter His family; we share in His glory; we experience His grace. Their affection for Jesus may be for His atoning work, His healing power, and His invitation to everlasting life. It could be His divine nature or His human form. It could be a blend of these factors and something more.

Regardless, last night's conversation with their mother underscored an important matter in my daughters' faith. They do not express belief in Jesus because they are afraid of Hell. He is not their escape. He is their reward. So they look forward to His return. And it's helping me long for His restoration of all things, too.

Rev 21:5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”

Rev 22:12 “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Rev. 22:20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Preaching to Sleepy Faces

Sleepiness has increased in our congregation recently. I want to blame the stuffy weather and Daylight Savings Time, but another force may be at work. The downward drag of information and familiarity wreaks havoc from the pulpit. When the pastor's sermons sound like commentaries, his stories replay like syndicate sitcoms, his illustrations shrink down to sporting analogies and Lord of the Rings allusions, and his applications are merely variations of "Read your Bible, pray every day," he might as well sing a lullaby.

Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep little Christian...

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Hebrews 12 Relay Race
I fight hard against Heavy-Eye Syndrome on Sundays (HESS for short, though in no way connected to my former colleague and current Young Adults Pastor at Polaris Grace Zac Hess) by creative variation in my preaching. In the past month I've integrated live art, relay races, a skit, and a craft time. The change of scenery and integration of the whole body (both the physical human frame and spiritual congregation) aim to arouse and engage the people of my church. Google and I can both give information about the Bible, but Google has yet to solicit prayer requests during one of our services. (Certainly someone in at Google X is working on this.)

The adage of preaching goes like this: We don't preach to inform, we preach to transform. Of course, transformation is not accidental or incidental. Transformation comes at the heels of information, like a well-executed pass of the baton.

Sheldon for Moses Skit
Case and point: In his letter to the Romans, Paul takes great pains to inform his readers about the righteousness of God, sinfulness of man, saving grace of Jesus, and redeeming work of the Spirit before he ever exhorts his readers to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (ch. 12:1-2).

Information precedes transformation, but not all information is transformational. Truth that is trusted and applied is transformative. The rest is mental storage--counted sheep and dinner party fun facts. Transformational truth disrupts and constructs. It puts myths and lies on the chopping block and lets the axe fall (disruption). It opens doors and sets us free (construction). It calls people to action (application).

The preacher must not confined himself to a lectern and alliterated outline when telling the truth. He may wander past the pulpit and place his hand on a sleepy shoulder. He may pace the room, take a seat, flicker the lights, ad lib, erupt in song, or quit early (rarely an option). To guard the sermon from becoming passive and passe, the preacher must incite participation. He must excite souls.

Sadly, my recent snapshot of the room shows more HESS than Excess of Excitement on Sundays (EES). My captive audience seems comatose. It might be the weather. It might be long work weeks and short weekends. It might be heavy burdens and oppressive sin.

Or it might be the preacher. I default to information-overload. My baton transfer needs work.

Monday, May 19, 2014

TED Talks and Tim's Thoughts

My inspiration for running these days is the TED Radio Hour on NPR. I stream them from Stitcher Radio on my smart phone. The quality, precision, and variety of topics has no rival. I run and learn about love as a chemical reaction at the base of my skull. I jog and consider the kinship of belief and doubt. I race and ponder the power of storytelling, origins of beauty, and abuses of wealth.

In fact, TED Talks have become so addictive that I watch them while folding laundry, doing dishes, driving my car, and preparing sermons. I've learned about sleep deprivation, collaboration, false causes of obesity, and the psychology of shame while checking off chores from my weekly list. TED Talks have made me faster, smarter, and far more productive.

Of course, I don't always know what to do with the information.This is the curse of the Google Era: Knowing outpaces being and doing.  I now know about experiments with monkeys and currency, but that doesn't stop me from frittering money away on milkshakes. I now know about the havoc backlit screens reap on sleep patterns, but it doesn't keep me going to bed with my Kindle Fire.

Information does not result in transformation because information is impersonal.

TED talks to me, but his active listening skills are lackluster. TED gives me information about parallel universes, but he does not comfort me when my reality comes crashing down.  TED is a savant in hard sciences, but an idiot in personal counseling. TED spreads ideas, but he cannot change a heart.
So at the end of all the talks, I am left wanting. I don't know what to do with the new ideas. I'm not sure how they fit into my personal life, home, or profession of pastoral ministry. I can regurgitate interesting factoids at small group gatherings, but so can any Dick, Jane, or Harry with a smart phone. What makes an idea worth spreading is not its novelty or scientific intrigue, but its ability to transform.

Since TED Talks have inspired better running and housekeeping, I will continue to listen. As for my dream of braving the TEDx stage in the near future, I'll defer. The weekly TIM Talks I give at my church more than satisfy. For God's word can change a heart.

Picture submitted for my TED profile.