Friday, December 23, 2016

All Longings Summed Up - Advent Reflection (Part 5 of 5)

The Christmas story closed one gap – Israel’s waiting for God to appear – but opened others. Those at the nativity waited for Jesus to start his ministry, but he spent thirty years growing up. The apostles waited three years for Jesus to bring his Kingdom, but following his death, burial, and resurrection, he ascended into heaven, his Kingdom still to come. The church has waited for Jesus to return with his Kingdom, but for 2000 years he has said, “Not Yet.”

2000 years is a long gap for waiting. Long gaps are hard on longing. Has yours stretched to a sharp point and pierced you with grief, or dwindled to a dull end and died? How much time or interaction do you have with Jesus? What patterns of behavior have you witnessed in Jesus? How trustworthy has Jesus been in the time you have known him? How trustworthy has he been recently?

I set my feet in this: God said he would come once and a he did. The Heavenly Father sent the Incarnate Son – Jesus our Emmanuel. And He did not simply come to make an appearance; he came to make atonement—to make all things new again by dying for the sins of the world.

Daily I spend time with this Jesus, because He lives and grants me access to Him. I have witnessed in Him a pattern of self-giving love, undeniable humility, wise teaching, and relentless obedience to His Father. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

So when Jesus says, “I will come again,” I wait patiently (I hope). And I believe him. I trust him. I long for him, knowing all longings are summed up in his second Advent.
I originally composed this Advent reflection for Leesburg Grace, my church family, as part of a Christmas Communion celebration. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel inspired the thematic focus on waiting and longing.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Waiting Gap - Advent Reflection (Part 4 of 5)

The announcement of salvation - For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11, ESV) - preceded the occasion of salvation - death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-4) - by more than thirty years. Thirty years is a wide gap. 

And the wider the gap between announcement and occasion for any promise, the more difficult it is to wait. Consider the following:

You see a new restaurant with an “Opening Soon” sign. You are eager to try it out. Six months later and still not open, do you still care to go?.

Your friends say they’ll have you over. They just need to get a few things shored up around the house. After a few months, they reiterate their desire to have you over, but tell you how busy it is. “Soon,” they say. “We’ll have you over soon.” More than a year has gone by, but you still haven’t braved their front door. Do you ever expect to go over?

You order a new rug from a website. The company tells you shipping times range from 10-14 business days. Day ten arrives, and you feel excited. No package, but maybe tomorrow. Nothing the next day or day afterward. You are at the last day in the delivery range. You begin to question the company or shipping service. Do you make a few phone calls to track down your rug?

Your kids ask you to play Legos. You say you’ll come play in a few minutes. You’re working on a project in the basement. Minutes turns into an hour. Disappointed, your kids move to another activity.

A man and woman talk of marriage. They love one another. They are committed to one another. He says he’ll propose shortly; they just need to save a little more money. Two years later, he is still saving. Disappointed, she breaks the engagement.

Your husband said he would be home at six. It is six-fifteen. He’s often late. I heard a train. He probably got stopped. He usually calls or texts. He didn’t today. It’s six-thirty. Dinner is ready. He never misses dinner. Do you wonder if he's dead?

You pray to God for a specific breakthrough. You’ve asked him before, but now you’ve redoubled your efforts. You have other people praying with you. Your prayers are serious. Weeks pass; no response. Months pass; no response. Years pass; no response. How do you feel? Do you keep praying?

What makes waiting so difficult are these gaps. The wider the gap between announcement and occasion (promise and fulfillment), the greater the likelihood of filling these gaps with negative thoughts: doubt, suspicion, distrust, despair, numbness, distraction, self-protection, revenge.

Much of your response derives from the relationship you have with the person. How much time or interaction do you have with the person or company? What patterns of behavior have you witnessed? How trustworthy has she been in the time you have known her? How trustworthy recently?

Every time we face a delay, we intuitively work through these kinds of questions. Consciously or unconsciously, we bring to these waiting gaps trust resulting in patience or doubt resulting in restlessness.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thirty Years of Waiting - Advent Reflection (3 of 5)

Like many a childbirth story, the beautiful arrival of Jesus precipitated a long, quiet period of growing pains.  Matthew and Luke give us a few glimpses into Jesus’ infancy and childhood, but his first thirty years remain hidden from history. We know he moved a few times to escape the clutches of Herod. We know he grew up on Nazareth and learned his father’s trade. We know he had siblings. We know he followed Jewish customs, highlighted by the record of his Passover visit to Jerusalem, where Jesus, at age twelve, seemed more eager to debate Scripture in the temple than return home with his family. When his parents located and confronted him, Jesus simply commented, “I had to be in My Father’s house.”

Then, thirty years later, Luke tells us, Jesus began his public ministry. 
Thirty years of quiet development. Thirty years of humble learning. Thirty years of family interactions, religious observations, daily chores, and vocational duties. Thirty years of obscurity.
In the meantime, I suppose the aged prophetess Anna, as well as righteous and devout Simeon, had passed away. They met Jesus on the final page of their earthly story. Perhaps Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Joseph had parted, too, all advanced in years.

But what about the shepherds who left their flocks to see child wrapped in swaddling clothes? Thirty years later, did they continue to praise God for "good news of great joy"? Did they still believe they had seen "the Savior, Christ the Lord"? Thirty years after visiting the manger, had their longings for redemption sharpened to the point of grief or dulled to a dead end?

And what about Mary, once called “highly favored by the Lord”? After answering Jesus’ cries for milk and dirtying her hands with his diapers, could she still perceive his saving role? After thirty years of ordinary family encounters, had her longing for salvation waned? If her interactions with Jesus during the beginnings of his public ministry give any indication of her faith, both Mary and Jesus’ siblings reflect more skepticism than support.

And what about the wise men who came from the east? After their great journey following yonder star, did they begin to question their belief when decades passed, and no news came out of Jerusalem? Did the distance of time and space dull their longings for a king or sharpen to the point of grief?

And what about the angels who appeared singing glory on that first noel? The apostle Peter spoke of angelic longing – their hope for salvation spanned across the entire Old Testament story. Was it satisfied by the manger scene? Thirty years later, how pregnant was their longing to sing glory in excelsis deo again?

Of course, any answer to these questions would be pure speculation. We cannot know if the angels or Mary or the shepherds began to doubt. We cannot know if their longings sharpened or dulled. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: Jesus’ birth only ended the longing for a few aged individuals. Simeon and Anna likely departed in peace soon after seeing the Christ child. The rest of the figures in the Christmas endured another thirty years before redemption gained any real momentum.
I originally composed this Advent reflection for Leesburg Grace, my church family, as part of a Christmas Communion celebration. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel inspired the thematic focus on waiting and longing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Waiting & Longing: Advent Reflection (Part 2 of 5)

Every Advent season, we experience the rebirth of hope. Heavenly longing fulfilled in humble Christ child.

The longing of Advent is not our own. Before it belonged to boys and girls waiting to unveil their presents, it belonged to lonely, exiled Israel. God’s people awaited their ransom and their Redeemer.

They waited a long time. Decades compiled into centuries. But they did not wait idly for this Advent.  Priestly families, religious sects, sacred scrolls, and apocryphal books filled the vacuum. Their longing for Advent—God’s arrival—produced competing brands of isolation, fanaticism, legalism, Hellenism, and mysticism. They became more partisan than patient. They strove to construct God’s kingdom rather than receive it.

We should not be surprised; waiting patiently does not come easily to us. We have bought the myth that it is better to construct a kingdom than receive one. We bury our spiritual longings with religious doings. We do not wait idly for God to appear.

But longing requires waiting. Waiting demands patience. Patience is the virtue we rarely pray for because God’s ironic answer to this prayer is an opportunity to wait. And in our waiting, longing either stretches to a sharp point and pierces us with grief, or dwindles to a dull end and dies.

Some of us tire of waiting and pursue vain pleasures. Some of us chaff and become bitter. Advent proposes an alternative: wait patiently, expectantly, joyously. “For unto us a child is born and a Son is given” (Isaiah 9:6). 
Heavenly Father sent Incarnate Son. The first Advent assures a second one.

“Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel. Shall come to us: All longings to fulfill.”
I originally composed this Advent reflection for Leesburg Grace, my church family, as part of a Christmas Communion celebration. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel inspired the thematic focus on waiting and longing.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Waiting & Longing - Advent Reflection (Part 1 of 5)

In the heart of every human is a complex of longings. Some longings are simple. Some are profound. Some longings are within reach. Some are impossible.
We long for the ice to melt.
We long for the end of the year bonus.
We long for a clean bill of health.
We long for regression from depression.
We long for the kids to leave the house. We long for them to make a return visit.
We long for good old days of fewer consumer choices and local grocers.
We long for the Brave New World of ubiquitous technology and genetic mastery. (Well, some of us do.)
We long for a needed break, good book, daily bread, or best friend.
And, yes, we long for God’s kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The preacher from Ecclesiastes said “God has set eternity in every human heart” (3:11). We all long for transcendence—life everlasting and Eternal God. C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing on this earth can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Indeed, we are.

Before most of us reach that invisible, eternal, transcendent world (and Eternal God who governs it), we can rest in the fact eternity came to us. “The word of God became flesh and dwelled among us,” declared the apostle John (1:14).

God with us. Heavenly Father made visible in Incarnate Son.

Jesus, Our Emmanuel, fulfilled a deep longing. At His arrival, the gloomy clouds dispersed, the weary world rejoiced, heaven and angels sang.
I originally composed this Advent reflection for Leesburg Grace, my church family, as part of a Christmas Communion celebration. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel inspired the thematic focus on waiting and longing. I will provide additional excerpts each day this final week of Advent.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Editing and Pastoral Prayers

Last Monday I spent half a day cleaning my study. I thinned out my book collection, recycled old training materials, and cleared clutter from my bulletin board. When I started taking pictures out of frames and dumping personal belongings in to donation boxes, I feared my administrative assistant might next expect a resignation letter.

"Just tidying up," I assured her. I couldn't tell if she was happy or not.

My itch to bring order to my study coincides with my theme word for 2017: editing. While this term seems the opposite of 2016's campaign - expand - the notion of editing brings me cheer.

Editing includes reducing, reworking, and fine-tuning. Editing is not the same as finishing, but it is a step in the right direction. All of life needs editing -- from manuscripts to shopping lists to DVD collections and magazine subscriptions. Our excess of duties and things competes for our limited time and energy.

Today I resumed the editing process. I thumbed through outdated magazines, scanning for an article or two worth archiving. I found a gem by Gordon MacDonald in Leadership Journal (Spring 2012, pp 91-94).

In "Praying that Makes a Difference," MacDonald described his gradual adoption of pastoral prayer. From his childhood forward, an air of mystery surrounded prayer. In college, his public prayers took a hit from a classmate who said, "You don't pray like the other guys." She implied he prayed worse. When first asked to give a "pastoral prayer" in a worship service, her bard echoed through his head. He managed to stitch a few sound words together. In years that followed, the pastoral prayer became more natural.

More importantly, pastoral prayers met a spiritual need for his congregation. "People  may not always realize or express it, but they want to be prayed for," he wrote. When he interceded for them, his people felt like he read their minds, knew their pain, and understood their world.  MacDonald clarified,
"[The pastoral prayer] is not a time to pray for church programs, for the offering, or for some new building project. It is a time to remember that the congregation spends its life in a much larger world where there is noise, intimidation, distraction, hardship, challenge, and sometimes pure evil. This needs to be prayed for. The people must hear someone describe their mutual experiences to God."
Even our ability to edit has limits. We can all reduce our debts, rework our calendars, and fine-tune our  pet projects. But none of us holds the key to eliminating all "noise, intimidation, distraction, hardship, challenge, and sometimes pure evil" in this large world. These obstacles cannot be edited out. We can, however, edit prayer in.

Pastors, rework Sunday mornings. Edit prayer in.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A New Preaching Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Bet, Beard, and Beautiful Thing

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

Bell and pulpit from Leesburg Grace on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Advance: A New Chapter - An Adoption Update

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

Martyr and Messiah: Two Sorry Self-Perceptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Curse You, Productivity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Hospitality Interrupted

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hospitality by Eugene Peterson 

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hacking My Wife's Habit Loop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Spheres of Influence - where daily life and discipleship intersect

I just finished an article about equipping people beyond the walls of the church. I laid out a neat-and-tidy four-step process: raise awareness, state the challenge, provide accountability, and sustain momentum through celebration. My theories sounded so good, I might actually try them!

Sadly, the notion of equipping God's people often revolves around improving ministry performance within the walls of the church. We train teachers and give tips to greeters. We line up nursery workers and sign up volunteers for the next outreach event. Our sermons give practical advice (I hope) for daily living (e.g., guarding your tongue, fighting depression), but our ministry training times and team meetings tend to look inward.

As I church leader, I must realize my people spend the majority of their time beyond the walls of the church. They are parents and spouses, siblings and children, workers and citizens, coaches and consumers, neighbors and friends. And so am I. They wrestle with conflict management, lack of courage, anxiety, financial insecurity, pride, greed, people pleasing, doubt, gluttony, and a host of other soul matters. And so do I. They struggle to pursue God in their homes, prioritize God in their marriages, integrate faith into their work, and manage their time with ministering to "the least of these" in mind. And so do I (except for that faith-integration thing!).

These areas, where daily life and discipleship intersect, are called spheres of influence. They deserve more emphasis from pastoral leaders. Hence, I made a call to raise awareness.
I may spend inordinate amounts of my time tuning clocks, polishing sermons, and arranging programs within the walls the church. My congregation inhabits another world. A wider world. A world full of spheres where God intends to use them. And use me, too.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Reflections from a 10-Year-Old Adventure

I stole an idea from Bob Goff and adapted it. The author of Love Does described giving each of his children an adventure for their tenth birthday.
The idea was simple. The kids got to pick something in the world that captured their imaginations, fanned their whimsy, or sparked their curiosity, and then we said we'd do it together. There was no planning, no preparation, no thinking about all the details. We'd just go do it (pg. 128).
Goff is a man of great financial means. He can afford whimsy - London and India. My budget is whimsy prohibitive: It set me in the middle seat of the thirtieth role of the third boarding group of Frontier Airlines on a midweek flight to an off-season lodge room of the YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch. But our lobby had all-you-can-drink Douwe Egberts, and I had my almost-eleven-year-old daughter, which was well worth the hidden baggage fees.
Image result for dewey egbert coffee
On her actual, tenth birthday, I had provided Claire with a map of the United States. On the map I highlighted three cities: San Diego, Denver, and Boston. Next to each city, I printed off a picture of an animal and description of her adventure. We would whale watch in the Atlantic Ocean and tour historic sites. We would take a behind-the-scenes tour at the San Diego Zoo of the Polar Bears & Friends. Or we would ride horses and hike mountains in Colorado. The choices were tailor made for my daughter Claire, who loves animals more than athletics and food.

What Claire does not love is making choices. She took days before deciding on the trip to Colorado with her dear-old-dad. Between her waffling, school schedules, adoption traveling, and summer vacation plans, we had to postpone her adventure until last week.

Our itinerary provided Claire a four-day hiatus from school, visit with her aunt and uncle, tour of her birthplace, book purchase from the Tattered Cover, and recreational opportunities galore. We rode horseback through the morning chill and changing Aspen trees. We climbed rock walls and swam in an indoor pool. We rode down a summer tubing hill and climbed up several steep hills. And any time we needed to rest, we returned to our bedroom and read books, played games, and (I) posted picture montages on Instagram.

The images captured the adventure at its peaks. Social media excels at highlights. Hidden behind the filters was my bruised abs, Claire's scratchy throat, my anxiety about expenses, Claire's pathetic pallet. While we were thick on adventure, we were thin on conversation and calories. If it were not for the Wendy's in the neighboring town of Fraser, my daughter may have survived on M&Ms and Kix cereal. And try as I may, engaging conversation topics remained elusive.
I had hoped for a rite of passage on this 10-Year-Old Adventure. I wanted to bestow on my daughter treasures of spiritual wisdom. I wanted to spark her wonder with God's glorious creation. I wanted to stir her passion to serve Jesus. I wanted to walk beside her and watch her take ownership of her faith.

These things did not happen. What I did experience was quiet companionship from my firstborn who does not need an adventure to know her father loves her. And I do.

Sometimes my ambitions for Claire rise above her ten-year-old head. Yes, she's growing up fast. All kids do. But at ten (almost eleven), she is still just a kid. I do not need to urge her into adulthood; she will get there soon enough. Some day her faith will be her own, her diet will be balanced, and her want for wisdom will prompt her to ask me for spiritual advice.

And she will, because she knows I love her. Because I have walked with her.

The disciples were unschooled and ordinary like my kids, like all of us. They didn't need all the details because they were on an adventure with a father who wanted to take them. You don't need to know everything when you're with someone you trust. (Goff, Love Does, 136)