Monday, February 29, 2016

Stumbling into Leap Day

I start the morning like any other. After silencing my alarm, I find my slippers and shuffle to the kitchen. First priority: I check my phone for news from Ethiopia. None. So I pray another Leap Year doesn't pass before this adoption is consummated. Amen.

I pour myself a glass of orange juice and carefully descend the basement steps. I stress carefully because my left Achilles tendon has suffered much of late. In the early morning it greets me with piercing soreness. Any morning it may snap and send me tumbling to the basement floor. The floor is concrete, which doesn't blend well with my pale complexion.

I make it to the bottom without incident. I walk through a doorway. My home office sits in the back corner of our partially finished basement. I have an old desk situated on an ornamental area rug. My wife bought me two lamps to read by. My daughter gave me an unwanted, bamboo-scented candle. It smells like a hospital room.

I switch on the lamps and light the candle. An unpleasant smell fills the air. I sit down gently on a mustard-colored, thrift chair. I stress gently because my left heel burns when I bend, and at any moment it may rupture, sending me sprawling.

I want to pray and read my Bible. I want to worship and reflect. I want to seize this most blessed gift of a day -- LEAP DAY! -- an event as rare as the winter Olympics and World Cup tournament. This day only comes only once every four years. It provides an historic fifth Monday in February. It inspires retailers to sell things for a discount of 29%.

But I am not leaping. I am stumbling. My sleep did not satisfy. My left Achilles aches. My whole body itches. The bamboo candle imposes its aseptic scent. And no news arrived from Ethiopia.

I gulp down orange juice and open my Thankfulness journal. Then I decide to break protocol. Instead of listing four items for which I'm grateful, I air my grievances. I write:
Acid rises in my chest. Disappointment tightens its grip around my heart... Gratitude does not mark my starting point [this morning]. I will get there. Soon. But first I rant. The ink rushes on the paper like blood from a wound. I am wounded. But it is not terminal.
I begin to feel better. The confession relieves a bit of pressure. It lessens the pull of disappointment. I proceed with my routine.

I give thanks and pray prayers. I reflect on a psalm and I finish the closing chapters of Isaiah (ch. 60-66), which foretells the coming of God's Messiah (Is. 61:1-2) and New Creation (65:17-25). But God's Anointed did not come right away. There was waiting and disappointment for God's people, like suffering birth pangs (66:7-11).

Messiah has since come (Luke 4:18-19), but He returned to heaven (Acts 1:9-11). The New Creation has yet to arrive in its fullness. Justice and joy are incomplete. Waiting and disappointment continue for God's people; we all suffer birth pangs until Messiah comes back (Rom. 8:18-25; Thes. 4:13-5:3).

I close my Bible and notebook. I blow out the candle (thank goodness) and extinguish the lights. I limp up the stairs to make coffee for my wife. Someday
soon I will leap again -- for joy, for justice, for Jesus -- but today I stumble.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Building Teams to Build the Body

Some of my best memories involve teamwork. I remember building an underground fort in my neighborhood with a couple of friends. One summer my little league baseball team took home the championship trophy. In high school I earned the position of setter on our varsity volleyball team. During college I ran cross country and enjoyed pushing my teammates through grueling workouts. 

I’ve acted on several theatrical casts, worked on many group projects, and volunteered with various service groups. I have always thrived on teams.

And then I became a solo pastor.

My job description included everything from event planning to counseling to preaching to discipleship to vision-casting to community service to web design to communication to assimilation to visitation to dedicating babies (their parents, really) and blessing potlucks. I felt the crushing weight of unrealistic expectations thrust upon my shoulders. My seminary training equipped me for two of my forty tasks; my skills covered another two. For our church to flourish, I would need help.

No church can survive on the efforts of a single person. God sets us into spiritual community for mutual encouragement and shared ministry. Vocational leaders and the congregation serve a common purpose. We are members of the body for the building of the body (Ephesians 4:11-16). Teamwork is an outgrowth of our redemption. Or, as Peterson writes, "The underlying and all-encompassing oneness that is church flows from the underlying and all-encompassing oneness that is God." (Practice Resurrection, 176)

The beauty of teamwork—no matter how formal or informal, enduring or ad hoc—is the opportunity to add our giftedness to a larger effort. On a team we can apply our strengths to a cause and trust our teammates to supply their complementary talents. A well-composed team joins together diverse gifts, passions, perspectives, and competencies to provide a better product. Moreover, teamwork fits the biblical metaphors of body, building, and battalion (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 2:20-22; 6:10-18).

Teamwork has its hurdles. People often seem short on trust, time, and clarity. A team without trust will not function well (See Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team pp. 195-201). Of course, developing trust requires time. If people on a team only gather to plan, plot, and evaluate, the team dynamic never grows beyond functional. The best teams not only complement one another's capabilities, but also enjoy camaraderie (See Osborne’s Sticky Teams, pp. 139-147 and Collins’ Good to Great, pp. 41-64).  
  • TRUST applied: I spend regular time with my elders outside our formal meetings to nurture casual friendship with one another. How do your teams spend time together informally?

The frequency of a team's meetings depends on scope and depth of the ministry. Generally, a monthly meeting suffices to cover business. However, weekly or biweekly communication can keep team momentum alive.
  • TIME applied: Our newly formed global ministry team (GMT) meets twice a year, prior to our two major GMT events. Evaluate the frequency and impact of your teams and their meetings.

Clarity is crucial for success in teamwork. Having an assigned role for each person can be helpful. Not everyone can play point guard or percussion. Diverse roles round out the group, making the sum of the parts greater than individual efforts. The team leader keeps people on topic, tied to vision, and engaged. Specifying action steps maintains accountability. A ministry action plan (MAP) specifies the various roles and goals for the year.
  •  CLARITY applied: A new leader for our women’s ministry team has cast vision, collected feedback, and collaborated with several others on the team; other roles include retreat planning, curriculum, and hospitality. What tools or resources do you use to provide clarity for your teams?

Teamwork is essential to equipping churches. It expands the capacity of pastoral leaders, networks believers in the local congregation, and contributes to the overall growth of the body. More importantly, teamwork gives witness to the remarkable redemption of Jesus, who calls us to service and mutual submission until we all attain “the full measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13, NIV). 

Additional Quotations on Teamwork & Ministry

Efficient, high performing teams create a level of camaraderie. It isn’t necessary that all teammates become the best of friends, but a level of respect and appreciation will characterize teams that are truly maximizing their output. (Dungy, Mentor-Leader, 140)

The word equipping immediately assumes a team model… Once you begin to look in Scripture for the guidelines and images of what Christ had in mind for his body, you will be struck by how often the pictures are corporate, not individual. Individuals have certain significant roles in the body, but no individual is the body…. We are meant to be a team. (Mallory, The Equipping Church, 22)

Members of good-to-great teams tended to become and remain friends for life… They enjoyed each other and actually looked forward to meetings… Their experiences went beyond just mutual respect (which they certainly had), to lasting comradeship … if we spend the vast majority of our time with people we love and respect—people we really enjoy being on the bus with and who will never disappoint us—the we will almost certainly have a great life, no matter where the bus goes.  (Collins, Good to Great, 62)

Few things are more beautiful to God than seeing his people serve and work together in a united rhythm. It’s like a symphony to His ears. That’s how we are created to function. God designed us to need each other. To reach our communities, much less the world, we need every ministry doing its part and every congregation excitedly doing church as a team. (Cordeiro, Doing Church as a Team, 19-20).

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Feedback and that Futile Feeling in Pastoral Ministry

Preaching a sermon can feel futile. I spend weeks outlining a series. I spend days researching and note-taking. I spend hours formatting and word-crafting. I spend forty-two minutes delivering (three minutes beyond my target time). And after the sermon, I gather more blank sermon notes than talking points for my feedback loop.

The feedback I tend to hear comes in three categories...
  1. The Aside: Pastor, when you were preaching, it make me think of this YouTube video. Here, let me show you...
  2. The Empathetic Segue: Pastor, I can totally relate to stress. Let me tell you about the week I had...
  3. The Attaboy: Good sermon, Pastor.
What sticks from a sermon are the stories and personal rants. The theological gems remain buried in the mine. A few weeks ago illustrated this futility in its finest. After studying a thoughtful book about Paul's use of the word "Mystery," I came up with a pithy but profound synthesis:
While it was not hidden [in the OT] that Messiah would rule on earth, it was a mystery that Jesus the Messiah would rule in the heavens [Eph 3].
While it was not hidden that Messiah would rule the nations, it was a mystery that Jesus the Messiah would reconcile the nations into a single people [Eph 2].
While it was not hidden that Messiah would suffer, it was a mystery that Jesus the Messiah would suffer unto death [Eph 1].
I labored over these lines. I read them slowly during the sermon. I rinsed and repeated, waiting for light bulbs to flash and revival to start. It never did. So I proceeded.

Later in the message, while soliciting responses to the question, "What Bad Press do people believe about the church?", one person shouted,"It's boring!" One of our members quickly retorted, "Not this church." After relishing in his response, I added, "That's because people love watching you play the bass, John." I illustrated by plucking an air bass and swinging my hips. [Insert congregational laugh.]

Riding on the waves of corporate approval, I added, "And it's because I do stupid stuff like play the air bass." Again, I plucked an invisible instrument. Laughter ensued.

Weeks later, the ghost of my slapping the air bass haunts people's memories. No one, however, can recall how I waxed eloquent about the revealed Messianic mystery. Preaching is vanity, chasing after the wind.

Nevertheless, I seek feedback so I can improve. Sleepy or confused faces tell me I've lost my hearers. "Amens" imply agreement (or so I assume, since I've never heard that word at my church except after prayer.) Laughter indicates people are listening, and good for them, because I am funny.

Post-sermon feedback provides a different form of insight. It tells me whether or nor the message stuck. Over the years, I've learned to probe for this feedback. I've asked men I'm mentoring to share something they would have handled differently in the message and how. I've selected a topic or principle from the sermon and asked folks what they think. My elders regularly speak into my recent sermons. Often I'll debrief with my wife.

I want to know if the message was memorable. Did it make sense? Did God speak to people? How will folks respond?

While nine years of preaching has convinced me an individual sermon does little to transform a life, I do not despair. A message may stir, push, or redirect toward godliness for forty-two minutes, a few hours, or day. My lines will wither and fade, but the Word of the Lord remains in tune. So I keep plucking and preaching as long as I have breath in my lungs.

Monday, February 8, 2016

False Contractions, Patience, and the Adoption Process

We are past our due date. Well past. The beginning of Lent marks the start of our adoption journey… five years ago. We prayed and talked and ask God to convince us. Our hearts grew sure as we noticed a conspicuous number of adoptive families in our small town during those forty days.

By Palm Sunday Liz and I were convinced.

“Hosanna in the highest,” we shouted.
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” we sang.
“We will adopt,” we announced.

Tomorrow is Fat Tuesday... five years later. Our arms have grown tired holding palm branches so long. Our shouts and songs have grown dim. The end looms ever closer, but ever out of reach. We want to meet our son and bring him home.

The international adoption process is worse than an exercise in patience; it is physical therapy for hurried soul. Every week stretches us, bends us, manipulates our emotions, and tests our limits.
  • We've waited for doctor signatures, notary stamps, governmental approval, reference letters, grant monies, progress reports, and agency clearance.
  • We've updated our home study four times, taken fingerprints three times, had citizenship paperwork approved, re-approved, denied, and, finally, re-approved.
  • We've twice changed agencies and three times altered the age(s) of the child(ren) we were willing to adopt, adding a "special needs" on the latest iteration.
  • We've written many checks, made numerous trips to the post office, raised/saved/spent thousands of dollars, and become best friends with a notary of the republic.

Of course, these are simply details. Slogging through paperwork and unraveling the red tape has its benefits: We can do our part, mark our progress, and feign some control.

Waiting is the real pain.

That pain became personal last in September of 2014 when we decided to adopt an Ethiopian boy from a Waiting Child list. He had a face, a name, and special needs. His profile compelled us. Further descriptions from an intern at the orphanage sealed the choice. We signed an agreement with our second agency and started fresh. The match became official in December. Surely, we thought, the waiting is almost over.

Then months passed with nothing more than a handful of pictures and growth statistics.
No news by spring, so we assumed traveling would not occur until summer.
No news by summer, so we pushed back prospective travel dates until fall.

By late August we learned some of our son’s paperwork was missing. No one had been able to track it down from his birth region. And no one was responding to our agency’s requests. Expect another few months. 

More bending. More stretching. More manipulation of muscles and emotions.

In the fall, the Ethiopian Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA) approved our case. We still awaited Pre-Adoption Immigration Review (PAIR) approval from USCIS. Having two parties sign off, provides extra accountability. It has also added months to our process.

Since December, I have received emails from the US Embassy in Ethiopia keeping me posted on the PAIR process: 1) An interview with the birth father. 2) An interview with the child. 3) An interview with the orphanage director. Perhaps an interview with the Pope will follow.

In the first email, the official stated, “We recognize the PAIR process can be an anxious time for prospective adoptive parents.” (An understatement, if I may say so.) These emails come in the middle of the night because Ethiopia runs eight hours ahead of the US. They come in two or three week intervals. And for two months they have disrupted my sleep; I regularly wake up at three AM and check my phone for an email notification.

Worse yet, for two months every ring and bleep and flash my phone makes feels like a false contraction. It’s never adoption news. It’s school flyers and church announcements and sales promotions and Twitter notifications. And even if it was an adoption update, it would simply be another interview request. Another two-week delay. Another false contraction.

I'm weary with false hopes. I’m sleep-deprived with uncertainty. I’m tired of this prolonged pregnancy with no due date in sight.

For years and months and weeks, I’ve been setting time tables for this adoption and pushing them back. The depth of my patience is directly tied to my control over its timing. This is true in most matters of life. Whenever we issue due dates for God, we encroach upon his sovereignty. We grasp for control.

This protracted adoption journey has taught me the limits of my control. And the limits of my patience. Fortunately, God, in his gentle manner, revealed this matter to me last week. Roused from my sleep at three AM (yet again), eager (always) for news, I heard God tell me: Trust my timing.

Five years ago… God knew our adoption journey would include false peaks and labor pains. His heart for the fatherless has never
wavered (Psalm 68:4). In the meantime, ours continues to grow.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Blessed, Glorious, and Mysterious View

Ephesians is a salve for the bad press the church receives. The apostle Paul provides a blessed, glorious, and mysterious view of the church. The redeeming work of the Triune God goes beyond saving individual souls, to reconciling Jew and Gentile and summing up the heavens and earth in Jesus. Christian must learn to embrace their God-given identity, the heavenly view, described in this letter, rather than believing the bad press.

The heavenly view tells the church she is powerful (not powerless), mysterious (not boring), beautiful (not gross), holy (not stained), universal (not exclusive), triumphant (not dying), and relevant (not outdated). What applies to the whole applies to individuals in the church: saints, beloved, forgiven, empower, sealed, alive, raised, and renewed.

Churches make a mistake when they pin their identity to a particular style, ministry, denomination, or philosophy. No amount of savvy marketing will outdo Paul's description of the church in Ephesians. Christ-followers do not need to improve their branding, they must embrace their God-given identity.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, February 1, 2016

Expand - Theme word for 2016

When I asked God about a theme word for 2016, no single term immediately jumped out.

2015 was the year of Conversation; I talked to God and others with greater intention. 
2014 was the year of Awareness; I stretched my personal limits and flirted with burn out. 
2013 was the year of Follow through; I finished a few more projects or sentences than I would normally have completed. 
Writing this post to go viral.
What helped me make a decision for 2016 was a simple desire to grow my influence. I want to have a stronger voice in people’s lives, whether it be my wife, my children (speaking of expansion, I should have three living in home in a few months), my church, my fellowship, and blog audience. Not only do I want my voice to increase, but I want the ministry of my family and church to deepen.

The various words I toyed with to convey this increase of impact included increase, growth, maturity, discipline, and develop. None of these felt right. Then I landed on Expand. I thought of a territory stretching out, much like the kingdom of David or the global reach of the gospel. And buried deep in my memory was a little book by Bruce Wilkinson I read in college, The Prayer of Jabez, where the title character asks God to “expand his lot” (1 Chr. 4:10).

The word  has lingered. I've run it by Liz (to make sure it’s sticky) and through a search engine (to make sure it’s biblical). On both accounts, the term passed muster. Most notably, Paul writes to the Corinthians of expanding his ministry influence without boasting or building on another person’s lot. The expanse is natural, viral, and humble (2 Cor. 10:12-18).

“We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond our proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the field God has assigned to us, a field that reaches even to you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did not get as far with you as the gospel. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel to the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in another man’s territory. But, “let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”

As much as I may want God to expand my influence, grow my church, and increase my audience, I must let this passage guide my humble understanding of expanse. It is God’s increase, not mine. I must become less. Boasting and self-referential gain are useless. Paul avoided both pitfalls. They are the activity of fools. Those who fear God, on the other hand, enjoy an expanded life (Prov. 10:27, MSG).

Expanse implies an understanding of limits. I must recognize the territory of others, as well as blue oceans, unreached people, and untapped resources. Moreover, God has assigned lots. Any expanse must be plotted on the larger map of God’s gospel ministry. I must ask where He wants me to go help others’ faith grow.

As a result, I’ve come to apportion my time more strategically. In addition to family, personal, and local church ministry, I have secured three broader kingdom commitments. My board work with BMH/GraceConnect, Let’s Know the Bible Conference, and the Equipping Network serve different purposes. To maximize my energy for each one of these organizations, I have dedicated one Monday afternoon a month to each. And, in a stroke of genius (note to self: see comment about humility above), I have volunteered for writing assignments that I can re-purpose on my own blog. My interaction with these teams not only expands my influence, but broadens my base of personal connections.

Finally, since establishing this word as my annual theme, I have begun to let God nuance my definition through various study materials. Surely this is an example of “selective attention” –e.g.,  where a newly acquired love for Mexican food raises your awareness of Taco trucks on every corner – but the word expand, expanding, and expansion have proliferated in my reading (see below).

Now, dear reader, please aid this emerging author in his efforts to expand by featuring this post on your social media sites, sharing it at a family meal, or printing twenty copies and plastering them in local toilet stalls.