Monday, November 13, 2017

Common Bonds: Links between Uganda and USA (3 of 3)

When I travel to other countries, I politely badger residents with questions. I realize no single person is an expert in his or her culture, but they provide a window into their home country's worldview. Inquiry allows me to peer into these windows. (Forgive the creepy metaphor!)

One afternoon I asked Damali about cost of living in Uganda. "What are the most expensive parts of living here?"
Gordon & Tim at Baby's Home with Damali
"Medical expenses," she said. Affordable health care is neither universal nor  easy to access. Medications do no come cheaply. Neglected childhood vaccinations lead to nagging adult problems. The spread of disease, lack of clean water, and distance between good clinics makes medical life difficult.
Tim at village school, where we provided a medical clinic and school supplies.
Damali proceeded to explain the way family members share financial burdens. If an uncle or cousin is sick, you might foot the bill. If a grandmother or niece dies, you might pay for the funeral. And mom and dad--if they're alive--cannot always cover the cost of education, added Aisha. It may be an older sister or auntie who pitches in for your fees.
Uganda team eats lunch with Aisha and Melissa from Sonrise Ministries.
"But God provides," Aisha added dogmatically. She shared a story to prove it. Feeling the weight of compounding expenses and little money, she lamented and prayed. Days later she found a pile of cash among a stack of clothes. Providentially, the stash of shillings and school invoice matched. God provided.
Image result for money in uganda
I also asked Sonrise workers about hobbies, foods, worship services, and their personal testimonies. They, like people from my church, were saved by grace through faith. Their children, like mine, enjoy running about and playing games. Their Millienials, like ours, are glued to their phones, peeping into others' lives through the global glowing window called Facebook. (Also creepy!).

I saved my final question for Pastor Ivan on our drive to the airport. Pastor to pastor, I wondered, "What are the key values people hold in Uganda?"

"I think they are no different than yours," he replied. "People want to be safe, loved, and make a difference. This is true most places."
Barbed wire, gates, and walls surround most homes in Uganda to promote security and ward off thieves.
I agreed. The common bond among humans is greater than the sum of our differences. Media exploits our distinctions, glamorizing extremists and giving preference to odd behaviors of fringe groups. We are trained to focus on skin-deep dissimilarities--pigmentation, gender, religious garb, tattoos, dialect, and geography--overlooking the biblical teaching that every person bears God's image (Gen. 1:26-28).

Lest I am misunderstood: this is no plea for pluralism. International travel and interracial friendships reinforce the need for universal dignity and finding middle ground. But not all faiths lead to God.

Refugees and immigrants, Boomers and Millennials, people of color and those pale as the moon, dysphoric and homophobic share a common link to Eden (Acts 17:26). And God has a common longing for all peoples: He wants us back (v. 27 cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). He even made the way possible and personal in Jesus (v. 30-31; John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Whether in Uganda or the United States, God calls all peoples to turn back to Him in trust. For those living stateside, we may be at a disadvantage.

"It is easier for people in Uganda to have faith," Pastor Ivan said. "It is all we have. In the United States, the need for God is not felt. You can provide for yourselves."

So it seems. But self-preservation and self-sufficiency is a myth. It is a fog covering the glass house we Americans live in. I am glad I had a week in Uganda to see it from the outside and be reminded of my deep and lasting need for God.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Looking Poverty in the Face - Uganda Update (2 of 3)

We ascended a rough clay road to arrive at the slums. Daniel, one of the Sonrise Ministry directors, prepared us for our task. While one of the Mirmbe girls visited with her family and delivered food, we would take a tour of Masese, one of many slums near Jinja.
"The children will come up and hold your hands," Daniel said. "This is okay. Just do not touch your face afterwards. These children are very dirty."

We squeezed out of the compact Toyota, and a swarm of children surrounded us. Dusty children, snotty children, shirtless children, shoeless children, and children carrying smaller children grasped for our hands. They smiled and chattered in their native tongue. We marched together between single-room houses and storefronts, up and down inclines, over puddles and around trash. One child pushed a makeshift toy--a cracked CD tacked to a yardstick--the whole length of our promenade.
Daniel led us to a home belonging to one of young ladies from the Girls' Home (i.e., Mirembe). Inside the windowless, six-by-eight home, the aunt reclined. She was one of six living in the house. An unknown sickness hobbled her.

We ducked into the dim enclosure, and I knelt to pray, reaching for the woman's hands. Upon closer inspection of her face, I could not tell if she was twenty-five or sixty years old. Poverty is a thief, stealing life and vitality. I prayed simply, asking God to bless this aunt and her home.

Children in the slums look tired but happy. Adults in the slums appear hardened. They may have come to the city looking for work, but finding none, they settled for four walls and a metal roof. Many men turn to booze, one of the Sonrise workers told me. The family we visited, had fixed their hope on their niece getting out, getting educated, and returning to rescue them from economic despair. Sadly, their niece may be no older than nine; the aunt may not live another nine years.

We said our "Amen," and "Farewell," and then directed the mass of children back to our parked vehicle. They grabbed at our hands, poked at our bellies, tugged on our skirts, and clung to us until we departed. As soon as we piled in the car, we began scrubbing our hands with wet wipes and rubbing them with sanitizer. The chemical assault to my senses was unable to wipe away the stain of extreme poverty seared in my mind.

"You will always have the poor with you," Jesus said, diffusing the ire of the disciples at the waste of precious ointment Mary poured out on his head (John 12:1-8). But his axiom does not erase the bitter sights of extreme poverty when you view them firsthand. Dirt and grim, over-sized shirts and undressed babies, junkyard toys and inebriated men, trash piles and piss puddles, small dark homes and herniated bellies.

Nor does Jesus' axiom tell us what to do about poverty. So I knelt, looked poverty in the face, and prayed for God's blessing. It's a start. But Jesus' brother James said, "Do more than see and pray. Give." (James 2:14-17). And just because we cannot give to every need, doesn't mean we should not give to any needs.

I, for one, certainly have more than I need. So I kneel and pray: "God, make me generous."

Monday, October 30, 2017

Adoption Is Not the Final Word on Orphan Care

Our social worker informed us we were the fourth or fifth best option for our would-be adopted child. Liz and I had just begun the (would-be five-year) adoption process. We felt God leading to “care for orphans” (James 1:27) by bringing one or two into our home. Lest we get a messiah complex, our case work set us right. We were far down the list of good solutions.

Best case scenario: Mom and Dad raise and love him.
Second best: a loving family member provide him a home.
Third: someone from Ethiopia.
Then: an Ethiopian or African-American couple from the States.
Finally: a humble, middle-class White couple from the Midwest.

The enumerated list (and our low position on it) sobered me. But it also misled. Fortunately, on a recent trip to Uganda, God disabused me of one myth of orphan care. For more than five years I have equated “care for orphans” with adoption. The Christian Alliance for Orphans estimates 153 million children worldwide have lost one or both parents (See their White Paper on www.cafo.org ). It is a colossal figure, nearly impossible to erase when financial, legal, and political forces enter the mix. To find an adoptive family for each of these children is a fantasy.

Two weeks ago, God showed me another way to care for orphans. After a week of observing and interacting with Sonrise Ministries in Uganda, I met fatherless and motherless children who were nonetheless surrounded by numerous aunties, uncles, brothers, and sisters. Though they were short on personal space and wardrobe options, they were rich in food, love, and learning opportunities. Sonrise Ministries exploited a gap between scenarios two and five above—demonstrating family for the fatherless need not be nuclear.
In a sense, Sonrise was birthed in an orphanage. Four of its directors grew up together in a children’s home founded by an American veteran and evangelical Christian. Several other Sonrise leaders and staff members aged out of the same home. They were not all blood related, but they were family. And their passion for orphan care grew out of personal experience.
Sonrise started as a Baby Home, but it grew to capacity. They added a Children’s Home, making space to expand and educate children as they developed. The Children's Home, likewise, ran out of room. They added a Girl’s Home for females plucked from the streets, which, too, has no space to increase.
So they started building: schools and homes in disparate villages. They started digging: wells for water and trenches for farming. They’ve kept on praying: for protection and growth, wisdom and provision.
From the outset of our adoption, God used a social worker to disabuse me of a messiah complex. For this I am grateful. But I wish I would have been more attentive to other means of orphan care. Adoption is not the final word on orphan care. The children of Sonrise Ministries have been knit into a big, beautiful, non-nuclear family, short on fathers, but flush with the love of countless aunties and uncles. 

It took a week-long trip to Uganda -- rubbing shoulders with followers of Jesus who are crafting a family and future for the fatherless -- for God to reveal another effective way of caring for orphans. I witnessed God doing beautiful work where others might only lament the ashes. 

                                                                                             
First in a three-part reflection on my week in Uganda.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Questions and Answers from the Hot Seat

During the Engaging Hour at our weekly Sunday morning services, we have invited people to sit on the "Hot Seat." It provides an opportunity to field anonymous questions--on past experience, present struggles, future dreams, and personality quirks--from fellow church members. The Hot Seat lets us peer into one another's lives. It is a safe place to share stories, practice introspection, and laugh together. Deeper awareness of self and others is the goal.

These are the rules:

  • No one is coerced to sit on the Hot Seat. 
  • Questions may provoke thought, but not pry.
  • You have 18 minutes. Go!


Yesterday I sat on the Hot Seat, but it barely warmed up before the timer went off. So I decided to answer the remaining questions here on my blog. I'll try to keep it shorter than 18 minutes. Go!

How did I ask Liz to marry me? 
Following a romantic dinner of Subway and viewing of It's a Wonderful Life, I convinced Liz to walk with me in the snow. We bundled up and followed a predetermined path to the Winona Lake Hillside. We arrived to the glow of luminaries lighting the aisle to the stage. A giant snowman that I built earlier in the day awaited us; the diamond ring, set on his carrot nose by Liz's younger sister-in-law shined in the dark. Like a gentleman, I bent my knee, took her hand, and proposed marriage. She agreed, tearfully, and we celebrated by making snow angels on the hill.

What practices help you in your prayer life?
I am an unfocused pray-er. My mind twists and turns in the silence, often ending in a rehearsal of my sermon that God doesn't need to hear. So I require the aid of some routine. I spend a minute or two in silence, meditating on an attribute of God or simply presenting myself to Him (Here I am.). I journal some prayers, always noting specific points of gratitude. I often read a Psalm to guide my thoughts. Occasionally, I will open my prayer notebook, which lists people and areas I talk to God about (e.g., family, church, personal goals). Finally, I often fall alsleep reciting the Lord's Prayer.

Who influenced my salvation?
My dad took us to church for a year during my childhood and every Christmas and Easter thereafter. These services planted a seed. A neighborhood family invited me to VBS in fourth or fifth grade. By middle school, I started to attend youth group and church regularly with the Beall/Gillespie family. It was then I encountered Jesus personally. I continue to work out my salvation with fear and trembling with the help of God's Spirit, family, friends, church, podcasts, and many good books.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
I want to live in the Here-and-Now until I reach the New Heavens and New Earth, and I'm not just being romantic or complacent. I love the lot God has given me. My wife envisions us growing old and dying in our current home. I envision it happening after a steak dinner on a Friday while we sleep holding hands.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In the same house, but not dead. At the same church, and it's still alive, too. I'll be approaching fifty, so I expect to be offering as-needed care to my adult children and aging parents. Sensi speaks is full sentences and can read Garfield books to himself, but remains in our home. Liz and I will love each other even more deeply. Several aspects of my ministry will have shifted. I will have finished a D.Min. program, preached through most of the Bible, developed younger leaders to share more of the responsibilities at Leesburg Grace (whose name will officially be Leesburg Grace by then). I will focus more of my time on writing and equipping others; I will better accept my weaknesses. My facial hair will pass the creepy stage. A Boston Marathon medal will hang on my shelf.

What is your 10 year vision for Leesburg Grace?
In the past month I've heard this phrase a hundred times: The mission does not change, but our methods must. I concur. The desire to see every follower of Jesus in our congregation becoming full in Christ, united in love, and strong is service remains constant. I will continue to refine and focus on the nineteen markers of spiritual maturity. Our culture of loving welcome (showing care to show Christ) will persist. A decade from now I will continue to pastor our church; however, by then, a committed, creative core team of others will lead with me. We will begin to see some of the slow-and-steady maturation spill into life transformation, especially for those who have never walked with Jesus. Moreover, we will have deployed a few full-time kingdom workers and partnered in a church-plant. Additional staff, updates to our music stage, and a freshly-paved parking lot would also be nice.

What do you enjoy most about being a pastor at Leesburg Grace?
I love to preach, teach, and let thoughts of God fill my mind. I love the variety and flexibility pastoral ministry allows me both with my schedule and weekly duties. I love to create new things and the freedom afforded to do so by our beloved congregation. And, of course, I love the motley band of Jesus' followers we call Leesburg Grace.

Why is Michigan better than Ohio State?
It is not. (And whoever said there are no bad questions was wrong. This question proves it.)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Lost Art of Lingering

I have developed the spiritual discipline of lingering as an essential part of pastoral ministry. I linger in the sanctuary, hospital room, coffee shop, front porch, and family room. Some would even say I linger in my sermons: they can get long!

Lingering is the ability to draw out, extend, and prolong a connection or conversation. People I linger with are not always comfortable with it. Truth be told, neither am I.

Sitting for eight hours in a car with someone else, I can endure. I accept my context and do not dream of jumping out of a moving vehicle (most of the time). But when I go beyond an hour at the table with someone, my skill in lingering is tested. My focus wanes, eyes gloss over, and body begins to pulse with nervous energy. I look for lulls, escape pods, and excuses to move to the next thing. How sad, and yet, not unusual.

Just the other week, I struck up a conversation with a neighbor while walking my dog. His daughter (whom I mistook for a son...oops!) sat quietly in the stroller. I greeted him before he set out on a jog. It was clear he did not want to linger.

Two blocks away, I spoke with another neighbor. Back and forth we discussed the weather, local produce, and rapid growth of my children. "Well, I shouldn't keep you," he said. He repeated the line twice before I took the hint and stopped lingering.

If it is not our busy schedules, boredom with conversation, buzzes and beeps from our ubiquitous phones that forestall lingering, it's our general dis-ease with silence. Lulls make us feel awkward. Pauses are pregnant with our insecurities. So we distract or excuse ourselves from lingering.

In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle addresses our reluctance to linger with "The Seven-Minute Rule," learned from a college-aged student. It takes seven minutes for a conversation to morph into something meaningful. Rather than go to the phone when a conversation sputters, "Let it be." Turkle explains, "Conversation, like life, has silence and boring bits. This bears repeating: It is often in the moments when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other. Digital communication can lead us to an edited life. We should not forget that an unedited life is also worth living" (pg. 323).
Cover art
Life, edited or not, rushes by. Lingering forces us to slow enough to enjoy it. Lingering allows us to pace ourselves so we can draw out, extend, and prolong our time with people. God made us for relationship. Lingering makes our relationships richer.

(NOTE: If you skimmed this post, you should go back and linger over it.)



Monday, June 19, 2017

Not Forgotten

"God has no abortive processes or forgotten [people]."

Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner wrote this in his Ecclesiastes commentary, reflecting on the enigma of time and enduring work of God (3:1-15). Allotments of times, stages of life, and seasons come and go. Humans, like dogs, return to dust (3:16-22). The fruit of our labors ends up in the hands of other men. We are, all of us, forgotten.
But God does not forget us. None of us:

From the second story window of Martin's Supermarket, I watched a widow walk to her car. Her husband died two years ago. Her grief has lost its edge. Those who accompanied her through the valley of the shadow of death have moved on to more current crises. They forget her unless they see her. God does not forget her.

I talked with a former missionary after yesterday's service. He spent no more than two terms abroad. He returned home with little to show for his great sacrifice. He toiled in various trades until retirement rolled around. Most people see him as a kind old man, forgetting (if they ever knew in the first place) his contributions to God's kingdom. God does not forget him.

A young man confessed his struggle with pornography recently. Over the years, some close friends challenged him, prayed for him, encouraged him. The young man made progress and relapsed and progressed some more. Years passed since his initial confession. The struggle, although lessened, lingers, but his friends have forgotten his regular need for accountability. God does not forget him.

Recently some peers shared their struggle with infertility. They had moved beyond "just trying" to various forms of intervention. They called on doctors and drugs to increase their odds. They asked friends to call on God. Each month marks a failure to conceive. Each new birth announcement, often shared by friends who have momentarily forgotten their struggle, resurfaces their pain. But God does not forget them.

Add to these personal accounts, the biblical narrative, replete with barren wombs, enslaved people, aging prophets, and unfulfilled promises. Waiting, wandering, and exile describe a vast portion of the biblical plot. Their plight results from their forgetting God.

Bud God does not forget them. "[He] has no abortive processes or forgotten men." None of us.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Show Care and Listen Hard

Listening is hard work. I especially feel this after preaching a sermon. (My congregation probably feels this during the message.) Post-sermon conversations are shrouded in fog. I'm coming off a holy mountain, my bald head shining with perspiration but bereft of thought. I stutter through small talk, nodding and blinking and shifting my weight. I have to pin down my thoughts and focus my eyes; they tend to wander.

This happened again yesterday. Ironically, I began our worship service with a call to Hear others' hearts. It is the second principle of our current theme: Show care to show Christ.

Up until a month ago, I explained this opaque phrase with anecdotal stories. But a recent session at a church leaders' conference compelled me to Brand and Wear my church's mission.* So I did what every good pastor would do: I made CARE into an acronym and a purchased a T-shirt with our meme.
The acronym took three or four iterations, but I finally landed on the following:

Sphere of influence -  pray God uses you where He places you
Hear their hearts - approach others as an active listener
Offer help or hospitality - let your home and hands give credence to your words
Words of hope - let God speak through you when the time is right

I am currently in a CARE campaign, Teaching the theme on Sunday mornings and Wearing the shirt midweek. I've noticed when I wear a shirt advertising my church, I'm not self-conscious, but wearing a shirt saying "Show care to show Christ," has helped me redouble my friendliness (or zip up my hoodie).

So back to my bad listening: Following the sermon I engaged someone in conversation. I asked a question and received a response. I asked another question. Another response followed. By my third inquiry, I realized I was less interested in answers than filling air space. I registered the words the woman said, but her heart was far from me. And when I looked into her eyes, I could tell: they brimmed with tears.

The man who had just taught the "Show Care" brand (and wore the shirt to sell the theme), failed to apply the product. Listening is hard work if the goal is to hear another's heart. I paused, letting the air space stretch out. I confessed to God my callousness. I asked the woman another question, but this time tuned my ear to her heart. It beat.

_____________________________________
*Dave Ferguson led the session at the RightNow Media Conference. He shared the BLESS theme of Community Christian Church (CCC), as an example of developing "missional intentionality" in his people. BLESS, like SHOW, is an acronym. Ferguson borrowed his template for creating cultural change at his church from Andy Stanley, whose process includes six-steps: "Name It, Brand It, Wear It, Teach It, Institutionalize It, Recognize It." Dave Ferguson did not wear a shirt that said "BLESS," but the graphics people at his church designed some cool signage.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Bathing in the Morning Breeze

I took a sensory bath* this morning. By the light of the waking sun, under the cover of a thick fog, to the melody of a hundred birds, against breath of a gentle breeze, I ran. My calves pumped, feet skipped, arms danced, and brow perspired. My morning jogs summon echoes of Eric Liddell: When I run, I feel God's pleasure.
Image result for when i run i feel his pleasure
While the love of running is not universal (a straw poll of fellow church members yesterday proved the point in a 14-2 vote against running), the human impulse for sensory pleasure is. We all enjoy having our sense of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell stimulated. For some, the smell of charcoal spells ecstasy. For others, the sight of rainfall moves their soul. Most kids like to spin. Adults opt for floating down a lazy river.

Somewhere along the way, culture mistook sensual for sexual and turned pleasure into an adjective for adult store paraphernalia. When society insists on seeing humans simply as evolved animals, it is no surprise we lift all restraints and celebrate every sexual impulse.

But sex alone is not the problem. The God-given gift of sensual pleasure has also been distorted by gross indulgence in food, media, sports, material goods, and chemical enhancements. Consumerism does not offer a sensory bath, but a deluge. In Why Everything Matters, Philip Ryken's exposition of Ecclesiastes, he writes: "Most Americans today experience more pleasure than most people in the history of the world. Yet in spite of our prosperity - or maybe because of it - we still suffer from poverty of the soul. The taste of pleasure has grown our appetite for this world beyond satisfaction" (pg. 31).

Ryken goes on to argue "God is not a spoilsport." He wrote sensual (or sensory, if you please) pleasure into the script of human existence. Such pleasure was intimately anchored to his presence in the Garden of Eden. Our ultimate longing is to be at rest with God. Our penultimate pleasures should always point heavenward.

Followers of Jesus need not blush when we consider sensual pleasures and sensory baths. (Disclaimer: I was not naked when I enjoyed my sensory bath this morning, but my shorts were short!) Instead, we must recover the fact that God created us to become loving cultivators and mindful curators of pleasure. Consumers of pleasure selfishly indulge; connoisseurs of pleasure gratefully receive.

I implore every child of God to enjoy a sensory bath. Taste and see (and touch and smell and hear) that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).

_____________________________
This post was inspired by my sermon entitled Pleasure from Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.

* I learned the term "sensory bath" from an Empowered to Connect parenting training Liz and I attended for foster and adoptive parents. Many "kids from hard places" have sensory-processing issues. Sensory baths employ exercises (e.g. spinning) and tools (e.g., weighted blanket) to engage the senses to heal the mind. After the training, we sandwiched our daughters with pillow cushions, and they loved it. The neuroscience of the sensory bath is fascinating, and underscores our God-given potential for healing, not just emotionally, but I imply above, spiritually. Our senses can help reconnect us to our Creator.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Holy Matrimony, Happy Matrimony: God's Splendid Gift

I attended a wedding last weekend. Peter and Cassie, a young couple from my church, tied the knot. They looked radiant: reading vows, exchanging rings, pouring sand, holding hands. Their smiles beamed and eyes brimmed with tears. At one point, I pressed my arm against my wife's, reflecting on fifteen years of marriage, so grateful for her friendship.
Liz and I sometimes muse about the early years, how much we loved one another while knowing each other so little. We were poor, naive, and a bit passive-aggressive. We moved often, furnished our living spaces with cinder block arrangements, and debated the color of our dishes. (They were gray). But we had no lack of love for one another.

As difficult as Liz and I know life to be, marriage has never been too terribly hard. Sure, we fail to communicate details, approach parenting differently, and suffer the typical tensions around money, sex, and Netflix; but love covers a multitude of sins. And when our human love tanks run low, God's grace abounds.

God authored marriage. His passion for the institution has no rival. His vision for our marriage eclipses our happy-but-momentary view. So we learn from him. His marital wisdom has nurtured fifteen happy years of faithfulness.

God teaches marriage is a gift, not  a right. Thus, he calls us to steward the gift, not spoil it. Considering ways I'm grateful for my spouse will do far more good than airing my grievances. Taking time to listen, give eye contact, affirm, empathize, and share my heart nurtures the marriage. Its too easy to get busy, lazy, or take the gift of companionship for granted.

God teaches forgiveness is a way of life. Liz and I talk about "1000 Little Forgivenesses" before arriving at One Big Absolution. If I make a habit of forgiving (i.e. releasing my preference in) minor matters--squeezing the toothpaste from the middle, not putting DVDs back in their cases--and so does she, then we have normalized forgiveness. We must be humble enough not to codify our preferences.

God teaches marriage is central to family life. When our children were babies, we could stick them in strollers or cribs and control them. Now they want to have conversations and control. They could become the epicenter of our family if we allowed. We will not. We aim to be marriage-centric as a family. When both mother and father abide in Jesus and delight in one another, the long-term health of the family has greater promise.

I have shared similar ideas with Cassie and Peter, David and Val, John and Michelle, and many other engaged couples over the years. One of the privileges of pastoral ministry is reaffirming the holiness of matrimony. I am equally pleased to share advice to help them experience happiness. The potential for holiness and happiness in marriage reaffirms God's splendid gift.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ten Years of Pastoral Ministry - Lessons Learned

This week marks my tenth anniversary at Leesburg Grace Brethren Church. Ten years ago I returned to the town where I attended college and lawfully wedded my wife. Ten years ago I had an impressive crop of dark brown hair and little experience. How the roles are reversed. Weathered, wise, and bald, I have established my pastoral rhythm and learned a few lessons along the way.
Fellow pastors will read the following observations, nodding in agreement at many points. Readers who are not professional clergy may appreciate the candor of a hired, religious gun. My wife and children, who probably won't read this, would simply say, "Here he goes again with the lessons."

  1. My life with God is the wellspring of meaningful ministry impact. Anyone can act religious. Anyone can posture as spiritually sympathetic. Anyone can develop people skills, rhetoric, and organizational competencies to manage a church efficiently. But I refuse to view ministry as mere mechanics; meaningful impact is the fruit of abiding in Jesus (John 15).
  2. My family deserves the best of me. Some of the greatest professionals are the worst parents. Balancing family life and personal success requires focus and discipline. To borrow Andy Stanley's great line, "I choose to cheat" the church, rather than my family, if it comes to that. God makes this provision for elders and overseers, asking them to be men who lead their families well.
  3. Preaching requires more editing than I ever expected. If the congregation let me (and it won't), I could preach for hours. The Bible abounds with theological ideas, anthropological insights, difficult questions, and practical advice. Bridging the text to the complexities of our post-modern culture and specifics of our congregation adds another level of depth. Closing in on 500 sermons, I still wrestle in deciding what to include, emphasize, illustrate, and cut.
  4. Preaching brings more joy than I ever expected. I love the creative process of sermon-crafting: to brand a series, build a message, and find ways encourage participation. I love the research and meditation that goes into studying God's word. I love the way preaching builds awareness in my soul (as I personalize the message), empathy for people in my church (as I agonize over their struggles), and awe of God (as I gaze into his revealed heart).
  5. I have too many faults to count. I am an administrative imbecile, communications delinquent, poor recruiter, vanilla vision-caster, reluctant delegator, and always running late. Fortunately, love covers a multitude of sins, and the body of Christ complements many a minister's weaknesses. I'm finally learning to own my weakness and allow others to thrive where I fail.
  6. I must not take myself too seriously. While I will not downplay pastoral responsibilities -- equipping, preaching, prayer, counsel, leading, shepherding, etc. -- the pastoral title still feels a bit too snug. Like everyone else in my church family, I am a struggling child of God. I happen to have a microphone and personal study, but I have the same identity and Spirit. My heavenly Father, of course, helps maintain this perspective by allowing many a humble moment.
  7. I don't give God's people enough credit. More often than I'd like to admit, I assume people from my church care more about pop culture and politics than the kingdom of God. I assume their service is driven by duty and a desire to bail me out, rather than an overflow of joy. Admittedly, I have heard a few groans and seen a few frowns in ten years. But I have also heard numerous prayer requests, personal testimonies, and words of gratitude. I remind myself often, "God is at work in his people. He will finish what he has started" (Phil.1:16).
  8. I hate outreach events. Lest I come across too strong, I should clarify. I hate outreach events, not reaching out to show the love of Jesus. Spinning our ecclesiastical wheels to run a public relations event that results in limited life change and lots of carpet stains has never sat well with me. I prefer ongoing ministries that build relationships with people to show Christ's love in tangible ways.
  9. I will never be famous. None of my YouTube videos has gone viral. None of my sermons has caught fire (or much flack). None of my blog posts has trended. The invisible audience I envision all too often is imaginary. Even within my modest, denominational circle, I am bound to remain conspicuous. I will likely never speak at my Fellowship's national conference or make the CE Wall of fame. While I have not yet resigned in my reach for the invisible audience, I find relief in admitting its futility.
  10. God has merely begun his work through me. To borrow a phrase from the prophet Isaiah, ten years is "a drop in the bucket." Ten years of pastoral ministry has never felt like a drag. Books and conferences aimed at pastors assume we are an ailing, languishing, dried out bunch. By God's grace, my experience does not match up. God had given me joy, endurance, imagination, love, wisdom, and good companions in my first ten years. Not naively, I expect he will continue to bless. It is, after all, his work, not mine. And he boldly claims to "do more than we ask or think through the power that works in us" (Eph. 3:20).

Monday, May 8, 2017

Glory Days, Coaching Kids, and Making Strides

I coach track for a rowdy bunch of fourth through sixth grade students. It is safe to say most of them do not have the makings of an Olympian. They flail and shuffle and smile and wave in their lanes. They look at the fans, their feet, or the runners behind them more than the finish line ahead. These are not the tactics of elite players. No: these are children at play.

What my athletes do not realize is they have a winner in their midst. "It is I," said the balding, aging, former winner of the Wheeler Award. "It is I," wrote the blogger reminiscing about his glory days.

During my peak running career, I could run a 5K in less than 16 minutes, an 8K in 26 minutes, and a 10K just over 32 minutes. For twenty-six laps around the track, I kept pace like a steady clock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The longer I ran, the stronger I felt. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. I learned mental tricks and breathing tips and once predicted my race time to the second. Tick. Tock. Yes: I was a champion.

But these days I stuff my pride and go by the title, "Coach Mister," or "Claire's Dad." I am a part-time volunteer, living vicariously through the next generation as I cheer from the infield and coach from the sidelines.

My strategy is to develop their mental game. I encourage my distance runners to break the race down in to smaller segments.

"Stay calm: No one wins the race in the first fifty meters."
"Stay close: Stick with the leaders."
"Be strong: The second lap is the hardest, so be tough."
"Dig deep: Go all out for the finish."

I recite other mantras -- stay strong; you're tough; everybody hurts -- and offer various forms of affirmation -- good job; way to go; high five; crash it, you did great. And by the end of the meet, I feel satisfied in having coached these students not only for track, but also for life.

All our problems break down into smaller problems. 
Encouragement and honest feedback diffuses our fears.
We are stronger than we think we are.
Keeping focused on the finish line helps us fight through pain.

As I watch these children flail and shuffle, smile and wave, I can't help swell with pride. Not because I could beat every one of them in a race (I credit the Holy Spirit from holding me back from trying), but because many of them are making strides. My daughter Claire is one of them.
Sprankle Family runs with cousins at Joe's Kids Splatter Dash on Saturday, May 6th. Claire won the mile. Margot took second. Sensi received a medal, but will not be entering the Olypic Games anytime soon.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Happily Ever After - God's Big Story Ends Well

The author of Hebrews calls Jesus the "Author and perfecter of our faith" (12:2). The final chapter of his Big Story awaits his return and renewal of all creation (Rev. 21:5). Various authors of Scripture provide glimpses of this renewal, including golden streets, glittering crowns, glorified bodies, domesticated beasts, vibrant streams, angelic songs, glassy seas, diverse nations, and God among his people (e.g., Is. 65:17ff; 1 Cor. 15:35ff; 1 Pet. 4: Rev. 5-7; 21:1ff). "Happily ever after," is an appropriate summary.
Of course, to appreciate this final chapter, one should trace the entire plot of the Bible, starting with the opening lines: "In the beginning" (Gen. 1:1). From Creation to Consummation, God's Big Story shows the Creator's overflowing love, tremendous patience, and personal sacrifice. It displays human rebellion, rejection, and failure to reflect their Creator. It makes God's love plain and approachable in the person of Jesus, whose story is told in the stuttering life of the church.
 


Sadly, God's people have settled for theological principles and moral exhortations. We've traded his Big Story for a Sinner's Prayer and theological hopscotch. When we strip doctrinal proof-texts and ethical examples from their storied context, we settle for a brittle, humanized, scientific text. 

Moreover, we betray the very form of communication implicit to Moses (see Deut. 1-5), Joshua (see ch. 24), David (see Pss. 103-105), Isaiah (see ch. 5), Ezekiel (see. ch. 16), Jesus (see Matt. 13) and Paul (see Acts 26). Part of the imago Dei is the capacity to share stories; crocodiles tell no tales.

Among the many authors advocating for a return to the storied understanding of Scripture, author Eugene Peterson makes his point clear. "[The] Bible turns out to be a large, comprehensive story, a meta-story. The Christian life is conducted in story conditions. The Bible is basically and overall a narrative—an immense, sprawling, capacious narrative…. Story doesn’t just tell us something and leave it there, it invites our participation" (from Eat This Book, 40).

Author Scot McKnight addresses those who conflate story with fiction. "Saying the Bible is Story is not saying it is make-believe or a fib or fiction or myth, nor is it to assert that gobs of the stories didn’t happen. We say the Bible is Story because if we read it from beginning to end, we discover that it has three features: it has a plot (creation to consummation), it has characters (God-Father, Son, and Spirit—and God’s people and the world and creation around them), and it also has may authors who together tell the story." (from The Blue Parakeet, 66).

Followers of Jesus should take a fresh look at God's Big Story. We should learn to live it and share it. The wounded world will find story-tellers more winsome than moral watchdogs. And they may find the "Happily ever after" of heaven more appealing when they understand the cruciform path God chose to meet us there.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Gloriously Imperfect People - The Church

The Church receives a great deal of bad press. Her sex scandals and stories of hypocrisy make their rounds. Her "outdated" morals, "inconsistent" Bible, and logical lapses get attacked. Her members are pegged as judgmental, hateful, bigoted, and naive. At 2.1 billion members of various tribes and tongues, the Church is a big and broad target.
Not all the criticism is unfounded. Any social group includes examples of excellence and miserable failures. Look at any corporation, political party, classroom, or sports team, and both role models and cautionary tales stand out. The Church, and each of her local embodiments, has its faithful witnesses and fumbling wretches. Most of the members fall well within the margins: average, ordinary, up-and-down, inconspicuous examples of Jesus Christ.

Early Church was no stranger to this reality. As her story emerges in Acts, develops in the epistles, and runs her course in history, she displays humility in her self-critical posture. The book of Acts exposes sins of deception, division, and jealousy. The letters reveal a penchant for sexual immorality, disunity, drunkenness, favoritism, and pride. Patristic literature echoes similar correctives.

Such self-criticism does not excuse sin (e.g., Romans 6:1-2), but acknowledges the work of spiritual maturation is incomplete. By calling out these errors, without blushing, biblical authors do not assume holiness, but admit sinfulness. In fact, this awareness only intensifies their longing for Jesus' return, who would make them blameless, spotless, and glorious in his coming (see Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Corithians 15:50-57; Jude 24-25).

Somewhere along the way -- many blame Constantine or the Religious Right -- the Church's criticism turned outward. Rather than striving for God's internal cleansing, she sought to scrub the dirt off society. Rather than being content to live as a window into God's New Creation, she acted like a mirror of secular morality. Rather than bowing like a servant for public good, she took an elevated stance on political grounds.*

The time is ripe for Christ's beloved bride, for God's called out people, for the Church to reawaken to the Spirit's work within her (Ephesians 3:20-21). The long-term, tedious work of developing Christ-like character through corporate worship, shared life, and spiritual disciplines will put a fresh shine on God's gloriously imperfect people.

Bad press will not disappear--Jesus forewarned us--but good faith may triumph. If not now, when the bridegroom returns to put his finishing touches on his fragile people.

Come, Lord Jesus.

________________
These thoughts are inspired by a recent sermon: Church - Chapter 5 of God's Big Story.

*Certainly God may raise a prophetic voice or two for social causes, but the Church, as a whole, does not serve these purposes. Her mission is more about being a Christ-like, Spirit-empowered people (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Ephesians 4:11-16), than propagating political and moral opinions.






Monday, April 17, 2017

Following Jesus at a Reduced Price

My mother instilled the value of living frugal whenever she announced her savings at the grocery store. Sorting through weekly flyers and clipping coupons was a religious act. The receipt at Kohls, with its crudely scratched circle over final savings, was sacred. I, too, learned to love the clearance rack, shop for lightening deals, and recite the mantra: BOGO.

Unfortunately, this notion of saving money and stretching my meager resources, at times, translates to cheap faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church against cheap faith. "Jesus bids us come and die," he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. This is costly faith: We cannot cut corners or coupons in our pursuit of Jesus.
A college student at our church has recently wrestled with "cheap faith" pervading evangelicalism. Following a sermon about "tensions" Christians feel in our culture, he emailed the following sentiments:

I seem to always conclude that something is off. Something is very wrong with how comfortable people are, and how just with the tension being felt right now, so many Christians are already getting weak and, like you said, they are drifting. What happens when the real persecution comes? How many Christians will there be in America if things get violent, if laws are created against God's law, and if people start to be physically and mentally targeted and attacked? I sometimes feel like I want that persecution to come [here], because maybe that would push me over the threshold of timidness or whatever holds me back from really making a stand, from really being different, from making excuses why it isn't a sin to see certain movies, listen to certain music, and such. I would probably regret it if that kind of persecution came upon us, but right now it seems like that would be the best way to get myself and the church to really recognize what righteousness and the pursuit of God looks like.

Last week I picked up the conversation with the student while we jogged. I confirmed his feelings and talked about keeping a pure conscience. Convictions and passions differ among Christ's followers, and each person is responsible to live according to his convictions. Complacency comes naturally in a culture of comfort and ease.

I cautioned against pursuing discomfort and pain as an antidote. Masochism and asceticism are no more discipleship, than weekly church attendance and lukewarm, religious affections.

We ended our run and conversation, committed to talk again about the cost of following Jesus. In the meantime, Easter has come and gone, and the shadow of the Cross looms large. Moreover, I've started reading The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, in which author, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield recounts the losses she sustained (e.g., lover, social connections, career) upon leaving her lesbian identity in pursuit of Jesus. Her conversion and Calvary contrast sharply with my personal account of debits. For your reading pleasure, I disclose the following costs of following Jesus:

  • a monthly tithe of a few hundred dollars, which I could otherwise spend on myself or family
  • several hours of sleep each week, given instead to spiritual disciplines
  • the prospects of a prosperous career in something other than full-time ministry (e.g., international spy)
  • the weight of conscience and the reduction of pleasure (including binge sessions of TV shows)
  • the restless concern for others, and not just what they think of me, but what they think and how, giving the opportunity, I might connect with them
  • a sense of purpose I will never fully realize this side of death
I admit the list is pious. Worse, it is remarkably painless. These costs comprise personal habits, at first difficult to hone, but once established, they require little notice to maintain. Giving a tithe does not feel like death. Skipping TV has not stopped my heart. Waking up early brings more joy than hurt. 
Jesus took nails for me. Bonhoeffer lost his life for Christ. Butterfield lost her career and more. Apparently I am getting a pretty good deal. In the end, however, I wonder how much I've actually saved?

Monday, April 10, 2017

I Farted in Church and Other Embarrassing Moments

I farted in church yesterday. The noise was subtle, but the PA system picked it up. It amplified the sound. When I muttered "Excuse me," I left little room for doubt. The pastor, indeed, broke wind.

To clarify, my flatulence was not live. It was background noise on the back end of a YouTube video I shot the day before. I've aired a reflection on each of Jesus' beatitudes during the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. "Blessed are the pure in heart," started yesterday's reflection. Like each preceding video, this one closed with an invitation to meditate on the theme for forty seconds.

The infamous fart occurred as I recorded the last scene in my garage with my thumb pressed over the camera lens. I remember immediately thinking, "I have to mute that," but haste subverts short-term memory. I exported the video, uploaded it to YouTube, and left it with the A/V team to broadcast.

My rude reminder came in the company of my congregation. "Take a minute to meditate on what is beautiful, pure, wholesome, and holy," said my recorded self.

[Fade to black. Boost the music. Cue the fart.]

Pfft... "Excuse me." 


My meditations were cut short. A string of panicked questions ensued. Did I forget to mute that? Did anyone else hear? Do I say anything? Do I plunge forward with no remark? Do I blame the kids?

I was not sure how many people noticed the offence, so I played it cool. I feigned meditation on purity. I dismissed the kids quickly. I commenced with my sermon immediately.

All illusions of ignorance, however, dissolved as soon as I returned home. My children betrayed looks of embarrassment. "Daddy, why did you fart in the video?"

"You heard?"

"Yes, we heard. And you even said, 'Excuse me.'"

"I was hoping no one heard," I confessed.

Unfortunately, my family was not alone. My kids witnessed a family across the aisle suppressing their laughter. Later that day my friend told me his wife could hardly keep from cracking up. And at the close of Sunday evening, I received a text from a friend telling me he "heard a toot during the sermon."
I'm guessing most of the congregation heard my fart. My cover-up failed. My haste indited me. Purity of heart is no rival to a pastoral fart. Had I checked and double-checked my work, I would have avoided this party foul. But, alas, haste makes waste (and funny noises).

I will merely add this incident to my list of embarrassing moments. I once preached an entire chapel message to high school students with my fly down. I once made an awkward comment about my conjugal rights in a sermon. I once read a quotation from Augustine about boys playing with "balls and nuts" without a second thought to it being misunderstood by modern (i.e., perverted) ears.

I often sing off-key and tell lame jokes. (What kind fish is in the circus? Pause: An acrobat fish.) I regularly misstate dates names. (I've called Peter, Paul and God, Satan.) Weekly I misplace my sermon notes, Bible, or clicker during the service. And I always mispronounce words. (In fact, I once confused flatulation for flagellation when talking about disciplines gone awry.)

The more time one spends in public light, the greater his exposure to humiliation. Hopefully pastors find the occasional dose humility becoming. It purifies the heart, which is especially important when he's breathing in his own exhaust fumes.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Year after First Impressions - An Adoption Update

We had our first meeting with Sensi a year ago, but it feels like yesterday. I still have vivid images of his orphanage in my head: the entry gate and guard, cement walk and flowers, playground and scuffling children. We made a few introductions before anyone tracked down Sensi for our initial contact.

I remember him shuffling down the steps, guided by one of the nuns, a vacant look on his face. "Sensi, this is your family," the sister said, turning his head so it pointed toward ours. "He's just embarrassed," she explained, slapping his cheek.
I reserve my most honest first impressions for God and my wife. But I can admit to holding my breath.

This maiden voyage to Ethiopia, this first visit with Sensi, has surfaced in many conversations in recent weeks. We talk about the outpouring of gifts and prayers for our family. We recall the flurry of travel plans and packing of bags. We cringe at the interminable flight and mental, emotional exhaustion we felt. We remember God's faithfulness in big and little ways. We recite the smells, sights, tastes, and sounds we heard in Addis Ababa. And, of course, we reminisce about our precious few hours with Sensi before crossing the ocean again and leaving him to wonder who these strangers were and when they might return.

A year after first impressions, life with Sensi is beginning to feel normal. It doesn't feel the same. It does't feel easy. But it feels normal. We're accustomed to his early bedtimes, nighttime nosebleeds, stomping feet, contagious laugh, sense of humor, creative drawings, loud chewing, nervous pooping, hyper-focus, short attention span, and dawdling at the doorway. Liz and I have developed a divide-and-conquer approach to parenting necessary for family rhythms in a household of five. Claire and Margot have settled in as the less-asked-about sisters of Conspicuous Number Five (but if anyone asks, they are remarkable).
A year after first impressions, I've stopped holding my breath. I've started moving forward with greater hope in God's bright future for my boy. Caring helpers surround him, building his confidence, speech, and physical strength. A loving family embraces him, cheering his victories and calming his tears. (Just the other day, his sister soothed his tears about his uncomfortable orthopedic braces.) And a heavenly Father molds him, so that childhood suffering will not have the final word on his life. 

A year after first impressions, God is writing a better story for Sensi. I am grateful to be part of it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Death, Funerals, and Grieving Words

I attended a funeral this past weekend. The deceased, Jeremy Sprague, was a former classmate and friend. When Liz and I moved to Phoenix, he arrived some weeks later and spent a month on our floor. For the following two years we shared life: meals, house church meetings, hikes, concerts, and weekly consumption of Arrested Development (binge watching was not yet a thing).

Then Liz and I moved to Denver. Our contact with Jeremy was minimal. We saw each other once in the past ten years; we received one or two Christmas compilation CDs. Otherwise, radio silence. News of his death came as a shock.

We drove to his hometown, Lima, Ohio, for his memorial service. On the way, Liz and I shared memories. We shook our heads at the idea of a classmate and peer dying. At thirty-seven, we are too young to die, but death is no respecter of ages. It takes infants and elderly, sinners and saints, healthy and infirmed.

Liz and I mingled momentarily in the visiting room before sliding into the chapel to secure a seat. As we waited for the crowd, casket, and family to claim their spots, I took note of the odd layout and decor of the room. Fluorescent lights cast a harsh glow over floral couches and folding chairs. Soft, piano music played from a PA system. Nothing in this funeral home reflected the style and flair of the deceased.

But the dead are given little voice in these matter. We must speak for them. Ironically, our speaking for the dead also has an odd shape to it. In our state of shock, grief, or disbelief, we try and make sense of death with selective memories and sentimental tropes.

Funeral services are rife with selective memories. Time and again I have wondered if the person remembered was the one that I knew. The deceased performed heroics. The deceased epitomized humor or hospitality or kindness or grace. The deceased knew no failings, but glowed with virtue and grace. We tell these stories to ease the sting of death.

In the preface to his book, Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card admits his discomfort at the way every person is cast as a saint in her eulogy. Selective memories, he argues, do not grant true honor to the dead or freedom to those grieving, but leave people shackled to a lie. His novel makes a compelling case for honesty. (If my children speak at my funeral, I hope they laugh at my crazy eyebrows and annoying habit of teaching lessons.)

Our sentimental tropes go beyond trying to ease the sting of death; they deny death altogether. People often say, "He's still alive; I carry him in my heart." (So common is this phrase, one can purchase it at the funeral home souvenir shop.) Or they assert, "She'll always be present with us, even though she's gone." Such comments betray our unwillingness to accept death.
I can understand: death is a bully and thief.

But we must be careful not to let sentimentalism delude us. We do not carry people in our hearts. Disembodied souls do not remain present with us. These cliches are likely the fruit of our culture's fledgling, Christian imagination. We no longer say, "Absent from the body, but present with with Lord." Our modern refrain is: "Absent from the body, but present with us." And we envision the dead eternally resting in our indulgent hearts. I know my own heart: to dwell there forever would be a punishment as cruel as hell.

Death hurts. It stings. It rattles us and robs us of people we love. Selective memories and sentimental tropes will not win them back. God grants us full right to grieve for as long as we need to, but he wants us to leave the dead with him.

So may Jeremy rest in peace.

Monday, March 13, 2017

In Search for Inspiration - Turning Duty into Delight

On Monday's I post to my blog. Some articles have inspiration written all over them. A catchy title, nagging comment, or personal experience takes possession of my fingers as they hit the keys. Other weeks, I cycle through the routine topics I care to meditate on - family, adoption, Christian spirituality, and pastoral ministry.

(Disclaimer: If I'm simply looking to boost readership, I just put the words "Adoption Update" in the title. You people seem far more interested in my family life than my theological ramblings. I suppose I should feel flattered.)

However, many Mondays I approach the blog more out of duty than delight. Consistent writing is a discipline. If I want to clarify my thinking, grow my platform, widen my sphere of influence, publish books, and, some far-off day, unburden my church from the weight of my salary so our people can invest in my successor, then I must write. It is my duty.

Sadly, duty often moves forward with little help from its accomplice, delight.

Writing is work. Parenting is work. Marriage is work. Friendship is work. Witnessing is work. Pastoral leadership is work. Work is work. If we wait until inspirations strikes to make progress, we will might as well take a seat. Just be warned: the bench is full.
Image result for steve martin parenthood
Of course, no one wants to settle for mere duty. When Steve Martin's character in Parenthood laments, "My whole life is duty," one can't help but pity him. We have all felt the same way at times. We don't want to go to church, have company over, or attend a youth sporting event. We don't feel like shoveling the snow, giving money to Salvation Army, or folding the laundry. Inspiration does not spring us from bed at dawn; duty calls with the morning alarm.

I must admit, however, that inspiration is overrated. N.T. Wright exposes inspired feelings as an idol of Romanticism. In fact, if virtue only counts (i.e. "is justified") when it's spontaneous, then we have simply created a new legalism, Wright argues.

Moreover, we must not put duty and delight in opposition with one another. They are co-laborers in all fruitful work. We need duty to overcome lethargy. The manuscript will not write itself. The casserole won't put itself in the oven. The shelf won't organize its amassing clutter. We need delight to spur on further work. Satisfaction follows effort.  Publishing an article, taking a bite, and clearing the clutter produce a sigh of relief and belch of gratitude.

I need this reminder on uninspired Mondays, when my fingers hover over the keys. Certainly I am not alone. Inspiration eludes most of us as the hours pass and days go by. But we press on, dutifully, knowing that joy comes often comes once our fingers have hit the keys.
It is true that our hearts are often sluggish. We do not feel the depth or intensity of affections that are appropriate for God or his cause.  It is true that at those times we must exert our wills and make decisions that we hope will rekindle our joy. Even though joyless love is not our aim... nevertheless, it is better to do a joyless duty than not to do it, provided that there is a spirit of repentance that we have not done all of our duty because of the sluggishness of our heart. (Piper, Duty of Delight, 31)
_________________________________________
Inspired by a brief but meaningful conversation with a fellow writer-as-a-second-(or-third)-career.

Monday, March 6, 2017

"I" Joins Civil Suit against LGBTQ for Letter Exclusion - On Cultural Conversations

I have a gay aunt. Who doesn't these days?
I have a transgender cat; well, technically, it's neutered.
I have a Black son whose life matters.
I am raising educated girls who outperform the languishing boys in their classrooms.
I work with Hispanic students and worship a migrant Messiah, each who keeps a low profile.
And I have plenty of biblically informed convictions on culturally volatile topics. The problem: I just don't know how to talk about them without feeling controversial.
It's tough being a Christian in this "present, evil age." Any misunderstood gesture, statement, opinion, or explanation can be used against you. We are not helped by naive and flippant Christians who use social media as a bully pulpit to dehumanize people who identify differently in matters of race, religion, politics, gender, and sports teams (yes, we should even love Michigan fans). These folks are, to use the apostle Peter's words, troublesome meddlers (1 Peter 4:15), and all Christians suffer needlessly because of them.

Moreover, Christians suffer because of anti-Christian trolls, psuedo-Christian politicians, and vigilant, special interest groups who are so easily offended by any sign of slight. They brand a difference of opinion with the new scarlet letter: "I" (for intolerance).  They denounce, defame, and leverage the same democratic power plays they despise from the Moral Majority. The ground has shifted, Hollywood and professional sports constitute the new moral majority. (And we thought we were just being entertained - ha!)
But I'm not writing to vent or gain pity for the poor, misunderstood Christian. (We'd never get it anyway.) I simply want to surface the problem deeper than yoga pants and popularity contests. Beneath the rhetoric of love and tolerance in our country is a current of hate. Differences of opinion divide us because cultural conversations are messy and misunderstandings abound when social trust is a veneer.
In this "present, evil age," it's tough being a human. We receive more sympathy from Siri and Alexa than our fellow man, fellow woman, or fellow gender-fluid neighbor. But if we think critically, we should see more unites us as a human race than divides us. We share longings for intimacy, impact, and a sense of order (e.g. integrity). We have wants and needs, hungers and thirsts, convictions and confusion, pet peeves and personality quirks, deep hurts and heroic moments. We each bear the image of God and bloodstain of sin.

Our cultural conversations would benefit from finding common ground before leveling objections, joining civil suits, or taking offense. We can disagree gracefully and still grant dignity and show love, which is the highest calling of the Christ-follower (John 13:35). Love and disagreement are not mutually exclusive; however, to coerce someone into my conviction (be it monogamous, heterosexual marriage or culturally defined tolerance) is not loving.

Christians might consider practicing cultural conversations "in house" before airing them in public. Convictions range even among fellow believers; we may learn to talk through these topics (e.g., gender, politics, racism, entertainment, immigration) in humility. We may learn to listen reflectively before responding defensively (don't join the civil suit against the LGBTQ; it's not real anyway).

Most importantly, we may begin to redirect the cultural current of hate with a steady resolve to love.

NEXT STEPS:

  • Gather a group of Christians you trust to have a cultural conversation (different generations and life experiences will enrich the dialogue)
  • Covenant to reflective listening, not defensive responding
  • Pick an hour or two to meet
  • Choose a current, cultural topic (racism, gender, sexual-orientation) and give people a chance to pray, research, and formulate questions
  • Gather for a discussion and appoint a facilitator to begin, end, and moderate fighting
  • Join in big group hug and sing Kumbaya at the end (optional)

___________________________
Inspired by a conversation during Leesbug Grace's Sunday morning Engaging Hour (9:00). Two good primers on this topic includes: David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons's Good Faith and David Platt's Counter-Cultural