Monday, February 27, 2017

Choosing Favorites - On Parenting

Sensi is my favorite kid at meal times. He eats most of what we set before him. He complains little and talks less, taking seconds (and thirds) before clearing his dish. Meanwhile, my daughters peck at their food like birds. They mumble about mashed potatoes. They groan about green veggies (except for broccoli). They eat meat sparingly, mostly when it's breaded and deep fried.

"Sensi is my favorite child right now," I tell them at the dinner table. They roll their eyes.

But Sensi is not always my favorite child. For a nominally verbal child, he makes tons of noise. He smacks his gums and stomps his feet. He crashes his toy cars and slams bathroom doors. "You're too loud," I tell him. "You're... too... loud," he parrots back.

In the early mornings, Claire is my favorite because she shows responsibility, exudes confidence, takes risks, and encourages her siblings. "Claire is my favorite," I tell them on the way to school. They roll their eyes.

But Claire is not always my favorite child. She does not lose gracefully, gives herself first choice of the cinnamon rolls, and struggles to follow through with goals. "Finish strong" I say. "I'll finish you strong," she replies in her head.
In the evenings, Margot is my favorite because she persists through a challenge, manages her emotions, cracks a joke, and shows tenderness to her brother. "Margot is my favorite," I tell them at bedtime. They roll their eyes.

But Margot is not always my favorite child. She drags her feet, whines about school, and hides in the shadow of her big sister. "Look for the good," I say. "Uuuuugh," she replies.

Children are a complex of their parents best and worst traits. We favor them when they reflect what we love about ourselves. They frustrate us when they mirror our deficiencies.

I watch my kids with awe and horror. They nurture my sensitivity, test my patience, and remind me of the unfailing love my Heavenly Father shows me. These children came from me (most of them). They reflect me (all of them). They give witness to my appetite and volume, my confidence and compulsion, my wit and withholding nature. Each one is my favorite... some of the time.

But I must be careful. The folly of choosing favorites plays a prominent theme in Genesis. Successive generations of parents select one child to the exclusion of the others. Abraham chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Rachel chooses Jacob over Esau. Israel chooses Joseph over the eleven others. A recurring cycle of sibling rivalry and parental despair results.

Every child wants to be chosen; feeling second-rate leaves deeps scars. Such wounds trace their way thick into the foliage of the family tree. Listen to the rustling leaves: Choosing favorites is bad parental practice!

So I should stop the ruse. I should tell my kids that they're all my favorite all the time. (And everyone gets a trophy.) In fact, this is exactly what my mother-in-law told her daughters. They all turned out pretty fine. But one of them is my favorite.

Inspired by reading through The Story with my daughters this past January.

Monday, February 20, 2017

I Hear Voices - Feeling Accused and Responding to It

First and foremost, this is not a cry for help. I am having a rare, despondent moment that I know will pass. Feelings come and go. During adolescence, negative feelings enfolded me; happy moments were mere flirtations. In contrast, a sense of blessedness has defined my adulthood. My faith, family, vocation, and strong support systems usually keep me buoyant.

But today, this last hour, my mind has descended. Negativity enfolds me. [Dim the lights. Cue the cello music. Zoom in and fix the camera on my weak and wet eyes. See if I can write myself out of unexpected and lonesome depression.]

It started with the voices. I hear them sometimes. An idea will flash in my head. It draws my attention with its weight and volume. The pitch and tone sound like my voice, but I am reluctant to claim authorship. It's a sudden sermon idea or illustration. It's a word of encouragement I must speak to another. It's clarification on a knotty issue in my personal or family life. It's a term of endearment from a heavenly Father to His beloved child.

These words come regularly - not daily or hourly, but several times a month. They fill my lungs and I run with them.

Unfortunately, another voice creeps in on occasion. It's an accusing voice, a condemning voice, a taunting voice. It's volume is but a whisper, but its weight is lead. Doubt and discouragement follow its tone.
Today, this past hour, I tackled my typical Monday agenda: writing emails, sending texts, organizing my study, making lists, updating my calendar. Then, as I drafted my monthly pastor's report -- an account of my time and energies in teaching/preaching, vision-casting, professional development, and pastoral care -- an assault of accusations poured forth.

  • A denied request for help with a service project proved people are tired of helping me
  • An ignored text message proved I am not worthy of a response
  • A underwhelming response to a new ministry initiative proved my ideas are dumb
  • A mild correction proved I am petty
  • Unsolicited comments on musical choices and sermon content prove I am failing my people 
On top of this relational data, I found in my study evidence of my incompetence as a pastor. 
  • Partnerships I started but did not maintain 
  • Letters I wrote but did not send
  • To do lists with outstanding assignments
  • Ministry projects I sanctioned but did not resource or empower
  • Books I will never read
  • Leadership skills I will never master
  • People I will never reach
Every corner of the room offered insult and accusation. This heavy weight, this haunting voice, this present darkness comes from the father of lies. He's robbing my joy and stealing my light. From the beginning, this has been his task (John 8:44-47). Like a lion, he roams, desperate and hungry, looking for an opportunity to pounce on lonely prey (1 Peter 5:8). 

In her book, When Godly People Do Bad Things, Beth Moore distinguishes between temptation and seduction. The latter, she writes, raises the enemy's efforts. "Seduction is... a [sudden] tidal wave of temptation and unholy assault” (pg. 4). It manifests itself in loneliness and errant thinking (1 Cor. 2:11; 11:14). Today, I am seduced: deceived and alone.

But these are feelings. They are not true. [Raise the lights. Cue the trumpet. Zoom out to frame my strong and steady shoulders. I am writing myself out of this lie.]

The assault is real, but it distorts reality. I know I am not a failed pastor or worthless person, but I am susceptible to the enemy's voice. It may derail me or anyone it targets. Surely, it will come for others as the hour draws to a close. 

But Satan will never have the last word. That privilege belongs to God. And He is on my side. So really, who can be against me? 

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can beagainst us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-38, ESV)

NOTE: This blog felt too much like an easily resolved TV drama, but I truly feel released. Truth does transform Christian thinking (Rom. 12:1-2). And exposing the enemy subverts his attacks.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leadership Is Overrated - Thoughts on Love & Marriage

I love my wife: it is my primary calling as husband. Leadership is not.
Bear with me. I know love and leadership are not mutually exclusive. However, during twenty years of following Jesus, the fist-pounding for male leadership has grown more pronounced.  "Make the hard decisions! Take the big hits! Set the family tone! God expects more of you, men!" These exhortations build into a bold declaration: "Husbands, fathers, and pastors must be leaders."

I've read, heard, and probably articulated similar claims to male superiority (though many wouldn't call it that). Sadly, I cannot seem to find the biblical references.* Jesus rebuffed any grasp for power (Mark 14:35-45; John 19:10-11); he modeled servitude unto his death on a splintered cross (Phil. 2:6-8). Love trumps leadership every time.

I revisited this topic last week following a conversation with a young adult considering marriage. Like many young, Christians men, my conversation partner admitted his hesitancy to get married because his lack of spiritual leadership. "If I can't lead her, should I get married?" he wondered.

It is a fair and noble question, but somewhat off the mark. I took him to Ephesians 5:25-33 to consider the husband's primary calling. Silently, he perused the text. Then I asked, "Where does it say, 'Husband lead your wives?'"

"The husband is 'the head' of the wife," he noted.

"You're right. It does say that. Just like Jesus is the head of the church. Is that the same as a command to lead?" Neither of us was certain.

"Look at the passage again," I prompted. "What is the primary command to husbands in this passage?"

"Is it love?" he replied after a minute's reflection.

A glimpse at the following verses makes it clear: A husband's primary calling is to love.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33, ESV)
Love is primary; leadership follows. Love may result in leadership, but we cannot force or fake love to secure authority. Love's greater aim to please God and enrich others in His name.

A husband who demands to lead may not have an unruly wife; he may have feeble love. Learning best practices in leadership is no substitute for Jesus' course on selfless love: give and forgive; serve and sacrifice; tend and care; listen and, well, listen some more.

Husbands, your wives don't need you to be a better leader -- leadership is overrated -- but a better lover. Now get to it.

*Two "headship" passages (Ephesians 5; 1 Corinthians 11) come to mind. This metaphor is challenging and open to varied interpretations. I think cultural context plays heavily into application here. Not to mention references are not commands (imperatives) but ontological statements.

Monday, February 6, 2017

What a Pastor Does the Rest of the Week...

I talk for a living. So they think. They might be my congregation, siblings, or random person I meet at the supermarket. They say things like, "You only work an hour a week. Har. Har. Har."

The aforementioned hour is Pastoral Primetime (with limited commercial interruptions). It is my weekly window to wax eloquent to a live studio audience.

For the remainder of the week, they are my focus. They might be my congregation, children, or random person I meet at the gas station. They talk; I listen."

Eighty-five percent of pastoral ministry is listening--actively, prayerfully, reflectively. I give my week to hearing from God and good authors, podcasts and pundits, scholars and colleagues, Hispanic toddlers and daycare kids, and, of course, my friends, family, and spiritual community.

Their stories inform my sermons. Their thoughts complement my teaching. Their problems shape my preaching. Their lives affect my liturgy.

But this is not why I listen. Active listening is not a means to a better message. Acting listening shows love and increases one's understanding of another. I want to love, so I listen.
In fact, I wish more people would learn to listen actively. In his book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, Peter Scazerro identified reflective listening as a primary skill for loving well (see pp. 181-184). He provides five guidelines for the speaker (e.g., talk about your own feelings), four for the listener (e.g., let the speaker finish her thoughts), and cues for validating and exploring the other person's thoughts.

When the leaders of his church modeled active listening and trained their people to do likewise, Scazzero noted a seismic shift in their spiritual family. He writes, "[Listening] does not come naturally to anyone I have met thus far. Few of us have every had the experience of being truly listened to. When I began to listen - really listen - to the people's stories and hearts... they felt valued, worthy, and loved."

Preaching may remind, provoke, and inspire, but active listening shows love. They should be glad I only work an hour a week. (Har. Har. Har.) It allows me much more time to listen and show love.

Written in conjunction with a newsletter I wrote for The Equipping Network.

Click here to learn five obstacles to active listening and how to overcome them.