Where Life and Faith Meet

The Branch Logo (4000 x 4000)I’m within weeks of launching out into one of the biggest adventures of my life. After being in full-time vocational ministry for the last fourteen and a half years, my wife and I are being sent out of our church to start another church in the next town.

I’ve been on a journey of growing and learning since I started in ministry all those years ago. I came into ministry through the back door, never having been to seminary when I started. Along the way, I got my seminary degree and learned through the School of Hard Knocks. I’ve been fortunate to have had some patient and gracious people along the way who put up with this Enneagram 8’s challenging ways.

I grew up in the church in the home of a pastor. I was at the church every time the doors were open and it really caused me to try to understand just what I was doing there.

My crisis of faith came in my sophomore year of college. I wanted to compartmentalize my life, keeping things separate in their nice and neat containers. But anyone who’s tried that knows that it rarely works and rarely lasts long.

I came out of that time like something from a crucible, a little more refined than I had been before. I had moved from living a secondhand faith to beginning the journey that moved me towards embracing a faith of my own.

In retrospect, that was probably the beginning of the journey that is finally coming to culmination in the weeks ahead. Twenty some odd years of trying to understand just how to live in that place where life and faith meet. How do I embrace my faith and live in the tension that culture and this world can sometimes (often?) provide?

I’ve not always been the easiest person to lead. There has been a restlessness in me since my engineering days (the career I left to come into full-time ministry). But part of the reason was because I’ve always felt this tension, this in between place in which I live as I embrace faith and yet walk and live in a world that can be so hostile towards those who do.

Compartmentalization isn’t really the way faith is supposed to work. Over and over, as I read through the Bible, I don’t see things that would indicate that faith should be relegated to one day a week. If we want to take seriously the words that Jesus said, we can’t put our Bibles on the shelf and dust them off on Sunday mornings or, worse yet, Christmas and Easter. Life and faith meet in the everyday moments that we live.

This is at the heart of this journey that I am on. The community that God has called me to be a part of is one where life and faith meet. It isn’t a place where we put that faith on the shelf for the times when we need it, because if we are honest, we need it every moment of every day.

This past week, I’ve had a firsthand experience of that. This week is a continuation of it. I will be a part of two funerals this week. One of those funerals is for someone who lived a good, long life. The other funeral is for someone who struggled and whose life was cut short by tragedy. But life and faith met in both of these lives.

As I met with families, sat in hospital waiting rooms, drove in my car, I wrestled in prayer, kind of like Jacob did with that angel in the Bible. To say that I’m walking with a limp afterwards would be appropriate. When we wrestle with God, it should change us. But we don’t always come out with satisfactory answers, and I really don’t think we are always supposed to, although we sure would like to have those answers.

In the midst of the collision of life and faith, pat answers don’t cut it. Explaining to a son why his father’s life was snuffed out can’t be done, at least not in my book. The Bible is a guidebook, a story of God’s redeeming love and just how that love intersects. In many ways, it’s a picture of the place where life and faith meet.

This will be an adventure, but more than that, it’s a calling. It’s a calling that’s probably been there for longer than I’d like to admit. It’s a calling that I needed to prepare for, and it’s not just the past five or ten or fifteen years that have been preparing me. It’s a calling that I’ve been being prepared for my whole life. God has been shaping and forming me to embark on this journey.

I’ve rarely met people who feel that they are completely ready and prepared for what is ahead of them. I find myself in the same boat, and that’s the way I think it’s supposed to be. If I felt like I could do this all in my own strength, where would faith be, where would my reliance lie? I wouldn’t be relying on God and I probably wouldn’t be dreaming big enough since I’ve always said that we need to dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them.

Here is what I do know. I know that the place where life and faith meet is a place that many people seem to be searching for. I know that this place is a place that needs to be defined by values.

So, here are some of the values that I’m discovering in this place.

When life and faith meet, there is unity not uniformity.

When life and faith meet, not every question has an answer.

When life and faith meet, relationships take priority over preferences.

When life and faith meet, Jesus meets us where we are but doesn’t leave us there.

When life and faith meet, we are brought to places of discomfort for the comfort of others.

When life and faith meet, ministry and service are not reserved for the “paid professionals.”

When life and faith meet, it can get messy, so we need grace.

I’ll be sure to let you know what I’m discovering along the way.

 

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Reaching the Unreachable?

The Passion GenerationThe Christian church can get obsessed about things. Sometimes it’s a particular sin, other times it’s a particular trend, still other times it’s a particular group or subset of people.

Over the past few years, one of the subsets of people that the church has been most concerned and obsessed with is Millenials. If you’ve hung around churches at all, you’ve probably heard the statistics of how many of these Millenials are dropping out of church once they get to college. Books have been written. Studies have been done. Sermons have been preached. But what’s the answer in how to engage Millenials to get them back into the church?

Enter Grant Skeldon, a Millenial himself. Skeldon has written “The Passion Generation – The Seemingly Reckless, Definitely Disruptive, But Far From Hopeless Millenials.”

Now, I hate it when people talk things up so much that when you finally experience it for yourself, you are extremely disappointed as you find out that something has been oversold to you. At the risk of overselling “The Passion Generation,” I have to say that this book was one of the best books that I have read this year. The clarifier of that statement is that I have read more than sixty books this year, so I think that my opinion matters.

When it comes to Millenials, Skeldon seems wise beyond his years. This wisdom, he claims, has come from the countless mentors whom he has had pouring into him.

Skeldon is not afraid to admit some of the faults of his generation. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to point to those who are older who have caused some of the reactions that we see among Millenials. He speaks truthfully and honestly here, and if those of us who are older are really honest, it gets a little uncomfortable at times. For instance, he poses the question of why the most cause-oriented generation in the world (Millenials) are neglecting the most cause-oriented organization in the world (the church).

The primary means by which Skeldon believes the generation gap can be bridged is through discipleship. Discipleship has become a buzzword of late within the church, but the discipleship of which he speaks is not what most churches have embraced as discipleship. When he says discipleship, he doesn’t mean sitting down one on one with someone and going through a book together. Instead, he means discipleship like Jesus did: spending time investing in people and living life together.

Skeldon believes that Millenials are avoiding the church not because the church is asking too much of them, but rather because the church is asking too little of them. Their fear of commitment is outweighed, he says, by their fear of missing out.

All that being said, Skeldon splits the book into two parts: Discipling Millenials and What Millenials Look For In A Church. He has good practical information in here, but he never claims to have a quick fix. In fact, there isn’t a quick fix. The process of discipleship, regardless of age, is a commitment that’s about relationships which take time.

At the end of each chapter, there are visual representations of some of the key points highlighted within the chapter. For the visual learners among us, this is very helpful. It emphasizes the things that Skeldon sees as most important.

As I read this book, I found myself agreeing with so much of what Skeldon had written. My own experience with Millenials has shown me that much of what he writes in here is true. Many in this generation that has been given a bad rap have not materialized out of thin air the way that they are. Instead, they’ve been discipled to act the way they do, maybe not so much intentionally, but unintentionally.

When I was growing up, my parents had a little plaque on the wall of my room. On that plaque was written a poem called “Children Live What They Learn.” The premise was that the things that children learn by watching, they will do for themselves when the time comes.

I think we are seeing a generation that has learned not what we’ve wanted them to learn, but what we have shown them, and what we’ve shown them hasn’t been the best. So there is a dual ownership here that led to this problem and there will need to be a dual ownership of said problem to move us away from it.

If you are a leader in the church or you simply have a heart for the next generation, I would highly recommend “The Passion Generation” to you. It’s a practical resource full of wisdom, insight, and advice that, if heeded, could go along way in engaging a generation that has been unfairly judged.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

A Craning of the Neck

The last few days have been kind of rough. It hasn’t had anything to do with my immediate family, but rather my church family. Deaths, both expected and unexpected. Sickness. Diagnoses. In a season of the church where hope is among the four major values focused upon (along with peace, love, and joy), it has seemed somewhat elusive.

When my mom was sick and eventually succumbed to cancer, the words of Romans 8 were powerfully meaningful to me. In the original Greek language of the text, the word translated in English as “eager expectation” had a particular meaning that stood out to me. It literally means to crane the neck and look around a corner.

I love word pictures and the picture that emerged in my mind was one of hope and expectation, something that marks the Advent season of the church. It’s a season of waiting. We sing songs of waiting like “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Multiple times in the last few days, I have reminded myself and others that what we are experiencing is not the way things were intended to be. Having to break hard news to someone and watch as a family experiences one blow after another of tragedy is just not the way it’s supposed to be.

Still, there is hope. God’s promises are true. I believe it, but like the father in Mark 9 who desperately hopes that Jesus will heal his son, I need to be helped in my unbelief. Knowing and believing without seeing is where faith comes in.

Fielding the questions of my ten year old son about belief, and heaven, and the difficulty of believing has been sobering as well. I refuse to give him pat answers to questions that plagued me for years because the church was never willing to be honest with them.

As I feel like I’ve said so many times, there is nothing wrong with doubt, it’s what you do with it that matters most. My doubt leads me back to God’s promises. There were periods of the silence of God, hundreds of years. And now, it seems, we are faced with thousands of years of the silence of God. Does that mean he has abandoned us? No, I don’t think so.

Instead, we wait in anticipation, craning our necks around the corner to see if we can just catch a glimpse of what is ahead, what wonder might be waiting around that corner. Any little glimpse will reignite that hope in our hearts.

Surprisingly, in a cramped hospital family waiting room, stuffed with people who had only known each other for a short period of time, I sensed that hope and expectation. In the midst of tragedy, I heard stories of hope. I saw images of hope. I could almost feel the sense of hope palpably.

Don’t get me wrong, tragedy, grief, hurt and pain still suck. I’m not going to sugarcoat that, but I see in the darkness that there is a light, no matter how small. In the Apostle Paul’s words, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all.”

As far away as God might seem, I am comforted by the words that end Romans chapter 8. These words are the words that I choose to propel me forward during times like this.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Hope in the Dark

The Golden ThreadIn his note at the beginning of his wife’s book, Mark Zschech mentions the Japanese art of Kintsugi, a repair method that takes broken pieces of pottery and puts them back together with threads of real gold. This repair method and art form not only restores a piece of pottery that might have otherwise been rendered useless, but it also brings more value to the piece with these threads of gold. Just like this golden thread in a piece of pottery, so is God’s redemptive work in our lives through the various things that break us down and seek to destroy us.

Once upon a time, I was a worship leader in Asheville, North Carolina. Through various connections, I had the privilege of being part of a musical team that supported many of the conferences that came through the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Among the conferences that came through which I was privileged to be a part was a Hillsong worship conference back in the days when Darlene Zschech was still the main worship pastor there.

Spending a week with her and her team was a memorable experience. Many of the songs that I and my church had been singing for years had been written by Darlene and this team. To spend time with them and see their heart for Jesus and for worship gave me the opportunity to see that these songs were not just simply ways to earn a buck, but they were from the heart and lives of people who were earnestly seeking Jesus.

I say all this because I think that slight glimpse into Zschech’s world has shaped my perspective on this book. In that brief time spent with Zschech and her team, I could see how genuine and authentic she was, there was nothing contrived in her at all. She came across as so real and it made such an impact in me and my wife who also attended the conference.

So, as I read “The Golden Thread,” I could hear her speaking the words on the page to me. I could feel the emotion that she felt and I was inspired by the faith that I had seen up close and personal.

“The Golden Thread” is more than just Zschech’s story of being diagnosed with cancer and going through treatments to become cancer free. It is a story of faith and inspiration and while she shares personally in the book, she continually points back to Jesus throughout. What does it mean to want Jesus more than anything? How do you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and maintain your faith? What happens when God’s will and yours don’t seem to match and you are left with disappointment?

Above all, “The Golden Thread” is Zschech’s emphasis on worship through all the seasons of life, no matter how difficult. As she writes, the goal of worship, “should always be to see Jesus and to experience His presence.” While we often might try to make it about us, Zschech reminds us that we shouldn’t be the focus. Worship isn’t about what we do with our lips, she says, but what we do with our lives.

Zschech writes that her cancer treatment, “actually gave me a pass into some people’s worlds where I had previously had no authority.” The shared experience of facing the disease allowed her in relationships, but also in this book, to be invited into the lives of others who were struggling through the “Why” of a diagnosis or other crisis that had somehow arrived completely uninvited into what had been a fairly pleasant life journey.

As I read “The Golden Thread,” I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if one of Job’s friends in the Bible had actually been through difficulties themselves. Would they have come across more compassionately? Would they have sounded more like Zschech sounded in this book?

The message that runs through this book much like the golden thread for which it is named is about hope and the fact that while the world and everything (and everyone?) in it may seemingly abandon you, you are never alone or pushed away by God and you will never be abandoned. Hope in Jesus is the only thing that is sustainable throughout the difficulties of life that we face.

There are insights throughout this book that apply to so much more than simply cancer diagnoses and difficulties in life. Zschech speaks of forgiveness and the need to embrace it in order to be healthy and move on. She speaks of the holy discontent that boils up within us that we need to follow, always remembering that those around us are people to be loved, not problems to be fixed.

Having finished a book by another worship leader not long before diving into this one, I was skeptical of just how I would respond to it. I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged when I found myself wanting to keep reading rather than putting it down.

If you are seeking encouragement during dark times and difficulties, Zschech’s words may encourage and uplift you. While she shares out of her own experience, her insights and the application of them can be beneficial to far more experiences as well. “The Golden Thread” is a book filled with hope that points the reader to the only hope that is real and long-lasting, the hope of Jesus Christ.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Holy Roar – A Book

In the introduction to “Holy Roar,” Chris Tomlin explains why he recommended that his friend Darren Whitehead write the book. After hearing him give a message called “The Seven Words of Praise,” Tomlin approached Whitehead to let him know that the content of the message needed to be shared beyond those who had heard the message at the local church, it needed to become a book.

The premise of the book is fairly simple: there are seven words in Hebrew that are translated “praise” in English. Whitehead gives each word a chapter and speaks of the specific linguistic nuances of these words, explaining the deeper definition, and sharing his insights and particular experience around those specifics. Whitehead’s section in each chapter is followed by Chris Tomlin sharing about a song that he has written or recorded and connecting it to the specific Hebrew word and meaning.

Each chapter also contains a section for reflection and discussion for those who may want to go through the book with their music teams or small groups. There is a quote from a historical Christian figure, a set of verses relating to the chapter, and questions for reflection and discussion.

There was nothing with which I disagreed theologically in this book. It wasn’t boring. I read it in a day, so it was a quick read. As I read through the book, I asked myself whether it seemed necessary to me. What was unique about this book that I couldn’t find anywhere else? If I didn’t read this book, would I feel as if I had missed out on something?

My conclusion was that while the book was fine, it wasn’t great. There were some helpful insights but none that I felt like I couldn’t have come to had I done my own research into these seven words using a Hebrew lexicon and investing a little bit of time. To be honest, I think it could have been marketed as a devotional book or even a Bible plan on the YouVersion Bible app rather than set aside an entire book for this content.

If you are interested in the subject matter and would rather not do the research on your own, by all means, pick up a copy of this book. But if you want to invest some time and study into learning more about these seven Hebrew words, what they mean, and how you can deepen your own personal worship, you may be better off investing in a good Hebrew lexicon and going from there.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Know Your Limits

I was sitting in a local coffee shop the other day and a couple came in looking for breakfast options. The guy behind the counter told them that their breakfast options were limited and then proceeded to tell them about a place down the street that had a more full breakfast menu. The couple thanked him and headed out the door to the little diner down the street.

As I sat there, enthralled with what had just played out before me, I couldn’t help but think about the wisdom in knowing your limitations, in knowing what you can offer and what you can’t. This played out before me in a small little cafe, but I wondered why it doesn’t play out more in churches.

In this church planting journey that I have been on, I’ve thought a lot about churches and what they can and can’t do. I’ve thought a lot about trying to be all things to all people. I’ve wondered what keeps pastors from being secure enough in who they are and who their church is to tell people who are looking for something that they won’t find there that it might not be the place for them.

It’s far more tempting when new people come into your church to do your best to woo them and persuade them that this is the place for them, even if they are looking for something that you can’t give them. It’s far more difficult to be honest and tell them that you know a place that might be a better fit for them. I know that there are pastors out there who actually do that, recommend that people find what they’re looking for down the street, across town, or somewhere else.

In the long run, knowing limitations, both personally and as a church, will help us be more effective. I’ve learned that over the past few years, improving in the area of delegation, not to get out of working but to free myself up to do the things that I do best. Why is it that pastors and churches struggle to do what this coffee shop attendant did? Why do we struggle to know our limitations, admit our limitations, and live into the things at which we excel?

As I embark on this journey, what are the top reasons why I need to follow the example of this coffee shop attendant?

1) It helps to solidify and cast vision

I have a friend and mentor who planted a church years ago. His church has grown to be one of the largest in the area. While it might all seem like it came easily, he can share war stories and show the scars that he’s earned to get to the place where he is at. The one consistent story he has told is of the “vision wranglers” who came to the church with high expectations of what they were looking for and what they thought needed to be offered. Listening to them rather than pursuing the God given vision that you have been given will lead to a distorted vision and a confusing pursuit of that.

If a decision making process is formed to analyze opportunities and offerings within a church to ensure that they are aligned with the vision, it will go a long way in not only preventing burnout but also enforcing, solidifying, and casting that vision. When people ask if you offer something and you answer, “That doesn’t really align with the vision that God has given us,” people might not like it, but they will know what that vision is and how it drives everything that you do as a church.

2) It allows you to focus on your strengths

I could write an entire post on strengths and my own journey in them, but for the sake of this post, I’ll keep it brief. Focusing on strengths is far more fulfilling than focusing on weaknesses. That’s not to say that God doesn’t call us to grow in areas of weakness and rely on him, but I firmly believe that we still need to lean into him even when we are operating in our strengths. Just because something is your strength doesn’t mean you do it perfectly.

Focusing on the things that we are good at helps us be more effective and efficient as individuals. It makes sense that when we take it to a more corporate and communal level to the church that the same should be true. If we know the strengths of our faith community, we should live into them rather than trying to be like the other faith community down the street or across town.

When we try to do the things that we aren’t good at, not only do we become less efficient and effective, we also suffer from an identity crisis. We fail to see who God has created us to be and long to be other than who he has made us. In our pursuit of another identity, we basically tell God that we’re not satisfied with who he made us and we’d much rather be something else.

3) It helps to appreciate the vastness and diversity of the body of Christ

If the body of Christ is as diverse as Paul seems to describe it as in his letters, then maybe we aren’t all meant to do everything. There’s something to be said about a hand doing things that hands were meant to do. Same can be said of feet doing things that feet were meant to do. But an arm was never meant to smell, a leg was never meant to taste, a foot was never mean to see. Likewise, the nose, tongue, and eyes weren’t meant to do the things that arms, legs, and feet do.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging our limitations. In fact, I think that when we acknowledge those limitations, we begin to see just how vast and diverse the body of Christ is and appreciate the gifts of others. While we may still long to be something other than we are, if we humble ourselves, I think God can bring us to the place where we gain more appreciation for the gifts of others, especially when we know how hard it is to try to live into those things.

At the same time, hopefully others come to that same place and begin to appreciate us and the gifts that God has given to us.

This is all fine and good in theory, in fact, someone told me last week that I had a lot of theories. That’s part of the beauty of this journey I find myself on, theories will be tried and tested. They will be proved or disproved. The nice thing is that this is one theory that I’ve seen played out for me by others who have gone before, so theory or not, successful or not in my case, it’s been proven before.

Ultimately, my heart is about being part of God’s kingdom work in this world. That’s not always easy, it’s not without challenges, but I think that it can go a long way towards removing some of those challenges when we begin to live in to who God has made us, both as individuals and communities, and let others live into who they are. If we find ourselves living into that, I think we will begin to see what many of us have prayed for over and over again, God’s kingdom coming and his will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Faith For This Moment – A Book Review

faith for this momentThe subtitle for Rick McKinley’s book “Faith For This Moment” is, “Navigating a polarized world as the people of God.” That sums up this book in less than ten words and McKinley spends the entire book not only explaining this but also giving five practical ways for Christians to live as the people of God in this polarized world.

Living and pastoring in a place like Portland, Oregon gives McKinley a great perspective of our culture. Regardless of what the statistics show about evangelical Christians in the 2016 election, I think that there are far more who can relate to McKinley when he writes, “Where does someone go who doesn’t fit into the given political and social boxes? What do you do if you are serious about your faith in Jesus but feel more and more that the speech and actions being used by certain Christians don’t accurately reflect what you believe?”

McKinley starts the book off describing his own experience of hearing about the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. He asks himself and his readers just how the people who follow Jesus respond in moments like this. Then he lays out a different way than what most of us have seen, a way of conviction and love.

A lot of McKinley’s focus in this book is on the people of God as exiles. It’s not a new concept, but a concept that many followers of Christ seem to have forgotten. The Church either seems to assimilate to the culture or avoid it like the plague. Sadly, it doesn’t seem that there are many who are trying to engage the culture. It’s awkward, hard, and is ripe with conflict, so why take that hard way when the easy way of assimilation or avoidance could be so much easier?

Being exiles is hard, but we in the 21st century are not the first Christ followers to have been exiled. The people of God have always been a people who have been exiled. Egypt. The wilderness. Babylon. As McKinley writes, “exile is an important way for Christians to understand what it means to be the people of God now.”

Readers are taken through a brief history lesson where McKinley outlines how Christendom was formed when Constantine was converted and Christianity became the national religion. Rather than faith being shaped by Jesus, faith was shaped by an empire, and we have seen our misplaced trust in manmade regimes lead to dismay, disappointment, and just plain disobedience.

So, how do we maintain our faithfulness to God while living in exile? McKinley urges his readers to develop the disciplines of repentance and discernment. He points to Daniel in the Bible as an example of an exile who flourished while not assimilating or completely avoiding the culture. Then McKinley walks his readers through five spiritual practices to help as we journey through exile: centering practice, hospitality, generosity, sabbath, and vocation. Throughout the five chapters outlining these spiritual practices, McKinley gives great, practical resources to live in exile without straying too far to the right or left.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to appreciate this book when I first started it. While I was familiar with Rick McKinley, I was not sure how aligned I would be with his approach. I’ve learned that I rarely find myself in 100% alignment with the views of the authors I read, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But as I read “Faith For This Moment,” I found myself echoing “Amen” over and over again. I felt a camaraderie with McKinley I breathed a deep sigh of relief in knowing that there are other fellow sojourners out there who have grown tired of the current trend within the church, who have strong convictions that have been informed by the Bible, and yet who want to live in “Babylon” without setting up some kind of Christian ghetto and praying for Jesus’ speedy return.

If you have found yourself struggling with walking the line between assimilation and avoidance in the current culture, this is a book that you might want to read. McKinley writes in a humble and loving manner, never coming across as a know it all and never becoming too preachy either. I could see myself reading this book again in six months to a year just to remind myself what living in “Babylon” looks like and just how to continue to do so without falling to one side or the other.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Let’s Talk

It being Election Day in this continually polarizing political season, I find myself struggling once again to understand just for whom I was to cast my ballot. In my effort to better understand just who I might align with regarding important issues, my wife sent me one of those online quizzes that is supposed to “help” you figure out which candidate best fits.

So, I filled it out, only to find that I was mostly split down the middle between the two primary candidates. In my attempt to express this frustration of wondering what to do for so many of us who find ourselves in a similar situation, I went to social media. First mistake.

But my mistake led to a better understanding of just why we find ourselves where we are as a country. People will continue to point blame at certain things, but I think I’ve discovered three major things based on this experience.

1. We don’t read well.

I can’t even begin to express how many times that I have put something out on social media and it’s gone south, not because I was insensitive or unthinking, but because people failed to read. We are saturated with information. It comes at us a thousand miles a minute and we don’t know how best to try to process it all. In our effort to do so, we simply scan things and do cursory readings rather than taking the time to really read things.

I am 100% guilty of this. I do it with news. I do it with emails. I do it with mail. I do it with pretty much everything, and I can tell you that I have been burned by it before. I am learning to get better, but in order to get better, I need to understand my own limitations. What am I capable of processing well.

It’s a lesson that most of us probably learned at one time or another when we were in grade school, middle school, or high school. Make sure to read the complete question on your test so as not to misunderstand. Somehow, what we learned back then did not stick.

2. We talk past each other.

Maybe you have found yourself in a situation with a person where no matter how hard you try to reason with them, they continue to say the same things over and over again. While I haven’t witnessed this in a physical conversation, I have been witness to plenty of it online. People have their issues to defend and instead of entering into dialogue and trying to hear and understand the other’s perspective, they simply wait for the other person to take a breath so that they can get in their shots.

We don’t read well and we don’t listen well. If we enter into a conversation and we feel that while the other person is speaking we are simply thinking of the next thing to say, we probably aren’t dialoguing well. While it’s cheesy and cliche, there is something to be said about the old adage that we have been given two ears and one mouth so we should therefore listen twice as much as we talk.

3. The church should show the way.

Over the past few years, I have been a part of conversations with others who follow Christ as to whether or not the word “evangelical” should be excised from our vocabulary. It has been abused and misused and I think the original meaning has been lost on those who have idolized positions, issues, candidates, and a political system that is flawed.

God made it clear to the Israelites early on in their history that a king would not be the answer they were looking for. He told them just what a king would do and how a king would lead them. They were supposed to be a nation that was led by God. Instead, they chose to be like all the other nations around them and have a king. The rest is history, and we can see the result as we read through the Old Testament and see king after king disappoint, fail, and abuse their own people.

While Jesus was political, he was not a politician. He also understood that politics is a system in which we need to operate, not a system of salvation. Too many within the church have looked at the current system of government as a means of salvation from all the “bad people” in the world.

The church should not be led by anxiety and worry. Instead, we should show that our hope is in Christ. We should be leading the way to show that we do not believe that a political party will somehow save us but that we have only one savior, one who did not fit well into the systems of man either.

I don’t know what the outcome of today’s election will be. I can’t say that I have a specific outcome that I am hoping for either. But I do know that it is my responsibility as a follower of Christ, to be focused on a kingdom that is not of this world. That does not mean that I don’t care about what happens here, because I do. It simply means that when things look bleak, when they don’t go the way that I want them to, when I feel hopeless, I need to refocus my hope on the only one who can hold that hope. It is not a political party, system, or candidate, it is the one king who will not falter or fail.

 

The Pastor’s Pastor

eugene petersonTen years ago, Eugene Peterson was simply the man who wrote The Message paraphrase of the Bible. I had never read any other book by him, I had never known of his starting and pastoring a small church in Maryland, and I never would have imagined the impact that he eventually would have on me and my ministry.

My seminary experience was different from many of my friends and colleagues. I did not “do” seminary in the traditional residential way but instead completed my degree through a distance learning program which involved a few trips a year for intensive classes as well as my traveling up to south Maryland to take traditional classes. I petitioned to take classes outside of my program more than any other student I knew, and one of those classes was an independent study using some of the books of Eugene Peterson.

I honestly can’t remember when I learned of the expansive volume of books that Peterson had written. I imagine that it was when I went into the office of one of my fellow pastors. I’ve been known to simply stand before shelves of books in people’s offices, taking mental snapshots of what I see, comparing and contrasting what’s there, and slowly forming an idea in my head just how the person whose office I am standing in has had their theology and ministry formed by the writers represented on those shelves.

Regardless of how he got there, Peterson became a fixture on my radar. I started with one book, added another, then another, and another, and before I knew it, I had a healthy little portion of the catalogue of books he’s written. And by working the angles on my independent study during seminary, I was able to create a mechanism by which I was required to read some of those very same books.

“Learning from a pastor’s pastor,” that was what I called my independent study. The most significant book among the ones that I focused on was Peterson’s memoir, “The Pastor.” It was interesting to read through this memoir and hear the tales that described the formation of so many of the books that Peterson would write. It was even more fascinating to me since I hadn’t read most of them and it gave me a glimpse behind the curtain before I actually read them.

That book, “The Pastor,” has been the book that I have sent to friends upon their ordination to full-time vocational ministry. It impacted me enough, grounding me in my vocation rather than allowing me to be caught up in an occupation. Having grown up with a father who was a pastor, I was intrigued to read this memoir of a man who wasn’t too much older than my own father and to see just how he approached the vocation of pastor.

I remember when Peterson sat down with Bono, the lead singer of U2, to have a conversation about the Psalms. An unlikely pairing became a fascinating exercise in contemplative thought that was shared through every U2 fan who also happened to be a follower of Jesus. And it wasn’t showy or kitschy, in my opinion it was a little more than 20 minutes of nuggets shared by a pop icon and a spiritual mentor, an honest look at what has become one of my favorite books of the Bible. If you haven’t seen the video, I highly recommend that you click here and take the 22 minutes to watch it.

As I began to read more and more of Peterson, I adopted him as a spiritual mentor, just as I had with Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and a few others whose transcendent writings have always reminded me that what I do as a pastor and who I am as a pastor is far less defined by culture and people’s opinions and much more defined by the people who I lead and just how God needs me to be used to help them in their own formation. Peterson reminded me of the richness of the Bible, especially some of the books that are often overlooked by some of the superstar megachurch pastors that try to put  the sexy back into the Bible while some of us are wondering how they even thought it was supposed to be sexy to begin with.

Eugene Peterson was a dying breed. In reading his books and watching videos of him, there is nothing glamorous or flashy about him. His humility and quiet spirit seemed evident not only as I listened to him speak but as I read the words he had written. With every book, I pictured myself sitting in a cozy cabin in comfortable chairs nestled in front of a fire, while man who had lived a significant amount of life imparted wisdom upon me in a gentle yet passionate way.

Eugene Peterson will be missed, but the legacy that he has left through his books will allow his voice to continue to mold and shape generations of pastors. I am grateful for that shaping that has occurred in my own life and which continues to occur. I will continue to gift his memoir to others as they step into vocational ministry and I will continue to allow his words to focus me back on the call of God on my life.

Insider Outsider – A Book Review

insider outsiderIt’s never easy to hear criticism. It’s particularly hard to hear it when it’s something that you aren’t necessarily aware of just what it is that is being criticized. For some who pick up Bryan Loritts’ latest book “Insider Outsider,” it will be difficult to read, but difficult to read doesn’t mean bad and it certainly doesn’t mean unnecessary. In my opinion, if you are a white evangelical in America, Loritts’ book is a must read, no matter how hard it is to push through.

There’s a race issue in our country and from the vantage point of privilege, it’s difficult for those of us who consider ourselves to be white evangelicals to fully grasp just how significant this issue is. Just because we are 150 years from the Civil War and 50 years from the civil rights era does not mean that the steps taken and things achieved by both that war and that era have somehow miraculously vanquished every oppression, misstep, and sin committed against people of color. In fact, for whites to expect that throwing a law at something somehow makes it all better is just plain ignorant of us. In Loritts’ words, fairness doesn’t work, “if the system has been historically unfair to the point where we still feel its vibrations some centuries later.”

Loritts takes aim not at individuals but at the institution that has come to be known as white evangelicalism. For those of us who consider ourselves to be members of that institution, the connect point of the shots that Loritts takes may very well be our guts, and if he’s doing it right and speaking truthfully, that’s exactly where we need to be feeling it.

Loritts tells his own story outlining his experience with white evangelicalism. He talks of being invited in and being cautioned what to say or not to say. He shares of his experience of people responding to him differently depending on the context. He honestly describes the countless knocks that he’s gotten from both sides of the line, a line that in writing this book, I think Loritts is trying to eliminate.

In order for us to really achieve diversity in the Church, we need to be willing to submit ourselves to our black brothers and sisters and to make sacrifices in areas of power that have served us well. We can no longer invite our black brothers and sisters to come along with us and then conveniently throw them only the “scraps” from our table. Loritts writes, “Power and position are always synonymous. A powerless position is a token.” If we really want to seek out racial reconciliation, we need to invite our brothers and sisters to the table and give them an equal seat at that table.

“Insider Outsider” is an attempt by Loritts to dismantle not only the system that has been in place for centuries, but also an attempt to dismantle a system that he has found himself to be part of in some way, shape, or form over his years growing and learning as a pastor. And dismantle it will, if it is read with humility and a desire to listen and learn. Apart from those things, this book will fall on deaf ears and will only inflame those who are seeking to have their own viewpoints coddled and reinforced.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but it’s necessary for those of us who have been complicit to an issue which has not been completely resolved by the principalities and powers of our country. In fact, for any of us to legitimately believe that the issue is simply a political issue is for us to be guilty of the same idolatry that has been evident among white evangelical voters at the voting booth over the past few years.

As Loritts writes, “Love costs.” Anything that is worth it requires sacrifice, and even deep friendships, “have had to liquidate from their relational accounts the currency of love.” While we read in the Bible that love covers over a multitude of sins, we need to understand that love without actions supporting it is simply a clanging gong or banging cymbal.

“Insider Outsider” is a book that I would highly recommend to the right people. If the posture to which someone comes to this book is entitlement and defensiveness, all that they will leave with is disappointment and even anger. If the posture to which someone comes to this book is humility and the desire to be more Christlike, particularly in the area of relationships with our black brothers and sisters, then this book may be a dismantling of sorts. It may be painful, but what growth ever occurs without a significant amount of pain?

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)