In the Shadow of His Wings – A Book Review

I’m generally not a huge fan of devotional books. Some of them feel a little too fluffy to me with not a ton of depth to them. Once in a while, one comes along that pleasantly surprises me for one reason or another.

“In the Shadow of His Wings” by Roslynn Long is one such devotional book. The book is compiled of 40 devotions that are inspired by birds. Long is a photographer who spends a significant amount of her time photographing birds. Long’s photography has been featured in a number of publications.

The stunning photographs that accompany Long’s devotions feature some spectacular birds in their native habitats. Long has a way of capturing these birds doing some of the most mundane things yet the pictures show the elegance of these birds.

The photography is only half of the story about this devotional. The ways that Long connects these photos to the birds and then to various stories in Scripture is creative. There were numerous devotions that I found myself thumbing back to in order to make sure that I had truly caught some of the facts that Long had shared about the specific birds that she had shot. I felt like I was not only learning something new about the birds, but also seeing things from the unique perspective of this woman who had spent so much of her time in God’s creation, freezing it in moments caught on film.

“In the Shadow of His Wings” may not be for everyone, but if you have someone in your life who is a bird enthusiast and who loves devotional reading, this is a great gift idea for them.

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

Beautiful Things

Nearly a decade ago, I was involved in a church split. It was messy. It was raw. It was ugly.

Looking back on it now, there are many things that could have been done differently, by me and everyone else involved. While I wasn’t the leader at the time, I was on staff and was enduring my own personal crises as I had lost my mom and was getting ready to lose my dad.

In the years since, I’ve seen plenty of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the church. The good can be attributed to God doing work in his people and doing work in the world through those people. The bad and the ugly were mostly because I think people had forgotten just what the church was called to be in this world.

Within the Gospels in the Bible, we see the three years of Jesus’ public ministry chronicled in detail. Oftentimes, things got messy and when that messiness got to be too much for some people, they did whatever they could to try to hide the mess, ignore the mess, or pretend that it just wasn’t there. Messiness makes people uncomfortable and they’ll do whatever they can to eliminate it from their lives.

Here’s what I’ve found about messy people: they usually know they’re a mess. I think that’s apparent in the Gospels as well. Jesus met with the messy people and they were the ones who embraced the gospel the most, because it met them in the messiness of their lives. The gospel isn’t about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and rescuing yourself. It’s about finding the One who can rescue, restore, and redeem us from the mess.

Jesus doesn’t tell us to clean ourselves up and THEN come to him, he meets us in the messiness and helps us out. We are unable to get out of that mess on our own, we need a savior, we need his help. That doesn’t stop most of us from still trying to get out on our own without his help.

Recently, I’ve seen more of the messiness of life played out before me. I’ve seen the messiness in the church and how the church responds to messiness. To be honest, it’s been somewhat disconcerting. Churches use words that point to the transformative power of God, preach sermons on grace and forgiveness, they even take some of those terms as their names, but then they do their best to do everything but live into God’s power and those names.

Our culture has done a masterful job of expelling anything that makes them uncomfortable. If I don’t like it or it offends me, I’ll cancel it and wipe it out of my viewport so that I can pretend that it doesn’t exist. Sadly, I think the church has followed suit, expelling all the things that make it less than tidy and comfortable. The church loves to present an alternate reality rather than painting a picture and casting a vision for what a transformed reality can look like in Jesus.

When we look at our own capacity for things, we just assume that beauty can only beget beauty. After all, that makes logical sense. How on earth can something messy, ugly, or unkempt ever bring forth something of beauty? If beauty begets beauty, messiness must beget messiness as well, right?

But the Gospel message tells us the opposite. It tells us that God makes beautiful things out of dust. From the most unlikely of places, God brings forth some of the most beautiful things. He does that so that no one else can take credit for that beauty but him. God created something from nothing and he continues to make something from what many people might think to be nothing.

God’s church will continue to go on in all of the many expressions in which it’s been seen over the past years, decades, and centuries. There will be expressions across the spectrum when it comes to the messiness that we encounter, the messiness that results from sin and brokenness in this world. The question that I think we all need to ask is, “How messy am I willing to get?” through it all. Are we willing to embrace the mess in order that the mercy and grace of Jesus can restore and redeem those things?

Doing Church As A Team – A Book Review

If you are part of the body of Christ, the Church, and you’ve witnessed the last few years through a global pandemic, you would probably agree that it exposed many of the flaws of not only who we are but some of the methods that we have used that we thought were effective.

The Church was never meant to be a business or an institution, led by some incredibly talented and winsome leader who draws people in for an hour a week. The Church is a movement of which people are a part, God’s instrument to carry out his Great Commission to share Jesus with the world and make disciples of others.

Accomplishing this can’t be done effectively unless everyone who is a part of a specific local church works together, pooling together their gifts and resources as one team as they understand their gifting and how they fit into the overall big picture of the community of which they are a part. The Church shouldn’t be made up of spectators or lone rangers, it should be composed of people who want to play as a team, people who understand what they’re good at and what they’re not good at so that they can more effectively carry out God’s mission in the world through his Church.

In his book “Doing Church As A Team,” pastor, speaker, and author Wayne Cordeiro shares from his own experience of how to move towards this approach towards church. Whether you’re starting out from the beginning or you’re trying to change what’s been done for decades, Cordeiro shares insights about moving towards this way of carrying out God’s mission while including the people who have committed to coming along with you.

As he so aptly shares, “Doing church as a team isn’t one person doing a hundred things. It’s a hundred people doing one thing each – each doing what they do best.” The more people are involved doing the things that they do best, the less likely those same people will experience burnout and the more ownership they will take that this is truly a community of which they are a part.

Doing church as a team is a means by which we get everyone involved. It’s not about filling roles with warm bodies. It’s not about giving away all the jobs you don’t like or want to do to anyone other than you. Doing church as a team is a means by which we live into the model of the Church that we see in Ephesians 4, finding our gifts and the best place where we can fit to use them.

Cordeiro shares about how to recruit people into this approach. Culture. Mission. Vision. Values. These things aren’t just important, they’re essential to giving life to this approach. If we are missing these key qualities, people will not know what they are committing themselves to. While the process to think and pray through these things may take more time up front, the repercussions of not taking that time will be far more costly in the long run.

As someone who had embraced this approach towards being the Church well before I ever cracked open “Doing Church As A Team,” Cordeiro was speaking my language throughout this book. Through my own experience of starting a church, I have seen so much of what Cordeiro writes about with my own eyes and felt it deep down within. Cordeiro doesn’t write as one who has arrived, he even says in the Epilogue that he feels he is still writing the book. There is humility there.

Cordeiro is prescriptive with certain things when it comes to this team approach, but only with the things that are essential and should not be cast aside. The things that are indispensable to him are not the approaches that have to do with numbers but instead have to do with people, heart, and mission. He prescribes an approach at the 30,000 foot level that the reader will need to contextualize to their own specific setting, never suggesting that the way that it has played out in his own setting is the end all be all approach.

There are countless nuggets to choose from within this book, but Cordeiro lays out what just might be the essence of doing church as a team when he writes, “In doing church as a team, leaders live to make other team members successful.” The overused and cliche phrase is, “There is no “I” in TEAM” but if we’re going to take a team approach to being the Church, we need to see less of ourselves and more of Jesus.

Although I didn’t feel like there were a lot of new ideas or concepts to which I was introduced in this book, it’s always good to feel affirmation that you’re heading in the right direction. The ideas and concepts that did feel new to me, however, were more than worth the time spent reading the book.

If you’re starting a church from scratch, trying to transition an established church, or just wondering if there are ways that you can be doing things differently in your own context, I encourage you to pick up a copy of “Doing Church As A Team.” Not only will you feel like it will benefit you, you’ll see the impact it has on all those who move from the sidelines to the playing field as they begin to use their gifts for the Kingdom of God. 

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

Both Sides Now

Maybe you’ve seen the video circulating the interwebs of Joni Mitchell singing for the first time in public in nine years at the Newport Folk Festival this past weekend. Not only was it the first time singing in public in that amount of time, but it was also her first time back at the Newport Folk Festival since her last appearance there 53 years ago.

Among the songs she sang with a group of musicians, including Brandi Carlile, was her classic song “Both Sides Now.”  Mitchell is seen in sunglasses sitting on a big, comfy chair as she croons away, not seeming to miss a beat.

Joni Mitchell’s album “Clouds” was released in the Spring of 1969. She released the album “Both Sides Now” in 2000 with a newly recorded version of the song. This past weekend also marks more than 53 years since Mitchell first released that song.

It’s an interesting and bold song to be sung by a not quite 26 year old, the age she was when the song was first released. But these recordings and performances could not be more different and yet they somehow fit so beautifully this song which talks of the perspective that life gives us. The context of a 25 year old, a 58 year old, and a 78 year old singing the same song at different steps along the journey of life provides such a dynamic canvas upon which Mitchell paints.

Have you read the words? Are you familiar with them? Bold words for a 25 year old to sing let alone to have penned. Can one live so much in 25 years that they could write words like these?

Rows and flows of angel hair

And ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere

Looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun

They rain and they snow on everyone

So many things I would have done

But clouds got in my way

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down and still somehow

It’s cloud illusions I recall

I really don’t know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels

The dizzy dancing way that you feel

As every fairy tale comes real

I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show

And you leave ’em laughing when you go

And if you care, don’t let them know

Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now

From give and take and still somehow

It’s love’s illusions that I recall

I really don’t know love

Really don’t know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud

To say, “I love you” right out loud

Dreams and schemes and circus crowds

I’ve looked at life that way

Oh, but now old friends they’re acting strange

And they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed

Well something’s lost, but something’s gained

In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From win and lose and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all

It’s life’s illusions that I recall

I really don’t know life

I really don’t know life at all

In fact, as a child, polio had crippled Mitchell, paralyzing her, and yet somehow she managed to will herself to walk again. By the age of 25, Mitchell had already found herself single and pregnant, eventually giving her daughter up for adoption. So, maybe she sang it with more humility than one might expect, maybe these bold words which almost demand to be sung by someone older were actually sung by someone who had already experienced all the life she sings about even at only a quarter of a century into her life.

At nearly 80, having survived the rupture of a brain aneurysm in 2015 and rehabilitating from it, these words cut much deeper. If you’re familiar with Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” then you might understand a little and get a feel for the emotional depth of this song. Every word seems to hang there in the air, having been felt immensely over the decades of Mitchell having not only sung the words but having lived them as well.

Once upon a time, I wrote about Billie Holiday’s album “Lady In Satin.” It’s only for the dedicated fan. Her voice is rough, sounding much more like an over-the-hill singer in her 60s or 70s than the young 43 that Holiday was when she recorded the album. Holiday would finally succumb to all the life she had lived in her 44 years a little less than 2 years later.

The emotion in Mitchell’s performance in Newport this past weekend is different though, different than what we hear in Holiday. She almost seems surprised at the crowd’s applause as she reacts with a childlike giggle. The words are believable and humble. Of course, this giant of a woman who has led with confidence throughout her life is humbled as she sings these words. Even in interviews of the weekend, the humility with which she speaks seems to be coming from one who has truly looked at life from both sides now.

Unlike listening to the Holiday recording, hearing Mitchell sing the songs she sang this past weekend actually gives hope. It seems that Mitchell sings as one who has been given a second chance, one who has come so close to breathing her final breath and yet surviving, one who has managed to overcome obstacles and challenges and emerged on the other side as humble, grateful, and full of joy.

Once in a while, there comes a performance that takes your breath away, transcending beyond the moment, making you realize just how powerful music can be when given the chance and the vehicle. This past weekend’s performance is one such a performance, at least to me. I dare you to watch it, to read those words, to hear those songs, and to not be swept away by the emotion of the moment.

Pulling Back the Curtain – Part VIII

It’s been more than six months since I last posted a post like this. It’s not for lack of motivation, will-power, or even material. Life has a way of getting away from us. In the words of John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The stage of life that I am at with my kids has my wife and I waving to each other as we run from activity to activity, and our kids aren’t even as busy as some that we’ve seen.

Since we’re this far into this series, a recap may be in order for those who haven’t been following along up to this point.

In the Fall of 2018, I began doing work to start a new church community in a small town north of Richmond, Virginia. The church that I was a part of at the time had been talking about planting in this location but countless circumstances prevented it from happening. By the time that Fall rolled around, the Activator in me had to move. While it may have seemed like impatience on one hand, I think it was also instigation from the Holy Spirit.

Over the next year, I put together a team of families who were interested in the vision that God had given me to start this new church community. We met, we prayed, we served, we strategized and in the Fall of 2019, we publicly launched a worship service on Sunday evening at an African American church led by a friend of mine.

Little did I know that six months later, the world would shut down because of COVID. I had never imagined that we would celebrate our six month anniversary by streaming online for the very first time. Yet we persisted and pressed on.

As the world has learned to live with COVID, it felt like a re-launch of sorts when we started meeting again. Instead of a flash pan launch event, it felt more like a gradual recovery. God began drawing people alongside of us who were committed to what was happening and those who didn’t seem to align with the vision drifted towards places that were a better fit for them.

That last piece was hard and I honestly think it will always be hard. Planter. Pastor. Whatever. When people leave something that you have committed your life to, something that you have poured your blood, sweat, and tears into, it’s painful and hard. I don’t say that to guilt anyone or even prevent anyone from leaving churches with which they don’t align, I’m just being honest.

For people who are deeply passionate and committed to the things that they do, everything feels personal. As people have left to find something with which they better fit and align, many have said, “It’s not personal.” But for me, as a passionate Enneagram 8, everything is personal, even when it’s not. I feel it in my gut. That’s a “ME” issue rather than someone else’s issue, one that God is continually working on in me.

Here’s the thing, when we set out, I didn’t just want to launch a worship service. There are plenty of those that are God honoring and that seem to attract the casually interested believer. God is using them, but what drew me to the place where God planted us was not the idea of building a big worship service with loud music, smoke, lights, and hip preaching.

If the Gospel doesn’t meet us in the places where we are, the places where we need the light to shine, then is it really as powerful as we say that it is? My criticism of the Church had been that we were presenting a gospel that paled in comparison to the one that Jesus brought, the one that he gave his life to fulfill. If our gospel only came with platitudes and programs, I knew that it would never be enough to speak deeply into the lives of people who live paycheck to paycheck, whose immigration status was questionable, and who were used to living in the margins, overlooked by many until it became convenient for them to be seen.

Honestly, as much as I think the ideology we’ve embraced aligns with how we see the early church grow in the Book of Acts, I’ve been astounded at the gravitational pull away from it over the last few years. That pull is so strong within North American culture that it infiltrates those who have grown up in Christianity deeply. In Star Wars vernacular, it seems like the Force is strong with it.

I’ve written about it before and I think it bears repeating to say that this approach that we’ve tried to take is an approach that forces us to change our metrics for how we measure what we are doing. Here again, the gravitational pull towards counting has such a strong influence on us culturally that it’s exercising new muscles to approach things differently.

I sat in my office the other day with someone who has been a regular attender on Sundays. This person is also a regular attender of two or three other area churches. As we talked, they said, “It just doesn’t seem like you have a lot of people coming on Sundays.” I couldn’t help but snicker to myself, like I said, that pull is strong.

I began to explain that having lots of people wasn’t really the metric I was using to determine whether or not we were fulfilling our mission and God’s vision. I am far more concerned with the hearts of the ones in the chairs than I am about how many of the chairs are actually filled. I am far more concerned that the people outside the walls and the chairs know that they are loved by us, no matter how big or small we are. I am far more concerned that people SEE Jesus in us well before they hear us speak his name. Not everyone is going to embrace this vision, and I’m okay with that.

The other day, I was having lunch with a friend who has jumped in to be part of this community and what we are doing with his wife. He paid me one of the greatest compliments I could ever ask for as we talked. He said, “For a small congregation, I get the sense that the work you are doing in the community is far greater than the work done by congregations significantly larger than you.” It was an affirmation that I probably needed to hear more than I was willing to admit. He had said something that I had thought but needed to hear from someone other than myself.

As I pull back the curtain, there is one more thing that I will say to those who encounter people like me. The tendency of all of us is to go towards our default, to ask the questions that we ask of everyone. Thoughtless, lifeless questions, the answers to which we probably don’t even care about.

As I’ve talked with others who are desperately trying to do things differently, we’ve all agreed that there are certain questions that we not only don’t want to answer but we would rather not even be asked. The one question that stands out more than any other is, “How many people do you have coming on Sundays?”

I abhor that question not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed. I abhor it because it tries to pull me back to a metric that I’ve abandoned, a metric that seems to be far more about numbers than about discipleship and mission. In my opinion, discipleship and mission don’t happen to their fullest in worship services, they happen in the highways and byways that we occupy throughout the week. If we think that ALL of the discipleship and mission we do are happening in our worship services, I would say we had better take a closer look to see if we’re really accomplishing what we think we’re accomplishing.

It’s been a gut-wrenching, exhausting, and painful few years, but God is faithful. I have grown so much over these last few years, in ways that I would never have grown had I not had to endure all that I’ve endured.

To put a fine point on it, I will end with the words of the Apostle Paul as he wrote to the church in Philippi, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

May we all press so boldly on, knowing that we haven’t arrived yet, but are moving forward more and more each day.

Keeping It Simple

Why do we make things so complicated?

Ok. I’m asking rhetorically, but not completely. Do you ever wonder why things are so complicated and wonder just how they’ve gotten this way?

As we roll into Summer, I can’t help thinking and dreaming about those summer days as a kid when I looked at the day from the perspective of the morning. I had the whole day in front of me and it felt like an empty canvas to an artist, a blank slate upon which I could write and create whatever I wanted.

I grew up in a state where bottles and cans could be returned for a monetary deposit. I spent endless summer days riding my bicycle all over town collecting bottles and cans to bring to the local supermarket to get money for candy, comics, and baseball cards. While the candy is long gone, I still have those comics and cards.

But it’s not just summer, that’s just one picture of the simplicity of things. Nowadays, we seem to find a way to complicate everything. I think we do it in the church a lot. We want answers but we’re not willing to try and fail. Tell me what it’s gonna take to roll this out successfully the first time out. Tell me how I can knock it out of the park on my first try.

As a church planter, the first time out fairly goes the way that I’ve thought it would or the way I’d like it to go. But that’s hardly been discouraging. If anything, it drives me to tweak and change and roll it out again to see if we can move closer to making it work.

We were probably all told by at least one teacher, coach, youth pastor, or mentor of some kind to keep it simple. Sometimes they used the K.I.S.S. acronym, keep it simple stupid. But as good of advice as it might have been, I think we always seemed to abandon it. Why?

Well, life is hardly simple. It’s complicated. Maybe we’ve felt that we’ve needed to match fire against fire. In order to navigate the complicated waters of life, maybe we thought we needed to match it with an equally complicated solution. As a former engineer, I can tell you that the best solutions I ever discovered were always the simplest solutions. They were also the cheapest. That’s not to say that simple solutions don’t require some amount of investment and commitment, it just means that the simplicity of the solution isn’t relegated to just the concept but also the cost, at least financially.

I honestly don’t have time for complicated. I want to distill everything down to the simplest explanation and solution.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think that is always possible, but it doesn’t keep me from trying. Just because we continue to face the complicated doesn’t mean we always have to match it with an equally complicated solution.

So next time you’re faced with something challenging and complicated, don’t automatically assume that the solution will be as challenging and complicated as the problem. Start with the simple solution and go from there. You may just be pleasantly surprised to find out that the way forward is far simpler than you anticipated.

Lost

To say that I’ve felt lost lately may be a bit of an overstatement. Frazzled. Scattered. Harried. Yes. All of those things and a lot more. It’s not so much that I’ve felt lost as much as I’ve lost lately.

Sometimes life gives us analogies as a picture to better understand to what point we have arrived. The analogies and pictures seem to be an indication of a deeper truth and reality that’s happening somewhere below the surface. Something pops up that sends us a message, letting us know that no matter how we might be pretending things are alright, they just aren’t.

I hate losing things. I obsess over lost things. People. Things. Money. Whatever it is that I’ve lost, I have a hard time letting go. If there’s even a chance that what’s been lost can be recovered, I’ll climb the highest mountain and brave the deepest valley to bring it back. It may be better stated that I don’t like losing something that I’ve actually had and held onto.

It’s not really a good thing for pastors and church planters to obsess over lost things. Churches lose people all the time. If you have a lot of stuff, things get lost. The easy answer to that is to clear the clutter or get more space. One of those two options may be a temporary fix, but I think that losing things is a symptom of a deeper problem.

I’ve lost two things in the last few weeks. Both are replaceable. Both may still be found. To be honest though, I’ve been angry about both. It feels irresponsible. It feels like a waste. If I’m completely honest, it makes me feel stupid. I hate losing things.

I probably could have seen it coming. Life has felt frenetic and frenzied of late. Trying to juggle the schedules and activities of five people is a challenge. When most of those five people are actively involved with many things, the challenge increases. It comes to a point where you don’t know whether you’re coming or going.

Lately, I’ve lost track of which day of the week it is too. The days begin to blend into one another and it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.

At the same time, it’s felt like the perfect storm lately with a collision of endings, beginnings, and transitions. One at a time might feel manageable but the combination of all at once has seemed somewhat unbearable.

The other day, as I sat in my office trying to decide which direction to go and what to get started, I felt lost. Nothing seemed right. Nothing seemed doable. I finally just sat down in a gaming chair and played Wii. It seemed the best thing to do, and frankly, I make no apologies for doing it. While I can’t say I felt a lot better afterwards, it felt like a release of sorts.

Parenting children in their early years and through middle school and into high school is a brief blip on the radar. Too many people who’ve gone before me have told me that it goes fast. I’ve listened. I’ve agreed. I’m living proof of it as my last child moves into her final year of elementary school. In another year, there will be college visits. Like Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

What’s the answer to all this lostness?

Margin.

The older I get, the more I encounter these seasons of life that make me feel like I’m on a carnival ride spinning out of control, and the more I begin to appreciate what margin can bring to my life. Over the last few years, I’ve been part of way too many conversations where a rule and rhythm of life has been mentioned. Whereas I once would have scoffed at the idea and mention of it, my ears have perked up recently as I’m not only paying attention but very interested in what this means for me.

As we move through Summer into Fall, I’m going to be exploring the idea of margin and most likely doing a sermon series on it when September rolls around. I’ve found that the series that are most effective are the ones when I’m mostly preaching to myself. I’m sure I’ll share some of my insights here, so stay tuned.

What Do We Do With This?

Every Sunday, in the small faith community that I lead, at the end of the message, I ask a question: what do we do with this? I then go on to ask three more questions or make three statements or any combination of the two.

As we sit here a week after yet another tragedy involving schools and guns, I can’t help but find myself drifting towards that question: what do we do with this?

In the beginning of our weekly gathering on Sunday, I read a Psalm and sang a prayer of lament that was written by those great theologians, Coldplay. It seemed right and relevant and I’ve never been one to shy away from doing something that may prove useful, especially in a time like this.

When I lost my parents, I realized just how poorly we as a society handle grief. We don’t give ourselves space or time for it. It’s a distraction in our overly scheduled and busy lives, something that prevents us from keeping up with the hurried and frenetic pace at which we run. We don’t like to stop and grieving demands and requires us to stop.

Do we want answers? Of course we do, but there are times when we simply need to grieve the loss. A tragedy of this magnitude involving this many children was last seen in our country in Sandy Hook, a tragedy near and dear to my heart as my family lives around there and my nephews go to school in that town.

Gun control and mental health are at the top of our list of talking points. Every news agency and politician has sunk their teeth into one or both of these, advocating for change, mostly along party lines. While these issues are of utmost importance, are they the issues at the heart of this? Yes and no.

We’ve been talking about gun control for years and seemingly getting nowhere. One side wants more stringent rules, extremists want the complete abandonment of guns. The other side wants freedom. The problem is, there are costs on both sides and it doesn’t seem like anyone is willing to pay. We’ve lost our ability to compromise and the further our opponents dig their heels into the ground, the harder we pull and the more adamant we become in our own stance. There is no budging.

But America has a deeper issue, America has a heart issue. We’ve lost our identity, literally. We don’t know who we are and we’re looking in all the wrong places to find answers.

I honestly think that the mental health issue is the greater issue here. If we don’t like to stop or slow down for grief, we certainly don’t like to slow down to care for ourselves and ensure that we are in a good mental state. Self-care and Sabbath have been virtually thrown out the window.

I say this as someone who is experiencing how badly we suck at this in full right now. One of my children is on three separate sports teams for a brief period of time. Couple that with weather delays after one of the weirdest and wettest Springs we’ve had in central Virginia since I’ve been here and it makes for an incredibly stressful schedule with little to no margin or breathing room.

I felt this in all of its glory the other night when I forgot the paperwork required for my child to play on a particular team. It was a gametime decision whether my wife or I would take this child to the fields. When I finally drew the straw, I was so rushed to get out the door that the necessary paperwork remained on said door as I hopped in my car and drove to the fields.

Thankfully, the fields are only five minutes from my house, but as I muttered lots of unnecessary words to myself after leaving my prime parking space to drive home, I couldn’t help but think, “Isn’t this such an analogy of what’s wrong with things right now?”

We had experienced one of those pizza and leftovers dinners which has become all too common in our house when dinner becomes just a transitional time between one activity and another. It’s pure survival to try your best to adequately feed everyone while your feet and body are traveling in a million different directions. This isn’t the norm for our family, we do our best to have dinner together most nights. Sometimes we laugh and joke, sometimes there are arguments, sometimes there are kind words, sometimes we all sit there in silence, enjoying our meals, but we spend that time together.

Am I saying that a lack of family dinners is what caused this tragedy? No and yes. It still points to a deeper issue, a lack of something. A lack of care. A lack of time to relax, rest, and unwind. We can do better with guns and mental health, absolutely, but we can also do better with margin. When we run from activity to activity, we leave no space to ask ourselves the important questions like, “How am I doing?” and “What am I feeling?” When we run at such a frenetic pace, we simply stuff down all the things that need to be addressed. In essence, we’re shaking the bottle, allowing the pressure to build up.

While some downtime will relieve that pressure, until we open the bottle and provide some major relief, it will just build up and build up until it explodes. I think what we are experiencing in our country is just such an explosion.

Over the last few months, I’ve been taking 30 minutes during the week to have lunch with a few students at the school with whom our faith community has partnered. Overall, the church has tried to provide support and encouragement for the school community in small ways throughout the year. I substitute there regularly and have built relationships there.

The principal and I have built a strong enough relationship with one another that she felt comfortable to ask me if I could come for lunch and spend time with a student. One student turned to three and it’s been a pleasure for me to hang out with these kids.

The thing is, it took some convincing for me. It didn’t make sense at first. I couldn’t justify that it was the best use of my time. Was I really being as effective and efficient as I could and should be?

But I think those were the wrong questions. The better question, at least to me, was, “Am I making a difference?” That’s a harder question to ask and maybe harder to answer as well. How can I know? Can I measure it? Can I see it?

All I know is that every week, when I spend those thirty minutes with these kids, I see them laugh and they’ve told me that it’s their favorite part of their day. We don’t do anything significant or special, we just eat lunch together, yet it somehow is classified for them as a highlight.

As I get older, I look at the things that I think are important, especially in comparison to what I used to think was important. Things have changed, pretty dramatically. Experiences have prevailed over stuff. Time spent together has become a cherished commodity that I’ve found I’m not very willing to give up.

One of the things that I’ve said frequently since I started the church I lead just six months before the pandemic hit is that making a difference in a community requires proximity and presence. I think that holds true for any kind of change. The change that we need has to be grassroots kind of change that starts in the small places and moves out from there. We can legislate the hell out of ourselves all we want, it’s still not gonna make a difference if we aren’t getting close to people and spending time with them.

People will want more, I get that. People need more, I get that as well. For now, the efforts that I have found to be most effective are the ones within arm’s reach for me. I probably should hold off my cries for broader change if I’m not doing my best to make a difference where I am.

This Is Where I’m From

In a Facebook group that I’m part of for my hometown, I saw some pictures the other day that had me longing for what used to be. Those pictures transported me back to a time and place where things were more innocent and easy, where the complications of life seemed less and there were endless possibilities for things to come.

I grew up in privilege. Even though my family didn’t have a ton, the town in which I grew up was saturated and overflowing with privilege. We didn’t have a lot of ethnic diversity, if any at all. Our town had been featured in films and articles about anti-Semitism and elitism.

As much as I shudder to think of some of that privilege, it’s a part of me. I am who I am because of my upbringing, good or bad. I was afforded certain privileges that have led me to today. Education. Experiences. Everything.

The older I get, the more I think I appreciate the place from which I’ve come. That’s been a process, as it is for so many people. It’s easy to look at the flaws of where we’ve come from and completely dismiss our experiences or try to distance ourselves as much as possible from them, but we have been shaped and formed by them. Even when we need to be reshaped from them and the damage that they’ve done, they are still an integral part of who we are.

I’m not sure this happens to everyone, but something happened in the years when I was a teenager, especially those early years, that cemented themselves in my brain and psyche. Music. Movies. Experiences. Almost as if it was a magical time for me where nothing could go wrong (which was hardly the case).

I still point to life lessons that I learned in those years, lessons that have not only stayed with me more than 30 years later, but lessons that I willingly pass on to my own children. Appreciating the value of others despite their differences and different abilities. The need to step down from one’s pedestal to get a perspective that’s indistinguishable from that height. I am who I am because of what I’ve gone through.

I’ve grown a little tired of the extremism of our culture. Things can only be good or bad, we’ve lost the value of nuance. I think it’s because nuance requires time and effort, self-sacrifice, self-reflection, and a growing self-awareness. We’d much rather move on from the moment than to sit in the tension and awkwardness of those moments.

I don’t think we should so easily toss the baby out with the bathwater. I believe in a God of redemption and restoration, a God who created beauty. We can find that beauty if we look hard enough, and sometimes that search requires some major effort and major patience, something at which I don’t generally excel.

From my vantage point today, thoughts of the past are bittersweet. Memories of my mom and dad run through my mind that bring both smiles and tears. There is joy in remembering but remembering also causes us to acknowledge that the past is gone and we can’t dwell there for too long. That doesn’t mean we avoid it or don’t think about it, but it also doesn’t mean we completely abandon it.

In the aftermath of recent events, maybe I’m feeling excessively nostalgic. Maybe I’m wishing for that innocent and beautiful past, longing for that time when I didn’t know as much as I do today. Like Jim Croce wrote, “If I could save time in a bottle…”

I look backwards and I can’t help but have a feeling of gratitude for it all. Good. Bad. Hard. Easy. Failure. Success. They’ve all shaped me and I refuse to throw away those things.

One day, my children will look back on their past in a similar way. They’ll see the mistakes and errors in all their glaring glory. They’ll have to make a decision about how they will respond to them. Will they see the beauty there despite the flaws or will they jettison those memories from their minds in an effort to cleanse their mental palate? My hope and prayer is the same my parents probably had for me, that they might embrace the lessons and beauty and learn from all those mistakes.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Part of the challenge of a life of faith is the ability and willingness to turn over every rock, specifically about yourself. If we’re honest, a lot of us aren’t crazy about confronting those little idiosyncrasies in ourselves (are they really THAT little?) and moving towards health and wholeness. We don’t always like to admit our faults and weaknesses. We’d much rather present strength and reliability.

I know that some people aren’t crazy about personality profiles, but for me, tools like the Enneagram, StrengthsFinders, 5Q, and others have helped me to become a lot more self-aware and they’ve revealed both the strengths and weaknesses in me. They aren’t “gospel” but they can be incredibly helpful for self-understanding and understanding of others. For someone like me who tends towards judgment, they can help me be a bit more gracious and understanding when I normally tend towards rage and frustration.

In a lot of ways, these assessments feel like looking in a close-up mirror. You see yourself, flaws and all. There’s no hiding or creating false pictures of yourself when you’re face to face with the “real you.” When we step away from the mirror, we can easily create a false picture of who we are. I’ve often said that I still feel 25 in my mind, but when I step in front of a mirror (or on a scale), I come face to face with the reality that I’m nearly twice that and not nearly as glamorous as I once was.

There has been so much written and recorded lately about unhealthiness within the Church. Podcasts. Documentaries. Books. It’s almost as if exposing the faults of the Church is trending. I’m all for this kind of exposure if it brings us to health and wholeness, like all of these assessments, but we also need to keep ourselves in check to understand that in a broken and sinful world, we ALL have some amount of culpability in broken systems. Whether that brokenness is seen within the Church or in the systems that we have set up which are skewed towards the privileged and oppressive for those living in the margins, we need to take honest and raw looks at it all.

I have been a part of the Church since I was a boy. My father was a pastor (thus the blog name; PK means “pastor’s kid”). In my teenage and college years, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that I would abandon my engineering career to become a full-time pastor. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of ministry within the Church.

As a church planter in my 40s, much of what I have embraced and pressed towards has come out of the brokenness that I was a part of within churches that I attended and in which I served. My personality can still give me false pretenses that “this won’t happen to me.” But I‘ve lived enough life to not be so naive as to think that I have the corner on the market for perfection. I’m not doing things perfectly, I’m just doing them differently.

One of the hardest things that I’ve faced while serving as a pastor is the exodus of people from my own faith community. As an Enneagram 8, I take everything personally. Cutting me off in traffic feels like a personal affront to me, as if the only reason someone did it was to anger and frustrate me. When you’re a passionate person and you pour yourself into the things that you do, you can easily get hijacked by these emotions, and I’ve found myself hijacked all too often.

People leave churches, there’s no way around it. A lot of the conflict within churches that I’ve served has come from not being willing to admit that fact, as if somehow we can stop the inevitable from happening. I once told a pastor that I served with that people would leave and you could either accept that fact or end up seeing people leave as much for inaction as for action. In other words, people will leave your church because of changes, ceasing to implement changes will cause others to leave because of the embrace of the status quo.

Through it all, one thing that I noticed that never sat well with me was the tendency for the leadership within the church to constantly blame and vilify those walking out the door. There’s something wrong with them, they said. There was never any asking the question, “Is there something that we need to do better?” and “What do we need to own in this?”

Having seen this culture of blame in multiple locations and multiple denominations, it was very unsettling to me. Culture is a funny thing because it rubs off on us so easily that we begin to ooze and bleed it unconsciously. Before we know it, we’ve assimilated to culture and that assimilation is often not fully seen and noticed until we move away from that culture or that culture begins to change.

The Apostle Paul writes of the tendency of people to gravitate towards leaders in his letter to the Corinthians. Some followed him, others followed Apollos, others followed Cephas (or Peter).  These shouldn’t have been, Paul wrote, means for division. Our boasting shouldn’t be in our leaders or our churches. Our boasting should be in the Lord.

The culture of blame is strong and I find myself gravitating back to it time and time again. If I’m honest, it’s a defense mechanism to make the pain feel lesser and to make my own insufficiencies disappear. There are two sides to every conflict and if we aren’t willing to own at least some part of it, we won’t move towards health and wholeness. But it’s so much easier to tell yourself, “It’s not me, it’s you!” through it all. That kind of approach removes the need for self-reflection and puts all the blame solely on someone else.

This culture has felt at times like the unhealthiness of break-ups. We can’t keep on because there’s something wrong with YOU. There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m perfect. So the obvious deficiency in the relationships HAS to be you.

Carrying that analogy further, it’s an exercise in humor and terror to imagine what would have happened had some of the dating relationships I had turned into marriage. I would dare say that most, if not all, of those marriages would have ended because they just weren’t a good fit. The admission that sometimes things just don’t fit is not a sign of weakness or deficiency, but it’s way better to have that admission earlier in the process. The earlier in the process it comes, the less pain will be for all parties involved in the long-term.

I think the same thing can be said within our local faith communities. I think there have been too many pastors who haven’t been willing to admit that some people may not just be a good fit for the communities they lead. Instead of admitting that on the front end, they deny it and begin to accommodate the requests of someone who has a different vision of a different culture. Instead of saying that the vision is different, many pastors simply say, “We can do that!” rather than asking, “Does that really align with our culture?”

Trust me, I’m not pointing the finger at everyone else, I’ve been just as guilty in this as the ones at whom I point. If I’m not careful, I can find myself in the people-pleasing business. Relationships are important to me, so I can easily sacrifice vision for the sake of the relationships, which isn’t always a bad thing. But when it comes to a healthy culture that’s being established, being a gatekeeper of that culture and its vision is important.

Back to the blame issue though, just because someone desires a different culture than you are creating (or have created) doesn’t make you right and them wrong, it just makes you different. Just like there are different learning styles in people, there are different cultures that are much more conducive to some than they are for others. When we’re honest about that, I think we will face less conflict, especially the painful kind where blame is the end result.

I’ve tried to embrace a different way, a way that freely emphasizes a culture but also freely admits that some may not find a home in that culture. I’ve tried to abandon blame and embrace grace, even going so far as to shepherd people towards places where they may find better cultural fits. If we are really trying to be part of building the Kingdom of God, I think that’s a better approach. If we are trying to build our own kingdom, which I think is our default position, it’s going to feel awkward and uncomfortable. Just like any exercise we do for the first time, it’s going to feel that way, but we need to embrace it knowing that it won’t ALWAYS feel that way.

As someone who isn’t always comfortable with the pain and emotion of this, it’s a growing edge for me, a place where I’ve had to allow God to do the work and me to just be more pliable and moldable. It’s been hard and uncomfortable. It’s made me experience a gamut of emotions, from sadness to anger and everything in between. But I think I’m liking the result much better than the alternative. I think I’m seeing growth in myself, and that’s really the only growth that I can 100% control.

Confession over.