When Faith and Trust Are Shattered

broken crossThe headlines in recent days have surfaced of allegations not only of Catholic priests who have been accused of child sex crimes, but also that the Pope knew about some of the allegations and did nothing about them.

Meanwhile, over in the protestant world, Willow Creek Church is still trying to crawl out from the dust and wreckage that surrounded their founding pastor, Bill Hybels, and alleged indiscretions as well as the unwillingness of both him and leadership to take responsibility.

Let’s not forget the countless Hollywood actors, producers, and others who have wielded their powers to abuse and take advantage of women.

As I read these headlines, my heart is heavy. It is heavy for the victims who lie in the wake of those who have had power and abused it. Wounds are bad enough but the pain intensifies when the one who has caused them makes no account for their responsibility in causing them.

My heart is also heavy because of the witness of Christ to the world. Unfortunately, those who are not a part of the church, who may look suspiciously at organized faith and religion, do not distinguish between God and those who claim to follow him. We will ultimately judge God by those who claim to follow him. Our judgment of God will be based on the fallibility and brokenness of those who stumble and fall as they follow.

As a pastor, I have a conscious awareness in my bones that, right or wrong, people’s perception of God may be heavily influenced by my representation of him. How I live and act, for the good or bad, will be directly linked to my association with God. I’ve not encountered that frequently when I do something right or when I live well, but it becomes center stage the moment that I step out of line and my flaws are readily apparent.

But allegations such as these are not new, we’ve seen them for years. The Catholic church has been embroiled in controversy before. In fact, it seems like this kind of controversy resurfaces every few years as the victims gain confidence and realize that although they have desperately tried to stuff down their emotions over past events, their courage and the voice of truth needs to stand tall.

Why is it that it seems that men in positions of power abuse that power? Does power really corrupt?

When I read of situations like this, it affirms my belief in the depravity of man, that each and every one of us have been so deeply impacted by sin that our natural tendency is towards it at every turn. The emotional rush that is felt from that power that one gains in authority can easily push someone to that place where they legitimately think that they are the savior and that nothing that they can do will ever lead to dangerous consequences.

As a pastor, people invite me into some of the deepest moments of their lives. When someone is sick or dying, when someone has died, when there is marital conflict, where there is doubt, these are the moments when people seek the church, they seek the face of God, and what they can often find there is the face of a broken and hurting individual who has the potential for allowing their own brokenness to drive their actions.

When someone comes looking for Jesus and instead finds Judas or something worse, their faith and trust are shattered.

How many tears will we continue to allow to fall before this stops? Why have we not set up better guardrails to protect the broken and hurting? Why do we continue to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results?

I am grateful for the boldness of those who have come forward to bravely speak the truth. I pray that even in that bold step, they experience some amount of healing. I pray that they might see beyond the fallible and fallen people who have misrepresented Christ to them and see a savior who weeps with them in their pain. A savior whose heart beats for justice and compassion. A savior whose response to power and authority was to become a servant to all and to criticize and knock down the subversive and abusive powers of the day.

I am grateful that I have found a place where there is accountability and structure, oversight and connection to make sure that I am careful with the authority that has been afforded to me. It is far from perfect, it is still man-made, but it provides for more than I’ve seen in some cases.

May those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ be ready and willing to hear the stories of those whose faith has been shattered. May we listen without judgment and pray for understanding. May we represent Christ as a fragrant aroma, gentle and pleasing, rather than the harsh smell that has emanated from those who have misrepresented him. May we weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn the loss of their innocence and may we show the compassion of Christ that led him to willingly sacrifice himself for the sake of even those who hated him.

And to all those whose faith and trust have been shattered, please know that you are loved by God. Know that despite the distortion of love and authority that has been shown to you, there is a God who wields his power not with a heavy hand and a selfish heart, but with a gentle hand and a heart that saw fit to give his only son for the sake of freedom, salvation, and restoration from the things that destroy and corrupt. May you experience and see Christ as he is, not as he has been misrepresented by others.

Here we go!

ashlandFor those people who know me, being in full-time vocational ministry is a second career for me. Prior to becoming a pastor, I was an engineer, moving up the ranks within the company, getting licensed, getting trained, becoming a project manager. I kept doing what I was supposed to do and found that it was very unfulfilling for me.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the work. It wasn’t that engineering was a bad field. It was really that it wasn’t what I was made to do. I’ve met lots of people who find fulfillment in the career that they were led to right out of college. I was not one of them.

Since my wife and I stepped away from all that was familiar to us back in the Spring of 2004, God has continued to do a work in me. Every few years, I can feel God stirring within me again. I ask myself a similar question repeatedly about whether I have begun to coast along, check the box, or phone it in. I’ve come to realize that life is far too short to do any of those things.

Losing both of your parents before you turn forty has a way of making you rethink things. I had two wonderful parents who were far from perfect but who taught me a ton about what it means to have faith and to live your life allowing that faith to inform who you are and how you live. While my father may have become a little more comfortable than he should have in some ways, he continued to be an example to me of living out his faith in a real and meaningful way.

Over the last year or so, my wife and I have felt the stirring again. It hasn’t been because of a frustration so much as just a stirring within us for something different.

I had gone to a conference which focused on racial reconciliation a little more than a year ago. As I sat and drank from the firehose, I realized just what a privileged life I had lived. I committed to knowing and learning more to see what I could do to be a part of seeing God’s diverse and multi-cultural kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

I connected with a pastor’s racial reconciliation group. I entered into conversations with others about my own complicity in the racial tensions that swirl around our country. I read book after book to try to gain a better understanding of where we are and just how I can get “woke” and help others get there as well.

I realized early on as a pastor that I could not be the guy who got up on a Sunday to preach a sermon that I hadn’t begun to live out myself. Every time that I stood in front of a congregation to preach, God had already been working me over to begin to embrace and try to live out what I was saying. As hard as I tried to avoid it, God continued to pull me back and stir my heart.

Not too long into our time in Virginia, I was introduced to a place called Ashland. It had hit the national media years ago when the D.C. sniper had ventured all the way down there to claim one of his victims in the parking lot of a Ponderosa located within Ashland.

Ashland is a different kind of town. Part Mayberry and yet also feeling like a small city, the down town area has a quaint and winsome feel to it. You take a stroll through the streets looking in the shop windows as the trains run right through the center of town. There’s no protection from the train, no fences to keep you away. In some ways, it feels like Cheers, it could easily be a place where everyone knows your name.

Randolph-Macon College is located towards the center of town, a small liberal arts college with more than 1400 students. Interstate 95 runs through Ashland, drawing travelers and drifters. The population is more mixed than some of its neighbors with approximately 70% of the population being white, 17% being African-American, 4% being Hispanic, and the rest being a mix of other nationalities. Ashland is a town that truly contains both those who have a lot and those who have next to nothing.

As the church that I have been a part of has made efforts to reach out in the Ashland community over the years, we gained little traction. As God continued to break my heart for the people of Ashland, I prayed and pondered over why our efforts seemed to remain mostly fruitless. I spoke with other pastors and people who had reach out to glean from their learnings and even from their mistakes.

The word that rang in my head through all my ponderings and prayers was, “incarnation.”

We usually hear the word at Christmastime as we speak of God putting on flesh and blood and stepping into time and space to become one of us. God didn’t do that because he was lonely or bored, he did it because this was his perfect plan. The way that God would achieve his perfect plan of redemption was to come and live among us, to move into the neighborhood and show God to the world.

I couldn’t help but think that God’s perfect plan was not only for his redemptive purposes but also to model to us just how we are to live. Just as Christ showed the Father to the world, so the Church is to show Christ to the world by living incarnationally. The Church is the bride of Christ and God’s plan to reach the world involves a tainted and imperfect bride who is daily being redeemed.

After months of wondering and worrying about next steps for my family, God was leading me to a place where he was calling me to step out in faith. The circumstances surrounding it all seemed to have made it nearly impossible to deny and impossible to walk away from what God had been setting up and doing. God was calling us to step out of the boat to do something different. He was calling us to live incarnationally by focusing on a community.

That’s where we are, at a place of faith and trust. While I’ve watched and encouraged others who have planted churches before, I’ve never done it myself. I am generally a quick study, but I’m also not afraid to make mistakes along the way. We’re stepping out to see what God will do.

Some have asked whether our church is splitting. That’s not the case at all. My lead pastor and I have spent countless hours praying and crying and talking about what God is doing. We are multiplying for the sake of God’s kingdom work. We are allowing God to do something different in us and through us.

For a recovering engineer, answers are important to have, but they aren’t coming as fast as I would like them. We are slowly moving to the place where they come into view. We don’t know where we will meet. We don’t know exactly when we will start to meet. We don’t know exactly how this will all be funded. But we trust that God has truly called us to this work and in trusting him, we trust that he will provide all that we need to accomplish what he has called us to do.

It will be different, like nothing I have done before. This needs to be a place that is for Ashland because God loves Ashland. I am terrifyingly excited about what lies ahead. I’ve said before that we need to dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them, I’m pretty sure that this is just the kind of dream that I’ve been talking about.

High Impact Teams – A Book Review

high impact teamsThere were two feelings that I had as I read through “High Impact Teams” by Lance Witt. The first one was as if I were drinking from a firehose. You know the feeling, feeling completely inundated with information, good information, that you didn’t know just how you could sustain it or where you would put it all. The other was the sense of understanding that comes when the conclusions that someone else has come to seem to align with conclusions that you have come to on your own.

“High Impact Teams” could very well have been subtitled, “A handbook for building and sustaining healthy teams.” The process of building and maintaining healthy teams in any organization is a challenge, but it seems that the effort within churches may be an even bigger struggle. In the business world, pushing forward can happen with little effort given to the feelings for the individual. Not always the most effective or intelligent approach, but it happens nonetheless.

Within the church, efforts to move forward can often be encumbered by excuses to not hurt people’s feelings or to give them the benefit of the doubt with second chances or third chances or beyond. But Lance Witt talks about having to say, “No” to people and programs. He talks of identity and finding it not in the programs and activities that we build, but in Christ.

Through eight separate sections of the book, Witt tackles practical and difficult topics in order to build and maintain healthy teams. He talks of emotional health and the need to be balanced in who we are in Christ to let our teams move towards a similar place. He talks of the relationships with people and the need to prioritize them before the goals that we are trying to achieve. He talks of conflict and just how important it is to hit it head on rather than walking around it and doing everything in our power to avoid it.

Over and over again, I found myself pulling out my yellow highlighter to whole sections of this book. As Witt spoke of organizational DNA and the things that both hinder and help it, I was taking mental notes. He shares with wit and wisdom his own experiences, humbly admitting the times in his life when he didn’t get it right as well. There may be times when his gleanings seem more like wisdom from the business world, but the organization of church can gain insights from those kinds of experience.

“High Impact Teams” will find a place on my bookshelf where I can reach for it and delve into the insights again and again. It’s a helpful handbook for those who are truly seeking to create a healthy environment where God can carry out his work. It’s not even necessary to read this book from front to back. I expect that everyone leading a team can benefit from at least one of the sections in this book, so even just reading the individual sections, this is going to be an asset to the bookshelf of any leader inside and even outside of the church.

(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.)

Light Momentary Afflictions

2 Corinthians 4.jpgThe other night, I spent a few hours on a video call with some good friends from seminary. We realized during our call that we had known each other for ten years. As we took turns sharing updates about where our lives have been going since the last time we all connected, there were up and downs, celebrations and victories, difficulties and challenges.

I have been so grateful for these four brothers over the years. During our time in seminary, I wasn’t always crazy about traveling to Minnesota twice a year, especially in the thick of the February Minnesota winter. I wasn’t crazy about all the classes that we had to sit through either. The one thing that I always looked forward to, though, was what happened when class was done for the day. Even though our days were full, we would spend evenings talking about ministry and how we were being shaped and formed to see things different than what we had experienced or been taught.

While it was great catching up with everyone, when we disconnected, I felt heavy inside. It wasn’t because of the company, it was because of the subject matter. Over the course of our conversation, we talked about life challenges, particularly the loss of parents, something that was near and dear to my heart. Out of the five of us, only me and another friend had lost a parent, but everyone was well aware that it was inevitable to face and something that they were all interested in hearing about, learning from what we had experienced for ourselves.

It’s not every day that you can have meaningful and deep conversations with people. While my heart was heavy with what we had talked about, my heart also felt full having experienced brotherhood, love, and friendship through our conversation. But it sure did remind me of the gravity of life.

A number of other things had happened leading up to this conversation with my friends. My dad’s birthday was last week, always a reminder to me that he is no longer here. While the deepest part of my grieving for him has passed, I don’t think grieving is ever fully over or complete, nor do I think that it should be. Our grief reminds us of how temporary we are and it also reminds me where my hope should be found.

The day after my dad’s birthday, a dear family in our church who has endured significant hardships over the years lost their house in a fire. They also lost their dogs in the fire. This same family had lost their son last fall after a long nine and a half years since surviving a tragic car accident. The fire in the house spread quickly and within a few hours, everything was lost, including their dogs.

As I drove to the house to be with the family as they watched firefighters try to fight this fire, I found myself at a loss for words. I muttered a few obligatory words to God in prayer, and then I honestly told him what I was feeling. I didn’t really know what else to pray than those honest words, crying out on behalf of a family who had already seen and experienced such loss. It was one of those moments when I really wondered why God allows certain things to happen.

On the heels of all of these things, I drove into work the other day with the pall of all of these serious conversations and events hanging over me. I was grateful for the Bible app in my phone that could read passages to me as I drove. I scrolled to 2 Corinthians 4 and pressed “Play,” allowing my phone to read the chapter to me.

When I came to verses 16 through 18, I paused and felt the weight of all of these things coming down. Pulling into the parking lot at my office, my eyes stopped on these verses and I processed just what they meant in light of all that I was feeling.

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Light. Momentary. Affliction.

The only word that I really like there, that really feels honest to me, is affliction. To call these things light and momentary almost seems disrespectful at best, heartless at worst.

Then I had to remember just who had written these words. The Apostle Paul knew difficulty. He knew affliction. He had been beaten. He had been shipwrecked. He had spent time in prison. He dealt with a thorn in his flesh which continued to afflict him even after praying three times to God for it to be taken away. This same Paul could call all of these things light momentary afflictions.

Perspective.

My heart is still heavy, but there’s hope. That seems to be what it comes down to for me, is there hope? Can I see past the present circumstances to what will be? Not easy. Not comfortable.

Hope doesn’t extinguish the pain of the present, it just puts it into perspective a little. Hope doesn’t remove scars or grief, but it can often help us see beyond them to the purpose for which they were experienced, or more to the point, what they accomplished in us and how we changed through them.

As I said to my friends on our call, I can’t imagine what life would be like without community. I am grateful for the communities in which I found myself. It’s in those communities that I have been formed, encouraged, and sustained. And so, it’s in those communities that I will remain as I press on.

The Hundred Story Home – A Book Review

hundred story homeWhat do you do when in the midst of living the perfect life that you had always wanted, you are challenged out of that comfort zone to pursue something more significant yet risky and scary? Kathy Izard can tell you. While living her dream life in Charlotte, North Carolina, circumstances shifted her out of where she was going to take her in a direction that she never would have imagined. Izard writes that at thirty-five, she was, “an accidental tourist in my own life.”

In The Hundred Story Home, Kathy Izard tells her story of significance and how she was able to make a difference with the issue of homelessness in Charlotte. From her early days growing up in El Paso Texas with her parents and two sisters, Izard writes of her mother’s mental illness during an era when mental illness was still the unspeakable illness. No one talked about it. No one really dealt with it. Though people in their church cared for her and her family, she writes, “There are no casseroles for crazy.”

After going to college in North Carolina, getting married, starting a family, and settling down in Charlotte, Kathy began to live her life, the life that she had felt she had stumbled upon. She stumbled upon an ad in the church bulletin asking for volunteers to help out at Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center. That began the journey that would eventually lead her on a journey towards helping to address homelessness in Charlotte.

Kathy Izard tells her story like a rambling river, meandering between the details that swirled around her life. She chronicles her mother’s illness. She talks about the bond that was formed with her father and how his cancer diagnosis and eventual death shook her out of complacency. She talks about her daughter’s open heart surgery at nine months old. All of these details surrounded the work that she had begun to see how the issue of homelessness in Charlotte could be addressed.

After reading the book Same Kind of Different As Me, she felt led to reach out to the authors to see if they could come speak at a fundraiser for the ministry center on whose board Izard served. They agreed, the fundraiser was put together, and in an interaction with Denver Moore, one of the authors, he asked her where all the beds were when she toured him around the ministry center.

Izard’s journey continued and she tells of how she began to take Moore’s words to heart and worked towards helping to start a program that took some of the most chronically homeless off the streets.

Kathy Izard is a gifted storyteller. She invites her reader into her narrative. Her story never feels disjointed or abrupt, everything flows in such a meaningful and intentional way towards the end. She shares her heart and I could hear her emotion in every word as she struggled with sadness, despair, wonder, curiosity, doubt, and joy.

My expectation when I started this book was that Izard’s faith might have taken more of a front seat than it actually did. She mentions her lack of faith early on and it never develops beyond a simple acknowledgement of the fact that God was there. I was a little disappointed that seeing how all the pieces came together didn’t stir her faith more than it did. While she acknowledges its presence in her life, it never seemed to have moved out of the back seat that its inhabited for the majority of her life.

The Hundred Story Home was a good read. I was encouraged by the story to hear of one person’s journey towards combating homelessness. It seems that with the right ideas and right connections, anyone can make a difference. An acknowledgement and testimony that God was in the details and just what that meant to Izard might have been in order.

(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.)