The Hits Just Keep On Coming

Yosemite-El-Capitan-Peter-LaurensonThe governor of my state recently announced that public schools would be out for the rest of the year. While the specific game plan for how things will proceed virtually has yet to be determined, there were a lot of stunned people trying to make sense of this announcement.

For some kids, this might have been a dream come true. For many, they are struggling. They love their teachers. They love their friends. They love their schools. Some of them are graduating and just had cut short a season of “lasts” and monumental moments that they’ll never have the chance to relive again. It’s devastating.

It’s hard as a parent to comfort your child when you don’t really have any precedent to fall back on. While I lived through the months after 9/11 living right outside New York City, it was different. There was a face to our enemy. There was a tangible target of our wrath, anger, sadness, fear, and other emotions.

But this enemy is different. It’s microscopic. We can’t see it but through a microscope. But that doesn’t stop us from still trying to find a more tangible target. We get mad at those people who are venturing out when they are told to stay in. We get mad at those who don’t seem to be taking directions as seriously as we are. We get angry that obeying the “rules” hasn’t brought us any closer to a resolution, to a more positive and final outcome.

Instead, we wait. We hope. We trust. We listen. We pray. Somehow or another, we’ve got to come out on the other side, right?

When I was younger, there was a game that we played called “I have never.” I feel like we are all living through a real life rendition of that game, experiencing moments that have never been experienced before. We’ve not been here before and we would love nothing more than to never come back here again. We’d like to take that COVID-19 virus and dispose of it properly, if there is a proper way to dispose of it.

The world has been turned upside down. We are all scratching our heads. For a country that’s used to getting everything they want, we’re in unfamiliar territory here.

I find myself giving out words of hope, peace, and comfort as much for myself as I do for the people who are hearing them. I’m trying to convince myself as much as I’m trying to convince everyone else. Like the father of the demon possessed boy in Mark 9, I believe, but help my unbelief. That dichotomous statement means so much more to me the older I get.

Thinking back to the many times that I had hard stuff to go through, it always felt like it was the biggest thing in the world. In my 20s, it seemed like it was break-ups. In my 30s, it was life transitions and losing my parents. In my 40s, it’s the fact that I’m getting older. But there’s no way around it, only through it. No way to bypass it. No way to skip ahead. No time-traveling DeLorean will help get us to the other side. We’ve just got to go through it.

So we press on. We can claim resiliency all we want until it’s finally put to the test and we’ve actually got to show that we’ve got all the mettle that we claim we do. Life’s not a sprint, right? Sometimes it feels like we’re on a marathon that’s about 126 miles long though.

And I think about all those who have gone before, those whose stories we can read in the pages of the Bible, who had to just go through it. Abraham and Sarah had no children even though God promised that their descendants would be more numerous than the stars. They just had to go through it.

God asked Abraham to give up the very son that was promised to him. The son he had waited and prayed for. The son who was to be the key to God’s promise. Yes, God would eventually provide a way out, but he still just had to go through it.

Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers. He was brought to a foreign land where he knew no one. He was put in prison for crimes he didn’t commit. God would eventually provide a way out, but he still just had to go through it.

Jesus came to earth and fulfilled the mission that the Father had for him. The night he was betrayed, he prayed and asked the Father to take away from him the task that was before him. But the only way to go was through it, there was no other way for you and for me but for him to go through it.

When we come to the other side, we will be stronger. When we come to the other side, we’ll realize that there was no way around it, just through it.

Until then, we’ll keep pushing through it. We don’t know when we’re finally through until we come out the other side. It will feel like forever, but we will get through it. In the meantime, remember we’ve got each other. Show grace. Give love. Speak peace.

 

Kingdom or Empire

seed-in-hand-copyLike so many other pastors during this strange and uncertain time, I’ve been rethinking a lot of things, not the least of which is how we go about doing ministry. It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself for far longer than the few days that we’ve found ourselves  in the place we’re in. I’ve really been asking that question since I started in full-time vocational ministry nearly sixteen years ago.

Not only am I a pastor but I’m also a church planter. I snicker to myself as I write this, thinking about what an interesting time it is to try to build a church. Then I have to stop myself and realize that while I am and have been working to build a local community and expression of the church, my bigger goal and desire is to show people Jesus. Yes, I make a living as a pastor, but if that becomes my driving force, I think I’m missing the point.

Do I worry during these days? Sure. It’s a little unnerving not knowing what’s next, when all this social distancing can stop and we can go back to gathering in groups of ten people or more to do the things that we are so used to doing. Do I get anxious? Sure. I’ve done my best to stop looking at my retirement savings in these last few days as they continue to diminish in large quantities.

But I have hope that’s beyond the circumstances. If I don’t, then I’m a fraud and I probably shouldn’t be doing what I do. Again, that doesn’t mean 100% absolute surety that everything is going to be all right and that this won’t touch me at all. I’ve been touched by tragedy before and I’m sure it will touch me again. During that tragedy, I still knew God was there. He didn’t manifest himself the way that I would have liked him to. I wished for and prayed for better things, but that’s not what I got.

Or did I?

Every parent knows that if we gave our kids everything that they asked for, we would just end up with a bunch of spoiled kids. And there are often times when the things that our kids ask for and the things that our kids need are not the same thing. Giving them what they need often has to win out over giving them what they want. While they may think they know what they need and equate their wishes and desires with their needs, parents generally know better.

So, do we trust our heavenly father? Do we trust that he knows what’s best for us?

As I keep thinking through why I became a pastor and church planter, I keep reminding myself that I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t want to see if I could build an empire. I didn’t want to see if I could stand there checking off all the people as they walked through the door, puffing myself up with every check mark I added. I certainly didn’t become a pastor to get rich. If I had wanted money, I’d have stayed in the engineering world. Get-rich-quick pastors aren’t preaching the same gospel that I believe in.

Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. The kingdom is here and is coming. A now and not yet. Leaving his church, his people, to do the work of the kingdom meant expanding that, not through buildings but through people. The church isn’t buildings. The church isn’t programs.

I’ve told people over and over again that I want to have a kingdom vision of the Church. I want to think beyond myself. I want to think towards a God-sized vision, a kingdom vision, a vision of people meeting Jesus. To think that only happens through my local expression of the Church might be one of the most arrogant things that I could think. If I only want people to come to my church, then do I really have a kingdom vision? If I really want people to meet Jesus, shouldn’t I be okay with them ending up anywhere he is preached and worshipped?

These are trying times, and I know that everyone, including those who are part of the church, is feeling overwhelmed and anxious. But I do see it as an opportunity. I see my focus staying the same but I see myself changing my medium. Instead of face to face conversations at my local coffee shop, I’m trying to evoke thoughts and conversations online. Instead of speaking to a roomful of people every Sunday evening, I’m speaking to a screen and sharing the same hope that I would be sharing if I were with them in person.

You see, I want people to see Jesus. I want people to know Jesus. He’s the only reason that I’m not freaking out right now. He’s the only thing that’s keeping me somewhat sane right now. Without him, I have no idea where I would be. If they can know that, if they can see what he means to me and the difference that it makes, then I’ve done exactly what I’m supposed to do.

I’m doing my best to be part of building a kingdom. Empires crumble and fall. Empires are built around people and their arrogance and power. The kingdom I want to be a part of building has a king who is loving and selfless and gracious and kind. He gave up his only son so that we might live. He calls us to be part of his kingdom, but he doesn’t force us there. He urges us there. He loves us there. He pursues us until we finally realize just how much he loves us. He is a gentleman king whose love far surpasses anything that we could ask or think or imagine.

I have no idea what will be when this is all behind us. So many church plants fail within the first twelve to eighteen months. But I have to keep reminding myself that my main goal isn’t to build a church, to build an empire, it’s to build the kingdom. I get to be part of that no matter what I’m doing, and no virus can take that away from me.

Unprecedented

It seems as though every generation has a specific event that they remember. Pearl Harbor. The moon landing. JFKs assassination. The Challenger explosion. 9/11. Events happen within the course of time and history that many may describe as unprecedented. Unprecedented for the good or for the bad, either one. It’s something we’ve never experienced before.

Well, if there was ever a day and an instance to use that term, it seems like today is that day. What we are experiencing in our nation and in our world is unprecedented. Globalization has been advantageous in many ways, but now we are seeing the downside, the dark side, the shadow side, or whichever side you want to call it.

Driving to my usual coffee shop the other morning, it was eerie to see cars parked in front of one of the apartment complexes I pass, cars that I had never seen before as everyone had hunkered down and just stayed at home. In the hour and a half that I was in the coffee shop, there were maybe two other people who came in.

Had the term “social distancing” ever even entered our vocabulary before all of this? Had we even considered what this might look like?

Sunday night, as I prepared to bring a message to my church congregation, I kept thinking about all the places in the Bible that I had gone to for comfort and peace in all of my years. Do not be afraid. Be strong and courageous. The Lord your God is with you. The Lord is my strength and my song. It’s funny how it all comes flooding back into your brain when you need to be reminded of it the most.

My daughter seems to sense that things aren’t right. It’s not every day that kids are told that schools are closed for two weeks (at least) when there isn’t a flake of snow on the ground or predicted and when the only thing on the horizon is an unseen germ that’s wreaking havoc upon the world. Kids are intuitive, they can always sense when something isn’t the way that it’s supposed to be.

I’ve watched people who are used to not only having the essentials of life but all the added benefits as well go into a pure panic when they can’t buy toilet paper, tissues, and hand sanitizer. Not that it shouldn’t be a moment for panic of some kind, but people have just gone crazy. A pastor I used to work with once upon a time used to say, “People are crazier than anything.”

Unprecedented.

We’ve not been here before, but there are plenty of people who have gone before us who sat on the precipice of the unknown, not knowing what was to come, what was next, how they would maneuver through it all. It’s unnerving and scary. It strikes fear at the heart of us and we go into panic mode.

I shared Colossians 3:15 on social media a few days ago as well, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” In the midst of unprecedented times, we need to have an unprecedented peace that rules our hearts and our minds. We can’t fall victim to chaos and fear, but need to practice wisdom and peaceful trust in God.

So we press on in faith rather than fear. We step in wisdom, seeking to be informed. We seek the peace that passes all understanding, knowing that only God provides that level of peace and comfort.

In an unprecedented time, I am praying for unprecedented faith to endure. Trusting in God that he will walk with us through these dark times and give us peace.

Stay well, my friends.

Grace and peace!

 

Pulling Back the Curtain – Part IV

Curtain-Pulled-Back-300x204Identity. Where does it come from? Where do we find it? How stable is it?

Having had a father who was a pastor for more than 40 years, I began to see chinks in the armor towards the end of his life. A guy who had answered the phone, “Pastor Gibson,” every time someone called the house, it seemed that his identity was steeped in what he did rather than who he was.

At the end of his life, when that was gone, it’s hard for me not to think that loss of that identity contributed to his lostness. He didn’t know what to do with himself at that point.

I’m not judging him, just making observations that hit close to home. As I’ve been on this church planting journey, I am all too aware for myself how I can wrap my identity up in a worldly view of success. Am I building the biggest church? Do people like me? Am I following the Holy Spirit or the constituency which cries out for what they want?

Knowing the potential for problems doesn’t guarantee that you avoid them, but it sure makes you more self-aware. I continue to go back to something that my cousin, a church planter as well, said to me when I was very early in this process. In my cocky and self-assured way, I had said that I wanted to hear all the mistakes he had made so that I could avoid them. His reply was that I might avoid the mistakes that he made, but I would still make plenty of my own. #humbled

It continually brings me back to the question of how we measure our success. Do I simply count dollars and people? Is that an effective measurement? I don’t think it is.

But how do you measure impact, especially when you can’t always see it? How can you dig beneath the surface to try to understand what’s really going on in a person?

Through relationship. Through one on one conversations. It seems so completely contrary to everything that I learned, but it also seems to make the most sense. Investing doesn’t mean that I find the biggest group of people, sit them in a room, preach to them, and then wait for everything to finally sink in. Investment means that I know the value and importance of one on one relationships, that I know the value and importance of being present with people in the moment.

As I continue to pull back the curtain to see what’s lurking back there in the dark, it’s too easy to want to pull it back again and cover up everything that I find there. But airing it out, hanging it on the line for all to see is so much more therapeutic. I’m beginning to understand more and more why James wrote that we should confess our sins to one another. When we do it with people we love and trust and who love and trust us, it’s accountability and helps us as we move forward.

I am who God says I am. I’m not who anyone else tells me that I am. I’m not my last failure nor my last success. I’m not my anger, my grief, my pain, my sorrow, my fear, my lust, my ego, or anything else. Those things won’t define me unless I let them.

So I’ll continue to press on towards the mark for the prize. The prize isn’t more people or more money, it’s the high calling of Jesus Christ. That calling is more important than anything else, an invitation to join the kingdom work that God has called us to.

Back to the Beginning

June 2008 001Sometimes, you just have to go back to the beginning. The game of Monopoly always brings us back to the start, to “Go” again. In fact, just for getting there in the game, we earn $200. Incentivizing restart, how novel.

Life gets fairly complicated and there are countless times that I am seeking a “do-over” that never comes. I’ve said something I regret. I’ve thought horrible thoughts. I’ve written something  that I can’t unwrite. Retraction might work, in theory, in the printed word, but there are countless things in my life that I can’t retract, I can’t remove.

In Matthew 18, Jesus’ disciples ask him who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. He tells them, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Faith is a turning of the world on its head, its telling us in so many ways that we need to forget what we know, forget what we’ve learned, and move forward in a different way. Jesus tells his disciples, and subsequently us, that this is the case. Don’t be a scholar with loads of degrees, solving all of life’s problems and mentally strong-arming whatever comes your way. Don’t be an adult who gets bogged down in busyness and misplaces the ability to have fun. Be like a child. Be innocent. Be filled with wonder. Be filled with awe.

There is no greater wonder than looking through the eyes of a child at something they see or experience for the first time. The world looks magical. Their eyes ask the question, “Can this really be true? Can this really be real?” Somehow, we move from the wonder to the solution, changing those questions instead to be, “How can this be true? How can this be real?” Not that those aren’t good questions, but when we lose the wonder at the expense of full understanding, we’ve lost our faith.

Faith can’t be proven. Faith can’t always be rational. Faith can’t make perfect sense. And yet we’ve never stopped trying to somehow rationalize it.

The famous theologian Karl Barth was once asked how he might summarize all that he had written in his books and papers. His reply was simply this, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Simple. Child-like. A song learned in Sunday school by the church-going kind that somehow can summarize and simplify the many words of a theologian.

Sometimes you just need a reset. Sometimes you have to uncomplicate the mess that sits before you. Go back to the beginning and recapture the wonder. Become like a child.

 

The Test of Time

0227201818The last few weekends have been a reminder to me of just how important true friendships are.

A few weekends ago, a friend and his wife were traveling through town and we met up for breakfast. While we talk frequently, we don’t get to see each other more than a few times per year, if that. It’s always nice to have face to face time with friends.

While we were at breakfast, I realized that I’ve known this guy for nearly half of my life. That’s a good deal of time. We talk frequently on the phone and have supported each other through some difficult times in our lives.

This past weekend, I and two other friends from seminary surprised another one of our friends for his birthday by flying out and spending the weekend together celebrating. We spent hours just talking, catching up, and laughing. We took part in a new pastime (for us) of axe throwing.

Looking back over these few weeks and these experiences, I couldn’t help but smile with gratitude at the blessings of good friendships. When you’ve experienced loss in your life, you realize even more just how important these kinds of relationships can be.

I have friends who have called these “hide the body” kinds of relationships. These are friends you can call in a pinch and know that they’ll be there to support you no matter what.

Life hardly affords me the time and money to do everything that I would like to do. Even my travel out to Iowa for the weekend was steeped in delays and cancellations with the airlines. It’s not always easy to coordinate schedules in the midst of raising children and working.

But what’s the alternative? I’ve had conversations with some who are just a little older than me who have little to no meaningful relationships in their lives. They keep mostly to themselves and when crisis comes, they find themselves in a pinch, struggling to make it.

I met the guys I was with last weekend nearly twelve years ago. We were just starting out in seminary in a program that took us away from our family for a number of weeks every year. We were all working in full-time vocational ministry.

What’s interesting to me is that the moment we got together, we didn’t miss a beat. We just started talking about the things that were on our hearts, the things that we are passionate about and the conversation flowed as much as the coffee did.

Not all friendships can stand the test of time. People grow apart, interests change, focuses change. I saw this in my early years out of high school and college when I would see people with whom I’d graduated and realize that we really had nothing to talk about apart from reminiscing about the good old days. That’s not to say that reminiscing is a bad thing, but if it’s all we’ve got, our conversation can grow stale after a few minutes.

I’m not sure when the next time will be when I see these guys again. I know that we all felt like it needs to happen more often than it does. I think we also realized that making time for things like this, for people with whom we connect, is important. When you realize the value of something that you have, if you’re smart, you begin to treat it with the value it has.