How Are You?

how-are-youIt’s a question that we may speak as often as we hear it, but how often do we ask it with sincerity, sincerely wanting to know what’s going on with the person whom we’re asking? When someone asks it of us, how likely are we to give an honest answer or do legitimately think that, if we gave an honest answer, the person who was asking us really gave a rip?

As I get older and the lens of what’s really important in life seems to become clearer, I continue to see that there are certain themes and principles that seem to apply across the board. No matter who you ask, no matter where you are, these things seem to be true.

One of these things that I have come to appreciate and understand more and more over the past few years is the fact that you can never assume that what’s on the outside of the box matches what’s on the inside. In other words, when it comes to people, just because someone seems to be doing okay on the outside doesn’t mean that they aren’t hiding something….or, more accurately, not divulging what’s really going on for any one of a number of fears.

For me, as a pastor, Sunday mornings can be among the busiest hours of my week. I am trying to make sure that everything is set. Whether I am preaching or leading the music team or whatever I might be doing, it can be an incredibly stressful hour. That’s not to say that I am not focused on the goal of that time or the importance of it, it just means that there are other things that I need to maneuver through to get focused on just why I am there. But it can be easy for me to casually cast off a “How are you?” here and there without really thinking through what I’m really asking or, worse yet, without really wanting to know or hear the answer.

Like I said, though, one thing that I am coming to realize more and more every day is that there can be far more going on beneath the surface than the casual “How are you?” with the obligatory “Good” or “Fine” retort actually shows. And I wonder just how many people answer the question honestly and really feel that they can answer the question honestly. If I answer honestly, will the person asking even care? If they care and I’m honest, will they tell the world about what’s going on in my life? If they find out what’s really going on in my life, will they shun me and make me feel as isolated as I already feel?

I’ve come to realize that just because someone answers that they’re doing good or fine or whatever, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s an honest answer. And so it’s forcing me to pay attention and to listen. How do people carry themselves? Are their words and answers matching their body language? Are they dropping any subtle hints about what’s lying beneath the surface as I speak with them?

Because I can get so caught up in the goal and the endgame, I can easily forget about the people involved in accomplishing and achieving that goal. When I do that, it cheapens the relationships that I have that are far more important than that would indicate. The last thing that I want is for the people around me to think that they are just cogs in a system of simply getting to the end. I wouldn’t want to feel like that, so why should I think that anyone else would want that either?

No, things aren’t always what they seem. There is usually so much more lurking beneath the surface, but it takes intention, patience, love, empathy, care, and time to really get there. People aren’t going to share it right out of the gate. They need to know that they can trust you, they need to know that you won’t betray their confidence, and they need to know that you really, truly, genuinely care about them and what’s really going on in their lives.

I’m learning, I’m growing, and I’m trying to do better here. I’m working to make sure that if I ask someone “How are you?” that I am ready for whatever kind of answer they might return to me. I might not always like the answer, I might not always feel like I’ve got the time for the answer, but to not listen and care about the answer is to allow someone to float off all alone out there in the world.

We can make a difference when we listen and pay attention. We can make a difference when we legitimately ask the question and want to know the answer. I know that when I’ve done it with genuine concern, it’s made a huge difference to the people to know that someone is paying attention and someone cares. I know that there have been times when the question has been asked of me and I probably gave more of an answer than the person was expecting, but in the end, it made all the difference in the world for me to be heard and to know that someone really cared. 

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Me Too – A Book Review

me-too“Too many people suffer alone. And most people who suffer alone aren’t looking for answers. Most people who suffer alone are looking for a friend – a friend who understands.”

So writes Jon Weece in the introduction of his book “Me Too.” And such is the premise of this book, we were not created to be alone. Not apart from God. Not apart from each other. He continues in the introduction and says, “And that’s what this book is about: an eternal Father who specializes in wiping away tears, and the people he uses to help him.”

Throughout “Me Too” Weece vamps on a variety of topics. He uses personal stories to connect to the message that he’s telling here. He goes to the Gospels to share stories about Jesus and how he met people where they were, just like he meets you and me. His writing style is comfortable and he easily draws in his reader, making them feel as if they’re engaged in a conversation with an old friend at a coffee shop. He never comes across preachy, judgmental, or in a rush, it’s as if the reader is the only person in the world with whom he wants to have a conversation as he weaves through page after page.

There’s nothing deeply theological here, no material for deep Bible study or even further research. This book was a quick read for me. Not only did it draw me in once I started reading, it kept me engaged and I had a hard time putting it down. Weece shares his wisdom and wit and the reader is left with a book that makes you smile, laugh, cry, and think. Sometimes, we just have to read books like this, for no other reason other than that we need to be reminded that we are not alone, that God wants to know us more, and that there are others who can relate to us as they say, “me too” when they hear us tell our stories.

“Me Too” was worth the read. It didn’t take long to get through it and it felt like time well spent to just be reminded of the many things that Weece reminds the reader of throughout this book.

If you’re looking for something deep and theological, you won’t find it here, but if you find yourself in a place where you need to be lifted up and reminded of the good God who created us and desires to know us, “Me Too” may be just the thing that you’ve been looking for.

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

Walking On

“The hardest part of suffering is that the rest of the world keeps going like nothing has happened.”

Jenny Simmons

I was talking to a good friend the other day who recently went through a difficult time with a Christian organization for whom he worked. He was recounting the hurt that he experienced and was telling me about his new job. While he was incredibly encouraged that he found a new job, it’s not in his “wheelhouse” and it sounds like it’s going to drain him if he doesn’t find something more satisfying.

He said that one of the hardest things that he was experiencing was the fact that people just assumed that since he found another job, everything was fine.

It made me think of the grieving process and the above quote. When there is a loss or pain or hurt, it’s natural for the rest of the world to move past it once the initial shock of the situation wears off. But that same movement that happens for everyone else doesn’t happen quite as easily for those who have actually experienced the loss or pain or hurt. The world continues to turn and people’s lives go back to their own sense of normality, but loss, pain, and hurt have a way of leaving their victims to hold the fragile pieces of their lives in their hands and wonder how to piece them together again.

I’ve been through my fair share of loss, grief, and disappointment. During those times, I discovered this truth and tried my best to navigate through what have become the societal norms when it comes to coping. It seems that we don’t know how to slow down well. We don’t know how to simply sit in our pain. Worse yet, we don’t know how to sit with others in their pain either.

Be still.

 

Be still.

 

Be still.

Those are two words that seem so simple and yet our ability to not only grasp them but to put them into practice seems elusive. They’re not hard words to understand but they’re hard words to follow. How do we find time in the midst of all that we have filled our schedules with to stop and process? More practically, how do we find the balance between completely ignoring the pain and letting it overwhelm and consume us?

God is bigger than my loss. God is bigger than my pain. God is bigger than my hurt. While I believe all those things, they too are hard to actually move from simple assent to full on embrace. How do I take those statements and allow them to be more than trite and superficial advice?

We’ve got to put one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, moment by moment of each day. Like the Israelites journey through the wilderness, the path which we take seems more directed by circumstances or chaos than it is defined by order and understanding. While the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, life rarely affords us straight line paths through grief and pain and hurt.

The ones who understand this best are the ones who have experienced it the most. While there are highly empathic people on this earth, the ones who can understand this the best are the ones who have actually walked their own road, finding out for themselves that straight lines are overrated and journeys rarely go as the AAA Triptik tells us they should, especially through such unstable and unpredictable situations as grief or loss or pain.

We are created for community and we will find comfort and solace when we find others with whom we can share our experiences. We are a gift to each other and we can’t forget that we need others as much (if not more) than they need us.

We will continue to experience loss and pain and grief, that’s part of life in a broken and fallen world, but we need not experience it alone. We can help others to remind them and ourselves how important it is to let the current take you rather than fighting it. It may be a wild ride and it won’t always be fun, but when the journey is through, we will be wiser to share what we have learned with those around us.

A Fellowship of Differents – A Book Review

Fellowship of Differents

In light of recent events in the United States, both recently and in the past few years, there can be no denying that there is a struggle when it comes to our differences. When we differ in our ideology and our beliefs, what do we let that difference do to us? Are we motivated to bridge those differences and find commonality or do we simply seek sameness?

In his book “A Fellowship of Differents,” Scott McKnight examines the differences between us. He looks at what the church is supposed to be and what the church has become. McKnight presents a salad bowl as imagery to what the church should be. We are to be mixed up, combined together into a glorious mess, a conglomeration of different working together with their similarities.

McKnight presents his own experience of church as well as the experience presented us within the biblical narrative. He reminds the read that there has never been a “golden era” of church despite the fact that many will try to convince you that the church in Acts and the early 1st century was perfect or near perfect. He asks questions to get us to look at what we see to determine whether or not it is what we should be seeing. Carrying out the salad analogy, he wonders whether we have smothered our differences and become ingrown, rendering invisible, ignored, shelved, or AWOL any who don’t fit into the norms that we present.

In seeking to come together as a fellowship of different, McKnight calls the church to this its biggest challenge. In seeking to become this salad, this fellowship of different, McKnight calls the church to six themes that are to be central in order to live out the Christian life: grace, love, table, holiness, newness, and flourishing. He divides the book into these six sections and thoroughly unpacks them.

McKnight writes that, “Christians are too often addicted to stories of dramatic and extraordinary grace. We love the big story such as Paul’s – but grace isn’t just found in the dramatic.” He explains that grace is meted out in the everyday miracles, in the transformative affect that is seen in the common and mundane. Grace is God’s love reaching us because of what he has done rather than what we have done. It is God’s big “Yes” to us.

Beyond grace is love, a love that has been distorted in our societal definitions. There is the love which is thrown around in our everyday language and then there is the love of which we read in Scripture, the two of which are distinct and different. Love is simple when we are called to love those like us, but what of live when we need to love those unlike us?

Since our culture dominates the definition of love, it is no wonder that Christians within the church struggle to understand it in their marriages, their families, their relationships, and in their salad bowl churches. Love, as described in our dictionary, “has no final goal other than perhaps the personal happiness of the one loved or the one who loves – as long as that lasts. But Christian love has direction.” Christian love is both directional and sacrificial and, as C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” Love is seldom easy and it seldom comes without a price.

When it comes to the witness of the Church in the world, McKnight asks, “Is the lack of power in our witness because the church is so divisive, so un-unified, so out-of-step with Jesus’ prayer? Is it because we’ve spread out the items in the salad onto the plate in separate piles instead of living together as a mixed salad in God’s salad bowl of unity?” Are we missing the blessing of our differences because we are seeking to accomplish what we are accomplishing in our own strength rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit which has been given to us? We come together with our differences, not eradicating them, but embracing them, “for difference is the vitality of our fellowship.”

Many point back to the Constantine’s conversion and decision to make Christianity the public religion as a momentous occasion in the life of Christianity. While that momentous occasion may have held some positive aspects, it is more often than not pointed at as a misstep that elevated Christianity in ways that may have led us to this place of comfort, norms, and homogeneity. Knight points to Roger Williams and Henry David Thoreau as two other influencers of what Christianity in the United States has become. These two individuals, McKnight posits, have contributed to the individualism and “Me” centered ideology of the American church. This individualism takes away from the “We” language that we see throughout the New Testament as the Church was established.

The individualism of Christianity in America has changed our focus and tainted our views. As McKnight writes, “We are given in America the power of choice, and religion has become a smorgasbord to choose your own church based on its ability to live up to your own preferences.” In seeking to truly become a fellowship, we need to remember that we are simply called to share life with one another. Sharing life with one another does not simply mean that we find those who look, think, believe, and act like us and circle up the wagons. McKnight asks whether or not our churches are representative of our communities, or whether or not they are mono-ethnic

McKnight delves into a discussion of holiness and how that word garners fear and criticism from many. He cautions to not turn the grand idea of holiness into a legalistic list of “Don’ts” while leaving off the “Do’s.” He adds that, “Holiness cannot be reduced to separation or difference.” Holiness is not something that we make ourselves into but something that we are made into by God. We seek to live lives that avoid sin and is devoted to God.

McKnight enters into a discussion on sexuality because it is hard to engage in a talk about the modern church without addressing this issue. In my opinion, he presents well the argument in favor of biblical marriage and promotes the ideas of celibacy and faithfulness which Paul supports. McKnight makes it clear that love is not based on whether or not you do what I want nor is it based on toleration, leaving one another alone. Love, he suggests, involves presence, advocacy, and companionship over time, it is a long-term commitment.

McKnight proposes a third way when it comes to sexuality, suggesting that our salvation and sanctification are processes which we will not complete until we have fully arrived in glory. We must seek to allow ourselves to be transformed by grace and in holiness in order that we all might become what God wants us to be. He says, “We are washed, we are waiting, and in the meantime we are striving to be holy and loving.” While much more could have been said about the subject, I understand that McKnight was limited within the context of this book. However, his brief discussion is helpful to stir up conversation and pondering rather than to act as a gauntlet thrown in victory and defiance.

We seek liberty which does not necessarily mean license. Instead, liberty of the Christian kind is constrained by love. Knowing that we are all in a process and that are redemption is not complete until the kingdom, we look to love one another not as we are but as we will be made when we are in that kingdom together for eternity. As I see it, it’s not a statement of passive toleration from McKnight but rather a call to embrace each other as we walk together towards sanctification and transformation.

We, as the Church, need to be a people who are counter-cultural in our lives because we are led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We only live and serve as an example when we are led in and by a power that is not our own. McKnight challenges the church to expose themselves to the Holy Spirit because the single biggest influence in our lives is that which we expose ourselves to the most. Exposure to the Holy Spirit helps to birth the fruit of the Spirit within us.

Ultimately, as followers of Christ, we are called to suffering and trials. Being a culture and fellowship of different may very well mean that we are called to those sufferings and trials of which Christ spoke and which Christ, Paul, and many others have experienced. But those sufferings and those trials actually give us opportunities to exhibit a counter-cultural love, a love that is sacrificial, a love that calls us to look at others before we look at ourselves.

While I have not read all of McKnight’s work, I have read enough to have constantly marveled at his gift of communication. I find myself nodding my head in agreement with him as I read through what he writes. I find myself challenged by what he writes in a way that convicts and spurs me on, not leaving me bristling because of his gracious way of asking questions and challenging.

As I read “A Fellowship of Differents,” I felt myself being stirred within. Much of what McKnight has written aligns with where my heart has been in recent months and years. I am grateful for McKnight’s gift if challenging while sharing of his own challenges in a humble manner.

If you have struggled with the sameness which seems pervasive within the evangelical American church, “A Fellowship of DIfferents” is a must read. You will be challenged, you will be encouraged, and most importantly, you will be changed and transformed.

(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.)

Still Turning

Life has been interesting over the last few weeks. My two oldest children finished their school year and the next day, I had nose and sinus surgery. The recovery hasn’t been awful, but trying to slow down for recovery in the midst of a busy life is always a challenge.

The denomination of which I am a part hosts their annual gathering every year in June. As it is a national organization with churches from around the 50 states (and beyond), they try to change the location up every year to accommodate for everyone. Last year, it was in Knoxville, Tennessee. This year, it’s in Orlando, Florida. They also try to make the gathering family friendly, providing opportunities for the entire family during the time together.

So, this year, we decided to take the whole family.

We also decided that we would take two days to get down to Orlando, although we could do it in just one. Last year, we came down for a Disney vacation and we took two days getting down and it seemed like it worked out well.

So, after church on Sunday, we set off on our way.

As I was still recovering from my surgery, I hadn’t contributed much to the growing list that my wife had been making for the trip. I was feeling a little out of it still and I was a little overwhelmed with other stuff that was happening around me. So, my wife had done a lot of solo planning as the day drew nearer for our departure.

With three young children, it’s not unusual for us to turn back home for something that’s been forgotten as we start our trips. It’s actually one good reason that we need to use checklists when we go on trips like this, it helps us save time in the long run.

It wasn’t a surprise for us then, when we made it two blocks and had to turn around. It was a little bit more of a surprise when we got just north of the City of Richmond and we headed home for the camera. I’ve made enough trips in my day to begin to be a little bit more patient with myself and with my family for forgotten items. Some things can be replaced at Target or WalMart for a limited price, but others just require you to turn around and go home. I thought that the camera was one of them.

When we finally got on our way the third time, I settled into the driver’s seat and called a friend who is contemplating a move to Richmond. As we were talking, I noticed smoke in my rearview mirror that seemed to be coming from our van. I also noticed that the van was revving much higher than normal.

I excused myself from my phone call and pulled off the highway. As I made my way into the gas station that was conveniently located at the end of the exit ramp, I smiled to myself as I pulled out of my AAA card at the fact that I had actually looked at that same card weeks earlier and asked myself, “Does it really make sense for us to keep paying for this?” Little did I know!

A tow truck came in about 20 minutes and drove us back home. Because of our multiple false starts, we were actually closer to home than we would have been had we not forgotten cameras and other things. I also realized that my rebuilt transmission was most likely still under warranty.

I was remaining surprisingly calm despite the unexpected and unpredictable circumstances, fairly uncharacteristic of me. Our tow truck had his wife with him and they were both very cordial to my family.

While I was more calm than usual, my kids were panicking a little bit. They didn’t really know what I was going to be up to for the majority of our trip, all they knew was that the trip would end with them at Lego Land. My youngest was the most distraught, not completely understanding that other options were available for us to get to Florida.

One thing that my wife and I have said multiple times in multiple circumstances over the nearly eight years that we have been in our community is that we have never experienced anything like it before. Having had two of our three children in those eight years as well as finishing seminary, losing both of my parents, going through a church split, and experiencing various other events, we have always, always, always experienced the grace and generosity of the people with whom we are closest……and even some who we haven’t really had the chance to get to know well yet.

Within an hour of getting home after being picked up at the mechanic from my lead pastor, we had four different offers for vehicles to take to Florida. Four.

Four.

Different.

Offers.

People knew where we were headed, and they still were willing to let us take their various vehicles on this Griswold-esque road trip.

While three of the offers were from closer friends, one was from a friend who I’ve only begun to get to know. He has actually gone through a lot himself in the past year or so, yet his willingness to be so kind and generous had left me speechless. He was willing to give to our family to get us out of a bind.

Like so many things in life, there’s way more to the story than just that, but the bottom line is that less than 24 hours after being delayed, we were back on our way. Another 24 hours after that, I received word that our transmission was indeed still covered under the warranty.

As I made my way towards Orlando after that phone call, I recounted the past days of events. Detours and delays. Acts of kindness and generosity. It all made me smile and I found it hard to believe that someone might think that there was no such thing as God.

To Know and Be Known – Director’s Cut

I’ve asked 2 good friends and loyal readers to share their favorite blog posts.  Over the next few months, I will be sharing their thoughts and insights that they have shared with me regarding some of these posts.  I hope that what they share will add some new insights to some of my previous posts.

[Wanda writes: This post is really special to me because I am a part of a small group referred to as the “Yadas.” Translated (from the Hebrew it means), “to know and be known.” This group formed approximately 10 years ago with just a few members. Some have remained since inception and others have joined along the way, but it is obvious that no one is there by chance. It is our safe haven – a place where you are free to laugh, free to cry, and free to share your innermost thoughts. We all need to have a place like that. A small group of fellow believers in Christ is a great start, but it can’t stop there. We are called to take the things we learn within these groups and make a difference in our neighborhoods and beyond. We are called to not just be hearers of the Word but doers of the Word.]

I am part of a small group of people from my church that meets a few times a month. Over the last few months, I was fascinated to hear people share their stories with me and with each other. There really were no hard ground rules of what to share or how to share it, so it was pretty cool to see what people felt were the most important aspects of their lives to share with everyone. When I grew up, this idea of sharing stories of what God was doing and had done was called sharing one’s testimony, but I think we need to call it what it is, a story of how God has met them and how their lives have intersected with him.

One of the predominant themes that I have seen over and over as have interacted and ministered to and with people is our need for community. People who were not raised within the church talk about seeing something different in the people around them. They appreciated many other things, but there seemed to be an overwhelming need for community, for being known.

At the base of who we all are, I think one of the things that we all crave at our core is the need to be known and to know others. Surficial and shallow relationships can easily be found. Heck, social media can be a successful way of allowing us to think that we know others and are known by others while never making eye contact or engaging in a face to face conversation. That’s not to say that social media is wrong, but it acts as a cheap substitute if we fail to realize that relationships need to be built at a much deeper level than this. If the only relationships that we have are with people who only exist to us on a computer screen, we will begin to see it change us.

The church where I serve has been really good about creating a support structure for its pastors. Each pastor is given a group of three people who will come alongside them to encourage, support, and coach them along. In the nearly seven years that I have been with this group of people, I am on my third iteration of this group.

When I first met with my current group, they let me talk and I wandered all around, in a verbal sense, until the end of our meeting. At that time, the two who were there began to tell me some of their observations. I sat there and was stunned but grateful as they both began to describe me and articulate their own understanding of who I was. There was a sense of accomplishment and arrival for me as they talked, knowing that I had well articulated who I was but even more grateful that they had listened, observed, and acknowledged that I was who I said that I was.

I have had a number of people who I have worked for in past years who did not understand me. With a few engineering degrees and one theology degree under my belt, I also have an artistic side that people are more often exposed to than the analytical side of me. Getting into my head could prove frustrating and confusing for some people who like order and structure. While there is that side of me, the creative side of me rebels against it at times and I come across as flighty and aloof. For these guys who have been called to support me to see that and hear my own acknowledgement of my weaknesses in our first meeting together was a gift for me. I went home expressing to my wife my gratitude for these men who were willing to take time to enter into my story and try to understand me better.

There are few things more frustrating to me than being misunderstood, but understanding and being understood takes time. It is an investment that sometimes doesn’t seem to be worth the effort that it takes. Yet, when we take the time to invest, to listen, and to observe, we can help a person know that they are being known and being understood. We can help others see how valuable they are and know that there is at least someone out there who understands them on a deeper level than just what’s on the surface.

I am grateful for the people that have been placed in my life who understand me, who “get” me. I am sure that it hasn’t always been an easy ride for them to get to this point, but how thankful I am that they took the time to do this. As I think about them, it helps me to extend grace and show patience in taking the time to know and understand others. It’s an investment that I am not always willing to make, but I am growing, I am learning. To know and be known has been such an important part of my own growth, progress, and transformation and my hope and prayer is that taking the time to do that for others can be as equally beneficial to them as it has been when others have done that for me.

Better Together [Director’s Cut]

I’ve asked 2 good friends and loyal readers to share their favorite blog posts.  Over the next few months, I will be sharing their thoughts and insights that they have shared with me regarding some of these posts.  I hope that what they share will add some new insights to some of my previous posts.

[Lesley writes: I reread this post several times, because…I felt as if Jon was writing it about and for just me! Honestly before I allowed myself to accept God and faith into my life I felt very much alone, and secluded myself from others. At a young age my parents divorced. My mom returned to the work force and went to school in the evenings. She was doing the best she could but the women she hired to care for me were not particularly loving or kind. From ages five to seven we had a woman watch me that used to beat me consistently with belts or shoes. Thus my protective shell and tendency towards distrust of almost everyone. Honestly I believe it wasn’t until I came to Christ that I felt worthy as a human being for any kind of emotional connection and deep love. This blog post confirms that we, as human beings, need each other. We can’t do this thing called life alone. God’s most treasured gifts to us are through our relationships with others.]

We weren’t made to be alone. No, I’m not saying that to promote the end of singleness. I’m saying it because we are relational creatures, made in the image of God to be with one another. The moment that we begin to sequester ourselves from others is the minute that we not only begin to set ourselves up for a fall, but also when we live out of sequence with the intention of the One who created us.

You can learn an awful lot by watching your kids. My 2 oldest kids are only 23 months apart from each other. While we have had our fair share of challenging days, we’ve also begun to see the benefits of the natural relationship that forms over time with the two of them.

While my wife was putting our youngest to bed on an evening when I had a meeting, she left the 2 older children downstairs to occupy themselves quietly. After successfully getting the youngest one to sleep, my wife returned downstairs to find that the oldest had chosen a movie, loaded it into the DVD player, set everything up, and even brought his brother a snack for the movie-watching experience. What a pleasant surprise takes place when your kids are actually learning some of the things that you have been trying to teach them all along.

When I made an anniversary video for my wife for our 10th anniversary, I used Jack Johnson’s song “Better Together” as one of the background songs. Over the course of 10 years, my wife and I were constantly reminded that we do things better together. We get more done cooperatively and we have fun in the process, especially if it’s a task that we’re not necessarily crazy about doing on our own.

We weren’t made to be alone. The wisest man in the world understood this when he wrote in Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

We can find countless stories within the Bible of what happens to people when they spend too much time alone (the story of David and Bathsheba comes to mind). I’m not recommending that all of the introverts of the world rebel against their natural tendencies to be reserved and quiet, but I am recommending that we come to the realization that we need each other. We need support. We need encouragement. We need prayer. We need loving arms. We need sturdy shoulders. We need each other.

We are a gift to each other, given by God not to selfishly consume, but to lovingly and graciously give. That’s what Jesus did. I can’t imagine the number of times that he would probably have liked to tell the disciples to just leave him alone so that he could have a few moments of peace, but instead, he loved them and gave himself to them. What am I doing to give of myself to others? My children? My wife? My friends? The people who need me most? What am I doing to live out the truth that we are better together?

A Chance to Learn

Writers, no matter who they are, will find themselves scrapping things that they write.  My computer is littered with many posts that never quite made it onto my blog, for some reason or another.  It may have been that my timing was off and it just wasn’t the right time to post something.  Or it could have been that the topic was too controversial and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to dive into the possible misunderstandings that would inevitably result from people reading their own preconceived notions into my writing.  It also could have been that I just haven’t felt that what I have written is on par with other things that I have written.  All this to say that my “Draft” folder continues to get larger as time goes by.

I began a post for today in light of it being St. Patrick’s Day, but I scrapped it.  I have been reading articles in the media about the withdrawal of support and sponsorship of certain companies for the St. Patrick’s Day parade because of issues with the LGBT community.  The LGBT community is not allowed to “march openly” in the parade and so, some companies have decided to withdraw their support for the event.  The presumption is that by not being allowed to “march openly” the rights of the LGBT community are being infringed upon and the organizers of the parade are showing a lack of support for this community.

As I began to spin my own thoughts and opinions on this, I realized that I was having a hard time understanding what the phrase “march openly” means.  While I may think I understand what it means, I can’t presume that I can read the mind of everyone who holds an opinion.  I fear that I might be missing something because of my own perceptions and biases.  So, I would love to hear from others on what they think this phrase means.  In hearing the opinions of others, my hope is to be enlightened myself.  This is an experiment in sharing opinions and I also don’t presume that everyone will share openly in the comment space.  If you don’t feel comfortable posting in the comment space, feel free to send an email to coarpk@gmail.com.

I’ve got a lot to learn, to think otherwise is pure ignorance.  I hope that hearing from people might help me in that process of learning and growing.  If I hear from enough people, I hope to do a follow up post to share what I have learned through all of the insight.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

A New Chapter

AVL Small GroupThis Fall has been an emotional time for me.  Most people probably don’t know it because those emotions are happening beneath the surface, there are few times that they bubble to the top and spill over into public places.  That’s not a bad thing, I’m not suppressing them, just letting them out in appropriate settings.

A friend of mine posted something on her Facebook wall the other day and tagged me and a bunch of other people.  This friend is dear to my family.  We watched her move from skeptic to follower of Christ.  We watched her husband and family follow suit.  I had the privilege of performing a renewal of vows for her and her husband after they both had begun to follow Christ.  She was in the delivery room when my first son was born.  Eventually, they became part of a very special small group that met every week at our house while we lived in Asheville.  The other people tagged in the post were members of the same small group.

It was kind of ironic timing for her to post the blog that she did as this weekend my wife and I are starting a new small group.  It’s been nearly six years since we left Asheville and moved to Virginia.  In those six years, we have added two more children to our family, I’ve lost both of my parents, I started and finished seminary, I’ve been through a church split, and we’ve attempted to find time to connect with other adults in a meaningful and spiritual way.

I never thought that it would take six years to come to this place.  My wife and I have longed for connections in a small group, but the time just never seemed right.  In many ways, the groups that I lead acted like a small group for us.  In the midst of tragedy, they cared for me, loved on me, prayed for me, and wrapped their arms around me.  Despite the lack of a small group, we felt loved and cared for, and we felt fortunate that we experienced that.

I remember in the early days of our small group in Asheville.  It was such an unlikely group and to this day, I’m still not completely sure how we all came together.  I’m sure God’s hand was in it, especially as I retrospectively reflect on it.  We were still young marrieds at the time, soon to be first time parents.  Another couple had a special needs son.  One woman was the wife of an itinerant pastor/prophet/evangelist.  Another couple was multi-ethnic and had three children.  There were a few singles that joined us as well.  Finally, there were my friends who had only been followers of Christ for a short time, he is deaf while she is hearing.

That was us.  On paper, it was an eclectic bunch.  Some of us were educated many times over.  Some of us had high school educations and degrees from the school of hard knocks.  The age range was fairly broad, spanning from the early to mid 20’s to the mid to late 40’s and maybe even early 50’s.  But none of this really mattered.

Well, it kind of mattered.  That’s who we were, those were part of our stories, the stories that had shaped and molded us.  When we came together though, it was like the pieces of a puzzle, fitting together, taking shape, beginning to form a picture.  The thing is, it was like a puzzle for which you didn’t have the box top to show you what you were putting together.  Once the picture began to take shape, I realized that I would never have been able to imagine the beauty of such a picture, especially with my cynical nature, doubting that God could take such a group and transform us into a family.

We went through much together, sharing life, sharing laughs, sharing hugs, sharing smiles, praying together.  I remember one of the most difficult days in my time there when we announced to the group that we were leaving.  The quiet introvert who never showed strong emotions shed tears that night.  I don’t know if there was a dry eye in our house that night.  We struggled, we wrestled, but we knew that God still held it all in his hands.  We learned how to connect, how to pray, how to cry, how to share, how to love in that group.

It was such a hard decision to leave, especially because we had seen what God was doing in our group.  While we felt stagnated, stifled, and frustrated at most every other turn in our lives there, our small group was the one place that kept us encouraged, hopeful, and confident in the faithfulness of God.  That’s what made it so difficult.  How could you ever replace such an experience?  How could you ever make the same kind of meaningful connections?

You can’t, not in the same way.  It’s taken me the better part of six years to come to grips with the fact that you don’t set out to duplicate what you once had, you simply live into what’s before you and let it organically take shape, forming into the very thing that God wants it to be.  That’s why we are at the place that we are at, because I can finally understand that.

Nothing will ever replace the group that I have grown to love, just like nothing will ever replace my parents and the love that we shared together.  But just because there is no replacement does not mean that you stop seeking alternatives.  No, nothing will ever match up to those things, but this is a new chapter, a time to reinvent, a time to rediscover, a time to find something new, to be surprised.

This Sunday afternoon, I will sit down with some friends and begin to dive into life together.  Those friends are all unique and different in their own ways, but I can’t wait to see what happens.  The funny thing is, as I have moved closer and closer to the day when we would finally begin this journey together, the one thing that has constantly caused a smile to emerge on my face is the fact that this group has a very striking resemblance to the group that we shared in Asheville.  It’s not the personalities or similarities among them, it’s the sheer imperceptibility of the group.  In much the same way that God brought such different people together many years ago, he’s done it again, and I can’t wait to see what happens in this new chapter!

Party Hangover

hangover3I’ve got a party hangover.  It’s not because I drank too much or ate too much.  It’s really just because the party is over.

Have you ever planned for something for such a long time and invested so much time and energy into it to finally have it come along and be gone in the blink of an eye?  That’s kind of what happened this weekend.  My wife had been planning the first of the Fall birthday parties for my younger son.  The house was decorated, the cake was made, the party favors were purchased, the piñata was filled, and the house was just about as clean as it was going to get.

The party was a success.  My son was elated and was even able to wear his new Clark Kent/Superman costume (complete with black hair spray which was a royal pain in the neck to get out of his hair).  His friends came, the remaining family that we have in the area was able to make it over as well, and the weather mostly held up, at least enough for us to do some outdoor activities.

After a big event, it’s kind of hard for me to keep my demeanor up.  It’s kind of a letdown to come off the adrenaline rush of preparing and then executing a party, even if it is for 4 and 5 year old kids.  It’s like all of your energy was put in one place and then that place is gone or past.

This happens to me on Monday mornings after experiencing time together as a church family on Sundays.  When you have tasted the joy and excitement of what can be and know that it’s possible to experience the togetherness of family and the communion with God, it can easily become a focal point where we constantly try to achieve an emotion or feeling rather than seeking to connect with one another and with God.

I can see how people can be drawn into addictions.  When you experience a “high” of sorts, you constantly want to re-experience that feeling and you will do whatever it takes to achieve it.  That’s why addicts will do whatever it takes to get that next fix.

I wonder if we have sometimes created “addicts” within the church, people who are constantly searching for an emotion rather than seeking for an encounter with the living God.  I know that, if I’m not careful, I can easily fall into this trap.

But there is a balance between seeking an emotion and being overly cerebral in our encounter with God.  We don’t want to let our emotions carry us away, but we also don’t want to overthink things.  When our pursuit of God becomes overly cerebral, we can easily fall into the trap that the Pharisees fell into so many years ago.

This Monday morning, I sit in two different party hangovers: the hangover from my son’s birthday party and the hangover from experiencing God in community through my church.  Neither of them is a bad thing as long as I know what to do with them.  Looking at the pictures of the party brings a smile to my face and a warmth to my heart.  Looking at pictures and remembering faces from our time together as a church will do the same.

This morning, I am grateful.  God has allowed me the chance to do what I do and given me the blessing of family, both immediate and “adopted,” with whom to experience it.  A few weeks from now, we’re having birthday party #2.  I imagine that I will feel similarly that following Monday morning.

Every week I have the opportunity to come together as a community with my brothers and sisters in church.  I hope and pray that I continue to feel the letdown of that experience after it is gone, not because of the high that it gave me, but because of the knowledge that we encountered the living God when we came together.  There is a reason why the writer to the Hebrews wrote in Hebrews 10:24-25, “24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  May we continue to experience the party hangover until that day when we start the “party” that will never end.