12 Faithful Men – A Book Review

12 Faithful MenIf you are in full-time vocational ministry, chances are pretty good that somewhere along the way, someone has given you the speech about your calling and the difficulties of ministry. When individuals have come to me with the prospect of going into full-time vocational ministry, I have counseled them that if there is anything else that they can do and find fulfillment, they should do that. Ministry is not for the faint of heart.

In “12 Faithful Men,” Colin Hansen and Jeff Robinson have compiled the stories of twelve faithful men who have endured many difficulties in ministry. From the Apostle Paul to Charles Spurgeon, from John Calvin to John Bunyan, and eight others, the editors compile these stories chronologically and share snapshots of their lives to see all of the things that they have experienced in their lives.

The stories range from the Apostle Paul and his imprisonment and shipwrecking. They cover the subject of John Bunyan’s writing that blossomed while he too was imprisoned. They describe the losses of a child and a spouse that Andrew Fuller experienced. They chronicle the congregation that was vehemently opposed to Charles Simeon and who wanted him to be replaced with someone else.

Reading through these accounts, it brings some perspective to those of us who may get upset when a member of our congregation criticizes our sermon or when an elder looks at us cross-eyed. The pain and suffering that the authors of these stories describe are true difficulties. It would be hard for any of the subjects of these stories to be questioned if they claimed trial and affliction.

But the authors make it clear that suffering and affliction has been a pattern that has built the church. In fact, Robinson writes that, “one certain indicator that God has called a man is that he stands firm and perseveres in ministry after he has been thoroughly buffeted by a hurricane of affliction.” These difficulties that are persevered in ministry shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a detractor or even a sign that someone isn’t where they are supposed to be but instead that they are in exactly the right place.

Ministry is hard and the authors of these stories paint that as a clear picture for the reader. But it’s hard to get the full picture in the brief chapters that touch on these twelve individuals. So, this book may be seen as an appetizer or buffet of the lives of these twelve men. These stories can whet the appetite of the reader and then he or she can choose to dig deeper into the lives of these men if they so choose.

While there were familiar names in here such as Paul, John Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, and Charles Spurgeon, there were also unfamiliar names, at least to me. Names such as John Chavis, Charles Simeon, Janani Luwum, and Wang Ming-Dao. These chapters were a great introduction to these men, their lives, and the difficulties that they endured.

I thought it was well worthwhile to read, especially for those in full-time ministry. Even for those who are simply church members, this book can be a sobering picture to the average person of some of the difficulties that may be endured by those embarking on the journey of full-time ministry. If you want to get a taste for twelve men who experienced difficulty, tragedy, and hardship, this book is a great wade into that. If you read it, you just might find that you want to read deeper into the lives of these men and others who have followed the call of God even through trial and trouble.

(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.)

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The Power of Vision – A Book Review

power of visionIf you have spent any time in an organization and have paid attention during that time, you can probably identify what happens when that organization is lacking vision. While it may not be evident at first that vision, or a lack thereof, is the specific problem, eventually, you will see the signs and know that something is wrong. The problem could very well be a vision problem.

George Barna has had a wealth of experience researching churches. His company, the Barna Group, has published significant amounts of data that show the trends in the culture today. He has shared those insights in the books that he has written. His book “The Power of Vision” is an exploration in the art, the process, the myths, and the benefits of vision.

Barna writes, “Although they are good people and have been called to ministry, most senior pastors do not have an understanding of God’s vision for the ministries they are trying to lead – and, consequently, most churches have little impact in their communities or in the lives of their congregants.” To the best of my knowledge, there is no required seminary class that teaches vision. Although we can clearly see evidence of God giving his vision to his people throughout the pages of the Bible, Barna makes it clear in his book that the process of gaining and discerning vision takes time. It cannot be entered into lightly or hastily.

Many churches will mistake mission and vision. Barna’s definition of vision is, “foresight with insight based on hindsight.” Vision is forward thinking, it concentrates on the future.

Barna does not belabor his description and insights about vision, the main portion of the book is only a little over one hundred and forty pages. But within those pages, Barna packs an incredible amount of information, not meant to confuse or confound but rather to bring clarity and insight to those who are truly seeking God’s vision for their church.

Too many churches get so caught up in returning to their glory days or maintaining the things that once made them great. Barna says, “We deplete the past to enjoy the present at the expense of the future.” While there is a place for looking backwards at where we have been in the process of vision, it needs to be coupled with looking ahead and moving there as well.

Vision will engage people if it’s the right vision and if it is communicated properly, clearly, and effectively. Barna says that communicating vision needs to be simple and if we are unable to communicate our vision, then it really doesn’t matter that we even have a vision. Without vision, people will become frustrated and will eventually leave. Vision will allow a church to filter opportunities and say no to those that will dissipate your resources.

“The Power of Vision” was a breath of fresh air. In a world where there is little to no loyalty among people, in which consumer preferences take precedence over relationships, Barna offers vision as a means by which the church can focus people towards something that matters. While a mission statement is a broad description of who you wish to reach and what you hope to accomplish, vision puts feet to the mission. Mission is philosophic while vision is strategic.

I cannot recommend this book more highly. Anyone who is in ministry or even who is part of a church and is seeking to allow God to use them needs to read this book. Barna speaks directly and honestly here. Considering his experience and the amount of churches his organization has worked with and observed, I would be hard pressed to believe that there is anything less than value in his insights.

(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.)

5Q – A Book Review

5QIn the early days of the Christian church, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus laying out the various roles of those in the church. He wrote in Ephesians 4:11-13, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors (shepherds) and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” This description has come to be known as the fivefold ministry of the church.

In the introduction of his new book “5Q” Alan Hirsch writes, “It is sobering to consider that, as far as we can tell, Christianity is on the decline in every Western setting…” This decline of which Hirsch speaks of is due, in his opinion, to the abandonment of the bulk of this fivefold ministry of which Paul wrote. He says, “As for the church’s ministry, the historical church has largely opted to exclude apostolic, prophetic, and evangelistic frameworks and has viewed ministry through the now severely reduced categories of the pastor (shepherd) and the teacher (theologian).” Using the acronym APEST to describe this fivefold ministry, Hirsch claims that the Western church has done a good job of eliminating the APE ministries and accentuating and even overemphasizing the ST ministries.

Hirsch asks his readers to read through this book with soft eyes, doing their best to let go of the ways that they’ve looked at things in the past in order to see more clearly what we’re missing by excluding these crucial elements of ministry for the body of Christ. Hirsch goes so far as to say that, “the fivefold ministry is the way, or mode, by which Jesus is actually present in the church, and by which he extends his own ministry through us.”

Hirsch proceeds to support the idea of fivefold ministry with a biblical foundation. As we live into our own gifting and encourage others into their gifting as well, we begin to fulfill the purpose for which Christ left the church on the earth as his ambassadors and representatives. We move towards the fullness of Christ as we live into this ministry. The church has been sorely lacking by not living into this paradigm and ideology. This lack has led to a “fatal and degenerative dis-ease into the body of Christ.”

Jesus epitomized this fivefold ministry in his own life and the church has been called to carry out and continue to use this paradigm to accomplish his work on the earth. The cultural mandate to which the Church has been called should fulfill this purpose through these ministries. This fivefold ministry of the church Hirsch terms 5Q. As Hirsch writes, “Once we have identified 5Q as perfectly exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus, we can then see how he grafts these into the foundation of the church.”

Hirsch lays out the five ministries: Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, and Teacher. He gives descriptions of the various characteristics of each, also giving examples of how these gifts may manifest themselves in both sacred and secular environments. Hirsch says that these fivefold archetypes can actually be found throughout creation and history, giving them ontological weight.

Hirsch then moves from Christ to the church, describing just what it would look like if the church should embrace 5Q and live into this fivefold ministry and archetypes. He also describes just what happens when there is a deficit in these areas, giving examples of just what that would look like within the church. To live into this paradigm is to move towards a much more functional means of doing things. The apostle Paul described the church as a body and Hirsch agrees. Just as the parts of the body work together with their strengths and functions, so should the church follow suit. To neglect an area is to be deficient. “To remove one is to undermine all the others. We need all five to mature.”

Over and over again while reading “5Q” I found myself nodding my head in agreement with all that Hirsch lays out. The APEST model is something that he has spoken of in his other works as well, but not to this same depth. It makes sense. It’s logical. It’s biblical. In theory, it seems like it should be successful, in a biblical and spiritual sense, not necessarily in a worldly sense.

In order for the 5Q approach to really work, there needs to be a paradigm shift within the Western church. That shift may be easier for some local communities and harder for others. That shift may be easier for some congregations and harder for some pastors. Egos can’t get in the way because they will surely short circuit this approach in a heartbeat. The purpose of a body is shared ministry and experience, if personalities who can’t handle being the center of attention or the primary focus can’t step aside to embrace a fivefold ministry, we can expect that the Western church will continue the decline that we have already been experiencing.

5Q is not a new idea. It’s as old as Christianity itself, but the focus and shift within the church has moved away from a more balanced approach towards ministry and placed the emphasis and weight on a select few. Should we then be surprised when we see some of those crumble beneath the weight and when we see so many longing for something so much more significant than they have experienced? I think not.

I’ve been a fan of Alan Hirsch for years. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him in a little Irish pub in Long Beach, California a few years back. There was no pretense about him in person and his writing reflects the genuine personality that he possesses. He writes not with a pretentious confidence but with a loving desire to share the knowledge and wisdom that he has gained through his own experience, seen both personally and second hand.

If the Western church were to shift back towards this fivefold ministry which Hirsch is encouraging, I think we would see a significant change in effectiveness and in staying power. Of course, if we instead choose to embrace the things that we have always done, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see history repeating itself.

There are plenty of resources in this book for local communities to use to help more towards 5Q. I look forward to exploring them myself to see just how the community of which I am a part can move back towards ministry the way that Christ intended.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from 100 Movements. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Grace

I’m two weeks into my sabbatical and I feel like so much has happened in that short amount of time. Some of my days have felt like two or three days combined into one. I’ve had some great conversations, some great experiences, some great rest.

My wife and I spent nearly four years in a place not too long after we got married. My wife had married an engineer and then I was called to be a pastor. It was a big shift for both of us. That call involved a move far away from our family and all that was familiar to us. I was green and inexperienced in the new world in which I found myself. I made mistakes, I spoke too quickly, I offended, I probably thought that I knew way more than I really did.

When things ended in that place, there was hurt, there was anger, there was confusion, there was uncertainty. We didn’t know for sure where we would end up, but God did. He opened the door for us to a new place. We left behind many great friends and I felt like I was leaving a bit of my heart there as well. We had made an investment and to leave it all behind was hard for me to do.

This past week, I spent some time with some of the people who were part of our experience there in that place. I’m not even sure what words to use to best describe the meaningfulness of that time. Healing. Growing. Learning. Moving on. Grace.

Grace.

It’s a word that came up in our conversations and a word that I continue to go back to. If we are truly growing in our faith journey and in our spiritual depth, grace should be something that naturally pours from us. We shouldn’t tout that we have grown up in the church and been Christians for 40 years and then fail to exhibit grace. We shouldn’t expect grace to be given to us and then refuse to extend it to others. Grace has been given to us and to whom much has been given, much is expected.

Grace.

I feel like I experienced an immersion of grace over the last week. As conversations took place and we shared, I felt that grace and I was so grateful for it.

I still have many weeks to go as I move through this sabbatical. It’s always hard to come hard out of the gates, it can easily set your expectations high for what else is to come. But I don’t think I should worry. Much of what I have experienced over the last week was not planned, at least by me, but I know that God orchestrated it, he made it happen, he gave me the privilege of experiencing it.

This is going to be a fun ride!

Resting

sabbath-restIn the biblical creation account, God creates everything in six days and on the seventh day, he rest. Did God need a rest? Was he tired? No, he did it to set a precedent for his creation to follow. He knew that within the order of creation, humanity would need rest and what better way to set the standard than to practice it as an example.

Rest continued to be emphasized by God when he gave his commandments to his people on Mount Sinai. The command was to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Set apart a day to stop, to cease, to rest, to recharge from all that happened up to that point. Rest.

I’m not sure when the idea of sabbaticals first came up for people to practice. I know that when I came into the Presbyterian church, it seems that it was a standard that had been set long before I had gotten there.

Those who work in vocational ministry know that it’s hard to put a timeframe on the work performed. While some jobs have a typical 9 to 5 component, it’s hard to put those specific boundaries on ministry work. That’s part of the job, knowing that your schedule will be different than the typical job, knowing that evenings and weekends will often be overtaken by work, duties, and responsibilities.

For as long as I have been in vocational ministry, I have had Fridays off. At the beginning of my time as  pastor, it was just me and my wife. It would be a few years before we added a son to our twosome. Fridays have been my Sabbath. I’ve set Fridays aside to rest, to recharge, and to step away from the things that I deal with Sunday through Thursday.

You don’t always know how you’re doing with something until you step away from it. It’s hard to access the successfulness of something until you can step back and analyze it. Have I been doing as well as I thought I was doing? Have I been achieving success or have I only thought that I was achieving success?

It’s been funny and a little ironic that these last few months leading up to my sabbatical, I have had to speak about Sabbath rest. I spoke to a group of young mothers about it in early February. Then I preached a sermon on it at the end of last month. Preaching and teaching on a subject is a sure fire way for me to see just how well I am doing. While I didn’t think that I was succeeding with flying colors, I also knew that I had been fairly intentional about fencing off those times of rest that I have.

Just a few days into my sabbatical, I’ve found that I’ve been doing a pretty good job with fencing off my Sabbath. The last few days have felt, in a way, like the movie “Groundhog Day.” I’ve felt as if I’ve been reliving Friday over and over again. I guess that means two things. One, that I’ve been doing my best to rest. Two, that I’m doing a decent job on all those other Fridays of being restful.

I’ve found that there are seasons in my life when my pace can get so frenetic that when I finally give myself time to stop and rest, my body catches up and I get sick. It seems a little odd that the sickness wouldn’t come in the midst of the busyness, but that’s just how it seems to happen. I’ve felt a little worn out these last few days, no surprise, I expected that I would feel that way. If I’ve felt worn out having done my best to preserve the weekly Sabbath, I can’t imagine what this would be like had I not been practicing this every week.

My sabbatical will not be me simply resting the whole time. Saturday marks the day that I begin some of my adventures. After trying hard to rest this week, it will be nice to head out and see what things I can learn on the road.

On the Job Training

learningSince I graduated from college, I’ve spent two decades in two distinctly different fields of work. I graduated with a civil engineering degree and worked for consultants while I got a Master’s degree in environmental engineering.

After 10 years in engineering, I felt a call to go into full-time vocational ministry. I was called to be a pastor in a church in Asheville, North Carolina. The denomination in which I was serving did not care so much that I didn’t have a seminary degree, they were more concerned with what I believed and whether or not I really felt that God was calling me to do this. I eventually went to seminary, successfully achieving a graduate degree in both of the fields of work in which I had spent my time.

In both my engineering career and my ministry career, I experienced on the job training. Most of the things that I had to do once I started as a consulting engineer were not things that I had been directly taught in college or in graduate school. I had a great mentor for those first few years in engineering who showed me an awful lot. We got along fairly well, which was helpful considering the amount of time that we spent together.

The same was true when I went into ministry. Considering that I had not gone to seminary when I had first started as a pastor, I felt that I was even more behind the eight ball. Every week, I was reading two or three books about ministry or theology or some subject that was relevant to what I was doing. In those first few years as a pastor before I went to seminary, I was learning on the job and I was soaking in any and every nugget of information that I could find in the books that I read, the people that I met, and the experiences that I had.

My doctor while I was in high school and through college was a doctor that my parents had used for a number of years. He was a nice guy, personable and winsome with a great bedside manner. As can often be the case with those kinds of doctors, we would get to chatting whenever I would go to the office for a checkup or visit. In our conversations, I discovered as I was getting ready to go off to college that he had graduated from my alma mater, Lehigh University.

I’ll never forget what he said to me that day. He told me that he had gone to medical school up at Yale. I thought about how smart he must have been and imagined where my next move would be after college. But he told me that he had a harder time getting good grades at Lehigh than he had at Yale. I kind of scratched my head considering all that I had heard about Ivy League schools. Then he said, “The thing is, at Lehigh they taught me how to learn.” Those words always have stuck in my head, in college, I learned how to learn.

While I rarely touch on the things that I spent hours and hours studying in college, the act and process of learning were just as important, if not more so, than the actual subject matter. Learning how to learn was an important life lesson that set the way for the rest of my life.

Since that day, I’ve laughed often as I’ve taken personality and strengths assessments that tell me of my love for learning. Anyone who knows me knows that on any given day I am probably reading three or four books. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I still have to learn, but that’s not reason to give up, it just makes me hungrier to know more, not so that I can lord it over anyone or brag but so that I can engage with as many people as possible.

I love to talk with new people. I love to hear their story and to know where they’ve been and where they’re going in life. As I delve into different subjects in my life, I find that it helps me to connect with others because I can always find some common topic to vamp on for some amount of time.

I’ve been grateful to have had some pretty great work environments where I can learn as I go. I’ve had some great mentors along the way. It certainly didn’t hurt my entrance into ministry that my dad and I had a good relationship. Having served as a pastor for about 36 years by the time I became a pastor, he was a great mentor to me. I miss him every day and long to have conversations with him, to glean his wisdom, and to hear his insights and thoughts.

As I watch my children grow, I’m thrilled to see a strong love of reading in both of my boys (my daughter hasn’t reached the reading stage yet). That love of reading and of learning will help them wherever they go. I’m looking forward to the day that I can share some of the same insights that have been shared with me. If they crave learning and learn to learn, they’ll go far.

What If

usace frf duck.ncOnce upon a time, while I was in college studying civil engineering, I wasn’t exactly sure what direction I would take when I graduated.

I had chosen civil engineering as a major because of the diversity of opportunities that it would afford me. There were so many different possibilities of things to do once I graduated that I wasn’t quite sure which direction to take.

So, during my senior year, when everyone was beginning to narrow down their options and take senior design classes that were specific to their area of concentration, I decided to take multiple senior design classes in all of the areas that I had been considering: hydraulics, project management, and coastal engineering.

I had become interested in coastal engineering while at Lehigh University. I had taken coastal engineering and was introduced to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. My class had gone on a field trip to the New Jersey shore to observe a beach nourishment project. I was fascinated that this was a field of study that I could further pursue.

Having grown up on Long Island Sound in southwestern Connecticut, I was a beach person. I never imagined myself moving too far inland from the coast, no matter where I lived.

When I sought to pursue a graduate degree in engineering, I looked primarily for schools that had programs in water resources or coastal engineering. I applied and was accepted to a few coastal schools like University of Maryland and University of Rhode Island, but because I had not done as well as I would have liked in my undergraduate studies, there were no scholarship or fellowship opportunities for me. I ended up getting my Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of New Haven.

After 10 years in the engineering field, I had risen through the ranks and begun my ascent towards management. I had gone through project management training through my company and received my professional license, but I never felt fulfilled. I felt as if the dreams and desires that I had for my engineering career were elusive and always one more step away from me. Those 10 years were a wrestling match as I tried to discern where I would end up, both professionally and geographically.

I finally ended up doing what most pastor’s kids swear that they will never do: I became a pastor.

Over the 11 years since I became a pastor, there have been occasions here and there where I have thought and wondered about what would have happened had I stayed in engineering and had my career taken a different turn there. As I’ve begun to find my own place in full-time ministry and have begun to live into my strengths, my own fulfillment in what I do has increased and there aren’t many time when I have those moments of wondering.

But sometimes, they still come…

While we were in the Outer Banks last week, one of those moments came…

As we drove to the house where we were staying, we passed the Field Research Facility for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Duck, North Carolina. Those feelings started to bubble up within me and I thought about my dreams of working at the beach, of being part of projects that would be enjoyable and beneficial, both for me and for others.

On one of my morning runs, I ran down to the Field Research Facility and lingered at the sign that gave information about what happened there. As I looked into the distance at the tower that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, I wondered what it would be like to live and work here, in what might be perceived as “paradise” to many people.

I let myself get lost in the moment and didn’t rush out of it too quickly, but eventually I came back to reality. I thought about the “what ifs” but I also thought about the “what is.”

I realized just how blessed that I am to be where I am. I realized that my journey had never been a straight line and had always taken anything but a linear pathway. I realized that the fulfillment that I was finding in what I do was a far cry from the lack of fulfillment in what I used to do once upon a time. I work with some incredible people and minister with and to some incredible people as well. I have opportunities that I can take advantage at this place and at this time that I might never have again, all by simply being a pastor.

Sure, there will always be days when the “what ifs” will creep up. I still have my engineering license and my degrees, I worked too hard to forget about them, but I’m not sure that I will ever work full-time in the field again.

There are times that I wish that I had multiple lifetimes to pursue all of my dreams and desires, but in the meantime, while someone’s trying to invent a DeLorean time machine, I’ll simply find contentment in knowing that I’m doing what I was created to do…….and I’ll smile!

Everybody Loves You Now?

When I became a pastor more than 11 years ago, the first position that I had was a difficult one. To say that it was a volatile situation is probably an understatement. I’ve likened it to having a target painted on my chest as I would weekly receive emails and letters from people who expressed their disgust with me and what I was doing.

Now, I had grown up in the home of a pastor, so I knew what it entailed, I wasn’t naïve at all. But no matter how you might prepare for it, no matter how you might not be surprised by the audacity of some people, it doesn’t change the fact that criticism stings.

I don’t remember who it was or when they told me, but someone had instructed me early on in my ministry career to keep a folder of good notes that came in. Being the rebel that I am, I had to include some of those not so good notes as well.

Call me a glutton for punishment or maybe just plain stupid, but I kind of thought that it was important for me to keep some of these notes. A kind of “Best of” collection of the notes which were full of such vitriol, spite, anger, and hatred of me that they would be worth my while later on.

Frankly, I don’t think that this is what the person who urged me to keep a file of notes was thinking when they recommended it to me. Their explanation of the file was that it could be opened up on difficult and hard days so that I could remember the ways that God had used me and the appreciation that some people had expressed for me and what I had done.

But the opposite was true as well. Those other notes could serve a purpose. While it was nice to remember that people appreciated me, I thought it was important to remember that not everyone loves me. In fact, based on some of these notes, I think there are some people who wished that I had never taken a breath before.

We live in a very self-centered and selfish world. We are constantly told how important and special we are. While I understand the importance of an adequate self-esteem, I really think that there are times when we need to be reminded that we aren’t necessarily God’s gift to the world. There will be times when we will encounter people who just don’t like us (and have even stronger feelings than that).

The other day, I went to my file and pulled out an anonymous letter. As I read the letter about all of the ways that I had ruined this person’s church and how I had single-handedly caused a mass exodus of people, I smiled to myself at this reminder. Sometimes people just don’t like me.

Here are some of the things that I read:

“Everyone I have talked to tells me you have run everybody off.”

“I was going to send a $100.00 for the church fund, but what you said about evangelistics (sic) I changed my mind.”

“God is angry over the way you have destroyed his house of prayer and have made it a den of thieves (sic)…”

“Billy Graham is 87 years old and still preaches the Word of God, all over the world for the past 60 years, I don’t believe you will last that long.”

“…until you came along and wrecked everything.”

“I’ll never come back to [church name] as long as you are there.”

Ministry isn’t for the faint of heart or the thin skinned.

I handed the letter to my wife and let her get a good laugh from it as well.

But honestly, as much as I can laugh at it, the person who wrote it meant every word that they said, and that’s what saddens me. They never took the time to get to know me. They never met with me to express their concerns face to face. They simply wrote me a letter.

Words are important. It’s a lesson that I learn more and more every day. Using them flippantly can be a dangerous pastime. As Hawk Nelson sings, “Words can build you up, words can break you down.” But equally important to me is the lesson in humility that I can gain as these letters serve as a reminder to me that not everyone loves me.

After having been sufficiently humbled by the reading of this letter, I pulled out some others to remember that we don’t dwell on the negative. As I read the phrase, “We were so blessed by you coming to attend to our needs….we love you,” how could I do anything other than smile.

I put the file away. I’ll pull it out again another day. For now, I’m smiling as I remember that God has used me to be a blessing to some and a thorn to others. It’s a tough job, but I guess someone’s got to do it!

A Collision of Worlds

IMG_0035When I was in seminary, I made a few really good friends. It all started one night towards the end of one of our intensive weeks out in St. Paul, Minnesota. There was a sports bar called Grumpy’s where a few of us went to partake in nachos and libations. As we ate and drank, the conversation flowed and friendships were formed. The friendships that were formed have lasted to this day although all of us are spread out, not only throughout the country, but through the world.

This past weekend, one of the crew reached a milestone in his ministry life as he was ordained to the ministry. Ordination is an interesting thing, especially for those who are on the outside looking in. For most larger, mainline denominations, a person’s individual sense of call on their life to enter into ministry is only the first step in a process. After the individual sense, it needs to be affirmed by a larger group. The process, depending on the specific denomination, can be simple or difficult.

My friend had entered the process prior to our finishing seminary back in 2013. The hoops that are required to jump through can become tedious and cumbersome. One might think of it a little like Jedi training, it’s a tough road, but in the end, it’s worth it. Of course, there are no cool powers that come with ordination, no force push or lightsabers, just responsibilities and privileges to administer the sacraments of baptism and communion.

The church where my friend has been serving (and will continue to serve) is not typical of others within his mainline denomination. The same could be said of my own, but on a much smaller scale. As I spent the weekend at two separate campuses of my friend’s church, it was pretty incredible to see all that was taking place. Breakfast served to homeless bused in from shelters. A church set up in a school, similar to my own church experience. A consistent theme running through all of the campuses as they tracked through a sermon series through the Gospels together. Even though they have many campuses, there is a cohesion that runs through all of those campuses, allowing people to see themselves as something bigger.

I told my friend that there can be a tendency for pastors who remain in their own contexts week after week to be limited in their views. For me, to travel across the country and experience what I did was a breath of refreshing air. It was a reminder of the breadth, width, and depth of the Kingdom of God. It helped me to know how to better pray for my friend and his church. It gave me some good ideas to bring back with me to share and experiment with to determine their viability in my own context.

It’s always neat when you hear about people through conversations with a friend and then are able to meet those people face to face. My friend spent a year in California for his internship for his denomination and the pastor with whom he had worked flew out to take part in the ordination service as well. I was interested to meet him as I had heard so much about him. I also met one of the pastors with whom he works whose mind is a raging torrent of theology. A ten minute conversation with him was like drinking from the proverbial firehose. In fact, I tossed out the idea of getting all of our seminary crew together for a weekend to spend with this guy.

In the coming days, I am sure that I will process more of what I experienced this weekend. I am forever grateful to the people who allowed me to step away for this time, particularly my lead pastor and my wife. I am grateful for the team with whom I work who stepped in for me while I was away. I can’t wait to see what God will do in me and through me as a result of this time away. I can’t wait to see what God will do in our little crew from seminary as we continue to vision and dream together of what can be done when we think outside of the traditional boxes of doing ministry together. I can’t wait to see what God does through my friend as he enters this new phase of ministry. What a privilege to be on this wild ride.

10 Years

2014-05-30 04.07.0810 Years ago today, I stood at the front of a church and had a group of men surround me, lay hands on me, and ordain me into full-time vocational ministry as a pastor in a Baptist church in Asheville, North Carolina. It was an emotional day for me. My parents and my brother had made the trip down to Asheville and my father preached at the service. This marked a major career shift for me as I left my engineering career behind me and looked ahead to where I had felt God had been leading and calling me.

In the musical “Rent,” the characters tried to measure a year and decided that they would do it in love. How do I measure a decade? 10 years? 10 years, 3 churches, 3 children, 2 lost parents, 2 states, 2 denominations, and 1 seminary degree later, I’m still standing. My ordination was recognized by my current denomination just a few months ago. What I do today looks very different from what I was doing 10 years ago in some ways, and very much the same in other ways. The growth that I have seen in myself over this past decade can only be attributed to what God has done in my life. I hope that others who have walked this past decade with me have seen that same growth.

There have been times that I’ve looked back and said, “What was I thinking?” There are still days that come here and there when I wonder whether I should be doing what I’m doing, I think that’s natural for all of us. When I stop to really consider it though, those thoughts don’t last for a long time, I do my best to gently sweep them aside to look at the things in front of me that confirm my calling, that help me to remember why I do what I do and how success is measured in the eyes of God versus the eyes of the world.

It hasn’t been an easy road by any marks, but easy is not always best. What God has shown me and what I have seen over this past decade has managed to both astound me and horrify me, and probably so many other things in between those two.

I’ve measured many milestones in my life over the past few years. Some of those milestones have been good and celebratory while others have given me cause to stop and reflect, ask questions, and even weep. If milestones help me to reflect or lead to growth, I guess I can’t complain, and if I do, I’m not sure who will listen.

If you had told me 10 years ago where I would be today, I’m not so sure that I would have believed you. My hope is that 10 years from now, I won’t be quite as surprised by my circumstances, not because they haven’t changed or because there hasn’t been growth, but because I’ve gotten used to expecting the unexpected.

I’m grateful that God has used me these past 10 years and I know that I’ve made a difference, regardless of whether that difference has been great or small. I hope and pray that I can continue to be used to make a difference. I might not make a lot of money, I might not achieve fortune and fame, but if God can use a broken vessel like me, than that’s a pretty good case against atheism…..in my opinion.