Where Life and Faith Meet

The Branch Logo (4000 x 4000)I’m within weeks of launching out into one of the biggest adventures of my life. After being in full-time vocational ministry for the last fourteen and a half years, my wife and I are being sent out of our church to start another church in the next town.

I’ve been on a journey of growing and learning since I started in ministry all those years ago. I came into ministry through the back door, never having been to seminary when I started. Along the way, I got my seminary degree and learned through the School of Hard Knocks. I’ve been fortunate to have had some patient and gracious people along the way who put up with this Enneagram 8’s challenging ways.

I grew up in the church in the home of a pastor. I was at the church every time the doors were open and it really caused me to try to understand just what I was doing there.

My crisis of faith came in my sophomore year of college. I wanted to compartmentalize my life, keeping things separate in their nice and neat containers. But anyone who’s tried that knows that it rarely works and rarely lasts long.

I came out of that time like something from a crucible, a little more refined than I had been before. I had moved from living a secondhand faith to beginning the journey that moved me towards embracing a faith of my own.

In retrospect, that was probably the beginning of the journey that is finally coming to culmination in the weeks ahead. Twenty some odd years of trying to understand just how to live in that place where life and faith meet. How do I embrace my faith and live in the tension that culture and this world can sometimes (often?) provide?

I’ve not always been the easiest person to lead. There has been a restlessness in me since my engineering days (the career I left to come into full-time ministry). But part of the reason was because I’ve always felt this tension, this in between place in which I live as I embrace faith and yet walk and live in a world that can be so hostile towards those who do.

Compartmentalization isn’t really the way faith is supposed to work. Over and over, as I read through the Bible, I don’t see things that would indicate that faith should be relegated to one day a week. If we want to take seriously the words that Jesus said, we can’t put our Bibles on the shelf and dust them off on Sunday mornings or, worse yet, Christmas and Easter. Life and faith meet in the everyday moments that we live.

This is at the heart of this journey that I am on. The community that God has called me to be a part of is one where life and faith meet. It isn’t a place where we put that faith on the shelf for the times when we need it, because if we are honest, we need it every moment of every day.

This past week, I’ve had a firsthand experience of that. This week is a continuation of it. I will be a part of two funerals this week. One of those funerals is for someone who lived a good, long life. The other funeral is for someone who struggled and whose life was cut short by tragedy. But life and faith met in both of these lives.

As I met with families, sat in hospital waiting rooms, drove in my car, I wrestled in prayer, kind of like Jacob did with that angel in the Bible. To say that I’m walking with a limp afterwards would be appropriate. When we wrestle with God, it should change us. But we don’t always come out with satisfactory answers, and I really don’t think we are always supposed to, although we sure would like to have those answers.

In the midst of the collision of life and faith, pat answers don’t cut it. Explaining to a son why his father’s life was snuffed out can’t be done, at least not in my book. The Bible is a guidebook, a story of God’s redeeming love and just how that love intersects. In many ways, it’s a picture of the place where life and faith meet.

This will be an adventure, but more than that, it’s a calling. It’s a calling that’s probably been there for longer than I’d like to admit. It’s a calling that I needed to prepare for, and it’s not just the past five or ten or fifteen years that have been preparing me. It’s a calling that I’ve been being prepared for my whole life. God has been shaping and forming me to embark on this journey.

I’ve rarely met people who feel that they are completely ready and prepared for what is ahead of them. I find myself in the same boat, and that’s the way I think it’s supposed to be. If I felt like I could do this all in my own strength, where would faith be, where would my reliance lie? I wouldn’t be relying on God and I probably wouldn’t be dreaming big enough since I’ve always said that we need to dream dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish them.

Here is what I do know. I know that the place where life and faith meet is a place that many people seem to be searching for. I know that this place is a place that needs to be defined by values.

So, here are some of the values that I’m discovering in this place.

When life and faith meet, there is unity not uniformity.

When life and faith meet, not every question has an answer.

When life and faith meet, relationships take priority over preferences.

When life and faith meet, Jesus meets us where we are but doesn’t leave us there.

When life and faith meet, we are brought to places of discomfort for the comfort of others.

When life and faith meet, ministry and service are not reserved for the “paid professionals.”

When life and faith meet, it can get messy, so we need grace.

I’ll be sure to let you know what I’m discovering along the way.

 

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Know Your Limits

I was sitting in a local coffee shop the other day and a couple came in looking for breakfast options. The guy behind the counter told them that their breakfast options were limited and then proceeded to tell them about a place down the street that had a more full breakfast menu. The couple thanked him and headed out the door to the little diner down the street.

As I sat there, enthralled with what had just played out before me, I couldn’t help but think about the wisdom in knowing your limitations, in knowing what you can offer and what you can’t. This played out before me in a small little cafe, but I wondered why it doesn’t play out more in churches.

In this church planting journey that I have been on, I’ve thought a lot about churches and what they can and can’t do. I’ve thought a lot about trying to be all things to all people. I’ve wondered what keeps pastors from being secure enough in who they are and who their church is to tell people who are looking for something that they won’t find there that it might not be the place for them.

It’s far more tempting when new people come into your church to do your best to woo them and persuade them that this is the place for them, even if they are looking for something that you can’t give them. It’s far more difficult to be honest and tell them that you know a place that might be a better fit for them. I know that there are pastors out there who actually do that, recommend that people find what they’re looking for down the street, across town, or somewhere else.

In the long run, knowing limitations, both personally and as a church, will help us be more effective. I’ve learned that over the past few years, improving in the area of delegation, not to get out of working but to free myself up to do the things that I do best. Why is it that pastors and churches struggle to do what this coffee shop attendant did? Why do we struggle to know our limitations, admit our limitations, and live into the things at which we excel?

As I embark on this journey, what are the top reasons why I need to follow the example of this coffee shop attendant?

1) It helps to solidify and cast vision

I have a friend and mentor who planted a church years ago. His church has grown to be one of the largest in the area. While it might all seem like it came easily, he can share war stories and show the scars that he’s earned to get to the place where he is at. The one consistent story he has told is of the “vision wranglers” who came to the church with high expectations of what they were looking for and what they thought needed to be offered. Listening to them rather than pursuing the God given vision that you have been given will lead to a distorted vision and a confusing pursuit of that.

If a decision making process is formed to analyze opportunities and offerings within a church to ensure that they are aligned with the vision, it will go a long way in not only preventing burnout but also enforcing, solidifying, and casting that vision. When people ask if you offer something and you answer, “That doesn’t really align with the vision that God has given us,” people might not like it, but they will know what that vision is and how it drives everything that you do as a church.

2) It allows you to focus on your strengths

I could write an entire post on strengths and my own journey in them, but for the sake of this post, I’ll keep it brief. Focusing on strengths is far more fulfilling than focusing on weaknesses. That’s not to say that God doesn’t call us to grow in areas of weakness and rely on him, but I firmly believe that we still need to lean into him even when we are operating in our strengths. Just because something is your strength doesn’t mean you do it perfectly.

Focusing on the things that we are good at helps us be more effective and efficient as individuals. It makes sense that when we take it to a more corporate and communal level to the church that the same should be true. If we know the strengths of our faith community, we should live into them rather than trying to be like the other faith community down the street or across town.

When we try to do the things that we aren’t good at, not only do we become less efficient and effective, we also suffer from an identity crisis. We fail to see who God has created us to be and long to be other than who he has made us. In our pursuit of another identity, we basically tell God that we’re not satisfied with who he made us and we’d much rather be something else.

3) It helps to appreciate the vastness and diversity of the body of Christ

If the body of Christ is as diverse as Paul seems to describe it as in his letters, then maybe we aren’t all meant to do everything. There’s something to be said about a hand doing things that hands were meant to do. Same can be said of feet doing things that feet were meant to do. But an arm was never meant to smell, a leg was never meant to taste, a foot was never mean to see. Likewise, the nose, tongue, and eyes weren’t meant to do the things that arms, legs, and feet do.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging our limitations. In fact, I think that when we acknowledge those limitations, we begin to see just how vast and diverse the body of Christ is and appreciate the gifts of others. While we may still long to be something other than we are, if we humble ourselves, I think God can bring us to the place where we gain more appreciation for the gifts of others, especially when we know how hard it is to try to live into those things.

At the same time, hopefully others come to that same place and begin to appreciate us and the gifts that God has given to us.

This is all fine and good in theory, in fact, someone told me last week that I had a lot of theories. That’s part of the beauty of this journey I find myself on, theories will be tried and tested. They will be proved or disproved. The nice thing is that this is one theory that I’ve seen played out for me by others who have gone before, so theory or not, successful or not in my case, it’s been proven before.

Ultimately, my heart is about being part of God’s kingdom work in this world. That’s not always easy, it’s not without challenges, but I think that it can go a long way towards removing some of those challenges when we begin to live in to who God has made us, both as individuals and communities, and let others live into who they are. If we find ourselves living into that, I think we will begin to see what many of us have prayed for over and over again, God’s kingdom coming and his will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Here we go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

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!