Some thoughts on foster care in Oklahoma on The MiddleGround. (Not my best look, but with a face/body for radio, well…)
Archive for the ‘Church’ Category
“Please write a blog post about the epidemic among well-meaning believers in the use of ‘just’ a million times per prayer. ‘Lord, if you would just…’ ‘In the midst of this struggle, just…’ ‘We should just depend on you…’ It’s a phony qualifier meant to make our prayers sound humble or modest. I HATE it. I just do.”
I’ve harbored the same resentful lament – first against those who pray so pitifully (for a primer, click here), then against myself for doing worse and condemning them for it.
Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner.
That one-line cry seems about the extent of my prayer life these days; sometimes I make it all the way through the Lord’s Prayer, but that’s about it. Unlike my more “spiritual” days, I don’t have any lists I keep or pray through; I don’t record requests or answers. I don’t pray (much) with my kids beyond thanking God for a meal, and I can’t remember the last time I prayed with my wife, mostly because I’ve never really prayed with Megan and the habit has mostly stuck.
The fact is, my prayerlessness is really pretty staggering. I’m ashamed of it and I’m afraid of it. I’m appalled by it and I’m alone in it (well, not really on that last part, but it feels like it sometimes).
In some regard (and forgive me if this seems a huge cop out), the only real hope I’ve found in the area of prayer is Romans 8:26-27. Everyone knows (and misapplies) Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” – but that’s just the outcome of the means – of God’s means – found in verses 26 and 27:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
The Spirit groans on my behalf. A lot. In my sleep, in the morning, in the shower, in the car, in my office(s), in my work, in my rest, in my study, in my relationships, in my marriage, in my family, in my hunger, in my satisfaction, in my struggles, in my victories, in my doubts, in my (over)confidences…the list goes on and on. The “less spiritual” I’ve become in my old(er) age, the more I (finally) recognize how hardly spiritual I really was in my youth. Indeed, the Lord calls us to pray (and often that’s the only reason I try), but we easily forget (or at least I did) that the Spirit is the one who does so on our behalf – even when we feel like it, and especially when we don’t. This, if there is such a thing, is the power of prayerlessness.
I’ve read the usual suspects on prayer – Church fathers and theologians, Christian pastors and missionaries – and I always come away convicted and convinced that I’m somehow not doing this right. I feel even worse when I eagerly judge those who ask God to “just” do anything, self-justifying my reaction to the lazy language of evangelicalism (which I hate in all its shallow forms) rather than actually praying in a way that seems so beyond my capacity.
So I resonate with my friend’s observation and lament, but also confess my own hard heart as I desperately cling to God’s promise that the Spirit will intercede on my behalf. I take comfort in the solace of Hebrews 7:25, which reminds me that, “…he (Jesus) is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
I try to pray because he asks me to. I’m “just” glad Jesus helps me as much as he does.
(At times in the past, I’ve written my prayers, pieces of which eventually turned into songs and other forms of poetry (or vice versa). For a Theology of Prayer course in seminary, I collected some of the shorter offerings and put them together in an anthology. You’re welcome to download and read them in this Prayer Collection.
In addition, while I’ve always found the prayers of the Psalms helpful to put words to emotions, in more recent years, I’ve also appreciated prayers in The Valley of Vision and tried (but mostly failed) to follow the Book of Common Prayer.)
“But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?'” Acts 19:15
This verse (along with the passage from which it comes) has run through my head about a hundred times in the past week. Believe it or not, we’ve been on vacation, but my insecurities are no respecter of calendar dates, locations, or accommodations. I’m never surprised (though never ready) when feelings of unworthiness and personal contempt raise their ugly heads and say hello.
Without boring you with too many details (ask my wife: vacationing with me is about as exciting as watching paint dry), I started off our trip alone, flying to North Carolina to cover for Michael Card, who was teaching an intensive Bible seminar at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville. It’s unfortunate that many folks my age (43) and younger don’t have a knowledge of or appreciation for Mike’s music, writing, and teaching, but the older (50 and above) folks know a good thing when they find it; many of them follow Mike across the country for his concerts or Biblical Imagination conferences or even around the world (he had just gotten back from a tour in Ireland in May and takes a group to Israel every year in January).
Mike’s “fans” tend to have more gray hair, available time, and discretionary funds than most, all of which equate to big expectations when they’re shelling out $429 a pop at one of the premier conference centers in the country to hear arguably one of the best Bible teachers in the world. The topic for last week was the Gospel of John, for which Mike has just finished a new book and album (pre-order yours here). The good news was he was able to teach Monday-Thursday; the other news was, due to a mistaken double-booking, he was going to have to leave late Thursday night and needed a pinch-hitter to wrap up the week.
As Mike and I have done conferences together off-and-on for 12 years now, he asked me if I would fill in for him. Without really considering the dynamics, I said I would. I flew out Wednesday night, sat in on three sessions on Thursday, and then Mike and I executed a brief baton pass toward the end of the Thursday evening meeting. It went well, but I still had two sessions by myself on Friday morning and 120 folks who, without intending to be evil, had to be asking the demon’s question with a twist:
“Jesus I know, and Michael Card I recognize, but who are you?”
Fast-forward to Sunday morning. After leaving The Cove Friday afternoon and flying to Denver that evening, I met up with Megan and our two youngest daughters and drove to the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park to pick up our two oldest daughters who had just finished RYM Camp with our City Presbyterian Pyretics group (major props to youth director Jarod Mason and intern Laura Parsons for coordinating and chaperoning). From there, we drove to Colorado Springs and up to Eagle Lake Camps, where Megan and I met and invested ten years (1992-2001) of our lives, and where I was to speak at staff chapel on Sunday morning. (As their two older sisters had three years previously, our two younger daughters were also set to attend camp this week.)
As you might imagine, the crowd was much younger than at The Cove; instead of 120 senior citizens, I was looking down the barrel of 120 wild-eyed high school- and college-aged students who will spend the rest of the summer caring for over 2,700 kids from all over the country. The energy was overwhelming, as was my self-doubt. I had worked weeks in advance on my message, but now that I was onsite, I wondered if it would actually connect; most of these kids would have been in diapers (if they were even born) when I was at Eagle Lake in my twenties, and it’s never pretty when an older speaker attempts to play hipster (which I didn’t) to reach a younger audience.
While many of the staff had apparently heard of me (it’s not hard to be a camp celebrity just by virtue of having lasted ten years at one), I couldn’t help but imagine them saying to themselves:
“Jesus I know, and some counselor I heard a story or two about from twenty years ago I recognize, but who are you?”
Who are you? Luke records that the evil spirit asked the question not of Christian believers but of “itinerant Jewish exorcists” who “undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits” (Acts 19:13). In other words, these “seven sons of Sceva” (great ska band name!) were trying to coast on the coattails of Jesus and Paul, but the evil spirit would not be fooled. The result wasn’t pretty: “The man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (Acts 19:16).
The story is a reminder as well as a warning. Whether speaking to a weekend conference or camp audience or to our family and friends on a daily basis, are we doing so as followers of Christ or as Christian posers? Are we ministering out of the overflow of our relationship with Jesus, or are we name-dropping the Savior and his apologists in hopes that – somehow – His power will transfer anyway? As the passage records, there are few more dangerous sins than the sin of presumption.
The question of “Who are you?” is as pointed an accusation Satan and his agents of evil can throw at us, as there is no more powerful attack than one that attacks our person. But this is when we remind Satan (and ourselves) of who the Lord says we are. Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:9-10 are helpful:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
In case you were wondering, the two sessions at The Cove went better than I hoped (there’s no more honest compliment than conferees confessing afterward that, yes, they had been disappointed you weren’t the original speaker, but they saw God’s hand in it and were glad and grateful after all). The talk at Eagle Lake seemed to hit home (there’s no more humbling thanks than when semi-awkward 19-year-olds try almost too hard to convince you that your message was exactly what they needed that morning). Whew.
The good news of the Gospel is that, while feelings of insecurities may be frequent and no fun, they can keep our poser potential in check if we confess them to Jesus so He can remind us who – and Whose! – we are. To do otherwise – to “fake it ’til we make it” despite our insecurities – will leave us naked, wounded, and in a vulnerable state that we will only want to hide from others and from God.
(The following manuscript is of the message I gave at Eagle Lake Camps chapel on Sunday, June 22, 2014. It was an honor to speak at such a beloved place from my past.)
I’m going to be speaking from Psalm 16 this morning, so while you’re finding your seats, you can begin turning there in your Bibles. While you’re doing that, let me introduce my family. Megan and I have four daughters: Maddie is 15, Chloe is 13, Katie is 12, and Millie is 10, and have lived in Oklahoma City, where I serve as Head of School of The Academy of Classical Christian Studies. Maddie and Chloe came to camp three years ago, and Katie and Millie will be joining you this week. As perhaps you’ve heard, Eagle Lake is a special place for us. Megan and I met here 21 years ago. I served as a Rez counselor, program director, musician, and Onsite Director from 1992-2001, while she served as a Kitchen staff, Rez counselor, Crew counselor, store manager, and nanny 9 of those 10 years.
If I remember this time of summer correctly, you’ve been here long enough to know what’s supposed to be going on, but that whole “fourth week/first week” thing is perhaps beginning to ring hollow. You’ve probably heard others – if not yourself – begin to grumble, and the idea of six more weeks is perhaps not quite as rosy as it was four weeks ago. There’s no place like camp to discover what we’re capable of – good, bad, and ugly – but there’s also no place like camp to learn to trust God with the good, bad, and ugly we discover.
This is what I want to talk with you about today. If you have any hope of lasting the rest of the summer – of God preserving you – it begins with taking refuge in Him. Look at Psalm 16:1-2: “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’” Taking our cue from David, what does taking refuge in God yield? I’d like to suggest four preservations:
Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for godly company. Look at verses 3: “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” Now notice the comparison in verse 4: “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips.”
Whether in college at the University of Missouri, when we were on staff with the Navs for 12 years here in the Springs, when we moved to St. Louis to begin seminary, or during the past three years of our lives in Oklahoma City, we’ve always been with good, godly people. But here’s our secret: we’re not the ones doing the surrounding; we just happen to enjoy the providence of God – in his refuge role – doing so.
Whether you recognize it happening or not, God is at work building at least one friendship (though I’ll be surprised if it’s only one) that will continue on with you ten, twenty, even dare I say fifty years as a result of your time at Eagle Lake. I say this out of experience, and I’m not even talking about the yahoos in the back.
We moved from St. Louis to Oklahoma City three years ago, and in doing so, have since reacquainted with Molly – one of my wife’s Rez Campers back in 1994, who with her husband sent their little girl and twin boys to the school I lead. One of my Grammar school principals, Alison, was one of my Program Coaches for two years in 1995 and 1996. We go to church with Brian and Matt, who were former counselors and now are both married to their wives and have a couple of kids. At church, we also get to see our pastor’s wife, Julie, who was a counselor in 1993, as well as a founding board member of our school. And speaking of board members, Jonathan, is about to come on our board, and he was a former camper! (This should give each and every one of you pause as to how you view that camper who keeps throwing rocks and won’t listen.)
These are just former staff and campers living in the same town. All of these friends came through Eagle Lake back in the day, walked with God through their twenties and thirties, and were established in Oklahoma long before we ever got there. The same has been true of every place we’ve lived, and so many places in between. This is what God does when he tells Peter in Matthew 16 that, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Because the Lord is our refuge, he is at work keeping us from the sorrows of those who run after another god and drink the ungodly offerings of blood and take their names. Because the Lord is our refuge, he is preparing excellent ones, in whom will be our delight, not just for when you return home or to school in August, but for the rest of your days and wherever you go as part of his universal church.
But that’s just the beginning. The second preservation is this: because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for contentment. Look at verses 5 and 6: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.”
We need to understand something here: the language used is not of preference but allotment; that is, God – not us – is the one choosing our portion, giving us our lot to hold, drawing where our lines will fall, and the one from whom we inherit whatever inheritance he decides. We are not learning to be content with what we choose; we are learning to be content with what he chooses for us.
I know of no better place to learn a lifestyle of contentment than camp. Notice what I said there – not a lesson, but a lifestyle – of contentment. As our American culture sees generation after generation more and more infected with an entitlement epidemic, we see this illness come to camp in campers and sometimes (I hate to say it) in staff. The plain and reality is, if you’re only content when you’re comfortable, you’re not content but pacified.
I don’t remember what summer it was, but I do remember that one of our counselors that year – I’ll call her Maggie – had no interest in learning about contentment at Eagle Lake. It was about the third or fourth week when she came into my office every day crying, begging to go home. She’d been a little sick the week before, was more than a little homesick since she’d arrived, and when we tried to help her through it by assigning a co-counselor, giving her three afternoons off to rest, and just trying to listen to and love her, she would have none of it. Her heart was hardened and her eyes were angry. She had what I call the two-year-old syndrome: she wanted what she wanted and she wanted it now.
That Thursday evening, she followed me into my office, demanding that she be allowed to leave. I reached into my filing cabinet, pulled out her staff agreement, and told her that if she was going to go home, she was going to have to rip up her signed agreement then and there. As I pushed it across the table to her, I told her I hoped she would think about the worth of her name and what her signature on the agreement meant. Without batting an eye, she grabbed the paper, held it up in front of me, and dramatically ripped it into four pieces. Without saying a word, I took a phone book, placed it on the table, and told her to book her flight out the following morning.
A few years later, I received a letter from Maggie, in which she asked forgiveness for her discontent. By the conviction of the Holy Spirit, he had led her to repentance, embracing what was surely awkward and uncomfortable for her and trusting him – and me – to walk through it with her. It was an amazing privilege to forgive.
Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for our contentment with our chosen portion – lot, cup, drawn lines, inheritance. I’m sure you’ve already recognized areas of frustration this summer – 3-minute showers, uncomfortable conditions, whiny campers, time that’s not your own – but God is sovereign and sovereignly at work in growing you by these means. These opportunities are providential for you to learn in whatever situation – whether brought low or abounding, facing plenty or hunger, in abundance or need – to be content. Confess your covetousness and expose your feelings of entitlement to one another. Admit when you’re acting like a two-year-old and put on your big boy or girl pants and grow up. And trust that you can do all these things through Christ who strengthens you as you pursue this contentment, which is the actual context of this most misquoted verse.
The third preservation is this: because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for delight in his constant presence. Look at verses 7-8: “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.”
At our school back in Oklahoma City, we spend a tremendous amount of time pushing back on a modern culture fooled into thinking that education is all about information transfer. When I talk with parents, teachers, and especially with students, I’m always asking the question posed by James K.A. Smith in his book, Desiring the Kingdom: “What if education isn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?”
At our school, we don’t want kids to just learn the Law; we want them to learn to love the Law because, as Calvin reminds us, the Law reflects like a mirror the perfection of God; it restrains like a bit in a horse’s mouth evil; and it illuminates like a lamp that which pleases God. But where are kids going to learn to love the Lord and his Law? My friend Andrew Kern of The Circe Institute suggests that, “We become what we behold.” This is why the psalmist can speak in verse 7 about the counsel and instruction he’s received. As verse 8 reads, he has set the Lord before him; he is at his right hand and he is not shaken because what he beholds is not shaken.
This whole “becoming what we behold” idea should sound familiar. What is the goal of Eagle Lake Camp? “The goal of Eagle Lake Camp is to inspire Christ-centered love and commitment, through counselor relationships, in the midst of exciting outdoor experiences.” The worst thing you can do with kids this summer is reduce Jesus to an intellectual idea to be merely accepted, catalogued, or easily referenced. Paul says it beautifully and simply in 1 Corinthians 11:1 – “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Trust in this – and rejoice! – that somehow – by God’s unbelievable goodness – campers might become what they behold in you because you – together – are becoming what you behold in Christ.
The fourth and final preservation I want to remind us of today is this: because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for hope of everlasting joy and the path of direction. Look at verses 9-11: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
When I consider the story God has written for this place from before the creation of the world, I am blown away. And, when I consider the few pages of that story that happened to include Megan and me, my heart is overcome with thankfulness to the Lord. I think of all God has done here and the thousands upon thousands of challenges He has overcome to ensure the 57th summer of Eagle Lake Camps happens, and my whole being rejoices. Personally, when I consider all that the Lord did in me in my time here, my flesh dwells secure, for He did not abandon my wretched and pathetic soul, nor let me see corruption, but made known to me a path of life by way of His presence and His people.
The Lord showed me here that I had an anger problem…because I had a control problem…because I had a people-pleasing problem…because I had a pride problem. The Lord loved me enough to place me in a beautiful place surrounded with good people through which He taught me the importance of Luke 16:10, “That he who is faithful with very little will be faithful with much.” He taught me to be teachable – to recognize correction from my leaders, my peers, and (gulp) my campers – not as punishment but as discipline for my good, for He disciplines those He loves. Hebrews 12:11 – the first verse I ever memorized – reminds us that, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” These promises have rung true in my life, not because I was always true to them, but because the Lord – our promise-making, covenant-keeping God – always was.
Which is why I can be confident in reminding you of four promises in Psalm 16:
- Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for godly company.
- Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for contentment.
- Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for delight in his constant presence.
- Because the Lord is our refuge, we can trust him for hope of everlasting joy.
Let us glory in God’s preservation, reminding each other and ourselves that He is our Refuge, that He is our Lord, and indeed, we have no good thing apart from Him.
Reflecting on the fact that, as of this week, we’ve lived in Oklahoma City for three years. Here’s a video tour (or more accurately, a tour of videos) to commemorate the milestone.
We’ve had a hand in creating a new mascot…
…a new school…
…and a new church.
We’ve fostered and become advocates for foster care…
…reminisced and remembered…
…had fun at another’s expense (quite justified)…
…had fun at our own expense (quite amusing)…
…and periodically had a little too much time on our hands (quite disturbing).
By God’s grace and providence, it’s been a hard and happy time – rarely one or the other; more frequently, one and the same. There’s more to say than anyone would read, and still more to do that too much nostalgic navel-gazing would allow.
Perhaps we should just let Psalm 16 have the last word:
Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”
As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.
The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names on my lips.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I have set the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
my flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
“While the dead don’t care, the dead matter.
The dead matter to the living.”
My mother-in-law, Moleta King of Owasso, OK, passed away earlier this week after battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the past two years. Hers was the first passing I’d ever been completely present for, from roughly 15 hours before the time of death early Tuesday morning through her burial Friday afternoon. For reasons good and otherwise, it’s been the longest week I can remember – good, in that this kind of loss forces us to slow down and mourn by way of our memorial traditions; otherwise, in that we (or some of us) push back against grief’s delays in ways our modern world has trained us – by way of technology.
Don’t get me wrong: there is comfort in hearing from hundreds of friends who, for various reasons, cannot be present with the living as they mourn their dead. A product of our overly-mobile culture, this distance disconnect can be overcome instantly via phone, email, and text messaging (along with our more traditional – but time-requiring – means of letter writing, card sending, and flower delivering). But what left me wanting this past week was the public display of affection made possible by social media. At the risk of offending those who employed it (all with the best of intentions, I’m sure), let me explain.
I became tired of people proclaiming they were praying for me/us on Facebook, mostly because I doubted they really were. It felt like there was a “crisis reminder” right next to the “birthday reminder” on the screen, so of course folks needed to click it and leave a trite message. “Praying for you!” “You’re in our thoughts and prayers!” And my personal favorite: “Prayers coming your way!” (Let’s be honest: if prayers are coming my way, we’re screwed; we pray to God, not to each other.) Of course, I know some – perhaps many – people did pray when they said they would (I’m not completely jaded), but I confess Facebook often felt too quick and too convenient to take the message to heart.
The other thing that bothered me (and I write this with no condemnation of my family, but as a completely hypocritical member of it) was how we gravitated to our own digital worlds in the midst of our grief. Both my family (wife and four girls, ages 10-15) and Megan’s sister’s family (husband and wife with five kids, ages 9-22) are fairly “wired,” and I counted at least eight smart phones, six laptops, and a desktop among us that received more than their fair share of attention this past week. Granted, some use was to make plans or to communicate them, but I would venture that just as much or more was in pursuit of comfort and general distraction. I kept wondering (again, without judgment of a crime – if it was one – to which I was certainly an accomplice), how much did we miss from each other because of the separation of our screens?
Years ago, I read a fascinating book titled Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality by Thomas Lynch. A writer, poet, and undertaker, Lynch writes from a unique first-person perspective of the generalities and nuances of life, death, and the often-uneasy tension that exists in their co-existence in our world. He has published several books along the theme of death and dying, including The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, and more recently, The Good Funeral: The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. (PBS’ Frontline actually turned The Undertaking into this documentary by the same name, which I watched with my four daughters a few hours before leaving for the visitation on Thursday as a way of explaining what all had happened since their grandmother’s death.) He writes:
“Grief is the tax we pay on our attachments…the price we pay for being close to one another. If we want to avoid our grief, we simply avoid each other.”
Was our family’s tendency toward technology in some way self-protective against the idea of losing each other as we had already lost Moleta? I’m not sure any of us would have verbalized it as such (nor probably would any of us still), but I do wonder. Was our handling of death and dying in our digital age normal? Was it healthy? Could it have been better without the phones and laptops? Would it have been? I don’t know.
A couple other observations from a tough week:
- Everyone suddenly becomes a theologian at visitations, memorial services, and funerals. I heard plenty of bad theology from people – some who didn’t know any better, plenty of others who should – that it took all I could muster to keep from putting on sackcloth and ashes and weeping and gnashing my teeth. “Heaven got a new angel today!” “She finally got her wings!” And my personal favorite, spoken without a trace of irony: “I’m sure she’s having a great time, but Heaven sounds boring to me.” And then there came the platitudes: “Nothing can hurt her now.” “We’ll get to see her again one day.” “She’s in a better place.” While this last set may be true, I hate them, and I judgmentally hold in contempt those who use them. I’m not saying I’m right in doing this; I’m just saying I do this.
- I can’t remember the last time I cried and don’t really care that I rarely do – it fits well with the Spock stereotype people often enjoy at my expense. (Interestingly, when I was not trying to get some work done across the week, I watched the first five Star Trek movies on Netflix just to touch base with my Vulcan counterpart. The more I learn about Spock’s back story, the more I happily embrace the aforementioned comparison. It’s not that Spock didn’t have emotions; on the contrary, as a Vulcan he was fiercely emotional, but was trained and learned to master his feelings to the point where he was confused for and known as being emotion-less.) All that said, I finally cried (“leaked” is probably a better word) at the end of the memorial service, so I really am human in case anyone was wondering.
As always with me, there are plenty more observations, but most are either too personal or too meaningless (or both) to write here. I’ve said before that death is life’s great perspective-bringer, but after experiencing death’s bringing of perspective this week, I’ve had enough, at least for now.
Which brings me back to Lynch and the comfort with which he writes and thinks about death. His is a wonderful analysis neither morbid in tone nor myopic in perspective; rather, he writes in a way that is warm, helpful, and full of insight into the meaning of life as viewed through death’s reality, which is not something to be feared, but to be embraced as another part of the whole of life:
“It was there, in the parlors of the funeral home – my daily stations with the local lately dead – that the darkness would often give way to light. A fellow citizen outstretched in his casket, surrounded by floral tributes, waiting for the homages and obsequies, would speak to me in the silent code of the dead: ‘So, you think you’re having a bad day?’ The gloom would lift inexplicably. Here was one to whom the worst had happened, often in a variety of ways, and yet no word of complaint was heard from out the corpse. Nor did the world end, nor the sky fall, nor his or her people become blighted entirely. Life, it turns out, goes on with or without us. There is at least as much to be thankful for as wary of.”
Indeed, but only because Jesus says so (and not because someone tells me on Facebook).
Jesus was never one to over-spiritualize, but he did talk frankly of the Devil and his demons being at work in the world.
Following Jesus’ lead, I don’t want to over-spiritualize, either; yet multiple conversations with many of you in recent weeks have combined with my own acute sense of need to compel me to remind friends that, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:2).
The way we “wrestle” is to pray.
Because God is at work in the world, Satan wants to be as well. Depression, doubt, insecurity, fear – these are all evils from the pit of Hell, and multiple families are experiencing these attacks in various manifestations in the midst of physical sickness and mental weariness of late. Recently, we’ve had students and staff members who have been in the hospital for a variety of (odd) reasons, moms and dads who are struggling through hard life decisions, and just about all of us (my own family included) who are dealing with situations that are unfamiliar and out of our control.
To top it all off, we just finished a 12-day streak of some of the worst winter weather Oklahoma City has seen in a while, which can play havoc with our emotions as much as anything else.
Of course, not all of these trials are in and of themselves evil, but the discouragement that can accompany them (along with the often self-inflicted feeling of faithlessness in our handling them) can easily be used against us. Trust – in God, in each other – can erode, and Satan would like nothing more than to wash away all we have worked so hard to achieve.
With all this on hearts and minds, most of us are aware of at least one person or scenario in need of help. Would you ask the Lord to act in accordance with his “good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2) in providing it? As Jesus does in his prayer in Matthew 6, let me also encourage you to ask the Father to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Satan does not need more of a foothold in anyone’s life.
I’m not asking anyone to make lists or track answers; I’m just asking us – you and me – to take some time this weekend to pray, that God may meet us in our need, do what he wants through it, reassure us of his love in it, and be glorified as a result of it.
“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who settest the solitary in families: We commend to thy continual care the homes in which thy people dwell. Put far from them, we beseech thee, every root of bitterness, the desire of vainglory, and the pride of life. Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness. Knit together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh. Turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
(The pictured wrist above belongs to my friend, Jerome Loughridge, who wrote out the names of several of our school staff on his arm to remind himself to pray over the weekend. I was privileged to make the wrist…er, list.)
A few weeks ago, a dad asked me if there were plans to celebrate Black History Month in February at The Academy. This African American father shared with me his heart for his heritage and was curious where our curriculum might focus on his people’s culture and contributions, as well as the racial tensions and civil rights struggles that (unfortunately) still exist today.
I was glad for the question. I love when parents (especially dads) engage in matters as this father did – with full disclosure of motive in asking and with genuine interest in honest dialogue. Our discussion blessed and reminded me of the importance and need for diverse unity in our school and within the Body of Christ.
In answer to his question, I told him our curriculum is not aligned by particular demographics (Black History in February, Women’s History in March, Hispanic Heritage in September, American Indian History in November, etc.), as breaking up our study in this way can work against our emphasis on overall narrative so crucial to students learning about our past. This is as much a pedagogical decision as anything; students learn the ebb and flow of history more effectively when it is contextualized chronologically rather than “packaged” in the more modern made-for-TV monthly “histories” (particularly if these histories don’t line up with the narrative our students are studying).
In terms of school-wide celebrations and observations, because we are a Christian school, we align ourselves with the Protestant Church calendar (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost). This doesn’t mean there aren’t other worthy seasons to celebrate or holidays to observe, but we have to make decisions by some criteria and have chosen the Church calendar to guide us in doing so.
That said, we do not have school today in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy as a Christian pastor and non-violent leader of the civil rights movement. This is the first year our school has observed the holiday, and we hope all Academy parents will participate with their children in discussing Dr. King and how God used this particular man at a particular time to bring about needed change in our country. (One thing I try to do with my kids each year is watch and discuss MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech together, but there are several other events in our OKC community honoring his life for those in search of a more physical activity.)
One of my favorite emphases to teach in our eighth grade New Testament class is the Christian foundation for racial reconciliation as lived out by the early Church in the book of Acts. One cannot read about the cross-cultural linguistic understanding given by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 or the Apostles ensuring the care of both the Hellenist and Hebrew widows in Acts 6 or Peter and John witnessing the coming of the Spirit to the Gentiles in Samaria in Acts 8 or Peter’s vision and interaction with Cornelius and the Caesarian Gentiles in Acts 10 (to name just a few) without recognizing God’s heart for unity among his people. Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28-29 sum up how we in the Church are to view one another:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
As an heir according to promise, Dr. King knew and built upon this Christian foundation of reconciliation; without it, he would have had no message (listen to the biblical dependence of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and imagine it without its biblical references). Thus, when we honor Dr. King on Monday, we really honor the Gospel – the foundation of any freedom, equality, and unity we have. May this same Gospel be the one that redeems and restores the racial relationships in our country, our churches, our schools, our hearts, and especially the hearts of our children.
My son, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments,
for length of days and years of life
and peace they will add to you.
Megan already shared a 2013 summary of sorts in our online Christmas letter, so I’ll save you a rehash here. But I did want to offer a few thoughts I’ve been thinking between Christmas and New Year’s (possibly my favorite week of the year).
Put simply, I’m really glad 2013 is out of here. It was a very hard year, one that I don’t regret, but at the same time one I do not wish to relive again. Foster care, school merging, church planting, another round of husbanding and parenting – all good things that were all hard. Really hard.
It was a lonely year. Despite spending the majority of my days with great people at The Academy, we were always at work on something (and trying to be present on three different campuses every week sometimes felt like being present at none). I enjoy the folks in our Wednesday night City Pres group, but seeing them once a week for an hour or two only goes so far.
Even with Megan and the girls, the “project” of foster care took its toll on our family dynamics and relationships, and while it built new things in, I would say that we all functioned more as partners than as family at times, doing what needed to get done at the expense of deepening our relationships. This kind of sacrifice is not always bad – we grew in other ways as a result – but I don’t want to repeat it to the same degree in 2014.
Things I’m continuing to learn/re-learn (feel free to apply palm to forehead on my behalf if any of these seem obvious):
- The “why” behind decisions matters, and even when it should be crystal clear, it still bears repeating.
- Competence is exhausting if it’s all you’re depending on or leading by.
- The intellectual vacuum I feel having read so little and consistently this past year is scary. Am I really so out of thoughts without those of others? It would seem so.
- The forties can be a very dangerous time of coasting on past experiences and successes and relying too much on oneself.
- Another forties temptation: to claim identity in what I do and not in who I am (and Whose I am). Unfortunately, others are too quick to enable this by labeling and pigeon-holing.
- Technology continues to both accelerate and rob me of time (and I continue to let it).
- I barely have an idea of what moderation is (and suffer as a result – diet, overworking, time online, vegging, etc.).
- Being acknowledged is not the same as being known.
- I am not particularly healthy, but seem to benefit from hardy genes that don’t require a whole lot to function…for now.
- Regular periods of quiet are scarce and their absence is scarring my soul.
- All of a sudden I’m older than many of the parents enrolling at our school and therefore viewed as someone who should know (or know better, depending on the complaint).
- I do not write enough thank you notes (but not because I do not have reasons to do so – God is so good to me, as are His people).
- The older I get, the harder it becomes to acknowledge how much I still have to learn (humility ages so much better than does pride).
I don’t want to lose sight of all that, by God’s grace, was accomplished last year:
- Megan and I are still (somehow) married after 17 years.
- Our kids still seem to love and enjoy us (and we them).
- Our family is still caring about caring for people.
- We successfully merged two schools into one.
- City Pres is growing and purchased a great building in downtown Oklahoma City.
- We are still seeking to believe and care about God (though we fail by the minute).
But that was last year, and this is this year. And today is the first day of 2014, and tomorrow will be the second. One would think I would have learned more than I have by now, yet I feel the weight of all that I still have not (or at least what I imagine I have not).
So, let the learning continue. And to those whom God will use to teach/re-teach me in 2014, thanks for having God’s best interests for me in mind.
And sorry I can be stubborn. I’m still learning.
(As I finish this post, I’m reminded of Charlie Peacock‘s brilliant song, “Insult Like the Truth,” the lyrics of which Chuck graciously gave permission to use in TwentySomeone. Take a listen here for his treatise on the dangers of a lack of teachability.)
(The following piece was originally written and posted on the City Presbyterian blog.)
City Presbyterian just bought a building – a beautiful old brick structure straddling the line between wealth and poverty in downtown Oklahoma City. Renovated five years ago, the facility is in better shape than a 93-year-old building should be, and, as of November 1, we’re its new stewards.
We’re all pretty excited about closing on the property, but not because it means we’ve finally arrived (we haven’t), nor that we eventually will (we won’t). We’re excited about our new church building because we’re excited about being Christ’s Church; any other motivation runs the risk of idolatry.
In a previous post, I wrote about the challenges of “finding” a church. I also promised a few ideas as to having a right perspective in the process. Toward that end, and in the wake of our recent acquisition of the property at 13th and Shartel, here are two thoughts I would offer:
A church is not a building and a building is not a church. There’s something to be said for beautiful architecture, as it reminds us that God is a God of aesthetic as well as order. And while we need beauty, aesthetic, and order to flourish in our humanity, God has nevertheless prospered His Church when those things haven’t always been present. If one’s evaluation of a church begins or ends with a building, there’s probably some room to grow in a more biblical understanding of ecclesiology.
This doesn’t mean there sometimes isn’t a need for functional space – the Bible is filled with places of worship that ranged from a pile of stones to Jerusalem’s temple. The point is that these places had purposes that were responses to God and not just the whims of man. When we want something because we want something – especially when it comes to buildings – we run the risk of making its acquisition an idol, with our subsequent fulfillment impossibly dependent upon it.
A church’s people make up a church, but the church is not (only) for its members…or even its non-members. One of the biggest tensions a church experiences is trying to figure out who it’s for – the members or those the members are trying to reach. Bitterness comes from those in the pews if they feel they are only a pastor’s pawns; apathy comes from those not in the pews because this reinforces their belief that a church doesn’t care about them. As a possible answer to the question, neither is correct; the Person the church should be for and about is Christ.
Of course, because Jesus is who He is, by being for and about Him, everyone benefits, members and non-members alike. When members stop asking the question “What’s in it for me?” and start asking “What’s in it for God?”, their focus has much more of a worship tint that colors everything they do, whether it be attending a morning service or caring for the poor, widowed, or orphaned.
Churches don’t need programs when their congregants desire God, and skeptics can’t use a church’s preoccupation with itself as further justification for their disbelief. Programs don’t change people and hyprocrites are still the biggest obstacle to the skeptic’s faith; only the work of the Holy Spirit through Christ’s authentic and genuine Body makes the difference.
Without trying to idolize or idealize, Acts 2:42-47 is as succinct a picture of who and what the early Church was about (notice the place of people and the people in the place):
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Buildings and benefits are outcomes, not goals; teaching and togetherness are primary; worship of God through work with each other yields results. The early Church’s commonality is not some pre-Communist socialism in which one says, “What’s yours is mine,” but rather a picture of true Christianity that says, “What’s mine is yours.” This – all this – is what Christ desires of His Bride the Church, and what we at City Pres hope to pursue – with a building and as few programs as possible – to be about what Christ wants, for this is most assuredly what all most need.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)
As an elementary student, I rode the bus to school. The trip took about 30 minutes, and since we lived six miles out of town, I was one of the first to be picked up and one of the last to be dropped off.
As early as Kindergarten or 1st grade (I can’t remember which, but I remember I was young), I came home with my first “bad” paper. I’m not sure how “bad” a “bad” paper was in Kindergarten or 1st grade, but it seemed bad enough at the time that I didn’t want my parents seeing it. I rode the bus home, the whole time trying to figure out what to do with my bad paper. For reasons I still can’t articulate, I was ashamed and afraid.
When the bus dropped me off and drove on down the road and over the next hill to Sarah’s, I had an idea of how to get rid of my bad paper. In our front yard stood a big tree with a hole about eighteen inches in diameter in the trunk about twelve feet up (though to my Kindergarten/1st grade self, it seemed more like 30-40 feet high). If I wadded my bad paper up, I thought, I could throw away my shame and only the squirrels and I would know.
But I had to do it quickly, as Bill the bus driver would be coming back after dropping Sarah off. Obviously, I couldn’t start until the bus made it over the hill, otherwise Bill might see me in his large and powerful rear view mirrors. Instead, I got off the bus, crossed to our front yard, and awkwardly turned around to wave. Then, when I couldn’t see yellow anymore, I ran to the tree, scrambled to get my backpack off, found the bad paper, wadded it up, and started throwing.
Either I miscalculated the effects of the wind on a single wad of paper in flight or my aim was just that bad, but I didn’t get my bad paper in the hole on the first try. In fact, my plan took several tries and was interrupted by Bill driving the big yellow school bus back over the hill, with me running back to the side of the road, again awkwardly waving. I then walked back to the tree and kept trying to hide my shame.
I did this multiple times, but never got caught. My parents never walked around the house to find me throwing wads of paper into the tree, and if Bill ever did see what I was doing by way of one of his large and powerful rear view mirrors, he never stopped and said anything. The tree became my own personal wastebasket of shame, and while my papers got better (those Kindergarten/1st grade years were brutal), if there ever was a bad one, I always knew exactly what to do with it.
My aim got better as I got older…as did my ability to hide, emotionally and otherwise.
Twelve years ago, my parents had that tree cut down. Though I had lightheartedly confessed my sin to them one Thanksgiving in my mid-twenties, when I heard the news, I immediately felt the same old shame and fear all over again because of all the bad papers I imagined they surely must have found. I couldn’t remember how many there were (it had been a long time), but I was sure those papers had somehow unwadded themselves to form a nice, neat stack of humiliation that was at least three feet high.
As it turned out, after 25 years of Illinois rain and snow, heat and humidity, the papers had decomposed; there was no three-foot high stack, nor even any resilient corners of pages with my Kindergarten-scrawled name on it. The evidence of my elementary school failures was gone, but even now I cringe at how deceitful I was in attempting to hide it. Why was it so important to cover up my shortcomings? And how in the world did I learn to do so at such a young age?
While I’m not proud that I lied for so long to my parents, that was only a symptom; the prophet Jeremiah describes my real problem: a deceitful heart, desperately sick. Even now – as a so-called “adult” – I am still that Kindergartener standing in front of that tree with a hole into which I’m tempted to throw my bad papers. While this can feel like solving the problem, it reminds me what my problem really is: my heart needs a Confessor to forgive rather than a tree to conceal.
“I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds…Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.”
Jeremiah 17:10, 14
As I’ve done before, I took a picture of my shoes tonight. My daughters wondered if I was going to try to sell them online. I’m actually thinking of making a display box for them to remind myself that shoes are no more good without an intact sole than I am without mine (intact soul, that is).
I noticed these shoes breaking down at the beginning of summer (the heel on the the right shoe had already begun to decompose), but I hit August and never seemed to have or take the time to buy a new pair once the hole developed.
To compensate, I spent more mental energy than I had making sure I didn’t cross my legs with my foot up in the air, advertising the color of my socks that day. I was careful on rainy days (and we had several of them this summer) as to where I stepped, as I was vulnerable not just to the biggest of puddles, but to the dewiest of grass as well.
Having made the aforementioned adjustments, I thought I could just keep going, which I did…until the remains of the inner liner gave way and all that was left between my foot and the pavement was my sock, which didn’t last more than a day during car line of the opening week of school. Concrete and cotton are not friends, and my foot paid the price for their dysfunctional relationship.
Two weeks ago, I finally went to the shoe store. I proudly announced to the staff there that I thought it was time I bought a new pair of dress shoes. I showed them the bottoms of my old shoes. They were amazed. They took pictures. They said they had never seen a pair of dress shoes that beat up. I beamed with pride even as my feet hurt. My sole-abuse was (or seemed) justified.
Just like my sole, my soul – the essence of who I am – has worn through some as a result of the past two-and-a-half years in Oklahoma. Sure, the shoe still fits and functions, but that doesn’t mean I should keep wearing it as it is.
I took time this weekend to sort some of this out. I spent a lot of time thinking, writing, editing, praying, and resting. I consolidated a majority of my digital life and re-read and re-evaluated what – good and not so much – had brought me to this time and space. While my work and call are far from fulfilled (God asks for and is doing so much!), for the first time in a very long time, I caught a glimpse of a few adjustments I need to make so as to avoid burnout in fulfilling them. They won’t be immediate and will be more of a months-long process than a weekend project, but I liked being able to identify the need and the difference. It felt good.
To be clear, I’m not even close to fizzling or frying; hardly. I still love God, my wife, my kids (biological and foster), what we’re doing at The Academy of Classical Christian Studies and City Presbyterian, and with whom and why we’re doing it. I’m also looking forward to heading to Merrimack, NH, this weekend as we start up the third leg of the Biblical Imagination conferences, which are always personally edifying.
The fact is that I’m encouraged most days, Oklahoma continues to grow on me, and we’re paying our bills and eating. God has just shown me a few important things in the midst of all the good things, and I felt led to share them with you, ask you to pray, and encourage you to glean from my experiences what God might show you concerning yours.
No need to worry; no need to call.
It’s just time to get some new shoes.
For starters, the typical vernacular used in describing the process is not helpful. “Finding” a church makes the activity seem so much more elusive and mysterious than it needs to be, and this plays to the “grass will perpetually be greener” mentality with which we pragmatic humans (particularly Americans) already struggle. Perhaps a better way of speaking is of “identifying” a church, as this takes away some of the pressure of visiting so many in hopes of not missing the absolute right one (which does not exist anyway).
Another complicating factor is the fact that churches are more different from one another than they are alike these days. This was not as much the case 100 years ago, when the amount of variation was minimal in terms of church building design, worship service direction, denominational distinctives, and pastoral personality in the pulpit. Today, however, it seems every aspect of church is little more than an element for variation and branding (which personally drives me crazy), but that’s a result of the past 50 years of uber-individualized evangelicalism.
Children (young or older) always muck things up a bit, not because they aren’t a necessary consideration, but because different parents evaluate their church experience differently. From one parent’s perspective, that no child gets misplaced for an hour-and-a-half may be the extent of expectations met; for another, there are higher expectations – namely that a child is not only not lost, but provided a stimulating craft, an engaging time of interaction, healthy snacks, timely diaper changes, a sense of being loved and looked out for on an individual basis, and absolutely NO cartoon animation featuring certain vegetables who sing and dance. (Note: For older kids, expectations can range from no one getting pregnant to no one ever being bored, the latter of which is often viewed by parents as the bigger sin.)
There are plenty of other variables that people tend to use in church selection: facility (or lack thereof); friendliness (actual or perceived); location and drive distance (how far is too far?); bulletin usage (or lack thereof); dress code (spoken and unspoken); congregational demographics (does everyone look like/different from me?); pastor training and education (pick your denominational/non-denominational bias); Scripture translation (and whether it’s actually used); music instrumentation (enough said); website design (20th or 21st century?); frequency of sacraments (weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually); outreach and evangelism vs. discipleship and congregational care (always a fun tension)…just to name a few.
The process and degree of evaluating all this each and every Sunday gets redundant. It can feel like the search for church might never end (especially in a city the size of Oklahoma City where someone could realistically attend a different church each and every day of the week for years).
But this is not the goal, and this should not be the plan. In my next post, I’ll write more about what could and (dare I say it) should be our perspective in engaging in a search for church.
Bobby and Jennifer just welcomed home their soon-to-be adopted son. Another couple in our church are two weeks into parenting their just-adopted newborn daughter. Megan and I just received our tenth placement (a newborn) since we began emergency foster care in January.
We’re glad to be part of a church that cares about children. But what other congregational care is happening – or should be – at City Pres?
There’s no question God calls the Church to look out for children – Jesus rebukes the disciples in Matthew 19 for not doing so, while James at the end of James 1 in part defines true religion by how we care for the orphan.
But Jesus talks about caring for all people (many of them not children) throughout the Gospels, and the second category of James’ religion equation has to do specifically with widows (and no one else).
As a friend recently remarked, adoption and foster care can seem more “sexy” than ministering to the adult/widow crowds. How are we doing in supporting church members doing the latter?
When was the last time we got behind the middle-aged parent caring for an aging parent or grandparent (sometimes in her own home) out of regard for Exodus 20:12? Who’s supporting the young man visiting inmates in prison a la Hebrew 13:3 (actually, is anyone visiting inmates in prison these days)? Are we trying to help the health care professional in our midst serve the mentally or physically disabled, or is David’s concern for Mephibosheth lost on us (and therefore them)?
Since January, Megan and I have received money, clothes, diapers, car seats, baby swings,notes of encouragement, and pats on the back for our emergency foster care efforts. City Pres and her members have been in our corner from the beginning, and this has meant the world to us and our four girls as we’ve cared for the ten little ones through our home the past seven months.
How far would this same support go for the mom caring for her kids, husband, and mother/grandmother at home? Or for the twenty-something trying to make a difference with a weekly visit to one of the six corrections/detention centers in the OKC metro? Or for the professional counselor in our congregation working with those whose minds or bodies just won’t?
Modern evangelicalism tries to rationalize that not everyone’s called to be involved with foster care and adoption (an excuse I don’t buy, per Jesus’ and James’ own words), but to not be called to care about anyone? No way.
Pray, search your heart, ask around, find a need, work to meet it, repeat. It’s not hard and should be what we do at City Pres for everybody (not just us more “sexy” types).
“Leaders must regularly transgress settled boundaries because churches (and schools) constantly redefine themselves in ever new circumstances and in response to ever new challenges, in a way that is faithful to Jesus and His Word. Official leaders might be the ones breaking barriers. If they are not, then the real leaders of the church are the ones who do. If no one is breaking through old boundaries, the church is implicitly claiming that it has reached the eschaton and that it has no more growing to do. It might as well shut its doors, because it is dead.
Yet leaders that don’t love their people, who don’t plow the ground they want to plant, who give no indication of which direction they’re headed, who head this way and that way without warning or reason, will fail. They may be blazing ahead down a new and promising path, but no one will follow. And without followers, no one can be a leader.”
Good stuff, Maynard.
After finishing up another Biblical Imagination Conference (our largest to date – 150 wonderful people!), I'm sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, enjoying the Upper Midwest accents and waiting for my flight back to OKC. After a full travel day on Friday and the conference that evening and all day Saturday, I got to sleep in at bit this morning in my hotel room (which rarely happens at home), so I'm feeling fairly rested and reflective as I enjoy the free wi-fi.
I've been a part of these conferences for two-and-a-half years now, developing the program and serving as emcee/educator for the first year-and-a-half through the gospel of Luke, and now finishing up in another two weeks the past year with our final Mark conference. Matthew starts up in September and will run for a year-and-a-half, and then we'll finish out with John for almost two years. When it's all said and done, it will be a total of six years that I've been involved with this initiative.
One of the things I try to facilitate during the conferences is a warm, funny (often "punny"), and vulnerable atmosphere that lends itself to folks being comfortable enough to listen without defense and contribute without suspense. A great way I've found (or more accurately, stolen from my friends Bill, Bruce, and John) that lends itself to meeting this goal is "sticky note processing" – asking conferees to write down a thought on a sticky note in response to a question, discuss it with each other, and then post it on the wall for all to read. Everyone can then check the stickies out over the breaks, and I read a few at the beginning of the next session and comment so folks know we're taking them seriously.
Yesterday afternoon, after a session on the "unmiraculous miracles" Jesus did in the New Testament and now does in our daily lives, I asked attendees to complete the sentence, "Lord, give me the eyes to see your miracle in/concerning…" The responses were both heart-breaking and, if you're involved with people to any degree, sadly all too familiar:
Lord, give me the eyes to see your miracle in/concerning…
…bringing faith to unsaved friends and family.
…my prodigal sister disowning our family.
…giving our children the daily knowledge and experience to grow up healthy and happy and desiring to know You more.
…contention in the church body.
…the lost in our state, country, and the world.
…my daughter being critical of everything that her husband says or does.
…the lives of my grandchildren.
…healing my relationship with my ex-wife to be able to communicate over family matters.
…the healing of our son-in-law's body and finding a job for him.
…Your vantage point always in every moment.
…my 3-year-old adoptive daughter and her progress and ability to talk.
…our daughter and son-in-law's marriage and how they treat and talk to each other.
…our children's lives.
…the two years of pain and suffering and death of my mother because I don't understand it.
…my job search and where you want me.
…giving me the courage, wisdom, and opportunity to teach my young grandchildren about You.
…my wayward daughter.
…my youngest daughter as she truly is, not as her illness makes her.
…the effects of a Christian friend on a unbeliever.
…bringing my brother and his wife into relationship with You.
…our church, its growth and vibrancy, and how it can touch our community.
…how to stop the persecution of Christians.
…in our finances and living situation.
…my faith in Your plans and times for the future.
…my personnel problems at work, my family conflicts, and my own depression.
…my prayers to open the eyes of close family members.
…our son watching our daughter-in-law crack under the pressure of living overseas in such an oppressive culture that devalues life.
…our budget despite the loss of income.
…our son's death.
…my son in med school who seems so far away from his Christian upbringing.
…Your work through my work.
…the loss of a visa and job in east Asia.
…my husband's careful and loving provision for me – always a model of how You love us.
…the starving people in the world.
…restoration, healing, and wholeness for my children who grew up in lots of chaos and crud, that they would be able to forgive me for their past pain.
…my 21-year-old son, who is very introverted and not motivated to move forward in life.
…returning our pastor to our church.
…the broken relationships with my youngest son and my two daughter-in-laws; I stay away to avoid troubles, even at the expense of not seeing my only granddaughter.
…my oldest son, who struggles with You, his faith, and himself.
It can be overwhelming reading all these, but when shared in the temporary community of the conference, it's amazing how God enables people to find and hold each other up in the midst of the hurt. My prayer is people can do the same in their local church communities, but it isn't easy when all of us wrestle with our own versions of the list above and have to relate longer-term than across a short weekend.
Still, by God's grace, perhaps folks can get a taste at the conference of what's possible at home and pursue this potential within a local expression of the Body of Christ. It's a lonely and lamentable existence otherwise. All it takes are a few sticky notes to figure that out.
My heart is heavy with all that is taking place right now concerning the debate over gay marriage. Apart from the issue itself, I lament the hostile rhetoric of it all and the way sides are being taken with so little nuance (see Facebook's pink equal signs and their "Christian" cross variations), not so much for a position but against someone else taking the opposite one.
With this in mind, I appreciate N.T. Wright's perspective on framing the discussion and would encourage you to give thought to it in terms of how Christians should engage:
As to the issue itself, I wrote about it here on the blog five years ago and you're welcome to agree or disagree. For a more recent treatise that I think worthy of your time, Voddie Baucham's article, "Gay Is Not the New Black," is an important piece that does a good job addressing the issues at hand in the context of the current rhetoric.
All that said, pray for our country, that regardless of whatever differences people have, we can show love to one another in our discussions of them.
I know the month is hardly over, but I'm not sure I'll have time to post again until February. In the meantime, here's a visual record of some things I got to do in January:
Sell an old car (our 1998 Delta 88 threw a rod and died a peaceful death in our driveway)
Buy a "new" car (meet "Victor the Volvo," a 23-year-old car whose official color is "wine")
Chronicle blatant church hypocrisy (best picture ever)
Take part in City Pres' first-ever leader retreat (I'm the one about to throw up on the right)
Eat (and live to tell about it) at a place featured on Man vs. Food
Care for our first foster child (this 3-year-old was cute as a button)
Study with daughters at Starbucks (also known as caffeinated homeschooling)
Launch a new school (The Academy) with friend and fellow Head of School, Nathan Carr
All in a month's work…
One of the benefits of getting older is reading books that bring context and perspective to one's experience of recent history. I remember initially thinking about this during my first year at the University of Missouri as I listened to my American history professor lecture on the Vietnam War. In his early 50s at the time (1989), my prof's passion for both the era and the book he had assigned to us (The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien) could not be denied.
Until that point, whether in high school or college, I had never taken a
history class that had brought me to the present year; like most my
age, Vietnam was about as far as we got, despite all that happened in
the 1970s and 1980s. Attending class and doing the reading for this first college history course, I wondered what it felt like to read and study a book about a period of history one had actually lived through only twenty years previous.
This is probably why I enjoyed New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics as much as I did. Not only have I lived through two-thirds of the past 60 years that Douthat primarily focuses on, but his analysis and contextualization of this period of time within the larger breadth of history (American and otherwise) is quite revealing of how we have arrived where we are religiously, politically, economically, and socially.
In his breakneck-paced prologue, Douthat summarizes his take and cuts to the chase as to where American Christianity is in 2012. Taking a page from The Reason for God by PCA pastor/author Timothy Keller (who wrote a glowing endorsement for the book), Douthat writes:
"America's problem isn't too much religion, or too little of it. It's bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place…The United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of relgions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worse impulses. These faiths speak from many pulpits – conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally relgions and fashionably 'spiritual' – and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christain warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of tradtional Christianity, not the real thing." (p. 4)
From here, Douthat launches out on a 125-page reconnaissance, skimming the fields of the early twentieth century before landing the plane post-WWII during the Eisenhower years. Holding forth four personalities – neo-orthodox intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, evangelical evangelist Billy Graham, Roman Catholic bishop and broadcaster Fulton Sheen, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King – as responsible representatives of the (mostly positive) convergence of formerly-divided houses of mid-century Christendom, Douthat sets the stage for the locust years to come.
The aforementioned convergence began to slow and segregate during the turbulent 1960s, with trouble coming at the hands of both the accomodationists within the more mainline churches and the resisters within the more fundamentalist churches. Over the next 50 years, records Douthat, the pressures of questionable technological ethics, overt political partisanship, temptation from economic affluence, and a "waning of Christian orthodoxy had led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether." (p. 145)
To quote G.K. Chesterton: "When people turn from God, they don't believe in nothing – they believe in anything." These "anything" beliefs are what Douthat uses the second half of his book to investigate and address. And, while he is extremely fair, he pulls no punches taking to task the Christian heresies propagated by liberal scholars (i.e. Bart Ehrman), prosperity gospel preachers (Joel Osteen, et. al.), "God Within" mystics (Deepak Chopra, Oprah), and American nationalists (Glenn Beck, David Barton). The pace of the book slows a bit here, but only because Douthat is thorough in his approach.
Finally, Douthat ends his book with a chapter of conclusion entitled "The Recovery of Christianity," offering "four potential touchstones for a recovery of Christianity." While he rightly handles what he calls "postmodern opportunity: the possibility that the very trends that have seemingly undone insitutional Christianity could ultimately renew it," he stumbles a bit in making a distinction between the "emerging" and "emergent" church (they are different) as part of that possible solution, but his other three options are interesting to consider and he presents them with a heartfelt hope for change.
My only other critique of the book has to do with Douthat not always drawing as much separation between Christianity and Mormonism as I would like to see. While he seems to understand that the latter is not just a "funky" subset of the former, I was surprised by occasional "doctrinal issues aside" language used that seemed to minimize any differences between the two, thereby occasionally giving Mormonism more theological credibility than orthodoxy allows.
That said, Douthat's scholarship is well-researched, yet his writing is still very accessible to a popular audience, efficient in thought and prose and briskly readable. And, while his historical interpretation is impeccable, he is certainly no slouch in walking through the nuances of doctrinal debates either, whether they be of the Protestant or Catholic variety (Douthat himself is a practicing Catholic, but he cuts the Vatican no slack, nor does he outright diminish contributions of the Reformers).