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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thinking about "Amen"

I attended an evening vigil recently for a young man fatally shot on this corner and the experience forced me to realize how much I take hope for granted. Standing in the same spot where someone's life was brazenly snatched away in broad daylight will do that. The simple notion of believing in the possibility, the promise even of a new, better day isn't something that everyone comprehends or embraces. It is indeed a gift from the Lord. We, as a nation (with all of our suburban, urban, and rural corridors), have created generations of people, some young and some old, whose only ambition, focus, or belief is in "right now." With this thinking, if in a certain moment they choose to spill blood to prove a point then so be it. It is, at the very least, a twisted take on what the term "Amen" is intended for. It would be good for us all to reflect on what we do in our daily lives to help make what what not be what it should.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

On the Move

For the past few weeks my wife and I have been preparing to move, a process that we are grateful to finally be done with. There is no place like home. Anyone who has moved as much as we have or even more, intimately knows that while it can be full of sweet excitement, moving can also just as easily represent the bitterness of a necessary evil. This recent move represents a time of celebration and thanksgiving for us, thank God. Not that we haven't been hopeful about our other moves, but different circumstances incite different feelings. Willie Nelson's tune "On the Road Again" comes to mind because for the longest time that has felt like our plot. For the bulk of my job search it seemed pretty clear that we would not land in the area of the country where we met and where we are most comfortable. Doors were opening everywhere else and prudence said to chase those leads with an open mind and obedient heart. We did that, but in God's providence a door, the right door, actually a previously closed door opened up in the city that we had initially begged the Lord to plant us in. Funny how that works sometimes. Our prayers matter. I believe that with all of my heart. They just don't matter as much as God's will for us, which is always better than anything we could construct even if the stars aligned and sun-rays of the greatest insight shone upon us. We are not providential. It simply isn't in our job description, nor is it a competency or "power" that we can attain. And though it frustrates us to no end, that is a very good thing.

Through the years I have known colleagues who came across as hell-bent on becoming a senior pastor. It was as if other ministry positions were less than to them. It was senior pastor or bust. That has never been me and I pray never will. I am overjoyed to be a senior pastor for the first time after years of ministry in other capacities, but I don't see the opportunity, like anything else, as something that I have earned, that is due me for prior services rendered, or something like that. For whatever reasons, God decided that this church at this time was a good match for me at this time; that we could glorify him well in co-laboring together. That's it.

It is a partnership wherein we mutually submit to one another and to God. I am not the sheriff or a dictator whose responsibility it is to ensure that everyone tows the spiritual line. Not at all. I am a shepherd called to care for God's sheep (John 21:16) and that is what I plan to do faithfully. Retired now after thirty years of planting and pastoring one church in the Baltimore suburbs, I have been drawn to Eugene Peterson's work for some time. I think he should be required reading for anyone considering or pursuing ministry. These words from Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness are telling:
The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol -- a call from God exchanged for an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal. Holiness is blazing.
I want to guard myself and others from fraudulently viewing me as the source for all things holy, for I am purely a sinner in need of Jesus' atoning blood like the next person. Other than caring for people in the multidisciplinary terms required for such work, one of my core tasks is bearing witness to the ongoing power and presence of God during all of our chaotic, mundane, stressful, and happy occasions. I can't make people accept or reject a life of faith in Jesus. I can, however, and will embrace being a humble servant-leader, unashamed of the gospel (Romans 1:16), and committed to being an example who boldly points to the example, the Lord.

When you get down to it, we are always on the move in one way or another, or at least that is what I understand as God's design and intention for us. Spiritually, physically, emotionally, however you slice it; whether forward or backward, we are always moving in some direction. Even though at times we feel that life is "on pause," so to speak, it never truly is. The Spirit moves (John 3:8) to and fro and the life's waves rock us similarly, sometimes on rough waters and at other times on calm seas, but always with intervention, care, and guidance from God.

I thank God for this new chapter of my life and vocation. It is a blessing, but it would be shameful for me to not also stop and thank God for the healing and encouragement -- the restoration -- that I experienced before all of this recent business transpired. The wilderness, if this former season can even be called that, may not have been desirable or fun, but perhaps in ways only God is privy to it was requisite for me (me alone, as our journeys aren't intended to be the prototype for everyone in ever situation) to be better prepared for today, capable of moving forward in ways that please the Lord.

God is faithful; I am not. God is patient; I am learning to be. God has brought me to this place, not me myself, and God will see me through. Because of all of this, leaning on William Sparrow's words, I am further inspired to, "Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will." Life is too short, unpredictable, and precious not to.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Quarreling with the Lord

This is my new 3-year-old friend, Mateo. Okay, so I don't know him personally, but upon seeing this video of him recently I realized we have a lot in common. I am captivated by the sincerity and commitment of his argument. He is relentless in trying to persuade his mom, Linda, to let him have a cupcake. Linda remains steadfast, thankfully, but it is clear from Mateo's antics that he is quite serious. It's cupcakes or bust! I preached last weekend on Exodus 17:1-7, where Moses again deals with grumbling and quarreling from the Israelites. At first their hostility is directed toward Moses, but eventually the Lord makes it in the crosshair of their discontent. With them, if it isn't one thing then it's another. At each point of their journey, God is with them in powerful ways leading and guiding them as only God can. But for some reason they never seem to quite grasp this.

I can't help but reflect on how we are the same. Like little Mateo, we are good at arguing, or at least we think so. We are dedicated for sure, often displaying an unapologetic, erudite zeal when we argue with God. We want this. We want that. We deserve this. We don't deserve that. Some of that is understandable, as it comes with the human condition. None of us arise in the morning looking for debt, destruction, or dread. We don't pray for disabling diagnoses. We don't ask for yet another round of pain. No, we hope for better, brighter days. And that's okay, but what happens when we can't have a cupcake? Do we sulk and rebel? Attempt to argue God into compliance with our demands?

It is extremely uncomfortable and goes against the grain of our natural wiring, but when things don't go our way it is best to reply with patience and gratitude, most especially with God. With people at times we need to advocate for ourselves, argue a point, or even ascend the hierarchical ladder to ensure that we aren't being treated unfairly. However, none of this ever applies to God, yet God is who we quarrel with most often and most vehemently. We are wise to accept that some of the cupcakes we desire aren't good for us or for reasons only God is privy to ultimately just aren't what we need at a particular time. Asking questions of God is one thing. Quarreling with God is quite another.

Thanks for the object lesson, Mateo.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ecclesia and Ethics II

I have been invited, on March 8, to present a research paper at Ecclesia and Ethics II, an academic conference being held online (through GoToMeeting). My contribution is titled, "A Theology of Voyeurism, Catfishing, and Technological Excess: When the Virtual World Suffocates the Real World." I am elated to present on this topic because the ways that technology, or rather our irresponsible use of it stunt face-to-face interaction is quite alarming to me. I have been frustrated that this doesn't seem to be an important issue to some pastoral colleagues.

In a 2003 article in The Christian Century, Eugene H. Peterson said, "American spirituality has an indiscriminating love of technology. We like getting things done, no matter how. Use the fastest and most efficient means at hand, but get it done. Fastest and most efficient almost always means impersonal." Within pastoral theology in mind, my paper will explore how a faulty theology of social media and Internet-based technology in general seduces us, leading to misuse that has devastating practical implications. Social media has become one of the main ways that we communicate, yet how that communication takes place and under what theological guise makes a world of difference. For the Christian who is called to otherworldliness -- being in the world, but not of it (John 15:19, Romans 12:2) -- the role that the Internet plays in their life, as a tool used responsibly or irresponsibly, directly correlates to faith development and maturation in other social arenas. As technology saturates every nook and cranny of everyday existence, it is increasingly important to raise awareness about how, left to its own bidding, it can become more liability than asset, a crutch that stunts growth; something that hinders Christians from their work as Jesus' disciples (read: "disciplined followers").

Being held for two days (March 1, March 8), you can register for the conference here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hope Springs

I don't know how well it did in the box office, but the 2012 film Hope Springs, starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, is a must-see. My wife and I watched it recently, partly as a post-wedding anniversary gift to ourselves (having just celebrated our seventh), and fell in love with it. Unquestionably talented thespians, Streep and Jones play a couple whose 31 year marriage is riddled with an intense level of disconnect and monotony that feed one another. Having become more prevalent now that their two adult children are out of the house, as if them sleeping in different bedrooms for years wasn't problematic enough, Streep arranges a week of intense couples counseling 1,500 miles away in Maine with a renowned, but quirky marriage guru, played by Steve Carell. What transpires there is very funny and yet also very disheartening, but ever-so believable. As any well-executed portrayal of life's most intimate moments can, Hope Springs evokes an assortment of emotions. Whether laughing, crying, or sitting with your mouth agasp, you will feel strongly about the depicted marriage, and therefore what constitutes a good one.

Without giving away all of the goodies, one major takeaway for me was that it is unhealthy for longevity, in itself, to be the defining characteristic that renders a marriage successful. Just as some couples don't last due to immaturity and shortsightedness in one or both partners, wanting to remodel Rome in a day, other married couples survive only through maladaptive, negative behavior that for them is normal. We shouldn't demonize either struggle nor idolize them as acceptable realities. In marriage there exists this complementary relationship between longevity, achieved by daily renewing one's marital vows (the choice to love again and again), and function or health. Both quality and quantity are important, though quality gives way to quantity. If you are going to build a life with someone and you intend to take that commitment seriously, then it can't be good enough for mere survival to be the goal. If so, after decades of marriage where the husband neglected the wife, the wife neglected the husband, yet children were raised, bills were paid, and retirement has been achieved, all that they can really say is, "Well, we survived." A long-term emphasis on survival alone reeks of mediocrity, however, pursuing a marriage that thrives smells very different.

There are fabulously good times of course, but every marriage is also riddled with ravines, divots, friendly fire, and slippery slopes. It comes with the territory. Maybe one day the good outweighs the bad, but the next day or week or hour not so much. There is an ebb and flow to marriage precisely because it is the riskiest union possible, at least with pure flesh and blood of our own choosing. Children eventually leave the nest, but not spouses with vows that conclude with "...until death do us part." Hope Springs  beautifully illustrates that a healthy marriage requires preventative maintenance, regular checkups, rest, and renewal. A good marriage doesn't happen overnight through osmosis, nor does it improve by prayer only. It requires an investment of intentionality, otherworldly grace, and work; work on oneself, work with one's spouse, and work together against all of the challenges that life brings.

We are very much a perpetual work in progress, but I appreciate that my wife and I are serious about developing traditions and norms together that are life-giving for us, particularly since when compared to our peers we often feel like old fogies. We like oatmeal for breakfast and prefer relaxing in the privacy and serenity of home. We joke that we prefer not going out after dark to run errands because that seems to be when drivers hit the road with especially reckless abandon. Even though neither of us are good at bowling, we have come to enjoy being not so good together. A seemingly low impact activity, we get to relax together and have fun watching all of the other bowlers who clearly know what they are doing more than we do. A good marriage is rooted in healthy life-giving values. It isn't static, but fluid instead, rerouting when needed and enduring inclement weather as appropriate. "A happy marriage," once said Andre Maurois, "is a long conversation which always seems too short." I enjoy spending time with my wife and watching Hope Springs was another opportunity to keep talking about the kind of marriage (and life) that we want.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Confessions of a Workaholic

At the age of 82, Wayne E. Oates died on October 21, 1999. A pioneer in articulating the relationship between theology and psychiatry, he taught most notably at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and then the University of Louisville's School of Medicine. His legacy lives on in innumerably, but especially through the Wayne Oates Institute that offers continued education in pastoral care and clinical pastoral counseling. However, there are also his books, almost 60 of them that serve as resources to pastors, Christians, and others invested in the development of whole, holy human beings. One such contribution by Oates is his 1971 classic, Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction. He actually coined the term "workaholic," as in created it from scratch. How many people can say that something they conceptualized has become common in modern America's lexicon? If only for that alone, Oates deserves our attention.

The immediate response of those who knowingly or unknowingly suffer from workaholism often is to express disdain that the truly detrimental culprit is acedia or sloth, not themselves but slackers who are cogs that make everything malfunction. Yet in my experience, most Americans don't struggle with taking it easy, waiting for handouts, or otherwise yawning through each day. It is the exact opposite. We make ourselves out to be gods, creating heavens with false bottoms and hells that feel cool to the touch. Trying desperately to save ourselves and one-up each other is our over-the-counter medicine of choice. With differing degrees of competency and commitment of course, so many view work as their primary comfort. This is harmful to anyone, but especially the Christian who in Jesus has been loosed from the pains of idolatry and self-reliance.

Oates isn't smugly critiquing workaholics in Confessions of a Workaholic, as he labels himself as one in recovery, recalling times that he nonchalantly neglected his wife and children, and himself in favor of work: his clients, speaking/preaching, teaching. A product of extreme poverty in rural Greenville, South Carolina, he had no clue that his survivalist approach to work had the potential to rob him of much more than financial struggle ever could. He recalls a particularly sobering moment when one of sons, a young boy at the time, was enterprising enough to actually make an appointment with Oates' secretary, so that he could have an unhurried conversation with his dad. Partly through that experience, he began seeing that he was so concerned with others' needs that he had next to nothing left to invest in his children, not to mention his other core relationships with his wife and God. Towards the end of the book, he reflects:
The first dawnings of awareness came to me through my sons who insisted as little boys that I change my ways. I took them seriously, but only partly mended my ways. The second phase of self-confrontation came in a period when I was suffering from a pinched spinal nerve. Whenever I overworked, it would throw me down, at times literally. The real spiritual crisis came when my sons were old enough to have a minimum need of me and when, due to successful surgery on the third attempt, my back was made strong and well. Then I had to face the fact that I had made a fetish and idol of work, that institutional commitments were really overcommitments, that life was really meant to be enjoyed without paying for it with work, that I needed people for their own sakes and not as a means of accomplishing my work goals, and that the now of life is the nectar of being.
This is no doubt a malady that many of us struggle with, often in secret. And still even more people are simply oblivious to it being a problem at all because workaholism is easily viewed as a respectable vice, with those who overwork being viewed as catalysts for excellence and growth in our fast-faced, unforgiving, capitalistic machine. With anxiety-ridden, perfectionist tendencies, as Oates explains, for them 'even their leisure isn't their leisure' because the psychosis compels them to believe that work never stops, and those who do stop at appropriate times are weak.

In holding themselves and others to unreasonable, unhealthy standards of productivity and conduct, with perpetual allegiance to work, Oates wonderfully self-identifies as someone under the trance of workaholism. Yet he also spends a great deal of time offering hope by deconstructing the presenting issues that often woo its presence, which when addressed directly and seriously, with love and grace at the center, can produce helpful boundaries to counteract it. Although some of the language and cultural references he employs are somewhat outmoded, understandably, Oates' Confessions of a Workaholic needs to be read far and wide. It is such an important issue in our society. After all, as someone once said, "No one ever said on their deathbed: "I wish I would have spent more time at work!""

Monday, January 20, 2014


This insert from Sunday's worship bulletin, highlighting this year's congregational theme, is an excellent praxis for discipleship. The broad idea is that, in discerning God's will, Christians should ask themselves these questions as a guide to their decision-making. If a decision fails at any point on the ladder, then it is incapable of bringing life and therefore something we should stay away from.

L - Is this in obedience or disobedience to God?
I - Does this add or detract value from my life?
F - How does this affect others in my life?
E - Will this ultimately bring freedom?

For some this is nothing more than an inept theological fail-safe; nothing more than a cheap, conservative attempt to place every aspect of life into a nice, neat box. I see it differently, however. God is God and we are not God, of that I am sure; yet we are empowered by God's Spirit to live in ways that rightly reflect God's best intentions for us. We won't always make the best decisions. Hindsight is 20/20 and we all can use some emotional sobriety. Even so, along the way if we don't seek to strike a balance between providence and responsibility then we will always flail in the wind. Vance Havner once said, "Salvation is free, but discipleship will cost you your life." L.I.F.E. is simply a practical guideline to help us better follow Jesus written in everyday language. Nothing more, nothing less.