Once upon a time, I was blissfully ignorant, fat and happy, as they say. Now, I’m just fat and not all that happy about it. Back then, I didn’t give
Here is my latest article for the Bristol Herald Courier. We gotta love our teachers and our students. It is part of what it means to love neighbor.
Opinion content for July 9, 2017
A few weeks ago, Bristol, Tennessee, revealed its new “Bristol Is” marketing campaign and logo. Like most new things, it did not come without controversy. While most people liked the
Recently, I’ve had the chance to be a contributor to our local paper, the Bristol Herald Courier. It is a lot of fun to write for them and I am learning how to write for a newspaper. So far, I’ve written two pieces for them. The first contribution, Fatherhood: A Challenge and Reward, is a reworking of something I wrote earlier. The second contribution, Helping With Handouts Can Hurt, is my latest contribution. It may prove to be a bit controversial; it deals with an issue that a lot of towns are facing: how to help those in need.
Bristol is a great community. It is where my wife and I both grew up and where we felt compelled to return to when we left St. Louis. It is beautiful here. The mountains speak deeply to my soul and the people are warm and caring. Like a lot of small towns, Bristol has suffered its share of economic downturns. However, in the last few years, our downtown (State Street – because it is where the border of TN and VA meet) has seen a revival. It is fantastic.
With that revival, however, has come a rise in people asking for money on the street. I wrote an article for the paper speaking to that issue (Helping With Handouts Can Hurt). If you have time, read it over and give me your thoughts.
Last month I had one of those great moments that come along infrequently for guys like me. Frankly, I was not sure what to do with it but it’s something that blew me away. I’ve waited a while to share it here – largely because I wanted to give the people who gave me this award time to change their minds. They haven’t so I feel it is okay to go ahead and let others know.
From time to time I write poems. Some of them I have posted on here. I do not normally submit them for publication but last fall I did. I’ve been working on a Master of Arts in English at ETSU (its a long story but it is a great experience). I submitted two of my poems to the Mockingbird. It was a blind submission (which means no names) and Joseph Campana (a poet, critic, and scholar of Renaissance literate at Rice) selected my poem (“River of Salvation”) as the winner of the 2017 Mockingbird Prize for poetry. Another poem (“Midlife”) was also selected for publication.
What most people do not know about me is that I have been writing poetry for years. I’ve never called myself a poet because, well, I’d never published any. Now, I have and I am blown away. Just thought I’d share that here.
I have a reasonable obsession with coffee. I don’t dream about it but I mark parts of my life by conversations I’ve had over coffee. There was the time at Shaw’s Coffee in St. Louis where I sat with a good friend who helped me understand a particularly difficult season in life. At Shenandoah Joe’s in Charlottesville, VA, I spent hours talking to a friend who was trying to figure out if he should stay or should he go. Another time there, I listened to a mom and dad pour our their heart about the struggles they were having with their teenage daughter. And then there was the time a man looked across the table at a coffee shop that’s no longer in business and said, “If you do these things you’ll have perfect kids. Guaranteed.”
At the time of his biblical prescription two of my kids were just beginning elementary school and my youngest was toddling around. It was tempting to believe him. Who doesn’t want a formula for raising kids that are guaranteed to be perfect? However, I knew enough from years of working with students and their families, and from simply being around humans, to know that there are no perfect kids or parenting formulas. Nevertheless, when parenting has been tough my mind has often drifted back to that conversation.
I think all parents go through tough times with their children, or at least I only want to associate with those who are honest enough to admit it. Being with parents who can’t or will not admit to having moments (or years) when the relationship with their children was challenging creates a sense of wonder in me. I wonder how they can keep up the facade; I wonder how honest they are or how aware they are; I wonder if they really want me to believe they have always had “amazing relationships with their kids, simply by following a few biblical steps.” However, I don’t have a poker face; the haggard look I’ve acquired from trying to figure out why my teenagers make the sort of decisions that they do gives me away. It is a blend of confusion, rage, and shock.
Looking at myself in the mirror one morning I began to understand why my mother once pointed to a gray hair the way an artist points at a painting. She said, “I call this one Mark at 2 a.m.” I was not a perfect son and I’m confident my parents did not expect that I would be, after all, I’m the youngest of six – they had plenty of experience by the time I came along. At the same token, as much as I love my parents (they’ve been deceased for a number of years) they were not perfect.
However, expectations have shifted during the last forty years and there seems to be mounting pressure on moms and dads (or moms and moms, dads and dads, step-dads, step-moms, grandparents, etc.). Both parents and kids must get everything right the first time through; every moment must be Facebooked (or is it Snapchat now?), and it must look perfect. Not only that, there is the pressure of never admitting that some days are a struggle; even if someone does admit it, the struggle has to be manageable enough to post on FB so as not to bum people out.
I feel that pressure more so now because like I said, I’ve got that haggard look of a parent who is wondering if perhaps I should have listened to the guy selling parenting perfection in three biblical steps. When parenting gets tough, it is tempting to get historical and look back on Facebook posts and wonder what happened to that lovable little guy – and wonder what I did to mess him up. Pictures on the iPhone bring a string of memories of missed opportunities, stern words, rash punishments, frustrations expressed unkindly, and more. It is tempting to blame others, too: schools, culture, parents, spouses, DNA, technology. The real challenge, however, is to remain hopeful for the present and the future; and that’s the damnable misery of it.
Most struggling parents that I know love their children. Love is not the issue. The struggle is to have hope that one day it will clear up and we will like one another again. The last thing parents need is someone telling them (or a voice in their head reminding them) if they had just done A+B+C they would not be in the boat they are in. But there is no hope in what might have been nor is there any hope in linear parenting.
For one thing, linear thinking isn’t relational thinking and A+B+C doesn’t even spell a word (at least 1+2+3 gives you 6). In other words, even if it were possible for a parent to do all the right things (whatever those things might be) there is no way to guarantee that their child would respond to them perfectly. Secondly, that ship has sailed and sunk off the coast of Neverland. There is no such thing as A+B+C parenting – even for Tiger Moms. Relationships are not formulaic.
For instance, I’ve known some pretty great parents in my day. They loved their children and provided for them. They spent quality time as a family. They took trips together. They prayed together. They went to church. They ate dinner together. They played together. They sent their children to private schools, or home-schooled, or good public schools. They took them to music lessons, sports camps, science fairs, and art institutes. They never raised their voice. They did not spoil their children. They did all the right things (whatever they are) and their children turned out solid citizens, with good jobs, and a lousy relationship with their parents. A+B+C simply doesn’t consider that people are people and sometimes being in a relationship with the people you love the most is just tough. And very often, in the most difficult season, it is tough to muster up hope for the present or the future – especially when lots of other folks just simply can’t be honest enough about how real life works.
What parents need is the freedom to come clean about their struggles without judgment. They need safe places where they can be honest with trusted friends. They need friendships with folks who not only sympathize and empathize, but know when to buy them a beer and talk about the weather. They need people who will pray for them and with them, even without being asked. They need to know they are not the only imperfect parents with imperfect kids. And, they need hopeful stories from parents who have been through it, recovered, and only have a few of the lines left over from the haggard parent face. And they probably need a good cup of coffee, too.
I’ve been thinking for a while now about contrasts: the way things that appear similar but are strikingly different and do very different things. That may be a strange thing to be thinking about, but I have my reasons. For one thing, I roast coffee. The art and science of roasting coffee fascinate me because there is such contrast between coffee beans. While coffee beans appear similar they roast differently. While a bean from Bali does amazing things at 400 degrees, other beans will burn at 400. Another contrast that has been on my mind is rooted in my experience as a pastor. This contrast involves the way we imagine church.
I have been in ministry since 1992, which is not a long time but long enough. However, I have always struggled with the balance between “disturbing the comfortable and then comforting the disturbed,” as John Stott wrote. Frankly, it seems like all the comforting that pastoral work requires has left very little time for leading the discomforted out of their comfort zones and into the mission of the kingdom. In other words, I’ve spent way more time in committee meetings focused on the business of the church than on the mission of the kingdom (inside rather than outside). I was in one of those internal meetings a few years ago when I realized how lop-sided that is and the utter necessity there is to change it.
A young woman in our church met with me to talk about her concerns regarding her neighbors. They were refugees who had been settled in a few different houses within our community, and specifically her neighborhood. As she got to know them she realized that despite our government’s best efforts there were a lot of things that her neighbors did not know how to navigate very well. For instance, most of them had very little understanding of banking and currency. Because of the variety and abundance of food, many of them were overwhelmed when they went to the grocery store. One woman had no idea how to use a washing machine; she continued to wash clothes by hand in the bathtub. So, this young woman had come to see me to ask what her church could do.
I felt like it was a great opportunity to share the love of Christ and to live out the love of neighbor. I set up a meeting with the person who coordinated our women’s ministry and asked her what we ought to do. The coordinator had a heart for the Gospel and for the needs of women. However, she surprised me with her response. She said that the mission of the church is to worship and teach, “then you let people just go and do.” I remember saying, “that can’t be right.” But, when I met with a few elders from our church I quickly realized that was exactly how they thought of things. A pastor’s job goes hand in glove with the role of the church. We are hired to lead in worship and to teach. That’s what we do every week. When I started thinking about it, I realized how true it is for a lot of churches. Very often a church’s identity is rooted in worship and teaching (discipleship programs).
It is hard to deny the place that worship and teaching have played in regards to significance and identity in church history. After all, worship and teaching are key to the Christian community. What I am suggesting, however, is that worship and teaching are the primary identifying aspect of most churches, at least in the US. That may not be so good and in fact, it may be part of the problem. What happens on Sunday morning and perhaps Wednesday evening drives the church engine, so to speak. Worship and teaching are the mission. Getting people engaged in the life of the church means getting them into worship or a small group. But that endeavor has little to no impact beyond the church.
Churches that focus largely on worship and teaching are what I call worship communities. Of course, that is not to say that worship communities only care about worship but they often restrict the definition of worship to what happens on Sunday morning (per se). A simple list of programs offered by worshipping communities provides ample evidence that churches care about things beyond their doors: mission budgets (conferences, trips), schools, VBS, Celebrate Recovery, Divorce Care, Meals on Wheels, food pantries, tutoring, ESL, etc. Nevertheless, it is difficult to suggest that those programs are the primary focus of any church. In fact, a lot of those programs are done with the hope that it will somehow lead to more people coming to worship or being part of a small group where they will encounter Christ. Thus, the community is usually built around worship and teaching.
Most, if not all, of the churches that I’ve been associated with were worship communities. A real giveaway to that was the way assets were used. The amount of time, money, staff, and effort spent on being outward facing paled in comparison to what was spent on worship and teaching. In one church that projected their worship service on the wall, they spent more on printing the order of worship than on youth ministry. When that fact was brought to the leadership’s attention it was quickly tabled for a future discussion, which to my knowledge has never taken place. Beyond that, worshipping communities can lose their focus and become insular.
It generally happens when a church allows worship and teaching to take center stage of everything they are doing – sometimes at the expense of the very neighborhood where they are located. For instance, a large church in a mid-western city had a parking issue. Parking in a city is always at a premium. Congregants often parked in front of the houses in the neighborhood behind the church, which frustrated the church’s neighbors. Their complaint was well grounded; congregants sometimes blocked a driveway or worse took parking place in front of houses on Sunday and Wednesday (weddings and funerals, too). The church tried to work things out by raking leaves and baking cookies; they tried to have conversations with their neighbors. What they didn’t do was no longer park in the neighborhood. Some within the congregation felt that they had a right to park there since it was a city street and they were there for to go to worship.
To help settle things, the city offered a parking lot down the street from the church, but the congregants felt the half block was too far to walk. The neighborhood went the legal route. The church responded by secretly buying up houses in the neighborhood through a dummy corporation set up by a few of the elders; they planned to tear down the houses and build a parking deck on the edge of the neighborhood – despite the protests of the neighborhood. Eventually, the neighborhood appealed to the city council. The city council sided, rightly, with the neighborhood. The Sunday following the decision the senior pastor comforted the congregation, “While the city council has impacted our parking they will not impact our freedom to worship.” He was right, of course. However, while the church had preserved their worship community they had done so at the cost of a relationship with nearly everyone who lived in the neighborhood and with a lot of people in the city. Not that it mattered, most of the people in the neighborhood didn’t attend the church.
While some churches can afford to burn relational bridges, most churches cannot. And yet, a lot of churches are just as insular in their own way; they work hard to maintain the integrity of their worship community because that is what has been communicated. An all too familiar story involves churches in demographically changing neighborhoods. The church, however, eager to maintain its worship community does not change. It isn’t out of stubbornness. Often attempts are made to engage with the neighborhood. However, those attempts are often done with an invitation to be part of what the church is already doing. In other words, the church wants people in the neighborhood to join their thing. While the church may be warm and welcoming they often don’t make an effort to accommodate the cultural differences. Inadvertently the church sends a clear message and simply wants people to step into what is already happening. To borrow slightly from C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, the church is for the church.
Too often in those cases, the church comes to a place where they must close its doors. Through death and attrition, they simply do not have the people to maintain their worship community any longer. The real tragedy may not be that the church closed but rather that no one noticed. What a terrible epitaph. A church closes and no one notices. It was so focused on being a worship community that no one in the neighborhood is even aware that it no longer exists.
For a lot of churches, the idea of being in community with one another is so important that it overlooks the way it interacts with even its closest neighbors. Community, however, is Biblical but maybe it ought to focus on something beyond itself to be healthy. Hebrews 10:24 tells us that we are not to forsake gathering together. The assumption that is often made from that text, however, is that it means gathering together with worship and teaching as the focus. I’m not sure why worshipping communities expect more people to be involved in mission when the clear (if not subliminal) message is that the church focuses on “worship and teaching.” When 20% of the folks do 80% of the church’s work and that 80% is focused on maintaining the community for the sake of the church, well, it might be more of a worshipping community than what I call a mission community.
For the most part, there isn’t anything wrong with being a worship community. However, some people in worshipping communities feel like they need to apologize for not being more engaged in mission. They see a need in the community and they want their church to step in and do something; sometimes that happens. Generally, however, when something happens it is either for the short-term (think responding to natural disasters) or it takes a dozen or so committee meetings before anything is ever done. Worship communities can be frustrating for people who want to see the church on mission. What they are asking is that the church become a mission community.
Mission communities are generally more focused and driven by the needs of the community around them as opposed to international mission work (of course they care about that but they are hyper-focused on their community). While a mission community resembles a worship community in the sense that they worship together and are concerned about discipleship, the major contrast is what drives the congregation. For instance, a mission community takes Jeremiah 29:7 as its core identity and works for the welfare (shalom) of their community. Of course, the greatest need that people have is a relationship with Christ. A mission community goes about the work of sharing the gospel by working for the good of its neighbors out of the love of Christ. Sharing the gospel is by proclamation as well as by acts of service.
A mission community is on the lookout for the broken places within its community and takes it as their responsibility to bring the hope of the gospel to bear. It works for the restoration and renewal of its community. Rather than being insular, a mission community is constantly orientating itself toward the welfare, the shalom, of its neighbors.
Worship communities could say the same, except for the fact that a mission community doesn’t try to start its own thing. For instance, a lot of churches will start their own food pantry rather than work with one that exists in other churches or one that the city has put together. Sectarianism does a great deal of harm to the mission of the kingdom and shows a real lack of spiritual imagination. A mission community, however, often looks for ways they can engage in what is already happening in the community and figures out ways to get involved with the work that is already being done. That allows those who are engaged in the mission community to build relationships and work for good. Mission communities start their own work when there is a gap that needs to be filled.
In one community, the school system has been working diligently to increase literacy among its elementary students. One mission community approached the school system with an offer to provide volunteers needed to launch the program. In the process, they began asking others, outside of the mission community (and not involved in worship communities), to participate in helping kids. In other words, they invited people to participate in the mission. They didn’t expect those folks to participate in worship and discipleship before they could work for the good of their community. The hope was that they would be able to build relationships with people beyond their church walls. A mission community invites people to see the gospel at work in the lives of its people and on display in the community.
There are not many churches that are mission communities. The reason for this is quite simple. It is tough to change the DNA of an established worshipping community. It requires change and most churches, like people, would rather face “ruin than change” (WH Auden). Not only that, but change often leads to conflict and most pastors and church people are conflict avoidant. Additionally, pastors may not have the leadership skill needed to navigate change or conflict. Nevertheless, it is my belief that if worship communities do not start becoming mission communities they will become obsolete and insignificant in their communities. There may be more churches closing soon if they do not move toward the needs of their communities.
That goes for church plants as well. Very often church plants start off with the idea of being missional, focused on the welfare of their community. Over time, however, they begin to take on the shape of a worshipping community – complete with all the specialized ministries that go with the territory. Every so slowly, their focus shifts from being outward facing to being attentive to “comforting the disturbed” to the point they have little time to shepherd folks to think of others as more important than themselves. Eventually, the pastor finds himself enmeshed within inner-church issues, and the budget reflects they have settled neatly into the rhythms of a worshipping community where 20% do 80% of the work. Ten years into a church plant and many of them are no different than any other worshipping community.
It is difficult to maintain a mission community because it is so different, but it is exactly what the church needs and exactly what communities need. Though they may look the same, though they may both be called a church, there is a striking contrast between a worshipping community and a mission community. The former can easily become insular and concerned with its own interests. The later, while not perfect, as least has the needs of the others as its highest end, which after all is closely connected to the way Jesus fleshed things out.
The essay was first published by Tactical Faith where I serve as a Pastoral Fellow (https://www.tacticalfaith.com/pastor-fellows-2/).
I generally run right on time, which leaves little to no room for error and no time for slow drivers or waiting in line. What it does leave time for are life lessons – whether I want them or not.
For instance, a few days ago I was in a hurry to get from one thing to the next – which included a stop at the grocery store. I loathe shopping of any sort – except for books – and grocery shopping is the worst. I wanted and needed to get in and out of the store quickly. I zipped my buggy through the produce department – aptly grabbing the bit of fruit and veg we needed to at least appear health conscious. I took the turn down the cereal aisle, deftly avoiding a dreaded delay created by two weary moms who stopped to chat – mid aisle. My buggy driving ability was nothing short of inspiring – almost NASCAR worthy.
Within thirty minutes, I managed to get everything we needed to survive (including a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup). Then, I made my way to the front of the store. I made a quick study of the lines, found the shortest one, and began my wait – and wait I did.
I started to get impatient (yet another character flaw). Lines I had passed over moved, while mine crawled. Even one of the moms from the cereal aisle checked out faster than me (I swear I think she sneered at me). I strained to look down the line to see what the delay was. I started to gruffly move to another line. Then I discovered the reason; a forty-ish woman with special needs stood to the left of the cashier and bagged groceries.
My need for speed shifted into shame and gratitude. The grocery store where we often shop employs a number of people with special needs. I had forgotten that. I felt like a real jerk. I decided to stay in my line.
I was forced to slow down – to wait –as this woman meticulously bagged groceries – just as she had been trained. She did a great job. Eventually, after she carefully bagged my groceries, she thanked me for shopping and wished me a good day.
My grocer is doing something profoundly beautiful and redemptive by offering real work – important work – to a number of people in my community who have tremendous gifts to offer. I don’t know their motives (I’m sure there is an economic reason). What I do know is that I got to witness someone putting their best effort in simply putting my groceries in a bag.
Now, if I can just get these folks around here to drive a bit faster…
I think by now the river must be thick / with salmon. Late August, I imagine it / as it was that morning: drizzle needling
This morning, like most mornings, I found myself in the drop-off line at my son’s elementary school. Normally, he and I share light conversation, that’s the best I can muster until the life-giving nectar of coffee permeates my brain. As we wait our turn in line, I do what most drivers do, check my rear view mirrors. Most of the time I catch a glimpse of every other bleary eyed parent, but not today. Today I was treated to a site that made me smile.
In the mini-van behind me a mom transformed her kids mundane, Monday morning routine into Dance, Dance-Fever! Though I could not hear the music I caught the rhythm as she danced behind the steering wheel, which was both a drum and a micro-phone. She was all into the music and so were her kids. Seated in the van’s midsection her daughter followed her mother’s uninhibited motions, beaming her nearly toothless, first-grader smile. Even the shot-gun riding, stoic son, let his head sway.
I have no idea if that’s a daily routine. Chances are good their mornings are like most families: sleepy kids who can’t find a shoe, pets that needed to go out – but not any longer, breakfast and lunch prepared at the same time (why’d I put eggs in a Ziploc bag?). But for a few minutes, before school started, a mom in a mini-van created a little laughter and a lot of fun.
She looked crazy. She did not look like she had it all together. No one in that mini-van was concerned about what the folks in the other cars were thinking (and they were looking). Her kids were loving it and so was she!
Most parents that I know put a lot of pressure on themselves. We want to love our kids well and by that I mean we want to be the perfect parent. We want to be the parent that is never frustrated, always on top of every detail, able to dispense wisdom and cash.What’s more, we want others to think of us as the perfect parent.
But maybe parental perfection looks more like a crazy mom dancing in a van with the kids. Maybe the perfect parent is one that is a little more human, true to themselves, less concerned with others, and way more into having some fun. Sometimes we need a little Dance, Dance Fever! in the drop-off line. Sometimes we need to surprise our kids and ourselves, create moments of laughter and fun, in the most mundane places. Way to go mom!!