Contrast

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 coffeecoffee 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.
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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/).

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Being and Calling

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This week all three of my sons, separate from one another, have told me what they want to do with their lives. Our oldest announced that he’d like to be a director – and make great movies. Our twelve-year-old said he wants to be a doctor – a surgeon perhaps. Our youngest said, “Would you let me be one of those guys who stands on a stage and tells jokes. I think I’d like to do that.”

What’s amazing to me about these conversations is how clearly I could see each one of my sons doing those jobs. Those callings fit them. In a way it is who they are. Yes, I know, I’ve heard it too, “we are not defined by what we do – we are more than our vocations.” I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure that there isn’t a very close connection to being and calling. I could be wrong but…

Knowing my sons the way I do, I believe there are vocations they are better suited for than others. I also believe that not helping them to understand who they are, how they are hard-wired, and telling them they can do anything is not all that helpful to them in the long run.

In fact, the Psalmist wrote, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! (Psalm 127:4-5 ESV).” Imagine this warrior, he knows his arrows well. He knows the warp and woof of each one. He knows how the arrow will be impacted by wind and perhaps rain. He knows the arrows well enough to know how to help it hit the target. Oh, and the target is defined.

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In other words, know your child. Study them. Understand how God made them and help them to see how God made them. Give them a vision for the target that God has laid out for them and help them to move toward it.  Telling our arrows they can fly in a lot of different directions, any direction they want, and expecting them to hit a target is perhaps an exercise in futility.

I believe that who my sons are (being), how God has put them together, gives shape to their vocation (calling). How God made them will give shape to how God intends to use them, His target so to speak. I think that shaping continues their entire lives. However, when I fail to take into account how God put them together and fail to give them a vision for God’s target for their lives, I am setting them up for frustration.

I know a number of parents who want to make sure that they give their child every opportunity and experiences. It is as if the opportunities and experiences will somehow give shape to their children – and it does – but not always in the way that we had hoped. In other words, we send kids to science camps, sports camps, literary camp, (to see if they are going to be a scientist, athlete, or writer or all three). Sometimes it is just for fun but most of the time it is because we believe they can do anything they want to or put their minds to and we just need to give them opportunity and experience to figure it out.

Fortunately, kids sometimes know themselves better than parents do (and it may be frustrating to them to hear us say ‘you are awesome and can do anything you want’ they know that isn’t true for them – it wasn’t true when our parents said it either). What’s more is that some parents have forgotten opportunity and experience are not all that makes a person a person. We work extra hard to give those opportunities and experiences for our kids in hope. All we have to do, really, is spend the time to get to know who they are – really. How they are hard-wired plays a part. In other words, being and calling go hand in hand.

14710915-film-industry-directors-chair-with-film-strip-and-movie-clappersurgeons-at-workWho knows if one day Sherry and I will one day watch a major motion picture that our son directed, or ask our son for medical advice, or laugh in a crowd at the jokes of our youngest (I’ve given him a lot of material to work with). But, at least at this point, I can see that what they say they want to do is consistent with who they are.

Somehow in the midst of all the mistakes and messes I make of being a dad, God is still directing the being and calling of our sons. My prayer is that I don’t muddle things up too much and I am able to help point these young men toward THE target for their lives. Of course, THE target is that they advance God’s purposes in the world (as agents of shalom) for God’s glory. My job as dad is to help them understand who they are and to give them a vision for THE target so that no matter the specific calling they are finding their purposes wrapped up in God’s. I believe that is how these young men will flourish and those around them will flourish as well.

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Oh God – Please Help Me – I Have a Terrible Case of the Adolescents

C.S. Lewis was a man of letters.  Not only did he write books and articles – he wrote letters, lots of them. Lewis was also a man of prayer. He not only cultivated his own prayer life but he encouraged others to do the same. In 1951 he wrote a letter to an American man for whom he had prayed. The man, a veteran of WW II, had come to faith in Christ – which was THE answer to Lewis’ prayer. Not long after that Lewis wrote him a letter, urging him “to be ‘busy learning to pray.’”

I came across that account from Lewis’ life in a book by Lyle Dorsett (one of my profs from Beeson Divinity School). It has stayed with me since. I’ve often turned that phrase over in my mind  – recognizing the simple wisdom in that advice.

At the same time, though I have busied myself in trying to learn to pray, to be honest, I haven’t felt the urgency that is often needed to become a full-fledged man of prayer. In other words, though I have prayed earnestly, with frequency (daily), with faith, hope, assurance and a times out of desperation, I can’t say that my first instinct always is to pray. That is until recently.

It happened rather suddenly. One day I woke up and realized I had a severe case of adolescents – two in fact. Talk about being “busy learning to pray!”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Sherry and I have great sons and I am not complaining. I am so grateful to be their Dad I can’t even put it to words. I’m simply stating a fact. As great as our guys are – well – they are teenagers and with that comes a whole new set of challenges.

Since the early nineties I have worked with students in one capacity or another. I’ve met with parents and heard all sorts of stories. All of that has taught me at least two things. First, it semi-prepared me for being the parent to teenagers. Second, it taught me that nothing could fully prepare me for being a parent to teenagers.

If sharing a home with teenagers doesn’t make a person want to learn how to pray, I don’t know what will. In fact, of late I’ve felt more and more compelled to be busy learning to pray. That’s the funny thing about prayer. Sometimes it takes discovering how much we really need God to be at work before we can actually learn how to pray. When our kids our young we may have a tendency to pray huge, broad winged prayers.

However, when they are on the cusp of adulthood, when they are engaged in the wonderful yet strange mid-term years of adolescents we may begin to pray much more specifically. It is during adolescents that kids begin to exert more independence and we have to let them, sometimes holding our breath. That’s when we may actually learn to pray – and pray we must – because the truth of the matter is every parents only hope is God.

Longing for Ordinary Days

Of late I have longed to get “back to normal.” It doesn’t matter all that much that my sense of normalcy is far from, well, the norm. The life of a pastor is anything but normal to begin with but when you add a huge transition into the mix everything is up for grabs.

In the last month we moved from Charlottesville, VA to St. Louis, MO. We tried to prepare. We tried to imagine ourselves in a new church, new schools, a new community and city. We made plans and made a budget. Then life set in and, well, like Robert Burns wrote, “the best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.” The result has been, as my friend Bob Burns would say, we are living in ambiguity.

We left VA not knowing exactly where we were going to live. That’s right. The five of us, plus Cash – our dog – packed and loaded up and drove 14 hours in a day to St. Louis, MO. We had only a slight notion of where we were going to live. That isn’t something we planned – believe me. Rather, it was something that developed. We planned for a smooth and easy transition. We made plans for a place to lay down each night, a place for meals, a place for pots and pans, and somewhere for dust bunnies to collect. We planned to leave one hearth for another. That wasn’t to be – despite our best-laid schemes.

We knew (know) that Jesus had provided jobs for us in St. Louis but we were unsure of how He was going to provide a place for us to live. Nothing was on paper – nothing was solid – all we had was a one week reservation at a Residence Inn. We didn’t know where we were going to go beyond the first week. We didn’t know if we would find a house to buy or a place to rent. God did.

Since arriving the last week of June we have seen God’s hand at work. He has provided places for us to stay – even the dog. A number of families have opened up their homes to us – inviting our family to stay in their homes, hosting us for dinner, inviting us for a swim. We are grateful for the way that God has provided. He has even opened up a door for us to buy a home (we close- God willing on July 24th – thank you David Klotz!).

The folks in our new community have been God’s source of wonder amid the chaos of a less than smooth transition. It is an experience that only comes from stepping into things the way that God wants us to. Even in the midst of chaos God’s wonder prevails. BUT, do not get the impression that we are just sitting back relaxing in God’s goodness. No. No. Not even close.

If you want to see what life is like for our family you need only flip into the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Moses. God called those men – along with the families and tribes they led – to step into ambiguity. Oh – God provided wonder amid the chaos – but the people grumbled, complained, fought, and chafed in the midst of uncertainty. Yet, God was faithfully putting together His plan, providing for them and establishing hope and salvation through Christ. But the people blew it often – God never did.

That actually captures more of our story over the last few weeks. Yes, we were willing to step into ambiguity – willing to trust Jesus as He led our family. Yes, we’ve been blessed by the ways in which God has used His people to provide for us. No, we haven’t been these super saintly folks who have not been affected by the unknown and the stress of transition. We’ve bickered with each other. We’ve grown weary with waiting and our prayers have had the sound of lament. We’ve lost our cool with our kids and they with each other and us. We have blown it often but God has not.

And yet even in our failures – our very real humanness – we have seen God’s wonder amid the chaos and something else has emerged. It is something I think the people with Abraham and Moses experienced as well. We’ve found ourselves more aware of our deep need and longing for ordinary days of home.

Ordinary days of home are the sort of days that we often complain about– days in which we have to make meals and do laundry, pull weeds or rake leaves, tend to homework and bills. I have found myself daydreaming about planting a garden, washing dishes, cooking, painting walls, and welcoming friends for meals. Sometimes God, for whatever reason, calls us to step out of those ordinary days into ambiguity. If you walk in that long enough while you will experience God’s wonder amid the chaos, you may experience a longing for ordinary days and thankfulness when they return.

There is much that can be said for the ways in which those ordinary tasks are an extension of what it means to give and receive love, to build into the lives of children, to strengthen a marriage, and the joy of hospitality. Granted, in our family ordinary tasks are often the places where we hear and feel the loudest grumbles. However, taken away, the ordinary tasks of home are sought out because they are as much a part of the relational components of home as rest. Kate Harris, Executive Director for The Washington Institute, wrote

By coming to see my ordinary tasks in light of their relational nature and their wonderful, purposeful inefficiency, I come to see what Soren Kierkegaard means when he writes, “The love of repetition is in truth the only happy love.”  What is more, I can begin to think afresh about the simple, mundane, but purposeful work God calls me to pursue for the care of myself and my family day by day.  Indeed, the Incarnation itself shows us how intimately familiar God is with our daily needs, deeming the faithful care of a loving mother and father sufficient to provide all of the necessary, bodily care and nurture for His only son while on earth.

Ambiguity has given our family something that we may not otherwise have ever known: a chance to see God’s wonder amid chaos and an awareness of the significance of ordinary days of home. I think Jesus understands that. In the New Testament (Matthew 8 and Luke 9) Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” That text brings great comfort because it reminds me of the cost of following Jesus. Following Jesus means stepping into ambiguity, finding our peace in the way God provides, being aware of our constant need for God’s Spirit to help us, and joy in the most ordinary of days of home. It is not easy but it is filled with wonder, hope, and good.

Resources:

1) http://www.washingtoninst.org/2226/to-dwell-in-a-household-menial-work-meaning-and-motherhood/

The Way God Provides: Packing Up A Family for St. Louis

THE BACK STORY

For the last few months my family and I have walked through a pretty difficult time. I’ve hesitated to write about it here – mostly because I’ve been processing all that’s happened – and frankly I didn’t want to process it publicly. The bottom line is that I was laid off in February mainly due budget issues.

The good thing is that I was preparing to leave Trinity. For some time now I’ve realized that the Lord was leading us to pursue a new pastoral call. However, being laid off was not in my plan – it was in God’s. I’d have to say – even though it made sense – it was still very, very difficult. I will not go into the reasons why it was so difficult. I will say that we’ve seen God’s hand at work at every turn. We can honestly, faithfully and confidently say that God is good and that He does provide.

One way that was clear is that Trinity’s Session was very good to my family and gave us a heads up and salary from February to August. They also freed me up to work on my dissertation and to look for a new job. A lot of the elders have come alongside of our family, prayed for us and did their best to encourage us. That has been truly good.

Another way that God provides is that He was preparing our family for this moment as many as four years ago. That was when I started my DMin at Covenant. On my first trip to Covenant I almost immediately fell in love with St. Louis. I can say that without reservation. God also introduced me to Bob Burns – who at the time was over the DMin at Covenant. Now Bob is the Head of Staff at Central Presbyterian. Bob and I became friends – and now – Bob, along with Dan Doriani (and the Session), is my new boss.

That’s right – this week the session at Central Presbyterian in St. Louis, MO extended a call (Presbyterian speak for job offer) and I heartily accepted it. I will be the Pastor of Community Development. What’s more – Central has a school – a great school – and they were looking for a 2nd grade teacher…Sherry applied and next year she’ll be teaching 2nd grade!!! Yes the Lord does provide – but not only with jobs – but with wisdom – much-needed wisdom.

Packing Up Our Family

In June our family will be packing up and moving to St. Louis. But packing up – this go around – isn’t just about boxes and a new job. It is about a time of huge transition for all three of our sons – new schools, new community, new church – right at the beginning of their adolescent years. But God is faithful – and He has provided for us. He’s put people in our lives to help us to be aware, even vigilant when it comes to our sons.

When we moved to Charlottesville six years ago our kids were a lot younger. Now they are 13, 12 and 6 (soon to be 7). While our 7-year-old is pretty easy-going about the move, Charlottesville has been the only home he’s really ever known (he was born in AL). But our older two have lived most of their childhood here – and this move is something that will mark them. They really liked their school, their friends, the youth group at Trinity. Now they have to walk away from all that for something new.

A lot of folks in St. Louis and in Charlottesville have asked how our sons are taking the news of a move. I’m glad they have because I think I could honestly overlook their emotions in the hustle to get going. Truth be told I could overlook Sherry’s emotions as well. Even though we’ve prepared for the possibility of a move for some time it has now become a reality. We are excited and thankful and I can’t wait to get to St. Louis – to show my family around a city that I love and I church that I am thrilled to be called to serve. However, it is in that excitement that I could overlook or even be annoyed by my family’s slow transition to embrace what I’ve long embraced. That would be a terrible failure on my part.

So even while I’m thrilled – I think I’m going to have to take things slowly and allow my family to take things in stride. I’m confident that they will come to love the city and the church like I do (at least I’m hoping). But getting a heads up from friends has been helpful already. In fact, today a friend of mine who has moved many times in the last few years sent me an email with some much-needed wisdom.

He wrote, “As one who has moved more than is optimal in the past…my encouragement to you and Sherry is an old one: even if you are going to a great place and your gifts and inclinations are well-suited to your new position….and even if the place to which you are moving has many familiar faces…it can easily take 3 years to begin to feel like home.  So give it some time. And keep a close eye and ear on your sons. Ours are just now talking through some of the difficulties they experienced when we moved…they were 12 and 14 at the time…sound familiar???”

Yes – this is wise and I’m very grateful. I hope that I’m able to do this. It is amazing to me how God provides and the ways in which He does so.  So – even though (as a friend pointed out to me this morning) the “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance (Psalm 16:6 ESV)” I would be wise to allow my family to come to the place where they can see that as well – with God’s help.

With that said – I know that God is providing for our family – so I’d like to ask something of you. Would you be willing to toss some ideas our way? If you have moved with teenagers – or if you moved when you were a teenager – can you toss some advice our way? I’d be very, very grateful – and – my family may be grateful as well.

Thanks!

Moving Kids Toward Wisdom

Last week the school where my sons attend held their first poetry festival. I must say that I was impressed. Students from Pre-K (that’s four-year olds) thru sixth grade recited poems of varying length. They did an incredible job. What stood out to me was how well the students had memorized poetry (including the Pre-K class) and that they stood in front of tons of folks and recited it. It was great!

That festival – and festivals like that – are important. Not just because it exposes children to poetry (that can be good or bad) nor just because it connects them to the arts (although that’s significant). It is important because it can give shape to their moral imagination, which hopefully will move them towards wisdom.

I haven’t heard that sort of language  – especially at it relates to children – all that much. I have heard a lot about character formation and I’ve heard a lot about preparing kids academically for their future. But what about wisdom (can you separate character and wisdom? Is it wise to separate knowledge and wisdom?) What is shaping the way a child makes decisions? How are they becoming not only smarter but wiser? Where are they learning to navigate the gray areas of their own hearts and the hearts of others?

Vigen Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination suggests classic stories go a long way to shape a child’s imagination and move them toward wisdom. He cites the original classics (do not confuse with the Disney-ed versions) like Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen.

The “real” stories do not hide the fact that life is tough and our actions have consequences. Not everything ends in “happily ever after.” These stories make us aware of good and evil, right and wrong, and the fact that human beings and life in general can be gray and not merely black and white. In these stories the reader becomes part of the action because they are so compelling and honest about what it means to be a real person. Thus they awaken a sense and desire to move toward the good (especially when the main character is not so inclined or acting – well – foolish).

That thought jumped out at me during the poetry festival. So many of the poems that these children had learned moved toward wisdom. They used images and story, carefully crafted metaphor to offer insights into life. Not all the poems did that – but a lot of them did (some where just great, fun poems from Shel Silverstein). But one poem that three young women recited at the festival has stayed with me. It is a somewhat familiar poem. It is a poem called “Three Gates.”

THREE GATES
If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold

These narrow gates: First “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?”
In your mind give truthful answer,
And the next is last and narrowest,
“Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

From the Arabian (Tapestries of Life)

It is easy to see how this poem sparks the imagination and could move a child (or an adult) toward wisdom. My hope as I sat there and listened to these students was that the words they were saying – ones they had memorized – would find their way into their imagination – that they would move beyond words on a page – and move them toward wisdom.

Perhaps there is no better source of poems to give shape to moral imagination and move people toward wisdom than The Psalms. Tucked within that book of verse are poems of all kinds and various genres. The great thing about a lot of the poems is that we know a lot about the poet: David, Israel’s great king. Many of his poems tell the stories of his life in verse and, the best part, David is not the hero of his poetry.

That’s why they are perfect for giving shape and moving a child toward wisdom – because they point to the fact that David was like every other human being: broken and in need of help that only God could give. How can a poem like Psalm 3:1-4 not give shape to a child’s imagination – how could it not move a person toward wisdom?

O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God. Selah
But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
(Psalm 3:1-4 ESV)

The great hero of this poem – the poet tells us – is God. The poet cried out and God answered him. One great thing about this poem – as it shapes the imagination is that it points out that God delivers – He has done that once and for all in Christ. Think of how poems like this – given to memory – can give shape to moral imagination and move a child toward wisdom.

Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike

Seven Stanzas At Easter

By John Updike
1964

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike, “Seven Stanzas At Easter,” 1964

A Son of the South: Raw Cotton & Hope

Not long ago I signed up for something on Facebook. The reason – the name. Bourbon & Boots. Today I got an email – an ad no less for Raw Cotton.

Get your lb of cotton at http://www.bourbonandboots.com/

For $25 you can buy a pound of cotton from North Carolina – The Cottonman. I think that’s awesome and I’m thinking of buying some but not just because I like cotton. Rather, it is because the first time I saw cotton fields they captured my imagination and led to an experience that I’m not likely to forget.

I was driving in rural Alabama. It was the time of the cotton harvest. It was a beautiful day – which is mostly the case in the Deep South (even when it is so hot it feels like someone wrapped you in a wool blanket and poured hot water over it). The sun was out – but there was something white blowing across the road. I had seen white stuff blowing across the road before – but that was when it was gray and cold and the sky full of clouds. This wasn’t snow.

It was cotton. Some bits and pieces pulled free from huge cotton bundles on trailers as trucks took them down the road. Other bits and pieces blew from the once white fields made mostly brown/black stalks by enormous, green harvesters. The fields were a jumble of sticks and dirt and bits of left behind cotton.

Harvesting Cotton John-Deere-7760

Cotton and cotton fields have long-held a place in my imagination. As a little boy I was drawn to Civil War history, to Mark Twain, and pretty much anything to do with the south, her history and culture. Cotton and plantations were always somewhere in the background of my imagination. The reason, I think, was quite simple. I could not make sense of it.

What I mean is that I have always loved the south but as young boy I couldn’t make sense of the painful, sad parts of her history – which was most often represented in my minds eye by cotton fields. I can close my eyes and see them – the white fields – plucked clean now by machines – where once they were filled with men, women and children – stooping, pulling, and filling sacks. It is hard not to connect the full white fields to days when Americans “lawfully” enslaved people. In the land born of liberty and freedom there was slavery, injustice, and oppression; all for money. That painful, sad history extended beyond the fields, entering into city ordinances, state laws, churches, and schools and my imagination.

Black people picking cotton while their white overseer rides a horse (Photographer unknown, ca. 1895)

It took the law of love to bring change. It was encouraged by pastors and extended by children, some as young as six. The children went from churches – marching to pray, singing hymns and spirituals as they went, all the while suffering abuse and jail from their fire-hose and dog wielding oppressors. This history is not lost on me as a Christian, a student of history, and a southerner who hates racism while loving the south (and one who for love of union and abolition is glad “we” lost the war).

And yet – now the image of cotton fields reaches into my imagination and memory reminding me that even out of pain and sadness there is hope. God’s children are not without suffering. We are not without pain and sadness. And yet there is hope – God can bring good out of the worst possible places, out of slavery, out of racism, and out of the cotton fields of Alabama.

My family and I were living in Alabama – a state filled with places that look like a scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird. A friend, Mark, invited me, to attend an unusual gathering of folks. Mark ran a farm of sorts near the campus of Alabama A & M. All the work Mark and others put into raising food was so that poor people could eat. Mark believed that God wanted him to farm (despite not knowing anything about farming) and give the food to the poor. Turns out the Bible supports that notion – and Christians are to care about folks flourishing – it has something to do with shalom.

It also turns out that many folks really needed the help (that’s true everywhere but AL is the third poorest state in the US – “23.4 percent of households said they were unable to afford enough food, which is the second highest rate in the country“). It also turns out that folks wanted to help. That included Alabama A&M – which provided the land as well as a canning facility. It also included local farmers who brought crates of fruits and veggies to give. Whether they knew it or not they were living out of an Old Testament practice of leaving enough food in the field for the poor to glean. When it came time to harvest, men, women, children stooped, pulled, and filled sacks stooped, buckets and crates; poor people, white, black – just people.

When all the work was done folks didn’t leave. Instead they started to gather in a large, hanger like building that had once been A&M’s cannery. This was what Mark had invited me to witness; it was an experience I will not easily forget. Folks began to gather at one end of the building, in a close semi-circle. They sat on buckets, chairs, and the concrete floor. An elderly, African-American gentlemen sat down and the shuffle of feet subsided. Mark looked at me with a big smile as the gentlemen began to sing.

I did not know the song. I had never heard it before and at first I thought he was making it up – beautiful, soulful as it was. Then, just as he finished the first chorus – folks around me joined him. They filled the room with their voices, with their songs, and they were tied to the fields painful, sad history.

There was no way for me to know the words to the songs. These were not my songs because these were songs born out of the pain and sadness of slavery, of injustice, of oppression. They were songs born in the fields and tied to the cotton field’s history of pain and sorrow songs BUT not left there. These slave songs were born out of pain but written and sung and passed down with hope that God by His Son and through His Spirit would redeem his people. 

What I saw that day was truly one of the most amazing worship services I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know the first song. I could only stand back and listen. Mark couldn’t help smiling at me. “It’s like this every week,” he said.

That worship experience was more than fourteen years ago. I’m not even sure if Mark is still farming – we moved away from AL six years ago. Yet I can close my eyes and just about hear them sing. They sang songs that had been passed down to them by their parents and grandparents, slave songs – which, though born out of something terrible, connected them to the same hope and joy which has lifted God’s people up since Adam. They knew the same God who sets the captives free in the Bible is the same God who set their great grandparents free, set them and their children free from injustice and  sets them free in Jesus.

So they sang the same songs their ancestors sang. They sang as the Psalms teach God’s people to sing and to pray; fully, holding nothing back.  The Spirit filled their songs, reminding them (and teaching me) that God does bring good from the painful, broken, sad, places of our lives.

In the Old Testament book of Psalms – David (the Psalmist) wrote, “For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. (Psalm 37:28 ESV). It is an extraordinary claim – isn’t it? It is if you believe it (which I do). When we are in the midst of painful, sad places we often have trouble believing this about God – especially when it seems like nothing will change or God is taking a very long time. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, has a book of poetry the title of which captures this feeling: Swift, Lord, You Are Not.

If you haven’t spent much time in the Bible you might be surprised to find that it isn’t all “puppy dogs and rainbows.” In fact, it is true to life – telling humanities story and God’s intervention in sometimes graphic terms. Some folks struggle with that aspect but I think it is quite helpful because most folks I know struggle with one thing or another. I don’t have much capacity for the pushers of Pollyanna theology, the “God just wants you to be happy and healthy and rich” – you know the big ego, big stadium, big hair kind of folks. I’m not sure what version of the Bible they are reading – if they are at all.

The Old Testament doesn’t skip over the bad parts. Those slaves songs, like the Scriptures, were passed down from parents to children (Deut 6). They were meant to prepare people for life in a fallen world and point them in a Godward direction. Sometimes I think we do kids a bad turn when, in an effort to protect them, we insulate them from reality. They are bound to have troubles because, until Jesus comes, that’s the way of the world. There are things beyond our control and we’d do better by our kids to prepare them – shape their character and their moral imagination.

The Psalms, in particular, give shape to the way God’s children learn to pray and sing and live. Reading them gives a person the full scope of life. The people who sang  and prayed these Psalms had once been slaves in Egypt, and they sang of God’s deliverance.  They knew pain and sorrow – a great deal of which was their own fault (which sound familiar to me). They also tasted injustice and hatred – and they cried out to God. Psalm 137 is one of those Psalms; it is written from anguish and heartbreak: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Psalm 137:1-6 ESV)”

These were God’s people – they had been carried away in exile. They knew pain and sadness well. Their lives were ripped open. They were mocked, abused, forced to leave their home. They knew hardship and pain in ways that I don’t even want to imagine. But they wrote about it – as prayer to God. 

What stands out to me is the fact that this text still remains. It is a painful Psalm to read because of the anguish, the anger, the pain. It was a dark time in the lives of God’s people, a terrible time. And yet, this Psalm, marked this time and it was passed on from one generation to another – down to this very day. 

I think I know why – at least I can speculate. The Babylonian Empire hasn’t existed for – well a very long time but God’s people still do. Apparently, God really does love justice and he does keep His saints. I also think what is expressed in this Psalm gives shape to the way God’s people pray and sing. Because sometimes we feel the way they did and because God delivered His people – and still does.

That’s not to say that the bad times we go through aren’t bad. Sometimes all we have to hold onto is a stubborn resolve that God will do as He has said. That’s when Psalms like “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5 ESV) and “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” (Psalm 30:11-12 ESV) give shape to the way we think and pray. I think Psalms like these are most beneficial when things stink – really stink. They may help us to rejoice when the time is right but they also form our lips to sing, to pray, to hope for the day when we will be dancing, clothed with gladness and singing forever. They point to the fact that one day this will be true of God’s people.

The New Testament shapes our hearts for the tough parts as well – and it gives shape to hope. In the New Testament book of Romans – chapter 8 – Paul wrote, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father!” A bit later in the same chapter it says  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Romans 8:15, 28).

Verses like these giving shape to our hopes by telling us that we are God’s children. We have been adopted by God (and I love adoption); we are His sons and daughters. Of course, our adoption is made possible through Christ – that’s what Paul is trying to tell us – our place is sure in Christ.

But something else gives shape to our hope – its phrase cry Abba or Father. When does a child “cry out” for their dad? In times of pain and trouble, of course. And – since we know we are his sons and daughters we know that we can do that – approach God as Father in the midst of troubles.

But how does we hope a father will respond? Well, in all honesty I don’t alway respond with the sort of kindness and compassion that I should. Sometimes when my sons cry out I’m busy and I don’t want to be bothered. Well – that’s my way but not God’s way.

Children also cry out in moments of joy and surprise. That’s always a good sound – when your kids are glad to see you – when they say, “I love you.” When they thank you for the good things you’ve done for them.

But this “crying out” in times of pain and joy both have an element, an expectation of hope linked to them. Hope that the one who hears the cry will care respond and step toward us – make things good and right. That’s where Romans 8:28 fits into this: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Romans 8:28).

Isn’t this a nagging verse? Is the Bible giving an assurance that things will turn out for good for God’s people? It sure seems so…But isn’t this the hope we long for? 

I think it is. Even though we may not understand why it is that we go through things and they may be terrible – in the midst of them we want and need hope that things will work for good. God gives this hope to His children which is part of the way we can  persevere. In fact, I believe the story of the Bible is wrapped up in this hope – that Christ by His life, death and resurrection makes new lives out of broken ones (something I can personally attest), sets captives free (and we are captive to something), restores human beings to God, brings peace (shalom) to fractured relationships, and brings light into dark places. The essence of the Biblical story is that God, through Christ, redeems the painful, sad parts of life and makes them good as only God can.

I think this hope has carried God’s people from the time of Adam until now – ultimately God will restore all things and make things right and good. I think it was this hope that shaped the slave songs. Their assurance was bound up in Jesus in ways I could only image. Jesus turned their mourning into gladness – even as they worked those fields. The foundation of their songs wasn’t sorrow, nor self-pity – it was hope, a hope in Christ, a hope that all their suffering and hardship was going to turn out for good. It is a hope that all God’s children can sing about.

I may buy a pound after all…

Links and Resources:

  • Learn to sing the Psalms: http://psalter.org/
  • Want to know more about Civil Rights & The Children’s Crusade – Birmingham 1963 http://library.thinkquest.org/  http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/interviews/clayborne-carson.html http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Home.jsp  http://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement   http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders                                      See King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
  • Check out the history of Negro Spirituals, Cabin Music and Slave Songs http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/             http://www.negrospirituals.com/news-song/index.htm           http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/                                                                               Honey in the Rock: The Ruby Pickens Tartt Collection of Religious Folk Songs By Olivia Solomon, Jack Solomon
  • Check out the ad for Raw Cotton here: Raw Cotton | Cotton Man | Bourbon & Boots.
  • Want to learn more about the South and the Civil War – Professor David Blight’s course from Yale on The Civil War and Reconstruction – Lecture 2 is all about King Cotton. They are free and worth the listen.

The Conclusion of Desire and the Kingdom

 

Not long ago I sat at my favorite coffee shop here in Charlottesville, VA. Across with me sat a man I have come to respect and appreciate – largely due to a book he authored (which is given some shape to the way I parent). In the course of our conversation he said, “You know – these are anxious times.” I listened to him as he unpacked that statement. He was right – these are anxious times.

So why would Jesus say something like, “do not be anxious”?

Well – like I said before – I don’t think he’s trying to be cruel or ironic. In fact, I’m fairly certain that Jesus understood people – very, very well. I think, in fact, that if Jesus is saying don’t be anxious then he’s probably got a way figured out for folks not to be anxious. It may be worth thinking about. Perhaps Jesus wants to give shape to our image of a good life – and what is really essential for us to know.

All of this began for me with a claim that James K.A. Smith made. He said, Our ultimate love moves and motivates us because we are lured by this picture of human flourishing. Rather than being pushed by beliefs, we are pulled by a telos (end, purpose, goal) that we desire. It’s not so much that we’re intellectually convinced and then muster the will power to pursue what we ought; rather, at a precognitive level, we are attracted to a vision of the good life that has been painted for us in stories and myths, images and icons. It is not primarily our minds that are captivated but rather our imaginations that are captured, and when our imagination is hooked, we’re hooked (and sometimes our imaginations can be hooked by very different visions than what we’re feeding into our minds)…So many of the penultimate decisions, actions, and paths we undertake are implicitly and ultimately aimed at trying to live out the vision of the good life that we love and thus want to pursue…This is just to say that to be human is to desire “the kingdom,” some version of the kingdom, which is the aim of our quest. Every one of us is on a kind of Arthurian quest for “the Holy Grail,” that hoped-for, longed-for, dreamed-of picture of the good life – the realm of human flourishing – that we pursue without ceasing. Implicitly and tacitly, it is such visions of the kingdom that pull us to get up in the morning and suit up for the quest.

That’s not to say, as Smith points out, that all human beings desire the same kingdom. In fact, he concludes that the vision of the good life that we have is something that has been pictured for us and there are very different visions of what ‘the kingdom’ looks like. The shape of the kingdom is contested, generating very different stories and thus different kinds of peoples, citizens who see themselves as subjects of rival kings.”

So – if Smith is right – and I think he may be – then why are these anxious times? Why are folks so anxious about everything? Why are children suffering from anxiety disorders – more so now than perhaps previous generations? Why are parents anxious about their kids’ future? Why are seniors anxious about their golden years?

Is there a connection between our ultimate love, our desire for what we imagine to be a good life and anxiety?

I think there is. Think about the fact that the average American family is in debt because we bought cars, clothes, homes, went on vacations, went to concerts, or went to university, sent out kids to camps, etc. Why? Most likely because we were pursuing our vision/image of a good life – but now we are anxious about making those payments in a shrinking economy. A lot of folks have less income now than they did and things that seemed like essentials a few years ago are clearly not essential any longer. But the anxiety is probably still very much a reality – each month when the bills come due.

Perhaps that is why Jesus tells us not to be anxious about what we think are essentials. But he doesn’t just say, “don’t be anxious.” That would be cruel and ironic. What he says is, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)

I think Jesus is trying to give shape to our desire – our vision/image of a good life. One of the first things that He says is that “your heavenly Father” knows what you need. That’s a comforting reality – if you understand/believe/ have God as Father. That takes some pressure off – it is not all up to us. God knows what His children need and He provides.

If this is true, and I think it is, how does this impact our anxiety levels? It may impact them a lot – because if we think about it  – it means that God is the one who not only supplies our needs but also defines our needs. What I mean is that we will have to start thinking about what is really essential which will impact our desires. That means that our vision/image of a good life may need to change – which probably means that someone else will have to shape our ultimate love.

Perhaps this is why Jesus follows this up by saying, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Is this the cure for anxiety? Is this the vision/image that people, parents, children, students are supposed to have? What does it mean to seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness?

What if God’s kingdom and His righteousness were your ultimate love? What if that was what motivated you to get up and get going in the morning? What it the notion of God’s kingdom and His righteousness gave shape to the way you raised your children, spent your money, loved your family, did your work, saved for retirement? What if the vision/image of God’s kingdom and righteousness shaped your desires and your understanding of what was an essential and how those things were going to be provided? Would that be an end to anxiety – would it at least curb it?

Jesus seems to be saying so – especially in the next verse (Matthew 6:34). He says, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Wouldn’t that be amazing – to be able to put anxiety aside? How different do you think your life would be – if you could really have no anxiety? Well – Jesus says it is possible. But maybe he is wrong. Maybe Jesus got it wrong and we are supposed to live with chronic anxiety.

Or perhaps Jesus is right, and I think He is, and He is trying to give shape to the right vision/image of a good life. Maybe Jesus is right and human beings really are creatures who desire to live out an image of a good life – but that desire/vision/image is supposed to be shaped a vision for God’s Kingdom and Righteousness.

If he is wrong then we seem to know what we are doing; anxiety is part of being human. That doesn’t seem right though. Anxiety seems to be killing us. But we just have to evolve.

But if he is right then perhaps we need to learn what it means to live out this vision/image of God’s kingdom and righteousness. I think it’ll mean learning a lot about what Jesus meant by God’s kingdom and righteousness. At a minimum I think it’ll mean:

  1. That we care about the things that God cares about.
  2. It means that we pursue good –not just for ourselves but also for others.
  3. It means that we look not only for our interests but the interest of others.
  4. It means that the decisions we make about how we spend our time and our money matter beyond ourselves.
  5. It means that our first order of life is about pleasing – not ourselves – not our parents – not our friends – not our teachers – but God –first and foremost.
  6. It means your life matters more than you actually think because it belongs to God’s kingdom and God’s work in the world – your life has eternal significance – what you do in this world matters because it is part of God’s kingdom.
  7. It means our ambitions need to line up with God’s purposes in the world.
  8. It means that for those who are in pursuit of God’s kingdom are in pursuit of a good life – and one where needs are provided…there is no need to be anxious.
  9. It means that our children will be raised with a different view of the world, and people, and God and themselves.

Let me ask you – as you think about what it is that you desire – what is driving you –when you think about how you would define “a good life,” do you give any thought at all to the fact that Jesus calls people to “seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness?” – is that your first priority when leading your decision making?”

If not perhaps you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Perhaps you need ask if you are part of God’s kingdom and if not why not. The truth is I don’t think you can pursue God’s kingdom and righteousness apart from God. I don’t think you can ignore Christ and just try to be good. I’m pretty certain that if Jesus is the one pointing toward this vision of the world then God intended for people to consider Christ and what He’s saying in the process. I don’t think we get to pick and choose what we like and discard the rest.
  2. If you have put your faith in Christ – trusted Him for salvation and look to Him as your only hope – but you realize that you are not seeking God’s kingdom first – that’s okay – this is a good time for you to pray and ask the Lord Jesus – by His Spirit to help you.

Honestly – even as a pastor – I have to do this all the time because the cares of the world sidetrack me easily…but God is faithful. In my own family I have been guilty of driving my kids to think about their future – not so much because they are part of God’s work in the world – part of God’s kingdom – but as a means to an end – an end toward happiness.

I mean – the vision/image of a good life that I’ve passed on to my sons is one shaped – to some degree – not by God’s kingdom but by, well, perhaps the American Dream. However, I recognize my failure in this. I think life is more than a good education, job, etc. Life isn’t supposed to be all anxiety. I think Jesus is right. I think the right vision is a vision of the kingdom. I want to help my sons have that vision. I want to have that vision of seeking God’s kingdom and righteous – I want to pass that along and not a roll of Tums.


[1] Ibid., 54.

The Struggle For Joy

Every year Sherry and I try to set a theme for the year. The last two years we kept the same theme (we liked it so we kept it). So 2009 and 2010 were the year(s) of laughter. That was born out of the fact that almost every thing we encountered when it came to TV or movies seemed to be obsessed with death in some form. It isn’t like we watch a lot of TV – or movies. But we do enjoy a few programs (especially Master Piece Theater on PBS – don’t mock me – they are really well done programs). So, we made sure that we watched TV shows and movies – as well as focused on laughter – and we laughed a lot. That was good.

This year we went a bit more spiritual – which is something you’d expect from a pastor his wife and kids. We decided that 2011 was going to be the year of joy. The end of 2010 we talked about it – and tried to think of what that would look like. We told a very good friend of our decision to declare 2011 the year of joy. He smiled (he may have actually laughed – it still being 2010 and all) and politely reminded us that joy is often something we have to struggle for. “You’re right,” we said. Nevertheless, joy is something worth struggling for – we just were not sure what sort of things we’d have to struggle to have joy.

Have you ever given that much thought? Have you ever thought about the place of joy in your own life? Perhaps you have. Joy is a funny thing in many ways. It is one of those things that we most often notice when it seems to be missing from our lives. The Bible speaks a lot about joy.

One place in particular draws my attention to this notion of struggling for joy. The Psalmist, in Ps 30:5 wrote, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And Psalm 126:5 says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”

Those Psalms make me think about this notion of joy coming on the heals of struggle. That seems to be a pretty consistent picture throughout the Bible and it is consistent in terms of being an accurate portrayal of what it means to be human. Joy is often related to struggle. In fact, we may not even be able to fully appreciate joy until we have struggled.

The struggle for joy is real – very real. There are all sorts of things that come up that create a challenge for us to have joy. That became clearer to me as the subject of forgiveness occupied a huge chunk of the day. If there was ever anything that could cause a person to have to struggle for joy – it would indeed be forgiveness. Think about that for a moment. Think about times when you knew that you had to go to someone who you had wronged. Think about the times when you knew you needed to forgive someone else. Think about the struggle that you may have accepting the fact that God – through Christ – moves toward you to forgive you and draw you to Himself.

There is a tremendous scene in the book Les Miserables (if you’ve never read that book – believe me – you are missing out – again don’t mock me for reading French literature – I’m smarter than I look). Jean Valjean is one of if not the main character. He is a convict whose life was “redeemed” by Christ through the life of a priest (Bishop). But Jean Valjean was never really ever supposed to know forgiveness or redemption or restoration according to the culture of the day. Throughout the novel he is tormented, chased by his past and by Inspector Javert. Javert will not rest until Valjean is punished forever. He is zealous for the law. Valjean has experienced grace.

There is a powerful scene where Jean Valjean has a chance to escape forever. A man is arrested and the authorities think he is Valjean. Valjean can keep his mouth shut. He has lived a good life. He had done loads of charity work. He has totally changed his life. Helped the poor. He was a well-respected mayor. He was a good man. So one night he comes to terms with himself. He goes back and forth in this great scene wrestling with the notion of forgiveness. It is a powerful scene as good and evil wrestle within the heart of this man. In the end though, I’d have to say that it was as much as struggle for joy as it was about good and evil and his sense of forgiveness.

I will not spoil the end of the novel for you (the movie doesn’t include it – sorry you’ll have to read). But the picture of Jean Val Jean struggling for joy even in his own soul is a profound picture to me. Especially because so many people have to wrestle with the notion of what it means to both forgive and to be forgiven. Many of us think often of the people who have wronged us in some ways. We may mouth the words, “I forgive you” but in our heart of hearts there is still a very deep burn. Many more of us can read or hear these words, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We may nod, say amen, but we still walk away from those words with a lump in our throat – wondering, could it be true.

Forgiveness contributes to the struggle joy. Of, sure, there are other things that add to that struggle. But today, as I thought about forgiveness and thought about joy I could not help but think about the intersection of these two things.

I know people who feel deep joy – inexpressible joy – each time they take the Lord’s Supper. They are overwhelmed because they have tasted – not just the bread and wine – but God’s forgiveness for them. As their pastor – serving them – I’ll tell you there is nothing more electric than seeing the anticipation in their eyes as they take the bread and cup in their hands.

There are others who hold such animosity in their hearts that joy is foreign to them. What they have tasted, even as they often take the bread and cup, is not forgiveness and joy but bitterness, regret and perhaps as a result apathy.

As the discussion of forgiveness came up I wondered aloud about the starting place of forgiveness. Some theologians would argue that it begins with reconciliation – I’m pretty sure that’s missing something theologically. Some would say it begins with hell and we work our way out from there – I know that’s missing something. Some would say it begins with the cross – and I think they are right. It starts where we start – as human beings – in light of our creation as God’s children and in light of God’s move of love toward us. We see that best in light of the cross.

But, when I think about the ways in which I have to struggle for joy when it comes to forgiveness – when it comes to think about who wronged who (or whom), or how I see myself in light of being forgiven (or not) – it seems too big – too grand of thing to think of the way that God has forgiven us (and me). But when I think of what it means to be human – and the deep desire that God has created within my heart for joy – and what a challenge forgiveness is in the struggle for joy, then I think, maybe the starting part of forgiveness is joy.

What I mean the starting point for forgiveness may be that God intended men and women to be people of joy. The whole notion of being restored by the gospel is seen in the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5). “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…”So perhaps the place for “us” to begin when we think about forgiving or being forgiven is with joy. We were made for joy but we may have to struggle for it. We may have to wrestle with forgiveness. But I think in our heart of hearts we want joy. As human beings the motive to move through the process of forgiveness is in the end because we know we have to struggle for joy.

When Sherry and I thought about this being the year of joy – well – we intended it in some ways to fall right along with the year of laughter. It does not work like that. Joy is more than happiness and it is certainly more than just laughter. It is something that we were made for but it is also something that we often have to struggle for. But I’m confident the struggle is worth it – at least the proverbs seems to imply that, “A joyful heart is good medicine” (Pro 17:22).

Next year, however, it might just be the year of BBQ – that’s probably good medicine for my heart too.

 

This is the best BBQ I know of…and I’ve eaten some great BBQ – but this takes top billing in my book.

If you ever want to try it – it is in Bluff City, TN. Not far from the Race Track. It will make you slap your granny it is so good.

It brings our family great joy!