Like thousands of folks, I have found myself sitting in front of my computer – my eyes bouncing between the faces on the screen and the little green camera light – for Zoom meetings more times than I can count. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful. Without that technology, we wouldn’t have been able to connect as often as we have with family, friends, church, work, and whatever else. Of course, I’m ready to get back to the “new normal,” whatever that’s going to look like. In fact, the other evening I was part of a Zoom meeting where we discussed just that – the “new normal” for our in-person worship service (it’ll be June 14 by the way!).
As we talked through the important details for how our time of worship will change, my friend, Gary, reminded us of the acronym KISS. I’m sure you’ve heard of the KISS principle. It stands for Keep It Simple (some might add Stupid but Mom said no name-calling). I’ve read that the phrase was coined by someone in the US Navy responsible for designing equipment that would be operated during combat by someone with only basic training and a few tools. When all hell is breaking loose, when the bombs are falling and bullets zipping past, the last thing that person needs is for the equipment or the system to be overly complex; it could cost lives.
And so, the KISS principle was born; keep it simple – simple enough to operate during the most chaotic times. Avoid overly complicating things. Just keep it simple.
Let me get something out of the way; pastor-types (especially Presbyterian ones like me) can overly complicate things. I suppose that’s true for all sorts of folks – but – I know it is true for folks like me.
Years ago, I was asked to interview two well-known pastors. Both men served large, Presbyterian congregations but in different denominations. They are both good men and I’m not trying to disparage either one. I asked both pastors the same set of questions that had to do with helping people grow spiritually and leading their congregations through change, etc. While I expected different answers, I didn’t expect such a stark difference.
One pastor answered every question with “now Mark it comes down to these three things,” and “if a person follows these five principles, they will be successful.” I greedily wrote down what he said because it sounded good.
Like a lot of people, I like it when someone else just lays out the step-by-step action plan. You know the type of plans I mean? If you will simply do all the steps in A you will most certainly get B (with B being the result you want). In fact, that pastor seemed to be offering a blueprint – a map – for success (which as it turns out that was exactly what he thought he had – and you too can find those principles in his book). I left his office with a lot of notes, a signed copy of his book, and the notion that I had a real jump on things – that was until I met with the second pastor a few days later.
I sat down with the second pastor expecting the same sort of answers that the first pastor had given me. But right from the beginning, the second pastor made something very clear. He had one fundamental principle that stood as the foundation for everything he did as a pastor – indeed as a Christian.
He said, the whole of the Christian life comes down to staying anchored to the center and Jesus is the center. If something doesn’t lead a person (including himself) into a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and the sort of person that Jesus wants and needs them (or him) to be – then it isn’t worth doing. With that in mind, he said, the job of the pastor is always to point himself and other people to Jesus – always.
That is the KISS principle -applied to the Christian faith – if I’ve ever seen it. The whole of the Christian life should be anchored to the center and Jesus is the center. If something doesn’t lead a person into a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and the sort of person that Jesus wants and needs us to be then it isn’t worth doing. And, given the sort of chaotic days we are all living, perhaps now is a very good time to put that principle into effect. And, rather than just leave it at that, at the risk of overly complicating things, I think an idea from the 14-15th century may help us to follow the KISS principle.
In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis wrote, “Let our chief endeavor be, to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ…whosoever will fully and with relish understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.” In order to stay anchored to the center – in order to have a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and what sort of person he wants us to be, we probably ought to spend a lot of time meditating on his life. By meditate, I think Kempis meant that we ought to spend a lot of time mulling it over, contemplating it, reflecting on it, talking about the life of Jesus.
Of course, meditating on the life of Jesus isn’t going to give us a step-by-step action plan for everything we encounter. What it will do is anchor our lives to His life so that we don’t feel disjointed by when life gets complicated or confusing or when sorrows like sea billows roll. To meditate on the life of Christ a person has only to sit and read through the Gospels – and not all at once – just a section a day – a section that returns to the forefront of our imagination at various times throughout the day.
I’m not trying to reduce the Christian life down to the inane or trite. I do believe that we sometimes overly comlicate our faith. I think Kempis and the pastor I interviewed years ago can help us to keep it simple so that in confusing times, times of trouble, or even in the mundane, we can find ourselves gaining a deeper understanding of who Jesus is rather than flaying about looking for step-by-step instructions.
Meditating on the life of Jesus is, well, a simple act of devotion and I think it can tie a person’s heart and soul and mind to the center and thus help them to have a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and who He wants us to be. Let’s just keep it simple – meditate on the life of Jesus.
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.
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 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.
Who 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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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???”
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.
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?
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I’m supposed to be working on my dissertation right now but, well, clearly I am not. Instead I’m sitting here thinking about something I read early this morning. It is about miracles.
“Another problem with defining miracles as ‘violations of natural law’ is that this definition overlooks the fact that we now live in a fallen creation where, for example, enslavement, sickness, and death appear to be natural. Is it indeed the case that liberation, healing, and resurrection from the dead are contrary to the ‘laws of nature’? They may be contrary to what we have come to expect in this world, but from the perspective of God’s good creation and his coming kingdom, enslavement, sickness, and death are unnatural, and liberation, healing, and eternal life are natural (Gen2-3; Rev 21:4). From that perspective, then, miracles are not to be seen as ‘unnatural’ but as signs of God’s kingdom breaking into our fallen world, provisional indications of the restoration of God’s creation to its original goodness…Miracles, in short, are signs of God’s kingdom.” Sidney Greidanus – The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text
This is Advent on the church calendar. We are just a few days and nights away from Christmas Day – as my sons reminded me yesterday. I cannot think of a greater miracle than the Birth of Christ. Bethlehem was the epicenter of God breaking into fallen creation.
There is more to the story, of course, that isn’t all we celebrate. We celebrate the fact that this child grew up and turned water to wine at a wedding, that he calmed a storm, walked on water, feed thousands, healed the lame, raised the dead, and gave sight to the blind. We also celebrate the fact that He died, conquered sin, death and hell, rose again, and sits at God’s right hand. In so doing – Jesus provides the way for salvation – to those who will put their faith in him. In the midst of celebrating the miracle of Christ’s first Advent we long for the day when Christ will come again – triumphant – and the celebration will have no end.
Whether we realize it or not what we celebrate every 25th of December is a miracle. Foundational to the Christian faith is a hope that miracles happen – that angels really do light up the night and that God love us and is at work in the world. Above all else, this miracle of Christ coming into the world, is a sign of God’s Kingdom and the promise that all things will be made new – restored, fully and wholly to God’s good purposes.