Transformation Through Cultural Conflict

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I've been spending time in Virginia and DC for the past 10 days with my family. We started by visiting Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown - all historically significant places to what would eventually become the USA.

After a few days in Virginia Beach for a working conference, we've been in Washington DC this week, staying just north of the National Mall, visiting all the historical sites, monuments, and touring the US Capitol + White House.

I've been struck how DC is just like any other large city in the US today. That is, super diverse ethnically & economically, young, gentrified, and kinda hip. There's both a Shake Shack and Blue Bottle Coffee within a few blocks of where we're staying which are sort of the pinnacle of urban, millennial, gentrified neighborhood retail economics.

I keep asking myself some variation on these questions: Where is God in this city? How can I pay attention to the Divine in the people and places all around me? Does God really favor one people group - or country - over another (uh, no.)?

I've been struck by the humility and awe that has welled up within me learning more about the complicated mixture of racism, abusive religion, narcissism, and work ethic that have built our country. I'm not sure how one can study history and take away that "God is on our side." God is generally on the side of the underdog (news alert: entitled, resentful, wealthy white men are NOT the underdog).

I've been struck by how much I wish our current President would learn some of our basic histories. That we're a country of immigrants, that has ALWAYS made room for more. That we're known by our generosity toward those that don't have enough, rather than our hoarding by those who already have enough.

I don't mean to minimize the real economic and emotional pain rural, white America has felt over the past few decades as the economies of our urban centers have exploded, while our small towns have suffered. I simply believe there are ways to fix these problems without demonizing immigrants and people of color as the originators of a lagging, rural economy. The scapegoating of these people groups that are "different" from us, that is so prevalent from our Far Right friends, is frustrating and simply wrong. There are ways to solve our economic problems without demonizing those who look, behave, love, and worship differently than I do.

I've also been stuck by the diversity of this city - from the Latino workers all around, to the Syrian Lyft drivers, to the African immigrants. We're stronger together when we make room for those who need a home, especially those who work hard and want to contribute to our broader society. We're richer by learning from these new friends. We're more full when we learn to enjoy their traditional foods, and when we share table space with them. We're wealthier when we let them pay into the system. Our politics even come together when we let these historically conservative people groups into our public life. Did you know that most Latino culture is traditionally conservative and Catholic?

It continues to baffle me that so many middle-class, white Americans are so resentful of immigrants coming into this country. That they've so easily bought into the lie that if they are hurting economically, then it must be the fault of the most economically vulnerable among us, rather than those who are hoarding the resources at the top. It baffles me every day. It speaks to the power of fear and manipulation in our politics, and how easy it is to exploit those who are hurting for the benefit of the wealthiest among us.

Also, if our elected officials wanted real solutions to our problems at the Southern Border, they could pass comprehensive immigration reform today. There was a bi-partisan bill produced back in 2013 that had support from prominent Republicans AND Democrats - so let's do that. Bills like this exude compromise, which is what politics are all about.

There are ways to solve these problems. There simply hasn't been the WILL to solve them in a way that benefits everyone.

I don't' know how to solve these problems around immigration on my own, but I do know that we have so many bright, hard-working, good faith folks among us that can create solutions that will benefit everyone, if only we allow these folks to do their jobs. Generally speaking, I want my political representatives to be remarkably more intelligent than I am. I want to aspire to their ideals. I want them to challenge me to be more generous, more faith-filled, and more hopeful than I currently am.

It's easy to be resentful.
It's so much harder to be hopeful.

So, today I choose hope, knowing that our system is imperfect.

But also knowing that if we work together in good faith, and believe the best about each other (rather than be suspicious of each other) we can find solutions to our deepest conflicts and most persistent problems.

I've loved being in this city this week. It helps me see the scale of our differences, which is much smaller than the talking heads and politicos would have you think.

We're all in this together.
We're so much more alike than we are different.
When we choose to believe the best about each other and see that we all want similar things out of life, that's when we can accomplish the most.

So choose life today.
Turn your back on resentment and cynicism.

Choose hope today.
Turn away from prejudice and despair.

And turn off the talking heads and politicos.
Because they all have an agenda to influence your behaviors and attitudes, which often doesn't serve you well.

Lose your mind, as Wendell Berry says in his famous Mad Farmer poem - so that you can find it, outside of the mainstream of thinking.

Let's fix our problems, together.

God is in the middle of our conflicts, if only we choose the path of transformation in the face of differences. It is in the middle of that path where God's Spirit will transform our hearts, renew our minds, and draw us closer to each other, and to God.

Let's do that.

May it be so.

On Liminal Spaces

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It’s been quite a few months.

2019 started for me with a race through January to get work and family life in order so we could spend 2.5 weeks in Florida, just in time to escape some of the coldest temps we’ve seen in the upper Midwest in years.

Florida was a dream, a gift beyond our wildest imaginations. I had never been, save for a layover in the Miami airport on my way to Haiti, and Wendy hadn’t been since childhood, so we didn’t really know what to expect. The birds, the plant life, the food, the SUNSHINE, the beach, the water - it’s safe to say our minds were blown with the goodness of it all. 

We rested, we played, we truly had a vacation for the first time in what seemed like years. There’s a BIG difference between time-off from work, and truly settling into the rest and delight of a vacation. With one five-day, and then another 10-day stay, we truly rested.

Don’t get me wrong - we had our meltdowns (I wish I could say it was just the kids, but guilty as charged), we had our rainy days, and missed toll booths, but over all, it was such a sweet time away with our young-but-getting-older family.

We came back in mid-February to Winter. 

It was terrible.

It’s May 20th (three months later), and it’s still only 48 degrees outside right now. Winter is over for sure, but the last three months of my life have felt overwhelming. They have felt like too much.

I spent the second half of February getting reacquainted with work, and getting ready for a Sabbath retreat that we ran through Markey Church, which was great. I got to hang out with some great friends, and spend some time in a beautiful place, eat good food, and connect with God + others. 

March was devoted to church + family life, along with a bear of a grant proposal (more on that another time), and applying to and getting accepted to a Doctor of Ministry program at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI (more on that later too).

April was the Easter season - kinda crazy for this pastor - along with Ordination work. 

May is always a blur with Mother’s Day, two family birthdays, and our wedding anniversary.

Things have felt full. Not emotionally overwhelming, not burn-out level tired, but full. Really, too full.

Also, I’ve felt pregnant with what comes next. I don’t really know what this means, but I’ve felt a rumbling within my spirit around such things as writing, teaching, coaching, consulting, and generally being available to the Church as a pastor who helps other pastors and churches birth the new things that God has planted within them. I suppose I’m naming a pastoral midwifery practice that focuses on organizational leadership and faithful missiology. 

It’s no surprise then that my d.min cohort is centered on mission and leadership, and that my writing interests tend to revolve around pastoral resiliency + sustainability, or what I call “leading change without losing your soul.”

So I’m beginning. What exactly I’m beginning I do not know. But sometimes, one has to make the way by walking it.

I’m putting one foot forward, taking risks, being vulnerable (oh so vulnerable) and asking Spirit to meet me in this place with good work, fellow travelers, and situations where I can be helpful.

I’ll be 38 in a couple months, and I’m beginning to make plans for what I want my life to be and look like when I’m 40.

I don’t yet know what all this means, but I’m ok at the moment with the unknowing.

I’m in what my friend Tom calls a Liminal Space. That place where one is already-but-not-yet.  I’m leaning into my desire, which I believe is a gift from God, and doing the things that will help me travel further down this road, while also becoming more and more rooted and planted where I am. My 20-year-old-self would be dropping one thing, and replacing it with another. The 37-year-old-me has matured enough to know that I can both be faithful with what God has given me, and look toward what God is inviting me into next.

I think that’s what we’re all asked to do. Faithfulness with what is, hope for what is to come. It’s really painful that way, but it’s the best way (I think).

Here’s what I know for sure: I lead scrappy, loving church as best I can who is full of good and kind people, I’m married to a woman who is grace-beyond-grace-beyond-grace, and I’m the father of two beautiful boys who I love being in their lives as Daddy. 

I’m incredibly lucky to have all these gifts in my life. Gifts I do not deserve, but that I get to enjoy everyday. I take them all for granted too often, but I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m softening into the person God has been inviting me to be for some time now. 

It’s painful to become the person God invites us to become. We never fully arrive. We don’t get to control the timeline, or outcomes, or really much at all. But the invitation to pursue our own heath, wholeness, and transformation is always present, always persistent, always there.

I hope I can continue to learn to pay attention to the invitation, and say yes to the Spirit who is doing the inviting. I hope I can.

I hope that for you too, whoever you are, reading these words. Please know, I’m grateful for you too.

So, You Want To Hire A Pastor?

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Five years ago, I was engaged in a process that would eventually lead me to accept a position as the Lead Pastor of a small church in Northern Michigan. I was following after a long-tenured pastor of thirty-three years, who was well-loved in our community, and who defined the idea of “the pastor” to most of our long-time parishioners.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Five years later, our church is a very different group of people, who occupy a very different church culture.

We’ve moved from a culture of comfort and predictability for Insiders, to a culture of invitation to Outsides, and change - by way of invitational transformation with God - for Insiders.

This has been one of the more painful experiences of my life. Second guessing myself constantly, not knowing if I have what it takes to lead this church, taking in the persistent disappointment of many of the people who call our church home, and not being nearly as successful in helping our church do the things we’ve set out to do that I hoped we would do just a few short years ago. 

As I’ve waded through my own self-doubt, fear, insecurity, navel-gazing, ego bruising, and failures, I’ve come to develop a set of ideas that can amount to an approach for my past self, the church that hired me, and perhaps for your church or organization, as you move into a season of transition within your highest leadership position.  

So, you want to hire a pastor? 

  • Your church is looking for someone to help lead you to the preferred future God has for you? 

  • You’re sensing change is on the horizon for your church, but you’re not sure what it will look like? 

  • You’re trying to hear from God, but you’re not sure if you’re listening to the indigestion that burrito is giving you, or the Holy Spirit?

Here’s my singular thought to guide you through this weighty process:

Pastoral transitions provide the opportunity for you, and your entire congregation, to prioritize your own spiritual transformation over and above simply accomplishing a task.

Most search committees in the church world have an idea of what they want to see in their next pastor. Often, in the small church world, this is either a) young blood with new energy that will help us connect with younger people, or b) middle-age person who will love us, be a good chaplain, and maintain the status quo. Both of these are honest places to be, and express some measure of desire on the part of the church (hopefully), but both mostly miss the larger opportunity that a pastoral transition presents to the local body. 

The boarder thing going on in the life of a church at the point where a pastor is leaving, and a church is discerning what will come next, is an opportunity for those within the church to create an environment to pursue their own spiritual transformation. This is not often the theme that moves things forward, but this is the deeper context that is available to the discerning team of people who are willing to pay attention through a pastoral transition.

When this opportunity is missed, it can have detrimental effects to the life of the church. Tod Bolsinger, in his brilliant book titled “Canoeing The Mountains” talks about this in terms of differentiating  a Manager from a Leader. Bolsinger says:

“Leadership isn’t so much skillfully helping a group accomplish what they want to do (that is management). Leadership is taking people where they need to go and yet resist going. Leadership, as I have defined it, is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world. It’s about challenging, encouraging and equipping people to be transformed more and more into the kind of community that God can use to accomplish his plans in a  particular locale. And often the very people who called us to lead them are disappointed when we [actually] do.”

In my experience, most church folks don’t want a pastoral leader. Most church folks want a pastoral manager. Someone who will love them, bless what they are already doing, have a good laugh with them, and a good cry when appropriate too. But most church folks don’t want to be challenged on their beliefs, or the way in which their church is not engaging the broader community with the love and hope of Jesus. That just feels crappy. It’s inherently vulnerable, and it exposes the self-deception that our church cultures have meticulously crafted, at times over several decades.

And, since many pastors simply want to be liked for who they are and what they do, it’s not surprising that many church cultures become theologically inbred with the very imagination that will keep them stuck, and most likely continue moving them steadily toward significant decline in their ability to partner with God in bringing about God’s Kingdom to earth, just as it is in heaven.

What we need then is a renewed vision and imagination for what pastoral leadership actually is. A pastoral leader is one who will love those they lead (and those they lead will trust this at the end of the day, although this takes time), but simultaneously recognizes that often love doesn’t feel good in the present moment. Often, a loving invitation to be all that God is inviting us to be and become - well, it’s painful.

For example, I began seeing a nutritionist a couple years ago, to work on my health, to address my weight, and to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between the food I consume and the way my body functions. My nutritionist follows my lead when it comes to my goals, my priorities, my symptoms, and how to address getting healthier. She never shames me. She listens, and encourages me to take specific actions. But she always invites me into deeper transformation when it comes to my physical health. She doesn’t simply bless my unhealthy choices as being neutral, nor does she shame me for choosing things that hurt my health. She listens, she encourages, she works with me to create a plan to address my symptoms, and she celebrates with me every time I’m ready to take an additional step toward my own health and wholeness.  She doesn’t love what I’m currently doing, but she does encourage the steps I’m taking to become a more healthy person. Sometimes, she calls me on my BS, and tells me that my choices are really hurting my health. 

To put it shortly, she pastors me well.

To live as a pastor in a community is to constantly live in the tension of loving those that you serve, while also desiring for them to make the changes to their life that will help them pursue their own spiritual transformation. It’s a constant tight-rope walking of encouraging those who remain where they are, while celebrating with those who can see their own darkness, and want a way out.

This is not work for the faint of heart. It takes a particular measure of patience to go at the speed of those you are serving. It takes a particular measure of hope to move through your own disappointment of not seeing people step into the future God has for them, but knowing they could begin that journey at any moment. It takes a particular measure of humility, knowing that you are only the seed planter, who cares for the soil you’ve been given to care for, and that God is responsible for producing any fruit that may come.

At the end of the day, faithful pastoral ministry is knowing one’s proper place in the world, and one’s church, and accepting that most of the spiritual transformation that may take place in your culture is entirely out of your control.

It’s both freeing, and maddening.

So, you want to hire a pastor? Here’s a few questions to help you begin the process:

  • What type of pastor do you want? 

  • Why do you want that type of pastor? 

  • What are your hopes for the next 2-3 years for your church ministry? 

  • What spiritual practices are you cultivating, as a church leadership team, to help you discern and do the will of God? 

  • Do you want a pastoral manager - someone who will largely maintain the status quo by running the church mostly like the previous pastor - or, are you willing and courageous enough to look for a pastoral leader - one who has the resilience to lead you to where you don’t want to go, but where you likely need to go, as a community?

As someone who is living through a pastoral transition - and who has made a lot of mistakes, I’m here to help you and your team through this process. Reach out if you’d like to talk about partnering with me down this road of preparing well for a pastoral transition. 

I pray that you’re are willing and able to choose today to pursue your own spiritual transformation, and that of your community, for the life of the world that God loves, and has given to us to steward well. 

Wilderness time

2The wilderness constantly reminds me that wholeness is not about perfection. I have been astonished to see how nature uses devestation to stimulate new growth, slowly but persistently hearling her own wounds. (1).png

Wilderness Time

It grows deep in the bones.

It hollows out the daily joy.

It brings pain.

It brings loneliness.

It brings heartache.

And yet, it's the only path to growth.

The Wilderness is the place where God does God's best work on us. In our lives, on our character, on our egos, and in our desire and need to be connected to a Source greater than ourselves (or the mud pies we are often too often content to be eating, as Lewis once said).

I've been in a season of Wilderness Time of many years now. It's been difficult and painful and full of grief. There have been days I've begged God for this season to end.


Several years on now, I can also see the shape of the growth that has been taking place, in a way that I couldn't see at the beginning.

New branches of joy. New shoots of wisdom. New foliage of a non-anxious presence.

Wilderness Time has a way of clearing off that which we have come to rely on that isn't God. Wilderness Time invites us to emptiness, so that we can begin to find the goodness of God again, and not in our own counterfeit idols that masquerade as goodness. The the REAL LIVE thing that IS Goodness.

Wilderness Time has a way of drying one out, and leaving one with nothing left from whence you came. Your pockets empty. Your dreams broken down. Your spirits crushed.

Wilderness Time will deplete one all of one's resources, so that one MUST begin to turn to the Sustainer of Life in order to be resourced once again.

The alternative is addiction, numbing, misplaced desire, and destruction.

In the Wilderness one will find that destruction is inevitable. One can either choose the path of destruction that God has laid out for them, or one can make their own path of destruction.

Only one of these paths leads to new life.

If you're in a season of wilderness, take heart. Perhaps God is growing new things in you that you simply cannot see just yet.

Like the ground outside my window, which is frozen, and covered in two feet of snow, you already have everything you need to bring forth the goodness of new life. We're simply waiting for the right conditions to come around so that you can begin to bloom in a new way.

Perhaps, God is inviting you into a deeper connection to the Divine Presence that is all around you, sustaining you, nourishing you on the way. Perhaps this connection is what will facilitate the right conditions for your flourishing?

The Wilderness is brutal.

Life is brutal.

Waiting for new life to take root can be so brutal.

But the Wilderness is FULL of surprises.

May you be surprised today by what God has invited you into.

And, one day, may you find the Goodness that is already present in the very Wilderness that you find yourself in today.

What Lies Dormant

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It's been snowing so much this week in Northern Michigan. Days and days of snow-ice-wind-repeat. It's both beautiful, and a little overwhelming. 

I was walking in the back field with Luna-the-dog a few days ago. There is no other creature I've found that shares the same level of joy that Luna does when there are a few inches of fresh snow. It's like the first day of vacation for her. A whole new world.

It was a cold walk, nearing dusk, after a snowy day that brought several inches of fresh powder. When we have days like this, it makes getting around, and getting out of the house, really difficult. Not impossible, but hard enough that we think twice about it.

A few things were canceled that day for both my work and the boys activities. We were home, doing our school and work in the comfort of our warm and inviting house. We were a family, and it was good. Not perfect, but good.

As I walked with Luna outside in the relentless snowfall, it hit me that, underneath all of this icy precipitation, within these sub-zero temps, the land has everything it needs to launch it's assault on winter in a couple of months. 

Spring is right there, if I close my eyes, and use my imagination, I can see it. Smell it. Almost taste it.

I know it's Winter today, but Spring is coming.

New Life is lying just under the surface, but for the moment it's dormant.

New Life lies dormant sometimes. There's very little we can do about this. 

And so we wait.

2018 has felt dormant for me. I worked hard, we had goodness and beauty and friendship at our fingertips, and there were certainly glorious days. 

But when it comes to my vocational work, I've felt a bit dormant for sometime now. I was tired. I was worn thin.

As my friend Christianne says, perhaps I'm pregnant with something...? Perhaps there is something growing inside of me, feeding off of my very life, and my work? Perhaps, while things lie dormant, my work is to nurture it, help it grow, and to take care of myself, so I can play host to it's healthy development. My work is to help that which is growing inside of me have the right conditions for a healthy birth.

2019 will be full of new things for me. Things in my body, things in my writing, things with our church, things in my coaching and consulting and speaking. So many new things.

It doesn't mean our physical address will change, but my dormant time, I sense, is coming to a close. 2019 will likely hold several new projects, new relationships, and new creations.

I'm ready. I've been waiting all this time.

This is how we've been made. We rest, so that we can create. We abide with God, so that we can be fruitful. 

In a few days, our family will get on a plane and fly to a warmer place for a couple weeks. A bit of respite in the middle of this Winter all around us.

I'll take that time to draw up more of my Plans for 2019. I'll be away from electronic devices. I'll look my kids in the eyes all day long and say "yes, we can do that together."

I can't wait.

But nearly as much, I'm so excited for what 2019 will bring. I'll get to live into the things that have been incubating in my heart and my vocational space for some time. To be more helpful to a broader group of travelers. To be a Guide to those who need one. To be who I've been created to be.

I hope you can find the time and space for the same sorts of things. We'll all be grateful, and so so blessed, as you life your one wild and precious life.

May it be so.

Text + Subtext: The Importance of Cultivating Discernment

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"The truth is that if God is not creating our lives, then those around us are."

-M. Craig Barnes, from The Pastor as Minor Poet


Throughout my pastoral work, something I've learned from M. Craig Barnes (among others) is that when it comes to the complex lives of people, we're dealing with two different things simultaneously.

First, there's Text.

Text is what someone is saying, or how they are presenting themselves to me. Someone who comes to me might say, "my wife is really mad at me" - that is Text. That's the story they are telling themselves. And on the surface, that's true. That man's experience of his wife is that she is mad at him. He wants me to give him strategies to help him soften the anger of his wife. Or perhaps he wants me to sit down with his wife and tell her to be nicer to him. Tell her to lighten up, that he's a good guy, and she needs to be more grateful for all he does to provide for their family.

But, here's what I know. Often, in a situation like this, he doesn't want to be curious about why his behavior may be upsetting to his wife.

As I dig deeper, and ask questions about how they relate, how vulnerable he is with her, and how emotionally relatable he is - this tells me so much about why, perhaps, this man's wife is mad at him.

And that leads us to the second thing at play - Subtext.

Subtext is is the thing behind the thing. Subtext is usually a couple layers down from the immediate behavior, or what the man is interpreting as his wife's anger.

The Subtext to this man's story is that he's been in a job he hates for over 10 years, and he's miserable. When he comes home from work most days, he's emotionally exhausted, and unavailable to his family. He ignores the kids, ignores his wife, grabs a beer from the fridge, eats his dinner in front of the TV, while his family sits at the table together, and then eventually falls asleep on the couch, without any meaningful interaction with his family.

This is why his wife is mad.

In the name of a steady paycheck, he's chosen to be a miserable, distant man - and it's killing his family.

You would be mad too.

So there's Text, and there's Subtext. Both are always at play.

We see this playing out in the political stage right now. As long as there's been politics, there's been Text and Subtext.

One side gives a narrative ("there's a crisis at the border") and the other side gives a differing narrative ("there's an incompetent person in the Oval Office").

The thing with Text is that there can be some measure of truth to it, but it's almost never the ENTIRE truth.

As I watch people online, and in person, argue over the two versions of Text on our political stage right now, I'm finding I'm so much more interested in the Subtext that's lies underneath the narrative that's being pushed by people in power.

Here's the questions I'm asking:

1. What's really going on here?

2. What are the goals of those pushing their own narrative?

3. Who is the most reliable storyteller here?

4. What does each party stand to gain by pushing their narrative?

5. How can we find the truth in this story?

6. Who in the media is asking the questions underneath the narrative being told?

7. What's the Subtext here?

There's always Subtext at play - our job, as pastors, whether it's with someone in our office, or listening to the words of the President, is to look beneath the surface, and ask the questions that need to be asked that lie underneath the Text.

I pastor people who both believe the Text of the President, without question, and those who hold a particular disdain for him and everything he says.

There's also Subtext a play that is influencing how we hear and feel about people like the President - but that's another post for another day.

The Subtext speaks volumes though, if we cultivate the ability hear it, to read it, and to be curious about it.

I would suggest that Christians are people who learn to read the Subtext, because Jesus was all about Subtext. Scripture is full of Subtext. A life found in God is inundated with Subtext.

Discernment is the ability to look past the Text, and read + listen more deeply to the Subtext.

So, may we be faithful pastors, who cultivate our Subtext muscles.

May we be faithful Christians, who do the same.

May we be skeptical of powerful people pushing a narrative - for surely they have an agenda.

May we take our formation as discerning people more seriously than any political crisis.

Because that's what Christians do.

Please Be Kind, 2019

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We woke this morning to several inches of fresh snow. After breakfast, we bundled up and took a walk in the back field.

It was glorious.

The snow has a way of resetting things. Of ushering us into another world. Of showing me that something new, something spectacular, is possible. If only I cultivate the eyes to see it.

2018 has been difficult for me. I had two surgeries because of an unexpected tumor. I experienced significant betrayal in my work by two people who I counted as friends. I came really close to significant burnout after leading a giving campaign.

And the reality is, on paper at least, I don't have much to show for all of my efforts, and heartache.

Those that betrayed me have done little to mend things.

We're still struggling financially at the church, really in ways I've never encountered, and that are really unsettling to me.

My lip, where the tumor was removed, is still strangely numb and stiff and scarred.

That's how 2018 has felt to me. Wounded, broken, and scarred.

As I've reflected on 2018 this past week, hope has been elusive to me.

I've cried. I've felt sad. I don't know if everything in my life will recover how I'd like it to.

But here's what I know.

There is still goodness, and beauty, newness in the world.

In my life, there is still a partner who wants to do life with me, little boys who adore me, passions that take me in all the way, and a church family who puts up with me, and even kinda likes me sometimes, at least enough to let me do my work in their midst.

There is still a God who is present to me too.

In the darkness, in the rough and tumble of life, in the not yet of waiting, there is still a Father who sees my grief and disappointment and says that he is with me, that a new year and a new season bring new opportunities to know that I am worthy of love and belonging, and that my life matters, because I've been invited to become whole, and somehow, in some crazy way, help others become whole too.

It baffles me, because I often feel more messed up than anyone probably cares to know.

So in this new year of 2019, I don't know what lies ahead. There is massive uncertainty for me, and lots of hopes and wonder that God might be up to something new.

I hope to create new things this year.
I hope to write a book this year.
I hope to work with some pastors who are feeling stunted this year.
I hope to lead on in our church this year.
I hope to have a stronger marriage this year.
I hope to be a better Father this year.
I hope to enjoy some fly fishing, and skiing this year.
I hope that God guides me and meets me in these places this year.

I have goals, I have plans, but 2018 has taught me those don't matter all that much. Because sometimes, life unfolds in such a way where all my goals and plans crumble to pieces.

The snow is beautiful today. The sunshine is glorious. And when I mix all that together, I can begin to see that the sum is greater than the parts added up.

So, hello 2019. It's nice to know you.

Please be kind to us. 
May God go with us this year.

To help us step out in courage
To help us be brave.
To help us face that which we fear the most.

And to help us see the goodness of God in the midst of our fear and trembling.

Because I'll take bravery everyday over fear.

May you find the courage to become that which God is inviting you to become, in 2019.

And may you know the peace of God this year.

Ten Thoughts On Sustainable Pastoral Ministry

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Serving in local church ministry is one of my deepest joys in life. It's also one of my deepest heartaches.

I think anyone who works with people in any personal way knows the deep joy and deep heartache that comes from knowing the stories of those people, and having your own story interact with theirs.

And yet, people are given to us pastors to love, to guide, to listen to, to challenge, and to remind them (and ourselves) that God is always inviting us into something deeper, something next. Our work is to cultivate the ability to pay attention, and to respond accordingly.

Advent is an especially favorite season of mine, because waiting and longing are something I already do without much effort. I know what I'm waiting for, I know what I'm longing for, which explains the heartache I experience so often.

Pastoral work is hard. It's painful.

But the beauty of this work has begun to seep into my bones, and mark me in ways I'm sure I'm not yet aware of.

This work takes much out of me, which is why I've had to learn the hard way so often to take care of myself, and limit myself, as I do this strange and wonderful work.

As I continue to grow and learn and make mistakes as a pastor, here's a few things I'm learning that are saving my life.

If you're in pastoral ministry, or if you're thinking about doing this work, I hope this helps.

-Ten Thoughts On Sustainable Pastoral Ministry-

1) God made you with limits, and your invitation is to honor those limits, whether they be physical, emotional, or family-based. To live out of your limitations is to honor how God created you.

2) Developing a regular rhythm of sabbath (weekly for my family) will save your life. Sabbath isn't about keeping rules, but acknowledging limits, and trusting that as you deliberately take time to be unproductive, God will continue to do the work that only God can do to you make your life and ministry fruitful and productive.

3) Your kids will only get one childhood, your spouse will only have one marriage with you. Arranging your life so that these relationships will thrive is what your ministry faithfulness needs to come out of, not be in spite of.

4) You are worth knowing, you are worth taking care of yourself, you are worth asking for the help that you need, b/c you are made in the image of God. You are worthy of love and belonging.

5) When you begin to live into these sorts of ideas, there will be people around you that might feel threatened, b/c they don't live this way. Tread carefully, but trust that sometimes people need to have far less influence in your life than they do. God will always bring the people into your life that you will need to help you get to the next phase of what God is inviting you into.

6) You can’t do this work alone. You simply cannot. You need friends who will love you, who will listen and care, but who will tell you the truth. You need guides and elders who will give you relationship, who will mentor you, and give you appropriate feedback. You need coaches and therapists and spiritual directors who will help you with your work, help you with your emotions and story-work, and who will continually invite you to consider where God is in the middle of your life.

You NEED all of these people to thrive in ministry. You'll never have this perfected, but by working within your limits, and walking with others who will love you, tell you the truth, and care for you, you can begin to thrive.

7) There will always be people who don't like you. There's nothing you can do to avoid that. It's up to you to determine how best to respond to these folks. You can ignore them. You can defend yourself against them. You can get in the mud and wrestle with them. You can passive-aggressively needle them. I've done all of these things, and I'm never better off for having done them.

I've learned from Brenè Brown that it's ok to hear from and learn from folks who are critical of you, but it's not ok for you to give everyone equal weight in your life with their words and ideas. If the critic isn't in the arena with you, working to birth the thing you're working to birth, their words don't count as much. They may FEEL strongly, but if they're not committed to the same dreams, the same goals, and the same future as you and your partners are committed to, then be kind, but pay little attention. Ask, "what is there in this for me?" and then carry on.

8) Take your own spiritual formation as a child of God more seriously than you do anything else in your life and leadership. You are only as good as your deep connection to God. Your own growth, your own health, and your own formation will directly correlate to how you lead others into spiritual growth and health.

9) You are not simply growing an organization, you are creating the conditions where the lives of those who God has entrusted to your care can begin to grow and change. Spiritual growth is a funny thing. It's difficult to pin down. How does it work? How do we do it? Sometimes, I have no idea. Most of the time, I know it has to do with intention, quiet, solitude, silence, service, generosity, hospitality, study, prayer, and healthy relationships.

Take one thing at a time. This will take years, but do it anyway. You, and those around you, will be grateful for decades, even though most will never know all the work you've put into becoming a healthier, more spiritually aware person.

10) In your pastoral work, it's best to see yourself as a farmer. Of course, what I mean by this is a small-scale farmer growing a diversified plan, using mostly organic methods. These kinds of farmers know that they don't grow anything, they only create the conditions whereby the seeds they put in the dirt can begin to grow.

Good farmers know they don't grow melons or tomatoes, or raise pigs or chickens. Good farmers know they grow soil. They know the health of everything they do is directly connected to the health of the soil they're working with. If the soil isn't healthy, good farmers know that the fruit they harvest (if any) won't be healthy either. Good farmers are dirt farmers.

And over time, while making daily investment into the care of their dirt, they plant seeds in the ground that will eventually begin to sprout. And as they care for these fledging seedlings, they know that one day, months away, they will reap a harvest this is grace upon grace upon grace.

Pastors are farmers. We put the mess of life into the ground, believing that the impossible can happen. That the Maker will, through mystery and grace, take that mess, and make it a rich compost, teeming with life and goodness, that will, one day, produce so much life beyond itself.

Pastoral work is a mystery. Over time, as you add up all the meetings, the study, the prayer, the sermons, the leadership, the leading change, the invitations, the money management, the administration, the people - so many disparate things - over time, as you do this work faithfully, God will begin to help this work take root in the soil all around you, in ways you couldn't have planned for or expected. This work will change lives, your own benefiting the most.

That's been my experience.

Peace to you on this journey toward a fuller spiritual transformation, that will lead to a more sane and robust life in ministry.

May it be so.

Snowy Apples

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Sometimes things don't go how you planned for them to go.

This week in Northern Michigan, winter seems to have come quite early.

It's been snowing here most days this week, which means in our backyard there's flower pots outside with snow on them, a few deck chairs with show, a trampoline with snow, and probably other things that I can't see, because they're buried in snow.

Clearly, we didn't expect the snow to come so soon.

We were walking behind our house yesterday, walking the 1/3 mile path we cut through the field, back to the woods. About halfway back there's a small, leggy apple tree, hidden among the edge of the tree line, intertwined with the oaks and maples.

This summer was the first time I've noticed that it actually produces apples, without any deliberate tending or care on the part of any human.

Wendy pointed it out to me. It's far enough off of our path that it takes some sleuthing to find it. In late summer, when the apples are nearly full-grown, it's doubly difficult to spot them among the leaves of the surrounding trees.

But yesterday, because of the early winter gifts this week, the apples were all covered with a nice dusting of snow. And I'm sure if I were foolish enough to bite into one, I would find them to be mealy and mushy, just like a frost-bitten apple should be.

Apples are meant for the Autumn. All their sweet-tart glory is best taken in prior to the onset of winter.

Apples are a joy, but sometimes it snows before you have a chance to pick them all.

I've had this sense for sometime now that life is the same way.

I didn't intend to have a tumor in my mouth this year.
I didn't intend for my Dad to die a few years ago.
I didn't intend to encounter such chaos in pastoral ministry.
I didn't intend to struggle with my own chaos well into my 30s.
I didn't intend to be as emotionally unsettled as I often am.

I didn't intend for so many things to go the way they have gone.

When things have taken turns in my life that are so drastically different than what I had set out for, or even what I had hoped for, it often wrecks me in the short term.

When I first met Wendy, I wasn't looking for a relationship with her. I was still hoping for a relationship with someone else in my life.

When Josiah was born, I was only two-years into a four-year graduate program. Hardly a convenient time to become a parent.

When I had two surgeries this summer in a matter of eight days (for REAL), it really stopped me in my work-hard, lead-well, ambitious-doing-it-for-the-Kingdom-of-God tracks. I had hoped for something different.

But it's these times of surprise, when the plans I had laid for my life began to fall apart, and something new and unexpected began to emerge, it's these times that have made my life full of beauty, full of love, and full of goodness.

I'm so grateful that my original plans haven't worked out. It really did wreck me in the short term.

But with so many failed ventures and unexpected turns, I'm so grateful that things haven't always gone my way.

In the long term, there is only joy, and gratitude.

So may you find plans better than the ones you have laid.
May you life be slowly wrecked, so that something more beautiful can emerge.
May you slow down today, and pay attention to everything at work around you.
May you walk slowly down the nearest snowy lane, and notice the beauty of it all.

May you find snowy apples today, and be reminded that we're all apart of the Grand Story that is being written.

May you play your part.

And in doing so, may you join in with the work of renewal and restoration that is a happening all around you.

May it be so.

On The Passing Of Eugene Peterson

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We lost a giant today. A true spiritual Elder.

I first encountered Eugene Peterson in 1998, in the little Christian bookstore that used to be in downtown Hillsdale, MI. 

That was the beginning of my senior year of high school, and my faith was breaking free from the confines of the categories that were handed to me. I was beginning to have a real-life faith that made sense with my budding adolescence. I was beginning to grow up spiritually.

And Eugene was one of my first guides on this new and scary journey.

Eugene's magical translation/paraphrase of the Bible - called The Message - helped my adolescent imagination encounter the scriptures again, as if for the first time.

He wrote over 30 books during his lifetime, ON TOP of translating the entire scripture (Greek AND Hebrew) into a readable rendering that connects with ordinary life.

His book, The Pastor, is required reading if you belong to a church community.

Later on in college, and then in graduate school, Peterson's imagination around pastoral ministry, and specifically the role of the pastor in the life of parish ministry, began to shape me more than any other. 

Eugene taught me that pastoral ministry is earthy, and on the ground. He taught me that the role of the pastor is that of being a disruptive presence, a conduit of God's Spirit, in the life of the parish, because God always comes at once to comfort us, while also being tremendously disruptive to our categories of belief, spirituality, truth, and faith. 

Eugene pointed me toward Wendell Berry to learn how to be present to, and take care of, a place. Berry furthered my imagination in this work deeply, and I have Eugene to thank for that influence.

Jayber Crow, by Berry, is probably the most formative book I've ever read on faithful pastoral ministry in place.

I wept on my back porch this morning when I heard the news. Eugene's son, Leif, simply posted a photo of the family dock, with the lit lantern having gone out. Leif captioned this photo as appropriately as a Jesus Follower should: "Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done."

So, today, we say, "Well done, Eugene." 

Thank you for living into the dark places, and the broken places of your life, and the lives of others. Thank you for stepping into the hard places, that many of us resist, and for telling your story, so that folks like me could grow in faith, in imagination, and in heart, for the work of the Church here on earth.

Thank you for taking the time to cultivate a life of prayer and intimacy with God, and then telling young pastors like me that doing this work is the most important use of my time as a pastor. I didn't believe you at first, because I could not yet imagine what an intimate prayer life could be or look like.

I believe you now. Thank you for telling the truth, and being patient with so many of us, as we took your word for it.

Thank you for living in place, and for teaching me how to live here too.

May you play and run and do all the things that you've been missing as your body has been failing you. 

May you rejoice, knowing that all is well.

May you worship in the presence of the One who has sustained you all these years.

May we weep, for we know a bit of what we've lost today.
May we celebrate, thanking God for your life and presence with us.
May we laugh, knowing that life is full of pain, but full of goodness too.

We will miss you Eugene.
We will see you again.

May it be so.