A Resilient Faith | Chosen Strangers

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As a 38-year-old pastor, I'm deeply troubled by the way in which many conservative evangelicals are so deeply enmeshed with the political narrative of our day that many can no longer differentiate between Christianity and partisan politics.

This is my attempt to answer *why* so many evangelicals are supporting politics-as-salvation, and what is needed after the facade of that ideology falls apart.

Some of my critique can be equally applied to my Progressive sisters and brothers, but for my purposes here, I've focused on the narrative I'm seeing many evangelicals buy into because they are my family, the people from which I've come.

My argument can be summed up here:

We've been more deeply formed by cultural narratives, to the detriment of the biblical narrative.

Today, part 1 of 4: A Resilient Faith | Chosen Strangers

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To make sense of what #AResilientFaith looks like, we have to go back to The Good Old Days.

Here's how I define The Good Old Days:

1. An expectation that everything, and everyone, was Christian.

2. Christians were IN HERE; non-Christians were OUT THERE.

3. An expectation that our values/beliefs would be catered to by the culture.

Setting aside issues surrounding class, race, and privilege for a moment, as I pastor in the rural Midwest, this is the period of our history in the US that I see many older Americans sentimentally desiring to go back to.

The desire is real.

The timeframe is real, although privileged.

And many have very good reasons to want to go back. In many ways, it was easier to be an American Christian in the Good Old Days.

Somewhat ironically though, what many evangelicals lack is an imagination shaped MORE by the biblical narrative than the cultural narrative.

So many of us are more deeply shaped by the narratives of our culture - nationalism, capitalism, consumerism, racism - than we are by the biblical story.

What we need to recover is the biblical story that tells us who we are.

And who are we?

We are Strangers in a Strange Land.

In 1 Peter, the author refers to his audience as "Chosen Strangers."

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Chosen

-Eklektos (ek-lek-to's)

________

Picked out, chosen, chosen by God

It's the same word used here in John referring to Jesus at his baptism:

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I saw this happen to Jesus, so I testify that he is the *Chosen* One of God.”

-John 1:34

We are chosen in the same way Jesus was chosen by God, to carry out God's Mission in the world.

And then we have...

Strangers

-parepidēmos (pä-re-pē'-dā-mos)

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1. One who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives

2. A stranger

3. Sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner

Taken literally, and I believe in the context of his broader letter, what Peter is communicating to his audience in the introduction to 1 Peter is simply this: You are Chosen Strangers - chosen by God to be aliens in a

foreign land. And if you're hearing this in the 1st century, you're thinking, "but I've lived in this town my ENTIRE LIFE?!?!?"

What Peter is doing here is giving them a new name - a new identity. This happens over and over in the biblical story, and Peter knows a thing or two about God giving one a new name.

His point?

Chosen Stranger is an identity.

An identity given by God to God's people.

Because names shape us. Names shape our reality and shape what we come to expect in the world.

We are not chosen (blessed) to lord it over the unchosen (unblessed). We are blessed to be a blessing. In the same way that Jesus gave his life for all, we are called to something similar.

Many in the West - still a bit hungover on centuries of cultural, economic, and military power - can hardly begin to imagine an identity of being a weak but Chose Stranger of God.

Our imagination has been so deeply shaped by power, might, and *winning*, we have a difficult time being in our present moment. One where our voice to influence our cultural story does not have the same power it did only a few generations ago.

Perhaps that power though has blinded us to our true place in society? Perhaps our power has been misused, and abused too often? Perhaps we have much to learn about being culturally weak?

Yet, perhaps this cultural weakness can bring about so much good for the Jesus Follower, for the Church, and for society?

Faithfulness to the Way of Jesus, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, requires us to be present to this moment and to name our place in it. To be honest about our lack of power, and to take our place as Strangers living in a Strange Land. To seek the prosperity of the land that we find ourselves in (Jeremiah 29 - we'll get to that later too).

So, if we ARE chosen strangers living in a strange land, what are we to do?

Here are four options:

1. Revolt

2. Withdraw

3. Conform

4. Live in the world, but not of it.

Do you see political ideology at play here?

Where are Conservatives?

Where are Progressives?

Where are you?

Here are the deeper questions at play that we must begin to address if we want to break free from our embedded ideology:

1. How does one stay faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ while residing in a foreign land?

2. How do we live in the world but not of the world?

3. What practices and habits do we need to develop in order to create a sustainable faith that lasts for generations in exile?

4. How does the Church cultivate a Third Way People as a witness to God’s Kingdom here and now?

Ultimately, in exploring these questions, we're trying to develop a resilient faith.

And what is a resilient faith?

*It's the ability to maintain complete trust in God while withstanding difficult conditions.*

Many of my evangelical brothers and sisters are FLAILING as a result of a perceived loss of cultural influence and power.

The posturing - particularly, the salvation-through-political-ends - betrays a lack of trust in God as our culture changes.

We don't trust that God will walk with us, that God can bring about goodness and wholeness and peace, as long as we are side-lined by our culture.

And yet, maybe to restore our proper place in society as bearers of blessing, we need a few generations (or more) of sitting at the margins?

The way forward in our faith communities, and in our culture for people of faith, is not to go back to some sentimental version of the Good Old Days. Those days aren't coming back. In fact, for many in our society on the margins, those days were NOT good.

The way forward is to develop A Resilient Faith.

So, how do we do this?

-We need to explore Exile.

-We need to explore Practices.

-We need to explore being a Third Way People.

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This is part 1 of 4. In subsequent posts, I'll explore Exile, Practices, and being a Third Way People.

-Peace-

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This is taken part one of a four-part teaching series I preached at my church in September. You can listen online here: https://markeychurch.org/sermons_items/a-resilient-faith-chosen-strangers/

Apologies for the poor sound quality.

Our AVL system is nearly 30 years old, and we've been raising money to replace it for a while now. You can read about that here: https://markeychurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Immeasurably-More-Campaign-Brochure-final1.pdf

Remember Who You Are

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I have a hard time remembering.
It's not that I'm forgetful. I can remember important dates and tasks easily enough. 
No, what I struggle to remember is much deeper than a doctor's appointment, a due date for a bill, or the name of an acquaintance.

I struggle every day to remember who I am.
Who I truly am.
What I'm here for.
What I'm even good for.

I let the junk and mire of life too easily define my days, keeping me locked in some kind of dark bottomless cage. That's what I struggle with.

On my good days, I learn to pay attention. I practice being grateful. My mind clears, and it's easier to remember.
To remember who I am.

Earlier this year I read a beautiful series of novels that deal with remembering who we are. It's called the Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson.

Wingfeather follows one family, and specifically three children, who in the face of darkness and despair struggle to remember who they are. They struggle to remember who their true father is. They live in exile, in a foreign land, and their father has died some years ago. They can't quite tell the difference between what is real and what is a fairy tale.

The character who struggles the most with remembering is Kalmar Wingfeather. I see myself in Kalmar so deeply. Someone of great promise, but someone who is dealing with darker demons. Kalmar is in a fight for his future, and a fight for his very soul.
Aren't we all?

(Wingfeather spoiler alert - read on at your own peril)

In this exchange from the third book, Kalmar is given a gift of a conversation with his Father - who is dead - but through a series of events has arrived for a short time to speak with his children. Kalmar is struggling to remember, just like me.

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“Kalmar nodded. "I'm sorry, Papa. I wasn't strong enough."
"None of us are, lad. Me least of all." Esben smiled and took a rattling breath. "But it's weakness that the Maker turns to strength. Your fur is why you alone loved a dying cloven. You alone in all the world knew my need and ministered to my wounds." Esben pulled Kalmar closer and kissed him on the head. "And in my weakness, I alone know your need. Hear me, son. I loved you when you were born. I loved you when I wept in the Deeps of Throg. I loved you even as you sang the song that broke you. And I love you now in the glory of your humility. You're more fit to be the king than I ever was. Do you understand?"
Kalmar shook his head.
Esben smiled and shuddered with pain. "A good answer, my boy. Then do you believe that I love you?"
"Yes, sir. I believe you." Kalmar buried his face in his father's fur.
"Remember that in the days to come. Nia, Janner, Leeli - help him to remember.” 
― Andrew Peterson, The Monster in the Hollows

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"Help him remember."
Who helps you remember?
What practices do you do, what habits have you formed that help you remember?

I had a professor in graduate school who liked to tell a story of a pastor of hers who would remind church folks on Sunday that six days a week we're beaten up and tossed about by stories and narratives that tell us who we should be. Her pastor would say, "We come to church on Sunday to remember who we are.

To remember who we are.

So, today, I hope, I pray, and I invite you to remember.

Remember.
Remember who you are.
You are a daughter, you are a son of the most high King, the living God of the universe. 
You have been uniquely and wonderfully created in the image of the Divine.
You have gifts and a voice that we need to hear.
We're waiting for you.
We're better because you are here.
We're richer because of what you bring into the world.
You are here to bless the world, to both give and receive relationship and to rest in the easy love of Jesus.

Remember.
Remember who you are.
Remember who you belong to.
Remember.

A Third Way People

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I've been largely staying away from online chatter around the mass shootings in El Paso + Dayton over the weekend. I've been following the news to keep myself informed, but the sadness I feel is so deep, I've needed to take long breaks between small bites of news.

I approach my work pastorally, meaning that my role in the lives of those I serve - which, I would argue, is both my local church and the world at large - is to name the activity of God, the invitation of God's Spirit in any given moment or circumstance. That's my goal with this post.

My words/thoughts are imperfect, but I offer them for you to consider with humility and grace. I'm deeply troubled by how the conversation unfolds in our culture after mass shootings. Not as troubled by the shootings themselves, but still deeply troubled.

I'm particularly troubled by those who call themselves Christian, but who in both words and attitude look no different from any other anxious, angry, partisan person in our culture. When we can no longer identify the Christians in a conversation, something is deeply wrong with our Christian witness in the culture we are called to love and serve.

So, here's my take on the whole thing (for now). I hope this helps.

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What might God be inviting us (Jesus Followers) into in light of the current mass shootings? A few thoughts:

1. We live in a culture that prefers to see any given choice as binary. Right or Left. Black or White. Good or Bad. Our brains love binary thinking because we love simple thinking. We understand and process information that is simple and easy to take in. This can be helpful at times (Cheerios or Chex for breakfast), but when it comes to overwhelmingly divisive cultural issues (guns, abortion, etc.) it tends to not serve us well. Especially when the cultural narrative becomes more and more entrenched over the years, which I believe our conversation on guns and gun violence has become. We must resist the urge to see these complex issues as binary.

2. Most powerful people are powerful because they fall in one of two binary camps. They are either 1) Conservative or 2) Liberal. There is certainly some nuance there (I see you Libertarians and Progressives) but for the most part the dominant narratives you are hearing around guns and gun violence come from one of these two camps. The lines have been drawn, the sides have been fortified, and you must decide which side you are on. The only people who win in these situations are the people in charge, or really just the people in power. There is no room for creative or critical thinking in these narratives. you are either for us or against us. Full stop.

3. If you are a person of faith, particularly a Christian, you are invited to see and approach the world differently. There is no room for partisanship in the New Testament, and there is no room for partisanship in the Church. Many of us grew up in environments where this principle was largely ignored, but it still remains true to the ethos of the New Testament that in Christ there is no longer Greek or Jew, Male or Female, Slave or Free, Democrat or Republican, Conservative or Liberal. The Jesus People are the people who don't neatly fit into any of these partisan camps.

If your identity nearly DOES fit into one of these camps, I would humbly suggest your faith has been co-opted by the powers that be, rather than the gospel of King Jesus and God's now-but-not-yet Kingdom. I'm open to being wrong about this, but the longer I serve in the church, and more destructive I see partisanship being to the witness of the church in society, this is where I've landed.

That said, it is certainly possible to identify as a Republican or Democrat (or Libertarian, Progressive, Green Party, etc.) and still follow Jesus as Lord, but these monikers must be secondary to the identity you are invited to have in King Jesus.

Another way to put it: when one is too conservative for one's liberal friends, and too liberal for one's conservative friends, one may be onto something. That is not to say that a moderate political stance is more Christian than a partisan one, but rather a more nuanced political stance that doesn't neatly fit into partisan politics is more Christian in our current culture than many care to see or admit.

4. The Jesus People resist the urge (and it is an urge) to align ourselves neatly with one political party, one media narrative, or one set of talking points, and instead make a commitment to being the people of the Third Way. We don't do this on principle, as if a Third Way is always warranted (it is not), but we do this as people who are not partisan in our identities. To be a Third Way people means that we are more fully committed to the Way of Jesus in any given circumstance or event, and we are more committed to embodying the hopefulness of Jesus Christ in those places and spaces to the extent that we enter into the particularities of what is presented in front of us (Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent introduction to moral reasoning a la Casuistry in season four of his podcast - Revisionist History. It's worth your time.)

5. So, what is presented in front of us? We know that more guns are owned in our culture per capita than any other culture. We know that men (particularly white men) feel more disenfranchised in our culture than at any other time in recent history (for real and apparent reasons). We know that mental health is an issue for white men, and really every other group of people in our culture. We know that most mass shootings are perpetrated by young-ish (under 40), white men. We know that access to high round, semi and fully automative guns is relatively easy in our culture, compared to other wealthy nations. We know that there are more mass shootings in our culture 100 times over compared to other wealthy nations.

6. We have a problem, and the first step to solving a problem is simply admitting that we have one. Like an addict that fears his hit will be taken away, we resist the plain truth in front of us: we have a problem in this country with men (because it's almost always men), with white men (because it's almost always a white man) picking up a semi-automatic gun and firing indiscriminately at innocent bystanders that they either don't know or don't really have any connection to. This is an ongoing problem that is unique to our country, and our culture at this time. To fight the admission of this problem is to make clear the fear behind your fighting.

7. I can empathize with those who are afraid of admitting this problem. I've been afraid too, for many things over the course of my life. Often fear is irrational, but to say this to a fearful person does not dissipate their fear. To my friends who believe that the admission of this problem inevitably means the removal by force of all guns of law-abiding citizens, you're just wrong. You've been fed a lie, from a partisan power broker (usually a media outlet) and it is reaping havoc in our culture. We need you to wake up to the issue at hand, and stop being so terrified by people who benefit when you are terrified.

8. We are the country that put men on the moon. We are the country that defeated Hitler. We are the country that built the greatest amount of wealth in the history of the modern world. We help people, we lift people up, we come to the aid of those in need. Surely we can solve this problem. We've done so much together over our history, surely we can tackle this problem together. It will not be easy, and it will not come without a fight. But it can be done. We can learn to work together IN SPITE OF our partisan differences.

9. Christians are the people who refuse to believe the dominant narrative that is being handed to us from the powers that be. We are the people who shine the light of who Jesus is in the darkest corners of our culture, not by modern notions of evangelization, but by sitting in the nuance of complex issues and situations with grace, with humility, and with empathy. We can do this together, but we must resist the urge to organize around simple, partisan, grand narratives that prop up a political party.

10. I'm hopeful this story in our culture will change in the coming years. I'm hopeful that the Church will actively put aside its political affiliations in order to help solve this problem. It is solvable. We simply must have the will to solve it. Politics is how we order our common life together, and our faith speaks volumes to how we order this life together. Who will we be? What will we be remembered for? What will be our legacy? What are we willing to relinquish in order to benefit the Common Good? How we answer these questions moving forward will tell us who we are.

May we be the people of the Third Way.

May we hold our convictions with passion.

May we enter into the particularities of life, especially on behalf of those who have less power than we do.

May we let ourselves be guided by our principles, but not blinded by them.

May we be willing to give up something, in order to benefit others.

And may we resist the urge to by led by fear, for perfect Love - the Agape of God - casts out all fear.

May we be the fearless, Third Way People.

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.

Nothing.

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

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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.