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.

Everything Good Takes Time


I grew up with a Father who fell in love with Southern Food & Cooking in his 30s. Even though my parents were both born and raised in Southern California, my Dad threw himself into the regional tastes and dishes everytime our family relocated to another state.

In the early 80s, my family migrated over to Texas, and shortly thereafter, I was born.

My Dad, working in food service vocationally, fell hard for the food of that place: BBQ (which in Texas means brisket), cornbread, fried okra, black-eyed peas, peaches, smoked sausage, chicken fried steak with cream gravy - Texes knows how to make good food. And Texans love to eat this food.

One dish that is VERY southern which I don't remember us having - ever, really - is stewed collard greens.

Collards are a tough, somewhat stringy plant, best treated with acid, pork fat, and a long, slow cooking.

When I make collards, which is really only 1-2 times a year, I always think of my Dad.

This kind of cooking requires that one stay attuned to the task at hand. If left unattended for too long, the greens could burn in the pot. If the heat is too low, the greens will take FOREVER to soften up.

In order to properly cook collard greens, one must stick around for awhile, and check in from time to time. One must pay attention.

Making collard greens reminds me that the best things in life take time. If you want the rich flavors, and satisfying textures of steward collards, you need to give yourself over to the process for 3-4 hours.

Life is no different.

In a culture that says, "you may have anything that you want, anytime you want it," cooking in this way helps remind me that the best things - and really, anything worth having or doing - takes time.

Building a family takes time.

Building a business takes time.

Cultivating a church takes time.

Growing a garden - time.

Planning a dinner party w/ friends - time.

Getting in shape - time.

Education takes time.

Marriage takes time.

Health takes time.

Growth takes time.

Pretty much anything worth doing in life takes more time than most of us care to admit, myself included.

But it's the investment of our hearts and lives over time that make these things the best things. The things that we're proudest of. The things that shape our lives, and our identities.

I'd like to think that my Dad, even though he is no longer with us in this life, would be proud of my collard greens. He would understand how much time and care it takes to make them meltingly tender. To cause the ham hock to fall apart. To get the balance between salty-acidic-sweet-umami, just right.

I'd like to think that he would love these collard greens. Because even though he didn't teach me this recipe, he taught me how to care enough about food to invest my heart, my life, and a lot of time, into creating the best things.

Especially slowed cooked greens.

This one's for you Dad. Love you, and miss you.


David's Stewed Greens

-3 or 4 bunches greens (I prefer collards, but I'll admit to throwing in the occasional swiss chard bunch too)

-1 meatly ham hock

-one onion, sliced thin

-4 or 5 garlic cloves, sliced thin

-1 T cider vinegar

-2 t hot sauce (I prefer Tabasco brand, Chipotle flavor)

-couple pinches of sugar

-olive oil (or better yet, bacon fat)

-salt + pepper to taste


(and lots of time)


Cooking Instructions

1. choose a heavy pot w/ a tight fitting lid, and place it over medium heat. After the pot is heated up nicely, pour in about a tablespoon of olive oil (or bacon fat), and place the ham hock in the pot, letting it begin to brown, turning it over a few times.

2. Add in the onion, and continue to cook until the onion begins to soften, about 3-5 minutes.

3. Clean your greens well, making sure there is no lingering dirt. If using collard greens, put the leaves from the stems. If using swiss chard, finely chop the stems. Stack up all your clean leaves, and roughly chop them into 2x2 inch pieces.

4. Add the garlic and greens to the pot w/ the onions and ham hock. Pour in the vinegar, hot sauce, a pinch of salt, a bit of pepper, a couple pinches of sugar, a 1/3 cup of water. Stir to combine.

5. Bring the pot to a simmer, cover, and turn down the heat to low, keeping the liquid at a low simmer. You're essentially braising the greens and ham hock in their own juices.

6. Check every 30 minutes or so to make sure the greens are not drying out too much. There needs to be a small amount of liquid in the bottom of the dish in order to cook them properly. Total cooking time will likely be 2.5-4 hours, depending on how long it takes to make everything REALLY tender.

7. Once the greens and ham hock are tender to your likely, pull the ham hock out to cool, and taste a bite of greens, paying attention to vinegar, hot sauce, salt and pepper. The greens should be a little salty, but not overly salty, a little tangy, a bit sweet (not much), and as spicy as you'd like them to be. Adjust seasoning to your liking.

8. Once the ham hock is cook enough to handle (and is falling-apart tender) pull the meat from the bone, and roughly chop it. Add the meat back to the perfectly seasoned greens, and stir to combine. Taste, and adjust for seasoning.

Sit down, relax, and enjoy your labor of love. Enhance this dish with cast iron skillet cornbread, smoked sausage links, fried okra, and black-eyed peas.


PSA For Church Folks As We Look Toward Christmas:

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The Christmas season, and the season of Advent that leads up to it, are nearly upon us.

Your pastor and other church leaders are currently thinking, discerning, and preparing for Advent and the Christmas season.

During that time of year, it's helpful to remember that the story we've been given as God's people, the story of the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus--it's helpful to remember that this is OUR STORY to tell.

When you notice the culture around you NOT telling this story to your liking, don't get frustrated with our culture, or blame our government for not telling the Christian story.

It's not their story to tell anyway.

The Jesus story is the story God has entrusted to the Church to tell and retell, both with our words, in our songs, and even with our very lives.

We tell this story to each other, to remember who we are, and who we belong to.

We tell this story to the wider world, inviting them to become participants in this strange community called the Church.

Why would we expect a corporation, or government entity, to tell our story?

There is no war on Christmas. There's only a war on Christians being proper storytellers. And too often, Christians are on both sides of the war.

Let's lay down our weapons, and tell our story.

So, may we be storytellers, the way in which our Father has invited us to be.

May we tell the story of the Light coming into the darkness.

May we be salt AND light, to a world that needs Christians to start acting Christ-like again.

Let's Make Christmas Great Again, by being Christians again, leading with the humility and vulnerability of a God who comes to be among his people as a new-born baby.

May we tell our story, warts and all, with hope, with passion, and with a deep connection to the history of storytellers who have come before us.

Because God has given us a story to tell. It's our story to tell.

Let's do the work that we've been given to do, and stop expecting the world around us to do the work for us.

May it be so.

So I Head To The River

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It's been a gray and rainy autumn thus far here in Northern Michigan. The cloud coverage has been pretty dark and oppressive. Feels like PNW winter, for sure.

It's also been a pretty traumatic time in our common, political life. No matter how you see things, no matter who you listen to, or who you believe, I think it's pretty certain that the past few weeks have only further entrenched you within your ideological camp.

It's been pretty predictable who will take which sides. It has been for sometime now.

If you get your news from Fox, Breitbart, and the rest, you support Kavanaugh, to some extent.

If you get your news from CNN, MSNBC, The Times, or the Post, you support Dr. Ford.

My guess is very few people were able, or willing, to cross the ideological lines, and with empathy, put themselves in the shoes of the other camp.

We're pretty terrible at that sort of empathic activity these days in our culture.

To be sure, I have strong opinions on Dr. Ford, Judge Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, Susan Collins, Mitch McConnell, Diane Feinstein, and the rest.

I think women are to be believed, I think due process is important, and I think the past few weeks is directly correlated to the refusal to give Merrick Garland a hearing a couple years ago, which was in retaliation for Obama's progressive executive orders, which were a direct result of a GOP controlled Congress who refused to work with him, which happened b/c Obama won the election in 2008, which was a direct response to a Bush Administration who lost all ability to govern, which was a direct response to entering into two misguided wars, which was a direct response to 9/11, which was a direct response to the US being irresponsible w/ our foreign policy, which was a...you get the idea.

Ideologically motivated tribalism within the modern political machine is a ruthless, soul crushing space to stay in too long.

I prefer to fish with people who see the world differently than I do. To build relationships. To find something that we both have in common.

So that's what I did a couple weeks ago.

I stepped into the river for the morning. The famed Au Sable, that runs through and in and around my part of Northern Michigan.

You can have important and productive conversations with people you disagree with if you're willing to find common ground on things that you both love.

My guide was younger than me, and surely more ideologically more conservative than I am.

But we went to the river. We shared an experience. We both loved something together.

When you choose to find something you love that someone else loves, who you normally wouldn't spend time with, then you have a place to start.

If fishing isn't your thing, maybe cooking is. Or fan fiction. Running. Road trips. Baseball. Knitting. Poetry. Hiking. Or even the grandkids.

More and more I'm convinced that so much of our political divide is baby-boomer parents experiencing a prolonged and delayed adolescent differentiation from their young-adult children (20-40 somethings). This certainly doesn't account for the entire divide, but I think it explains a lot.

To my progressive friends, especially on the coasts: you are likely becoming more ideologically fundamentalist than you realize. Your insistence on purity within your ranks is the broader definition of fundamentalism. And it's really destructive.

I think you should try something different to engage people who see the world differently than you do. Very few people will change their minds because you yelled at them, or shamed them.

Love changes minds. Empathy moves hearts. Faith can move mountains, but you gotta start somewhere.

To my conservative friends, especially in the middle of our country. I don't think you realize the damage that's been caused by the people you've allowed to carry your namesake. It's too easy to put on your blinders and only listen to the opinion folks on Fox (yes, Tucker and the rest are not journalists. They're opinion/performance personalities).

Take a trip to New York, or Seattle, or Portland. Rub shoulders with the locals. Better yet, go with your young adult children, and do all that you can to see the world through their eyes, especially if you don't see eye-to-eye with them politically.

Things are bad for many of us right now. I'm afraid for what the future holds. I'm afraid for my friends who are female, people of color, and LGBTQ the most.

I'm concerned that if we don't stop reading our preferred news sources, and getting all of our information about the "other side" from opinion folks, or our crazy uncles on facebook, then we're never going to get anywhere new.

We have to be outraged enough to put down our devices, leave the comfort of our communities, and spend time with people we would rather not spend time with.

If you're progressive, and you don't really know how to have conversations with people who live in the "fly-over" states, reach out to me. Let's be creative on how we can help each other.

If you're conservative, and you're opinions about liberals are primarily formed by social media and Fox news, reach out to me, and I can put you in touch with some of the most thoughtful, kind, and godly people I know, who happen to identify as liberals.

Let's stop letting our opinions of each other be formed primarily by the worst that the other side presents.

It doesn't have to be this way, but we have to choose a different path, if we're going to get anywhere new.

We're better than this. We need to be better than this. We CAN be, if we have the courage to move to a different place, and move toward the people we've come to loathe the most.

May God give us the courage to step into the hard places. 
May God give us the wisdom to engage with the people we like the least, with kindness.
May God give us the ability to discern when to disengage.
May God give us the strength to speak truth to bullshit.
May God grant us the ability to love people who assume the worst about us.
May God go before us, come behind us, and be to our left, and to our right.

And may we hear the invitation of God's Spirit to head to the river, more than we currently do, and to respond accordingly.

May God's Spirit be yours, forevermore.

Do You Want To Get Well?

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This is part one of a teaching series called "Transforming" by David Rice, at Markey Church. You can listen to the sermon podcast by going to markeychurch.org.

We've Got A Problem

If you've been around the Church for any length of time, you've noticed something strange. It's a problem that is pervasive, and I'm sure it's been around for a long time, but it has a unique expression in North America in the 21st century. 

Here's the problem: too often, the Church can be full of people who proclaim that Jesus is Lord on Sunday morning, but live their lives as if that isn't true the rest of the week. 

I think it's important to address these kinds of problems head on.  So for the next few weeks, we'll be asking the following questions at Markey Church:

What does God invite us into?

What is a Christian discipleship?

What is the invitation of the Christian life?

What does it look like to change and grow?

What is God's role in our spiritual transformation, and what is our role?

Last Friday night, my 10-year-old and I met some friends for a Tigers game at Comerica Park. We were celebrating the birthday of another 10-year-old, who chose to invite us to the game.

It was an epic game.  Not because it had much in the way of post-season implications, but because it ended in jubilant fashion.

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In the bottom of the ninth, with the game tied, Jeimer Candelario, third-baseman for the Tigers, stepped up the plate, and drilled a walk-off homerun to left field to win the game. 

The euphoric eruption from the crowd, the players, the entire experience - it still makes me smile just thinking about it. It was awesome!

That game took me deeply into thinking about something that I think about a lot: what is a disciple?

What Is A Disciple?


When we were at Comerica Park on Friday night, I did my best to get on the field. I tried to get the attention of the Tigers dugout. I spoke with security about getting a pass. I put on a Tigers jersey, hoping that they would let me know. No luck (I'm kidding about all of this, btw).

Apparently, if you want to play for the Tigers, you can't just show up as a 37-year-old and declare that you have a desire to be on the team. No one gives you any attention that way. 

So, I did what thousands of people do every year - I bought a ticket, wore my Cabarera shirt, purchased the most expensive hot dog of my life, and sat in the stands, cheering on the home team, all the way to glory (at least for a night). (Note: the tickets were a gift, and I don't own a Cabarera shirt :)

In baseball, there's a difference between the Players, and the Spectators. Everyone knows this. The Spectators pay to see the Players play. And the Players get paid to entertain the Spectators. The roles are clear. 

In the life of faith though, things gets muddied up. Things aren't so clear. Many of us have confused Christianity with being a Spectator. We love to attend the games, watch from the stands, root for the home team, and even pay the price of admission. But we don't even dream of getting on the field, or into the game. That would be too costly.

So what is discipleship? A disciple is someone who believes AND participates in God's ongoing work in the world. A disciple isn't simply someone who watches from the stands, wears the jersey, and roots for the home team.  A disciple is on on the field, playing for the win, representing the franchise to the best of their ability.

“I made the disheartening discovery that it is possible to hang around other Christians a lot, meet regularly for worship, study our Bibles, join a church and even call ourselves a community but not change at all in ways that count.”
— Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms

So in the Christian life, are you a Spectator, or are you a Player? Are you a Believer, or are you a Disciple?

The Kingdom of God

I think Jesus would tell us that there are no spectators in the Kingdom of God. If you want to be part of God's Kingdom, Jesus doesn't let you simply believe. Jesus expects that you get out of the stands, and participate with God in God's work, in your own life, and in the life of the world.

So much of the endless parade of church-related disasters are, at their root, a product of a Christian culture that says all you have to do is believe. The pastors who abuse their power, the Christians who participate in genocide, the "Christian Jerks", as my Dad named them. All of this is because we've communicated to people for decades that discipleship is an option. You can be a Christian without following the Way of Jesus. All you have to be is believe.

This way of viewing Christianity is both devoid of the broader biblical narrative, AND it is immensely harmful for everyone involved. Can good things still come out of this view? Of course. Nothing is beyond the work of God in the world.

But we've convinced ourselves of a counterfeit gospel. One that only wants Jesus for his blood, as Dallas Willard would say (he called it a Vampire Gospel), and wants nothing to do with the life of Jesus. 

Matthew 28:19-20 doesn't give us this option though. As Jesus wraps up his time on earth at the end of Matthew, he says clearly that we're to "go" and "make disciples." We're to baptise them, and teach them everything Jesus told us. 

This is remarkably different from the dominant posture of the North American evangelical church with our mantras of "please come to church on Sunday" and "read your bible everyday."

Jesus doesn't simply want your attention. Jesus wants your life.

Do You Want To Get Well?

Take John 5 for example. 

There's this amazing exchange that Jesus has with a lame man near the pool of Bethesda.

One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?”
— John 5:5-6 NLT

"Would you like to get well?"

Don't you just love this guy? I mean, who asks someone this who had been sick for "thirty-eight" years? Jesus does, that's who. Because Jesus knows something that we don't know. Jesus knows that too often, you and I, and this guy at the Pool of Bethesda, we cling to our identities of shame and bondage. 

“I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.”
— John 5:7 NLT

"It's not my fault", we say. Of course I can't get well. I try and try, but nothing ever happens. 

His un-wellness had become his identity. And his identity was so pervasive, that even a simple but direct question of the Son of God could not penetrate it. 

Yet, Jesus continues to invite the man into wholeness. 

What would it take for this man to say, "yes, I want to get well?"

Craig Groeschel says, "you can have control, or you can have growth, but you can't have both."

So true. 

Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” Instantly, the man was healed! He tolled up his sleeping mat and began walking!
— John 5:8-9 NLT

This is what Jesus invites you into as well. Jesus invites you into a life of wholeness.  A life of trust, where you take him at his word. A life where you stop making excuses about your identity, and believe his words more than the words you currently believe about yourself.

Jesus gives you a new name. No longer are you the unlucky lame one. You are restored. You are healed. You are redeemed.

Jesus does that.

Jesus invites you out of the stands, and onto the field.

You're invited into a life of spiritual transformation.

The only questions you have to wrestle with right now is, "Do you want to get well?"

Shame, Isolation, and Pastoral Leadership

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This one is for my pastor friends.

I'm reading this fantastic book called Fail by J.R. Briggs (that's the photo quote here). I highly recommend J.R.'s book to anyone is pastoral leadership, or anyone who wants to understand how exhausting pastoral leadership can be.

Being a pastor is terribly difficult. Us pastors, we all know this.

We bring our own stories of shame, pain, fear, and neediness into our leadership. The result can be less than flattering at best, and seriously abusive or harmful at worst.

I know the isolation of pastoral leadership. It's honestly way more difficult than I could have ever imagined, especially in a small church context.

The late leadership guru Peter Drucker famously said that the four most difficult jobs in the world (in no particular order) are President of the United States, President of a University/College, COE of a hospital, and a local pastor.

I'm reluctant to write any of this, but I think it's important for folks to understand the difficulty of what pastors face on a regular basis.

As a spiritual leader/guide, it is SOOO easy to think that I/we need to have our lives put together, OR project that we have our lives put together. The temptation is real, at least for me.

But my life is simply NOT put together.

More often than not, my life tends to be a mess.

Just in the past few months, I've dealt with the following: 1) emotional burnout, 2) a staff member I care deeply about abruptly resigning, 3) two invasive lip surgeries, 4) financial stress, both at home and at work, 5) regular communication stalemates at home (usually my fault, related to #1), and the list could go on and on.

What all of these messes tend to produce initially is a deep feeling of shame.

According to Brené Brown, shame is a deep belief and feeling that what I've done, or left undone, isn't simply bad, but that because of my actions or behaviors, I AM BAD. Shame says to me (and you) that we are not worthy of connection and belonging.

Shame is real y'all. Especially for an enneagram 3 like myself

So what do we do about this?

I wish I had a simple answer. All I can share with you is what I do, and hope that this somehow helps. I know these things have helped me tremendously:

1. Lean into connection. Take risks. Ask people for coffee, for breakfast, for a phone call, for a video chat. Lean into your friendships, especially with those who know you the best and have stuck with you the longest. You're worthy of connection. To be honest, I get turned down from folks more than I care to admit, but the connection I have as a result is always worth the risk.

2. Find a good counselor, and see her/him regularly. I started doing this nearly three years ago know. I drive nearly three hours for in-person appointments. I do some appointments over the phone. It has been so worth it for my health, and the health of my family, and the church I serve.

3. Take your physical health seriously. I've always been a big guy. Since I was a kid, I've always carried more weight than I'd like. It's too easy to miss this one, especially if it wasn't modeled well for you as a kid. I walk a few miles 4-5 times a week, and that's been consistent only in the past several months for me. I still have a long way to go to get to better health, but I'm working my way there. Just being vulnerable here...

4. Find a good hobby that has nothing to do with your work. Listening to church leadership podcasts is not a hobby. Spending time with people you pastor outside of the office is not a hobby. Fly fishing is a hobby. So is bread baking. Gardening too. Find something that feeds your soul, that you can connect into, connect with others around, and that will help you disconnect from your ministry work.

5. Create, and fight for, space in your life for silence, solitude, reading scripture, writing, prayer, spiritual practices, and reflection. I get up early to do this, but not as much as I'd like. I have a window in the early morning, before my kids are awake, for time with God that is significant and meaningful to me. If I miss this window, I often miss that time.

6. Prioritize your family, your marriage, and your kids, over the church that you serve. You will be a healthier person for it, your ego will perhaps receive some necessary deflation, and those that you serve will benefit from it in the long run. Your family needs you, and they will continue to be your family long after you leave your current ministry context. Don't sacrifice your family for the sake of God's work. That's not what God asks of you, and if you think God is asking you to do that, I would humbly suggest that what your hearing is NOT the voice of God.

7. Grieve your losses. When you're a leader in the public eye (even of a 10 person church) people will criticize you for all kinds of things. It just comes with the territory. Harness it for what it is: learn what you can, make appropriate adjustments, but realize that so much of that criticizing is simply hurting people avoiding their own pain, and throwing it at you. Set clear boundaries, but don't hit back. Take your pain to your trusted spiritual friends, and to God in your solitude and silence time. Pouring your heart out to God is what will heal you, not hurting the people who are trying to hurt you.

8. Find a community outside of your ministry context. I get why people resist this, but for me, this has been life-saving. I love the people I serve. I give and receive so many hugs on a Sunday morning, and I'm genuinely glad to see the people that God has entrusted to my leadership and care. But if I'm looking for validated from the folks that I serve, I'll always been needy, and looking for something they are not meant to give me. So, beginning about two years ago, once a quarter, I head to Chicago for a ministry leadership cohort with about 70 other ministry leaders. This has probably saved my life more than I can say at this point. I have friends that I see and spend time with locally who are not part of my church, and outside of my area too. Many of these friendship keep me grounded, because many of my friends are just not that impressed with me. As an enneagram three, that's what I need.

So, in summary...

My life is often a mess. I often feel down. I often feel defeated. I used to asked God to make me humble, but I've stopped asking, because it seems like God got a little carried away :)

I'm still a work in process. My life is both broken AND beautiful.

That's how it is. But I'm learning, and growing, and being transformed. It can hurt way more than I'd like it too, but that's what a life found in God feels like sometimes. As Waterdeep said, "you gotta let the fire burn you if you wanna get free."

And if you have a pastor or spiritual leader, please keep in mind that the work that she/he does is some of the most difficult work that anyone can do in our culture. So be kind to us, pray for us, and make sure we're seeing a good counselor or spiritual director (or both), because, well, we really need it. Don't assume you know what we need, but be an advocate for us that we get what we need. We'll be forever grateful for your voice in that battle.

And if you're a pastor who feels isolated, alone, beat up, torn down - whatever it is - reach out to me, or preferably, to someone who knows you well.

Don't keep your pain inside, don't keep your exhaustion a secret. There's still hope. God is still making all things new. Including your very own life.

Call a counselor, talk to a spiritual friend. Reach out to a trusted person.

You were never meant to do this alone. If you think you have to remain isolated, you're beginning to believe the LIE. There's a different, and much better, Way.

I'm rooting for you, all the way.

May grace and peace be yours today.

It's ok to be afraid; it's not ok to stay there.

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Wendy and I spent several days last week in Chicago. Specifically, we stayed in a neighborhood southwest of downtown called Brighton Park. We didn't mean to. It was cheap, and clean, and that works for us.

Our host was a Mexican immigrant named José. He was kind, thoughtful, helpful, and hard-working. José rents out half his house on airbnb, and drives for Lyft.

I think that's the definition of hustling.

While in Brighton Park we felt safe. We had great food. We were shown wonderful hospitality. We had a great experience.

And Brighton Park is majority Latino, based on my visit. I only saw a handful of other white folks while we were there.

We fear what we don't understand. We fear what we don't expose ourselves to.

Being afraid is natural. It's ok to be afraid. I would suggest it's not ok to stay there, because often you can do something about it, especially if you're like me.

When you're afraid of a group of people, I always recommend starting with food.

Learn to make some great, authentic tacos at home (google Rick Bayless, get some books from the library, and have at it). Or pozole. Or chilaquiles. Then, go find the best tacos in the part of town where immigrants live. The. Best.

Go have a Halal burger at Taystee's Burgers in Dearborn, outside of Detroit. I haven't been there yet, but it's on my list for the near future. Muslims eat burgers too. Just like you. I promise.

When we have limited experiences with a whole group of people (immigrants) and then powerful people tell us to be afraid of them, we too often choose to be afraid, because we don't know any better.

My reporting tells me that in at least one immigrant neighborhood I visited last week on the southwest side of Chicago, you would be welcomed, treated with dignity and respect, and have some of the best tacos in the Midwest.

Does that mean there are still violent gangs made up of Latinos out there - well, sure. But that doesn't make every Latino a violent gang member, anymore than having white skin makes you a violent murderer, like Timothy McVeigh.

Go to Paco's Tacos on Archer Ave. Order the carnitas, the barbacoa, and the lengua (for me, next time) - you won't be disappointed.

Give a thumbs up to the guy at the griddle who made your food and say "muy bueno" when you're done because you're a dork and you don't really know any Spanish. But hey, you're trying.

If you're afraid of people from Mexico, maybe rent an airbnb in a neighborhood where the people don't look or talk like you. Get some good food. Speak in terribly broken Spanish. People watch. Enjoy the company.

Choose to engage, not to be afraid.

We'll all be better for it.

Culture Wars and The Way of Jesus

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This is a post about culture wars and the Way of Jesus

I was born in 1981 to a family firmly entrenched in the world of the Religious Right. I don't think my parents set out to be entrenched in that world, but living and working among the outer edges of the Jesus People movement, and the music that they made, will do that to you.

I was brought up to believe that "they" are against "us".

I don't ever explicitly remember my parents saying this to me, but that was the message I received at church, at my Christian school, and in the Christian circles we ran in.

They are against us.
They are secular.
They are not of God.
They are sinful.
They are evil.
They want to destroy our way of life.
They are a threat to us.
They must be eliminated.

I think the cultural moment the Church in North America is having right now is really the last dregs of this movement that began in the 1970s, came to prominence in the 1980s, wielding some measure of power in the 1990s and 2000s, and now, on it's death bed, is wreaking havoc for so many people in our culture.

Whatever you want to call this movement, what I've come to see that at it's core this movement is all about power.

Power to remain in control.
Power to fight off that which threatens us.
Power to determine how people use their bodies.
Power to legislate folks to look, act, and behave like us.
Power to force our values upon other people.

This movement, which I believe began with a pure intention, has morphed over the decades into a blatantly political force.

This movement not so subtly says, "Exercising power over and against our enemies is the way to be Christian in our world today."

The problem is that this has nothing to do with Christianity.

Sure, it uses religious language, and postures itself upon religious values and ideas, but this movement is devoid of the Christian faith because the premise of this movement is devoid of Christ.

The premise of this movement says that the way to defend our values and our position in society is defend what God stands for in the public square, and by any means necessary, force those who want nothing to do with our values to adhere to our values as often as possible.

We've played at faith with a huge measure of anxiety, and therefore we've turned the Way of Jesus into a voting block.

Shame on us.

So, what do we do?

When the world around us is crazy and out of control and nothing seems sacred anymore, what do we do?

That is, what do Christian people do?

The most anxious thing we CAN do is turn our uncertainty and anxiety into political power, and wield that power to control our situation.

That is pure anxiety, and it is the opposite of the Way of Jesus.  
This goes for folks on the Right AND the Left.

The Way of Jesus brings a non-anxious presence.
The Way of Jesus choose love over fear.
The Way of Jesus seeks to listen before seeking to be heard.
The Way of Jesus empathizes with those we don't like, so that we can see them as human, made in God's image, just like us.
The Way of Jesus calls us out of our fear, our anxiety, and into a life that is marked by compassion, patience, and the long game.
The Way of Jesus helps us see that we're fighting against Powers and Principalities, not simply people we don't like and don't trust.

Ultimately, I'm with Snyder, who says "Truly Christian transformation of culture comes through Christlike (and hence sacrificial) love, community and being."

This Way is SOOO impractical. But it is the best way.

In order to change our culture, we must die to our own attempts to constantly force our culture to change.

In order to change our culture, we must begin with our own spiritual transformation.

In order to change our culture, we must let Christ change us.

Dear Christian, are you letting Christ do this in your life?

Are you bringing your anxiety to Jesus? Your fear? Your discouragement?  Are you mourning the loss the the nation that you once knew, where the systems worked for you? Are you bringing your grief to God?

Or, are you taking that anxiety out on the most available target? Namely, those you don't know, who are far from you, that scare you. Are you using your fear and anxiety to express your politics in such a way that “we” win, and “they” lose?

There is another Way.

The Way of Jesus calls us out of our self-centered posture in the world. The one that demands that everyone value what we value, and do what we want them to do.

The Way of Jesus invites us to die to our preferences, and to our agendas, and to our efforts to control the world.

The Way of Jesus is not passive - it is VERY active. But it leads with love.

Love is the most active posture one can take in the world.
Love is the most courageous posture one can take in the world.
Love is the most godly posture one can take in the world.
Love will change you, and it will change the world.

So, Christian friend: if your posture in the world is anxious, fearful, and defensive, it is not the Way of Jesus.

I'm not sure what it is, but please don't confuse it with the Way of Jesus. 

It is likely the Way of Death & Destruction.

The Way of Jesus looks like Jesus: loving, compassionate, empathetic, valuing time alone with the Father, and above all, self-sacrifical to the very end.

That, my friends, is Good News that will change our culture.

And it must begin with you, right where you are, in the middle of your life, even today.

So may you choose the Way of Jesus today, and every day after.

May you relinquish you addiction to control.

May you see your anxiety plainly for what it is.

May you name your fear before God.

May you stop judging people who you've never met.

May you turn off the tv news, and the disconnect from the internet, regularly.

May you find a quiet spot to bring your fear and anxiety before God.

May you grieve the loss that has come with cultural change.

May you be curious about what God is up to, even if you don't understand it.

And may you ask God to deeply transform you, for the sake of the world.

In the name of the Father who loves us.
In the name of Jesus who saves us.
In the name of the Spirit who guides us.