Monday, February 8, 2016

False Contractions, Patience, and the Adoption Process

We are past our due date. Well past. The beginning of Lent marks the start of our adoption journey… five years ago. We prayed and talked and ask God to convince us. Our hearts grew sure as we noticed a conspicuous number of adoptive families in our small town during those forty days.

By Palm Sunday Liz and I were convinced.

“Hosanna in the highest,” we shouted.
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” we sang.
“We will adopt,” we announced.

Tomorrow is Fat Tuesday... five years later. Our arms have grown tired holding palm branches so long. Our shouts and songs have grown dim. The end looms ever closer, but ever out of reach. We want to meet our son and bring him home.

The international adoption process is worse than an exercise in patience; it is physical therapy for hurried soul. Every week stretches us, bends us, manipulates our emotions, and tests our limits.
  • We've waited for doctor signatures, notary stamps, governmental approval, reference letters, grant monies, progress reports, and agency clearance.
  • We've updated our home study four times, taken fingerprints three times, had citizenship paperwork approved, re-approved, denied, and, finally, re-approved.
  • We've twice changed agencies and three times altered the age(s) of the child(ren) we were willing to adopt, adding a "special needs" on the latest iteration.
  • We've written many checks, made numerous trips to the post office, raised/saved/spent thousands of dollars, and become best friends with a notary of the republic.

Of course, these are simply details. Slogging through paperwork and unraveling the red tape has its benefits: We can do our part, mark our progress, and feign some control.

Waiting is the real pain.

That pain became personal last in September of 2014 when we decided to adopt an Ethiopian boy from a Waiting Child list. He had a face, a name, and special needs. His profile compelled us. Further descriptions from an intern at the orphanage sealed the choice. We signed an agreement with our second agency and started fresh. The match became official in December. Surely, we thought, the waiting is almost over.

Then months passed with nothing more than a handful of pictures and growth statistics.
No news by spring, so we assumed traveling would not occur until summer.
No news by summer, so we pushed back prospective travel dates until fall.

By late August we learned some of our son’s paperwork was missing. No one had been able to track it down from his birth region. And no one was responding to our agency’s requests. Expect another few months. 

More bending. More stretching. More manipulation of muscles and emotions.

In the fall, the Ethiopian Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA) approved our case. We still awaited Pre-Adoption Immigration Review (PAIR) approval from USCIS. Having two parties sign off, provides extra accountability. It has also added months to our process.

Since December, I have received emails from the US Embassy in Ethiopia keeping me posted on the PAIR process: 1) An interview with the birth father. 2) An interview with the child. 3) An interview with the orphanage director. Perhaps an interview with the Pope will follow.

In the first email, the official stated, “We recognize the PAIR process can be an anxious time for prospective adoptive parents.” (An understatement, if I may say so.) These emails come in the middle of the night because Ethiopia runs eight hours ahead of the US. They come in two or three week intervals. And for two months they have disrupted my sleep; I regularly wake up at three AM and check my phone for an email notification.

Worse yet, for two months every ring and bleep and flash my phone makes feels like a false contraction. It’s never adoption news. It’s school flyers and church announcements and sales promotions and Twitter notifications. And even if it was an adoption update, it would simply be another interview request. Another two-week delay. Another false contraction.

I'm weary with false hopes. I’m sleep-deprived with uncertainty. I’m tired of this prolonged pregnancy with no due date in sight.

For years and months and weeks, I’ve been setting time tables for this adoption and pushing them back. The depth of my patience is directly tied to my control over its timing. This is true in most matters of life. Whenever we issue due dates for God, we encroach upon his sovereignty. We grasp for control.

This protracted adoption journey has taught me the limits of my control. And the limits of my patience. Fortunately, God, in his gentle manner, revealed this matter to me last week. Roused from my sleep at three AM (yet again), eager (always) for news, I heard God tell me: Trust my timing.

Five years ago… God knew our adoption journey would include false peaks and labor pains. His heart for the fatherless has never
wavered (Psalm 68:4). In the meantime, ours continues to grow.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Blessed, Glorious, and Mysterious View

Ephesians is a salve for the bad press the church receives. The apostle Paul provides a blessed, glorious, and mysterious view of the church. The redeeming work of the Triune God goes beyond saving individual souls, to reconciling Jew and Gentile and summing up the heavens and earth in Jesus. Christian must learn to embrace their God-given identity, the heavenly view, described in this letter, rather than believing the bad press.

The heavenly view tells the church she is powerful (not powerless), mysterious (not boring), beautiful (not gross), holy (not stained), universal (not exclusive), triumphant (not dying), and relevant (not outdated). What applies to the whole applies to individuals in the church: saints, beloved, forgiven, empower, sealed, alive, raised, and renewed.

Churches make a mistake when they pin their identity to a particular style, ministry, denomination, or philosophy. No amount of savvy marketing will outdo Paul's description of the church in Ephesians. Christ-followers do not need to improve their branding, they must embrace their God-given identity.

God Gets Flesh - John 1:1-18 sermon

Monday, February 1, 2016

Expand - Theme word for 2016

When I asked God about a theme word for 2016, no single term immediately jumped out.

2015 was the year of Conversation; I talked to God and others with greater intention. 
2014 was the year of Awareness; I stretched my personal limits and flirted with burn out. 
2013 was the year of Follow through; I finished a few more projects or sentences than I would normally have completed. 
Writing this post to go viral.
What helped me make a decision for 2016 was a simple desire to grow my influence. I want to have a stronger voice in people’s lives, whether it be my wife, my children (speaking of expansion, I should have three living in home in a few months), my church, my fellowship, and blog audience. Not only do I want my voice to increase, but I want the ministry of my family and church to deepen.

The various words I toyed with to convey this increase of impact included increase, growth, maturity, discipline, and develop. None of these felt right. Then I landed on Expand. I thought of a territory stretching out, much like the kingdom of David or the global reach of the gospel. And buried deep in my memory was a little book by Bruce Wilkinson I read in college, The Prayer of Jabez, where the title character asks God to “expand his lot” (1 Chr. 4:10).

The word  has lingered. I've run it by Liz (to make sure it’s sticky) and through a search engine (to make sure it’s biblical). On both accounts, the term passed muster. Most notably, Paul writes to the Corinthians of expanding his ministry influence without boasting or building on another person’s lot. The expanse is natural, viral, and humble (2 Cor. 10:12-18).

“We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond our proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the field God has assigned to us, a field that reaches even to you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did not get as far with you as the gospel. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel to the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in another man’s territory. But, “let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”

As much as I may want God to expand my influence, grow my church, and increase my audience, I must let this passage guide my humble understanding of expanse. It is God’s increase, not mine. I must become less. Boasting and self-referential gain are useless. Paul avoided both pitfalls. They are the activity of fools. Those who fear God, on the other hand, enjoy an expanded life (Prov. 10:27, MSG).

Expanse implies an understanding of limits. I must recognize the territory of others, as well as blue oceans, unreached people, and untapped resources. Moreover, God has assigned lots. Any expanse must be plotted on the larger map of God’s gospel ministry. I must ask where He wants me to go help others’ faith grow.

As a result, I’ve come to apportion my time more strategically. In addition to family, personal, and local church ministry, I have secured three broader kingdom commitments. My board work with BMH/GraceConnect, Let’s Know the Bible Conference, and the Equipping Network serve different purposes. To maximize my energy for each one of these organizations, I have dedicated one Monday afternoon a month to each. And, in a stroke of genius (note to self: see comment about humility above), I have volunteered for writing assignments that I can re-purpose on my own blog. My interaction with these teams not only expands my influence, but broadens my base of personal connections.

Finally, since establishing this word as my annual theme, I have begun to let God nuance my definition through various study materials. Surely this is an example of “selective attention” –e.g.,  where a newly acquired love for Mexican food raises your awareness of Taco trucks on every corner – but the word expand, expanding, and expansion have proliferated in my reading (see below).

Now, dear reader, please aid this emerging author in his efforts to expand by featuring this post on your social media sites, sharing it at a family meal, or printing twenty copies and plastering them in local toilet stalls. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Body Metaphor and the Maturing Church

Anyone who has had a foot pain turn into a knee pain morph into a back pain and migrate to the neck, knows something of the body’s intricacies. When one part suffers, the whole unit compensates. Not only does this speak of the interconnected nature of the body, it gives an ideal picture of the church. 

Sadly, when we gather together as a worshiping church, the essential sense of unity may not exist. Too many people dance in and out congregational life with little sense of involvement, intimacy, or missional impact.

In an age of gross individualism and family breakdown, the pictures of body and bride fail to grip our imaginations. Organic metaphors for the church have lost their shock value. However, these word pictures leveraged by the apostle Paul speak to the intimate, interconnected nature of the local church. Members share a family identity (and Jesus is the Husband). Members constitute a living, moving, working frame (and Jesus is the Head).

Of all the metaphors he compiles for the church in Ephesians – temple, people, army, body, and bride – the body imagery stands out.

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, ESV).

The body grows.
The body grows together.
The body grows together in ministry.
The body grows together in ministry toward Christlike maturity.

This powerful teaching on the church strikes against independent and disconnected way of being Christ’s body. Call it cultural. Call it consumerism. Whatever you call it, a church that does not function as an equipping body is at best childish, at worst, counterfeit.

Like Paul, I long to see Jesus grow our churches – both up an out, deep and wide. I want to feel the shock waves of local congregations re-incarnating the body imagery—connecting people to Jesus, one another, and ministry opportunities within and outside the church complex.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Cultivating Character with the Holy Spirit

The Christ-follower works in concert with the Holy Spirit to cultivate a life of character. Perhaps this smacks of legalism or Pelagianism to some, but this paradox threads its way throughout the New Testament. Two clear examples from Paul follow:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13, ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, ESV).
While I could pile on countless other verses to further illustrate the point, these two adequately showcase the tension between God’s work and mine in the pursuit of holy living. Pastors and theologians have often noticed the link between the indicative and imperative moods of Scripture. The indicative states a truth; the imperative shouts a command. When set side-by-side, as in the two examples above, we may crudely summarize: God does; we do.

He saves; we work out salvation.
He frees; we stand in freedom.
He empowers; we unleash the power.

Of course, too much attention to God’s sovereignty sparks the fear of determinism. No one wants to concede his life has been scripted, or that she is a pawn. On the other hand, when we overstate human responsibility, we divinize ourselves at the expense of minimizing God.

These theological debates cause dizziness and division. Moreover, they do little to inspire Spirit-led obedience. For God’s people to flourish—claiming their freedom and bearing fruit—we must conspire with the Holy Spirit to cultivate character.

The apostle Paul outlines this Spirit-shaped character in Galatians 5:22-23. The fruit feed into one another like a self-sustaining ecosystem: Love produces joy, grows peace, inspires patience, fuels kindness, nurtures goodness, imbibes faithfulness, fertilizes gentleness, inseminates self-control.

God’s Spirit has started an organic work we can share in. The Spirit is the source of the fruit – it grows out of His very essence. I am the gardener who cultivates it. And this work of cultivating requires at least two things. We must create an environment for the Holy Spirit to expand us. We must seize opportunities for spiritual fruit to flourish.

CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT mixes three ingredients:

Awareness: Cultivating spiritual fruit begins with an awareness of nature of the Spirit and His activity. While the Spirit appears in dramatic fashion in the early church (see Acts 2), the constant work of the Holy Spirit includes assurance (John 14:16-18; Gal. 4:5; Eph.  1:13-14), conviction (John 16:8-11), unity (Eph. 5:18-22; 1 Cor. 12-14), and holy character (Gal. 5:22-25). He ever instructs us in these truths.

Attention: While the fruit of the Spirit does not constitute a job description, it serves as a helpful personality map of the Holy Spirit (He is loving,  joyful, peaceful, etc.). Giving attention to the nature and nuances of this fruit helps identify what kind of person the Holy Spirit is forming us into. Regular, slow, thoughtful reflection on this fruit creates an environment for flourishing. Asking, “How is my love growing? My joy? Is self-control on the decline?” gives attention to character development, not simply behavior modification.

Activity: Asking God to grow spiritual fruit in us brings us into active partnership. Pruning constitutes another important aspect of cultivation. We would be wise to identify vices, false beliefs, and godless attitudes that stunt growth. Setting up boundaries, accountability, and healthy spiritual disciplines will, over time, strip off the flesh and showcase Christ in me.

(NOTE: Spiritual disciplines do not guarantee godliness or mask legalism, but establish patterns and a posture of learning from Christ our Lord. Prayer, worship, confession, study, biblical meditation, silence, fasting, and solitude are some of the many disciplines.)

SEIZING OPPORTUNITIES: Every day abounds with opportunities to cultivate spiritual fruitfulness. We need not manufacture nor orchestrate the conditions of our lives so we grow. It will happen with the Spirit’s aid.
  • Lonely people, suffering friends, misunderstood neighbors invite you to show love.
  • A new morning, a favorite song, a busy bird’s feeder, a friend’s laugh, and Taco Tuesday each open a window for joy
  • Slow traffic, latent WiFi service, prolonged adoption plans, and dawdling children give an opportunity for patience
  • Negligent co-workers or employees provide a chance to show gentleness
  • Extra leisure time, stocked refrigerators,, and sexy magazine covers are a test of self-control.

When we take the time to create an environment of holy character, the injustices, joys, and routine matters of the day become opportunities to flourish under the Spirit’s lead.

Monday, January 11, 2016

I Don't Hate Facebook and Other Lies You've Been Told

This is a "saving face" piece because there are many nasty rumors circling about me. People often take my words out of context. Case and point: "I hate Facebook."

This was lobbed at me yesterday morning before prayer. "I never said that," I defended.

"Yes," another person chimed in. "You did. You once said in a sermon, 'I hate Facebook.'"

Perhaps I did.

And so what? That may have been a comment, but what was the context? I learned this little zinger in Seminary (see misquotation 2 below): The context determines meaning. Which means, in context of course, that what you say always fits into a larger conversation. People who misquote me never remember the context (see misquotation 1 below)

Here are a few of the misquotations:

  • I hate Facebook (and other forms of social media). 
  • I hate Grace College. 
  • I hate big churches. 
  • I hate vampires.

1. "I Hate Facebook"
The first misquote never has a context. It comes stripped naked from a sermon like a newborn child. Whenever I hear people citing me, it goes something like this: 'The apostle Paul... blah blah blah. Missionary journey... blah, blah, blah. I hate Facebook."

Or, "Jesus said... blah, blah, blah. Sermon on the mount... blah, blah, blah. I hate Facebook."

Seriously, people? Did I say that?

Moreover, I reserve the word "hate" for really egregious things. You may properly quote me saying, "I hate Michigan." (Context: I do not hate the state or the people, just the football team; and not even the players, coaches, or fans, just the giant, godless, gold-and-blue conglomeration. "I hate Michigan" is short for "I hate the Michigan Wolverines football team." And when I use hate, what I really mean is that I want them to lose every game except a bowl game against the SEC, because, as you can guess it, "I hate the SEC.") Two other things I have spoken hate over are uncooked onions and sin.

Facebook, like any tool, is amoral, not worthy of hate, simply preference. I understand its value to connect, lament, fuel political agendas, and farm fake animals. I like that our friends made a Facebook adoption page for our family. I like that our church promotes and celebrates one another on Facebook. But Facebook is not my preferred tool. I prefer to self-promote, sound super spiritual, and employ whit  using Twitter (Follow me today @timsprankle) I prefer to look like a good dad and pastor on Instagram. I prefer to expand my thoughts to an invisible audience of twenty on this blog.

What I hate is how tools that are intended to unite us actually divide us. They fuel envy and distraction. They intrude into our personal space, all the while those who sit within our immediate context seem miles away. And remember, context is supposed to determine meaning -- my physical presence should define me more than my digital fingerprint. Blah, blah, blah.

2. "I hate Grace College"
This is a big "Thank You" to Grace College and Theological Seminary. In spite of what others feel, or what I may have been heard to say in a college chapel many new moons ago, I don't hate you. I never said that. You provided the context for my wife and me to meet, for our romance to flourish. You gave me room for my theological passions to grow, for my career in running to start its course.

If I'm bitter, its only because the campus got so much better since I left, adding a Disc Golf course, rec. center, athletic arena, several new dorms, and track (upcoming). I may not always give when the Phone-a-thon calls, attend Homecoming, or show up to basketball games, but I assure you, I would never root for Bethel. "I hate Bethel." (See note on Michigan above).

"I Hate Big Churches"
Big churches can do things little churches can't: They can host big groups of people, hire big staff, give big gifts (e.g., minivans to single moms), serve big groups, steward big budgets and fill big buildings. Little churches can do all that on a little scale, which is why they're called little. Not only I am grateful for the generosity and gospel impact of my fellow big churches, I am envious of their reach. At the same time, I am not shy about my preference to serve in a little church because I believe the ceiling for personal intimacy and pastoral care is bigger in a smaller church. This preference may not be accurate, but it is not hateful.

"I hate Vampires"
This quote has come back to bite me several times. And it is true. I also hate Zombies.

Hopefully, I've saved face and perhaps Facebook in the process. I hate being misunderstood, but it's inevitable in this world. Preachers and teachers will incur a stricter judgment because their words are meant for public good, not personal preferences (James 3:1). I'll leave my petty hates to game days.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Plans for My Goals (and Yours)

My daughters flank me on either side, sitting composed over laptops. They’re both writing stories. Inspiration has visited them on this snow-covered morning. It is our third creative writing session of winter break. I am a proud father; three periods of focused story-telling sounds remarkable for an eight and ten-year old. Not bad too shabby for a balding thirty-six-year old, either.

But I give us too much credit. We have failed. We have strayed from “the plan.”

Both my daughters have expressed the goal of publishing a book. I professed similar dreams yesterday (and the twenty years that proceeded it). Our goal is noble and not beyond reach. However, to make goals achievable, children and their fathers need more than audacious dreams. We need plans.

I want greater things for my children than dreams. I want them (and me) to experience some level of achievement. We will face obstacles. In fact, the greatest obstacle to achieving our goals is the self. My self-imposed hurdles come in myriad forms. Lack of time, lack of energy, lack of clarity, lack of motivation, and lack of resources all point to me as the culprit.

Other authors, especially those cast in the mold of self-help or business-inspiration experts, have far more to say about personal success than I could summarize. Web sensationalist, James Clear, and Getting Things Done guru, David Allen, head the list. Dallas Willard and Gordon McDonald offer a Christian perspective of life-planning and spiritual disciplines in their writings. Moreover, the proliferation of mobile apps, wearable tech, hashtags, and websites dedicated to “life hacking” and “activity tracking” underscore the obsession with micromanaging our lives.

What I offer below are a few simple strategies I have employed to overcome the obstacle of ME. And if my daughters aren’t careful—they’re sitting close enough to touch—I will micromanage their lives, as well.

Set at Timer to Ensure an Actual Start
I wake up to an alarm five days of the week. It’s the actual start time of my day. I proceed with a routine of journaling, Bible reading, prayer, reflection, and reward myself with coffee. Without an alarm, my morning routine suffers, productivity for the day languishes, and I wear pajamas until noon (see picture above - time of picture 9:48 AM, EST).

Like an alarm, the timer has a similar effect, ensuring a starting point. When my daughters purchased their newest journals, stating their intent to write, I bought a kitchen timer. “We’ll write ten minutes a day,” I said. We set it only once. In spite of limited use, I know from other occasions the timer has a stimulating effect. The initial beep signals a call to action. The final ring announces my success in following a plan.

Push through an Arbitrary End Point
While the alarm signals an end point, that finish line is artificial. I’m training myself to fight through artificial end points. Sometimes I run an extra mile, even though I set out to run less. (Didn’t Jesus teach a similar principle in the sermon on the mount? see Matthew 5:38-42.) Sometimes I add ten more push ups, even though I achieved my goal. I’ve also extended conversations, writing sessions, reading stints, and the number of days I’ll wear a pair of boxer briefs to prove I can push through arbitrary end points. (Full Discloser: In an earlier phase of my life I would have stopped writing this entry after the introductory paragraphs. Insert Fist Pump emoji.

Fuller Discloser: I stopped right here before finishing. Insert Sad Face emoji )

Let Discipline Outweigh Inspiration
If I wait until inspiration strikes to work out, write, read, organize my garage, or follow through with other personal goals, seasons change and I park in the driveway. Inspiration is like the cool uncle who visits every two years and makes you feel good for doing nothing. Inspiration is the feeling of reward before anything is accomplished. Do not confuse inspiration with discipline. Discipline is not averse to rewards, but can anticipate them as you follow through with a plan. It may be the positive self-talk you provide, the milkshake you procure (yes, milkshakes can be procured), or the shower after you tear muscles and sweat through a shirt (this happens often when I write). More importantly, discipline puts regular workouts and writing sessions on the schedule, working regularly until Uncle Inspiration’s next visit.

Celebrate Meager Progress (not Mediocrity)
Some days I write two sentences instead of two pages. Some days I run four minutes instead of four miles. Some days I pray a minute instead of an hour. My plans do not always follow the mental script for perfection I’ve laid out. But I remind myself time and time again, “Something is better than nothing.” “Any movement in the right direction is good.” Meager progress doesn’t earn me a trophy or spending spree at Amazon, but it’s worth a cat poster aphorism.

Keep God’s Kingdom Ultimate
My ambition must not be allowed to become ultimate. God expects big things from His children, but He does not compete with big heads. There is only room for One Ultimate Authority, and I am not He. God and His Kingdom must be my primary pursuit. Not only did Jesus teach this principle (Matthew 6:33), he modeled it. Throughout the gospels he said, “Not my will, but God’s.” Or, “I only do and say what the Father bids me.” Jesus lived and led and died in humility. God vindicated him through the resurrection. I can only hope at the end of my days – however many there may be for this misty man—God will see my plans and goals contributed to His glory.