Monday, October 27, 2014

The Slow Clap and a Culture of Celebration

October is Pastors' Appreciation Month. You could've fooled me: I thought every month was Pastors' Appreciation Month. At least once every Sunday I hear, "Good sermon pastor." I'm not always convinced they heard the sermon that issued from my lips, but I'll take the attaboy. I've never doubted the people at Leesburg Grace Brethren Church appreciated me.

Yesterday, however, my church took moment to recognize me and my wife publicly for our God-honoring service, Christ-like humility, awe-inspiring creativity, and thought-provoking sermons. They didn't use these words exactly, but I interpreted. What the president of our board did do was hand us a Halmark card with a check, and say, "We're grateful for all you do."


Then he added the exclamation point. He initiated the Slow Clap.

The whole church put its hands together. Slowly. Then faster. And faster. The clap climaxed in outright applause. There is no greater way to appreciate someone than to offer the Slow Clap.

My wife and I became a huge fan of the Slow Clap a few years ago. We had grown weary of the high five, fist pump, and butt slap. Some of these gestures spread germs. At least one of these gestures is inappropriate across genders or for non-family members. (I would never high five my neighbor's wife!)

The Slow Clap, however, transcends setting (try it at concerts, graduation speeches, funerals), does not discriminate (old people and children love it), and invites participation (by definition, no one slow claps alone). We started slow clapping for our children and dinner guests at supper time. We started slow clapping for extended family for their moments of self-discovery or triumph. We started slow clapping for friends after a bit of good news.

Eventually the Slow Clap made its way into our church. We slow clapped for answered prayer. We slow clapped for youth group testimonies. We slow clapped for our beloved Diana Davis - 70-year old retired missionary to CAR - coming into our worship service fifteen minutes late. The Slow Clap started slowly at our church, but it has spread like wildfire. The spark is in any hand willing to start a celebration. In our church, there are many.

I am glad for the culture I have helped shape: a culture of celebration. It almost makes me want to...

Clap.

Clap.

Clap.    Clap.
Clap.    Clap.    Clap.
Clap.  Clap.  Clap.Clap.Clap.CLAP.CLAPPPPPPPP.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Seven Reasons for Attractional Outreach Events


How do we respond to the demise of Christendom? The question haunts me.

I've searched the Church Leadership books for a prescription. They've suggested slowing down (e.g., Slow Church), creating missional communities (e.g., Everyday Church), and rediscovering our neighborhoods (e.g., The New Parrish). None of these authors promotes "attractional outreach events" -- a wordy way of saying, activities that entice people to come to your church building.

Unfortuantely, I was raised and trained on the method of mass entertainment. Living Christmas Trees and Vacation Bible Schools brought my family to church. Fall Festivals and Wild Game Feeds have knit our church together in service.


I will not abandon attractional outreach events. Not yet. Below I make my case:
  1. Attractional outreach keep Oriental Trading in business. Who else will buy 100 plastic off brand Slinkies embossed with crosses? What other occasion justifies the purchase of 50 paddle balls stamped with the phrase "Jesus saves"?
  2. Attractional outreach events promote big volunteerism. As much as we want everyone to serve as a mentor, tutor, or spiritual friend, we can at least feel good that large groups of people will move chairs, donate baked goods, and distribute candy.
  3. Attractional outreach events integrate different social classes. While the average church goer may not brave a homeless shelter, jail cell, or trailer park, when a church advertises free gas cards, sweatshirts, and entertainment, the "least of these" is sure to show up with open hands.
  4. Attractional outreach events direct money outside the walls of the church. Well, technically speaking, if the event is attractional, the money stays within the church walls, but its target audience is outsiders. And, for the record, at an attractional event these people are not referred to as "these people," "outsiders," or the "the least of these." They are called "unchurched" or "prospective members."
  5. Attractional outreach events encourage church members to invite others. Apparently, most congregants subscribe to a belief that friends and family do not need corporate worship, spiritual community, and preaching. They need chili and bluegrass music. We are better at selling a good time than God.
  6. Attractional outreach events employ pastors. As most of us know, pastors only work on Sundays. Two or three times a year, I schedule an outreach event on a Friday or Saturday to give the impression that my work responsibilities go exceed Sundays. 
  7. Attractional outreach events reflect Jesus' ministry practice. The Son of Man did not exclusively work big miracles in big crowds, but He did feed five thousand, four thousand, and preach to masses. Perhaps Jesus preferred the slower, smaller, more local forms of reaching people, but He did not altogether avoid crowd-pleasing moments.
Most of this list is tongue-in-cheek. It comes off the heels of our annual Fall Festival in Leesburg. I'm still feeling the warm glow of our largest attractional outreach event of the year. To the best of my knowledge, the Fall Festival has not resulted in a single conversion, new attendee, or moment of discovery for a serving member in my congregation.But the event is fun. It blesses the community. And it gives our church family a point of contact with our community.

Perhaps some day our neighbors in Leesburg will invite us to hide Easter Eggs in their living rooms and cook hotdogs in their backyards. Until then, we'll invite them to our lawn.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Our Adoption Story - Nine Years in the Making



My wife Liz and I have two beautiful daughters. Claire and Margot came into the world through tremendous labor pains; more than twenty-four hours each. For the second birth, we attempted a home delivery, but after a full day of contractions with no progress, the midwife took us to the local hospital. The doctor prescribed an emergency Cesarean birth. My wife’s uterine wall was seriously bruised; the contractions were not pushing baby the baby down, but merely battering the womb. 



Both Liz and baby Margot came out of the surgery healthy, but my wife felt timid about having any more children.

A few years passed and the desire to expand our family flared up again. However, the scars of previous pregnancies lingered. We diverted our energies by caring for the swarm of underprivileged children living in our neighborhood. We invited them into our home, fed them, provided a safe place to interact with our own kids. Eventually, the longing for a larger family and the care to the local ruffians led to discussions about foster care. We talked to friends about their experience fostering several kids, but after weighing the age of our daughters, governmental hoops, and transient nature of many foster relationships, we decided against pursuing it.

Another year passed and talks of expanding our family had subsided. Liz and I grew comfortable with our rhythm. Both our daughters had outgrown diapers and begun schooling. (They could even pour their own cereal!) I began the year reading the books A Hole in Our Gospel and Radical. Toward the end of winter, I woke up in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep. I slipped downstairs and read for two hours about poverty, disease, unclean water, HIV/AIDS, and the growing number of fatherless children in Africa. I felt something akin to the birth pangs my wife had experienced four years earlier. I knew I had to do something about it.

The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?  - Slightly Imperfect  -     By: Richard Stearns

A few nights later, my wife and I watched a movie called The Constant Gardner. The film exposes the gross, medical disadvantage African people experience. One particular scene in the movie shows a child boarding a plane to leave the country. She is told she cannot go. The protagonist, Justin Quayle, argues with the pilot, who glibly responds, “I cannot make an exception for one child.”

“But for THIS child, we can help,” Quayle says.

Tears flowed down my wife’s face and mine.

Conversations about expanding our family resumed. Liz had been thinking about adopting for several weeks. As had I. Every time Liz prayed about it, she envisioned Africa. Another congruence. God was stirring us, but we wanted to be certain. During the Lent season in 2011, we fasted and prayed, begging God to make His will clear.

Within a week, He made the path luminous. We met a random family at one of our local parks whose adoptive son Jacob shared his story with us. One of my wife’s co-worker told of a recent homecoming from Ethiopia--they brought two boys with them. We discovered a network of adoptive families in our small town of Warsaw (IN). We arranged dinners and discussions. We talked with family and friends. Feedback was overwhelmingly favorable.

By the end of Lent, Liz and I agreed to move forward with our intentions to adopt. Over the course of the summer, we researched various agencies and open countries. In August we applied to the Ethiopia Program with Children’s Hope International (St. Louis, MO). After being approved, we completed our homestudy, dossier, and educational work.

Since then two years has passed. We’ve waited patiently and prayed. We’ve waited patiently and read. We’ve waited patiently and raised funds. We’ve waited patiently and crept up the waiting list.


Our plan to wait patiently, however, was interrupted in August 2014 by a friend who sent us a text message about an Ethiopian boy on a Waiting Child List. We spent a month considering the 5-year old boy’s file: he was quiet, physically challenged, and cognitively delayed. We could not keep ourselves from loving him. So in September 2014 we agreed to pursue the adoption.


Now we wait impatiently and pray. We wait impatiently and update paperwork. We wait impatiently and raise funds. We wait impatiently until we can bring our son home.

To stay current with fundraising efforts, please visit: www.facebook.com/sprankleadoption 

 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Invention of Wise Guy

I invented Wise Guy to serve as the spokesman for my current sermon series in the Proverbs. He shares an uncanny resemblance to me - facial hair and gray mop excluded. But he fashions himself after Uncle Sam and King Solomon.




Every Sunday I welcome Wise Guy into our worship service. He visits us via satellite (or Ethernet) to answer a pressing question. I'm harvesting inquires from my congregation because I value participation and my creativity has limits.

So far we've asked Wise Guy about selfies, making friends, finding lost things, and error codes on the computer. More questions are in the queue:
  • What do I do about a pesky neighbor?
  • What do I say to a husband who has gotten carried away with Rock Band and cannot sing?
  • How do I get my kids to clean their rooms?

Wise Guy dispenses unconventional wisdom. His answers are not always orthodox or predictable; Bible verses do not attend his counsel. He tends to digress into "when I was a boy" stories or political rants - something directly tied to advanced ages.

And yet, I treasure Wise Guy's partnership in preaching. For Wise Guy gives the people at my church something to laugh about before we dive into ancient Hebrew instruction. This is good: for laughter is tasty medicine (Proverbs 17:22).

Monday, September 29, 2014

Flies and a Side of Fries with Eugene Peterson - My Sabbath Week


The Tamarck Brewery was abuzz. Chatty patrons filled the dining room. The clatter of plates and forks and pints of beer resounded. Nineties music blared from the speakers. A hungry band of flies wandered from table to table seeking whom they might devour. Several swirled around Eugene Peterson's brow. He attracted more flies than the ordinary man.

Tamarack Brewery at Night

Eugene had chosen a table in the far corner of the restaurant. We may have sat outside, but the rain prevented us. As we looked through the menu, Micah informed Eugene he need not worry about covering the bill.

"This is not usually what happens," Eugene demurred. "Traditionally people come out to visit me and talk about how difficult ministry is. Then I buy them lunch."

"I hope you don't mind if we break tradition," I said. Eugene smiled.

Again, that lucky feeling swept over me. Not only was I about to break bread with one of my favorite authors, but his comment reassured me I was in the right vocation. To love pastoral ministry is a gift. To lead a church that inspires me rather than depletes me is a lucky aberration.

But my luck was about to change. Toward the end of our meal, I asked one bad question, and Eugene Peterson chided me. I was stunned. Silent. Convinced that Eugene Peterson preferred Micah's company to mine. (Surely the humble carpenter reminded him more of Jesus than the haughty clergyman.)

The waitress returned, and we placed our orders. Eugene requested a bowl of split pea soup and draft of Hat Trick IPA. "The drinks are named after hockey terms," Eugene said. We had to tell him what a hat trick was.

I ordered a turkey sandwich and Yard Sale Amber. None of us knew the connection between yard sales and hockey. Micah ordered a burger with seasoned fries. His gluten-free diet prohibited him from ordering a beer. It also kept him from the fries. Eugene and I helped ourselves.

The conversation returned to ministry burnout and the growing number of pastors leading large, high-octane churches whose ministries come to a crashing finale. Eugene did not cite moral failure as the common factor, but the restless pace and programming of the mega-church. At these venues,  Sunday mornings do not slowly advance in the same direction. They escalate. More emphatic sermon series, more emotive songs, more audacious outreach ministries -- higher and bolder churches become. Eventually, pastoral leaders fall off the cliff. People in the congregation are not far behind. The interior life of too many pastors, Eugene lamented, is vaporous.

Later in our conversation, we talked about ambition and fame. I explained an epiphany about my writing life. The pressure I used to place on myself to write regularly and with intentions to publish had created unnecessary guilt. Sermon preparation, lesson planning, lunch meetings, and church gatherings took the better part of my week, but I always felt like I should carve out time to write. Wake up early and write. Go to bed late because I wrote. Skip lunch to write. But I could never sustain the plan.

However, if I viewed the next ten to twenty years as a developmental stage, I was sure to have rich resources. Biblical study and insight, personal anecdotes and experiences, and countless interactions with God's people would abound. I would have plenty to draw from and expand upon in book form. Better yet, the plan was guilt-free and sustainable.

Eugene Peterson's writing career had followed a similar path. His books flowed from his pastoral opportunities and insights. His titles about pastoral leadership came out of years of conversations with other pastors. His series on spiritual theology addressed the questions and concerns he gathered from students, colleagues, and congregants. His poetry came from years of walking in the woods.

Micah asked Eugene about fame. "Are you well-known around here?"

Eugene glanced around the restaurant and said, "Nobody here knows me."

"Is that difficult?" I asked.

By way of analogy, he told us no. What cured him of his need to be known was a walking tour of Galilee. He bypassed the larger towns -- those stamped with Roman wealth -- and camped out in Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida. These less populated cities marked Jesus' primary place of ministry. The Christ who "became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (John 1:14, the Message) was more obscure than we give him credit for. Obscurity was no concern for Eugene Peterson.
Our conversation continued to roll through lunch. And then I asked my fated question. "Perhaps this is a bad question, but would you consider yourself more of a 'This-is-the-day-that-the-Lord-has-made' or 'Come-Lord-Jesus' kind of Christian."
With no hesitation, Eugene replied, "This is the day."

The question was not too bad, but neither was it good. His quick and certain response provoked me to ask another. It was the next question that undid my luck.

"Do you think most Christians are of the 'Come-Lord-Jesus' kind?"

This time Eugene did hesitate. He pressed his lips together, concealing his smile in a serious gaze. After a long pause, he said, "I prefer not use stereotypes; I don't find them helpful."

I could feel my face get hot. I was rattled.

He continued, "I'm often surprised by the spiritual depth that people show. I find that most people wrestle with God and the real issues of life."

He said no more. Nor did I. Eugene Peterson had just chided me, and I was not sure why. Perhaps I had come across arrogant. Perhaps I had tried to create a special category of super saints, in which Eugene Peterson and I could co-reign.  Perhaps this was a demon he had fought for decades. Perhaps I had touched on a fear he had about other people, and after fifty years of pastoral ministry was afraid to admit defeat. Perhaps it was just a bad question.

At that moment, I was relieved to have my buddy Micah with me. I reached for one of his fries. I waited for him to resurrect our dialogue. He let me pick at his plate and regain my composure. I heard Runaway Train playing in the background; I wanted to board. I counted flies around Eugene Peterson's head; I noticed the glow was gone. Perhaps it was never there.

I eventually returned to the conversation. I don't remember much toward the end. As promised, Micah paid the bill. As promised, Eugene gifted us each a book of poetry and a copy of The Message for my aunts.

We parted in the parking lot. Eugene headed south; Micah and I turned toward the mountains. We had some climbing to do. And I was longing for a mountaintop experience.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Lucky Conversation with Eugene Peterson - My Sabbath Week




Our time at the Eugene Peterson's home was remarkably ordinary. We talked and laughed and smiled and answered questions. There were pauses and tangents and stories of note. At one point I asked permission to use the restroom. At another point Gene slipped away to discuss something with his wife Jan. But for the better part of an hour and a half, we enjoyed a conversation. Micah and I were lucky strangers in Eugene Peterson's humble home.

He had helped build the modest house with his father. It had walls and windows, family photos and handmade furniture, Christian books and artwork, a fireplace, a sofa, and several chairs. Silver and gold were not on display. He lived simply, quelling my fear that the man behind The Message, The Jesus Way, and The Pastor might dwell like a king.



We exchanged greetings at the door. I told him my name and shook his hand. Micah followed suit. Then our host welcomed us inside. I watched his feet shuffle as he ushered us into the living room. I listened to his voice crackle as he talked. He appeared fragile. The years had been kind to the eighty-two year old pastor/author, but even kindness has a mortality rate.


"You'll have to remind me. Where are you from?" he asked after we took our seats.

"We're from Indiana," we said.

"I don't know anyone from Indiana," Eugene said, smiling as if he had discovered treasure. The glow from the window behind him created a halo around his head.

I felt the stakes rise. Not only did I want Saint Eugene to like me, but I also wanted him to remember me as the God's ambassador from Indiana.

"What brings you to see me?" he asked.

I replayed the story of my wife's birthday gift, my love for his writing, my appreciation for his view of God's word and our world, and my shared frustration with pop evangelicalism. "Your respect for people, and love for story and language - each of these emphases resonate with me in my pastoral ministry."


"Well, I thought we could sit here for an hour or so and get acquainted. Then we can continue our conversation over lunch at the Tamarack Brewery."

Micah and I consented to the plan. We began to share about our lives: family, career, faith. Eugene gave us a brief biography, spanning from doctoral studies to church planting to scholar-in-residence to academia to translation of The Message and various other writing projects. His latest work was a book of poetry entitled Holy Luck.

The word lucky played a special part in Peterson's career. When he first endeavored to translate the whole New Testament into common English, he began with Matthew. (He had already paraphrased Galatians for his church, which provoked a publisher to inquire about the rest of the Bible.)

"The first four chapters of Matthew were wooden, difficult. I hadn't found my voice. I was ready to quit," he recounted. "One Sunday I was at church and a woman who was new to church life came up to me and said, 'I feel so lucky that I get to be here.' She said the same thing week after week. 'I feel so lucky. I feel so lucky.' Then I knew I could translate the Sermon on the Mount. I went to my basement and started on the beatitudes. I wrote, 'Lucky are the...'"

Although the editor discouraged the translation (for luck was the devil's business, God dealt in certainties), Eugene had found his voice in simple exclamation of a woman in his congregation.

I told Eugene that I felt lucky. "I love my church. I love the people. I love to preach and teach God's word. I hope to be there for a long time. I feel so lucky." Micah shared the sentiment. He loved working in beautiful homes, putting up fine trim. He loved his wife and kids and neighborhood. We were two lucky friends.

Eugene shook his head. "I can't tell you how encouraging it is to hear that you both like your jobs and your place in life. The majority of people who come to see me are depressed, burned out, or looking for an escape."

"How often do people come to see you?" I asked.

"Two or three times a week. Some come for a short visit like you. Some stay over night."

The statistics of pastoral burnout have always surprised me. Across the country, churches close daily. Pastors quit, get fired, or transfer to churches where they suppose a fresh start will revive their spirits. Most of Eugene Peterson's conversations take place with unlucky pastors. I simultaneously felt burdened and blessed.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Our Gay Old Time - My Sabbath Week

I had a gay old time traversing the country with my pal Micah - the two of us tucked away neatly in a blue Prius. We drove with smiles plastered to our faces, giddy for the gas mileage, unfettered from the worries of daily life.

However, there was one worry that continued to crop up at many a fuel stop, camp site, and scenic detour: I feared people took us for a gay couple. Two guys grinning in a Prius is all the evidence our world needs to presume homosexuality. It didn't help our case that I packed my sleeping bag in a pink, Disney princess sack.
The modern age has trained us to think gay. Television series and episodes cannot seem to air without a gay character, couple, or plot line. Celebrities and athletes boost their endorsements by confessing their homosexual orientation. Gay marriage has gained traction nationally. The marketing strategy of the LGBT has been so effective, many teenagers today wrestle with their own sexual identity. While decades ago teens simply struggled to understand their raging hormones, they now must filter their sexual impulses through what appears to be three possibilities: straight, gay, bisexual.

It's no secret that sex sells in our culture. We are sexual beings. But the menu for sexuality has changed dramatically in recent decades. Homosexuality used to show up as a seasonal dish; now it's a main course.

Micah and I joked about how people might perceive us. I made an effort when talking to strangers to mention our wives and kids. Micah restrained himself from holding my hand. We only posed together for two pictures. We only shared a bed once and not in the Honeymoon Sweet at the Overlook Bed and Breakfast. There were ordered separate mattresses and ignored the sign telling us to bathe with a friend.


Ironically, one of the richest parts of our gay old time was a visit with my aunt and her partner in Big Fork, Montana. We stayed with Aunt Ann and Melissa the night before our meeting with Eugene Peterson. I informed Micah of their living arrangements. While their lesbian lifestyle was never mentioned aloud during my upbringing, it was no secret that Aunt Ann and Melissa were a couple. In my conservative family, they were described as "special friends."

The town of Big Fork is situated on the north eastern corner of Flathead Lake. The area is flamboyantly conservative: Tea Party representatives, Ten Commandments signs, and independent evangelical churches abound.  My gay aunt and her partner routinely drive past religious billboards and icons, confronted on every street corner by pop evangelicalism. They've grown convinced that Christians in their area are insecure, but they only know them from a distance.

Micah and I talked with my Aunt Ann and Melissa over dinner. They asked about Eugene Peterson. They had Googled him, but were more interested in my intrigue with the man. I praised his writing, his ability to draw connections from the biblical world to ours, and his opus: The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language.

"Eugene did not want people to view the Bible as if God spoke in exalted, spiritual language," I explained. "The Message shows God speaks to the common person in a common tongue."

We continued to discuss spiritual matters with my aunts (as I came to call them, my love for them as people outgrowing my dislike for homosexuality as a practice). We defined what a Christian is, and Ten Commandment billboards did not make the essentials list. Rather, Jesus is central: His forgiveness, sacrifice, resurrection, and invitation to follow Him. "I mess up all the time," Micah said, admitting his orientation toward sin and failure. "But I know God forgives me and accepts me because of Jesus."

We discussed the true meaning of "born again," pointing to Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus (John 3). I stressed the need for God's intervention in our lives; self-help projects do not merit eternal life. Nor do certain labels for certain types of Christians. 
And we listened to criticisms about hypocrisy in the church. My aunt told us her departure from Methodism came after realizing the people attended for social purposes, not spiritual ones.

The conversation ensued the following day. My aunt asked if I thought there were any gay people in my church. "I've only known of one in seven years," I said. "But I would not be surprised if others struggled with homosexual tendencies."

"Would we be accepted in your church?" she asked.

"Probably not," I replied. "As a church we do not believe homosexuality is God's design or desire. We don't bring it up all the time, but you would probably feel that belief at our church."

It grieved me to tell my aunt the truth, but I had no choice. She asked me to speak for my church, and I did. Sadly, the line between loving people and endorsing a practice gets fuzzier at the institutional level. I would invite my aunts to a family dinner without reservation. However, I could not reserve them a seat at my church's Love Feast. Some aspects of life remain exclusive.

I made sure to tell my aunt that when issues like this become personal, folks tend to show love. Individuals are better at showing love than institutions. Churches are institutions. Christians are people.

As a Christian, I hope I showed my aunt love. Both of them. I think I did.

I believe Micah did, too.

Even Eugene Peterson, the consummate pastor, reached out to my aunts. He inscribed two copies of The Message, one for each of them. He handed me the books and said, "Tell them I wrote The Message for people like them." The cast of "common people" comprises gay and straight, male and female, Jew and Gentile, sinner and saint.

My Aunt Ann and Melissa received Eugene's gift with gratitude. I pray they will receive God's gift of grace in time.