Monday, December 15, 2014

Unleashing the Poet Within - Five Tips to Spark Poetic Creativity

This Christmas I'm taking a cue from characters in the Nativity Story. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon each bring a poetic voice to the birth of Christ.

Mary's poem, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) rejoices in God's ability to reverse the fortunes of His servant. She spoke the prayer after six months of bearing the Christ-child.

Zechariah's poem, the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), blesses God, remembering His promises and looking forward to His redemption. He spoke the prayer after nine-months of waiting for the birth of his prophet-child.

Simeon's prayer, the Nunc Dimittus (Luke 2:29-32), expresses Simeon's relief at God's salvation. He spoke the prayer after decades of waiting for God's promised Messiah. God had told him he would not die until he laid eyes on His Anointed.

I would argue these poems did not spring from the authors' lips spontaneously. Rather, these were carefully crafted reflections on the nature and mission of God. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon displayed a poetic theology, answering C.S. Lewis's essay question, "Is Theology Poetry?" long before it was raised. Indeed, humans are "poetic animals," as Lewis' stated.

I would further argue our aching and amused world does not need more spontaneous expressions of Christian praise, but more poetic voices. Christians must learn to unleash their inner poet. We are, in fact, wired for poetic expression, as divine image-bearers. God spoke poetically to Job and Isaiah. He spoke poetically through Solomon, David, and Moses. Even Jesus's sermons and Paul's epistles were laced with poetry. We can speak poetically, too.

While I do not assume I can convince someone she is poetic, I will, at least, provide the courtesy of five poetic tips to living a more poetic life.

  1. Start. Get a writing instrument and go. Don't worry about its quality or completion. Some poems aren't worthy of a conclusion. But you'll never improve if you don't begin. 
  2. Set strict limits. Start with a known form, like Haiku, chiaism, or acrostic. Boundaries do not restrict creativity, but focus it. Another way to set limits is to use a timer (e.g. 5 minutes) and write as many words and phrases for a given topic (e.g. snowfall) in the allotted time. You can come back later and fashion the pieces into poetry.
  3. Forget rhyming. The definition of poetry (whatever one you chose) does not include rhyming. Figures of speech, imagery, honesty, and rhythm are more important to good poetry.
  4. Choose topics that interest you. Write about your passions. Write about your experiences. Don't wax poetically about slave trade only because it's a trend. Don't write about scars you don't bear. Your initial inspirations should be personal.
  5. Turn your emotions into an image. Poetry makes abstract matters concrete. Pick a normal emotion like rage and describe it in action. My fists pounds the wall / my eyes flash red. Then play the action out to its end.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Sins of Speech OR Otherwise I'd Brag

Sins of speech come in many forms: gossip, slander, rumors, abuse, cursing, and deceit. Other ways of erring with the tongue often go unaddressed-- sarcasm, criticism, pessimism, teasing, and taunting.

The book of Proverbs takes pains to expose sins of speech. No less than forty references prohibit deceit or encourage honesty. For a sampling, see:  

Proverbs 6:16-19; 8:6-9, 12-14; 10:6, 14, 18-21, 31-32; 11:11-13; 12:6, 13-14, 18, 25; 13:2-3, 5, 16; 14:3, 5, 25; 15:1-2, 4, 7, 23, 28; 16:10, 13, 24; 17:4, 7, 20, 27-28; 189:4, 6-8, 13, 20-21; 19:1, 5, 9; 20:18-19, 25; 21:23; 22:11; 23:15-16; 24:7-9, 26; 25:10-11, 14, 24; 26:4, 28; 27:14; 29:5; 30:5-6, 10, 14; 31:26

In a culture predating digital media and written contracts, honest speech was central to ancient Israel. Her word served as her guarantee. A broken word upset relationships--familial, business, and social.

In our brave new world, we would do wisely to heed the Bible's speech ethic (Shut up! Speak slowly! Say something nice!). It's too easy not to filter speech from behind a screen; anyone sound STRONG in CAPS LOCKS. It's too easy to manipulate our posts so our online persona is no more than an avatar; anyone can sound spiritual when requesting prayer on Facebook. We  must be aware of the most subtle and widespread word-sins: impression management.

John Ortberg describes this in his book, The Life You've Always Wanted (p. 169):
If we take notice, we will see that a vast amount of what we say generally includes a great deal of impression management. For instance, if we tell someone about a television program, we may preface our report with a disclaimer: “I don’t watch much TV, but the other night…”
This is merely an exercise in impression management. We do it because if  we don’t, the listener might think we just sit around eating bon bons and watching sitcoms.

If we being to listen for these kinds of comments, we will discover that attempting to control the way others think of us is one of the primary uses we put words to in contemporary society. Human conversation is largely an endless attempt to convince others that we are more assertive or clever or gentle or successful than they might think if we did not carefully educate them.

My words aim to impress more often than I'd like to admit. It motivates a fair share of my blogging, tweeting, teaching and preaching. This, I suppose, is why few should teach (James 3:1). My judgement is more severe. I must give an account for my words--a tool I take pride in wielding--otherwise I'd brag.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hard Work from behind the Desk

Full disclosure: If I weren't writing this blog right now, I'd be reading online articles about the Cleveland Browns. Or I'd be striking a horizontal position on the futon next to me. I want sleep. I want to slack. It's the perennial, post-lunch problem for solo pastors and desk jockeys.

But I cannot sleep or slack today because I preached against sloth on Sunday. Solmon's advice echoes in my ear: Go the ant; see how they work hard! (Proverbs 6:6-11). Or maybe that's just the sound of Judy Rogers.

Proverbs forced me to look my sloth in the face. I know churches that require their pastors to work 50-55 hours a week. According to a recent Gallup Poll, the average work-week in America is 47. I can't compete with these pastors. My typical work week rarely eclipses 45 hours. In this case, though, I'm happily below average.

For more on sloth and the Christian life, see the notes:

What drives me is not hours invested, but impact.
  • Does the time I spend in sermon preparation simply organize thoughts, or does it edify people? 
  • Does my leadership simply ensure tasks are done, or does it empower and equip people? 
  • Do my short and long-range plans simply fill the calendar, or do they position our church to give witness to the wonderful love of Jesus? 
  • Do God and my church need 50+ hours in clerical robes to maximize my impact?
  • Do the short-term gains of busyness justify the long-term loss of energy and exuberance?

These are tough questions to consider. Too tough. I think I'll take that nap after all.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Sex Talk in Church

I talked about sex in church yesterday. I felt great about the sermon until an eight-year old boy walked in. He had dismissed himself from the children's class and plopped next to his father. The whole church tightened up when he entered the auditorium. I stuttered for a minute, finding user-friendly synonyms for words like "harlot" and "prostitute." The phrase "hanky panky" came in handy for the last ten minutes.

Proverbs 5:1-23 was our primary text. Solomon discussed sex with his son often in Proverbs (2:16; 6:12ff; 7:1-27). Considering he had 300 wives and 700 concubines, it's no surprise the topic was on his mind. His advice on sex falls in two categories. Negatively, he prohibits casual sex. Positively, he promotes covenant sex.

This teaching remains consistent throughout the Bible. Sex is not a bad word. In the right context it is a great word and a great thing. The right context is NOT the college dorm room, your parent's basement, Internet chatrooms, pornography, hotels rooms with prostitutes, or your neighbor's bedroom. Casual sex, Solomon warns (and modern authors like Laura Sessions Stepp), ruins you with regret and a sense of isolation. Don't be seduced by casual sex!

According to Scripture, the right context is wherever you and YOUR SPOUSE agree to enjoy a shameless act of intimacy. Well, perhaps wherever is a little too broad. Stay out of my house. My wife and I have claimed it!

(NOTE: I tried to embed the Prezi, but the code didn't work. Here's a link.)

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.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: