Waiting for Heaven in a Place Called Earth

I find myself more and more willing to enter into the waiting of Advent. Waiting, not just for a Christmas Day celebration with family, not just for presents under the tree or a feast on the table, but waiting for the day when Jesus will return and put an end to the death, suffering, and injustice of this world.

Photo by Thomas Kinto on Unsplash

I did not grow up participating in a church that observed (or even mentioned) the season of Advent. The whole concept was new to me when I was a young theology student being introduced to the Reformed tradition and Church history. But the traditional Advent practice of “waiting” – the reality of longing for something more – was not new to me.

I remember the waiting. I remember looking at those presents wrapped under the tree and counting down the days until they could be opened. We didn’t have an Advent wreath, but I remember the hope, peace, joy, and love. Hope that the present I was longing for was under the tree. Joy when it was found and opened on Christmas! Peace when I had searched and then found the perfect gift for each of my family members and wrapped it in love under the tree.

Is this all too superficial? Perhaps. Every year I see chatter on my social media feed with Presbyterian pastors arguing over the proper place of Advent in their congregation’s worship practices. Many of the conversations turn downright hostile! I recently saw some pastors calling (in jest) for disciplinary action to be brought against other pastors blending Advent and Christmas in their worship services. And while I know they weren’t serious, I got the feeling that they would not, in fact, be opposed to such extreme measures if they were to happen. I have heard of churches being nearly split over the issue of singing Christmas songs during Advent (seriously!). Fortunately, the vast majority of pastors are more sober-minded and prefer to walk a middle road when it comes to Advent and Christmas practices.

Photo by Rajat Verma on Unsplash

But as I look back, I see that the waiting for my family’s Christmas Day celebration was not superficial at all. Christmas morning was the one time of the year where I could usually count on a happy time with my family. Often, as is common in life, that celebration occurred in the darkness and shadow of other struggles. I remember Christmas celebrations during times that were darkened by the death, grief, and loss of close family members. I remember Christmas mornings spent with family in rehab facilities. There was that Christmas morning that I spent working long hours for minimum wage so that I could pay my bills and pay off debt. There was also that year that my wife and I spent Advent waiting for the birth of our fist child. My wife spent Advent waiting in ways that I can’t even imagine – stuck on bedrest due to the danger the pregnancy was causing to her own health. Then her pain of giving birth on Christmas Eve, followed by the unmatched joy of holding our son in our arms on Christmas morning!

As I get older, I find myself more and more willing to enter into the waiting of Advent. Waiting, not just for a Christmas Day celebration with family, not just for presents under the tree or a feast on the table, but waiting for the day when Jesus will return and put an end to the death, suffering, and injustice of this world. A day when the joy will be so overwhelming that everything else we have experienced in life pales in comparison.

Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash

Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth
Where every son and daughter will know their worth
Where all the streets resound with thunderous joy
Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth

Jon Foreman, “A Place Called Earth”

This song has made it onto my Advent playlist this year and seems to have lodged itself on repeat in my head lately. It expresses for me the way I now approach these weeks before Christmas. I take upon my lips the prayers of those who are suffering and longing for change and relief. I do this while simultaneously singing the songs of Christmas joy. For me, there is no reason they can’t live together in the already/but not yet reality of the Kingdom of God. The world Jesus entered into 2,000 years ago was wracked by sickness, hunger, war, death, and injustice. The light of forgiveness and grace that Jesus brought into our world and into our hearts burns brightly through that darkness. The darker it gets, the brighter the light! I love to celebrate that light of Christ while also waiting for the fullness of that light to dawn. And I know that I don’t wait alone. I wait with all of my brothers and sisters around the world, but especially with those that are suffering. And I know that all of us wait – not just with each other – but also with all of Creation.

Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor, 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Romans 8:19-23

There is solidarity in this waiting. There is hope in this waiting. Yes, I even find that there is peace, joy, and love in this waiting for the arrival of Jesus. So I invite you to join me. Pick up a good Advent devotional, create your own playlist of Advent songs (I’m happy to share mine), make an Advent wreath and watch the light grow with each prayer as we approach Christmas Day. May God grant you and your family the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ!

Reflections on MLK Day

MLK Memorial. Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

It has become a new ritual of mine to read the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” every year around the holiday named in his honor. I was first introduced to the letter in book form when I was a student at Whitworth University (then Whitworth College). I don’t remember exactly how it affected me then, but it must have had some impact, because years later I have read it a dozen times or more. (You can read it for free using the link above, or even listen to a reading of it by Rev. King himself).

The impact this letter has on me now is much different than when I was younger. For one thing, I can now be categorized as a “white moderate pastor” – and this is exactly those to whom the letter is addressed. And 2021 brings even more urgency to the Rev. King’s words as we wrestle with the lack of progress towards racial equity and justice in our nation. As always, I am challenged, encouraged, and amazed the powerful words of the letter. But today, I wanted to simply reflect on two sections that grabbed me the most.

“If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning of the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, p. 17

An “irrelevant social club!” I admit that I chuckled a bit when I read that. Not because I find the idea humorous, but because I have heard the church described this way in calls for reform by many leaders of the missional church movement. But I also now see, some 52 years later, that he was right. The American church has lost its “authentic ring” for much of the population. Church declines can be measured in the millions. The view of many young people toward the church can be described as “outright disgust.” And while there may be many reasons for this, I happen to think that the #1 reason is that the church has, in many cases, lost the sacrificial spirit of the early church – the sacrificial spirit of Jesus Christ.

Of course, it is easy to critique, much harder to take ownership. It is powerful to be reminded that as disappointed as Rev. King was with the state of the Church, he refused to give up hope. As a church leader, that is what I must do. I must take ownership and look for ways to guide myself and my congregation back to that sacrificial spirit. And that should at least look like the willingness to have difficult conversations about race, difficult conversations about inequity and injustice, and taking time to listen to the voices of our brothers and sisters of color. (If this is something that you or your church are interested in I highly recommend beginning with Jamar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise or the video of the same name on Amazon Prime Video).

Here is another section of the letter that really grabbed me today:

“Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structures of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, p. 16

I have to admit that I do not understand the reluctance of many of my white Christian brothers and sisters to enter into conversations about race and injustice. My spiritual journey has been one of constant rebuke, correction, repentance, and growth. I’m never surprised to discover hidden sin in my life. I was not pleased to see racism in myself, but as a sinner in need of grace, I was eager have the Holy Spirit shine light on the darkness of my soul and move me towards sanctification. It is a process, and I own that it may not be complete in this life. But I want to move closer to the heart of Christ, even if it is painful to do so at times.

But the pull of the status quo is powerful when you are the one that benefits from it. And just as it was in the day that Rev. King penned the letter in the cell in Birmingham, there are growing calls within the white church today to “focus on the things of the Spirit” and “keep politics out of the Church.” I hear them myself, and I know that other church leaders hear them as well. But the call to follow our Lord comes first, the call to sacrifice and service remains foremost.

I deeply admire Rev. King and love listening to or reading his sermons and other works. I read the sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct” today. It seemed so timely and appropriate and I highly recommend it. But more than that it reminded me of my call to follow Christ faithfully in this moment we call 2021. O Lord, hear my prayer, and give me wisdom and courage!

Another Take

One of my college professors, Jerry Sittser, has a new blog post on the same topic that I wrote about last week. Jerry is an expert in Christian history and his take on current events is well worth the read. Besides, he just has a much nicer way of saying things! Go check it out at jerrysittser.com. Here is an excerpt:

The attempt to make America a “Christian Nation” has birthed the rise of Christian Nationalism, which elevates nation above Kingdom, party above church, leader above Lord.  It also privileges the few over the many: rich over poor, white over black, men over women.  It leads to apocalyptic thinking and tends to turn all national problems into a fight between good and evil, light and darkness, which makes it almost impossible to negotiate compromise and to exercise any degree of self-criticism.  It is too much “all or nothing.”

— Dr. Jerry Sittser

Dr. Jerry Sittser

A False Gospel

This last week I silently wept as news reports rolled in, detailing the storming of the US Capitol Building by pro-Trump extremists during a joint session of Congress actively deliberating to certify the electoral college votes naming Joe Biden the next President of the United States. I love my country. I take pride in many of our democratic principles and values. I am heartbroken, ashamed, and even angry at the violence that took place. I never imagined that I would see this day. And most disturbing of all, some of those storming the Capitol carried the name of Jesus on their signs and clothing, and carried with them the false rallying cry that this act was “God’s will.”

But it was not God’s will! That is, not the will of the God that Christians know and worship. It is, however, the will of a very disturbed President clinging desperately to power. A man who has twisted, contorted, and mangled the truth to the point that many of those who support him, even some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, live in a web of tangled lies (John 8:42-47). This deception runs so deep that some of them are even able to justify violence, insurrection, hatred, and political power at all costs. This is NOT the way of Christ! In fact, this is anti-Christ! It is for this reason that I am writing this now. It may be that there is someone out there who needs to hear me say this.

There have been many articles in the past year that have looked at the QAnon conspiracy theories and point to the emergence of a new religion complete with a new savior (Trump). But much of what we are seeing now has been brewing long before Donald Trump became president. The roots, I believe, are deeply embedded in a false gospel. This false gospel claims that the United States of America is God’s chosen nation, and Americans (specifically white Christian Americans) are God’s chosen people. Ignoring the words of Jesus to love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you (Matthew 5:44), this false gospel justifies violence and war against any who would threaten it.  Carefully picking around passages of scripture that say to care for the marginalized, immigrant, and poor, this false gospel instead calls for massive sums of money for more weapons, military, police, and prisons. This false gospel claims that the God’s will is supported by a political party, and your allegiance to voting Republican is the sole evidence of your standing before God. 

This false gospel claims that the United States of America is God’s chosen nation, and Americans (specifically white Christian Americans) are God’s chosen people.

Is it any wonder that now there has arisen someone like Donald Trump? He has none of the characteristics of a godly person according to the Bible, showing himself to be the polar opposite of every fruit of the Holy Spirit and, in fact, having many of the marks of the so-called “flesh” (Galatians 5:13-26). And yet, according to current data, roughly 81% of so-called “evangelical Christians” voted for Trump in 2020. Why? Because he stands for the things that really matter to those who have bought into the false gospel: “America first,” wealth, power, the Republican party as the party of Jesus, and white privilege. And yes, I know that this oversimplifies why many Christians claim that have voted for him (e.g. abortion and the Supreme Court), but I would argue that there is much evidence to show that these other issues are justifications for what really matters most to many of these voters.  I should know, because I used to be one of them and I was not honest with myself about why I really supported some candidates. I claimed the moral high ground of a single-issue voter, but I didn’t want to be bothered with the details about whether or not electing a certain candidate made any real difference on abortion, and I certainly didn’t want to be bothered with doing anything about it myself! I voted on what I thought would be best for me – a white middle-class man who doesn’t want things to change because I am doing just fine.

This false gospel requires faith. We see this clearly right now. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, there are ongoing claims that the election was “stolen,” that there is massive and wide-spread “voter fraud,” that there is a liberal “deep state,” working in the shadows to undermine our democracy and elections. Never mind that it wasn’t a particularly close election, never mind that every court in the land has upheld the result because no credible evidence of fraud has been brought forward. Never mind that those in charge of the safety and security of the election from all sides of the political spectrum say that the election was valid. It requires faith. You simply must believe. And if you go far enough down the rabbit hole you can begin to believe in new kind of evil: A Democratic party intent on taking away all of the things that we hold dear: namely our guns, our money, our power, and our privilege. And if that isn’t evil enough for you, maybe throw in some conspiracy theories about an underground network of child sexual slaves. 

Even now, as I write this, the FBI is reporting that the danger of more violence at the US capitol and at other state capitols is growing. The national guard is being deployed at our capitol here in Washington State, and extra security is being deployed at capitols all over our nation. My hope is that we will have a transition of power on January 20 without more bloodshed. I think it is too late to claim – as we have often done with great pride – that we will have a peaceful transition of power. But we can only guess at what the future holds. If the past teaches us anything, it is that nations come and go, democracy is fragile, and that those who have power do not give it up easily. But as Christians, our hope and our true citizenship rests not in this country, nor in any president, but in a kingdom that is “not of this world.” (Phil. 3:17-21, John 18:36). There are Christians living in every nation on this earth. Many live in places of war, famine, poverty, and corruption. Some live in prosperous and peaceful places, some live under dictators ruling with an iron fist. But all of them live ultimately under the reign of God, and their hope rests not in this life, but in the life to come (1 Cor. 15:19-26). Their Savior is not a political party, or a president, or a nation. There Savior is none other than Jesus Christ. 

But as Christians, our hope and our true citizenship rests not in this country, nor in any president, but in a kingdom that is “not of this world.”

The true gospel is that only when we admit our weakness and brokenness can we find forgiveness and salvation. The true Gospel is found in a Lord who showed strength through weakness, power through kindness and mercy, greatness through service, and life through death. The way of this Gospel is not violence, but sacrifice and love for the other. The way of this Gospel is not allegiance to nation or party, but identity in a family that transcends nation, race, class, and politics.  And through this Gospel, Christians claim – as they have from the very beginning – that only Jesus is Lord!

Send Her Back?

A pastor’s response to the crowd at a Trump rally chanting “Send Her Back!”

Today I heard something that shook me to my core. It was an audio clip of people at Presdent Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina chanting “send her back!” in reference to Congressional Representive Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. I am naïve. I never thought I would hear something like this in our country in my lifetime.  

I am a pastor, I am a white man, and I cannot stay silent. Some will dismiss what I write now as a political attack from someone on the left directed at the President because he is a conservative. This seems to be a fashionable way in our time to avoid truly listening to others and it happens from all sides of the political spectrum. But what I write now is not meant to be directed at the President, nor is it meant to be directed at the people at the rally, nor even Americans at large. It is, however, meant to be for those who consider themselves to be my sisters and brothers in Christ. I have been charged with caring for them and proclaiming God’s Word to them, and therefore I must speak at this moment for those who will listen. 

“Send her back!” 

Why her? Send her where? 

Representative Omar is an immigrant to this county, she is a Muslim, and she is an outspoken critic of many of the policies of the current administration, including its stance towards Israel and the Palestinian territories. She immigrated to the United States with her father when she was a child (her mother died when she was two). Her family was fleeing war in Somalia, they lived in refugee camps for many years before coming to the U.S. where they were granted asylum, and where they eventually became naturalized citizens. Now Ilhan Omar has been elected by the people of her state to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. And while her positions and her approach have been distasteful to many, this alone would not be enough to get a crowd standing in front of the President of the United States to scream “send her back” while the President stood there silently. It is also not simply because she was not born here (in fact, the President’s current wife was not born in the U.S.). The reason that Rep. Omar is being targeted is because of two reasons: her skin color, and her religion. And this is why hearing this chant, coming from a crowd of white people, many of whom would undoubtedly identify as Christians, is profoundly disturbing to me. 

We have seen this before in our history. We have seen this before in world history. This form of racism is ugly, it is sinful, and if not resisted it will become a cancer that will destroy lives and corrupt the message of the Gospel. Darkness is never so obvious as when it follows brilliant light. The “send back” call chanted by a crowd standing before the President of the United States is especially disturbing when directed at a woman who represents all that many Christians in this country have long fought for: a sanctuary for the refugee, a place of freedom of worship, a country where marginalized voices are heard and represented.

I am grateful to be part of a Christian denomination that that is “confessional.” This means that we have written confessions of faith (statements of what we believe) as a part of our constitution. When we ordain elders (pastors and lay leaders) they must agree to be guided and instructed by these confessions. We have a confession written by Christians in Germany during the rise of Hitler, we have a confession written during the height of race tensions in the 1960’s (The Confession of 1967), and we have a recently added confession written by the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa in response to Apartheid (The Confession of Belhar). All of these confessions seek to profess the faith of the Church and the authority of scripture in the face of competing values, and all of them have something to say to us now.

From the Confession of Belhar (emphasis mine):

We believe…
• That Christ’s work of reconciliation is made
manifest in the church as the community of
believers who have been reconciled with God
and with one another;
• that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation
for the church of Jesus Christ; that
through the working of God’s Spirit it is a
binding force, yet simultaneously a reality
which must be earnestly pursued and sought:
one which the people of God must continually
be built up to attain;
• that this unity must become visible so that the
world may believe that separation, enmity and
hatred between people and groups is sin
which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly
that anything which threatens this
unity may have no place in the church and
must be resisted;
Therefore, we reject any ideology
• which would legitimate forms of injustice and
any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such
an ideology in the name of the gospel.

Notice the strong language of “sin” used to describe “enmity and hatred between people and groups.” If you read these confessions in our Book of Confessionsyou will also see the scripture references to go along with them. In this case it is the prayer of Jesus in John 17 for the unity of future disciples and Paul’s prayer for the unity of the church in Ephesians 4 (among other references). But one could make the argument that this confession and these scriptures are directed at the church, not to those outside of it (someone of a different religion). But in both the confessions and scripture the call to be unified with each other in Christ is only the start, the next step is living out the unity in the world. The Belhar confession goes on to say…

“We believe… 
• that the church must therefore stand by people
in any form of suffering and need, which implies,
among other things, that the church
must witness against and strive against any
form of injustice, so that justice may roll
down like waters, and righteousness like an
ever-flowing stream;
• that the church as the possession of God must
stand where the Lord stands, namely against
injustice and with the wronged;
• that in following Christ the church must witness
against all the powerful and privileged
who selfishly seek their own interests and thus
control and harm others.”

It is unjust for those of us in a place of privilege and power to use that position for our own purposes against others simply because they believe something different than we do or because they look differently than we do or because they were born on the other side of a national border. Even as I write this last sentence, I feel as if I am writing an argumentative essay for a high school history class studying segregation in the United States. I can’t believe that it needs to be said today, but it does. My brothers and sisters in Christ, if our desire to maintain a position of privilege in this country, and our desire to keep things comfortable for ourselves, comes before our calling to be a people of God, welcoming the stranger and the alien, and caring for the widow and the orphan, then we have indeed “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25).

The Gospel truth on this matter is expressed well in the Confession of 1967:

God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, he overcomes the barriers between brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.

I have just spent most of my morning thinking about and writing these words. I doubt that many, if any will read them to the end. It may be, in fact, that they are only for me, and that is well and good. A just criticism would be to ask me: “Why now? Why this?” It is true, that in recent years that has been a lot of conflict and anguish over the issue of race and prejudice in our nation.  I often feel compelled to speak, but rarely know the best way to do it. But there was something today that was a tipping point for me. Perhaps it was simply hearing the rising, angry chant of “Send her back!” over the radio in response to the words of our president that brought a picture into my head that was simply too close to some of those disturbing images I have seen over the years of crowds before fascist leaders. There is certainly more to be said, but for now, at least I have spoken.

Moving Into the Neighborhood

Christmas is winding down. We’ve crossed the threshold into another year and Epiphany arrives on Sunday. I enjoy the rhythm every year of being reminded of the reality of the incarnation. One of my favorite phrases to describe this comes from Eugene Peterson’s Message translation of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Peterson has been one of my mentors in life. Even though I only met him briefly in person on a couple of different occasions, his writing and teaching for pastors has had more influence on my understanding of what it means to be a pastor more than anything else outside of scripture. Today, I read an article in Christianity Today with a fairly recent interview with him. I was stuck by the following question and answer:

Q: As you know, community has become something of a buzzword in the church today, yet in some ways we have less of it even though we talk about it more. Why is that?

A: Probably because many people in churches today don’t have a sense of community, and in order to get a sense of community, church leaders start gathering people up and giving them jobs. We’ve lost a talent for relationship and showing interest in the other person. We don’t have community because we skip over the critical part: being in relationship with the people, knowing their kids, knowing their jobs, knowing the neighborhood.

As I get older, and as I get more experience in pastoral ministry, the more that I recognize the importance of truly getting to know people, getting to know their lives, and getting to know the community where God has placed me. I can now recognize that when I was younger I often treated people as commodities – something that I could get something from. People were valuable to me in as much as they could offer me something. It was easy for me to move on from relationships once they ceased to be valuable to me.

The truly disturbing thing is that it is possible have this same attitude under the guise of “ministry” or “Christian service.” We can fall into the trap of serving people because we know that we need to serve someone. The particular person doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we need someone to serve and they are available to us. I suppose the classic modern example of this would be American Christian short-term mission trips that are totally disconnected from any kind of long-term relationship.

Of course, this kind of people-as-commodity thinking is compounded by living in a highly mobile society. We can move on from a job, move on from a school, move on from a church, any time that relationships become difficult. We can move halfway across the county if we wish and “start fresh” with a clean slate of relationships with no prior history or baggage. I increasingly hear from older Christians something along the lines of this: “At my age, I have no time for toxic relationships.” This becomes an excuse for dismissing those that are hard to get along with in favor of those whom you enjoy being around. I sure am glad that God did not have this attitude with us!

Jesus “moved into the neighborhood,” and he didn’t exactly pick the best neighborhood!

So I think about this often these days. What does it mean to put down roots and truly get to know and care for my “neighborhood.” This, of course, includes those in my congregation, but it includes so much more. One of my greatest joys these days is going into a local business in the Stanwood/Camano Island area. It is rare that I don’t end up sidetracked and having a long conversation with someone that I know. Sometimes this is someone from my congregation, but often it is not. Usually it is someone that I genuinely want to know better because they are my “neighbor.” For many years one of my ongoing prayers has been this: “God, give me your heart for people.” This prayer emerged out of the awareness of what I described earlier about how I approached relationships with others, and God continues to answer it in surprising ways.







Church Planting Reflections

background-beautiful-blossom-268533I was inspired to write today after reading an article on CT’s The Exchange called Reflecting on Church Planting in the Aftermath of Being on the Startup Podcast, Part 2. In the article, A.J. Smith, pastor and church planter, is responding and reflecting to some of the feedback he has received after being on a podcast called “Startup.” Apparently their latest season was all about church planting, and as you might expect, Smith received a wide range of responses after his episodes aired to the 1,000,000 viewers (the podcast is secular and reaches a diverse audience). I appreciated his reflections because it reminded me of some of the important lessons that I have learned along the way. In fact, I immediately shared the link with my brother, who is at the very beginning of planting a church and recently told me that he welcomes any advice I might have. While I plan to listen to the podcast, I have not done so yet. I suspect that will lead to some more reflections once I do. I did read “part 1,” and I’ll likely write an entry around that soon.

The three areas that Smith is addressing specifically come from the three areas he identified as getting the most responses from the podcast. Those are vulnerability, money, and identity. I’m also going to reflect on these, using a quote from the article on each of these areas as a primer.


Regardless of the reasons, I came to a point in professional ministry where I decided that I was only going to do this if I could do it while truly maintaining my integrity. If I couldn’t be honest about my issues, doubts, and struggles, then why would I be a spiritual leader for others?

Growing up in the church, the pastor was someone that I put on a pedestal. I realize that sounds cliché, but that phrasing has always worked well for me since the pastor was often up front and above everyone else on Sunday morning, and usually standing behind something very pedestal-like! And because of this, I had a real hard time ever considering myself a serious candidate for “pastor.” While I won’t share that journey here, it took an immense amount of grace, a strong and unavoidable calling from God, and some minor miracles for me to accept that I could, in fact, be a pastor. Nevertheless, venerability and pastoral ministry were two things that I didn’t readily associate with each other.

Throughout my undergraduate work in theology and my time in seminary, the message I received over and over again was a message about setting healthy “boundaries” in ministry. And while I still think that is good advice, I now realize how often setting boundaries is actually just code for protecting yourself. And lets be honest here, it is hard to both be vulnerable and protect yourself at the same time! And in fact, it is hard to find Biblical support for this kind of language. Rather, we often find the opposite. If we are going to truly love others, then we are going to have to risk injury to ourself, and injury to our family. Jesus is our leadership model and the cross is our standard.

So I came to a similar conclusion early in church planting that A.J. Smith did. I was either going to be honest about my own life, failings, doubts, etc., or I wasn’t going to do this work. We knew that we could not open our home week after week to those both inside and outside the church and somehow put on a show that our life was somehow perfect. That would be exhausting and ultimately self-defeating. And while I still struggle with where those boundaries need to be drawn (because they do), I have tried to err on the side of vulnerabiblity.


“We’re nothing like Silicon Valley startups” is a funny thing to say when we use demographic studies, marketing tools, social media, websites, merchandise, and investors to start churches. Moreover, we run churches like businesses with budgets, salaries, and insurance packages. The parallels are striking!

During my life I have had a strongly negative reaction to churches that smack of the corporate world. Whether it be the pastor as CEO mindset or the church growth movement strategies. I’ve discovered that this is, in general, a common reaction among my “Gen X” peers. And yet, starting a church has made me realize just how much business knowledge is needed to get things off the ground!

Beyond budgets, salaries, and insurance, when you are starting a new church you have to figure out things like incorporation, non-profit law, worker’s compensation, taxes, land use restrictions, building codes, opening business banking accounts, etc. And starting out in a denomination like the PC(USA) has both advantages and disadvantages in this regard. On the one hand, I had plenty of people to go to for advice and help, and we were able to wrap ourselves under the protective umbrella of our Presbytery and parent church when we needed to for insurance and non-profit purposes. On the other hand, this also means we had to navigate our denomination’s Book of Order, Board of Pensions, and Presbytery councils.

I can now say unequivocally that if you want to be a church planter and have no desire to ever run a business you are probably in trouble. While the church is not a business, it often requires many of the same skills and work on a day to day basis. Either that, or you need to be willing to find others who will do that work for you from the beginning and be prepared to still spend a lot of your time having conversations about these business-like issues. And surprise, surprise… seminary does nothing to train you for this!


Unfortunately, before [church planters] know it, their happiness is directly connected to the success of their church. I’ve learned that in order for me to stay sane, my role as a pastor cannot be my identity. If the church is doing great, it shouldn’t mean that I’m necessarily doing great. Likewise, if the church is failing, it doesn’t mean I’m failing.

This is hard. Whenever you create something, you have a bit of yourself tied up in it. If people dislike it, you feel a bit disliked. If people love it, you feel a bit loved. Theologically, I think it is safe to say that nobody every really starts a “church.” All we are doing is participating in a new expression of the Church started by Jesus. And yet, it is hard not to blur the lines and begin to have your self-worth wrapped up in the success or failure of your new expression! This is especially problematic when some of the statistics list church plant “failures” as high as 2 out of every 3 (failure being defined as a congregation/organization that doesn’t continue).

Early on in my work with Tidelands I was fortunate to attend the “Soma School” in Tacoma with one of our other leaders. Jeff Vanderstelt was doing a lot of the teaching, and he reminded all of us that there is a temptation in pastoral ministry to try to justify and prove ourselves through our preaching and work in ministry. We don’t think of it this way, of course, but we may find ourselves feeling miserably spent after a morning preaching. Or we my find our spirit in the dumps when we work hard all week and only a handful of people show up at the worship gathering or small group meeting. I have been there a thousand times! And it may just be that we were expecting that doing this great work would somehow prove us worthy of God’s love and acceptance. But if we truly believe that God is gracious, then we do not have to prove ourselves (thank you Jeff and Tim Chesterton for the reminder). Our worth is not based on the perceived success or failure of our church plant, but rather on the unconditional grace of Jesus and the unconditional acceptance of the Father. I have to rely on the Holy Spirit to remind me of this daily.

A wonderful thing has happened in my ministry as I have learned to trust my identity in Christ more: I am less concerned about what others think of me, I am less anxious and busy in my ministry, and I am more present with those around me. Of course, this runs the risk that others may feel that things are moving too slow, or that we are not “driven” enough. But ultimately I want to know that I am being faithful to my calling and obedient to the Holy Spirit.

I’m grateful to A.J. Smith for his article and I look forward to listening to his podcast. These reflections have been helpful for me to put into writing and I hope that they just might help others out there at some point as well.

Genuine Love

paper-romance-symbol-valentine-159526We are coming up quickly on Valentine’s Day (which also happens to be Ash Wednesday this year) so it seems appropriate that my scripture reading this morning began with “Let love be genuine.” From Romans 12:

9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I’ve probably read or heard this scripture read hundreds of times in my life. But as a pastor, this hit me in a new way this morning. I found myself wondering: What if a church (meaning a community of Christians) actually lived like this in all of their life? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that?

I feel like I could do an entire year of preaching out of this passage alone! I suppose, if nothing else, it could give us kind of “litmus test” for the health of our church. Do we see these things being lived out among us? Are we the kind of people who would be willing to extend hospitality, peace, and welcome to those who are different from us, or only those who are like us? What about our “enemies?” Would we be willing to sit down and eat with them? Would we be willing to prepare a meal for them?

Well I certainly don’t want to claim to be wiser than I am! I know that, personally, I have a long way to go to live this out in my own life. Of course, as a North American Christian, I have become accustomed to applying scripture primarily to my own life – taking responsibility for my own actions. But perhaps that is exactly the problem? What IF I began working to see this lived out among those who are part of my church community? What would I do differently?

God’s Reassuring Presence

I’ve just wrapped up preaching a four-week series on the “4 G’s” (originally from the book by Tim Chester entitled You Can Change). These four truths are:

  • God is Great… so you don’t have to be in control
  • God is Good… so you don’t have to look elsewhere
  • God is Glorious… so you don’t have to fear others
  • God is Gracious… so you don’t have to prove yourself

Every time I preach or speak about these four truths I am reminded of just how much energy I put into trying to take control of my life, satisfy my desires, look good in other people’s eyes, and prove myself (both to God and others). But I don’t feel guilt over this, rather I feel drawn to enter more fully into the life of God’s greatness, goodness, gloriousness, and grace. I find myself reassured by God’s presence.

Today I read from Psalm 139. Verses 1-6 in the Message translation read:

God, investigate my life;
    get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you;
    even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
    I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say
    before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
    then up ahead and you’re there, too—
    your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful—
    I can’t take it all in!

In one sense it can seem terrifying to ask the Righteous Judge to “investigate your life!” After all, no one can stand guiltless in such an investigation. But then the Psalmist immediately reminds us that God knows it all already, and God’s presence remains. God knows it all, the good and the bad, and through Jesus we are accepted as beloved children!

sea turtleIt is too wonderful for me as well! So my prayer is simply that I may continue to release control, be content with all that God has given, listen for God’s voice, and be reassured by the grace offered richly in my life. This is my prayer for you as well.

History and Place

Reading the 110 year-0ld minutes from the Stanwood First Presbyterian Church – originally recorded in this place where I now sit reading on my Mac.

I’ve always loved history, and recently I’ve been captivated  by the history of the Stanwood and Camano Island area. There is a fabulous three-volume collection called the Stanwood Story that was published by the Stanwood-Camano News back in the 1970’s. I bought copies of it when I first moved to Stanwood and read through the first volume. I have finally gotten back around to reading it and I’ve made it all the way up to 1935. The pictures alone are captivating! The Presbyterian Church building makes a cameo in a few of the pictures over the years. But what is most intriguing to me is realizing that simply by moving here I am now part of the story of this place!

Of course the story within, under, and over the history of any place is the story of how God is working. So as I read, I love seeing the passing mentions to Reverend so-and-so being involved in something of sinificance. Usually it is mentioning the way a pastor helped out with a particular social need in the community or was a key member to start a new organization. Of course, the construction of a church building makes it into the narrative as well, but the “Church” is much more present throughout the story. And now, all these years later, we get to be a part of this as well.

Then there is the sense of connection to the Stanwood First Presbyterian Church. The building that we use now as our worship space is the same as theirs. And even though I came into the Presbyterian Church through the back door (so to speak – since I was not raised as a Presbyterian), when I find out about their history I feel like I am finding our more about my family history. So I find myself sitting at my laptop, reading the notes that were scrawled into the minutes of the first meetings of the the Stanwood First Presbyterian Church by the light of a lantern. It turns out that we had communion this month on March 5 – almost exactly 110 years since they had their first communion (March 3, 1907).