I am deeply grateful to Tim Keller and his teaching on this text. Over the years it has had a major influence on my understanding of Jesus’ teaching/storytelling and my understanding of God’s grace in my own life. Tim has also written a book on this parable called “Prodigal God” that explores this parable in more depth.
I have long considered myself a Halloween “grinch” – if there is such a thing. I don’t like dressing up. Answering the door every few seconds and pretending to love costumes is exhausting. I’m not a huge candy fan. And I hate anything that glorifies evil. “Bah Humbug!”
It hasn’t always been this way. My mom was a master at creating elaborate Halloween costumes. I still remember the year that she sewed full zip-up E.T. body suits for my brother and sister. Amazing! Somewhere there is still a box full of custom-made superhero capes from my many years of Halloween dress-up. But this all changed as I aged, and I grew to despise the holiday and all that came with it.
This became a huge challenge when I took on the role of youth pastor at a church. How do you talk about and guide youth through Halloween? In my early years I simply went with the Halloween alternative: a costume contest/party at the church facility complete with candy and tons of messy games. It was a huge hit with the youth, but not so much fun for me as I tried to navigate the murky waters of appropriate vs. inappropriate costumes (it didn’t help that these were the years when the Brittany Spears midriff-baring look was all the rage with young ladies). After awhile I simply gave up trying to create the alternative, and instead focused on using it as an opportunity to teach about All Saints Day and the power of Christ over evil.
Then my own children were born. As much as I despised Halloween, I also felt that it hadn’t negatively effected me spiritually or otherwise (I never had cavities as a kid). And since my wife loves any excuse to celebrate any holiday (an endearing family trait), I grudgingly did my duty hauling the Halloween costumes to daycare, and then school, and taking my turn walking through the neighborhood and knocking on doors for candy.
Eventually, we connected with a couple of other families from our church with kids our age that wanted to go “trick-or-treating” together. We came up with a fabulous plan of gathering every year over pizza, hot cider, and usually a football game on TV. Better still, we alternated each year between dads taking the kids out and moms taking the kids out – giving everybody a year off. This was our tradition up until last year when the Holy Spirit turned everything upside down for us.
As we established our missional community we focused intensely on putting more gospel intentionality into everything were doing. So when it came to Halloween, we knew that there was a golden opportunity (and one of the families we have always gone trick-or-treating with is part of our MC). I also read an article on the Verge Network last year called “Ways to Be Missional This Halloween” that challenged me further. So we decided to do three things: First, even though there are almost no trick-or-treaters on our part of Camano Island, we decided to stay in our neighborhood even if it meant less candy for the kiddos. We recognized that Halloween was an excuse to knock on people’s doors and introduce ourselves. Second, we decided that no one gets to stay home – we all went together with the kids through the neighborhood. Third, we decided to invite other families to join us.
As we went trick-or-treating around the neighborhood there were many people that were surprised to see us since they rarely get visitors even on Halloween. And while I’m sure we annoyed a few Halloween grinches (I get it – I really do!), we also made the night for a lot of retired folks that rarely have neighbors come knocking and were thrilled to see the kiddos dressed up. Best of all, it was on that night last year that we met a family that has now become some of our closest friends on Camano Island. Before Halloween we didn’t know them, but after trick-or-treating with them we made plans to get together again. It wasn’t long before they joined us at our missional community, and now they join us in worship as well (did I mention that they had no church background to speak of). So with one stroke Halloween has been forever transformed for me!
Before I tell you about our plans for this year, let me address the elephant in the room (or the “witch” in the room in this instance): Halloween has a lot of troubling elements associated with it that make it tough for us Christians. There is a great article out by Seth McBee and Verge Network this year called 3 Tips for Discipling Your Kids Through Halloween directed at Christian parents wrestling with this issue. Here is an excerpt:
To most families in America, Halloween is a fun time to eat candy, dress up, and have fun with friends. Yet because some choose to use this holiday to celebrate evil and its effects, it also can be a dark holiday.
With such a complicated mixture of influences, it’s important for each family to use discernment and wisdom in determining if and how to celebrate this holiday. I believe that there are sinful ways to participate in Halloween, just as there are with any holiday.
However, I also believe there are many aspects of this holiday that we have freedom in Christ to participate in. Regardless of how you choose to engage in this holiday, I urge you not to miss out on all the opportunities to disciple your kids that the Halloween season provides.
For me the key word here is “discipleship.” Whatever we decide, we want our kids to know what it means to follow Jesus on Halloween. For me, this means that Halloween is another opportunity to bless others in the name of Jesus, to connect with those that don’t yet know Jesus, and proclaim that light has triumphed over darkness. No amount of evil will keep us locked up at home with the lights off and curtains drawn! So this year we are planning to do things much the same as last year with a couple additions: We are going to invite more people to join us for a bonfire and food after the trick-or-treating, and we are going to have our kids give out $5 gift cards to everyone that gives them candy (I can’t wait to see how that goes!).
I’m sure I still have a lot to learn about what it means to live missionally, especially in light of something like Halloween. However, it helps me to think about it in terms of mission. For example, I imagine myself being a missionary in a foreign land to an unreached people group. Undoubtedly these people will have cultural celebrations that have nothing to do with the gospel and perhaps even conflict with it. So what is my response as a missionary? I certainly wouldn’t sit at home and pretend that nothing was happening! No way! I would see it as an opportunity to engage people right were they were. I would celebrate where appropriate, always looking for opportunities to proclaim the good news while also clearly drawing a line against anything contrary to the gospel. Ideally, aspects of the celebrations would be redeemed for the purposes of Christ.
What I like about the article I referenced above is that Seth gets right to what I see as the root of the problem: fear. There certainly isn’t a one-sized-fits-all approach to Halloween, but I do know that there is no reason to fear. Light has overcome darkness, Jesus has triumphed over evil! Whatever we decide to do may it be motivated by our identity as missionaries of this good news!
I am always challenged by Tim Keller’s teaching. In this video he asks some good questions for self-reflection.
Most people that I work with at Tidelands Church are new to the Presbyterian Church (USA). Even those who are already Presbyterian members may not have a good understanding of something like General Assembly. This being the case, I have been to thinking about how to give direction to those of you who may be interested in knowing more about some of the recent decisions that took place at General Assembly. I recently ran across the following blog that is helpful because it has many relevant links for further reading as well as a well-written pastoral response: “AN OPEN LETTER TO MY CHURCH…” While I do not share all of the same opinions as Rev. Lindsley there are some points I want to echo:
- My door is open. (No, I don’t have a literal office door yet, but I would be happy to meet and talk)
- I’m thankful to be part of denomination that is wrestling with very difficult issues instead of pretending like there is no room for discussion/debate. Whether we like it or not, these issues are not going away and it is better to be talking about how scripture addresses these issues than ignoring the major cultural shifts taking place.
- If you are unhappy with any of the decisions, take some time. Steve suggested six months, I would suggest at least 12. The reality is that we live in a consumeristic mentality most of the time in our culture and want instant gratification or we “take our business elsewhere.” This is not the model we follow in the Church. We also tend to believe that we as individuals (whether pastors or lay leaders) have it all figured out while others are messed up and/or wrong. Hopefully, like me, you have changed some of your previous views as the result of the Holy Spirit working through scripture and leading you to a more faithful understanding. While I think my current interpretation of scripture is accurate, I would be a fool not to be open to the corrective work of God in my life and to assume that I have “arrived” at a perfect theology. Yes, it is hard to be part of a large group of Christians that often disagree on how to interpret scripture, but it is better than being a lone ranger or sole authority where alternate opinions are stifled.
In the video below, Dallas Willard talked about how the biggest danger to Christianity is the attitude that it is a statement of belief rather than a life of discipleship. I was particularly struck by his comments about pastors being accused of “bait and switch” when they try to do intentional discipleship. I have heard similar comments from those that are farther along in developing missional communities than we are at Tidelands. Longtime “church” people can struggle with the idea that they are being asked to be part of a group that is focused on following Jesus in all aspects of life. Sometimes our focus on church programs and sunday morning performance results in immature Christians that want to be “fed” rather than disciples capable of leading others in being disciples of Jesus.
Perhaps this is why I often get quizzical reactions from other Christians leaders when I talk about our missional communities. I have even fielded questions asking whether we are a “cult” or a “commune.” Why would a description of people living on mission in their neighborhood result in those kinds of labels? One possibility is that I am simply not being very articulate in describing what we are doing (I’m working on this). The other possibility is that a life of following Jesus as a disciple sounds foreign to them. If the latter is true, it begs the question: what kind of “Christian” doesn’t feel comfortable with discipleship? I believe this is the kind of thing that Dallas is addressing in this video. If discipleship sounds like a “switch” then what is being used as the “bait?” Certainly not the gospel of Jesus!
“Evangelism is not sharing certain facts about Jesus as if we have no obligation before or afterwards. But actually evangelism takes place in the context of a relationship – that is called discipleship – that can go a whole lifetime.” – Alan Hirsch
Great short video talking about evangelism and discipleship that makes it clear why this can’t simply be a program of the church or the job of church professionals.
This past week I had lunch with a group of amazing pastors from the Stanwood – Camano Island area. This is a group that has been meeting about once a month for many years. Pastors have come and gone, but many of them have been serving in their current congregation for a very long time. And just to be clear: these are NOT Presbyterian pastors (there are no other Presbyterian churches here). These are pastors from a number of different denominations that gather to talk and support one another.
After we had lunch this past week I left marveling at their humility and genuine concern and support for one another (not for the first time). I reflected on how they so willingly allowed me to join them when I came to the area 18 months ago as the new church planting pastor. Not only that, but every time I meet with them I go away feeling encouraged, supported, and connected with the larger Church. I’ve often wondered: Would I be as supportive and caring to a new church pastor in our community if they were starting a new church?
When I think about this question I think back to when I was in staff in Marysville. When I search my heart honestly I have to admit that whenever I saw a sign or advertisement for a new church I often felt threatened and competitive. Why? Ok, sometimes their advertisements were basically saying: “We are way better than any other church! Come here and see what you are missing” (not in those exact words – but not far off). In other words, their advertising was clearly being directed at those already connected to other churches and offering the “new and improved version.” However, sometimes the advertisements were nothing more than a sign with a new church name, service time, and an invitation. Why would I or any other pastor/church leader feel threatened by that?
There are perhaps many different ways to answer that question, but probably the #1 reason this happens is when a person’s focus is not on Jesus and the Gospel but rather on the institutional church. Institutional focus results in the need to produce results and the measuring of success revolving around “butts, bucks, and building” (attendance/membership, money/budget, facilities/survival). Focus on the Gospel and on Jesus results in the ability to say (with the Apostle Paul) “…Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). The truth is, there are many people that have not yet believed the gospel and who do not have a church community. There is no reason for competition unless our goal is to get everyone already connected to a church to come to profess the same doctrinal statements and to leave their church and come to us.
So I am humbled and grateful for the many pastors that already serve this community and their friendship. I know that God has called us here to participate in what the Holy Spirit has already started. We know that we have a unique role to play, and that we are being called to disciple a unique group of people, but we are all part of Jesus’ body – the Church. My prayer is that as I continue in ministry that there will be more unity among church leaders and that I will be as humble, kind, generous, encouraging, and hospitable as the pastors of this community have been to me.
Recently my youngest son, Calvin (8 years old), made a comment about wanting to be a pastor someday. I don’t exactly remember how the conversation began, but it had to do with something at school where he had to answer that dreaded question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The conversation happened with both my wife and I present. With a mixture of pride and concern I asked, “WHY do you want to be a pastor?” His response: “It doesn’t take much energy.” My wife and I tried to hide our reaction as we both looked at each other wide-eyed.
My wife’s look said it all, because she knows exactly how much “energy” being a pastor requires of me. She sees me lying on the couch in a gelatinous pool of emptied humanity every Sunday after worship. She gets woken up on those nights when I can’t sleep because an important issue with a certain person is keeping me awake. She sees all the hidden hours of work that will never make it onto a timesheet – and so much more! Fortunately, I was able to keep my thoughts to myself and give him a generic response equivalent to: “That’s nice honey.”
Not much energy!? Where did that come from? I could’ve taken his meaning to be: you don’t work very much or very hard. But I have a sense that there is more to it than that. Let me explain.
Recently I was with some other pastors and we were talking about this very issue of “energy.” One woman shared a story about how her young children once explained her work as a pastor to others as “going to a bunch of meetings.” Another person shared that their child once described themselves as “living” at the church building. Unfortunately, these stories aren’t that uncommon.
When my wife and I were newlyweds, I took a job as a youth director at a church. It was our first time being exposed to what full-time paid ministry work looked like from the inside. Like many people we naively assumed that it would be a somewhat “easy” job. After all, I had spent seven years working in wildland firefighting where it wasn’t uncommon for me to put in over 1000 hours of overtime between June and September! 21 days on, 2 days off during the busiest times. How hard could ministry be in comparison?
I quickly discovered that not only was I putting in hours that well exceeded my expectations (including stretches extending at times to multiple weeks without a full day off), but many of those I knew in ministry were even busier. So busy, in fact, that my wife and I made a vow to each other that we would never allow our life to get out-of-control busy for the sake of ministry. Not that we weren’t willing to make any sacrifice to follow Jesus, but we didn’t believe that God desired for us to be burned-out casualties, with neglected children and a broken marriage, all for the sake of running church programs.
That brings me back to my son’s comment about wanting to be a pastor because it doesn’t “take much energy.” Does he think that my job is easy? I hope so! When we started Tidelands we had people questioning the wisdom of starting a church with a core team consisting of families with young children (I’ve questioned the wisdom of that myself many times in the past year as well). But we believed, and still believe, that if we couldn’t start a church while as the same time practicing self-care and raising our children well, then we were starting something that we didn’t want to be a part of anyway!
The truth is, I do work from home a lot right now since we don’t yet have an office in the community (we have a room in our shop that I use that is separate from the house). Even as I type this I am working from home with my kids around (they have a half day today from school and my wife is still working). So part of this probably has to do with perception: my kids see me a lot. I drop them off at school every morning. I pick them up from school every afternoon. But I also coach their soccer and help with their baseball – and that is intentionally part of our mission. Also as part of our mission, we have our missional community at our house every Sunday night for dinner and a meeting where all the kids are included. Last Sunday we went and worked as a missional community at a neighbor’s house that needed some yard work done with the kids’ help. Tonight we will be doing our monthly dinner out at a restaurant with our MC (including kids). So I believe that part of what my son means by, “it doesn’t take much energy,” is that he knows that I am very much a part of his life and the life of our family. I’m not locked away in an office somewhere running off to meetings every night of the week in order to keep programs up and running. I hope that is what he means.
I also hope that part of what he is trying to express is that he can see just how much joy is in my life because of Jesus. Despite being physically, emotionally, and even spiritually drained at times, I hope that he is noticing that because I am doing what I am called to do by God that I still have joy and energy left for him! I have peace rather than exhaustion when the day is done.
I recognize that all of this may come across as unnecessarily sanctimonious. I hope that it doesn’t. Just a couple of weeks ago my kids were complaining about me being at too many meetings because I had two nights in row when I had to be gone. So for them, even one meeting a week is too much! But I do hope that we as pastors (and parents in general) take the time to question whether we are modeling what life in Christ and life in the church community is supposed to be about. Are we converting people to Jesus’ way of living or something else?
The conversation came up again, and this time my youngest son told me again that he wanted to be a pastor. He said that my job was better than “mom’s” (she is an elementary school teacher). When my older son challenged him, he explained that my job was best because it was so important. It was important, he said, because I get to go out and tell people about Jesus that don’t know him yet. I was driving them home from school at the time, and I was so overjoyed that this was how he defined my work as pastor that I had tears in my eyes and almost had to pull over! I didn’t have the heart to argue with him, because I actually believe that telling people about Jesus is the job of every person in the church. For the record: I also believe that, in terms of impact for God’s kingdom, my wife’s job is much more important than mine. Someday, I hope he’ll understand that as well. In the meantime, I’ve tried to prove to myself that all that I’ve written here is valid by taking the time to blog in the midst of a day when my “todo” list is long enough to justify 1,000 hours of overtime!
I’ve been amazed at all of the media attention about the Oso landslide in recent days. Not only have I heard reports on regional and national news, but on world news as well (I was amused to hear BBC describe Oso as a “fishing village.”) This is the second time in the last year that this has happened. Last year the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit river collapsed and made headlines. Now it is a disaster on the Stillaguamish river drawing attention – and the tragedy is much worse because many lives have been lost. In both situations I had the surreal feeling of being close and yet so far removed from what was happening.
This one definitely hit close to home! We drive across the Stillaguamish River (“Stilly”) every day when we travel on or off of Camano Island. My boys and I enjoy fishing the Stilly for salmon every fall. Just this December we drove the stretch of highway that is now covered by the landslide on our way to get a Christmas tree. The bridge over the Stilly is the only land access we have to our island, so you can imagine that it was nerve-racking to hear people talking about possible flash flooding and debris damage to bridges downstream from the landslide. For the first 24 hours, whenever we drove over the island bridge we looked anxiously for the river flow to return to normal from the eerily low state it was in after being blocked by the landslide. Fortunately, this danger passed quickly and attention turned to all of those directly hit by the slide debris.
I have already talked to one woman in our church who has family with property destroyed by the landslide. Fortunately, they only use the place as a vacation home and no one was there during the slide. But the death toll continues to mount and the list of missing persons is still large. And yet, it seems a world away from us. We have been told that volunteers are not needed at this point because already there are too many people on scene and professional rescuers (including the National Guard) are doing their work. Money donations are primarily needed at this point (The Red Cross is actively involved). But beyond this it is hard to know how to help for now.
I can’t help but think that this is just the latest story in the media spotlight, and that attention will soon be focused elsewhere. The reality is, that while this disaster is huge for those of us who live in this area (and especially the residents of Darrington who have now lost their primary route to the urban Puget Sound region), soon the news stations will be bored and move on to the next sensation. In my mind, that is when the real help begins.
As I look at the pictures of homes laying wrecked in a mass of mud I can’t help but notice the similarity to the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast (though this landslide is on a much, much smaller scale). I took a team down to work with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) roughly one year after the storms hit. At that point the media spotlight had moved on and what was left was simply a lot of work. People were trying to rebuild, trying to get insurance help, and living in small trailers where they once had a spacious home for their family. Businesses were closed and life was hard, but I was proud to see churches stepping up to help so long after others had moved on. I saw something similar in Cedar Rapids, Iowa when I went to work with PDA on flood recovery there after media attention had moved on and winter was setting in on homes still damaged.
That brings me to the main purpose of writing this entry. We live in a culture that has been programmed with a “commercial” mentality. Something grabs our attention for awhile, but then we become bored and want the next thing. Don’t bore us with details – just say it and move on! But this is not who the church is called to be. It is great that we can mobilize volunteers to go halfway across the country to help when tragedy strikes. It is great that we can raise lots of money to support those affected by disasters. It is good to gather in prayer for those facing loss. But the real work of the church comes when people are engaged in the lives of other people – when Christians live out the gospel so thoroughly that they are willing to commit to people for the long haul rather than look for the “quick fix.”
My sense is that theOso community is rather close-knit, and that there are deeply committed Christians already there and engaged. When, and if, they ask for help that will be the time for the larger church to step up. If that happens, it will likely be afterthe excitement of being a “rescuer” has passed, after national attention has turned elsewhere. Being a “first responder” might be a great adrenaline rush and might make us feel better about something that is ultimately out of our control, but being a “second responder” – out of the spotlight, pushing away the long-dried mud,listening to the grief of those still struggling with loss, speaking words of hope and doing deeds of love – that is the work of God’s church!
Ash Wednesday is the day marking the beginning of Lent – 40 days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter. This year, that happens to be March 5th. Traditionally, Christians have taken time during the season of Lent for repentance and prayer – often accompanied by fasting. While I grew up in a Christian tradition where I was never exposed to Lent, I was introduced to the concept of fasting for spiritual reasons. During my university studies I first encountered Lent, and since then I have embraced it as an important part of my yearly rhythm.
Fasting has long been an important spiritual practice for those desiring to draw nearer to God. Even Jesus fasted for 40 days immediately after his baptism. I’m not going to take time in this post to give a full explanation of fasting, other than to say that it is a way to focus more attention on God while denying some of your physical desires. If you have never done it, you should give it a shot and Lent is a great time to test the waters.
How to Fast for Lent
Those who fast for Lent typically choose to “give something up” during the season in order to make more room to pray, meditate, and have space for God to speak. For many people this involves the traditional idea of fasting from food (think “break-fast” as the time when you break your nightly fast). Sometimes this is a food or drink that you don’t really “need” (like chocolate, pop, sweets, etc.) but one that you crave. In this way you have a reminder throughout your day to pray whenever you crave that particular food – a constant reminder of your need for God. Personally, I prefer fasting from a type of food for this reason. But if you struggle with food in general (dieting , eating disorders, overeating, etc.) then a food fast is probably not the best idea. In fact, there are many other things that you can “fast” from in order to create some space during Lent. Here are some ideas that I have heard of:
- If you drive a lot (commute): give up the radio/music in your car (a great time to pray)
- Fast from certain types of media: music, TV, movies, Facebook, Twitter, video games, etc.
- Give up sleeping in late so that you can get up earlier to read your Bible & pray
There are lots of great ideas of things that you can fast from – you are only limited by your imagination.
If you are dealing with an addiction (smoking/alcohol/etc), then fasting from those things is also probably not a good idea. Addictions require serious professional help and a “season” of fasting is not going to be enough. Also, don’t use this as your next diet plan. Fasting is meant to draw one closer to God, not as a self-improvement project (this could apply to other “bad habits” like swearing, criticizing others, etc. being used as a fast). The reality is that there are many bad things that we could “fast” from, and they are something we should address. But the kind of fasting we are talking about with Lent is more about giving up something that is quite possibly “good” in your life – in order to deny yourself and turn to God.
Why Not Just “Add” Something Instead?
I’ve heard a lot of talk in recent years about adding something good for Lent instead of fasting (like volunteering, reading a devotional, etc.) While I understand the motive, I would caution people who might want to use this approach. Most of us probably have busy lives already and “adding” one more thing is just another way to stay in control (and even perhaps to justify yourself) without having to do what is really hard – slowing down! Fasting is about denying oneself – a very different thing. So while Lent may be a good time to develop some positive habits in your life, don’t confuse that with the concept of fasting.
If you are going to give fasting during Lent a try, set a realistic goal. Give up something that will be difficult, but not so hard that you are bound to be miserable. Also, remember that this is not about proving yourself somehow. Some people start off fasting strong, then as soon as they partake in what they were fasting from they give up because they “failed.” Just pick it up again and keep going. Remember: the goal here is to draw nearer to God through repentance and prayer and to create space for that to happen. Finally, pay attention to Jesus’ warning about fasting:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).