Sunday, October 2, 2011

Where is God in the blurry mix?

Details--and more details.  Things to do.  Worries dangling over some threatening precipice.  We cannot identify their source, yet their weight threatens to undue us.

Sometimes it feels as if our days are shattered into a million tiny fragments. There are, after all, so many things to keep in mind—so many plates to spin in the process of our life-- and of making a living.  Far from having focus, our splayed vision shatters concentration like a prism scatters light, except that there is no beauty in the dispersion.

What is the product?  Confusion, lack of focus, anxiety and frustration are a few symptoms.  Stress, sadness, depression, hopelessness are a few more.  

Where is God in the blurry mix?

I find great encouragement in Philippians 3:4-14.  Paul completes his thoughts with a bombastic statement.  "This one thing I do..."  How can that be true?  Paul travels, faces immense persecution and suffering, starts churches, trains leaders, manages them at great distances, writes letters, faces-down Roman governors--and all the while he is composing Christian Theology and church polity on the fly??  One thing?? 

Right.  Where was he hiding his "to do" list?

Once, when Jesus had impressed the multitudes with his miracles, a group of religious followers asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"  

Jesus answered them: "The work God requires is to believe in the one he has sent."  (John 6:28-29)

We ask the great questions of life in the plural.  

                                  Jesus answers in the singular.  

One thing is required.  Jesus.  And Paul understood.

And I'm trying.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

First fires, and rekindling my spiritual disciplines

I just placed the first fire of the year in our wood stove.  Forty degrees this morning and a frost warning for tonight.  When the cabin thermostat showed fifty-nine, it seemed a solid enough hint.

Looking now across the room, the glass in the wood stove displays beautiful, dancing flames.  But the struggle to get that fire started was not an easy one.  There were repeated trips to the newspaper stack.  A fresh splinter received from the process of tearing kindling from a stubborn, yet well seasoned piece of fire wood.  I re-lit and puffed and rearranged the ingredients until finally, the fire had its own life.

First fires are tough.  The beauty and warmth they provide are life sustaining.

I find it a similar truth when rekindling my spirit.  Prayer and spiritual discipline require steady and determined effort to catch their own life; and now and then, despite myself, I find nothing but ash in my soul.  At those times, I have to begin again.  I need to attend to my spiritual disciplines.

I no longer despair in times like these--thinking that God has deserted me, or is hiding until I prove myself worthy of a restored flame.  No, the truth is simple.  Relationships require two or more.  And sometimes I'd prefer to be the served master, rather than a responsible partner.

The Psalmist David once said: "Restore to me the joy of my salvation."  And then, I assume, he proceeded to his spiritual disciplines.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Great Trees of the Forest~And coming up short of greatness

Here in the National forests of southern Indiana, some of our younger, weaker trees are sagging under the summer sun. Rains have been few, and plants in under-watered gardens bow low. Shrubs all but pant aloud, seeking pity with their dying leaves. The grass snaps under foot as I cross the lawn. The trails I hike are dust. Rushing streams from earlier in the summer are nothing but gravel and silt. Talcum-fine powder cascades down the rear window of our car. Think "desert" in a Midwestern forest.

And yet the great trees of the forest sway green in the hot breeze. Their branches remain strong and supple, and their leaves vital and alive. What is their source of strength--of endurance?

Yesterday morning, five degrees before the thermometer topped one hundred, I parked my Jeep and stepped into the forest for a five mile hike. I had plenty of water. The tall oaks, sycamores, beech, maples and ash cooled the air.  Their canopy offered cover from the sun's anger. I heard the occasional unsuspecting animals move for protection--their motion less a wintertime skitter, and more a forced march. Yet, beneath the protection of the great trees of the forest, life lumbered and gasped along, as did I.

I paused long enough to step into a stream bed. Just a few short months ago, water had gushed its way through this valley--pushing gravel and forest debris into great piles. Not now. All of life seems to have bent, moaned or broken midst this arid season--except for the giants of the forest. Even next to the empty stream, the sycamores and beech trees stand firm.

Ever wanted to be a spiritual giant?

We all experience dry times in our lives. Our sources for spiritual renewal seem drained. They no longer provide. What worked last month, is coming up empty today. We are denied living water by life's bustle, griefs or fury. And soon, in the blazing place we call today, we bend to worry, doubt and despair.

I am no great oak. My branches sag too often, and my leaves chatter their browning complaints. It is agonizing to find one's self so often coming up short of greatness.

Yet, we must keep on seeking sources that remain; and longing to push roots deeply enough into rocky soil to find Life--no matter the surface condition. That is, if we ever want to be a covering for those who depend on us.

Perhaps spiritual giants--like great forest trees--become so in order to shelter those of us who are weak? Perhaps personal survival is the last thing on their minds? Perhaps it's easier to breath up there where the living and giving are being done?   

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Staying open in the seasons of lIfe

Another four weeks will pass by on the calendar before summer officially succumbs to fall. Leaves will tumble and crackle beneath hiking boots, and gray chimney smoke will waft into brilliant blue skies. Nascent spring life will submit to the inevitable beauty of brisk late-year relinquishing. The calendar says we must wait, but cooler mornings and evenings speak of imminent transition.

What changes are you sensing in your life? Earth speaks irrefutably with scorching heat and icy storms. Does your spirit welcome life's approaches with equal resolve? Do you not occasionally feel it in your bones, the ache of life's seasons? The urgency to move forward--or aside?

Where we live, stubborn months insist on a certain degree of individuality. The August we're living will bear little resemblance to the January which passed six months ago. Whether or not we acknowledge the seasons, they bear along their own idiosyncrasies.

And such is true of our living--acknowledge it or not. Change impresses itself upon each of us in waves of growing and aging. And upon these waves we have opportunity to participate in the making of our hearts.

Last week my wife and I calendared four beautiful days living in a tent next to a chattering mountain stream. In cherished moments of conversation, of preparing and enjoying simple foods and of sitting and reading and thinking, peace seeped unawares into the corners of our spirits.

"Wisdom calls out," says the ancient writer of Proverbs. I long to be among the wise who find ways to quiet themselves enough to hear her voice.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Runaway Pastor: an update.

Things are about to change for The Runaway Pastor. It is temporarally out of print, yet still available from Amazon aftermarket sellers. I also have a few more copies.

A new printing will take place soon. I'll let you know when I know the timing.

In the mean time, I'm working on a new manuscript. The story I'm writing now is one of the first concepts I wanted to work into a fiction piece, yet never took the time. Now I have begun working on it during days off. It leans on my time living overseas in Ukraine. I'm excited to do the story, because I want to know how it turns out.

You may have noticed that I've taken a blogging break. That may be about to change.

Peace to you.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Snapshot of Ancient Worship

Over the past decade, I have begun to read and enjoy glimpses into the church's past. There are three events in the following worship order from AD 138. How has worship changed? How is it the same?

“On the day named after the sun, we hold a meeting in one place for all who live in the cities or the country nearby. The memoirs of the apostles [the gospels] or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the overseer gives a talk urging and inviting us to imitate all these good examples. Then we all stand up together and send up our prayers.”
(Justin Martyr from his First Apology. Circa AD 138)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Seven Symptoms of the Burnout You Can Avoid

Warnings I ignored.

This post has sat in my computer's memory for days. I do not want to post it. The circumstances it describes are bleak, and thankfully long past for me. However, If I am able to frighten anyone into shifting gears and avoiding what I've experienced, it will be worth it.

Please, this is not a request for sympathy. It is a pathetic admission of an ego gone amuck. Five years ago I believed I had to be the answer to every problem my congregation, my family and my friends experienced. I had what some refer to as a "Messiah Complex." I am seeking to learn to trust in Christ's strength.

In the winter of 2005 and 2006 I was sprinting toward a health crisis which drastically altered my life. In February of 2006, the crash had begun, and by March it was a full-blown catastrophe.

Seven Symptoms of the Burnout I Experienced

1. Intensifying headaches were first symptom I ignored. Everyone has an occasional headache. But during the three years prior to my burnout, mine became more severe and more regular.

2.That winter my fatigue was pronounced. I felt weary and dragged myself through the days. And, unlike the the sleepy days and sleepless nights which accompanied my depression as the burnout kicked-in, I could sleep all night and still need naps throughout the day. I was always tired.

3. Another symptom I missed was the increased caffeine. In order to battle against my body's cries for rest, I self-medicated with coffee, shots of espresso and handfuls of chocolate chips.

4. I began giving myself strange new high-energy pep talks. Once, after finishing an eight mile run, in the middle of a forest I tensed my entire body and shouted a long "Yes!" I began noticing these strange self-urgings-on--more and more--as if I was pleading with myself to be strong and to keep going.

5. I began to lose my appetite for healthy food, and would re-stoke my energy fires with chocolate or yet another espresso. I alternated between forgetting to eat, and gorging on junk food.

6. The darkest part of the journey was when I began to experience the symptom I would later call "cotton head"--a sensation of intense dizziness and feeling faint. The first of these episodes happened in the middle of a sermon. I was teaching and enjoying the morning when it seemed that someone, somehow had pulled my power cord from the wall. It was so sudden, I almost fell to the floor. After sitting for a moment, I finished the message and spent an afternoon in the ER (which would be followed by months of being CAT-scanned and x-rayed and blood-tested and MRI'd).

7. In the two weeks following this first experience of cotton head, I lost twenty pounds and realized I could no longer walk twenty feet without stopping to rest and check my balance. I was experiencing blood sugar swings that would suddenly drop me to a 60 count and put me on my back. My doctor diagnosed stress. Two counselors spoke of a "major depression." A natural healer diagnosed stress induced adrenal burnout. I simply wanted to lay down and go to sleep and not wake up or face anyone anymore...and I am normally one of the most outgoing people you could meet.

Into the Darkness and Back
It was at this time that I sadly realized I had arrived in what became the dark and horrifying tunnel of depression.

Since that time, now five years ago, I have learned a great deal. My life is brighter and I'm less harsh with myself.

So in my next post, I will list symptoms of my recovery. It will be brighter and hopeful. This has been far too dark of a recollection for me. Please feel free to repost it, or to share it with anyone you think might benefit.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quilters of my congregation: Servants Making a Difference

Years ago, a group of women from our congregation began gathering monthly and making quilts. Stitch after stitch, they push needles through fabric and batting until another of their masterpieces is complete and ready for service. Their meetings are loving and intentional: a labor of love.

I'll usually wander through the room where they spread out their tasks--each worker at their own table and own quilt. Some specialize in various parts of the process. They all do their part. They make baby quilts, bunk bed quilts, and occasionally, queen sized quilts.

And I have been present when it is time to box their work. Before they ship them off to some needy destination, they gather and lay their servant hands on the soft material. They pray for the hurting and broken and orphan who will sleep peacefully beneath their blanketing love. Many of these treasures leave our building with fresh tears sanctifying their journey.

Over time the quilting group has grown, as has the list of destinations for their offerings. The globe is dotted with thousands of their deposits. Homes, hospitals, clinics and orphanages are supplied. Children and hurting people from dozens of nations on every continent have received gifts of love from our women. Grateful people receive nightly comfort directly from their hands.

I'm thinking about how works of love--done consistently over years and decades--add up to massive blessing. I'm also thinking of the thousands of prayer blessings that have been carried around the planet by travelers with extra room in their baggage. After a while it seems intentional loving obedience adds up to blessing we are not capable of measuring.

And I'm praying that in my living and serving, I will be able to send out consistent blessings in ways that are beyond my ability to measure. Maybe someday we will be able to see and understand the gift of a single loving act of obedience. Either way, I believe there will be a day when several women from our congregation will hear a "Well done," from the One they have served all of these years.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Runaway Pastor on

My novel, The Runaway Pastor is available online at amazon.

If you have read The Runaway Pastor, I invite you to write a review at the amazon site. It is very helpful to receive these reviews. Although those posted at amazon to date have been very favorable, feel free to register other opinions.

If you are interested in autographed copies, you can contact me at .

Peace to you.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Jesus the Gardener: And those who follow

Last night I raced the sunset to a patch of dirt behind our church's community center. I took along this year's first offerings to the soil. Forty minutes later, with light mostly faded, I sprinkled some water across the patch of onion sets I'd planted.

I rose to my feet with satisfaction, and stretched my back and relished the cool patch of mud on the right knee of my blue jeans. I planned the planting of more onions and some snow peas today. The garden season is underway.

Jesus the Gardener
Jesus told a lot of garden stories. He emphasized the importance of the soil to the seed--how it cooperates with sun and rain to work the miracle of growth and reproduction.

I daydreamed while muddying my hands. I thought of scattering more seed in this world--seeds of hope and good news and world change. I despaired at how difficult we make the spreading of God's reign. We create such tedious and cumbersome systems that we sometimes despair of trying.

I like Jesus' idea. He simply scattered seeds as a way of life. He issued "Follow me's," and moved on. He challenged men and women to take his good news wherever they lived.

And that news spread like wildfire. From house to house, town to town and nation to nation they dashed about scattering seeds of hope and life. That challenge seems so much more grand than ours today. We ask people to "believe." Jesus asked them to join a movement.

This reminds me of a friend's favorite quote. "It's a lot easier to get people to join an elephant hunt, than a mouse hunt." I can still hear him say it.

Church Gone Viral
I've planted a few kingdom seeds over time. It's exciting to start a holy fire and watch it grow. I'm not finished with such dreams. Christians are easily bored when not finding ways and places to scatter seeds.

I've mostly tended gardens others have planted--watering and reaping as time and harvest demand. There is joy in this. But I long to share the joy of planting with those with whom I minister. I want to help them get their hands and knees in the mud, and then watch to see what the soil brings.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Nicodemus in us

From his carefully administrated club meeting, Nicodemus left and went exploring. He knew the verdict of the experts. He was on their panel. And their judgement was: Jesus is a troublemaker and needed to be gotten rid of.

The Nicodemus in you and me.
But Nicodemus' heart was not satisfied with their answers. On the one hand, the Pharisees believed Jesus had some tie-in with God. He was, after all, doing miracles and giving profound teaching. But on the other hand, he had really ticked them off by wrecking havoc in the temple courts.

Maybe it was that passion. Maybe it was seeing fire in Jesus' eyes that sent Nicodemus where he should not go. Maybe he wanted fire, and was tired of administration.

Can you relate to Nicodemus? Have you ever grown tired of running your part of the church: your class, your board committee, your group, your task, your tithe? Have you ever wished you were working with fire, rather than having a job to do? I think that is just what Nicodemus was feeling.

Nicodemus didn't however, go down the mountain looking for a fire somewhere else. He didn't raise a stink about his Pharisee teacher or the High Priest/CEO of the Sanhedrin. He didn't gossip about the lack of passion in his committee. He went to the source of the fire he'd seen. The one with the whip and the flashing eyes.

Harsh Words for a Religious Leader
But Jesus makes it kind of tough for Nic. He doesn't take it easy on him and cut him slack. He doesn't teach him with simple words. He speaks poetry to him. Allegory. Analogy. He gives him a brief, yet vitally sincere responses.

"Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God."

And when that doesn't work, he adds, "Unless you are born of God's Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God."

And in these two short statements--he tells the general superintendent, the Bishop, the guy on the Senate committee...he tells him two things:

"You can't see God's work.
you don't know how to be a part of it."

I think the truth of these next words must have weighed heavily on Jesus. "You are on God's elite teaching team....How will God ever communicate his ways to the world, if even you don't understand them?"

Could John 3:16 be only the consolation prize?
(I know I'll get some guff over this.)
Finally Jesus speaks our favorite of his words. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes on him, will have eternal life. For God didn't send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved."

These words, it seems to me, are the grand consolation prize. "Sure, if people believe in me, if they look to me in faith, they will live forever."

But that isn't the point! "Nicodemus, I'm looking for kingdom people. I'm looking for people born of the spirit and living in his power. I'm looking for radical apostles who will go into the world and change it by the power of God's Spirit and for the purposes of God's will".

What Would the World Look Like If???
Now, as I write this I'm thinking, the Kingdom (or reign) of God is God's plan to set the world right. To end hunger and hatred. To pull people together beyond all prejudices, to make the rich care about the starving, and the do-nothing system manipulator care about doing his part to care for himself and others. I just believe that Jesus came to prepare a people who would change the way things are done in the world.

But when his people--or at least those of us who borrow his name--stay busy doing stuff to build and enhance the status of our empires, everything turns to waste. Since the motives are selfish and not Jesus-ish, then they turn sour...sour enough to make those who have tasted his power want to puke.

I'm afraid most Christians watch dark headlines with a sinister interest in world-doom, rather than making headlines creating God's Kingdom come.

World Changers Settling for Heaven Only.
It's almost like Jesus is saying: Nicodemus, it is in your DNA to be a world-changer, and you are stuck in your religious thinking! I'm afraid the best I'll be able to offer you and most religious people is eternal life in Heaven, because of course, God didn't send me to condemn the world. But what I need you to be is a wrecking ball to religion, and the very hand of God to bring change to this needy and lost world."

Ready to go exploring?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Choosing fear or trust: approaching life with hope

The sun has come up and a new day has begun. Yesterday's cold rain is nothing but a few puddles along the side of the road. Today's sky is full of bright hope.

Yesterday's work is past and today's is underway. Some of yesterday's questions are answered by today's arrival, and some are as hidden as tomorrow's sunrise.

Hard Lessons
I'm still learning midsts these years of my life. This is one of the lessons I garnered from our time living in Italy last fall: Life is to be approached from an attitude of trust, not fear. These options constantly present themselves. Will I rest in God's provision for my life, or assume that I must handle the stress on my own? That choice makes all the difference. For in those moments, we can choose to approach life with hope.

Far too often, I've approached these challenges as reasons for fear, rather than trust. Like a child who sees the physician as a person to dread...
--I've approached sources of pain as a challenge to my value, rather than a grace of healing.
--I've interpreted failures as explanations of my valuelessness.
--Challenges were not opportunities, but insults!
--Conflict was seen as condemnation, rather than communication.

Trusting or fearing?
Some days--such as that raincloud-covered-yesterday--shade the light of the sun so that I cannot see these opportunities to trust and grow and heal. And on other mornings, when spring's first-birdsong-filled-sunshine is winning the day, I feel like I get it...that perhaps I finally understand.

I guess life's lessons are applied only by intense effort. It's one thing to learn new truth, and another to practice that truth.

Perhaps you might join me in re-assessing how you approach hard things and difficult times? And maybe this beautiful spring season is a good time to begin.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who is Jesus: Who gets to answer this question in our day?

This is the first time I've used this site to solicit sermon insights. Yours are welcomed!

I'm working on a sermon for this weekend. Nicodemus comes to Jesus observing that Jesus must be from God, for no one could do the stuff Jesus is doing if God weren't with him.

I'm thinking of the many ways that people come to explore the person of Jesus today. How would they begin their exploration? To whom would they turn?

I'm also wondering about the responses people get to their questions about Jesus.

Any comments?

Monday, March 14, 2011

I dare you to pray!

I dare you to pray! I dare you to become new!

I invite you to quiet your mind right now and pray.

Who says you can't reclaim the next two minutes of your life--take them back for yourself and your Rescuer--and...
...Seek Jesus as your highest Treasure.

...Say a thanks.

...Speak a praise.

...Whisper an "I love you" to your maker.

...Be still and know God's presence in and around you.

...Ask for help and safety for our neighbors in Japan whom you've never met.

...Plead for peace in the Middle East.

...Desire a renewed awareness of God's Spirit in your life.

Take two minutes to pray five times a day, and you are ten minutes into a new way of living!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Running low on winter fuel

I thought we had plenty of wood for heating this winter. I assumed we'd have three or four ricks of firewood to carry over to next fall and winter.* But we are running low on winter fuel.

As the winter goes away, the cool nights remain. And the high efficiency wood stove, which heats our home, is still burning an armload or so each day. Those armloads, and their purchase price and the stacking and the burning are the price paid to save money by not using a furnace. They are also the price you pay for smelling the fire and watching its dance throughout the long winter months.

And so tonight as we sit quietly in our cabin--Shelly knitting and me blogging ever so poorly--the stove ticks and envelopes us in its comforting warmth. And as the flames flicker behind the glass on the stove door, I think again that I just can't get enough of living in the woods, and near the land.

My garden books are sitting next to me asking for attention now. So instead of continuing this obligatory post in my thirty day challenge, I think I'll go to them, and leave you to better surfing and reading.

*For you city slickers, a "rick" is two foot long logs, or shorter, stacked four feet high, and eight feet long. At least that's the Brown County, Indiana definition. It is also a half of a cord.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

It's Saturday: Your pastor has you on their mind, and Satan in their face

It is Saturday. I trust you have prayed for your pastor today, whoever he or she is.

The Need
Tomorrow I'll teach about Jesus being tested in the wilderness. Jesus was tried. He was tempted. This time was not easy for him. This was not a test he had studied for and could just breeze through. It required that he fast, pray and know scripture. Jesus struggled.

If you believe, as I do, that their is a devil who is the enemy of your soul, then what do you think that devil is to those responsible for dozens, hundreds or thousands of souls? He hates pastors, and tests and tries them.

This post is just to remind you that your pastor has probably struggled today. Whoever they are, whatever they spent their day doing, today they had you on their minds and Satan in their face. Today, no matter how they visibly spent their day, they struggled in prayer.

The Opportunity
And so, just as does every Saturday, today offers you a chance to go to prayer for your pastor. Struggle a bit for them. They are struggling for you.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Praying for the World and Playing with Mr. Potato Head

I often wonder how to pray for the world on a day like today.

I woke with my granddaughter's face against mine, my wife having brought her in to surprise me. After coming downstairs, I got news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, while playing Mr. Potato Head. I followed the news with concern off and on during the morning, and again this evening. In between I raked leaves in our yard, went to a meeting, scheduled another, then had coffee and ran errands with my wife.

The World Moves On
I remember the day of my father's death, and those which followed. As I traveled the streets of our town, I wondered why the traffic lights were switching from green to red? Why were people out and about? Why did the TV work, and radio broadcasts continue?

Didn't anyone else realize the world had come to an end?

Today felt similar. I knew in my head and heart that in Libya, there is a terrible price being paid by freedom fighters, and in Saudi Arabia protesters are being thwarted by police. I knew that in Japan untold devastation had been unleashed by nature, and Hawaii and other islands, as well as the west coasts of the Americas, could only watch and wait.

But I was playing Mr. Potato Head with my Granddaughter.

World Citizens in the Age of Satellite Communications
What does it look like to love our neighbors? How do we know when to grieve, and when to carry-on? When is my neighbor deserving of my stopping to pray for them?

In these days when the news of disaster outpaces a five-hundred-mile-per-hour wave sprinting across the ocean, it is sometimes hard to know when to act; and when to act as if nothing has happened.

Loving the World While Living in It
So today I prayed for the world. I prayed for those who face trials and suffering, and for the dying. I prayed for those who care for them. I prayed for the church--its leaders and people. I prayed my family members and theirs. I prayed for those I minister to, and those whom I have in the past. In fact this list is only beginning.

And I didn't labor over all of these people. I didn't have to define exactly how the water needed to recede, or when the shaking should stop or just how the people should flee. I spoke the names of people or locations while in the presence of my God. Then, I trusted the Mighty One with the rest.

And these prayers did not require my entire day. I simply stepped aside from people and activity in the morning, at noon and this evening and read (yes read) my prayers, scriptures and Psalms. I'll do so again at bedtime. Maybe an hour for the day. But a rhythm I can settle into and find life within.

I'm thankful to my spiritual director: Sister Mildred. She is the one who put my nose to the grindstone of prayer. She is the one who required me to have "an order." Due to her direction, I found a prayer book that fits my tradition, and now I "pray the hours."

And I pray for the world, while I continue to live in it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday: The surprising difficulty

Last night was one of surprising difficulty.

Death Vigils
There have been times in my life, because I am a pastor, that I have been pushed way beyond my comfort level. I'm not worthy the honor of these hallowed moments. Such as being with dear friends as one hears how many months they have left to live. Or with parents watching their child die after an accident. Or praying with dozens of people as they lived their last hour.

The Words Weren't What Tripped Me
As I prepared for my first real Ash Wednesday--that is to say, one where I imposed ashes to foreheads--I thought about and prayed for many aspects of the service. I prepared the ash and olive oil mixture. Our team planned the songs, scripture readings and the order of service. I got a bowl to hold the ashes, and decided where and how I would impose them.

I found the words which are to be spoken while smearing the mixture on foreheads in the shape of a cross. "Dust you are--And to dust you will return." I wrote them in large letters on a piece of card stock, and placed it at the altar where I'd be able to read it if I got lost.

It Was the People I Love, and To Whom I Spoke Them
The problem first showed up when I told my children about the words: "Dust you are--And to dust you will return." The phrase stuck in my throat. It choked tears from my soul. How would I be able to mark them with the black muddy smudge, and tell them they would die?

And so the service came, and I looked into more than a hundred and twenty sets of eyes and told them they were going to die. I wept while telling these dear friends this hard truth. I sobbed when marking and speaking impending death to my children. I watched mothers eyeing me sadly, as I spoke to their young children--mothers who understood they could do nothing to change the reality of which I spoke. And I knelt, as a friend marked my head, and told me that I would be dust again someday.

I have lived and benefitted from the season of lent many times. I have never begun in such a low place. This is appropriate.

It amazed me that so many people thanked us for doing this service. So many spoke of the power of the symbol and the words. Several even said "Thank-you" to me through their tears, as they left the altar.

And I realized in a deeper sense than ever: I am a shepherd of mortals. I am a pastor of souls who are eternal. And they want nothing less of me, than that I would speak the truth to them. Even when it makes me shudder.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Pilgrimage to the Cross Begins

Last night passed into this day midst a driving rain. The fast is on, and nature weeps with us. Our weeping, let us remember, provides to us what is most lacking. Just as the rains offer our summer-fall parched earth restoration of the life it needs.

Today we begin the pilgrimage to the cross and beyond. No mere Easter-clothes-shopping for those who choose this journey. These are days of repentance. These are days of asking for Christ's reign in our hearts, rather than our own.

O, how reluctantly we release the rule of "our" kingdom.

Humbling, Stunning Introduction
Tonight, I will bow before my fellow journeyers and pray. I will hear the words spoken to me: "Dust you are. And to dust you will return." Then I will speak them to my dearest friends in the world.

I don't like those words. They threaten me. I want to continue believing my flesh is immortal. But it is not.

I need this season of humility. I need this painful grace. Today I stand in the place I do each year...I don't understand well the gift of these days. But if my history is reliable, I will hurt and miss conveniences along a path into new life and strength. I will reach Good Friday, ready to admit my complicity in Jesus' dying.

We Do This Together
In ancient times, when armies were approaching Jerusalem, or when locusts had stolen their crops; when the young people of Israel had been taken captive to foreign lands, and God's people found themselves living as pagans--slaves to their own passions and refusing justice to the poor; a trumpet would sound, and the people would gather. They would declare a fast. They would sprinkle ashes on their heads to publicly testify to their need of repentance, and their desire for God's rescue and reign.

Surely today, where we live and where we lack God's evident presence, surely we can agree we need rescue! We do not approach Calvary alone, we come together and confess, fast and plead with God for his intervention in our living. We pray for our native countries. But first we pray for his church--his people everywhere!

We need renewal.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why Lenten Fasts? The problem of "Fat Everyday"

Dark are our thoughts about self-denial. Disappointing oneself on purpose? Why would one deny themselves of what is theirs to take and enjoy?

Pleasing Yourself: The Lie
Where I live, there are billboards with pictures of food. On my TV there are reality shows about destroying others in order to get what you can get; and movies featuring violence against neighbor and desire after one who is not your own. Everywhere there are voices of greed, lust, divisiveness and complaint.

And then midst every moment of every day, news broadcasts are airing our failures. Reporters-turned-editorialists wag fingers at those who have bought into the lie that says, "Deny yourself no pleasure, no profit, no revenge."

Because of our wealth, we are losing our morals; we have lost our once lofty expectations of ourselves...and of one another.

Fat Tuesday or Fat Everyday?
In older times, Lenten self-denial was not necessarily one's own choice. In some places, the religious culture dictated that you would fast--sometimes severely--for forty long days. Remember, these were times when luxuries like sugar, or cakes or chocolate were rare in most lives.

The natural response was to have one last splurge before the dark days of pleasure-lacking. Eventually, the day before lent (which begins with Ash Wednesday) became known as Fat Tuesday. On that day, people took license to eat, drink and be merry without restraint.

In our days, for many of us, there is never a time when we can't afford luxuries for ourselves. Fat Tuesday has become "Fat Everyday." We never lack. And we are honestly offended when someone suggests that a forty day period of self-denial might be good for us. A day without dessert? Surely not!

Fear of Empty Places
And as a result, we have become shallow. Profoundly so. We deeply fear ourselves. That is why we must have noise, people, hustle and bustle happening around us. We fear the void around us when we disconnect from our luxuries. The silence is deafening. The empty stomach makes us sick. The loneliness feels final!

Why Lenten Fasts? Because they help us listen. They draw us to the holy. They force our attention on our selfish places. I plead with you, and myself this day. Do not fear.

Don't fear self-denial. Don't fear the desert. Don't fear the vast universe where we live. Don't fear the God who will meet you, if you will only listen for a while.

Monday, March 7, 2011

My Lenten Re-read of the Year

As we approach the beginning of the season of Lent, I want to link an article which still speaks volumes to me. Please read the article linked here. It truly speaks to me, and I believe it will you.

Peace to you.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dealing with Failure

In mid February, just as I was facing three of the busiest weeks of my winter, I made a crazy promise to myself. I decided to write something here for thirty straight days. And I began.

There were a few decent posts. There were several days when there was little inspiration, but I wrote anyway. It was an exercise I'd been encouraged to try, and so having made the promise, and I kept going.

A few days ago, I passed the halfway point, and having overcome a few fairly formidable obstacles to get there, I was pretty sure I'd make it. That was until I didn't.

The Weekend
On Thursday, I drove five hours north and began an intensive three days. We finished the first night just before midnight. But I managed to get the post out during dinner hour.

Friday was a twenty hour work day. We finished at two AM Saturday Morning. However, during a brief break in the afternoon, I tapped in a couple of short paragraphs, and fulfilled my duty...poorly.

Good place for a question. Is a thirty day writing exercise truly beneficial if you are writing drivel? Not sure. But write I did. Thus, through Friday the string was intact.

Yesterday morning, after four hours of sleep, I moved with passion into the final, and most important morning of the event I was working. A lifetime of commitment to ministry, trumped a thirty day commitment to write.

Doing ministry over the weekend became my sole, and my soul focus. Fifty hours after arriving at the event site, I got in my car and headed for home. And then I began to refocus on today's ministry.

As I drove home through a heavy snow, I prayed and talked through my Sunday message and some logistics of the today's service with my wife. I made a few phone calls, and even pulled the car into an internet hot spot where my wife could email a file to someone standing by at the church.

When I got home, I took a turn at vacuuming the last of some water from the basement floor, then schlepped my bag upstairs, pulled out my prayer book and finished the day. Sleep hit me like a long longed-for embrace and the night flew by in sweet rest.

Saturday had passed, and no post was sent, nor was one thought of.

And today, my thirty day goal is toast. My writing is most likely the same as it was in mid-February when I began this journey. But the calling I promised myself to when I was a teenaged boy is still intact.

When we fail at something in life, what should we do you? Quit? Claim that we indeed are failures? I don't think so. When failures come in life, they are not final, unless you choose to quit.

See you tomorrow.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Weary Wonders

My eyes are a bit heavy. My heart is light.

Nine gifted and enthusiastic couples have poured their hearts into worship planning, group exercises, interviews, counseling appointments, simulated planting situations and entrusting themselves to God's future. These are incredibly talented and experienced families ready to go and work for a dime on the dollar of their marketable value.

And now we are 3 & 1/2 hours into our team assessment. And halfway done. And it is 11:30 PM. Lovin' it!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ministry Leaders and Seekers

This morning, Shelly and I packed our bag and drove five hours north. Beginning in an hour, I will meet with nine couples who are considering a very significant change of direction in their lives of service. My job, along with five other assessors, is to help them discern what is best and what is next.

This is a weighty responsibility and I would be grateful for your prayers.

The Team
It was so exciting to be in the room as my fellow assessors arrived. Most of us are acquainted and have worked together before in various ways. This is a group committed to the nine couples whom we will serve over the next forty-eight hours. The passion and enthusiasm in the room was catching.

From previous experience, over the next couple of days I can expect to witness laughter, tears, frustration, joy and about everything in between. In the years ahead, I can expect to hear of kingdom breakthroughs made by those with whom we will begin working tonight.

Church Leadership
There are few groups I've had the privilege of being with who are more enthusiastic than a group of pastors and church leaders. I'm encouraged already. And we've only had our orientation meeting.

In a sense, whenever we gather, all of us are looking for direction and encouragement. And when we gather in our Lord's presence, as has already begun next to this frozen lake in Southern Michigan, such help is always available.

Peace to you.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Some Thoughts from The Runaway Pastor

Thirty Day Posting Challenged May Be Challenged
I'm a bit past the halfway point of posting on my blog for thirty days straight. Tomorrow I am traveling to MIchigan to participate in a New Church Specialties Church Planter's Assessment Center. Say that five times, fast.

I'm not sure whether we will have internet at that location. I know I won't have much time to write. However, a commitment is a commitment! So I will write daily and post if able. If I'm without service, I'll upload my posts when I arrive back home Saturday evening.

Infrequent Advertisement
Here are some ways you can help me at this blog:
1.) If you have not already, you can sign on as a "follower."
2.) You can sign-up to the "feed" services which will send you an email anytime a new post is put up on The Runaway Pastor.
3.) You can comment here, at the blog, rather than on facebook or via email. (I love to hear your comments any place to record them, but it just creates more of a community if you post comments here.)
4.) You can click a response at the bottom of each post. This is simple, but shows some more interest in the site.
5.) When there is a post that you especially like or think is important, you can always click on the "Share this on Facebook," button toward the top on the right side. And, if you are a Twit/Tweeter, you can "Tweet this" in the same location.

Surprising Following
Although I don't check the following as often as I used to, this blog is growing in its readership. There are regular hits from more than twenty countries. Following a recent post with international implications, I had over one hundred and seventy-five "hits" from a single country in Europe.

Thank you for coming by here, and for letting your friends know when I say something you think they'd like. Of course, I receive no remuneration for this writing. It is simply a place I can practice, or at least make some cyber-noise. And now and then, I mention my novel.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Today's Slavery, Sex Trafficking and You

"Once a young teen is bought and paid for, they are drugged and made addicts. Then, they can be forced to do as their owner wants. Pictures of their sister or parents from back home are used to threaten them. 'You smile and act like you enjoy it all, or we can get to your family.'"

Last week I had the chance to spend an hour with a friend who as a public official works against human trafficking--read: SLAVERY--in the USA. I was appalled.

Slavery in Our Times and Our Cities
"A girl can be bought for ninety bucks," he said to me. He was being glib to emphasize how common the practice. I thought he meant that a "john" can rent a girl for that. He meant that slave owners can buy girls for that, and rent them three to five thousand times per year until they are "used up." And then they are "granted their freedom, the kind of freedom known to an addict with no way to survive anywhere but on the streets."

Yes, after they are purchased, they are made dependent on drugs, and then forced into the sex the tens of thousands they are enslaved right now, here in North America. How?

Prostitution Texas Style
One means of exploitation is prostitution. I was told of Cantinas in Texas where 12-18 year-old girls are "rented" ten to fifteen times per night. "They are beaten if they don't make a thousand dollars each day."

At the bar, a beer is $3. But if you buy a beer for one of the girls, a beer is $14. And once you buy 3 or more, you have earned some time with her. You see, prostitution is illegal in Texas. But buying beer for an underaged date, is evidently doable.

By now I was sick to my stomach.

Pornography is legal. Prostitution is not. "So," my friend asked, "define prostitution for me."

"Sex for money," I answered.

"Right! However," he said, "if your owner gets paid for pictures of you in the act, or if you spend time with a 'john' with live cameras on the internet for money, it's just pornography. And pornography is what drives customers to the human sex trafficking salesmen! Brain wave scans of people who are high on drugs are identical to those of people watching pornography. It is an addiction. As long as pornography is permitted, these children will be bought/sold/exploited."

Middle Class Neighborhood Cells
And then the story got even uglier. "Do you know how easy it is to hide a few teenage girls in a middle class home?" he asked. "The girls are set up in a basement room with a computer and a camera. The door locks from the outside of the room. They chat with "johns" for money. Their owners feed them, buy them drugs and sexy clothes. The teenage girls do their acting for survival."

Human Trafficking
"When you can buy a 12-15 year-old for $90 bucks, you can make a lot of money off of them. And three years later, when they are used-up, you just emancipate them. And that is what slavery is all about...profits for the slaveowner."

My wife has been involved with human trafficking prevention at her workplace for a year or so now. I've appreciated it, but not understood it this well. I hope this painful post will make you more aware of a deplorable and inhumane practice.

And if you have a secret pornography addiction, remember you are exploiting real people. Your habit is not without its victims. And, you are more than likely complicit with human slave trading.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Gardening the World Together

I just went to our season's first garden meeting. Eight perfectly sane adults plotting plots for their community garden. Like children on Christmas eve, visions of planting, hoeing, watering and harvesting were dancing in our heads. Hope springs eternal.

We named a "crop director" to assure proper produce volumes for our local soup kitchen. We offered the position of "flower child," in hopes of beautifying the garden. We looked like adoring parents at pictures of last year's harvest. And we ate chips and salsa...the latter which produce of such meetings last year.

We agreed that each person with a plot, should assist with the community portion of the garden. This is the part that serves the soup kitchen. I remember last year a crop of green beans came on quickly, and I took an hour or so in the noon time heat to gather them. Later that afternoon another member snapped and delivered them to a food pantry.

Kingdom Realities
It seems to me these garden realities are a microcosm of larger dreams. We people of God's kingdom have this crazy idea that the world can change; not only are we "saving souls," we are a part of the Creator saving the world. We believe he wants to set all things right. We are gardening the world together.

There are so many things in life that happen best in community; so many blessings we miss by being lone rangers. If you aren't into gardening, find your niche and chip in with a community to accomplish something. There are things we can do together which just won't happen solo. And so it is with the Kingdom of God and the church.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Other Side of the Struggle: Sunday Joys

If Saturday evenings brings "soul flu" to this pastor, Sunday brings healing. It's amazing to me the relief and joy that I feel the moment I'm with the people from our congregation. Even before the pressure of delivering the sermon is relieved, the presence of the people at our church brings me joy.

Good Day
Today was such a day. Immediately after entering the building, I asked a young man if he could speak with me for a moment. I issued him a huge challenge. I asked him to add another one hour meeting to his week, to commit to reading 25 chapters of scripture each week and then to meeting with me for a time of prayer, discussion of what we'd read and then a series of heavy accountability questions. He immediately said "Yes."

Walking through the various areas of the church, I was encouraged by the way people were loving one another. Before the worship service, two men prayed for me. And during the service, I felt free and strong. Delivering my sermon felt...well, it just felt right.

There is a friend at church who says, " I love it when you struggle with your sermons on Saturday, because it means we will hear something we need on Sunday.

The Other Side of the Struggle
So, after the moaning about how tough it is to deliver a sermon last weekend, and after telling you about "Saturday night fever" last night; I thought it appropriate to let you in on the good side of things.

There is nothing like Sunday afternoon, when all has gone well, and I've spoken the words which needed said; and all of us have responded as we needed to.

It's Sunday night, and I'm feeling relieved and fortunate to serve the people of my congregation. I think I'll sleep well.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Saturday Night Fever

It's Saturday night. And I have what I sometimes call the "soul flu," it's a common Saturday malady for me.

A pastor friend posted this description on his facebook yesterday:

"God has given me an important message for Sunday. Problem is I haven't found the words to deliver it yet. Just a weight right now is the only way for me to describe it. I could use prayer."

This is how I described sermon delivery last Sunday night:

"They hurt while they form inside of you. They can make you feel sick. They make you doubt your ability to produce them. They stretch and push the limits of the bone and sinew of your soul."

For Those of You Who Have Pastors
I guess this is a post for those of you who have pastors or priests. Pray for them tonight. Saturday nights, even if they don't have Saturday evening services, are not laid-back or relaxing evenings. Your pastor, wherever she or he is, is probably thinking about tomorrow...and feeling quite inadequate.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Controversy Regarding THE RUNAWAY PASTOR, and Its Impact on a Sequel

Yesterday I mentioned encouragement I often receive regarding my first novel--The Runaway Pastor. I also, however, receive other helpful feedback. Here is what I mean.

What's Missing
Some feel they are left out on a limb in the midst of the storyline. A few who have read the book say they feel betrayed by Trent, the lead character. They are bothered that he passionately seeks to make a failed marriage right. But he seems to make no such effort toward his pursuit of pastoral ministry.

I understand he needs to deal with his calling. This should be addressed in the sequel. But you need to know, that there are many different opinions about how he should or would move forward.

Speaking for the Silent
If you read the reviews on amazon, you will notice that many pastors feel understood. I hear this over and over. I imagine that there are many who feel, as one reviewer indicated, exposed. And some probably feel betrayed.

There are lay people and clergy alike who indicate a strong disrespect for Trent, his running, and what follows. It is beneath the dignity of the calling. Others, via subtle remarks, let me know their disrespect is for me, for airing the issues in such a raw way.

Resolve, and the Bigger Issue
The sequel will need to resolve some of these issues regarding Trent and his marriage, and Trent and his calling. Resolving conflict, however, will not please all readers.

I think the bigger issue is the state of the clergy. And I truly wish more people were interested in the numbers who are leaving ministry and losing marriages.

Following my sabbatical last fall, I have been renewed in passion for my calling. But most have no sabbatical hopes. And many pastors (or their wives) are simply soldiering-on--until the day they can retire, or step away--to avoid the tragedy of running.

How do you want to see Trent choose regarding these issues? What is realistic? What is right? And what is it you would want if you were any of the major characters, or the congregation at Baylor's Bend? What would The Runaway Pastor do?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Runaway Pastor Who Never Ran

This week's M11 Conference provided a fresh wind of life to my soul, and no doubt thousands of others who attended. Worship services, seminars and visits with friends were such a great winter pick-up.

A gratifying aspect for me was all of the comments about my book, The Runaway Pastor. I received simple compliments, a few raving thank-you's including one tear-filled embrace of gratefulness. The book has become a tool for providing help in pastors' marriages.

Protagonist and Author: Two Different People
As a new author, it is surprising how many people struggle separating the writer of the novel from the protagonist of the story. People seem to wonder if I had run away from ministry or my wife? It was nice to report both a ministry and a marriage that I love. A ministry and marriage for which I am so grateful.

Painful Realities
It is always sad to hear some of the stories you hear at these events. Pastors who have quit, or who have been "sent away" from ministry, are more and more common. You meet servants who are wounded and hoping to be filled up for "one more go at it."

I guess having written such a story as The Runaway Pastor puts me in a position to hear stories--stories of depression or of wanting to quit, as well as stories of those who can't believe anyone would struggle in those ways. I felt like a magnet to such conversations this week.

Of all things, I'm most grateful to hear again and again those testimonies saying the book has been a help for pastors' marriages. That alone is worth it all.

Tomorrow: Why I need to Write a Sequel

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pentecost's strength is passing, and must ever be sought anew...

The night moves in quietly around me. Life is here in this room, comforting and illusive. Pentecost's strength is passing, and must ever be sought anew in the mines of prayer.

Convention Motivations
M11 has been a powerful wind in my sails. I've been to enough conventions to know, however, that ideas come and go. Passions rise and fall. Methods are here today, and replaced tomorrow.

But there are movings within that require more than seminar attention, or a brief flurry of action after returning home. These demand obedience over the long haul.

Prayer Continues
And so again tonight I take the book of prayer from my briefcase, and worship in the privacy of this room in my host's home. I come before the Mighty One and seek.

Strength moves in quietly around me. Necessary strength is here in this room, comforting now, and needed for my tomorrows. But tomorrow's strength will be mined in the place of prayer tomorrow, yet again and again, once more.

There is no reservoir in which to store Pentecost. I'll need come to seek the upper room first thing tomorrow, and then throughout my days, forever, while here. Pentecost's strength is passing, and must ever be sought anew in the mines of prayer.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Home Away from Home

It's morning. Spent the night with some extended family in Louisville. Dinner together sort of--at different times according to the American way.

I'm attending the M11 Conference here. Today I will begin again walking from room to room in the bowels of an unfamiliar conference center. I'll hope to pick-up Truth in each gathering, and I'll enjoy seeing friends I've not seen in so very long.

The worship service last night was excellent. The music was from scripture and scripture was woven through each song and between each song. The preaching was mighty--think powerful African American speaker with the lofty promises of Ezekiel 36-37. I was encouraged in my quiet way; while the congregation was encouraged in a noisier way. It was good.

The highlight of the evening. The best moment--beyond the long missed friends and hugs and masterful sermon--came earlier in the service. We were asked to gather for prayer in groups of two or three. I had gone alone, and so I gathered with those near my seat.

When the man named David across from me began to pray, there was music in my soul. Somehow his simple and familiar vocabulary allowed me to comprehend each Spanish word and phrase. I had never met him. We were brothers. Within me, I wanted to tell him so.

His prayer closed with, "Thank you for these brothers of mine, our Lord." And as the crowd dispersed, I didn't have the opportunity to speak again with him. Perhaps I never will. But the truth of our brotherhood will remain.

I'm here with people I know and people I don't. And along the way, as I miss my family and friends, I realize that I'm home, away from home.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The (in)significance of a pastor?

Maybe it's the rain. Maybe it's the saying good-bye. And maybe it's just that I'm feeling a bit too necessary. Today I leave for a three-day conference. I know it will be beneficial to my spirit. I know I will learn. But I always hate to leave home and office.

Pastors are "Vain" and "Lazy?"
Eugene Peterson writes poignantly to pastors. In his book, The Unnecessary Pastor, he and co-author Marva Dawn deconstruct many myths regarding the pastor's role.

My favorite of Peterson's books, however, is entitled: The Contemplative Pastor. Here he shames clergy for their self-importance. He charges that we stay incessantly busy because we are vain and we are lazy. Ouch! What can this mean?

We want to be seen as busy and as vital to every cog in church and community activities. We want to impress people with our work ethic. We want people to be amazed at how many things we can do well, and how we seem to show up at every crisis.

What a Contemplative Pastor Looks Like
Pastoring, according to Peterson, should be something very different. Pastors should pray, preach and listen. More specifically, we should pray on an intimate level. We should preach after being drenched in scripture and prayer. And we should listen out of unhurried leisure. "Leisure," says Peterson, "is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time." Hmmm.

An Allegory from Melville (long quote from The Contemplative Pastor)
"In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, there is a turbulent scene in which a whaleboat scuds across a frothing ocean in pursuit of the great, white whale, Moby Dick. the sailors are laboring fiercely, every muscle taut, all attention and energy concentrated on the task...In this boat, however, there is one man who does nothing. He doesn't hold an oar; he doesn't perspire; he doesn't shout. He is languid in the crash and the cursing. This man is the harpooner, quiet and poised, waiting. And then this sentence: "To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.

"....The metaphors Jesus used for the life of ministry are frequently images of the single, the small, and the quiet, which have effects far in excess of their appearance: salt, leaven, seed...It is, then, a strategic necessity that pastors deliberately ally themselves with the quiet, poised harpooners, and not leap, frenzied, to the oars."

Is there even a chance that any of us who are called pastors would be willing to practice such a style of ministry? Would it work? Would we remain employed? Peterson claims that he dropped out of the hustle, and into contemplation, and found that no one noticed.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What it is like to deliver a sermon

It's Sunday night. I'm tired and ready for rest. But the day has been good, and I am so grateful for the honor of what I do.

Most people look forward to Friday night as the end of a week of work. I look forward to this night, even though tomorrow is a work day. Sunday is the day of sermon delivery, and unless you've spent several years delivering weekly sermonic offspring, you probably can't understand.

Delivery is a Good Word for It
When it comes to sermons, delivery is a good word for how they are given. Sermons are not spoken. They are not merely read. And sermons are not presented. Sermons are delivered. Like children are delivered.

They hurt while they form inside of you. They can make you feel sick. They make you doubt your ability to produce them. They stretch and push the limits of the bone and sinew of your soul. Sermons are not mere speeches written and read. They are life, formed within you, then they pass through you at great personal pain.

Yet a well delivered sermon can leave you full of joy. When those to whom you speak truly receive your offspring, there is a great sense of obedience.

But always, the process humbles and forces one to plead for assistance. There are never lonelier moments than those of the sermon giver going to the place of delivery. No one can understand. No one.

And when the last words are shoved out of your spirit, leaving you fatigued--even after a seemingly quiet and peaceful delivery, there is nothing sweeter than rest. And a little bit of revelry in the fact that you will not do this again for another seven days.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Choosing the Corner Into Which You Want to Paint Yourself: Life Change

I've been writing about life change and about new beginnings. Today let's consider choosing the corner into which you want to paint yourself. How will life change be brought about in your living?

Here is a quick lesson in how to begin painting yourself into a corner.

Beginnings: Getting Specific
So what are you hoping to begin? A new lifestyle of exercise? Becoming serious about praying, meditating or reading scripture? What do you need to begin? Be specific and choose your corner.

Know Your Goal
Write it down very specifically. "I want to pray two times per day for ten minutes." Or, "I want to become a healthy person by weighing no more than _____, and by being able to run/walk/hike/trek/ski _____ amount by _______ date."

Look at the Price Tag
Jesus taught those wanting to follow him that they should first count the cost. Few sales people want us to do this. But Jesus was all about being honest up front.

If you have decided what it is you'd like to accomplish next in your life, here's a good place to start. Consider what it will cost you.
--It will cost you some freedoms. Write them down.
--It may cost you some money. Write those costs down.
--Change will cost you some serious will power. Write down some examples of when and where you will need that.
--You will need to learn about how to accomplish your goal. Write down how you will research this.

Now, look at the price tag. Think about it. Are you willing to commit to that price?

If you are willing to pay the price in order to meet your goal, then record your goal. Tell a supportive friend and ask them to encourage you along the way.

Welcome to "In the Mean Time"
And now, welcome to the mean time. You have not arrived. You will not for a long time. You are in the in-between-time, and this is where you will be tried and tested. And this is where you will have failures. And this is where you can live in gratefulness for your free will. And this is also where you will succeed, if you will only stay here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Beginning, Remaining and Being Grateful

Years ago, I married my dear wife, and we began a home...the process of making a life together. Just now, I put my grandchild down for a nap after a morning of fun with her. I cherished the brief cuddle before placing her in her bed. And what of the in-between times?

Those have been times of remaining.

Most of Life
It seems to me that most of our life is spent in remaining. Our days are marked with beginnings. Where I live, we will soon plant spring gardens. And planting will mark only the beginning.

An ancient teacher and Christian scripture writer said that he had learned to be content no matter his circumstances. I guess that is what I am seeing to know.

Planting a seed is a mere matter of poking it into the earth. But the toils which follow are worked out midst hotter, more humid days--days of pulling weeds, swatting mosquitos, hoeing and watering. Long hours of sweat are given for each moment of planting and each taste of harvest. They are days of remaining.

Most of life is spent "in the mean time." Most of our time is invested in the process of remaining.

Harvests and Gratefulness
The days come at the end of growing cycles when we reap harvests from our gardens. Our planting and our remaining reap dividends at last. These are days of gratefulness. It is easy to be thankful with a counter mounded with fresh produce. Harvests are a natural time to be grateful.

But what about the in between times?

Here's the Trick!
I'm learning to be grateful for the process. To enjoy the remaining. To be thankful "in the mean time." Between the planting and the harvest, there is a miracle happening. A seed is reproducing itself in a most helpful and self-sacrificial way. We are given the blessing of weeding, hoeing and watering to help the miracle along.

If you cannot enjoy the trickle of sweat on your back, the sun on your face and the ache after bending--and carrying--and yanking a hoe through stubborn soil; then you are not cut out to be a gardener.

The trick is to enjoy the process. The joy is in the journey--as much as it is in the dreaming before, and arriving later at the destination. Gratefulness cannot be reserved for "some day." It is to be ours today!

I'll Be Happy When...
So when will you be happy? At what point will you be able to drop your somedays, and rejoice in your todays?

My granddaughter is sleeping peacefully. My beautiful wife is with me enjoying this day off. My son is throwing his unique dignity into new a piece of pottery. My daughter is passionately teaching a classroom of children. My son-in-law is finishing a Master's Degree on his way to being an excellent school counselor.

And I am counting the joys in the midst of life. There are many beginnings behind and before me. I pray there are many finishes and harvests ahead. But in this "mean time," I am remaining.

And after my beginnings and before my harvests--as I stand remaining in the mean time, I am learning to be grateful.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Painting Myself Into a Corner: On Purpose

OK. So yesterday I decided to do a blog post here thirty days in a row. And today I left for Indianapolis very early so I could attend an all-day seminar, and then a dinner with friends.

Anything But Convenient
Sometimes our commitments are anything but convenient! Tonight, at nine-thirty PM, my thirty day commitment is staring me in the face. That's what commitments are for. They are not intended to be easy. They are intended to be in your face. They are a way of you getting into your own face. That's why they call it self-discipline, I suppose.

Exercise commitments put us in places where we are required to do what is not comfortable. So are marriage commitments. So is any relationship worth having. Things of value in your life will rarely be convenient or cheap. And we all must choose what will be of value to us...or risk not knowing things and relationships of value.

New Beginnings
There have been many new beginnings in my life. There were times when I committed to praying or reading scripture more often, losing weight, exercising, being a better husband, spending more time with my children, taking classes toward another degree, moving to a new congregation to care for a new set of people...and the list could go on and on.

Each beginning was made with enthusiasm and a sense of determined commitment. It seemed that all I could see was the up-side of the promise. Yet soon came a moment of truth. This was a time when I was forced to choose between current ease, and longterm accomplishment.

Here's the kicker. In my life, when it comes to diet, exercise and many other commitments; I've failed more often than I've succeeded. I've started exercising many more times than I've accomplished a successful habit. I've begun spiritual disciplines and dropped them literally hundreds of times.

But I think that failure is only failure if you decide to cave-in for good.

One More Day
Well, I've sat with my word processor for about 20 minutes now. I've written something that at least makes sense to me at the end of a long day. And maybe I'm the only one who cares. But I've kept a promise for one more day.

Now I can go pray and sleep knowing I'm still in this thing.

Peace to you.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Beginning a New Thing: Exercise

Fits and Starts
About ten years ago, I decided to begin exercising. I was beginning a new thing. What I mean is, I decided to make exercise a regular part of my life. And so I started, and stopped an started again. Many times.

There were injuries and illnesses and habits long ingrained that offered great resistance to my plan. I would jog a few times in a week. And then I would get really busy with my job or family. And soon, I'd be three weeks into not exercising. Then three months. Who was I trying to kid? "I'm just not on of those health nuts!" I kept rationalizing.

One spring day a few years later, I drove three hours north of our home to sit with a friend who's father was having surgery. I was there for support. It was an all day thing. It was a day when I knew I'd not have time to exercise. But the day changed my life.

I spent a few hours in a hospital waiting room with a stocky lawyer who appeared less in shape than me. He told me he ran marathons. He told me his secret was to never cause himself pain. What?

Never Cause Yourself Pain
He explained that if you run too fast or too far, you will hate jogging and soon you'll quit. But if you go slowly and set small goals, soon you'll enjoy the process. "Get comfortable shoes," he said. "And just enjoy."

And so I did. I began to run--no--I began to slowly jog short distances in comfortable shoes. I never allowed myself to get winded. (I loved that rule!) It was never hard to breath. If it started to get hard, I slowed down or stopped. I just kept my eye on the prize of good health.

About a year after I began this painless process, a friend asked me to train with him to run the mini-marathon (13.1 miles) the next spring. The event was six or seven months away, and after a few weeks, I went online and signed-up--even though I could not run more than two miles at the time. I doubted I would follow-through. However, I went to the bookstore hoping against hope that I could do this thing! I bought a book called MARATHONING FOR MORTALS. And I began to train.

Each Sunday, a group of five or six of us from church would go to a flat, paved trail and slowly jog together. At first we did a mile. Five months later, only a week or so before the event, we jogged nine and a half miles. I had never run that far in my life. And the mini-marathon would be three and a half miles further. Yet now, I knew I could do it!

My Goals for the Race
I set two goals for the mini-marathon. My first goal was to finish. Second, I wanted to jog the entire walking. I didn't care if grandmothers flew past me. (And some, no doubt did.) I knew my pace, and I knew I could do this.

Perhaps the single most fulfilling day of my life was the day I ran the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon. Two hours and thirty-one minutes after I began, I finished. And I had only begun.

Six Years Later
Today I continue to push myself to exercise. I enjoy trekking/hiking in hills and mountains. I don't cause myself pain. But I miss the workouts when I'm not able to do them. Exercise is my friend.

A lawyer convinced me to make fitness a part of my life--instead of an occasional fetish--when I was in my mid forties. Today, I weigh thirty-five pounds fewer than when I started. I weigh five pounds less than when I ran the mini. I get sick less often, and find exercise to be free therapy for tough times.

What About You?
In what areas do you need inspiration? What single challenge has you intimidated? Where do you assume you are stuck? Feel free to feedback here.

In my next post, I hope to apply some of this to other challenges in life. In fact, I've challenged myself to increase my writing. I plan to post something here every day for the next thirty. It's my new thing. What's yours?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How do you write a book?

There have been several people to ask me the question: "How do you write a book?" I suppose there are many ways to answer that question. I'm going to give you mine.

I have always enjoyed taking a few days during a vacation to write. Often I'd simply begin writing the story of a person in some difficult situation. Usually I'd trail on for five pages, or fifty, then run out of time.

When I wrote The Runaway Pastor, it was much the same. I sat down one evening with the question on my mind: What would happen if a pastor ran away and hid from his life? What if?

And so I began writing. I finished writing the first few pages or so, and decided to keep them. Later that evening, I wrote a bit more. When prompted to name the file, I called it "Trent's Very Bad Day."

Honestly, Trent's story became an obsession for me. I seemed to constantly wonder, "What going to happen next?" The story of The Runaway Pastor leapt from my mind one briskly written sentence after another. I couldn't stop the story or the characters. They kept acting. I kept writing.

And that is how the book came to be. That is how I best answer the question: "How do you write a book?"

I have begun work on a sequel for The Runaway Pastor. In fact, I have about seven starts. I like them all. But no one of them pesters me to keep creating. After writing about a chapter's worth, the characters seem to go away. I don't go to sleep wondering what will happen next.

And here is the ugly truth: Unlike the first book, I already know how this one will end. I know what will happen in the middle in order for that end to become reality. And I have several starts to get me on my way.

This knowledge defines my writer's block problem. For me, a story is exciting only so long as its conclusion is uncertain. Evidently, where there is no mystery, I am no author.

Looking for the mystery.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egyptian Transitions from Beneath the Ironing Board

I was too small to see the top of the ironing board, but knew she was weeping as she pushed the iron across it. I understood better when I watched the black and white scene of a young boy saluting as his father's casket rolled by. I can still hear the horse hooves. To this day that sound hits me with a mixed sense of regal and tragic.

And then, as I continued to grow up, I remember two other assassins and their victims. Black and white, and wondered to myself if important people would be able to live any more.

I remember dancing with my infant children as Eastern Europe's wall fell, and as people teemed through its widening seams. And I wondered how the world would work with such desperate need meeting such complacent plenty.

I think this day will be such a memory. Trying to work at my office while listening to the BBC depict the events in Cairo, where I walked just three short months ago.

We like to think we know how history should turn. We may even believe we know best. But as one who prays multiple times each day: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," I am observing as a little one. I'm trusting in the hand of God, the wisdom of his ways and the strength of his people.

Who knew that the "Godless Communists" would have held onto faith midst such dark realities? Who knew the wall fell that relational and spiritual wealth would not flow West to East alone?

And who knows but what God's Kingdom may yet have a chance of becoming reality among us? Why, after all, do we pray for it, if we are going to cower and groan when our world changes shape in ways we cannot control? We can't even see the top of the ironing board.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Pro Life Check-Up

This Sunday is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Can followers of Jesus find agreement in the value of human life? Not usually.

Picture, if you can bear to do so, these realities.

She walks into the sterile procedure room and prepares herself to sacrifice her child. Whatever her reasons, she is free to do so. And we grieve alongside her.

He shuffles, legs tied in chains, as he enters the chamber to receive the lethal injection. Whatever the reasons, the state is free to do so. And we grieve for his family, and that of his victim.

She holds her husband's hand as she drinks the physician prescribed lethal cocktail--ending her own life. Whatever the reasons, in some places, she is free to do so. And we grieve her loss.

He goes to sleep holding his stuffed animal, not knowing the plane will drop bombs on his house and he won't wake up again. Whatever the reasons, the pilot was sent to do so. We grieve for the boy and his family.

Chances are, depending on your leanings, you have been known to celebrate, rather than grieve two of the four losses mentioned here. Which ones? Well that would depend on your political party.

But may we agree, that each loss above is worthy of our sorrow? May we agree, that life is to be valued? When we pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done..." may we agree that there is a higher way than those of our earthly kingdoms?

I fear not.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Changing 2011? Or, Are You Stuck?

Are you spiritually stuck?

Is change more and more difficult for you to achieve? It's a new year! 2011 is here, and you have already chosen to some degree what you expect from it--and what you will become in it.

I'm a guy who has been known to spin his wheels into some pretty serious ruts. So here is some thinking I've been doing, which has positively effected my praying and my "being."

Have you been framed?
My district pastor recently wrote about a magazine article titled: “Ready to Change? Reaching your goals in 2011”.  Tim Talevich, the article's author interviews J.D. Roth and Todd Nelson, producers of the hit TV series, “The Biggest Loser”, now in its 11th season. 

The article says the series is about  “... people who have somehow found themselves off the track in life, yet tapped an inner strength to change.” 

One of the contestants, a former Viet Nam vet who injured his knees and over time had gained over two hundred pounds, told Roth and Nelson that even though he desperately wanted to lose weight, there were subtle, underlying forces not to. He said, “Most people are like a picture in a frame, never changing. You get comfortable with that picture, because it’s always the same.” 

Have you been framed? Do you look at the picture of your spiritual life and say, I've never been able to pray. I've never been faithful. I've never ________.

The "Thought--Word--Reality Maker."
I've been teaching about "logos" for the past couple of weeks. A guy named John, who was a friend of Jesus, tells the story of creation in the most poetic way. He says that the Logos, which is God, created everything.

Logos means a "word which comes from the thinking process." In reality, most of our words come from our thinking. "Out of the overflow of the mind, a man speaks," said the writer of Proverbs.

So John is saying something like this. Before there was anything, God thought it and then spoke it, and it was created. This matches Genesis' story of creation: "And God said, let there be light. And there was light..."

Does being created in God's image indicate anything regarding the power of our words?
Disclaimer: It is important to remember that we do not create in the way God does. We may fashion, or bring things about. But we cannot make something out of nothing in the way that God can.

However, what we think and speak has power. Does the plant kingdom have this capability? No. The animal kingdom? Not so much. But we, as humans created in the image of God, can think thoughts and fashion new realities. For good. Or for evil.

Like Israel's David: He thinks poetically about a shepherd, then speaks and writes the poem we call the 23rd Psalm. The image has impacted our understanding of God for thousands of years.

Or, he thinks about the beauty of another man's wife, he speaks to his peons about bringing her to the palace, and then commits adultery and murder. The world is changed.

John Kennedy thought, then spoke the space program into hyperdrive. Adolf Hitler thought and spoke hatred into the masses, and created hell on earth. And you own thoughts right now about who you are in relation to God. You're thinking, speaking and fashioning your own spiritual reality.

2011 Prescription
Focus on this for a few mornings and bedtimes, and try believing it.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Ephesians 3:17-21 (New International Version, ©2010)

What are you thinking about?
What are you talking about?
What are you bringing about???

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Winter Wonders Never Cease

I've spent the last month trying to talk myself out of it. The thought keeps presenting itself, and I continually dismiss it as ludicrous. I can no longer. So, I'm going on record. Let it be said, that at least for this year, winter is my favorite season. My reasons:

1) You can see through the trees. I live in a forest, and in the winter I can see beyond the vegetation that surrounds us on every side. Deer, rushing streams and the night sky become visible neighbors in the winter.

2) I own my favorite hiking trails. I hike in the state park adjacent to my property. I hike hundreds of miles a year here, and during this season, I can hike for hours seeing and hearing only wildlife and the wind in the treetops.

3) Sweat-free hiking. Winter provides me the opportunity to pile on the layers, work hard in the hills--huffing and puffing past non-stop beauty without getting hot. In fact, usually I ditch the gloves before I'm finished, even in sub freezing temps.

4) No snakes. I like that too.

5) Snow. On a good year, like this one, there is a beautiful white accent lacing the forest and hills around me. We have been fortunate to have more than the average amount of snow this year, along with a colder than normal winter. These enhance the breathtaking views where I live, work and hike. The white also keeps the trail bright after dark, extending the normally darker season. Though I don't do them all every year, there are many fun things to do in the snow: sledding, skiing, hiking, snow shoeing and skitching to name a few. Ever skitched?

6) The air seems more fresh. Right now it's about nineteen degrees Fahrenheit outside. Perfect. Makes you feel alive. Hot tubs are unbearable when the temperature is above twenty.

7) Night skies. Night time skies are not the same in the spring, summer or fall as on a cold winter night. I can step outside and take a few steps down the hill around my home and be submerged in a sky so inky dark, I feel I can touch the stars.

8) German Shepherd weather. My shepherd is in a great mood all winter. She lays and plays in a falling snow, runs through the woods just for the joy of the sprint; and unless it is way colder than it is now, she'll always greet me between the car and the front door. She's built for it.

9) Wood Stove. My furnace hasn't been on this winter. Around here they say that "burnin' wood'll het you twiced." This means that when you split the wood you get warm, as well as when you burn it. I would say that it will heat you a lot more than that. The wood heats you when you cut it, move it, split it, stack it, move it to stack it again in the carport, move it into the house before burning, when you put it in the stove and it pours out the heat AND when you sit and look at it glow and burn.

10) More family time. Winter holds the "holiday season." People seem to shut down their lives earlier in the evening. I allow myself more evenings at home in the winter, and it's just easier to gather with friends and family. Winter is a "warm" season in so many ways.

Well, there are many more, but you get the idea. I've lived in winter free zones. I loved the people there, and truly love the desert. But life without winter seems to be...well, lacking.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Seeing Stars

The ancient poet sings:

The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the works of his hands...
(Psalm 19:1)

I've just stepped outside of my cabin to hear the shouting. Raving mad stars are exclaiming God's glory. Brightest white points on solid black velvet sky. Darkness and light equally breathtaking, puzzlingly enchanting. They speak the language of glory--a language of which I know precious little. Is there anyone who studies or speaks this tongue? I want to know them, to learn from them.

My German shepherd leans into my thigh, looking up at me for some answer to her longings. Wanting nothing more than tender words and a scratch behind the ear. I give what I can, but own no glory. Does her soul ache? Does it see stars, and want to know their maker, or can she merely see the nighttime forest of oaks she flawlessly navigates at full speed?

Give me a heart, I pray. Give me a heart that can navigate glory and live to tell it. And give me a tongue able to describe the truth. We need to know that we live in a grander place than we can imagine. Scratch my ears, speak tender words. Just don't leave me alone beneath the glory, then force me to go back inside where it is warm, and I can survive the elements.

My soul sees and longs. Please Night, make noise with your song--form words. Yet even the silent shooting star that seems to linger, frozen in the bitter cold of this night, does not satisfy.

The heavens are declaring the glory of God. O for ears to hear what my eyes can see they are saying.