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.