Saturday, January 28, 2017

How to Get a Fresh Start Without Leaving

Around 2011, all signs were indicating that we were about to take on a new role in a new congregation. Arriving at this willingness took a great emotional toll on us, because we loved the people where we were, and knew without question that we were loved and appreciated there. Having spent a lot of time, carefully weighing our options and what church we might actually be willing to go and work with, we went through an awful, months-long application process with that church.

After some re-assuring comments from several elders at the new location--"We can't wait for you to get started"--a few days later I got an expected phone call, and some unexpected information. They were hiring the other guy. It was a kick in the gut and a cut to the ego.

In the end, I stayed three more years at the congregation where I was, and frankly, ended up doing there what I consider the most important work I've done in my ministry to this point, anywhere. I'm glad I stayed longer than I had assumed I would, and am grateful that the work actually grew in its meaningfulness those last years.

But at the time, I realized I was going to have to find a way to get a fresh start. I needed some kind of change for me to be able to adjust my attitude and give myself passionately to my work again. I had burned up my vacation time visiting and interviewing at this other church, and so a dreamy trip out of town wasn't a possible solution.

I decided that since my church needed a new minister (I was getting burned out) and I needed a new start, I would have to let myself be the new guy. I adopted a few methods during this time that have continued to help me significantly in my effectiveness, and in my ability to be joyful about my work, even when parts of it might feel tedious.

How can you give yourself a fresh start without leaving? This is what has worked for me. I'd be glad to hear what works for you.
  • Move out, and move in. Since I had been planning to move, I decided to go ahead and do it. I took all books off of my shelves and several things down from the walls. I emptied my desk and drawers. I did all the sorting process I would have done if I were moving away and got rid of a lot of junk and clutter, and donated a bunch of old books I hadn't been using.

    Beyond that, I had a storage closet with permanent shelving that was nice, but not designed well for the needs of the space. I emptied the space, ripped it all out of the wall, and got better, height-adjustable shelving. I painted the walls and got rid of everything that I knew I didn't need in there.

    In my mind, I got a new office and a new closet space. That process was very healthy for me.
  • Have your parting conversations. From the moment we started thinking we were going to leave, there was a series of conversations that I knew I would need to have. There were people who had been significant in my life, whose influence had inspired me and whose encouragement had carried me through difficulties. I wanted to tell them that. There were areas of great concern I had that I didn't feel were being addressed. I had formulated in my mind what I would need to tell the elders as I was leaving that really needed to happen as things moved forward.

    I had framed these things in my mind as parting conversations that would bring a sense of peace and closure to me as I left. But now I wasn't leaving, and I still felt convicted about the need to communicate those things. So I went ahead and did it. I called and scheduled lunches and visits with several different people I wanted to appreciate. I told them how much they had meant to me and how much they had helped me. I discovered that a confession of appreciation is every bit as liberating and life-giving as a confession of wrongdoing. It was great for me to express sincere love and thanks to people who deserved it.

    I met with several of the elders individually, got their permission to be very candid, and told them exactly how I felt about a lot of things. I laid out my struggles, my concerns for some of our blind spots, and some things I really wished we would start working on. It didn't solve every issue, but it took a load off of me to feel like I had done what I could to help them see what I was seeing. And happily, quite a few things got better once we talked through them. In every case, they were highly interested in both my wellbeing and that of the church. (In my next point, I'll share how I've created better dialogue with the elders where I'm working.)

    I have tried to adopt the practice that whenever I have a strong feeling of appreciation towards someone, I try to get with them and tell them about it. Think about how you would feel if someone scheduled a meeting with you just to tell you why they appreciate you? It's been a great thing every time.
  • Seek out spiritual friendship and mentoring. If you don't have a trusted person providing you with an outside perspective on yourself, you're going to develop blindspots. These can be blindspots to weaknesses and unintentional harms you are causing, but these can also be blindspots to your strengths, and things you don't realize that people like about you. Knowledge of either is helpful.

    A man who was not an elder then, but is now, was the first person I asked to be a spiritual companion. We were reading things together, getting together regularly, and praying with and for each other. It became a meaningful friendship.

    My practice now is that every year, I seek out two people: one I view as a mentor and one I view as a peer. Around November I approach these people and I ask them if for the next calendar year, they would be willing to form a deeper friendship with me and agree to get together once per month for the purpose of helping each other to grow spiritually. Most of the time, this has taken the form of getting lunch once per month. "Second Thursday every month." That sort of thing. Set and scheduled on both of our calendars.

    In my role, I have decided that one of these two people for me should be an elder. I generally try to select whichever one I've not had much time with lately to use the opportunity for friendship building. I invite them openly to shepherd me, to help me see my blindspots, and to help me know what they are perceiving about our church family.

    The benefits are numerous. If nothing else, it means that the elders and I always have a direct link, and that our meetings become more like discussions among friends and less like a CEO-Board of Directors gathering. I know what they're thinking, and they know what I'm thinking. Sharing a meal is such a better place to have real conversation than in a stuffy meeting room. But the deeper benefits are my own spiritual growth, and a meaningful connection to the people I work with every week.

    Every year, I end the year sad that the current arrangement is changing, but for the sake of continual renewal, I change up my partnership every time. I continue getting with many of my previous companions as well, but I make a formal, scheduled commitment with at least two new people every year.
  • Take a spiritual retreat. Note: If you do not currently provide this opportunity for your minister, I beg you to do everything within your power to make this possible for them. You'll get a new minister every year without having to hire or fire anyone. Jesus needed significant time alone to pray. We are both arrogant and foolish if we think we can be healthy leaders without doing the same.

    I arranged in my contract at my current church that every fall, the elders give me one week without any teaching, preaching, visiting, or administrative responsibilities, and I dedicate the entire week to finding quiet places, spending hours in prayer, hours in Scripture reading, and seeking God's direction on what I should be preaching to our people about the following year. The best way to do this is to find a place away from home you can stay. I like going to Lebh Shomea House of Prayer, about 60 miles south from Corpus Christi at the old Kenedy Mansion in Sarita, Texas. As part of this, I actively solicit prayer from the congregation for me as I go away to pray and reflect. I fast from technology. I journal constantly about the movements of my mind, heart, and the ideas that come to me while I'm there.

    I will spare you stories for now, but let me say with conviction that I have experienced significant insight through these times that has given me strong conviction that (a) God wants me to be where I am, and (b) that God has been and will continue working through my ministry here; imperfect as I am. These weeks have grown me more than almost anything else I've ever done in my life.

    For those of you not in ministry, or for whom a full week is not possible, I encourage you to take a weekend, or at the very minimum, a half day to go somewhere beautiful and connect with God. At these times, rather than bringing tons of Scripture to read, print a single passage of value, a chapter or so, and read it over and over again, seeking to go deeper. Pray until you have nothing left to pray, and then focus on the presence of God, inviting God to be near, even if you aren't verbalizing anything. Resist the urge to be productive, and focus on being present.
I don't think it's possible never to feel frustration or burnout, but these actions, some of which are occasional, and others of which are regular, have helped me significantly to feel contentment and purpose where I am.

What has been helpful to you?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Discerning the Spirits

In our minds and in our hearts, all of us experience movements. Most of our emotions result in some way from these movements, bubbling over into our attitudes, and into what we believe about ourselves and our relation to the world. Purely based on the drama playing out in our head, we could either walk out of the house ready to conquer the day, or we might scramble for an excuse to stay home and hide. The battle begins in our minds. As people of faith, we believe there are always competing forces at work within us; some for our betterment and others for our detriment. Of all the thoughts bouncing around in our heads, how do we know which ones to accept and trust? 
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God." - I John 4:1
I have drawn wisdom from Ignatius of Loyola on this subject, who spoke of the competing movements of our hearts as two different spirits at work within us. He describes the spirit of Consolation--the Spirit of God, and the spirit of Desolation, the influence of our accuser. To discern which of these your inner thoughts is coming from, you would consider the direction a given thought was moving your heart.

If we are influenced by the Spirit of Christ, our hearts should move closer to God. The more our life is in tune with the Spirit, the more we can expect the fruit of the Spirit to become characteristic of us, the first of which is love (Galatians 5:22). Our heart should become more like God's heart. Influence that comes from God will move us to think more about the good of others, and less about getting our own way. Likewise, because the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Truth, we can be confident that when a thought invites us to greater honesty and sincerity, this is from God (John 14:17). Along with these, the Spirit of God invites us to be at peace (John 14:27). This is a peace that gives us a sense of solidarity in our salvation, confident that God is working all things together--ultimately--for our good. The Spirit of Christ draws our hearts away from our smallness and doubts, and moves them towards the unfathomable, incomprehensible love of God which embraces us and holds us securely, producing confidence within us (Romans 8:38-39).  

Our Accuser--the spirit of Desolation, as Ignatius calls him--tries to move our hearts in the opposite direction. When you feel yourself sinking into fear and powerlessness, this is not something that comes from God (2 Timothy 1:7). When you believe you are the worst sinner, and that everyone's sins can be forgiven except for yours, this is a thought from your adversary. When you feel a need to wear layers and layers of masks because you don't believe your authentic self is lovable, this is a lie, told to you by the Father of Lies (John 8:44). In every way, the spirit which does not come from God will move your heart toward yourself, to the unbearable weight of your problems, your unworthiness to receive the help that God provides, and great doubt about whether you have any hope at all. 

Even more deceptively, the spirit of Desolation might get you to settle for a temporary good feeling, mistaking a temporary emotional move for the ongoing peace that would come from knowing God. The critical difference has to do with the direction of your heart. Even if this is making me feel a little better, am I preoccupied with feeling good, chasing an escape from anxiety, thinking mostly about myself, or does my good feeling come from understanding the promises of God, accepting them as my own, and thinking more about God, and what God cares about? Will I soon be chasing another way to feel better, or is this a deeper kind of satisfaction? 

I continue to find great significance in what Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus, that they would come to a deeper knowledge of the love of God, which leads to a significant strengthening of their inner person, and I believe, a greater ability to know the voice of the Good Shepherd when we hear it, as opposed to the voice of an imposter.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. - Ephesians 3:14-19

Familiarity Breeds Confidence

It's amazing how people will twist a situation around in order to maintain control. In Acts 3-4, Peter and John heal a man who had been lame from birth, and was over 40 years old. Think about that: To have become a community fixture, carried by kindhearted people each day to the Temple gates in order to beg for enough help so that you could merely exist. Undoubtedly, his hopes and dreams, if they ever existed, had long been abandoned. When the people saw him running, jumping, and shouting praises to God as he accompanied Peter and John that day, they couldn't help but celebrate with him. After all, they'd walked by him thousands of times on his mat, and undoubtedly knew who he was. How could you do anything other than celebrate with him?

Incredibly, the Sadducees and Jewish leaders managed to find a way to be unhappy about this. If only they didn't talk about Jesus being raised from the dead or attribute this miracle to the authority of Jesus' name. You see, Jesus' resurrection is the starting point of God's work in this world to put everything the way that it ought to be. Christians believe and stake our lives on the hope that if we endure wrongs and injustices in this life, God is going to restore even more to us in the day we meet him face to face. But this is not good news to those who maintain their position by taking advantage of people. Your money, your title, and even the buildings that bear your name don't get the final word on your legacy. God does. It might just be the person you sent packing--because you could--sits at the seat of honor at God's banquet, while your name might not even be on the guest list. Resurrection means that things will end up the way they ought to be, and that's a threat when you've been crooked.

So they pulled the ultimate intimidation tactic. They gathered everyone in town who was of any importance among the Jewish people, they formed a big circle, they put Peter and John in the middle and began shooting them with questions. They weren't asking about what had happened--it was indisputable; they were asking, "Who gave YOU the right to do this?! In whose name? By whose authority? I know we didn't authorize this."

Peter's response was incredibly sharp and incredibly bold. It was in the name of Jesus of Nazareth that this good deed was accomplished. And if you don't like it, since you think you are in charge, why don't you tell us: Is it better to obey God or to obey people? We know what we've seen and heard.

It became clear in this moment what a difference it makes to know the Lord. Any one of those Jewish leaders would have absolutely crumbled and cowered, had they been in Peter and John's shoes. They created the most intimidating scenario they could invent, but these ignorant redneck fishermen weren't even thinking of budging.

I think a lot of people think that Christian boldness is something that kind of pops up in an extreme circumstance. Like a deus ex machina in a classical play, they are hoping that God suddenly springs up and gives them a brilliant response to stump their opponents and that their courage will appear from nowhere. And if God wants to do that and give them that, God is certainly capable. But take a closer look at what helped Peter and John to be bold, clear, and confident in their response.

Amazed that people so common could be so bold, the Jewish leaders "recognized that they had been with Jesus." (Acts 4:13) Peter and John stood firm when told to quit preaching, "we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:20)

They had been companions of Jesus during the years of his ministry. They had listened to him in the forty days after his resurrection before he ascended. In talking about Jesus, they weren't talking about an abstract idea they had read about in a book somewhere; they were talking about someone who had been a significant part of their existence for several years. Though the situation would have been intimidating for anyone, they were totally confident in their ability to speak about Jesus, because they knew him well enough to talk about him instinctively.

I don't know about you, but I don't begin every morning with a fresh study of apologetics, convincing myself that I exist, that God probably exists, and that Jesus was a historical person, crucified under Pilate's authority, and raised from the dead. There are phases where we look at hard evidences, and these might help us come to initial faith. But at this point in my life, I have plenty of my own reasons for believing in God and feeling increasingly confident that Jesus is who he always claimed to be. These reasons include the stories of Scripture, but they also include my story, and the stories of people I know. I've watched people whose lives have been totally redeemed from a useless existence after they came to Christ. I've seen prayers answered in amazing and sometimes spontaneous ways. I've had blessings and surprises that have given me great confidence that God wants me to be doing what I'm doing in my life.

Just like Peter and John, our confidence in God comes from walking with God. You can talk much more easily about someone you know well. You're much more ready to lay your life down for someone who is your friend.

My challenge to you would be to make your walk with God more personal and more intentional, and see if God doesn't give you even more reasons to believe. The more God is a part of your story, the more you'll have to talk about. Make your prayers more specific, and be more vulnerable with God about what you're really thinking; not just what you'd want to appear to think. Take a weekend trip to a quiet place, and challenge yourself to spend at least half of a day in prayer and Scriptural meditation, asking God to show you what he wants you to do. Carve out time to test the teachings of Jesus to find out if they're really true. When you go out of your way to show love to your enemies and to pray for those who mistreat you, what effects does this have on your heart? When you ask, seek, and knock to find out how God will use you to strengthen his kingdom, what do you find out? When you consistently humble yourself, do you find that God manages to lift you up?

If you are easily shaken and lacking confidence, I invite you to take God's hand and walk with him more closely. I'm convinced that those who know God closely have an easier time being like him, regardless of what anyone else thinks about it. I absolutely believe we have those moments where God gives us the extra boost we are needing, but I believe that real, consistent confidence in God comes from knowing him. Familiarity with God breeds confidence in God.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Reckless Generosity

What happened to his drink, by the way?
I bet you can remember some of the times in your life when you've spilled something; especially if it was something valuable. I can remember where I've been sitting at certain restaurants when I've heard a huge crash caused by a server dropping a tray of food. I can still picture the bits of plates, meats, and veggies go flying across the floor, bouncing off of my shoe. On some such occasions, I can remember customers erupting in sarcastic applause, to add insult to injury.  

A few of my favorite spilling mental images come from infomercials. People trying to open a cabinet, sit on a recliner, or pour a beverage are suddenly pelted by whatever they're handling in ridiculous quantities that can only have been stacked and spring loaded. The advertisers seem to really understand our discomfort with spills. Unless you didn't grow up being taught the "three second rule"--it's nearly Scriptural, isn't it?--once something has been spilled out on the floor, it has lost all value and is functionally "unclean". It is only a mess to be cleared. Spilling makes us uncomfortable because it is needlessly wasteful.

Mark 14 tells the story of a woman who spilled something on purpose. And it wasn't a glass of sweet tea or even a plateful of prime rib. It was an alabaster jar full of expensive perfume; the kind that would have cost as much as a year's income by the disciples' estimation. It would be like taking the money you would need to pay cash for a new car, and using it as kindling to light the fire in your grill, as they saw it. As the woman anointed Jesus with this perfume as a way to honor him, the disciples had only sharp words for her in response. "Why this waste of good perfume?!" Of all the possible ways to use that much money, each of them could have produced a list of things to do with it, not the least of which was helping the poor.

Jesus teaches us a different way of looking at money. To begin with, Christians don't get overly attached to our money or our material possessions, because we believe they belong first to God, and that God is more than capable of giving back to us far more than what we share. For some reason, God insisted that in Israel's calendar, there would be festivals and feasts and times of celebrating the harvest, rather than putting all of the harvest into savings. This must have been partly because of a trust that God would later provide another harvest. Memories made by celebrating God's goodness are not a waste, as God sees them.

Our hope is not in our bank account, nor should be our greatest treasures, because the location of our treasure will determine the deepest cares of our hearts, according to Jesus. Jesus valued the great cost of this gesture the woman made towards him, and when it comes to honoring God, there's something to be said for trying to do things for God that are beautiful, and that mean something to us. On one occasion in 2 Samuel 24, a man named Araunah offered to give David a threshing floor and some oxen so that David could offer a sacrifice to God. David's response? Absolutely not.
"No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing."
David's view? Worship isn't worship if it doesn't cost me anything. While there is no precedent to be needlessly wasteful in how we use our possessions, there is certainly precedent to do things that are beautiful, and even attention grabbing to honor God. It is appropriate that some of the world's greatest paintings, artful compositions, and charitable organizations exist because of people's desire to do something beautiful for God. Something worth remembering. Sometimes a few acts of random kindness and reckless generosity are just the things we need to remind ourselves that our trust is in God's provisions, and not in our possessions.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Etching Our Character

It is, in my opinion, impossible to solve absolutely the centuries-old debate about whether we are shaped primarily by our nature or our nurture. Are we the way we are because we're born that way, or because of how we are raised to be? This is not only a discussion of how we know what we know, but also of why we do what we do. What exactly is our character, and what produces character?

Some will speak of character as something that is already residing within us, just waiting to be revealed. Since everyone is already talking about Mariah Carey this week after her New Year's Eve performance fiasco, let me reference her song "Hero" as an example of this sort of thinking:
There's a hero
If you look inside your heart.
You don't have to be afraid of what you are.
There's an answer
If you reach into your soul,
And the sorrow that you know
Will melt away...
...So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you'll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.
On the one hand, we would want to affirm that as people made in God's image, all of us have incredible potential to accomplish good and important things, and even more so when we work together. In that sense, we all have an inner hero that needs to be let loose. But this type of thinking is somewhat removed from the way a person's character is actually developed. It is not by an increasingly inward, self-centered focus that we find the best answers or our sorrows melt away. The English word "character" comes from a term for engraving. It meant a mark or symbol branded on a person's body, or engraved into an item of property. To have character meant going through the process of being scraped and scratched, often with harsh instruments, in order to bear this mark. For a person to have good character, it would involve good craftsmanship and a lot of patience.

Many teachings in Scripture place character in the realm of one's actions. Jesus says that when Satan lies, he is speaking from his own character because he is a liar (John 8:44). Paul teaches that endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:4). Job was known as an upright and blameless person because he consistently feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1). In all of these examples, it is a person's persistent action that defines what their character is, and not whether they think in their hearts that they are probably a "good person" if you would just get to know them.

Paul's description of his own character formation sounds a lot like a boxer preparing for a fight: "I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (I Corinthians 9:27) In physical training, our bodies tend toward whatever motion feels easiest. The only way to get stronger is to identify our weaknesses, and to target them specifically with better form and deliberation. If we fail to correct this, our growth becomes unbalanced.

If you are not quite sure how to approach your own desire for better character, a good baby step is to figure out what good thing you are most inclined to resist, and systematically challenge yourself to do it. Whether it's the social dimension of Christian fellowship, the thinking required to study Scripture more deeply, or the inward urge we must rebuke that demands we keep checking our notifications every 5 minutes, our character is etched into us by what we choose to do with what time we have. Is God being given enough time and opportunity to do his etching work in your life? It is through scratching, hammering, and enduring that our character becomes strong, but only you can decide to allow it to happen.