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9 Ways Spiritual Direction Helps Youth Pastors

9 Ways Spiritual Direction Helps Youth Pastors

I am who I am, and I know what I know about God and faith and church because of faithful youth pastors. I started middle school in the early 1990s at a large evangelical Methodist church. Youth group was my life. I can’t overstate the influence youth ministry has had in my life. In addition to this, I spent seven years on staff as a college minister at a church where my closest colleagues were a team of youth ministers. I’ve had a front row seat to the challenges youth ministers face and the way spiritual direction speaks directly to those challenges.

Youth ministry is people, which means it’s messy and difficult and wonderful all at the same time. So much of what I know about Jesus and Jesus’ church I know because of the youth pastors and volunteer youth workers who paid attention to me, took me and my faith seriously, and shared their own life with God with me.

Over the years I’ve been able to either stay in touch with or reconnect with a number of these people. Some have continued in new ministry roles. For others, the church no longer has a place in their life. And this saddens me. I live in a city where you can’t sit in a coffee shop without encountering an ex-youth pastor, more often than not, no longer connected to church. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ve written before about how spiritual direction benefits pastors. All that applies to youth pastors. Here are some ways that spiritual direction directly benefits the vocation of youth ministry.

1. Having a healthy relationship with your lead pastor

It’s a weird thing when your pastor becomes our boss. You may accept a paying position at your own church where you’ve previously been a member where that relationship suddenly changes. You may walk into a community where every body sees this person as pastor, but to you, they’re the person evaluating your performance.

A spiritual director provides you a place where you can receive pastoral care from someone not with power over your paycheck. Some lead pastors have great boundaries. Some don’t. You have control over your boundaries, and with a director, you can allow your pastor to be themselves and nothing more.

2. Discerning your vocation

Chances are you didn’t train for this. Nor do you plan to retire from youth ministry. There are exceptions. Most of the youth pastors I interact with are in their mid-20s and still discovering themselves. They may envision themselves on track to a different ministry role in the future. They may be exploring other career opportunities.

A spiritual director can be a person who see us as we are and not the persona we where as youth pastor. Where do you see God at work? How is God inviting you to respond? How is this setting of youth ministry the most faithful way for you to respond? Youth ministry is oftentimes a season calling and we can need a pair of eyes on us helping us discern the next season.

3. De-cluttering from distractions

When your to-do list involves visiting students on campus for lunch, emailing volunteers about the upcoming mission trip, returning a parent’s phone call, going to the church staff meeting, taking an online seminary class, while making time for your family, how do you know what’s most important? How do you not give in to being overwhelmed?

Meeting with a spiritual director carves out necessary space to sit in quiet to listen before God. A director sits with you for that “mental triage” to discern what’s truly God’s invitation versus all the things we feel obliged to say “yes” to.

4. A guide in spiritual formation

Your work is first and foremost about leading young people deeper into the ways of God. You also have the opportunity to lead adult volunteers and parents in discipleship, as well. Who leads you? You’re only capable of leading as far as you yourself have been led.

A director helps you recognize yourself in the movements of God’s story. They can teach you to new and different spiritual disciplines. They can introduce you to books and writers have have stood the test of time and proven beneficial to growing in faith.

5. Staying anchored amidst conflicting expectations

Being a youth pastor can sometimes feel like being drawn and quartered. On the bad days, the students want one thing, the volunteer team something else, the parents go in another direction all together, and the lead pastor has still a different vision.

To be a pastor of any kind is to be accountable to God. When the expectations you feel from God and the expectations you feel from the church aren’t on the same page, a director can help you discern the way forward. When you feel the symptoms of burnout, a director is a safe place of expressing those feelings so you don’t explode.

6. Learning your gifts and bringing them forward

We are all made in the image of God. We are each uniquely gifted to minister in a wide variety of ways. We may find ourselves in youth ministry because we’re drawn to young people. Our students themselves are growing and stumbling through their own journeys of self-awareness. What does it mean to walk in hospitality, to be a nurturer, or a creative?

A spiritual director can help us name our gifts so we can bring them to our community. And as we learn to recognize our own gifts, we learn to recognize our gifts, we learn to see others’ with sharper eyes. A director can also help us name our limitations and realize we can’t do it all.

7. Having a safe outlet for frustrations

Making the transition from a teenager in youth group to a paid staff person can take you behind the curtain. In some sense, you begin to see how the sausage gets made. And for many, that can be a disillusioning experience that starts to feed your cynicism.

It can lead to questions and doubts. We need to verbally process these feelings, and doing that in the company of parents or students isn’t appropriate or healthy. A spiritual director provides an appropriate and healthy space to vent those out loud.

8. Fighting back against busyness

A youth pastor once told me, “I work 80 hours a week. And I love it. I don’t know how to turn it off. But I think I probably need to figure out how to slow it down.” Whether you’re responsible for a large group of kids or a small group, whether you’re paid or volunteer, whether you’re part-time or full-time, there’s always something more to get done. Sunday and Wednesday come every week.

If we’re not careful, we normalize this pace of life all the way until we burnout. A spiritual director reminds us that we’re not designed by God to be busy. Busyness is a sickness to our soul. A director can ask tough questions about why we let ourselves by led around by so many urgencies and teach us healthy boundaries.

9. Seeing the big picture

Youth ministry is one piece in a grand collage of what God is doing in your church and in your community. It can be easy to get lost in what you do, especially if it’s a specific niche, whether that’s junior highers or the 10th grade Sunday school class. It’s one piece of a larger tapestry. Your work as a youth pastor fits in a larger context of the church and the community.

A director helps us see the big picture and how all the threads come together. We’re connected in a larger body, and our kids are connected to a larger story. They come from particular families and will grow up and form families of their own. A director reminds us there’s more to life than youth group, both for us and our students.

Youth ministry matters because you lead the church in encountering the presence of Christ among us in kids and teenagers. You remind us continually that at the banquet in the kingdom of God there is only the kids’ table. A spiritual director is an indispensable ally in your being a healthy youth pastor.

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6 Essential Rhythms for a Self-Care Plan

6 Essential Rhythms for a Self-Care Plan

It’s the new year. Now what? It’s that time of year that we take on new diets. We set goals. We reflect on the things that made the past year either really good or not-so-good. As you look forward to the next year, the next quarter, the next month, have you considered a self-care plan? Life is an onslaught of busyness. How do you plan to be proactive to put the oxygen mask on yourself first?

When the apostle Paul talks about the spiritual life, he talks about it in terms of fruit: “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Here’s the thing with growing fruit. It’s hard, long, patient work. For an apple tree to grow from seed to bearing fruit can take six to ten years. And the first signs of fruit aren’t even edible.

If you want to grow things like peace and patience and self control in your life, you have to do the work. Every day. You can’t outsource it. Growing stuff is slow work. It’s never flashy. But we’re made for this.

The Grand Canyon is a spectacular marvel of creation. It didn’t just happen. And it didn’t happen overnight. It became the Grand Canyon, one drip at a time. Likewise, God is at work in us crafting spectacular marvels of creation. We participate in this work by getting ourselves under the drip.

Here are just a few ways to intentionally get under the drip.

Sabbath

“Sabbath is not a break from work; it is a redefinition of how we work, why we work, and how we create freedom through our work.” —Dan Allender

The Sabbath is the climax of God’s creative work. It is the only thing deemed “holy” in the creation story. Sabbath is the fulcrum and center of gravity to the Ten Commandments. As Jesus embodies, the intent of Sabbath is our healing as human beings. Sabbath is the opposite and undoing of chaos in our lives.

Sabbath is counter-cultural in our 24-7 worlds. Human beings are designed for a rhythm of six plus one—six days of working hard, one day of celebrating what all that hard work was for. Our identities are not to be tied to our to-do lists or our job descriptions but rather to the God who made us.

One simple way of starting a Sabbath rhythm is to take a good look at the things that happen during your weeks. What’s one thing you can abstain from for one 24-hour period out of every seven? What’s one thing you thing you enjoy that gets crowded out by the busyness of the week? Make Sabbath different. Stop doing the things you do every other day. Pick up something you don’t normally do.

Spiritual direction

“The task of the spiritual director is to be positioned, like a campfire in the wilderness, welcoming sojourners from all corners of life to stop, relax and yarn for a while. A place where tired bodies and spirits are warmed by the fire and refreshed” —Simon Brown.

Life can be exhausting. The constant demands of work and family and ministry. How do you get “un-tired” from it all? Spiritual direction provides a loving and graceful space to listen together with another to listen to and respond to God’s work in you.

We’re not made to be alone. We’re not made to journey through life to God by ourselves. The spiritual director can help us navigate the dry spells, the “dark nights of the soul.” They can poke and pry with questions that expose and reveal us to ourselves so that we can move forward. They can separate the “normal-weird” from the “weird-weird” in our faith experience.

A simple way to start with a director is to look for one in your area. Reach out. Set up a time to meet over coffee and see where God leads you.

Centering Prayer

“Centering prayer is an opening, a response, a putting aside of al the debris that stands in the way of our being totally present to the present Lord, so that He can be present to us. It is a laying aside of thoughts, so that the heart can attend immediately to Him.” –Basil Pennington

I’m more and more convinced that centering prayer is the spiritual disciple for our age. Silence and solitude are essential if we’re experience any sanity in our jam-packed schedules.

When the prophet Elijah expects to hear from God, he sees he windstorm. He expects to hear God in the storm. But that isn’t God. There’s an earthquake, and Elijah expects to hear God in the earthquake. But again, no God. Then there’s fire, and Elijah thinks God is there. After all, God has appeared in fire before. But no God. And then after all this, there’s a gentle whisper. Finally. In the whisper, Elijah hears God. Where are we making intentional space to hear God’s whispers to us?

One simple step for starting with centering prayer is carving out 20 minutes each day and putting it on the calendar as an uninterruptible appointment. Give up a Netflix show if you have to. This is worth it.

Confession

“In the acts of mutual confession we release the power that heals. Our humanity is no longer denied, but transformed.” –Richard Foster

We are made for community, and we are not made to hold on to the things that make our souls sick. Confessing sin to one another is how we experience healing. We must gives ourselves to God in such a way that we can hear God lovingly say, “Let me show you all the ways you are not like me,” so that we can hear God say, “Let me show you all the ways that you are like me.” That happens in relationship with other people.

One simple way to start a practice of confession is to pray that God would lead you to a relationship or to a group where you can say out loud all the ways you are not like God. Naming our sin and letting it go is the beginning of inner healing.

Common meals

“Eating a meal together can be a place of joy, celebration, and friendship. We can show love for each other and celebrate life.” –Jean Vanier

Food is all over the story of God. So many stories of Jesus involve meal time. Human beings bond when food is shared. Sharing meals together is one more way that we share that we’re normal with one another. When we gather around a table and eat, we shed whatever public personas we subconsciously gravity towards, whether from social media or ministry work.

One simple way to start with a common meal is to pick a day on the calendar and invite a next door neighbor or a stranger from church to join you in your home for dinner. Keep things simple.

Rule of Life

“A rule of life seeks to respond to two questions: Who do I want to be? How do I want to live?” –Ruth Haley Barton

Have any of these resonated with you? Are there a couple that you’re ready to jump into? Write it down. A rule of life is simply writing down a plan for spiritual growth and committing yourself to the process.

A simple way to start a rule of life is to take a single sheet of paper and write one spiritual practice (or as many as you want) as specific as you can. It could look like committing to Sabbath by shutting off your phone from sundown Saturday till sundown Sunday. A rule of life can take many forms. Keep it simple. Share it with someone who can follow up with you and reflect your progress with you over time.

Life is so busy. You know that. So make a plan, and be proactive about it. Take care of yourself because we need you and the gifts you bring.

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Reading Deuteronomy for God's Mission

Reading Deuteronomy for God’s Mission

When I was a kid, my family took a trip to Washington, DC. Among the thousand touristy things we did on that trip, I got to see the Constitution. Under inches of glass, sits this piece of paper that, ideally, holds the whole government this big and influential nation together. Founding documents shape community. This is why the book of Deuteronomy matters. It shapes community for God’s mission in the world.

The writer of Matthew’s gospel starts Jesus’ ministry with a story of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted, and with each temptation, Jesus quotes lines from Deuteronomy to the devil. Later, when Jesus is quizzed by some Pharisees about the most important commandment, he again quotes Deuteronomy. For the gospel writers, Deuteronomy was quick on the lips of Jesus.

Deuteronomy presents a plan for Humanity 2.0. It’s God, expressing to a new generation, his plan for how human beings are supposed to live and get along in the world. Much of the Old Testament refers back to Deuteronomy. The prophets, especially, sound the alarm when this covenant is being forgotten.

In the Pentateuch, or the books of Moses, Genesis tells of creation and fall and God’s redemptive plan starting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Exodus gives the story of God’s deliverance of this family from the slavery of Egypt, along with the giving of the Law and the building of the tabernacle. Leviticus is a book about how God wants to be worshiped. Numbers is an anthology of stories from the wilderness wanderings of 40 years. Deuteronomy caps off this whole journey. It’s one single sermon, beginning to end, given by Moses remembering all that’s happened prior to entering the Promised Land. Deuteronomy reminds us that God keeps promises.

Deuteronomy as a foundational document

Critical to our understanding of Deuteronomy is our recognition of its pattern as a standard treaty between two parties in the ancient world. Here’s how Sandra Richter describes the standard suzerain/vassal treaty in the ancient near east:

Here one party was clearly more powerful than the other and therefore had the right to demand submission on the part of his weaker ally. As a result, in this sort of treaty the partners referred to each other either as ‘father and son,’ or as ‘lord and servant.’ Again, the metaphor of family was used to explain the political relationship established.

“In this sort of covenant the suzerain had authority over the land and people of the vassal nation. Although the suzerain typically allowed his vassal to continue to rule his own people (and thereby maintain his own government and traditions), legally the suzerain owned all of the vassal’s land and produce. The responsibilities of a suzerain in this sort of arrangement always involved military protection.

“If the vassal was threatened by a domestic rebellion or foreign assault, the suzerain was expected to step in and defend. It was also common for a suzerain to initiate this relationship by gifting his vassal with land. Hence, often the vassal owed his territory and even his throne to the suzerain. If the vassal broke covenant, he forfeited his land grant.”

The ancient near east several big kingdoms (like Egypt and Assyria) and lots of little kingdoms (like Israel, Edom, Moab, and Ammon). So a big king would make an alliance with a lesser kingdom, offering military protection and land for loyalty. The resources of the big king became the resources of the lesser kingdom. The enemies of the lesser kingdom became the enemies of the big king.

Like the Incarnation, this is God speaking a language humanity understands. This is what Deuteronomy is: God making one of these official treaties with Israel. This is God offering land and protection to Israel in exchange for undivided loyalty.

These ancient treaties had several standard pieces, and we see each of them in Deuteronomy. There’s a preamble or title, where the superior party makes their introduction. We find this at the beginning of the Ten Commandments. Next is a historical prologue that outlines the history of these two parties (Deuteronomy 1–3). Next follows the list of obligations (i.e., laws) the lesser party is asked to follow (Deuteronomy 12–26). There is a provision for the public reading of this treaty, followed by a calling of witnesses and the rewards of obedience (blessings) and the consequences of rebellion (curses).

Deuteronomy and the inner life

Deuteronomy as a book draws us deeper into the heart of God. Simply put, Deuteronomy answers the question: What does God’s design for human beings look like? For the first time, God at Sinai, articulated to a group of fallen human beings how non-fallen beings are supposed to act like. Unbroken humans are loyal to Yahweh. They keep Sabbath. They don’t murder or covet. In Deuteronomy, we find this law code restated and summarized for a new generation.

The series of laws that make up the bulk of Deuteronomy can be grouped into three categories: laws about worship, laws about leadership, and laws about community life. These are the things God cares about, and these are things that human beings tend to really mess up: how we worship God, how we do leadership, and how we live together. Deuteronomy guides us in remedying these.

While there are numerous passages in Deuteronomy leading us into spiritual formation, one stands out above the others. Perhaps the most significant statement is the Shema:

“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

This is a foundational confession of faith, a way of orienting our lives in relationship to who God is. Scot McKnight calls this “the Jesus Creed,” because Jesus quotes this when asked about the greatest commandment. McKnight suggests this passage was used as a daily prayer by spiritually devout in Jesus’ day.

Deuteronomy and the mission life

The wilderness as the physical location of God’s formation of Israel as a community of redemptive agents in the world stands as a significant idea in the Moses stories. If Exodus is the welcome into the wildness, than Deuteronomy is the invitation out of the wilderness. God works in us so that we can go out into our neighborhoods on God’s behalf.

Deuteronomy is for people in liminal spaces—places in-between, not where you’re from but not yet where you’re going. Deuteronomy finds Israel in the borderlands, eyes fixed ahead on the future, something brand new that’s never happened before. God’s formation of a people, whether Israel or you and I in our communities is not an end in itself. It’s for a purpose, a mission: the redemption of the whole world.

The creation account in Genesis 1 tells of God fashioning spaces and then making stewards who inhabit those spaces. In this way, Deuteronomy echoes the creation account. The land, promised to Abraham, with God’s presence in the tabernacle as ground zero, stands in for a new creation with Israel as a new Adam and Eve, regents of God’s kingdom. Idolatry that has saturated the humans living in Canaan has to be eradicated so that something new can begin. Israel is the “something” God is fashioning to inhabit the chaotic, anarchic space of the Promised Land.

The book of Deuteronomy provides the paradigm for what the life of faith looks like. Each of us can find our own selves in narrative movements of Deuteronomy. God has acted on our behalf. We say yes. We say no. We start fashioning God in our own image. We suffer consequences. God continues acting on our behalf. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, remembering these wilderness stories, “These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did.” Deuteronomy is a book crucial for us to understand God’s mission in the world and our place in it.

If you want to go deeper, you should check these out:

The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra Richter

Numbers and Deuteronomy for Everyone by John Goldingay

Deuteronomy by Walter Brueggemann

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If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

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Why God's Mission Needs Christmas

Why God’s Mission Needs Christmas

I love the opening scene of the movie White Christmas. Once the credits roll, the first shot is of an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-ian snowy landscape. Could be Vermont. Could be Ohio. The title card tells us it’s Christmas Eve, 1944. As the camera pulls back, we find we’re not in middle America. We’re in the bombed out ruins of a European city as Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing and dance for the American troops. When Bing then sings the iconic title song, a song evoking all the nostalgia of that snowy American backdrop, it speaks powerfully to what God’s mission in the world has to do with Christmas.

At Christmas, though we are surrounded by the wreckage of Adam’s world, we sing the songs that remind us of home, the songs that make us nostalgic for Eden. Christmas is much more than a marshmallow world and sleigh rides, extravagant light displays and ugly sweaters. It’s more than family nostalgia and sentimentality. Christmas is God’s most unexpected turn in the story of everything being put back in its right place.

Christmas is for protest against the darkness and evil at work in the world and in our neighborhoods. Christmas is for resistance. Christmas is for immersing ourselves in the awesome mystery of God’s love for the world.

Christmas is subversive. It’s the greatest plot twist in the greatest story ever told. That God would enter the story as a newborn baby is the plot point that sweeps the rug out from under us. Christmas is shock and surprise. J.R.R. Tolkien invented the word “eucatastrophe” to describe the Incarnation. It’s everything the opposite of a catastrophe. It’s a “good catastrophe.” And this is good news. This is gospel.

“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth”

To pay close attention to the birth narratives of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we don’t find scenes of a silent night, holy night. There is danger. There is conflict. There is dramatic tension. There is murder. There is escape.

Heavenly messengers appear to a priest, a peasant girl, her fiancé, and finally a whole group of blue-collar shepherds in he middle of the night. A powerful king orders the murder of innocent children. Foreign kings come pledging their allegiance to the child of a carpenter.

But the story is still bigger than that. This is a radical turning point in the cosmic battle between good and evil. This is the story about a God who makes a good and beautiful world. But humanity, his regents on earth, have fouled and corrupted the world. To understand the significance of Jesus, we need to be clear about the problem in the world. We need to know the story, it’s problem and solution.

“He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found”

Commonly, we boil the story down to this: Humanity is a hopeless bunch of sinners. But lucky for us, Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Now, if we acknowledge that and be nice people, we can go to heaven when we die.

Christmas, according to this story, means that God gives the baby Jesus to humanity to save us from our sins. But there’s another way of telling the story. There’s a better way.

God made the world. But human beings allowed sin and death to enter it, wreaking havoc and poisoning God’s good creation. We need to include the stories of Simeon and Anna in our Christmas Scripture readings. We are told that Simeon “was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel.” Anna “talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.”

These stories bookend with the unnamed disciples walking to Emmaus who encounter the risen, but incognito, Jesus. “We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel,” they tell him. We can feel their crushed dreams.

In our own world today, we see tyrants and bullies, poverty and suffering, injustice and war. Like Simeon and Anna and these two unnamed disciples, we yearn for rescue. Our neighborhoods are desperate for rescue. Every broken place, every wounded place, every grievance, every system of oppression, every inhuman ideology—Christmas means God is doing something about all of it.

“Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel”

The whole story, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story about God. God is the central character. Not me. Not you. It’s not about how we get to heaven. The story is about how God gets all of his kids back, how God finds his home among human beings again. God initiates. God seeks us out. God pursues us. God is actively doing something about the problems in the world.

A most revealing statement about God’s character and what he wants comes in his first encounter with Moses: ““I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.” This is not only the arc of the plot through the book of Exodus. It’s also the plot of the Christmas story. God see. God hears. God knows. And God comes down.

At the end of Exodus, God takes up residence in the tabernacle, living among his people. Later in Israel’s story, God lives in the temple in Jerusalem. During the Babylonian exile, God promises Ezekiel among the refugees, “I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

When John begins his gospel, he writes “So the Word became human and made his home among us.” The Greek word for “made his home” is the same word used in the Exodus story for the tabernacle. Matthew includes a quote from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus will be called Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” Not them. Us. It’s personal.

And this is the profound mystery, that God cannot imagine being God without us. Writing in the 4th century, Athanasius says, “He became Himself an object for the sense, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through he works which He, the Word of God, did in the body.” God enters the human story so that human beings can enter God’s story.

“O come let us adore him”

Christmas is about Jesus. It draws us deeper into the mystery of Jesus, the God who became a human being. Christmas draws us to the mind-bending reality of the Incarnation. In the son of Mary is a person fully divine and fully human. Jesus is not like one of the Greek or Roman deities, masquerading as a human on earth. Nor is Jesus simply a really good person whose ethics we should model for ourselves. Jesus is Yahweh of the Old Testament with skin and bone, atoms and molecules, organs and limbs.

On Christmas Eve, I entered a local sanctuary with my family for a communion service. All was dark. A towering figure of Jesus enthroned shone through stained like a window into heaven. It reminded me of the snowy backdrop that opens White Christmas. Christmas reminds us of home, of all that we fight and struggle for. Christmas anchors us in reality despite all images of ruin and decay around us.

In another pop culture staple of the season, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, we find another profound image. The turning point of the story—the Grinch’s conversion—comes when the citizens of Whoville gather together, despite having so much stolen from them, and they sing. We live in a world where so much has been stolen from us, killed, and destroyed. But still we gather and we sing, because we know that God is up to something big. Amid the darkness, we know Christmas signals to us the renewal of all creation.

The story of Christmas, the story of the Incarnation, is the beginning of the end of Adam’s world. It’s the invasion of holy God into the fallen world. Christmas matters for the mission of God because it displays the extraordinary lengths God is going to bring us all home.

So grab some popcorn and settle in to see what happens next.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

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Using the Enneagram with a Practice of Confession

Using the Enneagram with a Practice of Confession

Few things are as therapeutic as the sound as you run your hand through huge plastic bin of Legoes. Each time we visit my parents house, my son was to build stuff from the bins of Legoes there. And we can never find the one particular piece we’re looking for. When we comes to spiritual practice of confession, the naming of sin can be a lot like that. The Enneagram can be a helpful tool in helping us name and expose the sin in our hearts so that we can experience healing and forgiveness.

There are many different forms that a practice of confession can take. It might look like the Ignatian examen. It could look like a band meeting, in the style of the early Methodists. It might be a more formal ritual, such as the Roman Catholic confession. Whatever it looks like, confession is an essential practice for experiencing inner freedom and healing. The deeper we go with God, the more aware we become of sin in ourselves.

But how do you know what to confess? Oftentimes it’s clear to us. We catch ourselves in the moment of weakness. We lost our temper. A sarcastic comment crossed a line from fun banter to biting criticism. We indulged a moment of lust. But there are other times it’s not so clear. In his book The Band Meeting, Scott Kisker writes, “In our band, we use the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride) to remind us of struggles during the week we may not have noted otherwise.”

It’s in this way that the Enneagram proves useful. The Enneagram is a tool for spiritual formation that provides nine different ways that human beings reflect the image of God. Each of the types is also related to one of the classic seven deadly sins (with deceit and fear added to the mix). Each of us is capable of acting out in any possible way that humans do. But knowing our Enneagram type can help us get to the source of why we sin the way we do.


I resonate most with the Five. So, when it comes time for my self-reflection prior to a confessing time, I immediately look for places where I was ungenerous with my time and attention. I consider where I hoarded and overly guarded my social energy. I look for where I may have been unaware of my emotional wake or retreated into my mind when I needed to engage. It’s not unusual that I discover that other ways I act out tend to be symptoms of this deeper issue of greed.

Here are some ways that each Enneagram type can self reflect and get to a deeper source of brokenness so that you can know a deeper healing and freedom in your community.

Type One

Ones are most prone to anger. If you identify with the One, how might you give in to an all-or-nothing attitude, especially in regards to your finances or your health? In what ways may you have set unrealistic expectations for yourself and others, possibly leading to outbursts? Have you let your “inner critic” loose on those around you?

Type Two

Twos are vulnerable to pride. It may take the form of self-flattery, a sense that only they can fix the world. If you identify with the Two, where do you experience feelings of martyrdom? Where have you been an enabler, minimizing the faults or dysfunction of loved ones because “they need you”? Where may you have pursued someone as a close confidante out of your own neediness?

Type Three

Threes are given to deceit. More than other types, they can be prone to wearing a mask for others, minimizing their true selves so that they can advance in others’ eyes. If you resonate with the Three, where have you been desperate for attention or stretched the truth to impress someone? Where are you making sacrifices in relationships for the sake of accomplishments or appearances?

Type Four

Fours display a propensity to envy. The grass is greener on the other side, especially when it comes to happiness. If you relate to the Four, where are places you feel emotionally overwhelmed, possibly to the point of irresponsibility? Where may you be succumbing to shame and a fear of rejection? Where does your misery reach out for company?

Type Five

Fives are given to greed, being over vigilant with emotional and social boundaries. As mentioned above, if you relate to the Five, are there ways that you avoid social contact? Are there places you valued information more than a person? Are there relationships where you’ve withdrawn without notice?

Type Six

Sixes struggle particularly with fear. They crave safety and security and worry it could all disappear at a moment’s notice. If you see yourself in the Six, where do you exaggerate your anxieties? Where might you be settling in an uncomfortable situation because you can’t imagine any other way? Are there places you doubt yourself or are openly defiant of an authority figure?

Type Seven

Sevens are vulnerable to gluttony. There’s never enough of the good things of life. If you resonate with the Seven, where have you been given to excess, disregarding reasonable limits? Where may you be avoiding commitments, jumping from one activity or project to another with finishing? Where may you be reckless in pursuing excitement?

Type Eight

Eights are given to lust, an intensity for everything in life. If you connect with the Eight, are there places others have experienced you as a bully? Have you pushed or challenged in a relationship to the point of damage? Are there places you fantasize about retaliation or revenge?

Type Nine

Nines struggle with sloth. Unchecked, they can fade into the background in social situations. If you relate to the Nine, where do you tend to “zone out”? Are you given to numbing addictions, whether food or Netflix? Where do you seem to give in to others’ expectations, almost by default?

In one of the oldest stories in Scripture, there’s a curious comment about sin. Before Cain decides to murder his brother, God tells him, “Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.” Learning about our sin isn’t for the sake of wallowing in shame and guilt about it. Neither is it for the sake of justifying and normalizing it.

The image in this story is like a creature lurking in the shadows. We can’t master it and subdue if we don’t bring it out of the shadows. We find healing as we bring our sin into the light. The deeper we journey into the heart of God, the greater our awareness of our own sin and brokenness.

God desires us to be whole. Confession is one spiritual practice that can lead us to this wholeness and the holiness God desires for us. And while our native culture or theological tradition may provide us a narrow vocabulary for sin, the Enneagram can provide a helpful tool for naming our broken places so we can experience healing.

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9 Ways Spiritual Direction Helps Pastors

9 Ways Spiritual Direction Helps Pastors

Pastor and author Eugene Peterson writes, “It is not merely nice for pastors to have a spiritual director; it is indispensable.” Spiritual direction is a beneficial practice for all Christians. For pastors, spiritual direction provides particular essential gifts.

In my denomination, our pastors gather once each year for business meetings. Within that time each year is a service of remembrance for those in our clergy family who have died in the past year. It’s beautiful service that draws us into awe and gratitude for our co-laborers in the Kingdom of God.

It’s a tangible finish line to imagine. Years from now, when my name gets read there, what will the reaction be in the room? Will it be “I am so glad that person was a part of our family”? Or will it be “Who was that”? While spiritual direction is no silver bullet from all the pitfalls and temptations that arise in pastoral ministry, it does offer tremendous benefits for the endurance race that a calling to ministry entails.

Here are some ways spiritual direction particularly helps pastors:

1. Integrity in leadership.

One pastor told me, “When you are asked to sit with those who are searching for God, you should be sitting with someone who helps YOU in searching for God. I’ve learned so much about how to guide those entrusted to my care through having a spiritual director.”

We can’t lead people deeper and further into the things of God than we’ve gone ourselves. It’s not fair to ask parishioners to cultivate a love for God and neighbor that we’re not willing to do ourselves. Spiritual direction provides one means of leading by example a passionate pursuit of God for pastors.

2. A partner in spiritual reflection.

We often need a safe, objective space to say out loud the things we can’t say anywhere else. “I have a spiritual guide to talk with and ask deep questions,” another pastor reflected to me. “Having an unbiased guide has been pretty liberating to pray with and reflect with about where the Spirit is leading.”

The pastoral vocation can often be a lonely space. A spiritual director provides the gift of presence to you. Spiritual direction can be space for turning your attention to yourself, tending the needs and hungers of your own inner life.

3. Self care.

Several months ago I attended a conference for ministry leaders. At one point, the speaker on the stage invited those who were tired to come forward for prayer. I watched as more than two-thirds of the crowd responded. In all its many rewards, ministry is still a wearisome vocation. Burnout is a very real outcome at times. Even the symptoms of it, while teeter on the brink, negatively effect those around us. We are human beings, and we have limitations.

“I really don’t think I could’ve stayed in ministry this long without a spiritual director and some close friends,” one pastor tells me. “Having a spiritual director has been essential in helping me keep my calling fresh, my spirit tended, my heart strong.” You are first and foremost a human being made in God’s image. A spiritual director can remind you that this identity comes before your ministry work.

4. Self awareness.

Ruth Haley Barton has said, “A really horrifying moment in ministry is when you realize that you were probably hired for your false self.” Each of us as human beings are a complex bundle of tremendous gifts and debilitating blindspots. Discerning between our gifts and blindspots is long, hard work.

Another pastor friend told me, “Spiritual direction helps me see myself in an honest, but redemptive way. My spiritual director has helped me more than any other understand my personality, motivation, and the unique way God has made me. It often gives me epiphanies about false ways I’ve been viewing myself and helps correct my view.”

The Enneagram is one tool at pastors’ disposal for excavating through the muck of their false self, leading us to the beauty of our authentic self in Christ. “An introduction to the Enneagram has been a great tool to know and figure out who I am in a different way,” said one pastor.

5. A partner in prayer.

As pastors, we pray for so many people. Who prays for you? Who holds you before God as you walk through hospital wings, prepare sermons, run staff meetings, and vision for the future? A spiritual director is a committed ally in prayer to pastors. A director remembers you before God not only during sessions but between them, as well.

“Every pastor needs someone who prays for them… really prays for them,” I was told. “Every pastor needs someone, who in praying for them, is truly seeking God’s will and will speak truth to them.”

6. Safe place of vulnerability.

One pastor related to me that the most meaningful part of spiritual direction for them was discovering “a safe space to feel the pain and burden of ministry. Knowing I have a companion on this journey has made all the difference.”

As pastors, we feel the burden of responsibility of having it all together all the time. Spiritual direction creates a space in your routine where it’s okay to not be okay. A spiritual director can carry your doubts, your questions, your burdens, your disappointments, and your failures.

7. Someone who tells the truth.

The role of pastor brings with it certain levels of privilege and power. If we’re not careful, this cultivates our pride. Our congregation can craft an image of ourselves that we start to believe is true. This is a dangerous space to live in.

King David had the prophet Nathan. Hezekiah had Isaiah. A spiritual director can be a prophetic voice of correction and challenge to pastors. A director tells us not what we want to hear but what we need to hear, all in a context of grace, love, and healing. It may hurt in the moment, but it can often keep us from a deeper, more damaging hurt further down the road.

8. A place to practice humility.

Meeting with a spiritual director is an intentional act of humility, submitting to the wisdom of another. “There aren’t enough words to express how valuable the gift of having a spiritual director has been to me in ministry,” I was told by a pastor. “I’ve said often, ‘Every pastor needs to be in spiritual direction.’ I think if one is not, it is dangerous. It leaves one open to the seductions of power and influence with no protective factor.”

We invite a director to see us as we are. A director invites pastors to the words of Paul when he writes, “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.”

9. Others are counting on you.

Each Sunday, a congregation looks to you for spiritual leadership. You may have a staff depending on your for their livelihoods and callings. Your community may depend on your church for various services. You have colleagues in ministry that look to you for encouragement and support. Most importantly, you have a family that needs you to be your very best self. You are not an island. When a pastor flames out because of stubborn pride, a lack of integrity, or deep emotional unhealth, the impact is far-reaching.

“Spiritual direction makes me a stronger, more courageous leader and pastor,” I was told by one pastor. The inverse is also true. The impact of emotionally and spiritual healthy pastors is also far-reaching.

Again, Peterson writes about pastors and spiritual directors:

“In the best of all possible worlds, no pastor would ‘get’ a spiritual director. We would already have one—not by our choice or inclination, but by assignment. For the very act of choosing a spiritual director for ourselves can defeat the very thing we are after. If we avoid anyone who we sense will not be tenderly sympathetic to the ‘dearest idols we have known’ and opt for conversational coziness, we have only doubled our jeopardy. But we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, in which someone looks after us in these matters, and the vocational/spiritual peril in which the pastor lives is so acute that, dangerous or not (but very mindful of the danger), pastors must get spiritual directors. Our spiritual sanity requires it.”

In Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Eugene Peterson outlines three particular callings for pastors—prayer, opening Scripture, and spiritual direction. In the last section of the book, he outlines what it looks like for pastors to offer direction, and just as crucial to a faithful life, receiving spiritual direction.

If you’re a pastor and interested in what receiving spiritual direction, you can fill out this contact form.

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Why Advent Matters for God’s Mission

Last month in my neighborhood, a couple died in a house fire, due in part, to negligent landlords. Last year, our community saw a record number of homicides, and is on pace break that record again this year. A year ago, a family in the neighborhood lost their son in a police shooting. If the season of Advent does not speak into this real life, then all the candles and greens are a waste of our time.

Advent is a journey of four weeks—four weeks of waiting and anticipating and hoping that shape us. They remind us that God came into the world at a hopeless moment in the story of Jesus. They remind us that God continues to meet us in our hopeless moments. They remind us that one day God will bring an end to every hopeless moment forever.

We celebrate Advent because this is God’s great rescue plan, and, as bad as the news around us gets, God is coming.

God is up to something in the world around us, in our neighborhoods. We’ll miss it if we’re not paying attention.

The darkest night of year is coming. But so is God.

Advent is for hope in desperate places

Given the 24-hour news cycle, cynicism and despair are so tempting. Has God given up on us? Did God really make promises to the ancients? Is God a bit naive about how dark the darkness is? Maybe are we too optimistic about what God can actually do about it? Is it all just a made up story? Because the world can be a really terrible place.

In Advent we pull all of our doubts from all the corners they’ve been hiding in over the past year. We drag them out of the shadows of our inner lives. We hang words on them. We speak them out loud. We bring them to the empty manger, brimful of trust that God is coming in the most unexpected and extraordinary way.

Whatever you carry during the holiday season, whatever your community carries—be it tear-stained grief, lonely depression, deflating disappointment, fiery frustration, paralyzing anxiety, soul-crushing sadness—there’s space for it in Advent. There’s no need to hide it. God can handle it. God sees. God knows. God has promised to do something about it.

God’s mission is bringing hope in desperate places.

Advent is for peace in violent places.

Six hundred years before Jesus there was a prophet who proclaimed the word of the Lord. Maybe he screamed. Maybe he shouted. Maybe he lamented:

How long, O Lord, must I call for help?
But you do not listen!
“Violence is everywhere!” I cry,
but you do not come to save.
Must I forever see these evil deeds?
Why must I watch all this misery?
Wherever I look,
I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
so that justice has become perverted.

These are ancient words, but they feel like they could have come in response to this morning’s newspaper. The world is broken. The world has been broken.

It’s easy for us to miss just how violent the world of the Old Testament was, and just how vulnerable regular people and women and kids were in this world. When we open the pages of 1 Samuel, we find a world mired in darkness and violence. The book of Judges ends on a tremendously hopeless note. The nation is in disarray. The religious institution is corrupt and ineffective.

In this world, a barren woman prays out to God in anguish. The priest assumes she’s drunk. God hears her. God responds to her. She celebrates. And with her son Samuel, God puts in motion events that lead Israel from its chaos to the golden age of David. This song she sings becomes the lens through which we read the stories of 1 and 2 Samuel.

God’s mission is bringing peace in violent places.

Advent is for love in hateful places.

As Luke tells the story, as the New Testament begins, the situation is not that unlike the days of Hannah and Samuel. The nation is in disarray. The religious institution is corrupt and ineffective. But there are people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, Joseph and Mary, who cry out to God.

Can you imagine being there? Has God given up on us? Did all those stories about Abraham and Moses and David really happen? Is God really competent to do something about the Roman legions, the oppressive oxymoron pax romana–”the peace of Rome”?

Read the songs of Hannah and Mary side by side. Some think Luke is making an explicit connection between the songs of these incredible women. They both defiantly shout into the darkness that God’s love is coming to make everything right.

Likewise, Zechariah—whose story with barren Elizabeth here parallels Abraham and Sarah—gives voice to the love of God infiltrating the messed up world. The two songs in the opening chapter of Luke tell us everything that’s going to happen throughout this Gospel and also Acts. They function like little teaser trailers. The morning sun melting the darkness. The proud brought low and the humble exalted. God reversing the trajectory of human history. In Advent, include the song of Zechariah among your morning prayers and the song of Mary among your evening prayers.

God’s mission is bringing love in hateful places.

Advent is for joy in the anxious places.

Embracing the seasons of Advent and Christmas, living into and being shaped by the story, reminds us that we live in the messy middle of the beginning of the end. The birth of the baby in the manger is the beginning of the end of Adam’s world.

Advent is for anticipating the second coming of Jesus. As he came before, he’s coming again. He entered a desolate, hopeless world and healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, forgive sins, raised the dead, pronounced judgment on the oppressors and the corrupt. Imagine what happens when he enters our broken and weary world?

I like performing weddings because I get to say, “This is how the world ends.” As Christians tell the story, the story ends not in barren wastelands but rather with nervous butterflies, reckless celebration, unhinged laughter, beautiful tears, and all the excessive joy that comes with a wedding.

Our culture tells a joyless end of the story. This is not the way Scripture portrays the end of Adam’s world. The images scattered throughout the New Testament are pictures of an extravagant wedding and a wild party. Perhaps this is why John, the author of Revelation, in the Gospel that bears his name portrays Jesus’ first miracle making sure a wedding party doesn’t stop. The end of bad news is good news.

The word “apocalypse” literally means “revealing.” Advent, our on-ramp to Christmas, starts training our eyes to see and our ears to hear where God might be hiding in plain sight in front of us. In Advent, God is revealed to us in the most unexpected and surprising ways. This is the story we get to tell around our dinner tables, on our front porches, along our sidewalks, and in our coffee shops.

God’s mission is bringing joy in anxious places.

We need the hope, peace, love, and joy of Advent because the world around us is full of despair, violence, hate, and anxiety. We need Advent because the world needs Advent.

In this season, there’s a better story at work than ugly sweaters, twinkle lights, wish lists, marshmallow worlds, and shelved elves. The anguished cry of every human heart is getting answered. Everything that is deep goodness will be put back in its right place.

God is coming, as promised, to finally put everything right.

O Lord, come back to us! How long will you delay? Take pity on your servants! (Psalm 90:13).

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A Beginner's Guide to the Christian Calendar

A Beginner’s Guide to the Christian Calendar

How we measure time has a way of shaping our souls. The way we count and anticipate days, weeks, months forms our human-being-ness. The Christian calendar provides one means of training us in the story of Jesus. The calendar is a tool for discipleship.

“To have any hope of resisting the worst elements of Western consumer culture, we Christians will need an arsenal of rituals to keep us alert to the story of the world that really matters,” writes Craig Bartholomew. This is what makes the calendar such a compelling tool. It offers an alternative way of telling an alternative story shaping us to be alternative citizens in the world.

A calendar shapes your identity, whether you’re aware of it or not. If you count the days till Spring Break, graduation, and summer vacation, you’re likely a student. If you celebrate Opening Day, the Super Bowl, and March Madness, you live a sports story. If you buy turkey and cranberries in November, fireworks in July, and don’t work on a day called “Labor Day,” then you’re a citizen of the United States.

Measuring time matters. Behavioral economist Richard Thaler writes, “First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.” We can mindfully count time as a tool for spiritual formation. In the Scriptures, the opening creation account in Genesis records how God calls time holy. In Israel’s desert wanderings, God establishes three annual holidays. These were more than single-day holidays. They were multi-day festivals. These served as three points on the calendar that shaped the identity of the nation, reminding them of God’s commitment to them.

As the early church developed after the resurrection of Jesus, these holy seasons were infused with new meaning centering on the work God had done through Jesus. Christmas, centering on the doctrine of the Incarnation, and Easter, centering on the Resurrection, anchor the seasons of the calendar.

Advent

Advent marks the beginning of the calendar. It begins on the fourth Sunday leading up to Christmas. In Advent, the Church remembers that in the darkest days of Israel’s history, God entered human history in the person of Jesus. And in Advent, the Church anticipates that even in our current dark days, God has promised to return and finally put everything right. Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Mary are voices from the Bible we listen to in Advent.

While the world around us, soaked in consumerism, starts announcing its version of Christmas in mid-October, the Church waits. It sits in eager anticipation, hanging on the hope—though it seems so absurd to a watching world—that God is going to make everything right in the world. The darkness around us is real, but we get ready, knowing that the light is coming.

Christmas

Christmas season begins on December 25 and then lasts for twelve days (hence the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”). At Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation, the idea the Almighty God entered time and space in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As the gospel of John puts it, “The word became human and made his home among us.” All the powers of darkness melt away at the presence of Jesus. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

We often read the stories in Luke 2:1–20 during Christmas. If we’re not careful, we can fall into a lazy familiarity with them. But these are shocking, earth-shattering words. I imagine the words of the angels sounded something like this to the shepherds.

We interrupt this existence of suffering, restlessness, and death to bring you the news that the all-powerful God of the universe has infiltrated time and space on a solo reconnaissance mission of humankind in the form of a helpless, powerless baby. All of our hopes for a better tomorrow are now born in this manger. This is the season the tide turns. The promise to Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, to David will be fulfilled. The longing of all creation will be satisfied. Death will indeed be broken. The dragon is conquered. Hope is here.

Epiphany

Epiphany concludes the Christmas season. It is celebrated twelve days after Christmas on January 6. It commemorates the story of the three wise men who visit the young Jesus. Again, our familiarity with the story in Matthew 2:1–12 often blinds us to the deep significance of it.

Epiphany services are often marked by candlelight, symbolizing Jesus as the light of world, piercing the darkness of the winter around us (at least those of us in the northern hemisphere). Epiphany extends the grand hospitality of God that salvation is for the entire world. Isaiah 60:1–3 foreshadows the worship of the three wise men and reminds us that the story of Jesus is also for every “outsider” we can imagine.

Lent

Lent begins the cycle of seasons focusing us on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Ash Wednesday begins Lent, 40 days prior to Easter, and Lent marks a 40-day journey to the cross. It corresponds to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted. It offers us time to self-reflect on the unexamined sin in our own lives and in the world around us. The season is marked by repentance and fasting or abstaining from certain activities or foods. It’s like weeding the garden.

I want to know Christ… I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death,” writes Paul. This is Lent. Previously in Philippians, Paul records the descent of God in Jesus as a man, a man who dies, a man who dies in the most humiliating way possible on a cross. This is a journey of humility that we walk with Jesus, and we identify Simon the Cyrene who carries the cross of Jesus.  Texts associated with Lent include Joel 2:1–2, 12–17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:10; and Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21. Lent culminates in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

Easter

At Easter, we party. At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. While the fast of Lent lasts 40 days, the feast of Easter lasts for 50 days. At Easter, we celebrate that Jesus is risen, that Death is a toothless foe, that life beats Death. It is so much more than a one-day event. Paul continues the thought in Philippians 3, “I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!

With the resurrection, we remember God’s ultimate victory over Sin and Death. The risen Jesus is making everything new. Everything is joy. If it doesn’t get you jumping out of your seat, the back of your neck tingling out of excitement, you’re not doing it quite right.

N.T. Wright says, “We should meet regularly for Easter parties. We should drink champagne at breakfast. We should renew baptismal vows with splashing water all over the place. And we should sing and dance and blow trumpets and put out banners in the streets. And we should invite the homeless people to parties and we should go around town doing random acts of generosity and celebration. We should be doing things which would make our sober and serious neighbors say, ‘What is the meaning of this outrageous party?

Pentecost

Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter. At Pentecost we remember the beginning of the Church with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1–13. This is God’s next great movement in the story. With Pentecost, the Church is God’s answer to “Now what?” after the resurrection.

For the Jewish people, Pentecost was the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three holidays, and it commemorated the giving of the Law at Sinai 50 days after God’s victory at the Red Sea. Like that moment, that formed the nation, Pentecost forms the Church as the people of God bearing witness to God’s story in the world, for the whole world.

Ordinary Time

Ordinary Time, in some traditions “Kingdomtide,” is the months between Pentecost and Advent. Far from “boring time” or “nothing happens here time,” Ordinary Time propels the church into mission. Because God has acted in the Incarnation (Advent/Christmas/Epiphany), and because God has acted in the Resurrection (Lent/Easter/Pentecost), now the Church gets to participate with God in the world. This is Christians’ choose-your-own-adventure season.

Again, Thaler writes, “People have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option.” We can choose the status quo, but the status quo is already shaping us toward a story that does not include Jesus. Or we can give ourselves to the rhythm of the Christian calendar and annually be reminded of the God who turns darkness to light and death to life.

To go deeper, be sure to check out:
Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year by Robert Webber

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The Most Important Chapter in the Bible

The Most Important Chapter in the Bible

In all the best stories, beginnings and endings matter. The opening and closing images of a movie. The first and last sentences of a novel. Where we begin and end provide deep clues about what the story is all about. If this is indeed the case, then Genesis 1 is the most important chapter in the Bible.

Storytelling, at least as we in Western culture understand it, follows a pattern of three movements. I’ve heard these described as 1) stick your hero in a tree, 2) throw rocks at your hero, and 3) get your hero out of the tree. In other words, as the writer, you introduce a problem, you complicate the problem, and you solve the problem.

We can see this movement in the story of the Bible. And when we do so, we find the the story of the Bible isn’t about us. It isn’t even about humanity in general. The story of the Bible is the story of God: 1) The relationship between God and humanity is broken. 2) Despite God’s provision of the Law and the Prophets, Israel fails and fails again to be a light to the nations. 3) God, through the work of Jesus, heals the brokenness of humanity.

But first, we often see a glimpse of the hero before this sequence begins. It establishes the baseline character of our hero—who they are, what they want. Think of the iconic scene in Star Wars: A New Hope of Luke Skywalker watching the twin suns set on Tatooine as the music swells. Now imagine that music playing as you read Genesis 1.

One theory about this chapter is that it functions as a prologue, not only of the book of Genesis or even the whole of the books of Moses (Genesis thru Deuteronomy), but the entire Bible. If this is the case, then how we understand the whole of the story hinges on what we make of this chapter. Genesis 1 tells us how to read the whole story.

These are just a few of the characteristics of God in Genesis 1 that are crucial for understanding God’s character in the rest of the plot of Scripture.

God is joyfully, creatively present in messy places.

“The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.”

The creation story of Genesis 1 is not a story of creation-from-nothing. Rather, it is creation-from-something. Whatever the something is, it isn’t good. It isn’t right. It is tohu (formless) and bohu (empty). And darkness covered everything.

And right there, that’s where God is. Right in the middle of the chaos, the mess, the very not good. The chaos isn’t a result of God’s absence. No, the chaos is the canvas upon which God will make his good, very good, holy creation.

And this is the story. A tabernacle in the wilderness among a nation of ex-slaves. The boy prophet who will grow up to anoint kings. The returning exiles putting the temple back together. A carpenter-rabbi in a forgotten corner of the Roman Empire announcing the Kingdom of God. The Resurrection.

Messy places aren’t godforsaken places. The are places pregnant with the possibility of new creation about to break out.

God makes order in chaos.

Herein lies the rhythm of the great story. God acts to put things together. Humans take it apart. Order. Chaos. Holy God making things. Broken humans breaking things.

God makes a good world. Humans unmake it. God rescues Israel at the Red Sea and provides the Law. Israel builds a golden calf. The book of Joshua, Israel receives the Promised Land. The book of Judges, Israel abandons Yahweh. King David and the golden age of Israel as a political force. King Solomon and the decline that leads to the divided kingdom and later the exile. The ministry of Jesus and the announcement of God’s Kingdom. The cross and the death God’s Son. But then God’s definitive act of creation, the Resurrection of Jesus. God’s work of Genesis 1 creation all over again.

When we pay attention, the see the whole stories is an ongoing series of “Creation stories” and “Fall stories.” God making order in chaos. Humans undoing God’s work and causing more chaos.

God brings light in darkness

The first words any character utters in a story go a long way in revealing to the audience what kind of character in this story. God’s first words in the Bible? “Let there be light.” Any thing in all the world that the biblical writers could offer as God’s first words, and they choose, “Let there be light.”

Imagine God toe-to-toe with the darkness, speaking into its depths, into the tohu and bohu, “Let there be light!” And as John the gospel writer goes on the say, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

The great story is about a God who turns the lights on, who makes the unknown known, who makes the darkness shudder, shake, and evaporate. It’s the story of the Exodus. It’s the story of Advent. It’s all embedded right here in the story of Creation.

God makes people to participate and flourish.

The Bible is full of beautiful metaphors for God. But before we hear about God the shepherd, God the king, God the father, God the judge, we first see God the creative. The God who makes stuff. God the tinkerer. God the inventor. God the architect. God the designer. This is the God of Genesis 1.

It’s important noting the place of humanity in this creation account. Humans are not the first. They aren’t the last. They have an appropriate place in the context of God’s creation. The first three days of creation are devoted to separating specific spaces—light from darkness, sky from ocean, land from sea. Days four through six are then given to making things that will accordingly call those spaces home—celestial bodies, fish and birds, animals and humans.

Finally, on day seven, God initiates the Sabbath, the great rest, where everything that was chaos is finally in its right place. But men and women—in this account, co-equal the image of Almighty God—have the place of tending to and caring for this creation and are invited to multiply and thrive.

God puts everything in its right place.

The popular theory about how we get the Old Testament as we know the Old Testament is that it was compiled during the exile. Most likely it was offered as a gift to Persian King Cyrus’ library as an apologetic for the Jewish faith and way of life.

The prevailing creation myth in that part of the world told the story of two deities locked in an epic, violent conflict. One tears the other in half and out of that bloody mess the world as we know it began.

The Hebrew used for God throughout this chapter is elohim, which describes a generic functionary role, like “dad” or “president” or “boss.” Literally, it means “the deity.” I had a professor suggest that if this is indeed an introductory prologue, then perhaps we should it as “the deity who I’m going to tell you about in this whole story.” When we then get to the creation account in chapter 2, the name changes to “YHWH elohim” (“the LORD God” in most English translations), or better yet “Yahweh, this God I’m telling you about.” Yahweh, the God who does things wholly different, backwards, and upside-down from the gods you’re familiar with.

According to the creation story of the Jewish people, progress does not justify violence. Counter to the creation story of Babylon, the world is born out of God’s goodness and creativity and not out of antagonism and conflict. The world exists because God wanted it to. God spoke and it was.

Genesis 1 is the most important chapter of the Bible because it shares with us everything we need to know about the God whose story unfolds throughout the rest of the Bible. It reminds us the story is not about us but about God.

If you want to go deeper into the world of Genesis 1, be sure to check these out:

The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra Richter

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John Walton

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12 Ways to Live Like a Missionary in Your Neighborhood

12 Ways to Live like a Missionary in Your Neighborhood

When my wife and I first starting dating, we were both in grad school and new to the area. Together we started going to a small neighborhood Methodist church that changed our lives. This group of people really formed us in thinking like missionaries in our neighborhood.

That’s been quite a few years ago, but we haven’t forgotten it. This past summer we sensed God inviting us move. We felt sent on purpose. It’s been a journey over several years now, and feels like following bread crumbs. There’s lots of trial and error. It feels like a lot of experiments. Here are some of the ways we’re framing our experience and things to which we commit ourselves.

1. Prayer.

All is prayer. Prayer is oxygen. This is so much more than daily devotions. This is constant devotion to God, continually attending to God’s presence around us.

Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.” A few years ago I spent time with a missionary in north Africa. He called his daily prayer time his “abiding time” from this verse.

In mission work, prayer is the most necessary thing.

2. Get immersed in the stories in Scripture.

Again, this is so much more than daily devotions. This is entering into the imagination of the world in Scripture. It’s being shaped by its stories.

Many of us have been trained to take the Bible and neuter it as mere motivational sayings and inspirational quotes. The power and punch of Scripture is the stories. God has acted. God continues to act in the same way—healing, saving, liberating, proclaiming light in darkness. Let them soak in your bones and shape your imagination of what God can and will do around you.

3. Love your neighbors

Take every means at your disposal to cultivate a deep, genuine affection for your neighbors, the people next door and across the street. Learn their names. Learn their stories. Know them as human beings, not evangelism projects.

4. Be a native.

As Eugene Peterson puts in the Message John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” The Incarnation—that Almighty God became a human being in Jesus—is the great model of mission. God became a native in Adam’s world.

God learned the language. God ate the food. God lived by the customs. This involves the deepest humility. I meet my neighbors on their terms. I enter the rhythms of the neighborhood.

5. Value margin

Anticipate interruption. Busyness is the great sickness of North American culture. Packing my schedule from sun up to sun down, keeps me from participating in the lives of my neighbors. My own packed schedule prevents my neighbors from knowing me.

Carving out intentional space, to mindfully practice Sabbath, allows God to surprise me. I can sit on the porch and do nothing. I can walk the streets. I can be seen. I can be available. But if I’m “too busy” I rob myself of those unplanned serendipities in the neighborhood.

6. Cultivate the fruit of the Spirit.

Mission work has a tremendous rate of burnout. This is true overseas as well as in the neighborhood. It’s crucial to be mindful that this is the Spirit’s work and not my own.

Cultivate practices and disciplines that nurture the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the qualities that make us human like Jesus. These are the qualities that make our neighborhood (and burgeoning churches) more human communities.

7. Live to bless others.

One of the earliest mission mandates God gives is to Abram: “I will bless you… and you will be a blessing to others… All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” The language of “curse” echoes throughout Genesis 2–11, and God’s plan is to reverse that. Bless, bless, bless.

Simply being good and kind and a blessing to our neighbors is a sign of the kingdom, of God’s renewal of all things. In all the bad news we find ourselves surrounded by, we get to be agents of good news.

8. Be a listener.

I once sat in a denominational gathering where a very well-intentioned person expressed, “We don’t know what our community needs. How do we know what our community needs?” “Have you asked them? Have you watched them?” I responded.

Pay attention. Listen. Watch. Spend time being with others. What issues matter to the neighborhood? How did those become the issues that matter? Be open to admitting all your preconceived ideas and assumptions are wrong.

9. Resist a divide between sacred and secular.

Wendell Berry says, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” I’ve been culturally trained to compartmentalize church life and regular life. But that’s not the picture in the Bible’s stories.

There’s Jacob sleeping with a rock for a pillow at Bethel. There’s Moses and a burning bush. There’s Ezekiel at the Kebar River. There’s Peter taking a siesta on the roof of his hostel. So then there’s me on my front porch. There’s me at the post office. There’s me pumping gas at the gas station. “The earth is the Yahweh’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him.” Who knows where God is going to show up next?

10. Trust that God is already at work.

Alan Roxburgh tells this story: “Michelangelo was once observed pushing a huge rock through the streets of Florence. The bemused citizens turned to him in his exertions to ask, ‘Why are pushing that mighty rock, Michelangelo?’ His response was simple but decisive: ‘Because there’s a person inside longing to get out!’”

It’s not my job to start, establish, or plant anything. That’s the mysterious work of God already happening. My work is simply following the clues about what God is doing. There is a church longing to get out, longing to be gathered together.

11. Be a host.

Open up spaces in your life for your neighbors. Invite them to your table to share a meal. Extend hospitality. Some of my favorite memories from that first neighborhood church experience come from the meals where my wife and I invited our neighbors to share Sunday lunch with us in our tiny kitchen. These were people from very different places of life with very different life experiences.

When we make space for others, we make space for Jesus to meet us. As Jesus says, “I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.” Walls break down when we invite others to see how we live.

12. Even better, be a guest.

While I was on staff at a church, I did a web development bootcamp in the community. At the church, I had a place of power and privilege. I was expected to have answers. At the bootcamp, I had no idea what was going on. I asked my neighbor if he could show me how he made his webpage do that because I was so lost. And I suddenly discovered that made me someone he wanted to be around.

A theology professor once told me his greatest evangelism tip was to ask his neighbor for help. Being willing to receive the hospitality of those around us is every bit as significant as extending it. To be a guest at someone else’s table extends to them the dignity of hospitality.

Charles Spurgeon has said, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” You don’t have to live in a foreign country to be a missionary. You can be a missionary in your own neighborhood.

If you want to go deeper, I’ve found these books really helpful on this topic:

Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for Pastoral Workers by Gerald Arbuckle

Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan

Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan Roxburgh

Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity by Clemens Sedmak

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If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

Read more