The Proverbs of Dr. Russ

During our time at the Mountain Learning Center, Dr. Russ Veenker poured lots of truth and wisdom into our lives. Three statements in particular have stuck with me, and they have become “proverbs” (wise sayings) to help me bring about important changes in my behavior.

Proverb 1: “Control is an illusion” -- One of my strengths is to bring order out of chaos. Among other things, this God-given ability enables me to help organizations function more efficiently. This same quality makes me good at analyzing…and teaching on…difficult Bible texts. However, there is a downside: this characteristic can create the illusion that I am somehow in control of my circumstances; that I always can figure out the answers, and wrestle problems into submission. Yet I am increasingly aware that I actually control very little of what happens to me. What I can control is how I respond to what happens. This is a radically new perspective for me, and it leads me to an inescapable conclusion: I must choose to live each day as an act of faith.

To drive home this lesson, God has led me into a situation where living by faith is my only option. As I contemplate the next season of life, I cannot even begin to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle should fit together. Therefore, I find myself turning to the Lord, acknowledging my lack of control, and striving to trust Him to bring me to the right place at the right time. Because He is in control…and I am not.

Proverb 2: “All relationships are driven by anxiety” -- I had to think about this one for awhile before it fully made sense to me. Why? Because I was unaware of how much anxiety lurks beneath the surface of my life. The desire to impress, the longing to be liked, the need to perform well, the fear of letting someone down…these are just a few of the ever-present realities that underlie all of my interactions with others. And all of these things produce anxiety: sometimes a little, sometimes a lot...but always present. Far too often I have let the anxiety determine my response to others, rather than simply doing what is best for the relationship.

As I live each day with this new level of awareness, I find myself making better choices. As a result, I’m better able to focus on the people I interact with…rather than focus on the underlying anxiety.

Proverb 3: “When we’re under stress, we regress” -- This principle makes complete sense to me; I clearly see how I can revert to less mature and less appropriate behaviors when I’m stressed out. But more importantly, I’ve learned that stress drives me to forget about Proverbs 1 and 2 above. In other words, when I’m stressed…I regress to anxiety and control. I try harder to control my circumstances, in an attempt to reduce my anxiety, and therefore eliminate the stress.

This default response is, of course, counter-productive. The solution is not to just reduce the stress in my life, though that is a good thing to do. Since I always will face stress in various ways, the real solution is to learn how to change my default behavior. In other words, by learning ways to respond better to Proverbs 1 and 2, then I will respond better when I face the circumstances of Proverb 3.

The interconnected nature of these proverbs…and the way I see them play out in my life…is one of the most important and powerful lessons I am learning this fall.

- Bruce

My Dreams for Julie

Our loving Father has given Julie a very clear call to pastoral ministry. This call was formed and shaped through her years of service at Eastside, and it has been confirmed in numerous ways during our Sabbatical.

As God has been working in her, I’ve been having dreams for her. I can’t claim that these dreams are from the Lord, but they certainly express the desires of my heart for her.

I dream of a gathering place – a room of quietness and beauty – where Julie can meet with women individually and in groups. Where she can lead women through times of spiritual retreat. Where she can teach women how to have meaningful times of personal reflection and prayer.

I dream of a church family where Julie can have a recognized role in discipling and mentoring women. Where she can emphasize “spiritual development” more than “running programs”. Where she can equip women to become spiritual leaders and mentors and disciple-makers.

I dream of a writing workshop where Julie can have a quiet place to set down on paper the things that God lays on her heart. Where she can create devotional articles and books that will address the deepest soul needs of women. Where she can share her heart for ministry through the written word, equipping women to lead women.

My fervent hope is that these dreams in my heart come from the heart of God. My fervent prayer is that these dreams will come to pass, so that Julie can be all that God wants her to be.

-  Bruce


This fall I’ve been learning a great deal about waiting. In the past I often have considered “waiting” to be a waste of time. After all, if I can be more efficient or find a short-cut…then why wait? But God has used this season to remind me that waiting brings its own rewards and blessings.

Waiting allows me to work through the issues and behaviors that – at times – plague my thoughts; the self-talk that derails my best intentions; the frenzy that causes my emotions to get out of balance.

Waiting reminds me to be a more patient person – not expecting others to jump when I determine that something “must” be done right now. Waiting helps me consider if these self-imposed deadlines are valid or arbitrary.

Waiting helps me to extend grace to myself and others, allowing time for growth and development.

Waiting demands my release of control; my desire to orchestrate all that happens to myself and those whom I love. Instead, I must rest in God’s unfolding plan, rather than insist on my plan.

At the Mountain Learning Center, we enjoyed 19 meals with Russ and Kandy. We always stayed at the table at least an hour. At first, I felt my anxiousness rising…we had stuff to do!  But after several meals, I started to relax. To take my time. To enjoy the act of intentionally waiting: waiting for everyone to finish; waiting for the food to settle; waiting for the next enjoyable moment in the conversation.

I am starting to talk myself out of some impatience and I am letting go of my demands for speed. Instead, I am waiting. Waiting for others to finish, waiting for others to answer, waiting until someone has completed their task...waiting while I take the time to think through my own tasks.

Even as I’m waiting, I can watch, take notice, and rest in expectation, believing that God is at work in the moment. In each and every moment.  I’m discovering that the more I slow down, the richer and more full my life becomes. That the reward and the blessing of  learning to wait.

- Julie

“Love” vs. “Duty”

Jesus said, “The first [commandment] in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second [commandment]: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” -- Mark 12:29-31, The Message

I've been wrestling lately with this passage in a very personal way.  Because I've been worshipping the idol of responsibility (see my earlier post), I have spent the last 30 years increasingly defining my life by what I do for others.  As a result, I have neglected the care of myself.  I have not paid enough attention to my own physical, relational, emotional, and even spiritual needs.

In a very real sense, then, I have not been “loving” myself.  Nor have I been properly loving God.  Therefore, if I take the words of Jesus seriously, I have not been able to effectively love other people.  The ministry, work, service, pastoral care (whatever we call it) I have engaged in has not truly flowed out of my love for self and my love for Christ.  I’ve been doing it out of a sense of duty and also out of ideology (it’s the “right” thing to do). 

There is nothing wrong with obedience; there is nothing wrong about being motivated by truth.  But Jesus tells me that these things are not enough.  If I serve Him solely out of “duty”, then He only gets second-best from me.  So Jesus asks for more of me.    Why? Because He loves me.  He proved His love by dying for me.  And because He loves me…He wants me to love me.  So I find myself asking an interesting question: “Do I love me…do I value me…as much as Jesus does?”  Based on the evidence of the past 30 years, the painful answer is “no”.

A big part of my journey this fall, then, has been learning to make time for Bruce.  To provide better care for my body and my soul.  To allow the Lord to rekindle my interests and passions.  And to spend time with Jesus for the purpose of relationship…not just to discover rules, principles, and marching orders. 

Like everything else in life, this requires balance.  After all, I don’t want to become a self-indulgent, navel-gazing narcissist.  But at the moment, I’m in no danger of that because I have been living at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Sadly, I have been so selfless that I lost much of myself along the way.

By the grace of God, this is now changing. And it is a great joy...accompanied by tremendous peace in my start loving myself again by rediscovering who God has made me to be.

- Bruce

Loose Ends

My life is full of “loose ends”: unfinished household projects, ideas for articles I want to write, dreams of new ministry opportunities to pursue, sermons I want to preach that aren’t even written yet…and more.

Some of this is the result of procrastination; much of it is the result of choosing to work long hours at two different jobs to help meet the financial needs of our family. There simply has not been much extra time during the past several years.

Unfortunately, all of these loose ends contribute to a sense of being overwhelmed; to feeling a bit out of control. Sometimes I wonder “will I ever catch up?” 

One of the great joys I’ve experienced this fall is to have more breathing space: to slow down and smell the roses; to truly live in the moment. And as windows of time have opened up, I’ve been tackling many of the loose ends dangling around my life.

One project has been a particular millstone around my neck: a sunken brick patio in a back corner of our yard. I started this project four years ago when I dug out the earth and built a small gazebo. Since then, work only has occurred sporadically. But now, just in the past few weeks, I’ve made major progress: laying the last of the bricks, running conduit, wiring some lights (with help from my son), setting up a small fountain. The end is in sight…and boy, does it feel good! We’ll actually be able to use this patio in the near future, rather than stare at an unfinished hole in the ground.

As I tie up my loose ends, one-by-one, it brings a sense of completion and wholeness. But just as importantly, I think this is an outward picture of what God is doing within me.

He’s tying up the loose ends within my heart and within my soul…and He’s slowly bringing me to a place of peace and contentment and wholeness that I’ve never before experienced.

- Bruce

Finding Meaning in NOT Working

One of my favorite biblical themes is the spiritual value of work. Several times, I’ve preached sermons and taught lessons on the topic of “Your Work Matters to God”. Scripture makes it clear that all of our work is a gift from God, and that our work gives meaning and purpose to life. And my work as a pastor is, for me, the most meaningful and fulfilling work I’ve ever done. 

Therefore, my sabbatical presents me with a tremendous challenge: how do I find meaning and purpose when I’m not working?

The answer: it’s not easy.

Throughout the Fall, I’ve received several invitations to preach/speak/teach in various places. The Lord made it clear that I was to turn down all such offers and truly make this a season of rest, refreshment, and renewal. To pursue Him above all things. In other words, He wanted me to throttle back on my “Martha” habits and spend more time like “Mary” [see Luke 10:38-42]. Of course, this is not an easy thing for me to do. (You’ll understand more clearly if you read my earlier post on “The Idol of Responsibility”.) 

So…how would I rate my progress toward this goal? Fair. Just fair.

Because I need some sense of rhythm and order to my life, each week I have been identifying certain tasks as my “work”: household projects (of which we have a HUGE backlog), managing our finances, clearing months of clutter off my desk, reading and discussing with Julie our “homework” assignments from the Mountain Learning Center…. There is plenty to do, and it’s all good. And when I complete these tasks, it provides a sense of accomplishment and progress. However, I realize that I’m still overly focused on Martha-like behaviors. My default is to place far too much emphasis on “doing” (Martha), and not enough on “being” (Mary).

So…in the weeks ahead…I will strive to take more moments to simply sit in the presence of Jesus. To talk to Him and listen to Him. To be as intentional about my times with the Lord and as I am about my work.  

I know that I will be returning to pastoral ministry at some point, and I know that the Lord wants me to find meaning in my work. But I also want to understand…I desperately need to understand…how to find meaning in not working, so that I can find deep and lasting meaning in just soaking in the presence of my loving and gracious God. 

- Bruce

A Poverty of the Soul

I always admired my mother for her gracious, loving, and patient spirit toward others… and especially toward my dad. I wanted to be like her when I grew up. And through the years, I believe I have become more inclined that direction. Many people would probably say I am kind or compassionate or gracious (at least in most situations). 

However, I have discovered that deep down I really evidence “a poverty of the soul”. I’m more aware of this now, because I’m in a season with more unstructured time. Because I’m less outwardly busy, I have more time for interior reflection. (“Search me, O God, and know my heart today…” – Psalm 139:23-24). And because I’m not working, and because we don’t have limitless funds, I have started to recognize my own feelings of insecurity. I don’t like admitting this, because it makes me feel vulnerable and inadequate.

Since Bruce and I have been together much of the last 4 months, I more clearly see behaviors that can be annoying: words that are better left unsaid...demands that should be released…and a heart that can, at times, simply be uncooperative. 

I am thankful for our love. I am thankful that we have shared over 30 years of married life. But I now see so clearly my poverty of soul; my lack of reflecting God’s Spirit more fully. This extended time together, which has been good in so many ways, has awakened me to my own impurities and has reminded me that God still has much work to do to shape my character.

I need Christ – not just to worship in my life, but to change me to be like Him. And in this season, I see that many of those changes have to do with my behavior and attitudes when things don’t go my way; when I’m feeling adrift because of the lack of daily structure; when I hear my words that try to control others. In these moments, my poverty of soul is showing. I know I need the Savior, and I realize – in a fresh way – just how much I need Him. 

When I was in high school I memorized a scripture that continues to surface in my life…and even today nudges me toward more fully reflecting God’s character:  Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9]

God continues to teach me many things during this “way station” of our sabbatical. I want to learn from Him so that I become more like Him; so that my aching soul will be healed, renewed, and transformed.

- Julie

Our Sabbatical: A Way Station & A Journey

Ever since our kids were little, we have taken them on camping trips. Some were short weekend jaunts, others were major road-trips. (Our longest trip was 4 weeks and over 6000 miles of driving). Planning these vacations always was a lot of work…but the work was tempered by the excitement of the anticipated trip. And the work paid off when the trip became a reality! There were always some unanticipated events, but – for the most part - each trip would unfold much as expected.  

Our season of sabbatical is also a kind of “trip”…but this one is unfolding much differently than we anticipated. Unlike every other trip we have taken, our destination this time is unclear. It is very odd to depart on a journey without knowing exactly where you are going or when you will arrive.

I was excited at the beginning, because we were stepping into a new adventure. Yes, we were leaving our church home but we were excited to see what God would reveal for the future. And there were a lot of plans to look forward to: Karina was moving to Portland for grad school; Rachel was heading to Minnesota for college; we would be visiting a pastoral retreat center.

But time has passed since our trip began and we now are beyond all of the planned events. And (what a surprise) experiences have unfolded differently than we anticipated. Karina is settling in at school and work in Portland...and she’s engaged! It’s not easy planning a wedding when she and I live in two different states. At this momentous season of her life, I deeply miss her and wish she was here with me. Rachel withdrew from college and returned home because – despite a lot of research by all of us – the academic writing program she entered just was not what she expected nor wanted. She’s now working with a writing coach, and has found a job, but she’s wrestling with disappointment and shattered dreams… and we’re trying to support her as best we can. For us, the wonderful pastoral retreat is over and we’re now engaged in the challenging daily work of implementing what we learned about ourselves.

It’s been just three months, but it seems as if this journey began a long time ago. We feel like we’re in the middle of the trip, but we still don’t know how or where or when it will end. As Christians, we know that God is in control and directs our days. But because our direction is unclear and the future continues to be uncertain, we find ourselves in a bit of a funk. Furthermore, without a church family we feel like nomads, and without ongoing activity in daily pastoral ministry, our “passions” are not being tapped. Needless to say, at times we wrestle with questions and doubts.

We’re reminding ourselves that this trip is not just about taking a break and then finding new jobs. It’s about connecting with God in new and different ways. So we’re trying to dig deep and seek our loving God with all of our hearts, trusting Him to lead us into our unknown and unseen future.

- Julie

The Idol of Responsibility

I have been guilty of worshipping an idol - the "god of responsibility."

Obviously, being responsible is a good thing. It’s important to meet deadlines, to follow through on commitments, to take care of business. But over the course of my adult working life I have – far too often – turned this strength into a weakness. I have allowed myself to become driven by the “musts” to such an extent that my life has been driven by behavior that is almost obsessive-compulsive. Sadly, much of this has been entirely self-inflicted.

When essential work needed to be done, I often would volunteer...even if the task logically belonged to someone else.  When other people would drop the ball, I would pick it up. Over time, colleagues observed this pattern and began to give me responsibilities that should have been assigned to others. Why? Because they knew I would "get it done."

This approach to life – bowing before the god of responsibility – became such a habit that I carried it over to activities outside of work. Even vacations were overly planned…and woe to the family member who caused us to run behind schedule! (And let’s be honest…is it really that important if you show up at a campground 30 or 60 minutes “behind schedule?")

The result of my behavior? Major overload. Non-stop working. Emotional depletion. And even spiritual dryness, because all of this was terribly bad for my soul. I was so busy serving God (I thought) that my relationship with Him was adversely impacted. The harder I worked to fulfill my “godly responsibilities”, the more distant God seemed to me.

So a key goal during this season of sabbatical is to connect more deeply…more intimately…with God. To listen more closely to His voice so that I will draw better boundaries when I return to pastoral ministry. To only take on responsibilities that truly are part of His plan for me. Because I want to stop worshipping the idol of responsibility…and worship only the Savior of my soul.

- Bruce


I’ve been crying quite a bit lately. It feels rather uncomfortable…but I’m adjusting. Growing up in a stoic Scandinavian home had a good side (we’re persistent and tough) but also a not-so-good side (we gloss over, hide, or even ignore our deepest feelings…particularly about tough issues).

My home was a place of love, but we did not talk about hurt or pain or disappointment. So early on I learned to cry alone - usually in the shower – so my tears would not be seen or heard. I learned to put on a good face, and to keep going no matter how hard things seemed. When my dad died, my mom did not cry…even though she had just lost her best friend and soul mate after more than 40 years of marriage. She simply pressed on, like she always did. Needless to say, when my mom died a few years later I did not cry (at least not much, and certainly not in front of others).

So over the years
I learned to carry my pain alone, stuffing my deepest emotions as if they were a problem or hindrance.  

The great lie is that I thought this was healthy, because outwardly it appeared that I had my emotions under control. Sadly, I was blind to the damage this was doing to my own soul, raising my internal anxiety. Furthermore, my seeming lack of empathy and/or sympathy at times made others feel as if I did not truly care about them and their problems.   

Bruce is joining me in this journey, however it is somewhat easier for him because he did not grow up “stuffing” feelings. We have had several tearful conversations recently as we process the losses of the past ten years: deaths in the family, major bumps in the road for our kids, ministry challenges…. 

Expressing the deep emotions associated with these losses has not been easy, but it has been good. As I work through the moments of pain, tears can lighten my load and bring healing. I am thankful that my tears allow God’s Spirit to bring comfort to my soul.

- Julie

Connecting with God's Family

When we understand that the church truly is a “family”, we realize how difficult it can be to move on...and so our departure from Eastside truly has created a void in our lives. We wish that we could just jump right into a new church and get plugged in, but that’s not easy either, because it obviously takes awhile for deep and meaningful relationships to develop.

For us, the process of getting re-connected is even more complicated because we’re in a season of waiting. We can’t really plug into a new congregation right now, because we believe that God will move us into pastoral roles…somewhere…in 2010. To a certain extent, then, we need to “tread water” until the Lord clarifies our next step.

So how do we connect with God’s people during this time? And how do we make our church experience meaningful and productive?

As we’ve prayerfully wrestled with these questions, we’ve come up with an least for the Fall. We’ve decided to visit the Stadia church plants throughout southern California that I’ve had a hand in getting started. So each Sunday, Julie and I are worshipping in a different location. In the past three weeks we’ve visited Solid Ground Christian Fellowship in Redlands, Life Spring Christian Church in Beaumont, and Momentum Christian Church in Chula Vista. It feels a bit nomadic, but there’s also a strong sense of connection because of the relationship I have with the pastors who have launched these new churches. These visits are a great opportunity for us to affirm the planters and their wives, to encourage them, and to thank them for the vital ministry they are performing by starting new congregations. 

We’re also discovering that this is a great learning experience for us. As we participate in different kinds of worship services, we’re able to evaluate the pros and cons of these various approaches. This is helping us to sharpen our focus on how we would like to be able to help shape the priorities of our next church…wherever it might be.

- Bruce

Be In The Moment

Be in the moment.

That phrase is permeating this season in our lives. I knew we were rushing in life, but had no idea how much we were missing by planning ahead and planning too much. The preciousness of life and relationships can be lost when our thinking is all forward-looking.

This is one of the great lessons we carry with us from our time at the Mountain Learning Center.

Our life is taking on a richness as we move more slowly, and appreciate the interactions we have with God and one another. Soon after we left Eastside, we were able to spend some time with my brother and sister-in-law in Wisconsin. One night my brother and I had a couple of hours to just talk. I was conscious of the love we share and the gift we had been given in being together. While at June Lake, Bruce and I soaked in quiet moments while kayaking (just paddling and drifting across beautiful alpine lakes), sometimes talking, sometimes listening to the wind in the trees, or just looking at the majesty of the mountains God has created. And last night I watched Karina try on her wedding dress – via Skype – and saw the smile on her face as she shared the moment with me.

These moments...and so many others...are blessings. We regret the times when we've let such moments pass by without fully embracing their richness. Each moment is a gift from our loving Father, and for this we truly are grateful.

- Julie

Deadman's Creek

On our first afternoon at the Mountain Learning Center, we discovered a serene spot called Deadman's Creek.  We turned off Hwy. 395 between June Lake and Mammoth, and followed a dirt road back into the forest.  We went several miles without seeing another person, then we parked on a gentle bluff by the creek and started the process of learning to be "intentional" about resting.  We needed this desperately; we were pretty worn out and beat up from all that had taken place in our lives over the past decade. 

So we absorbed the sounds of the forest while we sat quietly for nearly an hour.   Julie did some sketching (which she's done only intermittently over the years), while I wrote some prose-poems, like this one:

Early Autumn on the Eastern Slope

The lingering smell of dust from the fire road fills my nostrils; soft crackling
comes from under the hood as the Jeep’s 6-cylinder engine begins to cool.

Dry mountain air…with just a hint of crispness…tugs at Julie’s hair.
I watch her sketch 
as we sit on the fallen log. Our seat is hard but suitable.

Scattered pine trees surround the creek-side; their needles fading
to a dull green.
Nearby foliage offers mere hints
of the brilliant gold and orange and yellow yet to come.

Deadman’s Creek bubbles its way downhill, caressing the boulders
it has been stroking for eons.
I close my eyes as the jays squawk in the trees, and I let the music
of Deadman’s Creek sing it’s ancient benediction to my aching soul.

On our last day on the mountain, we had a picnic lunch by Deadman's Creek.  This peaceful spot served as a great "bookend" to our time on the mountain. We discussed the high points of our retreat and prayed together...then headed back to SoCal to begin implementing all that we had learned.  (We'll be sharing more about this in future posts).

- Bruce

Meeting God on the Mountain

Our sabbatical really began last month with a 12-day retreat at The Mountain Learning Center [] in June Lake, CA.  The MLC is a program run by Dr. Russ and Kandy Veenker: "a mountain retreat for pastors and their spouses where a physically enjoyable, emotionally gratifying & spiritually invigorating experience revitalizes their relationship with God, self and others." 

Their insight and encouragement helped us grow as individuals, as a couple, and as pastors committed to ministry in the local chuch.  It was a rich time of renewal, and began the process of healing from many of the hurts and crises we've experienced in the past 10 years. 

One of the goals of the MLC program is to help pastors slow down, since so many of us are chronic over-workers.  June Lake is just a few miles north of The Mammoth Lakes on Highway 395, and this entire area truly is "God's playground".  When we were not meeting with Russ and Kandy, we were out enjoying the area.  The eastern Sierra is a place of incredible beauty...a place where we could hike and bike deep into the woods and "hear" the silence...a place where we could kayak on a mostly deserted lake and listen to the wind in the aspens on shore...a place where we began to find some rest for our souls. 

Moving On...

Our journey began on August 9, when we said "goodbye" to Eastside Christian Church.  Unlike other professions, ministry links "church" and "job" in a unique way.  So when pastors leave their job, they usually leave their church family at the same time.   Eastside had been our home for more than 20 years, so this was not an easy parting.   

But when you feel the nudge of God...and it turns into a persistent push...and then a firm, yet loving, kick in the seat of the know it's time to move on.   So we both resigned and embarked on a journey of faith into an unknown future.   

We're on a spiritual sabbatical this fall.  We know that we will return to pastoral ministry, but we don't know where or when.  Our watchword for this season is: "Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you...."  So we're spending time with the Father and with each other, striving to un-busy and un-clutter our lives so we can hear him better.  And we're trusting that He will return us to ministry in His timing.