It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

I think it’s going to be Christmas tomorrow.

That sounds like a funny statement to make on the last day of August, but that is how I am trying to look at my circumstances.

When I was little, I loved the excitement of looking forward to Christmas Day. I was entranced with the sights and sounds of the season – lights, glitter, ornaments. What a beautiful way to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. After opening stockings and enjoying breakfast together, we all would troop to the living room. First my father would read the Christmas story, and then we would pray. After that, we would take turns opening brightly colored presents. And what is a present, after all, but a surprise wrapped up as a gift?

I often hoped for (and even prayed for) a specific gift, but I now realize that I received an abundance of special gifts…some that were expected, and many that were not. Sometimes the unexpected gift was the best one of all.

Which brings me back to my feelings about celebrating Christmas tomorrow.

For just over a year, Bruce and I have been waiting for God’s instructions as to the next step in our lives. We have prayed. Others – family, friends, many of you who read this blog – have prayed. We have tried to be patient, waiting to see how God would unfold our future. Mostly, we’ve been content and have grown through this season of waiting. But at times, I just have wanted to say, “I’m done, Lord.” In those moments, I’ve been impatient, wanting God to give us His answer now. And yet, I’ve also been fearful. Fearful of when He would answer and how He would answer, and (at times) even wondering if He would answer.

And now we come to the past few weeks. A church in another state is seriously considering Bruce for the position of preaching minister. The search committee has met with their final candidates (including us) and tonight the committee meets to discuss their conclusions. Their goal is to prayerfully decide which candidate is best suited to fill this vital role in their church.

Needless to say, we have been a bit anxious, wondering how this will turn out. But we recognize that God is in control; that He is unfolding His plan for us in His timing. (A year ago, we would have made a statement like this sincerely, but without truly understanding its implications. Now, because we are utterly dependent on Him, these words take on an entirely new meaning for us.)

As I sat down at my computer today, a feeling of dread began to shadow my heart. But then I thought of Christmas – of the joy and the expectancy and the sheer surprise of that special day – and I wondered if looking at our current situation through the lens of Christmas would help me understand God’s heart.

I know, with certainty, that our God gives good gifts. So I want to have that same feeling of “Christmas excitement” tomorrow, or later this week, when the search committee contacts Bruce. Whether the answer is “Yes, we are interested” or “No, we are choosing someone else”, I want to receive that answer as a good gift…as the best possible gift…from my loving Father.

Whether we move forward in the candidate process with this church, or whether we look for some type of work right here, my desire is to receive this surprise present as God’s gift, wrapped in His love, for us.

As I was writing this post, the words from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” popped into my head. This wonderful Christmas hymn…particularly the third verse…seems appropriate to our situation.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

- Julie

Observations of a Church Nomad

It’s hard to believe that Julie and I left our former church one full year ago.

When we made the painful decision to resign, we also made the painful decision to stop attending the church. For many reasons, it is extremely difficult to continue attending a church where you have been serving on staff. And so…after nearly a quarter-century…we said goodbye to our church family and left behind many dear friends. Based on past experience, we knew that we would be able to stay connected to some of these people, but that other relationships would dissipate over time.

We also knew that our transition would last for awhile as we went “on sabbatical”, and then began the process of prayerfully searching for new ministry roles. In this situation, it did not seem wise to start investing in new relationships in a new community, only to disengage after a short time when we were called to serve in a new church.

So we have become “church nomads”. And what do church nomads do on Sundays? A variety of things:

• We have visited the church plants that I was connected to through Stadia. Many of these churches are wonderful places to worship, but few of them are geographically close to us, so attending is inconvenient. And though I have a relationship with the church planter, we do not have a relationship with the church. So we come and go as disconnected visitors.

• We have visited other churches in the area that are part of our national independent Christian Church network. In most cases, I know the pastor…but once again we are strangers to the congregation. We’ve tried to attend a few of these churches on a consistent basis, just to bring some sense of normalcy to our weekends, but it is hard to be a “regular visitor”. To simply show up, attend the service, and leave…week after week…produces a tremendous sense of emptiness. For us – both biblically and relationally – connection and community are a central part of what it means to be in church.

• We have visited other local churches of various denominations just to see what is happening in different congregations. We usually have been warmly welcomed, and in some cases even have had a collegial chat with the pastor…but it is clear that we do not belong.

• Sometimes, Julie and I just sit in our backyard and have “church” by ourselves. This avoids the painful reminder of being an outsider, but we recognize that this is a stop-gap measure at best.

As a result, over this past year, our small groups have become increasingly important. These groups provide us with community, interaction, and accountability. In these groups we are known, and in these groups we can practice “one another” ministry as the Lord desires. These groups have been a safe haven and a spiritual life-line during our year of sojourn.

But we continue to believe that God will open the door for us to return to ministry and to a full expression of Christian community within the context of a local church family. So even though our nomadic wanderings have been hard, we have used them as an opportunity to observe and learn…to see what various churches are doing to reach the lost and help them become disciples of Jesus.

We certainly have seen some healthy churches, both big and small. Sadly, though, such churches seem to be the exception and we have seen much that breaks our hearts. We have seen churches that are dying and do not realize it. We have seen dying churches that recognize their condition, but refuse to change. We have seen churches so out of touch with modern culture that visitors would think they had landed on a foreign planet. And we have seen churches so completely sold out to modern culture that they are barely distinguishable as a church.

Many churches in this latter group have fallen prey to what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism”; a uniquely American creed built on five doctrines:

(1) A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
(2) This god wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
(3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
(4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life…except when he is needed to solve a problem.
(5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

Underlying this creed is a belief that all other theological and ethical considerations are relative; they are true only if they work for you.

So…needless to say…as I described in a series of posts back in June (“What Does A Spiritually Healthy Church Look Like?”), Julie and I continue to be concerned about the state of the church in America.

Which brings me to this past weekend.

We were invited to visit a church in another state, where I was being interviewed for a ministry role. We have been in discussion with this church for the last few months, moving through their selection process. Our interaction to this point had been positive, but all communication had been conducted via phone and e-mail. This trip was our first opportunity to visit the church…and in the midst of our nomadic wanderings, this community of believers was a breath of fresh air.

Based on all that we saw and heard, this church is healthy. Not perfect…just healthy. Biblical truth is being proclaimed from the pulpit. The church members truly enjoy being together, and they offer a warm and sincere welcome to visitors. The Elders tackle difficult issues through prayer, biblical study, and open discussion. The Elders, Deacons, and other leaders have very different personalities and viewpoints, yet they are able to disagree in respectful ways and work toward appropriate decisions without gossip and division. And they are deeply committed to reaching their hard-to-reach community with the good news of Jesus.

On Saturday, we participated in a two-hour interview where the Search Committee asked us probing questions. On Sunday morning, we visited the worship services and interacted with the people. On Sunday afternoon, we participated in another two-hour interview…but this time, it was my opportunity to ask questions of them. They were honest about what is working well and what has not worked well. They were open about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

We flew home from the weekend exhilarated and encouraged, grateful that we had the opportunity to meet this vibrant and healthy group of believers. We are eager to stop being nomads and once again become an active part of a church family, and now we can visualize what this might look like. We do not know if we will receive a call to this particular fellowship, but we do know one thing for certain: we want to serve in a church like this.

- Bruce

The New Shoes

I bought a new pair of shoes a few months back. We were going away for a multiple-day business event and I wanted to look great; these new shoes completed the outfits I planned to wear. Now I know from experience that the first few outings with a pair of new shoes – particularly dress shoes – can be difficult. The shoes will be tight, they will create pressure points, and I will finish the evening with a few sore toes and maybe even a blister or two.

Knowing this, I should have purchased the shoes ahead of time so I could “break them in.” Since I didn’t, I promised myself that I would live with whatever pain came my way on the trip, and I packed lots of band aids so I would be ready.

What a price I paid! Knowing my weak spots, I put on some band aids the first day, even before any blisters appeared. But after just one hour my feet were asking to get those shoes off. I endured. A few hours later, they were swelling. It felt like my feet were begging to get out of the shoes. I endured.

At the end of that first day, my feet almost cried as I released them from their prison of pain. They wiggled, they spread, they did toe-touches to the floor – life was good for my feet!

But then came the second day and it was time to get back in the shoes. A few toes were okay – hardly murmuring at all. But one toe in particular had developed a blister, and even with two band aids in place, it was not a happy camper. It was really an endurance contest…and I wondered who was going to win: the toes begging for relief? Or the person who owned the toes (me)?

I decided to try and ignore the pain and discomfort, and I pressed on. I walked everywhere I needed to go during the meetings. I almost gave up, but I kept telling myself, “you’ve come this far…keep going.” So I went on…me and my aching toes…walking and hurting.

By the third day, things were a little easier. The blister wasn’t worse and the other toes were learning to deal with a little toe pinching. The shoes were starting to stretch and become more comfortable. So, by the time the meetings finished and we returned home, the shoes were fine and my toes were fine. I could walk without pain.

So the end result was wonderful, but the process was not easy. And much of the pain was self-inflicted.

This experience mirrors how I often have felt during this past year. God has been asking me to make some important life changes, such as learning to slow down and wait upon Him. In essence, He is asking me to “put on some new shoes”. In response, I have had to develop some new perspectives and learn how to respond in some new ways. These changes have not always been easy. Along the way, I’ve developed some emotional and spiritual “blisters”; some of them self-inflicted.

It’s always tempting to want to remove the pain by giving up. But – just as I must keep wearing the new shoes until they are comfortably broken in – I also must keep pressing on with God until the new habits He wants to instill are a comfortable and ongoing part of my life.

All of this takes time, and helps me understand why God sometimes moves more slowly than I would like. There is just no quick way to break in a new pair of shoes, just as there is no quick way to become a more faithful and mature follower of Jesus.

- Julie

Waiting Is Not Just About Me

The LORD's anger burned against Israel and he made them wander in the desert forty years, until the whole generation of those who had done evil in his sight was gone. (Numbers 32:13)

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Romans 12:4-5)

As a product of American culture, it is so easy to think that it is all about me. Particularly during times when God seems slow to act, or does not seem to be “meeting my needs” (as defined by me, of course), it is easy to start questioning and even complaining.

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of my departure (and Julie’s) from the Eastside staff. And as of June 30, I’ve also wrapped up my ministry with Stadia. Needless to say, I’m eager to find another ministry. I do not like being unemployed. I cannot wait to feel productive in Kingdom service again. And from a purely practical standpoint, the financial reserves we are living on will not last forever, so we need to generate income. But the ministry search has been unfolding at an agonizingly slow pace.

I find myself asking, “Why me, Lord? Am I doing something wrong? Is there some unlearned lesson I still need to embrace?”

Now it’s true that waiting on the Lord always brings additional lessons, so almost every week I find that there is some new insight I can personally glean from this protracted journey. [The same is true for Julie. We are convinced that the vision for a women’s ministry center (described in the July 16 post titled “A God Sized Dream”) would not have come about, except that she was waiting…and listening…and seeking God.]

But the biggest lesson I have learned in recent weeks is that the reason for waiting often has nothing to do – at least directly – with me. As I ponder the verses written at the top of this post, I am reminded of just how interconnected we are with other people in the Kingdom of God.

The quote from Numbers in the Old Testament tells me that Israel disobeyed God and was forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. But was every man, woman, and child in that nation equally guilty? I seriously doubt it. In fact, we know that at least two men – Caleb and Joshua - were completely blameless and were exonerated by God Himself. Yet these two innocent men wandered…and waited…right along with the rest of their countrymen. And what about the children who were born during these years? They were completely innocent, yet many of these people grew up and spent their formative years participating in a season of waiting. Why? Because they were part of a community, and their lives were inextricably linked to the lives of others.

In other words: they were waiting…not because of something they did, but because of a season the community needed to experience.

The quote from Romans in the New Testament categorically states that I, as a believer, belong to other believers. Obviously, this is not a statement of “ownership”; it is a statement about the commitment and accountability required for meaningful community.

In many ways, this is a very un-American viewpoint, because I have been taught to prize my independence and my individuality to a fault. Independence is not necessarily a bad thing, but it must go hand-in-hand with interdependence and dependence. All of these qualities are vital, and must be held in balance (and in tension) with each other, for me to participate in community in a healthy way.

For example, even in the church, we speak (too much, in my view) of someone’s “personal relationship with Jesus.” This is true, but only in a very limited sense, because my personal relationship with the Lord intertwines my life with a faith community. A community that needs me to use my gifts and talents. A community whose gifts and talents I need. A community where we all are encouraged to live out mutual submission and encouragement and accountability. A community, in other words, where my season of “waiting” does not take place in isolation.

So I am realizing (belatedly) that my waiting is not just about me.

When our oldest daughter, Karina, moved to Portland last fall, it meant that she was no longer around to help with the wedding planning. She did what she could, but most of the planning fell upon Julie and me. If we had been working…rather than waiting…it would have been far more difficult to handle some of the unanticipated “bumps in the road” that took place in the weeks leading up to the wedding.

Our son, Matthew, is facing some major life decisions. In December, he will graduate from college. He also is in a very serious relationship with a wonderful young woman. Needless to say, he has profound questions about how the next few years of his life may unfold. Because he is going to school full-time, and working multiple jobs to meet his financial obligations, his hours are unpredictable and frenetic. Several times in recent days he has come home late at night, full of questions and eager to talk. Three nights in a row, we stayed up until 2:00 am. as I listened and responded. If I was working (and had to get up in the morning)…rather than waiting…I simply could not have been available like this to my son.

Because we have not been working, Julie and I have developed some new relationships that have enlarged our sense of community. We have had the time to meet with, pray with, and even serve our new friends. These things would not have taken place…apart from this season of waiting.

I’m even learning to see the slow job search through the richer lens of community, rather than through the selfish lens of “I want a job.” The number of open pulpits at churches is dramatically down this year because of the recession. Some pastors who had planned to retire cannot do so, because their retirement funds have evaporated. Some pastors who want to leave their established churches and plant a new church are electing not to do so until the economy recovers. Some churches have lost their lead pastor, and are choosing not to fill the position because giving at their church has declined. All of this affects me personally, because each of these situations represents a potential opportunity that will not come about. But these pastors are my colleagues; these churches are filled with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather than resent how their hardships may adversely (though unknowingly) impact me, I instead should pray for them…and trust that God will care for me in His time.

So as I try to accept God’s seeming slowness to bring about an end to this season of waiting, I’m learning…slowly…to respond in new and different ways. Instead of asking, “Why me, Lord?”, I’m trying to discern who I can encourage, who I can serve, and who in my circle of influence might actually benefit from this season when I am waiting.

- Bruce