Our Uber Experience

(I originally posted "Our Uber Experience" on 2/12/2016 on Wordpress.  I'm re-posting here so everyone can get an accurate picture of the way things have been progressing - to be more accurate - to get a sense of the slowness of progression over this past year. But it's all good! We are taking intentional steps forward with Restore Soul Care as God is opening some doors and giving us clarity of vision.  I can't wait to see how 2017 unfolds...it's still an "uber" experience!)

For those of you who have been keeping track of our transition to Arizona, you know it’s been a bumpy ride. There have been a series of setbacks and surprises making our move all the more adventurous, to say the least.

I honestly haven’t had the heart to blog for the last few months. I kept thinking I would wait until I was through the “desert,” so to speak, but I realize I am living in the freakin’ desert now, so I might as well get on with it.

First of all, many of you are aware that we have filed papers for our very own non-profit ministry called “Restore Soul Care.” It is our dream to eventually run a retreat center where people can come to find healing, hope, rest and restoration for their weary and worn-out souls. We are taking little steps toward this dream and continually praying about the how, the when, and the where.

Second, I have taken a part-time ministry position as Worship Pastor at a church in Anthem, Arizona (in the foothills to the north of Phoenix) called The Crossroads Church. It’s been great to lead worship with a talented group of musicians amidst a really friendly and vibrant community of Christ-followers.

In addition, I am trying to earn extra money by driving for Uber, a ride-hailing company with a very large presence in Phoenix. I work lots of late nights, often leaving the house at 7 pm and returning to my nice, cozy bed around 4 am. Uber says they are “finding better ways for cities to move, work, and thrive.” After giving 268 rides in the last 2+ months, I can say that’s a pretty accurate description. There are a lot of people taking advantage of the low-cost option of Uber to get to various points around the city, especially when drinking is involved. I would imagine any city would thrive in the long-run when drunk drivers rely more and more on alternative means of transportation to get home from a fun night on the town.

Uber – “An outstanding or supreme example”

When I first started driving for Uber, I was really blown away at how many people I was meeting, people who would typically never darken the doorsteps of a church. I hear things in my car…boy, do I hear things…things I couldn’t repeat…things I wouldn’t repeat…things I shouldn’t repeat. That’s just the way it is. People get in and start talking with each other about the club they just left, the people they were hanging out with, the server, the bartender, the girl who got mad at the other girl for giving the guy her phone number, and on and on and on.

Sometimes they engage me in their conversations.  “Hey Uber, have you ever been to (insert name of strip club that I didn’t even know existed)?” “Hey Uber, how’s your night going? Any crazies get in your car tonight?” (Yeah, you.) “Hey Uber, is this your full-time job? What else do you do besides drive?” That last one is my favorite. Depending on the time of night and the level of intoxication, I will occasionally ask, “Do you really want to know?”

The Struggle Is Real

Not every one who gets into my car is intoxicated. I’ve picked up a woman going to her cancer treatment, a 17-year-old boy running away from his parent’s house late at night, dozens of college students all trying to figure out their future, a twenty-something single woman who just got her car stolen the night before, a hard working single mom whose Driver’s License was suspended, and a blind man who needed to get to the state assistance office.

So many different and difficult experiences. So many people who are struggling. Financially. Relationally. Emotionally. Physically. Vocationally. Spiritually. And this is just a tiny cross-section of the masses of people my God happens to love.

I will often pray the Jesus prayer as someone gets out of my car. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Sometimes I’ll put their name in as well, but mostly I will just say “me” because I realize I am right there in the ditch with them. I’m experiencing the messiness of life, too. And I take great comfort in knowing we aren’t alone. We follow a Savior, fully God and fully human, who entered into the pain and the messiness of our experience as the greatest act of love history has ever witnessed.

I used to lead worship for a church whose stated purpose was to win the man to Christ. It would stand to reason that if the man of the house started going to church, then the whole family would come as well. I was told not to sing phrases like “I am desperate for you” because men feel uncomfortable with that type of language of dependency and weakness.

Now I call B.S.

I witness the desperation of our existence every day. I witness people’s desperate attempts to fill a void, a longing for meaning, with everything but God. I witness desperate measures to forget, if only for the evening, the pain of failure and loneliness. I witness desperate people trying to do whatever they can to prolong their lives, impress their peers, express their freedoms, and escape the darkness that lies just beneath the surface of their awareness.

I’m trying to make sense of the shift in my own heart as I continually serve people who are broken, people who are hungry for hope, people who are thirsting for deeper relationships, people who are scared, people who take no delight in easy answers and smug certainty. It’s literally breaking my heart.

In Matthew 23:37, Jesus stood in the hills overlooking Jerusalem and lamented over the state of his people. “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” I get a sense of what Jesus might have felt as I engage in this strange “Uber” experience. We sing “Break my heart for what breaks yours” as if it is possible for us to carry the weight of Jesus’ burden. It’s too much. It’s too heavy. None but Jesus could stand under the weight of humanity’s dilemma. None but Jesus could suffer the agony of rebellion and lostness and pain and struggle. Still, it is a sign of our own spiritual formation when compassion and empathy override our preoccupation with self.

Experience With Experience

Jesus’ mission was to bring God’s Kingdom rule and reign into reality, and he did just that. He promised abundant and eternal life. Yet, we live as if that is all a distant pipe-dream, a reality that we cannot enjoy until this earthly existence is over. THIS is the burden that I am learning to carry: the weight of broken dreams and promises unfulfilled, the sheer number of wounded and dis-integrated souls, the global longing for authentic and loving community, the hope of  wholeness and flourishing in our present experience, not just in the age to come.

Here’s what Philosopher and radical theologian, Peter Rollins, said about our uber experience in a recent podcast interview:

“Eternal life is not simply the continuation of this life into the next, because that would be terrible. Heaven would be millions of people screaming for annihilation. But eternal life is a transformation in the very way that we taste life, in the very way that we experience life.

“That’s how I interpret rebirth. You don’t experience your birth – your birth is what allows you to experience. I don’t experience my life – my life is what allows me to experience. In the same way, for me, religious experience is not the experience of something. You know, I’ve experienced 10 things and now I’ve experienced 11 things because I’ve had a religious experience. Religious experience is what transforms your experience of everything. It’s not so much that you feel it, it’s that you feel nothing in the same way…

“There is a depth and density to life. The sacred is not something that you love, it’s what you experience in the very act of love itself.” (The Liturgists Podcast, Episode 29)

My car becomes a sacred space whenever I turn on my Uber app and start picking up people who I don’t even know but I love them anyway. It’s as much an act of worship as anything I will say or sing on Sunday morning. And you can be sure of one thing, I’ll be singing “I’m desperate for you” with every breath that I breathe. I am desperate for God to transform my everyday existence as I truly pass through death into life, a life worth living…

…an uber experience for the ages.

Passion for God's Presence

La Limonada After my most recent trip to Guatemala, I somehow got connected with a stateside organization called "Lemonade International." They work with some of the people whom I have come to deeply love and respect, people who care for the least, the last, and the labeled in Guatemala City. It is a great joy to share some of my experience with Tita Evertsz, one such woman who gives her all in a very difficult place called La Limonada. The following post is a "Guest Post" that I wrote for Lemonade International. Thanks to Tim and Katie Hoiland for asking me to write about this beautiful encounter.

Passion for God's Presence

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:38-40a ESV).

Martha was working up a sweat as she pushed her way through the crowded house. Mary, her sister, was casually reclining at the feet of Jesus. Martha eventually had it with her sister’s seeming lack of duty and responsibility, so she went to Jesus in hopes that she might get a sympathetic hearing. “You see what’s going on, don’t you? Tell my sister she should help me.”

Jesus had compassion on Martha, knowing exactly what she needed. He responded by saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken from her” (vv. 41-42).

We have been conditioned to read this story of Mary and Martha through our dualistic understanding of right and wrong. If Mary was right, then Martha must have been wrong.

Right?

Wrong.

What if Mary and Martha both represent the proper response to being with Jesus? It is possible to live in the tension of both/and as we bask in the presence of Christ while allowing his presence to generate the necessary passion to respond in loving service. I have met such a woman who occupies both these spaces and does so beautifully and joyfully.

Both times I’ve been to Guatemala City, Tita Evertsz has spoken to my group about her ministry among the most vulnerable – the children of La Limonada. Both times she has shared about the smell of hope which invigorates her soul as she overlooks the hard places of the “zona roja.” This is the place where she meets Christ, sees Christ, models Christ, and serves Christ.

I’ll never forget her response this past July when I asked her how she develops and cultivates her relationship with Jesus. Tita’s response was gentle and passionate, spoken from the depths of her wholeness. With a wistful countenance she declared, “I am addicted to His presence.”

Mary and Martha.

Attentiveness and service.

Being and doing.

Tita’s ever-increasing love for Jesus and for the people of La Limonada is an example for all of us. Are we addicted to His presence? How will our choice to sit at the feet of Jesus and attune our spirits to His Spirit develop into fruitful ministry to the least of these?

May we all choose “the good portion” and attend to the presence of Jesus even as we look for Him in the eyes of the stranger, the foreigner, the prisoner, the widow, the child, the poor, the sick and the forgotten. This is where we meet the Hidden Christ and fulfill our greatest purpose!

- Learn more about Tita's work in La Limonada at: http://www.lemonadeinternational.org.

Listen Softer...Again

Listen SofterI wrote this post over two years ago and I keep coming back to it as a major theme in my life. It's like my soul's melody. I'm trying to attune my spirit to the presence of God as often as I remember. It sums up the work that's done in Spiritual Direction, which is something I am moving toward with equal parts of humble awe and joyful anticipation. Listening is something most of us are admittedly not very good at, but it is the key to discerning the presence and the work of God in our lives. It isn't a difficult task reserved only for the spiritual elite. Anyone can do it. Sometimes we just need a little help - someone to come alongside us as a spiritual friend, someone who won't get in the way of what God is trying to say. I'm re-posting this as my personal "manifesto" of sorts. If you need or want someone to listen with you, I'll gladly come alongside. In fact, I would consider it an honor!  So, enjoy.

"Try Softer"

One of my favorite authors and teachers is John Ortberg. Awhile ago he wrote a book called "The Me I Want To Be: Becoming God's Best Version Of You."  I highly recommend this book as an introduction to spiritual formation. It's not nearly as academic as it is devotional and immediately applicable.

One of the best concepts to come out of the book was "Try Softer."

The me I Want to Be"Often the people in the Gospels who got into the most trouble with Jesus were the ones who thought they were working hardest on their spiritual life. They were trying so hard to be good that they could not stop thinking about how hard they were trying. That got in the way of their loving other people." (p.71)

"If trying harder is producing growth in your spiritual life, keep it up. But if it is not, here is an alternative: Try softer. Try better. Try different. A river of living water is now available, but the river is the Spirit. It is not you." (p.71)

As I have recognized my own penchant to try harder, I have come to a place of surrender.  I completely recognize that no amount of effort on my end, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit at work in me, is sufficient and able to bring me to a place of lasting change.

What About Listening Softer?

My personal journey of transformation by trying softer has brought me to a strange, new place.  It's a place I can't believe I never realized existed.  It's a place of  "listening." Sounds too simplistic, doesn't it? Maybe for you it's been a no-brainer, but for me it took awhile to learn how to listen better.

Here's what I've come to realize: I listen better as I learn to listen softer.

I'm coming to recognize the voice of God isn't one we need to strain harder to hear. Rather than turning up the volume, we need to turn it down as we learn to lean in and embrace stillness, silence and solitude.

Learning How To Let Go

Listening softer is like trying softer. It's letting go of agendas and expectations.  It's learning how to wait on God and check in often as we go throughout the day. It's a gentle awareness that God is speaking and moving in our present circumstances. It's a re-focusing of our senses to listen better, not harder.

Listening softer is an invitation to hear, and to ask, better questions. Allow me to simply invite you along on this journey of being willing to listen to the still, small voice of God.

The Holy Spirit is beckoning us closer - back into intimacy with God and authentic community with one another. It is in these places of intimacy, community, and eventually action, that we find our stories being caught up in God's story.

A story of redemptive love.

A story of grace.

A story of righteousness and justice.

Can you hear it?

Listen...softer.

The Messiness of Parenting (The Messiness of Love)

Messy Magnets Pic
Messy Magnets Pic

Back in July I posted something on my blog that was a "repost" of a well-written article about what the author, a popular blogger and pastor, would do if he found out one of his kids were gay. While I agree with his sentiment, and his best intentions to model love to his children, I decided it was best to take down the re-post and share some of my own thoughts instead. This is kind of about parenting, but not really. It's more about the space I'm trying to occupy as a father, and more importantly, as a follower of Jesus. This is kind of about the LGBT debate, but not really. It's more about the language of love that I'm trying to learn as I humble myself and listen softer to the promptings of the Spirit.

When it comes to parenting, I know the kind of dad I want to be. I also know the kind of dad God has helped me to be thus far. I'm not perfect...but my kids know they can come to me with anything. My response will be the same, no matter what: "I'm here for you. I want you to know just how much you are loved. I'm  going to do whatever it takes to walk with you and help you experience the perfect love of God."

How do I live all that out? What does it look like to walk with my kids through some of the hardest things of life? That's where it gets messy.

We're just gonna have to be okay with that.

Jesus knew a little something about messiness. Philippians 2:6 talks about how he left the glory of Heaven to enter into our messy, human experience. What could possibly compel him to do such a thing?

"I'll take LOVE for $200, Alex."

I recently heard an author/pastor say that love is the way we work out equal parts of grace and truth. I'd like to have both. I'd like grace and truth to embody the kind of love that Jesus modeled during his short time on earth – a love that chose to selflessly enter into our pain and brokenness, a love that graciously suffered in order to do something we could never do ourselves, a love that conquered death by bursting forth in resurrection life, a love that is freely given to ALL because we are ALL worth it!

Whatever the debate may be, as long as we reduce it down to “issues," we will fail to see how it is really about people. People need to know we are truly listening, truly caring, truly recognizing them as fellow image-bearers of the One who made us.

John M. Perkins said, "We could think biblically. Think, with the Declaration of Independence, that all humankind—saved or unsaved—is created in the image of God and has inherent dignity. That all human beings bear the face of God, and then to treat them with dignity...That would be a language of love." (Referenced 09/27/15: The Table: Issue 4: Spring 2015. http://cct.biola.edu/journal/article/2015/spring/john-perkins/)

Speaking a new language

For all the ways I have been unloving and unwelcoming, I want to say I'm sorry. For the many ways I have hindered others from experiencing the unexampled love of God, I am truly sorry. For all my knee-jerk reactions revealing my lack of compassion and empathy, I am deeply sorry. As long as I'm breathing, my aim and my goal is to become more like Christ. Sometimes I don't look anything like him. That is deeply regrettable, but please don't let it stop you from seeking Jesus and discovering what so many over the centuries have found to be true...

We are ALL dearly loved.

On the Other Side

jordan_floodWhat does the other side of the Jordan River look like? What does it represent? For the Israelites who wandered around the wilderness for 40 years, you might think the other side of the Jordan looked like "freedom" or "deliverance." Wait a minute: Didn't they experience their rescue from slavery when God miraculously parted the Red Sea, safely bringing them across dry land as their captors were swallowed up in watery graves? That sounds like freedom to me.

What must it have been like for the Israelites to be free, but not yet fully conditioned for freedom?

Well, it was chaos. There was no shortage of grumbling, infighting, rebelling, doubting and pouting. Exodus 16:3 captures the prevailing attitude of a barely-free people. "'If only the LORD had killed us back in Egypt,' they moaned. 'There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death." (NLT)

The Israelites already knew great hardship. They were a nation of slaves. So when God rescued them, a period of transformation was in order. There was a purpose for their 40-years of waiting. It was to re-shape, to re-form, to re-define their identities. It wasn't merely an outward position, but a deeply held inner-truth, a core belief about who they were as the chosen people of God.

So they waited...

and they failed,

and they learned,

and they grew,

until they were finally ready.

After decades of eating Manna, their "daily bread" from above, God determined that it was time for them to take their next big crossing. This time they wouldn't be running away from their enemies. No, they would be running straight into enemy territory. It was time for them to possess the territory and stake their claim as a free people, a people willing to put it all on the line in the promise and the power of the one, true God.

No doubt, God was with the Israelites in the wilderness. God was providing for their every need, even when they didn't appreciate it. But eventually God took away their daily comforts and set their hearts and minds on the other side of the Jordan. Deep inside their hearts they knew it was time to claim the promise and occupy the land.

"We can be in the midst of the presence of God and still never actually go in and possess the promise that God has for our lives, and God has promises for each and every one of us that then impact the world around us." (Christine Caine, Bethel Podcast, August 9, 2015)

This is astounding to me! What have we mistaken for freedom? What kind of Kingdom-impact are we leaving on the table in exchange for comfort? In our quest to have financial security, to be fully insured against all of life's calamities, to build a good name for ourselves, to be successful according to the world's standards, is it possible that we have traded true freedom for an idol?

What's waiting for us on the other side of the Jordan River?

Let's Get Personal

Rebekah and I have been discerning this vision for some time now. It's not fully defined, but we continue to make strategic decisions to place ourselves in the path of God's provision and direction.

What do we know? We know God has called us to someday start a Retreat Center here in Arizona. Right now we want to call this ministry "Listening Souls" because we want to come alongside others who are trying to discern the voice of God in their lives. We want to provide soul care to couples who are struggling in their marriages. We want to help people learn how to listen to the Holy Spirit. We want to create experiences that lead to transformation on a soul-level.

Dallas Willard once said, "The will is transformed by experience, not information." It isn't enough to be informed about a better way of being. We must experience it for ourselves in the context of a safe place where we can experience authentic community. This is the vision for our ministry!

What About You?

Is God stirring something within you? A dream? A vision of a life of freedom like you've never known before?

Is there some kind of work, or ministry, that God has laid on your heart, but you're too comfortable, too fearful to actually step into the rushing Jordan River?

It's easier on this side of the Jordan River. That's for sure. Things make sense and people generally approve of your strategies for success. But if you stay here too long, you run the risk of becoming a slave again. If God is calling you out, then get up and step toward the vision that is being revealed in the place where deep calls out to deep.

What does the other side of the river look like for you?

Love Like Jesus

There are a few moments in life one can never forget. I'll never forget the day my wife was rushed into the surgery room for an emergency C-section. My first son was born that day.

I'll never forget when my wife had to go through labor to deliver our baby daughter, Jordan. We went in to the doctor's office for a standard ultrasound, but there was no heartbeat. We came home from the hospital with a box instead of a baby.

I'll never forget hearing the news that a dear friend of mine took her own life. I'll never forget watching as another friend's wife breathed her last breath in a chaotic and frenzied hospital room.

These are the moments that define us even as they reveal to us a core truth about life. The core truth is this: We are not shielded from suffering, yet even in the midst of our pain, we do not suffer alone. God is with us. God loves us.

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." (John 15:13, NRSV)

There are a few moments in life one can never forget, and one of them happened while I was on my most recent trip with Spring Arbor University to Guatemala. On Thursday, July 16th, we drove from Antigua to Panajachel, a beautiful town on the shore of Lake Atitlan. From there we took a short boat ride to Santiago Atitlan, an indigenous village on the other side of the lake. The lake really and truly is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been!

Once we arrived at Santiago Atitlan, we walked up the street, through the busy market, to the church where a Catholic priest named Stanley Rother served in the late 60's until he was martyred in 1981. We went into the rectory where he was shot and sat down long enough to grasp the depths of his sacrificial love for the people of that village.

It's important to understand that Guatemala was in the middle of an armed conflict during the years that Rother lived and served in Santiago Atitlan. The early 80's were the worst years of the war, with 200,000 killed and 50,000 disappeared. In January, 1981, Rother went back home in Oklahoma and he was strongly urged not to return to Guatemala due to the threat on his life. He did return in April of that same year, courageously and cautiously going about his work among the people to whom he was called.

My spirit was overwhelmed as I sat in that room. I was struck by his willingness to serve and love in the name and the manner of Christ. He walked and worked among the poor, doing all he could to bring them dignity and hope. For Rother, it wasn't just about preaching the salvation message of Jesus. He was literally willing to be Jesus "with skin on," even when it became clear that his life was in danger.

Rother stayed and prayed until the bitter end and now his legacy of love lives on. In that small room where Rother died I felt a connection to Jesus like none I've felt before. The words to a a hymn began to run through my mind: "I gave my life for thee, what hast thou given me?"

That question hung in the air like a thick cloud, pushing me to my knees on behalf of the people of Guatemala. I recently heard a friend named Paul say, "If you want to get involved in the work of justice, it begins on your knees." So that's where I found myself, and that's where I wanted to stay.

In that singular moment, I felt as if I had more to surrender. What does it mean to give all my life to the ministry of God's love? What have I withheld in my years of ministry "service" and who have I really been in service to all my life? Could it be that I have been serving my own interests more than the interests of others? More than the the interests of God?

I prayed in the chapel and did my best to offer God ALL of me: "Holding nothing back, God, let me be poured out in service and love. No greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends. I completely surrender myself to you and invite your Spirit to overwhelm and overtake me with love - a love for others that will stop at nothing to help them break free from their chains of oppression."

That chapel was holy ground for me. It was a "thin place" where God's presence could be experienced in somber and holy worship. It was a place of visitation and a place of invitation.

So what's the invitation?

I think it's an invitation to see the beauty of God's love radiating out from people, to truly see Christ in them. It's an invitation to love like Jesus, to empty myself, and expect nothing in return. It's an invitation to witness the coming of God's Kingdom and participate in God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

I see restoration, healing and freedom happening in me, and I see it happening in others as well. As this most recent trip to Guatemala comes to a close, I offer up this prayer to God:

"Let your love be evident in me as I live and move in your Kingdom. Let your grace be my fuel as I offer it to others. Let your mercy be my model as I go about the activities of my day. In the powerful name of Jesus, I pray for a complete uniting of my will, my heart, my mind and my soul. May everything I say and do and think and feel be genuine, whole-hearted and free. In my freedom, show me how to partner with you, to walk with others, to give all I can, to never give up, to expect nothing in return, to point people to you, to give you all the glory."

There are a few moments in life one can never forget.

Surprise!

A strange and disorienting experience is not something to be feared or avoided, but something to be welcomed and embraced. God stretches and shapes me most when I am out of my comfort zone, unable to exist in cruise-control, uncertain of the outcome, unwilling to go back to the way things were. Even though I know this is true, I still wonder how much stretching I can handle. Here's the deal: Just when I expected I would put down deep roots in a small town in Indiana, it was as if the rug was pulled right out from underneath me. The very things I found myself longing for - a place to call home, a people to call my tribe, and a vocation I could embrace - slipped right through my fingers.

They were there and then they were gone.

It was a great year of ministry in Indiana. In some ways, I was in my sweet spot. I was working with an amazing team of leaders who enjoyed serving and doing life together. I was leading worship alongside a humble and sincere group of dedicated musicians (adult and youth). I personally had some deep friendships with a few guys in the church, the kind of friendships where masks get taken off and we get real with each other. My two younger kids were flourishing at school and thriving spiritually and socially. Who could ask for more than that?

Surprise AZ SignI'm not looking for your pity. I realize the choice was up to us to follow the Spirit's leading to Indiana, and it was that same pure desire to discern what God is up to which led us to move back to Arizona. It certainly surprised us! So much so, that the city we actually moved to in Arizona is literally called "Surprise."

And I'm sure this won't surprise you either: Nothing about moving my family cross-country has been easy. My wife's job is the most intense job she's ever had. (Surprise!) We moved into our house in 115 degree heat. (Surprise!) We've had some fluke infections come up in our house requiring us to make multiple visits to Urgent Care, sans health insurance. (Surprise!) We've dumped major amounts of money into car repairs we weren't expecting. (Surprise!) But none of this tops the dis-orienting feeling of being alone, or the heaviness of intentionally letting go of the very things which have given me me a sense of identity  for so many years.

If you want to know what it feels like to be dis-oriented, but you don't want to move your family to Surprise, Arizona, travel to another country where you can't speak the language. When something as basic as interpersonal communication - the ability to understand and be understood - is taken off the table, it can be unsettling and unnerving. But it is precisely in those times when I feel like I am able to develop a deeper form of communication: the ability to "listen softer."

It wouldn't do me any good to shout louder in English to the person who can't understand what I'm saying. Nor would it be of any value for that other person to repeat over and over what they are trying to communicate. If I don't know what they are saying, no amount of repetition will enlighten me.

Guatemala_City_(663)I'm in Guatemala City right now, writing this post in a cafe, slowly sipping on a caramel latte and trying to pay attention to what is going on around me as well as the many thoughts that are churning within. In some respects it's easier for me to understand the Spanish language than the deep stirrings of my heart. At least with Spanish I can understand a few key words and use what little powers of deduction I possess in order to form some idea of what I'm trying to order at the counter. "Grande" means large. (Thanks, Starbucks!) "Caramel Latte" means tasty espresso-based drink that goes down nice and smooth, especially in Guatemala. I think "con leche" means "with milk" but I'm not sure. (It might mean "with cream" or something like that.) But then when they tell me how much it costs, and I can't understand what they are saying, I just hand them some money. If they look at me like it isn't enough, then I hand them some more. What? Is that not a good idea?

I'm noticing that I need more than mere words when I'm trying to figure out something I don't understand. Perhaps you can relate. When communication has broken down and we're just two people staring at each other, it sometimes helps if we turn the conversation into a type of "charades" game. We start talking more with our hands. For example, I may not understand what the lady behind the counter is saying, but if she counts my money and holds up two fingers, I pretty much know I need to give her two more Quetzales.

It's all about paying attention and listening softer, trying to use more than verbal language to understand what is being communicated. We're looking for signs, for ways to recognize that which we can't easily understand, for common forms of connection.

And this becomes the way I begin to understand what God is up to in my own life as well.

Sometimes I get it wrong when I order a drink from a Guatemalan cafe, or when I place an order for tacos at a nearby restaurant. I have to be okay with taking that first drink or bite and saying, "That's not what I thought I was getting, but okay."

(Side Note)

Why is it easier for me to be more gracious and kind with the person in Guatemala who gives me something I wasn't expecting than the person who works at the Taco Bell down the street from me? Maybe being disoriented is actually a way into gratitude. I'm grateful to struggle through this "unknowing" and I completely understand why the end result may not be what I expected. But in my everyday life I am far less interested in the other person. If they don't get it right, they must be the idiot! I'm the master of my kingdom, and I expect to get exactly what I ordered. Anything less than that is cause to ruin my day, and maybe if I'm mad enough, I can ruin that person's day, too.

(I hope you know I'm not actually that mean...usually.)

So, let's bring it all back around to where this whole post started. I'm surprised by everything that has recently happened in my life. There's a good chance that I misread or misunderstood a few things along the way. I fully expect to open up the lid and say, "Oh, that's another surprise I wasn't expecting." It may not be exactly the way I ordered it up, but I'm guessing in the end that it will be even better than my meager expectations. This is the way of God. There are surprises and adventures awaiting me that I don't think I want to experience, but I know God is going to walk with me.

Garbage-dump-2As I lean into this season of dis-orientation, I want to "listen softer" to the voice of God. I want to develop the kind of sensitivity in my spirit that is always aware of God's constant communication. It may be in God's written Word. It may be in the Holy Spirit's prompting. It may be on a 6-mile run through the streets of Guatemala City. It may be in the lyrics of a worship song. It may be in the beauty of creation. (I'm looking forward to a few days next week in Antigua, Guatemala, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.) It may be at the Guatemala City dump, where thousands of people rummage through trash just to earn a couple dollars a day. It may be the smile of the lady behind the counter who graciously holds up two fingers when I don't give her enough money.

Who knows what God will reveal to me while I'm here in Guatemala? Who knows what God is shaping in me through my most recent move back to Arizona? My challenge for you is the same that I hold for myself: listen softer. Don't clench your fists and determine that you will fight through your dis-orientation. Calm down and allow the transformation of God to bring about something new and beautiful in you. You never know how God might one day say to you, "Surprise!" Determine today that you will begin to nurture the kind of openness and sensitivity to God that welcomes those Growth opportunities.

Surprises occasionally come at good times, but more often than not they are extremely disruptive and dis-orienting. How will you recognize an opportunity for transformation when it comes your way? How will you discern whether it is from the Lord or not? There are a lot of different schools of thought on how we discern God's "will" in our lives. My concern is whether or not you will develop a relationship with God that is sensitive to the "wind of the Spirit" in the first place. (See John 3:6-8)

For starters, determine whether or not this verse of Scripture has taken root in your heart:

For the Lord is good;     his steadfast love endures forever,     and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:5 NRSV)

I promise you, it is true. God loves you! Now walk in the knowledge and the revelation of that truth, and have fun being surprised by God's surprises.

Refuge

"To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!" (Psalm 123:1 NRSV) When I am frustrated, confused, tired and feeling hopeless, I don't lift up my eyes to the LORD. I don't trust in God like I say I do. My actions and my attitude often reveal my lack of faith.

"Unjust men...do not look up to heaven, for heaven sees into their hearts and condemns them. Those who trust in God, however, always look up to heaven, for heaven alone is the final foundation of their hope. It is ever to heaven that the just man raises his eyes in trust." (Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, 245)

Tower_of_Refuge_by_Malost"Trust in him at all times, O people;     pour out your heart before him;     God is a refuge for us." (Psalm 62:8 NRSV)

"Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High     will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress,     my God, in whom I trust.'" (Psalm 91:1-2 NIV)

"Refuge." It's important for me to meditate on this central metaphor in the Psalms. Sometimes I am like a confused wanderer still waiting to be convinced that God cares, that I belong, that the invitation to rest in the shadow of the Almighty is actually for me.

Is God my refuge?

Is God your refuge?

There is a greater transformation still awaiting us. On our own we keep resisting, dragging our feet, taking our eyes off the LORD. Scanning our surroundings instead of seeking the light of the Lord, we inevitably view ourselves as grasshoppers in a land of giants.

O that we would have the faith of a child and the resolve of a saint. O that we would taste "union" so wonderful, so glorious, that to dwell among the shadow-lands would no longer be tolerated.

Yahweh, raise us up in the strength of your embrace.

Our eyes are fixed on you.

Our hearts trust in you.

Amen.

Make A Way

I wrote the following devotional for a ministry publication entitled "Resourceful," published by David C Cook. It is based on the lyrics to the song "Make a Way" by Jason Ingram and Jon Egan (released by Integrity Music on Desperation Band's 2014 recording entitled "Banners"). I was listening exclusively to this album, and this song in particular, while traveling to Zimbabwe in late October/early November 2014 with a team from Converse Church of Christ. download-2

Make A Way

God from God, light from light, we believe in one Jesus Christ breaking through the darkest of nights to save. You alone can save.”

Over seven-thousand miles away from home, I sit quietly and reverently underneath God’s welcoming canopy of stars. “Where there is no way, You make a way. Where no one else can reach us, You find us.” These infectious lyrics stir my heart to worship as my feet touch the dirt and my eyes adjust to the dim glow of firelight. The half-moon above offers a hospitable grin, as if to say, “Welcome, friends. You know me. I shine here, too.”

The Tonga people of the Binga Valley have welcomed us into their remote village, eagerly waiting late into the night for our arrival. Our long journey has taken a heavy toll on our bodies. We are worn and weary but we are no less excited to meet our hosts and share in this sacramental meal.

We somehow know we are on holy ground. We perceive we have been led into the Valley of Vision, where we “live in the depths but see in the heights.” In this sacred moment, one thing becomes clear: we are not bringing God into a neglected space. Quite the contrary - God is bringing us to here, to these precious people, in order to witness and experience His powerfully saving presence.

There are moments in life when we are given an incredible gift, the ability to see with spiritual eyes what God is up to in the world. The highlight of my experience in Zimbabwe was witnessing a hundred Batonga people hear and see the Gospel message in their own language as they watched the ‘Jesus Film’ on a small exterior wall of an African hut. No electricity. No lights. No air-conditioning. No chairs. Nothing that would appease a crowd, but where there seems to be no way, God always makes a way.

“Jesus, it’s always been You. Jesus, it always is You. Jesus, it always will be You.”

Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, said of himself, “When I am lifted up from the earth, then all of humanity will be drawn to Me” (John 12:32 The Voice). He was speaking, of course, of the nature of his death. Jesus would be lifted up from the earth and crucified upon a cruel cross in order to redeem and restore all that was lost in the fall. Where there seemed to be no way for us to save ourselves, to experience the true joy of living in perfect relationship with our Creator, Jesus made a way. His crucifixion and death may have ushered in the darkest of nights, but his resurrection signaled the dawning of a new day, a brilliant light that cannot be overcome, a life bursting forth in glorious victory over the power of sin and death.

One dark night in Northwestern Zimbabwe, the narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was lifted up on the side of a crudely built hut, translated into a language which every person from the Binga Valley would understand. May we also remember the great lengths God has gone to in order to reach us. Jesus entered into our neglected and isolated reality to win the war for our hearts and bring us home. This is more than a good story. It’s the truth that sets prisoners free. It is the reality that binds up broken hearts and gives hope to the hopeless. It is true: God always makes a way!

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve - All the hype. All the hurry. All the hustle...

gently giving way to hope,

culminating in one glorious, miraculous night.

God entering our story like never before - in the fullness of time - a child born under the law, to redeem those under the law, to usher in the Kingdom of God: not some day, not nearby, but right now, right here, in our very midst.

Hope is dawning.

Anticipation is building.

The restless world is ready to welcome the One who saves, the One who puts to right that which is broken, the Word in flesh, the begotten of the Father, the perfect embodiment of love, grace, peace and joy. He bears the image of his Heavenly Father, the Godhead made visible and accessible.

This beautiful baby.

This precious promise.

This glorious gift.

We have stilled our minds, our bodies, our hearts - our very souls - in quiet adoration and worship of Emmanuel, "God With Us."

This is the reason we gather on Christmas Eve, in joyful anticipation, under the soft glow of candlelight.

This is why we sing "Silent Night," why we declare to one other, "all is calm, all is bright."

Peace.

Quiet.

Hushed adoration.

Presence given and Presence received.

Jesus Christ, our Prince of Peace.

Return With Singing

Image

"So the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (Isaiah 51:11 NRSV)

This picture was captured April 22nd, 2014, on the top of the property at Potter's Inn (Divide, CO). Placed near the entrance to a Prayer Labyrinth, this sign is meant to draw our attention to the various ways God continually reveals himself to us. If only we would slow down and pay attention.

Spring has sprung in Colorado, which means the winds from the west pick up every afternoon. Those seasonal winds may be a hindrance to a nice walk in the mountains, but if we pay attention we will become aware that those winds signal a change. Something is stirring. The long winter is ending. Color is coming back into our landscape...Just as we expect the sun to rise every morning, we can be certain the flowers will bloom once again.

I took this picture because of what the image invokes in me. Not only is there no flower in sight, but I purposefully ran the picture through a filter to draw out the bleakness of the scene. In this case, it was the absence of the flowers that taught me about God.

I can relate to the paradox of this image. It feels as if God has closed up shop and gone on vacation to Florida during the "winter" seasons of my life. But, no matter how I feel, that just isn't true. God is with me, comforting me, teaching me how to trust even when all I see is desolation. This very well may be the place where God teaches me about "hope deferred." (See Proverbs 13:12)

Just as we experienced the glory of Resurrection Sunday a few days ago, we know the true delight of any "sign of life" comes from the agonizing time spent in-between. The day after a tornado, when you wake up to survey the damage. The moment after the phone call from the doctor, when you realize the long road of treatment ahead.

The Friday night and Saturday when Jesus is buried in the tomb and the rock is placed over the entrance.

Good Friday is "good" and Holy Saturday is "holy" not because we enjoy living in the in-between. Who enjoys the pain of despair, doubt, anguish, guilt, uncertainty, fear and abandonment? I can't imagine such a person.

Allow me to share with you a small portion of my journal from January 18th of this year. It was written on the final day of a Spiritual Formation class in California.

God told me [through the reading of Psalm 30], "Adam, take a look at all the healing, and all we've been through together. It's time to take off the sack clock and put on the clothes of gladness. You are coming out of winter!" The river is thawing. It's time to sing my songs of joy again. This is not me standing in Winter saying, "I want summer." It is God telling me, "Your long winter is over."

Those were the prayers of one who has been comforted by God's declaration of new orientation, which always feels amazing after a long season of disorientation.

Did you know a similar thing was actually happening in Isaiah 51:11: "And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing..." Although it seems like those were prophetic words spoken over the people, the context actually shows this verse to be part of a longer prayer of deliverance, which the people were addressing to the Lord.

Isn't this interesting? We pray to God and declare what we know to be true! We remind God, and ourselves, of the promises we've been given. We rehearse God's attributes and remember the ways we have already experienced "resurrection." This is where we find comfort and consolation. This is where we receive joy and gladness. This is where sorrow and sighing eventually flee away.

...in this sacred space called prayer and worship.

Looking back at those words today - only three months later - I am utterly amazed and astounded at what the Lord has done for me and my family. Almost immediately after my class, I was invited to apply for a church in Indiana as their next minister of worship and creative arts. As the process played itself out, I continually stood back in amazement at God's obvious involvement.

Walking back into full-time ministry feels like a "returning" for me. I must confess that at first I wasn't sure I wanted a thing to do with it.  In the end, though, God showed me that he wants to RESTORE WORSHIP in and through me. So that's what I'm gonna do!

In terms of my family, we are filled with thanksgiving and praise as we recognize the undeniable ways God has revealed our next steps, knowing that God's presence will go with us. May the same be true for you.

Our Creator God is faithful. He has not abandoned us or forgotten us. He will restore us and cause us to delight once again - and the ransomed of the Lord shall return with singing!

The Way of Getting Small

man-walking-into-sunIt's an altogether strange emotion, loneliness. How can a person feel the pain of loneliness when surrounded by so many friends? One hears the welcome refrain "we love you" over and over, yet it doesn't seem to make the path any less lonely. Why? Sometimes the journey of faith leads one through a series of narrow, treacherous, and lonely corridors. Lonely because it is a matter of personal pilgrimage - no one else is being called to walk that particular path for the exact same reasons. To be sure, one's decisiveness and resolve won't make sense to even the most concerned and well-intentioned observers. These we might call "family," "friends," or "fellow sojourners."

There is only one who will meet us at the base camp of our ascent and provide us with the the necessary tools for the trek. Of all that we are offered by Christ, it is his constant companionship and kenosis, meaning his self-emptying example, which provide one with the necessary strength to step out of the tent and put one foot in front of another.

The mystic way of evangelismI'm currently reading a book called "The Mystic Way of Evangelism" by Elaine A. Heath. It's a fantastic look at several "contemplatives" and the lessons we an learn from their own particular callings toward holiness. A particular story was told of a group of contemporary doctoral students having an eye-opening experience of sacrificial service in the inner-city of Dallas. After witnessing the outpouring of love coming from the "small in stature" sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, one student said, "I feel like I need to get smaller. I feel like I'm too big." Elaine Heath went on to write, "We were all about to learn the way of getting small." (p.122)

The way of getting small can be more than a little painful. After all, there is so much that must be stripped away. Security, certainty, reputation, possessions, accomplishments, even relationships. It can feel like a lonely road.

Lonely...but never truly alone.

As this year comes to a close, I pray that all who read this post will not be discouraged to take such a journey. Rather, count the cost and determine the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ, even by sharing in His suffering. He knew loneliness, too.

This is this way. I'm really not sure there can be any other way.

It will look different for each of us. That is true. But if we want to take on the redemptive mission of Christ in our world and embody his love through our words and actions, then we need to follow the way of getting small. Christ must increase and we must decrease.

May you experience the joy of the journey of transformation this next year. May it draw you ever closer to God. May Christ's love empower you and drive you outward into the places where he is already so very present - in the struggles of the poor, the abused, the voiceless, the helpless and the hopeless.  May you discover the way of getting small, even if means having to endure some loneliness in the process. Grace and peace to you!

Let It Be

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, 'The LORD has done great things for them.' the LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced." (Psalm 126:1-3 NRSV)

Let it be.

The image of a displaced, battered, weary people, returning home to Zion in a dream-like state.

"Can this really be happening?" "Somebody pinch me." "This is too good to be true."

It has been so long. Do I remember the Zion my heart calls home?

With an expectant heart I cry: Let it be.

What a strange fantasy - to be lost in wonder and pure delight.

To be overflowing with laughter and shouting with joy:

The Lord has done great things!

I cannot fashion any more words than these: Let it be.

I am tired. I am weary. I am broken down. But I am not forgotten.

I know you are my Deliverer, the Giver of new songs.

Distant drums sound freedom's call...

Let it be.

The Way of Pain

captain-phillips-posterEvery now and then I like to give in to my "introverted-self" and go to a movie alone. Last night happened to be one of those nights. It was a long day, filled with questions about my future, conversations about my present, and lots of time reflecting on what it all means. I needed to escape from the reality of my own painful journey, if only for a couple hours. You see, as far as I can tell, I am under the hands of the Potter and he is exerting more than a little pressure in the process of reshaping me. He is not letting me up. Not yet. (see Jeremiah 18:1-6) I was thrilled to watch the movie, "Captain Phillips," for two primary reasons: Tom Hanks is an awesome actor and any movie that has Navy Seals ignites the "adventure-spirit" in me. The movie was outstanding. It did not let me down. It was action-packed, intense, heroic, and profoundly insightful. In the end, Tom Hanks did an incredible job portraying just how intense and gut-wrenching a feeling it is to know we have survived the scariest moments of our lives.

My big take-away: Pain is inevitable and unavoidable. When we are in the biggest crisis of our lives, it feels like hell. Something within us comes alive and we are never the same as we cross to the other side. Most importantly, we can relate more fully to the pain and desperation of others as a result of our own time in the "valley of the shadow of death."

I wasn't able to escape my own story - my own pain - as I watched Captain Phillips. In fact, I was brought face to face with it. No, I've never pirated a cargo ship around the horn of Africa. And the closest I ever got to joining the Navy was watching "Top Gun" about a million times. Still, I know what Hanks was expressing when words finally failed him, when the reality of "what just happened" can only be expressed in languishing cries of desperation.

Crying Out and Christian Hope

The chorus of a Third Day song, called "Cry Out To Jesus," expresses what I am trying to say here, although the challenge is to avoid the temptation of minimizing our pain through glib sentiment:

"There is hope for the helpless Rest for the weary Love for the broken heart There is grace and forgiveness Mercy and healing He'll meet you wherever you are Cry out to Jesus"

Here's what Jesus said about our painful journeys: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV)

We cry out to Jesus because he's been there, too. He faced evil head-on, crying out from the cross, "Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?" (My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?)  Jesus ultimately conquered death and hell through his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. He has truly overcome the world, and through him, God is "putting the world to rights at last," as N.T Wright would say. This is our Christian hope!

"To hope for a better future in this world - for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world - is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought...The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future. (Surprised by Hope, N.T.Wright, copyright 2008, pp.191-192)

Pain As a Way of Knowing

This morning I was given a gift as I cruised through "Facebook" and landed on a post from Willy Hernandez, one of my former professors at Spring Arbor University. It was entitled "Pain As a Way of Knowing" and seems to be drawn from the work of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Priest in New Mexico and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

I'll close today's entry with Willy's post, trusting that the Holy Spirit will tie up all the loose ends. The way forward, for you and for me, may very well be the path of pain and suffering. May we walk courageously and humbly, trusting that God is present in our weakness, working in goodness, and leading in love.

"Suffering is the necessary deep feeling of the human situation. If we don’t feel pain, suffering, human failure and weakness, we stand antiseptically apart from it, and remain numb and small. We can’t fully understand such things by thinking about them. The superficiality of much of our world is that it tries to buy its way out of such necessary knowing.

"Jesus did not numb himself or withhold himself from human pain, as we see even in his refusal of the numbing wine on the cross (Matthew 27:34). Some forms of suffering are necessary so that we can more fully know the human dilemma, so that we can even name our shadow self and confront it. Maybe evil itself has to be felt to understand its monstrosity, and to empathize with its victims.

"Brothers and sisters, the irony is not that God should feel so fiercely; it’s that his creatures feel so feebly. If there is nothing in your life to cry about, if there is nothing in your life to yell about, you must be out of touch. We must all feel and know the immense pain of this global humanity. Then we are no longer isolated, but a true member of the universal Body of Christ. Then we know God not from the outside but from the inside!"

Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 209, day 218 (Available through Franciscan Media)

This Place of Unknowing

Oh God, how I love to be in your presence. You fill me with peace when I turn all my attention on you. Your comforting Spirit takes away my burdens and reminds me that all is not lost. The Bible says your eyes roam to and fro throughout the earth, looking to support those who are completely committed to you. You've been anticipating my attention as much as I have been anticipating yours. I picture you, Abba, turning your loving gaze on me, radiating a warmth in me that cannot come from this world. As I attempt to be more aware of your presence throughout the day, I feel like I am learning how to recognize you all over again.

I want to get to know you the way a baby learns about his mother while gazing at her face; while touching her cheekbone, lips, chin, and neck. There is a beautiful intimacy found in the pure, nurturing interaction between parent and child.

When I come to you in complete silence and stillness, I don't know what I'm looking at. It's as if I'm a newborn baby experiencing something I've never seen before. I'm reaching out with my spirit and my heart to touch you, to make sense of you, to feel your strong features, and somehow gain an understanding of who you are.

Am I to understand that you meet me right here in this place of unknowing?

My words don't create confidence - they are born out of a heart of restlessness and selfishness. In complete silence, whispering or thinking, "God," I simply offer my inability to make sense of you, of me, of the journey. I long for peace, but not as the world gives. Your peace is not found in my comfort, my happiness, or even my "knowing." I find your peace when I surrender to your will and create space in my heart to receive your grace.

"God." What does that even mean? Who am I that I should dare to utter your name in ignorance? What is man that you are mindful of him? I only know what you choose to reveal.

Because you are God, you won't grow tired or weary, and you never get sick. When I am sick, as I have been this week, I get tired and my body wears down. I realize how "corruptible" this body really is. In seasons like this, when I am tired and unable to keep my focus on you for more than a few minutes at a time, I know you are more than able to give me your undivided attention. I know you don't get angry when I struggle in my mortal flesh. Instead, you gently remind me to keep my heart and mind on things above, where Christ is.

God, you are love of the purest form. The harshest realities of this world only serve to magnify your love even more. As I contemplate you in prayer, I lose myself in wonder and push pride of knowledge and experience underneath the cloud of forgetting. I reach out to grasp you - only you. Thank you for drawing closer to me as I draw closer to you. Thank you for piercing my heart with arrows of your love and grace. May my prayer life be more consumed by your unknowable presence, and may my "inner-man" be transformed according to your good pleasure.

In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray this prayer of thanksgiving for another week spent in every-increasing union with you. Amen.

Soul Care for Worship Leaders

listenPope Francis recently said: "“See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little." This apparently was a favorite phrase of Pope John XXIII as well. Interestingly enough, I had a very similar sentiment when it came to being a worship pastor and leading bands and choirs for 20 years. It would always surprise volunteer musicians to find out how much I "heard." This is one of my greatest strengths as a musician and a pastor: I like to listen.

Often I would be asked why I didn't correct something I heard. My response was that in the grand scheme of things it simply wasn't worth it. After all, if I continually told others every single mistake I heard, I wouldn't have any musicians left to work with. Sometimes it's better to say nothing about the little things and focus on encouraging instead.

Correcting the big things

If I've learned anything over the years, it's been to develop balance in this important leadership skill. "Correcting a little" is an important tool, to be sure, and it must be employed without fear of man (or temperamental musician). If we are more driven by being "liked," we may be afraid to address serious issues.

Don't follow my example

I remember a particular season of ministry when, spiritually speaking, I was not in a healthy place. In the midst of that season, I was frustrated with a particular musician who clearly wasn't prepared for our weekly rehearsals. It would be one thing if the musician was good enough to step in and nail the song without ever hearing it, but this was not the case. After several weeks of being frustrated, I knew I should address the situation in private, but I was too fearful of having the "uncomfortable conversation."

What happened next was way more ugly.

I made a big leadership mistake when, in the middle of a mid-week rehearsal, I stopped the song and asked the musician point-blank: "Did you practice this week at all?"

The rehearsal and weekend service went on, but I lost a musician and a friend. They never played with our worship team again.

Learn from my mistakes

You've heard it said, "Always praise in public and criticize in private." If you want to lead a team built on trust and respect, a team of friends who love being together, a team dedicated to giving their best for the glory of God, then honor them by carefully choosing when, where, and how you will address serious issues.

Soul Care Matters!

How do we know the things we should address and the things we should let go? How do we check our spirit to make sure we aren't leading out of fear, power, or control?

If we keep doing the same things year after year and expect different results, we are operating in insanity. I'm speaking primarily of our spiritual formation, although the same is true of our musical development.

What's your weekly rhythm like? Are you living Sunday to Sunday? When are you building time into your schedule for silence and solitude?

"Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed." (Mark 1:35)

Jesus knew the importance of getting up early in the morning and withdrawing from the presence of others in order to be present with his Heavenly Father. More often than not, we worship leaders allow the praise of others and the allure of the crowds to drown out the voice of the Holy Spirit. Before too long, the priorities of God are no longer our priorities.

We have to decide, before it's too late, that we are going to adopt a rhythm of life that resembles the "way" of Jesus, not the way of the world. His was a rhythm of engagement and disengagement. Jesus engaged with the crowds and ministered out of the center of God's will, then he disengaged in order to cultivate a listening and obedient heart.

wagging-fingerTake it or leave it

• Always remember you are dealing with people, not objects. When you take time to pray and listen, you'll hear how to address certain situations. You may very well need to address someone privately in order to help them see how they are not being very loving to others. Whatever the issue, commit to loving the people God has placed in your care.

• Don't let the week go by without developing a plan for silence and solitude. You need a healthy rhythm for the sake of your soul. Out of that time-well-spent, you will be able to discern and believe the voice of the Father. Regardless of your greatest achievement, or your most embarrassing failure, he calls you "Beloved." Now live like it!

Soul-shaping Prayer

531px-Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_004"Prayer is the light of the spirit, and the spirit, raised up to heaven by prayer, clings to God with the utmost tenderness. Like a child crying tearfully for its mother, it craves the milk that God provides. Prayer also stands before God as an honored ambassador. it gives joy to the spirit, peace to the heart. I speak of prayer, not words. It is the longing for God, love too deep for words, a gift not given by humans, but by God's grace." (John Chrysostom, c.347-407) I came across this quote from John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, and thought it was worth putting out there for all of the readers of this blog. Over the past three weeks I've been working through some pretty intense studies of the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as the beliefs of the "Open Theism" movement, all the while reading a very contemplative book entitled "The Cloud of Unknowing."

When I saw this quote, something in my spirit felt refreshed as I was brought back to a place of certainty, not about the doctrines of God's foreknowledge, or our role in petitioning prayer, but about the simplicity and the necessity of making ourselves "available" before God as he shapes his will in us.

I've been challenged to pray a prayer these past two weeks called "The Jesus Prayer." Feel free to look it up online. Its roots are in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but it comes directly from the cries of those who were impacted by Jesus during his time of ministry on earth.

"Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

I have personally experienced a deep connection with God as I utter these words from a humble heart. In this particular prayer, I don't have to think about and rattle off all the details of my current journey and lay them specifically before God as if he doesn't already know.

Don't get me wrong - I am well aware that the Bible speaks of us coming to God and presenting our requests with thanksgiving.  I am well aware that we are called to intercessory prayer. I am well aware that God promises to hear and answer us when we cry out to him for mercy, for healing, for divine providence. These are all wonderful reasons to pray.

I wonder, however, if we are being shaped incorrectly when we only come to God with an agenda. Is he incapable of moving, or acting on our behalf, unless we ask? Let's be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that God needs us more than we need him. And of all that we need "from" him, the most important thing to remember is that we simply need his Presence.

I love what Moses told Yahweh in Exodus 33: 15-16: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

When we are completely open to God, focused on his worthiness, aware of his presence, and surrendered of all the things we think we need in order to live happy lives in our little kingdoms, we are shaped into the kind of vessel he wants us to become. We become active, joyful participants in the work God is presently doing in his Kingdom among us, a people experiencing the "With-God-Life."  [Notice I said our contemplation leads us to participation, but it is the right kind of participation, for the right reasons.]

Contemplative prayer, such as the kind John Chrysostom is referring to in this quote, leaves room for us to simply experience God's love in "The Cloud of Unknowing" - the place where we lose ourselves and rest in the mystery of who he is.

The anonymous author of "The Cloud of Unknowing" said, "...take care that you make the worthiness of God the object of your special contemplation, rather than your own wretchedness. For they who are perfectly humble shall never lack anything, neither corporal nor spiritual. The reason is that they have God, in whom is all abundance; whoever has him, indeed...needs nothing else in this life." (Chapter XXIII)

In all of this, realize that the prayer of contemplation, although it is not for everyone at all times, is a special invitation for us to experience God - free of expectation and free of despair. This is why John Chrysostom said it gives "joy to the spirit and peace to the heart." This is good soul care for all God's children!

May you experience God in new, soul-shaping ways as you ascend the hill of the Lord with clean hands and pure hearts. May you, by grace, pierce the Cloud of Unknowing with "hidden impulses of love." May you experience anew the joy of simply being a child of a good God who loves you more than you could ever ask, imagine, or deserve. May you, like the famous contemplative, Mary of Bethany, lose yourself in the presence of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Love God, Love People, and Do Stuff

At this point in my life, my ears are open to the questions of so many people - worship leaders, pastors, students, even my own children - all asking the same question: "What's the stuff I'm supposed to be doing?" Notice the implied expectation.  We ought to be engaged in something. We were made for mission. We were created, according to the Apostle Paul, to do good works, which God prepared in advance for all of us. (Eph. 2:10) Our position "in Christ Jesus" is both an effect of grace through faith, and a platform from which to "do good works" as Paul mentions in Ephesians.

Love-Does-GoffRecently I had the pleasure of witnessing one of my favorite authors, Bob Goff, speak at the Global Leadership Summit held at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. He wrote a very inspiring book called "Love Does" in 2012.  I devoured the book while traveling to Haiti in August of that same year.  Since that time, I gave away my copy, bought a new one, and have encouraged many of my friends to read it.

The essence of Bob Goff could be summed up with this phrase: "Love God, Love People, and Do Stuff."

Bob's untamed energy and "no fear" approach to life has inspired me to simply say "yes" more often.  His book helped me recognize the ways God speaks and invites me into the larger story. Here's a synopsis of the way my life has changed since August 2012:

  • I said "yes" to the invitation to step out of the boat and pursue a vocation other than that of full-time worship pastor in a local church.
  • I said "yes" to a deep desire to start working on a Master's Degree in Spiritual Formation & Leadership from Spring Arbor University.
  • I said "yes" to raising financial support in order to work with a Soul Care ministry called "Potter's Inn."
  • I said "yes" to staying at my church longer than most outgoing staff members would ever be allowed to stay.
  • I said "yes" to making my 20th wedding anniversary more special by initiating "The Amazing 20 Days of Love."
  • I said "yes" to staying in Colorado Springs and working from home so that I can be more physically, emotionally, and spiritually available to my children.

These are just a few of the things God brought to mind as I reflected on this past year. They are BIG things, to be sure. It will really be amazing to look back in a couple more years at the many additional ways God invited me into the "With-God Life" and the effects of saying "yes."

Of all the things I could say "yes" to as I continue this journey of faith, the one I cannot afford to neglect is the daily invitation from Abba to spend time with him each day. Before I can go do the "stuff," I must first be led by the "staff."

In John 10, Jesus calls himself the "Good Shepherd."  In verse 4, Jesus says "the sheep follow him because they know his voice." This word picture reminds us of Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff - they comfort me. (Verses 1-4 NRSV)

Perhaps we can no longer identify with the metaphor of Shepherd/Sheep in today's modern society, but it is still a useful image if we are willing to pause long enough and tease it out for purposes of our own spiritual formation. Truth be told: the Good Shepherd really loves the sheep. He desires what is best for us. He knows what we need and when we need it.  He knows when we should slow down, rest, and graze upon his goodness. He knows when we need to be led through the treacherous passages. He protects us and guides us with his rod and his staff. All this because he loves us and desires an interactive relationship with us.

The more we interact with God, the more intimate we will become in our knowing and being known. Truly, we are learning to identify the voice of our shepherd every time we open our Bible, engage in listening prayer, and reflect in silent meditation.

But it goes beyond knowing.

I love what Bob Goff said about our tendency to simply study the Bible for the sake of acquiring information. He said we are no more than "Jesus Stalkers" when we do that. Bob reminded us that we need to move from simply agreeing with Jesus to actually doing stuff.

Interaction with Jesus is intimate, ongoing conversation creating space for a deepening awareness of the things God is thinking and doing in his Kingdom. Missional service, the act of "doing stuff," is the healthy overflow, or outpouring, of the compassion that the Spirit of God has developed within us. It is done without concern for self or allusion of outcome. After all, it wouldn't be an adventure if we knew how it would all turn out, right?

What's the right stuff to do? What were we made for? How do know when we are in the "wheelhouse" of our skill, passion, and calling? I don't suspect there is an easy, cookie-cutter answer.  If we commit to loving God, loving others, and doing stuff, we may discover that the destination will be made that much sweeter by the joy we develop on our lifelong journey with Jesus.

The Song of Hope

Songs sound different in Guatemala. Words of hope lift up from the melody as clearly and easily as a layer of cream from a gallon of farm-fresh milk. On Sunday, June 16th, while in Guatemala for a couple classes with Spring Arbor University, I had two profound experiences of worship Photo Jun 16, 8 52 16 AMAfter several days of intense encounters with injustice, I was very happy to join God’s people in worship at Casa de Dios. My spirit was in need of a “release” of praise through song. Whether I knew the songs or not, I sensed a freedom in my spirit to sing out words of trust and confidence in a God who sees, hears, knows and deeply loves.

 

This was my first profound worship experience of the day.

One of the songs I recognized and resonated with at Casa de Dios was a long-time favorite entitled “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes. Verse two proclaims that God, in the person of Jesus, humbly came to earth and became poor for the sake of love. It’s very similar to the Apostle Paul’s quotation of an early Christian hymn: “And being found in human form, (Jesus) humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross” (New Revised Standard Version, Phil. 2.7-8). Christ became poor as he emptied himself of his rights as God. As if that weren’t enough, Christ became poor by allowing himself to be born into obscurity and poverty.

Photo Jun 16, 8 05 28 AMChrist's "downward mobility" hit me head-on as I stood in the midst of a people who were experiencing darkness, injustice, poverty, and affliction beyond what anyone should ever have to bear. Yet the massive new building where we worshiped, safely nestled in the hills, far removed from the bleakness of the city, seemed to contradict everything we had experienced earlier in the week.

It was rather unsettling to stand in such an expensive building and sing about a God who became poor.

Even more unsettling, it reminded me of the idols of money, power, and success, which are so pervasive in the North American Church today.

In the light of modern-day injustices, such as abject poverty, modern slavery, sex-trafficking, racism, gender inequality, environmental abuse, and so much more, is Jesus really calling us to build bigger buildings? Or is he inviting us back into the heart of the city with the needs of the city at the center of our heart? If not the church, who will come alongside broken people with the hope and the help they so desperately need?

These are the questions I wrestled with as we drove down the hills, back into the sprawling inner-city.

 

Photo Jun 16, 5 44 31 PMAfter returning to our hotel from Casa de Dios, I took a walk through Zone 10 in Guatemala City and wandered past a small church. It was called "Shekinah Centro Christiano." Triumphant melodies were pouring out into the street and I felt led by the Holy Spirit to turn in to the church doors.

 

Photo Jun 16, 12 05 59 PMI walked past a small, beautiful courtyard as several smiling Guatemalans greeted me. One of the ushers handed me a bulletin and took me to a seat in the third row.  I didn’t have a choice. Now I was in it for the duration!

This church had no more than 150 people, all standing and worshiping with passion and conviction.

Again, I didn’t know the Spanish words, but I tried to listen for familiar tunes and sing along in English.  I was completely overwhelmed when they began to sing, “You are my hiding place.”  I wept as they sang these words in Spanish: “Tu eres mi protector / Llenas mi corazon / Con catico de liberacion / De aungustia me libreras / Confiare en Ti.” (You are my hiding place. You always fill my heart with songs of deliverance. Whenever I am afraid I will trust in you.")

Photo Jun 16, 12 07 00 PMIn that moment I felt solidarity with a people who have been singing songs of deliverance for centuries. As if that weren't enough, as I stood there singing with tears streaming down my face, a little old lady to my right put her hand on my shoulder and started praying for me in Spanish.  I put my hand over hers and just trusted in the presence of God in that moment.  Even though I didn't know what she was saying, I was sure that God knew, and he was using her to get to me. Next she put her hand on my forehead, then my heart, all the while praying for me.  Finally, she grabbed my hand and lifted it up as we praised God together - "Alleluia, Alleluia, For the Lord God Almighty Reigns. Holy, Holy are you, Lord God Almighty. Worthy is the Lamb. Worthy is the Lamb. You are Holy."

How can I ever ask again, “Where are you, God, in the midst of such poverty and pain” without remembering his power and presence in that small church in Guatemala?

If God’s grace, like water, “flows downhill and pools up in the lowest places,” as Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke surmise in their book,“Geography of Grace," then I want to spend my life singing God’s song of hope from below.

Listen Softer

One of my favorite authors and teachers is John Ortberg. Awhile ago he wrote a book called "The Me I Want To Be: Becoming God's Best Version Of You."  I highly recommend this book as an introduction to spiritual formation. It's not nearly as academic as it is devotional and immediately applicable. One of the best concepts to come out of the book was "Try Softer."

"Often the people in the Gospels who got into the most trouble with Jesus were the ones who thought they were working hardest on their spiritual life. They were trying so hard to be good that they could not stop thinking about how hard they were trying. That got in the way of their loving other people." (p.71)

The me I Want to Be"If trying harder is producing growth in your spiritual life, keep it up. But if it is not, here is an alternative: Try softer. Try better. Try different. A river of living water is now available, but the river is the Spirit. It is not you." (p.71)

As I have recognized my own penchant to try harder, I have come to a place of surrender.  I completely recognize that no amount of effort on my end, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit at work in me, is sufficient and able to bring me to a place of lasting change.

My personal journey of transformation by trying softer has brought me to a strange, new place.  It's a place I can't believe I never realized existed.  It's a place of  "listening." Sounds too simplistic, doesn't it? Maybe for you it's been a no-brainer, but for me it took awhile to learn how to listen better.

Here's what I've come to realize: I listen better as I learn to listen softer.

I'm coming to recognize the voice of God isn't one we need to strain harder to hear. Rather than turning up the volume, we need to turn it down as we learn to lean in and embrace stillness, silence and solitude.

Listening softer is like trying softer. It's letting go of agendas and expectations.  It's learning how to wait on God and check in often as we go throughout the day. It's a gentle awareness that God is speaking and moving in our present circumstances. It's a re-focusing of our senses to listen better, not harder.

Listening softer is an invitation to hear, and to ask, better questions.

I could go on and on talking about the ways I sense God using this idea of "listening softer" to keep me right where he wants me on this present journey of formation. But then this post would get too long.  Allow me to simply invite you along on this journey of being willing to listen to the still, small voice of God.

The Holy Spirit is beckoning you and me closer - back into intimacy with God and authentic community with one another. It is in these places of intimacy, community, and eventually action, that we find our stories being caught up in God's story.

A story of redemptive love.

A story of grace.

A story of righteousness and justice.

Can you hear it? Listen...softer.