Eugene and Me, Part 3: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

Eugene Peterson recently celebrated his 85th birthday, so to wrap up my three-part blog series, Eugene and Me, I thought this would be a great occasion to share a little of what friendship with Eugene and Jan Peterson has meant to me over the years.

At the end of August, I went to spend two days with them at their home. Though I’ve met up with them a few times at retreat centers across the country, this was my fifth visit to their home in Montana. Every time I had gone to their house before this trip, they were in a position to receive me with some semblance of strength. On my first visit, Eugene was a vibrant 77-year-old who had just finished writing Practice Resurrection: A Conversation On Growing Up In Christ.

That was the fifth manuscript he’d written in five years. His mind was energized and energizing to me, his young interlocutor. He would rattle off exact quotations from Kierkegaard and von Balthasar, Torrance and von Hügel. To be with him was to be invigorated. I remember all those flights into that modest little airport in Northern Montana. I would find myself looking out the window like a giddy 7-year-old boy on his first trip to Disney. I can’t believe I get to be here!

But the trip in August was different. Instead of that giddy feeling of going to visit a legend in the faith, a literary icon whose 40-plus books I have devoured, I felt the sober seriousness that one feels when he gets to visit an aging grandparent. It was one of those trips you take because you don’t know how many more of these you’ll get.

I showed up at their place that afternoon and they were sitting in the front room. Jan, with that perfectly gentle voice of hers, was reading Eugene one of their favorite novels. The front windows were slightly opened and I could hear her voice as I walked down the steps to their front door. We spent the afternoon together catching up and doing small jobs around the house. I noticed a few light bulbs were out, so I changed them. I took out the compost while Jan picked some basil from their herb garden. We made dinner. The stuff of life.

After breakfast on the second morning, Eugene retreated for a couple minutes and came back out wearing his swim trunks. He threw me an extra pair and said he wanted to go for a morning swim in Flathead Lake.

We walked out the back door and down to the dock—I, walking beside him the whole time as we took the steep decline, instinctively holding his slender arm, ready to catch him in case the dirt slid out from beneath him. I did not ask for permission to hold his arm, but wondered if I should have. Earlier in life, Eugene was a fantastic athlete, having run over 20 marathons. Was my taking his arm just another one of the thousand reminders that life for him is changing, that strength is waning? But almost right away I could sense his gratitude at the gesture, and I knew we were OK.

We got to the dock, threw our towels down, and Eugene shuffled over to the edge of the dock, his toes hanging over the side. In that moment, everything stopped and my imagination flashed back 70 years to Eugene as a teenager, diving into this water, his father standing behind him and bellowing out that laugh that can only come from a proud dad. Eugene grew up swimming the Flathead. This is his family’s place. In fact, his teenage years were spent helping his dad build the little cabin that he and Jan live in today.

He rocked back and forth a couple times, measuring what the jump would require, leaned over and dove in.

We spent the day walking, looking through his library, praying, kayaking and talking. Twelve hours of talking. I have always loved spending time with people in their 80s and 90s because I know they are a treasury of experiences, so I came ready with questions.

I asked Eugene about a lot of things, but I stumbled onto something. I wanted to know what he has learned about money. To give a little context, this is a guy who translated a Bible that has sold over 17 million copies. I was interested to know what that has taught a guy who grew up in a modest home during the Great Depression, in a hard-working, small-town community, who himself lived paycheck-to-paycheck for most of his working years.

Eugene was totally silent for about 60 seconds. He was rubbing his fingers through his grey beard and staring off into the distance across the lake where the Rocky Mountains are in view. Through so many of these moments with Eugene over the years, I have learned to wait through the long pauses.

It seemed like he had gathered a thought.

“I don’t think I’ve learned anything about money,” he said. And then he went silent again. I waited, but I was thinking, What do you mean you haven’t learned anything about money?

Then it hit me. This is a guy who lives in his childhood home. They have one car, a Honda. There is not an ostentatious bone in their bodies. These are people who have turned down opportunity after opportunity in order to preserve a life of simplicity and quiet faithfulness. A long obedience in the same direction. I have long said that it only took Eugene Peterson 65 years to become an overnight success, and the success came when he had gotten over his need to be successful. God must have known he could trust this old couple with that kind of money, that kind of acclaim.

What I discovered is that Eugene and Jan have been doing this their whole lives, been giving themselves away, their strength away, their money away. I basically made him admit that he and Jan have paid for scores of his students to pursue Masters or Doctoral degrees. Full scholarships out of their own pockets.

“We determined that that’s why God gave us this money. That’s what it’s for,” he said. They have given to local and global mission work. As the Psalmist said, “They have freely scattered abroad their gifts to the poor, their righteousness endures forever; their horn will be lifted high in honor” (112:9).

Eugene and Jan could have gone the traditional retirement route that is the last stretch on the highway to the American Dream and no one would have blamed them. They could have circled the wagons and shut everyone else out. They could have spent that money on themselves. But they haven’t.

At the end of our second day together, I asked if I could pray for Eugene and Jan. But I took it a step further, asking if I could anoint their heads with oil. There is an unmistakable significance to oil throughout scripture.

It’s the way people were “set apart” as holy unto the Lord, and it signifies the “oil of gladness” for which every human being is longing. This felt like a big thing to ask, a younger person asking to anoint a sage. They were emotional as they said yes, of course, I could anoint them with oil. “Father, let them feel it deep down in their bones, that ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’” It was a moment I will never forget.

Then Eugene got up and went to the other room. He came back in carrying his own bottle of anointing oil. He cracked that thing open, the room immediately filling with that unmistakable smell of frankincense. He anointed me with oil and he and Jan prayed for me. He prayed so many wonderful things, but as he prayed this line stood out to me:

“Father, help Jan and I to take what’s left with us and share it with those around us … Help us give it all away.”

Of all that I have learned from Eugene and Jan Peterson over the years, maybe that’s the thing that will stick with me the most: that true life is found as we become like Jesus, as we spend our lives giving it all away.

 

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Eugene and Me, Part 2: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

 

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Author’s Preface: Eugene Peterson, the acclaimed writer, poet, pastor, and translator of The Message Bible, has become a friend and one of the more important figures in my life. I’m writing a three-part series, and here’s a link the first installment in case you missed it.

Eugene and Me, Part 2–On Megachurches

Recently, an interview with Eugene Peterson was published in which he was asked whether he’s encouraged or discouraged by what he’s seeing across the landscape of the American church. In his response, he talked about megachurches:

“I’m not sure it’s either/or. I do feel like pastors are not doing their job. Look at what’s going on in the church, at least in my Presbyterian church. It has a consumer mentality. It’s about what we can sell and how we can attract people to come to church…I think the thing that’s most disturbing is the megachurch because megachurches are not churches. My feeling is that when you’re a pastor, you know the people’s names. When 5,000 people come into the church, you don’t know anybody’s name. I don’t think you can be a pastor with just a bunch of anonymous people out there. In the megachurch, well, there’s no relationship with anybody. I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that…Now, there’s a lot of innovation in the church, and overall, I can’t say I’m disheartened. I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches. They’re entertainment places.”

Now, a quick autobiographical bit about me: I have spent my entire life in megachurches, which the Baylor Religion Study of 2007 simply defined as any church that has more than 1,000 members. My parents have pastored for 40 years and my formative years were spent in a fantastic (and very large) church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Straight out of my undergraduate theological studies, my wife and I moved to Colorado Springs where I’ve spent the last 12 years serving at New Life Church, which is also a very large church.

With my background, one would think that it would be easy for someone like me to be put off—if not outright offended—by Eugene’s comments. But I’m not. And here’s why:

First, I know Eugene. I’ve exchanged letters and shared phone conversations with him and Jan over the last nine years. I’ve made seven visits to be with them, four times in their home and three times for retreats in various parts of the country. I’ve shared meals at their kitchen table, prayed with them around their fireplace, and spent several nights upstairs in their guest room. I’ve gone on walks with them around the lake and sat with Eugene in his study. We’ve talked specifically about megachurches.

I will never forget my first flight to Montana to meet Eugene and Jan. I was a nervous wreck because I wondered if I was going to get rebuked by him for working at a large church. I wondered if he was going to tell me that if I wanted to work at a real church I would have to go find a group of 300 or so where I could be a real pastor. After spending those first three days with him, I was shocked that he didn’t say any of that!

Instead, he asked me about the process of discerning my call to New Life Church, and he wanted to know what life in our particular church is like. He asked me about the congregants, what kind of work they do, what challenges they face. He asked me what life is like in Colorado Springs, a military town situated in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. So I told him the story.

Like a loving grandfather, he encouraged me. He told me that it sounded like God had clearly called me to this church, to serve these people, at this specific moment in time. And lest I idealize life in a small church, he told me that there are no ideal churches, large or small. In the world that is awaiting the finishing touches of God’s newness, we’re always working in approximations, always trying to do our best. Eugene, more than anyone I know, has worked to dismantle any romantic notions of a utopian church. He told me that he was sure there are unique temptations in a church like mine, and that there were difficulties and temptations at a small church like the one he pastored, and that my work was to discern and stand against the particular idolatries that exist in my context. And then he laid hands on me and prayed for me, commissioning me to get back into my work with every bit of focus.

The second reason I’m not going to let Eugene’s comments get under my skin is because I know that he hasn’t had the opportunity to see some of the beauty of the megachurch. He doesn’t know that many megachurches are leveraging the strength of their resources to serve the poor. Several years ago, New Life Church bought an old run-down and abandoned apartment complex. Our mayor told us that our city had a shortage of transitional housing, and that many single parents were sleeping in their cars at night with their kids. These are the working poor who are trying but just can’t get over the hump by themselves. After much prayer, our pastor and elders sensed the Lord was moving us to do something about it. So we told our congregation about the need and our heart to help, and they gave generously. We purchased the apartment complex with cash, remodeled it beautifully, and today all of the units are filled with single moms and their children who not long ago were sleeping in their cars. That is one of the unique strengths of a megachurch, and every time something like that happens the announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God reverberates throughout a city.

I’m also guessing that Eugene doesn’t know that many megachurches consist of several smaller congregations. At New Life Church where I work, our senior pastor, Brady Boyd, has organized and actively oversees our five different congregations that meet in five different locations. All of them have lead pastors who preach live; all of them have a dedicated pastoral staff; all of them have scores of congregants serving on vibrant teams; all of the congregations serve our city in unique ways and in various locations.

For example, at New Life Church we have a 700-member Spanish-speaking congregation (called Nueva Vida) that is located in one of the most economically depressed regions of our city. They have a food bank that offers help to some of the neediest among us. They have provided help to immigrants by providing attorneys that specialize in immigration law. Nueva Vida enjoys the aggregate strength of the large church while also enjoying the small church feel. In a way, the multi-congregational model “shrinks” a large church, and I know many churches in America that have adopted this approach. In short, there are innovations afoot within large churches that allow pastoral ministry to function locally and personally, which is what Eugene has been calling for all these years. He would be pleased by many of these innovations, I’m sure, if he knew about them.

There’s a third reason why I—a pastor at a megachurch—am not going to get defensive about his comments. I’m not offended because I want to be humble enough to listen to criticism to see if there’s something I can learn, and I’m not offended because I understand Eugene’s current role within the larger American church. For his working years, he was a local church pastor, taking care of the needs of his flock. He spent his time making house calls and hospital visits, officiating weddings and dedicating children, preaching the scriptures and calling people to carry a cross and follow Jesus. He had been assigned a specific people in a specific place—Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland—and he did that work faithfully for 29 years.

But over the course of the last two decades, he’s played a different role. In my mind, God has raised Eugene up as a prophet to the Church in the West. But it would help us to understand the role of the prophet. Prophetic speech, you see, is less about precision and more about provocation. Precision is absolutely necessary, but it’s the work of accountants and engineers. A prophet’s task is to roll into town shouting, Wake up, Sleeper! A prophet exaggerates because sometimes that’s the only way that we will finally hear the truth. A prophet wounds so that his listeners might ultimately be healed. Remember that the prophet Hosea said,

“Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds” (6:1).

As I’ve paid attention to the megachurch conversation through the years, I’ve discovered that there are usually two responses: either uncritical optimism or unbridled cynicism.

Uncritical optimism celebrates what is without recognizing that some reform is needed. Unbridled cynicism, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of good. In my mind, neither approach is adequate. There has to be a more nuanced middle way where we megachurch pastors ask the hard questions and critique our own practices without devolving into unbridled cynicism.

Since Eugene doesn’t know megachurches like many of us do, he’s probably working with the very worst caricatures—the stuff you read in the news when something goofy happens. But as an insider, I do know life in the megachurch. I know a bunch of large churches that seem to be faithfully carrying out their call. And I also know that there is plenty of sacrilegious gimmickry and cheap entertainment to be found out there, which means that there’s at least a kernel of truth in what Eugene is saying. We can and must do better.

When Eugene pushes on the megachurch, I don’t think he’s saying we should shut them all down and divide people up into neat little groups of 200 based on their zip code. I think he is using prophetic exaggeration, hyperbole to shake us from settling for the current version of our churches when there may be some reforming to do. So Eugene is not totally wrong, and he should know that many of us are listening.

Instead of getting flustered by Eugene, we need to know how to read Eugene. We pastors teach our congregations that there are different genres in the canon of scripture—there’s Law and wisdom literature, there’s history and narrative, there are epistles, there’s apocalyptic, and poetry—and each of them is to be read differently. Just like we don’t read poetry literally or scientifically, we shouldn’t read Eugene Peterson’s comments about the megachurch as some sort of factual sociological data about the state of the American church. Instead, we should hear a prophetic chastening, a grandfatherly reminder to take our time, to think it through, to make sure we’re building well.

For St. Paul himself said, “God was kind and let me become an expert builder…and we must all be careful how we build…” (1Corinthians 3:10). Eugene has given us all a fresh chance to consider how we are building.

Note: Feel free to subscribe to the blog and look for the third installment of the series coming soon.

 

 

 

 

Eugene and Me: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

Me with Eugene and Jan

Author’s Preface: Eugene Peterson, the acclaimed writer, poet, pastor, and translator of The Message Bible, has been the topic of conversation the last couple days. If you have not heard anything and would like a quick summary, his literary agency has a short statement here. So, I thought I would take a moment to tell you about the Eugene Peterson that I have come to know and love. This will be a three-part series, and I’ll cover a range of topics, including his recent comments critiquing megachurches with some of my conversations with him in years past that will broaden the conversation.

Eugene and Me, Part 1

Nearly eleven years ago, life changed for me. I had been on staff at New Life Church for a year-and-a-half when suddenly we lost our pastor due to a moral failure. Lisa and I were in our mid-twenties and she was pregnant with our first child. We had moved away from both of our families and friends, and now this. It was a moment of great sadness for so many people. Thirteen months later on a snowy Sunday morning, a young man stormed onto our campus with an assault rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition and killed two beautiful sisters in our parking lot before storming into our church building where he was confronted and took his own life.

As a church, it felt like we had nothing left. As a young pastor, I was spent.

One sleepy Monday morning, I walked into a Goodwill Industries store. When I go I always have to scan the used book aisle to see if someone got rid of a gem, and that day was no different. A particular book on the shelf just wanted me to find it. It was the only one I could see.

The Contemplative Pastor.

I had never heard of it, but I saw Peterson’s name on the spine. I think that’s the guy who translated The Message Bible. So I grabbed it for $.99. When I say that book changed my life, I’m not exaggerating. I had seen my parents live the pastoral vocation beautifully in front of me, but I had never before seen it articulated like this on the page. The day I finished the book is the day I wrote a letter to thank this perfect stranger who was awakening in me a fresh imagination for my work.

But I didn’t know anything about Eugene—how old he was, what he was like, or where he lived. That meant I would need to send my letter to his publisher, which I did. “If you could get this to Mr. Peterson, I would be grateful. But if you can’t, I understand.” In my letter, I thanked him for his writing and asked him if I could spend a day with him discussing our shared vocation.

Truth be told, I expected that would be the end of it.

Then one day I came home from work. I went to the mailbox. Just like I did every other day. But this day was different because there it was, the white envelope—I have it sitting in front of me on the table as I type this—with my name handwritten in the most distinct cursive. You know, the cursive a grandparent uses because they were educated in a different era, and they cared about such things. That cursive. When I looked in the top left corner of my envelope, I saw “E Peterson, Lakeside, Montana.”

Time stopped.

“Dear Daniel, Yes, I would be willing to spend a day with you here in Montana. But not so fast.”

But not so fast.

He went on: “I think it would be better if you spent some time thinking about what is involved. Why don’t you take some time to reflect on what ‘pastor’ exactly means to you. And what ‘church’ means to you. Write a couple of pages on each, pastor and church, and send them to me.”

As I’ve reflected over the last nine years of interacting with Eugene Peterson, I’ve come to think of those four words as some of the most important words ever spoken to me.

But not so fast.

Speed is one of the gods that reigns among the American pantheon. We want what we want, and we want it now. Get rich overnight. Lose weight overnight. Fix your ailing church overnight. You name it, the formula for fast is being sold by someone. Amazon Prime is the natural result of such a society, and I admit that I love Amazon Prime. But that impatience has seeped into the life of faith. We are in trouble when we start thinking a mature life in Christ comes quickly.

Eugene has become an icon of faithful presence in a world that runs on adrenaline.

Pastoral ministry is slow work. Pastoral work is inter-generational work, dedicating a young girl to the Lord one week and burying her great-grandparents the next. Pastoral work is work that takes a lifetime. Stay in one place for as long as the Lord will let you, pour your life into the people in front of you, and watch the Kingdom come. And when I get tempted to take shortcuts, I hear Eugene: not so fast.

The world we live in celebrates a lot of flashy things while hidden faithfulness is often overlooked. Eugene is a man who lived and wrote in virtual obscurity until The Message erupted onto the scene. “It only took Eugene Peterson 65 years to become an overnight success.” That’s what I’ve told all my friends. Have you ever heard of Bel Air, Maryland? Exactly. I hadn’t either until Eugene told me he pastored there for 29 years. His book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction has become the epigraph for his life and it has become the goal for many of his readers.

As one looks around the American landscape of local church ministry, it is difficult to find people who have been in it for the long haul, whose love for God and his church is still vibrant, whose familial relationships are still intact, and who are full of innocence and joy. Eugene and Jan Peterson are two people who meet this description.

Some people this week have been frustrated with Eugene for what they see as a sloppy interview and/or a muddled retraction. I can understand that. I’m guessing Eugene and his publicists were thinking this would be a routine interview for his final book before riding off into the sunset. But it wasn’t easy. And he’s slowing down. He’s almost 85. This is how life works, people.

Grandparents make their children and grandchildren possible. They carry them, pray for them, cover them in their weakest and most vulnerable moments, and see them through into seasons of fullness. Eugene has done that for so many of us. But while grandparents make children and grandchildren possible, there comes a moment when the roles are reversed and children and grandchildren must carry their grandparents. That is where we are right now.

Eugene has spent the last 60 years taking care of other people. Now it’s our turn to honor and take care of him.

Note: Feel free to subscribe to the blog and look for the second installment of the series coming soon.

Humanizing the Syrian Refugee Crisis

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For some time now, I’ve ached watching the disintegration of Syria. I’ve found myself praying early in the morning and late at night for the many people that have been displaced–the vulnerable children who have seen way too much and are suffering from what psychologists are now terming “human devastation syndrome”; the feeble elderly and infirm doing their best to traverse the unfriendly terrain; the dads and moms doing whatever they can to keep their families together. My heart has been breaking.

And then out of nowhere World Vision called me and asked me if I wanted to go.

This past week I flew with a few other pastors from the United States into Beirut, Lebanon to see if we could identify ways to be a part—if only a small part—of the solution. Upon our arrival, we got into a van and snaked up a winding mountain pass before descending down into the Beqaa valley, a lush and fertile agricultural basin with snow-capped mountains all around. Being from Colorado Springs and living in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, I could appreciate the rugged beauty.

But the beauty of the landscape carries with it a stinging irony. The Beqaa valley has become home to some 1.5 million refugees, and no amount of breathtaking scenery could mask the desolation of these precious lives.

So let me introduce you to some of them. Meet Sayeeda and Abdul Kareem.

Sayeeda (Arabic: سعیدة) is a 50-year-old single mother of 5 children. She used to work in agriculture back home and had a good life with extended family all around her. When ISIS stormed into her rural town, they fled to Aleppo and then got a taxi ride to the Lebanese border. From there they walked a long journey to the informal tent settlements in the central Beqaa valley.

She relayed to us rather dispassionately that her husband left her amidst the chaos of the civil war. I’m guessing she probably doesn’t have a lot of extra emotional energy to spend on something that has become just another sad fact of life. Her oldest child, a son, is 20, and having refused to serve in Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime he was forced to flee for his life across the border into Turkey. He left over three years ago and Sayeeda talks to him probably three times a year. When she told us that, her matter-of-fact demeanor melted into a display of deep maternal love. She sobbed and sobbed, using her hijab (a veil traditionally worm by many Muslim women) to dab her eyes. Can you imagine the pain she must feel?

Sayeeda’s youngest is Abdul Kareem.

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When we walked up to their tent, Abdul Kareem was sitting nearly motionless in a small green bucket, unable to speak. If I were to have guessed his age, based on his size I would have said 7. I learned he was 12. Sayeeda simply said, “Epilepsy,” and then invited us into her tent.

The whole time we were in her tent, the boy sat alone in his green bucket. The whole time I was thinking that a boy like him would have so many more options in the so many other places in the world because he’d have doctors who could help him. But instead his angular and emaciated frame sat inactive in a little green bucket. These are the sad realities of a people whose lives have been so violently disrupted.

And then there’s Omar, Labiba, and Amira.

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This young family came to the valley from Homs, Syria. In the fight to expel ISIS, military forces overtook Homs and 14,000 people were flushed out of the region overnight. Omar, now 25, told me that his last memory of leaving Homs was his father getting kidnapped on the road out of town. That was over three years ago and they’ve never heard from him again. He was most likely kidnapped by ISIS with a goal of conscripting him into their army. Anyone refusing to fight would be killed. Omar was sure his dad would never fight with them.

Omar’s wife, Labiba, is 5 months pregnant. Last year she delivered a stillborn baby in her tent after carrying the baby for 36 weeks. Thankfully they have their 3-year-old daughter, Amira, who keeps them busy. I’ve noticed that kids have a way of keeping us going, even when grief arrives. Little Amira has a form of Hepatitis, but her parents find her to be resilient. Her name means “princess,” and as I spoke with her parents, I watched the little princess play with the two little toys she owns.

I asked them about their life back home in Homs. This question, I discovered, always brought people to life. Maybe it was their way to escape the harsh realities, if only for a minute, while they remembered. Omar told me that he worked in agriculture, farming the 200 acres he owned. This was his ancestral land passed down to him. The property had over 200 apricot trees, which was lucrative for him. He had cows, chickens, and sheep. They lived off the land as self-sustaining farmers. He said, “We left everything behind…we had tractors, cars, a beautiful home, everything you could want…but we had to leave everything behind.” Omar was wealthy…until he became impoverished overnight…by no fault of his own. That’s enough to mess with anyone’s mind. It is hard enough if someone loses everything because they’ve been stupid. But what about when you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong and the rug still gets pulled out from under you?

He said to me, “Please tell your friends in America that Syrians are hard-working people. We want what you want: a simple and a good life.”

But why are you telling us these heartbreaking stories, Daniel?

I’m telling these stories for those who find themselves musing on the politics of these realities without having any contact with the people living in these harsh realities. I’m telling these stories because I want to humanize what’s going on. If we’re not careful, we’ll only see this as an issue, a crisis. In the abstract, a “crisis” like this is always about “refugees” but rarely about Sayeeda and Abdul Kareem, Omar, Labiba and Princess Amira.

As I was sitting in those tents last week, I started thinking: compassion is nearly impossible without exposure.

If you ever get the chance to go sit in one of those tents and listen to their stories, take it. But if you can’t make that trip—and most of you won’t be able to—do what you can to find a refugee family (or an immigrant family) where you live. Find someone who might feel lost, or displaced, or overlooked. Find some folks who might just feel stuck on the outside and invite them into your home. Feed them the best meal you know how to make and ask them to tell you what they love and miss about home, and please be patient enough to listen. I promise you that if you’ll do this right, at least two things will happen: (1) you’ll help others know that they are seen and their cries are heard, and (2) your life will be enlarged in process.

 

[Quick note: I’ll share more about possible action steps for those interested in getting involved in my next blog post, but for this first post I wanted you to get to know some of the people I met.]

Scribbling the future into existence: some thoughts for writers, speakers, and creators

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I’ll start with a silly confession: for years, I’ve been jealous of journal-ers.

Some time ago I discovered that there exist people who are able to sit with their thoughts in a place of quiet reflection, and on their first attempt at synthesizing the maelstrom of joys and hopes and fears that swirls at the core of human existence, they’re able to write out these most gorgeous entries.

How do they do it? I wonder.

While I’m being a bit dramatic for affect, the reality is that for some time I’ve felt like my creative process is inadequate. I’ve had this Goliath-like figure that stands up in my soul and taunts me, threatening to turn me into one of David’s sidelined older brothers.

The Philistine Ogre shows up unannounced, in unpredictable intervals, and struts out to say something like,

  • …If you could just be more creative…
  • …If you could only acquire the secret mojo…
  • …If only you were more like so and so who is so talented…
  • …Then you’d be able to make some sort of significant contribution…
  • …And what’s wrong with you anyway? It comes so easily to everybody else.

Here’s how my process has worked. For years and years, I’ve jotted down incomplete notes on scraps of paper, Chick-fil-A napkins, and on legal pads that double as my to-do list for house projects. Fragments of sermons that ended up on the cutting room floor; sections of blogs I tried to write but never completed; an attempt at writing a short poem; scores of Word documents that’ll never see the light of day; a white board covered with the constellation of thoughts I’ve been having about the text I’ll preach this week. (See the picture above, which is my attempt at working out the sermon I’ll preach this weekend.)

The notes are strewn about my desk, some tucked away in green folders in my filing cabinet tabbed with imprecise titles. Many of these notes can be found in the middle console of my car or in the side pocket of my gym bag.

What a dumb process, right? How disorganized, ya? I thought so, at least until recently.

I stumbled onto a book called A. Lincoln, which is a 700-page biography of the 16th President of the United States. It’s gorgeous and reads like a novel. In it I discovered that Lincoln’s creative process was so imprecise, so choppy, so seemingly random. At first blush, one might think he was easily distracted and unable to see a project through. Lincoln would scribble out thoughts in the margin of the morning newspaper and tuck it into his top hat to develop later. He had scraps of paper in every pocket and every drawer of his desk—a pithy aphorism that would work well rhetorically, a reflection on a certain general’s strategy for the eastern front of the war, some of his own commentary on an op-ed in the Washington Star. These notes were incomplete, but as you find out later in the book, they served as the first drafts of what would become his most brilliant, nation-shaping, slave-freeing speeches.

These fragmentary notes were not about precision. They were about practice. Abraham Lincoln spent years practicing his way into a future that would require the very best of his literary and oratorical skills, and he did it by filling up one scrap of paper at a time. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that as the nineteenth century unfolded, President Lincoln was somehow always able to rise to the occasion with a “word fitly spoken” that became like “apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). This was no accident. He was able to go to the bank and make withdrawals when he needed because he had made so many deposits along the way.

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If you’re anything like me, you’ve been quick to assume that your creative process stinks, and you’ve believed the lie that it comes so naturally to everyone else but you. Don’t believe it. It’s hard for all of us. It takes work. I wish I had better news for you, folks, but the only way to punch through the wall is to punch through the wall.

So keep jotting, keep experimenting, keep practicing. See where the idea—and, even better, the Spirit of the endlessly creative God—takes you. Because my suspicion is you might just be preparing for a future you could never imagine, for a moment in time when someone will need to hear a “word fitly spoken” by you.

Preaching For the Hurting on Mother’s Day

Lisa and Lillian - Mother's Day Photo

This weekend, many preachers will preach a sermon tailored towards mothers. That is wonderful and beautiful. And this weekend, many preachers will follow the lectionary—the Church-appointed scriptural texts that follow the trajectory of the life of Christ. That, too, is wonderful and beautiful. But any preacher in the First World West would be unwise to overlook the fact that Mother’s Day weekend is, in fact, a sort of “liturgical” holiday for the society in which we live. We’ve got it stamped in our collective calendars to take some extra time to celebrate, honor, and remember our mothers.

But today I just can’t get it out of my head. I’ve been thinking about the pain that so many will carry into the sanctuary with them this weekend. So how do we lead our services and preach to those for whom this weekend elicits the kinds of emotional-and-relational groans that words just can’t express?

Here are a five things I’d encourage every preacher to consider this weekend:

  1. There will be people in your congregation whose mothers have died. On a day where so many are dressed up and smiling and taking pictures and celebrating by giving flowers, let the grieving know you’re so very sorry for their loss. Let them know that you’re sad there will be an empty seat at the table at lunch. Let them know that you’re praying for the comfort of the Lord to wash over them this weekend, and that you’re praying that the memories and moments of joy, laughter, and delight that they shared with their mother—the bedtime routines of reading, back-scratching, and lullaby-singing, the family vacations, the holiday cooking, and the many happy Christmases together—would come rushing back to mind. Let them know that you sincerely stand with them this weekend as they grieve, remember, and work to hold on to those delightful moments.
  1. There will be moms in the congregation who have had children die–from miscarriage and stillbirth, a prolonged sickness, a heart-breaking and accidental death, suicide. Their will be women who have aborted. Their children are all they can think about on days like this. And though there is nothing we can say or do to remove the sting of loss, can we give them a place to remember and grieve, a place where they can feel the strength and support of the congregation of believers?
  2. There will be women in your congregation who desperately want to be moms and it just hasn’t happened yet. There are those who have visited fertility specialists, spent incredible amounts of money (that many of them have taken out loans to acquire), and, still, they lay in bed at night without a child developing in their wombs. Many of them are pursuing adoption, only to hit the same wall of financial difficulty. Will you say something to them that acknowledges that pain? And then there will be others who come to worship with you who grieve. Yes, while many women have joyfully taken “holy orders,” have embraced the holy vocation of a life of singleness—and I call it holy because I believe it to be precisely that!—there are just as many (if not many more) that presently mourn their singleness. They want to be married and they want to have children, but it just hasn’t happened yet. What if we took the time to let them know we see them, we hear their cries, and we genuinely stand with them for the desires of their hearts to be fulfilled?
  3. There will be people in your congregation who have sorrow because life was difficult with mom. Maybe it was a drug addiction that stole their mother away from them; maybe their single mother was scrambling so much to keep the bills paid—nobly working 2 and 3 jobs—that they never had the gift of much face-to-face interaction; maybe the attention they got was the attention they never wanted—physical abuse and loud screaming. Preachers, will you take the time—even if it’s just 15-seconds that helps them feel seen—to give voice to the guttural cry that’s resident in so many hurting children? And will you also help them lift their heads to the God Who nurtures, cares, feeds, addresses, and loves us? The prophet Isaiah (49:15) presents us with a God whose love far outstrips even the gentlest, most nurturing breast-feeding mother. I pray that people leave our churches this weekend having encountered such a God.
  4. There will be people in your congregation that have caused deep grief for their mother. Many of them have ignored the sins of the past and failed to apologize and repent to their mother. If Proverbs 10:1 is true—that “a wise child maketh a glad father, but a foolish child brings grief to a mother”—then the next right thing to do is to repent. Will you challenge people in your congregation to make things right with mothers (with parents!) that are still alive? To pick up the phone, to buy the plane ticket to go out and make things right? And will you comfort the people in your congregations that carry shame from their grief-inducing offenses committed against their deceased parents? For, indeed, as the prophet Micah said, we serve the God who has “compassion on us; [He] will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).

Pastors, please hear me. I’m certainly not suggesting that these five things are mandatory to address this weekend. Not in the least. But if our services this weekend are only happy and upbeat and tailored to moms for whom life seems to be working at the moment, then we risk alienating and overlooking so many tender hearts that will be in the room. If we are called to preach the good news to human beings living in God’s good world that has been severely marred by sin and pain, and if it’s true that Mother’s Day elicits a wide range of emotions within people, then we ought to work to anticipate what those emotions are and do our best to proclaim a word of Good News that brings hope to people right where they are.

 

 

A Bedtime Prayer

Bedtime at our house is something.

Often the event that it most closely resembles is the moment a bunch of wild convicts attempt a jailbreak. Or, more innocently, it is probably not unlike a bunch of baby chicks trying to escape the walls of their little hot-lamp-heated enclosure, as if they’d know what to do with themselves if they got out. You get the point. Mayhem.

But as often as we can we try to redeem bedtime, as often as we can make it meaningful, we try to craft a moment that our children get caught up into.

Tonight was one of those moments.

I read a long portion of the Narnia series to Wilson, our 6-year-old boy. And I went for it—made-up-voices with wild inflection, a quickening pace before pulling way back into a painfully long, dramatic pause. Total silence.

There were a couple moments of uncontrollably gleeful yelling from him as I pulled taut the stunning string of fantasy that C.S. Lewis left for us. I could see it in his eyes. I had him. For 15 minutes he was utterly absorbed into a different world.

Then Lisa, my wife, and the one who keeps our family so beautifully in sync, took over with the boys while I went in the room next door to read to our 8-year-old daughter, Lillian. I read her the story of Elijah and his interaction with the widow of drought-stricken Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. I let her tease out how it might have felt to be that widow that day, and then she starting making the connections of other stories where God seemed to be asking so much of people just before sneaking up on them with goodness. I could feel it—this was shaping up to be the best bedtime routine we’ve had as a family in recent memory.

And then I heard it.

This is my daughter, whom I love; in her I am well pleased.

It was as if Jesus were cracking the surface of his baptismal waters all over again. The heavens might as well have opened as the Voice reverberated through my mind about this 8-year-old girl right in front of me. And so I said it over her:

This is my daughter, Lillian, whom I love; in you I am well pleased.

I told her this is what the Father proclaimed over Jesus, the Son, at his baptism and that He was saying it about her right now in this moment. And that He’s perpetually saying it about her, even when she doesn’t hear it or feel like it. I kept saying the phrase as I wove in other prayers about third grade beginning, and about her flourishing in her studies, and about nurturing great friendships, and about the joys of starting soccer practice. Then a goodnight kiss. She was at peace. She was ready for sleep.

Then I ran into Wilson’s room and lay down next to him. I started praying over him and pronouncing blessing and peace, and then I launched in.

This is my son, Wilson, whom I love; in you I am well pleased. You are a son of God, Wilson, and the Eternal Father is wildly interested in you. You are never out of his thoughts; you are never out of his sight; your existence is an existence defined by His sheer determination to love you, to keep you, to lead you, to hover over you with his delight.

I felt his tense little body slacken and settle into peace, and he grabbed my neck and whispered his love for me. It was the kind of moment I’ll always carry with me.

That’s how humans were made to go to bed.

Interestingly, our Jewish brothers and sisters conceive of a day much differently than a Westerner might. In Judaism, the day begins at sundown.

There was evening, and there was morning—the first day…

In this paradigm the day begins slowly because it is evening. Let’s eat a leisurely dinner. Let’s sit around and talk. Let’s go on a walk, and then after that maybe we’ll read a book. Evening. Now we are tired, so we should go to bed. It is evening, after all.

The Jews see themselves first as receiving beings; the doing comes last. All human work is responsive. God initiates. The very way “time” works for them is instructive—we start our day by receiving daily bread and the good gifts of friendship and intimacy. Then we go to sleep. The very last thing we do is work, which is, of course, our joyful and proper response to such a gracious God. And we’re ready for it because we’ve just woken up from resting in God’s love.

As I type this, it is 10:28 p.m., which means it is time to fall asleep. So many people will be tempted to see this as the end of their day, and they’ll struggle to rest because while they sleep the world may just race by them. They may wake up having lost ground, which is how the Fear taunts them.

But as you lie there in bed, the day is just beginning. “In the beginning God.” And while you fade into sleep, there is a world of blessing, the Father’s pronouncement of delight and acceptance and pleasure swirling about you. As the psalmist put it, “The LORD who watches over Israel will neither slumber, nor sleep.” So go to bed. God stands at the ready, he’s on the job so you don’t have to be. And take an extra 10 minutes to listen. The Father is there with you, praying over you.

You are my child, whom I love; in you I am well pleased.

Can you hear it? Will you stop long enough to receive it? Because it’s happening, it’s being pronounced, it’s poised to wash over you. If you’ll just let it.