A Season of Celebration

307200789_5525000650921563_1679151984702409977_nI walked down the center aisle with my wife and couldn’t stop thinking – how did we get here so fast?  Not the venue, not the day, not the year – just this particular moment in time.  How could I possibly be old enough to have a son that was getting married?  More importantly, how had I been asked to officiate?  I am not a pastor and have never done a wedding before.  Despite this, my son and his fiancé had asked and I had accepted.  Here we were on beautiful Saturday in August and the ceremony was about to begin.  My charge was from the familiar wedding passage – I Corinthians 13 – and I actually got through the whole ceremony without tearing up – which is actually a pretty big deal for me.  I have been known to cry teaching a Sunday school class.  As I looked at my son and his soon to be wife, I was struck by what a moment of celebration this was.  It was actually OK to stop and pinch myself and recognize how good God has been to me and my family. 

This year has been a season of celebration for me and my extended family.  Somehow, we squeezed in two high school graduations, two kids starting college, two kids turning 13, two milestone birthdays and two weddings.  And I have probably forgotten something.  Needless to say, we have seen a lot of each other and have enjoyed these special moments with lots of food, music and dancing.  So, let me stop a moment and reflect on that last statement.  My extended family is not really known for a lot of dancing. And yet, somehow, the dance floor at my son’s wedding and my nephew’s wedding were filled with people that share my last name.  There were a couple of moments when I even began to ask myself if I really knew these people at all.  Where had all of this dancing talent been hidden?  Amazingly, my wife even got me on the dance floor for a few moments and that was worth a picture.

In this world of non-stop hustle and bustle, it has been good to take a few moments to stop and just celebrate these special events.  As I read the New Testament, I have been struck by how many times Jesus was at a party.  Despite the incredibly busy schedule he had during his three years of ministry (at least as I imagine it), he seemed to spend a lot of time gathering with others.  Whether it was with Zacchaeus, Mary, Martha or someone else, he was often eating and sharing significant moments.  Sometimes he was at weddings, sometimes at funerals, but always with people at key events in their lives.  For most, their encounters with Jesus were the defining moments of their lives.  How I would have loved to be with the men on the road to Emmaus when they realized that it was Jesus who had been walking and talking with them.  Interestingly, it was as they ate together that the recognition came to them.

Coming out of Covid, it seems like busyness has returned.  People are in a hurry again and taking time to stop, reflect and celebrate sometimes feels like a luxury.  The pace of life has definitely picked up as people are trying to make up for lost time.  We are gathering together again, but so often it seems like this can very quickly devolve into transactional activity – what can I get accomplished and how can someone help me do that more quickly.  There is no premium placed on non-productive time with others.  That is why these family celebrations are so important.  It really is OK to simply, sit, eat, laugh, dance and enjoy one another.

As I think about the months to come, I am reminded that I get a weekly opportunity to celebrate with my spiritual family.  With these weddings as the backdrop, I long for the day when we will celebrate the marriage feast of the lamb and no longer be in a hurry to get stuff done.  In the meantime, I will stop each Sunday and thank God for his blessings in the here and now and for the many people with whom I can rejoice.

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The Joy of a Shared Life


Just around a bend in the two-lane road outside of Bridgton, Maine is a stunning vista.  The first time I saw it, it took my breath away.  Rising above the far away tree tops were the peaks of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  Though they were many miles away, they dominated the skyline. Then just as quickly, the road dips again and the mountains disappear into trees.  Fortunately, this special view is also right around the corner from the cabin where we stay in Maine.  Every time we go into town and come back, we get to see it again and it reminds me of God’s incredible creativity and majesty.  Interestingly, I have also learned that this feeling of awe and wonder is something that is best enjoyed when it is shared.

Each time we come to Maine, we have been able to bring people with us.  Normally this includes our children, our parents and sometimes our boy’s friends.  Every time I first come around that bend in the road, I slow down and point out the view.  It never fails to amaze me how much more I enjoy the view as I watch someone else see it for the first time and see their face light up.  After a long trip from Pennsylvania, this is a glorious welcome to the woods of Maine and the beauty of God’s creation.  What a great way to start a vacation.

Life can be challenging and we need vistas that lift our heads and hearts and remind us that God is so much bigger and stronger than we can think or imagine.  We also need each other to share our joys, triumphs and sorrows.  Life was meant to be shared.  For many of us, we did not have a choice.  We were born into families with several children and had to share toys, rooms and even clothes.  As I grew up, it was easy to get resentful of other kids who had stuff that belonged just to them and to want things of my own.  That independent and selfish streak is part of our DNA.  I also learned that sharing had its benefits.  It is pretty hard to enjoy a new soccer ball without someone to kick it to.  Friendships started and grew as I chose to invite others to use my things and to play with my toys.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of developing many meaningful friendships and one thing has been at the core – powerful shared experiences.  Whether it was going to boarding school, attending college or just starting out in my career, I was deeply impacted by doing significant things with others.  Playing soccer was way more impactful as a part of a team, than simply joining in pick up games.  Learning about the realities of poverty in Appalachia became much more than a research project as I helped out with a mission team over Spring break.  Working in teams enabled vocational projects to become opportunities for professional growth and meaningful friendships.

These days, however, sharing seems to have gotten a bad rap.  We are, understandably, a lot more cautious about what we share and with whom we share it.  Maybe that is the fault of social media, our over sharing culture and the overwhelming negativity in the media.  Whatever the case, we seem far more likely to keep things to ourselves or to share things in a “safe” circle of friends we trust.  While I am not advocating careless sharing of our deepest and darkest secrets, I do think that we need to widen our circles just a bit.

Jesus set a great example for us by living life with a close group of disciples with whom he shared his everyday experiences.  At the same time, he purposely chose people to be in that inner group who were vastly different from one another – both fishermen and tax collectors.  My guess is that they had a lot to learn from each other just as they were also learning from Jesus.  At my stage in life, it is easy to focus my friendships on people that are just like me – empty nesters or soon to be empty nesters.  Choosing to spend time with single people, young couples with kids and even teenagers is a harder choice, but one with many benefits.  I am grateful for a local church that provides these stretching opportunities every week.  It is a wonderful thing to share the joy of laughter with a little child, and to eat lunch with college students from all over the world.  I am learning to see the beauty of god’s provision as we partake in communion each week and walk down the aisle to turn and face each other.  We are so different that one another and yet we are so much better together as we share life’s pleasure and pain.

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Changing My Perspective

285167233_10227242832152519_8653463912843605505_nThis past week, I had the joy of going to Panama with a small team from my church.  We had been planning the trip for months and finally we were on our way.  Our plan was to spend a few days with a family that our church supports, to dream with them about the possibility of a longer-term partnership and to learn more about needs of their local church.  This family had moved to Panama with the goal of supporting the growing church that had been planted a few years ago and to help establish a pipeline for short term teams to come from the USA.  Well, that was the plan.  Then Covid hit.  The local church lost a number of members who moved out of the country.  Wisely, the leadership of the church decided to re-calibrate and outreach activities were put on hold for a while.  The planned ESL ministry did not get started right away and now we were arriving.

With that reality as a backdrop, we came with open hearts and open minds to see what God might do.  On our first night in Panama, we were warmly welcomed by Ross, Angela and their son Owen.  They took us to their home which was the first of many surprises.  We knew that they lived in Panama City, but did not know that they lived on the 13th floor of their building.  The stunning views of the downtown area gave us a panoramic perspective of the place that God had called them to serve.  It was urban, international and coming back to life again.  People from many countries live in their neighborhood and they are beginning to experience life in community again after so many months of isolation.  Restaurants are open, parks were full of kids and parents and school is back in session.  Masks were still being worn indoors, but on the streets, we could even see people smiling again.

We worshipped together with their small but committed church community.  Singing in Spanish was a joyful experience even if it took us outside our comfort zone.  The teaching was practical, engaging and even multi-generational.  Several of the teens and young adults participated and seemed to enjoy utilizing their English skills.  We even got to celebrate a birthday for one of the teens who had just graduated from high school and sang the happy birthday song in five different versions.  Who knew there were so many options in Spanish.  Despite the reduced size of the gathering, one thing was clear.  They were a spiritual family and cherished their time together.  The Covid restrictions had been particularly strong in Panama with people in lock down for months at a time and school cancelled (in person) for nearly two years.  Being together face to face has an even deeper meaning for this community of believers.  We had much to learn from them.

Meeting with the leadership of the church, we spent time listening, learning and dreaming together.  They desire to grow again, to reach the professional class of Panamanians that live in their neighborhood and to see God glorified in their midst.  This is not an easy work and there have been several setbacks along the way.  Despite this, the church is committed and hopeful.  On one of our last days together, we prayer walked the neighborhood and imagined a day when they could fully embrace an outreach ministry again.  Who knows exactly what that will look like.  Maybe it will involve a small team from our church in Pennsylvania coming to provide an ESL camp for folks from the neighborhood to practice their English with native speakers.  Whatever happens next, I will never forget the view from the 13th floor.  Sometimes, we simply need a new perspective to see that God is at work, despite the challenges we face.


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Life Together

the_bunk_bed_collection_wild_cherry_popI realized something recently.  I have always had a roommate.  Well, at least since my brother was born fourteen months into my life.  In many ways this fact has had a significant impact on me.  Like many kids with siblings, I had to learn to share pretty quickly and to deal with lots of “chaos” in our home – some of which I created.  I also had instant playmates, sparring partners (in the case of my brother) and people to protect or irritate (as in the case of my sisters).  Life together was often messy, but mostly filled with the typical childhood adventures, disappointments and opportunities for growth (and discipline).  I loved being in a family even if I contributed to some of the chaos and disappointment.  In a very real sense, this was a group that had chosen me and knew that I belonged – for better or worse.

In an interesting turn of events, I left home at the age of fifteen to attend boarding school and finished my last two years of high school in the USA.  Each of those years, I had a roommate who had a profound affect on my life.  Nathan spent many late nights listening to my questions about politics, faith and life.  To his credit, he never seemed to get upset at the variety of questions I posed and he often made me think about things in ways I had never considered.  John (my roommate in my senior year) was a missionary kid who loved France, music and being his own person.  He taught me that it was OK not to want to be like every other American teenager and that it was a good thing to pursue a deep faith of your own.

Going to college allowed me to develop a completely new set of relationships and was the place that I met Barry and Deb.  Barry was my freshman roommate who ended up rooming with me for all of my four years and Deb became my wife.  Barry was from Vietnam and had escaped with his parents under really difficult circumstances.  His story was nothing like my own, but we did share a love for soccer and friendship.  Deb grew up as the child of a naval architect and a librarian in Washington D.C.  She had not really traveled much outside of the country and would have considered her childhood pretty stable and not particularly adventurous.  Despite the dissimilarities in our upbringing, we discovered that we both loved books and learning.  We also became best friends and eventually life partners.

Deb and I got married at a pretty young age.  I was twenty-one and she was twenty-two.  Like many newlyweds, we got busy doing life.  For us this meant working fulltime, going to church and (for me) getting a graduate degree.  We decided to wait for five years to have kids (I know this may seem arbitrary, but it really allowed us to mature – or at least we thought it did).  During that season, we discovered a new reality.  We did not have a lot of time for finding and developing friendships.  It was really easy to make excuses like we were so busy or simply so tired doing the day to day routines that made up our lives.  Fortunately, we did not succumb to the temptation to isolate ourselves and instead embraced the place that God had put us.

We were blessed to have found a great local church and committed ourselves to get involved.  Not surprisingly, I got involved in the missions committee and Deb began attending the women’s ministry events.  We jointly attended small group meetings and I became a deacon.  Together we served in the nursery and watched other parents as they struggled with their new born infants and also found great joy and fulfilment in raising their children.  We also found people who were willing to embrace, challenge and love us.  Eventually, we found that we had friends who cared for us and the maturing that we needed.  A few years later, these same friends supported us as we became missionaries and this church became our sending base.

Coming out of covid, it seems like we need each other more than ever.  For many of us this has been a really isolating season and some of our friendships have atrophied.  With all of our on-line technology, we have ways to connect like never before and yet we feel more divided than ever.  The church would seem like the obvious place to regain our footing and relational connections and yet for many the church does not feel like a safe space.  I have just become an elder in my local church and I feel that tension.  We are messy people bringing all of our mess together on a weekly basis.  Somehow, though, I think that is exactly what we need.  Jesus had a pretty dysfunctional “band of brothers” that he called disciples.  Some betrayed him and almost all of them misunderstood who he was.  Maybe it’s time for us to take the risk again to hang out with people that annoy us, drive us crazy and may not look like us at all.  Maybe it is time for us to find our church family again – the one that God has given us.

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Smiling Again

6 I woke up on Tuesday to a new world.  A world that would not require masks on planes, trains or in an Uber.  It has been so long that we have been required to wear masks that I wondered if this news was a delayed April Fools’ joke.  Could it really be possible?  As I got on my Uber App that morning, I realized that I was no longer required to promise that I would be wearing a mask.  Maybe this was real.  I got in the car and checked with the driver to be sure and he turned to me and gave me the biggest smile I had seen in a long time.  He said, “You have no idea how hard this was to drive all day with a mask on, every day for the last two years”.  He could not stop smiling for the entire trip and certainly brightened my day.

This past week was the final Together for the Gospel Conference and what an event it was.  Thousands of man and women were gathered to hear words of encouragement, inspiration and challenge from some of the most respected reformed preachers and theologians of our time.  The attendees were blessed to hear from the likes of Kevin DeYoung, John Piper, Mark Dever and Ligon Duncan, Alistair Begg, H.B. Charles and Sinclair Ferguson.  For many though, these great speakers were not the highlight of the week.  Most seemed to value their one on one time with each other and treated this week as if it were a family reunion.  I had the privilege of serving them in the conference bookstore and loved watching them interact with each other.

On Monday night, I had the joy of being a part of a celebration for Sinclair Ferguson where he was presented with an autographed copy of a book that had been created in his honor.  This book, Theology for Ministry, was the result of a collaboration between the editors – Chad Van Dixhoorn, Rob Edwards, John Ferguson (Sinclair’s son) and P&R Publishing.  It was produced to celebrate Sinclair’s 50 years of ministry and to highlight his passion for theology.  A theology that makes a difference in the practical work of everyday ministry.  In this world of celebrity pastors and high-profile leaders, it was such a delight to see the humility of Sinclair Ferguson that night and to recognize his enormous impact on this generation of reformed preachers.  He is a great   inspiration to me.  What an example of faithful witness for the gospel without a hint of scandal in over five decades of pastoring and teaching.

Throughout the week, I was reminded of the singular joy that comes from producing books that really matter.  Over the years, P&R has published enduring works that have stood the test of time and impacted generations of Christians.  On many occasions as I was talking with pastors, they would comment on the specific benefit of a particular book or series.  Some of these books after weighty (and I mean that literally and spiritually) with hundreds of pages of content and others are short and concise with information on a particular topic of deep concern.  So many of these books have been foundational in helping people to understand specific doctrines and to recognize the blessings of confessional theology in a word of shifting convictions and norms in the church.

I realize that I work in a small subset of the evangelical publishing world and my reformed publishing tribe is pretty small.  We get “geeked” out talking about things like presuppositional apologetics, triperspectivalism and the sufficiency of scripture.  Conversations about the regulative principle of worship are par for the course and we do love the Puritans.  Despite all of these theological rabbit trails, I love the fact that we value God’s word, treasure the church and believe that there is value in the theology and practice of our forefathers.  We may debate some pretty esoteric things at times, but more often than not, we are together for the gospel. This week, I saw Baptists and Presbyterians worshipping, learning and fellowshipping together.  I even heard one pastor say that even though he was Baptist, his reformed theological convictions made him closer to some of the Presbyterian pastors in his town than others Baptists.

As I left the conference and headed home, I noticed a sign that Delta Airlines produced that said, “We are excited to see your smiling faces again”.  This was my first plane ride in two years without a mask and it felt like a party.  Everyone was in a good mood, particularly the airline crew who have had to endure so much passenger unruliness in the last few years.  People were talking to one another again and it seemed like something had shifted in the atmosphere.  I hope that this is not just a temporary return to being unmasked.  I realize now how much I value seeing the expressions on people’s faces and how much has been lost in not being able to do that for so long.  Smiling can really change the atmosphere in a room, brighten someone’s day and may even help us to appreciate each other once again.

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Dare to Dwell

Members of the Jewish community of Odessa flee Russia's invasion of UkraineEveryone wants to have a home and a sense of place.  To know where they belong and where they come from.  I am no different. By the time I was seventeen, I had lived in seven different places and four different countries.  Being a missionary kid allowed me to travel, to experience the world outside of the United States and to have adventures that I treasure to this day.  It also left me with a distinct sense of rootlessness.  I knew I was born in Philadelphia, that I was an American and that I was likely to live in Pennsylvania when my parents returned from their assignments overseas.  But I never really knew where to call home.  Like many other missionary kids, I experienced the regular upheaval of being a visitor, a temporary resident and an outsider in most of the places we lived during my childhood.  In many ways, I learned to be a sojourner, but I longed to find a place to settle.

This week, I watched as so many people in Ukraine were being uprooted from their homes and sent into a type of exile.  They were leaving their place of belonging for an uncertain future with an urgency created by the chaos and violence around them.  For the children making this migration, it is especially heartbreaking as their lives are being turned upside down.  Nothing is as it was just a few weeks ago and many of these families could be sojourners in another country for quite some time if the war drags on.  These people have deep roots in a place that their families have called home for generations and now they face an unknown future.  Many hundreds of thousands of children will wonder where they will lay their heads down at night and what place they may call home in the days and weeks ahead.

As I watch this tragedy unfold, I am reminded of the people of Israel who were uprooted and delivered from slavery in Egypt only to wander in a wilderness for forty years.  It must have been particularly difficult for the children who would have learned that their parent’s disobedience caused this lengthy sojourn in the dessert.  This was not their fault and yet they were suffering the consequences.  All they could do was trust that God had a plan and that one day he would bring them to the promise land, even if it meant struggling along the way.  What they did have, however, was something that no other nation in the world had at that time.  They had God’s manifest presence.  They were never alone on their journey.  He was leading them with a pillar of fire at night and a cloud by day.  His manifest presence was visible to them and they knew he would provide what they needed.

As I returned to the USA to finish High School and begin college, I learned a similar lesson.  God was always with me.  He has sent his son into the world to die for me and he cared that I longed for a place to call home.  He cared enough to remind me that I could personalize verses like Psalm 91: 1- 2, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”  He also provided me with a new understanding of what it meant to dare to dwell with him.  I could find a place of peace and rest wherever I was as I leaned on him for strength from day to day.  I found my home in Him.

I pray that the Ukrainian refugees will see God’s manifest presence in the faces of the people who are providing shelter for them tonight in Poland and other countries in Europe.  May the church arise and provide help and resources that overwhelm these sojourners with love, compassion and grace.  With that in mind, I am sharing the link below for those who might read this blog and want help.  We can join together in being the hands and feet of Jesus at “just such a time as this.”  Lord willing, one day soon, these displaced people will be able to return home to their promised land.


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The Deep Places – Ross Douthat Book Review

9780593237366What do you do when things don’t get better? That is the central question in Ross Douthat’s engaging new book, The Deep Places.  This surprising memoir reveals Douthat’s struggle with persistent long-term Lyme disease.  A disease that started with a stiff neck, a red swelling, and a painfully swollen lymph node developed into a debilitating set of symptoms that included pains that felt like a heart attack.  He sought treatment, but all of the tests came back negative for the various issues that might have also been causing his distress.  It was then that one doctor suggested it might be Lyme disease, but once again his blood tests were not definitive.  Maddeningly, no one could tell him exactly what was wrong and some even suggested it might be psychological and that he should pursue cognitive behavioral therapy.

I had first become aware of Ross Douthat through his insightful New York Times articles and his well-written books.  His area of focus as a writer is on religion in America, especially Christianity and politics.  He is listed as the youngest ever op-ed columnist for America’s paper of record and has an uncanny ability to see issues from a provocative perspective without being dismissive or arrogant in his approach.  Interestingly, he also seems to understand and appreciate evangelicals in a unique way.  He may be one of the most quoted and respected columnists that still works for the dreaded main stream media.

As a journalist, Douthat tackled his disease with the same kind of ferocity and research that he would apply to his regular writing, but with a significant twist.  He read everything he could on the topic, visited numerous doctors and considered lots of options.  In the end, however, the response of the medical establishment was so disheartening, he began to pursue a different path.  While many doctors had prescribed a short course of antibiotics and then simply waiting until the symptoms went away, Douthat quickly realized that was an inadequate answer to the pain he experienced daily.  Thus, began a several year’s long journey into the nether regions of the medical world and experiments with all kinds of drug regimens and unusual treatments.  While he eventually did find some relief from his symptoms and was able to find a kind of functionality once again, it took years and he is not fully free of the pain.  Instead, he is now much more empathetic of those that suffer from chronic illness and far more willing to question the established wisdom of the medical community.

The story of Douthat’s dark journey is also woven around the tale of his family’s decision to sell their house in Washington DC and move to a bucolic location in Connecticut in a sprawling “forever home”.  They had seen the value of their DC home significantly increase in value and had often dreamed about moving out of the city.  Now that his job could be done anywhere and they had the financial resources, it seemed the perfect time to pick up stakes and move.  Little did he know that his physical pain and agony would coincide with this same decision.  Instead of enjoying the outdoors and the various projects that would be required to fix up his newly acquired home, he could barely function enough to do his daily writing work.  His dream home became a nightmare and they decided to sell the property within just a few short years of moving in.  Sadly, they had to sell for far less than their original purchase price and lost most of what they had gained in value from their DC home.

So much of this memoir revolves around the intriguing question, “What happens when things don’t go as we expect?”  For Douthat, he was at the pinnacle of his career when these debilitating symptoms appeared and it just didn’t seem fair.  It affected him dramatically, but it also deeply impacted his family.  It is the kind of thing that can lead to a crisis of faith and doubts in the goodness of our God.  It can also lead to a different set of questions about God’s purpose for our life and the reality that suffering comes in many forms.  While I may not agree with the particular path that Douthat chose to answer some of his questions, I can empathize with his dogged determination to get some relief from the pain.  I am not sure what I would have done if it had been me in his shoes.  What I do know is that having read this book, I will be much more empathetic towards those who do not have quick and obvious answers to the causes of their pain.  Hopefully, I will be quicker to listen, slower to speak and more willing to weep with those who weep.

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The Chastening

download I start this week with a confession.  I love podcasts.  My appreciation for this form of storytelling began several years ago on a road trip with one of my younger colleagues.  We were traveling to an event and had many hours in a van together.  At some point he turned to me and asked what podcasts I liked and I had to admit that I did not listen to any on a regular basis.  He proceeded to enlighten me on the many options that existed and how easy is to listen to them using my phone.  We quickly decided to try one of the most popular then and now – This American Life – and I was hooked.  These days, there are so many more options to choose from that it can be hard to decide where to start.

In June of 2021, however, all of that changed for many of us in the evangelical world.  It was not hard at all to choose what to listen to as the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill burst onto the scene.  While there had been many good Christian podcasts prior to this series, nothing had been done with the quality of production and researched story telling.  Mike Cosper took Christian podcasting into completely new territory as this groundbreaking podcast drew an audience larger than anything prior to it.  For most of the second half of 2021, it seemed like everyone I knew was talking about the story as it unfolded and its impact on the evangelical world.  It was the buzz around the water cooler in many churches and Christian organizations.  Some even dubbed it “failure porn” and lamented the addictive and gossipy nature of what was taking place.  For my part, I listened to every episode with a growing sense of sadness an unease.

For those who did not listen to the podcast and there may be a few reading this blog post, this story was about the epic rise of a mega church in the Seattle area and its equally dramatic collapse.  At one point in time, it was one of the most influential churches in America and then it fell apart.  Much of the podcast focuses on the lead pastor Mark Driscoll and his leadership failures.  His style of confrontational and aggressive preaching drew large numbers of unchurched young men into the church for the first time and spawned a number of churches with similar approaches.  Initially, his success opened doors to many conferences and teaching venues where he could share his church planting techniques.  Over time however, it became clear that he was not just “rough around the edges”, but was in fact promoting a style of church leadership that was dangerous and damaging.

Each episode seemed to get darker and darker as the behind the scenes details were revealed and various types of spiritual abuse and bullying were discussed.  It was fascinating to hear people describe Mark as generous early on in his ministry and willing to go out of his way to help people in need.  There were many things about Mark and his passion for the gospel and life transformation that had attracted people to his church.  Somewhere along the way things changed.  Maybe the most telling change was his belief that he was the primary reason for the success of his church and ministry and that he needed to be the focus of its marketing and promotional efforts.  After one event in London, he was quoted as saying “If you hadn’t noticed, I am kind of a big deal”.  This kind of narcissism became more and more dominant in the life of the church and ultimately led to his resignation.  Sadly, it also led to devastation in the lives of many who attended the church and were leading alongside him.

In a great irony, I was listening to this podcast while going through a season of intense training and preparation to serve in leadership in my local church.  Each week for several months, I was learning about theology, denominational polity and the strategic vision our pastors had for our church.  It was exhilarating and challenging.  Listening to this podcast completely changed my perspective of what lay ahead.  I came to see that church leadership could have a dark side and that this was especially problematic where proper accountability was not in place.  I became more and more grateful for the denominational structure of the Presbyterian church and how it holds pastors, elders and deacons responsible for the work that they do.  While nothing is foolproof, this structure seemed much more likely to catch and confront these “dark issues” before churches were destroyed and people’s lives were devastated.

As I prepare to serve my church in new ways, I am convicted that I need to ask hard questions of myself and where my heart is prone to self-deception.  It is too easy to subtly fall into the trap of thinking more highly of myself than I ought.  Mark Driscoll may seem like an outlier, but his narcissistic tendencies are temptations that many leaders face.  I am no exception.  May God help me to keep John 3:30 in the forefront in the years ahead, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

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Is This Seat Taken?

higher-education-construction-messiah-college-boyer-hall-academic-building-4It all began with an impertinent question.   The day was Friday, September 13th, 1985 and it was accounting class – the very first class of the day.  I had walked into class to an unexpected scene.  There was a strange girl leaning across my chair talking to my friend Dave.  Like a lot of college students, I had chosen my preferred seat on the first day of class and had sat there ever since.  Not wanting to have to figure out where else I could sit, I walked up behind “my“ chair and looked at this girl and asked a question that would change the course of my life.  I said (in a slightly annoyed voice), “Is this seat taken?”.  She looked back at me and said, “No, it’s for you.”  That seemed like an odd response – here was a stranger saving a seat for me.  Well, maybe that was reading too much into the situation. Whatever the case, I was now sitting between her and my friend and we struck up a conversation.

After class, we walked out together and up the hill past the college library.  As we went our separate ways to our second classes of the day, I couldn’t help but think what an interesting person this was and how much I would enjoy seeing her again.  Then it happened.  I was the first person to arrive for my third class and I sat down in the middle of the room.  To my great surprise, the next person to walk in was Deb.  By now, she was not stranger, but an intriguing girl I had just met. She had a big choice to make.  Was she going to sit down next to me and keep the conversation going or was she going to take her place somewhere else in the class?  To my great joy, she sat down next to me and we kept talking.  After class, she invited me to eat lunch with her and her roommate and I quickly accepted.

That weekend was both a whirlwind and a marathon.  It went by far too quickly, but we spent most of it getting to know one another and we discovered so many things.  First of all, she was actually in five out of my six classes and I had not noticed her until this day in the second week of school – shame on me.  Secondly, we both had parents who had served as missionaries or grew up overseas.  Thirdly, we both loved reading and learning and looked forward to being at college together.  Finally, and most importantly, we both had a serious commitment to our faith and desire to grow spiritually.  We also discovered that we had some differences.  She was an introvert, I was an extravert.   She lived in the USA her entire life and went to the same church for many years.  I had lived overseas until I was fifteen and attended many different schools and churches.

An impertinent question started a conversation that blossomed into a relationship.  Four years later, we were married and began a life together.  The conversation continues and I still learn new things about Deb.  She has been the single biggest human influence in my life and we have grown in our faith journey together.  God has taken us through times of great joy and great sadness.  Life has not always been easy, but it has been rewarding.  These days our adventures are a bit more tame as we take long walks together and talk about our latest books.  Sometimes, we even read to each other.  One thing I do know.  I am really glad I asked that question.


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All Rise

A courtroom jury box


The summons came and I almost didn’t notice it.  In fact, I almost threw it out with the rest of the junk mail that arrived that day.  That’s right, I got that dreaded notice that I was being called up for jury duty and I nearly threw out an official government document.  Surely, it wouldn’t really matter that much anyway as I would probably call the night before and be told that I was not needed.  Well – no such luck.  On a cold Monday morning, I showed up to perform my civic duty and so did over one hundred other people.  They were looking for twelve people and two alternates for two different trials.  Clearly, with this many choices, what were the chances they would pick me?  Apparently, they were pretty good.  By late afternoon I was selected as one of the twelve jurors and they began the trial.

At this point, I need to confess that I was not really too put out by being selected.  I have always been curious about what goes on in a real court room and I was interested to see how a jury would respond to the evidence that was presented.  Besides that, I am grateful to live in a country that believes in due process and gives every defendant their day in court.  Very quickly, I learned that the lawyers and the judge took their responsibilities pretty seriously as well.  We were given lots of instructions and told that despite the defendant having been arrested and put on trial, he was to be presumed innocent until the evidence had been presented and a verdict was rendered.  That much I expected.  Then the judge went on to explain that we on the jury were the “determiners of the facts”.  He was responsible for explaining the law and overseeing the trial, but we had to determine what was true and what was not.  That was a heavy responsibility and weighed on me.

Fortunately for us on the jury, this case had lots of first-hand testimony and visual evidence.  The defendant had been videotaped committing the crime and did not dispute that it was him in the video.  Almost nothing we heard related to circumstantial evidence or speculation about what had happened.  Instead, the defense presented a case that dealt with the “why” of the incident rather than the “what”.  Interestingly, we were not allowed to take notes and had to rely entirely on our memory.  In the end, that was not too difficult as the video evidence and testimonies were pretty straight forward.  By the end of the second day of the trial, both sides rested their cases, presented their closing arguments and turned the case over to us as the jury.

During the trial, we had lots of time in the jury deliberation room together before we were allowed to deliberate.  We had been told not to talk about the case and everyone complied with that requirement.  Instead, during these breaks in the process when the lawyers and judge were discussing various points of the law or during lunch, we got to know each other.  What a diverse group we were.  Young and old, male and female, several different ethnicities and from a wide variety of vocational and economic backgrounds.  As we came back from our last break in the trial before we were allowed to deliberate, I noticed something as we walked into the court room.  Right before we came in, one of the clerks said, “All Rise for the Jury”.  I knew that we had to rise whenever the judge came into the court room, but I hadn’t realized that the court officers were required to rise for us.  How interesting.

Our deliberations did not take long, but they were serious and sobering.  We had a person’s life in our hands and had to make big decisions on several charges.  In the end we found the defendant guilty on all counts, but not before asking lots of questions of each other and one question of the judge.  Once we had reached a verdict, we came back into the court room where the verdict was read in front of the defendant and his family.  That was my least favorite moment of the whole trial.  This verdict was going to change his life forever.  Thinking back on our deliberations, I was impacted by one particular thing.  Despite our significant differences of life experience and perspective, each of us had come to the same conclusion and our decision was unanimous.  In an age when many of us cannot agree on much of anything anymore, it is still possible for a jury to put aside those differences, to focus on the facts and to come to a united conclusion.  These events gave me new respect for our legal system, for the work that lawyers, judges and clerks do every day.  More importantly, it helped restore my faith in the people who are chosen to serve on juries and have to make tough decisions about their fellow citizens.

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