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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.

https://mtw.org/ukraine-crisis

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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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The God of the Garden: Book Review

760410_1Andrew Peterson’s book was exactly what I needed to read in the month of January.  During this bleak midwinter I was grateful to be reminded that God is using even this dark season to get us ready for the beauty of what is to come in just a few short months.  Peterson is a singer songwriter who is so multi-talented that he never stops producing creative content.  His music is both beautiful and thought provoking, so it is no surprise that his books are works of art as well.  I mean that in both the literal and figurative sense.  This is a book that was inspired by the trees and uses them as the central motif of each chapter.  Little did I know that Andrew was also a visual artist and includes amazing sketches of these trees throughout the book.  These delightful images are worth the price of the book by themselves.

What grips you immediately about Andrew and his writing is the immersive nature of his prose.  He is a really good story teller, but goes beyond just telling the story.  In many places in the book, I found myself so engrossed that I visualized myself walking alongside him and having a conversation with a good friend.  I also have to confess that I found myself wanting to get in a car and drive to his property in Tennessee called The Warren just to see some of the things he describes.  What fun it would be to sit down for coffee with him in his writing room called “The Chapter House”.  He devotes an entire chapter of his book to this important place in his life where he finds some of his creative inspiration.  For those of us who are overly curious, there is even a YouTube video tour that is really fun.

https://youtu.be/ZTlJCLMLD-M

As a traveling musician, Andrew spends a lot of time on the road.  This book was written during the heart of the Covid pandemic when that was not possible.  Instead, he traveled with his mind to many of the significant places in his life and used trees as visual symbols of what God was doing in that particular place and time.  Place matters to Andrew, it matters to God and it should matter to us. We live is such a fractured world and often have to move for work and family reasons.  Many of us no longer live near our family of origin nor do we have extended family nearby.  Finding our rootedness in God and the places he has put us are vital to our spiritual growth and thriving as people. 

There are many wonderful things about this book, but I was most struck by how Andrew reminded me of the joy and awe of ever day encounters with God that take place as we get out into nature and explore the world he has made.   My favorite chapter in the book was called “Footpaths” and is based on some of his experiences walking in England.  Even though I have traveled to England several times, I had forgotten about this distinct difference between the US and the UK.  In the UK, there are many footpaths with public rights of way that allow you to walk for miles across various private properties.  I had even been on one of these in Cornwall the last time that I was in England.  That is not so easy to do in the USA as we often have to get in our cars to drive to parks and walkways and certainly do not have regular access to private property for our evening stroll.

This delighful book is a reminder that God works through both special revelation in his scriptures and general revelation through nature.  Andrew connects the two so beautifully as he points out the ways that God’s creation connects us to his word in moments of adoration and reflection.  The stories in this book are not all upbeat and happy.  Some of the trees he remembers conjure difficult and challenging moments in Andrew’s life.  They do, however, point to the creator who longs to make all things new and to provide us reminders that he is with us at every turning point in our life’s journey.

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Learning to Linger

imagesIt was a dreary day and I was hungry.  We were headed to one of my favorite restaurants and I could almost taste the food.  As we pulled up outside and parked I hopped out of the car and quickly made my way to the hostess.  There was no line outside and there seemed to be plenty of tables available.  Everything seemed to falling into place.  Then the dreaded words.  “We have a 30-minute wait.  Is that OK with you?” How was this happening again?  The best laid plans falling apart, my stomach growling and my frustration beginning to build.  Sure, we could wait 30 minutes, but why was that necessary.  As it turns out, it was necessary for a very good reason.  This restaurant was short staffed like many others and just didn’t have the people to serve us despite the plethora of available seating options.

I have never been very good about waiting and this situation was no exception.  After 30 minutes, we were finally seated and able to order our food.  Surely, now things would improve.  Well, not exactly.  The lack of staffing was also affecting the time to prepare and deliver the food from the kitchen.  This was going to be a long afternoon.  As the reality dawned on me, I recognized that I had a choice, to get more frustrated or to lean into a teaching opportunity perfectly orchestrated by my heavenly father.  This particular meal was taking place during the Christmas holiday season and included my wife, my son and my parents.  Just as my impatience was getting to the boiling point, I was convicted about my attitude and began asking different questions.  Instead of checking to see if anyone had seen our waitress recently, I turned to my father and asked about his childhood.  While I had heard many of the stories of his difficult upbringing, I was always curious about how God had rescued him from that dysfunctionality.  It seemed like a good time to hear more of those stories of God’s miraculous work in my Dad’s life.

As we heard my Dad recount God’s faithfulness to him as a little boy, something happened in my heart and soul.  I was no longer concerned about the meal, the waiting and time. It was such a sacred moment that time almost seemed to stand still like it had in the Old Testament.  It was a Christmas gift that I had not expected to receive and a moment that I will not soon forget.  In many ways it was the highlight of my Christmas season and yet it almost didn’t happen.  The frustration over waiting had nearly turned me into the surly, sullen person that comes from a lifetime of hurry, punctuality and false expectations.

To be truthful, this change in my heart and attitude is an ongoing process and I am a work in progress.  Some days are better than others.  One thing I can say for sure, my re-evaluation of my relationship with time and waiting really began in earnest in March of 2020 when our world was turned upside down.  Nothing was normal for a while and waiting became the name of the game.  Initially, I was more than a little frustrated by the plans that were cancelled and uncertainty that seemed to loom over every decision about the future.  Slowly, my heart was exposed and God began to do a new work.  As it turns out, there is real benefit to slowing down, taking more time and embracing the concept of lingering.

This idea of lingering seemed so foreign and, in some ways, it seemed self-indulgent.  Wasn’t timeliness and punctuality akin to godliness?  In our busy world, who has time to waste.  Then Covid hit and we all had more time on our hands and lots of time to linger.  As I soon discovered, walks are far more enjoyable when new paths are explored and meals are so much more meaningful when they are savored.  People are more apt to talk when they are not rushed and great stories take time to be told.  I was missing out on so much by always being in a hurry and what was I accomplishing anyway except eating poorly and feeling smug about how much I was accomplishing.

Learning to linger has been a painful process for me with bumps along the road.  I learned rather indelicately that my impatience had been impacting members of my family for a long time.  It also became clear that social media and time spent scrolling on my phone were huge temptations when faced with unplanned time and unexpected waiting.  I still have much to learn.  As we crest the wave of this latest Covid surge, we don’t know what is around the corner and there is no guarantee that things will ever return to normal as we knew it.  I for one, I glad about that as I yearn to take these lessons into the future and see how lingering will open doors for God’s faithfulness in my life just as he did for my father.

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The Gathering

119210481_2739646652972698_3996907172632778430_nI first noticed it when I was checking Facebook.  And yes, to my shame, I was looking at Facebook on a Sunday morning.  One of our pastors had just announced that our services were cancelled.  The weather forecasters had been calling for ice to blanket our area during the exact same time that we would in church.  While I knew that services being cancelled was a possibility, the actual announcement hit me in a strange way.  It was almost like I was having Covid Church PTSD.  I immediately remembered what it was like two years ago when in-person church was cancelled indefinitely and services went to live stream.  Everything about church seemed to be upended and we didn’t know when that was going to change.  This time around the cancellation was sudden, but temporary.  And yet, it still didn’t feel good.  Instead of looking forward to more time at home on the weekend, I felt a strange unease and the realization that church means something different to me now.

So, what’s so different about church in a post (or almost post) Covid world.  For me, it is the recognition that I can’t take it for granted.  Sadly, that has been a reality for many of my brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world for a very long time.  Believers in China and the Middle East have had no guarantee that they could gather together on any given Sunday and certainly no guarantee of personal safety.  All of my life, I have lived in places where gathering for corporate worship was allowed and, in my circles, – encouraged or expected.  Then Covid hit and that was not an option.  Streaming services were the only alternative and not a great one.  Watching church on TV is not the same thing as gathering with God’s people in person.  It allowed me to become a worship spectator and not a worship participant and that was not healthy.

Before I go further, let me say a huge thank you to pastors and worship leaders who provided streaming options and who kept the light on at church when we could not be there.  Even though it was not a great option, it was the only one for a while and I am grateful for their efforts.

As we began to gather again for worship with masks and social distancing in place, many folks commented on how much they appreciated being with God’s people again.  I felt the same as I had been longing for personal interaction and fellowship.  Maybe that is because I am an extravert, but mostly I think it is because something special happens when we worship together.  If I wanted to simply hang out with people, I could go to the gym, a concert or a movie.  An in-person book club meeting or meal with a small group of friends would have helped me deal with my feelings of isolation, but it would have done nothing for my need to worship God with his gathered people.

What has really changed for me is a recognition that not only can I not take church for granted, but that I deeply need to experience the power and presence or God in corporate worship.  It is not about how it makes me feel, but about what God is doing in my life.  Singing is no longer just singing, it is lifting up praise to an almighty God in the presence of my brothers and sisters despite how bad my voice might be.  Hearing the call to a confession of sin and the assurance of pardon reminds me that this is not just a personal activity, but one that we do together as a church.  Participating in the sacrament of communion each week has taken on new meaning as this was one of things I most missed when church was virtual.  Listening to a sermon in person and experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit opening our ears and hearts has made God’s word that much richer in my life.  Maybe it is the person who occasionally says amen out loud when our pastor is preaching, but something is different in the way that I experience a sermon when I am with others in the same room.

As I lead our congregation tomorrow in the corporate confession of sin and the assurance of pardon, I am praying that God will use my feeble words to draw his people to himself in new and significant ways.  While it is true that we were made to be in community, it is even more true that we were made to worship.  May we yearn to worship in community together and never take it for granted.

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