Friday, December 9, 2011


When I think I'm going under
Part the waters, Lord.
When I feel the waves around me
Calm the sea.
When I cry for help
Oh hear me Lord
And hold out your hand.
Touch my life
Still the raging storm in me.

I was listening to this song yesterday and found great comfort in these words. The particular version I have blends these words with the words of another song:

I need thee every hour
Most gracious Lord
No tender voice like thine
Can peace afford
I need thee, oh I need thee
Every hour I need thee
Oh bless me now my saviour
I come to thee.

God is leading me through a season of trial and painful formation right now. In fact it might be more appropriate to call it a time of "de-formation" because he is stripping away many things, leading me to a point of utter dependence on him. It's not a pleasant process. I have doubted at times his love and kindness to me, because it has seemed to be in short supply. Thankfully he is big enough to handle my doubts and my cries of anguish. I don't think God has finished his work in me. I don't yet see the end of this valley and I don't yet understand what he is doing. Another song that speaks to my feelings comes from the Newsboys:

Lord I don't know where all this is going
And how it all works out.
Lead me to peace that is past understanding
A peace beyond all doubt.

Some would say (naively, in my opinion) that these trials indicate a lack of faith. On the contrary, James tells us that this is precisely what I should expect if God is working in me. That knowledge helps me hold on, although it doesn't make the process of de-formation and re-formation any more pleasant. I'm trying day by day to walk in faith, and I'm thankful for a few key friends who have provided needed support and encouragement along the journey.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Grace's Place

I've heard a lot of sermons in my life. Quite frankly, few of them have really stuck in my memory. When I was in high school one of our pastors gave a message that has remained in my mind throughout the years. Well, to be more accurate, I should say that the main point of his message has stuck with me, although I cannot remember all of his subpoints. This message had to do with the nature of the church, something that has been on my mind lately.

The pastor introduced his topic in a rather unusual way (at least for the time.) He played us the themesong from a popular television show called “Cheers.” This song repeats the refrain:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
People are all the same
You want to go where everybody knows your name.

The pastor pointed out that the reason the bar featured in the show was so popular, and a large part of why the show itself was so popular, is that it presented a place that filled the longing expressed in the title song. Cheers was a place where people knew your name and were glad you came. That, he stated, is exactly what the church should be. The church should be a community where a person feels welcomed as he or she is; where people are glad to see you and miss you when you are absent. It should be a place where you are known and where you know others. This, said our pastor was the nature of grace, which is the core message of the church. In fact, he suggested we should rename our church to something more fitting, such as “Grace's Place.” I've always liked that idea and should I ever have the opportunity to pastor a church, I may very well borrow his idea.

Unfortunately this doesn't describe the reality of much of the church. Church often becomes a place for putting on masks, pretending that we are spiritual and sometimes—too often—trying to outdo one another with our pious displays of spirituality. Can people really be themselves in your church? Can we accept one another in our broken humanness? Or does that make us uncomfortable? If someone stands up front to tell a story about what God is doing, are we able to hear stories of unhealed brokenness, or are we only comfortable hearing stories of victory? It's a messy world and believers are not exempt from this messiness. Too often we try to pretend we are and we project the sense, intentionally or unintentionally, that we must leave our messiness at the church door if we want to participate in the community. But that's not what the church is about. The church should be a place where we demonstrate practically the grace of God towards one another, accepting one another in all our fragile brokenness and allow God's healing to flow through to to each other. In my experience such communities of faith are rare, but when you find one it's like an oasis in a desert, or perhaps like a neighborhood bar name Grace's Place.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In the Name of Freedom

While browsing Netflix tonight I noticed a movie that I have not seen in nearly 20 years. The movie, entitled In the Name of the Father, tells a powerful story of a young man from Northern Ireland. During the IRA bombing campaign of the seventies this man along with three friends is arrested and charged with setting off a bomb in a London pub, killing five people. In addition, the man's father, aunt and several relatives, including young teenagers, are arrested and charged as accomplices. However, none of them has anything to do with the bombing and none of them are even remotely affiliated with the IRA. Nonetheless, all of them are put on trial using flimsy evidence and a guilty verdict is handed down by an emotionally charged court. The defendants are sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths, with the main character sentenced to life in prison.

The movie stirs my outrage and anger at injustice, particularly injustice perpetrated in the name of justice. It outraged me when I first watched it and it did so again this evening. I cannot understand how "good" men could knowingly convict and condemn innocent people. As the movie makes clear, this was not a case of mistaken justice. The government tortured the defendants and deliberately withheld evidence that would have exonerated them, simply because those in authority believed it was more important to get a conviction in the case and show the public that the government was acting to defend the nation. The fact that the defendants were all Irish also helped, given the inherent bias against Irish people in England at the time.

Watching the movie at this point in history I am concerned with the parallels I see with what has happened in my own country over the last ten years. In our emotional response to the events of 9/11, to what extent have we run roughshod over justice because we wanted to feel secure and wanted to feel like we were demonstrating our strength in response to those tragic events? I am saddened that so many Americans who speak out in defense of individual rights and against government intrusion often have remained silent, or even worse have condoned the excesses of our government in its "war" on terrorism. They argue strongly of the need to defend our country's basic values, but then suspend them for anyone that becomes suspect of supporting terrorism.

Above all I am saddened that many believers have adopted this mentality. Placing love of country before love of God, they see the enemies and supposed enemies of their country as unworthy of humane treatment and basic human rights. In their defense of justice they condone injustice. I don't imagine that this pleases God. I am not arguing that evil should go unpunished. I am arguing that those accused of perpetrating evil should not be presumed guilty and we should not condemn them unjustly in our zeal to defend ourselves. To do otherwise is to deny the love of the God we profess. Growing up I was taught that two wrongs don't make a right. That applies just as well when it comes to defending our freedom and values.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

America and American Culture

I recently read these words, written by Eugene Peterson in his book The Pastor, which express very well my own feelings:

"I love being an American. I love this place in which I have been placed--its language, its history, its energy. But I don't love 'the American way,' its culture and values. I don't love the rampant consumerism that treats God as a product to be marketed. I don't love the dehumanizing ways that turn men, women and children into impersonal roles and causes and statistics. I don't love the competitive spirit that treats others as rivals and even as enemies.  The cultural conditions in which I am immersed require, at least for me, a kind of fierce vigilance to guard my vocation from these cultural pollutants so dangerously toxic to persons who want to follow Jesus in the way the he is Jesus."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why I Don't Like Traveling

I don't like travel, especially travel involving airplanes. When I was younger, I thought travel seemed really exotic and imagined that a life spent traveling would be really great. Now, after many years of life and work that involved a fair amount of air travel, I no longer think that. I still enjoy visiting new places and getting to know new cultures. What I really like is to be in a place long enough to establish some relationships, so that my connection becomes personal. But I dislike the process of moving from one place to another. I don't like security procedures at airports. I don't like tiny airplane seats. I don't like arriving or departing in the wee hours of the morning.

Most of all, I dislike the person I become when traveling. Airline travel brings out the worst side in me. I become impatient, anxious and my focus shifts totally to myself and those traveling with me (most often my family)--with whom I often become impatient as well. Instead of being compassionate, gracious, and looking out for others, I think of myself and how I can get what I want before someone else gets it. Everything becomes a competition: will I get my space in the overhead bin before someone else fills it? Will I get off the plane fast enough so I don't have to wait as long? Can I get into that line faster than the next person so I can be through security faster? And I worry even more than usual. What if we are delayed? What if security takes so long that we miss our connection? I don't like myself when I travel.

Looking around most airports, I don't think I'm alone in this pattern of behaviour. But that doesn't excuse it. I cannot control how others behave, but I can choose how I will respond to each situation. I want to improve in this area, but it seems like a big mountain to climb. I can take it one step at a time. I can look at those traveling with or around me and try to see them with eyes of compassion, thinking about how I can help rather than how I can get what I want. I can look at people as individuals with needs, feelings and concerns rather than as obstacles to my agenda. Of course that means setting my agenda aside and letting my heavenly Father direct me as I travel, inviting him to help me see the opportunities he places along my journey. I know this would be a much healthier way to travel. Now I need to take the first step.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Thoughts on the movement to "Occupy Wall Street"

A lot has been written and spoken about the various “Occupy” movements that have sprung up first in the United States and then in other parts of the world. These protestors intrigue me. Part of me is drawn to them, while part of me is repulsed by them. I laugh at the irony of Americans protesting because they are economically disadvantaged, while all but the most disadvantaged Americans are still better off than most of the world's people. They speak of being part of the 99% when in fact on a global scale we as a nation are definitely part of the 1%. The protestors organize and promote their message using tools and means utterly unavailable to the masses of the world's poor. I also find that their lack of common message dilutes their impact. Others have noted this, some viewing it as a strength of the movement. But in the end, how much change can they affect if they don't even have a united goal?

Despite these misgivings and criticisms, I am still drawn to these protestors. I resonate with their cry against the system of capitalism that has developed in this country during my lifetime. I am not inherently anti-capitalist, as some would argue. (Nor would I accept the argument that being anti-capitalist makes me anti-American, as has also been implied.) But I definitely see serious problems in the current national and global economic structure. As I read in a recent article, this structure creates an “un-economy:” unfair, unsustainable and unstable, not to mention that it makes people unhappy (well, except for those who clearly benefit from it—and I would debate that even they are finding true happiness through the accumulation of wealth.) A system that fosters the accumulation of large amounts of wealth by a small elite cannot bring about a healthy society.

I was reminded this week of the revolutions that rocked the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Why did the Russian revolution occur in 1917? There were many factors, but the fact that the tsar and a small elite of the Russian nation had vast wealth (I've seen a small portion of it during my years in Russia and it was amazing) while the majority of the population lived in abject poverty certainly was a key element. I recognize that most Americans are far from that level of abject poverty. But our current system certainly works to assure that the wealthy continue to accumulate wealth while the majority struggle to improve their lives. I don't think the occupy movement will result in anything as drastic as a revolution, but it serves as a useful wake up call that things must change before they reach such a dire point.

I am most distressed by the opposition, even antagonism, that so many of my fellow believers express toward these protest movements. I think that many of my friends and acquaintances have substituted the American capitalistic dream for the message of the Gospel. They view these protestors as disrupting a healthy, stable society and reject them and their message because of this. (Often they forget as well that the right to protest is a fundamental right enshrined in the very Constitution they so adamantly support.) But the Scriptures are full of verses indicating God's passion for justice and his rejection of greed and the misuse of money and power. God calls us to care for those whom society has injured or destroyed. In some cases we can do this within the existing structure of society. But what if that very structure is causing more and more injury and destruction? Do we not as believers need to raise our voice in protest as well and call for changes that will bring greater justice, compassion and mercy? I've not heard any of my acquaintances go so far as to embrace the slogan “greed is good.” But neither have I heard enough of them speaking against it.

I'm not yet to the point where I am ready to go pitch my tent with the local occupiers. But my heart and mind are sympathetically listening to them and I am asking myself what I can do to build a more balanced, just, wholesome society, one in which God's shalom can be realized.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Whose work?

To what extent, if any, does there exist women's work and men's work? Although I imagine most people understand the question clearly, let me express it differently. Is there work that inherently should be done by women as opposed to work that should be done by men? Or as followers of Jesus Christ are we called to offer a different model, a model of mutual servanthood?

I raise the question because of a recent conversation with a friend of mine. She is a single mom raising a teenage son. She works hard both in and outside the home to provide for herself and her son. But when she asks him to do household tasks, he often responds that these are “women's work” and she should do them. They live in a non-Western culture where gender roles are much more distinct and strong than they are now in the West, so his response is acceptable within the cultural norms, although she has done her best to raise him to a different standard. But his response ignores the fact that his mother by necessity must perform many tasks that would culturally be “men's work” and that she is weary and exhausted, while he spends his time hanging out with his friends. (There are also issues here of respecting one's parents, but that is a different topic.)

When I hear stories like this I become angry. I become angry because of a mindset that continues to perpetuate gender inequality even now in the twenty-first century. I simply do not believe that there are roles, or work, that belong by their very nature to women or men. (I make exception for child-birth, which biologically cannot happen naturally any other way. But even in this the husband can take a more active role than he has traditionally and continues to take in many cultures around the world.) I acknowledge that some work may be more suited to a man or woman due to the nature of the tasks required and the physical characteristics of men and women. But I object to saying that any particular work or role should be done or belongs to men or women. I know many women who are physically stronger than I and therefore more suited to tasks that might be considered “men's work.” At the same time men are also capable of performing work that traditionally has been assigned to women. I don't see any valid basis to argue for an inflexibility delineation of tasks into the categories of men's or women's.

Thankfully in Western cultures we have progressed far in this area (which is not to say that we do not still have room for improvement) But many cultures around the world lag far behind. Unfortunately many people I know who go to work in these cultures do not want to confront this issue because they feel it is a matter of cultural preference. I recognize that it is culturally defined, but I also assert that it can be cultural redefined and offering an alternative example can be a powerful way to begin that process. But we must be willing to risk ridicule and rejection along the way. While living overseas I once was sweeping the sidewalk outside our gate. Our neighbor, another foreigner who had lived longer in that culture, informed me that I was “shaming” my wife by doing work that culturally she was expected to do. Why should it be shameful for a husband to help his wife with the burdens of daily life? And why should I care if others think that way?

I also find it unfortunate that believers often lag behind in this area. Thinking again of people I know who serve cross-culturally, I am disappointed that they do not more actively challenge their local friends and converts in this area. Perhaps it does not seem to them to be a core issue of Christian life. But is that the case? Christ came to transform society, not to simply save souls out of it. What a powerful example we could offer if we as believers modeled not a gender-based division of labor, but rather mutual servanthood. Instead of refusing to do a task because it might bring shame or would be considered the work of the other gender (and most often it seems men have the problem with performing “women's work”), couldn't we offer a powerful model of servanthood by looking for opportunities to serve our brothers or sisters at the point of their need? If a sister (woman) needs help cleaning or cooking, or in any other task, why can we brothers (men) not step up and offer to carry that burden? (Again, women seem to be quicker and more willing to offer this service to men, but the same question could be asked of them.)

The same friend of whom I wrote initially also has a task to help organize a seminar for women. Among other responsibilities she must help with organizational and administrative needs. This comes on top of her many other duties and responsibilities in life. When I heard this, I thought that this would be a great place for the Christian men in the community to step in and offer to help their sisters. Then the women could focus on the direct ministry to women, while the men could offer a powerful example of Christian servanthood by providing for the needs of the women. I expect they would receive a lot of cultural criticism, shame and ridicule for doing so, but at the same time they could offer a powerful testimony of what a life transformed by Jesus Christ looks like.

So let's put aside the outdated concepts of “men's work” and “women's work.” Instead let's adopt an ethic of mutual servanthood and look for opportunities to serve each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, that's the model he gave us.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Things We Leave Behind

This summer our family had to make the difficult and painful decision to leave our home in Central Asia and return to the United States for a time. We have lived overseas for several years and had established our primary home there. Now we must dispose of all the things we have acquired and shipped there over the years because, while we plan to return in the future, that will not happen for at least three years due to the needs of our children. Central Asia does not have self-storage units for rent, our local friends generally have very small apartments, and our other foreign friends live transient lives just as we do. This leaves us with limited options for long-term storage. With this in mind my wife and I returned here this month to sell and give away most of our things. We will bring a few personal items back with us, but the vast majority of our belongings will be better off remaining behind.

Michael Card sings a song entitled “Things we leave behind.” In it he reminds us that: “We can't imagine the freedom we find, from the things we leave behind.” I've always liked this song. Now I have the opportunity to embrace that freedom wholeheartedly. But while I affirm the idea and even the result, the process of freeing oneself from one's possessions is painful and tedious. I suppose it would be easier if we just decided to part with everything, because then we wouldn't have to look at each item and decide whether it is important enough to hang on to. Because we do want to hang on to a few things though, especially those things that are important to our children, we must go through that process and after several days of it we are weary and sad. We know that we don't need most of the things we will pass on and in fact are filled with joy at the prospect of blessing our friends with many of them, but almost every item has some memories attached to it and letting go comes at an emotional price, be it large or small. Yes, we find freedom in the things we leave behind. But breaking those chains hurts.

Yesterday we moved out our children's bedroom furniture. On the one hand I was delighted to see it go, because it feels like a big step in emptying the house. I also knew that the items were going to people who could really use them and I found joy and comfort in that. But my wife and I also felt sadness seeing it go, because it was a tangible indicator that we do not expect to return here with our children, who will be ready for college by the time we expect to come back. We hope they will come to visit, maybe even for an extended period, but we don't expect them to live with us regularly here again. As has so often been the case in my life, joy tastes somewhat bittersweet.

I look forward to coming out on the other side of this process and enjoying the freedom of the things we have left behind. As we establish ourselves in the US again, I want to avoid accumulating things, although I know this will be the natural inclination. Our culture compels us in that direction, but I want to hold on to the freedom that I am gaining this month. Although bittersweet, it is truly liberating.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Is Life a Highway?

"Life is a highway," sings Tom Cochrane (although most people will likely be more familiar with the cover version performed by Rascall Flatts for the movie Cars.) I wish that were true. I'd like my life to be a smooth highway, well-lit and well-signed, with rest areas spaced conveniently, so that the journey would be as smooth and pleasant as possible. In fact, I imagine that's how most of us would like our lives to be. Certainly we do everything we can to make it this way, to remove the element of the unforeseen and the possibility of the unpleasant. We buy insurance policies, save for retirement, and plan for as many contingencies as we can think of. (At this point I'm tempted to digress into examining whether these things fit with a biblical worldview, but that's another topic.) In the process we lessen as much as possible the need to rely on God in faith.

My life, by contrast, seems to fit better the image of a winding path through the mountains. I walk this path in the night, with a small flashlight or lantern to light my way. The light cast allows me to see just enough of the path to take a step or two forward. I have a map that gives me a general sense of where I'm going. I know my ultimate destination. But I don't know exactly by what path I will get there. It's a bumpy, rough journey, filled with uncertainty and surprises and, yes, even some unpleasantries. I can only successfully walk this path by faith, trusting in the hand of the one who does see the whole path. And for purposes that I don't always understand, he only lets me see a bit of it at a time. In this way I learn to walk by faith, taking one step at a time, much as a young child who is first learning to walk constantly looks up to her parents for affirmation and assurance.

The lives of others often seem to me more like the proverbial highway mentioned earlier. Perhaps they only appear that way. Certainly many of my fellow journeyers travel paths as challenging as my own. Sometimes, okay often, I compare my path to that of others and I am tempted to complain, or feel regret, or sorrow or any number of other emotions that flow from a belief that I am somehow missing out on some blessing that I believe should be mine. But I am learning, every so slowly, to embrace the journey before me. On this journey I encounter joy and sorrow, beauty and ugliness. I have the opportunity to grow in faith. I have the privilege, if I will receive it, of getting to know the Father who leads me on this journey, who in fact walks alongside me. And along the way I also have the joy of various companions, some with me for shorter times, others for longer. When I remember to focus on these things, then I'm not so tempted to wish my life were like that highway. The path provides a better journey.

Michael Card sang a song that describes life a bit differently. He tells us that:

There is a joy in the journey
There's a life we can love on the way
There is a wonder and wildness to life
And freedom to those who obey.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Life on a Dollar a Day

Although the debt ceiling crisis has passed (at least temporarily), I continue to think about what the future will look like. I see a growing divide between the haves and have-nots of this world, with North Americans in general falling into the category of haves in comparison to the majority of the world's population. In light of this, I recommend the following blog on what it means practically to live on a dollar a day, which is considered to be the standard of extreme poverty, as the author explains. The author considers the topic in two separate blog entries, part one being here and part two here.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Debt Ceilings and Living Responsibly

The political storm surrounding the debt ceiling has given much food for thought concerning responsible living. Both parties accuse the other of irresponsible spending and have demonstrated little willingness to compromise. Republicans blame the Democrats and the Democrats blame the Republicans. No one seems to accept that both parties are responsible for the mess we're in, that the overspending that has brought us to this point has been going on for years. Of course to admit that would be to admit that we have built our entire lifestyle around consumption. We have established a mindset that we deserve it all and we deserve it now, regardless of whether we need it or can truly afford it. If government has grown used to spending more than it earns, ultimately it has done so because we the people have asked more and more of it while wanting to give it less and less of our money. It seems that what most people want is a solution that will allow them to continue living this lifestyle without pain or sacrifice. From what I hear people say around me and on TV, from what I see reported in the news, people are wondering how long it will take to get through this time of difficulty so that we can get back to living the “good life” again.

What if living the good life is precisely what has brought us to this brink of collapse? What if we all accepted that we don't have to have it all and we certainly don't have to have it all now? A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article in an Australian newspaper. This article pointed out that we do not hear the word austerity used in any discussion of how to bring the country out of this difficult time. We're not willing to live responsibly, if responsible living means giving up all those nice extras that we believe we deserve.

I do not want to see our country go into default on its debt. That would not be responsible. But I wonder whether, if it does, the ensuing collapse might in the long run be good for us and for the world. Would it force us to live more simply? It would certainly be painful and the effects would be far-reaching. But even as I fear the possible consequences, I can see how they might produce a beneficial result in the long run. (I am not advocating for default nor do I intend to indicate support for either political party's preferred solution here.)

As I reestablish myself and my family in this country after a period of living overseas, I am trying to determine what it means for us to live responsibly. What things do we truly need and what things would simply be nice to have, should we be in a position to acquire them? How can we live such that we free up as much of our resources as possible to share with those in other parts of the world who live in much more difficult circumstances? I don't have definite answers to these questions, but I have written three principles to help guide me in my decisions: 1) Strive to live with less, 2) Strive to give more to others and 3) Strive for a healthy, sustainable lifestyle (environmentally, financially, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) These principles don't define every choice in every situation, but they give me a framework to help me as I make decisions.

I'd like to think that the current political impasse will result in fundamental changes to our consumer culture. But realistically I doubt they will. However the issue is resolved, I fear that we will simply continue to try to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle until we really do reach a point of collapse. Maybe this will not be the case, but personally I want to try and live responsibly so that other people, both the poor of the world now and those who will come after me, might be able to live balanced lives as well. If a little austerity on my part can help that happen, then it will be well-invested.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Two Roads Diverged in the Middle of the Wood

This summer my family and I returned to the US from our work overseas for a couple months of rest and refreshment. At least that was how we envisioned it when we came back. The past two years have been very successful in terms of our work with minority language groups. However, that progress has cost us greatly as a family. We have struggled to meet the needs of our children as they move into their teenage years. We do not advocate building family life around the goal of making our children happy, but at the same time we do need to be aware of their needs and not sacrifice them on some false altar of ministry.

During our time in Arizona over the past month it became increasingly clear that we needed to make a radical change in order to keep our family healthy. We thought we had another year to work out the next step, but certain needs have pushed that time frame into the immediate present. Because of this we decided that we should relocate to the US for the next few years while our children complete high school. During that time my wife and I will continue our work with minority language groups, but will do so remotely. This will present a number of challenges, but will allow us to provide our children with the support they need during these important years. Living among the people groups also had challenges and the price was paid most heavily by the children. Now we will focus more on them while moving the work ahead on a slower path.

I wrestled a lot with this decision, because we have invested heavily over the past few years to establish our work. At first I felt that the only choice we had was to sacrifice our family by remaining in location and continuing to work as we had been, or to sacrifice the work by leaving the location and focusing on our family. Neither was a desirable option to me. I spoke at length with my pastor about this and he, without pushing me to any decision, challenged me to open my hand and not cling to what I felt was God's plan for me. He told me to let go and let God direct me/us in the next step. I had been paralyzed by fear, fear of the unknown and fear that our needs would not be adequately met if we made any major change. I also feared the impact on my identity. Who would I be if I were not doing the work I enjoy?

Faced with certain realities in our lives at present, the decision became quite apparent and in some sense made itself. But I still had to choose to accept it. I am still working through the impact of this on me personally, on us as a family and on our work and I hope to share some of this journey with my readers in the weeks and month ahead. Some voices argue that we should sacrifice all for the sake of the Good News, including our very family. They point to the lives of great men and women of God in the past who left family behind while pursuing their "ministry" and they hold such people up as models for us to emulate. But I question whether this is truly the "godly" choice. God is teaching me these days that if I listen to him, he can open up new paths that I might not have considered if I clung to my "ministry" at all costs. And in this new path he can continue to teach me and work through me while at the same time caring for the needs of my family. It does require sacrifice and the sacrifice is painful. But it brings blessing, at least I believe it will and have been affirmed in this choice by people I greatly respect and admire.

In the first days of working through this decision I felt great anguish over what it would cost me and the things I would have to leave behind. My focus was on the loss. But after some time God began to turn my focus toward the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead. It doesn't mean that I won't have to give anything up or make any sacrifices. It doesn't make those sacrifices less painful or easier. But it does help me look ahead with hope and anticipation, rather than remaining stuck in the past or present in grief and sorrow. I wish sometimes that the journey of faith was a nice walk along a manicured path. It's not, because faith requires me to step into the unknown and put complete trust in a God whose ways I do not fully understand--far from it. Growing in faith is painful and exhausting. But it is also joyful and filled with hope. I invite you to continue walking on this journey with me.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I awoke this morning thinking, for some reason, about messiness. Perhaps I had this on my mind because our house is a bit messy at the moment. Well, actually it’s always messier than I would prefer it and I have been learning over the years to not worry so much about that. I like to have my world neat and tidy. This includes my physical world and my mental, emotional and spiritual worlds. But as I thought about this I realized that life is messy. Rarely does life cooperate and arrange itself in a nice, orderly manner with no loose ends and unresolved issues.

I’d like faith to be neat and tidy. We often pretend that it is. We write and read books about God that describe him in clear, definite terms, without fuzziness and ambiguity. And by our efforts to describe God we attempt to tame him. But, as C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “he is not a tame lion.” And faith is not a simple thing, all neat and tidy, wrapped up and packaged as a pleasant complete kit that I can purchase off the shelf in my local church or Christian bookstore. Faith is messy. God doesn’t deliver when I want or expect him to. He doesn’t always act as I believe he should. While Jesus Christ may be the same yesterday, today and forever (a statement I would affirm, for those who may doubt), his manner of displaying his personal consistency is remarkably variable. I long for certainty, but in my search for answers I often find only more questions. I envy those for whom faith is a settled, certain thing. For me it is a journey, a quest. I believe, but even after all these years of walking with God I am still seeking, trying to understand and make some sense of this messy thing called the life of faith. I don’t have all the answers. And I don’t have to.

But this morning I realized that messiness is okay, even in matters of faith. Just as I can learn to live without having my living room neat and tidy, I can live with having a faith that still wrestles with questions and even doubts. In fact, such a faith may enable me to flex with the changing context in which I live. My faith, because it is not rigid, does not crumble if one item becomes weak or questioned. This does not mean that there is no foundation to my faith. There is. Faith cannot be just anything I want it to be. I have an object of my faith—Jesus Christ the crucified and risen one. Other elements form the core of my faith as well. But there remains a lot of messiness to it—like a workshop in which a project is on-going. Sometime, at the end of the project, it will all come together into a beautiful finished work of art. But for now it’s messy—and I’m learning to be okay with that.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


I don't enjoy enough solitude. I realized this recently, prompted particularly by a passage in a book I am reading. I desire solitude, but I don't get enough of it.

In reading the passage I mentioned, I understood that solitude is more than simply having a "quiet time." It is more than spending time in prayer and in God's Book. The authors write:

"Solitude is being completely alone with God away from all human contact for extended periods of time."

Like most people, I find it hard to create such time. Live is full of work that needs to be done. It is full of people who need attention. There seems to be little opportunity and space to get away and be quiet with God. But in fact we can make such time if we choose to. I fill my spare time with noise and activity and distraction, robbing myself of the time I could spend with Him. How much of our modern culture focuses on filling the emptiness around us so that we don't have time to stop, reflect on our lives and listen to Him? We have TV, iPods, internet, and a seemingly endless list of other opportunities to entertain ourselves. I am not saying that we must entirely avoid these. They can serve very useful purposes in our lives. Sometimes even just relaxing and disengaging can be a useful activity. But if you are like me, these things can come to rob my time and energy from things that are more important. It is difficult to hear from God when my attention is being demanded by a myriad of things, most of them louder and flashier than the voice of God.

In addition to all the things we fill our lives with, solitude can be difficult to find because we share our living space with other people. Not everyone has the luxury of a large house with lots of rooms to which a person can escape and be alone. Few of us have a secluded mountain cabin where we can hold our own personal retreats. I live in a home with my wife, two children and a young woman who helps us with our kids' schooling. While we are by no means crowded, personal space is not easy to come by. I also live in a reasonably large city, so when I am outside I am most often surrounded by people. Can I find solitude in such a place? I know I can, but it will require intentional effort. I think of a friend of mine who regularly spends time in an East Asian country. In that city he is surrounded by millions of people, and yet from his blog I know that even there he manages to separate himself at times from the bustle around him and create his own little place of solitude. I can do that here as well. I can get up earlier, when our house is still quiet, and try to find solitude here in the home. Or I can walk down the street to a lovely botanical garden and spend some time there. But I must be intentional if this is going to happen.

Finally, solitude requires that I set aside my agenda. Instead of using these times of solitude to take my laundry list to God, I need to intentionally set those things aside--perhaps in the first minutes of solitude--and allow him to speak to me. That is very hard for me to do--to silence my mind and heart and listen. I am much more comfortable with talking and doing than sitting and listening.

The authors of this passage remind us that Jesus used such times of solitude regularly in order to stay close to his Father and to understand what the Father wanted of him. Jesus could easily have spent his entire day, every day, doing fruitful ministry. Perhaps some modern organizations and donors would fault him for not being more productive. After all, these times of solitude are not producing demonstrable results! But in fact they are essential to maintaining long-term vitality. And if that was true for Jesus, how much more true is it for me?

I am still thinking about how to make time for solitude. I certainly would like to take time each month. Ideally I'd like to do so even more frequently. I don't want indecision to keep me from moving ahead on this and I hope that sometime in the next week I will deliberately and intentionally step away for several hours and enjoy some real solitude.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Stewards of Mystery

My reading this morning came from 1 Cor. 4:1-5. Normally I read from the New Living Translation. After reading from that version as usual this morning I felt a desire to see how other translations handled these verses, because something about the NLT's translation left me curious how much they had interpreted in the process of translating. So I went to the English Standard Version, which is not one I commonly use but to which I find myself referring with increasing frequency. What I found was that in its effort to make sense of the passage, the NLT goes farther than I would in explaining it to the reader. One verse in particular caught my attention for today. In the NLT verse 1 reads:

"So look at Apollos and me as mere servants of Christ who have been put in charge of explaining God's secrets."

But in the ESV we read:

"This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God."

I can see how the NLT translators reached their version from what I read in the ESV, but I'm uncomfortable with the way they have handled it, particularly the final phrase. According the the NLT, Paul and Apollos (and arguably, by extension, contemporary preachers or teachers) have been put in charge of explaining God's secrets. I understand that to mean that when they have done their work, those who hear them will have understanding of things they don't currently understand. But the ESV's translation strikes me in a different way. If Paul and Apollos are stewards of the mysteries of God, it could mean that they are to protect these mysteries, to care for them well, to make sure they are not diminished or harmed or lost. To steward something does not inherently mean to explain it. In fact stewardship doesn't inherently have anything to do with explanation.

I wonder if the difference has to do with our Western Protestant inclination to unpack everything theological. We are uncomfortable with mystery. We struggle to write systematic theologies that account for all of God's nature and his work and we argue over issues like human freedom and divine sovereignty because we in our human minds can't reconcile the two. It is, in that sense, a mystery. If I take the NLT's translation here my job is to try to explain that mystery--to make it understandable and acceptable to our rational minds. But if I take the ESV's translation (at least my understanding of it), our job is simply to steward that mystery--to make sure that it is not lost or distorted (such as by emphasizing one aspect at the expense of another).

My thinking on this is likely affected by my current reading of Philip Yancey's book Reaching for the Invisible God. He writes:

"Over time, I have grown more comfortable with mystery rather than certainty. God does not twist arms and never forces us into a corner with faith in himself as the only exit. We can never present the Final Proof, to ourselves or to anyone else. We will always, with Pascal, see 'too much to deny and too little to be sure...'."

I for one am much more comfortable being a steward of the mysteries of God rather than feeling that I have to explain God's secrets, most of which I don't fully understand myself.

Friday, February 25, 2011

How to Use a Tax Return

This week I ticked an annual milestone off of my to-do list. My taxes are completed and filed, thanks in no small part to the help of one acquaintance who does the hard work for me (and in the process significantly reduces my stress levels. Thanks, Don!) This year we will be getting a return, which has prompted some thinking on my part. What should I do with this returned money? I've already tithed on it, so in one sense my conscience can be clear if I use it on our own needs and desires. I do know that I will use part of it to eliminate some debt that we accumulated due to some funding shortfalls last year. But what to do with the remainder of it?

Part of me feels that I should be a wise steward and set it aside for future needs. I already can foresee several expenses coming up this year that it might be helpful to have some money set aside for, not to mention those unplanned expenses that inevitably arise. Perhaps I should even put it into a longer-term account for retirement or long-term needs. That might be what a financial manager would tell me. These may both be very legitimate choices.

Or I could use the money to buy some things that would be nice for our family, things that we don't necessarily need but which we've been dreaming of. Would it be wrong to treat ourselves to something special? Or I could simply use it for something that would be helpful, but not essential, like replacing my 4-year-old computer.

Or what if we took this money and used it for something greater, something that would serve the purposes of God's kingdom? Some friends of ours are hosting an event on Facebook called The Barnabas Offering, encouraging people to give their tax returns to people serving God cross-culturally. I think that's a great idea. I know many such people who have really struggled recently with their funding decreasing due to the economic challenges in the US and globally. Or I could give it to an organization like Compassion or World Vision and help make a difference in the lives of poor families and children around the world. I could give it to families and individuals I know personally who face real financial need (not need induced by living beyond their means.) The reality is there are so many good possibilities that it's hard to choose.

It seems clear that the choice between spending it on unnecessary items for myself or my family or investing it in God's kingdom is a clear and easy one. But what about setting it aside as a wise steward for future needs? Is that a better choice than investing it now in real needs around the world? Part of me says that the wise steward should prepare for the future and, having some surplus now, I should set it aside for the future. But does this demonstrate a lack of faith in God's ability and willingness to supply my future needs? By doing this am I saying that I'd better take care of myself because I don't know if God will do it?

The truth is I don't know what the future holds. Maybe I would put this money in the bank only to see the bank fail and my money be lost (well, there's FDIC and all that, so theoretically I wouldn't lose it) or I could invest it, but then the investment might lose value rather than gain it. It seems secure to set it aside for the future, but that security is in fact very elusive and fragile. I might invest it for my retirement only to find that I never reach that age due to Christ's return or His calling me home sooner.

As we draw near to the Lenten season, this question weighs quite strongly on my mind. What would Jesus have me do? How would he have me use this resource? While I am waiting for the IRS to process my return, I'm going to be praying about this and asking Him to direct me and give me clarity and wisdom. And I'd be glad to hear your thoughts as well.