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Sanctifying Monday to Friday

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I grew up in a tight-nit, blue-collar, small church of about 200 where faithful people attended week-in and week-out. Sure there was drama, sure there were problems. But what left an indelible impression on me were the hard-working, honest, faithful people who provided the backbone to the church. These were my heroes, among them my father, who gave significantly to the church, and quietly worked away Monday to Friday, pleased and content with his work. He was not a minister as I am. He owned a telecom business. Read the rest of this entry »

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Finding Serenity As A Church Planter

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COMPLAINT

I have found myself laboring and complaining. Looking up at God and wondering worrying fretting about the fruit and the Harvest. I wonder why toil is so… toilsome. I wonder why by the sweat of our brow we make our bread. I wonder and question God, more than a little resentful. Exhausted. Tired. And with no choice but to press on.

But then I look at my hands.

STRONGER

They are bronzed and hardened and strong. They have worked the earth and tilled the soil. I look at my faith. It has worked wonders, seen miracles because it has learned to extract Self from the equation of life. I have grown stronger through such seasons of life.

SERENITY.

I am learning that the secret to being content is serenity in the midst of all and any of life’s storms. I’ve given up trying to avoid storms or control them. Futility. I merely accept them now, and walk the path I must follow today with whole-hearted acceptance. Thank you God for serenity. Thank you that I am not afraid anymore. Thank you that i am stronger.

The Concluding Prayer of the Church

God, you have prepared in peace the path I must follow today. Help me to walk straight on that path. If I speak, remove lies from my lips. If I am hungry, take away from me all complaint. If I have plenty, destroy pride in me. May I go through the day calling on you, you, O Lord, who know no other Lord.

– Ethiopian

Incarnational Comedy: Reviewing Jimmy’s First Week on the Tonight Show

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This is not a traditional review.

It is a series of reflections on the impression made on me after a week of watching Jimmy Fallon’s debut on the Tonight Show. And while I don’t mean to chase trends, I can truly say: he has made an impression on me that has influenced some of my thinking. After all, he’s pretty much the same age as I am, so I’ve been watching his career develop in tandem with my own. And while of course you can’t compare apples to oranges, it is interesting how the career of a comedian can speak to that of a pastor.

Because there is a type of comedian similar to the pastor who utilizes biting satire and scathing critique, yet there is also a type of comedian similar to the type of pastor who is able to get in the crowd and feel personable and relateable, even if sometimes having to challenge.

Jimmy strikes me as the latter.

Especially in light of his predecessors, one of whom draws constant comparisons, lamentably, because I am a fan of both.

But there is a valid point; Conan O’ Brien seemed to be unable to shed his alt / outsider’s persona which was too edgy for NBC (or at least the 11’o clock slot), while Jimmy throughout his career has been able to synthesize both; the edginess combined with the mainstream sensibility AND marketability – which I think is a rare combination.

This ability is unique – to be both edgy AND embracing, off-putting yet at the same time inviting to the masses; prophetic but also popular. Because it’s all too easy to don the prophet’s mantle and deconstruct the establishment to the point that you are left the only one standing in the room, and that seems to somehow miss the point;

What is the “establishment” but a dismissive way of saying “the people”?

And if we ministers really care about people, then maybe we can take a cue from Jimmy and learn the art of making fun with them, not fun of them or at them. It is incarnational comedy. Ministry is incarnational comedy. It is the labor of playful prophetic critique that invites people into the irony of themselves, without tragically losing them in the process. The Message may have merit; the Method may need some coaching.

And as corny as it may sound, I’ve actually taken this away from a week of watching Jimmy. He’s a guy that is just edgy enough to stay fresh; but inviting enough to keep people laughing with him, even if they are the butt of the joke (maybe with the exception of Harry Styles. But Jimmy makes it so much fun that even poor Harry’s got to be laughing too).

Deconstructing ideas, theories, texts, and people may seem the common domain of both pastor and comedian. But can we do it in a way that invites people into the story and into the punchline, so that we are all laughing together by the end?

Can we do it like Jimmy does it?

People are coming for you. The Tonight Show is big and historic but people are coming for your heart…

What happens a lot of times when you see people fail in this business is they’re in it for their ego and they’re doing it for them.’

‘I tell them keep loving people. Your art is a gift to people to help their lives be better and to be brighter.

– Great advice from Will Smith to Jimmy on the first night.

The Modern Caveman’s Campfire: A Pensee on Media Addiction

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Two twenty-fours. That’s how much time I spent this week detached, disconnected, unplugged, de-phoned. At times I even – gasp! – left my house without my smart device. I was off-line, off-the-grid, and I was coming unhinged. Constant urges to check my phone had to be battled, and fear that the world would collapse around me if I didn’t stay in touch w/ the office had to be surrendered.

And you know what?

The world is just fine.

So here is the Olympic play-by-play to that final moment of victory just a few moments ago.

Friday 4pm – I leave the office and vow that I am done for the week and will come home early and be all there for my family.

Friday 5pm – I come home and check my phone one more time.

Friday 7pm – I get through dinner but still have a craving for something. Oh yeah, that bright little screen. I know I can opt for a lesser addiction and drown myself into oblivion vegging in front of the tube but that somehow seems like giving in too.

Friday 9pm – after putting the kids down, I wander aimlessly around the house. I have forgotten what it was like growing up with rocks and pencils and crayons and – oh yeah – creativity. Boredom ensues.

Friday 10pm – Having begun a rewiring process, my brain looks for other avenues of stimulation other than the flickering lights of the modern caveman’s campfire – the bright rectangular screen. I settle down with a book.

Friday 11pm – I discover the book is actually good. Reading is actually fun. I get lost in deep thought about something.

Friday midnight – I retire for the night mentally satisfied.

Saturday morning – eyes open, I need a hit. Where is that phone da*&^it?! Where did I hide it? I NEED TO CHECK MY EMAIL !?&#^*&%*@%^%$#^

The rest of the day Saturday – I actually spend time focused on my family, on others, and not on myself. I give.

Saturday Sundown – I can justifiably look at a screen again, having observed my sundown to sundown. No, I am not Jewish, but I like that rhythm. Besides, I have to prepare for work tomorrow and practice my Sunday sermon. Turn on the screen, check the phone. No the world has not burned down. Everything is fine. One 24 down.

Two days later I observe a second “pastors Sabbath”, from Sunday – to Monday (mind you, if you think I’m taking a whole lot of time off, I’ll usually put in an avg. of 50 hrs a week, Tues to Fri, some Saturdays, full Sundays, and periodic evenings).

Sunday 2pm – I AM DRAINED. Tired. Full day at church today, lots of meetings, close conversations, etc. I usually take a few hours to wrap up in the office, prep for the week to come, but this time I am prepared to just drop it. The start of the next 24 hours ensues.

Sunday 3pm – where are the wife and kids? I am home alone and bored. Should I work until they come back? Yeah maybe I will. No maybe I won’t. I need this. I need to disconnect. I try to take a nap.

Sunday 4pm – nap fails. I’m buzzed for some reason. Where ARE THEY? Maybe I’ll check the emails, turn on the compu – there’s the garage; they’re home.

Sunday evening – I get a text (this is ok). Hit up the beach volleyball courts (it’s 70 in Houston now) and spend the evening on sand. All thought of work dissipates into glorious oblivion.

Sunday before bed – I cannot believe how good I feel; physically, mentally, emotionally, after 4 to 5 games of beach volleyball and then hot tub afterwards with some good friends. Better than the drug of working and connectivity. I forget where I leave my phone.

Monday morning – time to drop my kid off at school. Lesser urge to view email today.

Monday noon – once again, leave the house without my phone. Spend a great day with my wife and younger daughter.

Monday pm – just turn on the screen to see if there are any urgent messages. None – phew! (a pastor is on call 24-7 / 365). I lose my phone again somewhere in the house.

20 minutes ago – I wrap up my 2nd 24 hours in a week; sundown to sundown. Kids are in bed, and I have some work to do.

If you think this all sounds rather trite, in all seriousness I have spent the last 50 days in an on-going, long-term experiment of not watching TV anymore. Going 24 hrs a week without internet or looking at any screen for that matter, is just part of that experiment / experience. It has been richly rewarding, but has also had real withdrawal-like effects, which I can perhaps chronicle, in all seriousness, another time. Take away a man’s campfire, and he has nowhere to stare, nowhere to bury himself into flickering visual stimulations. He is forced to stare into the darkness, and face himself. Find new ways to cope. I’ve long since doused the fire. I am now no longer stranger to the Dark.

(When) The Hamster Wheel Is (Not) Heaven

As a minister, people oft-assume I deal with strictly ethereal matters, things “other-worldly” and “spiritual”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and more theologically errant. I think of the time I engaged in the “spiritual practice” of spending the night with heroine junkies and going in the morning to deliver a death notification of one of them. I think of the “otherworldly” matter of lobbying on Capitol Hill for immigration reform in my best purple bipartisan tie. I think of the “ethereal” quality of working through a church budget, trying to stay faithful to the realities of a church’s needs in juxtaposition with the values of the Kingdom of God.

Ministry is not spiritual, only. It can be unapologetically earthly. In fact, it should be. And one of the most “earthly” areas is that of working not with other ministers and “spiritual” people, but with people who are of-this-earth, some of whom work closer to the earth than others, with the dirt in their fingernails to prove it. Others are further up from the ground, laboring in the lofties, stationed up in the sky-rises on high, but are nonetheless very concerned with “earthly” matters. They all come to me. With pressing questions about this earthly thing called “vocation”. Nothing could be more spiritual.

How is my Mon-Fri, 9 – 5 significant? It doesn’t feel so.

Is it just about “making money” for the kingdom? Is that all it is?

Ministers are “called” – but what about the rest of us?

I’ve hit a rut in my career – and I don’t know what to do now with my life.

How do I make sense of this mid-life career crisis I’m in?

As a person with a vocation too, a career, I am not immune to such explorations – and at times perturbations – myself. I am conscious when I am working out of a deep joy, a sense of purpose, and indeed, a calling. But I am also aware – like many of you in the “marketplace” – when something feels off; misaligned; and the pleasure of work becomes more of a driving grind. I know what it is like to try to convince myself that the hamster wheel is heaven, when lurking in the back of my mind is the suspicion that maybe it is not getting anywhere. When we persist in the delusion, we wind up on the therapist’s couch. You wind up in my office.

I am learning something, just as I am often teaching something. It is that SERENITY is the code word to unlock many secrets; Serenity to accept that which you cannot change, because in your vocational wanderlust it may not be advisable to throw your stability into the wind – especially if you have a family – so that you can pursue your lifelong dream of becoming a comic book artist, or a stuntman, or the next-big-thing-that-lives-in-Brooklyn, or a professional blog-writer.

But sometimes Serenity is NOT the thing to be asking for.

Sometimes it is the COURAGE to change the things we must (and indeed, the WISDOM to know the difference). Enter in the good pastor, listener, counselor, life coach, or A.O.T.A. Because if wisdom is in the abundance of counselors, and they, the insightful few, can corroborate what you are feeling, then maybe you should indeed pursue that career in comic book artistry, or stuntman-ing, or moving to Brooklyn, or writing this blog, or whatever-the-hell-else crazy endeavor you have on your mind.

Only let us not be driven – or paralyzed – by fear.

Let faith be the motivator, not fear. Faith has the strangest way of making us do the things we fear most, and conversely, fear motivates some of the most faithless actions. Faith may embolden you to step off that spinning hamster wheel. But faith may also have you stay on it just a little bit longer, and to ask for Serenity in the midst of running it.

Here Among The Hinterlands And Its Residents

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This past Saturday I showed up to facilitate an art therapy class for disabled / autistic people. It had been a few months since the last class and getting back into the swing for winter semester was no easy task; truth be told, it was quite difficult. I had come into the day with a mind preoccupied by seemingly weightier things, at least in my estimation, bigger fish to fry than help helpless folk push paint around on oversize canvases. It was hard for me not to be distracted. I was moody, and pensive, and the irritating demands of these handicapped people reminded me too much of the irritating demands of my own children. Except these were not my children.

As the day progressed, I wondered if they sensed my “energy” and several events got me thinking that perhaps they could. First, I was resisted by a very large autistic man, who honestly, frightened me. As I spoke quiet, but firm “no’s” to his attempts to grab random brushes and to put paint everywhere but on canvas, I was cautiously vigilant and wary that he would lash out. Instinctively, I felt the need to protect myself.

That same instinct would prove necessary for a second incident, where a much smaller guy – but surprisingly equally as strong – was having a bad day and decided to completely flip over two buckets of paint water. In a fit of misdirected frustration he clawed me (I have the bruises on my left bicep to prove it) and even attempted to bite me. I got away. So did he, leaving a hurricane trail of destruction in his wake.

It was a tough day.

Afterwards, as we had to clean up the mess, I found my irritation further amplified by a few ineffectual high school student volunteers who stood around unable to be self-directed, as if I had to spell out: “This Is How You Clean Up.” They were young. Shocked.

Post-Reflection.

I’ve had time since then, to reflect on this past Saturday. I found solace in the words of Nouwen and Vanier, which I share below:

Severely handicapped people often sense the mood of their assistants and the atmosphere in their foyer with an uncanny accuracy. When there is harmony and peace in the house they are  happy and content, but when there is conflict and tension in the air they often pick it up and act it out before their assistants are fully aware of it. They are true barometers of the human spirit. And, as one assistant said: “It is not always easy to live with people who so directly reveal to you your own ups and downs.”

Perfectly said.

Community, as I have said, is a place of pain, of the death of ego. In community we are sacrificing independence and the pseudo-security of being closed up. We can only live this pain if we are certain that for us being in community is our response to a call from God. If we do not have this certitude of faith then we will not be able to stay in community. I see this very much in our own communities. People will come to L’Arche attracted by the community, they like our community. They like it , and it’s great, for a few days! When somebody says to me, ` I find it very painful to live in this community, but I’m here because God has called me here,` then I know that person has made a passage from dream to reality. They have found their place. We will only stay in community if we have gone through the passage from choosing community to knowing that we have been chosen for community. It is for us the place of purification, and of support, given to us by Jesus, that will lead us to a deeper love and liberation, a place where cleansed of our egocentric attitudes we will be able to give new life to others.

Appropriately, these words orient me not just to the challenges of working among the disabled, but to the challenges of being in community. They speak to me not just about the work of handicapped ministry but the work of community. It is here – among the hinterlands and its residents – where I am struggling to liberate self from selfishness, to repudiate my own lust for vainglory – and to find the elusive contentment that my soul so needs.

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(above quotes, respectively, Lifesigns, Henri Nouwen; From Brokenness to Community, Jean Vanier)

4 “Moneyisms”: Balanced Theologies on Money

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I’ve been preaching a short mini-series on Money (1/12/14) called “Moneyisms; Balanced Theologies on Money.” It is the first “money talk” I’ve given in my pastoral career, and I’ve been filled w/ fear and trepidation in the preparation of it. Actually not. It’s kinda fun. And hugely powerful, because all of my (short, but growing) preaching career I have felt the limits of the pulpit; that tinkering with words does not necessarily result in the overhaul of human hearts. But with money I feel like I have struck a nerve; that there’s a reason why people get up and walk out in the middle of money sermons and this is simply because people don’t like it when you got somebody messin’ with your junk.

I mean, after all, what is money except virtual?

Green ink printed on paper? Representational value?

It is not the thing itself that causes so much anxiety; it is the thing behind the thing, that is to say: promised security, riches in materialism, that elusive happiness… THAT’S the junk we don’t want no one messin’ with. Our ideals of security. Our fears. Our INsecurities. Don’t touch that pastor. Leave me alone.

And that’s where discipleship begins. When we touch the very thing that makes you afraid and teach you to fear not, that God is stronger than the Green Monster, that Trust wins over Insecurity, that Faith beats out Anxiety any day, and that the LORD from whom ALL blessings flow, continues to watch over and care over his faithfill.

So we give the money talk not because we need a new roof, or want to run a new campaign, or start a new strategic initiative… (OK sometimes there is that too) – but once the Hoop! begins we get impassioned because at ground level we know this is really not about the church (upkeep) – it is about each of your hearts in the congregation – that if we really are about discipleship in the church, this is one of those places where the rubber meets the road.

C’mon now.

We’re operating on people’s lives, excising not dollars, but selfishness; tackling tumors of insecurity, fear, anxiety, mistrust, suspicion, Machiavellianism, greed, hoarding, faithlessness, and a host of other ailments. If you ask me, money itself is not inherently evil; rather it is a transconductor – an AMPLIFIER of already-present evils (or virtues!) – that pre-existing faithlessness gets amplified by money into paranoia, miserliness, and hoarding – just look up the Wendel family story of NYC, c. 1800’s. Money turns wounded people into monsters. But it also turns those who dare to trust into the Faithful / Faith-filled.

So here below, I list 4 “Moneyisms” I expounded, Balanced Theologies on Money amidst the glut of passages which present varying views (at times contrasting) on it:

1. Money is not evil, BUT the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. (Deut 28:9-13, 1 Timothy 6:6-10) It’s an amplifier, a transconductor of what is already within our hearts.

2. Saving money is a good practice, BUT money doesn’t grant perfect security. (Gen 41:35-36, Matt 6:19-21) Stock Market Crash. Housing bubble. Our times are really in His hands…

3. God certainly favors the poor, BUT he is not necessarily against the rich. (Luke 6:20-25, 19:2-9) Hardest one for me to grasp; the NT is full of such strong social polemic against the rich (amidst a very specific social context), but at the same time, the OT conveys such a prevalent theology of covenantal blessing extending to material wealth.

4. God wants you to prosper, BUT He prospers you to bless others. (Luke 16:19-25, Gen 12:1-3) Rail on prosperity theology all you want. Chances are, you may be an upwardly-mobile seminarian criticizing a poor man’s theology while you are sipping your $4 grande latte. Lighten up; why wouldn’t God want us to prosper?