Friday, May 12, 2017

Learning in the Storm

When the movie Twister came out, storm chasing had its big moment. Suddenly the broader culture became aware of these peculiar people who are obsessed with getting close to tornadoes. The storm chasers weren't just thrill seekers interested in getting close to danger. They were also data geeks that get a rush from discovering new data that no one has been able to collect before. The driving motivation of the movie is that the heroes must get their sensors into the very eye of the twister so they can release the deluge of data needed to be able to predict storms and warn us regular people so we can flee to safety. Or at least pull out our cameras in time to capture horrifying footage.

I've received a relatively large response from my last post about stepping down from ministry. The conversations I'm having with people is making me realize that I am in the middle of a really big learning opportunity. That wasn't my goal at all. I'm no storm chaser. I really like good weather, a gentle breeze, mild temperatures. I try to order my life so as to prevent, predict and avoid storms. Sometimes of course, there's nothing for it but to squint your eyes and run out into the deluge letting the rain and wind soak and freeze you until you can make it to your next refuge. What I'm seeing in this moment is that I now have an opportunity not everyone has to make some unique observations. If I activate all my little sensors and send them out into the storm I'll be able to collect lots of valuable data. In real terms, if I can remain alert to what is going on around me, I will be able to gain wisdom and insight that will help me and others know God more.

So what am I learning?

Lesson #1: I am not alone. 

I have had more than one conversation over the course of a couple of days with pastors who are feeling what I'm feeling or have been there recently. Whether you are a pastor or not it is likely you can identify somewhat with what I've been experiencing. It must be built in to the human experience that we have times of wandering and wondering about our identity and future and purpose. Most of us bear these things silently thinking we are the only ones and it is best to keep our strange problems to ourselves. Every good person considers himself honest, but the truth is that real honesty requires more courage than most of us can muster on a consistent basis. True honesty isn't "telling people what I think"; it is exposing what I am. I think that one of our greatest fears is that people will see us for who we really are. Remember the Garden of Eden? Adam and Eve's first fear after eating the fruit was that they would be seen, even by each other. She was formed out of his rib for crying out loud, and yet they didn't want each other seeing their privates! When we aren't honest about who we are--and let's admit it, that's close to 100% of the time-- we are covering our nakedness. We don't want people to see who we really are. In fact we don't even look in the mirror to see for ourselves who we really are. The tree was supposed to give us the knowledge of good and evil. Perhaps in doing that it also gave us fear. Fear of knowing ourselves. Fear of being known by others.

"Every good person considers himself honest, but the truth is that real honesty requires more courage than most of us can muster on a consistent basis." 

What this fear amounts to is loneliness. We can exist right next to each other without really knowing each other because we've fashioned thick coverings of fig leaves. We are so protective of our coverings that we spend a fair amount of energy policing other people's coverings. If we see someone exposing themselves our fear of exposure makes us go on the attack reaffirming our conviction that concealment is the best policy. Better to hide in loneliness than to reveal ourselves and get attacked. Underneath the fig leaves we actually have nothing that needs hiding. This knowledge of Good and Evil was supposed to (as promised by the serpent) introduce Adam and Eve to a greater reality. Instead it plunged them into the nightmare of pretend independence from God. Taking the fruit wasn't like waking from a dream enlightened. It was like stepping into a dream from which you cannot wake up.

The truth, of course, is that we are not alone. We're just separated. We are walking around in close proximity to other people stuck in the same dream state as us. If we can rouse ourselves for a moment we can smile at each other and say, "Oh, it was just a dream." That's what love is. It's when we, for a moment, forget the fear that we carry and give someone the permission to know us and to be known. This requires honesty and graciousness. Honesty to admit our fears and graciousness not to attack when someone lets their guard down. It's tricky business, but Jesus shows us the way.

Lesson #2 is: I am alone...kind of.

I know, lesson 2 seems to contradict lesson 1. Stick with me. When I was struggling with my decision to step down from pastoring my church, I sought lots of advice and opinions and books. There was a great amount of wisdom and examples and suggestions, but it always boiled down to a stark reality -- only you can decide what you are going to do.

Being a child means that you don't get to decide what to do. At its core, being an adult means that you have to decide what to do. Adults who don't decide for themselves lack what we call maturity, and we all struggle with it. As much as teenagers want the freedom to chose their own path, a few years later they are likely to want someone to "just tell me what I should do!" In Christian culture this is expressed in the large market of books for young adults on the topic of finding the will of God. Our hope is that if we can discover the hidden map and find our "true destiny" then we can stop worrying with knowing what to do. Once we find that one key truth "God's Will for My Life" then the rest of life's decisions will fall into place effortlessly.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is completely made up. The Bible does tell us that God has plans, but there are no examples of people in the Bible discovering that plan then implementing it to completion. In fact the particular passage you probably think of when I say, God has a plan for you, is addressed to a nation in exile not an individual. Jeremiah 29:11 is a reassurance that those in exile should not give up hope because of their present circumstances.
Part of "the plans I have for you"...

When we accept the fact that we are ultimately alone when it comes to making decisions (no one else can choose for you) then we are free to embrace the consequences for our actions. The truth is that it might not matter what you chose. What will matter is the person you are. Are you willing to commit to your decision and deal with its consequences whatever they may be? If so then you can stop worrying about "making the wrong choice."  We are never asked to predict the future. No one can know for sure what the outcome of their decisions will be. We are, however, commanded to live faithfully the best we know how. No one else can do that for us.

Jump back to the Garden story with me for a minute. The second fear that pops up (after the fear of seeing and being seen by each other) is seeing and being seen by God. We laugh and make fun of Adam for trying to hide from God in the garden. The thing is, Adam is doing what we all do. As irrational as it is, we have this burning hope that we can make God think something that isn't true. We think that we can out maneuver God with our prayers and good works and make him think we look so much better than we do. How silly we must look to him! God must watch us with his hand over his mouth suppressing laughter at our efforts to dress up in fig leaves and hide behind rocks and bushes. Oh, the naive children we are, thinking that God cares more about our appearance than our real selves. If He was truly displeased with us why would He endure our continued existence? Why would a creator who spoke the world into existence suffer the slightest of annoyances much less the detestable defiance that we have perpetrated with our indulgence in evil? Yes, God's wrath is real, but God's anger is not the same as our anger. We most often equate the foolish, prideful ravings exemplified by grumpy overworked bosses or frustrated, judgmental parents or whatever other hurt and imperfect people we see around us. God's wrath is terrible yet beautiful. God's wrath brings destruction, but it is a healing destruction. The consuming fire described in the Bible is a refining fire. It burns away the evil, death and fear making way for light, life and waking. That's why I sometimes picture God as being amused with our efforts to fool him. In the moment God showed his displeasure and his judgment. His righteous wrath moved with purpose and precision (and still does, but that's another, longer post). Our sin is no laughing matter, but as serious as it is, God is much greater. He alone can look death in the eyes and laugh with the joy of knowing his power to overcome.

So when I say we are alone, it is only kind of true. We are alone, in a sense, in the presence of God. In our relationship with God it is as if we are the only one in the room with him. He knows us completely, and He isn't hiding any part of himself from us. We are alone in making our decisions, but God is there with us never leaving us. He doesn't protect us from our mistakes, but he stays with us and suffers with us through them knowing that in the end He will reconcile all things. Being alone in the way I mean it, is not what makes us feel lonely. We can be alone and not feel lonely. Loneliness is the longing we have to see and be seen. It is the hunger for love.

Okay, well I went deeper than I meant to. I just wanted to jot down a couple of life lessons that are on my mind in the midst of drastic change in my life. In my sufferings and doubts I should remember that I am not alone, and when it comes to making choices I should embrace the fact that no one else can decide for me.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Stepping Down

Dear Online Friends and Family,

This past Sunday I announced to NorthStar Baptist Church that I would be resigning from the position of pastor.

NorthStar is more than a church to me, more than a job. NorthStar is my family. And I don't just mean that in a sentimental way to say I am really fond of them. I mean family in all the depth and complexity that that word implies. They're my family, and I've cried with them in their loss. I've celebrated with them in their births and birthdays. I've received and tried to give instruction and encouragement and wisdom. We have sometimes gotten annoyed with each other, but like family we've continued to love each other and we come together to share meals and to live the life that God has given us. We're a family centered on the message that God has revealed to mankind in his Word.

When Jana and I came to Idaho in 2006, newly married, freshly graduated from seminary, we had no idea what was in store for us. We officially committed to serve at NorthStar for two years, and poured ourselves into serving in the area of youth, lifegroups and missions and whatever other idea Scott Hanberry, the founding pastor, and Tom, our current worship pastor, came up with. We saw the youth group triple (from three to nine!), we led a wonderful lifegroup, we orchestrated mission opportunities and mission partnerships with other churches. It was a challenging, yet exiting time. We fell in love with the area so much that we bought a home and started expanding our family still not sure of God's long term plan for us. Fast forward to today and we look back on 11 amazing years of ministry at NorthStar, 6 1/2 years as the lead pastor.

After a lot of prayer and conversations and tears, searching our hearts and the Word of God we started to get a sense that it might be time to take a break from full time ministry. Jesus invites us to take on his yoke because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Yet for me, the burden has felt increasingly heavy. In spite of my attempts to “pray it away”, delve into the spiritual help books and work through it with other pastors I trust, there's been a growing unease in my heart toward this specific calling. I've come to the decision that this unease is a growing indication that it is time for me to do something else. I'm sure that may be hard to understand. I'm still struggling with it myself. There's a temptation to feel shame and failure at such a decision. There are a lot of voices out there that equate growth and success and longevity with righteousness. There are voices that say good pastors don't take breaks. Good pastors' churches don't stop growing. Faithful ministers don't leave. If you do the right things then you'll never be weak. If you perform properly this kind of thing won't happen. Those statements, according to the biblical witness, are not true. Not for pastors - not for anybody. Some of the most faithful people in scripture were complete failures from the world's point of view.

One of the things God has spoken most consistently to me over the last few years is that He is not concerned with where you are and what you are doing as much as He is concerned with who you are becoming. In other words your identity is in Christ. It is not in what you've sacrificed, what you've accomplished, who has recognized you, your resume, your transcript, your rap sheet, your degrees, your friends list, your likes or shares. God will use those things to help you know him more, but He certainly could care less about them for their own sake. It's you that He is after and He can use whatever means He wants to win your attention. As a pastor it is easy to confuse the church's growth and success with God's favor. It is easy to take criticism, members who leave, goofed sermons, etc. as God scowling in disapproval. He has reminded me again and again, that all of those things are well within His ability to handle with or without me. He's not desperately depending on me to come through and save every situation. He gives us chances to grow. Maybe I am hard-headed and it takes repeated lessons, but He is often more patient with us than we can imagine. As proof I look to numerous characters in the Bible.

In our searching God has shown us our time at NorthStar is done. The work is not done of course. There are challenging days ahead for the church. Exciting days of opportunity for things that God will do that we haven't even imagined yet. Please pray for our church as they enter this time of transition into a new phase of their mission to Glorify God, magnify his character and multiply his kingdom work.

Also please pray for my family as we seek what's next for us. It is a scary and exciting place to be for us, but one with which we are at complete peace. If you would like to talk to us more about our decision feel free to email or call Jana or me.