Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What’s under my tree

This morning I spent time with an old friend, who reminded me of all that I am receiving this Christmas. It's a little embarrassing, really, to actually put it all into print, because it seems like so much for just one person. But I thought that blogging about it might help me to come to terms with all that's waiting on me, so, without further ado, here's what I'm going to be unwrapping on Christmas morning (I hate to brag, but I just have to share): Grace. Mercy. Kindness from God. Sonship. An inheritance that never spoils. A glimpse into the heart of God's will and purpose. Every spiritual blessing. Hope. The opportunity to bring glory to God simply by believing in Him. Significance. The knowledge that I was created exactly as I should be. Freedom. Intimacy with God. Holiness. Blamelessness. Purpose. Life.

I almost feel like I need to go and do something to actually deserve all these things, but my friend reminded me that my best response right now is to simply receive and let the blessing settle into my soul. That's the way of this grace I have received after all, that there is nothing I can do except to receive it. Grace and mercy, freely given, are not earned or paid back. To move too quickly into action, for me, is to give in to my discomfort at receiving so much. There is a time and place to give away what we have received, but I think that if I give it too quickly, I will not be giving the gifts I have received but rather my best impersonation of those gifts. There is a time to be like Mary and to simply ponder and treasure these things in my heart, and offer to God the times and places that these gifts are extended to others, saying, "May it be done in and through me as you have said." When that is my posture, these gifts are renewed to overflowing.

Christ has come, born to die, the gift that truly keeps on giving. My old friend Ephesians 1:3-14 calls me to remember. The work that God requires is to believe in the one that He has sent (John 6:29), remembering all I have been given, unable to earn single thing from His hand. Oh that I would take time to unwrap these gifts each day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Does the Grinch live on Silver Avenue?

Warning parents: if your six-year-old reads this blog, please have them skip this entry because we will be discussing the "S" word here (Santa).

"So, do you all have Sanata at your house?" This has been the million dollar question of late, due to the season. And despite a nagging feeling that I am depriving my kids of a rite of childhood, Diane and I have chosen to tell our children that Santa Claus (as perpetuated by the media and culture) is not real, that he will not be coming down our non-existent chimney, and that he will not be bringing them toys this Christmas (we don't talk about it quite that bluntly). We do tell them about Saint Nicholas and the things he did for the poor because of his love for Jesus.

The reason for our choice is that we are really trying to be intentional about making Christ the focus of our Christmas preparation and celebration, and Santa sort of gums up the works because he becomes the star of the show on Christmas morning. It's hard enough to stem the cultural tide of consuming and making Christmas so dependent upon presents; adding an expectation that even more gifts will be coming from Santa just seems counterproductive.

And yet I can't help but feel like the Grinch when I tell friends that, no, we don't have gifts from Santa for our kids. It's not that I catch any overt grief, but all of my reasons sound so self-righteous, especially when I say them to fellow Christians. "We really want to be intentional about Christ being the focus of Christmas." (Oh, so my Christian friends who do the whole Santa thing aren't focused on Jesus at Christmas?) "We really want to fight against consumerism." (Oh, so my Christian friends who do the whole Santa thing are just wasteful spendthrifts?) And the subtle implication of our Western culture is that if you don't get your kids amazing gifts, you might not love them as much as other parents love their kids.

Yes, there is something beautiful about childlike faith, about cookies and milk being left for Santa to nibble. There is something very sweet about the openness to wonder and miracles that goes right along with the Santa idea. But I want my children's faith to focus on the wonder of Emmanuel, God with us. On the miracle that the Lord loves them so much that He would come near, as a baby, a child just like them, in order that they might know God in the deepest parts of their heart and soul. I know that there is only so deep that this faith and understanding can go at a young age (heck, at any age). But what better time of year, a time of lights and giving and joy, to sow seeds of faith in Christ and to really embrace the adage that Jesus is the reason for the season. Perhaps there is a convincing argument that Santa doesn't hinder that at all, and that he even enhances it by opening our hearts to simple faith. I can hear that, but I can't get past the thought that faith in something that isn't true is perhaps faith that is misplaced. Growing comfortable in our decision make take some time.

I think the secret is safe with our kids – I told the girls that some of their friends will still believe in Santa and that they should not tell them otherwise, and Psalter with all seriousness said, "I will never, ever tell them."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Permission to Transition

In January it will be one year since I left full-time staff with InterVarsity and moved to ¾ time with my church. I think I am still realizing how hard it has been for me to live with one foot in each world, transitioning from the parachurch to the Church, and that realization has been hard, yet refreshing. I thought the transition would be seamless. I had already served as an elder at Grace for over a year, my IV office was upstairs at Grace, and I was friends with most of the church staff people that I would be working with. I had been at Grace for 10 years as a member, and I had led many outreaches and worked closely with ministry leaders at the church. In my mind, I was merely changing addresses, leaving the Youth Offices for the administrative offices on the first floor – I even had the same commute from 3 blocks away. But in reality, I was changing so many things.

For fifteen years (counting my undergraduate days), I have been on a college schedule, which has nice ebbs and flows and ready-made breaks every 4-5 months. I was used to the rhythm of having seasons of very busy times and seasons of a more relaxed pace. But in the church it feels like every day is pedal to the metal, something that I think is not unique to Grace and something that I would love to see change. In church, Sunday comes every week whether you are tired or not, and those that you serve don't go home for Christmas break or graduate after 4 or 5 years. In church, finding time to meet leaders and invest in them requires schedule juggling and is mostly limited to the hours of 7:00 am – 8:30 am and 11:45 am – 1:00 pm, unless you want to add a dreaded night meeting s. In IV, I had so much freedom to change directions in ministry, to try new things with fewer consequences, whereas at church, every decision must go through several filters and affects hundreds of people, some of whom have very strong feelings about what you are doing. I was very good at what I did with IV – I knew how to develop student leaders (I don't know how to develop adult leaders yet); I knew how to connect with the hearts of students who were ready and available to learn and grow (it's hard to find time to connect with adults at church); I knew how to cast vision for ministry on a college campus and had folks who were eager and willing to risk and try new things; I knew how to love IV staff and equip them to love their students. I was on campus at UNCG the other week to meet with one of my after school tutors, and I had a wave of emotion come over me, remembering the hours and years I spent on campus there and how much I love working with students.

I didn't leave IV because I didn't like the work or because I thought that moving to church was the next rung in the vocational ministry ladder. In fact, I loved my job as Associate Area Director, and I was getting good at it. I left because I felt (and feel) called to Grace and the ministry God has for me and Diane there. But because the parting was from calling, not burnout, and because the transition has not been as sweet and smooth as I hoped, there is a real loss to leaving full-time IV staff. And while I left IV (except for part-time), I was not forced to grieve because I wasn't really going away.

So my soul has been heavy here at our IV Regional Staff Conference, because I am grieving and feeling a bit out of place amongst my peers. Not that they treat me any differently, but rather our worlds and what we primarily think about are so different that I just feel like an outsider during ministry strategy sessions.

As you can tell (if you are still reading), there is a significant transition that has occurred, though on the surface so much seems the same. Eleven months at a new job has not erased or replaced the fondness of eleven years at my other one. Eleven months at Grace and I still don't feel like I have much direction or vision for what it means to work at church (I probably have more than I give myself credit for – it just still feels a bit foreign). And I am not sure that either of my places of work really understand how I don't quite fit either place right now. Interestingly, I felt somewhat like this for a couple of years after moving into Glenwood, not comfortable in my poor neighborhood because I was the richest guy on the block, yet not comfortable amongst my peers because their life and neighborhood was so different from my reality. The good news is that tension has mostly gone away now; the hard news is that the transition took time.

I need to give myself permission to grieve, permission to transition, and to receive grace and patience as I learn. I don't have it all together, though I think people expect me to. Grace and peace. Grace and peace.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Mother Teresa once said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." I feel like our church lived that out this past Saturday in Glenwood. A group of about 10 folks showed up for our GO and Know, which is an outreach to the community where we simply do acts of kindness and try to meet our neighbors. Some of those who showed up lived in Glenwood, some didn't, and they set out with invitations to our upcoming Christmas Banquet and boxes of Christmas lights. Not exactly Publishers Clearinghouse coming to the door when we knock, eh? We seemed so small, and the things we carried seemed so simple. Small things with great love.

My friends from Grace went out and met our neighbors (I was stuck at home with a backed up sewer line) and guess who God led them to? Ray and Denise had recently moved in on my street. They are raising 5 of their grandkids, and the day before we came, Denise prayed, "Lord, you know I don't have anything for these kids for Christmas, not even lights to put up." And here came the Brown family, lights in hand, a living answer to prayer. Around that same time, a man was calling Grace and asking if there were a family he could bless with some beds and with some toys for Christmas. Had he called on Friday, I would have sent him to another agency, but on Saturday, we met Ray and Denise, who needed both beds and toys.

Another woman had recently moved into a home her mother used to own, and the rood was in need of major repairs. Guess who God sent to her? A member of our church who works for a housing repair non-profit.

We talked with men who were homeless and to people who were addicted and struggling. And all were greeted with a smile, were invited to a free banquet next week, and were shown the great love of Jesus in small, ordinary ways.

In The Message, John 1:5 is translated, "The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness, and the darkness couldn't put it out." These days there is precious little good news, precious little light shining, and so when people do something kind, no matter how simple or ordinary, I believe that it blazes all the brighter. Ten people handing out lights and postcards were nothing great. But they did small things with great love. And the Life-Light blazed into the darkness.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Back to the Basics (the key is in the blog name)

Since August I have posted one time, only three times since June. The reason? I'm tired. Not physically, but spiritually and emotionally, I have been worn out. A year or so ago, I posted a series on margin, and recently, a friend showed me a quote from one of those posts. It said, "Simply giving Jesus what we have, recognizing and accepting the limitations, and trusting Him to make it 'enough' is the beginning to having space and rest in our lives."

How true, how true. But truth works best when it is applied, and over the past four months I've lived as though I had no limitations and that Jesus wasn't enough. Each week I get calls at church from men and women, moms and dads, who are facing eviction or their power being cut off or their gas being turned off. Most callers are desperate and the expectation is that the church has to help, and in my heart I began to believe that I had to help every time. When I couldn't or didn't, I felt like a failure, and it spurred me to do more, to try harder. With three children at home, there was little margin for rest or recuperation, and as I drove home to my wife and kids, I would pass people on the street who I knew needed help, and I added their needs to the weight on my shoulders. In addition it's been hard to find a rhythm working at a church when I've been used to a college schedule since 1993. And being out of rhythm for almost one year now has taken a toll.

And so most evenings, when the kids went to bed, I talked to Diane or watched TV (mostly the latter), paid bills or puttered around the house (I hesitate to say I fix anything; I leave the hard stuff to Diane) and went to bed. Blogging seemed like a chore, as did reading the hundreds of blog posts that had accumulated on my google reader. Some of my friends who blog took an official sabbatical at some point and kind of announced it on the blog or over email. I just stopped writing because I didn't have the heart to.

But I need to write and I want to write. I am a writer. I know that like any exercise, it will take some time and discipline to get back into shape. But putting truth on "paper" here helps me see more clearly, reminds me of the truth, and moves me to think more deeply about the things I see and experience.

So this is my first attempt to bang out a post, to get my creative wheels turning again. I'm also working with Diane to restore balance to our family, and trusting that God will also lead me to trust Him to make what I have 'enough.' It's good to be back.